Review of Namit Arora’s “The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities”

by Thomas Manuel

Front cover NamitIn a society that tries its best to be portrayed as meritocratic, Arora focuses on the invisible lines that divide it – lines of religion, caste, class, language and gender. Interestingly, Arora is the poster child of the reigning Indian Dream, i.e., to immigrate to America and achieve the American Dream. He's upper-caste and upper-class, urbane and tech-savvy, ex-IIT and ex-Silicon Valley – the last person you would imagine writing about the game being rigged. But the game is rigged and those with the odds in their favour have a poor track record of acknowledging it.

Arora is painstakingly sensible in most of his opinions. He's the perfect liberal. In his introduction, he deconstructs the various privileges that enabled his success and poses vital questions to himself and his readers: How much of his success was him versus his inherited background? How much of it was him versus his socially conditioned ambition and drive? This tone of unsentimental confession permeates the entire work. In many places, it feels less like an argument than an educational text. Arora isn't writing for the seasoned campaigner – his conclusions are too unspectacular for that. With careful reasoning and persuasive personal anecdote, Arora's essays seems to be introducing uninitiated (possibly American) readers to a variety of different voices – feminist, dalit, Marxist, etc.

Relying on other voices is essential to avoid falling into the trap that has affected so many other social critics – the trap of not knowing what the hell they're talking about. Women are tired of men doing their thinking for them. Dalits are tired of Brahmins speaking on their behalf. And Marxists, well, they're mostly tired of other Marxists.

Arora's essay on Arundhati Roy's introduction to Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste throws up an excellent example of how other voices are essential. Roy, based on her work with Adivasi issues, is critical of Ambedkar's faith in ‘western modernity'. She has seen what is lost when we pin our hopes for social change purely on economic development. But her analysis comes across as trite when it fails to engage with the other side. Arora compares her view with that of D.R. Nagaraj, a Dalit intellectual and social scientist who similarly critiqued Ambedkar's view of modernity but with more understanding of its guiding intentions. "The modern city and its development ethos are bound to annihilate the memories of Dalits and leave them in almost a state of culturelessness. [But] this argument is not usually viewed with sympathy by the majority of Ambedkarites, for they believe there is nothing positive or precious in the memories of Dalits, there is only humiliation and pain", writes Nagaraj.

But other essays feel less complete. In his review of Perry Anderson's The Indian Ideology, he communicates with flair the weight of the author's scathing attack on Indian historiography, especially the saintly portrayal of Nehru. But while he mentions the book's critics (specifically Partha Chatterjee, Sudipta Kaviraj and Nivedita Menon), he fails to engage with any of their "angry, defensive" arguments. "Detractors will claim to find in this work the ghosts of the Raj and Orientalism, or the rant of a Hindu-hating Marxist. Others will latch on to a particular argument or fact in the book and erect a straw man in an attempt to demolish the whole. Limiting oneself to such responses would be a grave mistake", he writes. All well and good but actual reasons for so summarily dismissing all criticism would've been nice. In an essay titled ‘Decolonizing My Mind' after the book of the same title by Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Arora discusses the place of English in India. Through the whole essay, Arora decries the effects of colonization and entreats us to "consider the costs that our attitude to English, its parent culture and its speakers, continues to extract from us." But while the history of English in India might've started with colonization, it surely doesn't end there. Arora ignores the fact that English's place in Indian affairs today arises partly from the struggle against Hindi by the southern states. It isn't simply that India is a slave to globalization or that the Indian elite haven't got over their colonial hangover. The subject would've vastly benefited from a more nuanced treatment.

Other notable chapters in the book include reviews of autobiographies of Omprakash Valmiki and A. Revathi and essays on the morality of the Bhagavad Gita, the need for identity politics and Delhi's reputation for sexual violence. In each of these, Namit Arora brings a strong liberal disposition to weigh in behind contrarian opinions. He undertakes the "the critic's simple, irritating, somehow necessary job", as Alex Ross put it in a recent essay for the New Yorker, "to stand in a public space and say, "Not quite.""

* * *

Thomas Manuel is an award-winning playwright from Chennai, India. He works as a freelance journalist where his work has appeared on The Nib, The Wire, The Sunday Guardian and The Hindu's Sunday Magazine among other places.