Storming The Ivory Tower: An Invitation to The Caste of Merit

– The NotA Collective

Ajantha Subramanian,
The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India,
Harvard University Press (2019).

I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.

Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the

“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1

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Statements of Resistance

– Ronak Gupta

I vividly remember watching Nagraj Manjule’s searing debut film Fandry for the first time, a few years ago. I had never quite seen anything like it until then. Fandry uses tropes of love stories from mainstream cinema and yet does something these movies consciously avoid – it indicts the caste system. Manjule said in an interview,1

“Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t…”

Indeed, Hindi films largely gloss over the subject of caste and blunt most conflicts down to a class disparity, as illustrated particularly starkly in the Bollywood remake of Manjule’s sophomore feature Sairat. Manjule’s Fandry introduced me to a radical artistic voice, the kind that was conspicuously absent from the media I had consumed until then. It made a deep impression on me. It implored me to seek out a different kind of cinema and expand the scope of art I engage with. It is on this path that I discovered Yogesh Maitreya’s excellent collection of short stories Flowers on the Grave of Caste.

Yogesh Maitreya is a writer, poet, and translator who also runs Panther’s Paw, a publishing house with a strong focus on promoting anti-caste literature. His collection contains six stories across which he widely experiments with literary style and scope. The result is an eclectic collection of short-fiction that is written in simple but often poetic prose. Yogesh’s sentences invoke powerful imagery and nowhere is this more apparent than the contrasting images that begin and end the first story “Re-evolution,” a fable of revenge, in which Yogesh weaves a personal journey coming to full circle.

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