Saturday, December 3, 2022

A Suitable Degree | Verve Magazine

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Text by Neerja Deodhar. Illustration by Gaurav Vikalp.

 

In late March this year, a video featuring Karan Johar sitting in a bright-red armchair against a flashy backdrop — reminiscent of his popular English-language talk show Koffee With Karan — went viral. He spouted part of that iconic Kuch Kuch Hota Hai dialogue: “Hum ek hi baar jeete hain, ek baar marte hai, aur shaadi bhi ek hi baar karte hai.” (We live only once, die once, and get married only once.)

In the same breath, and with his familiar, smug smile, he added, “…agar aap highly educated ho, toh aap age, caste, height vagerah dekhne se pehle, ek partner mein mental compatibility dhoondte ho.” (…if you are highly educated, you’re going to look for mental compatibility before getting to age, caste, height, etc.) As our collective Cupid and agent of love, he was here to urge the alumni of the country’s several management and engineering institutes to sign up for IITIIMShaadi.com.

The matrimonial site’s meme-worthy moment in the national spotlight came eight years after its conception. “When you marry via iitiimshaadi dot com, it’s not called a marriage it’s called an alumni association,” tweeted one user. Predictably, people were amused and outraged that a platform such as this exists and that, of all people, Johar was the one promoting it. Why was the “flag bearer of nepotism” — a heavy crown the Bollywood producer-director has unapologetically worn for more than half a decade — talking about merit and qualifications? But I suppose one could argue that his link to the brand isn’t so tenuous if you consider that his career-defining films are all sagas about heterosexual “happily-ever-afters”.

Under the ownership of the central government, the first IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) were set up in the ’50s, and the IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) in the ’60s (today, IITs are in 23 cities and IIMs in 20). By the early 2000s, they had begun to challenge the notion of upper-crust schooling that had existed in the pre-liberalisation era and was only accessible to a select few: a posh boarding school, a degree at a notable Delhi college and an Oxbridge stint to round it off. “A degree [in engineering] is considered a ticket to wealth and success,” wrote Vaishali Honawar in 2005. With IIT, as with IIM, each year’s cohorts are extremely small in proportion to the number of applicants, which can be in the lakhs (in 2021, a whopping 9.39 lakh candidates took the entrance test for the IITs, while 1.9 lakh candidates appeared for the IIM CAT). Depending on the programme, the cost of tuition can go up to 10 lakhs for IIT and 23 lakhs for IIM, and it is not uncommon for parents of the students to take out loans to meet the requirement.

A direct consequence of maintaining small batches is that the students at these institutes become automatic participants in the binary of perceived “in” and “out” groups — the former comprising the select few who have apparently managed to crack tough entrance tests, survive gruelling courses and bag plush jobs. This does not take into account how these entrance tests and fee structures are not wholly accessible, or acknowledge the internalised biases that can seep into these testing procedures. In a 2015 piece for Scroll.in, Mayank Jain wrote about how a significant chunk of students were looking at engineering as an option due to the “prestige and respect” associated with it, chalking this statistic to 80 per cent in the case of a small group that was interviewed to gauge this.

However, despite a continuing fixation with engineering institutes — which enjoy a cult-like following — a significant number of engineering graduates don’t end up working in their area of specialisation. Two years after the above statistic came out in Scroll.in, a Hindustan Times article pessimistically asked if the great engineering dream had died as the majority of IIT-Bombay alumni were, by then, pursuing careers in finance, consulting and the IT industry — and a mere 22 per cent were going on to work in engineering and technology.

The IITs came under criticism for “failing to align their goals with the democracy’s” and primarily supplying consulting firms and developed countries with highly qualified labour. This is due to the alumni’s propensity to prioritise packages over seeking careers in their areas of specialisation. After Independence, IITians were expected to contribute to nation-building and influence decisions related to dams and power plants. They were also positioned as points of realisation for a new Indian economic dream that had emerged after colonisation — a dream that was sold as being accessible across the lines of caste and class, displaying how a representative democracy can thrive. “It is worth noting in this context that, in an underdeveloped but mixed economy, where upward mobility is the sole guiding principle of the middle class, employment takes centre-stage and pushes research into a secondary position,” stated IIT-Kharagpur professors Gourishankar S. Hiremath and H. S. Komalesha in 2018.

After the implementation of the ’90s economic reforms, both institutes came to symbolise credibility for a swathe of the population whose dream of upward mobility rests on the pursuit of education. And in the current mixed economy — where there is also an active effort to gauge success through material acquisition — IIT-IIM degrees are at once a descriptor, a measure of one’s worth, a two-word elevator pitch, a way to earn respect and a means by which to stand apart. They’re a stand-in for a full-page CV. They’re compelling enough for a couple to specifically seek out an “IITian’s sperm”.

Shortly after I had learnt about IITIIMShaadi.com, I became aware of a website called FAANGShaadi through a sarcastically worded Linkedin post by a user of the networking site. The post claimed that it was a matrimonial website that catered to employees of companies like Facebook (Meta), Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (Alphabet), adding that the matchmaking site was “powered by AI” and users had to take a coding challenge to be considered eligible. A few hours after the post went viral and garnered praise from the members of the platform, the author added an edit: “This [website] was an April Fool’s Joke and along with a lot of others, they got me”.

The story of niche matrimonial websites is nearly a decade old; 2011 and 2012 saw the boom of matchmaking services geared towards first-generation entrepreneurs and employees of multinational corporations. Platforms like Mymitra, notably devised and developed for IIT-IIM-Ivy League circles, gained popularity. These early entrants into the marriage market promised authenticity: users had to sign up with college certificates, and matchmaking was supposedly driven by “machine learning, big data and psychology techniques”. Mymitra’s internal ranking mechanism even promised that “the best and the ambitious always rank higher and are displayed at the top of every search result…for the first time, highly accomplished people get more prominence over others”.

IITIIMShaadi.com allegedly has over 1,50,000 members who have paid the “until marriage” fee of 32,922 rupees, though not all have been authenticated. Currently, about 30,000 members have met the criterion of attending an approved institute on the website and are active. The FAQ page clarifies that the minds behind the platform are more invested in the quality than the quantity of matches.

Ironically, its founder, Taksh Gupta, did not attend either of the colleges whose reputations he was relying on for his brand. His own educational background became a punchline after Johar’s endorsement earlier this year (Gupta attended the S. P. Jain School of Global Management, which technically does meet the site’s criteria). Responding to a question about what he envisions for the portal’s future, he said, “We want to and are going to offer such a boutique experience to our members that people, who are currently not eligible to register, study a course which makes them eligible to register at IITIIMShaadi.com just so that they can search their partner through us.”

Anisha Kumar*, a second-year MBA student at Xavier School of Management (XLRI), believes the single-minded pursuit of upward economic mobility is encouraged from adolescence: “Most of us haven’t known any other markers of success”. She also says that within the realm of romantic compatibility, potential for compatibility is tied to the other person’s scholastic achievement. IIT-Bombay alumnus, Shivaprasad M (27), presents a view that several other interviewees also believe: “Many graduates of premier institutes reach a certain position in life after grinding it out [working hard] — they think the world owes them a spouse they deserve”.

During the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a frightening number of jobs were lost according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). This figure is estimated at two crores between April and May of 2021, and 40 per cent of those who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic were unable to find employment again for at least 10 months. In the same year, 60 students from IIT-Delhi alone secured placement packages worth rupees one crore per annum on the very first day of the placement drive while graduates from some branches bagged international placements worth two crores and above. Urooj Akhlaq, a 22-year-old IIT graduate based in Bengaluru, points out that new graduates are unlikely to interview at companies that offer salaries below rupees 10 lakh per annum because “it’s not befitting of an IITian’s status”.

In 2018, an industry observer noted that a start-up founder who did not attend an IIT or IIM is likely to get attention or funding from investors only if they have a successful product or a proven track record, whereas a founder with a degree from either is likely to attract attention even without these tangible determinants.

Speaking about navigating the search for a partner while being a student and of “marriageable age”, Kumar explains the impulse to reconcile romantic desire with career ambition: “In business schools, people are mostly in their mid-twenties, and there is a want for a partner. The easiest thing to do, then, is date someone on campus, who will potentially work in a similar industry, make a similar amount of money and want similar things from life,” she told me. Several of these determinants seem utilitarian and shorn of romance, I counter. “Consultants date consultants, and they also date like consultants. They calculate how much sense it makes to date one person over another. I’ve seen people make pros and cons lists to see which boxes on the parental checklist can be ticked off,” she responds.

When it comes to a potential partner’s reactions to their ambitions and career trajectories, the average female candidate experiences a considerably greater amount of anxiety than their male counterparts. In 2014, IIT alumna and author of the books Heartbreak & Dreams! and Arranged Love, Parul Mittal, said that women who graduate from IITs want grooms whose intellect matches their own, but men “prefer a simple homemaker as life partner over an ambitious career woman as it maintains family balance”. Tales of the skewed sex ratio at the IITs have abounded since its inception. In IIM and other eminent management institutes, however, the number of women candidates is steadily rising.

Sanya Patel*, a former student of the National Institute of Technology and the Indian School of Business, hasn’t used the services of portals like IITIIMShaadi.com — but she understands their appeal. She asserts that her career is a significant part of her life, so any prospective partner will need to accept the goals and ambitions she has outlined for herself, along with her potential to earn big money. “[Normally] men don’t have to think about it, but as women in India, we really need to make sure that the fragile male ego isn’t hurt. The fear is always there,” the 28-year-old tells me, adding, “The chances that a non-tier-1 student [a student from a university that is not top-ranking] will be able to match my ambition and salary are low. Exceptions always exist, of course. I’m not being elitist, but I believe that’s a fair ask.” Across conversations with alumni of the institutes and users of exclusive matrimony platforms, I found that many believe wealth, extravagant lifestyles and promising career prospects are a “fair ask”, conflating these with romantic potential.

The dream to attend an IIT or an IIM is very likely to be parent-driven, and, in some cases, it exists only because of one’s parents. Compounding the issue is the growth of parental expectations when children get into institutions of note: “People begin interrogating these parents about what job their child is likely to get, how much they may potentially earn — and who they will eventually marry,” says Akhlaq. “They also comment on how much dowry a male child could get if he got into such a college, and how a daughter-in-law with academic qualifications and promising career prospects can potentially pay a larger dowry.”

And these expectations differ based on the family’s socioeconomic background: parents from economically strained households perceive an IIT degree as the final frontier in their child’s education and a way for the child to improve the family’s prospects, found a survey of IIT students who enrolled in 2015. While upper-middle-class families wish for their child’s success to be acknowledged and see their achievements as being tied into the family’s status.

An obsession with familial reputation also brings with it the fear of “marrying down”. “If your family wears your achievements as a badge of honour, it bolsters your sense of self-worth. You want to keep that up, even in terms of matrimony and children,” says Kumar.

The focus of these “modern” marriage portals may be on one’s educational background, but that only puts a progressive sheen on a reality that is inherently regressive. Casteism, for instance, continues to manifest in both obvious and covert ways. Ashok Singh*, a 27-year-old product manager at a leading matrimony website, says that in addition to filters like salary and professional background, most websites also enable individuals to act on their caste-based biases. “I’ve noticed that those who graduate from IITs and IIMs usually want to marry within the same caste and specify how much they want their potential spouse to earn,” he said.

Kumar reflected that those who graduate from courses like hers tend to take fewer “risks” such as marrying outside of their caste, a decision that would neither be expected nor tolerated by their parents. “They [her peers on campus] aren’t truly independent from their families…. If your family has taken out a 25-lakh education loan, you definitely feel like you owe them,” she said.

The truth is that it is difficult for such websites to not be casteist, even if they avowedly claim indifference to the social structure. Caste is at the foundation of the mainstream conversation about what we understand as academic merit. For far too long, Indian savarna society has looked down on reservations and pedestalised those who secure seats in prestigious educational establishments on their own “merit”. This reductive attitude discounts the advantages afforded to those who come from privileged caste backgrounds. It also individualises the understanding of achievement as being the result of only intelligence, perseverance and hard work. On elite campus grounds, where we seek out partners whose social backgrounds are similar to our own, we create a smokescreen that allows us to be comfortable with our biases. The question worth asking, then, is how much of our romantic desire is truly rooted in individual agency?

*Names changed on request





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