By Suma Varughese
The underdog attracts sympathy, but few would bet on his success, says Suma Varughese. However, there are surprising advantages to being an underdog, and surprising disadvantages to being a topdog. Read on for a perspective that upturns received wisdom
Girish Gogia, a Mumbai-based 40-something, is a successful interior designer who has more than 15 successful mega projects to his credit, which includes refurbishing Churchgate and Bombay Central Railway stations. Four years ago, impelled by an inner calling to find his true purpose of life, Gogia decided to become a motivational speaker, without knowing anything about how it works.
He watched hundreds of You-tube videos, studied the styles of the world’s best speakers, practiced endlessly in the privacy of his own home, and finally, took his first session. Today, he draws deep gratitude and admiration from his audience, and is much in demand. A creditable track record, you will agree.
But get this. Girish Gogia is a paraplegic, paralysed from neck down. He can only move his head, and depends for all actions on the services of a caregiver. And yet, he has tasted considerable success in not one but two careers.
Sunil Jha grew up in a chawl in Mumbai, where his father was a bus driver.
Life was hard. From one of his father’s four uniforms, one set would be converted into winter wear for him and his brother.
From the 7th or 8th standard, he took tuitions to supplement the family’s income. While the rest of his classmates brought chocolates for everyone on their birthday, his father could only afford modest lozenges.
The family did not have a refrigerator, and would rely on a neighbour for cold water. “Sometimes he gave and sometimes he did not,” recalls Jha. Today, Jha is the President, HR, of Associated Capsules, a 2000-crore company.
Kalpana Saroj, 51, is a Dalit born in Maharashtra. As a child, she was not allowed to go to the homes of many of her school mates, and was debarred from some school activities. Married off at age 12, she found herself living in a Mumbai slum, enduring physical abuse by her husband and his family. After six months, her father took her back home. The villagers ostracised her, and she swallowed rat poison. The villagers concluded that she had a guilty conscience. Fortunately, she lived. And that was her turning point. “I realized, whether I live or die, I’ll get blamed,” she said. “So I might as well go for it.” She learnt tailoring, came back to Mumbai, and became a tailor. She then started a small tailoring and furniture concern that prospered. She bought a disputed property and turned it around. Eventually, the union of Kamani Tubes, which had been closed for 17 years because of law suits and massive debt, asked her to take over the company and she did. She also turned it around! Today, the company is worth over $100 million. Her personal worth today runs into hundreds of crores.
“I was treated as something lower than a person,” she said. “But I’ll die a human being – Kalpana Saroj”
When we think of those who have triumphed against trials and tribulations, most of us assume that they did it despite the odds. But what if they did it because of the odds?
What if there are advantages to being an underdog?
The underdog’s rise
It’s a counterintuitive thought, but the truth of it is all about us. For centuries women have been oppressed, suppressed, dominated and exploited. In India, particularly, they had no say over their destinies. Denied education, and married off at an early age, their only option was to look after the family, and the household, and bear whatever indignities was their lot to bear. And yet, it is precisely because of this deeply charged situation that today, women have evolved unimaginably. As the fields of education opened to them, women increasingly began to work and gain economic independence. But most women also had to continue to look after their children and households, because by and large, their husbands did not pitch in. In effect, they straddled two full-time jobs – being at one and the same time, job holders and housewives. It was hard. Incredibly hard. But they did it. They slept at 1 am and woke up at 5 am. They cooked breakfast and lunch for the children, husbands and themselves, then left home, put in a day’s work at their workplace, headed home, picked up their kids, supervised their home work, cooked dinner, washed dishes, and so on.
So what did all this do to womenfolk? Today, they are complete in themselves. They can look after the households, and they can stand on their own feet economically. By and large, they no longer need men. Of course all this applies in general only to educated women, but this is a larger and larger minority. As for the men, they still need women because, as a gender, they are not used to fending for themselves at home, or looking after children, or mending clothes. They still need the nurturing and nourishing of a woman in their lives. But their women don’t need them.
At this juncture, it looks surprisingly as if the underdogs have slipped the leash and are running free. Could it be that the tables have turned?
India’s own rise in world status is another striking illustration of the underdog advantage. When India got Independence 66 years ago, it was newly born after being a captive nation for centuries. These centuries deeply shook its self-identity and sense of self-esteem. We doubted ourselves profoundly, especially as we were birthed into a civilisation based on Western values. We floundered. We didn’t like ourselves. We were hopeless at sports, at scientific invention, we were terribly poor, our children were malnourished and our government was a joke. Our people were corrupt, inept, inefficient, incapable. I remember that almost every Republic Day and Independence Day, the newspapers would plunge into litanies of woe. We waited anxiously for Western endorsement of any kind, and evaluated ourselves only by their standards. We clearly were the underdogs of the world order, a pitiable member of the Third World, but we are today reaping its advantage.
For one thing thanks to our colonial inheritance of the English language, we found it easy to assimilate their culture. We gobbled up everything Western. We sang their songs, saw their movies, read their books, wore their clothes and ate their food. However, we also had our own culture and our own songs, movies, books and food. Fortunately, we did not renounce our own way of life, we merely added to it. Consequently, our cultural and mental palettes are so much richer and deeper than the West’s thanks to our underdog status. And because theirs was the power and the glory, we were obliged to study them deeply. We studied their history, their geography, their character and their needs. Probably every Indian school kid would know where New York and Washington are, but it is disputable if US school kids would be quite so conversant with the location of Mumbai or Delhi. The underdog, you see, has to work harder. And that is an advantage.
We studied their curriculum, and began to excel at it. We soon began to export our doctors, MBAs and engineers. We learnt to speak and write English often even better than the West themselves, and our writers too began to gather laurels. When it came to computer programming, it turned out that we have a natural edge. Not only did we stand up to them on their own terms, but the shifts of the human journey, shone light on our own culture and inheritance. As the Western world reaped the consequences of their own short-term fractured worldview, they turned for guidance and wisdom to our holistic philosophy. Yoga, meditation and Indian spirituality came into high demand. They also began to study us for our comfort with uncertainty, and diversity. Once again, as in the case of women, the underdog is increasingly in a position of advantage vis a vis the topdog.
The examples can go on. The stupendous rise of the AAP against the mighty BJP in the recent Delhi Vidhan Sabha re-elections is a recent example of the ascent of an underdog and descent of a topdog.
And of course there are legions of individuals whose life stories follow the underdog trajectory. So what gives the underdog his peculiar edge?
The underdog edge
For those on the spiritual path, the hypothesis that underdogs have an edge will not surprise. The foundational principle of the spiritual life is that what won’t kill you will make you stronger. We are told by every spiritual guru and guide that the purpose of life is growth, and that all trials and tribulations have come to teach us the lessons we need to progress on the path. We are asked to convert problems into opportunities, and to use tough times to toughen up.
In our own lives, we know that the hardest times have given us the sweetest fruits. In my own case, I had to weather a low-grade depression for 16 years to appreciate the value of happiness so much that I was prepared to die before I gave up my journey to make absolute happiness my destiny.
So, it is no surprise that when you are up against the wall, like Girish Gogia, Sunil Jha or Kalpana Saroj were, you are also presented a powerful opportunity to triumph. And the motivation is potent. It is their very survival. The stakes are so high that unless they progress, they will perish.
In his remarkable book, David & Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell echoes the same thought, “… the fact of being underdogs can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate; it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”
He illustrates his point by using the Biblical example of David and Goliath. Goliath was a giant Philistine and David a young and puny Israeli shepherd boy. However, it was David who defeated Goliath, by slinging a stone at his forehead, and when the numbed Goliath crashed to the ground, he leapt on him, and cut off his head with his own sword.
Gladstone says that we always think the advantage is with the big, the powerful and the strong, but the underdogs have the advantage of changing the rules as David did (Goliath was prepared for a one-on-one armed combat, but David used his phenomenal skill with the slingshot to fell him down instantly), of speed, and agility.
Gladstone talks about another advantage that opens up to underdogs, which he calls desirable difficulties – when things get more difficult, we are goaded to perform harder. He points to an intelligence test called CRT, which got an average of less than one-and-a-half right answers to every three questions. However, when the test questions were made even more difficult, by printing them very lightly, the test scores went up dramatically to an average of 2.45 out of three. The reason? The students had to strive much harder to decipher the question, and in the process they thought more deeply about it.
Similarly, the underdog has to strive much harder to achieve what is relatively easy for others, and in doing so, he exercises muscles others don’t, and eventually gets ahead of the game. He cites the case of David Boies, a dyslexic. Unable to read easily, he used to memorize everything his mother read to him. Eventually he became one of the most famous trial lawyers in the US, because his ability to be aware of even the slightest nuance in the tone of words, and to remember everything anybody said, made him a formidable antagonist.
“Most quadraplegics pass away within four years of their situation, but it is 15 years since I was struck down in 1999, and am still beaming with life,” says Girish Gogia.
An adventure sports buff, a miscalculated dive in the Arabian Sea in Goa when on a holiday with his wife (who tragically enough, had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three months earlier), rendered him paralysed neck down. “For the first two weeks, I was miserable,” recalls Gogia, who has a confident and dynamic appearance and voice, “but in the third week, I realised that it was imperative that I stayed positive. I had always been very ambitious, a go-getter. Words like defeat, failure, did not exist for me.” Gogia began to work on himself, spending thousands of hours converting each negative thought into a positive one. “I reminded myself of my responsibilities, of my dreams and goals, and eventually I decided that I was not going to focus on what did not work in my body, but on what did. I still had a brain, I could breathe, I could eat, I was alive.”
Nothing came easy for Gogia. “Accomplishing the interior projects was very difficult. I am totally dependent on caregivers and there were times when they did not show up for two or three days. Often, I could not meet my deadlines because I was a vegetable without them.”
However, these very difficulties summoned the hero within him. “The human spirit is far bigger than any difficulty. I sincerely believe that we are tremendously powerful.” He adds, “Through my own journey I have understood that the university of struggle is the best teacher. ”
“I have grown so strong mentally that I can embrace death with a smile.” -Girish Gogia
Sunil Jha recalls that each time he was denied something, he would tell himself that one day, he would be able to afford it. “I used to feel, one day, I will be able to afford chocolates, or a fridge. I could never afford to go to a decent hotel, but I used to think, one day I will.” The years of deprivation gave him, he says, the strength to survive. When his father retired in 1982, as the eldest son, he was offered a job with BEST. He joined as an apprentice clerk and resigned as traffic officer in 1989. This itself was a big achievement, because in BEST one reached the officer level only after 20 years, but Sunil Jha was goaded by his own determination to go further. “My childhood gave me the grit to say, I can.” While at BEST, he decided to resume studies and worked in shifts, so he could do a post graduation.
“What drove me was the need for power. I realized I needed to be powerful; to control my own destiny.” -Sunil Jha
His next job was with Indian Express, which lasted 14 years. He recalls the day he got his first cabin. He asked his father to come and see him, and when he did, his father promptly burst into tears.
His underdog advantage has helped him enormously in his job where he has worked in industrial relations. Indian Expresshad huge problems with the Datta Samant union between ’89 to 03. But there was not a single strike in his tenure. “I understood the workers. I had been there myself. So there was never a need for a strike.” The advantage has helped him in his present company too. “I sit with the staff. I understand them. They are happy.”
Gladstone also points out that people who have gone through great difficulty or trauma and survived it, often get an increase of confidence and strength. He quotes Canadian psychiatrist, JT MacCurdy: “We are all of us not merely liable to fear… We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air raid, and when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”
Nipun Jacob, a journalist working for Salon International and Business of Fashion magazine. and a former correspondent with Life Positive, recalls the trauma of growing up as a bisexual, “I was born with both male and female characteristics,” he shares, bravely. His problems began when he was admitted to an all-boys school, and was endlessly tormented by his classmates, who were older than he was. “They teased me, touched my nipples and chest, played with my sanctity. They asked me to hold their private parts and took me to the only secluded washroom to have sex. They called me a eunuch, hijda and chakka. I remember coming back home, feeling guilty and numb. I spent years sitting in front of the television, eating through the day, filled with self-condemnation. My cheerfulness disappeared, and I was gloomy and wayward. Thousands of times I wanted to share everything with my mother. But my parents were busy and struggling in their own lives to give us a better future.”
Fortunately for Nipun, he finally found the courage to confide in a compassionate senior colleague, and was helped to come to terms with his situation. “Today, my very helplessness has turned into power,” he says. “I know who I am and am happy to be me. I revel in my feminine characteristics and am loved for my chirpy nature. I have drawn some wonderful people into my life who love me. I no longer hide who I am from the world.”
The topdog disadvantage
Not only do underdogs have an advantage, but topdogs can labour under a distinct disadvantage. Gladstone posits what he calls the inverted U shape to explain why what would normally be seen as advantages such as wealth or studying in the best schools, can convert to disadvantages. In this inverted U shaped world, advantages remain advantages only for the first half of the curve, then they reach a point where they don’t make much of a difference and in the second downward sloping curve, they are actually disadvantages. He cites the case of a Hollywood tycoon, whose childhood was relatively impoverished. As a young lad he ran a business by hiring some boys to clean the snow off the driveways of neighbourhood houses. In the fall, his gang would rake leaves. By the time he was 11, he had saved $600 of the money he had earned. He understood the value of money. However, his own children, he confessed to Gladstone, were not as lucky because he was a very wealthy man. He says, “People are ruined by challenged economic lives. But they’re ruined by wealth as well because they lose their ambition and they lose their pride and they lose their sense of self-worth.”
Similarly, a very bright student called Caroline Sacks got admission into Brown University, one of the most elite and exclusive universities in the US, Bright as she was, her classmates were even brighter, and being competitive, disinclined to share their learnings with others. She found that she could not keep up with the standards of the class. Disheartened, she eventually dropped her first love, science, and settled for something easier. Gladstone points out that had she gone to a less blue-blooded institution, she would have continued to be a science student. This is a case of what Gladstone calls relative deprivation. If you are less smart than those around you, you will feel stupid, even though you may actually be much smarter than the general populace. Our own IITs are known to have disheartened and dispirited many a struggling youngster who would probably have held his own in any other academic space.
Topdogs have other disadvantages. Being a topdog breeds complacency. He is vested in the status quo. No top dog will willingly surrender his advantage and therefore is not aligned to the flow of evolution. The West today heavily resists the shift of economic and other forms of power to China and India. The ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the rest of the world is an identity they cherish, because it makes them feel so much superior to other races. Similarly, the male sex has not taken kindly to the rise of women and their own loss of power and control over them. The horrifying scale of rapes, sexual and physical abuse meted out to women in the last decade or so, is a chilling testimony to this fact.
At one time, the clergy came in the way of scientific advances in the West, by rejecting all discoveries that went contrary to the way the Bible described the creation of the world. Today, it is the scientific community that is digging its heels in, rejecting the assertions of spirituality on the nature of the world. It is this unwillingness to let go of the status quo that is the top dog’s real Achilles heel, and it is this that will bring him down in the fullness of time.
Because, as Gladstone says, there is a limit to power. Beyond a point, its subjects rebel and revolt.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which the British army fired upon a crowd of non-violent people, protesting against the arrest of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin, killing more than 1000 people, led to widespread anger and the formation of the Non-cooperative Movement of 1920-22. And, of course, the high-handed action of a South African railway employee in throwing out Mohandas Gandhi from a First Class compartment, gave birth to a mahatma who not only successfully fought against discrimination in South Africa, but also led India to its own freedom.
Varuna Jain, a social media expert, is the survivor of a traumatic marriage. “There were always demands to get money from my father as he was a rich man compared to my husband’s family. I was beaten when I did not comply with my husband’s demands for money, and when he was not happy with something I said or did. During my first pregnancy I went without food many times. I was forced to abort five pregnancies. He called me and my family names, cursed me and abused me. with very little provocation.”
Like many abusers, her husband took advantage of her fear for him and fed her with the belief that she would not survive without him. However, a turning point came for her too. “I snapped the day he slapped my 15-year-old daughter just for teasing her younger sister. Also, he started stopping her from going to school as he wanted her to get married as soon as she turned 18. When the abuse shifted to my daughters, I decided to leave him.”
Today, Varuna is a happy single mother with a huge infectious laugh and a flourishing career.
“Having made a career for myself at the ripe age of 43 without any skills, and only a BA degree in Economics, I have grown stronger.” -Varuna Jain
It seems to be a historical imperative. Underdogs rise and become topdogs; and then they fall and become underdogs again.
Is there anything that can be done to avoid this inevitable cycle? Yes, there is. If top dogs were to remain vigilant about their status, if they were to see how their sovereignty creates oppression and injustice for others, if they were to use it to uplift and liberate the underdogs, perhaps this whole underdog-topdog cycle would play itself out.
On the day after his stunning victory, Arvind Kejriwal warned his party member against becoming arrogant, for they too would otherwise fall. Arrogance was the cause of the defeat of the Congress and the BJP, and would be of theirs also, he said.
Gladstone says, “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.”
To give their power legitimacy, they have to abide by three principles: The people asked to obey authority should feel that they have a voice, that if they speak up they will be heard. Secondly, the law has to be predictable – rules can’t keep changing everyday. Thirdly, the authority has to be fair. You can’t treat different people differently.
He cites the case of a police officer, Joanne Joffe, who was put in charge of a deprived and criminally intensive part of New York City, called Brownsville. Her focus was particularly on rehabilitating the juvenile delinquents of the region, who numbered more than 106. As part of her efforts, Joffe went door to door with her police officers and offered the family of each of the delinquents a turkey for Thanksgiving. To regain their own legitimacy (for they were feared and hated by the residents), she told them that while they were used to seeing them pound their doors in search of a delinquent, this part was also true, which is that they truly wished them well, and wanted them to have a happy Thanksgiving. She was met by hugging and crying in every family she visited. The result over time, was a staggering reduction in crime.
There is so much to be learnt from these stories. In the shifting, changing and impermanent nature of life, advantages become disadvantages and vice versa. We live in a moral universe, where each of us is goaded to be the highest and best we can be, and when we depart from this law by abusing the topdog’s power and privilege, we ready ourselves for a fall. It is up to us therefore to align with the Universe’s design for our lives, and use all circumstances in our lives – whether as top dog or underdog – to grow.
But what then of the underdog advantage? What of the great beauty, courage, heroism and invention that it has brought to the world? Perhaps the time will come when pain and struggle will not be the only ways to release the best of the human spirit. Perhaps when each pulls up the other and we stand on an equal playing field, we will bring the very best out of ourselves through a joyful impetus to support the other to realise her highest potential.
Are you top dog or underdog?
In the many roles we play in life, we are topdogs in some and underdogs in others.
Can we use our underdog status to grow in strength and heroism, and can we use our topdog status to safeguard against exploitation and oppression of the other?
Can we also see where we are resisting the changes that will convert our advantage to disadvantage?
If I were to look into my own life, I see that as a woman, I am an underdog, as someone who has a team reporting to her, I am a top dog, as an educated person, I am a top dog, as an urbanite, I am a topdog, as someone who employs a maid, again I am a topdog.
I have performed pretty well as an underdog. As an unmarried woman, I stand on my own two feet, and support myself financially. I run my household independently, and am pretty much self-sufficient in most matters. I am less sure of my topdog status.
As a team leader, I would give myself pretty good marks, but I know where I need to improve. As an urbanite, by default I exploit the regions around me for water and electricity, and there is nothing I have done to change that status. I have a great relationship with my maid, but I still have to progress in uplifting her and safeguarding her financial welfare. I also find that as someone who speaks English I am a topdog, and this is a status that may actually change with the rise of the BJP.
There is greater emphasis on our regional languages, as indeed there should be. I, however, will go through some discomfort, for my hold over Hindi is extremely tenuous. If I can become comfortable with speaking, reading and writing in Hindi, I will be able to weather the change with grace.It certainly is one of my goals, but I am unsure as to when I will achieve it.
What about you? Where are you top dog? Where underdog? How have you used these statuses?
Your answers will tell you what your future is likely to be.
Life Positive follows a stringent review publishing mechanism. Every review received undergoes -
Only after we're satisfied about the authenticity of a review is it allowed to go live on our website
Our award winning customer care team is available from 9 a.m to 9 p.m everyday
All our healers and therapists undergo training and/or certification from authorized bodies before becoming professionals. They have a minimum professional experience of one year
All our healers and therapists are genuinely passionate about doing service. They do their very best to help seekers (patients) live better lives.
All payments made to our healers are secure up to the point wherein if any session is paid for, it will be honoured dutifully and delivered promptly
Every seekers (patients) details will always remain 100% confidential and will never be disclosed