March 2015 By Suma Varughese The underdog attracts sympathy, but few would bet on his success, saysSuma Varughese. However, there are surprising advantages to being an underdog,and surprising disadvantages to being a topdog. Read on for a perspectivethat 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 usin
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