The sharp scent of tamarind, spicy notes of pepper, and a strong overtone of garlic. Rasam at home was one of the stronger social lubricants that I had experienced as a teenager. Disarmed by this familiar and comforting smell, I’d wander into the kitchen to get a stronger whiff. And that’s when it happened. The middle-class Indian mom struck with the classical 1-2. Lure you in with spices, smack you in the face with loaded gossip.
“So, I was talking to your uncle. His son just started his own business. Apparently, he’s making well over a couple of lakhs a month (not that it’s about the money). I’m just telling you, it’s not a comparison.”
“Yes, I’m glad he’s doing well.”
“I’m so happy for him. Even I want a son…umm, no, you’ll get angry. Anyway, it’s excellent news so I thought I’d share it with you. The best thing about this is that, just like his father, he’s entirely self-made!”
“There’s no such thing, ma. No one is ‘self-made’.”
“You have to contradict everything I say. I knew I shouldn’t have told you. My mistake.”
“Let’s drop it. By the way, the rasam smells fantastic!”
“It does? Thanks! New recipe, I’ve added lots of garlic, just how you like it.”
“Thanks, can’t wait.”
In the past, this conversation would leave me feeling either shell-shocked, disgusted, infuriated, or just dumbfounded with the intensity of both the forgetful repetition and the steadfast commitment to the eradication of all logic. But, the hide thickens, since the thick ones don’t hide.
adjective [usually ADJECTIVE noun]
Self-made is used to describe people who have become successful through efforts, especially if they started life without money, education, or high social status.
I wandered over to speak to my father, nestled in the couch in a contortion only a desk job can render you capable of forming. He’s reading the newspapers. One Telugu, two English – a tabloid and a mainline respectively. In our household, and as I’m sure many others, a devotion to the banal wasn’t just valiant, it was necessary. “How else will we know what’s happening in the world?”
“Yes, dad, a chain snatching in a neighbourhood we’ve never been to and five million stories of political foul play are expanding your consciousness rapidly. On the upside, at least this is helping the systematic deterioration of syntax and logic right when we’re at our most vulnerable to the onset of dementia. But, the rasam is excellent. You have to try it.”
Much against the better-placed advice of my instinct, I decide to live life on the edge. I started an actual conversation.
“So, mom was telling me about this business malarkey. How’s that going anyway?”
“That’s right. It’s going very well.”
“It’s funny how she talks about money, although we keep saying that it’s not the most important thing.”
“I don’t want to comment. We should be happy for everyone’s success.”
“Come on! I am, but you have to see my point. If money isn’t what matters, values do, then isn’t any praise focused solely on money inconsistent with ‘said values’? You’ve said it yourself. ‘I’ve never chased money; there’s more to life.'”
“Yes, I agree. I am happy with what I’ve got. It’s not about how much you have. See, Adarsh, I may not have much, but I am a self-made man…”
At this point, I worked out why the mental health industry made money. In fact, I was surprised it didn’t make more! My parents and I wonder how many others, were a fantastic lead generation tool. They could justifiably demand a commission for all income generated from psychotherapy. “Fuck em up, send them to therapy, bada bing bada boom, Bob’s your self-made uncle.”
The myth of the self-made man is just one narrative that my parents, and especially our peers in the middle class, tended to reinforce. There are several other classic hits that you might recognise like *drumroll*
“Time fixes everything.”
“Where science ends, spirituality begins.”
“Well, so what if it’s not grounded in logic or even reality. My mother told me this works, and I listened. Now, that is respect. Speaking of which, you’d do well to learn some respect.”
“Money isn’t everything. Happiness is. Family is. Purpose is. Now finish your homework in the subjects you dislike, aren’t good at, are learning by rote, and that will play no functional role at any point in time in your life except for uprooting your faith in the education system, common sense in parenting, and the very fabric of society. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees, and you need to earn it.”
“Life, just like marriage, is just about compromise. Don’t set your sights too high.”
“A house you own, food to eat, and a secure job. What more do you need?”
“I’ve given my life for you, but the sacrifices have been worth it. My voluntary choice to procreate is a cross I bear and you, boulder to my Sisyphus, make the struggle feel like time well spent.”
Some of these are exaggerations (Okay, I lied, all) but their essence isn’t far from what I heard year after year all the way until young adulthood, which is when I left for university. Over time, I realised that a bunch of these myths, in spite of the reinforcement and blind conviction behind their existence, are quite literally myths. They are constructs fortified by fear, brainwashing, and a reluctance to fail in the pursuit of success. For some reason, our society glorifies abstention. Want less, make do with what you have, cut your coat according to your cloth. Hold on. I haven’t finished! Don’t break the ‘rules’, obedience is the key to affection, and this absolute zinger – ‘greatness lies in being a self-made man’ – a phrase almost exclusive to being middle class in the developing world. Well, I call bullshit.
Here’s a thought:
“There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.”
– George Matthew Adams2
This quote makes an obvious point quite well, but I’m going to take the liberty of making an addition. Everyone who has subjected us to distress or directed a sentence (or two) of derision towards us, has helped build our resilience and our defiance, as well as our drive for success.
‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ are labels we ascribe to an experience based on immediate context. For instance, if you were late to a bus station and your coach was delayed, the mighty grace of God and the whimsical charms of Lady Luck have come together for your grand journey to an apartment above a department store. However, if you had a rough day at work, spent ages waiting at the post office or whatever other inane service creates the illusion of purpose, and end up at the bus station early and then, THEN, your ride is late! Well, the universe has now earned your wrath. “Lord, how full of contempt is your grace and my fate!”
Anyway, I digress. The very idea of a ‘self-made’ man, romantic as it may sound, is absurd. Sperm, ovaries, and either God or biology come together to make the zygote that then forms your well-intentioned carbon-based lifeform. Not self-made. You are then subjected to parenting, cheek pulling, bullying (either as a victim or perpetrator), insignificance, success, failure, anger, love, lust, fast food, slow classes, movies, popcorn, candy, and unicorn farts before you develop a life-view, your window into the world. Again, not self-made. After subjugation to these myriad circumstances, you finally grow the gumption to rise above your context and flourish like no fish thrashing on a trawler has ever flourished before. Your fins are wings, your grumbling a song, and your routine a tale of undebatable grand conquest. Good job, kid. And again, say it with me, slowly this time – NOT. SELF. MADE.
So, why are we so preoccupied with this idea of being self-made? Is our future written in the stars, do we control where we go, or do we feel content by making the right choices based on a given set of circumstances?
Here’s the deal. Being ‘self-made’ implies a transcendence of context and suggests that someone has overcome immense hardship to climb up the social ladder without external help and any favours. I don’t question the courage in that for a moment. I do, however, worry about the pressure this creates. The world we live in today can be isolating. The implication that greatness achieved through further isolation is somehow superior to other forms is absurd. Yes, these stories are inspiring. But suggesting that grit and perseverance trump canniness and relationships is odd. Our warped understanding of the notion of being ‘self-made’ is even more crippling. What begins as a desire for independence soon becomes a reluctance to ask for help, a shame that arises from needing assistance, and using a connection that can help open a door can seem like a defiance of longstanding values. Being canny has its place. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it could even be more beneficial than sheer grit. After all, effectiveness beats efficiency.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have a filter for how we achieve success? In absolute terms, no. But, as a member of civilised society, moral and ethical guidelines should prove sufficient. If you’re in doubt of what those are, you may wish to hire a defence lawyer sooner rather than later for your imminent crimes. To the rest, you may want to take a closer look at what you want and what tools you have to get there. Don’t get caught up in being ‘self-made’. You didn’t start off being, and you don’t have to (won’t) end up being. Every compliment, admonishment, rejection, kind look, dirty glare, shove, hug, caress, and nudge has played a part in where I am right now, in where you are right now. Qualifying which factors did what based on the false narrative of a biased memory is foolhardy at best, severe delusion at worst.
Make of yourself what you will, or don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as you are content with your choices. This ‘self-made’ malarkey is no different to restaurant chains that claim to have a ‘homemade’ recipe – it’s bollocks and places undue pressure on the person making that claim. The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you’re self-made, homemade, handmade, a French maid, or a bleeding cupcake. As long as you make the choices that directly affect your contentment and act as a means to an end, you’re fine. Apply some ethical filters, don’t be an asshole, and you’ll be on your way.
What’s the go-to cliché phrase in your family? I’d love to find out if you have similar experiences.
“Adarsh, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.”
“Would working towards being more stupid make me less idle? Whose workshop is it then?”
“There’s little point in having a conversation with you.”
“God, this rasam is good!”
1. https://www.passiton.com/inspirational-quotes/6748-there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-self-made-man-we; Date Accessed: April 10, 2018
2. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/self-made; Date Accessed: April 10, 2018