What should one choose to do, asks Ajit Balakrishnan.
The other day, as I got into the aircraft on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, realising that I was in the first row and thus couldn't put my laptop bag under the seat in front of me, I opened the overhead luggage compartment, put the bag there, and sat down on my aisle seat as my fellow passengers streamed in.
When on a flight, this is my usual entertainment, watching the variety and range of passengers one gets to see.
Suddenly a teenager-looking girl, dressed in salwar-churidar, appeared at the aisle, expectantly waiting for me to get up so that she could move to the seat to my left. I smiled and stood, and she passed through, sat in the seat next to me, and put her carry-bag on the floor in front of her.
"The stewardess will come soon and ask you to put your bag in the overhead compartment... do you want me to help you do that right?" I asked her.
"Thanks for the offer, uncle, I prefer to keep my bag in front of me on the floor," she said. The 'uncle' bit is something I hear often when young people talk to me, thanks to my head full of grey hair.
She observed my quizzical, facial expression and said: "I will take a chance. If the stewardess asks me to do it, I will put my bag up."
I smiled and opened the inflight magazine, and buried myself in it.
By now the passengers on the flight had all settled down and the stewardesses could be seen walking up and down the aisle, advising passengers to put on their seat belt, etc.
When I looked up, I saw the stewardess looking at the girl, and she (the stewardess) said to her: "You will have to put that bag in the overhead compartment."
The young girl quietly handed the bag to the stewardess, who then put it at the right place.
I turned and smiled at the girl, controlling my urge to say 'I told you so', but quietly sat there, lapsing into deep thought.
What made the young girl take a chance on something as simple as putting her bag in the right place on a flight?
Suddenly, thoughts from a book I had read recently, The Tyranny of Merit, by a Harvard University professor, Michael Sandel, came flooding into my head.
The book's subtitle hints at its focus on drastically questioning many of the things we take for granted today.
For example, he questions the belief that America's Ivy League colleges base their admission only on the merit of the applicants.
He points out two-thirds of the students in all the Ivy League colleges come from families in the top 20 per cent income bracket in America.
At Princeton and Yale, for example, more students come from families in the top 1 per cent income bracket than from the bottom 60 per cent, he says.
If this is so, what do we mean by 'meritocracy', he asks.
'We need to rethink the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity,' he says, adding, 'which is something we have come to take for granted.'
Such belief in the credentials a degree from an Ivy League college can give students is beginning to be called 'credentialism' and the author says 'credentialism has become the last acceptable prejudice'.
Flooding into my head came the 'credentialism' that we Indians (sorry to say, including me) practise.
When we think of the IITs, the IIMs, AIIMS, and other government-founded and -funded universities, we think of them as the anchors of India's merit-based democracy.
While there is no doubt that entry to these hallowed institutions is merit-based, how do we stomach the fact that most students who make it to these institutions have chosen to attend two to three or more years of coaching classes that cost their parents Rs 1 lakh-Rs 2 lakh a year?
If you are wondering, dear reader, what connection my brain is making between my fellow passenger on the flight putting her luggage in the right place only when asked to do so and the merit system in American and Indian universities admitting bright people but also, as an implicit condition, those that come from well-to-do backgrounds, it is this: Both the examples show that in today's world to get ahead, it's not just 'merit' because in the shadow the majority of us pick not just the right thing to do but, more often, the smart thing to do.
And 'smart' people are the ones who do what conveniences them, unless they notice that some authority (like the stewardess on the flight) comes and prods them to do the 'right' thing.
I know of people who do not disclose their full income for tax purposes and, when gently prodded to explain why, they reply: 'The income tax is spent by our government to pay fat salaries to IAS, IRS, IFS officers, so why should I contribute to that fund!'
Clearly, these folks have made a choice between doing what in their mind is the 'smart' thing versus the 'right' thing. And they wait, for some authority to spot their non-payment before agreeing to pay the full tax.
What do you say, dear reader? Is it better to do the smart thing in life or is it better to do the right thing in life?