As soon as I left the Loew's Boston Common Theater in Boston after being mesmerized by the landwark film, "Slumdog Millionaire," one of the first things I did was to call my friend, Rajiv Srinivasan. Rajiv is home on leave from the Army and is visiting his parents, who live in Cambridge.
"Rajiv, I know that there is a blizzard raging around us here in Boston, but I want you to take your parents by the hand and go see 'Slumdog Millionaire' right now!"
I wanted to hear the reaction of one who had been born in India and is now part of the Indian diaspora living in the U.S. With Rajiv's permission, I offer his thoughts, posted to his Facebook page a few hours ago.
Lessons From a Slumdog Millionaire
Yesterday, my family and I saw the independent film "Slumdog Millionaire." The movie tells the life story of a poor Muslim boy, orphaned at a young age, who eventually becomes the star of the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." The millionaire contestant, Jamal (played by Dev Patel), is skinny. He is weak, unconfident, and walks as if a stiff wind could bring him down. He sits in the hot seat looking across a rich and dynamic game show host who is doing everything he can to entertain his audience, despite the feeble creature in the spotlight.
Like any quiz show, the questions are simple and precise. When I hear such questions, I scan for the answers in my vague classroom memories left over after 17 years of formal education. I search through all the information recorded over the hours I have spent sitting in front of the television, reading books, watching movies, or digesting wikipedia. I replay the hundreds of intellectual conversations I have enjoyed with my classmates and friends in pretentious coffee shops over lattes whose names I cannot even pronounce. And of course, when I do not have the answers, I somehow have the nerve to feel empty inside.
Jamal had no recollections of coffee shops nor an education to rely on in this game show; only the painful memories of a Mumbai slum. Whether it was his mother's murder, his brother raping Jamal's destined true love, or seeing the inhumane fate of an abandoned friend, these moments were seared into Jamal's memory to be replayed over and over again. Unlike pleasant memories which tend to fade over time, painful memories only become more vivid. The intense awareness of Jamal's most scarring rites of passage gives way to factual realizations, which ironically become the answers to million-rupee questions. Jamal's unique talent in answering quiz show trivia brings new meaning to the phrase "ignorance is bliss."
Who is the American statesman on the $100 bill? Which cricketer has the most all-time centuries? Who invented the revolver? Whether one knows the answer to these trivia questions is merely a function of whether one is exposed to such random data. As the culture among the American-Indian diaspora often imposes upon its youth, "the more you study, the more you know, and the further you go." Thus, the collection of such information, in the form of a formal education, becomes the center of our lives. Jamal, on the other hand, possesses the correct answer to each question despite having not attended school--notice I say "not attended school" as opposed to saying "not having an education." Because what Jamal teaches us is that an education learned on the streets can often be just as powerful as one learned in a classroom.
I had the blessing to learn life's lessons in a safe environment afforded to me by parents who love me and a country that believes in me. But I often wonder what life would be like had I never made it to the United States. What if I lived in India? What if I were an orphan? What if I were raised in a slum? What percentage of a man's success is a result of his environment, and what percentage is a result of his inner strength and persistence? Perhaps there is something to be said for knowing that Franklin is on the $100 bill because your impoverished blind friend chastised you for giving him one; knowing that Lord Rama holds a bow and arrow in his right hand because of the massacres that Hindu extremists brought to your slum; or knowing that Samuel Colt invented the revolver because your brother pointed one at you.
This movie helped me remember that the gift of education is not limited to the educated. The most successful people and cultures I have studied, to include Indians, find greatness from the mastery of perception: the recognition of the greater implications of the events in our lives, and the use of these lessons to foster growth in our hearts, our families, our businesses, and our communities. Jamal found success and fame because of his environment, not in spite of it. He leveraged his surroundings and experiences to his favor. I am not making the argument that playing fields are level and that rich and poor have equal chances at finding success in life. My argument is that our investments in impoverished areas are futile when they are limited to basic sustenance. Food, water, clothing, and shelter will sustain life. An education may enrich life. But only the awareness and depth that can form from constant mentorship and love will elevate life. The same mentoring that has made the American-Indian diaspora such a competitive demographic in the United States is what will unearth the greatness of the millions of silenced slumdogs around the world. Although we should remember that, in India, even slumdogs express greatness by spontaneously breaking out in song and dance.