In the gem of a film yesterday released on Netflix, a struggling musician wakes up after an accident to the startling discovery that the Beatles have been erased from the world’s collective cultural memory, and he is the only person on earth who remembers their music. He sings Yesterday for his friends and suddenly he’s no longer a Nowhere Man but an artistic sensation. We’re never told how or why this happens, with that original premise steer the film toward bigger existential questions of chance and ethics. Is it plagiarism if no one knew the group existed? Or simply carpe diem, an unlucky singer seizing an opportunity that presented itself at random.
In real life, of course, luck rarely turns out to be so fortuitous. Luck, rather the lack of it, is a controlling force in all of our lives. Ask the Afghans in Peril. There are many good people out there who suffer disproportionately just because they are the hapless citizens of a failed state. Turns out the biggest stroke of luck is where you were born. Our personal narratives emerge from this narrow and specific point, pushing us forward or holding us back. Yet the conventional wisdom that we absorb as we grow older is to be purposeful and determined in our pursuits, to take responsibility for our choices, regardless of the vagaries of fate. It is perhaps too scary to imagine that sincerity and hard work aside, success depends as much on avoiding disaster as this extremely unpredictable world can throw up.
The birth lottery is one thing, other vagaries of chance are played out in more subtle ways throughout our lives. For example, the head of Hindu College at the University of Delhi recently announced that the thresholds this year will start at (a completely absurd) 100%. The point is, there aren’t enough places in Hindu for all the good ones. There are also not enough places at Lady Shri Ram College or St Xavier’s in Mumbai. So the colleges ruthlessly keep raising the thresholds until they have (conveniently) left the number they can accommodate. This is an accepted practice that should violate our sense of justice as we know that the student who was 99.5% rejected is also qualified for this seat. But chance rears its fanciful head; some people get what they deserve, some don’t and that’s how it is.
A more honest way to decide on college admissions would be the old-fashioned token system. Put all the names of the candidates over 95% in a hat, shake it, and declare a draw. While far from ideal, it spares students a blow to their self-esteem that they weren’t good enough, even with a near-perfect score. Certainly, they deserve to be validated for a stupendous effort while also accommodating the complexity that the rewards don’t necessarily pile up even after outstanding performance. This does not mean that humanity must give up ambition or that we must surrender to relentless fatalism; persistence and intellectual curiosity are necessary for success in any career. The work of life is to prepare ourselves through education, experiences and habits – for the unexpected. But, with the understanding that sometimes there are forces beyond our control that make us vulnerable to both fortune and misfortune.
It’s a sobering thought that while I, as a journalist, typing in the comfort of my air-conditioned bedroom, the TV news focuses on my (veiled) contemporaries three hours away in Kabul, walking through a destroyed landscape, demanding that they be allowed to work. Imagine the risks of putting on a show of fiery bravery in a country sliding into medieval dystopia. This counter-movement, with women pushing back a loss of autonomy, tells us a sickening truth from our private confinements: there are millions of people who deserve a good life everywhere. They just aren’t so lucky.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films