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How VMTs are taking over PLUs

Omkar Goswami


When I joined St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta in 1972, life was blissfully simple and deeply divided. By and large, there were two types of students. The large mass comprised boys from Bengali medium schools who had passed the entrance exam to secure a seat in  college. They came from lower-middle class families; travelled by crowded buses and suburban trains; spoke and wrote fluent Bengali by habit, and idiomatically correct but stilted English by necessity; and seriously took notes in folios of rough foolscap sheets. They were the VMTs (Vernacular Medium Types).


Then there were a tiny group of PLUs (People Like Us). ‘Tuts’ Verghese epitomised the  PLU. His dad worked for a multinational; he studied in La Martiniere School; was driven to and from college; wore tie-and-dye T-shirts and frayed Levi’s bellbottoms; knew how to use a fork and knife from childhood; probably couldn’t speak a word of Malayalam but played the guitar; knew all the Loretto House girls that were worth knowing; hung out at Flury’s; and was planning to hitchhike to Europe through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.


There being few jobs going around in the 1970s, the VMTs could hardly hope to be young managers. Those posts were reserved exclusively for the well connected proper PLU chaps. So, the PLUs knew that if they passed their exams, they would get a comfortable job as a probationary officer in a tea garden or some multinational company. Even those who wanted to eschew the corporate world were sure of getting whatever they wanted by virtue of their ‘style’. PLUs could afford to be cool.


In contrast, it was a relentless slog for the VMTs. The really exceptional ones got scholarships abroad, and then flowered in the US. A few lucky VMTs also passed the banking examinations and were selected for careers in public sector banks. For the rest, it was a struggle to get a job and earn enough to add to the family kitty.    


For the PLUs, the world was their oyster. For the VMTs, the world was a place where you had to claw your way to success.


Starting with the mid-1980s and more so after liberalisation, this schism changed in fundamental ways. The first great leveller was the IITs. Being a PLU didn’t get you into an IIT; doing well in the entrance exam did. And once you got in, your native intelligence and powers of osmosis would make you a far more attractive candidate than a ‘to the manor born’ PLU. By the mid-1990s, this levelling spread to the regional engineering colleges and other professional institutes. Simultaneously, there was a rapid growth of the corporate sector and, with it, employment opportunities.


The 1990s also saw a new burst of young entrepreneurs in every capacity. Starting a new enterprise was no longer a domain of the children of businessmen nor of those who had failed to get a box wallah’s job. It became the preferred option for many.


The change is everywhere. Thirty years ago, few could have dreamt that a lower-middle class boy like Narayana Murthy would be a source of inspiration for India’s corporations and its youth. Thirty years ago, a conservative company called ITC would never have chosen a VMT like Yogi Deveshwar as its executive chairman. Thirty years ago, there would have been no bidi smoking Subhash Goyal running Zee, nor Naresh Goyal running Jet.


The spectacular rise of VMTs has transformed this country. Spoken words have changed; means of communications have changed; the body language has changed; advertisements have changed; messages have changed. It is just the beginning. Think of the revolution that will occur — and the energy of that churn — when successive waves of VMTs fan out and occupy every little cove of the corporate landscape.


Think of the new Airtel ads. Today, the guy sitting below the paan shop or the chaiwallah at the barber shop are celebrating their Rs.200 per month Airtel card. By 2030, their kids will be a part of the next wave of Indian business. That’s when PLUs will become truly anachronistic redundancies. And India will have come of age.


I am deeply grateful to my friend Itu Chaudhuri for giving me the ideas for this piece.


Published: Business world, August 2005


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