Through the looking glass ceiling

Through the looking glass ceiling

By M.J. Akbar | 30 October, 2011
Rajat Gupta exits Manhattan federal court with his attorney Gary Naftalis following his arraignment in New York on Thursday. AP/PTI

How much anger do you need to smash a glass ceiling?

A glass ceiling became the symbol of discrimination during the struggle for women's rights in western democracies. By the 1970s women had moved out of the stereotype steno pool into the infested rivulets of middle management, but there was no further room for upward mobility. An invisible ceiling prevented them from entering the boardroom. No rules prevented entry. It just did not happen.

The relevant part of the simile, it seems to me, is not invisibility, but that you can see through a glass window, or ceiling, into the other side. Class and caste have always been instruments of injustice, but ruling elites have generally taken care to cloak inequity with some pompous code, either of faith or in the name of a law which they write and an order which they impose.

Democracy offered the liberation of greater transparency. Perhaps the difference between upstairs and downstairs was more bearable when the worlds were separated by impermeable iron curtains. The pain is less when you cannot clearly see what you have been denied. When the democratic spirit melts this iron into glass, when you find that the boardroom is full of smug incompetents, and your talent is being denied its due, the urge to throw stones at the glass ceiling becomes an itch.

But this glass does not shatter easily. Wealth protects itself with an obduracy honed and perfected over centuries. Talent can easily make you rich, but even an abnormally high level of ability may not get you membership of the exclusive megarich cluster. You need IQ plus anger. The establishment might sneer at "raging ambition", but it is also afraid of it.

Raj Rajaratnam admires Rajat Gupta not because Gupta is innocent but because Gupta obeys the law of omerta, silence in the barrage of questions.

Anger is not pretty. It is not easy to control. So often it comes edged with spleen and coated with hatred. Human nature is generally frail enough to justify its excesses, particularly when a bull with genius feels doubly denied. Raj Rajaratnam, the Tamil Sri Lankan billionaire who has just been sentenced to 11 years in an American jail for insider trading, and could take his Indian pal Rajat Gupta along with him, seems unable to distinguish the difference between anger and excess. Everyone and everything else is to blame. His birth as a Tamil in Sinhala-Lanka, the racist skinheads he encountered in British schools, his Wharton-educated Indian friends, the Jewish or Wasp "mafias" on Wall Street (where Raj made his fortune), everyone who grew up reading the Wall Street Journal, the FBI and, of course, the anonymous "they" who are ever conspiring to destroy. He cannot see anything wrong in the fact that Gupta (as pious-faced a chap as you will find in a mile of shaded middlemen) phoned him with tips within seconds of board meetings. What infuriates him is that Indians he had "helped" chose to "betray" him in their plea bargains. He admires Rajat Gupta not because Gupta is innocent but because Gupta obeys the law of omerta, silence in the barrage of questions.

One could easily turn some of this into evidence of good fortune: how many Tamil Lankans reach British schools or set up hedge funds like Galleon? But Raj is always a victim, no matter how many billions live in his bank account.

Dropcap OnOf course he is a brilliant man. You have to be, to become a billionaire on Wall Street. Someone has calculated, I hope competently, that if you were to begin counting now it would take you fifteen odd years to reach a billion. The point is not the stretch, whatever it might be. The issue is: at what point does a man stop counting out his money? Both Raj and Rajat Gupta had made enough money to feed many future generations. Why did Raj need to indulge in insider trading at this point of his life? We are so much in awe of success so we almost refuse to see any flaw in the diamond. But the mightiest can slip on a banana peel.

I have often wondered about the origins and rationale of the phrase "filthy rich". Is it mere decorum, or pity, that prevents us from saying "filthy poor" with equal abandon? You have to be mad to prefer poverty to wealth. Or you could be a saint. One of the virtues of a sufi or a yogi is his total indifference to money. It is not merely the moral strength of abstinence at play. There is also a hint that the path to riches is at least amoral, if not overtly tainted by immorality. Avarice might encourage envy, but rarely true admiration. Men like Raj Rajaratnam know that those at the top have not reached the perch because their behaviour was impeccable. If the predecessor could get away with it, why not the successor?

If Rajaratnam had to write up his tragedy he would probably see no further than bad luck. Not so simple. The democracy that opens up glass ceilings also tightens the noose of law.

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