A graduation ceremony is one of the few rituals a young country like America can truly call its own. A typical American kid may go through several graduations in one lifetime - kindergarten, middle school, high school and then college (one ceremony for every degree you earn).
As rituals go. I think it's a great one. You actually feel a sense of achievement, tinged with the sorrow of leaving a well loved and familiar bunch of buildings and buddies.
Having been through two graduations (one American - from Virgil Grissom High School, Hunstville and one Indian - IIM A) I must say that it's a time when emotions run high'. And the mandatory commencement address - generally delivered by a distinguished personality - is meant to give a pat-on-the-back send-off to the graduating class.
Commencement speeches are thus designed to impart wisdom with wit. To inspire, to uplift, to exhort - go forth and conquer. Well, at least that's what the good speakers do. The rest drone on while students get hot and sweaty in their ceremonial gowns.
P V Narasimha Rao - God bless his soul - was one such dull speaker. But he was the then Prime Minister, so having him at the IIM A graduation was a kick of sorts (note: he only gave out the diploma to the gold medallists, but still).
The good, the bad and the 'ugly'
Ideally, students want a speech like the famous 'Wear sunscreen' one by 'Kurt Vonnegut' at MIT. The speech was actually an article written by Mary Schmich for the Chicago Tribune. But that's another story.
It used to be statesmen and academicians who delivered commencement speeches. Now, Bono and Oprah Winfrey also get to do the honours. As does eBay founder Pierre Omdiyar.
I think that's good. Successful from every walk of life have valuable insights to share. Nora Ephron (of 'Sleepless in Seattle' and 'You've got mail' fame), speaking at Wellesley, urged: "Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there." Good advice, I think!
Conan O'Brien dwelled on his failures because "as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed.... Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way."
O Brien is a Harvard graduate - so he can say just about anything in his self deprecating style and get away with it. Indra Nooyi learnt otherwise.
What she said and what she probably didn't mean
Indra Nooyi's address focussed on the need for the graduates of Columbia Business School to be culturally sensitive, in the context of the global economy. If you read the text of the speech, which can be downloaded in pdf format from the Pepsi website, as an Indian you won't find anything offensive.
But I can understand why some Americans do. Indra may perceive herself as 'American' but the colour of her skin and country of birth still make her a 'foreigner who's done well' as far as (a section of) right-wing America is concerned.
And hence, comparing America to being the world's 'middle finger' was not the best of analogies. It was culturally insensitive of Nooyi - unintentionally so. But nevertheless.
Perhaps she was inspired by the 'paanch ungliyon se mutthi banti hai' (five fingers make a fist) which is a common Indian metaphor. But the metaphor was kind of forced (South America as the 'sensual ring finger' - kinda silly). Besides, you can't speak of 5 continents and then in North America only count the USA. That's insensitive too.
As someone commented on Sepia Mutiny , Columbia students may even take offence because of the very nature of their program - extremely cosmopolitan.
" Surely Ms. Nooyi understood, prior to accepting the engagement, that Columbia's is among the most cosmopolitan of the premier business school programs. Of the class she addressed, 28% were not even Americans to begin with, and it's likely that a majority of the American listeners have significant international experience and are multilingual. Each year, top students select Columbia for its location in the most cosmopolitan city on the planet and for the breadth and excellence of its international offerings."
The fall out
"I stand before you awed, humbled and honored to be here," is how Indra Nooyi began her speech at Wharton a couple of years ago. So I don't think it's arrogance, just bad judgement.
And bad luck that a few students who didn't like what they heard went and blogged about it. And from there the story has hit Indian headlines (the New York Times has not picked it up yet, but might!).
Meanwhile, she's put up an explanation/ apology here.
What I think happened is that Indra just got carried away. The 'five fingers' sounded like a good metaphor, and maybe coming from an all-American, white, born-and-bred in the US kind of CEO it would not have been misconstrued. Coming from Conan O Brien, for example, the 'middle finger' analogy would even have been funny.
It's like if L K Advani says, Muslim personal law needs reform - Muslims will be up in arms. If Javed Akhtar says it, many might listen. It's a question of 'source credibility'.
Like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, offence is in the ears of the listener...
Bottomline: Who are 'they' to tell us how we should think/ act/ behave? In making a point about America as an American, Indra has learnt that to some Americans she will always be a 'they'. Meanwhile, we in India - and the media especially - think and refer to her as 'one of us'. A tough situation to be in, isn't it?
But then Indra is one tough lady!