Sunday, November 05, 2006

The party spoiler

(This is a topic that practically every Indian living abroad would have thought, felt and if he ever blogged, written about. In a way it summarizes the self-discovery process that so defines this fleeting phase of your first few years abroad. Nevertheless, heres my 2 cents.)

Being an Indian living abroad can make you vulnerable to quite a lot of banterous persiflage. Right from the rather unflattering adjectives that are appelled to your name ("desh drohi", "firang saala" and a new one, "angrez kutta"), to the polite reminders you get every now and then ("I dont know if you are aware, but we celebrate a festival called Diwali in our country today"). Most of it is all in good spirit, but I sometimes notice an underbelly of "you have abandoned your Indian-ness" sentiment hiding beneath the surface. It irks me a bit, because in my opinion it is exactly the opposite- my brief stay away from India has really enlightened me about what "Indian" really is, what Indian stands for, and where we go wrong and where we are changing for the better.

It is obviously the interaction with other cultures and communities that opens up your mind and exposes the fallacies of beliefs that you have all along assumed as facts. Perhaps its also the feeling of being part of a bigger society, and the absence of national fervor to cloud your thinking. But residing in a multicultural society provides you with a neutral experential viewpoint to judge things as they stand.

Perhaps thats the reason why whenever one of those small-talk conversations with acquaintances from the West veer towards a discussion of the exciting India success story, I somehow find myself arguing the othert side of the coin. It is funny- just a few years ago global Indians would probably be found at parties fervently advertising the rising India to unconvinced audiences- now India definitely seems to be the hot destination on everyones lips and people like me are actually saying "Hey, wait, cool down!"! After all am a trader at heart- we are trained to think against the market's hastily-conceived perceptions. But dont get me wrong- Im a strong believer in India's potential. But what Im skeptical about is: will we be able to fulfil it and become the next superpower? More importantly, will we be able to sustain ourselves as a superpower and not throw it all away like we did centuries ago? Above all the talent, the growth potential and the education, there are some cultural and moral values that define a superpower, a great nation. In my opinion, here are ten of them which India lacks:

1. Dignity of labour
The disparity between how cleaners/ drivers/ other manual labourers are treated in India as compared to their counterparts in the West needs to be seen to be believed. The cleaner lady who comes to clean my house in London refuses to come after 8 pm- shes got kids to look after too, right? They live by their own rules here, very unlike India. Obviously this can be attributed to the shortage of labour here- but there is an entirely different attitude here.

Look at other professions- cab drivers, sex workers, waiters- and the other story is the same. You get respect here for what you are doing, unlike in India where you are doomed if you are not an engineer or an MBA or a cricketer. (See, High Power Distance)

2. Personal integrity
Well, this is self-explanatory. Thankfully, of all the ten reasons here, this is the one flaw that can be largely explained by the economic situation of the country- corruption is largely a bane of developing economies. The odd doubt however lingers- look at our politicians- most of them have amassed wealth and yet are plundering away to glory. Will wealth make us more honest?

3. Attitude towards failure and mutual respect
Cited as one of India's biggest advantage as compared to China in the race to rule the world is our entreprenuerial spirit and our home-grown companies. However as a society, we remain largely unreceptive and worryingly cynical when it comes to failure. The concept of "Serial Enterpreneurship" is celebrated in America- people are respected for having experienced the harsh lows of risking it out on their own. On the other hand the Indian media are ready with daggers drawn whenever a business plan goes awry.

May be a completely unrelated topic but I was once speaking to an Aussie colleague about cricket and the love for it. He was telling me about how Sachin Tendulkar is probably as much respected in Australia as Ricky Ponting is (and thats something). He made one observation which I cannot forget: he said even after a bad day's bowling if McGrath was spotted in a pub, he would be greeted with a standing ovation, whereas he was shocked by the TV footage of people stoning Kaif's homes during the World Cup. Reminds me of that Star Tv programme "Waah Cricket" which my earlier roommate used to so relish watching, and how they made a spectacle out of relentlessly and illogically abusing the Indian cricket team after every defeat. Wheres the respect for our countrymen?

Another situation in which mutual respect comes across is queues- why are we always trying to jostle others and break queues and be the first person to get the window seat? Its because we dont appreciate the fact that the one ahead of us is also going through the same distress as we do.

4. Understanding, embracing and mixing with other cultures/ people
This is a well-known issue- Indians abroad are considered annoying because of their inhibitions in reaching out to other cultures and in following the adage "When in Rome, do as Romans do". We form "desi" clubs and cliques wherever we go, and hang out mostly with fellow Indians.

To be fair, this is true only for a few people, and even for those, it is more a matter of inconfidence and apprehension whether they will fit in with other cultures, rather than snobbery or an attitude problem. On the other hand, once the barrier is broken, we maintain very good friendships- the lack of uber-practicality that is rooted in Western cultures makes us quite adorable!

Whatever be the reason however, the lack of cultural diversity skills does put us at a backfoot when it comes to controlling globalization. And we are generally supposed to be low on teamwork skills and communication skills (confidence?). The silver lining- our command over English, our interest in the West and the confidence in our economy should gradually see us improving.

5. Giving back to society
Heres a leaf that the world must take from the US book- the regular donations from famous alumni is a big factor to the competitiveness of US universities- conversely, that culture is virtually non-existent in India. I sometimes wonder if we really attribute our educational institutions with more than providing us with "the best days of our lives"?

6. The attitude of the rich towards the poor
This is what frustates me a lot sometimes- the attitude of rich towards the rest of the society- the blatant lack of responsibility that the affluent display is appalling. Somewhat of a repeat of my points earlier about the power distance and the giving back- but the bottomline is that you cannot be a superpower if only a handful of people become very wealthy and the rest become very poor.

7. The theory- oriented process of thinking
One of the biggest myths we have in India is the assumption of level of the Western intellect- we all love to say "they are all so dumb", dont we? I believe that intellect has various elements- logic, creativity, presence of mind, judgement etc. We may be right when it comes to mathematics, or logic- we far outsmart many others in that respect. But are we the best in applications of theory? Look at the Mathematics Olympiad for example, where the level of mathematics is quite basic, but the onus is on applying it creatively. What is India's best position in it? 7th, in 1998. USA has never been outside the top 4 after 1996. (See

The fault lies in our educational system, which focuses squarely on theory, theory and theory. Our MBA courses are more like M.S in Finances. Hence we lack that judegment-based, practical common-sense approach to problem solving. We are excellent in computation but flounder when it comes to transferring ideas to newer pastures.

8. Professionalism
This is a personal foible :) But business in the West is conducted in a very professional manner- time-bound and time-efficient, something which I found lacking in my rather short experience of working in India. We take long lunch breaks, we consider it commonplace to arrive late for meetings and we work longer but inefficient hours. It is our style, but there isn't a doubt about the need to imbibe discipline. And yeah, 52 holidays a year!!

9. Lack of Meritocracy and hierarchy:
We are arguably better at this than Asian countries, but the distinction between age and seniority is still isn't well developed in Indian corporate circles. We still very strongly believe in the "age brings experience" adage, and many Indian managers are fixated with the "When I was your age, I worked in a sugar mill, so should you" mentality. Its very different here- I'm the youngest in my team, but I have as much as a vote in anything as the team head. The callousness of youth is respected, rather than derided.

10.Love and responsibility for our country and civic sense:
Something which is glaring in the eye for any Indian who goes abroad- the way people love their country. Scotland is a beautiful example- the story of how the Crown jewels were hidden away from the invading English and buried safely for nearly 200 years is truly inspiring. A look at the really ordinary crown jewels and you realize how much more extraordinary our monuments were and how much lesser have we fought to restore them.

The way we spit at every street, the way we treat Bombay as one large dustbin. The way we are so well-behaved when abroad, and so relieved when being able to throw that candy wrapper on our return back. We absolutely and shamelessly lack civic sense, and more so, the realization of the impact of our own adverse actions on our own world.

Phew. But don't get me wrong. The intent here is not to distance myself from moi des and rant on about its various deficiencies. I, and for that matter every Indian abroad is as much a part of "We", and we probably have a greater responsiblity to improve on these than anyone else.