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Mein – Ek Firangi Dost

February 7, 2011

I made chai only once. I usually drink tea black, but that one, I did Indian style: boiled with milk, spices, and loads of sugar. It was surprisingly tasty, though the flavour was slightly different than the average chai you get from your tea wallah. Let‘s just say, it was my signature chai. Strictly secret recipe, which I have never used again.
I did not make it for myself though, not even for my friends or flatmates. I made it for the electrician, who came to my house to fix several long due repairments. I also treated him with some sweets and enjoyed nice small talk, with my few Hindi words and his few English. I was trying to make friends.
It’s been a long lesson for me. After over a year of constantly making mistakes, I have finally realised – or to be more accurate – I have been pushed by my co-workers into realising, why I was failing so often to get things done. I wasn’t building relationships.
When I was trying to get a carpenter& electrician to fix someting in the house, I was told, that they don’t want to come anymore. They were scared and not interested. We were not speaking Hindi, we were demanding and we didn’t offer them anything but a glass of water. They had no interest in coming again. No friendly chat, no pleasure of sipping chai, not a small gift for him or his kids. And the job (hence the pay) was small. He would simply go where he is friends with the owner (or househelp), and could count on a nice reception.

***

There’s no revelation to the fact that India is a collectivistic culture (as per Hofstede’s dimensions). Everyone who comes here, at least a little prepared, knows it. But when it comes to applying this knowledge in the real life – it’s never that easy.

For somebody coming from the western (or particularly – Nothern Europe) culture, making friends is usually a long and intimate proces. You may have loads of acquintances, but to call somebody a ‘friend‘ – it takes shared values and interest and a long term relation during which you build mutual trust and loyalty. Fact that you see each other at parties, or are friends on Facebook, doesn’t oblige you to anything. Only when the long bonding proces is done, one gets admitance to each other’s private zone and can talk about everything and share everything. (Well, almost).

In India, the friends-making proces is almost instant. Especially with a foreigner: as he is a guest in the country, city, home

Simple comparison: In Europe, the most interaction you can expect while travelling in a train – unless you’re both really bored – is that someone will ask you to borrow the newspaper you have just finished reading. In an Indian train, be prepared to have to explain the entire story of your life – origins, reasons for being in India, relationship status, work, salary, health. And after this ritual, you will necessarily be called a friend, asked for a phone number or/and an e-mail. And they will follow up. This way, my friend has been invited for a wedding in Chandigarh by a family met randomly in the train…

One could say it‘s a wonderful thing and to some extent – it definitely is. But here comes the cultural difference. We do not like to touch anyone else but our partners or family. We are not too talkative. We enjoy our space and anonymity (to an extent). Someone overly nice, talkative and trying to touch us – is simply invading our privacy zone! He’s an invader. And if the case is between a white girl and an Indian guy – even if his intentions are the purest – she will clearly think the motifs are obvious.

Especially, since it’s not difficult to find bad examples of the same in India itself. Crooks in all the main tourist destinations, for whom we are nothing but just waling wallets.They will call you a friend and show you around just to rip you off on the hotel bill.

Or simple people from small towns, who will never be at ease with you. They crave to befriend you, but you will always feel like an E.T. or an animal in the zoo – good to stare at and perhaps touch. If it doesn’t bite. Or lovers who will use every occasion to befriend a white girl, hoping to fulfill one of their wet dreams. Or online version of them – stalkers, sending random and annoying love messages on Facebook or Couchsurfing. There’s also a group of people for whom hanging out with foreigners is simply a status symbol. A white friend is a hot way of social show off – after a cool car and a golden watch.

These are all extreme cases, but there’s a lot of reasons to be cautious about friends you make and to make sure they like you because of your personality, not your skin tone.

And therefore sometimes, when one encounters hospitality that seems too good to be true, one turns it down.. Where is the hook – you think. And many give up. They form a bad image of Indians and end up sticking only to other foreigners. For many – even if they don’t form these impressions – the friendliness & curiosity and the way some Indians would impose themselves on you is simply too much to take.

Result is often sad. Instead of befriending, both sides leave uncontent – an Indian says What a cold, ungrateful & disrespectful firangi!, while the firangi would think What a weird guy, what did he want from me?. While just a little understanding of each other’s conditioning, and all the miscommunications would be easily solveable.

***

Perhaps the biggest impact of this difference though is in a business environment. In the west, the way we do things is fairly simple. If it’s a business, it‘s business, there is no place for sentiments.

Going back to my first example – if you call a worker – be it electrician, carpenter or plumber – you are a client, so you demand. You demand him to be there at the time and day convenient to you, you demand the work to be done quick, neatly and smoothly. Once he comes, he’s nearly a ghost at your home – doing whatever he has to do, while you’re doing your own things. You may offer him a tea or coffee or cookie, but it‘s not compulsory. He comes there to do a job, for which you are paying. And the payment will be heavy most of the time, cost of human labour is the most expensive thing in Europe. He comes, fixes whatever you require him to fix, handles the bill, you hand him cash and that’s it. Over. You probably won’t see each other for a year or so.

In India, things work different way. Gas is delivered in cylinders instead of being piped. Hot water warms up in electric heaters/geysers instead of being piped. In residential areas like the one we stay in, the water needsto be pump to storage tanks, as it comes only twice a day. In brief, the maintenance that is required in the house and the number of things that can possibly break is about 10 times that of back home. So your plumber and electrician are practically your flatmates, coming every once in a while to fix one thing or the other. And in India, especially when you deal with simple people, it’s not a business relation like the one I described before. For a minor fix, these workers would get maybe 50, maybe 100Rs. In Europe, it’s five times more for just giving a look at things. That’s one of the reasons, why perks and personal relations are far more important. But its rooted deeply in the culture and translates to all sorts of business – even if your partners are educated in best American schools and own three houses and five cars. Most of the guide books on cultural differences in work culture with India would advise you:  “Never attempt to get down to business on the first meeting!”. I would add – never try to arrange things over the phone or mail. Without at least one session of sipping chai/coffee/beer together and simply talking life – nothing will ever happen.

It’s a much more human way of doing things. Way we have forgotten since the industrial revolution has happened. And its an important learning for all the western visitors. Instead of getting angry about inefficiency, get back to basics. Get back to human relations. Applying this approach will give you an edge even back in the home country. We are all human beings after all…

***

BOX: DilliNet tips

1. Relax.
If I was to give just one tip to someone struggling with cultural differences in India, that would be it. Getting angry only makes things worse, as it’s easy to hurt somebody’s pride. And that’s the worst thing you can do if you want to get anything done!
Furthermore – simply enjoy the benefits. Annoyed by ever-postponed timings? Remember it concerns also your deadlines. Just safely assume delay while planning and enjoy the laid-back time flow! Remember – here everything works out in the end!

2. Do the homework!
It might seem obvious, yet still not many people really prepare themselves for expatriation. There’s a bunch of literature about what to expect when you relocate to India. Go through it, and you may avoid some terrible faux pas. Taking a professional course might also be a good idea.

3. Don’t simplify
Human’s brain has a natural tendency to organize information to easily sortable packages. All of us simplify the world around just to easier comprehence it, but in a country so diverse as India is, it’s not always a good idea. None statement (including those in the attached article!) are ever true for all cases, communities, religions and individuals. Hence – while its good to prepare yourself for certain patterns, do not generalize and be always prepared to be surprised.

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Article written for the February issue of First City Delhi

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The (im)possibility of underground in Delhi

January 13, 2011

Ok guys, now it’s time to bash me up! I wonder if you agree! PS. Do not say I missed out on the whole electronic scene which is quite strong here – it’s a matter of definition. For me most of these things are NOT underground, which obviously quite good.

==

I remember the feeling of being completely out of place, when a hotel bellboy, complete in uniform, opened the door of my old Indica cab and greeted me with a bow. Everything around was dripping with gold and luxury, and I was in my hoodie and sneakers ready for some heavy bass party that a few independent DJ’s were supposed to drop that night in this place. I didn’t expect it to be a five-star hotel bar.

Nobody else seemed to be bothered with this crack in the entourage. A strange co-existence of reggae & dubstep, alongside a collection of wines with price tags starting at20 000Rs a bottle was completely natural.  Welcome to New Delhi nightlife.

In over two years, I haven’t discovered any place, which could be called ‘alternative’ in the European sense of this word. Perhaps Café Morrison, with its rocky ambience and live rock bands comes closest to this definition, although it would have definitely been a bit ‘passé’. Also TLR in Hauz Khas: a bohemian melting pot of creative people, (although prices are far from the level acceptable for any ‘bohemy’).  But there’s nothing here which is close to a small, shady, greasy café/pub with a bunch of geeks discussing queer architecture, smoking cheap cigarettes, sipping even cheaper beer and listening to a mix of raw electro, industrial and punk. Instead – all the potentially ‘alternative’ movements are immediately ‘tamed’. High heals and d’n’b go well together in Delhi.

Why is it so? Two or three decades ago one could blame lack of exposure, but now – with satellite television, internet and world magazines – not any more. Especially since everyone here speaks English, there is no reason for Delhi to be even a day behind London in terms of cultural trends. But it is, and not a day, but at least a decade if not more.

Some claim it’s the lack of infrastructure – places where alternative bands / DJs could experiment and expose themselves to public. It is true, but on the other hand, it’s not without reason that independent rock bands were baptised ‘garage bands’. If there were a need, venues wouldn’t have been a problem.

***

When I was 16, I was a punk. Or at least – I considered myself as one. More, The Clash type than Sex Pistols (in my negation of social norms, I neglected also the punk uniform, wearing strictly no logo/no writing clothes), but if you look at the kind of time pass (?), books I was reading and music I was listening – yes, I was a punk.  Endless nights I spent with friends roaming around town drinking cheap wine, breaking into old abandoned factories and messing up with the police, (yet somehow always avoiding serious consequences).  Our rebellion – although shallow and adolescent- was fuelled by constant inflow of music, zines, books and movies, telling us to think independently and question status quo. But for each of us, our rebellion started at home, against our parents and limitations imposed by them.

In India most of my friends stay with their parents. Not only at the age of16, but even in their 20’s or 30’s. Even if they get away for a while to study or work, most of them inevitably return home or bring their parents to live with them.  They want it. It’s the values they’ve been raised with – to stay close to the family and take care of it. And it’s beautiful; it’s something we have lost in the west by pursuing individualism. But on the other hand – this very personal need to rebel and express oneself is in the roots of any independent movements.

No wonder hence that most of the phenomena that could be referred to as underground in Delhi are actually fuelled by foreign blood. Reggae Rajahs key persona is Iraqi, BassFoundation DJs are from the UK and the Netherlands, Stiff Kittens’ brain is British, Dualist Inquiry is educated in US, TLR is run by an Indian, but one who lived in London for a long while etc. At very last – there would be some influences from those more prone to the underground North-East, Kolkata or Bombay. (That doesn’t mean there’s no good music in India – check out HUB, the recently published anthology of electronic music in India!)

There is more important aspect blocking the rise of underground.  The question of social status.  Punk and most of its later incarnations are essentially working class movements. In India – the working class is not given the opportunity to participate in global culture. They don’t have the means to express themselves. It’s reserved for the highest social strata, the SEC A+, and even if castes have been abolished long back, the fear of doing things inappropriate is overwhelming for many ‘upper class’ people. On the other hand, there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for the lower classes, that doesn’t allow them to do many things. So those who have need to rebel – can’t, or their rebel remains hidden from us. Perhaps there are desi equivalents of ‘punk’, but they are not structured yet into a movement which would be prevalent in a domain. And those who can – don’t need to, so even if they are fascinated with and using the forms of expression characteristic for the ‘western underground’, it’s just the form that remains.

Results? The club where you go out, has to reflect your status, that’s why they are all so posh and plush and glittery.  A small greasy place wouldn’t do. It’s sometimes cool to go to dhaba once in a while, but it’s more like in Pulp’s song Common People. ‘You want to live like common people (…but) when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall /if you called your dad he could stop it all’.
When I told my friend running a lounge in here, that the trendiest clubs back home are all basement, raw post industrial establishments, with old worn out second hand furniture, he looked at me astounded and asked “So why do people go there?”

Similarly I can’t imagine a boy from a respected family becoming a bartender in a club, even as a part time student job, while in Europe, it’s the ‘cool bartenders’, often from the best universities, who are creating the atmosphere of best places.  Can you imagine coming down alone to a bar and having a chat about life with a bartender in Delhi?

But both things are changing rapidly. I’ve met a DJ recently who grew up in Khirki village to become a resident in a popular nightclub. His music taste is still fairly adolescent and mainstream, but it means that the aspirations of the lower middle class are changing and it might be a beginning of a revolution! At the same time, more and more ‘upper class’ Indians are becoming increasingly comfortable with breaking out of their ‘bubble’ and are also seeking for new experiences, finding it both in the world outside as in their own tradition.

It’s all boiling in the villages: Hauz Khas (Delhi’s own tiny Soho, like my visiting friend referred to it), ShahpurJat, Khirki… These are the melting pots, where the posh is mixing with the common and the ethnic with modern/western. Like Purple Jungle’s accessories – desi inspirations transformed via pop art lenses of a firangi. There’s still scope for more of this in music. Like Bant Singh Project – fusion of village protest song with electronic music. India needs its Diplo or maybe Malcolm Maclaren to dig out this hidden energy, help it grow and structure and then show it to the world.  Perhaps the revolution that can start here would change not only India, but the whole world?

Article written for the First City Delhi, January 2011

Maggi and Pierogi

January 11, 2011

I remember this scene as though it happened today. We have just left a good Mediterranean restaurant where we’d been invited for lunch. Me – heavenly pleased to have a continental meal as it should be – am heading to the car with a big smile printed on my face. I take my seat, while my friend ignites the engine.

–       “We should have gone to Punjabi By Nature”, he said.

–       “Yeah”, another colleague seconds that from the back seat.

–       “But why??” I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

–       “‘Cause it was bland. And you couldn’t get messy with the food.”

Read more…

Not so fast

January 10, 2011

Is India destined to grow? Not necessarily. A lot of people in India seem to choke on a success, believing that this miracle story will go on forever. Just like it seemed in China. Now a serious shadows been laid on China’s economic future and more and more analitics ask not if, but when will it crash. Why would India be free from it – with a corruption (CWG….), archaic public institutions (i.e. FRO has an online registration system that supposed to set you an appointment for a fixed hour so you wouldn’t have to wait in the queue – when I came with a number the officer looked at it and with smile answered “Mhmm, interesting. I heard about it”. Then he has shown the print out to his collegue and… asked me to go to the end of the line…), huge social disparities, and burning political and religious issues (Kashmir, North-East, Arunachal, red corridor, Orissa and extreme nationalists), the future really isn’t that clear.

An interesting article about it by my CEO, Arvind Singhal, in Business Standard.

 

 

Situps

December 1, 2010

Delhi Ladies Metro Compartaments. If you have ever been wondering if it’s respected – yes it is. Here’s why:

I wish similar procedures were executed on those who are cutting the line….

Streets of Gurgaon

November 17, 2010

Finally. Gurgaon has come of age and joined the civilized world. What has begun few years ago with start of metro construction will be (nearly) accomplished tomorrow with introduction of a bus shuttle servis from Sikandarpur metro station to Cyber City. No biggie one would say, but when I reach back in my memory just three months ago I was struggling to catch any cycle rikshaw that would take me to my office. And what a ride it was! A real offroad experience! Now – with a whole fleet of shiny new rikshaws, some of which are even available on call, are equiped with GPS and … mobile chargers, a bunch of shared rickshaws plying regularly from and to metro for just about 10rs and now – an AC bus… Its a Revolution.

And only when I look at the faces of those dozens of cycle rikshaw wallahs who just a while ago were ripping me off 40rs for a short ride knowing I’m not in a position to bargain, since I have no  other option, I feel sad. Their faces are desperate and so are they voices, when they are trying to catch attention of trespassers indiferrently passing by. They have their families in Bihar or Orissa, rent to pay, kids to send to school and most importantly – have to pay each month some 1500rs to their rickshaw lenders. What is my comfort and Haryana’s government’s ticket to pride, for many of them is their biggest nightmare come true. Anyway they were not making more than 2-3 thousand a month- barerly enough to buy enough food to get them calories for pulling their vehicles in the rain or scorching heat… Now many of them might not survive winter when their sole source of revenues suddenly dissappears.

The developement is a good thing and I’m definitely not saying metro or buses should not be enrolled to save some archaic job posts. But the responsible government should think of all its stakeholders if the growth is to be sustainable.

I will take a rick once in a while, no matter how uncomfy or expensive it will be. Thats my charity.

Inconvenience regretted

November 8, 2010

Mumbai. Marine Drive

It was around midnight on a hot, sweaty Mumbai summer night. We have been roaming around the beach with a friend, planning to hit a party in Bandra soon, when her shoe sole fell apart, making it impossible to walk, not to mention go and dance.. A cul-de-sac really, which in Europe would probably result in premature end of our night out.

But not in India. We have simply stopped one of the black&yellow cabs and ask the driver to take us to the nearest shoe wallah. 10 minutes later we were standing in the dim and shivering light of a oil lamp watching a boy fixing up her shoe.

Delhi, Hauz Khas Market

There’s a little store on the Hauz Khas market, filled up with ridiculous merchandize – from books to Diwali gifts and toys. The utmostly eclectic selection reminded me of an idea I had a while ago which I gave up not having enough time to look for it. I didn’t’ really believe I will find it here, but the shop vendor was smiling at me in a friendly way and looked like an educated young man who would speak English, so I thought there was no harm in asking. I have entered and asked him “Do you have a skateboard perhaps?” He looked at me, a bit surprised and answered immediately  “No, but we do have skates”. It wasn’t really what I was looking for so

I thanked and turned around to leave. He stood up immediately – “Sir, please wait a second, what skateboard would you like” and before I even manage to answer he was already on the phone with someone, ordering a skateboard. “Please, come  tomorrow, ok?”

Bangalore, Chickpet Market

It took me nearly half an hour to find him in the Knossos-like labyrinth of tiny back lanes of one of the biggest Bangalore markets. Manjunath is a Chai Wallah, but not like any other you have ever met. He’s got a small office with a computer and few frames with newspapers articles about him and a few boys working for him. But most importantly – he has some thousand of clients numbers in his phonebook, thanks to which he’s able to sell an astounding number of 2000 cups of tea every day.

His business model is ingeniously simple. Years ago, when mobile phones were still a novelty here and there were charges even for incoming calls, he came up with an innovative idea, how to bypass this problem. How to take orders from clients and not spend more on phone than the revenue would be.The solution turned out to be an extensive and well managed phone book and ‘missed calls’. Now everyone in Chickpet knows – you give a missed cal to Manjunath and within 5 minutes boy carrying a tasty and fresh tea will be at your door.

***

These are just three of many more stories, showcasing situations, when I was truly amazed and in love with this country’s grassroot services. The immense hospitality, entrepreneurial spirit and ages old tradition of service, all together, created an environment in which your convenience is the top priority. And the creativity with which entrepreneurs are overcoming difficulties

True that the time perception is different here and often takes us to a state of a well heated pressure cooker. True – that the quality of many services remain low and you have to supervise them closely as they perform their jobs – mainly due to gaps in education for which they cannot be blamed. All of it might lay a shadow over image of services here, but ultimately – the level of flexibility, affordability and a commitment to satisfy client’s needs which I have encountered from small unorganized service providers in India is simply unmatched anywhere else in the world.

My friend, when she was leaving India, has been told by her (ex)boss “You will miss the comfort of living here”. It’s true, strangely. Just like Catherine Taylor writes about India in The Australian – “She hugs, she punches, she hugs again”.

India can punch really bad. At your stomach – unprepared for the spicyness of the food and standards of hygine. At you heart – when beggars with no feet and rotting ears are approaching you several times during a short train trip. At your nerves – when things that seemed to be fixed are just getting endlessly postponed with no reason really. It can finally punch your ass – quite literarly – when you have to go throught a potholed roads in a cycle rikshaw.

But it can hug as well, offering endless compensations for all the inconveniences (which are – nevertheless – utterly regretted).

The most obvious are helpers. Office boys, shop boys, domestic help.

Let me take you to my friend’s house. He’s comes from a wealthy family, but nothing extravagant in Jaipur where he lives. A regular, upper-middle class house, such as millions of others forming the actual consuming class of India.  Please, meet the residents of his house.

Dolly is a maid and a cook. Pawan is a butler/helper/partly cook. They come in the morning and leave at night after serving dinner. Ranjeet takes care of the dog’s food, walk, grooming, medicine etc. Ridhika, elderly lady (about 50) cleans the floors of the household, washes clothes. Suresh – young 35-year-old lady, recently employed to clean and dust the entire lower ground level area. Aman and Ganjan Singh are drivers. Kela is a toilet lady. The toilet lady is always different from the housecleaning help, because the housecleaning help find it too degrading to clean toilets.

It might be, that doing a lot of things in India – from shopping to commuting – is more complicated than in Europe, but having such an army behind your back – you’re not afraid of any challenge!

India is distressing… and comforting at the same time.

It’s comforting when you adjust yourself to its slow paced approach and master the art of taking things as they come, instead of stressing too much over unrealistic deadlines. It’s comforting when you know that whatever has been done, can still be undone, and whatever appears impossible, is solvable.

In Europe, a lot of things are simpler and they work nicer and smoother, but if for some reason they don’t – you’re stuck for good. It’s absolute. Fixed. Here, there’s always a way, there’s always a jugaad, and there’s always someone, who will be willing (for free or for fee), help you out. And it’s comforting to know that everything will work out in the end, even if it didn’t look like it at all. Maybe The Easy is difficult, but The Impossible is happening on daily basis. I perceive it a little bit as a fight of India with herself. The innovators, entrepreneurs and simple people against all the absurdities of Indian law, inefficient governance and all the other constrains (including the monsoons).

May the force be with them!

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Article written for First City Magazine