What does it mean to be Indian?

(This is a controversial post)

It happens almost every day. I get into a taxi to get to work or return from work and once I have explained my destination in Chinese; the taxi driver will ask “ni shenme guo jia de ren?” (Where are you from/ which is your home country?) And nowadays I have started asking the drivers to guess (“ni cai”) and in most cases the drivers never guess I am Indian and on knowing I am Indian, they want to know why I don’t wear a bindi, or how come I work (yes, people here have a strange notion about Indian women). Now this takes me back to a conversation I once had with an American who asked me if I go to office on an elephant! And an African who once told me I must feel so “free” to wear shorts (this conversation was taking place in Kuala Lumpur) as I might be wearing saris all the time back home! And a Korean who thinks that western outfits are not sold in India at all.

Now most of the above reflects lack of knowledge about India/ Indians. But what strikes me most if that they all have a certain stereotypical image of India. The number of people who have mentioned slumdog millionaire to me within 3 minutes of a first encounter on knowing that I am from India is not funny! To my mind, the challenge is that there is actually no definition/ stereotype of an average Indian – except probably that most Indians like cricket (no wonder it’s called the common religion of India). While the average Joe (American) is described age 25 or older, made roughly $32,000 per year, does not have a college degree, has been, is, or will be married as well as divorced at least once during his or her lifetime, lives in his or her own home in a suburban setting, and holds a white-collar office job (according to Wikipedia); there is no definition of an average Indian – even if we try to attempt one, it would be difficult to come up with an accurate one! Most of my conversations with friends/ acquaintances from across different countries/ cultures take place in this way:
Are most Indian vegetarians? – well, largely yes
Is it because of religion? – largely yes, but depends as many are vegetarian out of choice and many are religious but eat meat or don’t eat meat but drink alcohol (difficult to explain, right!)
Do most Indians live with their parents? – yes, but it depends – people do move out to different cities to work/ study
Are all marriages in India arranged? – largely yes, but depends really on the individual/ family.
Are there any good looking men in India? (question most often asked by Asian women who think the typical Indian man is short, fat, balding and one who doesn’t care about personal grooming!) – Well, yes, I can show you some of my friends who are good looking!
Do women in India work? – if they want to, like anywhere else (but yes, not like China where almost all women work!)
Is the bindi a sign of marriage? – largely yes among Hindus, but even single women wear it and many married women don’t – so it depends! (Also interesting to note here that unlike other countries, a lot of married Indian men do not wear a ring, actually giving out signals that they are single and available :P)
What is staple diet in India? – depends on which region you are talking about
What is the common language in India? – hmmmm, English!

Well, you get the drift… So I always tell the story of the seven blind men and the elephant to my firang friends – Each one touches a different part and comes up with his own description of the elephant. Similarly depending on which part of India one visits or meets an Indian from which part of India, one is bound to come up with one’s own stereotype images of typical Indian! And the fact is that these images will vary greatly from one another.

Of course a lot of these differences (including the differences in physical characteristics) can be attributed to the Aryan-Dravidian divide, the different religions, customs, languages and the caste system. So while there cannot be a common physical characteristic (except that most Indians are increasingly leading unhealthy lifestyles leading to obesity and heart diseases); based on observations of Indians back home and in a global/ international scenario I thought of similarities in behavioral characteristics and came up with the below:

  • Indian Stretchable Time (IST) – An utter disregard for time, one’s time as well as other’s time. Turning up late for meeting/ appointments, dialing in late for conference calls, turning up to meet people without appointments, making people wait – we just don’t respect time! In most countries, for a 9 am appointment people would reach by 8.50 whereas Indians most likely will make it by 9.15/ 9.30 and walk in without bothering to apologize for being late! (probably the only notable exception here is people in Bombay whose lives depend on that Virar fast/ Churchgate fast – but then they too may not respect time in other aspects of life)
  • Sense of superiority – its very interesting to note that how we as a race have a certain false sense of being superior. We just assume we are smarter than the rest. While it’s good to have confidence, a know-it-all attitude just spells doom and makes us come across as arrogant. Just saying that you don’t know something opens up a world of learning/ opportunity. The Indian way may not be the best way for everything and there is a lot we can learn from others by keeping an open mind.
  • Aggression/ Competitiveness – While some may argue that aggression is more in northern parts of India than Southern, overall as Individuals, we are very aggressive. Sometimes in cultures where direct confrontation in front of others is considered rude, an Indian manager often ends up offending his/ her subordinate. The difference to be noted here is that this aggression in sadly missing at a country level. So while China is aggressive as a country today we are aggressive/ ambitious as individuals resulting in Indians as individuals outshining at global levels but the country failing to do so, as compared to China
  • Self over team – Continuing from point above, we are excellent when it comes to working individually; but find it difficult to work as part of a team. And everyone wants to be the manager, not the worker. A story that comes to mind here about rowing competition between India and Japan. How Japan team won easily as they had 7 rowers and 1 captain but the Indian team had 7 captains but 1 rower. And they attributed the loss to the rower not doing his work properly! We generally find it difficult to be open to “listening” to others point of view and working together with them. It’s generally my way or the highway.
  • General disregard for other cultures – As part of my job, I am always on conference calls involving India, China and most times these calls have Indians, Chinese, and people belonging to other nationalities. Most times, Indians due to “sense of superiority” and “aggression” mentioned above will completely disregard other cultures, not taking efforts to slow down while talking to make it easier for other person to understand, talking without listening, shouting, etc. Again a point to be noted here is that the same Indian will go out of his/ her way to speak in a British/ American accent if required but won’t slow down when talking to people from non-English speaking countries. This is because the superiority complex we have as compared to many other nationalities also leads to an inferiority complex when it comes to some countries, largely UK, US. Also, the disregard for time zones and calling people on their hand phone after work hours, marking every mail important/ urgent even if it’s not all leads to irritation/ confusion in a global scenario. I am not saying all other cultures understand India, but to exemplify, it’s a fact that an average Indian in China (as compared to say a Westerner here) would not be comfortable eating with chopsticks or even try to understand cultural things like clocks and mirrors are not appropriate gifts for Chinese.
  • Equating job/ work with oneself – An equation that most Indians don’t understand is that life > work. I would be very scared if someone would not be able to think of me beyond the work I do. But the fact remains that power, position, status, job are so important to the average Indian that some even print their designation and company name on their wedding cards! Marriage is for lifetime (ideally) and I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to have their wedding invitation look like a CV!
  • Moral policing/ crab mentality – We want to always have a say on what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not. The moment someone tries to do something different, like a bucket of crabs we start pulling that person down/ back in. The numbers of examples that come to mind warrant a post in itself!
  • Attitude towards children – A friend of mine put it very nicely recently when he said that for most Indians, their dreams/ aspirations end the day their children are born and they start inflicting their unfulfilled dreams/ aspirations on their children. Compared with many other countries and cultures, there is a higher sense of protectionism around children and higher expectation levels as well. Go to a school open house and you will see parents busy comparing why their child lost that 1 mark in the history paper! The focus is not so much on overall development but on academics, though that is changing as parents realize alternative careers thanks to the likes of Dhoni being successful. Also, unlike western mothers, Indian mothers are just not comfortable letting their children be while they get some “me-time”. This is more so the case with infants – while it’s a common sight to see western mothers with infants/ toddlers traveling, meeting up for lunch, going shopping or treating themselves to a spa; for Indian mothers, having a baby in many ways makes them confined to their houses – they are just not comfortable taking their babies out! Even when it comes to traveling in cars, most Indians refuse to have a child car seat and will make their baby sit on the laps in the front seat which is actually more dangerous! I will elaborate on this more in travel point next.
  • Attitude towards travel – This is one of my favorite ones. Go to any airport in the world and it will be easy to spot an Indian family – most likely a family of 4-6, all on the healthy/ overweight side with lots and lots of luggage (we never learnt how to travel light!) and bringing out one packet after another of snacks. If there is an infant with the family, it will be crying loudly and the parents just look helpless. On the other hand, westerners travel a lot (even on leisure) and with infants – it is a common sight to see them traveling to tourist spots (including beaches) with infants/ kids – and a point to be noted here is that their babies in most cases are not crying out aloud thanks to the pacifier. Maybe Indian mothers have some kind of an aversion to pacifiers, but just think about it – most Indians who start a family just stop taking holidays until the kid grows to a certain age! Now this is quite a common Indian phenomenon which in inexplicable to me! Another thing about travel is that while the average western couple in their retirement may want to go on a world tour, the Indian has just started getting there.
  • “Chalta hai” attitude – No social welfare, a painstakingly slow judiciary (leading to murderers freely roaming about and partying), political leaders who cant run to save their lives (literally), lack of basic civil infrastructure, lack of safety for women (sometimes even inside their own houses), the Bombay drainage system not prepared for the monsoon and the same story being repeated year after year – and what do we do – shrug it off, say “chalta hai” and do not bother to know where our hard-earned money paid as taxes is going. In fact, in most cases our attitude towards it is one of apathy at best – we have become experts at turning a blind eye to all the crap going on around us. And a few years ago, we were also fooled into believing that “India is shining”. While the best people in China join the biggest political party in the world, the best people in India are working on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, teaching in universities abroad, making money in the stock markets while politics remains a “family business”. We need to be in the system to change the system – but we just don’t want to be. In most cases, an IIT/ IIM degree is the passport to “better life” outside the country. And even if it’s within the country that we choose to work, do we really care about the above mentioned points – nah, we are more interested in FIFA world cup (where we are not even represented as a country) or in the latest I phone. After studying “business leadership and strategy” one of the most coveted jobs is that of a trader in a bank – I still don’t understand what “leadership skills” are required there! There is a saying the Chinese believe in – “community over self and country over community”; in India it’s often the reverse, community over country and self over community!

I know its sounds pessimistic but I could not think of a single very inspiring/ positive common trait across whole of contemporary India – something that the world can learn from/ hope to emulate. Would love to hear about your definitions of a typical Indian!

19 Responses to What does it mean to be Indian?

  1. Rama says:

    And there’s the number one common behavioral characteristic of indians — passing judgments on other indians. A few even list it in bullet points and write a blog article about their judgements.

  2. Deepesh says:

    I think I agree to a lot of points made. Few comments on the individual points, but before that one macro comment about the post.

    I see all the rant posts about issues with Indians as a parallel to slumdog millionaire. It seems everybody is out there to create their own version of typical Indian and goes on explaining all the crap about them. I haven’t seen anybody writing about positives (except for that stats mail on how may scientists we have at nasa etc.).Considering you are living in China, you probably will have most influence in creating an image of a typical Indian for many Chinese people you interact with. If they do read your blog, they will end up adding a list of new stereotypes which I will say are partially correct at best like every other analysis given the diversity.

    On the superiority part, I always felt a pecking order has been developed and it’s just not Indians. In an american MNC, I think the pecking order is the west-er the location, the better it is. What you probably see is a part of it given china is less English than us. But you know what, I can feel this for practically every other nationality. People going out of their way to ‘develop’ american (or some times British) accents.

    Regarding career being important, I think this is part of growing up as a culture. We are from a country where majority of people haven’t seen prosperity while growing up and I think it’s that desire to do well which puts financial security/superiority as a major part of their life. I won’t blame them for having it as long as these habits improve with time. I remember Will Smith quoting that financial security remains at the back of his mind always because of the days of poverty he faced in his early life.

    While interacting with foreigners, especially when they visit India, we talk about – oh this must be painful for you, it happens like that here. I guess to break ice or some other shitty reason.Like someone at my office talking about months you need to activate a phone, which I don’t think even happens.

    I think living outside and having a chance to ‘show’ a typical Indian is an opportunity, to show a behavior that has less of the crappy stereotypes. even if that image is again partially correct I wouldn’t be to worried about that.

  3. Viswanathan says:

    A rather disappointing post. Started off well and ended in labeling the supposed (generalisations) faults of Indians.

  4. Arvind says:

    Absolutely spot on in most cases. Guess Indians who deal with people from other countries realize more and get to know more about other cultures. But seems like you fell in the same trap of generalizing Indians at the end of this post. I also wonder…Why people outside India are always concerned about the country’s image when they don’t seem to take any efforts to clean it up while in the country??

  5. It’s sad, but I unfortunately agree with your conclusion and evidence entirely. Over the last decade I’ve travelled the spectrum of positions on the topic from denial to resigned acceptance.

    I believe that to reach the conclusion that we’ve reached one needs to spend significant time embedded with people from other cultures and be open to curiosity.

  6. Mallikarjuna says:

    Thought Provoking.

    Much better than what’s written in News Papers.
    Any plan to write about “How these can be improved”?

  7. Kiran Taneja says:

    I agree with the inferiority complex to westerners (more specifically to Anglo-Saxon populations). But my experience (in IT) show that once an Indian goes to UK or US, his thinking changes on its head.

    A friend, who is now in UK says “They are dumber than I thought.” Weather he is right or wrong, we give lot of value to the white skin!

    I feel Chinese are really aggressive, while others like Japan and Korea are very courteous or so am told.

  8. anonymous coward says:

    just curious…howz the internet censorship in china…did u have any trouble in with it?

  9. shraddha says:

    Samta i am so impressed with you!!
    You go girl!
    Very cool!
    I have to agree with you in almost everything!

  10. Swami says:

    “I could not think of a single very inspiring/ positive common trait across whole of contemporary India”

    Try ‘Freedom’… Maybe you will have difficulty in explaning freedom to your chinese friends.. They may not understand what it means.. You can explain with an example.. Had this post written by a chinese on china, he would be dragged through the streets and thrown into a jail.. You can get away saying anything about India.. that’s freedom.. maybe now they will understand

  11. samta says:

    Yes Swami; there is “Freedom” in India:

    Freedom for women under khap panchayats to wear denims during the day to go to college
    Freedom that so many youngsters in India feel about marriage; so much that they can become free from life itself
    Freedom for any one from any part of India to arrive in a city, and set up a slum
    Freedom that we feel when we treat the entire city as a garbage bin
    Freedom for all the policemen to do hafta vasooli from hawkers for allowing them to thrive illegally
    Freedom that some young and rich people in India feel when under the influence of alcohol they drive over innocent poor souls
    Freedom the girls in the pub in Mangalore felt when “Sri Ram Sena” attacked them
    Freedom that the media has in India to carry on sting operations
    Freedom that the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy felt when our own government sold the dead and injured so cheap
    Freedom that families feel when they are not able to protect the girl child even within their own house
    Freedom that terrorists feel when they can enter our country and kill innocent people
    Freedom in our judicial system such that in most cases by the time the jury takes a decision, the convicted party has had his share of fun and is laughing in the grave
    Freedom that Sania Mirza felt on her wedding day with no eyebrows being raised in India
    Freedom that lot of our unfortunate brothers and sisters feel when they defecate in the open due to lack of basic sanitation facilities
    Freedom that poor people feel when they go on producing children thinking they will have two more hands to beg rather than a mouth to feed
    Freedom that the likes of Salman Rushdie, M F Hussain feel in India
    Freedom that the likes of Ambani feel when they just fly over all the city’s problems – who cares if the city is going to dogs when I have my own helipad
    Freedom to burn down and protest whatever one doesnt like
    Freedom to enforce a language and change names of cities almost forcibly
    Freedom to fight with our own country men in the name of religion, region, caste
    Freedom to keep asking for a new state, or is it a trend?
    Freedom we feel when we have to bribe to get a phone connection, a gas connection and so on
    Freedom to harass youngsters in love on Valentine’s day as they are becoming “western”
    Freedom that every third man on a bus in India feels while pinching a woman’s bottom
    Freedom that women in India feel in most cities when venturing out alone in the night – so free that if something goes wrong, the likes of Sheila Dixit will say the girl invited it upon herself
    Freedom that most of us feel while treating our maids badly; almost like they are our servants
    Freedom that most MCPs feel in India
    Freedom the “public servants” have to use the government budget to their whims and fancies
    Freedom that we all feel while casting our votes to the political party that will devour all our hard earned money for their own development rather than the country’s

    With such great freedom, we feel sooo free and so light – that we turn a blind eye to most things around us and think we are the best in spite of all our problems – as one of my friends says; in India, the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an inverted pyramid – we are all at such a stage of self actualization that basic things just dont seem to matter!

    The purpose of this post was never to compare India and China – there can be separate posts for that – You are absolutely right; the Chinese dont understand freedom; but they understand lot of basic things we dont seem to understand!

    (p.s. written when drunk)

  12. shail says:

    I would like to differ on the common language aspect too. It also depends on which region you are in (urban/rural) and which part of the country you are in. Again there is no thumb rule. While I was in Bangalore my Mallu maid talked to me in broken Hindi as she was a North Indian food specialist and was more comfortable talking to me in Hindi.Now when I am in Gurgaon my maid who hails from Jharkhand tries to use English words as she wants to improve her English.

  13. […] the non-inspiring traits I mentioned about us Indians, there is one that surely is commendable; as Swami tried to point out – and that is freedom of speech; which is how I am able to write this so […]

  14. Kapil Dalal says:

    The logical flow of this post is similar to the viewpoints that glorify India and its culture (How our culture is the greatest, how we are the best, the strongest..that type of trash). It is just the conclusion that is different. It is confirmation bias. You have a hypothesis and you look for evidence to justify the same.

    I have some sympathy for some of the points, but as a whole, it is just Slum Dog Millionaire in print.

    I don’t understand all the China examples as well. No issues with appreciating genuinely good qualities. But lines like these- “the best in China join the biggest political party of the world”. That’s an unmistakable positive spin (guided by a need to be on the right side of the state, even for an anonymous blogger?) Yes, of course they join the biggest political party of the world as that is the ONLY party in the country, and also represents the biggest business interest in the country. What can be more lucrative than that? So how are Chinese different from Indians in trying to do the best for themselves (Two decades back, the best Indians used to go for IAS- was that out of patriotism?)

    Then the bit about aggression as a country as compared to as an individual. So what suggests that aggression as a country is a good to behold as compared to aggression as an individual? Doesn’t aggression as a country lead to jingoism, war, etc? Besides, aggression as a country is easy to achieve for an authoritarian state. There is no opposition- the party is always right. Perhaps, when the state has supreme authority over the people, it doesn’t leave any space for individual aggression (just hypothesising this last point).

    The comment on “freedoms” sums up all that is wrong with this sort of rant. The first one was enough for me. Have you actually visited any areas or known any women “under Khap Panchayats” (sic) to know that they can’t wear any denims to college? Maybe it is a time to visit those areas. Seriously. Rather than going by TOI’s gospel truths on fatwa issuing Talibani Khaps (sic). Just curious- did you make up the denim stuff or you read it somewhere? If you read it, please share the link. I want to see how naive people can be to accept even the most outrageous reporting by media at face value.

    One final thing. Some of the stuff you have mentioned would be right to an extent. But you need to have freedoms or rights for them to be abused. I can write such a rant about freedoms in the UK/US or any country that provides freedom in the first place.

  15. Ashanka says:

    I was reading this and was appalled by the gross generalisations in this post. This could apply to anybody on the planet not just to people in India. I study in a US business School where we have students from over 40 countries and I strongly believe that Indians are no better and no worse when compared to the rest of the world.

    What I disagree the most on however is that we have a disregard for other cultures. In my experience, the fact that we come from such a culturally diverse country actually makes us respect other cultures more.

    Really antiquated and myopic views.

  16. hmm… slightly pessimistic. I cant believe you didnt find a single redeeming feature 🙂 although i do agree with some of your points.

    let me begin.
    1. we are always helpful. you will find people stop whatever they are doing and help you with directions. although i notice they always get confused between left and right!
    2. athithi devo bhava. in the average home, guests are still God. its only very modern nuclear families etc where guests are considered a nuisance

    about the pacifier thing – they arent really healthy. also, indian parents dont travel too much because most joints arent baby friendly yet. you go abroad and you’ll get a sidewalk to get your stroller on to. you’ll get a high chair in most restaurants. most places will have ramps to get the stroller up. india has none of that. naturally its harder to travel with a baby. that apart, i totally agree with you. parents who stand by and let their kids howl and disturb others, are asking for a tight rap. but if i see a child crying and the parents desperately doing what they can to soothe the child, i do have some sympathy.
    plus – the whole thing about kids being taken everywhere – i took my kids everywhere but i know that little children out in the dust and heat tend to fall ill more often. you cant blame them for not dragging their kids around because its unhealthy for the kid and eventually their problem when the child is ill.

  17. Arun says:

    I dont agree that we are wasting time by watching FIFA world cup , in fact as Indians we should be ashamed that we cant assemble eleven men on the ground for some thing like that. You said it rite , everything revolves around the academics and self . You rounded it up perfectly i would say. the biggest dream for a Brazilian kid would be to represent his nation in world cup or Olympics, for an Indian kid it would be to go to IIT/IIM and earn enough money so that he can built a swimming pool out of it and swim in it like uncle scrooge.

  18. Anand Arumilli says:

    Here are a few positives :

    Strong Family values: We are highly evolved in terms of the propensity for long lasting marriages. The West has yet to get there.

    Strive to excel: We are a country with limited resources and a large population. Survival is a struggle in India. Maybe for this reason, competetion is ingrained in us. We as Indians do want to make a difference and work hard to get at it. Being competetive is OK , being rude is not. The former can be generalized, the latter cannot.

    Attitude to save: Though the average American would live life to the hilt and blow up his dough on weekends, it leaves one high and dry in a crisis. There are people defaulting loans, foreclosures etc. We are more careful as a society and tend to save for a rainy day.

    Respect Diversity: The fact that we still exist as a nation is reason enough to believe that , our respect for diversity in terms of religion, caste, creed, language surpasses and wins over the minor aberations which occur from time to time.

  19. Sant says:

    Hats off to you Samta – I have to agree word by word on your post. When the crab sits in the same pond it does not know how good the other pond has developed. Why are we not learning and improving?
    Look at few countries
    1. Japan developed within 60years after taking nuclear hits in its heart.
    2. Development of Singapore
    3. The way China has emerged as a super power within 40years.

    We have got freedom 60years back and still trying to improve. Incidents happening around me make me “the common man” frustrated. I can see the way how things are changing, from good to worse.

    Keep continuing your posts Samta..

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