What does it mean to be Indian?

June 13, 2010

(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!