Saturday, June 9, 2012

It's All About People

I have often heard non resident Indians ask, "How do you manage in India, dealing with all the things that just don't work?"  A couple of days ago, I got a call from a young couple who had returned to India from Cambridge (England) and found, after a year, that they could not function here - everything was unpredictable and professionally unsatisfying.  They have decided to head back to England.  While I sympathized tremendously with their problems (for I know how hard it is in India to get things to move amidst rampant mediocrity and red tape), I could not agree with them when they said it was impossible to get anything done here.

Of course, as I sit at the table and read my morning newspaper (which has arrived too late for my husband to look at), I see the headlines : 'No water in Bangalore from 12th to 14th June'.  I think to myself, "How do we manage?"  and the answer, in part, is that it's all about people.  This is of course a subjective view point, illustrated by a few of my recent encounters.

In India, a lot happens behind the scenes, and these invisible events can affect one's daily life more than they do in the west. At the same time, because so much hinges on people and their functioning (it is rarely a well oiled assembly line system), one can get a glimpse of the back stage events by trying to communicate with people.  Sooner or later, contact is established and one finds an entry point into the system.  However, this requires patience and the ability to accept short term blocks without losing hope.  

For example, today, I rushed after the newspaper man and told him the paper was being delivered late.  He told me that his entire staff had quit and he was delivering  the papers on his own until he found a new set of people.  He was apologetic and asked what time I needed the paper and I said that for the time being, it was all right.  We would read the paper in the evening.  He promised to resume early morning delivery as soon as he got some help and I know he will.  As for next week's water supply, I am not unduly troubled for I know we will all fill up our buckets and tanks.  Should we run out of water, we will find some solution for other people will need water as well.  We will deal with the situation as and when it arises; someone will always lend a helping hand during a crisis.

In the US this time, we got our news entirely through the internet.  Almost no house subscribed to newspapers any more; each person had their own computer and scanned their own preferred newspapers online.  This has been a big blow for the printed world.  Recently the New Orleans newspaper (the city's only daily paper, with experienced journalists and relatively high readership), The Times Picayune, has taken a decision to print the paper only thrice a week for financial reasons- something that doesn't make sense.  But for many people nowadays, a printout is unnecessary. For me, this is unthinkable - I find it hard to read on the computer, I would miss my periodic discussions with the newspaper man, my maid would miss the pile of newspapers she gathers to sell for recycling and so on.

When systems work efficiently, especially in a world increasingly dependent on computers, one doesn't require much communication with people.  In fact, one can live in a world of one's own making or choosing for long periods of time.  This is a luxury we don't have in India.  Of course, this phenomenon has its down side too for it is an easy addiction and one can spend long hours receiving and typing things, (even making 'to do' lists) without attending to the job at hand!  

I spent quite a few  hours in buses and trains in the US during this trip.  I noticed that the iPad and iPhone had changed things tremendously; people were always wrapped up in these gadgets- checking mail, getting information, reading or just playing games.  One time in a train (between Chappaqua and New York), I was seated next to an Indian lady who my friend introduced to me as a regular commuter.  She came from Bangalore and was an editor working with a Science journal on a subject that was quite familiar to me.  It was remarkable how many areas of overlap we had. Despite this, we didn't exchange a word.  She spent her time checking the headlines on her iPad and leaning against the window for the most part.  Perhaps for her it was just another commute to work in the familiar, controlled every day environment that she liked.  For me, it was definitely strange not to talk to a friend's friend in a crowded train, but it did not really matter.  

Of course, this being the US, the train rolled into Grand Central punctually and we went our separate ways.  In India, the train would invariably have been delayed.  We might have talked the whole way - discovered another common acquaintance or two, exchanged some thoughts on Science, complained about the wretched train system, shared some food etc.  Or, of course, we might have sat in stony silence that dragged on an hour or two more than anticipated.  Or worse, she might have begun a conversation with the person seated behind me, turning round and jabbing me in the ribs each time.  

Yes, in India, it's all about trying to keep oneself open to people in the hope that one comes across a sincere, well meaning, interesting individual.  But being dependent on a critical few in a country of so many requires an acceptance of the unexpected, unpredictable highs and lows.  Blame it on karma!

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