The five habits of the highly ineffectual Indian people

The Indian government just held its “Make in India” extravaganza, an effort from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to encourage foreigners to invest in its manufacturing sector.  If you’re considering doing so, despite the country’s notorious business climate, abysmal human capital, horrendous infrastructure, and fetid corruption, then you should beware another drawback:  India’s culture.  It’s ancient spirituality without the inspiration, Asian conformity without the discipline, Arab dishonesty without the guile, and British systematism without the order.

These attributes inflict the national character from individual to institutional.  Beware some of the worst:


5.  Calling you repeatedly

If an Indian wants to reach you on the phone—be it a business contact by mobile or the hotel front desk calling you for no real reason—he will let it ring over and over and over and over, until the phone system cuts him off or you roll over half asleep and yank the phone cord out of the wall in exasperation.

Then, he will call back immediately and repeat the process.  And continue to do so over and over and over and over.  I can’t tell you how many times I have retrieved my phone after being away and seen 14 missed calls in a row from the same number.  I call back and say, “I assume that this is a life-or-death matter?  Has my mother been kidnapped?”  The response is always something like,”I just sent e-mail with quotation.”


4.  Worshipping cows

The cow is not only the sacred symbol in India’s dominant religion, it is a political cudgel for Hindu nationalists.  Modi is trying to spread the ban on slaughtering cows nationwide, largely to whip up support among the peasant mobs.  (Perhaps he has matured as a politician:  as a state-level chief, his preferred method of rallying the base was to facilitate murderous pogroms against Muslims.)

Watching the cows wandering the streets—battling it out with the goats and sheep and dogs to dine on the trash heaps, sauntering down the sidewalk, or simply laying down in the middle of the road—is certainly one of the most fun aspects of traveling in the country.

That the cow is Indians’ earthly representation of the sublime says something about their national spirit.  (Ironically, India is the world’s leading exporter of beef, as well as indentured labor to the Middle East.)  Usually when a group of people chooses an animal as a symbol, it’s because of the animal’s majesty, cunning, or at least exoticism.  Think of the bald eagle, tiger, or elephant.  Cows, however, are a curious choice for reverence.  They are stupid, plodding, and ubiquitous.  (Perhaps that that is an apt metaphor for the Indian state.)


3.  Creating unnecessarily complex processes

Everything in India is needlessly complicated and laughably inefficient, from trivial consumer processes— typing your PIN and signing when using a credit card; having to swipe the key card and then press a button to enter my hotel room in Calcutta—to the indecipherable bureaucratic requirements to operate a business.  State borders in India come with customs control, checkpoints, and protectionist measures imposed on products.

It’s impossible for any visitor not to get caught up in the gauntlet.  Try signing up for a SIM card.  Or buying an Indian Railways ticket.  Or exchanging money; woe to you if you want to change rupees back to your home currency.  Or proceeding through the airport with carry-on luggage.

Many highway toll booths have two attendants, one sitting inside the booth, and another standing outside who takes the money from the driver and hands it to the guy in the booth.  Some elevators have two attendants, one for each bank of buttons.

At one luxury hotel in Hyderabad, there is a metal detector at the gate facing the street, which beeps when you pass through it, though it is not manned.  Then you go through one of those turnstiles like in the subway, with the horizontal slats at one point in the circle to prevent you from going the other direction.  Except that it is not locked:  you must go through the same process in reverse upon exiting.  You then go through another metal detector and hand wand at the door to the building.  I asked what the purpose of the first check was, and was met with only a quizzical look.

At a shop in Cochin, it took four employees to sell me a bottle of hair spray.  I requested the item behind the counter from one individual, paid a cashier and received a receipt, presented the receipt to a different person to receive the item, and had to pass a checker who stamped it on the way out.

Every time I see a woman hunched over sweeping the ground with an eighteen-inch-long “broom” made of twigs thatched together, I am tempted to ask why she doesn’t affix a stick to it so that she can stand up straight while sweeping, thereby increasing productivity and reducing strain considerably.  But I am sure that she wouldn’t understand the question.

At a casino in Goa, they let you use the free-play chips at the roulette table, but only to bet on red or even, not black or odd.  (The odds for these bets are all the same.)  I found this hilarious, and asked what the rationale was, but of course no one could answer.


2.  Dealing poorly with ambiguity

Customer service is generally hapless in India, a symptom of an educational system that focuses on rote learning as opposed to problem solving and, perhaps, endemic low productivity due to the size and quality of the labor pool.  If you get in a taxi in India and tell the driver your destination, he will start driving.  He may or may not have any idea of your destination, but he won’t say that.  Often you can tell by his facial expression (or the fact that he is going completely the wrong way) that he doesn’t know.  You may say, “I think you have to turn left here,” and he may or may not comply.  You may ask, “Are you sure you know the way?” and he won’t reply.

He will keep driving aimlessly, until the car runs out of gas, unless you force a solution to the problem.  “Call the place we’re going and ask them for directions.”  “Pull over and ask this other taxi driver.”  “Refer to the map I gave you.”

My driver in Madras simply pulled over to the side of the road, clueless what to do in the course of searching in vain for an hour for my hotel, and said “We here.”  Uh, no, we’re not.  I remembered a five-star western chain hotel a few miles back, and directed him to go there and ask someone there the way.  This eventually worked.

At a bar in Hyderabad, there was a 1,500 rupee cover charge that came with a 1,000 rupee drink coupon.  When I got the bill for 1,135 rupees, I handed the bartender 200 rupees, and he stood silently for 30 seconds, looking back and forth down at the cash in his hands and then up at my face, over and over again, like a computer program hung up in an endless loop, until I reminded him about the coupon—the same coupon that I had handed to him and he had taken from me two minutes earlier when I placed my order.


1.  The head bob

This is the ubiquitous Indian expression of. . . something or other.  It’s sort of a quick horizontal nod of the head, a few passes in each direction, accompanied by eye contact.  Presumably it is analogous to a nod in America, i.e., an accession, either an affirmative answer to a specific question or a general signal of concurrence—and can also perhaps indicate a sarcastic pseudo-agreement, like “Yeah, sure, whatever.”  Or it can serve as a basic friendly yet amorphous acknowledgement of your presence, like a dog wagging its tail.  Or it can seem to mean “Fuck you.”

But one also frequently encounters the head bob in response to a question that is not yes-or-no.  It could be an answer to “What time does the bus arrive?” or “Why do you keep asking for my goddamn passport again and again and will you please give it back to me one more time?”


By all means, visit India.  Enjoy the fantastic food, gorgeous scenery, and ancient architecture.  Relish the squalor and utter mayhem that characterize everyday life.  But, for cow’s sake, do not stake your fortune on the place!


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