incredible credit and loss, discredit and gain

Remnants of the Raj

An Indian with a rubber stamp has the status conferred on the privileged 'babu' clerks of the former British rulers, a petty bureaucrat who can use his position as a desk-bound Napoleon, only surpassed in self worth by yet bigger Napoleons rising in serried ranks above and behind. He may not stamp your exit permit (which allows you to leave the country), applying complex pretexts like, you must travel to the State capital to obtain a signature there. In reality, he is only waiting for money under the table (the typical baksheesh bribes without which India will hardly work). Alas to those Westerners who do not get the message and travel back and forth for days chasing illusory promises of release. A friend of mine finally got the signature needed as the official was wondering what my role in overseeing the transaction might be, who I was and how much punch I might have. But it was on a dirty slip torn off from a larger page. When finally leaving the country, no one even asked him for it. Despite all, the several redundant rubber-stampers at tables one must pass each time (due to union enforced 'labour-intensivity') may not even take a bit of notice.

There were antiquated and devious methods of bureaucracy involving much paperwork in everything from ticket-buying to money-changing, together with the arbitrary and irregular fashion of handling everyone much like some sort of serf. Nor had we yet learned the Eastern art of "wait and (try to) enjoy the interim". A suitable motto is "have no hopes of results" (even Arjuna was advised thus by Krishna) and then, if anything does work out one is happily surprised! Contrariwise we later also learned hat when the locals start proclaiming "No problem!" well, that is usually the best time to start worrying, because the problem that causes the reassurance is itself then most probably about to be ignored!

At the imposingly palatial Bangalore General Post Office, long walls were packed with yellowing papers right up to the lofty ceiling, as if they had been there since the British built it. I queued and queued then finally asked the counter clerk the price per weight of parcels to Europe, first to see whether the postage for sending anything between 20 to 50 books by mail would be worthwhile or too excessive. He refused to reply, saying 'Bring the parcel here and I will tell you!' No matter how well I explained the problem he would give no price per pound or kilo. Why so muleish? Most likely the not uncommon harassment of foreigners… using the imperious technique that works so well on simple Indians. Like many an Indian clerk, he had probably read his Dickens on the Circumlocution Office... and maybe revelled in it.

In the so-called 'first world' one seldom finds sellers trying to contest an already agreed price for some commodity - such as a taxi journey - when payment is to be made. Having reckoned you have means, the subtle trickery to extract every last penny out of you takes many forms… not turning the meter on (to eliminate proof), charging for number of passengers or baggage when not allowed by law, and ingratiating himself (always a man) in embarrassing or grovelling ways for tips, and praising those fares who have previously give a 'fair sum' of, say, 20 to 50 rupees. All other Western taxi trickery is also employed, wrong destination, roundabout routes… Smart waiters will add on a restaurant bill an extra dish to what one received. Having once pointed out that I only had one samosa, not two, the waiter duly corrected the sum. When I had left and looked at the receipt, I saw he had made a new false addition on to recompense himself and I had paid it unsuspectingly! Though that is a very minor corrupt practice, the same mentality applies pari passu in all manner of transactions.

The top principle for those Indians who possess anything, is unbridled bribery. As Nirad Chauduri wrote: " An Indian's faith in bribes is infinite and unshakable. Not only is bribing believed to be an infallible remedy for all workaday inconveniences - a belief justified by experience - it is also regarded as an equally effective means of managing high affairs of state, but in this instance without the same warranty." He was referring to India but not excluding Pakistan, and it is all just as relevant today, the biggest bribes being those given at the very top of society. (See an Indian's analysis of the average Indian male here)

The struggle to survive, get ahead

Another great guiding principle in India is 'Something for Nothing', which is common sense for orphaned street children, a wide range of types of poverty-stricken mothers and all manner of genuinely handicapped or destitute beggars. But it is also the guiding light of priests, sadhus, swamis and pujaris of every hue, coolies, taxi drivers, hoteliers, and not forgetting the police, public servants and politicians! Vendors are very quick to tell you if they have no change, but only after you have handed them your paper money. Indeed, when the value of certain coins as raw metal rises above their nominal values, enterprising dealers hoard their change and sell it in bulk.

Men will accost you on the street asking "You are from?" and “What is your good name?”, like a friendly attempt to talk. But in about 9 out of 10 times it is followed up with a commercial proposition - either to beg, borrow or whatever, mostly trying to sell you a service (including the entire range of food, drugs, carpets, drinks, relatives, exotic sex, indestructible coffee tables, silks, elephant teeth or feet and so on ad. inf.), to be your tour guide or read your fortune clairvoyantly from some mystic texts. Once out of ten or so it is a meeting full of charm and heartfelt genuineness. However, even that can develop into a discussion of whether you could employ him, set up a small business with him for profit-sharing.

One scam cleverly designed to entrap foreigners and used with suitable adjustments to the situation variants by diverse crooks, is the blood donation plea. I had not heard of it the first time and fell for it hook, line and sinker. A small thin man with just a lungi on (a loincloth) stopped me outside the hotel in Bangalore where we were staying and asked if I would speak to him. He said he was a carpenter who worked from a cafe in Puttaparthi, where I sometimes visited. I invited him in to the hotel, though the armed guards tried to stop me from doing so. He told me a long tortured story of how he was married to a Christian girl, him being a Hindu, and she had just suffered a miscarriage and was dying of blood loss, so he needed to talk to her parents in Madras to tell them by telegram, for he had no money. Could I lend him the telegram money, he would repay it as I knew his employer. I did so and told him to come back and let me know the result if any problem. He came next day and eventually I offered to take him to the hospital and pay for the blood transfusion, but he said they would charge me 10 times what he would have to pay. I gave him enough money for it and a tempo (3-wheel taxi) there. He burst into tears and was very grateful. A couple of days later he came again to say his wife had recovered, but she had to have some medicines and he wondered if I could lend him for that too. He would pay everything back later. When I got the money he wept again and, between his tears, said many gracious things about me and swore "I will remember you for the rest of my life, dear sir!". As he was about to go, he asked me if I could give him a 'timepiece' because his wife should have her medicines every 6 hours and needed to know the time. I told him I could not provide that.

I heard no more until, on my next India visit I happened to be taking a tea and realised I was in the very shop where he worked. I asked the owner if she knew the carpenter, but she shook her head. I told her his Christian wife had lost a baby etc., and she remembered him. Where is he? Dead, she said, from drink… she put her thumb to her mouth like a bottle emptying. I found it had happened just after the time I last saw him. So I had financed his demise! The rather uncharitable thought crossed my mind, 'Well, he didn't remember me for long, poor chap!'

A few years later I was approached by another man on a road somewhere else who asked 'Can I talk to you, sir'. I said 'What is it?'. He began tale of woe with his wife, but when the need for a blood transfusion came up, I told him I had no time for more.

A former IAS friend of mine who lived in a bungalow near Bangalore used to buy milk from a man who came daily with a cow and milked it before your very eyes, so you would know it was fresh and straight from the udder. But it seemed that the milk was too thin, so my friend began to investigate. He learned from Indian police authorities who (being a high official himself) told him that this came of the common trick of having a hollow rubber ball in the armpit connected to a flesh-coloured thin plastic pipe running down the inside of his shirt and arm, fixed with flesh-coloured Elastoplast under his wrist. When he milked the udder, he simultaneously squeezed water out of the ball into the bottle!

There is an almost universal attitude in India known as ‘chalta hai’ (lit. ‘it walks’). It may be characterised as ‘do whatever works for you, regardless’. This mindset or approach to living is evidently a child of necessity, to avoid the restrictions that the top-heavy world of red tape, of rules one should observe and duties one should fulfil. It is also an antidote to the many levels of corruption in political, public and social life… itself a continuance of corruption in new forms. Bribery is an example of this… offering a bribe (usually money) is a quick way to get a result and is seldom punished or even looked down on. A variant of this mindset is also is ‘jugaad’ which is somewhat equivalent to a quick cheap fix or work-around of problems that avoids time, energy and money. The well-informed Indian sees chalta hai ord jugaad’ as a deep-rooted problem which holds back progress and creates more indiscipline.

The male mentality

Due to the extreme importance to Indians of not 'losing face' - and, having lost it, then 'saving face' - many confusing situations arise, often highly amusing to foreign visitors but also highly aggravating when they suffer certain of its consequences themselves. For example, not to know the answers to questions people ask, like the way to the station, is for many to lose face. One finds the station was in the opposite direction to the one indicated. I have frequently been misled about timings, for example, if I asked the time a bus will depart, one will often hear 'Soon', 'In half-an-hour, when in fact the bus has already left, or will come two hours later. Where it stops in a busy bus station can vary greatly, according to whom one asks. They pretend to know and give whatever answer may come into their heads, even when a better answer would most likely have been 'after a long time' or 'in half a day or an unknown period of time'.

It is almost the norm in India - at least among a majority of people - to say one thing yet, when it proves wrong, to stick to it rigidly. To say one thing, stick to it, yet do the opposite without a thought of the inconsistency is common, but the fact is seldom pointed out to the perpetrators, as it would be to make them lose face. Besides, most male (and less so female) Indians are extremely assertive, they are always right, whatever the facts, which has evidently led to a common foreign perception of most of them (however unfairly or not) as 'arrogant and ignorant'.

A Muslim taxi driver stated to me with great certainty, "Everyone in India is a liar". I somehow see his point, but then, of course, it must have included his own statement? While on taxi drivers, the average Indian taxi-man is a fearless horn-blasting chicken challenger of everything on the road, whether left, centre or even right, only holy cows usually exempted. Unwitting fares from abroad shudder, cringe, wail and pray (maybe excluding such as Italians, Philippinos etc.). Another Muslim's taxi we took was emblazoned with the ominous slogan 'Live like Ali, Die like Hussain'. Once aboard we worried as to which was it to be, for he drove like Hussain out of hell.

Stubborn insistence and assumed self-certainty are combined to a high degree, and tends to increase with their 'rank', degree of social authority, though of course with some notable exceptions. This is almost inescapable for those within the diverse Indian social order, with its castes and countless sub-castes, multifarious sects, family and other hierarchies (like relative age), plus great ethnic variations and endless gradations of riches and poverty, any person met must either be above or below yourself to some degree. Equality is never really assumed. As the Indian social commentator and satirist, Cyrus Brocha, explained it: Know your place’ is like a game – when any Indian meets a fellow Indian, we immediately decide to adopt an inferior or superior stance. A fellow Indian is either below you or above you in the social scale, never equal. Let’s look at this chart/ Father/mother, above you. Children, below you. Mr. Sharma, your neighbour, who is older, above you. Mrs. Sharma who is younger, below you.
A pigeon, below you. A cow, above you. A God you’ve heard of, definitely above you. A God you haven’t heard of, still above you. A normal building, below you. A religious structure, above you. The sun, moon and stars above you. People in a village in the Sunderbans, below you. ....... Your driver, below you. A famous driver like Lewis Hamilton, above you........’"

A few everyday discomforts

One comes across remnants of pre-industrial 'technology' throughout the land and almost every connection. After having got used to seeing acres of slum dwelling, most noticeable is the rickety-looking bamboo and wooden scaffolding used in erecting high-rise buildings, with women coolies carrying heaps of bricks and material on their heads up treacherous planks and steps. Though Indian architecture in big cities is catching up with more advanced countries, a huge number of buildings are erected and designed in traditional ways, with the failings of old. Bathrooms and toilets based only on buckets and drains are still common, except in luxury hotels and better-off homes. If there are washbasins (a pukka modern sign), the waste water may run through the plug straight onto your feet, slopping the bathroom floor. The consequence of this is seen in the inordinate number of broken hips, legs and ribs in bathrooms in India.

The flat roof is still very widely found, which Nirad Chaudhuri discovered came originally from the Middle East in ancient times when the Aryans migrated to India. Though it can provide some air and catch any breeze that may slightly relieve the stifling heat of summer, the problem comes during the monsoon when a flat roof catches the downpour full on. Though fans are found increasingly, air conditioning is still not so common even in cities, and air vents are very often located where there is no chance of wind entering rooms. Lights are often installed where they glare in your eyes once you sit or lie down. The brightest fluorescent tubes are not uncommonly set facing the occupants of a room, and soft back-lighting is restricted to quality hotels and the like.

At the Mumbai domestic airport, to which one must go by taxi or bus so as to continue by plane to Bangalore, one sits and waits. Checking of baggage is always required long before departure. Sitting in the marble-tiled and -paved waiting hall the reverberating clarion calls of a hugely over-amplified crashing bell and a fearful hi-level hum was followed at intervals by a distorted high-frequency announcer's voice that cut one through to the bone marrow. It was causing some desperation but I had to laugh (plugging my fingers firmly in my ears meanwhile). After ten minutes of aural bombardment I happened to turn around to see two workmen with a small crowbar frantically attacking some electrical box on the wall. The crashing got gradually weaker. As they wrenched what was supposedly the offending box from the wall in one piece, its severed roots of wire dangling, the loudspeaker finally died out. I had a fit of hysterics. No more was heard from the loudspeakers before our long wait was over.

Apart from in good hotels and better private homes, chairs in India have designs making them a torture to sit on, and not least the plastic variety in airports. It was the British who made chairs ubiquitous, for until recent time, most Indians preferred to sit cross-legged or squat in the style so characteristic of the Asiatic, so their spines were flexible and were not so much formed by chair-sitting. By contrast, old Indian women, especially the female sweepers who are ever stirring up the dust with broom switches from one place to another, develop permanent hairpin-bent backs. To try to cure this, a British official spent part of his fortune importing around 50,000 brooms to Calcutta, but they never caught on and rotted away in a warehouse. A symbolic warning for foreign aid planners?

"...and they lit all the fireworks at once, whereby eleven men were killed, my firework-maker among them, and I was blown across a tent but took no harm." (from 'Kim' by Kipling).
During Divali in Puttaparthi, my wife and I observed, from the safety of an apartment block roof, an old ragged man staggering up to investigate a huge thunder-flash that had failed to go off after 20 seconds or so… despite urgent shouted warnings from others hiding behind corners of buildings and the like. Sure enough, just as he bent low over it, it went off with an almighty flash of flame and deafening blast. He stood there unmoving and we thought him dead... but then he staggered off again slowly with exactly the same gait as before, just as if nothing had occurred. Could that have been the protection of the guru at work? A bold sceptic could carry out a scientific experiment to verify the harmlessness of crouching over an exploding thunder-flash?

Comment from Eileen Weed who lived for 20 years in South India:-

Everything is so true, and what striking insight! The 'male mentality' is perfection, as is the rest of your compilation. I can tell you from staying over two decades in India, that the reality is exactly how you describe it!
This is the first time I heard of the blood transfusion story, however. It reminds me of something I experienced here in USA. Fresno, California, where I live, has over 25% poverty and an estimated over 7,000 homeless souls (out of about a million people living and/or working here). I used to work downtown and I had a half-mile walk from my parking place to my workplace (parking closer would mean expensive parking fees). Invariably I would come across drunks passed out in corners, or drug-addicted beggars.
Several times, I was approached by a young gent saying he needed the bus fare to go to a drug rehabilitation center several miles away, giving details of how he has turned around his life and would be entering the program there. I gave it to him. Next day, he approached me again! I was now wise and shooed him away. Two or three other times he approached me over the course of the next few weeks (including once when I was walking with a friend, who wanted to help the honest-looking fellow)! Apparently I do not have a memorable face. Finally he would recognize me, and go the other way when he saw me coming. Who knows how much cold, hard, drinking or drugging cash he received from that same story, given to all but never true! (He appeared periodically over the next couple of years, and only one other time forgot my face and approached me with the same lie sob-story of repentance.) The moral of this story is: no matter what country one is from, where there is a will, there is a way!
The milking-the-cow scheme is also new to me! Looks like you found out more than me, who had no money and was therefore not targeted by such people often. Not only that, but people I befriended were usually poor and street-wise also!

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