Tuesday, November 16, 2004

We Are Like This Only

Today, I am going to talk about security systems.

No, I am not talking about electronic security systems, or network security systems. I am talking about the security guard that stands outside most residential buildings in Mumbai.

Not too long ago, Mumbai had as many problems as we have today. Crime rates were still fluctuating and are as much of a concern today as they were then. However, in those days, going to a friend's place was still a fun exercise.

You'd go up to his building, park your car in the parking lot, and walk up to his house. Simple.

Today, however, you are stopped at the gate first. The forever-suspecting guard assumes you are a thief and asks you where you want to go. You are expected to keep your cool after you listen to a tone that screams out something like "You fucking thief! What the hell do you think you are doing here?" You have to get your host's name and his address absolutely right at this point. If you do, usually you have to fill in a "register" with columns for 'Name', 'Address', 'Whom you want to meet', stuff like that. Then you'd have to fight about where you can park your car. By the end of this ordeal, you are pissed off enough.

The real reason for this being so bothersome is that you were probably "invited" over. Do you know what that means? For us Indians, inviting a guest over is a big thing. Not because it happens once in a while, but because it is genuinely a big thing. Our culture and traditions teach us that athiti devo bhava, which is Sanskrit for "Guests are God." Guests expect to be treated well. Hosts are expected to treat their guests well. When I say 'well', I mean 'like Gods'. And stopping them at the door to ask who they are is not only a pathetically bad idea, it's insulting!

So, why do we have such a horribly insulting system in place in Mumbai, especially considering that things were just fine without it? It is in place because this process has worked elsewhere. Indeed, similar procedures have to be followed in most other countries like the US or UK. If it's so good for them, we could just ape it and it would work. Not.

We have seen this time and again. Every once in a while, a product comes along that dares to defy the Indian cultural and traditional mindset. And fails. This has happened with everything from voicemail to microwave ovens. From toilet paper to breakfast cereal. Though these products are great products by themselves, they disregard the Indian history and cultural ethos. People will never take to them in a big way. Toilet paper is too dirty for us, whatever others have to say about it. Breakfast cereal is probably good for health, but it doesn't substitute the rich and tasty breakfast that we Indians are so used to. Microwaves are probably easier to cook food in – if you never want to eat Indian food again. And if I can't talk to someone over the phone, I'll call him back – what's this voicemail thing anyway?

There are lessons to be learnt from this for businesses that are set up in India or have plans to introduce operations here. India, unlike most other countries, has a very ancient tradition and culture that has stood the test of time for millennia. It is not about to change just because of the Internet or rampant globalization and internationalization. Businesses should appreciate that, and respect it. They should come up with products that will fit into the Indian cultural mindset, not defy it.

We are like this only (as most Indian's would say, in their colloquial English). And we are not about to change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For once we agree