One night after our finishing our dinner at a ‘kwality’ dining establishment in Kazhakuttam, near Thiruvananthapuram’s Technopark, my colleague and I were waiting in his car for a break in traffic. In the twenty seconds we were stationary, I saw:
- a motorcycle in the centre of the road whip across in front of a speeding bus;
- an Ambassador taxi, with its wheels half on the road and half on the dirt beside it, speed at 60 km/h alongside the slighty slower-moving traffic;
- and an autorickshaw drive the wrong way down the highway until it could pull across to the correct lane.
I remarked to my colleague that people sure are in a hurry in India. “Mmm,” he acknowledged thoughtfully as he inched the car backwards into the chaos. “We’re so impatient,” he said, forcing a space in traffic by jutting the rear of the car out into the road so other motorists had to veer around us. He turned to me and laughed. “Even I am like that! And I don’t know why.” The way somewhat cleared, we sped off on the way back to work.
The traffic in India is itself worthy of keen study, but this episode brought home to me a concept that is reinforced every day: Indians are the most competitive people I have ever come across. That competitiveness manifests in myriad ways. When international flights land at Delhi or Mumbai, the freshly ‘foreign-returned’ are always the first to get up from their seats and start towards the exit doors. The railway station ‘q’ is the only line in the world where the person behind you moves faster than you do. Auto drivers wrangle for the most prominent spots around the station, hoping to catch the next set of backpackers as soon as they step out of their carriage. Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone is probably there first.
My rather basic explanation for the Indian competitive spirit is that it is a matter of sheer numbers, married to an essentially open and democratic society (unlikely equally populated China). Everybody here knows that there are over a billion others playing ‘Fastest Finger First’ in all aspects of life. This awareness begins in school, where your life is divided up into assessments and rankings, and continues on into your chosen workplace, the marriage market and then giving your children the best possible start in life. It’s natural that the same rules should apply to the mundane, as mentioned above.
Obviously, the end result is to get ahead wherever possible, and this leads to some fascinating social phenomena. In his appearance at The Hay Festival Kerala two weeks ago, Shashi Tharoor, the respected writer and MP for Thiruvananthapuram, said that 90% of government-related enquiries he receives are requests for assistance in attaining a job – sometimes for the enquirer, and sometimes for his or her son, or daughter, or brother, or sister, or uncle, or auntie; and sometimes it is for a government post, sometimes for a private company. The common wisdom isn’t that a man in such a high position is probably too busy to field such requests, but that if access to him is obtained, his status offers the aam aadmi a potentially easy path to the front of the line.
This attitude is all over the Internet, too. This post on an Indian news blog simply provides information on how students of a particular Indian university can check their results, and invites readers to comment on their experience. The responses – all 334 of them – are not experiences but requests (or demands, depending on your point of view) either for further information or for the results to be sent to the student directly, with many providing an email address and/or a phone number. The volume of similar requests boggles the mind: a Google search for “hai sir” “pls” “results”, commonly used phrases among young Indians seeking info online, reveals that those 334 comments are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes I struggle to deal with the bustle of competition in my daily life in India, but I am fortunate not to be privy to some of its biggest pitfalls. In Kerala, for example, a number of enterprising individuals have fashioned themselves a career as an ‘agent’ whereby they will offer an easy path to employment in the Middle East. It’s all there in a single package: job, visa, flight, accommodation. Just submit the required documents and pay your money, and the agent will do the needful. The only problem? The one-time fee starts at around 5 lakh rupees (more than US$10,000), and worse, there’s no guarantee that said ‘agent’ is honest and responsible. I have met many people who have lost a fortune to dubious promises. The competitive spirit sometimes finds an unwelcome ally in an overabundance of trust; where there are so many trying to get ahead, a few are bound to be doing so by dishonest means.
All this can easily be translated as impatience, as my colleague said. I certainly feel the same way sometimes, like when a guy marches straight up next to me at the corner store and barks instructions in Malayalam at the shopkeeper, who is in the middle of measuring out my half-kilo of rice. In my more lucid moments, however, I see this impatience not as the base trait behind such behaviours, but a symptom of that unceasing competitive spirit. We'd all do best to embrace it, too, because with India's population always rising, it's here to stay.