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The Competitive Indian

The Competitive Indian

November 30, 2010

India's vast population and open society mean that wherever you go, whatever you do, somebody is already there first.



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.


20 Comments

  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.12.10 06:40 PM
    @Alfred Jones, you make some interesting points. I stand by my opinion that the sheer weight of numbers demands a degree of competitiveness, but as you say, other factors are most definitely in play. I will be writing on one of them in future... but as it could be even more contentious than this was, I'm going to wait a little while so I don't seem too negative!

    @The guy who is going nuts, I would ask so many questions of you in response to your four points, but you haven't answered on any other comment threads and I wouldn't expect you to here. Especially when you say you're done! I'm disheartened by the fact that you have such a problem with my writing about India, but I would suggest to you that an outsider's perspective can have value. I don't profess to be any kind of authority on India or Indians, but I do tell it like I see it and hope that sometimes people agree with me. Nothing more to it, really.

    @The Boss, I think you've hit the nail on the head! I for one would pay to read a post by the mystery man addressing us all.
  • The NRI
    By
    The NRI
    08.12.10 04:59 PM
    @Final Comment, or alternatively you could put up, or shut up - figuratively speaking of course:) The offer has already been made to you (under your various aliases) to put your view forward in a post on this site. If you have not got the bottle it's a bit rich complaining about the group of people you describe in point 1, and arrogant to think you are any better than the group you describe in point 2.

    Maybe the problem of Indians is that too many of them are complaining from the sidelines, half heartedly and anonymously, without having the balls to step up individually.

    If you pluck up the courage to take up my offer, you are welcome to contact me discreetly through the site. I won't be holding my breath though...
  • Final Comment
    By
    Final Comment
    08.12.10 02:34 PM
    Ok, this is my final comment on this blog because it is driving me nuts! Ok, what is it that is driving me nuts? Here goes :

    1) I don't like the way that non-Indian people are allowed to come on and take (stereotypical) views on a whole class/ race of people. How can you possibly characterize a whole nation of people as having one type of character trait or another? That is the typical way to "otherize" or "exoticize" a race and is, effectively racism.

    2) Even worse, however, is the Indians (or alleged Indians, I do wonder sometimes) back up the outsiders against their own people. No country in the world would do that, except India. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, since India allowed itself to be ruled by basically anyone who felt like it, for a thousand years.

    3) Until Indians wake up and start analyzing themselves in a global context by themselves (not by outsiders), they will forever be a pawn in an international game which they do not understand.

    4) My recommendation to all Indians is to be highly self-critical and weed out your problems by yourselves. You don't need anyone else to tell you what's wrong - if you spend a little bit of time thinking about it you will understand. Also, do not believe that the US or the UK or anyone else is either better than you or wants to be your friend. They have their national interests to take care of as does India. Be aware of this at all times. Learn from them, take what you need and adopt what makes sense but stand on your own two feet. That is the only way India will be respected and acknowledged internationally.

    Best of luck to all my peeps.

    Peace OUT.
  • Alfred Jones
    By
    Alfred Jones
    08.12.10 02:11 AM
    @Barnaby:

    This is a very novel take on the issue. And that novelty is no mean feat considering how popular this subject is with Indians everywhere. That said, I don't know that Indians' innate and inherent competitive streak is a good explanation of what you observed and described so well. I'm sure it is a contributing factor but I suspect there are others that are more signficant.

    As far as Tharoor being bombarded for help landing a government job, question is, are his constituents doing that because they're trying to one up each other? Or are they supplicating him because they know they don't have a shot of landing said job if they played it by the book? What is uniquely Indian about this isn't the competitive clamour for these jobs but the degree to which government jobs are desired. (I grew up in a family where the majority of elders were govt employees. You could've pushed over my father with a feather when I told him I wanted to give up my govt job to head out to the US instead!) There is a whole swath of Indians who can't compete for white collar private sector jobs and the only option they see is govt jobs where the standards of eligibility are, well, relaxed. There are a number of other reasons driving that demand as well, e.g. job security aka you're never going to get fired, perceived "cushiness" of job, ahem - side perks etc. So the Indian job market, such as it is, creates this artificial demand and contention that plays out the way Tharoor describes.

    Re the chaos and urgency of Indian traffic: I have several American friends who've traveled to India and ribbed me about the chaos they experienced there - including the canonical inability of Indians to wait their turn at ticket counters, traffic lights and what have you. While other commenters in this thread have proffered the old we-behave-so-because-we-are-poor argument, I think there are deeper cultural reasons - and I think you were hinting at that in a couple of your responses. I'm looking forward to future posts from you on that very subject. Thought provoking stuff as usual Barnaby, keep 'em coming.

    ~alfred

    PS: Re your response to something 'really' posted, naaaaice Floyd reference there my friend ;-)
  • effort?
    By
    effort?
    05.12.10 06:55 PM
    I'm not trying to do anything, I'm not sure what you mean.

    I also don't understand what you mean by "Shine on, you crazy diamond!"? Is that a New Zealand thing? You wacky New Zealanders - whatever will you think of next.

    And don't call me crazy (or Shirley) for that matter.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    05.12.10 07:18 AM
    So... you were in fact addressing me when warning against labelling Indians as simply rude, aggressive and competitive, and suggesting that I should look at the reasons behind it?

    I think I get what you're doing, and appreciate your putting such effort into it. Shine on, you crazy diamond!
  • competitive indian
    By
    competitive indian
    05.12.10 01:34 AM
    Hey hey why so sensitive? You're always taking pot shots at Indians? You can't take some good natured banter back? You have to take it if you want to give it out, buddy.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    04.12.10 09:17 PM
    To the guy who posts as 'really?' or a derivation of each article's title, I can never be sure of who you're speaking to! And skiting about one's team's good fortunes over another's is not 'competitive', it's 'arrogant'. Just a tip!
  • competitive indian
    By
    competitive indian
    04.12.10 08:35 PM
    Not to rub it in or anything but India is CRUSHING New Zealand in the cricket by the way! Whoops, must be that competitive Indian thing coming out in me - have to watch that!
  • really?
    By
    really?
    04.12.10 04:57 PM
    Well that may be because you have never been poor. If your primary concern is where your next meal is coming from to feed you and your family, you may not say please and thank you all the time. It's quite obvious really.

    Well, my contention is that everyone is a decent person inside. Ultimately, you have to look at the causes of certain behaviour. To just label Indians as rude, aggressive, competitive is a form of discrimination. You have to look at the reasons behind it.

    The only rationale you have left if you discard any reasoning for their behaviour is that the Indian people are naturally rude, aggressive and competitive. That sounds like cultural stereotyping and racism to me.
  • Sacha Gomez
    By
    Sacha Gomez
    04.12.10 12:13 PM
    @really
    Can't see how being poor has anything to with trying to jump a queue or being a nuisance in public. In any case, I was thinking more in terms of the great, "richer" and educated Middle Class of India.

    In your first post you say wait till Indians get richer and in the next you talk about New Yorkers and the Parisians being aggressive; so it seems like you're contradicting yourself and really have no idea what you're talking about.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    01.12.10 07:21 PM
    @Chandrima, Tushar, Sacha - ok, fair enough, maybe my rose-tinted saip glasses force me to try and view all of India's weaknesses in some favourable light. However, I definitely think that the weight of numbers is a massive factor in everybody's life. Excuse the unpleasant metaphor, but it's like the battle for conception! - everyone pushing and shoving and swimming as fast as they can, knowing only a bare few can reach the goal.

    Still, 'really?' (I have to put your name in inverted commas so it isn't confusing!), I'm not sure if it's as simple as poverty + population = impatience and intense competitiveness. After all, most wealthy Indians still have to fight hard and strive to get where they want to, so the competition is at every level of society. (Also, India's middle classes, in my experience, tend to push and shove far more than the more poverty-stricken.) I wonder about the colonial influence having deeper roots here, but I'm not too sure... at any rate, I definitely agree that it never hurts to acknowledge a more positive perspective.

    @Jayanth, never been to Paris but I've heard all about the attitude - apparently it's more of a superiority thing, refusing to speak English even if they know it etc, so I feel it's a bit different. Still, interesting comparison.

    And @Sacha, that was absolutely intentional, knowing use of Indian English - for effect... honest!
  • really?
    By
    really?
    01.12.10 06:37 PM
    Yes and we all know the reputation new Yorkers (and Americans in general)have for being pushy, rude and aggressive. Not just a problem in India it seems. We also know the French have a reputation for being arrogant and rude. I guess every country has their problems. Let's try and focus on the positive, eh?
  • Jayanth Tadinada
    By
    Jayanth Tadinada
    01.12.10 06:33 PM
    I think the bad manners and the haste depends on the population density. I saw a marked difference in the attitude of the French in Paris and in the rest of France. People in Paris were relatively smiled less, were in some kind of a hurry running towards the nearest metro station of parking lot. But in Rennes, people were much more relaxed and helpful.

    I think even small towns in India have population densities close to that of Paris ;)
  • really?
    By
    really?
    01.12.10 03:27 PM
    Maybe if a lot of them weren't so poor they might have time for the niceties of good manners. Perhaps, staying alive and feeding their families is more important? It's easy to be polite when you're rich.

    The rest of them have been tarnished by years of foreign rule into thinking that they need to scramble for themeselves or else things will get taken away from them.

    My contention is that everyone is a good, decent person and you need to look at the root causes of behaviour. Indians are merely adapting to their circumstances. They will change as the country gets richer, but it will take time.

    I would imagine also, that, in other populous and poor countries, the situation would be quite similar.
  • Sacha Gomez
    By
    Sacha Gomez
    01.12.10 11:20 AM
    "....and the agent will do the needful". Looks like your Indian avataar is acting up Barns!

    Good one, although I don't quite agree with the explanation of such behavior as competitiveness. Bluntly put, it is a lack of basic good manners or discipline in public spaces, and ignorance of essential etiquette that are unfortunately completely ignored during the education process and unknown to the preceding generations that could have passed them on.
  • Tushar Barot
    By
    Tushar Barot
    01.12.10 08:01 AM
    As as Indian, I feel we Indians should come out of the self-congratulatory mode. We are too obessed with ourselves and cannot take any Criticism from others.

    Indiscipline and scant regard for rules/laws are no excuse for claiming competitiveness. The life/business environment in many parts of the world is equally or more competitive than India but I do not see the anarchy reigning in any of those places other than India.
  • Chandrima Pal
    By
    Chandrima Pal
    30.11.10 08:16 PM
    So true, Indians start their competition so early in their lives when kids all over the world play with sand and water and at the end those Indian kids grow up and work in the companies which are run by those who had played a lot in their child hood. India is a country full of contrast and dichotomy, and I guess it will take few more decades (at least) for each Indian to understand that coming first in a race is not always the perfect thing. I belong to one of those Indians who could go outside India, get to see the relaxed world there and now coming back who feels troubled looking at all these unnecessary competitions.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    30.11.10 06:45 PM
    Too true, Sharell - there's an interesting dichotomy, and something I will try to explain in a future post...

    Oh, and thank you!
  • sharell
    By
    sharell
    30.11.10 04:27 PM
    So competitive and impatient, yet always so late and unmindful of the time! ;-) Another great article Barns.

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