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I Am Having One Friend

I Am Having One Friend

June 12, 2012

Need something done? No problem. I am having one friend.

The first thing to do upon starting a new life in India is to make a friend – often before finding a place to live or even before tracking down your first meal. It could be your first rickshaw driver, or an engagingly helpful gentleman on the flight over, or, in this age of close Twitter friendships and couchsurfing, someone you've met in advance online. 

In my case, it was all done for me before I arrived. My girlfriend of the time had already gone over and secured a house, a regular auto driver and a small support network. As I stepped out of the rickshaw, Fresh Prince-like, to survey the estate that would be my home for the next two years, an elderly neighbour appeared and invited me to his son's wedding the following day. My girlfriend then mentioned to Shibu, our driver, that we still lacked an internet connection. He thought for a moment before speaking.

"No problem," said Shibu. "I am having one friend." He looked at me. "Monday, you are coming Maithanam [the centre of Varkala town] for taking internet. Okay?"

"Okay!" I replied, a little bewildered.

This was my first encounter with India's 'I am having one friend' culture. If you need something done in New Zealand, you look online or in the phonebook for an appropriate service provider. If you need something done in India, you network. On rare occasions, you'll know someone personally who is an expert in the trade you seek. More likely, however, a friend will know a friend, or a friend of a friend, and through a convoluted set of connections, it'll get done - usually a few days or weeks later than you'd hoped.

It's beautiful how the interconnectedness of India can shine in times like these. A few months into my stay in India, the electric pump switch for our well broke and we were without running water for – gasp – almost six hours. A few minutes after it snapped in my hand, another neighbour passed and noticed me in some distress. After “No problem, I am having one friend” and six hours of waiting, a boy of about 16 turned up and replaced the switch. I struggle to recall the connection accurately now; I think he was the neighbour's wife's brother's neighbour's son and, despite his youth, was apparently an expert in this field. The switch remained functional until after I left the house a year and half later.

More than anything else, a process like this requires people to know one another. Only one person in the chain needs to recall a minor detail about someone's profession or interest, but the chain as a whole bears the heaviest load and (generally) takes the longest time to do its work. A need goes out into the community, spreading from one mind to another, until that need can be filled. The ultimate goal – finding a new maid, acquiring a new mobile phone charger or, in my case, having a household switch replaced – is almost an afterthought; the time-honoured 'needful' is done by the chain of connection rather than the final service provider.

The problem is, the chain breaks down just as often as it magically succeeds. Every resident of India has their own inch-thick file of examples where Indian bureaucracy fell apart, and the authorities' infernal processes (or lack thereof) are the most enraging aspect of many people's lives. There was the time I needed to get a new rental agreement drawn up, so I asked my rickshaw driver what to do; after consulting his chain of communication, he said he'd take me to a renowned lawyer the next day. The lawyer turned out to be stinking drunk and almost transparently corrupt, and I ended up begging my new landlady to sort the rental agreement out for me. It was a massively frustrating experience. At least I got a good story out of it.

In that case, things had gone wrong because the chain threw up the wrong name. In other cases, no name can be produced and your task goes unfilled. I often felt effectively powerless as I couldn't simply Google for the guy I needed. Indeed, no matter how fast Google spins its shiny wheels, the phrase “I am having one friend” will often clunk and stutter its way over the line while its information-age equivalent languishes far behind.

All this is forgetting that as a saip, or white man, I was in the very fortunate position of having numerous people actively wanting to help me pretty much all the time. It isn't so easy for your average labourer or auto driver, who might have a severely limited support network or – worse – a support network full of rivals and gasbags who would prefer that they fail. It's hit or miss, and one's own merit as a person of good character is no guarantee of a trustworthy communication chain. In the same way, the service provider at the other end is not rewarded for being good at his or her job so much as for knowing the right people, or more people.

It's the same old Indian story: the triumph of the informal over the systematic. You love it and you hate it. At least, in this case, you are having one friend. And he is having one friend. And the circle of life continues turning, slowly, steadily, and you all do your best to hang on.

5 Comments

  • bhavana
    By
    bhavana
    13.06.12 10:13 PM
    Yep. When I moved to Chennai that is exactly what I sought out for--a friend. Now I have hundreds of friends. And the the frustration of the informal over system--it still gets on my nerves. India can be maddening but she is also ridiculously sweet and addictive in her own-mangoeish way.
  • Dheeraj Sharma
    By
    Dheeraj Sharma
    12.06.12 08:23 PM
    Extremely, well thought (minutely)!! As I went reading, I tried recalling so many time that being Indian even heard as well as said this phrase so many times :) ...
  • Drmir
    By
    Drmir
    12.06.12 04:13 PM
    I liked your article. I've been a relatively new reader of NRI. This is to the author and/or the people managing the site - what is the rationale for those few words highlighted in bold in every paragraph?
  • Susanna
    By
    Susanna
    12.06.12 01:41 PM
    Love this! Especially imagining you stepping out of a rickshaw 'Fresh Prince-like'..
  • Jyoti Agarwal
    By
    Jyoti Agarwal
    12.06.12 10:25 AM
    @Barnaby

    I have always loved your sharp observation on every little thing related to India and an average Indian. Of course "I have one friend" culture has been prevailing in India since ages and before I could realize, I was grown up and suffering from the same syndrome. But can't help it because that is how it works and I kind of love it.

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