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The Ingenious Common Man

The Ingenious Common Man

June 15, 2012

My amazement at the resourcefulness and witty craftiness of the common man, during a recent trip to India.

Panting for breath, I scaled the four steps of Mumbai’s local transport bus service better known as B.E.S.T, having chased the bus for about 500 feet, and then within 30 seconds plopped down on one of the seats labelled ‘Striyansatthi’ (ladies only) - grateful for having found an empty seat, especially one that I wouldn’t have to give up for anyone else. There were other seats specifically marked for the physically challenged and geriatrics as well. With reserved seats on the increase, for a second my mind flashed with pity for those who weren’t eligible for any of these. If luck favoured them, they would get to rest their tired feet, or else, travel standing the rest of the journey. I sneaked a glance at the teenage girl next to me, as her head bobbed up and down every few seconds. Sleeping peacefully, her loaded backpack straddled on her lap, I guessed her to be catching up on sleep in between school and tuitions. Judging by the pressure to perform and the amount of stress today’s generation was being saddled with and considering that most bus journeys took up the good part of an hour, this seemed to me as sensible use of time.

During my recent return from the USA to Aamchi Mumbai, I caught quite a few instances of people making the best use of resources available to them. Be it time, money or material. Aboard a short distance local train, crammed into the ladies compartment, I sat amazed, as I saw women whip out compact cutting boards, knives and packets of vegetables from their handbag as they proceeded to chop those and store them in boxes. The lady by my side sat detangling coriander leaves. These were working women, struggling to juggle work outside of and within the home, making the best use of time on their hands.

So what if we do not have the infrastructure or the money to build a private, world-class luxurious hospital? I had not liked the approach road or the entrance into the hospital that I had to go to, accompanying someone. The lack of attention to hygiene and general cleanliness of the surrounding areas was starting to look like a deal breaker at the outset itself but I was curious to witness the interior, which turned out to be well maintained, neat and clean. The ‘hospital’, run by a husband and wife – both surgeons, was built on a section of a residential building, possibly a modification to two or three apartments. One part of the living area had been converted into a ‘general ward’ that housed just three beds. There was one deluxe room, one X-ray room and an operation theatre as well, plus offices for two doctors. The bulletin board proudly displayed their achievements covered by the national newspapers – including a rare form of laparoscopic splenectomy performed by the male surgeon, only one of twenty-seven cases worldwide. Healthcare is a sore topic in India, I thought watching one of the episodes of Satyameva Jayate where I discovered that only 1.4% of our GDP is being spent on healthcare. In no way, should this be acceptable, and I am certainly not proud of the way the system is performing though I still have hope. Yet well meaning doctors with a desire to serve humanity and a pledge to the Hippocratic Oath continue to do the best they can with what they have.

Around me, indigent folks on the roads lacking a poncho cover their heads with plastic grocery bags in an attempt to avoid getting drenched. Mumbai is not unique in this regard. A photograph in LIFE magazine depicted a young poor African lad wearing flattened water bottles, tied with cloth on his feet, for lack of proper footwear.

India is still a developing nation and has a long way to go before it can become comparable to the likes of cities like Shanghai or Tokyo. Just a few mornings ago, the newspapers announced that based on the findings of the S&P (Standard and Poor’s global economic ratings) India could become a ‘fallen angel’ from BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) even as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee rejected the report citing justifiable reasons of transparency and rating process. Socio-economic progress continues to happen, but if one were to measure it against the number of years the nation has been functioning as an independent democracy, it would resemble a snail’s pace. So even as, flyovers across the city start to double in number every few years, even as primary education is made free for every child regardless of whether there are enough schools and teachers to support this well intended good cause, even as malls across the city close down due to competition from other malls right opposite the road thereby squandering crores of rupees, the common man continues to trudge along slowly and steadily, employing whatever means to hand.

And for a more humorous take on ingenuity, walking up the stairs in a marriage hall, I stumbled upon a door held open by a belt – usually used to hold one’s pants up! Noticing that the door opener had broken, someone had very cleverly tied the belt to the door knob and the staircase metal railing together. I couldn’t help but hope that the man hadn’t been caught with his pants down – pun intended. Through it all, the saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ comes to mind. After all, aren’t circumstances responsible for discoveries and inventions? 

21 Comments

  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    20.06.12 12:41 PM
    @Deepa,

    You are absolutely right. During my last Dec 2011 visit to Chennai I happened photograph a life size poster of Ms. Jayalalitha on a wall at one end of the Anna flyover. At her feet a small mountain of garbage dumped and I saw it everyday over a whole week that I happened pass daily into the city. Standing near the Poster if one looked over to the flyover a small board hung there read “Ethayum Thangum Ithayam Vendum”

    Reading your surname I am almost certain you know Tamil and therefore the meaning of that phrase. That exactly is what the few educated are left to do. Living in Germany for four decades and running our own advertising business for the last 18 years our success was based and is until today on our work ethics, punctuality and professionalism,

    Being migrants in this country we are lovingly known as “Schokolade Menschen” in our village. Our house outside and inside is as neat and tidy as any German house. Even here in Germany you find the odd rotten egg making me think has Indian genes.

    But life goes on and I say Oh! God give me the courage to accept things that I can not change.
  • Deepa Duraisamy
    By
    Deepa Duraisamy
    20.06.12 12:00 PM
    @Rajpriya: I completely agree with you on the missing educated people to lead the country. We do have some, but they are scattered by and far. We need visionaries.

    As far as grass root level goes, simple stuff. People still litter, they spit. We need to understand that this is not a free spit-for-all. Cutting in line. That's irritating too. Yesterday when in line at a railway station, with about 20 people ahead of me, one guy cut in line and went straight to the counter. No one stopped him. We have grown immune to these things. I went up to him and told him, he said he was only here to collect coupon vouchers. I showed him a notice which said 'From April 2012 onwards coupon vouchers also available only through queue'. He looked at me and said Thank you and continued to stand there. But my husband and others behind us took that as a cue to start objecting. His wife finally came and pulled him out lecturing him on the way out. We do not have to be heroes - I have read about road rage victims and I don't want to attempt that. But we as a population, need to learn punctuality, ethics etc. One drop cannot make an ocean. But it will atleast be a contribution.
  • Jalpa
    By
    Jalpa
    18.06.12 11:59 AM
    Nice written article, Deepa.

    Your article reminds me of my father's extraordinary skills. Being a maths teacher at profession but he knew how to fix everything and anything that stopped working at home - fixing blown electrical fuses, noisy washing machine, servicing two wheelers, laptop heat sinks, jammed doors in monsoon, naturally treating health issues etc. He is a perfect example of an ingenious Indian fighting against the issues of a developing country but utilizing his skills to deal with circumstances.

    It was a joy to read your article.

    Please keep posting.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    18.06.12 03:01 AM
    Correction: please read as " We sadly miss Statesmen"
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    18.06.12 02:33 AM
    Developing a better attitude at the grass root level is the other part of the problem. The mindset is only changing at a snail’s pace. It was 65 years ago that we Indians rejoiced that we had a grass root that was stubborn enough to stand against foreign occupation.

    Today we miss the same stubborn-ness to stay together to take India many levels higher than where we are today or should already have. India is a country developing at a rapid pace (needs less to say) but what we need is to unite and become more patriotic and become part of the grass root that is ailing right now.

    We miss the educated patriotic politician to lay the solid foundation on which the nation can stand much taller in the world. We sadly miss statesman. We had people with foreign education who came back and made attempts to correct all that was wrong with us.

    Today we see people returning with education but forever complaining what is wrong in India and pointing out the missing professionalism, work ethics and punctuality. Show us the way.

    Why do we find them missing when we never had them. We cannot lose what we never had but working hard we can earn those assets that could make Indians rich.

    We keep comparing ourselves to the west instead of trying to show we could be better. We have got used to eating what they eat, drink what they do, dress like them and to top it all we can speak exactly like Ami’s and we are proud we could do that. How do we make Amis speak Indian languages and say Oh! I want to be an Indian.

    I am a dreamer.
  • Deepa
    By
    Deepa
    18.06.12 12:39 AM
    @Harry: I feel that corruption is only part of the problem, not the entire problem. It will definitely lead to a better India but what's also needed is a better attitude at the grass root level. The overall mindset is changing but we need more awareness and a hammer to drive the point home that India is OUR country.

    Also, as Umashankar says rightly, the glass is only quarter full. In no way, does the ingenuity make everything right or good. Its just us dealing with what we have. In no way, should this make us content and happy with what we have. We should still strive for betterment!
  • HARRY
    By
    HARRY
    17.06.12 01:18 AM
    @ Rajpriya

    I see your point. :)
    HARRY
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    16.06.12 08:19 AM
    @Harry,

    Even if (?) India succeeds in eradicating corruption to zero level the common man will always exist. His ingeniousness is the gift of God, a substitute that helps him manage without money - without which
    the rich man could only be scratching his head.

    While the rich man buys ingenuity of others the common man is born Ingenious. The common man –
    a combination of Intelligence and a Genius.

    I hope you would agree with me on this my friend?
  • HARRY
    By
    HARRY
    16.06.12 12:15 AM
    @ Deepa

    I loved the write up. All I can say is sterile image of unsterile place. Would you not agree that, if all the corruption was eliminated, we would not have to compromise with what we have.

    HARRY
  • jaish_vats
    By
    jaish_vats
    15.06.12 10:01 PM
    Hi Deepa

    One thing the conditions in India instills in Indians - flexibility and adaptability...We top the world there :)
  • umashankar
    By
    umashankar
    15.06.12 09:12 PM
    Deepa, I quite enjoyed your sunshine post about the 'state of mind' called India. Many thoughts crossed my mind as I read it but I'd hate to show a black flag to the beauty of your piece. Yes, madam, the glass is definitely one quarter full!
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    15.06.12 03:44 PM
    Correction: Please read

    These One friends don’t accept money because they like to help people what you would rarely find in the West.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    15.06.12 03:43 PM
    @Deepa,

    You must contact Barnaby urgently to get introduced to his "I have one friend" to fix things. These One friends don't accept money because they like to help people what you rarely find would in the West.
  • Deepa Duraisamy
    By
    Deepa Duraisamy
    15.06.12 03:15 PM
    Thank you all for your kind words. Bhavana, Stuart, Rajpriya, Indu and Rachna: I completely agree with your thoughts. So very true, its because we have less we have learnt to use it tactfully. If someday, we have a windfall, we might live a relaxed life too - prepacked as Stuart says. But yes, its definitely refreshing to see people use their creativity in daily life when resources are limited.

    Indu - Yes, I was out of pocket for a while since I just recently came to India. Had no connectivity. Internet setup took a while and I feel so much alive again!

    Animesh and Britul: Thank you for your kind words!
  • Rachna
    By
    Rachna
    15.06.12 11:53 AM
    You have brought out well our approach to a problem chins up and the multiple innovative ways of tackling daily struggles.
  • animesh shah
    By
    animesh shah
    15.06.12 11:31 AM
    well written miss deepa..
  • britul sharma
    By
    britul sharma
    15.06.12 10:38 AM
    Very nice post. Very good flow of language.
  • indu chhibber
    By
    indu chhibber
    15.06.12 10:24 AM
    Deepa your post is all about the hidden talents of us Indians-i loved it.Instead of going for use-n-throw consumerables,we try to put our present inventory to better use.This sharpens out of box thinking & promotes thrift.
    Are you posting after a long time or have i missed your posts?I will just check.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    15.06.12 09:59 AM
    “The ingenious common man” I think was the one who may have prompted someone to say, “Necessity is mother of Invention”. Once again some one has made available what would have escaped the bird’s eye view of others. I cannot better Stuart’s comment above that says most of what I would want to say myself. Brilliant! Write up.

    On other hand taking the same trip in a bus, train, hospital or to your local family doctor in UK or Germany the scenes could be quite the opposite. One would find most men filling crossword puzzles (they purposely remember to bring their ball pens) and women pulling their small mirrors out to apply lipstick tweaking their mouth and face filing their fingernails to make sure they look ok at their destination.

    Worst when they struggle to hide their modesty being outraged by trying put one leg over the other wearing very short dresses many times to the discomfort of others while I often wonder if they had to under go such stress

    The Ingenious common Men and Women could be found only in third world countries providing enough clever and creative entertainment. The west with everything already invented they are busy copying Steve Jobs’ or someone else’s creativity.
  • bhavana
    By
    bhavana
    15.06.12 09:26 AM
    India is a Jugaad society after all--but it is pleasing to see how they can do with little and think laterally to use common place items in innovative ways. In "developing"countries things are so specialized--what you need to wear for running, for tennis, for football, for hiking is so utterly specialized. Whats the point? I think although it looks bad and horrifying at times, India has a lesson to teach others--to live in less and to make better use of everything.
    Neat article Deepa--well penned, backed up by facts, and flow is so easy to follow!
  • Stuart
    By
    Stuart
    15.06.12 06:28 AM
    What a lovely celebration of the human spirit! It is refreshing to read articles like this one, which remind us that part of human nature is meeting challenges with the resources at our disposal. Living in a world that increasingly wants all solutions pre-packaged, it's encouraging to see inventiveness and versatility thriving. Thank you!

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