Saturday, 14 September 2013

Chaos Is A Warm And Fuzzy Hairball, Or Is It?

Trust Indians to put a positive spin on their country's worst characteristics. It's certainly easier than improving!

I was recently pointed to a TED talk by that well-known ambassador for Indian culture, Devdutt Pattanaik. His argument reminded me of a similar talk I have heard from that doyen of scholars of Indian civilisation, the erudite and much-respected Rajiv Malhotra. Both pieces are brilliantly argued. The core thesis, formulated in an attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence kind of way, is that any perceived "chaos" in India is just a symptom of a problem in the Western mind. There really is no chaos. It's just "diversity", "inclusion" and "negotiated boundaries", in the words of Pattanaik, or as Malhotra would put it, it's just everybody doing his own thing in a spirit of live-and-let-live that happens to result in "cognitive overload" within Western minds that are used to only "simple models".

Is that the simple explanation that reframes what happens in India and turns the daily unpleasantness and frustration of the Indian experience into a beautiful set of patterns, now that we are newly enlightened?

Somehow, I would find Pattanaik's glib characterisation of an Indian road's "negotiated boundaries" more convincing if India didn't have the highest number of road fatalities in the world. And since it has also been reported that the majority of victims belong to poorer sections of society, I think I have a pretty good idea of how those negotiations go. "Might is right" may in fact be a better description of the operating principle behind Indian roads than either "inclusion" or "negotiated boundaries".

Likewise, Rajiv Malhotra's benign characterisation of the Kumbh Mela as a self-organising system with no event manager or schedule of events may inspire awe, until one realises that stampedes are a regular feature of this periodic gathering of devotees. The deadliest was in 1954 (over 1000 deaths), but recent years have seen fatalities too (39 in 2003, 7 in 2010 and 36 in 2013).

I have a less rose-tinted view of India's systems, having suffered them for many years. Indian systems are expedient. They sort of work because they have to. People need to get their work done, and they will brave the lack of defined process stoically, negotiating as best as they can against the elements and other people, and be satisfied with the outcomes they get. Contentment with one's lot is just a coping mechanism to avoid perpetual frustration. It certainly should not be glorified as some kind of civilisational wisdom, which is what these popular modern philosophers are trying to do.

The big picture view in such cases is also horribly cruel, because it dismisses the fatalities, the injuries and even the individual frustration that systems may cause. A "Western" view of a system would be that even one fatality is one too many. In India, life is cheap, and there are doubtless many who would view 10 deaths at a Kumbh Mela stampede as "fairly low" for an event that attracts tens of millions of devotees. I think that is the core difference between Western and Indian systems. In spite of Pattanaik's characterisation of Indian systems as more "inclusive" than Western ones, at a practical level, the individual gets much more respect in the Western system than in the Indian one.

Malhotra dismisses the negative side of the Indian lack of systemic rigour with a chuckle that his audience shares. Work not delivered at the agreed time, quality and quantity of agreed deliverables not being met, etc., are serious issues, not endearing cultural traits to be affectionately chided. These are flaws in the Indian character, and they need to be fixed. Malhotra does concede that India needs to learn some order from the West, but does not see it as a symptom of a larger problem, which is that Indians are essentially a defeated and cynical race. We have simply given up on striving, and are content to survive, get by, negotiate slightly better deals, cut corners, bribe, cheat our neighbour, beat the system, and in general, win little tactical victories at an individual level rather than lift ourselves as a society to a higher plane of existence.

There have been many who have called out for improvement in the Indian character, Mahatma Gandhi being the best known of them. Such people make the rest of us uncomfortable, and I'm sure Gandhi would have ended up being shot by some other disgruntled group if not the one that did do him in. Today, it seems the most popular thought leaders are those who assure us, Reagan-like, that there is nothing wrong with us and that we are in fact the greatest.

A more effective call to inaction I have never seen.

Devdutt Pattanaik's warm and fuzzy speech "India is not chaotic", only slightly dampened by the statistic that the system of "negotiated boundaries" kills 13 people an hour on Indian roads.


Rajiv Malhotra's engaging fireside chat explains India's perceived chaos as a product of the mind of the Western observer, while making light of the Indian unconcern for quality, time and the other person

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