India's Culture : 'Articulation is mistaken for Accomplishment'

Narayana Murthy makes an interesting point in an interview he recently gave - he talks about the culture of execution in India and says our Brahminical Tradition undermines the culture of getting things done.

I shall not repeat his words here, but would rather write a personal reflection.

I know this observation is very true. Everyone living abroad knows this actually, when you watch how many things you are expected to do by yourself. When I came to Britain, I was soon struggling because I never fixed the electricity at home, never cooked a proper meal and never fixed the water supply before. Couple of years down the line, I had this awkward idea of creating a DIY website for India and I was laughed at, and eventually discouraged, because 'no one who would buy things on the Internet would ever want to do the jobs themselves'.

I had the same issue when I was setting up operations in India in my current job. The first things I brought for the office was an electric kettle and a toaster. I did have this idea that I am creating this workplace where people will spend long hours and will often have to prepare their own meals. However, my action shocked my colleagues - they never thought that any executive would want to make their own tea and toast - and to this day, those two items remind me of the misconceptions I had.

Mr. Murthy, an astute observer, connects this to the Brahminical traditions of our society. He is right - because we had a system of division of labour so deeply ingrained in us that all work that requires physical labour got relegated to certain 'classes' of people. Besides, because the caste system was not just a system of division of labour, but also denoted a certain hierarchy, we assigned the same hierarchy to the type of work we do. Naturally, the work of thinking and seeking meaning in life got the highest grade - as this was supposed to be the realm of the Brahmins - and the work requiring physical labour got relegated to the lowest rung of work. [For the uninitiated, the middle two tiers involved Warring Classes and Businessmen]

This gets really interesting here. We are indeed breaking down the caste barriers now and democratizing the access to professions. India indeed has instituted the World's biggest affirmative action programme and we have expanded the access to education and jobs to everyone. However, while we were busy breaking down the barriers of the caste, we silently kept reaffirming the concept of caste, of high and low work.

Of course, I understand that physical work is dated, and we are in a conceptual age now. Many Indian scholars see reaffirmation of the concepts of caste system in the whole body of thinking about the information age, and the necessity to move to conceptual work. But then someone has move materials, build buildings, sow the seeds and clean the roads. The problem of caste system is that by putting the division of labour at the heart of our social structure, we have delinked the physical and thinking work. We have created two universes, and while there are famous exceptions, we don't really expect someone who works in a restaurant during the day to study mathematics at night. [Also, remember the cinematic moment of Slumdog Millionaire, when the quiz show host, Prem, makes a mockery of the protagonist's, Jamal's, profession - Chaiwala, the teaboy!]

The theory of conceptual age is not about some people doing thinking work, but it is that all work will require thinking and creativity. It is, therefore, diametrically opposite to what Manu would have wanted to do. He does not get the blame - possibly this was the most practical thing to do at his time - but by codifying this and clinging to these codes even to this day, our Hindu scholars are deluding themselves and ruining our chances of development.

I keep coming back to this. I am Indian, but while I travel in India, I find an offensive culture of privilege. It feels as if the guy serving at a restaurant, selling newspapers or guarding buildings deserves no respect. We expect them to salute us, but hardly recognize them when they do so. And, I am sure I am not alone in this outrage. I have seen this reflected in White Tiger, where the driver recounts his life and journey through abuse and disrespect; you see the same thing in Slumdog Millionaire. I have noticed this and am so offended by it that I have now decided to measure, and like or dislike, people based on how much respect they show to others. I remember seeing this advise on one of the Hindi movies, where the girl was told how to judge the person she is dating - by checking out how he behaves with the waiters! Very true indeed.

Mr. Murthy makes the point that this culture undermines execution, and makes us a nation of talkers rather than doers. Any theorist of conceptual age will tell you that this is not a good thing - we need to start doing, even if that means taking up the pen for a would-be writer. I framed in my mind that this will be India's limit to growth - the untouched millions of people who we want to leave out of the prosperity circle by design - and this way, the idea of India will never be materialized.

India had a supposedly peaceful transition into independence [That statement discounts a few million dead in partition, but then who counts those wretched souls in India anyway!] We did not have wars, chaos and famine like China. We did not have a cultural revolution - we did not challenge the rules we were governed by all these years and we have never challenged those those who governed us. We saw our breaking point in history with Nehru's sweet dream-making or in the financial engineering of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his colleagues. We have never realized we must absorb the pains to break with the past to have a real chance to build a successful future. We still have an India which is 'going on' - may be only extreme chaos, the Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, can deliver us from our mediocrity.


workhard said…
Really great post..

To some extent the difference i saw in Indian and Western culture is that we lack dignity of labor..
Our ego stands in our way..

Web hosting india
Thanks for your comments. I have been thinking about this since, and made it a central point that I mention to all employees in our business.

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