How to tip desi-style – a guide to the “baksheesh”

Pappu Patligali was seated with his friends at at a table in the A.C. section of New Aroma Restaurant located just off of National Highway 6. He was visiting India during semester break and he had a few days to enjoy with friends and family before heading back to the US to finish up his Master’s thesis. Before heading to India, he had packed his suitcase with gift items for friends and family that included cosmetics, watches, and toiletries. He had even picked up a couple of liter-bottles of single-malt for sharing. But even though he packed as much as he could without having to pay for extra baggage, he found that by the fifth day of his stay he always ran out of “itemized” gifts. He had learned the hard way that it was advisable to carry massive family-size bags of Snickers bars and Jolly Ranchers candy for these types of emergencies. Sadly, this time even the hyperglycemia inducers got depleted after a week.

It was then that Pappu decided to take his friends to dinner at New Aroma. He had heard good things about the Mughlai dishes prepared by the restaurant. Another nice thing about the restaurant was that it had two sections, an A.C. for upper-class patrons such as Pappu and his friends, and a dhaba-style section with charpoys for drivers, helpers of drivers, and assistants to driver’s helpers. The same food was served in both sections, but the AC restaurant had steeper prices because it was air-conditioned, it had a menu, waiters served patrons in crisp white shirts, and bottled mineral water was provided (at extra charge of course).

Pappu and his friends received an excellent table, great service, and a delicious meal for dinner. They enjoyed the food thoroughly, and once they were done eating and chatting, Pappu picked up the bill for 720 rupees. He pulled out eight hundred-rupee notes from his wallet, while stuffing a bit of the moist saunf and hard sugar crystals in his mouth.

The tipping point:

David, the waiter brought back the balance of 80 rupees. Pappu thought to himself, “well, this isn’t exactly 15% gratuity, but I’ll leave 80 rupees which should be enough to cover it.”

He was getting up from his chair to leave, when he was stopped by Karthik.

“Dude, what are you doing?” asked Karthik. He was glaring at Pappu.

“I’m leaving a tip,” said Pappu in a matter-of-fact tone while spitting out a twig from the saunf.

“Yes, but why so much? Give the bugger five or ten rupees for his effort” said Karthik while the others around the table nodded.

“Yeah, but I enjoyed the service, I thought I’d give the waiter around 10% for his effort. I mean they can’t get paid an awful, lot can then?”

Everyone at the table started laughing at Pappu’s naive comment. “Dude, this isn’t Amreeka. Leave your 10%, 20%  for when you are back in the States. Here we give loose change unless we are at a Five-star hotel with our girlfriends. Then we pay a good tip to impress the ladies.”

As soon as Karthik got done, Abhi started to explain the desi baksheesh philosophy to Pappu. ” Service-wervice is fine, but what does it matter if you give the guy 80 rupees? You will be back in Amreeka, na? What difference will it make if you don’t come again? When I wanted to get security clearance for my parents’ passports I paid baksheesh to the local intelligence bureau up front. You should always tip in expectation not in appreciation. ”

“Look Pappu, if I want a nice table at a busy fancy, restaurant I slip a few notes when I arrive. Pay them later for efficient service? Yeah, right,” said Kathik as he rolled his eyes.

Chal, Pappu, pick up the change, ” said Somesh. “Beta, Amreekan ban gaya. it looks like you’ve forgotten everything about your own country, yaar.”

More of the Charmed Life of Pappu Patligali here.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


India though the eyes of a former Viceroy

A chance encounter with a copy of the October 1943 issue of the National Geographic magazine at a library book-sale piqued my interest since the headline article was about British India. I have always had more than a passing curiosity in the opinions of the British ruling-class during the days of the Raj. What did they feel their roles were in India? Were they simply traders forced into ruling uncivilized natives that knew no better?

I had to find out what this authors’ opinion was so I purchased the magazine on the spot. The article written by Lord Halifax, Viceroy of British India from 1926-1931 combined elements of genuine interest in the affairs of India with unapologetic views of the role that the British played in shaping it. Some of the broader themes in the article are commonly found in many other articles written by authors of similar origin and social-standing and are worth pointing out.

The first comment that struck my attention was this mock denial of the true nature of the balance of power in British India:

“About 39 percent of the whole country, an area of 716,000 square miles, is included in what are known as Indian States. Some of these States of which there are 562, are very large… Many of them are very old, and nearly all existed before the British ever set foot in India. Most of them were never conquered, but of their free will entered into treaty relations with the British… It is an added complication of India’s problems that the 93,189,000 people who live in the States are not British subjects and owe allegiance only to their own rulers.”

Of course Lord Halifax is referring to the Princely States in this passage and delineating them from the eleven Provinces which at the time formed British India. In my opinion, Indian school history textbooks do not adequately describe the powers vested with the Princely States during British rule and only nominally mention the larger of these States  in the context of the political integration of India orchestrated effectively by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It would not surprise me if the Indian Princely States were willing allies of the British Crown considering it was in their vested interests to support feudalism. However, does simply saying that the Princely States were happy campers that supported the British acknowledge the realpolitik of the climate? Did the rulers of these Princely States have any reasonable choice?

The second thought pervasive throughout the article is the notion of India as a conglomeration of states cobbled together only by the presence of British ruling elite. Although the Mughal Empire had successfully consolidated much of what later became British India, there is arguably, some credence to this twisted notion. Strong opposition to a ruling class can often be a catalyst for unification of  disparate races or tribes. Dislike for the British might not have been the predominant unifying force, but it certainly might have been one of many.

In the article Lord Halifax also states the following:

“The English did not come to conquer; they came to trade…. For the first 150 years after their arrival, their relations with India were exactly the same as those of the United States with India, or Great Britain with South America, today… The successors of Akbar… became increasingly incapable of holding together his mighty empire; and as this dissolved into lawlessness, the only possible successor to take its place was the East India Company, working under the shadow of the British Crown.”

Again, the tone is defiant. The British were, according to Lord Halifax, unwillingly forced to take on the mantle of ruling India because of a void in leadership. Unfortunately, an external, perceived need for unification is paternalistic and rooted in the colonial mindset.

Lord Halifax continues with the following statement:

“The danger of creating a political vacuum by the withdrawal of one type of authority before another equally reliable is able to replace it is obvious enough.”

Here, there is a sense of resignation that the passing of India from British hands is inevitable. But the passage also reeks of a paternalistic attitude. Did the British know what was best for India? It is an irrelevant question when taken in context of the political disenfranchisement of the people of the land. Who was to say what was good or bad if the people had no voice?

Lord Halifax then talks about the social and economic advance of India under the British and economic and financial “independence” from Britain. Regarding political independence Lord Halifax writes:

“In 1757, when the British began to obtain a real footing in India, no one thought that there was anything unnatural in the idea that one people should govern another… The doctrine developed by Locke and other British thinkers, that the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, was still in its infancy. The American Revolution was indeed based expressly on this doctrine, with which were associated certain inherent human rights; but even after the War of Independence, only an enlightened minority in this country [USA] disputed the institution of slavery of the expropriation of the American Indian.”

Lord Halifax is completely unapologetic and also continues in the vein that the conquest of India was an accident of history. An accident, perhaps, but weak moral justification even when combined with the preceding “we-know-what-is-best-for-India” attitude.

Lord Halifax also attempts to preempt any harsh criticism from American readers (he was the Ambassador to the US at the time) by sermonizing on the shortcomings in the early history of the US. As a debater , I can admire this sort of wily rhetorical maneuvering; as a rational thinker, I find the underlying logic disingenuous.

I will concede that the author does, however, have a point with respect to the concept of nationality and nationalism. From a sociological standpoint, the concept of communities involves including those that “belong” based on shared traits and excluding those that do not because they do not share the same traits. It is the role of any successful government to foster the sense of community among citizens. In modern India, these concepts coalesced around many nuclei (which included, as I pointed out, opposition to British rule).

The final comment worth mentioning from the piece discusses relations between Hindus and Muslims.

“Between Moslem and Hindu, there is a baffling absence of fundamental community of thought or feeling… From time to time it is alleged that the British, on the principle of ‘Divide and Conquer,’ have encouraged the quarrels which lead to this disturbance. This is simply not true.”

Throughout the article, Lord Halifax expounds the view that there are fundamental differences between Hindus and Muslims which are irreconcilable. I leave you to ponder on this viewpoint in light of the events of the last sixty-seven years during which time Pakistan was carved out of India, and Bangladesh out of Pakistan.

Notwithstanding my criticism of the article, I found it to be a provocative read, if for nothing else then for gaining insights into the mind of someone so intimately associated with the history of the South Asian subcontinent.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

The monumental failure of modern Indian architecture

All great civilizations boast architectural wonders that are not only expanses for the soul, but temples of the mind. I gaze upon temples and stupas and get a glimpse into the heart of ancient India. In the medieval forts and palaces, I am transported into my country’s heritage. I look at the Taj Mahal and see both the extremes of love and the cruelty of a Mughal emperor. These are all icons of our glorious past. But when I wish to see a vision for our nation’s future, I am left bewildered. As someone born in in free India, I humbly ask my fellow citizens, why is it that we have failed to create architectural icons representative of the nation in over sixty years?

Kalighat: The simple grace of Bengal.

The post-colonial establishments of free India – Parliament, Raj Bhawan, India Gate were designed by our British rulers. Even the Supreme Court of India, which was designed by Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar shortly thereafter, bore the hallmark of the same Indo-British style. Our rulers changed with Independence, and they changed the names of our cities, streets, and buildings. Yet ironically, the physical reminders of a foreign regime became the most visible icons of modern India.

I find it disconcerting that we cheerfully embrace all our colonial icons in post-Independence India, especially since there has never been a dearth of architects in this country.

The first years after Independence, Nehruvian thinking and Five-Year Plans guided our development. Massive dams and bridges were built. Roads, schools, and hospitals were constructed. These were very noble ideals that were required then, as much as they are now. However, the resulting architecture neither represented the cultural aspirations of the local communities, nor were the buildings entirely utilitarian. Nehruvian Chandigarh is neither an example of simple living, nor of high thinking. Frenchman Le Corbusier’s Modernist structures for Chandigarh are massive, stately buildings, yet they are vapid and sterile. Where is the link to the rich living heritage of the people of Punjab and Haryana?

Clearly, Modernist architecture did not mesh with local culture and identity. Even in urban conglomerates such as Mumbai, the Indo-British style epitomized in colonial-era buildings such as Gateway of India and Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus was more appealing than the vague Modernist style found in monstrosities such as the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Perhaps, the concept of pan-Indian architecture is a foolish notion. In a pluralistic country such as India, the concept of nation might be best defined as the sum of the myriad disparate, and often chaotic subcultures. Perhaps, we should look locally for inspiration.

After Independence, the chief minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, spearheaded efforts towards the development of the state. Durgapur became an industrial complex; Digha became the popular beach town; and Bidhannagar was planned as a a major suburb of Calcutta. The first Indian Institute of Technology was established at Hijli near Kharagpur. For economic progress, we required bold, utilitarian buildings. Unfortunately, that is all we ever got from successive governments.

As a result, today, the icons of  Kolkata are the icons of imperial Calcutta. Victoria Memorial, Raj Bhavan, Writer’s Building, Shaheed Minar, and Howrah Bridge are lasting legacies. Religious monuments in Kolkata and surrounding areas such as Kalighat, Dakhineswar Kali Temple, St Paul’s Cathedral, Belur Math, Nakhoda Masjid, and the Jain Temple also predate Independence. Major projects since Independence such as Vidyasagar Setu and Salt Lake Stadium are useful, but nondescript, and forcefully linked to the city only in  physical presence. Other buildings such as Chatterjee International are downright offensive. The only sense of architectural belonging I feel in the city is in the Metro rail system with its beautiful murals.

Elsewhere, buildings pop up like mushrooms during the monsoons. Shopping malls, cinema mutiplexes, steel technology “parks”, and high-rise housing complexes jostle for attention in the bustling metropolis. I know that the problems for architects and urban planners are daunting. But where is the sense of identity? Where is the link to Bengal’s cultural past and vision for the future? Every day, old buildings are torn down and replaced by ugly ones made from shoddy materials. Memory is fleeting and mediocrity substitutes for creativity.

Urban architecture stands in stark contrasts to the vernacular buildings dotting the countryside. The temples of Bishnupur are always inspirational, but we need only to look to the nearest thatched kachha-houses complete with courtyards and intricate alpona designs for elegance and economy. In fact, I find the small tulsi-mancha in front of nearly every home in rural Bengal to be more aesthetically appealing than any of the thousands of hideous buildings coming up these days.

Image (circa 1945) courtesy University of Pennsylvania Library Online Archive.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Why are Indians so good at test-taking? India’s first competitive exam

Post-mortem: A recent article in the New York Times on pressures facing school-leaving teenagers in India brought back my own personal memories of the Higher Secondary and various competitive examinations. Some things never change.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? I mean, those of us that survived live fairly normal lives as long as we don’t miss therapy and take the green pill in the morning, the blue one in the afternoon, and the red one at night. Oh that, and we have to avoid bright light. Did I mention the back-aches and the arthritis?

Not a big price to pay in order to enjoying the wonderful view from a cubicle.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain. Copyright of original works resides with the original creators.

How to write your own biography in Wikipedia. From the renowned author of “Deconstructing Quantum Sufi-Yoga”

Last night, the benevolent god mahi-mahi came to me in a vision and instructed me in a mix of Urdu-sounding Hindi, Hindi-sounding Urdu, Klingon, and C++ to form the Khudbakhud Uttarvedantic Wikipedia Society, a charitable organization exempt from US federal income tax under section 501(c)(3). As you know, articles in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia are among the top hits in internet search engines. The goal of our tax-exempt Society is to create our own biographies in Wikipedia and pass off to family members, jealous colleagues, prospective employers, and random, uninterested Facebook friends as evidence of our great standing in science and letters. In this guide, I will lead you in the art of creating your very own personalized Wikipedia autobiography.

One way to get on Wikipedia is to to actually do something worthy of recognition. You could write a bestseller or come up with a major scientific discovery and the world would most certainly notice. Someone would write a Wikipedia entry for you. But let’s be frank. I’m writing a blog and you’re sitting here reading it. Frankly, it ain’t gonna happen for either of us. Fortunately, Wikipedia is written by people like you and me, and so there are tons of mediocre people (just like you and me) who are writing their own over-hyped articles on Wikipedia as we speak. And even if you did have the talent to do something worthwhile in life, why would you take the trouble anyways? It is much easier to become notable through Wikipedia than to become notable and then get on Wikipedia.

Here are the steps to creating your own autobiography on Wikipedia:

Step 1. Start websites with legitimate-sounding domain names. In the mafia, you need a shop to act as a front. In the web popularity game, you need to get your name out on Google by posting comments with your name on as many websites and blogs as possible and starting a few fake websites of your own. If you’re a scientist, write about how great you are on your fake website New Sceintist, which sounds a lot like New Scientist. Steal html templates if you can. If it looks similar, it is just as good. Most people can’t read, so who will notice?

By getting your name out in cyberspace, you’re increasing your hits on Google, a primary index used to determine if you’ve done anything worthy of Wikipedia.

Step 2. Make a list of important-sounding fake publications. This is the most important step. If you’ve ever written anything in life, you need to put it on Wikipedia. For example the essay you wrote on the cow in primary school should be written up as A post-modern analysis of the sociological and economic importance of Bos indicus var. dudhwali in the South Asian subcontinent. Anything will do, but you will need to use words such as “deconstruction,” “post-modern”, “quantum”, “paradigm”, as well as a smattering of South Asian keywords (preferably with religious connotations). That way later if your article is tagged for deletion, you can always challenge the Wikipedia editors. If they dispute the South Asian part, tell them they are perpetrating colonialist stereotypes. If they attack the science, appeal to the art. No one on the planet understands both Derrida and Bose-Einstein statistics.

It is as easy as 1-2-3. Follow my example. By putting some very esoteric words in the title of this article, I am enhancing my own reputation as a pundit. Web aggregators will pick it up and soon enough I will be known as an expert in Deconstruction, quantum mechanics, Sufism, and yoga. Repeat after me: “I am as smart as I fake myself out to be”.

If you haven’t done anything creative in your life, then use the approach of making up something extremely important. For example, say that your magnum opus is A Long History of the World (Vol I-XX). Always use Roman numerals for volumes and throw in some French or Latin if possible. If challenged to produce your work, say that it was originally written in a now-extinct Andamanese dialect and that the editor is being a racist, Eurocentric pig. If you’re a woman, claim to be the poor victim of a male-dominated society. You can’t lose!

Step 3. Create an account on Wikipedia. You’ll need an account to look legit. Without one, editors will flag your IP address. Choose something distinguished such as Rabindranath_Tagore or S_Radhakrishnan and put an embellished resume up on your page. For example, if you know that Achtung is not the sound of a German sneezing, mention on your page that you have native-level comprehension of the German language.

Step 4. Find a list of editors you can win over. For the most part Wikipedia is edited not by professional experts, but by hobbyists who know all the levels in Tekken, but not which side of the bread is buttered. Win them over by commenting on their personal pages. They don’t have money, power, or social lives. I mean, why else would they write for no recognition or money?

Step 5. Make some very basic edits on other Wikipedia articles. If the first thing you do is to write your own article, people will get suspicious. Do some very basic copyediting on one of the thousands of incomprehensible articles on the site first.

Step 6. Steal the template for an existing high-quality Wikipedia article on someone you admire. Wiki-markup is easy, but stealing is easier. Take an article written about a famous person in your discipline and use it as a template. It will have all the category tags built it and it is as easy as “plug and play”.

Step 7. You are who you want to be, so write creatively. Journalists are very good at this, but everyone should be instinctively good at using weasel-words. Use “many”, “most”. and other non-specific words to blast across how awesome you are. As you write, think carefully. If you ever sent your flop book to someone, say it was “well received” (omitting the fact that the postal service is efficient). If your mother really liked your painting, say “many experts found it breathtaking in scope and originality.” If you know multiple languages, then use non-Roman script for your works. Again, you are working on the vanishingly small odds that there is someone who is both a polymath and a Wikipedia junkie.

A final word of advice  for those lucky few in positions of power. Get your employees or students to do the work for you. Say that you are just about to work on their annual performance review or grade their test papers. You’ll be surprised at how common people who don’t deserve to be on Wikipedia grovel just to keep us celebrities happy!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to talk with an Indian accent

Having spent many years in the US, I have often been told that I speak “without an accent.” Of course it is impossible to speak without any accent.  For example, broadly we can say that some people have American, British, or Indian accents which can be further divided into regional accents like Bostonian, Cockney, or received Benglish. If you talk like an Oxford hack, an editor at the Economist might say that you have no accent, because it wouldn’t be noticeable to him or her.

Sacha Baron Cohen. His name-a-Borat. Naaat

What does it mean to be told that you don’t have an accent? It is a polite way of saying that you weren’t wearing the tee-shirt with “I am proud to be an Indian” in huge block letters printed over an elephant that day. And your new acquaintance made an honest mistake of not being able to figure out both your ethnicity and nationality in under 10 milliseconds.

But there is also a bit of suspicion that you notice in his or her eyes. Is that really the way you talk or do you have an amorphous call-center accent that changes with each client? In other words, are you sincere or are you faking it?

There is nothing worse than having an insincere accent. You turn into a caricature if you try to ape Paul Hogan’s Australian “G’day mate” from Crocodile Dundee or Leonardo DiCaprio’s South African Archer spelled “ay ah- see-aich-e-ah” from Blood Diamond. Foster’s may be Oztrayl-yun for beyah, but you’ll be in the middle of a diplomatic crisis if you try to say it with a straight face  in Melbourne these days.

Some can actually make fake accents cool. I don’t blame you if wish you had Prince Julian’s suave Indian accent as he crooned “I like to move it, move it” in Madagascar. But that was Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen can be anyone he wants to be. You are not Cohen.

You don’t even sound like Hank Azaria or Tom Kenny with their genuwine desi accents for Apu on The Simpsons and Asok on Dilbert.

Sip on your water (“normal” please, no ice). At least you are Indian. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have the added burden of explaining that they only look Indian.

Breathe. Relax.  “I watched a lot of Hollywood movies,” or “English is like a native language for me,” you say apologetically. For the next few seconds there is  cold silence as your acquaintance tries to figure out if you are lying. Then, the waiter arrives with the tuna tartare and the silence is broken. You’re not in the spotlight anymore and balance is restored to the setting.

Keep your chin up. If you’ve ever felt left out because of having an accent (or not having a particular one), you’ll like the story I am about to tell you. This happened to a friend, who I know did not make it up because he is a gentleman beyond reproach, and the story is too ridiculous for fiction. Dave, I have to share the story, but if you write a memoir, I’m sure many readers of this piece will buy it.

Many years ago, this friend of mine arrived in the middle of Iowa straight out of the UK. One day he is at a bar making conversation with some new friends. There is a lively conversation going on. In the middle of the conversation, a girl blurts out that my friend “has an accent.”

“So where are you from?” she asks in a clueless drone.
“I’m from England,” he replies, a bit taken aback.
“Oh, okay… What do they speak over in England… (pause) German?”



Creative Commons license for image of SBC: / CC BY 2.0

© 2010-2012, Anirban

A review of a pre-globalization society as determined from Maine Pyar Kiya

Civilized cultures existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Similarly, intelligent life-forms existed in South Asia before the proliferation of cable television, cineplexes, shopping centers, cell phones, and the Internet. Using the cultural keystone Maine Pyar Kiya, I have attempted to painstakingly piece together details about the life of the “common person” as he or she lived in the era predating globalization.

I present a Short Metaphysical and Anthropological Treatise on a Pre-Globalization Society in South Asia as Determined from Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyar Kiya. If I have succeeded in presenting a snapshot of life in that long-gone era, I will consider my life to not have been spent in vain.

Suffice it to say that the Age of Maine Pyar Kiya was for all means and purposes an idyllic one.  However, there were cultural iconoclasts at odds with the prevailing customs of the day (cf. random grumpy faces). Deconstructing the themes leads us to the conclusion that there is irreducible complexity in Maine Pyar Kiya

More Bollywood Science here.

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the position of the scholarly community. Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free equivalent is not available. Copyright of original works resides with the original creator (most likely Rajsri Pictures).

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban