You know you’re part of the Indian middle-class when…

(Because we all just love stereotypes).

  1. Your national element is Indium (In), very malleable and soft, but not useful for building long-lasting structures.
  2. You find it normal for random people to get close on buses, but find the idea that two potential life-partners be allowed to talk unsupervised before being thrust into wedlock, preposterous.
  3. You expect your children to win dance, music, spelling, and math competitions every year, but don’t pay as much attention to finding out if they are really of sound mind and body.
  4. You prefer actors in mythological shows who have prominent vaccination scars on their forearms.
  5. Your prefer Bombay Sapphire gin for your martini over Beefeater not because it tastes better, because you don’t like the name of the latter.
  6. You work for Tata Wiprosys or know someone who does.
  7. You need the Supreme Court to judge whether or not two consenting adults have the right to live together outside of marriage, but are pretty sure that cheap fuel is a birthright enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
  8. You frown upon those who buy “made in India” clothing in India, but not those who buy the same products  abroad.
  9. You know that when a government official is asking for chai-paani he or she is not curious if you brought your hot-water bottle.
  10. You use the same word for a type of dal and species of deer which likes grass more than dal.
  11. The memsahibs in your country have given way to another officious class – the memosahibs.
  12. You translate “mild” to what most Westerners would likely consider Dante’s Inferno on the “spicy-scale”.
  13. You avoid whole-grain bread, because you prefer white over wheat(ish).
  14. You would consider purchasing a soft-drink from a vending machine, but only if the coin was inserted for you by a vendor wearing a uniform and a soft baseball cap.
  15. You feel India needs a “baby” vegetable such as “baby lady’s finger” because the Americans have the “baby carrot” and the Chinese have the “baby corn”.

Disclaimer: I’ve posted many of these thoughts on Twitter.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

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Diplomacy in the age of glacial relations

Today, I saw a column in the Sunday Times of India on Indian foreign policy by none other than Indian novelist, Chetan Bhagat.  Mr Bhagat takes a very hawkish line in a whiny tone after the collapse of the India-Pakistan peace talks between SM Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi. If it now acceptable for non-experts to write on international affairs, then I’m happy to oblige. I know next to nothing about the topic, but I do know a thing or two about human nature.

So, what options are really available in responding to a crisis through the proper use of diplomacy? Sir Humphrey Appleby gave the most brilliant exposition on diplomacy in the second episode of Yes, Minister that I’ve ever come across:

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options:

One: do nothing.
Two: issue a statement deploring the speech.
Three: lodge an official protest.
Four: cut off aid.
Five: break off diplomatic relations.
And six: declare war.

Hacker: Which should be it?

Sir Humphrey: Well:

If we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech.
If we issue a statement, we’ll just look foolish.
If we lodge a protest, it’ll be ignored.
We can’t cut off aid, because we don’t give them any.
If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can’t negotiate the oil rig contracts.
And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting!

In the episode, these option were laid out with respect to a crisis created by the head of the fictitious African state of Buranda, but with a little imagination they can be made to fit most international crises.

But even this fictitious scenario can’t hold a candle to the most surreal event in the history of India-Pakistan relations. Siachen Glacier holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s highest battlefield -where more soldiers are lost on either side to the elements than to enemy fire. While reading up on how both sides got involved in this intractable conflict, I came across the following passage in the New York Times:

By the early 80’s, both armies were sending expeditions into the area, and suspicions accumulated like fresh snow. In late 1983, the Indians became convinced the Pakistanis were about to seize the glacier, [India’s] General [M.L.] Chibber said. This was inferred from intercepted communiques. If further evidence was needed, he said, it came when India sent procurers to Europe to buy cold-weather gear. They ran into Pakistanis doing the same shopping.

In other words, Indian and Pakistani military officers were shopping for high-altitude gear at the same shop at around the same time and this may have contributed to the outcome of future events.

Now, I know both countries have creative writers. I challenge them to come up with fiction resembling our warped reality.

© 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

How to get a bank loan in India

Or how to forge your own signature.

Our NRI friend Pappu Patligali recently applied for a personal loan from a local bank. He was planning on applying to one of the swank new privately-operated banks, but was advised not to by his elderly patients. “All our lives we have only transacted with the Tropical Bank of India,” they said, sagaciously.

Pappu picked up the form and got together an application packet with all the primary documents, supporting pieces of evidence, and annexures. Properly-dressed and armed with the bulging file, Pappu arrived at the bank at 11 AM. He walked up to the loan officer, who was annoyed that he was interrupted from relishing the juicy gossip in the morning papers. A Bollywood starlet was pregnant, and there was speculation that the father of the love-child was a flamboyant Australian left-handed batsman.

“Yes? What can I do for you?” barked the loan officer as he peered up from his glasses.

“Well, I came the other day. You gave me a form so that I could apply for a loan…”

“Hmmm. I need ALL documents on this list. If you are missing one only, then sorry I cannot help you,” said the loan officer as he sipped his chai. This was usually an adequate deterrent for most applicants.

“Yes, I know. I’ve brought the listed ones plus a few others. Originals and attested photocopies.”

A look of disgust crossed the loan officer’s morose face. Why were these people intent on spoiling his day? Everyone should have known by now that his mornings were devoted to scanning the newspapers. He did an hour of work in the afternoon and then went for tiffin. After a final round of chai, he was in the habit of leaving for the day so that he could yell at his wife and kids.

As he was about to find some excuse to put this aside, the loan officer looked up at Pappu and felt pity for him. Perhaps it was the martyred expression on Pappu’s face. He said, “leave you application materials and come back after one week.”

One week passed by.

“Hi. My name is Pappu Patligali. I applied for a loan last week.”

“Yes. Please sit down. I am sorry, but you will need to fill out another application form,” said the loan officer.

“What? Why? I thought I had included everything” said Pappu incredulously.

“No sir. You were supposed to provide your full signature on the line here,” chided the loan officer.

“But I did. Right here. P. Patligali. That is my signature.”

“No we need FULL signature for official purposes. Please, you write, Pappu Patligali,” corrected the loan officer.

Realizing that arguing was going to get him nowhere, Pappu sighed. He picked up another form, “signed” it with his first and last name legible, and handed it over.

“Thank you sir. Please come and check again next week.”

“Next week? But you’ve already taken a look at all the documents! Why should it take so long?” said Pappu furiously.

“No please understand. This is not America. These things take time in India or have you forgotten saab?” said the loan officer sarcastically.

Another week passed by.

“Well, have you now had a chance to look over my application?” said Pappu, hoping to finally get some sort of resolution.

“Sorry, I cannot help you. You will need to apply again,” said the loan officer coolly.

“What! What the hell is going on here? What’s the matter now?” yelled Pappu.

“There are three signatures on the application form. In two you have signed ‘Pappu’ with the capital ‘P’, but one looks like small ‘p’. I will get in trouble because it looks like fraud case.”

Pappu was furious. “I signed those documents in front of you! What is going on here? I demand to see the Bank Manager.”

Arre, no use getting gussa. What will Manager do, saab? I am here to help you, na? But try to understand. We are understaffed and this is lot of work for me.” said the loan officer with a tragicomic look on his face.

Pappu finally understood what the delay was all about. He reached for his wallet to provide some chai-paani to grease the wheels, but was stopped short. “What you are doing? Not here,” said the loan officer. “Your address is on the form, saab. You are married, na? I will come to your house and bring some sweets for bhabhiji and little ones. Oh and you please not to worry, saab. I am telling that you will get loan.”

More of The Charmed Life of Pappu Patligali here

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to write an application letter in Indian English

Pappu Patligali, our perennial hero, recently moved to India after spending years abroad working on various IT projects. Pappu studied in English-medium schools before completing his engineering degree from a state engineering college in Karnataka. In school, Pappu enjoyed reading novels written by Enid Blyton, but was not thrilled with studying English. He didn’t know why his teachers insisted that he study grammar from Wren & Martin, a book originally written for children of British officers in 1935 (during the reign of King George V) .

Pappu wrote in a very ornate style before moving abroad for higher studies. He soon learned how to write letters and emails in a more direct manner.

So, upon his return to India, he applied to join the local Housing Cooperative with the following letter:

Dear Sir/Madam:

My name is Pappu Patligali. I’ve recently moved into the neighborhood and I’d really like to join your Society as a full-time member. I’ve enclosed a completed application form along with all required fees. I’d really appreciate your help in expediting the process.

Please feel free to contact me if you need any further information. I look forward to meeting you in person!

Thanks in advance,

Sincerely,

Pappu Patligali

On submitting the letter, Pappu was told brusquely that he didn’t know how to write in English and that he needed to resubmit in triplicate with full particulars per the approved sample proforma letter. Of course, there was no use telling the Society’s members that the National Council of Educational Research and Training now publishes a textbook recommending that letters be written in a modern style.  Pappu just ended up showing his NRI ignorance.

Ultimately, Pappu followed the prescribed proforma and sent the following letter in triplicate:

Respected Sir:

Respectfully, I beg to state that I am Pappu Patligali, son of Sri Jhappu Patligali currently domiciled in Nayaghat within PS- Kotwali in District Uttar Dinajpur under the jurisdiction of your esteemed Society.  My permanent address is Village Rampur, of aforementioned District and police jurisdiction. It is hereby requested forthwith that I may please be enrolled as a Member of your Society under the provisions of Bye-laws and State Act of 1962 the Rules framed thereover and thereunder.

Therefore, I seek to humbly request herewith to deposit the prescribed amount as payment in cash the membership fee and the entrance fee today for which kindly money receipt from branch-office near Hanuman Mandir may please be issued on paper in my favour. Further, I am to forthwith state that I shall endeavour to solemnly and most faithfully abide by the rules and Bye-laws of the Society as Member of the Society with my firstborn forfeit and under pain of death (as per provisions articulated in Byelaw No. 221 Part C dated Jan 20, 1962).  Moreover, sir, it is my heartiest and most humble entreaty to you to kindly and most generously look into the matter and do the most needful at your earliest convenience.

I remain, yours obediently,

Full signature of Pappu Patligali

Place :

Date :-

(s/d attestation of first-class gazetted officer)

Needless to say Pappu’s letter is currently in a file under a stack of similar letters awaiting review by the Secretary of the Society.

Footnote: Although I’ve written both letters specifically for this post, I’ve been heavily influenced in the second letter by actual examples on the internet including this one.  If you have time, take a look at question 17 of the 2009 UPSC General Ability Test which asks test-takers to look at the following sentence: “Respectfully I beg to state that I am suffering from fever for the past fortnight.”

Read about Pappu’s next misadventure here.

© 2010-2012, Anirban