On romanticising "communities"

Where do we start in trying to understand our communities? This is particularly relevant when we have multiple identities and affiliations, being an insider to many communities and at the same time, an outsider to many more. To a personal reflection by a fellow blogger on how the sense of community is different in India from those in the US, what I have to say is that we need eyes that can look deep and a mind that’s ready to take complexity. In this blogpost, I use communities not in the sense of those that are made of ‘others’, those we work with. Rather, I am referring to the communities where we live, those around you and I, whom we interact with in our day-to-day lives – those around us giving us a sense of being in a community.

First of all, the India you see is hardly a microcosm of the rest of the country. But given that no one can really see a truly representative sample, perhaps we need to look deeper at the crowd we get to see. In the crowd that I get to see for instance, there is the neighbourhood vegetable seller who usually smiles at me and tens of others who look through me as I walk by. I too am usually not really processing anything other than what I need to while getting from Point A to B. So its mutual, I understand and that’s the way life is. That’s the way life is for many others on my route. 
I do also see many others who know many more people on their route as they walk along, exchanging nods and smiles. And there are times and places where I behave completely differently and get a wide variety of responses.

The couple of years I was in Ghana, people would often greet me on the streets. So would people at my workplace. The year I spent in the UK was probably when I would hear passersby wish me the most frequently; notwithstanding the tube rides where no one made eye contact, which I was actually perfectly fine with.
Communities are important and communities are diverse in nature. India has millions of variations of this community and so does the US, I am sure. And these differences will remain and are important, not so much between countries, but within the communities that make up these countries.

Quick views on Satyamev Jayate

Satyamev Jayate is the latest celebrity show on television. KBC created millionnaires, Khatron ke Khiladi looked for daredevils, Big Boss created a bunch of public nuisances – this one wants to ‘change our hearts’ and while at it, hit us hard. So Aamir the superstar with his carefully cultivated public image hosts the series, the first of which focused on female foeticide. A bunch of media articles have dissected the show – I am going to try add some more – there aren’t too many, I promise and I am going to keep adding to the list as and when something strikes me…

First the positives –

  • Female foeticide is serious business and people need to sit up and realise the enormity of this evil. This show got people talking about the issue – a fairly good start; and great use of celebrity, as many have pointed out
  • The show relied on facts as much as it did on anecdotes and imagery
  • The show examined multiple facets of the issue – family, demographics, doctors, government, social consequences, a success story, etc
  • A politically safe topic to begin with – which could be good/bad – we’ll have to wait and see how the rest of it unfolds

While I didn’t mind the incessant promos and Aamir’s preachiness, here’s what I didn’t quite fit neatly with the ‘socially-conscious’ show

  • Making an issue purely personal sometimes comes in the way of an institutional solution. Somewhere in the show, the ‘personal’ took over because the host was Aamir and this is his connect with his audience. So although there were mentions of Korea and the success in Nawanshahar, at the end of the day, it boiled down to the sms and fund raising for Snehalaya, an NGO.
  • Female foeticide is a crime – not doubt about it. But what are the sociological factors that underlie this phenomenon; can these notions be dispelled? how? Nothing in the episode seemed to touch on this aspect.
  • Aamir pulls in the eye-balls. But clearly, in his presentation, he is aware of his celebrity status and is happy to project himself as the crusader, who is going to write the golden petition to the Rajasthan government. But the show should not be about him and neither should it be about what he has learnt. Its about issues that matter and people whose lives are affected by them.
  • The reality show format with a bunch of star-struck spectators in the studio is an instant put-off. If anything, their reactions come across as tutored, if not fake
  • Its unfortunate, but Sachin and Aamir – two of our biggest brands seem to have become the Ambanis’ resident celebrity cheer-leaders 

To sign off, a couple of what-ifs

  • What if Aamir encouraged us to not only send text messages, but also seek out and tune into other media that highlight similar issues? suicidal, I know – and Aamir is not naive.
  • What if Rahul Gandhi hosted this show? ah, well…we will never find out.

Its simple

Harish Hande, the founder of SELCO, won the Magsasay award for 2011. In an interview with Mint, he says –
“…I think it would be how do you motivate people from any type of university to actually say that there are 600 million at the other end of our country. If you take my own example, I am from IIT Kharagpur Rourkela, I have lived a complete subsidy life. Somebody paid for my electricity bills, IIT was paid by the Indian taxpayers, I went to the US on US taxpayer’s money. I am complete subsidy product. And then after all this subsidy, somebody like me wants to make money in the Bay area and settle down. How do you reverse that? If you want to make money, make money but then pay for everything…”

Moving on from Ghana…

I wrote this post just after I got here

***

Today, I complete three weeks in Ghana – everything has been smooth and pleasant so far. In many ways, settling in has been easy and I am starting to believe that approaching a change of location as emotionless-ly as possible works! Neutralise expectations from people you are likely to meet, temper the doubts in your mind about food, weather, transport…everything. (admittedly though, what I am really paranoid about are snakes – and no, in my mind, it is not stupid at all that I try to keep my feet off the floor as much as possible!).

Kind partner institute, ISSER sorted out housing for me even before I got here – a major portion of settling down. Transport – I bought a bike (bicycle) – after two weeks of careful consideration of the distance I need to commute to work, the deep open gutters all along the road and getting used to the traffic driving on the right – its great fun and I would strongly advise it to everyone. As I told a friend here last week, I am confident I am not going to die young…So thats essential transport to work taken care of. The lifeline of public transport in Accra is the tro-tro (mini-van) and I was completely intimidated by them for a few days to begin with. I havent mastered it yet, but have sampled them enough, started recognising the hand signals that refer to specific stations and can count on them as an option when I travel.

What I have little hope with are the local languages. It pricks my ego that I cant seem to pick even a single word (I had learnt the word for ‘Thank You’ and then promptly forgotten). It amuses me (reminding me of India) when people from different parts of Ghana themselves do not understand each other’s languages and have to resort of English to communicate. If I were able to even partially crack even one of the local languages, I would consider that a great personal achievement.

And work…has been fine. I enjoy the sense of camaraderie that exists here across hierarchies and I know I am working with a group that is serious, committed and competent.

***

About 21 months later, happy to report that I had a great time here. Public transport is fine; the language still a mystery. Both ISSER and IPA were great to be around and I leave hoping I will come back – adding to the list of places I feel familiar with and that I know I could live in. Work has seen ups and downs, as one might expect and there have been moments that were hugely satisfying professionally and some others, that were pretty frustrating. I will write more about it after I leave here, I think – there are lots of little things that made a difference; and none so much as to make these two years any different on average from any previous year – and that’s mostly the way I wanted it to be.

Now with three weeks to go and at the verge of taking major leaps in both my personal and professional life, I am trying, as usual, to be calm and non-curious. Its a bit harder this time though.

Delhi, I know; a job with KPMG – not really. Sanjana, I know; marriage – ??  

I am not a MFI, just a moneylender

Both my savings and loan repayment schemes with my neighbourhood fruit-seller hit a snag after two rounds of repayment, a few months back. She had repaid 20 out of my 50 cedis over a couple of months. Then one day, she offered to give me mangoes for free, saying that she would never be able to repay the entire loan in cash. There had been a couple of unexpected deaths in the family and with funeral expenses etc, she was in a tight spot. 


Instinctively, I denied, thinking it might be exploitative of me to be doing so. Perhaps I was wrong – it could have been a painless way for her to pay off her debt – a mango a day. But I rationalised with myself that if I took up her offer, I was forcing her into a daily transaction which she may start grudging soon after. That in turn could affect my personal relationship with her. What if I was her only customer on a given day (not entirely implausible)? Moreover, I really wanted to give her the choice of saving up again and deciding how she would pay me back. Not to mention that in such an arrangement, the burden of keeping records would be on me and that was a cost I was not prepared to take on. I also did not want to be locked into a system where I would feel obliged to pick something from her shop even if I didn’t want to. I of course wanted her to pay me back, but was comfortable allowing her a reasonable time period to do so – and of course, I was aware that by doing this, I was running the risk of never being fully repaid.


At that point, I could be either a MFI or a moneylender. If I chose to be a MFI, I probably would not have the flexibility of offering her a moratorium on her loan to help her tide over. I probably would also not have the luxury of placing my personal relationship with her on par with my stake in getting my money back – what with equity investors and term loans on my back! As a money lender instead, I could do as I wished – it was my capital. I could give her a moratorium on her loan – and that is exactly what I did. I told her that it was okay for her to resume paying me back later, when things were better – effectively, I gave her a grace period of no repayment until her cash flows stabilised. My reward then was the look on her face and her smile when she realised I was not going to come claiming my free mango every evening. 


Today – a few months hence – I raised the matter of the remaining 30 cedis. She has been doing good business over the last few weeks and I thought it was an appropriate time to remind her. And she promised she would try to return at least 20 cedis. I leave Ghana in about three weeks – in the end, it may not be enough time for me to collect all my money back. Whatever…


***


Writing this down makes me wonder – how would she have narrated this? I don’t want to guess. The story could sound entirely different…or not!

Oh my god!

Today, I prayed aloud, for the first time ever. It was at the end of a public workshop on the education sector in Ghana. I was asked to lead the closing prayer. Those who know me probably have an idea how traumatic it must have been for me. And those who are familiar with this norm of opening and closing meetings with prayers must know its significance in meetings, workshops and trainings. Once called upon, you cannot wiggle out! 


Those two minutes were my most nervous minutes of the day and afterwards, a colleague told me how there was a lot of ‘hope’ in my prayer. I am glad it was over – my fumbles included. A first, this one. It wasn’t all that bad – but it left me pretty nervous and stuttering for a few minutes after.


I remember I prayed for optimism, strength, faith and inspiration – all of which now sounds like synonyms to me – for all the participants as they go forth in their efforts to improve the education sector in Ghana. The lesson probably is that I should have a script for the future. You never know when you may be called upon to pray! And there is so much I could have said…a missed opportunity, now that I think of it.

I guess I should start believing in God – for (s)he made me pray. Or maybe, it was just Maame.

Order amidst chaos

Schumpeter has fallen in love with the Tata group…

But in the emerging world—and particularly the emerging India where Tata Steel and the Taj Palace were created a century ago—the first job of a company is to create order amid chaos. In their different ways, the steelworks and the luxury hotel are fortresses against the surrounding madness.

…contrasting the order of its steel mills and hotels to the chaos that is on the streets of India. In recent blog entries, the author laments the chaos in Kolkata and admits to being taken in by the Jamshedpur township. And yet, Schumpeter is impressed with Indian managers (as opposed to boring western executives), ostensibly running these steel mills and luxury hotels, because 

They speak proper English (although “synergy” and “core competences” make the occasional appearance). They litter their conversations with references to mythology, Indian political heroes, stories from the Raj, the Cambridge wrangler system and much else beside. Far from singing from the corporate hymn-sheet, they seem to be genuinely grappling with my questions, particularly those about the proper boundaries of the firm. 

Products of the omnipresent chaos in India? I would think so…