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On all things ‘Indian’

November 4, 2012

Writer: Chirag Jain

Indians have a way of ‘Indianizing’ foreign cultural habits. As a country, we routinely adopt new cultures and social habits, but everything passes through the inevitable ‘make-it-for-India’ shower . Take for instance how we have conveniently (and quite) unapologetically ‘Indianized’ colonial tea-drinking habits to our own desi, ‘boil-to-broth’ version of tea. Another import – the ‘Nightie’, merely meant to be used as nightwear, has comfortably found space in the wardrobes of Indian women, the only difference being that it has now been ripped off its post-sunset and bedtime exclusivity, and been reinvented as the household uniform (occasionally used even while shopping at the market). It’s wonderful how competent we are at finding some use for anything that comes in, be it our classical Chettinad Pizza or even the alleged ‘Chinese’ dishes on the menu of any ‘multi-cuisine Indian restaurant’.

Photo courtesy: canned-responses.com

What is most remarkable about the Indian mindset is that we are always accommodative of new cultural habits, but at the same time have an inherent Indian way of thinking and working. In most cases, this reflects upon our own culture, and speaks of the strong value system that we’re exposed to early on. Of course, to understand where we derive these values from requires a rather complex socio-economic analysis of Indian society, and is an entirely different ballgame. But with this piece, I hope to understand – ‘why we do the things we do?’

I begin with an example of India’s greatest gift to the world of mobile telephony: our homegrown way of communicating through ‘Missed Calls’. For chauvinistic reasons, let me take the liberty of calling it ‘The Great Indian ‘Miss. Call’. More often than not, you will find Indian children advised to give their parents a ‘miss-call’ once they reach wherever they set out to. If you were heading to pick someone up for dinner, in the Indian context, you would most likely give a ‘miss-call’ once you reach their place. The barber gives a ‘miss-call’ to his next door chaiwallah to place an order for his daily cup of post-meal tea. The ‘istriwallah’ too, is just a ‘miss-call’ away.

A ‘Miss-Call’ is Indian for what we generally know as ‘missed calls’. However, there are a certain fundamental differences. For instance, in the non-Indian parts of the world, missed calls are chance-based. A person just happens to miss a call for a variety of reasons. But in the Indian context, ‘miss calls’ are choices that are deliberately made. People intend to ‘give’ a ‘miss-call’ for a reason. The result – intention has efficiently been conveyed. Missed calls usually suggest that you have missed a call while in India ‘miss calls’ could mean something else altogether – ‘when I come down, I will give you a miss call. Ok ?’ Miss calls unlike their non-Indian sibling are source (caller) centric. The receiver does not have much to do here and sometimes could be expected to disconnect the call.

Now, there are two important types of ‘miss-calling’ in India. The first one is more of a message delivery service. This is a a one-way action with the sole purpose of conveying a message. For instance, your friend could say, ‘Give me a miss call when you leave home, no? I’ll also leave that time’. These miss calls are often a one-time message or a question with the interlocutor playing no active role in the conversation. Rather this isn’t a conversation at all.

On the other hand, conversationalist miss calls are mostly questions with a binary set of answers. This type of ‘miss-calling’ accommodates for the receiver’s answer as well. For instance, you can give a miss-call when you reach a friend’s place and if he actively disconnects the call it means you head upstairs to see him/her (mind you – not many of us have voice mails activated. So this is still a free service). Passivity implies that they are heading downstairs. The rules of this conversation are decided beforehand. A person only makes it clear as to what means before indulging in the conversation.

I recall a funny incident narrated by a friend who runs an Indian restaurant in Edinburgh. His chef, who was to arrive in the city from India, was making his first trip outside country and did not have a local (UK) number. Fortunately (or unfortunately) he arrived in Edinburgh an hour in advance and wanted to call his employer to tell him that he’d arrived. So he frantically went around the airport asking people if he could borrow their cellphone and give a miss call to his boss. Naturally, no one obliged. I think no one even understood what he was trying to say and his Indian mannerisms made things worse! When the boss finally arrived, the chef was determined to return to India as he found the people rude and unhelpful which wasn’t actually the case!

We still have great laugh thinking about the incident!

So, what is it that drives Indians to exploit technology this way? It is a rather complex question that has several answers but evidently, it comes from the fundamental characteristic of Indian culture to value and preserve . Be it our habit of preserving plastic water bottles ‘just in case’ or our penchant for repairing our broken television sets, nothing in an Indian household can avoid the rigorous filtration process. Although this might come across as a satirical take on Indian living, it is most certainly unintended. The truth is, I think this ideology could make our lives efficient; we feed vegetable waste to cows on the street, we mix leftover Dal with some rice and flour to turn it into a sumptuous ‘pudi’ for breakfast the following day. Old television sets, despite their state of utter uselessness, will always get sold and take-away plastic boxes of fancy restaurants would always find space on the kitchen shelves. Unconsciously, we are contributing to a greener tomorrow.

What does a simple miss call have say about us? Perhaps, it speaks of our respect for technology and our strong desire to hold control over its usage. Mind over matter, they say. We know we don’t contribute to a double-digit economic growth by saving credit on our telephone calls and nor do we intend to do so. It is just that we have learnt to live in a need-based consumption space. We do not necessitate spending that can otherwise be avoided. To me, cost-effective solutions symbolise a rather innocent and foolish ignorance.

P.S: Give me a ‘Miss-Call’ if you liked what you read.

Note: Chirag is the Co-founder of Nirvana Nomads, an award-winning travel discovery platform focused on creating alternate in the realms of wildlife, culture, art, history, photography and the likes. A Bio-tech grad who somehow wriggled past a Masters in International Business and Emerging Markets, the Big Nomad (as he is fondly known) is huge on food, life, music, words and insane laughter. You’ll find him prone to doodling away sheets and sheets of  business plans and/or singing way too aloud. He believes that travel can be a tool to enable positive social change, connect people and open them up to issues facing our world today.

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