Mother Pious Lady

Link: You can vote for this review now appearing on Amazon-US here, or on Amazon-UK here.

Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.

Offence: The Hindu Case

Link: You can vote on my Amazon review of the book here. Thanks. The author has linked to this review on his blog.

Offence : The Hindu Case is one in the series, Manifestos for the 21st Century Series, published in collaboration with the Index on Censorship. Some of the other books in the series argue the Muslim case, the Jewish case and the Christian case. The books in this series have upset many, who feel the books are blasphemous or even seditious. To that extent, my view is that only free speech purists may be able to read the book without getting agitated or angry. I have had the opportunity to attend a Free Word event in London in October 2009 where Mr Tripathi and Ms Shamsie, author of the Muslim case, were speaking and faced much cross-questioning from the audience, not all of it laudatory or unabashedly appreciative.

Back to this book. At 116 pages, including references, it is a quick read. But it has not been so easy to review it. I read the book about three months ago. Since then much water has flown in the Ganges, so to speak. The artist, MF Husain, the story of whose persecution in India runs through the book, has renounced his Indian citizenship and taken Qatari citizenship. The book opens with Husain’s story, then proceeds to demonstrate how Hindu nationalists are systematically catalysing censorship and bans, and revising history to suit a narrative, which is entirely at odds with India’s constitution (which creates India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic), and with India’s history and indeed Hinduism’s history as an inclusive philosophical movement. By focusing on Rama as a deity, Hindutva seems to be constructing a discourse on “offence” which is inspired, for want of a better word, by monotheistic religions such as Islam, shunning the richness and plurality of the religion’s mythology and traditions.

To construct his argument, Mr Tripathi draws upon the writings of and conversations with some of India’s leading contemporary thinkers and historians, as well as influential cultural icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. Indeed Mr Tripathi also cites Wendy Doniger, who is not the most popular western commentator on Hinduism. However Hindu nationalism revivalists in India also have help from native Belgian and American commentators, none of whom is remotely as scholarly as Doniger, who has spent several years studying Hindu texts.

This book is a snapshot of India’s recent events. It is a book about India’s present, not India’s past but there is also a disturbing prospect of a future trajectory that is potentially reductive, exclusive and revisionist.

Some readers, especially of the Hindu persuasion, may feel agitated, frustrated or confused while reading the book. Indeed recent books that are less than effusive about Hinduism have evoked highly polar reactions from Hindus. For instance, while discussing Doniger’s recent book, I asked a particularly upset lady if she had read the book. Without a hint of irony but with all the puissance of righteous rage, she said: “Why, no self-respecting Hindu will ever read that book!”. While not representative, the line captured for me the difficulty of having an informed discussion about religion in general and a religion such as Hinduism in particular, with its plurality and diversity.

Others will find this book thought-provoking and may take on the opportunity to explore Hindu scholarship in detail. Mr Tripathi’s is a perspective that needs to be shared widely. India cannot remain India Shining by excluding from its future narrative a good 20% of its people.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: This book is not to everyone’s taste and many are bound to take offence. It will however enthrall those who remain ever curious about religion and its role in political and societal narrative. I think those interested in India but confused by the rapidity and complexity of the moving feast will find the book an interesting introductory read too.

Games Indians Play

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

W. H. Auden said “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” As a consummate buyer, reader and possessor of books, I will extend that to say that some books can be remembered for being egregiously bad. My abnormal love for books means that I try to give the author a lot of rope, benefit of doubt or whatever you want to call my generosity of spirit. I have found it hard to find that generosity in me for this book which I review below.

Thanks to my lovely sibling in India, I received a copy of ‘Games Indians Play’ by V Raghunathan. I daresay that having first heard about it on a blog, I had indeed asked for it to be sent to me. Would you not have done so if you were curious about Indians and someone had tempted you by offering a game theoretical explanation of at least some of the mysteries?

Having read the 150+ page book in some 3 hours, I am now considering refunding my sibling the price of the book and apologising for the hassle in procuring it, then travelling to my cousin’s house to deliver it so it could be carried to London.

The root of the fundamental flaw in this book is explained by the author under ‘Some Disclaimers’ in Chapter 1. He acknowledges that the book is not aimed at any specific group of readers in particular, a targeting problem that may still not explain the non-uniform, almost amateurish, style of writing. In many places, the arguments are so stretched that they become rants and successfully forcing me to make a cup of tea to stay awake and interested; in other places, the language is a stretch for non-Indian readers, settle as it does into Indian style of usage.

The disclaimers also say it is not a research based book, but I think it is bordering on intellectual laziness when the author often mentions in the passing his own experiments, without clarifying how these were conducted and if the outcomes could be verified at all. One is left to guess that many of these experiments were conducted on his MBA students both at IIM-Ahmedabad (my business school) and SDA Bocconi. Either way, MBA students are hardly representative of the population and if you believe the negative press about MBAs, probably too focused on money making.

Another disclaimer says this is not a text book on game theory or behavioural economics but the contents say otherwise. There is much more theoretical discussion rather than ‘applied’ explanations of what the author set out to do according to the cover – explain ‘why we are the way we are’.

One disclaimer, where the author’s academic affiliation shows,says that the book’s conclusions are at worst conjectural and at best plausible hypotheses for further research. Having read it, I shall settle for the former.

The author lays a grand claim upfront that he has a 12-canon taxonomy for ‘Indianness’ – if you are an Indian, a class of people which the author says are “probably the most intelligent people in the world”, you will more than gasp at the laundry list of ills which make us look like members of some crazed despot’s army rather than citizens of a large developing nation and democracy:

  1. low trustworthiness
  2. being privately smart and publicly dumb
  3. fatalist outlook
  4. being too intelligent for our own good
  5. abysmal sense of public hygiene
  6. lack of self-regulation and sense of fairness
  7. reluctance to penalise wrong conduct in others
  8. mistaking talk for action
  9. deep-rooted corruption and a flair for free-riding
  10. inability to follow or implement systems
  11. a sense of self-worth that is massaged only if we have the ‘authority’ to break rules
  12. propensity to look for loop holes in laws

Those, who know me or read my writing on issues concerning India, probably know that my cognition sometimes impedes my ability to feel undiluted devotion for any person or entity. Far be it from me for being jingoistic about India (or about Britain, where I live) but I find these broad generalisations smacking of desperate attempts of the kind ‘Oh I have started all this so I better finish’.

Leaving that thought aside, let’s look at the book.

Chapter 2 claims that somehow an illiterate vendor who can do mental maths suggests Indians are amongst the most intelligent in the world. A logical leap at best, especially when efforts are made immediately to establish this as some kind of sacrosanct truth by comparing with systems-oriented jobsworths (a later chapter addresses why Indians do not follow systems) working in retail outside India. He then extends the argument meandering through stranger examples to say Indians are seemingly more rational and intelligent than those in Western societies, but our individual utilities do not maximise our collective utility.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Prisoner’s dilemma and the main message is the Indian inability to focus on the long-term (NPV if you are into MBA-speak) for fear of losing short-term gains. The argument is extended to explain why Indians do not champion issues citing the lament that one person’s efforts will make no difference.

Chapter 4 on iterative prisoner’s dilemma is more theoretical and focuses on explaining Axelrod’s experiments.

Chapter 5 asks if competition can lead to collaboration and many more examples are discussed. The chapter ends with suggesting how being simple, nice, forgiving and self-righteously provokable gets us ahead further. Hmm, okay!

At 30 pages, chapter 6 is the longest and asks questions about fairness, self-regulation, willingness to confront wrong behaviour in others, and incipient flouting of rules, abuse of office or authority and ironically, for a long-winded chapter, a section on long-winded arguments. It is however also the chapter that uses most stories and illustrations to advance the original aim of the book – using tools of behavioural economics to explain some Indian behaviours.

Chapter 7 is about free riding and asks if Indians are the world’s biggest free-riders. In fewer than a full 10 pages, the author discusses greed, fear and corruption as variations on free-riding. This chapter could have been longer to expand on some of the better ideas in the book. As the book progresses, the early awkwardness disappears, although not totally as it does rear its head in places.

Chapter 8 on systemic chaos, or Indians’ inability to follow systems without bending any rules is actually a compendium of various stories of corruption, bending of rules etc with air travel being a major theme and cricket, academia and private sector tussling with the government being minor stories. Not much game theory in this chapter and I could not help but notice that fewer than 10% of the Indian population uses airplanes to travel. To use a large number of cases from a minority population to generalise to a whole billion? Not ok I think, even for popular reading type books.

Chapter 9 resolves a poser from earlier in the book. Nothing upsets me more in print than avoidable errors in spelling. Repeatedly misspelling ‘Shrodinger’ in the text, when the reference in the appendix is spelt properly, is nothing but editorial laziness in my view.

Chapter 10 on Bhagwadgita is probably the most interesting but since the author says he is sharing his personal ‘awakening’ to the message of the book, I shall leave it to you to make your own mind up. Even if the book were meant for no specific reader group in particular, mixing religion and spirituality with a book purporting to be about game theory to me is just reinforcing the stereotype of Indians as beings of great spirituality.

Not enough game theory, not enough behavioural economics, not much by way of explanation either. In other words, a mistake to judge the book by its cover, the preceding hype, the fawning reviews and even the benefit of doubt given to the author, who did teach some of my best friends (but not me, me no finance major, me marketing type).

Star rating: 2 out of 5 (also 9 out of 10 marks for being the first book to have disappointed me so thoroughly)