Friday, September 3, 2010

The Indian Infiltration

A lot of the readers of my blog have asked me for an insider’s view into the changing world. For the ones not aware of this request, it can be surmised as an analysis of why and how the Indians are taking over the world by someone who works with these guys.
There a lot of Indian haters and baiters in the Western world. That is understandable given the way a strange culture has gradually crept in and infiltrated into most of the corporate systems, steadily chipping away at the employed mass of local population. They crop up everywhere across the length and breadth of the hierarchy – from the corporate boardrooms of fortune five hundred companies to the helpdesks who answer my call from Bangalore when my Windows suffers routine crashes.
It is strange, really. I have worked with several people in the PMO of the Operations and IT wing of the Bank and have not yet come across exceptional talent. But then, who needs talent for running a Project Management Office? The question is, why go to the Indians? Is it only cheap labour? Or is there something more?
I won’t really go into the nitty-gritty of the complicated topic, Thomas Friedman explains it adequately in The World is Flat. A million other blogs speak of it. I will try to construct some deductions based on my daily journey from Utrecht to Amsterdam Zuid and back.
The Inter City, crowded with the daily office going passengers, is a defining snapshot of the Indian infiltration. More than half of the professionals on their way to the daily grind are Indians. Headphones plugged to their ears as they converse with colleagues and family at home, with surprisingly equal distribution, or as they tap their feet imperceptibly to Bollywood music – their gadgets are more yuppie than the normal Dutch guy. iPhones and Blackberries seem like fancy toys that a nation deprived of a privileged childhood has suddenly discovered in late youth. Much of their conversations are centred around electronic wonders, the features and the value adds.
I am able to follow most of the dialogue, since a large percentage of them take place in English. Strange it may see, but as Madhu Deb explained to me during another three hour conversation, there are nearly twenty major languages in India and innumerable dialects and English is the common denominator of the urban classes. Sometimes the odd dialogue does take place in other languages, but then too it sounds familiar, being liberally sprinkled with corporate jargon. If two Indians sit near you and bits of the tête-à-tête drift into your ears, it is often difficult to make out whether it is a casual conversation or an interview. They talk shop like people possessed and that underlines the hypothesis in one of my earlier blogs that there is little line of demarcation between their business and personal lives.
I hardly see anyone with a book, and if I do, more often than not, it is either a technical manual or a guide for making quick bucks. The other topics that I sometimes find them discussing are mutual funds, cricket and weekend plans, the last of which boil down to supermarkets, Indian shops and Bollywood movies.
It is perhaps dangerous to draw conclusions with my limited knowledge, but my train journey does point out several factors regarding the Indian infiltration – I resist calling it domination.
English language is definitely a very important facet and the years of suffered exploitation as a British colony is now paying off in major proportions. That people from different parts of the country choose to converse with each other in English is something unique in the non-English speaking world.
The other facet is this absolute lack of distinction between work and life. Whereas a common Dutch person stops thinking about work after his weekly thirty six hours, and a non-workaholic American employee does so after four more, for these people work is their life. While one would find a Dutch employee arriving and leaving office almost in the same timebound meticulousness as the GVB Transport Service, the Indians are flexible to stretch office time into a canopy over their lives. And to some extent it is understandable. Maslow all the way.
This being the major differentiator, the work force of the average Indian thrive by putting in their readiness, availability and this round the clock commitment to work to their advantage. Maybe out of Darwinian adaptation, the dimensions of hobby, passion and entertainment have been limited to less time consuming gadgets, Bollywood and shopping malls whereas the endeavours demanding time like outdoor sports, enchantment with Literature and gardening are left to the temporarily more secure Western population. The grand scheme is probably to work on the ulterior motive of the evil corporation to get as much work out of the employees as cheaply as possible, and thus usurp the livelihood of the unsuspecting children of affluent nations who have been brought up to believe that the concept of work life balance is axiomatic.
I read that India is a country of extremes – the mysterious land full of diversity in the spheres of geography, economics, social conventions as well as individuals. That too is apparent from my co-passengers, who range from the well oiled hair with the smear of sandalwood on the forehead to the spiked shock and chic standalone beards.
Similarly, there are extremes in terms of outlook and culture as well.
I was reflecting on these when my cell phone rang three times and stopped. A protocol established between me and my buddy. It was an SOS, and as the system demanded, I picked up my phone and gave him a call. I could hear his phone ringing a few cubicles away and soon he came into my view, carrying on an animated discussion with himself.
“Thanks mate,” he said on joining me. “The kid has just returned from a field trip and you better be on your guard. Have you accrued some leave? I think this is the best time to go on a vacation.” (This will make sense to members of my mailing list.)
I wondered whether I should speak to him about my reflections on the Indian infiltration of the world. He is Indian after all, and if I deviated from the razor’s edge of political correctness, one could not rule out the chance of coming across as offensive. The current day white man’s burden comprises of history of assumed superiority that one now has to play down with an overdose of acceptance and humility.
However, once I had decided in favour of him of his opinion, he threw some characteristically unorthodox light on the discussion.
“You take a look at the bank around you. It is a complicated organisation. It started as a small venture a century back and grew and grew. And soon things got complicated. In most of the big giant corporations across the world, little deltas of change have added up to assume mammoth proportions. Systems have got complicated. Organisations and industries have become too complex for management.”
I agreed. The banks had grown and the systems had become more and more complicated with added services, requirements, changes in business. Hardly anyone had the full picture of any product or line of business.
“It is chaotic. The magic that the Indian brings into the equation is the ability to function in a chaotic world. The institutions back home grooms one for it. The government offices, the traffic, the education system, the hospitals, the parliament – everything is in a strange chaotic equilibrium. People who have been through the experiences back home have been baptised by fire.”
As I considered this profound thought, I asked him whether the knowledge of English played a part as well.
He became even more reflective.
“You know we had been colonised for over two hundred years. That works in multiple ways now for our benefit,” he smiled. I am never able to decipher between seriousness and mockery of this peculiar guy outside the tai chi class. “Colonisation helped us learn English. And along with it, it left a peculiar relationship dynamics with the white man. Most of the Indians are gratified when a white guy from any level of the hierarchy accepts him in his fold. And this is something that has led to levels of motivation that is impossible for a normal workforce to achieve. And it does not stop with the white boss, it peters down to any supervisor. However, at the same time, there is a pent up desire to topple the white – and by induction any – supervisor from the position of power. This can be linked to strategic motivation. It’s not uncommon to find both ends of the spectrum in one psyche.”
I was more than a little confused.
“But, Pritam, these are two opposite things ...”
He smiled one of those maddening smiles of his which pave the way for cryptic wisdom.
“As a learned man preaches, everything comes with its in built opposite.”

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Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands