16 July 2011

Ambiguity - an Indian's best friend

In a debate about actors, point out to an Indian that Rajinikanth is a pretty ordinary actor and for some reason, the conversation will invariably veer towards, "Oh, but he is the biggest star", or even worse, "But he's a very humble chap".  What the *#@&$ does him being humble have to do with him being a lousy actor?  We're not talking about his qualities as a human being, but Indians have a hard time sticking to topics where a subjective viewpoint is welcomed, but an objective argument is necessary.

Before selecting a course for study, Indian youngsters often end up asking elders for advice.  A few advanced souls have no problem asking the youngsters what s/he is interested in or has an aptitude or liking for.  The rest have no problem dishing out a bewildering array of opinions based on nothing but prejudice, but cloaking it with the invariable ambiguous twenty paisa wisdom that seems to come with age.  These idiots have no problem dishing out nonsense like  "Engineering will always have good scope".  God forbid if the kid asks "So why are you not an engineer?".  It will be considered rude.  The deeper question that begs to be asked is, "If you're not an engineer, how do you know so much about engineering?".  The answer that will likely soak up this challenge will be, "Listen to your elders.  Take some guidance!".  As if good intent always translates to good advice!

Only in India can we see traffic lights AND traffic police working in the same place at the same time.  What are we supposed to pay attention to?  On many ridiculous occasions, I have seen the traffic cop waving traffic onwards, even when the light has not changed!  This really is like us having to trust his judgment on the danger involved, over the unambiguous message from the red light.  No wonder our people use their own judgment when there is no traffic cop to create our much needed drug - confusion!  There has been an occasion when I went ahead and one speeding car trying to get through its green light right of way almost ran into me.  Ambiguity can kill.

In this connected world, we get all sorts of messages, and we Indians have not spared the airwaves with our propensity for rumours either.  We have no problem forwarding SMS messages and e mail messages that contain a lot of untruth, but are cloaked with that overwhelming aura of "doing good".  Case in point - the messages that came out warning people not to go out in the rain, for fear of getting irradiated in India from the leakage in Sendai, Japan!  Not even Tokyo had that sort of an alert, and it is a whole lot closer to Sendai than Chennai.  So, I turned around in an attempt to quell that rumour and questioned the sender where the information had come from.  "It is coming on BBC" was the reply.  I checked the BBC.  Nothing.  So I persisted, checked the internet for various news sources.  Nothing of this sort had ever been even mentioned.  Time to confront.  I asked this rumour artist where the heck this crap had come from.  Instead of an apology, I got, "Better to be careful, no?  What is wrong with that?"

The problem is we seek refuge in ambiguity that is often manufactured, but will take the victim a fair bit of stamina to question an expanding cosmos of confusion.  The Indian bets against your will to fight ambiguity.  This is a crime if it goes unchecked.  Look at the way our government evades questions about terrorism and why we were attacked recently again - "This is not an intelligence failure.  We are plugging all holes in the system, and we will soon get to the bottom of this."  This is the Indian way of saying, "We don't know", but making it sound like, "We will know soon".  But, we know how to make it benign enough by putting things in that sound like sincerity, good intent, competence, while in reality it stinks of incompetence, foolishness, and inability to comprehend.  End result - forgiven!

Assuming you're male here - ask an Indian who has occupied your seat in a train to vacate, and there is a very good chance s/he will try a few social contract loopholes to continue to occupy your seat because it is convenient.  First, the stupid question, "This is your seat, eh?".  Then the shameless, uncouth offering of an alternative usually follows.  (If you were willing to sit in any vacant seat, you'd travel unreserved, would you not?)  If you insist, you better do it nicely, so that the dignity of the crook is not violated.  You are entitled to say, "This is my seat, so get your ass out of it", of course!  But anything even remotely aggressive, like, "No thank you.  Could I have the seat I reserved for myself please?", will invite, especially if you're trying to kick out a fat female, some response, not even from her, but from one of her companions like "Sir, ladies".  This is supposed to mean a whole lot of things starting from, "She is a lady, so be nice to her" and extending to mean - "You're a male, and can travel tough.  She needs to sit comfortably in a seat of her choice".  What is ambiguous about a "reserved" ticket with a coach number and a seat number?  What is so hard to understand here?  OF course I'm entitled to my seat!

The biggest of all playgrounds for this is during a vehicle accident, where a clear mistake has been committed by a rather respectable looking Indian.  The invariable "mob" will almost always take the side of the "respectable looking" fool, rather than the less respectable and rightfully angry person who demands the fool first acknowledge his mistake.  The "mob" represents India accurately - taking the convenience of ambiguity, of assumption that the angry person is more likely to have caused the accident by impatience or speeding, even when all evidence is to the contrary.  What is even worse, the "respectable Indian" who drove like a fool won't make a single attempt to clear the air and accept that it was indeed his fault.  In many cases, the fool will not even know, because there is a great deal of ambiguity already in people's minds on how to drive!  The issue is no longer about who broke the rules, but about who seems more reasonable to "solve the problem".

There was one occasion when I was a youngster and had a bank account with a rather respectable Indian bank.  One day, I found an extra three hundred rupees in my account, and I was delighted that perhaps my father had put in some more money!  I withdrew it and spent some of it, immensely happy.  The next time I went into the bank, I was called in by the manager, and accused of overdrawing my account.  I showed him my passbook, which clearly had a credit entry of three hundred rupees and as far as all evidence went, I only withdrew the money I had in my account.  I was not even eligible for overdraft, so how could I have withdrawn anything extra?  This was my question.  I was a teenager then, and the manager was a robust fifty something I think.  He asked me how I could not tell my account had been accidentally credited.  I had no problem asking him how I would know the difference between an accidental credit and a real one, based on the entry THEY had made in my passbook.  He had no qualms about threatening me with some action he was going to take, instead of apologizing for their mistake and requesting me to help them out.  All of a sudden, I was guilty of something?  I told him he could take whatever action he wanted, but I knew he could do nothing.  End result - I hated how he was dragging me into his cesspool of inefficiency and ambiguously drawing me into "the mess" I had not created.  I never went to that bank again.  Screw ambiguity and screw the bums who use it to hide their inefficient asses behind.

For some reason, the biggest Indian crooks, the shenanigans who accept bribes, the pigs who pay them even to get perfectly legal work done, the bastards who evade taxes, all have no problem worshipping God.  Many even have pictures of gods in their workplace!  Could this be because they have an ambiguous relationship with God?  Could it be because they're guilty enough about the lives they lead in order to "invest" themselves in some sort of "good"?  Unfortunately, in India, we do not take religious symbols for exactly that!  We get them all mixed up with piety, cleanliness, devotion, humility and even purity!  Any surprise we catch godmen in pretty ungodly activities all the time?  Could it be because of our inability to get out of this morass of ambiguity?  Any surprise we would do our level best not to remove a completely illegal religious structure?  How come the religion has no problem violating our laws, but our laws have a real fear of violating religion by merely removing a structure?  Did I just hear "sentiments"?

Most "sentiments" are nothing but unwanted importance attached to a lot of ambiguous concepts like auspicious time, religion, superstitions, blind beliefs, and indeed India is a fertile breeding ground for stupid sentiments.  Ask Indians how numerology works only in English, and we will begin to kick down this wall of asinine ambiguity.

We Indians love nothing more than character assassination.  We do it with celebrities, public figures, politicians, sportspersons - virtually anybody that is well known or getting there, that we do not "like" or is getting a bit too famous!  It's a good thing we do not dig up too much dirt from our politicians' personal lives in election campaigns, and this is amazing indeed.  But it is not hard to find conversations revolving around which actor is having an affair with whom.  Pure gossip for fun?  Possible.  But confront one of these gossip mongers with "How do you know?", and out comes, what else - ambiguity!  "Come on!  All these movie guys are like that, okay?".  A sweeping ambiguous statement that cannot be conclusively argued against.

Push for something more serious, and go ahead, state that most gossip mongers map their own fantasies to other people they think have the opportunity to live them out, and a defence is bound to come out, "No, I don't want that life, thank you".  As if we're supposed to concede some ground to the rumour in order to not offend the rumour monger because we have now attacked the rumour monger's character!  Now, decency has to be quickly established beyond doubt.  And it will be, because there is no way we can prove anybody's fantasy!  Ambiguity has served its purpose - spreading the rumour is no longer the original crime!  Oh, in conclusion you may even hear the ambiguous, "Who cares about celebrities and their affairs anyway?"!!!

Indians are experts at opening up and increasing the scope for ambiguity in any exchange.  We expect to be forgiven and even appreciated for being of "good moral character", even when we have the lowest levels of social consciousness.  We fully expect to do a mediocre job and not be yelled at because we are willing to be perfectly soft spoken and unthreatening if indeed that is what it takes to get out of a tough situation that might define us as "guilty".

Tell some Indian pig talking on his/her cellphone in the middle of a theatrical movie experience to cut it out, and the pig will continue.  Get rude, say it a second time and there will be a reaction, like, "What's your problem, boss?"  No matter what you say, Mr. Ambiguous will be happy to counter, "Okay, so I've cut my call no?  What is the problem now?".  Like it is my mistake to get angry in the first place and make a bigger noise than the call on the cellphone that the pig made!  The crook just expanded the scope of the problem by including me in it, thus making it ambiguous enough to dissipate anger focus!

We expect to be blessed by the blessings of our ancestors because we show them great reverence, even as we exude nothing but rudeness for our fellow beings who are alive and much more likely to be affected by our obnoxious behaviour in the present.  We have brought about so much ambiguity in defining a "good" person, that it is no longer possible to spit on the dirtbag who behaves "decently", while it is relatively easy to berate the idealistic rebel.  We are ruthless with ambiguity.  It is where we hide all of another incredible Indian trait - hypocrisy.

We have a propensity for manufacturing ambiguity in massive amounts so we may hide all our faults in it, so we may wallow in it, without clarity, accountability, responsibility or humanity.  It is our passive aggressive way of winning - by first denying clarity, then by smearing the other person's clarity with clouds of doubt.  We are incredibly good at this.  We can even claim victory merely by denying the other person success in pointing out our faults.

Strip away ambiguity, and most Indians will actually be corrupt people, with very questionable value systems, and cursed with an inability to separate the objective from the subjective, the personal from the communal.  Terribly sorry, but "We are like this only" doesn't really cut it anymore.  Actually, it never did.  But some of us put up with it.

- BSK.


Vijay Singh said...

Dear Bala,

I had no idea that I had similar instincts, I thought I was morally correct in issues beyond my scope but reading this excerpt and following you + Balaji Vishwanathan have somewhat cleared my thought process. This was best I had read about Indian mind sets.

Hope you continue enlightening us.

Warm Regards

feltra (Raman R) said...

It really warmed my heart to read these lines. Thank you so much, Bala sir! Unfortunately though, I still fume when I run into these situations.

Also I wonder how many of these building-ambiguity "skills" still exist within me.