Friday, August 17, 2012

The Long Cut

The wonderful thing about electronic media is the speed with which ideas can be sent back and forth. And since this speed of communication is now far greater than the rate at which we can think up ideas to communicate, generally all you get in your mailbox these days is stuff you had yourself forwarded a couple of weeks ago.

Which brings me to: the fastest-forwarded e-mail in the history of mailkind. Yes, it is that immensely patriotic composition that talks about the gloriousness of India. You know the one I mean, you’ve probably sent it forward a couple of times too. It’s full of delightful little facts like how 60% of the scientists at NASA are Indians, as are 70% of the doctors in the UK, and that India invented all the wise and wonderful stuff like zero and chess and Himesh Reshamiya, and that if all Indians simultaneously piddled on a certain island country, that country would sink clean out of sight.

All very inspiring, chest expanding stuff. I’m reminded of a time many years ago when I’d just started wearing long pants to school and the school was teaching us the Iambic pentameter. The poem we were learning went:
'My country, in thy day of glory past
A beauteous halo circled round thy brow.'

I can’t remember the rest of it because, of course, when we recited it properly in Iambic pentameter we could never get past the first line without busting a gut laughing. But still, that point about ‘thy day of glory past’ is a telling one, isn’t it?

So, what is the great nation up to these days? Well, we’re writing the Great India Success Story, aren’t we? We’ve got half the world’s economies running scared because we’ve taken away jobs from the West and brought them home to Beepiopuram. Then there’s the IT boom. And then, there’s… oh yes, the whole world and their uncle are lining up for a slice of the Indian market. Right?

Right. That’s it. After inventing the zero and yoga and ayurved and all of that, India went on and invented the Great Indian Short Cut. Lovingly, we gave it a name – Jugaad. And we made it the cornerstone of all our future endeavours.

With Jugaad, we’ve become masters of the quicker, shorter, cheaper way. And we’re proud of it. The cheapest car in the world isn’t the Nano – it’s the generator motor strapped onto a cart in rural India. Didn’t you read about it? And about the washing machines turned into giant lassi-makers? There’s Indian ingenuity for you, showcased all around the world. Like doting mothers we speak of these things.

New expensive drug on the international market? Never mind, an Indian company can reverse-engineer it and offer it for less. Tech support? We have a million kids with newly anglicized names who can do it for half. Dental treatment? Come right over, my friend. Want some software implemented? We’ll send a team over.

Quicker, shorter, cheaper. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against the BPO industry or affordable medical care or the neighbourhood mochi who repairs your shoes for a fraction of the price of a new pair. The problem starts when we start confusing short cuts with progress. When we forget that short cut and shoddy go hand in hand. So when we start celebrating Jugaad as the next big buzzword, I feel like kicking someone in the jaw.

What happened to Quality? What happened to Invention? What happened to building something worthwhile? How come the Indian scientists we’re reading about today are those working in American laboratories? Calling them PIOs and professing proxy pride in their achievements doesn’t quite cut it, you know.

A nation is what it celebrates, and our ideology needs a rapid u-turn away from the short cut route. Let’s stop accepting slipshod stuff in the name of speed and convenience, and let’s start making a big deal about the things done right. Here’s a very important realization: the corruption we lament is nothing but the flipside of the short cut culture we endorse. And we’re paying the price for that with our Standards going from Poor to Fitch.

We’re the guys who once took 22 years to construct a building, and a million tourists are still gawping at it per annum. And shelling out hard-earned dollars for the privilege. So quality does pay in the long run. How about making that our way forward?

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