The People of India

In a previous blog post about The Land of India, I described my travels to interesting destinations during a month-long business trip during the summer of 2013. As a nation India is diverse and its people are distinct. Amidst the diversity and distinctiveness, commonalities are seen throughout.

The largest cities like Mumbai and Bangalore are rapidly expanding metropolises with populations of 12 and 8 million respectively. Yet, some aspects of life in rural villages may appear to have changed little over millennia. Multinational companies have a presence in many major cities while in the exact locations a bicycle may be a normal mode of transport for a common person. A luxury Mercedes or BMW will make its way along a crowded street as a man urinates publicly off to one side. In the south of India Dravidian physical features are present but in the northeast the look is Malay-Polynesian. Often intermingled are diverse religions – Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, and tribal animism. In Bidar, Karnataka, a Muslim may also practice a Hindu ritual and in Dimapur, Nagaland, a Christian may concurrently embrace animistic assumptions about what is real and what is not.

In Mumbai, I had several in-depth conversations with Farheen Khan who lives in Delhi with her family, works for the public relations firm Genesis Burson-Marsteller, and is Muslim. She shared that when she was growing up, her parents told the children a story about the Prophet Muhammad. It is said, “At one time he lived in a lower room of a two-story flat and a grandmother in the dwelling above. Every day when he would go out, the grandmother would throw garbage down on him. But, one day it did not happen. The Prophet wondered if something were wrong, so he went upstairs to inquire. He found the grandmother ill, so he took care of her.”

Further to the southeast in Bangalore, I spent a Saturday in June with Rufus Manuel, the son of good friends. Rufus is a 22-year old college student, a member of a local music group, and has started a small business called M-Crown Designs. A subsidiary of MCD is BellyWhale, a t-shirt company where products are displayed on the website in the belly of a whale . . . after a man in the belly turns on a light. Neither Muslim nor Hindu, Rufus is a third generation Christian.

Also, in Bangalore I spent time with Dr. Subbanarasu Divakaran, a retired chemical engineer who earned his PhD in Toronto, Canada and worked for many years in Iraq as an expatriate during the early regime of Saddam Hussein. He and his wife live in an upscale district of Bangalore called Koramangala. Their two daughters are also PhD’s and their son works in New York City. Dr. Divakaran reads Sanskrit and enjoys sharing stories from the Bhagavad Gita, a third-generation folk writing in Hinduism that introduces the god Krishna.

One of the most noticeable and pervasive characteristics of Hindu culture is its social stratification. Excluding Muslims and Sikhs, the whole of India Hindu society is divided by birth placement. High caste Brahman people enjoy an elite status in social placement and occupation. Business people are ascribed a role of prominence. Artisans are lower and laborers are at the bottom. Famed philosopher and educator, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan argues that differing communities in the social order affirm the actual and functional diversity of human groups fulfilling the law of use. He imagines that long centuries of social tradition and natural inheritance have produced marked insuppressible divergences of temperament, mentality, and physique. Therefore, based upon his assumptions, a person is born into a societal role that befits one’s functional capacity and is useful to society. Whether Radhakrishnan has assumed correctly or not about the essence of people, my observation in India is that every social interaction at every moment of time is governed by assumptions related to social order.

Where does the most important person sit when riding in the hired car? The left front seat . . . of course. Who leads the processional of people walking along in a group or enters the doorway first? The person perceived to have the highest social status. If you have your legs crossed while seated and someone of a higher status enters the room, you uncross your legs out of respect. Plus, much more . . . 

Consider the following intercultural reflections based upon the dimensions of culture:

  1. There is a complex mixture of collectivism and individualism throughout India society
  2. Masculinity dominates
  3. Birth, gender, age, occupation, education, and wealth are markers of status
  4. Time is polychronic (while taking your order for a caramel macchiato, the barista at Starbucks will also be texting a friend)
  5. Space is not the possession of the one who arrives at it first
  6. No better place illustrates high versus low context cultures than the streets and roads through India’s cities. Despite signs with injunctions like “Follow lane discipline”, any and every open space on a street or road is filled with a lorry, bus, car, taxi, auto rickshaw, motorcycle, bicycle, person, cart, or cow.
High context culture with a low context sign

There is a traditional belief in Hinduism that if a host treats a guest as royalty, wealth will proportionately befall the host and his family. Everywhere I have traveled throughout India from Madurai, Tamil Nadu in the south to Jaipur, Rajasthan in the northwest to Dimapur, Nagaland in the northeast, I have been treated as royalty. In late June I visited a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Vallore, Tamil Nadu about three hours east of Bangalore. Upon arrival my driver was instructed to stop the car at the gate entrance so I could exit the vehicle. The gate opened to reveal an all boys music band that lead a processional down the driveway to the administration building. The driveway was lined with other boys who tossed yellow flowers into the air and down onto my head. At the end of the drive, the key leaders of the NGO met me with polite handshakes. A multi-color flower garland was hung around my neck. The President took me on a tour of the building and grounds with his subordinates following. A multi-course meal was prepared as a late lunch with NGO Board members in attendance from as far away at Chennai, which is two hours further to the east by car. The visit culminated with a presentation of gifts, my speech to the assembled staff, and words of thanks from the Chairman of the Board of Directors and the President.

On occasions, one will find a business person in the West who denies or minimizes cultural differences, arguing that globalization has changed and normalized everything. When I encounter such a person, I usually assume they are not well traveled. I did meet a university professor recently in India who told me that we construct culture in the moment, that is, there are not really patterns of culture. Ironically, no sooner had those words been uttered when our server approached and asked, “Uncle, may I get you some tea?”