Writing yet another academic paper in my apartment in Bangalore, overlooking some empty land with slums and alternating green and brown foliage, I am distracted by the commotion that arises from the slums. Men shout and I see some running. Concerned, I decide to watch a while and look away from my Macbook. It’s sweltering outside. Poor souls, I think poignantly, what a life they must lead. I think of how I need the ceiling fan on most of the time to try and keep (my) cool. They probably don’t have fans, or water enough to wash themselves (I take a shower twice a day to beat the heat). What a hard life. Before my mind goes into the guilt trip that privileged people in unequal societies like India often get into, I turn my attention fully onto the events in the slum, hoping that it isn’t a riot, and that no one gets hurt.
I notice a man running, with another calling brashly out to him to stop. My heart stops. I notice the red head and face of the man chasing the first. And I smile. It’s Holi. They’re celebrating the Indian festival of Holi.
As the festivities continue for hours, with shouts and laughter, I muse at the uncanny contradiction. Here I am, working hard, preoccupied by the number of things that I need to get done. And there they are, probably earning a few hundred rupees a day, and yet, taking the time to celebrate, chasing one another and throwing colour at each other in almost child-like frolic. I observe “red-face” calmly walking back, not having caught his “victim”, but pausing a moment near a tree to smear colour on two strangers instead. The shouts continue, “Holi Hai!”, and to an unassuming ear, it still sounds like trouble.
What makes India a place where there is always a reason to celebrate, despite the poverty and the myriad issues that we deal with everyday? Sure, there are several festivals (even a few per month) owing to the huge religious and cultural diversity – so there really is no dearth for reasons to celebrate. But is celebration really possible when the life is so tough, especially for those out there in the slums? What makes them so happy?
An article by writer Eric Weiner describes the contradiction perfectly. His article, titled “India’s chaotic lesson in letting go”, talks about how “letting go” is a crucial and yet, under-appreciated art to be learnt from India. Weiner talks about how in the Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna advises Arjun to give a hundred percent effort to the task at hand, but have precisely zero percent invested in the outcome. And in India, that “letting go” or “take it as it comes” attitude translates into daily living, as well as in work.
In Hofstede’s six dimensional model of culture, the fourth dimension is that of “uncertainty avoidance” – the extent to which a culture tries to avoid uncertainty or ambiguity. A culture that scores high on uncertainty avoidance is one that believes in structure and processes and has a need for rules. People from high uncertainty avoidance cultures get stressed in uncertain or ambiguous situations and have the need for control. India, as one may imagine, is not one of them.
In my recent coaching session with a Dutch, I asked him if he ever saw Indians stressed about work in terms of meeting rigid deadlines and expectations – he answered in the negative and said that it was one of the things he appreciated about Indians. It is of course, not to say that Indians never get stressed (you should meet me at my not-so-best), but that the level of stress, the things we get stressed about and the way in which we deal with stress, is very much linked with “letting go”. For example, the stress is almost always to do with things that we perceive are entirely our responsibility and within our control. And beyond that, well, its left to “fate”. If things work out our way, great, if not, something else always will. After all, one cannot control everything in life.
Weiner also says in his article that an indication of mental health is whether you can retain two contradictory ideas without your head exploding. By that measure, he says, India is the most mentally healthy place in the world.
While I do not have data to support or oppose that statement, one thing I know is true: while we plan our daily lives around unforeseen-curseworthy-electricity-cuts, umbrella-scorning-monsoons, then dry-as-a-desert-droughts, life-stopping-traffic-jams, water-shortage-days and let’s not forget, the occasional leopards in a school, we kind of don’t tend to bat our eyelids at everyday mundane issues. It may not necessarily be an “art”- it’s more a survival skill – but it is something useful for those from high uncertainty avoidance cultures to keep in mind while working with Indians: after all, why does it matter “how” it gets done, as long as it gets done? And if we don’t necessarily jump up and down and have a fit every time things don’t go the way we planned, just know that we’ve let go.
The men outside certainly have. For, in the midst of their poverty, the extreme heat and a thousand worries, they now have blue, red, pink and green colour plastered all over their faces and bodies.