Chris and I were trying to purchase one of those portable modems, the kind that you plug into a USB port for connectivity everywhere. The shop was creatively titled “mobile store,” and this branch of the chain was in south Mumbai. There are twelve employees in red shirts. Eight of them are sitting on a table outside, bantering and nibbling. Two are playing games on the display tablets. One seems competent enough to help us — the one that can finally get the box pulled out, and have us fill out the forms we need in order to get the thing working. In India, buying a mobile device is like asking for a social security number- you need proofs of address, identification, and a passport photo stapled to the top.
The red tape is a real pain, but we finally get the modem and move on with our day. They tell us they’ll call in just over an hour with confirmation that the device has been activated. 90 minutes later, my phone rings. I pick it up expecting to hear “Thanks for shopping with us, Mr. Hartley, you may begin using your MTS modem.” Instead I hear. “Hello? Hello? Yeah, I need you to read me the serial number off the box.” Because of accent differences, the process takes a solid five minutes. I hang up and get back to walking down the street. Then my phone rings again.
“Can you please come back to the store?” At this point, we’re pretty far away from the store, so Chris and I aren’t exactly thrilled.
“Why?” I respond.
“We can’t get your device to work. We just need you to come back to the store.”
We fire annoyed comments back, and I mutter something about complete incompetence under my breath. They do not budge. We turn around and walk the three kilometers back to the store.
“Sorry, sir. The modem we gave you is outdated. Can you wait three hours? We sent someone to go get a new one.”
It took four hours; I was livid. Our day was thrashed.
Our situation was not atypical. There is an inherent stress to getting anything done in India. The stress fills the air of the streets, it makes life viscous, as if it can’t move too fast or achieve too high an energy level. If one tries — if one schedules too much in a day, or gets flustered at the endless obstacles thrown in front of the most mundane of checklist items — India will just crush you. Fight as hard you want, but in the end you’ll end up collapsing sick in bed, nothing accomplished.
Get on a train, and you end up getting crowded until you can feel the heartbeats of those around you, throwing punches just to get out the door. Try and get your laundry done, and find that nobody can have it back to you in less than a week’s time. Need to cross the city, and I suggest you best pack a lunch; it can take all day.
All one can do is stand in the masses of people and the madness of their energy and let the current pull you where it will, as the surfer lets the riptide pull him out before swimming beyond its reach after passing the break. Things can get done here, and they do. I see it in the accomplishments of the entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed, and in ambitious youth we’ve met who chase their dreams here with zest like anywhere else.
But things simply never come now, right when you want them. Things do not come when you ask for them, when the contract says they should, or even when you pay for them. They come when India says they come.
All this fills the visitor, in the end, with a sense of calm. Of course, you need to go through stages of anger, desperation, exhaustion, and maybe even muttering a few awful stereotypes under your breath first. But in the end, surrounded and exhausted, one surrenders to the chaos with a state of indifference. Three weeks ago, when a smiling Indian told me “just five minutes” for the fourth time as we were purchasing sim cards for our cell phones, I blew up in his face. Now I understand Hinglish, and go get myself a tea; I know things will be a while.
For when things do not go right, no confrontation or aggression will push things forward. Most of the Indians I’ve met, especially in the south, are so calm and non-confrontational that they physically cringe away from a raised voice. They won’t want to talk to you, and they’ll probably do all they can to avoid speaking with you after an argument. Your only ally in solving the problem will be lost. Besides, there’s really nothing he can do. As many Indians have told us, most systems simply don’t work here.
So Chris and I have learned to take it all in stride. We have to let things slide, while maintaining a mild but constant pressure on our objectives. We have learned to smile in that very distinctly Indian way, that smile that says “no, I’m not going to help you solve your problem, but I still think you could be a good guy.” We’ve learned to stand our ground with a little more nuance. If somebody asks us to pack in a little tighter on a lunch table, I’ll just give them that little smile and nod and turn back to the task of ignoring their presence.
Once in a while, the stress of it all just wells up within us. Then Chris and I just retreat to our kindles, or into the buzz of a few beers in a shady bar and ten hours of sleep. You have to shut off the world every once in a while, and get into a zone where everything is in your control — even if everything is just a ratty mattress and a book. It gears you up to the next day’s very passive walk through a land of chaos.