Never ask an Indian for directions

  1. It was around March 2000 that my younger brother visited us from the US with his 7-year-old son. My brother moved to the US from India, but my nephew was born and raised there.

We had a small fish tank at home and upon seeing it my nephew told me that he had a 16 gallon tank at home and asked me what the size of our tank was.

We all (the desi relatives) went silent while my brother and my nephew went back and forth guessing the size of our tank.

2. My friend’s 20-year-old son who was visiting from Australia asked me what the permissible blood alcohol level in India was and as most Indians, I had never bothered to acquire this information.

3. Almost all my friends, born in India, but settled in the US are so specific in terms of distance / driving time to their office or other places, their internal compass always aware and oriented, know the present temperature, wind chill factor, snow fall in inches etc.

I am sure we have all experienced this. We have also experienced how we Indians give directions.

“Go straight, turn left (while pointing right), then go more straaaaaight, at circle take middle (of 4) road, then little straight till you get an up and then a down……”

This stems from the fact that we Indians have no concept of the physical world around us.

Length, width, height, weight, thickness, angle, mass, volume, speed, pressure, direction, temperature, color, material, voltage, current etc are all ignored in our conversation, movies, TV serials, MSM, SM.

And this alienation, this lack of familiarity, this dissociation is preventing us from either understanding or acknowledging or conquering them and hence we see all these problems festering around us.

What you measure, you manage!

It may seem a little far fetched, but let me cite an example. India is reeling under a severe drought and the topic of flavor is water and its conservation. One of the most popular methods is touted to be the traditional Indian habit of bathing using a bucket instead of the more popular, but ‘decadent, elitist, western’ method of showering. But why? Our logic stems just from the comfort of seeing a contained amount of water as against the free-flowing stream from a shower. Is this it? A feeling? Never have I heard an argument citing specifics like volumes or rate of flow.

Specifics are not trivia!

How many of us know the volume of a bucket of water? Is it 10 ltrs or 25 or 75 or 150 ltrs? What is the discharge of your own shower? What is the volume discharged by your commode flush? How much water do you use while brushing your teeth? What is the capacity of your overhead tank? The figures need not be accurate, but a +/- 10% figure will help Indians put the debate in perspective.

The multinational bottled water / aerated drink companies have done such a great, unrecognized service to us Indians. It is because of them labelling and advertising their products, that we now have a visual concept of volumes. We refer to a 1 or 2 liter water bottle or a 300 ml soft drink which was not the case 15 years ago. Even now our references to physical objects are comparitive. A smaller or bigger pipe, paint brush, shoe, smart phone etc. When a water tap is to be replaced, instead of educating ourselves on the size of the tap, every Indian carries the old one to the shop for reference.

I participated in a TV debate on water management where most of the participants and the anchor kept referring to volume in units of ‘cusecs’ which is actually the rate of flow. 100 cusecs is 100 cubic feet per second.

So when our farmers demand 500 cusecs of water be released from the dam, it is like saying the distance from your house to the office is 60 kilometers per hour.Duh!

But this ignorance is not a new phenomenon and one example will shed more light on its historic, negative impact.

Remember how you always feel that a particular dish prepared by your mother can never taste like how your grandmother made it? Different Indian languages phrase this phenomenon differently, but all mean ‘special taste of the hand that cooked it’, the ‘extra’ ingredient which makes a difference.

My foot! What it really means it that the recipe was never handed down completely. Today’s recipes mention accurate quantities in fractions of a table-spoon, Ml, cooking time in minutes and temperature in degrees. Ask your mother for that special recipe and you will realise the difference. With accuracy anybody can replicate anything and the magic vanishes. It is this open secret that allows companies like McDonald’s, KFC and thousands of others to ensure consistent taste across continents.

The only way for us Indians to improve is to start embracing the absolutes and shun the ambiguous

Not only will this improve us personally, it will do the nation a load of good.