Land of the possible

Land of the possible

Our country has been a hotbed of innovation and unbelievable stories. Stories of ordinary people seeing a new opportunity, or solving an old problem, with the limited resources at hand. After all, this is India, the land of infinite possibilities, writes Sudarshan Purohit.

I don’t remember the murukku lady’s face too well. What I remember, from the countless times she climbed up to our rented house on the first floor, is how straight she held her back. Balanced on her head would be an aluminium biscuit tin filled with freshly fried murukkus, which she’d sell for fifty paise each. Our house was one of maybe hundreds that she visited.

The shops didn’t sell these sorts of snacks then, you could only get them if your mother or aunt made them at home. We being north Indians, didn’t know enough to be able to make them, at least not as well as she did. Recipe books then were imported and talked of cake, not murukkus. As Tarla Dalal once said, the only time new recipes traditionally entered a house was when a daughter-in-law arrived. This was a time when Haldiram’s and MTR were individual shops, before they thought of packaging and distributing their products all over the world.

That lady, then, was a pioneer of the industry that was to come: the small-scale processed food industry. Twenty years later, there would be any number of others who had the same idea. The supermarkets would be crowded with home-made packs of chips, namkeens, heat-and-eat curries and rotis, and every other convenience created by companies large and small. But the murukku lady, and a few others like her, did it when no one else thought of it.

No one I tell this story to, in India at least, seems to think her remarkable. This is probably because there are thousands of such stories around us. Stories of ordinary people seeing a new opportunity, or solving an old problem, with the limited resources at hand.

Some tend to wave it away as ‘jugaad’ — hacking, to translate it in spirit — but it’s much more than that. These are people thinking beyond what is possible, and making something new out of their life and their business. Often this happens despite the limited resources available to them. Take the example of how ISRO went about its work in the early days.

You’ve probably heard of the success of India’s Mars Mission. You will also have heard Narendra Modi’s popular quote that the whole Mars Mission cost less than the cost of the Hollywood movie Gravity. But did you know that this frugal mentality has been part of India’s space mission since the beginning? When ISRO was readying its first satellite, ‘Apple’, for launch, they realised they did not have a vehicle that could transport the satellite from the lab to the launch pad.

Rather than requisitioning for a new truck or van, they looked around and found a simpler solution: they hired a bullock cart! In those early days, scientists were even using bicycles to transport rocket parts. Photos of those times are proudly displayed in the ISRO campuses, and scientists there today feel a sense of pride of how far they have travelled, with so few resources.

Such stories don’t get public attention. They live beneath the surface of the newsworthy events, the splashy accidents and the city-altering decisions in any Indian town. Call them quiet courage, determination, or a knack for inventing and simplifying the status quo. The true test of a good innovation is not publicity, after all. It’s when it gets recognised by potential users and customers.

On Facebook, there’s a group called the Bangalore Foodies Club, where members talk about the restaurants they visited, swap recipes and cooking tips, and ask questions about all kinds of food. Recently, the club discovered a new hero. Someone asked for the best place to get momos in town.

The overwhelming answer was: there’s an old couple who sell momos from a small table set up next to Garuda Mall. They have a small folding table, an aluminium steamer, a tarpaulin with a handwritten “MOMOS” text to hang on a wall behind them, and not much else. But they provide the best momos in Bangalore, in the considered opinion of several foodies in this club.

Almost overnight, this unassuming stall became the focus of 20,000 pairs of eyes — the member strength of the Foodies Club. The couple started with nothing more than an idea, and the courage to go out and implement it. If they can only keep up their quality, they’re on their way to becoming really famous.

Culture of harmony

It isn’t as if Indians are specifically creative and driven, or are intrinsically different from people of other nationalities. People are people, the same everywhere. But our country has been such a hotbed of innovation and unbelievable stories for so many years that some credit must be given to the very special environment that we live in.

This is a culture that has survived for thousands of years, by morphing itself as the times changed. Our culture has kept us living more-or-less in harmony, prevented us from bashing each other’s heads in, and has taught us some lessons that we couldn’t have learnt anywhere else.

Consider the respect we pay to wisdom and experience. This is the country where, traditionally, the village schoolteacher gets more respect than the rich landlord. It’s ingrained in us that experience — i.e. age — shows us the right way, and knowledge is its own reward. Saying “respect your elders” is but one manifestation of that teaching.

It also creates space for a certain kind of success story: the experienced practitioner who achieves more than any newbie could. All of our best classical musicians enjoy respect as they grow older. Students seek them out to learn from them. Arguably our best Bollywood lyric writer (although he’s a poet in his own right as well), Gulzar, is always in demand by the best of the industry. No one ever says, “Oh, those guys are old, so they’re not in fashion any more.”

Leave alone these famous figures: if you go to a mechanic’s workshop with a knotty problem in your motorcycle, the young assistant will try his best to fix it. In case he can’t, he’ll fetch the old ‘guru’ from the shop next door to give an expert’s opinion. The ‘guru’, too old to squat down and study the case, will sit on a metal stool and watch what the young ones are doing. More often than not, experience shows, and the ‘guru’ will be able to point to this or that part that needs to be fixed.

While you will have the occasional maverick who needs to break the existing conventions to bring in something new (and he becomes a role model soon enough), our emulation of our elders gives us a wisdom beyond our years. Not for us the teenage rebellion of the US, not for us the wilful defiance of everything established we see around us, no. We prefer to soak in the conventions, comply with them, learn from them, and then — once we understand them and how they function — work from within to mould them and update them to our ideas.

Consider the other social norms that work in India: the respect for one’s job (so even a cleaner in a small darshini will work to the best of his ability, instead of thinking of ways to be subversive). That respect is what drives people to improve their workspaces. Note the extra decorations that corporation bus drivers install in their buses, even though they don’t own the bus.

Note the enthusiasm with which small shopkeepers fetch you the one item you require, from a nearby shop, just so you’ll go away happy. It’s what makes that old couple put their heart and soul into their momos.

Another social norm is not thinking twice about helping out people in real trouble. Help in emergencies happens everywhere, but in India no one even thinks about it before handing a few coins to a beggar, or following a car to tell them a stray dupatta or sleeve is caught in the door. As a driver in India, you’re never without some help if you have an accident — there will always be a few helping hands to pick you up, dust you off, ask you if you want water. Sometimes that little help or appreciation is all it takes to get someone through tough days.

Dashrath Manjhi, the ‘Mountain Man’, is known for carving a road through a mountain, singlehandedly, over the course of 22 years. He did it because there was no direct road from his village to the nearest government hospital, and his wife had died as a result. In an interview, he said, “Though most villagers taunted me at first, there were quite a few who lent me support later by giving me food and helping me buy my tools.”

Speaking of crowds: if there’s one thing we all do real well, it’s live in the middle of a lot of people. India has been around for a long, long time, and population tends to increase with time. In these thousands of years, we’ve learnt that ignoring the wisdom of crowds comes at one’s own peril. One learns to get along with everyone around them, to a lesser or greater degree.

Who doesn’t have that aunt or uncle that no one can stand? Yet that aunt keeps getting invited to all the family functions, and shows up, too, even though she doesn’t get along with anyone. So utterly familiar to every one of us, but strange in retrospect. The truth is: maintaining a relationship, a rapport, in India, is above personal chemistry. You learn to tolerate, even empathise, with people whose views don’t match yours.

Happy to help

That’s part of what makes us supportive of people with problems, and willing to help. The murukku lady got her support from many of the homes she visited — not just because they liked her murukkus, but also because they liked her approach. When an Indian creates a solution for a problem, he instinctively creates one that solves it for the widest possible swathe of people.

Take the case of kirana shops in general: as a business model, they are one of the most resilient businesses: they can be run at any scale from a hole-in-the-wall to a multiple-floor supermarket. They work as a training ground for enthusiastic young men who come from the villages. They provide services that a formal supermarket cannot provide, for example, home delivery of even a single glucose biscuit packet, or maintaining monthly account books for poorer customers.

Their inventory is updated extremely quickly to match changing trends. Most of all, they have an in-built, informal franchise system: the young men who join up as delivery boys and salesmen eventually know enough to set up their own kirana stores — and they continue to get monetary and experiential assistance from the old shop.

It’s probably taken many generations to get the business model right — but it’s here to stay and it’s just another example of how Indians would solve the problem. There are many other business models in India that have grown by apprenticing young men, and then sponsoring their branching out: Udupi hotels all over India. Dabbawalas in Mumbai. Or, to take an NRI example: Patel-owned motels in the USA.

There’s another thing that growing up and working in India teaches us: frugality. For one reason or the other (the British? overpopulation?) we have all grown up with less money, less resources than our counterparts in other countries, and it has become part of our mindset to reuse, repair and maintain our possessions. When faced with a problem, we are likely to come up with a solution created out of the materials at hand, rather than looking for an expensive, custom-made solution.

We’ve all heard of the various modifications to vehicles that users and hackers have made in India over the years. The word ‘jugaad’ itself, besides standing for innovative hacks, also means a three-wheeled vehicle, made from local materials, and powered by an agricultural irrigation pump.

The brakes are sometimes so bad that one of the passengers needs to jump out and stick a block in front of a wheel. Jugaads carry dozens of passengers on each trip between villages in North India, often serving as a lifeline when the governmental machinery cannot provide a transportation solution.

In a slightly less extreme example, farmers in Gujarat, who need to transport raw mangoes from village to mandi, hack Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles, replacing the entire back seat with a large trailer. The resulting machine looks like something a centaur would use, and works beautifully to transport those mangoes — at the mileage of a two-wheeler.

In other hacks we are too used to, to notice, cars get LPG cylinders fitted as an alternative fuel source. Autorickshaws get lines of LEDs fitted for decoration and illumination of the passenger area.

And finally: ideas are memes, after all — they spread like wildfire when they bring real benefit. If one person gets a digital camera and photo printer and sets up stall next to the RTO office, you can be sure there will be a dozen others in a week, trying to encash on the idea.

We are experts at picking up good ideas and adapting them to situations. It took MTR to think of the idea of rava idli during the shortages of the Emergency, but it didn’t take long for it to be available at every street corner. That didn’t discourage the inventors — they would go on to do more things.

Are we perfect people? No more and no less than the citizens of any other country. But we’ve learnt that ideas and knowledge are our best bet to get ahead in life. We have enough examples to show us how it’s done — all we need is the spark of an idea. India burns with the fire of possibility.

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