The Indian caricature

Wednesday, 25 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I am sitting in a restaurant in the satellite city of Delhi, Gurgaon India, and in the backdrop are some strange messages. A large hoarding on the wall tells me that ‘An empty belly is the best cook’; probably another version of the old adage, ‘hunger is the best sauce’.

Another of the slogans printed on the colourful walls says, ‘I eat merely to put food out of my mind’ (I like that) but the centrepiece of all these is the saying ‘there is no love more sincere than the love of food,’ a slogan most decadent, and one that we will all battle to dispute.

Having said that, this particular slogan does mean something significant in vibrant India, where the variety of food goes beyond a choice that we can absorb. The choice of local dishes would baffle the mind of a simple Sri Lankan whose cuisine stretches simply from kiribath to kotthu roti.

And as wide as the variety of its food, it also takes a lot to understand the potential of this neighbouring giant India, be it in its culture, business or politics. Probably going beyond comprehension in terms of its depth, which is almost frightening.

India, our neighbour, is a reality. Some might like to refer to her as ‘Big Brother’ and I’m not going to comment on the political connotations of this factor. I am merely writing a column for a business newspaper and in my view, we have to understand the potential our proximity to India has from a purely businesses sense.

Just sitting on its long tail (even if we have to get the crumbs) would be enough to propel many of our businesses to success. However, we need to recognise these crumbs not from a beggar’s point of view but from that of a partner’s.

Going on tour of the malls in Gurgaon, Delhi, one can easily forget that this is a South Asian country for it has all the elegance and opulence of a Malaysia or Singapore, offering every brand name and a range which would be on par with any Western standard.

I must admit that India has in a way has become the big brother, not from the ‘Orwellian’ sense but more in an Eastern sense i.e. the ‘aiya’ of South Asia. That considering, I believe we might just be shooting ourselves in the foot if we resist them. From a purely business point of view, we need to understand their formula and find a way to connect to it.

A very long time ago when I visited Bombay (it was called that and not Mumbai back then), I saw a slogan there, which said, ‘An egg a day keeps the doctor away’ ...shouldn’t it go as ‘an apple a day’? But looking back I now understand the sense in tinkering with this metaphor; for a country which has so large a vegetarian populous as India, advice on a proper protein intake is relevant.

Talking of mixing metaphors, it also reminds me of a character from the Billy Bunter books of my school days. Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, an Indian Prince, the Nawab of the fictional state of Bhanipur, who spoke a strange version of English by mixing his metaphors all the time. This was a series written by a British author, Charles Hamilton, in the pre-war days and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh was stereotyped as the typical Indian. Something I believe we still do, to this day.

For the most part we continue to believe in the caricature rather than the reality. It is a mindset that the rest of the world, including Sri Lankans, need to get over. I take this metaphor mixing and tinkering as a kind of coded communication that we outsiders need to decipher. Once we get the key, we have a unique insight to this culture.

This column is not about Sri Lanka becoming Indian, but about us finding the right connect to engage with our neighbour in a way that will benefit all. No doubt that the success and the vigour of this vast nation is here to stay. And now, it is up to us to make the decision whether we are getting on board or not!

(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)

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