I’ve heard it said many times that it’s impossible to visit India and not be changed in some way, and that it is impossible to be indifferent to the country. In my own experience, from wide-eyed first impressions to reluctant second chances, I’ve grown to accept India for being India, and have moved from a place of being desperate to leave to being reasonably content with day to day life here. Even people with a lot of experience of India – much longer than my three and a half months of working here – can be frustrated on a regular basis. That said I frequently have those moments when I have to bite my tongue or risk sounding very, very much like the Devil Wear’s Prada’s super-bitch, Miranda Priestly.
So what are the things I would have loved to have said, and what brought me to – almost – say them? And what could improve the situation?
“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.”
Floundering with excuses of what can’t be/hasn’t been done or is being done ineffectively is not the way to inspire me with competence. Overuse of the word “but” makes my hair curl. Worst is when someone has told you one story, but when you start to ask questions the inconvenient truths begin to rear their ugly head. Instead of inevitably portraying yourself as woefully incompetent, being clear, honest and upfront to begin with, cutting right back on the fluff and being prepared with an answer would be wonderful. Hearing what positive steps can, are and will be made really makes a huge difference.
“By all means, move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.”
I know I’m not in the UK or Germany or Singapore or anywhere known for efficiency of any kind, but really? One week to have some rubbish removed? What’s worse is the sense of apathy you get off some people at times is contagious, and in the end nothing will get done unless you have some discipline and self-determination. One simple way to address this is to ask “When?” and get a set time for something to be done. A side-side head bobble will not suffice (which roughly means “maybe, maybe not”), so press for a time and a date of something to be completed by, and regularly demand updates in the run up to that deadline.
Sometimes with the manual labourers work can be slow to start. Usually it might because they aren’t exactly sure what you are asking for. In this case, it’s often helpful for both them and you to do a hands-on demonstration of what you need done. Lather, rinse, repeat a few times and they more often than not find their rhythm and all you need to do is lend them a hand if they run into any problems.
“Is there a reason why my coffee isn’t here? Has she died, or something?
A polite, albeit pointed, reminder will ensure forgotten coffee (or whatever else) will swiftly appear …maybe.
“Does anybody else have something I could use? Antibacterial wipes perhaps?”
With health and safety culture more or less out the window, India is notorious for poor sanitation and hygiene (some states have sought to combat this by preventing marriage licences to be issued until adequate toilet facilities are constructed in the couple’s new home). Still there is often either a complete lack of awareness, or outright ignorance, of basic sanitation.
People quite happily wash their food bowls in dirty puddles where mosquitoes are breeding, chemicals may have seeped and who knows how many people have relieved themselves. On more than one occasion I’ve come to my worksite and people have just dumped their rubbish where I’m supposed to be working. Often it feels like a losing game – the best you can do is maintain a tidy working area (even if most of the mess isn’t your own) and religiously wash your hands on a regular basis. And make sure you are well vaccinated against waterborne diseases before you go.
“It’s just… I don’t know… drizzling!”
This one really bothers me. It’s always too hot, too cold, too wet to do any work (depending on the season). Personally I feel this is a poor excuse for not doing any work; the hottest days in my home country are still colder than night time temperatures in India, and yet on more than one occasion I’ve found myself doing dirty manual work in almost 40°C heat, while the labourers I’ve been assigned decide to wilt in the shade. And that’s after I’ve given them a two and a half hour lunch break at the hottest part of the day. Then after 45 minutes of doing nothing they ask if they can have a break to go get a cold drink. Which they then ask me to pay for.
This is a difficult one. I can’t change the weather (although I wish I could). The work needs doing no matter what the conditions. The best you can do is point out the work has to be done, and the sooner it is finished the sooner they can go for a break (if it is taking a long time obviously let them take a short break, one by one, or offer to go get some – free – drinking water, in order to keep them happy). And if that isn’t motivation enough, showing a little empathy and explaining you are from a cold country and you understand how hot it is can really help, especially if you muck in with the work (as a white expatriate worker, usually you find yourself ushered to the side when it comes to the matter of physical labour, even if you are emphatic about helping).
Working in India can be seriously infuriating at times. Often it feels like you are powerless to get things moving in the right direction, no matter how many ways you try to stimulate some kind of activity or progress. Being British, for me it’s been very much a case of “keep calm and carry on” …followed by a strong gin and tonic (or three) after work. Despite that I will probably always have Miranda Priestly’s priceless one liners tentatively dangling on the end of my tongue. That said, however, there are moments when everyone somehow gets into the same groove and work just seems to flow. Even more spectacular are those infrequent, unexpected moments of sheer innovative brilliance, leaving you in stunned silence.
My final piece of advice for surviving working in India? Remember to pack your sense of humour and in the words of Miranda Priestly herself…