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Monday, February 26, 2007

Culture #7: The personal touch

While business and particularly government here is excessively bureaucratic, the flipside of it is the personal touch. I’ve come to really value the relationship that having a real person to deal with brings and notice how much it is often missing back home, traded for efficiency and consistency.

Each morning my commute starts by heading around the corner to the nearest auto stand, a spot, unmarked, where a group of auto-rickshaws will congregate. I always go to this one. As usual, my regular auto drivers are lounging in the backs of one, shooting the shit. One reads the paper. They grin and wave as I approach. I really like that they do that, but sometimes have to remember in my morning fuzziness to not get distracted by their jovialness that like following sirens I cross the street without watching for traffic. I have on occasion gotten my elbows brushed over-optimistic motorcyclists. I smile and offer a “good morning” back and hop in the back of the auto they indicate. I do really like have a group of regular guys for my morning commute. I don’t have to bargain with them or explain where I’m going. They’re happy for the regular business and are waiting there for me every morning. Not being a morning person, I appreciate anything that makes my day a little easier before the morning chai has shaken the cobwebs from my head. There are 5 or 6 of them. Each morning they’ll usher me into one auto or another although I cannot figure out how they decide amongst themselves who it will be. Given the usual struggle of avoiding getting taken advantage of and the general pain in the ass of most auto drivers, you can’t imagine just how much a treat this is to have. If only I could find a way to get the same thing home, but the auto stand nearest my work are ridiculously over-priced so none of us use them.

The best example of the personal touch though and a mainstay of Indian life is undoubtedly the Wallah (or sometimes “Walla”). A wallah is basically business-person without a permanent address, a peddler – service that comes to you! Some may have semi-permanent counters erected on sidewalks and street corners (one of the many reasons pedestrians are forced on the streets), many have mobile carts or simply bikes they push around the streets singing their wares in a variety of distinctive cries. There are wallahs for everything. You need your knives sharpened, wait for the Knife Sharpening Wallah to come by. There are Soup Wallahs. There are Flower Wallahs. There are Nut Wallahs who tine their spoons against their roasting woks. There are Snack Wallahs. There are Ironing Wallahs (a particular joy). Of course, the pre-eminent of all are the Chai Wallahs, available at nearly every corner serving sweet, milky tea or coffee. Also of note are the Sweet Wallahs and Betel Nut Wallahs, who create handed-down recipes for concoctions that have people loyally travelling for miles to frequent, and the Mumbai Tiffin Wallahs, who have actually received a 6-Sigma Quality rating for providing meals to Mumbai workers for moving 175,000 of packaged meals cooked at home in the suburbs to their owner’s urban offices each day (while only misplacing one in 6 million, astounding considering the vast majority are illiterate).

The wallah forms part of a rich streetscape of small-scale shops, stands, carts and counters forming a tapestry of formal and informal commerce. Their prevalence and messiness along most any street without 4 lanes of traffic (and even most of the ones with) is one of the most distinctive things you see when you arrive here, but also one of those that most quick fades in the background of normalcy. You get used to the idea that if you want it, it is available from a host of tiny places nearby or if you’re a homemaker, you can usually simply wait for it to come to your door. It strongly contrasts to the Mall and Big Box direction we’ve gone and convinced the rest of the world to follow: the convenience of getting everything in one place…once you drive the 45 minutes to get there of course.

Of course there are many parallels between cultures too, similar ideas just simply wrapped a little different in the West. I am of course used to already being able to get my coffee on any street corner in Vancouver (and about a dozen placed between ‘cause God forbid we have to walk all the way to a corner!). I have pangs of loss for what I could call Vancouver’s “Sushi Wallahs”. There are roast chestnut vendors at Christmas and the venerable hot dog vendors famously revered in New York. And of course we’re all familiar from childhood with that hallowed of wallah: the ice cream vendor, whose tinkling song beckons like the Pied Piper from down the street. Mmmnn, ice cream…

Extending the concept of the Wallah even further and a shade of the current class struggle, is the ability to send people on errands to accomplish those things you can’t get at your doorstep. It is very common and completely acceptable to grab your neighbourhood wallah, a kid loitering about, the building watchman, an auto driver, or most anyone and send them on an errand for some small fee. And they will reliably return with the item and your change. You have to pay your cell phone bill? You ran out of milk and are in the middle of preparing for a dinner party? You have to mail something? You want train tickets, but don’t want to wait in the hours-long queue? Send someone on the errand in your place. No one thinks twice about it. The ironing wallahs pick up and drop off our clothes to the door. A young man from the chai wallah down the street gets, fills and returns a thermos of tea for the office twice a day. My housemate had a 10kg bag of rice delivered to the door of our flat late yesterday (Sunday) night.

The concept of service is deeply ingrained in the culture and going the extra mile for the customer, of the personal commitment and connection, pervades everything. The psychology of it is very complicated as it is wrapped up in the ideas of negotiation and flexibility – that anything here is available at a price; of class dominance and the historical acceptance of servitude; of the vast supply of people needing jobs – any job – and of the concepts of extended family and community which although in flux, are still stronger than in most Western regions. It can also blur into the spectre of corruption. But at the heart, leaving aside the tricky corruption issue for the moment, it is really refreshing to have business and commerce be human interactions again. Every service and transaction has a face, a person and a chain of people being supported. It is about the relationship. And it is about service. It is about business meeting your needs, your actual, real needs, not those they project on you, rather than the other way around. What a novel concept! It is at times shockingly inefficient. But it is shockingly refreshing.

Ask yourself: you’re busy, you’re working, you want an electrician or a TV cable install or a new account at the bank and what do you want, to sit around all day, taking a half-day, then a full-day off work to wait for the person to show up? No of course not. What you clearly and obviously want is for someone to come to you and arrive when you want. Here they do. If you need a service or product, people will come to your home or your office and drop it off. They will meet you after hours at your home at 10pm or come to your office at 2pm.

And what is even more remarkable is that it is not just the little independent contractors who will do it. The concept is ingrained right up the chain. The bank manager was over at the office the other day to talk about my boss’s business accounts rather than demanding to be met at the branch. When I bought my cell phone, the sales guy came to my house after (on a Sunday night) on his way home to take a digital photo of me for the connection to be set up the next morning. He then came by my office the next day for me to sign the final papers. And he gave me his cell phone number so when Airtel inevitably screwed up my account, I could call him to fight that battle for me and “just fix it”. This of course is also a necessity born of India’s other remarkable ability to build the most phenomenally inefficient, complex and mind-bogglingly impersonal bureaucracies yet invented. So you need the counter balance of an array of helpers, runners and queue-ers to possibly make it through.

The burning question for India now is will it lose this vibrant street-level personal experience as they drive to modernize and adopt Western culture of malls and glitzy stores with large advertising budgets? Can they afford to given their vast population? Will India be the same without remaining a little messy and colourful? That remains a very interesting question.

Awww, our office chai wallah, just came up with a bag of fresh banana chips back from Kerala for my colleague Hema, just to be nice because she once talked about liking them. Fuck McDonald’s. Now that’s service with a smile.

1 comment:

Erica said...

I love this post and I now so want a wallah. I'm in the process of deciding which type....Curry Wallah? Gummy Wallah? Definitely Singha Wallah. Keep up the entertaining dispatches from the front!