THE BLOG
02/07/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2014

How to Survive the Great Indian Chaos

Every ex-pat who moves back to India will agree -- it is not easy setting up here. As someone who has come back from the United States, the last few months of my life have not been much different. Getting any kind of work done in India can drive any sane man to nuttiness. Not only does everything and everyone move slower than cold molasses, but the level of rigor in getting anything done is mostly non-existent. Whether it is a new construction of an apartment complex or a basic fixture installation -- one can really never take anything for granted. Parallel walls, perfect plumbing, flooring that is in one piece or even properly working door hinges are almost too much to expect. Cleaners doing a good job of cleaning, or couriers delivering your luggage on time can never be accomplished without the use of external force, or at least several agitated phone calls.

Another thing one notices is that people behind the counter, and it could be any counter any where -- a government office, a general store, an apparel store or a big mall, rarely know much about their daily work. Let me give you an example: if one were to go to the BSNL office (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd., or the federally owned phone and Internet company) and apply for a new connection, the person who is responsible for receiving the application will almost never be able to answer any or all of your questions. Or if one were to go an Idea or Vodafone store to apply for a new Internet hotspot, and ask questions regarding the latest offers available on their website, not one person would know about them or even attempt to understand what the question was. Mostly people are just mumbling answers to themselves, and almost always these answers are completely unrelated to the questions asked.

While this is beyond frustrating for some of us, it is important to realize that people here have completely given in to this lack of knowledge and rigor that we have come to take for granted. So much so that people are genuinely surprised when things get done on time, and in an orderly fashion. And let me also tell you this, everyone's life is moving along just fine -- people are leading very happy and satisfying lives in spite of this chaos. So then, it is up to us to change our approach towards what comes across as a blasé attitude or better yet, find ways to use this lassitude in ways unknown to the western world. You will then begin to understand the method behind India's madness -- the IST (or the Indian Standard Time which is always arriving much later than everyone else in the room), or the reasons why deliverables are never on time, or why people are always pushing their deadlines, etc.

First and foremost, it is very important to take a deep breath every time things seem to be going wrong, because go wrong, they will. Just stop, get a quick drink or chai, and sit to think about the enormity of the problem in comparison to, say the cosmic universe. This is probably why there are chai-wallahs on every street corner in the country. Unless someone is not in immediate physical danger, an Indian will not think of anything as a big problem. Since everything always takes time, and in a country of over a billion people, at least one other person is bound to have that same problem, there is a significant chance that someone else might be looking at ways to solve that problem at this very moment. So then, there is really no rush, a solution will present itself if you only have enough patience.

Secondly, all Indians love arguments -- I would have said debating, but since it mostly sounds like a lot of people shouting over one another (look at any Indian news channel) -- I am going to go with arguments. Every discussion can be turned into an argument; how India is better than the rest of the world even when we have so many issues; how every other country has higher divorce rates because they are terrible at keeping relationships and not because they believe that no one should lead an unhappy life; how our children need to get a degree from an engineering or medical college even if they are interested and passionate at other things in life, etc. Everyone will have an opinion whether they are familiar with the subject or not, and interestingly still, everyone believes that their understanding of the world is the whole truth. When one is faced with such a situation, it is best to do the Indian nod, smile in agreement, and go back to drinking your chai. Your exposure to a much broader world, with probably a far less superficial understanding of its cultures and ethos, has little relevance in these arguments.

Thirdly, if you ever need to get somewhere on time, and not the Indian Standard Time, leave early; really early. This will save you a lot of stress and heartburn that comes from driving the streets of any Indian city. Almost everyone in India is in a rush to get somewhere; at any given time of the day every Indian person has a pressing appointment with someone or needs to get someone done urgently. While this conflicts with how problems get solved (see paragraph 4), this is just another conundrum that one should refrain from trying to make much sense of. Leaving early also allows you to deal with unexpected problems that will most likely always arise on your journey to anywhere -- like your elevator could stop working, or your daily route might suddenly be blocked off for digging a phone line -- one just never knows.

This concept also applies to getting all things done -- when you need something done, think of it much earlier than you actually need it. Like a gas connection, or a phone line (even though roads will always be dug up in and around your neighborhood to lay these very phone lines). Or if you have paid someone to do something, always expect it about a week, or better yet, two weeks later than you are told. This will save you from some serious heartache and headache, and keep you in control of your emotions when dealing with anyone else during that time frame. You will be surprised at level of calm that descended on our household once we realized that getting things done on time are really quite unnecessary, and people get used to living without luxuries, like running water, very soon.

Another common thing one will experience is the notion of getting an opinion or advice on how one thing can be accomplished from everyone -- family, friends, neighbors, dentists, current bosses, ex-bosses, or even chai-wallahs. Indians love discussing a problem to death before even beginning to attempt to think of a solution. Just recently, we needed to get an Internet connection for a new apartment in Goa. Everyone in our family spoke to every other person they knew, and some they didn't even know, to understand the intricacies of the Goan broadband landscape. We got a long list of what needed to get done, some actions even conflicting with others, but we kept at it. We made new decisions everyday, and then woke up the next day to newer ideas from someone who had just joined the discussion, until a time came where we forgot what we had set out to do in the first place. When we finally reached Goa, our newly built and supposedly finished apartment complex had no cable lines laid out for any sort of landline connectivity. We found a private broadband provider and requested them to give us a demo of their mobile hotspot; it worked beautifully and we bought it in an hour. Moral of the story, pre-planning is useless. And while everyone will give your his or her way of doing things, and will spend not just hours but days and weeks discussing your problem, you never know what will actually work for you until you do it yourself.

One final word of advice, it is important to remember that there is a lot more to India than the craziness one experiences, if one has the desire and the patience to look for it. We have only been independent for 67 years and we have a lot to learn, including the ability to handle self-deprecating humor. Humor aside, there are a lot of reasons people like us feel frustration with the way the system works, or the lack thereof, but there are a lot of things to be proud of. If you go to the little villages in India, you will still find the same innocence and warmth that you left behind years ago. You will find that people are happy no matter how bad their condition is, and that everyone will offer you a warm meal despite their lack of basic needs. And the same people who seem to barely know their jobs, will go the extra mile if you extend a kind word and show genuine empathy for their conditions. I have seen very stoic rickshaw-wallahs and even government officers go out of their way to assist us just because we were sympathetic about their work load. And you will see that even though people everywhere complain about a lot of things they still love their country, and it has its way of finding a soft spot in your heart. If one can find peace and happiness here, it will definitely be long lasting. And once you have gotten there, you will remember that there is more to life than material goods, and very soon the chaos starts to melt away. Of course, there is that chai-wallah, always a few steps away.