The Country of the No

The best book about India I’ve read so far is undoubtedly Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay lost and found. He begins the book with his experience as a returnee to his childhood home of Bombay (or Mumbai as it’s called now) from New York and how difficult it was to set up home for his family.

‘India is the Country of the No. That ‘no’ is your test. You have to get past it. It’s India’s Great Wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru-shishya tradition, the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. Then the guru stops saying no but doesn’t say yes either; he suffers the presence of the students… only if the disciple sticks out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy or the sublime knowledge.’

I’m in India at the moment with Kirsten from Demos doing some research for the Atlas of Ideas. Travel is where we’re finding the most ‘no’s. Trying to catch a train is a bit like trying to catch a flying pig. Every one we’ve tried to book — even if it’s well in advance — has been ‘full’. Basically we don’t know the right people yet. So we’re flying everywhere, which thanks to India’s new budget airlines is pretty easy. But even then, you can’t book unless you use Internet Explorer, getting your credit card details processed seems to be more of a matter of luck than judgement and with some of the companies you only find out at the final moment that if you don’t have an Indian passport, you have to pay in dollars and it will be roughly four times the fare in rupees.

The contrast between the airlines and the railways shows how times are changing in India. The Indian Railway is the world’s largest employer with 1.5 million workers. The costs and inertia in the system are incredible. To compete with the airlines the railways will need to change but reforming the system must be one of the most daunting challenges for any management consultant. It could suck up the whole of McKinsey without changing one jot.

There are some things that you might think could change quite quickly. For example, their ‘electronic’ booking system is antiquated, often isn’t available and for nearly every route you still need a paper ticket to be delivered. But this is the country with some of the best 20-something programmers in the world. They could knock up a website better than say very quickly. It’s sheer bureaucracy and inertia that stops anything from happening — basically people saying ‘no’.

The qualification for being an entrepreneur in India is sheer bloody mindedness; it’s got very little to do with having a good idea. You just need to keep going at things until someone says yes. Many of the emerging entrepreneurs we’ve met have been Indians who understand how this works but have also spent long periods of time in Europe or the US working for large technology companies so they’re able to bridge expectations. Their age is important. You’re much more likely to get a yes here if you are fifty than if you’re thirty years old.

We’re not trying to be entrepreneurs, we’re just trying to find out what’s going on, particularly in high tech start-ups. But just organising the logistics of the research is a full time job without doing any of the interviews or writing any of it up.

India is a wonderful country and the more I see the more I’m convinced that it will be one of the main sources of good ideas in the twenty-first century but I’ve got a feeling that to thrive here you’ll have to be able to deal with the fact that it’s the Country of the No.

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