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The Indian mystique

The rise of global business means that Western companies will increasingly encounter Indians as customers, competitors and collaborators.

By Nirmalya Kumar 01 September 2009

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Indians have studied Westerners since the rise of the British in India over 250 years ago. From that time until Indian independence in 1947, children of the Indian elite often had a British governess followed by a university education in the UK. Today about 94,000 Indians are enrolled in US colleges and universities, constituting the largest group of foreign students in that country. Even those who remain to study in India are exposed to English literature classics and American business books and case studies.


In contrast, Westerners do not attempt to understand Indians and Indian business to a similar degree. For one thing, there is substantially less business literature about India as compared to the other two Asian powers, China and Japan. And there is a subtle reason that most people fail to view Indian business practices as unique and therefore worthy of careful study: Indians are proficient in adopting dual identities. When Indians encounter foreigners, especially Westerners, they adopt markers of global identity in dress, food, and even consumption of cultural products; yet their Indian identity is never abandoned. When they return to interacting with other Indians and at home, they revert to their own dress, eat Indian food and use local cultural products. For example, 96 per cent of all music consumed in India is domestically produced, Hollywood movies can barely get an audience against those of Bollywood, and women overwhelmingly dress in Indian fashions.


Duality of Indian culture


This concept of duality has a long history in India. The industrial revolution brought to India by the British forced workers to behave against their cultural norms. People moved to factories in urban centres, requiring them to work alongside members of other castes. At the factories, different castes mixed relatively freely, ate at the same cafeterias, travelled in the same buses and attended political rallies with one another. Brahmins and other upper castes had even begun working in jobs considered highly polluting – for example, the tanning of skins and hides. However, there was no conflict between the work of upper castes in industry and their obligations as good Hindus, because the factory and home environments were separate spheres with different standards of conduct and behaviour. For example, Indians used Western dress, spoke English and followed Western customs in the workplace, while at home they used Indian dress, spoke the local language and conducted themselves as good Hindus. This compartmentalization, as it is sometimes called, allows Indians to be highly adaptable.


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