Last night I was watching a favorite movie of mine, The Godfather, with director Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary. One thing he said seemed not only incisive but relevant. Near the beginning of the story, when Bonasera comes to Vito Corleone to ask him for a favor, Coppola explains how when government and formal authorities let the people down, it is “necessary to go to a godfather, a neighbor, a friend … a powerful friend”.
Here in India, the government has let the people down. Power cuts are common, and many people have their own generators. Water supply is sporadic, and people often store water, dig underground tube wells, and call in tankers. Even domestic staff don’t want to send their children to the more affordable government schools because they are in such a poor state, often lacking both teachers and bathroom facilities. Stories surface every few months in the newspapers about patients of AIIMS, India’s premier government medical institution, sleeping in the nearby Metro station or public washroom while they wait for treatment. Delhi does not have enough shelters for its own permanent homeless. And this is the situation in the country’s capital. True story. The book about India released a couple of years ago called ‘In Spite of the Gods’ would better have been named ‘In Spite of the Government’.
Because government has failed to supply basic needs, NGOs and private enterprise have stepped in to try to fill the gap. India is estimated to have over 3 million NGOs. Many are doing very good work running small medical clinics and schools at low cost. Industrialists have established foundations to support the work, and companies are trying through their CSR arms. Many private hospitals have mushroomed, offering more, better, but expensive care. There are also many elite private schools. But now we’ve come to a stage where even private facilities are stretched. For example, this month parents of pre-school age children are frantically trying to get nursery admission. They must stand in queues for hours just to get an application form, and thousands of application forms are given out for tens of places.
In a resource constrained economy where one cannot rely on the government to provide services, as the Airtel advertisement rightly says, ‘Har ek friend zaroori hota hai’: ‘Each and every friend is necessary’. In India, our friends, relatives, neighbors, and contacts become invaluable. They become our godfathers – the ones we turn to in our time of need.
It helps that Indians are naturally familial and social people. People recently introduced will always try to find a link to each other. Ideally, everyone is a brother or a sister. After a Sikh friend of mine had introduced me to his sixth brother, I questioned him on the size of his family. “Oh, they’re not really my brothers”, he replied, “They’re like my brothers”. After all, a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. But if not family, we can be friends. If my sister’s doctor’s daughter goes to school with your neighbor’s cousin’s son, then we are friends. If not friends, then neighbors. Once, on a plane, the woman next to me asked me where I lived. When I replied, “New Delhi”, she beamed: “Oh, we’re neighbors!” As I looked at her closely wondering why I didn’t recognize her, she explained: “I live in Chandigarh!” – a separate city, about 200 kms away. In India, six degrees of separation is viewed as six links to togetherness; it’s not an academic concept, but rather a very quotidian and practical one.
Here, being well-connected does not mean having 500 Facebook friends, high-speed internet, or a combination of smart phone, tablet, and laptop; it means knowing a lot of influential people. Being well-connected is more important than being rich or smart or healthy – although if you’re well-connected, you’re probably also all three anyways because you’ve had access to all the opportunities and facilities. If you’re ever faced with a crime situation, and are offered a gun or a contact to save yourself – leave the gun, take the contact.
In India, having many friends is not just nice, but crucial. One may be able to help with securing your toddler’s school admission, another with getting your husband that coveted job interview, yet another with finding you a good gynecologist who won’t unnecessarily advice a ceasarian birth just to earn more money, and a fourth with getting permission to dig that tubewell to ensure water supply for your home. And you don’t have to wait until their daughter’s wedding day to ask them the favor.
But my parents spoiled me; I talk when I should be listening. Now go ahead and ask me. Then some day – and that day may never come – I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.
(This article was originally printed in WSJ India Journal.)