The Games Indians Play

posted by on 2007.10.19, under Academia, India, Travel

The Games Indians Play

I continued the Expat experience tonight by attending an event hosted by TEA (Twin City Expat Association) The evening was spent in a gated community, called Whisper Valley. I came to know from a friend who’s uncle built the subdivision that this was the first gated community in the entire country.

The speaker at tonight’s event, V Raghunathan gave a brilliant presentation on the Indian mentality. His book, “The Games Indians Play” appears to be an economic study of the Indian mentality, using concepts from game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma to explain why things are done the way they are here. He claims not to be a reformist, however his book is meant to inspire change of his people, so that Indian’s can be a true force internationally.

He pointed out that many of the problems India faces, including corruption, water supply, garbage removal, and a general distrust from international trade is because of short sightedness as well as not enforcing public policy. He claims that Indians in general are very intelligent, however they make decisions that will benefit them in the immediate future, versus for long term satisfaction. He used the example of game of chess, and the difference between lightning chess and the conventional form of the game. In a fast paced chess match, the players only consider a few moves ahead, while in a slow, conventional form of the game, moves are thought out several steps in advance. While this mentality is good for the individual, he claimed that it has very negative consequences for the larger population.

Without going into too much detail about the various examples he spoke of, all which I have seen here first hand, I would encourage you to read this book. He is a very intelligent, highly articulate speaker, and his words really hit home for me tonight. One of the more humorous parts of the talk was discussing an insurance company in Bombay for people who ride the train. There is an actual company that charges a small fee per customer who ride the trains in Bombay, for the unusual situation where they are caught riding the train without a ticket. This insurance company will pay the fine for the illegal rider. Since the enforcement of this policy is so poor, the insurance company makes out with a profit, as they rarely pay out, and the riders get extremely cheap transportation, as their monthly insurance fees are much less than the cost of the ride. Take that on for size State Farm.

Tonight’s talk got me really interested in Game Theory. An example was given which talked about a hypothetical case where Bill Gates decides to give away $1 billion to a lucky person. The method for giving this money away is a strange one however, and involves writing letters to 20 people around the world. The letter congratulates each recipient as being one of the only 20 people considered for this donation. The recipients are given a list of 3 steps on how they will be able to receive the $1 billion.

Step1: Write back to Mr. Bill Gates, to inform him that you would like to receive the money.

Step2: Do not attempt to contact or track down any of the other 19 recipients. If you attempt to make such efforts, Gate’s team will find out and you will be disqualified.

Step3: You must be the only person to write back to Bill Gates. If any of the other 19 people, even just 1 other person writes a response, no one will receive the prize.

This dilemma is a curious one, as it is highly unlikely that Bill Gates will have to part with the money. Human tendency suggests that each person will likely take the chance of mailing a response, as they have nothing to lose by doing so. At an individual level, they are satisfied with this, as they would rather attempt to receive the prize than to let someone else get it by deciding to not send a response. They are all equally as intelligent in this scenario, and would rather screw the entire group over, than be screwed over themselves, by letting just 1 person write a response and receive the prize. So, what to do in this situation?

V Raghunathan tonight suggested that if each of the 20 recipients put 20 numbers in a bowl, guessing a number which if picked out at random would be the only way they would write back to Mr. Gates, the entire group would have a 38% chance of getting the prize, and at the end of the day the money would be donated rather than retained by Bill Gates.

I found this very interesting. He claimed that this mentality starts to explain the Nuclear arms build up between India and Pakistan, it explains how everyone is in a hurry here, even in holy temples causing fights, the frequency of running red lights and disregarding traffic laws, the low water pressure from everyone getting water pumps, eventually bringing the water pressure back to the origin, before the first guy discovered he could use his own water pump, only to be followed by his neighbor and their neighbor and so on and so forth.

Perhaps it explains why I got in a shouting match with the owner of Paradise restaurant, coincidentally the best Biryani in town. I ordered a Mutton Biryani for my driver, and 2 naans and Chicken Tikka Masala for myself. I heard my order called out and went to claim it, but was told I was in the wrong part of the restaurant. (They called the area “parcel pick up.” Ten minutes later a Muslim man, with a cigar in his mouth came up to me and took my receipt, bringing me back just the mutton biryani. When I asked him about the rest of the order, he pointed to my receipt saying that was all I had. I told him I had certainly ordered more food, and had payed 3x what the receipt was showing. The cashier came over to see what the fuss was about, and denied that I had payed him 200 rupees, which really took the cake. The owner pulled me aside, and insulted me, accusing me of trying to cheat the restaurant, and even taking my receipt from inside the dining hall and trying to use it to get free takeaway. I was outraged, and started to lose my temper, which is not a good thing, when just then a delivery boy called out my order again, “One Chicken Tikka Masala, one Mutton Biryani, and two Naan’s. Since it was an unusual order, it was quite obvious it was mine, as I had pleaded with him the previous 10 minutes that I had ordered that very combination. He finally gave in, gave me my food, and without apologizing for insulting me, told me “Sir, this is the system here, get used to it.” I held back every inclination I had of dumping the chicken tikka on his head and knocking that god damn cigar out of his mouth, and choked out the words, “No worries, it happens.” After all, this place does make the best biryani in town.

I think this was a good case of the Indian mentality, always assuming someone is trying to screw them over. Tit for tat, V Raghunathan called it, when people only remember their last encounter with someone, and make the decision to either cooperate, or defect for future dealings. This restaurant owner probably dealt with people trying to get free food from him, the place is always packed, and they do tremendous business, likely get ripped off once and a while by receipt scams. Guilty till proven innocent in a way, was the way I was treated. No “The Customer is always right” thoughts go on in food establishment like this. Perhaps, he was trying to defect on his deal with me recognizing my foreign accent, just like the cowardly chicken 65 guy. We will see what happens next time I go to Paradise, I think I am going to start sending my driver to pick up my food, these encounters are eventually going to end in something bad.

I don’t remember if I mentioned this, but I rehired Satyam. He showed me his wife’s medical history, which couldn’t have been faked since it traced back with official stamps over 7 years, it was quite depressing to see. I trusted that his owner had screwed him over in the deal, the demand is just not high enough to pay guys like Satyam a decent salary to be a driver anymore. I am paying the difference, and even loaned him 2000 rupees so that he could buy new clothes for his family for the current festival, a 10 day celebration where there are a few days you are supposed to wear only new outfits when joining your friends and family in celebration. His wife’s hospital bills made it impossible for him to do this, and I could see the regret in his eyes when he asked me for the money. He is far too old for this life of a driver, he has shown me moments of loyalty, such as when I left my wallet in the car going to subway, and had to cross the busy street to get back to it. Within seconds, he noticed my uneasiness of crossing the street and came running out with the wallet, telling me not to move, and confidently walking across the street to get it to me. After I finished my meal of two 6inch chicken tikka subs (they don’t sell foot longs here, and have different counters for veg and non veg orders), Satyam ran out once again and cross the road with me, standing between me and the coming traffic. It was a gesture, though small, that meant a lot to me, and made me thankful I brought him back.

Now, I want to pose a question to you Americans back home. Why is our economy so bad? This was asked to me by a Belgian guy at the Expat mixer. He got very passionate about the subject matter, and American’s over consumption, spending money they don’t have, and starting wars with countries for no reason etc. He started yelling about it to me at this event, perhaps for excess alcohol consumption, and I reminded him that he was standing on a patio of a majority American population and that he might want to take it easy. It was uncomfortable for us both, I agreed with his dislike of the Bush regime, but also reminded him that he has never been the US, and shouldn’t generalize the entire population of people from the little information he has. He felt really bad about his venting, and apologized to me. I told him there was no need for an apology, I am certainly not a politically correct person, and I appreciated his honesty, though unrefined, over fakeness and insincerity. I am starting to have an identify crisis though, as I don’t want to be associated as just another American as its not the best reputation to have internationally (found that out immediately during my stay in Europe), I am not accepted yet as an Indian, and for the most part am cool with that as I feel like a jack ass for not knowing the mother tongue. On top of this I was told by my cousin in Australia that I have developed a strange Indian accent through my 2 months here so far. As my Uncle Ferdie nicknamed me 2 years ago in Middlesex, England, perhaps I am just The Wanderer.


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