Santosh Desai is a serious commentator on culture. He occupies a large number of column centimeters on the city page of the Times of India every Monday. His column goes under the slug “City City Bang Bang”. I read it regularly and enjoy it very much because Desai has a lucid prose style and ideas that you can chew on.
As columnists know through sheepish experience, banging out a column of XYZ words week after week tends, on occasion, to addle your brain. So once in a while you put two and three together and make seven, what the hell! Santosh Desai has done it this week in his defence of jugaad.
His launching pad is the CWG mess that angered us, which was, in his view, a typical over-reaction. “It is time, we thunder to ourselves as we pace the floor magisterially, it is time we stopped glorifying a trait that keeps us from striving for excellence.” The trait in question is jugaad which he defines at this point as that which helps Indians “find compromise solutions which somehow work.” Further we said, “India has changed as have its capabilities and standards. And it is imperative that we deliver world class solutions to our needs.”
Desai suggests we are missing the point completely. Why should we want world class solutions when we have jugaad which he now defines as that “unique Indian sensibility which is not only about accepting mediocrity but about seeing the world in creative new ways.” Whoa! There’s something wrong with that sentence. Does Desai really mean what it says? That “accepting mediocrity is pretty good but better than that is seeing the world in creative new ways”. Or is that a grammatical slip and he actually means “Okay, so jugaad is about accepting mediocrity (tut tut), BUT it is also about seeing the world in creative new ways?” Never mind what he really means. The thing to notice is how he slips in this “creative” bit about jugaad. How does that sit with compromise and acceptance of mediocrity?
It doesn’t. What he’s done is shift the argument away from those indefensible things to more solid ground. We can’t object to “seeing the world in creative new ways” can we? Now he confidently gives us two examples of this brand of jugaad, the homely quilt made from old saris and the Nano. I wonder what Ratan Tata would say to his pet car being described as jugaad albeit of the creative variety. I know what I say about sari quilts, under which I have slept all my life, being described as jugaad. I say you ninny, they are outcomes of enforced frugality, not of “creative new ways” of seeing the world.
In saying this I’m barking up the wrong tree, because Desai has already moved to another way of looking at jugaad. He says the purpose of jugaad is “to mediate between our need and circumstances”. We presume by “circumstances” he means limited resources. Like we make old sari quilts and the Nano because we don’t have the resources to buy new quilts and big cars.
Fine. But with this new definition Desai has scored a self goal. He has forgotten that his defence of jugaad began with the CWG. We haven’t. We point out to him that resources were hardly the problem with the CWG. The aerostat alone cost Rs 70 crore or some such, a sum that could have fed our poor for years to come. The agencies charged with producing world class facilities for the Games were given world class funds. So where was the need for jugaad? And would Desai say that the footbridge that fell, injuring 27 workers was “a compromise solution that somehow worked”, in which the word “somehow” was meant to cover damage to human life and limb?
Hammering the final nail in the coffin of honest argument, Desai now elevates jugaad to the politically ISI marked cachet, “subversive”. Thus jugaad “is the name we give to our subversive disdain for reality.” I’ve tried figuring out what “our disdain of reality” means and given up. But I cannot let subversive go so easily. What exactly did we subvert when we argued that our standards of hygiene were okay with filthy toilets, paan stains and dog paw marks on bed covers? What exactly did we subvert when we siphoned off money meant for Games Village facilities to line our pockets? How was the footbridge that fell, a subversion of the “numerator-driven view of the world”? Did we say, “Aha, you build bridges that stand; we think creatively about the world so we make bridges that fall.”
The bridge would have qualified as a piece of creative thinking, marrying need to circumstances and subverting a numerator-driven view of the world with a solution that worked, if we had built it of bamboo, one of the sturdiest building materials available to us. But we didn’t. We used standard materials and a standard design. Therefore we were bound to produce a standard bridge that served its purpose.
Desai ends his column by humouring us. If we are offended by the name jugaad he says, we are free to change it; “but it would be a shame if we were to lose this unique ability to see the world in a distinctive way.” That is the final ball up in Desai’s juggling act.
Sorry Mr Desai, it won’t wash. You’ve failed to sell us the virtues of jugaad because you’ve demonstrated through the jugaad of your column that it simply doesn’t work.