The country of Tamil Nadu

22 May, 2012

Let me start out by saying that I have many Tamil friends and have recently funded a company where the founder grew up in Chennai. But, nowhere else do I feel more alien within India than when I visit Tamil Nadu. Some time ago, I was again there to speak at a Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) event about catalyzing entrepreneurship in Tamil Nadu. As I landed in Chennai, I was surrounded by people speaking only Tamil (I am sure folks from TN will say, “no %&*$ Mohanjit. You are in Chennai. Of course, you are only going to hear Tamil”). But it’s different. It’s no co-incidence that Auroville and the French influence is there, or at least nearby (although Pondicherry is a different world altogether), because I am now convinced that the TN natives are equivalent to the French in India. They love Tamil and will pretend only to know Tamil, even if they know other languages (I tried getting by with broken Spanish in France, but that didn’t work either). BTW, soon after I landed in Chennai and was having trouble figuring my way around, I got a call from one of our portfolio CEOs asking, “Mohanjit, which country are you in today?” I quickly responded, “I am in the country of Tamil Nadu”. We both chuckled.

Back at the airport, there are three taxi kiosks. I had made the mistake of not making taxi arrangements ahead of time, thinking that I would be able to get a private taxi for the day at the airport itself. That was a mistake. The two private taxi services told me that there would be a 30 minute wait since there were no cars available at that time. I applied my rule of thumb in India which basically says that when someone uses a unit of time, multiply it by at least 2. So, an hour wait was not something that I could afford. Hence, I was left with no choice but to begrudgingly go with a black and yellow government taxi. As I made my way outside the airport (which, by the way, is the one metro airport that most closely resembles a railway station, with all its chaos, crowds and space constraints). I am sure everyone is looking forward to the day when the ongoing renovation will actually result in a somewhat world class facility.

In any case, something in the back of my head was causing me concern as I meandered through the crowds towards what generally looked like a catch-all location for everyone who was equally lost as I. I made it to the taxi pick up area, and was asked to follow one of the drivers to his Ambassador (I couldn’t understand the gentleman, but that is what I assumed). It was an interesting car to say the least. It had plush interiors, with a neon green light reminding me of a prop for a bad B movie with the 70s funk music. I expected some “Dancing Queen” or “Night Fever” to be blasting (probably with a Tamil version). By the way, it has been at least 25 years since I was last in an Ambassador, so a part of me was fairly excited to be getting a ride in a relic, especially given the interior design. I curiously tried to glance at the odometer to find out how many kilometers had actually been driven. The odometer was actually physically missing (even it had given up after multiple decades of service). Then came the more interesting part.The driver asked me a question in Tamil, presumably inquiring exactly where I was headed.

I almost felt like saying “no comprendo” trying my Spanish in response to his Tamil. I was able to tell him the locality where I needed to go, and picking out only names of a “junction” or an “intersection” or a landmark hoping that one of them would get a promising nod and hopefully a smile (which required unnatural facial movements on his part, since that was completely missing). I think the fact that a mostly American, somewhat Indian non-Tamil speaking sardarwas his first customer of the day probably caused him severe heartburn. We started moving in what I hoped was the right direction. I did realize that the poor guy got paid for a one way drop, and his whole purpose in life at that time was to drop me as quickly as possible so that he could be back at the airport for another pick up of hopefully a Tamil speaking passenger (or a Caucasian with whom he would likely speak perfect English).

As part of the directions, the gentleman with whom I was meeting had told me that I needed to come to an Indian Oil petrol pump. Well, I got to a petrol pump and the driver started speaking with me in Tamil again. He pointed to the petrol pump and loudly said, “Hindustan Petroleum petrol pump, noooo Indian Oil”. If I could translate what he implied, he was basically saying, “you idiot! It’s an HP petrol pump, not Indian Oil. Now get the hell out of my pimpmobile”. He had put his palm on his forehead and was shaking his head in disbelief. Now I had to convey to him politely that although he was accurate in indicating that the petrol pump was indeed an HP one, my instructions/directions clearly indicated that we had to get to an Indian Oil station. I was at an impasse. He had stopped the car at the HP petrol pump, refusing to move further since he wasn’t sure if he was moving closer to or farther away from my eventual destination. Finally, I decided to break the stalemate by relying on the one person who dedicates his life to the people, for the people and by the people (no, I did not see Jayalalitha) but rather – the traffic cop. I tried indicating to the drive to move towards “traffic police, traffic police”, and in a silly way pointed to my Blackberry (hoping that the driver would understand that I was going to have the traffic cop translate the emailed instructions and break the deadlock). I was able to get through and he slowly rolled towards the cop. I opened the door (since the window mechanism was not working), and showed the traffic policeman my Blackberry with the emailed instructions. Much to my delight, he actually understood English. He actually scolded the driver a little saying that there is indeed an Indian Oil petrol pump about five hundred meters down the road. I thanked the officer and breathed a sigh of relief. There were still two more turns involved until I got to my destination, so I wasn’t quite done yet. Nervously, we proceeded and I did what I do in Bangalore. Instead of saying “right” or “left”, I say “right-o” and “left-o”. That little “o” at the end with a south Indian accent seems to give some comfort to the locals that the pardesisardar (that’s me), is at least trying to communicate in some version of the local language. After a couple of jerky turns, I was dropped off. The driver was more relieved than I was, although he still had the palm of his hand on his forehead as he sped off (I actually didn’t realize that an old Ambassador could still have that kind of power) back to the airport.

I did the rest of my trip (from my meeting to the convention center and from the convention center to the airport) in an auto rickshaw, not wanting to repeat the morning routine. As I have realized over my few years in India, the fewer the number of wheels, the more efficient the mode of transportation. The language barrier was not that bad with the auto guys since the destinations were clearly understood. It’s hard to mess up “convention center” and “airport”. Although I am convinced that every auto ride in India results in some days taken off my lifespan, thanks to the fumes I end up inhaling.

India is fascinating. But when many north Indians refers to everyone south of Uttar Pradesh as a “madrasi” and many south Indians refers to anyone north of Andhra Pradesh as a “bihari” or a “Punjabi”, you know there are bound to be situations where one feels like a foreigner in one’s own country. But again, like so many other things in India, one has to truly relish and enjoy the diversity rather than be alienated by it, as tricky as it may be at times. The lesson I keep learning from experiences like these is that India truly is a conglomeration of many different mini-nations, with different languages/dialects, historical and cultural nuances, different levels of homo and heterogeneity of socio-economic, demographic, political and religious strata, all of which makes is fascinating and challenging to build businesses here. And that’s part of the reason for me to conclude that if a team can create a successful business in India, it can do it anywhere in the world.

(Mohanjit Jolly is the Executive Director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. Views expressed are strictly personal.)


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The country of Tamil Nadu

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