A friend recently remarked that all our conversations, no matter what topic they start with, seem to invariably end with a lament on that uncomfortable truth that a vast majority of people around us seem to lack courtesy. We are not asking for too much (smiling at neighbours is just bizarre!) but small things like not littering, not spitting, telling your child not to inflict violence on other kids would go a long way in making this place a happy one.

Every time we step out of the house, we see blatant traffic violations, garbage piled on street corners, citizens relieving themselves, not to mention corruption in all its myriad forms – we seem to have a propensity to bend the rules to suit us, and only us, without a care on how our actions affect not just our neighbours, but our country as a whole. Because the most uncomfortable truth of all this that these ills seem to be unique to our country. It was therefore with great interest that I picked up V Raghunathan’s Games Indians Play. The by-line on the cover - “Why we are the way we are” simply called out to me.

The book starts with and is peppered throughout with posers that ask you to make a choice between the “right” thing to do and what is seemingly most advantageous to you. This leads to the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma model in game theory that forms the basis for understanding the kind of behaviour exhibited by the Indian public that results in a less than happy environment for all of us living here. Using everyday examples and constructed parallels, Raghunathan makes a convincing point that it is in the interest of everybody to co-operate, even if one is motivated by purely selfish interest. On the other hand, if everyone cheats, or is simply non-cooperative, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that everyone loses. So why haven’t we figured it out yet?

“As individuals,” says the author, who is an economist and academic, “we seem no less rational and intelligent than those in Western societies. Yet, it appears that the sum total of our individual utilities do not maximize our collective utility as people.” In other words, we are privately smart but publicly dumb. Why else would we spill on to the wrong side of the road during a traffic jam, blocking all incoming traffic, resulting in a deadlock, adding hours of life to the jam? Why else would we take pains to keeps our homes squeaky clean, but dump our garbage in the empty site down the road?

Introspective journey

Raghunathan takes us on an introspective journey from individual greed, selfishness, free-riding, corporate malpractices, lack of self-regulation, corruption in the government – deftly showing us how one thing leads to another until it all culminates in systemic chaos. “More often than not,” he says, “our well-functioning systems are illegal, informal or odd-ball systems… And it is on our illegal systems that we actually thrive.” It is not all woeful however, as some great examples of thriving systems are given their due – the Mumbai dabbawallahs and the milk collection system started by Kurein in Gujarat to name a few. Still, you cannot deny that our national credo seems to be, in the author’s words – “You show me a system, a law, a rule and I’ll show you a couple of loopholes for each.”

Others who have read this book have remarked that it is an example of the very “Indian-ness” that the author exhorts us to discard — talking about the problems that everyone can see, but doing precious little about it. It is a pity that they take this view, for the answer to all our troubles is right there in the book. It is so simple that we fail to recognise it as the solution. All it requires of us is to be nice.

Games Indians Play Why We are the Way We Are: V. Raghunathan;

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.,

11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 250.

(Veena Prasad is a freelance writer)

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