Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Rabbit was right

Slow and steady doesn't win the race, at least not on this world, I think.

In a recent visit to Europe (the cause for this long hiatus from this page) I couldn't help noticing that life is so much more leisured and slow compared with life in India. This got me thinking about the growing economies of China and India that are nowadays compared with those of many European countries some of which are almost facing recession. (So is the US but I think for different reasons). So here is my two bit cartoon version of at least one reason why this is true. I should warn you that this is a simple thesis based on ordinary everyday observations,

As I said earlier the first thing about Europe and particularly France that strikes you is how everything moves so much more slowly (except on the highways). It starts with the airport. In most places, a one hour gap between connecting flights would be ample. In Charles de Gaulle airport(CDG), that is about half a day to be on the safe side. If you have the misfortune of landing at Terminal 2G which is beyond the outer periphery of the airport, you are dependent on a shuttle which makes its stately appearance every 10 minutes or so and picks up passengers, waits awhile to take a break, then makes its ponderous way to the other terminals (2C, 2F...) at the blistering speed of about 10km/h. There is a certain unhurried grace with which these buses move. Having reached Terminal 2C (or 2F or whatever) you are met with a huge (well only about 50 people say) crowd of people at passport control, manned by one (if you are lucky, two) immigration officials who go about their task in a slow methodical manner, clearing something like one person a minute (they also take frequent breaks from their onerous task to chat with their colleagues), thereby causing hordes of people to miss their flights. In India any immigration section is manned by a minimum of 20 people at peak hours. The only way to not miss a flight at CDG is if the pilot of your aircraft is kind enough to actually wait for connecting passengers.

Life doesn't get any faster once you are inside. When you have been up since 5am, the first thing you want on your 11am flight is sustenance. This is a very major and serious process. First the beverage tray comes around distributing its largesse. If you happen to sit behind a Frenchman you might as well kiss your food goodbye for a good extra 10 minutes during which he will methodically check out each bottle and discuss all the wines available with the stewardess (or cabin crew as they are called now) and which one would be appropriate for the meal to come (all this for a reheated meal wrapped in foil and plastic). If you are lucky the discussion will not descend all the way to the terroir of the wines. On a fast day, meal service takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours, something like the minimum time taken in a typical French restaurant. (I have seen Jet Airways serve a full meal on a one hour flight from Chennai to Hyderabad -- but then I guess you don't get wine!). Descending from the aircraft means politely waiting for all the people in front of you who, after the doors have opened, decide to start struggling to drag their baggage from the overhead bins. It would of course be extreme bad manners to try and push past them in a vain attempt to catch your disappearing connecting flight.

This pattern of life is repeated in all spheres - in supermarket queues, in restaurants, in ticket lines at the station (a horror if there is any, with every passenger insisting on discussing his/her complete vacation plans with the ticket clerk). A line of 3 people can easily take half an hour and I am not exaggerating, compared to something like 15 that a ticket clerk in India will clear in the same time.

I do not claim that the frenetic pace of life that we see in India, where you trample metaphorically or physically over whatever comes in your way, to get ahead, is a better system. There is something very dignified and comforting in the graciousness of interactions in the public sphere (including the habit of greeting everyone you pass). It also is a mark of a certain level of discipline in the environment Europeans grow up in. This is however,sometimes taken to extremes. There are times when it is more productive to work a little faster, a little longer, take shorter breaks, fewer vacations. Unfortunately, years of a comfortable life have made Europeans disinclined to change their slow and gracious lifestyle. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who normally writes some pretty infantile columns on globalisation once put it well though -- while the French are fighting to preserve their 35 hour (or is it 34?) week, Indians and Chinese would be quite willing to work 35 hour days if that were actually possible, to better their lot. Few Indians or Chinese take the kind of vacations that Europeans take (can you imagine anyone in India taking a whole month off year after year, something Europeans do regularly every August, to say nothing of Christmas and New Year breaks). In the present globalised world where the playing field is getting increasingly levelled by the day (or Flat as Friedman insists on putting it), it's unlikely that this pace of life, desirable though it might be, will survive.

There is one field where the Europeans (almost all of them, the French, the Germans, The Italians, the English) do substantially better than us, despite this lifestyle. And that is academics. How do they do it?


Venkataraman said...

"How do they do it?"

By not rushing through school. Slow but steady can win.

I think that overloading the brain of a child with 6 subjects and loads of homework every day does not necessarily do good. It is important to take a break, dream, and have a conversation.

"...it's unlikely that this pace of life, desirable though it might be, will survive"

The world is changing, but I feel that such a way of life can survive if people really want it to.

Rahul Basu said...

I couldn't agree with you more -- particularly about the schooling part. However, we live in a high pressure world, and the soft life will eventually exist only in dreams. I too would love to drive peacefully along sylvan highways, take extended vacations, have long lazy relaxed lunches on the grounds in a farmhouse in Burgundy. But it ain't gonna happen -- not in my lifetime, or even later. I think that way of life is disappearing fast.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I think when numbers are smaller, life is slower. It is rare to see as great a crowd as in an Indian city. It's been a while since I flew through CDG, but I don't remember it being that bad. One time there was indeed a huge queue because the immigration staff weren't there (it was about 6:30 am), but once they arrived, they went through everyone's passport in about 10 seconds each. (In any case I was stopping over so wasn't worried.) The conversation with me went something like "Where are you coming from?" "India -- Delhi." "D'accord." "And I'm going on to New Y..." "No, no, it's just for checking." Stamp, wave on.

I agree about the greeting people bit, and it jarred me when I returned here after a couple years in France: you pass a stranger on the stairway in France, they will make eye contact and say "Bonjour". In India (at least in cities) they will look away and maximise their distance from you. I wonder why. But in other respects Indians are much friendlier than the French.

அகிலன்(Akilan) said...

Slow, steady and also teaching only what could be assimilated wins the race. For example a book on vibrations mentions that first five chapters are used as a one semester course in senior undergraduate level and remaining at graduate level at MIT(USA). The syllabus in Anna university covers 11 chapters in single semester(same 4 credits).

I don't understand the urge in our educational system to go on reading in breadth all the topics available in an area without understanding even a single paper in depth.