A few months ago, I read a thoroughly depressing book by V. Raghunathan, Games Indians Play: Why We Are the Way We Are. That book is a game-theoretic exploration of Indian weaknesses. Being a strengths-oriented guy, I am offering up a much more energizing look at real Indian games and what they reveal about us. I’ll talk about three games — Kabbadi, Kho-Kho and Lagori — and tell you how these games, viewed as business metaphors, help explain some widely-recognized Indian strengths, particularly in the area of management thinking. I hope it provides some introspective fun for my Indian readers, and some insight into the Indian psyche for my non-Indian readers worrying about outsourcing decisions.
warning: this article is chock-full of what might seem like blatant stereotyping, cultural essentialism and even gender-bias. See my end-note if you insist on reading those intents into the piece. I am making the best-faith assumption that you are capable of reading this with a sophisticated eye!
Get Outta My Way Raghunathan!
Let’s first get Raghunathan’s approach out of the way. The book applies game theory (along the lines of Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation) and behavioral economics (along the lines of Freakonomics ) to “explain” the many (and there are many) ugly social behaviors that are characteristically Indian, ranging from not boarding planes in orderly ways, to jumping queues, to littering. I put scare quotes around explain because the book doesn’t really offer fundamental explanations so much as it builds a posteriori phenomenological models. And that’s why the book is depressing — it paints Indians as culturally hopelessly-flawed and impossible to reform. The book is a classic example of S. Gurumurthy’s tongue-in-cheek acronym GURU — “great at understanding, relatively useless.” Full disclosure: my middle name is also Guru. Really.
So my summary opinion of VR’s GIP is GURU. I am not entirely critical — I do think the book asks the wrong questions, but they are interesting ones nevertheless, and the book is a pleasant one for a medium-longish flight. But ultimately Raghunathan is playing yet another weakness-game Indians like: the impossible-problem game. We even have an idiomatic Indian-English phrase for this self-identity: we are like this only, mind it (if you can’t parse that English, never mind, long story). Now let’s move on to VGR’s OGIP, which I hope, is less GURUish and more useful.
Other Games Indians Play
You don’t normally put “games” and “Indians” in the same sentence. The stereotype, largely justified, is that we are beyond embarrassingly bad at most modern international sports. We will undoubtedly embarrass ourselves yet again in 2008 up North, at our friendly neighbor’s (in China, for the slow). The board games that history associates in some way or or other with India — Chess, Parchisi and the like — are usually used as evidence of our tactical, pointlessly and self-indulgently cerebral, metaphoric and metaphysical approach to life.
But this is not about these “usual” themes that come up in conversations about Indian sports. This is about 3 games that, as far as I know, nobody else in the world plays but us. There may be related games in other cultures, but key to this article is the fact that these are popular Indian games. We (at least my generation, I don’t know about the Indian Gen Y) grew up playing these games.
Look for these six themes as I describe the games. I’ll elaborate later.
- Individual-Group Tension: First, you’ll notice a common thread of tension between individuals and groups in all these games.
- Creative-Destruction: Second, you’ll notice an element of creative-destruction, especially in the third game, Lagori.
- Breathlessness: Third, you’ll notice that all three games are breathlessly fast. They go beyond ‘think on your feet’ fast — they are what I think of as sub-tactically fast, even faster than basketball. You have to play almost on pure instinct, interspersed with occasional conscious decisions that must be made in almost no time at all.
- Burst-Reversal-Energetics: Fourth, you’ll notice that the games have an odd cadence of very short periods of relaxation punctuating fast context switches between opposed bursts of action.
- Attrition: Fifth, all three games have a last-man-standing element to them
- Leaderlessness: Sixth, none of the games have captain-roles, or indeed, any fixed roles. All roles are situational, not formal.
Kabbadi is a territorial defense game. Sides alternate in sending an invader (Red team in the picture below) into enemy territory. The invader must touch (‘tag’) as many opponents as possible and escape back into his territory. If he succeeds in getting back, everybody he tagged is out. If the opponent team manages to tackle and pin him in their territory, he is out. The catch: the invader must carry out his entire raid while holding his breath. As evidence of holding his breath, the invader must chant something rhythmic out aloud very rapidly. The usual is the word kabbadi. The game has alternating raids going on in rapid succession, with barely a pause to take a breath. Eventually attrition of tagged or pinned players leaves one person standing, and his team is then the winner.
Kabbadi can be brutally violent, more so than Rugby or American Football even, in some ways. It is a full-contact wrestling sport (often played in sandy courts, much like traditional Indian akhada wrestling). It also involves very rapid teamwork on the defending team’s side, since they must avoid getting tagged until they’ve created a formation (a linked semi-circular ring of defenders circling warily around the attacker, attempting to get between him and the center line, is a common formation). Once they see an opportunity, they tackle. The raider, on the other hand, tends to dart around to avoid getting hemmed in, while trying to pick off the defenders one by one, often using long-range touch-kicks. This is a very different sort of tackling element than in American Football or Rugby.
A fun fact. Many kids like to chant little rhymes and repeat the last phrase, instead of repeating a single word. I grew up with this one:
Chal kabbadi aan me
Joota mare kaan me
Gir gaye maidan mein, maidan me, maidan me…
That translates to “Let’s go play kabaddi in the courtyard, let’s kick each other on the ear, let’s fall down on the playing field, on the playing field, on the playing field…”
The little ditty captures the ethos of the game quite well.
Kho-kho is like reverse tag on crack. “It” (blue in the cartoon) runs around a line of other players, who squat in runners-start positions, alternating the directions they face. One of these players is chasing “It” at any given time. The rules: “It” can run in either direction,while staying within a boundary. The chasers on the other hand, can only run in one direction (anti-clockwise at the moment in the picture). Their advantage: the current chaser can tag a squatter on the back with the word kho and have him take up the chase, and the new chaser has an opportunity to switch directions, but only once for his sprint, until the next kho (in the picture, a kho is in progress between the yellow dot and green dot guys in the picture). Effectively, chasers chase in a line-crossing relay. I grew up playing it as a one-versus-many game. When “It” is eventually caught (as is inevitable), the tagger becomes the new “It” and you play till you are exhausted. In more organized forms, it is played as a team sport, with one team sending a sequence of “It” runners and then taking their turn at being the chaser team.
One dynamic is worth mentioning. A just tagged chaser will try to defer his direction decision as much as possible (a few yards before he runs out of bounds). Much of the elegantly-minimal level of strategic thinking in the game hinges on your choice of direction on being kho’ed.
Called saat-pathar (seven stones), pittu and several other names, Lagori is the most complex popular children’s game in India, and is rather like Dodgeball, but more aggressive. A pile of 7 stones is arranged in the center of the court. The defending team has its players taking turns attempting to knock down the pile with a tennis ball, from a throwing crease line. While there are variations, the version I played had each person getting three chances. If you knock down the pile, but somebody in the opposing team catches the ball, your entire team is out and play switches sides. But if you knock it down and they don’t catch it, then the real game begins. The defending team, which brought down the pile now goes about trying to stack it back up, while the attacking team attempts to hit the rebuilders with the tennis ball. The dynamic is very weird, as the rebuilders dart around near the scattered pile, trying to rebuild, and repeatedly scattering as the opposing team takes shots at them. Both attackers and rebuilders tend to coordinate in emergent ways. There are no formal leaders. If the rebuilders manage to restack all 7, they win. If the attackers manage to hit every one of the rebuilders with the tennis ball before the restacking is complete, they win. Then they get their turn at attempting creative destruction.
The point to note about Lagori strategy is that you should attempt to disrupt the stack of 7 as little as possible. Preferably, just the top stone being knocked relatively close by, with a glancing blow from the ball. That will mean your rebuilding will be trivial. Blast all 7 all over the place with a powerful direct hit, and you are in for trouble rebuilding.
An aside: Lagori can turn brutally Lord-of-the-Flies-ish among tween boys, with the focus being on hurting with the tennis ball rather than the game strategy. We occasionally played a raw, bloody game called maar-peet (loosely: hit-and-beat-up) which dispensed with the complexities altogether and just had us attempting to hit each other with the tennis ball.
Let me elaborate on my themes from before, in the context of an Indians-in-the-workplace business metaphor, now that you have understood the games.
- Individual-Group Tension: Indians are staggeringly good at very rapidly “reading” organizations. The one-vs.-many isn’t, as you might think, a David-Goliath oppression narrative. We fit neither the collectivist ethos of the Sino-Japanese cultures, nor the teamwork-among-individualists culture of the West. Ours is a culture driven by a constant tension between sheathed-claws individual and wary collective, and we wear both hats at the same time. Our games are homage to a (culturally-natural I think) ability to appreciate that groups have more power, but with more constraints, while individuals can be more agile, but will eventually run out of energy. Kho-kho in particular, epitomizes this spirit. This same point is what struck Clifford Geertz about cockfighting in the culturally-somewhat-Indian Bali; the cockfighting is largely about allowing individuals to read an apparently static culture. Geertz’s famous article, Deep Play, explores this. The tag-line for ribbonfarm is “deep play for disruption.” This strength also manifests itself as a weakness — one that Raghunathan explores at length. We like figuring out how to beat a superficially “fair” system, just for the hell of it. When we play for a system or group, we tend to have a natural ability to see individuals through the eyes of the organization if necessary, a good managerial capability. In pathological form, there is a reason the Indian babu was the heart of the British Raj — we make for some of the most creatively-obstructive petty bureaucrats.
- Creative-Destruction: I have written before about the metaphysics of creative-destruction, but you don’t have to get to the metaphysics to appreciate this point. More than any other culture, Indians truly and instinctively get the idea that there can be no growth without pain and acceptance of true destruction of some form. Not nice, nominal destruction, but real destruction, with hurt people and broken systems. We do not toe the line like Germans or Japanese (or seethe internally). We do not have a Gentleman’s code of conduct like the British, or the locker-room backslapping camaraderie of the Americans. We are a collective of utterly primal individuals who maintain a facade of polite cooperation but are always driven by an itch to break and remake the system to our advantage. Nurtured right, this leads to good business-model innovation skills. As a pathology, it can turn into purely disruptive tendencies.
- Breathlessness: This is one of the least appreciated Indian strengths, and is a product of an extraordinarily powerful tradition of live, public, think-on-your-feet argumentation, honed through centuries of debate among dueling scholar-warrior metaphysicians of Vedantic and Buddhist varieties. Amartya Sen explores the theme in The Argumentative Indian but I haven’t read it, so I won’t comment more on that. But the result is that Indians, in a business environment, have a natural inclination towards rapid, conceptual sparring and debate. We are rarely the best doers in most meeting rooms, but rapid and nimble mental gymnastics and reframing is a characteristic of strong Indian managers (as a pathology, it shows up as a tendency towards just-so analysis and sophistry). We don’t need to go away and think things through before reacting to information.
- Burst-Reversal-Energetics: We — at least the privileged, dalit-exploiting upper castes — have a much-deserved reputation for being a lethargic culture. But this is coupled with an aptitude for watchful opportunism and a sense of leverage and timing. Indians are (in a good way) naturally opportunistic workers. We try to minimize the effort required to achieve a desired outcome by just waiting and watching for the right opportunity. We are also amazingly good at switching contexts on a dime and suddenly going from sheer resistance to sheer support for something. Perhaps that’s why we manage to run the world’s largest, most unruly democracy, venal politicians and all. That’s also perhaps why (besides English skills) we managed to bootstrap our economy into the global economy using Y2K as the opportunity.
- Attrition: This is an attitude more than a strength — Indians are perhaps a culture that is very much at home, philosophically, with natural processes of death and decay. Yes, in our games we count points upwards, but we like the fundamental dynamic to be a last-man-standing dynamic. There is also significant overlap between this trait and an Absurdist, Sisyphean and existentialist worldview. Why does it make for good management strengths? Because we accept disruption, change, Sisyphean rock-rolling and other business inevitabilities — all attitudes that make for pragmatic management styles. At more immediate, day-to-day levels, we are probably far more willing and able to engage in bloody-minded conference-room brawling, take-no-prisoners debating, and zero-sum warfare. Not the pleasantest of attitudes. Today, most Indians in Western-style workplaces suppress any such tendencies, but the naturally cultural training is there in the background, and when Steven Covey and his bromides leave the room, we are always open to the possibility that the current situation is not a win-win one, and that there may be a need to fight and fight hard.
- Leaderlessness: This might seem very odd as a comment about a culture which invented the most explicit caste system on the planet, but we are actually not very status conscious within caste or class boundaries, which is what matters since historically there wasn’t much interpersonal interaction across boundaries anyway. Power flows fluidly (though not openly, except among kids) among individuals of the same nominal class in very situational and context-sensitive ways. Children talk back at parents, young men challenge the old. Labels such as CEO or VP matter little (though there may be as much ritualistic deference to nominal superiors as in China, this does not run deep. There is a lot more back-room insubordination). Students smart-mouth teachers. There is a whole cat-may-look-at-a-king quality to our approach to interpersonal relations.
I’ll conclude (barring that pesky endnote) with a quote from an obituary of P. V. Narasimha Rao, a quintessentially Indian Prime Minister, by M. J. Akbar, a leading Indian journalist:
[PVN’s attitude] was the loneliness of a long-distance Brahmin runner, for the
intellectual in him was also the Brahmin in him. He did not advertise his
innate superiority of insight and scholarship. There was no need to. It
was obvious. But he could never be one of the boys, if you see what I
mean. Is that because he was always one of the adults?
— M. J. Akbar, writing on P. V. Narasimha Rao, Dec, 2004.
I’ll leave you to interpret that as you will. Now for that endnote so I don’t get skewered for my blunt opinions.
- My generalizations aren’t intended as stereotypes, but as shorthand. I’ve known Indians who don’t fit this mold and many non-Indians of all sorts who do. But our culture does tend to bring out these aspects of our personalities if we have them.
- You might suspect that this is a Brahminical view masquerading as a pan-Indian view. The short answer: No. The reasons would take another 10,000 words, but this analysis applies to non-Hindu Indians and Dalits as much as it applies to the historically oppressive upper castes.
- Yes, my language is gendered, because these are quintessentially boys’ games in India. Girls do play them, but Indian women turn out to be the way they are due to other forces, that merit yet another essay.
- No, I don’t mean to be cultural-essentialist. The socialization/enculturation that Indians grow through is simply one among many forces that make us who we are, to the extent that we have certain characteristic cultural traits.
- Yeah, we could talk about Cricket too. Another time.