A Teen’s First Brush With Jugaad
There’s an Indian word, jugaad. It’s the little work-around, the grey-area process tweak, the clever, low-level invention. Jugaad is what the local mechanic (constantly asked to pimp up regular motorcycles to only look like the iconic American motorcycle) uses to create his ‘Hardly Davidsons.’ Not quite the torque, heft or longevity, but as long as it approximates the original visually…
Whether you consider it an almost endearing, harmless survival strategy in a resource-deficient country, or a despicable statement on our lax attitude to procedure or ethics, it is an inescapable mentality. And then your kid has to deal with it.
Teenhood is feedback time. You know this. I don’t just mean the backchat. All those parenting manuals you read, all the schedules, cultural enrichment, the schools you chose, the screen-time you didn’t allow – you get to see how that worked out. Sort of. What really comes through is that your child is the sum of all her influences. She’s been stuck in the same traffic jams, marched in a Pride Parade, been smiled at warmly by passers-by. She’s seen the Maseratis and the mothers living on the pavement, the obese politicians in charge of uplifting the undernourished poor. She told you not to cry about the line of dead rain trees.
If you’re lucky, your kid’s first initiation into the world of jugaad is not as she approaches her first big exams, when the scramble amongst mostly-equals turns frantic, and parents step in to do jugaad. If you’re not lucky, your kid’s introduction may look a little something like this.
Last year, my daughter came home and announced, “Pooja told me if I go to Mr. F for classes, I will get an A in art. He’s on the board and will personally correct our papers.” My daughter is very good in art, but conversations with her contemporaries had convinced her that in government examinations of subjective topics, proficiency does not guarantee a fair grade. (This had been my experience, too. An 86% in English, in the preliminary exams before the SSC, had my teachers warning me to learn the ‘guide’ answers by heart. I didn’t and earned a miserable, demoralizing, average-decimating 56% in the board exams.)
My husband was quicker than I to respond.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “You will do the exam without the classes and accept the grade you’re given. You’re brilliant at drawing, so why do you need to cheat?”
My daughter is extremely practical and persevered. “But it isn’t really cheating, my friends say. Just that he’s on the board so he ensures your paper gets a proper look.” But her heart wasn’t in the argument. “You’re right,” she quickly acquiesced. “What’s the point.”
The exams were spread over three days and covered a series of styles, references and mediums. On the first day, she came home sputtering. “They were told about the topics! They had already come in with rough sketches of the still-life we were supposed to do.”
Mr. F’s students were getting their money’s worth.
On the second day, a complex geometric pattern was part of the test. I dreaded her rage.
“Mama, what is this?!?! They all came in with tracing paper. They had already done the pattern. It took me an hour to just finish the drawing before colouring it in. I almost ran out of time.”
On the third day she was quiet. I asked her how she’d done. “Okay,” she shrugged. Months later, she got her results. Mr. F’s students had all got A’s; she, at the top of her class, got a B. “One day, in the real world, they’ll ask you all to draw, and you will be the only one actually able to,” I told her. She gave me The Mona Lisa.
Jugaad is divisive, class- and community-neutral, corrosive and frighteningly endemic. You can’t have a conversation about ethics with the mother holding the fake Louis Vuitton handbag. You clock the fire exits on visits to the dilapidated building ‘renovated’ with glass facades. You tell the maid her ‘hairpin charger’ will kill her eventually. You ignore the cops breaking the traffic light. And at the glitzy T2 terminal, you pay your parking charges in cash to faceless attendants, rolling past the machines to find a spot. It cannot end well.
We’re a small posse on the side against jugaad, but count RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan among us. Acknowledging it as a byproduct of our beleaguered system’s inadequacies, he maintains it is “an attitude of shortcuts and evasions, none of which help final product quality or sustainable economic growth.”
I don’t speak the language of jugaad. I don’t recognize its low-level cleverness. It is a rickety stool from which to nervously peer over the fence rather than a solid stepping-stone upward to a bright future. I’m hoping the milieu evolves, even as I try to give my kids the tools to retain their ethics and smarts, resist ill-gotten, greedy, instant gratification, and still succeed.
Like many parents we know, we are sending our kids into the world not jugaad-enabled. Every day, we fear this will be our greatest mistake. But it is also the clearest indication of the aspirations, trust and faith we put in the future of our country—and in them.