Innovation and innovativeness

And that little thing called wisdom

The people of the Indian Subcontinent are often criticized for a lack of resourcefulness on their part. What makes the criticism valid is the fact that the Subcontinent folks have hardly distinguished themselves when it comes to inventions. Some critics go further than this and complain that the Subcontinent folks try and generally succeed in making a mess of other nations’ inventions as well. This latter charge, one cannot help feel, is unfair. While it is true that there is no invention to their credit that shook the world after they invented the charpoy (many centuries ago), the Subcontinent folks have shown rare initiative and enterprise when it comes to adapting to and adopting others’ inventions.

A case in point: originating in Central Asia, the shalwar owes its arrival into the Subcontinent (among other places) to the Turkish empires of the 12th century. Starching of garments (initially shirt collars), on the other hand, was initiated in Elizabethan London in the 16th century. While the Subcontinent folks are not to blame for a combination of the two– that most-uncomfortable piece of attire known as the starched shalwar– the item was used in a technological application by a Pakistani, for the first time in history, to distribute air cooled by a strategically placed air-cooler to two adjacent rooms.

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What also needs to be stressed here is that innovation includes, but is by no means limited to, inventing gadgets. For solutions to most problems of life require innovative thinking. If I am not mistaken, the face mask that stays perpetually on the chin (or hangs from one ear) is a distinctly Subcontinental innovation, though the mask itself is anything but Subcontinental in its origin. See how beautifully it prevents inconvenient breathing, foggy glasses, skin issues and other problems associated with masks.

So too the safety helmet that is never worn but can always be found hanging from the motorbike handle. On the subject of helmets, some years ago the government posed a stiff challenge to gas station owners when it made it unlawful to sell fuel to bikers not wearing helmets. Gas station managers knew that even counting the perpetually-dangling-on-the-handle-but-never-worn variety, few of their patrons were ever going to wear (or even carry) helmets. Not to be daunted, they showed resourcefulness characteristic of all shopkeepers when they arranged for helmets to be temporarily provided to each biker during the filling duration. That is a solid innovative solution right there.

Admittedly, the Subcontinent folks need to catch up on innovation, especially as the word is used in its narrow sense, namely inventing scientific theories and gadgets. In all fairness however, at least they possess the good sense to ensure that their quality of life is not marred by mindless innovations. It is in this spirit that those of them who live abroad often pull one or two wires out of their smoke alarms, a simple act that allows them to cook parathas without setting off the alarm. The smoke alarms, no doubt, have saved countless lives by preventing deadly fires; but what is the fun in living if one cannot eat parathas? It is not that we Subcontinental folks like innovation less, but that we love wisdom more.

Before the British colonisers brought tea to the Subcontinent, the locals were blissfully unaware of its existence. The British, in turn, got to know about tea from the Chinese. Of course, they subsequently proceeded to elevate tea-drinking to an art form. (By way of repaying this Chinese debt to their culture, they insisted on introducing opium to the Chinese masses, but that is a separate story.) Cookies and rusks are said to have been invented in Persia in the seventh century. The pound cake is a worthy North European invention of the 18th century. With all the raw materials at hand, and not to be outdone in innovativeness stakes by anybody, it was the Subcontinent folks who first came up with the marvellous idea of dunking cookies and rusks in tea. There has been no looking back ever since. For all sorts of things – roti, bread, paratha, last night’s naan leftovers duly fried in oil, and what have you – are all being dunked now. This is the Indian Subcontinent’s contribution to world food culture. Sadly, this is rarely recognized, still less acknowledged.

Those who drive cars and are additionally of a philosophical disposition, know that nothing disrupts the free flow of thought quite like the seat-belt beeps. The earliest solution to the problem amounted to keeping the seat-belt perpetually in a ‘fastened’ position. That got rid of the infamous beeps, but it was a case of one problem solved, another problem created. For the seat belt (quite literally) fastened behind one’s back rendered impossible the necessary procedure of manually lowering the seat belt on spotting a policeman in order to deceive him into believing that one was wearing it. Before long therefore, an attachment (minus the belt) was introduced in the market that clicked into the locking mechanism, shutting the beeps forever. Indeed, modern problems require modern solutions, often available indigenously.

It is enough to merely observe common folks in our part of the world going about their everyday lives to know how innovative they are even in little matters– their understanding of distance and energy manifested so evidently and frequently in shortcuts and their driving on the wrong side of the road. Although to the best of my knowledge no Pakistani has ever contributed to formulating any of the laws of classical mechanics, the layman with a flat rear tire shows a profound understanding of moments of forces when heading to the puncture shop when he drives his bike while sitting on the fuel tank– a rather uncomfortable place to sit, and one which those too young or too ignorant to know the principles of mechanics are apt to find rather funny. A flat front tire is similarly negotiated by sitting on the carrier of the bike. The author has known at least one Pindi boy justifying his one-wheeling to an overly inquisitive policeman by claiming that it was to save his flat front tire from further damage– his mantra being: Take care of your bike and it will take care of you. No matter is too small to offer substantial scope for innovative thinking.

Admittedly, the Subcontinent folks need to catch up on innovation, especially as the word is used in its narrow sense, namely inventing scientific theories and gadgets. In all fairness however, at least they possess the good sense to ensure that their quality of life is not marred by mindless innovations. It is in this spirit that those of them who live abroad often pull one or two wires out of their smoke alarms, a simple act that allows them to cook parathas without setting off the alarm. The smoke alarms, no doubt, have saved countless lives by preventing deadly fires; but what is the fun in living if one cannot eat parathas? It is not that we Subcontinental folks like innovation less, but that we love wisdom more.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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