The word “pukka” of Hindi-Urdu origin has come to mean authentic, best in class, highest quality, proper, and superior. But one does not hear this word so much anymore, and certainly not the expression “pukka Sahib” – or chota peg for that matter.
During the Raj and after independence in 1947, pukka was used to describe people in India of refinement with excellent manners, who always knew the right protocol and thing to do. A pukka Sahib was well informed, well intentioned, self-effacing, and high-minded – and compassionate when needed. The concept of pukka has also been applied for example, to wool shirts, cement irrigation channels, luxury hotels, and a firm commitment, as in “pakki baat hai.” Indeed, pukka has meant a value system.
Further, pukka can also be used as a pejorative term: a pukka badmash denotes a scoundrel or ruffian, while a pukka shaitan is a devil, both characters being of world-class stature.
So where did pukka go and is it dead? In the spoken word, the answer is fundamentally yes – one does not hear this old-fashioned word much. However, in a behavioral sense, the concept lives.
For centuries, India has been a highly stratified and status-minded society, with protocols for forms of address, diets, social associations, and the way certain tasks are performed. As in Britain, one might say that in India, “What isn’t done, won’t be done.” Being pukka meant doing the right things and doing things right, to use another expression.
For decades, the Indian spirit was suppressed, first by the British who used the trade surpluses of India to invest in other colonial possessions. And after independence, it was suppressed for decades by socialism, which led to a lack of incentives, fear of competition, and an unacceptably low GDP growth rate.
But deregulation of the Indian economy has changed all that. Several decades of relatively free markets, a free trade account, less capital controls, reduction of red tape, and encouragement of foreign direct investment in India have changed generations of elite and bureaucratic Fabian thinking. With the economic free for all that has ensued with economic liberalization in the 1990s, the old status-driven order has been overtaken by entrepreneurship and a general flattening of society. While estimates vary, the Indian middle class may now be as large as 35 crore or 350 million. Digital technology is an enabler of this transformation: with more transparency and information in the public domain, various parties in a supply chain that do not add value or assume risk are being eliminated. Not only that, when a bricklayer with a cell phone, for example, sees what bricklayers are paid in a nearby village, expectations rise as well as social mobility.
Much new wealth has been created in India, in the technology sector in particular. With an estimated 166 billionaires, India ranks third behind the United States and China. By another estimate, India has 249 billionaires, of which 215 live in India. In 2021, India ranked sixth among nations for its number of IPOs, a major creator of wealth.
The new order is not so impressed with status, but with creativity and achievement: with this, the meaning of pukka has evolved. Pukka now means doing your best, or in a traditional sense your duty. A software engineer who invents a new application or microprocessor, a physicist on the Mars Orbiter Mission team, a farmer who achieves triple cropping, a jawan who braves the cold and risks his life on the Siachen Glacier, and a taxi driver who can skillfully negotiate the traffic by Delhi’s Jama Masjid – these are examples of today’s pukka.
Pukka is not dead in India. In short, and at the risk of over-generalization, the status-based concept of pukka has yielded to a success-based one. Being pukka is no longer retreating to a hill station to escape the heat, barking “jaldi chalo” in a rickshaw. It is no longer sitting in the gymkhana and reminiscing over the old order. It is also not about an AC chair car from the Old Delhi Railway Station to Howrah Station. It means getting out of bleachers and on to the playing field, and competing to achieve.
India is not the only country where cultural norms and manners of interaction are evolving. In Great Britain and the United States, there is a new informality, appealing to one generation but sometimes offensive to another. Mixed company being addressed as “you guys” is quite common in restaurants, bistros, and brasseries. Backward baseball caps worn in elegant dining rooms are another symbol of defiant informality. A first name basis with strangers is more common than not. And torn denim jeans for some reason are considered chic and de rigeur. Stop signs have become optional, and skateboarders and cyclists menace the elderly on sidewalks.
In general, there is a lack of civility on the street, and the “me culture” now reigns supreme – not very pukka indeed.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a Lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.
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