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'Doing the needful' is a particularly Indian phrase designed to indicate that the person being requested to do it is about to launch on the kind of irrelevant, convoluted, tortuous, meandering maze that would make Kafka break out in hives.

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Doing the needful’ is a particularly Indian phrase designed to indicate that the person being requested to do it is about to
launch on the kind of irrelevant, convoluted, tortuous, meandering  maze that would make Kafka break out in hives.

Take, for example, my simple desire to use the swimming pool at Sri Fort Sports Complex. The lady at the desk told me, "You just fill in a form, do the needful, baas." The ‘needful’ turned out to be: taking a number to stand in queue on the single designated day of the month assigned to this purpose to get an application form for temporary membership. Filling in that form and attaching two passport sized photographs, countersigned at the back along with a banker’s draft for which you need to go to the bank for the amount, which must then be deposited with the correct official during those brief moments designated as
‘office hours’, to be issued with a temporary membership card that you need to then put in your application to use the
pool. This requires another form from the front desk, which is to be completed and accompanied not only by another draft necessitating another trip to the bank but also a doctor’s certificate to assure the authorities that you will neither dissolve nor have a heart attack in the (at this point increasingly unlikely) event that you will actually come into contact with the water.

In common British slang ‘the needful’ is specifically used to refer to ready cash, as in: ‘Have you got the needful for a second-hand car?’ But although ready cash can sometimes help cut through the red tape in India, more often what one needs is the stubbornness of an ox and the patience of a saint. Needless to say, my swimming costume is still dry.


This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, April 30, 2006


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