India Revisited

Just returned from my second visit to India, the first was in 2005. In the meantime, it has become hard to recognize. Before, as well-travelled as I am, I found it too chaotic, too poor, too squalid thus outweighing it’s thrilling exoticism, its color, and uniquely complex and fascinating history (Dravidians, Aryans, Mughals, British, out-sourced American call centers and German engineers…see below…to be horribly oversimplified).

In the intervening 7 years, it’s 7.5 to 8% annual GDP growth is on display. It’s not as poor, not as squalid, not as chaotic…and not as exotic. Virtually all the men are only in Western attire and most of the women seem to have left their spectacularly coloful garments at home. And the enormous infrastructure deficit is rapidly being filled. Where the airports had been small, dark, and cramped, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi all have brand new ones that put anything in the US to shame…well, just maybe Denver could play in the same league. New broad roads; a giant fly-over bridge that cuts about 45 minutes off the trip to the heart of Mumbai (by the way, it only costs about $1.50 to use it); 5 star business hotels abound.

The first world and the third world are still right next to eachother here, but there’s much more first…and less third…and you can now drink from the taps. And the food is still great!

A particularly ambitious 43 year old relationship manager sought my advice about breaking away from his very well compensated job at a major multi-national bank and plunging into the life of an entrepreneur to serve his clients in his own business. “It’s only been in the last five years that a professional can make as much or more than a business owner…and so much more than I ever thought I would make when I finished school.” I got the strong impression that he would be willing to leave the safety of a fat paycheck, but his wife and children and servants weren’t as eager.

Bangalore, or Bengaluru in the new respelling, re-pronunciation of many Indian cities (Kolkata = Calcutta; Chennai = Madras; Mumbai = Bombay; old-timers just roll their eyes and use the old names), was a revelation. Upon arrival, I got a taxi to my hotel and after announcing its name, the driver asked, “stadtmitte?” (German for city center, or “downtown”). Staying with the unexpected cosmopolitanism, I responded “Ja!” The next evening on my flight to Delhi, the plane was full of mostly Western business people, including quite a few tall, blondish Germans. At 3000 feet above sea level, Bangalore has a pleasant, mild climate year-round (where Mumbai, on the Arabian Sea, is hot and humid even in January and Delhi is chilly and prone to thick morning fogs this time of year). My host provided the transportation most of the day and actually drove himself…a rarity, I believe. Most professionals who can afford nice cars can afford drivers. On passing a major street, marked only “M G Road”, I asked what that stood for. With a withering sigh, I was told that it stands for Mahatma Gandhi Road: “Every town in India has one, there’s no point in actually writing it out”.

Delhi, as before, impresses you with it’s strong European look: broad avenues, landscaped traffic circles; handsome civic buildings and monuments in classical Western proportions. The British created this look to make themselves feel at home in their imperial capital, ironically with some of the most majestic structures finished only a decade or so before they left it all behind. Delhi is marking it’s 100th anniversary as India’s capital (the Brits moved it from Calcutta before that); while 100 years is not much on India’s time scale, the modern, independent country itself is only 65 years old. I happened to be there the day before Republic Day, roughly the equivalent of our 4th of July. Preparations were intense for the parades and speeches and the millions(!) of spectators expected the next day.

Probably due to that timing, there was some conversation and a fair amount of media attention on the idea of India emerging as a significant world power…to match its rapidly growing wealth. Like China’s, India’s wealth and power stalled for several centuries as the Europeans’ advanced. Like the other Asian giant, India is starting to see itself as properly reclaiming its ancient ascendancy and even besting China in the process because of its considerably younger and more broadly diverse population. Democracy (while especially messy and, many believe, openly corrupt) seems an advantage, long term; and, of course, English is spoken everywhere.

Many people thus believe that India and the US are eachother’s natural allies in advancing joint prosperity and cultural sway…and counter-balancing the power of China.

There’s much more to learn and it will be hugely exciting to watch closely….and even better, to participate. When I left India the last time, frankly, I was in no rush to return. Now, I can’t wait to get back!

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