Friday, 16 November 2007

Observations on India

I’m on day seven here in India and it’s safe to say the hassles of everyday life are starting to get to me! I keep thinking that if I were here for pleasure I’d be having a really amazing time, being able to relax and just sit by the pool or do sightseeing. But being here on business is a completely different story. The lack of modern amenities and decent infrastructure make getting around extremely difficult here, and when you’ve made five appointments per day spread out across the city, it gets a little stressful!

Not that I’m not enjoying my visit, it really is a fascinating place. But relaxing is definitely not a word I would use to describe this trip. I’ve learned so much so far on this visit though, things I had no idea about before. I really thought that India’s two largest cities would be more developed. Certainly, there is a great deal of development going on, but it would be a stretch to describe these places as ‘developed’ in their present state. Essentially India is where the West was 100 years ago. They’re in a state of rapid building and unprecedented growth, sitting on the back of a 19th century infrastructure and society. It really is like a trip back in time being here. The streets are teeming with the poorest of the poor, the creaking rail cars are filled with people hanging on to the sides, the markets are a jostling cacophony of street merchants. Yet dotted throughout these cities are modern developments, shielded by walls and guards from the rabble outside. This is exactly what New York City would have looked like 100 years ago.

Essentially India is at that same point of transition. A huge surge of growth is thrusting it into the modern era, but the change is happening against the backdrop of an undeveloped economy. And while you’re travelling around here it’s hard to reconcile what you see on the street with the vast amount of money being raised for real estate investment here. Five billion dollars has been invested in property and infrastructure here by private equity funds alone (the area I cover), and that’s nothing compared to the amount that’s been raised but not deployed yet (something like $20 billion). Yet driving around you have to ask yourself, seriously?

Tuesday I did a site visit to a new township development outside of Delhi by a private equity firm. I went with one of the new members of the board, a pretty well-known guy who used to head the army in the UK (one of those big-name politician appointments to boards that’s just really for opening doors). He seemed as perplexed as I was when we arrived at the site, which would be home to a $400 million development. We took a dirt road to access it, and found an empty field next to a crumbling and dilapidated Jain temple. Even the road to get here from Delhi (a ‘highway’ by Indian standards) was pretty rough, filled with rickshaws, cows and beggars. “This will all be completely different in six months” the firm executive told the new British board member. “I hope so,” he responded sceptically

Getting around here is really an adventure in and of itself. Walking or public transportation just isn’t an option for a Westerner, particularly one in a suit. So you have to be driven everywhere, which I’m extremely uncomfortable with. It’s also a bit frustrating, particularly in Mumbai where traffic is horrible and it can take two hours to go just a few miles. There’s a train that runs up and down the city that would be much faster, but it’s literally these packed cars with people hanging off the sides and gasping at the windows for air. So it’s not an option.

Bumper Cars

There seems to be no organized system of driving here. There are lanes drawn on the roads but nobody pays any attention to them. Everyone just drives wherever they feel like. And the purpose of honking here is completely different to that in the West. Here, it isn’t to alert someone that they’ve done something wrong or to get someone’s attention, it’s literally to make your presence known. Every time you pass a car you have to honk, otherwise the car might just suddenly drive into you. So any driver honks his horn at least every 10 seconds, which makes for an extremely unpleasant experience on the roads here. I can’t understand it, because it seems to me that all the honking renders the honk completely useless, because you just learn to tune it out. What’s really crazy is a bunch of my drivers have been knicked by other cars or had minor fender benders, and they just keep driving! It’s literally like bumper cars out there. That combined with the fact that there’s cows roaming around everywhere make this truly like another world.

What’s in a Name?

Bombay is without a doubt very different from Delhi. It’s much more compact, spread out over a thin peninsula much like Manhattan. I would say Mumbai is the New York of India and Delhi is the DC, both in terms of how the cities are laid out and the vibes. I've decided to call the city Bombay instead of Mumbai after learning the origins of the name change in 1998. Basically the name was changed by this ultra-right nationalist party that has control of local government, the same party that was responsible for inciting the riots against Muslims in 1992. The city was essentially never called Mumbai before 1998 by anyone, the word is an alliteration of the Hindu Goddess Mumbadevi created specifically for the renaming. The purpose was to get rid of the ‘British name’ for the city and give it a native one, and this was also done with train stations, streets and museums.

But this is patently absurd, mostly because there was nothing here before the Europeans arrived. The name Bombay isn’t even from the British, but rather from the Portuguese who first colonized the area in the 16th century. It comes from “good bay.” When the Portuguese arrived the area was just a bunch of islands, on which they set up a few settlements. They gave the islands to the English as part of the dowry for Catherine of Braganza, who then expanded the settlement and filled in the area between the islands, making the modern peninsula. In short, the British created this city from a Portuguese settlement, who themselves created it from nothing. So it would be like us renaming Los Angeles to “ApplePieville” because we didn’t like having a Spanish name. To contrast, it might make sense for a city like Mexico City if it were renamed Tenochitlan, as that was actually the city’s name before the Europeans arrived.

Of course native inhabitants have the right to call their city whatever they want but I’m noticing that almost everyone here still refers to the city as Bombay, or at least the educated middle class people I’ve been meeting with. So if it’s between calling the city what the people actually call it or calling it by the made-up name devised by a far right nationalist party, I think I’ll go with Bombay.


Going to business meetings in India has been interesting. For the most part, when you pull up to these locations your jaw drops at the decrepit appearance of the buildings they are in. I mean, these are major investment funds and advisory firms and they’re in these buildings that look like they haven’t been updated since 1940. There’s no reception on the ground floor, usually only one elevator for a tall building and no A/C. But then you get into the actual office and it’s all refurbished, luxurious and extravagant. In fact when you’re sitting in these offices you could be in Greenwich, Connecticut (if you didn’t look out the window). One appointment I had with a large advisory firm in Bandra the contrast was particularly striking. As I conducted the itnerview, my eye kept being drawn to the window behind the person I was talking to, which overlooked one of the largest slum encampments I've ever seen.

What is also striking about these offices is the vast number of servants running around. As soon as you get in they offer you tea or coffee, and when they come back with it they then ask you if you want food. And I don’t just mean snacks, I mean they’re ready to make you a full-on entree. These servants are all wearing, I kid you not, white gloves. It’s like we’re living in 1890 in the Raj years. They come in during the meetings, heads bowed, and quietly take your silverware.

Part of the reason for the huge number of servants here, I’m told, is that there’s just such a huge number of people to employ. People seem to be hired to do the most menial jobs here. Every bathroom has an attendant, every door has a guard (every ATM has two guards). There’s someone to work the elevator, and there’s someone to open your car door. It is typical for middle class homes to have live-in servants, I’m told. In fact, I was told that the reason supermarkets would never work here is because most middle class families have their servants do their shopping for them, and they have maybe never been shopping for themselves their entire life. Some of these domestic servants, apparently, are as young as ten years old.

Interestingly, despite the level of formality in office worker-servant relations, I haven’t had one interview here with someone wearing a jacket and tie. I imagine this is because of the weather, and I’ve felt a bit overdressed with my suit on. But considering the degree to which I sweat, taking the jacket off is not really an option!

Language Aristocracy

Another interesting thing about India is how much English is used here. It’s effectively the second national language after Hindi. It’s everywhere. Virtually all of the billboards are in English, and all road signs are in Hindi and English, as are the names of stores and restaurants, no matter what kind of neighbourhood. English is the definitive language of business, and any meeting pertaining to business is conducted in English, even if it is all Indians meeting. For instance right now at the table next to me there is a business meeting taking place. All the people are Indian, yet they are only speaking in English.

All the cable business stations here are in English, and half of the news stations are in English. Now of course any country you go to you’d find English-language programming somewhere on your dial, but what’s different here is that these are Indian stations. The news stations are only for India, and have Indian anchors with Indian accents, yet they are speaking in English. I knew English was widely spoken here but I had no idea the extent to which it was.

So the general rule is any middle class person and above will speak fluent English, and anyone working in the service industry will as well. Yet the poor do not speak English. For instance if you get a ride in an autorickshaw your driver will most likely not speak English (one wonders how they then read all the signs in English though). The same is generally true for taxi drivers. So effectively you have a monied class that speaks the language of the general populace (Hindi), but also speaks an aristocratic language (English). Then you have a poor class that speaks only the national language, but can speak a few words of English to get by.

It reminds me of the situation in England after the Norman conquest. The Norman rulers spoke French, and French became the language of the elite in England for a good 300 years. Eventually the lower classes learned a number of French words as well so they could communicate with their Norman overlords. The Normans, in turn, learned English so they could communicate with their subjects, though they continued to speak French as their main language. In time the two languages merged to form modern English, which derives 60 percent of its word origin from French.

From what I’ve observed the same thing seems to be happening here. Both signs and people speaking weave back and forth between Hindi and English so seamlessly that it seems as if some sort of hybrid language is developing. Considering Hindi is a language structured in its modern form so the over 200 language groups across India could communicate with one another, how will this massive use of English shape the country as it goes forward? The fact that the two languages use different alphabets makes the situation even more interesting.

I’m just about done with my interviews for the day, I have one more to go and then I am thankfully free for the weekend. Tomorrow I will do some sightseeing and Sunday I’m not quite sure yet. Suggestions are welcome!

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