Thursday, September 25, 2008

Impressions from India

Huge disclaimer: Limited travel experience + overgeneralization == travel wisdom. What I write here is based on just a few days of travel in New Delhi and Agra, which are far from representative for the whole nation. However, nothing adapts to new circumstances faster than the human mind, so I figured I'd write it down while it's still fresh on my mind.

What Transformation?

I guess I was a little bit naive about coming here. After reading Friedman's The World is Flat, where he describes the gleaming HQs of outsourcing companies in Bangalore / Bengaluru, I expected a country on the verge of a big transformation to modernity. i guess that's the dangers of comparing the max of one country - the Electronic City Industrial Park on the outskirts of Bangalore - with the median of the West. I expected something on the level of communist Hungary where I spent my childhood, but found conditions significantly worse.

You see more construction cranes in Munich, Germany, than you see in New Delhi. Still, around the city, you see a lot of construction for the New Delhi Metro. Inside, you will find sparkling new stations and trains that put Europe to shame. Yet, you see only Indians riding it.


The level of poverty, and its contrast to the rich few is striking: You see bicycle rickshaws and tut-tuts, buses teeming full of people, next to a Mercedes S-Class sedan. When you ride one of those tut-tuts, beggars and children will beg you for money at every red light.

My first impression was the most shocking: After leaving the glass, marble, and steel Indira Gandhi International Airport, I took a taxi to Paharganj, a cheap tourist area in New Delhi where my hotel was. after avoiding the driver's "I don't know where your hotel is, let me take you to another one" scan - more on that in a later post -, I found myself in an area that was crowded, smelly, dirty, with ramshackle buildings, and cows, goats, and dogs walking the streets.


The highlight for me so far was the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum in New Delhi. It's the house in which Indira Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India, not related to the Mahatma) was assassinated by her own bodyguards in 1984; and in which she lived quite plainly for the leader of a huge country. Her study with the bookshelves stuffed with books reminded me, for some reason, of my grandfather's library. Streams of Indians of various backgrounds and religions are pushing themselves through the museum all the time.

While I don't agree with her policies, the exhibition about her and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who followed her as a PM and was also assassinated, is very moving. Formerly an airline pilot, he became quite the reformer and seemed to have almost Obamaesque speaking qualities:

In the heart of a truly non-violent person, there is a profound belief
that hate can only be driven out by love,
that anger can only be driven out by compassion,
and that fear can only be overcome by courage.

-- Rajiv Gandhi


sameer said...

unfortunately, tourists are well-targeted by scammers, beggars and others eager to take advantage of naivete. hippie tourism has been going on for a long time; the shucksters have had years to whittle their nefarious activities down to an art.

also, with regards to seeing luxury sedans rife throughout delhi, colloquial wisdom has it that india's 'black' (untaxed, under the table) economy is equivalent in size to it's 'white' (taxed, officially reported) economy. the black money is spent with abandon on luxuries like big sedans and designer wares. this amplifies inequality.

finally, india really is in transition to modernity. in less than a decade, attitudes about business and entrepreneurship have vastly shifted. before, all yearned to join the bureaucracy. today, many strive to work in multinational corporations, including homegrown multinationals. however, as you saw, social issues such as public cleanliness are still lagging and india has a long way to progress on those fronts.

Gabor said...

Thanks, sameer. It's very interesting to see the raw market forces at work here, with all the hawkers and so on. Also gave me some opportunities to flex my negotiation muscles :-)

I bet the local experience is much different from that of a foreign tourist. It's already feeling much more comfortable now. But the very initial experience was quite overwhelming.