India Now: An Anecdotal Account (Part 1)

I made a trip to India last December (2009) and visited for 3 weeks into the new year (2010).  This is my account covering the spectrum of life in India. It is divided into 5 parts.  Here’s part 1:

After fifteen hours we finally descended over Mumbai.  As I peered into the darkness outside, I noticed that the night was undisturbed by the light pollution one would expect from a major city.  As soon as we hit the tarmac, a distinct foreign smell permeated the airplane cabin.  Even ten years later it was impossible not to recognize that Indian scent that might be described as a potpourri of concrete rubble, dust, cow manure and some mystery masala.  Nervous to meet my relatives again and use Indian bathrooms, I was both suffocated and reassured by the smell.

I was surprised by the blinding fluorescent lights as I disembarked from the ramp into the airport.  As my mom and younger brother, Rajeev, walked ahead to the duty free shops, I ran to the bathroom for what I thought would be the first of many harrowing visits during the next three weeks.  Proper urinals, albeit a bit low to the ground, startled me upon entry.  A few minutes later I ran to catch up while taking in the commercial vivacity of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which seemed more like a Western shopping mall at midnight than a portal to a developing foreign country.  Chanel No. 5 for 20% off to my right, and two bottles of The Glenlivet for $58 to my left.  Not bad.  I caught up with my family and after a quick baggage mix-up we went through one last security checkpoint.

We dumped our bags on the conveyor belt and waited.  I turned to my mom and smiled, “India is a lot different from what I remember.”  One of the porters at security interjected and asked about the three bottles of whiskey we had purchased from duty free.  He grabbed my arm and asked me for ten dollars.  Explaining that we were permitted four bottles between the two of-age adults, I picked up my bags and moved forward.  Feeling a hand clutch my elbow again, I turned to hear the porter begging me to have a heart and to give him some cash.  Brushing his arm away I pushed toward ground transportation.  In my periphery I could see my mom smirking.  I lamented, “I guess some things don’t change.”

*****

The steady hum of traffic rose to our second story flat in the mornings.  As comforting as the sound of the outside world continuously bustling about in the background was, driving through that same traffic was disproportionately more frustrating.  Traveling ten kilometers routinely took an hour in Mumbai traffic.  In a country of a billion people it wasn’t shocking to see fifty pedestrians for every vehicle as they played a ceaseless game of Frogger, dodging double decker buses and weaving through the anarchy of streets without driving lanes.  But even in the presence of buses and monstrous trucks, the true kings of the Indian roadways were the auto-rickshaws.

Swarming through the streets equipped with buzzing engines and blaring cricket-like horns, the black and yellow pests seemed to have multiplied since my last visit.  Despite their dominance, the three-wheel, three-seater autos were harmless and could easily be flipped over onto their sides by a grown man.  My 165 pound frame nearly tipped one over the first time I stepped out of an auto.  They were no more than Vespas with tarp coverings.  Yet, in the United States motorcycles and scooters are forced to criss-cross through highways of sedans.  In India it is the cars that have to maneuver through a grid of autos, which Physics 101 would suggest poses a problem.

Sitting in traffic, I spruced up on my Hindi by reading decals on the backs of autos:  “Rama,” “Mera Bharat Mahan,” and “Capacity: 3 Idiots.”  Reading that last one, which referred to a recently released Bollywood film, I thought American advertisers could learn a few lessons about viral advertising from this place.  My gaze drifted from the traffic to the local businesses.  Impressive malls had sprung up everywhere during the past ten years, but the majority of commercial property was still hole-in-the-wall stores and shacks lining the roadsides.  As I stared out the window at a store called Alpha, which sold everything from eyeglass frames to diapers to potato chips but with 1/100th the retail space of the average Wal-Mart, a large moving gray mass blocked my view.  After a moment, it dawned on me that this was an elephant in full stride alongside heavy traffic.  Still disoriented, it took me a few more seconds to realize that what I thought was someone hosing down the sidewalk was actually the same elephant relieving himself, forcing me to reconsider the idiom, “piss like a racehorse.”

As the elephant thudded away, my eyes returned to Alpha.  I had wondered why stores like Wal-Mart did not take advantage of India’s rising middle class, but I began to see why the infrastructure might make it difficult.  Having traveled between major cities on India’s national highways, I saw firsthand that the majority of India was still occupied by villages and farmland.  India’s suburbs were housed within its congested metropolitan areas.  Unlike New York City’s outer boroughs, Mumbai’s suburbs were actually more congested than the financial and commercial centers.  In fact, downtown Mumbai is full of open stretches of pavement and void of the nuisance (and convenience) of autos.  The traffic and congestion make Wal-Mart like superstores hard to build in locations accessible to the suburban middle class.

As a foreigner with purchasing power, I was gladly willing to risk my life crossing the road to buy a Coke rather than hop in a car to find discount soda at a supermarket.  However, even locals who still value every rupee saved seemed to prefer the local economy that dominates India.  They enjoyed buying produce from the guy ceaselessly cuckooing, “Bhaji-wala!” in the early mornings.  The number of vendors that sold door-to-door had significantly decreased since my last visit, but it was still just as easy to make a call to any specialty store downstairs and have goods delivered.  Proximity explains why 97% of Indian retail is mom and pop stores, and this lifestyle has its advantages. [1] Renewing your license at India’s version of the DMV—a man sitting at a wicker table under a tarp propped up by bamboo sticks—was not nearly as tedious as a DMV visit in the United States.  Still, I found myself willing to forfeit an hour of my life every so often to the curmudgeons of my town’s DMV for the other day-to-day conveniences to which I had grown accustomed in the western world.


[1] “The Rising Elephant.” PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2005.

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