People and Places

Report from India

Posted on June 21, 2013

It is commonplace to say that India is an “assault on the senses” and in every way. As soon as we stepped into the jet way connecting our just landed United flight from Newark (15 hours nonstop) to the terminal at Delhi’s international terminal, I could smell the tropical and humid air. Delhi’s new airport, built just four years ago, is spacious and modern and puts our JFK and other US airports to shame. But the moment we walked through the door and out of the air conditioned comfort of the terminal to the car garage we were hit with heavy, hot air. The pre-Monsoon rains have been falling and the entrance and lower level of the garage has been flooded just a week ago (though they showed no evidence of it). The mid-evening temperature was falling into the mid-90s and the humidity was high.

The hotel Honda, AC cranked up and a tray of waters and sodas awaiting in the backseat, pulled away from the terminal and merged into the always amazing flow of Indian traffic. I’m never seen traffic like I’ve seen in India (this is my third visit). Six or seven lanes worth of vehicles – cars, trucks, three wheel auto-rickshaws, trucks, buses, scooters, and more — squeeze into four actual lanes, jockeying for position, beeping horns, inching ahead of others, and pulling off abrupt maneuvers without warning or turn signal. Those of us who learned to drive in Boston think we are aggressive drivers and have game. We’re like the Amish compared to Indian drivers.

For most Americans visiting here, India is also an assault on sensibilities as much as senses. On our way to our hotel we passed utter squalor, collections of….”huts” would be far too kind a word. These were ramshackle structures of wood and tin and old tarps and they were shoehorned into empty lots between buildings. Stray dogs dug through garbage and whole families walked between vehicles hawking jasmine and other things, with no apparent success, and the roadside was the place where people relieved themselves. Moments later we turned into the luxurious grounds of the ITC Maurya, a famous hotel in the Diplomatic Quarter where American presidents and other dignitaries stay, and stepped into a bubble of marble splendor. That’s the thing about India: the stark juxtaposition of wealth and poverty.

On my flight I sat next to Badal, a friendly Indian businessman, owner of a large corporate travel agency. He had just spent three weeks in the US, settling his son into a new job at the Hyatt in St. Louis, and was on his way home. Over the course of our very long flight I learned that his son had gone to a top hotel school in Switzerland, that he has a large single family home, drives a Range Rover, and routinely vacations in Europe and Asia. He represents the new India: smart, confident, worldly, and wealthy. He invited me to visit his family and home this weekend and offered to send his car and drive.  Badal is a guy who works long days and weeks and from his description I could see his success has been hard won. 

Pranav, the hotel driver, also works long days and weeks, but inhabits the other end of the socio-economic spectrum with a wife and two daughters back in his home village on the coast. He sees them only occasionally (it’s a three day train ride) and he makes enough money in Delhi to enroll his 10 and 7-year-old daughters in a private school for 1600 rupees a month, about $27. They have a decent home there, but he worries about the dowries he will eventually need if he is to marry them off, a number that can climb higher if the girls are too dark (skin whitener is widely advertised) or are not well educated. He thinks he may need to save as much as 70,000 rupees, about $1800, for each.

Pranav came to Delhi years ago when his coastal village was flooded. As he explained, the village is poor and exists on rice farming, using breeds that can grow in the heavily salinated water. He explained that villagers drink slightly salty water, not “sweet water” (the phrase for fresh water), until the monsoons replenish wills. Regular fruits and vegetables won’t grow there (the rice was specially bred by researchers), so people subsist on rice and fish. While the rains bring fresh water, he said they also bring water borne disease and a new wave of mosquitos, a different kind of health hazard. While Pranav had only six years of public education, his English is excellent and he explained that he reads many English newspapers every day and keeps a large dictionary by his side. When I explained where NH is located, he excitedly said: “The Boston Harbor Tea Party!” It’s when you fought against the British, just like we did much later.

While Badal and Pranav have little in common, they shared some of the same complaints. They disdain the widespread corruption in the country. Badal tended to describe it in terms of larger infrastructure and business, while Pranav described the petty corruption of police officers and even school personnel. They both are frustrated with India’s lagging infrastructure and the annual, but empty, promises to make desperately needed improvements. They both worry about the growing wealth gap, though they stand on opposite sides of that chasm.

They are also proud of India’s considerable accomplishments, its high tech prowess, the number of brilliant Indians heading American and international companies, and the best of its universities. Badal noted with some pride that Range Rover is owned by Tata, the enormous Indian corporate conglomerate.

 I like to think I can readily get my arms around a country and “get” its essence, but India is daunting. I arrived only a few hours ago and checked in, but will have tomorrow and some of Sunday to explore Delhi. But I’m pretty sure these short visits of mine will not suffice to really understand this complex, amazing, sublime, maddening, and vast country. For that, maybe one needs a lifetime. Or many.

I’m here as part of a State Department sponsored group joining Secretary of State John Kerry and the Under Secretary of Education, Martha Kanter. Martha was asked by State to assemble a team of people to join Indian counterparts in a conversation about innovation and higher education ans asked me to join the group.  So here I am in Delhi. Tomorrow the adventure begins proper. More to come.

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