Up until that point, India had hardly been on my radar. Sure, I had seen news snippets about the booming Indian economy, or contrastingly the nation’s miserable poverty, or the monsoons sweeping entire villages away. I read the occasional article in The Economist, typically covering the same themes. And I ate Indian food every once in a while, but could hardly distinguish dal makhani from dum aloo. Still, India seemed like an exciting place going through a particularly exciting time, and when the transfer opportunity came along, my girlfriend Melissa (who was working at the same firm) and I figured, “Well, why not?”
In the two months between India’s true arrival in my conscious and my arrival at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, I learned a little more about what I should expect from India. I read some books, gaining some key insights from Larry Collins’s and Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight, Gregory David Roberts’sShantaram, and Stanley Wolpert’s India. I sought out my Indian friends and colleagues for words of wisdom, which usually tailed off into stories about visiting family and eating until they nearly dropped dead, and how every time they go to India it’s like setting foot in a new land. The stories painted a picture of a country at an inflection point—evolving from a developing country into one that sees itself as a leading world power. But, of course, the stories also came with warnings: pollution and poverty, crowds and cows, and the horrors of Delhi Belly made their way into nearly every conversation.
So I wasn’t totally clueless when I landed in Delhi. But preparing for India is a moot point, sort of like—as I was soon to learn—preparing for the first day of school. My conversations and reading could hardly have made India—in all its nuttiness and nirvana—easier to handle or less exciting to swallow.
Modernity in the Shadow of Poverty
From the moment Melissa and I stepped off the airplane around 6 a.m., I was overwhelmed. Despite the early hour, hundreds of people were milling around inside and outside the airport. The pollution was outrageous—after a few minutes of riding in our car with the window down, I found myself yearning for the famously crisp, fresh air of Los Angeles. The poverty—which I had read and heard a lot about—was more troubling and “in your face” than I could have imagined. And, for some odd reason, everybody I saw on the roads was male. It was as if all the women in Delhi had been summoned to some hidden part of town, leaving the men in the streets to stare and ogle at us as we drove by.
We made our way to the nearby city of Gurgaon, where we found the first of seemingly endless examples of the juxtaposition of new and old, rich and poor: our apartment building. The high-rise rose up from empty fields, a majestic modern structure surrounded by mounds of dirt and dozens of shanty huts. Our office building, the handful of glitzy malls, the 5-star hotels, and the luxury golf and country club in town all seemed to fit the same mold: rapidly expanding modernity growing literally out of the shadows of poverty.
It’s hard not to notice the rapid pace at which “India Inc’s” economy is booming. Signs of development are everywhere (India’s GDP growth is ~9-percent, compared to ~3-percent in the United States): shiny new malls are being built, Mercedes and Ferrari dealerships are popping up, never mind the fact that I was sent to India by my firm in the first place. However, along with the boom have come some serious growing pains. India’s infrastructure could barely handle its one billion+ population before it started growing and developing, and things are getting hairier now. New roads are being built, but construction has been slow, haphazard, and accompanied by some unfortunate side effects: every few days a pedestrian was killed on the highway near our house while trying to cross a six-lane highway with a bike or family in tow.
The boom in cell phone usage (60-percent growth per year, with over 5 million new subscribers added per month) is accompanied by lousy connections, dropped calls, and shamefully low penetration across many of India’s rural communities. But the biggest and most noticeable sector taking off (excuse the pun) is domestic air traffic, growing at over 20-percent a year. India went from having two airlines a few years ago to now sporting nine, featuring shiny new planes, low fares (we were able to get almost anywhere in India for under $200 roundtrip), and, best of all, great service. Maybe the Indian airlines haven’t lost money long enough to realize that the full meals and bags of candy may be a bit excessive. Of course there are bumps in the road—the news and papers are filled with horror stories from passengers, mostly due to an archaic air traffic control system that sometimes left us wondering if the planes were being directed by a man with binoculars and a walkie-talkie.
But I shouldn’t complain too much, as I was able to get anywhere in India relatively painlessly in a few hours. Other than a few weekends in Delhi (Holi, the U.S. Embassy’s “Black and White Ball,” and the frequent weekends devoted to stopping by one of my three favorite tailors), my fellow transfers and I pretty much left Delhi every weekend during those six months in order to explore the wonders of India—and boy, are there some wonders.
We marveled at the marbled splendor of the Taj Mahal, which is much more fascinating in person than in pictures. We strolled along the majestic Golden Temple in Amritsar and then watched the flag ceremony at the India-Pakistan border—an opportunity for both sides to flex their muscles in a strange and somewhat silly nightly show. We partied in cosmopolitan Mumbai and felt tiny amongst the caves at Ellora. We relaxed along the beaches of Goa and Pondicherry, the backwaters of Kerala, the lake in Udaipur, and the swamps of the Sundarbans. But most impressive of all was a two-week trek in the rugged state of Sikkim through the mighty Himalayas, ending with views of the world’s third tallest mountain. Almost as exciting as the spectacular scenery along the way was the fact that we were accompanied by a team of eight helpers—a guide, a cook, three porters, a yak-man, and two yaks—all for a meager $90 per day.
In fact, throughout my travels in India the level of service never ceased to amaze me or my frequent visitors from the U.S. Melissa and I had a driver—Satish—at our service 24/7, essential for life in a country with traffic that makes even Los Angeles seem tame. We also had a housekeeper who helped with our laundry and dry cleaning. We even hired a cook, which sounded like a good idea at the time but became quite the adventure once we discovered she didn’t speak a word of English. Thinking I had found a solution, I wrote out a checklist with all the food items I could possibly want, and had a co-worker translate it. Upon proudly showing the cook my list, however, I discovered that the challenge would be even greater than expected: she couldn’t read. Nevertheless we enjoyed some wonderful dinners, on the rare occasions that we were able to surmount the communication barrier!
Not in This Lifetime
Despite the fine service, our frustrations mounted daily as we encountered some stressful situations. The pace of getting things done was tough to deal with. UCLA Professor Stanley Wolpert put it best in his book India: “Whether as missionaries or Peace Corps workers, engineers, Ford fellows or business executives, Americans like to ‘get things done.’ Indians usually seem content to wait until some future lifetime. Change is perhaps the first ‘law’ of modern American life, but remains one of the lowest priorities for most Indians, where traditional continuity counts highest.”
This became a painful reality for my fellow transfers and me on a daily basis. It took over a month for the air conditioner in our office to get fixed, despite daily complaints to the building manager and the 110-degree heat. A bottle of fine whiskey was stolen from our apartment, but it took several weeks of argument before the landlord even got involved. Speaking of the apartment, it took a good three weeks to have our light fixture replaced after it exploded all over the couch. It was supposed to take a day or two.
And the infamous Indian bureaucracy reared its ugly head in my attempts to wire money overseas. It took no less than 6 visits from the banker to the office for me to get the money transferred, primarily due to the “non-matching signature” on the forms. The normal process requires filling out a half-dozen forms, signing them, copying them, signing them again, and turning them in to the bank. While I was apparently very good at filling out the forms and making photocopies, I discovered that I was a delinquent autographer. The banker from Citibank arrived at my office the day after I’d turned in the forms to tell me that the signatures didn’t match the signature I had given them when registering. I re-signed (and re-copied and re-resigned) the forms, gave them to him, and was relieved to be done. Sadly, I got a call from him two days later saying that the signatures still didn’t match. He returned once again, this time bringing a copy of my original signature, which frankly looked just like all the others except that the loop on the D was roughly 0.003 inches smaller. After 45 minutes of practicing and re-signing, he was satisfied and left. A few days later, after several more phone calls, I finally got the good news that the money had been sent. But hey, at least I got to practice my autograph.
Other than the frustrations of waiting, I also faced a number of situations that left me saying, “Huh?!” One afternoon the office suddenly smelled of gasoline, which we found out was due to the questionable decision to paint the building’s air conditioning vents in the middle of the day. After a fight with the building superintendent, the situation improved … until the very next afternoon when the painting—and fumes—returned with a vengeance. At home, our power went off for a few minutes every hour, so watching a DVD was exercise in patience. A rigid mentality of sticking to the rules, while great in most instances, meant that a Domino’s employee couldn’t sell us a pizza with single cheese or pepperoni (but could with any other topping). And while most people spoke English, oftentimes it sounded to us like a foreign language. Phrases like “do the needful,” “prepone,” and “the same” added considerably to my laugh quotient (and eventually to my vocabulary).
Small World, After All
Despite these daily obstacles, I found the work environment to be surprisingly similar to the one I left in Los Angeles. Sure, the L.A. office didn’t come equipped with pantry boys, bathroom attendants, and round the clock security guards. But as many of the senior colleagues had worked in the U.S., and as the younger ones had been trained at the top Indian business schools, the standards and work ethic were world-class. My assignments were interesting and challenging, especially when it came to crafting an India-entry strategy for a large global client.
Through it all, within and beyond the comfortable office environment, I found that India was full of extremely warm and hospitable people. Melissa and I never felt threatened or uncomfortable, whether walking in the slums of Mumbai or along the beaches of Goa. It’s easy to see the pride that Indians take in the country’s rich heritage and rapid pace of modernization, and many were eager to show the country off to us foreigners. My driver, Satish, despite speaking little English, took great joy in driving me around Delhi’s historic sites and explaining their importance. Any culture shock that I might have felt while living and working in India was softened by the number of close friendships that I was able to make.
I left India with a wardrobe of finely tailored clothes, hundreds of photographs, a more refined palate, and a seemingly indestructible stomach. But more importantly, I left with an appreciation for the complexity and progress that define modern India. As she turns 60, India seems poised to stand on the world stage, though she is being held back by inequality, bureaucracy, and other struggles that can only be understood when living and breathing life in India. And that Indian life—for 6 months in early 2007—provided for me the adventure of a lifetime.
David Adelman is a Harvard graduate who has since moved on from India and consulting to join a private equity firm in Boston. He looks forward to returning to India soon, but in the meantime is getting his curry-fix from local take-out.