The Incredible Diversity of India
India at the turn of the Millennium
India has been one of my regular travel locations since I first visited in 2001. Then I was part of a GE program working in the emergency call center business in Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Hyderabad. I fell in love with India on my first visit – the people, the food, and the sense of excitement around business, entrepreneurship and the future – and I have never tired of going back.
I was very lucky that during my early trips I was able to spend a lot of time with Krishnah Ganesh, who at the time was working for Customer Asset. He made me feel extremely welcome and showed me aspects of Bangalore I would never have discovered on my own. He took me inside the local community and introduced me to the unique music of Bangalore. He is also a prime example of the Indian entrepreneurial spirit as he is now one of Bangalore’s best-known entrepreneurs.
Back at the turn of the millennium, India was a very different place. I remember the regular blackouts that people accepted as a normal part of daily life. There were elephants and cows roaming the streets as freely as cats. There were also fewer cars on the road, though crossing the street still felt dangerous due to the huge number of rickshaws and bikes. Airports felt rural and reminded you that you were arriving somewhere other. Nothing like the big airports today that are practically identical regardless of which country you are in. I also remember being swarmed by taxi drivers the moment I crossed the airport threshold.
On these early trips I didn’t get to see much of the countryside, except for short trips to Mysore and around Bangalore, which at the time was much smaller than it is today. Sadly, I also lost all my photos of Mysore when I exposed the film, as yes, I had a film camera back then. Nevertheless, I still remember being struck by the extreme poverty that I encountered. I remember my young self feeling sick and confused that we live in a world of such inequality.
When I visited India more recently, several times over the course of 2012-2016, I was struck by just how much has changed. I was there working on projects for Boku, expanding their development team after the acquisition of Qubecell. While there is still poverty, the rapid growth in India is amazing to see, and fills me with optimism for the future of this vibrant and entrepreneurial country.
In recent years I have spent most of my time in Indian in Mumbai, which has emerged as a major financial and entertainment capital. The home of Bollywood, the streets are just as colorful, lively and exciting as they appear in the movies.
When I am in the city, I sometimes stay at the upscale Marriott Juhu hotel, which is often full of Bollywood actors and actresses, though I don’t recognize most of them by sight. The buffet breakfast offers cuisines from all over the country, and it is worth staying at the hotel just for the food. I couldn’t get enough of the pav bhaji, which is a kind of vegetable curry served inside a delicious bun, and the pani puri, which is a deep-fried crepe filled with a variety of things such as chutney, onion or chickpeas. When it came to satisfying my sweet tooth, I kept going back for gulab jamun, delicious sweet balls made from milk solids and sugar, and rasgulla, white dough balls made from chhena and semolina and cooked in sugar syrup. So good.
Behind the hotel is a long strip of beach, which seems like it is always occupied by thousands of people, no matter the time of day. Sadly, both the sand and sea is highly polluted and dirty, and does not match the idyllic photos we see in marketing campaigns. The hotel is in the center of a very cosmopolitan area of the city, called the Gateway of India, full of the kinds of shops, restaurants and bars that you would expect to encounter in the likes of New York City.
On one of my trips to Mumbai I found myself there in the middle of the July-August monsoon season. While this might sound like a horror show, it was actually loads of fun. The community recognizes this as the passing of the hot and humid season into a period of lively green. As such, it is a time of festivity and celebration. One day I found myself in a rickshaw that got stuck and started flooding with water. It looked like I was surrounded by chaos in the streets, but when I got out of the rickshaw and started splashing around myself I realized that I was surrounded by smiles. Far from being a source of complaint, the flooded streets were an opportunity to play like a child again. I have always found the rainy season in India to be a time of joy, as long as the flooding isn’t too bad and causing major damage that can be both expensive and dangerous.
Kolkata, which is located in the West Bengal state, was founded as a trading outpost by the East India Trading company. After that, it was the capital of the British Raj for almost 200 years. Kolkata is the kind of city that you either love or hate, and I fell into the love camp. Kolkata in 2015 reminded me of Mumbai in 2000, with hand-drawn rickshaws and ancient trams being the easiest way to navigate her streets. I would often take the rickshaw down to New Market, as this is the place where you can buy anything: all the spices you need to make your own food at home (not that you need to, considering the quality of quantity of street food available), as well as clothes and gifts for the loved ones back home. I also enjoyed passing through the Kumartuli area and seeing the many carved figures of gods and goddesses that are sold for worship.
When it came to the tourist sites, I started with the Victoria Memorial. While it is a disturbing monument to colonialism, this white marble palace is one of the most beautiful buildings that you will see in India. I also enjoyed the less problematic, and still amazingly beautiful, Belur Math, a large religious center that is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. Less austere was the Kalighat Temple in the Anami Sangha region of the city dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali.
I went here in 2016 after my Africa trip and met Vineet. After Kolkata I made my way to Bodh Gaya, a village in the state of Bihar, that is considered one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. Once there, I followed the pilgrims to the Mahabodhi Temple, which marks the spot where Buddha attained enlightenment and created his philosophy. It is also quite the spectacle topped by a 50 meter pyramid and housing a 10th century gilded image of the Buddha himself.
I followed this up with a trip to the Bodhi tree, and the 80 foot high Japanese style Buddha statue. At the recommendation of friends, I refueled after a long day on my feet at the Mohammed Restaurant near the Tourist Bus Park. As well as some great Indian food, there was Tibetan, Chinese and Thai food available, so it was possible to sample cuisine from all over the Buddhist world.
After only a short stop in Bodh Gaya, I made my way to Varanasi, which is regarded as the Hindu spiritual capital of India. Many pilgrims make their way there to bathe in the sacred Ganges River. As I walked the streets I found temples nestled in every street, each serving their own unique purpose to be discovered.
At sunset I made my way to the river, which is transformed in color by the setting light. I watched the people bathing and conducting rites by the water. I stayed on after sunset near Dasaswamedh Ghat to watch the evening Aarti ceremony. While I didn’t fully understand every part of the ritual, the colors, lights, chants and smells were fascinating and inspiring.
After passing through the spiritual centers of Bodh Gaya and Varanasi, arriving in Delhi was a noticeable return to a more secular world. Of course, Delhi is full of its own religious sites. I enjoyed visiting the very modern Lotus Temple, designed in the shape of a lotus with 27 petals made out of marble, and the Tomb of the Mughal king Humayun, which looks like it is floating over the surrounding garden. But Delhi does not exist under the same cloud of religiosity and feel much more like a vibrant city.
To be honest, what I remember most about Delhi is the food. I dined in expensive restaurants and ate street food that cost next to nothing, and everything was good! During my time there I became a little bit obsessed with kebabs, which could be found in every restaurant and on every street corner. It felt like everyone did them slightly differently, but they were all delicious.
Delhi is also a great place for shopping, or for visiting the markets for the people watching. It is full of traditional markets and bazaars where you can find pretty much everything, and will see people from all walks of life rubbing shoulders. I particularly liked the Dilli Haat, which is the market that is best for Indian handicrafts.
Has India Influenced Me?
The time that I spent in India has certainly influenced me as a person. When I first arrived, young and idealistic, I found the poverty and hardship difficult and I began to question our way of life and the way that we treat other people. It also made me think a lot about privilege and opportunity. At 22, the world was my oyster. But what if I had been born in the slums of India? Would I have the ability to lift myself up by my bootstraps? We are told that we live in a world where we can be anything, but is this a concept that extends to everyone, or only those of us privileged enough to be born above the poverty line?
But in the midst of India’s thriving growth, especially in the tech and finance sectors, many poor Indians have been able to transform their lives. They have overcome disadvantages not just of poverty, but also the caste system and, let’s be frank, foreign prejudice. While my younger self despaired at the plight of the poor of India, my older self marvels at their ingenuity and grit. If anything, it inspired me to try and do more with the platform that I have.