India: Retrospective

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A view of the Deloitte office in Mumbai, which became my work space for the next 2 weeks.

Recently I was asked to travel to India as a part of my current engagement to meet the development team I’m currently managing. Outside of a study abroad to Israel my senior year of college, this was undoubtedly the farthest East I’d ever been. Traveling to India was going to be a unique opportunity to explore a culture wholly unlike what is in the United States and having recently returned, I wanted to reflect on my time there (Feb 2018).


airport

Above: Scores of drivers holding signs awaiting their passengers from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Note this photo was taken at approximately 2AM local time. Flights regularly arrive and depart into the early hours of the morning.

1.3 Billion People

Such an order of magnitude larger than the US, it’s almost tough to comprehend. With that many people, I think India was particularly slow to modernize or perhaps industrialize. You’d think with an endless supply of labor, you could get a lot accomplished, but it’s seemingly a double-edged sword.

There is simply so many people around that labor is cheap, abundant, and largely unskilled. You can only have so many doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, construction workers, etc. Despite a majority of my trip being in the "suburbs" of Powai, a typical commute felt like I was in a major city, with swaths of residents walking around with little regard for the traffic inches away from them.

I talk about it a little the crumbling infrastructure later on, but a lack of sidewalks usually meant that those commuters on foot would regularly weave between traffic. Scary at first, but no one seemed phased at all.


security

Above: A baggage scan, metal detector, and a patdown for males at a local mall in Mumbai. This is regular sight at busy hubs around the city.

Safety and Security

Most places I traveled to in Mumbai had an excess of security. At first glance, it would seem reactionary to some of the horrific terror attacks in Mumbai from not too long ago[1]. Instead, it would seem that it’s easy to staff up security positions with minimally-trained forces and maximum results simply due to the size of the workforce. Would you rather have one Navy Seal protecting a building, or 100 standing all around it?

On the topic of security, there are many individuals that have “high risk” jobs, which seems counter to the culture of that country (more on that later). I can only assume there is a better wage attached to the guys that man the checkpoints to search your vehicle before entering the premise of an office park, your hotel, what have you. Perhaps it’s just security theater? The model seems to work well in the states - the TSA is a largely unskilled labor force that has a pitiful track record of activity stopping terrorism. Instead you might argue that their presence alone is just as effective.

As a sidenote - ever wonder why Walmart hires seniors and retirees to say hello when you walk in? Turns out, having that single individual there is actually a fantastic theft deterrent.[2]

My last thought on security, but in India, men must be scary. Almost any public place I went, I was required to walk through a metal detector and be frisked. The airport? Absolutely. The hotel? Yep. The mall? No question. My female co-worker got a different experience - since women are apparently low risk, they are subject to quite the level of scrutiny. Instead, they’re asked to step into a curtained box, where they are wanded with a metal detector for about 0.2 seconds max.


Income Disparity

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A photo I took along my commute into the office - spotted amongst makeshift parking lot, a goat positions itself atop a stone.

As an extension of such a massive workforce with limited positions, there is a very noticeable wealth gap in all parts of India. In many cases, there are simply so many people that pop-up slums are all too common. It’s almost heartbreaking to see a modern slum setup right next to a luxury hotel. While commuting to work in the mornings and evenings, I felt like I got a glimpse of all walks of life. There are truly no “bubbles” in India. There are simply too many people to make it possible.

This cycle of poverty causes the country to be exceptionally dirty. I found this odd because I felt like with so much unskilled labor, it’d be easy to keep it clean, but the folks that create the mess aren’t the ones that are incentivized to clean it up. Compounded over years in dense areas, the only areas that remain clean are the ones meticulously and purposefully maintained.

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A view of Raj Bhavan, one of the Southmost points of southern Mumbai, visible from across Back Bay near Nariman Point. The "haze" is pollution which washes out the view no more than 2 miles across.

In some ways, I think the lack of regulation contributes to this. The pollution is literally so bad that the forecast during my two week visit regularly included “smoke”. A distinction meaning the ability to determine the forecast was literally obstructed by pollution. I know sometimes in the US it’s easy to think that there’s not enough regulation (especially on hot button issues), but there is an immense amount of that keeps cities clean and running; silent regulation, if you will.

The overall ambience of the country also suffers from aging infrastructure. Roads are poorly maintained and sidewalks and curbs are usually nonexistent, for starters. On multiple occasions, what I’d expect to be a sidewalk would be nothing more than a pile of loose rubble. I suppose with as much rain as they get during monsoon season, it can be tough to maintain, but in some ways it feels like the city simply doesn’t care. Even in a touristy area of Goa, I regularly had to dodge large rocks near the sidewalk. I’d imagine this is just asking for litigation in the US, but no one seemed to bat an eye at the amount of hazards most face on a normal day.


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A view from my hotel room window one night, where a lively wedding has happening in the courtyard below.

A Content Culture

With so many people gunning for fewer jobs, India is very competitive. Getting a government position is coveted, as is a position in the military. In a competitive landscape, there will always be those that want to climb to the top, but at what cost? Through my interactions I found that many are very comfortable with providing for themselves and their families. Taking unnecessary risk, especially if you’ve already achieved so much (in such a competitive environment), would appear to be frowned upon.

This is not to say there is not great innovation and entrepreneurship in India, but there’s a stark difference between India, and say Israel, which is seemingly entrepreneurial by necessity. But I digress - a hallmark of my trip in India was the value of the guest. Almost everywhere I went that had a service component to it, I couldn't help but feel like those everyone gleaned an immense amount of satisfication from their service to others.

I can admire that regardless of the situation you're in, I never felt a sense of envy or jealous towards others or their surroundings. Everyone is largely comfortable, and there's something calming about that in a city (and country) that is always awake.


infrastructure

A photo I snapped looking out from my taxi onto what is a common sight in India - aging roads supporting all-day rushhour traffic.

Traffic

And I thought the traffic in Chicago was bad. Seriously, it’s tough to talk about India without talking about the traffic. For starters, most roads don’t have lanes, and even the one’s that do, you aren’t really required to stay them or even use your blinker to change. When there’s no lanes, the flow of traffic is just an amorphous blob of cars, motorcycles, and auto-rikshawks (three-wheeled taxis). In India, everyone is an offensive driver, gunning ahead immediately and without hesitation. It would seem to me that the rule of thumb is that you’re only responsible for what’s in front of you, so any erratic weaving, acceleration, braking, or positioning isn’t your concern as a driver - you only need to be concerned about everyone else.

In some ways, because there is little traffic regulation, everyone drives in a predictable manner. Horns are used not as a critical warning like we might use them in the US, but instead, it’s a form of positioning. As crazy as it sounds, I’d argue that drivers in India are experts with echo-location. With a horn constantly buzzing, you can get a pretty good mental picture of where other vehicles are relative to you. In many cases, I found our driver regularly blipping the horn to let other drivers in front of him know where he was. Even though every car on the road looks like it’s been in a fender bender, or ten, our driver never hit, or was hit by anyone or anything. I suppose you can be an expert in anything if you practice long enough.

One last thought - because traffic requires such a high degree of focus, you cannot realistically do anything but drive. Texting while driving isn't even a concern, lest you take your eyes off the road for half a second and end up in a wreck. I'd imagine the split second your eyes are closed while sneezing it difficult while driving.


food
^ Above: While not the most colorful meal, this pile of lamb was tender and meant to be eaten with our hands. Delicious.

Indian Cuisine

I won’t pretend that I have an exquisite pallet. In many ways, my diet is largely, if not exclusively, western. Having grown up in Kansas City, can you blame me when I’m surrounded by BBQ? On day one, I couldn’t get over how spicy my vegetable (peanut) salad was. My Mumbai-based coworkers gave me a hard time since I couldn’t eat anything without immediately reaching for my bottled water. I suppose I wasn’t conditioned like they were - but they have spices on everything. Rice, chicken, vegetables, you name it. Even “sweet” foods are more mild than I’m used to. Perhaps I eat too much sugar.

One thing I will say, is that I appreciated the variety of dishes and flavors. I can’t say I enjoyed all of them, but there’s a healthy range of foods that you could stay within the Indian cuisine for awhile. Will I seek out Indian food back here in the States? Don’t plan on it - I enjoy my Western diet too much, but I’m glad I tried it. All about experiences, right?

One thing I will note - I was very careful about what I ate so I suppose I didn’t get the true experience. I unfortunately had to pass on any foods from street vendors, only drank bottled water, and chose not to eat fruits and uncooked vegetables that have edible skins (strawberries, blueberries, etc). I’m sure my gut thanked me, if only just precautionary.


Concluding Thoughts

Flying about half way around the work is an experience. I left my house at about 10AM on a Saturday, and arrived at my hotel in India just past 1AM on Monday. In a way, I skipped the weekend, which made the start to my week that much more difficult (an 11.5 hour time change too).

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A view from my resort in Goa, where I spent the weekend between my two week in Mumbai.

It was an absolute pleasure getting to meet my team in their home office. Each are unique, creative, and talented individuals that help make a great team. Between bowling with them at a local mall, enjoying the cuisine, playing a few in table tennis, and getting to see my team in action - it was a fantastic experience that has brought us closer as a team, and helped me become a little more worldly. While it might be awhile before I return to India, I do feel as though I have so much more of the world left to explore.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Mumbai_attacks ↩︎

  2. https://www.wsj.com/articles/wal-mart-ushers-greeters-back-to-the-front-1434651944 ↩︎

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