We spent a relaxing three weeks in India. I say relaxing because this is the first time I have not had a major life event during my India trip. Those who have followed my blog over the years will know what those were. We mostly spent all our time in Panvel, my hometown with a short visit to Orissa to visit Ash’s grandparents. I recounted my horrible first impressions after a five-year gap but as soon as we exited the airport, it was all good.
If I had to describe my experience it would be thus, more things have changed but just as many things have remained the same. It may sound cliched but after you’ve visited India several times over the last decade, you get over the rapid change that is at display in form of more malls and increased cell phone usage. These, in fact, are the cliched metrics now. The most significant and noticeable change is the boom in real estate in and around Bombay. New Bombay, or Navi Mumbai is virtually unrecognizable. When I used to go to junior college in Vashi from Panvel, the only structures between Kalamboli and Kharghar was the Khanda village. Now the village is lost in a sea of apartment buildings that almost encroach on the precious mangroves along the creek inlets. Thirty-story apartment complexes in the middle of nowhere off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway (no access) are built purely for investment purposes.
Of course, malls are still ubiquitous but their presence has been tempered by an overabundant supply. The Center One mall in Vashi, once the premier mall, is now near-deserted due to the new InOrbit Mall next door. Inflation is astronomical but wage increases have increased at a greater rate keeping most people content with the occasional grumbling about uncertainty. It is not unusual to ask and get a 30% annual raise on a seven-figure salary. People change jobs frequently and don’t bargain as much while shopping. Newer opportunities are explored and non-traditional careers are pursued. People seem genuinely happy and are kept busy in their daily lives. Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence so don’t quote me to The Economist.
Yet under the optimism and hope, lies a sea of disconent and helplessness at things that have never changed in India. Rampant corruption, nepotism, lack of moral fibre, reckless pursuit of material goods at the expense of basic humanity. Even medical profession are no longer sacrosanct and viewed with suspicion (more on that later). You get astronomical salaries but lack of professionalism still ails Indian businesses; even the ones you hear about as prime examples of India Shining. People in India are just as uncertain about their personal and professional life as we living outside India are except but about different things. Basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water are still reminiscent of the socialism era. It might be easy to point fingers and criticize India for not yet providing basic needs found in comparative advanced developing countries.
As I tweeted, it is simply not possible to write about India while not living in India. Why? And this might not be necessarily a compliment as some had construed. It helps to understand the high level of tolerance of Indians for things as they are. We may exhibit ‘competitive intolerance’ when it comes to social and religious issues but in terms of day-to-day life, we do put up with a lot and at times, are fine with it. This might be considered as resilience but I have to only point toward the example of ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Coping and adjusting is fine but unless you demand change, you will not get it. You first have to expect more to get more. Gurcharan Das’ ‘Elephant Paradigm’ is apt as that’s how slow things change in India. Perhaps it is a good thing because just as good change is kept at bay, so is bad. But after a while, something’s gotta give.
I had promised myself that I will go to India with a blank slate of expectations this time and although some doubted the ability to do so, I think I was successful. Yes, roads were bad but not that bad. It was crowded and humid but then India always has been. Food was still great. We experienced no illness thanks to a steadfast tendency to stick to mineral water wherever we went. Ruan gave us the cover to demand it if we were not at home. In our zeal to show Ruan different sights and experiences in India, we got the opportunity to look at them anew and found it also to be equally fascinating. Barring couple of exceptions, people were warm and hospitable. We didn’t put on the airs of being NRI and people didn’t treat us as any different. Conversations were easier and there was no ‘one-upmanship’ among either.
Overall, it was a peaceful, relaxing, and content vacation. My parents, brother, and sister-in-law got to spend ample time with Ruan and he warmed up to them to the extent that he seemed genuinely distraught while leaving. Of course, he will remember little of this vacation but we hope to return more often; accompanied again with our blank slate of expectations. Three weeks seem short in retrospect but everyone needs to get on with their lives and vacations always end sooner than we want them to.