When I decided to go to India for a two-week vacation I knew exactly what to expect; hot weather, a great disparity between the wealthy and poor; food that could taste, at first, great then keep you in bed for a week; lots of history, the Taj Mahal, and the list went on and on.
I also did what many people do before going to India – I read a book called Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, a run-away Australian criminal turned Mumbai-local. Roberts, in 1,000 pages, describes his India experience in such detail that after finishing the book you feel as though you know more about India than any Indian you have ever met. To top that, most of my professional life I spent marketing some type of product or service to Asians, which of course includes Indians. I know Indian holidays, celebrity names, sports heroes, differences between Indian states, traditions, the languages people speak, and I could even say a few words in Hindi.
I prepared for the trip. I asked all of my Indian friends where to go, who to meet and what to avoid. Then, I checked hundreds of popular online sources, including Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, compared places, created the itinerary that seemed most plausible and booked the trip. I felt like a kid who had done his homework, prepared for an exam and, through diligence in studying, was ready to ace every single question. Hence, going to the exam would be just a formality and opportunity to show off my skills to the unsuspecting professor.
I started asking myself, “Why am I even going to a country I know all about?” Then, came India.
Upon arrival, I realized that, unlike in America where people drive cars, Indians drive and ride everything. Anything that can get you from point A to point B is a vehicle and if it can move faster than a human being, an Indian will make it a vehicle. Horses, camels, elephants, donkeys, mopeds, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, trucks and cars move at the speed of light in various directions. Everything is moving, because it seems that standing still is some sort of sin that no self-respecting Indian wants to commit. Unlike in America, where a wrong move can result in a honk and a finger from a fellow driver, Indian drivers have zero road-rage—a surprise for any Westerner. Yes, I said zero. The only reason they honk (and, trust me, they honk all the time) is to warn a pedestrian or a fellow driver that there is a potential danger. In this insanely fierce battle for every inch of space, I witnessed only one small accident. A small Tata Nano tried to avoid collision with a rickshaw and scratched a Corolla. I was a passenger in a passing car and got super excited to see what happened next. I was so happy that I finally got to, after the two-week craziness that is the Indian roads, see that someone had an accident. I was expecting a great fight to ensue or for angry police officers to arrive on the scene. I thought the owner of Corolla would come out from the car with a big cricket bat and smash a window of the tiny Nano car that looked like a toy car that my one year old daughter would drive. Instead, both drivers came out, checked the damage, smiled and, with no further confrontation, got back into their cars and joined the traffic; honking their way into their respective lanes. I learned that tolerance and respect, for oneself and others, are some of the greatest qualities Indian people hold.
Traffic in Old Delhi.
I stole a rickshaw in Old Delhi.
On a highway from Delhi to Agra.
After India got their independence from Great Britain in 1947, the country chose to borrow some concepts from the Soviet Union (universal healthcare, free education) and some from the West (free market economy, democratic elections, stock exchange). The country had to somehow make the 1.1 billion people work in harmony and peace while building its own identity. This was not an easy feat in a country with over 1,000 dialects, 14 official languages, and as many religions.
There are no better places to understand how capitalism works in India than to drive a rickshaw to a busy local Kahn market in New Delhi, to visit the overcrowded street of Old Dehlo or by visiting the Dharavi slums of Mumbai. My wife and I took a new, upgraded motor rickshaw in New Delhi to the local Khan market. The only difference between the upgraded rickshaw and a traditional rickshaw is that a traditional rickshaw has a skinny yet muscular guy on foot or a bicycle and a motor rickshaw has the same guy with a small engine, a proud smile and, possibly, a belly. The motor rickshaw is called, “Tuk Tuk” and it costs $1 to get you anywhere you want in New Delhi, but it costs a driver $7,000 to buy one; sort of like a medallion license for cab drivers in New York City. This means that the guy must make at least 7,000 rides before he can even pay off his tiny vehicle. In a country with no easy access to credit, this is a tough task for entrepreneurs, so many of them opt to rent rickshaws instead of buying them. The first thing the driver asked me, “Sir, are you from Obama country?” Surprised, I reply, “Yes”. He goes, “Then, do you mind, sir, kindly paying me in Obama money?” I started laughing and agreed. A few minutes into the ride he proceeds with another question, “Do you know what you drive with me?” I replied, “Of course, it’s a Tuk-Tuk”. He said “No, Sir. -This is Indian helicopter”. We continued to laugh and drove through the crazy Delhi traffic to the market. I realized that not only did he have to make a living by getting us from point A to point B, but he also wanted to make sure I was happy and that I came back to drive with him again. He upsold me on anything and everything, taking me to stores where he had struck deals with business owners and charged a commission. . He made that sure I checked out carpets, Kashmir shawls, and anything else that a typical tourist would buy. He was not just a Tuk-Tuk operator, but an Indian businessman on wheels.
We also visited Dharavi, the most notorious slums in Mumbai. We hired a local guide who, despite living in the worst slums in India, managed to study physics in a Mumbai University, run a highly profitable guided tours company and open his own restaurant. He took us to a world we will never forget. Apparently, Bill Gates once took Harvard Business graduates to the same slums to teach them how business is actually done in the most improbable conditions. Dharavi did not disappoint. It is the most incredible place one could visit and learn from. Yes, it stank and had naked dirty kids running through narrow, two-foot wide streets. It had huts, not houses, which looked like they were one wind gust away from falling apart. It was also crammed with a variety of people of at least four religions: Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Jainism, all mixed up in some type of trade and exchange. There were so many people around us moving at such a fast paces that even Manhattanites would be jealous. At some point we realized that we were not dizzy from the smells, sights and sounds of this place, but from the fact that things moved faster than our eyes could process them. “Chalo!” which means, “Let’s Go!” is the motto there. We saw bakeries making N’aan (Indian bread), leather manufacturing factories that killed everything but cows to make all types of leather products for Calvin Klein and Levi’s; smiths that used scraps of steel to make bicycles, shoemakers who collected 10-year old shoes to repurpose and make Nikes out of, hospital workers, rubber producers – all working in perfect synchronicity with efficiency and a smile on their face. Their apartments, usually “studios” with no bathroom but satellite TVs. Each hut costs about $30,000 to buy and there is a huge waiting list to get one. Nobody complains and no one wants to leave the slums. Everyone is an entrepreneur and everyone is proud to be from the Dharavi.
"Indian helicopter" without an engine.
Buying sweets for kids in a local village.
"New Boss" in a local village.
Eyelashes to “scare off evil”.
Dharavi entrepreneurs in their travel agency office.
Laundry business in Mumbai.
If, before your India trip, you hated Indian food - after the trip you will like it; if you liked it - you will love it; if you loved it - you will feel like you are in food heaven. Everything just tastes better. We went to a local restaurant in Jaipur called Nero, which I thought would be a good name for a place serving Greek cuisine, but I can assure you that the owner did not suffer from bad branding. Instead we got a menu that consisted of 1,001 items ready to be prepared in less than 5 minutes – Gordon Ramsay would shudder that this many items were on the menu. The waiter approached us and asked my wife, Lilian, “What is to your liking, Madam?” She replied: “I am in-between mutton tikka and goat brain…How does the goat brain dish taste?” Waiter: “Oh Madam, it’s very, very delicious, the dish has onions, rice and spices.” Lilian questioned, “What would you recommend - the mutton or goat brain?” The waiter replied, “Madam, I would definitely, most certainly, absolutely go with a goat brain!” Lilian continued, “Sounds good. Is it one of your favorite dishes?” The waiter responded, “Of course no, I am a vegetarian.” We realized that not only do they feed you well in India; they make sure you get entertainment out of every meal.
A typical lunch.
Indians also inherited habits and traditions of their past rulers. Mongols brought Islam to India six centuries ago, the Portuguese brought Christianity and the Brits brought castes. The caste system defined whether someone had access to better jobs (Brahmins), served in the military (Warriors), traded goods (Business) or provided services to the first three and begged on streets (Untouchables). Despite all the horrors of the past, the caste system to this day has left an unprecedented effect on many Indians. They still secretly follow it. No matter what they tell you or what is written in their constitution, castes live and prosper in a society where religion, color of your skin, sexual orientation, or the language you speak matter less than the caste you come from. It is unbelievable that in a country with such diversity and religious tolerance, something so divisive is still secretly observed.
When an Indian-American friend told me that his parents hooked him up with a nice girl in India, I secretly laughed. It seemed so strange and unthinkable that in the 21st century, a world with match.com, Shaadi.com and Yenta, anyone would need help finding a match. Moreover, one would think in a country where there are at least a half a billion women, a handsome and reasonably wealthy DESI (Indian from America) would have no problem finding a match. But, no, “love marriages [meaning the marriages that result from two people meeting without their parents’ help] are far less successful,” is a popular belief in India. There is a statistic written in newspapers and often quoted by many Indians that there is an 84% chance that an arranged marriage would work and less than 50% probability that a love marriage would work. “One can not say no to such a statistic, my friend. Math is math, so says the paper,” stated a friend’s aunt who has two kids, both married, both arranged. After asking how many marriages she helped conceive, she proudly said, “More than the amount of hands God Shiva has.” The process consists of professional and personal resume writing, a picture exchange, reference checking, and finally, if there is a match, and if it is an, “auspicious day of the calendar” a meeting is arranged. They meet, get to know one another, and, if stars align, get married to the drum of thousands of guests, who celebrate for a week as the couple patiently stands in the middle of a stage for hours, waiting for the honeymoon to begin. The funny thing is, as I speak to more Indians I realize that arranged marriages actually do work and that the system that we, in the West, find archaic, actually produces higher chances of the marriage surviving for two reasons, social pressure of parents who hooked a couple up in the first place and their willingness to do anything to keep the couple together. It also is a result of the rigorous selection process that the couple goes through before saying “I do.”
Indian wedding we attended: 3,000 people.
Indian wedding we attended: 3,000 people.
A Common Enemy
Indians and Americans have one common enemy – terrorism. In India, the word terrorism is often at times associated with 26/11 (their 9/11) when Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008 and killed over 170 people. Sensitivity of the topic is clearly visible in a place like the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, which was almost burnt down during the attack. We were lucky to meet many survivors of that day who work in the hotel. During the attack they saved hundreds of lives by barricading guests of the hotel in restaurants on the ground floor and in rooms throughout the hotel. The stories were chilling and reminded me of stories shared by 9/11 survivors. It showcased the true bravery and selflessness of the Indian people. There was one story told to me by the hotel bartender from Harbour Lounge that I will never forget. First, he got me drunk beyond recognition by feeding me with his signature, “well-tested drinks,” and then proclaimed that despite being a bartender, he never drinks. Then he told me a story that during the attack, he barricaded the door of the Harbour Bar, which is located in the lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel and hid guests on the second floor of the bar. During the attack not only did he manage to save dozens of lives, but he also bravely ran to the first floor a few times to get empty glasses to keep poring drinks to his customers while waiting for the police and special forces to rescue them. The first floor was completely destroyed, but none of the guests of the Harbour Bar were hurt
Famous bartender in Harbour Lounge, Taj Mahal.
As our trip came to an end, we learned that India is a country of contrasts and love; love that is often times unconditional, colorful and innocent. We also learned that Indians, despite their drive to succeed in a global economy, will never lose their faith, human dignity and selflessness. It is a country that has been ruled by Moghuls, Persians, French, Portuguese, British and many in between, but it never lost its charm. It absorbed other cultures, like a sponge; processed them, cleansed them from extremism, nurtured and made them coexist in a perfect Nirvana. It is still far from fulfilling its full potential and there are many imperfections in India, but I believe that, one day, it will definitely blossom, like a lotus-the proud national flower of this beautiful country.
Meeting Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram) at Leopold Cafe in Mumbai.
Cities Visited: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Goa, Mumbai
Thanks to everyone who made this an amazing experience:
Prianka Sihota and Divya Puri (The Dehli Way)
Tauseef Siddiqui (Be the Local Travel)
Viran D’Sa (Manager, Experience at the Taj Mahal Hotel Mumbai)
and all of the Indian people we met along the way.