India 2.0

The first time I was in India was 1994. I had left my job at the Healthcare Forum, where we worked on dummy terminals. There was one internet connected PC in the office with something called Mosiac on it. Aja knew how to use it, and did mysterious things on it. I did not have an email address.

I traveled for a year on that trip, about two-thirds of it in India. The place blew my mind. I fell in love. Colors, chaos, complexity, simplicity, landscape, culture, food, smells, spirituality. It was like tripping for a whole year. We traveled light, and very very cheap. We took trains from stations that did not have computers and so could only sell reservations out of their quota. Sometimes you had to wait a week if you wanted a confirmed seat. Sometimes that was just fine.

I’ve been back once since, in 1999, with Semi. There were internet cafes by then, and I was heavily flirting with Chris at the time and made up every excuse to stop in and see if he had sent me mail. Generally, you would boot up, log on, and just when you’d gotten your mail page open and typed something, the power would go out and everything would shut off. Then you’d fight with the guy at the desk about paying for wasted time online, since you hadn’t hit send. I liked to fight about stuff in India. I thought it made me something more than a tourist, or something.

Now I’m back and I’m writing this from my laptop in brand new Toyota with a leather interior, being driven by a guy in an all-white uniform to my first meeting this morning in Bangalore. Sorry — Bengaluru. Even the names have changed. I’m online with my cellular modem in the car, confirming the afternoon appointments by email. Young men are speeding by on motorbikes with their Oracle Developers Conference backpacks thrown over their shoulders. Cell phones not just ubiquitous, but completely in charge. There is no culture of sending a call to voicemail; every ring and beep is answered immediately. The constant ringing of mobiles complements the constant honking of cars stuck in constant traffic.

Technology has changed India, but not tamed it. You still can’t find anything. Buildings must go up daily, by the look of things, and they are sometimes assigned numbers, but not sequentially, so they are no help in finding the building you are looking for. Addresses commonly read like this one:

#1132, 4th Floor, 100ft Road
Above Food World, HAL 2nd Stage
Indiranagar, Bangalore – 560 038

As far as I can tell, the only helpful pieces of information in this address are the neighborhood (Indiranagar) and Above Food World. People know where Food World is. Google maps can sometimes tell you where you are, generally, but even if it knew your exact location, don’t ask it to tell you how to get from one place to another. Navigating in Indian cities is simply beyond Google’s algorithms, and it doesn’t even try.

Information in India still resides in people. The landscape and economy are not designed to allow for easy extraction into databases. There are no Yellow Pages even. Luckily, there are a lot of people, so even though there is a lot of information, you can, as AskLaila is doing, hire a LOT of people to catalog your lots and lots of data. AskLaila has 4,000 outsourced workers going door to door gathering detailed data about every local business in the 5 biggest Indian cities. Can you even imagine how much work that is? Chain stores are starting to come to India, but it’s still overwhelmingly mom and pop shops. But even that doesn’t describe how insanely fragmented retail is here. I don’t know how much of the retail scene is comprised of street stalls, but I’d guess… a lot. Stalls that are seriously about the size of the average suburban American walk-in closet. Maybe AskLaila is limiting themselves to stores with four walls, but it’s still a gargantuan task.

The Indian middle class seems better educated and harder working than the American middle class, but the sheer number of people in India is still the characteristic that hits one over the head. (Stat from ShiftHappens presentation on Slideshare: the 28% of the population of India with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of North America). Jobs that would be staffed by one person in the US have six or seven here; there were literally seven women staffing the desk at the business center at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai. I was the only customer for most of the time I was there. Each of them helped me: one got me an Ethernet cable, one got the scratch off code card, one opened the door, one took my credit card, another wrote up the receipt. Not all at once, mind you, but consecutively, so it took the same amount of time as it would have it there’d been one staff. And many of the poor still seem to be engaged in mind-bogglingly Sisyphean tasks; women who sweep dirt streets or endlessly mop bathrooms, moving the layer of dirty water around after each customer makes fresh shoe prints on the wet floor, and ensuring that one of the two stalls is busy at any given time, being mopped.

As I write this, the windows in the car are up, which is probably for the best as the fumes from the idling cars can’t be good for you, but I miss the smells of India. People always think I’m joking when I say that, but I don’t mean the toilets. I mean the way the air smells of blooming trees, things burning, and dust. People aren’t burning cow dung cakes or those little briquets like they did once, which is maybe a good thing, but I really liked the musky tone they added to the air. Even though the smells have changed, they still evoke that whole year, and everything it meant to me. It would be silly of me to miss the India of my 1994 trip, and I am really enjoying being here as something other than a tourist, engaging with Indian entrepreneurs and business people, a potential participant in the economy, less of a voyeur. Not sure who’s changed more, me or India.

6 responses to “India 2.0

  1. fabulous. thank you for sharing. i knew the trip would get better… optimism helps. hope you found a hair dryer…

  2. Hi,

    Came to your blog via technorati.

    I enjoyed reading your post, its a simple but incisive account of what India is today. I liked it not only because you referenced one of the most popular presos on slideshare; but also beacause I am from India….


    Amit Ranjan
    Cofounder, SlideShare

  3. Hi Jennifer

    Was great fun meeting you and must say you have a very interesting blog. I too liked this post a lot. You have really captured the spirit well here. Must say you observe quite well.

    Prateek Dayal

  4. As a nonreader of blogs (objection to sloppy writing), I was thrilled to read a piece of any kind by a serious and lively writer whose observations are so informed and so engaging, but I was especially charmed to be reading about India, because I have a collection of a dozen very long , fascinating, and equally polished letters (plus two postcards) sent to me by my daughter (guess who?) when she was traveling in India 14 years ago. I just got them out and began reading them again. I have spent my adult life teaching writing; it’s one of the things I care about most. What a delight to see that you are getting still better, Jen, in spite of never having had me as your teacher.

  5. Well. Well,well,well.

  6. Fantastic post! I visit India atleast once a year, every visit turns up something new. I still can’t get over seeing a few homeless people wake up on the pavement and start talking on their cell phones!

    – Ram,

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