Tuesday, November 27, 2012

India # 41 Living in India: food, transportation, telecommunications

What is it like to live in India for a couple of months? 

Summarizing India would be a fool’s errand.  I lived in Bangalore for two months only (Sept and Oct, 2012)  at a volunteer/job, traveled weekend from there, then spent two weeks in the north, not a lot of time.  I lived in a nice apartment for $30 a night (Casa Cottages in Bangalore) and hotels, most at $20 a night (e.g. Arya Niwas in Jaipur), plus a basic-living ashram.  I took seven domestic air flights. That’s living near the top of Indian society. 

However I used buses and rickshaws in cities, used lower cost trains and walked constantly by myself. I took rickshaws over substantial distances through poor neighborhoods.  I felt safe at all times.  I brought a moneybelt but never used it, carrying my wallet in my front pocket. Crossing streets and walking on broken sidewalks at night were the greatest dangers.  I am 76 years old and was consistently offered seats on the bus.  Although a lot of white folks travel to India, I was nearly always the only pale face on the plane, train, bus or streets where I traveled.  It was easy to talk to people.  While urban Indians seem sober and on task, you could get acquainted pretty quickly.


Language—I got along fine in English but it is the first language of very few Indians, almost all in the upper classes.  English is the instructional language in higher education and most secondary schools.  India’s official language is Hindi and its currency features Hindi and English; however the left side of every bill lists the 15 major languages that are the first languages of almost everyone.  So most Indians speak English as a second language, meaning they have stretched their brains more than single-language speakers.  It’s a point I made with students. 

Like the rest of the world, India has been urbanizing steadily.  That means people from the country often have to learn a second or third language when they move to the city—or live in linguistic ghettos.  A common language—English--which has become the world’s language for commerce, education and science, is one clear legacy of British rule and explains why India has been able to create nearly three million jobs in IT and BPO in just two decades. 

Caste and Class--The first question I've been asked is whether India still lives by the caste system.  A single answer would be "No."  The Untouchable or Dalit class, along with other tribal classes, organized fiercely years ago and secured quotas for jobs and substantial political power in some states such as Bihar.  Matrimonial ads in the newspapers regularly say "Caste not important" and educated Indians disclaim any adherence to caste.  But of course it persists as class distinctions and advances are much great in cities. 

Dowry and the Status of Women--Because it's also an early question, a short summary of the status of women:  Young Indian women are making rapid advances and seem more or less the equal of men in urban settings in the south where I spent most of my time.   While dowry and marriage under 18 have both been illegal for a long time, both persist and are related.  Half of Indian marriages are of women under 18 and 40 percent of all the underage marriages in the world are in India.  Children bearing children are a common sight.  Widows have a hard time traditionally.  I don't think I saw a single woman waiting tables in the north and women shopkeepers are few.  Further up the skills ladder, however, women appear in pharmacy, accounting, management and politics--where proportions of some positions are reserved for women.    Marriage by choice of the bride and groom is increasingly common, which means divorce is growing, although still low.  One friend said he had turned down 100 "suggestions" from his family before marrying his wife, who is fully his equal. 

The riots in Delhi in late December could be a "Rosa Park moment" in India, Park being the woman who refused to sit in the back of the bus in Alabama and help trigger the civil rights movement in the United States.  It seems to have gathered that capacity to rally women all over India who experience sexual harassment and denial of work opportunities in very large numbers.

In a recent Time Magazine article Bill Clinton repeated the proposition that no country could advance while failing to fully utilize the talent of half of its population.  India is making rapid progress but has a long way to go on this score.  In Fortune Magazine's list of the 50 most important women in business around the world, only two are listed in India. 

Eating and drinking—It is hard to find a bad meal in India.  Spices have been so much part of the country’s history that even the poorest meals often have punch and interest.  Mall food court food was tasty and varied in Bangalore.  So is movie food and McDonald’s is more flavorful in India.  KFC, Dominoes, Pizza Hut and McDonalds are popular.

 A small cup or chai or coffee (with cream and sugar) can be purchased on the street for a few pennies, which I did without ill effect toward the end.  Noontime finds people—mostly men—scooping up large quantities of rice with two or three side dishes for 20 or 30 cents. A meal with five components could be delivered to my office for 40 cents.  In Mumbai, 200,000 people have food delivered to them from their home in little segmented pots called tiffins.  At my hotel in Jaipur I could eat three meals a day with nice variety and flavor for under $12 a day. 


 Large pots of boiling oil cook vegetables, chicken and all manner of popovers and other delectable such as potato chips on the streets, not safe for my American stomach but show up frequently in my photos.  Potlucks—such as my host, Vindhya, held frequently-- produce up to 35 items brought from home.  A whole lot of people of modest means know how to cook well. 

The centerpiece for a 35 item lunch provided entirely by staff bringing food from home.

Rice is ubiquitous, eaten at every meal at the ashram and every lunch at Vindhya in large quantities, particularly in the south.  Yet many, many Indians are thin as lodge pole pines and old men can have legs like coat hangers.  The obesity rate is under two percent compared to 34 percent in the U. S.  I knew I was headed home when the 300 pound stomachs began showing up in Green Bay Packer t-shirts at the Delhi airport.  The strongest impression coming home is always of how wide we Americans are.

Some foods only match up with others, I was told.  I did as instructed after asking what was hot, which was not always evident.  Food is prepared using compressed natural gas, six cylinders a year at a subsidized cost.  This means it arrives too hot to eat but with a high margin of safety.

I was careful, drank only bottled water and, with few exceptions, only cooked food.  I loved the bread and felt safe buying spicy onion loafs in the bus station. 

India is developing a small wine industry, beginning with fruit wine or brandy.  I can recommend the Three Ridges sirah, for example.  Bangalore has two small brewery/restaurants (Biers next to the UB Center being one of them)  serving exceptional craft beer.  Otherwise Kingfisher as a virtual monopoly and dominates a dreary selection of lager beers.  The owner of Kingfisher was recently forced to sell half his interest in the company so there could be better days ahead.   Indians drink about 3 percent of the per-capita volume of beer as Germans.  Liquor is relatively expensive and imported.  A beautiful exception is India's dark rum which is excellent.  I bought two bottles of aged Old Monk rum at the Duty Free in Delhi, only to have it confiscated in Amsterdam.  You cannot transit through the EU with alcohol, i.e. you can only bring liquor in from one country away into the US.  It may be different going through Asia. 

Travel—Over the Thanksgiving weekend I traveled by bus from Bethesda, Maryland, to New York nonstop in under four hours.  It was a smooth, comfortable, cheery experience for $60 round trip, dropping me at Madison Square Garden.  Wow!  The contrast with my last experience in India could not have been more dramatic.  Agra to Delhi—half the distance taking twice the time—which I had just come from, was far more colorful and fascinating but also exhausting.  America’s infrastructure is said to be crumbling and the Boston to DC corridor is supposed to be one of the most challenged, but you’d never know it from my experience.  So much good order, cleanliness and beauty along the way.  I went to India to get away from American affluence in favor of how the rest of the world lives and I experienced it.  I did not come home to make invidious comparisons with India.  The common life of a society, its infrastructure and its aesthetics takes decades to build.  The United States has had the luxury of bounteous resources, the rule of law and time.  I speed along on freeways thanks to President Eisenhower in the l960’s.  The Delaware River and the marshland of New Jersey are cleaner than they were 40 years ago thanks to environmental laws from the l970’s.  And so on.  Good governance produces good public space and amenities.  Starting from far behind and with a population density 12 times that of the United States, India can never catch up on this score.   

Air Transportation—India is building major-scale airports.  Its internal airlines are the equal of ours and the best of them have the eager-beaver service we experienced 30 years ago, at reasonable cost.  Reservations are easy to make but you must have your e-ticket and passport before you get to the airport or you’re in for a heap of bureaucracy.

Rail--The world’s largest railroad system is said to be the second major legacy Britain left India and it was a thing of beauty for decades and still runs everywhere.  But, as with much of India’s infrastructure, it is in serious need of capital investments, which deep subsidies for individual travel discourage.  Investments in ports are way behind schedule and the road system groans from overuse.  Massive trucks pound the pavement but speed bumps slow traffic even on major highways.  City traffic is a mess most places.  Delhi has the best commuter rail and some modern freeways which cities such as Bangalore are trying to replicate.  The commuter system in Mumbai kills hundreds of people a year, most because they are hanging out of doors and windows.  One particular pillar is killing five people a month, according to a newspaper story.  But it moves a massive number of people each day at low cost.


Motorbike use is growing and glamorized, the macho equivalent of the American sports car.  Helmets are required of drivers but not passengers except in Jaipur, that I could see.  I never dropped feeling nervous for passengers sitting sidesaddle casually behind the driver,  and of some families of up to six squeezed onto a single bike--which is the picture above.  One photo I failed to capture is of motorbikes which have nudged up to the front at a stop light—18 or 20 across.  Taxi/cars are few and rickshaws—scooters with cabs or foot-powered—everywhere.  Car sales are, of course, growing.  But as I noted in an early post, massive rivers of traffic pour through the streets of Bangalore just inches from one another with remarkably skill, few accidents and very little road rage, an accommodation that makes moving about bearable, if barely. 

Above, just another beautiful woman at the bus stop with jasimine in her hair and, below, three guys on their way from here to there...

I took  a lot of auto rickshaws in Bangalore.  They are hazarous to your health, less for the likelihood of an accident than for being amidst the air pollution.  But I usually enjoyed getting acquainted with the drivers, once we settled that I was not going shopping or needed a guide. 

Housing—Those who can afford it are living vertically.  The largest share of newspaper advertising is devoted to luxury high rises and gated communities (followed by jewelry).  Public housing lags badly and it goes without saying that India is famous for its slums.   The homes of older well-to-do Indians I visited are modest by our standards.  Lighting is particularly restrained with fluorescent and energy-saving bulbs throughout. 

Electricity—India is infamous for the blackout which hit more than half the country in August and when I was in Tamil Nadul businesses were screaming that blackouts made fulfilling international business contracts or food processing impossible.  Every business that can afford it has backup diesel generators which kick in within a few seconds.  The sub-stations and wiring of older buildings reminded me of Havana:  unchanged in 50 years.

This piece of the electrical distribution system sat right outside my gate and is duplicated all over.  I don't know what it is.  All I know is I've never seen external equipment like this except in Havana.

India is highly dependent on coal, production of which is way behind schedule and the subject of a major scandal called Coalgate, in which concessions had been given to friends of the ruling Congress Party.  It has a large volume of wind production and ambitious plans for solar plus a lot of small solar projects in rural areas. 

India plans a big future for nuclear energy and plans an eight-reactor complex near Chennai, some of which are well along in operation, and sees a future for mini-reactors which are advertised as fail-safe because they shut down automatically—what the industry  calls Gen III and Gen IV.  The U.S. is not competing in this market directly for reasons I think go back to non-proliferation legislation. 

Mobile--In May, India, a country of 1.2 billion people, had 930 million mobile phones in use.  It has the most competitive, cut-throat pricing  in the world.  This is one area where India’s infrastructure is world-scale and cutting edge.  Non-Indians are moving there to start companies, not because of low-cost labor but because it is such a massive, modernized market, at least in mobile.  Ten years ago it had just 37 million mobile users. Rickshaw operators, sidewalk vendors  and—says yesterday’s New York Times—prostitutes are on mobile, the later leading to a rise in HIV which is better controlled  in brothels, which they no longer need.

I saw very few I-phones in India.  Samsung seems to rule the market in smart phones and Nokia has a lot of cheap ones which have a lot of built-in services.  If anything, mobile may be better distributed, cheaper and of  higher quality than in the United States.  I used a “Tata Photon” which is a USB plug-in that provided wi-fi everywhere I went. 

Garbage--The hardest thing for a foreigner to get used to in Bangalore is the breakdown in garbage collection--assuming it was ever collected well.  It was at crises stage while I was there.   Garbage piled up in my neighborhood most frequently under the "Do Not Leave Garbage Here or You Will be Fined" sign. 

Shopping--I went to India vowing to live safely but frugally, which I did.  The exceptions were the cost of planes to Kerala and Mumbai and quality hotels there.  I ended up buying books, which I shipped home through the Indian Post Office; had some things successfully shipped by the seller; bought hand-tailored, vibrant-colored raw silk  dresses for the women and girls in my family in Bangalore; and--in the last week--bought fabrics in Jaipur where the Festival of Lights made buying things auspicious and propitious, according to Hindu belief.  Didn't I want good luck for the year? 

This is one of dozens of similar shops selling sarees, bed fabrics, children's clothes, etc. not unlike other India cities.  I was particularly fascinated by turbans which come in great variety by region, ethnicity, etc.

Clothes for children can be irresistible.  I bought traditional dresses for little girls featuring dozens of little silver discs which were a hit with the 6 and 8 year old, not the 11.   In Jaipur I was introduced to Anoki, a store and related museum near the Amber Palace which specialize in traditional block-printed fabric, and ended up needing another trip to the post office to get them home.  (The post office is a kick.  Next to at least those in cities there is always a "tailor," someone who boxes your shipment then sews it up in muslin.  Everything arrived safely--at a cost of about $150.)  Below are fabrics on display at the Anoki Museum in a restore l6th century dwelling in Amber. 

Posted December 14, 2012 by Jerry Brady, jbrady@postregister.com, Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA.



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