There's an old joke in the newspaper business that the best way to turn a front page story into a paragraph on page 50 is to add the words "in India". Which is as good an argument for a blog as I can think of. Having zero marginal costs of paper and ink, I'm free to spill a few bytes over the next few days touching on what I found most remarkable in this extraordinary hotspot of globalization (and don't worry, it's not totally off topic; stick around and you'll see why).
India is a true interzone. It's an economic force that is transforming Silicon Valley, yet is one of the poorest countries in the world (about half the GDP/capita of China and behind many African nations). Boomtown cities like Bangalore are building luxury housing as fast as they can pour the concrete, yet a third of the country can't read or write. I came because you can't understand the world today without understanding India. But I also had some specific questions, which will be the subjects of my next posts. This one is just to set the scene.
I started in Bombay (as it's generally called in English; "Mumbai", the official name, is more commonly used in Hindi) which is, I will not be the first to say, the bomb. There really is nowhere like it on the planet. Nothing with its mind-boggling density (1m people/square mile in places), its vertiginous social divisions, its baroque history and, yes, its abject poverty. This is a place where the dazzling 24/7 digital hubs of the outsourced economy stand just yards from the worst slums I've ever seen, and that's saying something. It is simultaneously exhilarating (technology, music, really interesting social change) and terrifying (roads--yikes!, disease, deprivation).
Like the emerging industrial powerhouses of east Asia (China, Korea, Taiwan), Bombay has become an obligatory stop on the travel schedule of the global CEO. Unlike the others, it still sometimes puts those CEOs in the hospital on a drip. To hear the somewhat hysterical warnings, water is practically poison: hot and cold running giardia, dysentery and hepititus B. You can't imagine how hard it is to take an entire shower with your lips tightly sealed. Everyone I know who fell victim can recall their moment of slipped vigilance: one remembered too late the washed salad; another forgot about the ice cubes. So far I'm fine. I've been careful. But I'm thinking about the single grape (unpeeled fruit!) I absent-mindedly ate off my plate last night. I couldn't concentrate on the conversation for ten minutes afterwards.
One of the complaints I used to have as a foreign correspondent was how hard it is to find places in the world that still feel foreign. What's foreign? How about this: 2am, driving back from a state-of-the-art call center in the middle of Bombay, my driver is slaloming through rubble in a scene that would look like Fallujah but for the Brahman cows grazing in the fast lane. On the shoulder a half-naked five year old girl is squatting to pee on a huge slab of broken concrete, lit by a fire of burning garbage. The billboard behind her advertises the latest BlackBerry. India!
My guide to Bombay was Maximum City, Suketu Mehta's beautifully-written collection of stories about Bombay's dark soul, from crime bosses to bar girls. What I liked best about it is how Mehta uses these stories to explain how and why this place got so simultaneously broken and vibrant. One example: the Rent Act, which was put in place as a temporary measure to freeze rents and avoid profiteering during World War II. It has subsequently proved impossible to repeal because, naturally enough, tenants vastly outnumber landlords. Because many rents don't come close to reflecting the actual value or cost of a property, owners don't bother investing in maintaining the buildings. And so you get the defining characteristic of Bombay living: beautiful interiors in decrepit exteriors.
In just two days, I visited MTV India, a Wipro call center, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research to see the makings of India's first astronomy satellite, three colleges, a labor activist meeting to organize call-center workers, and a series of street retail stores (to test this theory). I attended a lecture on jazz in historic Bollywood and witnessed a proper Indian wedding, which is a dancefest that would put the marching bands of Drumline to shame. I interviewed venture capitalists, consultants, industry analysts and call center workers.
I also hung out with a zillion great people, starting with my friends at Monitor, and extending to fellow editors and even bloggers. And I was taken under the wing of the incomparable Manjeet Kripalani, whose title of Business Week's India bureau chief hardly hints at her superconnected place in Bombay society. Thanks Manjeet!