Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Travelling in India - Mumbai

I am in the middle of a tour around India - with a Northern Irish trade mission first, but then by myself - wherein I shall cover six to ten Indian cities over next two weeks. With a break, of course, I shall be in Manila the next week, but this is possibly the longest exposure of India I shall have after a real long time.



As I said, I am already there in Mumbai. I am staying in Le Royal Meridien, which is a fine hotel just by the International Airport, and within a close range of Andheri, which I presume is a sort of a commercial hub. This hotel is styled for colonial luxury, with Mahogany desks and beds, and dining and wining facilities in the style and tradition of the raj. I am here with other Northern Irish business executives, and for most of them, this is the first time to India. I am certain they will find this hotel a bit alien, but thoroughly enjoyable. I confess - I haven't asked them; I just guessed.



However, I have noted the most common question Indians ask their foreign guests: Do you like India? This is possibly usual, but may be not - not many people asked me whether I like Philippines or Dubai, and people I know in London would usually ask whether I miss India rather than whether I like England. Travelling around with the other members of the trade mission, I made a mental note every time such a question was asked within earshot, and soon lost count. It almost felt that the Indians are the most self-conscious nation around the world, always keen to impress the guests and almost embarrassed with their short-comings.



However, despite every guest stating that they find India 'fascinating' in perfect Irish politeness [and doublespeak], Mumbai outside was quite fascinating indeed. We chartered a bus to Lower Parel, where a reception was hosted for the trade mission in ITC Grand Central, another fine hotel. I was sitting next to another Indian executive who represents a Northern Irish mining equipments company, and both of us were watching, in quiet amazement, the traffic and the crowd on the streets around us, and the quietness inside the bus full of Northern Irish business executive. One of them could not resist mentioning that they find it completely different - especially coming from Ireland, where hardly you see anyone on the street - and to prove the point, the bus had to stop in traffic for a while right in front of the Lower parel station, and we observed the stream of people continuously coming out of the station. That was about 6pm, and one could see the office-returnees of all gender, age and style, rushing to varied destinations with the unfailing urgency.



From this, the ball room of ITC Grand Central was a world removed. Luxury, slow and deliberate, the politeness of the attendants and the traditional dress of hostesses were almost unreal. The PR company, which arranged the show, lined up a couple of pretty hostesses on Sari at the reception, with flower petal-filled plates to receive the guests with a tilak and 'baran'. They performed their duties in sacred seriousness, explaining to each incredulous guest what the ceremony is, but breaking into giggles when they had to do this to me or Jaideep, the other Indian-born executive. That was the other India on showcase, a bit of tradition plucked from nowhere and put in display in the middle of a luxury hotel and European guests. It was an India distant from Lower Parel station and even I found it unreal.



Back in Le Meridien, I found this solemn note in the pocket of my bathrobe: "This bathrobe has enjoyed considerable success among our guests, to the extent that some particularly enthusiastic customers have become 'collectors of le meridien bathrobes'. While we recognise that this initiative helps spread the reputation of our establishment, we nevertheless urge our most fervent supporters to make an effort to separate themselves from this admittedly endearing garment when they leave." No, I am no collector of bathrobes, but think for a moment, this is also India, an urbane India dripped in the finest of dry British humour, seasoned over two centuries.
I am also sobered, the next morning, by reading a note on our breakfast table. It talked about how ' the perfect blend of Illy coffee would provide every guest an unique experience, because this unique blend is designed for a perfect taste'. In the new Indian English, a meaningless sequence of words put together. I secretly wondered whether the writer is trying to do a bit of NLP, but possibly not, as I became confused and felt ridiculous rather than 'perfect' and 'unique' after reading this piece. The point is that this isn't careless writing; this is representative writing, typical of the modern Indian English, which is peculiarly adjective-laden and more sound than content. I have now become used to words like 'fantabulous', don't know where it came from but know that most Indian business executives love that word. Jug Suraiya commented that our language must grow up - I shall repeat this here. Indian English continues to be its glorious adolescent self, despite the odd dry humour in the pocket of a bathrobe!

The day ended with an young Indian executive telling me how he scored 6 out of 6 in the latest job appraisal in his company as if that was life-and-death for him, and another person observing that he has found that the Indian labour market has taken a turn for the worse, and it is hard to find a committed, sincere professional anymore.

So, what did I want to say? Nothing, perhaps, than I watched India in all its variety and colours through Mumbai. Yes, I could title this post - The Wonder that was India - or, Unity in Diversity [or should it be the other way round?]. But, India is too many colours, too much sound. And, I thought keeping it a bit simple is appropriate here.

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