Wednesday, March 25, 2009

India: Up Close and Personal - In Mumbai

I am back in Mumbai after some time. The city captivates me. Very different from any other city in India, Mumbai is India's entrepreneurial core - having been structured as such for over two centuries. This is a merchant's city - one truly enchanted by the allure of money. The message that this city gives me is about hard work and thinking big, and I love it.

I have always said I love Kolkata and would want to go back and live there some day. And, this is completely sincere. Kolkata is an amazing city - so comfortable, so oldworldly charming and so personal. I walk on the roads of Kolkata for hours, as I have done for years, and still be amazed by the charm, smell and sound of the roads. If it sounds terribly romantic to anyone, that's what Kolkata is - romantic. A relic of an era past, not much of use, but of tremendous value.

But, at the same time, it is frustrating to work in Kolkata. People don't work there. All the romanticism, all the emotions, come in the way. I recently asked a group in Kolkata what a good job means to them. The responses, when aggregated, did not say anything about the content of work. It was always about perquisites - an AC office, an AC car, a separate cabin etc. Someone told me that Bengalis can not do business because they are too fixated to the style and vanity of work. It showed up again and again whichever way I look.

By contrast, Mumbai is hard working and practical. Life here is rather unforgiving. Travelling from one part of the city to another is gruesome. The food and amenities crazily expensive. The infrastructure is out of date. The weather, hot and humid, takes its toll. But, it is a city in love with money and the material things in life.

Of course, Mumbai has its great cultural core. It has great theatre, art and publishing houses. But its distinguishing feature is of course the bollywood studios and lore, enormous bungalows of film stars and whispers about who is dating whom. It is the city which got the glamour label for Indian culture and monetized it.

As I go around Mumbai and meet my numerous friends, I still smell the opportunity. The stench of death by recession, so strong in Dubai and London, is hardly perceptible here. Rather, people are talking about new ideas, solving problems and changing lives. There is that sublime excitement in the air, though this is the heart of India's financial services and the sensex has fallen from 20,000 level to 8,000 level over last 12 months.

The latest craze seems to be education, along with the old favourite technology. But education is a comfortable first, in terms of where the money should go in. The business schools are opening at a furious pace; and every executive striking on their own are talking about one education venture or the other.

Sometimes, it is hard to be the No. 1 city. When things change, it is easy to be hit first and recover last. Undeniably, that could have been the case of Mumbai - with its terror attacks and various corruption related issues. But it seems that mumbaikars wont let that happen - they have resolved, and demonstrated, the will to keep their city special, a model for India's inclusive democracy. Besides, as things stand today, this city may spawn a number of entrepreneurial, new business initiatives in the near future.

1 comment:

Anuradha Khanna said...

very impressive outlook on mumbai! i second your opinions.

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