Returning to India after 50 Years

Here’s a guest blog from my cousin Lakhbir Hayre. He was born in Punjab, India and moved to Wolverhampton at the age of ten. He went to Imperial College, London to read Mathematics and  St John’s College, Oxford to earn a PhD in Statistics.

He married Jasbir Kandola before moving to America to teach Mathematics at a University on the East Coast. He became a dad, began a long career in Wall Street as a analyst and retired two years ago, leaving New Jersey and moving to Florida.

He returned to Punjab last Christmas for the first time after half a century. He emailed me his thoughts about India which I found quite fascinating. Apologies for the super brief bio.

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After arriving in India, I had mentioned that my initial impressions were favorable – the immigration process (E-visa) took 5 minutes (much quicker than Newark), our bags were at the claim belt by the time we got there, and the hotel we were staying in, the Oberoi, was better, especially the service, than comparable luxury hotels in the West.  Manjit responded that I should wait 5 days, and see what my impressions were then.

Well, we have been here for a week, and my impression is that, its complicated.  The negative aspects we read about or see on TV are there:

Indian Roads.  It takes nerves of steel and heightened alertness to drive here.  The concept of lanes does not exist, with cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, motor cycles and scooters jostling for space by constantly changing lanes, and cars hurtle at each other on traffic circles, with the drivers deciding at the last second who goes first.

Driving is by honking rather than turn signals; Indian road noise is to Manhattan as Manhattan is to Sarasota, Florida. Drivers also have to be alert to vehicles coming at them (people deciding that its quicker to drive on the wrong side of the road), and cows, camels, donkeys, and other animals standing in the middle of the road.

Concepts of safety are minimal, with for example little kids riding on the back of scooters without helmets as their dad swerves between cars and trucks with inches to spare.  Its been called organized chaos, but its not completely organized – our guide mentioned that there are over 1500 traffic deaths in Delhi alone each year.

Litter.  There is a distressingly large amount of litter on the streets.  It was good to see an anti-litter “Keep India Clean” campaign with pictures of Modi, but since he is somewhat of a polarizing figure, a bipartisan campaign would be more effective.  Better still, enroll Bollywood stars.

Building Disrepair.  A lot of buildings have exteriors in a state of disrepair – stains on the walls, peeling paint, crumbling walls, bricks and stucco.

This neglect is there even for buildings which have well-off residents and which presumably are nice inside, such as an apartment complex for retired senior army officers in Delhi, and for public buildings such as the City Palace in Udaipur, an otherwise amazing 16th century building on par with the best European buildings from the same era (a portion of the tickets sales are now being diverted into restoration, so conditions should improve).

Power-washing and a coat of paint will do wonders in many cases. Ordinances targeting this type of neglect with fines, of the type many townships have here in the US, will help.

Given all that, India is a vibrant, functioning democracy and economy.  There were state elections here this week, with extensive political analysis, exit poll analysis, all types of election maps and statistical analysis (even this statistician became dizzy).  The talking heads on the many news channels make US cable news networks look dignified and stately, with several usually shouting at the same time and talking over each other.

It is tough to talk of Indian economic and social life, as there seems to be every strata than you can think.  There is extreme wealth at one end (just a couple of days before we came to Udaipur, the Ambani family spent a reported $100 Million on a wedding here, booking every room in both the Oberoi and the Taj Lake Palace, the two top hotels here – Hillary Clinton was on the guest list, and Beyonce performed), while India still has the world’s largest number of people living in extreme poverty.

There are all types of segments in between.  While in Delhi, we met up with Kiran, a friend of Jasbir’s.  Kiran went to school in India, then college in the US, where she lived for a while until moving back here about 10 years ago to take a senior job at Delhi Airport.  Kiran has a full-time driver and a live-in housekeeper, and did not think she could afford two full-time servants in the US working in a comparable professional job.

More typically middle-class was our tour guide in New Delhi (as an aside, becoming a licensed Govt of India tour guide requires study and passing a tough exam -our guide’s brother failed the exam and did an MBA as a consolation). The only difference between our guide and a typical professional in the West was that he, his wife and kid, his brother and his family, and his parents all live in the same house, which they have expanded as the families expanded).

Small Indian businesses are a study in contrasts. While I have been generally able to avoid going with Jasbir to any shops, I did have to stop with her once in a fabric store.  The store, on four levels, was packed with shelves from floor to ceiling containing silk, cotton and every other material you can think off.

It seemed to be run with great efficiency by a couple of older guys and an army of young guys who looked alike (clearly brothers and cousins) who seemed to know exactly which shelf on which floor contained a particular combination of material, color, etc. Yet sales were recorded by hand using carbon paper for copies – no computers or spreadsheets!

All in all, a fascinating country.

Kind Regards

Lakhbir

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