Got a chance to visit India after 3 years. Thanks to COVID, 2020 was almost a year ripped out of history. 2021 was an unfortunate tryst with destiny, where the non-availability of visa appointments postponed meeting family for one more year. But in 2022, it was finally the time to come back.
Along with the eagerness and excitement of meeting friends and family, I was also curious. I had seen India change to great lengths during the Pandemic. In my opinion, India provided an amazing and somewhat unexpected resistance to COVID with a discipline I had not seen in my lifetime (I do acknowledge the mistakes which led to the immigrant population pass through tough times, but still, I had never seen India this united before). But for someone who had not been here in the thick of things, I did have a question. Has India changed? Will life be here the same as before?
Thankfully, the negative changes in people's lifestyles due to COVID seemed to have disappeared in 2022. Everything was operational, tourism was booming, masks weren't the norm anymore and things seemed to be better. Fingers crossed.
Still, a few reflections based on incidents
1. Me today, discipline tomorrow
Every time you land in India, it's a ticking time bomb of when you are first hit with the lack of discipline. Over the years, I have thought about it in various ways. Am I getting too "Angrez" expecting discipline and queues everywhere? Are the Americans better than Indians in this? OR is there more to it than it meets the eye?
I have always believed, that discipline is marginally easier to implement in the USA just because of the sheer numbers. A normal queue would be about 10 minutes and at the most 30-40 people long. In India, these numbers are an order of magnitude higher. It is not surprising that people would think of breaking queues. No, I am still not complaining. I am just expressing my surprise and appreciation for the various "jugaadu" ways of breaking the line
It typically starts at the airport. 500 people, having gone through a long flight in super crammed space (long distance trains in India seem such a luxury) and having their ego's thrashed by the air hostesses (Economy class passengers often line up by the kitchen to get a snack ) need a quick release. Their instant source of happiness in the absence of food, drink, family , and air conditioning comes from the satisfaction of oneupmanship in which they defeated their fellow Indians by their canniness. India also seems to be their "cheat space" where breaking of rules is suddenly all kosher.
#smart-ass tip 1: the "dusra line"
And so it starts, a queue of 1000 people trudges forward
Till someone decides to act smart, get out of the line , take 10 odd people and join the line somewhere in the middle. In practice, it takes one Uncle who in the act of being nice to a lady, sacrifices the time of 100s behind him, by allowing 10 people to create a parallel line and merge ahead. If this Old uncle wasn't enough, there's always another one standing right behind you who'll not do anything about it but will curse the young generation (or rather us directly) for not doing anything about it. I have still called out, but before you know the 10 odd people have had their way with 80% of people telling "Hum kya kar sakte hai"
#smart-ass tip 2: the "connecting flight"
Mumbai is undoubtedly the hub for many airlines to take an onward flight to their home city. More often than not, there's tension to catch the connecting flight. As we stand in the line after having a 4 year old endure a 26 hour flight journey, your parents patiently waiting in the cold at 4:30 am, some family comes and says , we have a connecting flight, please let us go. To which, I always feel like questioning - why did you not reserve some time ? It's nothing new to have lines at the airport. It's not as if Modi announced demonization and all the mitron have suddenly congested the line. But while it's annoying to other passengers, I do acknowledge the tradeoff between having a short connection to a rather long one.
But then, come the smart asses. After 4 families were allowed to go, an uncle in front of me ( a nice "old uncle") got irritated . He asked everyone who asked for this favor to tell him where they were going, flight time and boarding pass. To our surprise (or maybe not), 3 of the 4 people we saw next were lying through their teeth and as soon as they were asked, they immediately retreated. The 4th one had a connecting flight after 6 hours. It is surprising how "Trust other Indians" goes for a toss so fast at the airport itself
#smart-ass tip 3: the bakshis (or not ) zone
Corruption in India has become fairly less in the last decade. Airport workers have been nice, but every now and then , someone sneaks in something to get them ahead. If that wasn't enough, some honest workers can't say No when the aunty says "Bhai sahaab, hum kab see khade hai line me? ". Bakshis or not, interfering with a line in a high pressure zone causes more people to break the rule . For a country that is really trying to fall in line with people following rules, such actions notoriously break the morale of everyone else and create a chaos
One set of people to commend here are the immigration officers. In 19 years of travelling, they have always been straightforward, nice and (my personal favorite) they stamp the passport correctly so the stamp is well visible and falls within one quadrant of the page - thus allowing reuse and not leaving any ambiguity . In the chaos however, they always isolate themselves from the queue ruckus and if things get too hot, they simply go out for a lunch break :)
But , little inconvenience apart, the arrival airport is always an emotional place to be (and the arrival time is a particularly happy spot). It is always heartwarming to see grandparents hug their grandkids, young men and women bowing down after a seemingly long flight in the coolest part of Mumbai's day (which is still warmer than the warmest part of SF). Indian parents will stand hours in the cold waiting area, old eyes scanning every arrival and the police there always have a tough time balancing rules and emotions
2. Mob mentality
A lot of people might disagree with this , but hear me out. This is surprisingly very disturbing
I was on the way to catch a train on a crowded railway station when a man came running behind me. I am not sure what he was trying to do, but in a flash, he pushed me and another lady, and both me and the lady fell on the ground. The running man, managed to run and catch his train.
While this was unfortunate enough, what followed was worse. Within seconds a crowd gathered, and help us stand up. But while people asked the lady if she was OK, someone had caught my collar, someone had grabbed my wrist and insults were being hurled about how I wasn't walking properly. The crowd then decided that the woman needed medical attention, so I was obviously "pulled" in that direction. In a timely stroke of luck the woman said "Inka fault nahin hai!" , and I was let go. In a brain fade moment, I simply caught the first train out of the situation
But a number of questions crossed my mind:
1. Why did no one think the woman could have accidentally caused the problem? Why was the guy targeted?
2. What would have been my plight had the woman been unconscious or more gravely injured. without a shred of evidence, the crowd had already caught my hand and collar , and a thrashing did not seem to be completely out of the possibility list
3. It reminded me of the classic Munnabhai MBBS scene where Sunil Dutt reminds a young https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nawazuddin_Siddiqui that everyone is going to take their frustration on wife, son, father, sister, and husband on this person.The notion that "we can't depend on law enforcement, so it is our job to enforce the law" can't be more dangerous. Mob violence is not acceptable. Even if someone does something wrong, handing over someone to the police is the most people should be allowed to do. It's sometimes sad that we treat mob leaders as good samaritans.
4. Thinking that this is in a cosmopolitan city consisting of some of the most educated people in the country, imagine the plight of young men in remote areas where caste and religion would also play a stronger role.
Controversial as it may sound, it is just wrong, and anyone being part of it should be punished for society to function well.
3. A corruption-free India
No, this is not sarcastic
While corruption might exist in various quarters , for someone who lived through the nineties, the present day India (or at least Bombay) is a huge leap
An aadhaar card application can be so smooth - who knew?
At another appointment, the lady at the desk guided me through the form , and carefully checked the form and gave me a token to wait.
Throwback to the 90s where , a friend was considered to be the ultimate James Bond for getting a learners permit from RTO for just Rs. 15 (which was the actual legal cost of getting it). Most people paid anywhere from Rs .50 to Rs. 500 through different agents
Receipts from grocery stores. Throwback to the 90s again, where a shopkeeper used to simply rip off a wholesale box and sell packets of biscuits (clearly marked "not for individual sale" ) at the same price with "Lena hai to lo, varna raasta naapo"
Sutte paise Digital payment dya
When you are away from India for huge chunks of time, sometimes India just surprises you like anything
In 2005-6, I was surprised how mobile phones took off in India , and how (till the Iphone arrived) India had such amazing multi functional phones
Bandwidth in India grew from being super expensive in the late nineties to being dirt-dirt-cheap and continues to grow.
In a similar vein, digital payments in the form of Google Pay , Paytm and the likes have seen such a sharp spike. It was a couple of days when I did not have google pay setup on my phone . When I told the cab driver, he asked me "Sir aap to padhe likhe lagte ho? Kahaan see aaye ho?"
A step in the right direction, towards the elimination of black money and laying the foundation for a strong transactional economy, it is indeed impressive how everyone from taxiwala to bhajiwala, from maids to chai ki tapris, all have adapted to this
5. A business digging it's own grave
Growing up in India, the auto and taxi wallahs were a unique business. It was the profession of most immigrants, wannabe actors, sometimes even people with advanced degrees who held onto it for a strady income till they made it.
Memories were mostly pleasant. There would be stories of honest autowallahs who would come back in case you left something in there, or that taxi wallah who would make sure that they would escort elders all the way home.
Of course, their market share has been eaten by the evil business run by Uber and Ola
Or is it?
The truth is - it's a business community that has stopped respecting it's customers and have got a similar reaction back. I found it surprising, shocking in fact that in the middle of a busy road, an empty taxi or rickshaw would prefer to go 30 minutes without business than listen to my plea of helping my sick dad (we were standing outside a hospital) get home or at least to a place where he could get another taxi.
An unofficial "Double rate" at night because they have to drive back alone? A "my rate" when demand is high ? Or a just "I don't care what the rules say"
I am not saying that Uber and Ola (or any service) are flawless. They are profit making companies at the end and someday consumers will feel the pinch for them as well.
But if there are rules put in place, people are expected to abide. The government rules state that any auto or taxi is expected to ply the passenger to the requested destination and charge as per meter. But if you survey a 100 people who have lived in Bombay and ask them if they have never seen an auto break this rule, I bet you won't find more than 5 people.
It's not just technology, but a clear "gap" in the current system that is leading to Ola and Uber take up the market. What's sad is that the taxi and rickshaw drivers seem to ignore the gap and dig their own grave. If technology was the sole driver to closing businesses, dabbawallahs, the local buses , the local trains would have probably been replaced as well. It is always a deep mistrust that drives people to other channels and unfortunately this business is doing just that .
6.And a business that keep's getting better
It is no secret that I am a big fan of Indian trains. Every India trip starts with buying a first class pass which I believe is the best (unless you are travelling with small kids or aged parents) . It provides you with something that is very rarely available in Bombay - a guarantee of reaching someplace on time !
But while the local trains improve their infrastructure with escalators, AC trains, ticket vending apps and much more, what impressed me more is the long distance trains. Super polite staff , super clean toilets (an NRI's biggest pain / pleasure point) , charging points , great infrastructure . Railway booking can do better but I guess they do reasonably well with the constraints they have. What would be interesting if they lease out some tickets to an orbitz kind of price model for long distance booking instead of Tatkal - but in the balance of providing good service to the masses - given the challenges (high population and limited land to build infrastructure), I think they do pretty well. Accessibility for physically challenged people has also improved. Long distance train travel is also amazing. There are always going to be smaller issues, but at the scale of population supported, it's pretty good. I did not get a chance to try food delivery apps - but the combination of technology and a grassroots infrastructure has made railways a great force !