Mumbai, India

A very instructive journey, which prompts me to come back to learn a little more; I sure can understand how people say that traveling to India changes them.

One first consequence is a desire to know more about the history of this great country: a perusal of Amazon offering in the way of manuals reveals an abundance of books about british India and a relative scarcity of books about the whole story of India; also I am not seeking a 1000-page tome, but a more svelte format that I can digest quickly.

My impression is that the country India really started with the british domination – before there were four large states more or less perennially at war with each other and under the influences of the various potentates in the region.

This was repeated over and again by several people – no such thing as India. Dozens of languages, five main religions plus many more others, an enormous diversity in ethnicity: all of this points at a situation for me reminiscent of the Balkans – only 1,000 times bigger.

Secondly, the language. India may have “the largest english speaking population in the world”, but don’t mistake this for the statement “everybody speaks english”:  even if a privileged 20% speaks good english that leaves 80% who barely does or not at all. Even in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi we met a lot of people whose english sometimes was very basic.

Third, a few European shell-shocks: I was expecting poverty and lack of basic hygienic facilities to strike me, and they did. I was expecting the assault of beggars and salesmen, and that I did not get. I enjoyed walking for hours in bazaars in Mumbai and Delhi, stopping at carts and looking at stuff – yes, they obviously try to exercise their trade, but never aggressively and a simple “No” works almost universally.

I also enjoyed bargaining when I bought something – even though I have no illusion of beating the experts – nobody was ever pushy or aggressive.

Fourth, size matters, in so many senses. How do you lift 200 million kids from stricken poverty? Nitin complained about having too much work and not being able to find employable people for his business. Of course the road workers or janitors do not speak english: if they did, they’d probably get a better job as clerks in some company. Size also pushes the inequalities to extremes not experienced anywhere else I suspect. The beggars living in the streets and eating God knows what next to Bentleys rolling down the manicured Delhi avenues.

Talking to Cyrus we discovered that house prices are higher than in Milano, yet the intrinsic value of the buildings honestly cannot be compared – the price must be supported by the utilitarian value of real estate, which points to a layer of population similar to the European middle class in purchasing power, but can you imagine two-and-a-half times Europe’s middle class concentrated in 5 or 6 megalopolis instead of perhaos 30 or 40?

Fifth, this country exists in its present form since 70 years only: I purposefully excused myself for asking blunt questions about ethnic or religious strife, about the relationship with Pakistan or the feelings towards the Brits.  After 150 years of unity of Italy and one and a half millennium of roman empire my country still hasn’t really figured out where it stands on its own identity: these are things that run very deep and may require a few more centuries to really settle, but I am ideally positioned to ask these questions, I am italian and everyone loves us, essentially because we are a threat to nobody.

Sixth, we were very fortunate to spend our time in Delhi as guests of Roma on behalf of Mahindra Corp., not only for the exquisite hospitality in itself, but also because we lived in a house. While this is nowhere near experiencing living the city (we had two excellent gentlemen looking after us, preparing our food an driving us around) yet this was so different from the hotel life in Mumbai. Both ABCI and Mahindra’s hospitality were nothing short of superlative, but I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience both.

Of course, “blending in” is not an option: I am way too tall (even though someone told me that my complexion is not too far from that of indians), and Mirella’s platinum short hair attracted so much attention a few ladies asked to have a a picture taken together with her; but there is something, even after only a few days of wandering, that made me feel at ease even though I was and will always remain a foreigner, something that made easy asking for directions to porters or store clerks, that made language difficulties manageable. I guess I will have to spend a little more time on this.

Speaking of which, Yogesh and Deepak already said they will invite us again next year, and my wife said she is already booking her time to come along.