India, February 2009
I’ve always wanted to travel to India. I’m not sure why but perhaps it is their history which is so closely linked with that of South Africa. We were both British Colonies. We were both touched by the hand of the Mahatma. And, particularly in my city of Durban, we’re both party to the food and culture of Indians.
I was invited to speak at the INDIASOFT 2009 conference by the ESC through their association with SmartXchange to which THUSA is a sponsor and partner organisation. ESC paid for the flight but because INDIASOFT was just the week before CeBIT, I had to arrange to fly from the host Kolkata direct to Germany. This meant potentially forfeiting my dti sponsored flight to Germany for CeBIT so I requested my ticket be changed to allow Vulani lead developer, Colin Alston, to attend CeBIT as well.
At no extra cost, the Indian travel agent assigned to me booked me to fly into New Delhi a week before I was required in Kolkata. The Indian capital of New Delhi and Vijay Prasad and his wife Ronita Das thus became my first official CouchSurfing experience; and what a way to start!
I landed in New Delhi via a tatty Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) and, as instructed by Ronita, caught a prepaid taxi to their apartment in Dwarka – a suburb alongside the new IGI Airport due for completion in time for the Commonwealth Games late next year. I’m glad I was told about prepaid taxis because the Rs. 250 I paid was far less than the Rs. 1200 one of the standard cabbies offered.
Dwarka is large residential area, split into several sectors, with apartment block based housing projects going up in each sector and a metro rail station always nearby. Dwarka is a product of the revitalised and rapidly developing new India and its inhabitants appear to me to be mostly of the rapidly growing new middle to upper middle-classes.
Ronita welcomed me to her home with a typical cup of “chai” (tea) in the traditional Indian style; aromatic, perhaps with some coconut in there – but not overwhelmingly spicy like the “Chai Tea” which one orders at facny schmancy places in South Africa. Theirs is a humble little apartment with two bedrooms and a set of single beds in the spare/CouchSurfing room. Ronita and Vijay have hosted many a CSer but have not yet themselves been hosted. I very much hope to have that opportunity sometime in the future.
The day after I arrived, Sunday, a CS event had been arranged called a “Foodie Walk” which involved being led through old Delhi by well known New Delhi Intellectual and Travel Writer, Dr Ashish Chopra, and tasting the different styles and types of food on offer in this ancient part of the City. More information and photos about this event are included in a previous post.
At the Foodie Walk, I met Shyam Singh, who would, the next day, be my second CS host in his and his brother’s house in the Corporate Part of New Delhi – Gurgaon (pronounced, as I eventually mastered, Gurr-goww). Shyam is a call centre worker and works night shift at the plush “AmEx” (American Express) Customer Service centre in the larny part of Gurgaon, right next to the new and shiny Audi dealership.
It seems that call centre jobs are now very run of the mill and there is no longer much prestige attached – Shyam is biding his time and earning some money to travel as much of the world as he can before going back to his hometown in more rural India to take over the family restaurant and support his parents. I’d like to visit him there someday and, yes, I’d love to host him in South Africa sometime.
One of the more “colourful” daily experiences in India is the normally normal task of getting from A to B, driving in a car or on a motorcycle. But in India this experience is anything but normal; rather it is quite terrifying – a sustained lower ebb of terror, but terror nonetheless. Saying there are no rules whatsoever might be a spot on the harsh side but certainly there is utter contempt for any rules.
Traffic circles are traversed via the shortest route possible, overtaking is performed at random from any position, without indication and normally with only a few centimetres to spare, and driving between lanes is unusual – in fact there are signs on the highway which say, oddly, “LANE DRIVING IS SANE DRIVING”. If you want to make money in India, I think designing a cheaper, longer lasting brake pad might make you rapidly one of the richest people alive.
Now my mother will certainly chastise me for this, but I did get out alive and thus will recount the story of the motorcycle ride that nearly scared me to death – let alone the more obvious proximity to the dark place. One evening Shyam, another CS friend who shall remain nameless, and I went out for a drink. Shyam was working that night so he left the two of us in the pub after a couple of drinks; I would be getting a lift home with the 3rd member of our party. I was a spot worried that the other fellow might’ve had enough to drink so deferred when the next round was suggested, motioning instead for the bill and expressing and interest in bed.
We got up to go, and I could see from the sway and what I’d previously thought was just a very strong accent that my ride home might be a somewhat wobbly one, especially when I discovered we were to be travelling on his motorcycle as he’d recently had an oopsie with his car. Splendid. To add to the joy of the occasion, we weren’t quite sure how to get back. What proceeded was quite possibly the longest single period of sustained terror I have ever experienced in my life.
My pilot proceed to smoke, talk excessively, and regularly turn his head to talk to me while driving Indian-style (read Kamikaze) on his Hero Honda all the while telling me the guest is god India and he would not let anything happen to me. Thank goodness he told me that – it set all my fears aside and made me feel completely safe. I think it took between 45 minutes and an hour to find home but it felt like a bloody week.
Driving in Kolkata was even more chaotic. We bumped into other cars along the route but this was par for the course and nobody stopped to check damage or swap details – bumpers are there for a reason in India! Give me cowboy-style South African driving anyday!
I have my life still. I am blessed. If there is a big bearded wise man played by Morgan Freeman living in the clouds, then praise be to him for keeping an eye out for me.
While in Delhi I got to watch Slumdog Millionaire and most of the Academy Awards Ceremony where it won a stunning 8 Oscars. SDM is officially a British movie, but it was filmed in Mumbai with Indian actors, had an Indian co-Director, the music was written by Indian Composer Rahman, and many other key roles filled by Indians. I think it is now in my personal top 10 movies.
This extract from the Slumdog Wikipedia article conveys perfectly both the relevance of the movie and the people it portrays: “Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote Slumdog Millionaire based on the Boeke Prize winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize nominated novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup. To hone the script, Beaufoy made three research trips to India and interviewed street children, finding himself impressed with their attitudes. The screenwriter said of his goal for the script: ‘I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat, and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy.’”
Kolkata, where INDIASOFT was hosted, is a beautiful old City which was the Indian Colonial helm until 1911 when it was moved to New Delhi. Everyone I had met before going to Kolkata had spoken fondly of the people, the place and the food; I was not disappointed. Kolkata, or as many Indians seem to prefer calling it “Calcutta”, is known as the City of Intellectuals and places like College Rd with all of its bookstores (hundreds and hundreds of them) and the Coffee House – hangout of Indian intellectuals for over 300 years – are certainly testament to this perception. This City has a soul – I could feel it, but my two short days there, with INDIASOFT taking up the daylight hours, robbed me of a chance of finding out much more about that soul. I am going back the very first chance I get.
India is country alive with people, diverse in religion and culture (1.2 billion of them), energy, colour and progress. Progress is being made, warts and all; corruption reigns, important technical skills are scarce, but they are progressing rapidly as a developing power. This charging Tiger, however, and somewhat unlike our own Tiger, is moving swiftly with grace and humility – fighting to retain its cultural ethics and values in the face of rapid advancement. I like India. I like its people and their spirit. I want to spend more time there.