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India

Kingdom of the babus

It was Monday morning at the All India Radio (AIR) Staff Training Institute in Bhubaneshwar, in the western state of Odisha. At the beginning of the second week of my workshop on training techniques, I’d asked the participants—senior managers from the public broadcasting service—to share ideas for their final presentations.

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We went around the table. How to plan and record a concert of classic Indian music. How to produce a one-act radio play, a talk show, a live event broadcast. And so on. Ashok Tripathi, Director of Programmes for Doordarshan (DD), the national TV service, was last to speak. “I’d like to present on how to prepare and maintain the administrative file,” he said matter-of-factly.

I must have visibly gulped at what sounded like the dullest topic anyone had ever proposed. The participants sensed my reaction because they quickly piped up. “Please let him do it.” “It’s really important that we know.” “Trust us on this—he’s the expert.”

 I gave in, and on the final day, everyone listened intently and scribbled notes as Tripathi explained the complex process. Nothing in AIR or DD—not a program, a purchase or a promotion—moved forward without an administrative file. The file had to be in proper order; if it was not correctly labelled and annotated, it simply would not move, but sat in a stack beneath other improperly prepared files.

I had allowed 20 minutes for each presentation, and Tripathi kept to his time, but the question and answer session lasted another 30 minutes. When it was over, the room erupted in applause. “After 20 years, I finally know what to do,” said one regional radio manager. Over tea, participants told me of their frustrations dealing with the bureaucracy. They were required to prepare files, but had no instructions or templates. Program and equipment proposals languished for months at headquarters in Delhi. The manager would call and write polite memos. Eventually he might reach a clerk who would point out the error in the file and perhaps even correct it.

Prasar Bharati (the Broadcasting Corporation of India) is the largest public broadcaster in the world with about 35,000 staff.  Its radio service, AIR, broadcasts in 23 languages and 146 dialects from more than 400 stations across the country. Doordarshan (literally, “seeing from afar”) has two national TV channels, 11 regional language satellite channels, four state networks, an international channel, a sports channel, and two channels for live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings. With a lot of physical plant, equipment, content and people to manage, you need administrative systems and files. However, like other bureaucracies in India—for ministries, state governments, railways, universities—the broadcasting bureaucracy has grown out of all proportion to its tasks and become self-perpetuating, often a barrier rather than a facilitator.

In the colonial era, the Indian Civil Service (ICS), headed by professional British officers, was responsible for all administrative and legal matters, and for maintaining law and order. Nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru, quoting a popular joke, liked to say that the ICS was "neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.” Yet, as India’s first prime minister, Nehru retained the organization and its leaders, while changing its name to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

There’s long been agreement among political parties and the business community on the need for civil service reform. Successive governments have appointed committees, task forces, consultants and other groups to study the problem and issue reports, but have had little success in changing how the bureaucracy does business. Meanwhile, it has grown by leaps and bounds. By 2010, it was estimated that the national government employed about 6.4 million staff, and the states another seven million. In total, that’s a couple of million more than the population of Belgium or Greece. Or, if you were to exchange them all for the residents of an Indian state, you would add more than a million to the population of Jammu and Kashmir. A lot of Indians would love to dispatch their babus to this remote and chilly northern outpost. 

The title babu, also spelled baboo and derived from bapu which means father or grandfather, was traditionally used in South Asia as a sign of respect towards men. In the colonial era, babu became a common term for a literate Indian clerk in the ICS. From the early 20th century, it began to take on negative connotations when used to refer to government bureaucrats and other officials. The Indian media have long been critical of individual babus and of the bureaucracy—the babudom--in general. 

Although civil servants are hired through competitive examination, many complain that the quality of recruits has been falling. They blame lower education standards, competition from the private sector, political interference and, above all, caste-based reservations, which set aside a percentage of positions for lower castes and members of tribal communities. Even the most competent senior civil servants find it difficult to develop expertise in a specific area because they are frequently shifted from one post to another. Some studies have found that at least half those working for the IAS spend less than one year in a single position. “They can also end up working for India’s vast number of state-run factories, hotels and airlines without much experience,” noted BBC correspondent Soutik Biswas, “so an official administering a small northeastern state ends up running an ailing airline or a senior policeman can head up a liquor company.” 

Although the civil service is supposed to be legally protected from political interference, many bureaucrats, especially at the state level, are beholden to politicians who can promote, demote or transfer them at will. Without transparency in appointments and fixed tenures, they have little job security. There are countless stories of honest bureaucrats who publicly challenge the way their political masters do business, only to find themselves abruptly shunted off to a remote rural area with few staff and little or no budget.

For many years, the business community has lamented the costs of bureaucracy, and economists have constructed models to show what India’s GDP growth would have been without the crippling costs of forms in triplicate and official stamps. Since the early 1990s, the economy has been opened to competition and freed of many regulations, leading to faster growth, but getting things done still requires dealing with the babus. “You cannot measure Indian red tape,” notes The Economist, “but evidence of it is everywhere. One director of a ‘new economy’ company in Mumbai confides that he spends half his time with bureaucrats, who are generally looking for pay-offs.” In 2010, and again in 2012, the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rated India’s bureaucracy as “the worst in Asia.”

Jokes about the excesses and absurdities of bureaucracy in India usually mention the colonial legacy. Three quarters of a century after independence, it’s a stretch to keep blaming the British. Today, India is a world power and lower-middle income country. It’s quite capable of creating its own cumbersome bureaucracy without help from anyone else. And it should be capable of making it work better.

What's in a name?

One indicator of a country’s relationship to its past is how it deals with the reminders of colonial or foreign rule—the statues and plaques honoring administrators and generals, the chapters in school textbooks, the names of cities, towns and streets.

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India has not been in a huge rush to remove reminders of its British colonial past. Since independence in 1947, more than 100 cities and towns have been re-named, but that leaves hundreds more that are still known by their colonial-era names. The changes have included: Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta), Guwahati (Gauhati), Kanpur (Cawnpore), Kochi (Cochin), Mysuru (Mysore), Pune (Poona), Puducherry (Pondicherry), Shimla (Simla), Tiruchiapalli (Trichinapoly), Thiruvananthapram (Trivandrum), and Varanasi (Benares).

The most recent rash of official changes came in 2014 when the federal government finally approved new names for 12 cities. As usual, there was no way to hurry up the bureaucracy. It had been almost a decade since the government of the state of Karnataka had approved changing the name of Bangalore, India’s fifty largest city, to Bengaluru ahead of the city’s official 500th anniversary in 2006. 

A popular, although historically dodgy, legend has it that the place owes its name to a local king who got lost in the forest on a hunting trip. After hours of aimless wandering, the hungry and exhausted king spotted a hut inhabited by an old woman who offered him boiled beans because that was all she had. Impressed by the hospitality, the king named that part of the forest Bendakaalooru in memory of the meal; in old Kannada, the local language, benda means boiled, kaalu  beans and ooru town or city, making it literally the “city of boiled beans”).  Or perhaps the name is derived from Benga-val-ooru (City of Guards), a reference to the city’s military muscle from the 16th to the 18th centuries. When the British captured the fort in 1791, colonial administrators, perhaps struggling to get their tongues around the Kannada name, dubbed the city Bangalore, and that was how it was known for more than two centuries. During the public debate over reverting to the original name, some tourism and business officials fretted about the impact “the city of boiled beans” might have on the image of the country’s leading IT hub, but most on both sides of the issue expected that the similar-sounding name would be quickly adopted.

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It didn’t happen quickly. Although the official signs, airport monitors and websites have been changed, some Indians, including Bengaluru natives, continue to use the old name. The same goes for Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, although the latter (the Bengali name) is close enough in pronunciation to Calcutta that sometimes you can’t tell which name is being used. Indeed, many colonial-era city and town names were what the locals called the place, or how the name sounded to the British administrators. There aren’t many real English place names.

Street names are another matter. India’s municipal governments have systematically erased the names of colonial officials from signs and maps. The streets of Central Delhi were once a who’s who of British monarchs, prime ministers, generals, viceroys and colonial administrators—King Edward, King George, Allenby, Canning, Clive, Cornwallis, Curzon, Kitchener, Monto, Reading. They’ve all gone. Kingsway is now Rajpath, Queensway Janpath.

During visits, I try to be culturally sensitive and use the new names, but sometimes get puzzled looks. “Oh, you must mean Bombay. Why didn’t you say so?” My colleague Suruchi Sood, who returns to India at least once a year for work or family visits, reports a moment of panic when she took a domestic flight to Madras. She arrived at the gate and saw that the destination listed was Chennai. For a moment, she thought she was on her way to another city.



The Monsoon Book Tour, Fall 2019

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It’s monsoon season in South Asia. India’s parliament is in its “monsoon session.” Schools and universities are starting their “monsoon term.” And here in the US, it’s time for the, um, Monsoon Book Tour. Yes, I’ll be on the road over the next three months, presenting mostly at public libraries. The tour (as I grandly call it) kicks off in Wheeling next Tuesday, August 20, and wraps up at Lakewood on November 21. At most venues, I’ve been asked to do a potpourri of travel tales from Madagascar, India, Bangladesh and India. It won’t be the same mix everywhere—so if you come to two presentations, you’re likely to hear different tales!  For a few libraries, I’ll be doing a country-focused presentation. And then there’s a more academic (but still entertaining) presentation in Denison University’s Global Studies Seminar series on October 14.

Thursday, August 20, 12:00 (mid-day), “Lunch with Books,” Ohio County Public Library,  52 16th Street, Wheeling WV  26003,  http://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/

Tuesday, August 27, 6:00 p.m., Cabell County Public Library, Main Branch, 455 Ninth Street, Huntington, WV 25701, https://cabe.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/cabell/?

Thursday, September 12, 7:00 p.m., Orange branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library, 31975 Chagrin Blvd, Pepper Pike, OH 44124, https://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Branches/Orange.aspx

Wednesday, September 25, 7:00 p.m., Bexley Public Library, 2411 E. Main St. Bexley, OH 43209, https://www.bexleylibrary.org/

Thursday, September 26, 6:30 p.m., Dover Public Library, 525 N. Walnut St., Dover, Ohio 44622, http://www.doverlibrary.org/

Saturday, September 28. 2:00 p.m., South Charleston Public Library, 312 Fourth Avenue, South Charleston, WV 25303, https://scplwv.org/

Thursday, October 3, 7:00 p.m., Southeast branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library, 70 Columbus Road, Bedford, Ohio  44146, https://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Branches/Southeast.aspx

Tuesday, October 8, 7:00 p.m., Upper Arlington Public Library, 2800 Tremont Rd., Upper Arlington , OH 43221, https://www.ualibrary.org/

 Monday, October 14, 7:30-9:00 p.m. Denison University, Granville, Ohio, Global Studies Seminar,  https://denison.edu/series/global “International university capacity building—or bullying?”

Tuesday, October 15, 7:00 p.m., Old Worthington Library, 820 High St, Worthington, OH 43085, https://www.worthingtonlibraries.org/visit/locations/old-worthington-library Co-sponsored by Worthington International Friendship Association. “Postcards from Indonesia.”

Monday, October 21, 3:30 p.m., Nelsonville Public Library, 95 W. Washington 
Nelsonville, OH 45764-1177, https://www.myacpl.org/nelsonville/ “Postcards from Indonesia.”

Monday, October 21, 6:00 p.m., Wells (Albany) Public Library, 5200 Washington Road 
Albany, OH 45710, https://www.myacpl.org/wells/

Tuesday, October 22, 11:00 a.m., The Plains Public Library, 14 S. Plains Road 
The Plains, OH 45780, https://www.myacpl.org/theplains/ “Postcards from Madagascar.”

Monday, November 18, 7:00 p.m., Solon branch, Cuyahoga County Public Library, 34125 Portz Pkwy, Solon, OH 44139, https://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Branches/Solon.aspx

Thursday, November 21, 7:00 p.m., “Meet the Author,” Lakewood Public Library, 15425 Detroit Avenue
Lakewood, Ohio 44107 https://www.lakewoodpubliclibrary.org/

 

Smart city

The city of Ahmedabad sprawls across the scrubby coastal plain of the northwestern state of Gujarat for what seems like an eternity. And perhaps it is an eternity, because it is reportedly the fastest-growing city in India. The 2011 census put its population at 5.6 million; it’s now well over seven million, with a million or so more in the metropolitan area, making it either the fifth or sixth largest city in India, and the seventh largest metropolitan area. By the next census in 2021, 60 years after it first passed the million mark, it could have nine million.

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Ahmedabad was not on my radar until June 2015 when I visited with my UNICEF colleague, Mario Mosquera, to check out the Mudra Institute for Communication (MICA), which had bid to host a workshop on communication for development for UNICEF staff. I had no idea the city was as large as it was, nestled in the population table just below Bangalore and Hyderabad. Flying in from Delhi, I assumed the terminal where we arrived was the airport itself and thought it looked rather empty. I soon saw signs pointing to three more terminals. Ahmedabad was building for future growth.

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Ahmedabad was originally a city of textile mills—some called it the “Manchester of India.” It’s in the cotton-growing region of Gujarat, and also imports raw cotton through the ports of Mumbai and Kandla. Climatic conditions are suitable for spinning, and water from the Sabarmati River for dyeing. The city had a large pool of skilled labor, investment capital and good road and rail connections to Mumbai and other cities. The textile industry remains an important part of the economy, but Ahmedabad has diversified. Over the last decade, the main growth has been in sectors such as auto parts and pharmaceuticals, with a business-friendly state government offering cheap land and tax breaks to industry. It was the so-called “Gujarat economic miracle” that helped propel the state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, onto the national stage. He went on to leadership of the Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, and then to become prime minister.

From the airport, Mario and I drove for almost an hour on a freshly tarmacked four-lane ring road across a construction site landscape. Workers were laying water and utility lines on both sides of the highway and planting shrubs on the median. Large areas of former farmland were dotted with signs and surveyors’ stakes announcing future industrial and technology parks. In the sweltering heat of the early afternoon—late June is the start of the monsoon season—workers with scarves tied around their heads clambered between the steel and concrete pillars of half-finished factories and office buildings, hoisted bamboo scaffolding poles into position, mixed cement, and carried bricks, effortlessly balancing them in baskets on their heads. Billboards marked the designation of economic zones, often expressed as acronyms, such as the Gujarat International Finance Tech (GIFT) City, a “smart city” initiative.

Ahmedabad is one of more than 100 urban areas across India designated by the national government to become a “smart city.” It’s a catchy, if vague, slogan. Officially, a smart city is an urban region with top-notch infrastructure, making it attractive to businesses and residents. That means wide roads, commercial and industrial real estate, modern apartments, schools and medical facilities, all wired together with high-speed links. Ahmedabad was one of 20 cities selected in the first round in January 2016 for government funding.

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Knowing the average connection speed of Indian bureaucracy, it may take some time for the money to arrive. The state and city governments were not waiting on Delhi but plowing ahead with infrastructure. Ahmedabad will likely always be a work-in-progress, because there are few geographical limits to expansion although eventually the city planners will run up against the Char Desert, which covers a wide area of the northwest in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In late afternoon, as we drove away from the MICA campus through the borderland between construction sites and cotton fields, we passed camels hauling carts of hay for animal feed. Somehow, it did not seem incongruous to see camels and herders on a modern highway among the yellow Tata trucks and SUVs. The line between the urban and rural in modern India is constantly shifting.

I began to wonder if Ahmedabad was anything more than highways and construction sites. I was happy to discover an older city on a one-hour sortie to have my suitcase repaired. The screws securing the pull-out handle on my suitcase had fallen out. One advantage of working in a developing country is that it’s almost always cheaper to have something fixed than to buy a new one. The hotel gave me the name of a shopping center where luggage was sold. My auto rickshaw driver had a better idea. He pulled up beside other drivers who rooted around under the seats in their vehicles for screws. After 10 minutes, I signaled that I wasn’t prepared to wait and we set off again. The next stop was a hole-in-the-wall hardware shop, but again nothing fit. We set off again through the maze of streets of the old city and eventually reached a roundabout. The luggage repair wallah sat under a canopy on the narrow sidewalk, his sewing machine in the road, piles of used luggage behind him. He inspected the suitcase, dipped into a bag, pulled out two bolts and nuts, screwed the suitcase together and fixed a torn zipper. “How much?” I asked. He shrugged. “Whatever you think is right.” I gave him 150 rupees (about $2.25), got back into the auto rickshaw, thought about it again, and gave him another 100. I fear that his days are numbered. There’s no place in the smart city for people who hang out a shingle at a busy roundabout and fix things. Maybe they’ll give him a cubicle on the ring road and a web site domain. And no one will come.




Soaps and movie palaces

Bollywood—the Mumbai (Bombay)-based film industry—is famous throughout the world, but it’s not India’s only domestic movie producer. Throughout the country, there are regional centers, producing feature-length films, TV dramas and soaps in the country’s major languages. Most Bollywood productions are in Hindi. For Telugu speakers, there’s Tollywood, based at Ramoji Film City near Hyderabad, reportedly the largest film studio complex in the world. Hyderabad’s regional rival is the Bengaluru-based Chandanavana (Sandalwood), producing more than 200 films a year in the Kannada language. The southwest state of Kerala boasts Mollywood, producing in the Malayalam language. Kolkata is home to the Bengali-language film industry.

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The second-largest movie center, in terms of revenue and distribution, is in Chennai (Madras), producing primarily in the Tamil language, but also competing for the market in the other principal South Indian languages--Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. In 2003, while on a round-the-world voyage with the Semester at Sea program, I led a field trip for 30 students to AVM Productions. After two previous ventures, and a couple of box-office flops, pioneer movie producer Avichi Meiyappan launched AVM in 1947, and it soon became one of the country’s leading film studios. Although most famous for its Tamil-language movies (along with a few in Telugu and Hindi), its bread-and-butter productions are TV serials (soaps) and dramas and  commercials.

The tour company evidently hadn’t done much planning, because when we arrived at the studio there was no one to welcome us. The tour agent eventually located the art director, who agreed to take us around but evidently did not relish his new role as tour guide. Instead of addressing the whole group, he insisted on speaking (mostly to me) in hushed tones. I then had to relay what he said to everyone else and ask lots of questions.

We started at a modest sound stage—the interior of an upper middle-class home—where a Telugu-language soap was being shot. A standard set—three living rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen, and a grand staircase for those emotional “I love you, but I must leave you” or “I will never call you my daughter again” scenes. Most soaps run four or five times a week and are on the air for one to two years before they play out all the plot lines, and the characters die or leave. I asked the “guide” about the plot. He shrugged. “It’s about a large family, about love and conflict.” Next door, at a similar-looking sound stage, they were shooting a Tamil-language soap. Again, I asked about the plot. “It’s about a large family, about love and conflict.”  There were two more sound stages, both representing upper middle-class homes, basically the same in layout and design. And, I expect, with the same plot lines.

Southern India is steamy hot for eight or nine months of the year. The studios had no air conditioning, so when the crew switched on the lights and turned off the huge fans, the heat was almost unbearable. This may be one reason why they do only one take on many scenes. We saw the crew shoot a scene for the Tamil-language soap. It consisted of the female lead walking down the staircase to join her family and exchanging sharp words with her husband. The fans went off, the lights went on, the director called “action,” and the single camera on a track tilted down and dollied across to the living room. Lights off, fans on, take complete, tea served. The director told me that he shoots a half-hour serial in a day (including actor and technical rehearsals), takes four hours to edit and airs the program two days later. 

AVM Studios' South Indian Street," ready-made for scenes in any genre. Don't lean on those commercial facades--there's not much behind them!

AVM Studios' South Indian Street," ready-made for scenes in any genre. Don't lean on those commercial facades--there's not much behind them!

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The soaps are not confined to interior sets. There are a couple of South Indian “streets” with storefronts, a market, a bank and a temple. When a family member turns to crime—perhaps toting one of the plastic Kalashnikovs we found on one set—the scenes are shot in the studio’s police station, jail and courtroom. Victims usually end up in the studio hospital. Eagle-eyed viewers may be able to spot that the courtroom in the Tamil soap looks remarkably like the one in the Telugu soap, but there’s not much language crossover so it’s not a problem.

These films are shown not only in India, but in other parts of the world where people have migrated for work—for Tamils, that’s mostly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. At AVM, a palace set for a movie was under construction. Workers were sawing wood strips, nailing them together into frames, and laying sackcloth to be covered with plaster and painted; others were working on the 200-plus ornate columns (thin plywood and plaster) that would adorn the palace. It was going to be a large palace. “How long will it take you to build it?” I asked. “Two days” was the confident reply. Just as the TV soaps operate on a tight budget and production schedule, movies tend to be formulaic, no-frills, low-budget affairs. With a little creative lighting, you can always cover up that large hole in the wall of the palace. In India, movie-going is mass entertainment, and even poor people can sometimes afford a movie ticket. Profit margins are relatively low, so wages and production budgets are modest. If they can build a palace in two days, they’ll probably shoot the movie in two weeks.

Inexplicable India

As a Westerner visiting India for the first time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Of course, you have read guidebooks and watched TV travel shows to prepare for the trip. You know the basic facts—that India is the second most populous country in the world, diverse in topography, ethnicity, language, religion, culture and cuisine. Nevertheless, after you have pushed your way past the hotel and taxi touts at the airport, shooed away the gaggle of barefoot young boys fighting to carry your bags, and settled into the air-conditioned comfort of the official car or the hotel shuttle, India still assails your senses. 

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There’s no travel show that can prepare you for the crush of people, cars, auto-rickshaws, hand carts, bicycles and people on the city streets. Your driver is nonchalant about the traffic snarls. “Much worse in monsoon season,” he says matter-of-factly. Street vendors, hawking snacks, newspapers, cheap toys, sunglasses, pens, pencils, balloons, coconut slices, and mobile phone car chargers, move among the stalled or slow-moving vehicles.

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When I’m stuck in traffic in Delhi or Mumbai, it’s easy to think that the city’s jams are the worst I’ve ever experienced. On reflection I realize that the traffic is just as bad in most other south and southeast Asian cities. The difference is that in India stalled traffic offers a front-seat view of urban poverty. Beggars with long straggly greying hair, sad-eyed children and women with babies bundled on their backs knock on the car windows, holding open their hands. At one intersection, children perform tumbling tricks on the road. “Look away and don’t open the window,” your driver instructs, hitting the automatic door lock.  You feel a little guilty about ignoring suffering, but at the same time you check your billfold or purse to make sure nothing is missing after the jostling at the airport. The guidebook warned you about pickpockets.

Your car passes rows of dilapidated concrete apartment blocks, their courtyards strewn with trash. Along the roadside and the railroad tracks are rough, single-room shanties, bamboo poles framing rusting sheets of metal, cardboard, tarpaulin and plastic; outside, literally on the street, women are cooking on stoves or open fires and bathing children.

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In parks, alleys and under bridges, those who do not have a shanty claim a few feet of grass or dirt for a sleeping space, laying out a blanket and a few possessions. Yet, a few hundred yards further on is a residential compound of smart, high-rent apartments, with an electronic security gate, a guard post and security cameras. Your car passes modern office towers, ornate wedding palaces, brightly colored Hindu temples and plain mosques, and a moving window display of commercial signage, some in comic English. The malls are packed with shoppers; at the food court, they go for traditional north or south Indian fare or sample KFC and Subway, before shopping or heading to the multiplex for the latest Bollywood blockbuster.

You arrive at your hotel, surrounded by high brick walls topped with barbed wire and spikes. At the security checkpoint, one guard opens the trunk to inspect the luggage; another slowly circles the vehicle holding a pole with a mirror, checking the underside for suspicious attachments. At the entrance, one hotel staff member opens the car door and two more carry your bags to the metal detector. The doorman looks as if he just stepped out of the military parade ground or a TV period drama. Six feet tall and well built, with a dark beard, he is resplendent in his yellow turban and tailored white suit with a red sash and ornamental sword. He salutes smartly.

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Standing nearby, two less well tailored security guards armed with semi-automatic rifles and perspiring in their flak jackets acknowledge your arrival, although their salutes are more perfunctory. There’s more saluting and door-opening as you enter the lobby and approach the reception desk, where a waiter offers you a welcome drink of watermelon juice. For an instant, you imagine you’re back in the time of the Raj, that you’re a British colonial officer with a small army of staff at your bidding. Then reality returns. You’re in a modern hotel with air conditioning, wi-fi, and room service. BBC World is on the TV monitor, the sound muted.  The low-level muzak sounds familiar, but somehow out of place.  Then you catch the tune. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …” Surreal.  The dark-suited desk clerk smiles and gives you your key. “Welcome to the Taj, sir. I hope you have a pleasant stay.”

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Statistically, the wealth gap in urban India may be no greater than it is in other countries. To me, the poverty of Delhi or Mumbai seems more apparent, more emotionally draining. The wealth gap in urban India, perhaps more than in any other country I’ve visited, is striking and ever-present, sometimes within the same field of view. In some countries, most poor people are geographically segregated, confined to the outer limits of cities in shanty towns or informal settlements. In urban India, outside the oases of hotels and offices, the poor are with you all the time, often right in your face or following you down the street. Do you hand over that 20 rupee note (about 30 cents) with its image of that champion of the poor, Mahatma Gandhi, to make the woman with her baby go away? How do you know that she’s not part of an organized begging ring?  In India, moral dilemmas await you around almost every corner.

Faced with crowds, poverty, pollution, trash, traffic congestion, and crime, some people find India too much to bear. There’s always a danger of getting sick—from tap water at a budget hotel or restaurant, or from street food. Except in the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s usually hot—in some months, almost unbearably so.  If you’re prepared to take India for what it is—often messy and disorganized, occasionally dangerous and always unpredictable—and put up with unanticipated inconveniences and hardships, you will be well rewarded, and relish its smells, sounds, sights, culture and people.

You may also feel humble, as I do when Indian friends and colleagues start talking about  history, religion and culture. India is an epic of epics, spanning thousands of years—of war and conquest, of the rise and fall of great civilizations, of architecture, literature and art, of migration and settlement, of commerce with Asia, Europe and Africa. I know some of this, but have much more to learn.

Most visitors to India long ago accepted that any generalizations are at best tentative, at worst misleading. There is not one but many Indias. India is not only, as its tourism slogan goes, “incredible.”  It’s inexplicable.