Arriving in Bangalore, I was captivated by the traffic. A road with two lanes each way fills up with four or five rows of traffic in each direction, very close to each other, weaving in and out. The traffic moves and flows, impervious to rules. Everyone jumps on: pedestrians, bicyclists, motorbikes (mostly Japanese rice rockets), scooters, motorized rickshaws with bright yellow tops ("tuk-tuks", a type of three-wheel taxi all over SE Asia), small cars , trucks, tractors, and of course cows. Get a pack of tuk-tuks and a few scooters side by side, and the road momentarily handles 6 or 7 lanes, than flows on to 3 or 4. Left turn into traffic? Just nose out and push through. Traffic accommodates and flows around. People even nose into traffic and go the other way! They seem to be cheered on by the oncoming hordes, treated as momentary folk heroes for their panache. There is no road rage, just a lot of honking. (First night I was here, I noticed the cacophony of honks but couldn't quite make out where it was from, and asked whether someone had started a party nearby; no, just rush hour.) The music of Bangalore.
On the flight over I read about India. Hugely complex and diverse, hard to capture in a book. The best book I read is In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce. A funny one I heard about over here is Holy Cow! The books can give context, but not the insight one gets being on the ground. India is a fascinating place, and a bit odd.
How does it hang together? Very diverse. Wealthy enclaves not too far from villages of abject poverty, with people scrabbling a life from rain to rain, living in mud huts from cow dung (like I saw in Africa - subject of a future post). Even poorer, aboriginal peoples. And the rising middle class. Today when polyglot nations are liberated from erstwhile dictators, such as Yugoslavia (or soon Iraq), they fall apart into ethnic enclaves with bitterness and rivalry. Yet India has held together (other than the partition with Pakistan). India has many different languages, religions, classes, etc., and yet rumbles along as the world's largest democracy. How can this be? What binds it together?
The traffic told me a lot about India. Traffic
reflects the culture. In America, traffic is regulated. Speed
limits. Lights where each way methodically gets a turn. Very much
like gridiron football: line up, set the play, get a turn. In England,
in contrast, they have roundabouts, and traffic continues to flow and
mix at major intersections. Like soccer, it flows. In India, they
have no rules, only accommodation. Sometimes Indian traffic seems interminable. Like cricket, the national pastime.
Cows have traffic down pat. When they want to cross, they just nose out and go. At a steady pace. The smarter dogs learn this too: look right, then left then out into traffic. Always a steady pace. Traffic accommodates, flows around. Almost a sixth sense of drivers, or a third eye (this being India!). Stop, and you get hit; speed up, and you get hit. Or at least honked at. Traffic can flow around predictable behavior.
Cows like to amble out and lie down at intersections. A sense of arrogance, perhaps? No, very practical: the fumes push away the bugs, and in the center of traffic are happy cows, safe momentarily from biting flies. Traffic flows around them. Indians accommodate.
Now I can begin to make sense of how it hangs together. India has one of the oldest continuous cultures of any society. Early on it dealt with differences through the caste system, which I find has subcastes within castes. Its major religion, Hinduism, is quite accommodating of variation, has multiple gods for different purposes (all part of one unity of course), and has absorbed other local religions across the ages. With a modern eye, we decry the castes as relics, and wish for a classless society. Indian democracy accommodates in a different way, with different political figures creating shifting alignments between castes and subcastes for momentary advantage. Like traffic on a slower, larger scale. The mechanisms built up over millennia to manage diversity have created a culture of accommodation. Like the way Indians handle traffic, they can handle diversity.
Travel tidbits. Bangalore is sometimes called the Silicon Valley of India. A bit exaggerated, as India has a number of tech centers; but Bangalore has seemed to become a magnet for the young and ambitious. It is growing very fast, and modernizing. Still, cows, scooters and tuk-tuks mix with Mercedes and modernity.
The old airport is a bit cramped, but a spanking new one is being built, along with a high-speed rail into the central business district, and a ring road 30 km outside, which will become the new Main Street for high-tech. Office parks mix with older neighborhoods today, but the new ring road will rebuild Bangalore to look a lot like Dallas, or the suburbs of DC.
I stayed at a marvelous hotel, the Leela Palace. Beautiful design, like a palace, and five-star all the way. Other respectable hotels dot Bangalore, like the Taj, but why bother? The Leela is newer, better situated, and an oasis for the business traveler.
I did not have much chance to sample the local eateries due to business meetings, but have two recommendations: the Leela has excellent food (Indian, Asian, and the ever-present buffet of Asian business hotels), and the Tandoor Restaurant downtown is to die for. Or perhaps, after eating Butter Chicken which melts in your mouth, to die from. Bangalore is in the heart of Southern India, but the Tandoor brings Northern Indian cuisine of the highest quality.
When getting around the town, give yourself a lot of extra time. Traffic flows, but sometimes very slowly. The boom from high-tech has transformed this sleepy retirement town - it has the best weather in India, very Mediterranean - into a fast-changing, crowded and exciting place.
Mysore Palace. The normal Western visitor to India starts with the Tourist Triangle: Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur (palaces). Bangalore is for business, and does not have the same tourist draw. Yet nearby lies one of the great attractions of India: Mysore Palace. I took a day off and drove on down, leaving early to avoid the traffic. A little over two hours drive, the palace is well worth the visit.
We started early, and zipped across town in a surprisingly short time. For breakfast, we stopped at a roadside favorite called Kamat. We waited for the buffet breakfast to start, and shared breakfast under a thatched roof with a variety for fellow travelers - mostly locals, with a few brave Westerners. It was excellent, and then off we went.
(Note to Western visitors: I only drank bottled water, I only ate cooked foods, and used a disinfectant on my hands, a type that is easy to buy at drug stores. The locals have immunities to indigenous bugs that I certainly did not have. My brother is in the US State Department, and once was posted to Peshawar, Pakistan, near the Kyber Pass. He tried the same regimen but local custom required him to share meals at the homes of prominent locals. I hope he had a strong stomach. Never asked. In Bangalore, it is ok for Westerners to shun the edgier foods and protect themselves.)
On down the four-lane superhighway to Mysore. Well, not so super, but in good shape. We passed through little towns, which had speed bumps or traffic obstacles to slow us down. We passed by ox carts hauling produce (usually sugar cane). We saw what passes for Type A in India: locals driving the opposite way to cut off 5 minutes of time, usually driving on the shoulder. We occasionally got stuck between buses and trucks, honked a lot and skooted free. Our driver was very good at passing really close to neighboring vehicles and getting out of jams. He also was attentive to dogs, cows and people trying to cross the street without looking. In the larger towns, we would see a smattering of tuk-tuks. Seems that having tuk-tuks around is a sign of progress!
Before reaching Mysore, we stopped at the one-time summer palace of the Sultan Tipu. He unfortunately aligned with the French in 1799, and after a dramatic victory over the British, had his fortress stormed and lost his kingdom. The Duke of Wellington summered for a while at one of his former palaces. The capital shifted to Mysore.
Above Mysore is quite an impressive temple. We drove up, took off our shoes, and walked down past many small vendors to the temple. Milling outside were supplicants, penitents, hawkers, and cows. Kids in their school clothes skipped by. Pretty girls all decked out in bright sari's demurely walked to the flower vendors and bought little offerings for the goddess. A very aggressive cow kept walking up to tourists and visitors and nosing them, looking for food. (Those of us with dogs know this behavior!) We stood in line, went in, got blessed, and wandered back out into the bright sunshine on a very pleasant day.
We went for lunch at the Palace Hotel, which used to be a palace, and looks eerily like the US Capital on a smaller scale (and with fewer lobbyists milling about). A lot of former palaces have been turned into higher-end hotels. Inside the dining room was magnificent, and a local duo played Indian music (flute and tom-tom's). Delightful.
We then drove over to the Mysore Palace. Several had been built on this site, and the final one is a magnificent edifice. Built around 1900, it had electricity, electric lights, a very clever ventilation system, and spectacular rooms. The most overwhelming 'room' was the entrance itself. In front of the palace is a large plaza, and the whole front of the palace is open to it. The receiving area was covered with a beautiful painted ceiling, with seating below and on a huge balcony. The maharajah would sit high up in the center, lording over the visitors. I suspect it was designed so as to humble even the British overlords. Behind the balcony is a gaudy multi-columned area that I vaguely recall was used on one of the sets for an Indiana Jones movie.
We left with tons of pictures and fully satisfied. (See companion picture album.) The drive home was a bit more crowded than the trip down, and we unfortunately hit the evening rush hour in Bangalore. I had hoped to visit the nearby village of Dobbs-Pett, where for 200 years the Dobbs family lived. (I have mentioned the surviving grandson, Michael Dobbs-Higginson, in a previous post.) Next time.
Why Bangalore is Special. There are tech centers throughout India, especially at Hyderabad, at Pune near Mumbai (Bombay), outside Delhi, in the manufacturing center of Chennai (Madras), and outside Kolkata (Calcutta). In many of these centers, the people who work there grew up nearby. They have their family and support groups to fall back on. India also is more like Europe than China: rather than one culture and predominate language, each State is usually a different language, culture and history. You come home after schooling and seek your fortune. You fall back into the culture, and your family arranges your marriage. Your have stepped beyond the government job, the prior path to prosperity, and enjoy the fruits of your labor, but your life is still cultural continuous with your past.
In Bangalore more than the other centers (although I expect this to change across India), the young and ambitious flock to find their destiny. They leave their cultural and familial roots and come to a place where English is the lingua franca. They work in Western company buildings, in cube farms, with admonitions to avoid politically incorrect behavior such as sexual harassment - Dell in Bangalore is decked out like Dell in Austin, Texas. They get inculcated with a new culture. They no longer have their family to arrange their marriage, and mix with people of their age and background.
In short, Bangalore is the tip of the spear to uproot the Indian culture. Whether this is good or bad, time will tell. The workers in Bangalore work as hard as they do in Austin or San Jose. They are tied into the global web of information, and make trips to the US as part of their career development. In a generation they will provide India a foundation unlike that in China, Brazil, Russia or other emerging economies. Their potential is huge.
Why India is Special. I won't begin to try to understand India, beyond simple observations. But comparing India to China is quite illuminating.
The miracle rise of India is all the more striking given how they are going about it. China liberalized about ten years before India, and with that head start has looked like the winner. Chinese command and control can break down barriers and put up highways, buildings, even whole cities, in a remarkably short time. People can be moved from here to there to staff up a new technical area. Marvelous in its efficiency, albeit stressful on individual lives & liberty. Focus on manufacturing has allowed employment of semi-skilled labor who come in droves off the farms. We can see how the miracle is happening.
In contrast, how can India pull off a similar growth rate? It is nigh on impossible to build anything quickly, if at all. Roads are shambles, airports crowded, water and power inconsistent. Democracy means endless debate and shifting alliances. The ever-present civil service is rife with bribery and favors.
In a less obvious and much less mechanistic way, India pulls off a similar miracle. Where China does low-cost manufacturing, India does specialty goods. Where China employs legions of unskilled labor, India uses capital and engineers to create enterprises more like one would find in the developed world. For all the outcry over outsourcing, barely 1 million are employed in software and service firms. Yet the miracle works here too, and the Indians find a way to accommodate with all the strictures and complexities of democracy.
In the two countries we see playing out before our eyes the same transformation that occurred during the first wave of the Industrial Revolution. At that time the primary economic system in Europe was mercantilism: the promotion of export to gain foreign reserves (in those days, gold). The Europeans spent considerable energy to secure sources of commodities to feed their mills, much as China is doing today. Yet the economic power that emerged was not a mercantilist country, but England, and a Scot set forth the deeper miracle of English Capitalism. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations explained how the mercantilist approach was actually limiting the potential of the European powers. Mercantilism was mechanical, and could be understood. Yet the real source of wealth was not from exports, but from innovation and productivity. A nation could get wealthy selling to itself. What was as difficult for policy makers then as today is to appreciate the miracle of Adam Smith's invisible hand at work. I would encourage would be economic engineers to read the book, and visit India. The invisible hand is there.
If I had to bet on the two countries, I would expect China to challenge Japan for building things, but India to challenge the US for inventing things. I find India more interesting and compelling.