(Re) Discovery of India

Ajay Goel
11 min readFeb 18, 2023

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

After four decades outside India, as we wade back into the country of our birth, I doff my hat at Heraclitus’ wisdom. The India that we had flown out from was a lot different, and we too have returned thicker at the waist, and a thinning hairline.

The India of the 1980s, when we left, was of Lambrettas and Maruti 800, coveted landline phones, costly long-distance calls, and RAC bookings in railways. Smaller cities had less than half a dozen restaurants, one in four middle-income households boasted of color TV, and the most expensive real estate in Mumbai was Rs 2K a square foot. Today’s India is of gleaming SUVs, fancy mobiles, and crowded airports; Tier II cities boast microbreweries, and the most upscale land in Mumbai is 50X costlier.

India of yore was a lament of Sahir, the genius of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and the naivety of an Amol Palekar; the India of today has the swag of a Gully Boy and identity crisis of a man-child Ranveer Kapoor (Wake up Sid, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil).

The irreplaceable musical trio of Kishor, Lata, and Rafi are long gone, and a threesome of Khans has replaced the Bollywood triumvirate of Dharmendra, AB, and Vinod K. Doordarshan offerings of ‘Buniyaad’ and ‘Hum Log’ are supplanted with thousands on countless streaming platforms.

The seed of self-belief in cricket that Kapil Pa ji sowed in 1983 is now a giant tree, fed through fresh talent from IPL. Rewards for a sportsman are exponential; at our times, a mere Railway, or SBI LDC job was the best a national athlete expected.

… So in short, I, a worse-for-wear Rip-Van-Winkle, am waking up to an India that’s hipper, richer, and more sophisticated.

I gaze at my motherland with an outsider’s eyes — a free agent… an oddball, not beholden to anyone, enjoying a temporary privilege. Sort of beachcomber collecting history, landscape, chance conversations with strangers, the food at that hole-in-the-wall, the generosity of friends new & old, plus a chunk of Indian politics. One fears with the passage of time unless captured and written up, many of these hues, contradictions, and surprises shall cease to be exceptional, and the novelty will wear off.

Thus, I record these ephemeral impressions — in the first person singular.

I am now aware of how complex India is. States here are bigger than most European countries, the population here is four times that of the USA. It’s THE most populous country on the planet and every 6th human walking on Earth is an Indian.

India’s aggregate GDP is 5th largest in the world, yet on a per capita basis, it is a low sub-Sahara 142nd. The cost of living is much cheaper than in the western first world — an annual income of INR 65 lacs ($80K) takes you to the top 1 percenters. Yet about 1/4th of the population lives below subsistence levels and, like most Asian cities, palaces, and hovels, exist side by side. A rich man’s lunch could cost more than his server’s monthly wage.

Clichés hold true — History is one of the oldest and cultural monikers of castes, cuisine, languages, and so forth, are bewildering. Anything you say about India, the opposite is equally true. There are 12 exceptions to every rule, and the 18th and the 21st centuries can coexist, often under the same roof.

Conflicts and anomalies, from tragic to ironic to downright comic, exasperate and amuse. A prosperous memsahib haggling with a fruit vendor for 10 rupees… a physics professor sporting rings on all fingers…men carefully fixing smartphones with protector sheets and then riding away on mobike without a helmet. Parents arguing endlessly about the supremacy of Hindu Rashtra and then striving to settle their children abroad, through education or marriage…

Here, one finds homes immaculately clean, yet streets can be staggeringly dirty. The government’s ‘Swatcha Bharat’ photo ops are a forgotten promise, and civic sense remains abysmal. At the traffic red lights, everybody seems in terrible haste to break free, yet they don’t turn up on time for an appointment — That flexibility of “Indian Standard Time” still holds true. Really, traffic in larger cities during office hours is a pain.

Twenty-first and eighteenth centuries coexist side by side — Here, in some places, the Earth rotates around the sun, and in others, it still rests on the back of a giant tortoise. Most people struggle to name their great-grandparents, yet there are families that trace their cosmic lineage to the Sun and the Moon. Here scientists can put satellites into the moon’s orbit, yet girls are married off to a tree. Glorious history coexists with indiscriminate modernity: it’s not unusual to find a 200-year-old Heritage building used as a public hospital, police station, or civil court — walls covered with paan spits, posters, and graffiti. They juxtapose tradition and modernity without prejudice, and often in an endearing manner.

Like Russian Dolls, one witnesses endless layers of complexity, and I think it is better not to apply a binary filter to understand India — rather look at it as a spectrum… a continuum. Things are rarely pure black or white, but myriad shades of grey.

Now on to mundane, day-to-day living

Most of the day-to-day living is quite smooth. We pay all utility bills online. Cook /maid /laundry “bhaiyya” takes care of almost 90% of grunt work, and at reasonable price points (when compared to manual help in the west). We also have proximity to a stronger family support structure. Groceries and most other things are available via Amazon/Swiggy/ Zomato/ FresheZone. Ola/Uber are easy enough, though morning wait times can get long depending on your location. The only time I need to go anywhere for anything is when I actually want to go somewhere, e.g. a restaurant or coffee shop, or a movie hall. My car has not clocked 1500 km after four months. Old memories of standing in queue for utility bill payments, buying rail/air tickets, and visiting banks for the smallest of transactions are history.

I have often ventured out in the market without a wallet since UPI is everywhere. You can pay for a chai on a street corner through a PayTM or a dozen other options. Direct Bank transfers are secure and smooth. India's FinTech is way, way ahead of the US/EU.

We have been traveling by road, rails, and air, and in each case, the infrastructure has improved dramatically. Trains and flights come mostly on time (I recall as a kid there were trains that ran a full day late sometimes!). Most toll roads are now FAST-tagged… people now get their passports renewed in days, not months, and so many more examples.

What are the petty niggles? Frankly, not a lot if you know what to expect. For example, if you are looking for perfectly walkable sidewalks all over the city, wheelchair access in every building, or dedicated cycling lanes, they don’t exist -These are not wrong things to ask for, but it’s just not the priority for the country. If one lives in a gated community, chances are that lifts, gym access, etc. will sort these problems out.

Unless you are into fancy imported stuff or 5-star luxuries, most daily expenses are way cheaper. Ubers cost around 5–8$ for a 30–60min ride. A decent Indian meal on Swiggy is around 3–5$ (free delivery). Groceries, books, and furniture cost a fraction of what we paid back in Dubai days. The same applies to travel and entertainment.

Cellular connectivity and speeds are awesome and pricing is one of the cheapest in the world. We use AIRTEL for calls with unlimited data for about $8/ month. And TataSky for Home Wifi with 200 Mbps (down), 75 Mbps (up) for $ 18/month. The addagiri at village square has long moved online. WhatsApp is the new opiate for the masses, haha.

Moving on to Other Observations -

Pollution is a real issue in cities. And there is little done (or can be done) about it. Government is busy chasing a $5 trillion dream, and not just in India, the debate on climate change remains an elaborate posturing charade. The urban supply of tap water is not potable and the sight of a blue sky with fluffy clouds is limited to a few monsoon weeks. Words like AQI and PM2.5 have entered my vocabulary.

Caste & Faith — Religion is important in India. The caste, faith, and privilege (or lack thereof) are so ingrained in daily life that one takes it for granted. In smaller towns and villages, this is the strongest marker of identity, and electoral politics are now firmly structured around these fault lines. Resident Welfare Associations, even in cosmopolitan cities, may screen incoming tenants based on caste and faith. Here, a prodigal son may graduate from Ivy League and then let his parents decide on his life partner, based on caste (and the size of the dowry). But one notices that this fissure in society can show up in more sinister ways… and such contradictions baffle. Mumbai can hold a rainbow rally for LGBT, yet the wrong caste or faith may get you killed in Murshidabad. Here, women are elevated to the status of a goddess, yet rape-accused convicts are felicitated publicly based on their faith. The land of Kama sutra & Khujraho is also the fiefdom of the moral police (Romeo Squads). What a medieval Saudi Arabia is rejecting, India is gleefully importing.

Journalism and Media — The print news media is robust, diverse, and noisy- and they report two very different Indias. Typical English broadsheets are Delhi based. They take newsfeeds from ANI or PTI and present a sanitized middle-of-the-road editorial; their circulation is limited to the urban upper middle class. The vernacular press has a far larger readership and deeper penetration in towns and villages. Its language is shrill, weaponized, and high on violent news — rapes, briberies, murder, and accidents make most headlines. India, reported through the English press, is often very different from its vernacular cousins.

TV News is a shit show, organized chaos of shouting matches, and the decibel levels can cause anxiety attacks. They are modern end-of-day entertainment for the harried office worker, much as bloody gladiator sports were in Roman days. Many TV anchors look and behave like failed stand-up comedians.

Education — India is highly competitive educationally and kids are working harder than I did growing up. Getting into a good school takes several “tests”. Getting into college — esp. the great ones — is hard, though nowadays kids are getting into many things beyond the usual engineering /medical/CA sorts of stuff. From the old times of CBSC or State Boards, a lot more options for IGCSC/ IB have sprouted in private (i.e. expensive) schools. A vast number of alternative careers in art, design, and freelancing have cropped up. Entrepreneurship is thriving and startup stories are emerging from even cities like Jaipur, Kochi, and Chandigarh and, of course, the usual BLR, MUM, DEL, HYD, and MAA.

On the downside, the public education system (availed by the vast majority) remains underfunded and outdated. Kids routinely score 98% +, but genuine breakthroughs in Arts or Sciences are far and few. Educational reforms show a long time to show results and government funding and attitude are sadly ambivalent.

Health facilities are top-notch in the private sector — and decent insurance covers are available at affordable rates.

Politics: Before we start on this, I should clarify my position. I consider myself a little left-of-center learning and believe in individual choices in religion, love, and life. I am also skeptical and critical of governments, irrespective of their color or ideology. I have no problem with high taxation provided the money ostensibly flows to education, healthcare, and infrastructure, vs. erecting statues and supporting outdated VIP culture. And I think GST at 18% is an unimaginative, porous, and poorly implemented tax collection scheme — a broad-day robbery.

Politically, I find India at an interesting crossroads. NYT once called Indian democracy ‘deliciously messy’, and it remains so, celebrated every five years. The voters seek accountability from their elected ‘rulers’, only at elections — the rest of the time they are too busy putting food on the table. Between the two elections, they silently suffer through mismanagement, corruption, indignities, and broken promises.

The other thing that I find funny is how nefariously, the khadi-clad politicians and pot-bellied bureaucrats have become the Nawabs of modern times. Their insistence on power symbols is almost comic, if not obscene — Lal Batti car, Z level security, a peon to carry lunch box/files, another to open the door of the car, the size of their office, the white towel at the back of their chair, no toll tax on highways… and so on. Some voters treat these political leaders as the latest incarnation of Vishnu, while others call them megalomaniacs on steroids- you can take your pick.

After centuries of subjugation, I think the country has an under-performer complex as it struggles to define its place in the big, bad world. There is a self-image issue politicians exploit with great finesse. Despite its size, India’s global contributions to the fields of science, arts, and technology have been negligible. Faced with this less-than-stellar scorecard, the politician tries to sell the public a delusion of grandeur, real and imagined. It loves to remind the world of glorious Vishvaguru heritage, the Aryabhatta, the Charaks, and the Panini, ignoring that for the last millennium, we have had little to offer. This self-congratulatory narrative conveniently sidesteps a comparison with other Asian neighbors that have leapfrogged ahead on economic, technology, and military fronts in the last 7 decades of independence.

Yet, it’s good to see today’s India sporting first-world ambitions, though it may lack the required resources. This pool of humanity has the will, the perseverance, and even the spunk to get there — it just waits for good policy and governance. Whenever that happens, it redeems its potential.

Last word

I guess this post conveys the variety of colors and contradictions that is India. Much of it is new and exciting to us.

Despite a few inconveniences and many political short sells, the most fascinating revelation of India is its people. First impressions are often misleading and stereotyping is often at one’s own risk. Here, a temple attendant could be a yoga teacher in Germany in his previous life, or a petty shop owner’s son may be a product manager at Microsoft. Came across a world-class wildlife photographer, petite, 36 — she was a bored corporate lawyer until a few years back. We are meeting people, well in their retirement years, running NGO, or a cultural foundation, or writing books and memoirs.

Dazzling pieces of literature, music, and poetry abound. Towns- big and small spring surprises with stunning medieval architecture and soulful stories, when one pauses to listen. The vibe and the weather change every few months — and along with it, the fruits, festivals, and songbirds. Pan India (and SE Asia) travels we look forward to.

The warp and weft of family and friends are richer. Despite setbacks and reversals, instances of empathy, compassion, and humanity abound. Strangers become friends and open up their homes, hearts, contacts, and resources, without even asking.

It is well-nigh impossible to peel back all the layers of complexity, and ultimately our worldview is formed by the variety of experiences we have, and the select people we spend time with. But in this land of contradictions, options are plentiful — the second-rate, and sublime exist at every corner.

The choice is always ours — to embrace or reject, to celebrate or bemoan.

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Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.