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Independent India at 60 : Incredible India

August 2007
Independent India at 60 : Incredible India

As a homegrown American of mixed European descent, I had traveled quite a bit, but never to Asia. So when the opportunity arose to go to India as a member of a Leadership Atlanta group, I jumped on board. On this two-week trip we visited cultural sites and met with business, government, and civic leaders. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by this experience. The chaos theory seems alive and well in India. My impressions are as intertwined as the intricate patterns in every aspect of life in this amazing country. Therefore, I offer the following prose-poem as a fractured but kaleidoscopic view of "Incredible India."

The zero was invented here. Civilization, too.

Enter IT—one of the nation's leading industries, based on ones and zeros. We visited the call center at InfoVision. Marigold garlands for all visitors. Giant office complexes to house more call centers. And adjoining residence towers sprouting in the suburbs, spreading into the villages.

Expansive maharajah palaces and walled towns. Over 600 heritage monuments ripe for an emerging tourist trade.

Elephanta caves. Hindu temples to Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer—and Laxmi, Goddess of wealth. Jain temples to remind us to do no harm to any living creature. Walk softly.

Mosques that allow no human or animal faces but run rampant with flower and plant decoration. Modern Akshardham, one of the world's biggest Hindu structures dedicated to world peace. And the crowning event, the Taj Mahal, ethereal, wondrous, a majestic monument to everlasting love and family tragedy.

Mani Bhavan, the home where Mahatma Gandhi spent 17 years of his life working for freedom. Simple. A lawyer, he spun thread. He liberated his ancient country without war. Kiran Bedi follows in his footsteps: The first woman police officer in India; Asian tennis champ at the same time Billie Jean King was reigning on US courts; foundation founder to empower women, improve education for children, fight crime and addiction; lawyer, Ph.D. too, whose purpose is to serve. She welcomed us in her home in running shoes and sweats.

Street life is like an anthill. Everyone going everywhere. Cars, buses, trucks (TATA Goods Carriers), jeeps (Indian Mahindras), men women children, bicycles, cows, rickshaws, motorscooters, 3-wheel open taxis, few stoplights, all merging and schooling like fish to their destinations. In the villages, add in random water buffalo, goats, elephants, and camel carts. No traffic accidents. Not one. "Horn Please" the sign says on the back of the truck. Lots of tooting, works like sonar. Go with the flow.

Shop doors go up and commerce spills onto the sidewalks. Vendors cooking in the open, people squatting, eating in clusters, barbers shaving customers, women carrying pots, firewood on their heads, sweeping garbage from one pile to another, repairing trucks, selling fresh produce from carts, begging, blacksmithing, resting on webbed cots. Life alfresco.

Dabbawalas in Mumbai. A home cooked lunch delivery service from individual homes to office workers, every day millions of transactions, all by bicycle. An enviable 99.9 percent success rating by Forbes. In business over 100 years.

ICICI Bank does 40 percent of microfinancing in India. Mostly to women's collectives in villages. Default rate negligible. Volume counts. Highly profitable. Boosts rural economy.

Atlanta based Coke returns to India to go head to head with Pepsi. Former hiatus because of refusal to release formula to previous administration. New head comes from Coke China, new products on line after mango drink Maaza and Limca, Coke's lime soda version.

Saris of many colors, bright, filmy. Tangerine, vermillion, yellow, aqua, peach, white, gold, indigo, violet, saffron. Even the poorest of the poor in living color. Dogs, cows, animals in the mix. So many, many people. Some wrapped like mummies, sleeping on the sidewalks at night. So still you think they are dead.

The middle class is rising with the modern world. Globalization. Communication technology is the main street. UPS in India for only 2.5 years, playing catch up with Fedex and DHL.

Question. Will all this lead to more disparity and displacement or to more integration and equality? Which will win out? Extreme capitalism or compassionate capitalism?

Many businesses are owned by foundations, NGO's, non-profits, like India's largest conglomerate TATA, whose steel company is the 5th largest in the world after a recent buyout of Anglo-Dutch Corus..

Like Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre, where the cost of the world's most advanced heart care is 10 percent of US care. Where beating heart surgery is practiced (not in US) and medical tourism is available for expats and citizens from other countries. Where the staff administers to the poor in villages throughout India and surrounding countries. Take and give. Give and take.

Smells, sights, spice. Cobras, papayas, Punjabi chicken, yogurt, shawls, oranges, gold bangles, curled fingers asking for rupees, interstates under construction, whipped spinach, fields of wheat and mustard, mint sauce, brick-making stacks and ovens, Kashmiri cuisine, water-carriers, bananas, laughing club, dirty streets, pepper sauce, Amber Fort hall of mirrors, magnificent Mughal structures, elephant and camel rides, kebabs, mango pickles, curries.

Republic Day, January 26, 2007. Vladimir Putin the guest of honor. A crush at the gate. Parade of armaments, helicopters dropping rose petals over the crowd, regiments in full regalia, brilliant traditional headgear, perfect formation, bands, elephant and camel brigades, all regal and adorned with gold and beads and patterned trappings.

India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947 and was declared a republic in 1950. Fifty-seven years later, India has the third largest army in the world and the statue of Gandhi remains the central figure in the land and the icon of world peace.

One impression is clear. Almost visceral. India is on a trajectory to a new future and place in the world. When a young American filmmaker and director comes to Bollywood to produce a film, you know the power base is shifting once again in history.

The great subcontinent of India is moving into a world class player.

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