As of now, we have been in India for three full days and I am starting to think that its tourism board’s “Incredible India!” branding is an accurate descriptor for what we are experiencing. There is a saying by G.K. Chesterton that, “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.” And after the first day and a half of self-contained bus tours, I am finally feeling like a traveler. We are getting out and interacting with Mumbai’s people and landmarks in a way that is beginning to feel a bit more organic.
For instance, one group of CBSers was able to return to Haji Ali Dargah – a mosque and tomb situated in Worli Bay – after having viewed it from the bus window on our first morning. Their account was that the walk out to the mosque was the most awe-inspiring part because they were surrounded by a mass of people from a religious cross-section, all pressing against each other to reach the seemingly floating holy place before high tide signaled its close for the day. Truly, built-in free time is allowing all 42 of us on this trip to make the experience our own – an aspect I do appreciate. On the other hand, our tour guides have been phenomenal at succinctly explaining cultural nuisances that comprise the context of what we are seeing.
On my next post I will begin to cover our business meetings. For now though, I will just reflect on the cultural observations that we have made so far.
On our first day in Mumbai we took a whirlwind tour of the city itself, stopping briefly at its Hanging Gardens to look out over the city’s skyline by the Arabian Sea. Because it is still the holiday season, the park was full of parents with children at play. As we passed, many people stopped to stare at us and street vendors clamored to attract attention to their wares. Foreigners definitely stand out here at first glance because of race, and this fact has made me realize a distinct difference this major city has as compared to the global salad bowl that is New York City. Nevertheless, there is plenty of diversity in religion, ethnicity, and language – all on display in every facet of life. The Tower of Silence, we were told, is a place where Parsees lay the deceased to be eaten by vultures because they do not believe it is right to bury or cremate their loved ones.
Of course, deviations from what I consider usual are not all as extreme. On a shopping trip to the Palladium Mall – an opulent designer- branded symbol of India’s meteoric growth in wealth over the past two decades – some of us grabbed a bite to eat at McDonald’s. The first things I noticed were signs for seperate “veg” and “non-veg” kitchens and a menu devoid of beef and pork. The two prominent religions here are Hinduism and Islam, so most customers are vegaterians or only eat chicken and/or fish. Because of these options though, I tried a tasty spicy chicken sandwich, complete with paneer cheese and a side of french fries sprinkled with piri piri powder. As a former marketer, I have been intrigued to see how foreign brands translate their products and messaging to suit consumer tastes and behavior here.
On the topic of consumerism though, I think I can state for the group that it has been difficult for us to identify what “creature comforts” signify a middle class status. According to the United Nations, India’s Gini Index was 36.8 from 2000 – 2011, meaning that the economic spread between the upper and lower classes is one of the widest in the world. For comparison, the United States’ spread was 40.8 during the same time period (one of the highest) and Sweden’s was 25.0 (the lowest). So, on our trip thus far we have seen extreme displays of wealth (ex. Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor, $1 billion dollar Antilla) and extreme realities of poverty (ex. The Dharavi Slum – a robust city within a city that houses about 1 million people in 1 square mile. I will not post about them here, because I think CBSers who have recently visited on other Chazen trips have done a sufficient job of writing about this jarring experience here and here). Though, I will note that our tour guide informed us that not only poor people live in slums. Because real estate prices in Mumbai rival those of New York and London, middle class and wealthy individuals choose to live there too for convenience to the city. Additionally, some slums – including Dharavi – are legal, so the government provides municipal services. Plus, because both native and foreign people often have a certain low economic expectation of slum dwellers, Indians with more money can evade or underreport taxes there without a lot of suspicion.
All of this stated it is easy to see that wealth here does not buy complete isolation from the effects of living in a still developing nation. Lack of strong environmental regulations is the cause of a thick blanket of smog that floats over the city at various times of the day – sometimes blocking out the sun. This fact also contributes to the reason even some of the nicest residential buildings look a hundred years old from the outside – covered in soot and peeling paint caused by the harsh toxins in the air. Crowded roadways, unreliable power grids, and a polluted water system in some places all contribute to India’s infrastructure problem.
Still, I feel confident in stating that our trip so far has not been overwhelmed by feelings of hopeless frustration with conditions here. If any feeling has dominated for me it has been a sense of unbridled excitement that this country, which fought free of colonialism less than 75 years ago, is innovating so quickly to become one of the world’s largest economies. Business leaders that we have spoken with are intelligent, poised, and on a nation-building mission. And as an MBA student, it’s energizing to see how firms are making the “triple bottom line” a priority in a country where it is most critically a necessity.
~DeShaun Maria Harris, ’14 (Follow my travels: twitter.com/aspiringmaven)