Five years ago, I traveled to India regularly. The engineering teams I worked with were based in Bangalore & Hyderabad, and I flew SFO -> FRA -> HYD, or SFO -> DXB -> BLR, or SFO -> YVR -> BLR. I memorized airport codes and where to get juice & coffee behind security. I grew to expect 2am arrivals at a busy airport, slowly weaving through customs, the way the roads outside the city center fly past in the middle of the night with pockets of light gleaming out from food stands on the side of the road, stray dogs lounging in the half-dark, Bollywood songs on the radio and the smell of burning rubber, trash, and incense drifting in through open windows because I just couldn’t take one more moment of closed-in air.
I hated the jetlag but travel meant I could work with my closest colleagues in person, rather than on the other end of a videoconference screen at the worst possible time of day for all of us (depending on daylight savings, India is either twelve and a half or thirteen and a half hours different from California; either way, it is the toughest possible timezone to coordinate with from California). I hated the food poisoning but I loved the street vendor snacks behind the business school, and the mix of sweet / savory that comes from chutney and raita, and breakfast and drinks at the hotel, with the humid air smelling again of flowers and burning trash and incense.
There is nothing like seeing a city with someone who lives there, and my colleagues showed me the things they loved about the places they lived: the light show and Charminar and a mosque and temples and historical forts and the pearl market, where someone’s uncle helped me choose a necklace and earrings I still have; restaurants with lazy fans swinging above; gardens with trees I’ve never seen anywhere else; painted elephants and donkeys blocking traffic. On weekends I went sight-seeing: the Taj Mahal on my first trip, a zoo with giraffes whose heads swung lazily above the fence and telephone lines; Kerala, where I stayed in a hotel with a long lazy-river style swimming pool winding between the hotel rooms and the restaurant. I never made it to the hill stations or Darjeeling, but I expected to.
Then I changed teams, and I no longer worked directly with India.
So it’s been five years.
Two weeks ago, I went to Delhi, part of a larger group. “Is this your first time in India?” the group leaders asked us, and I felt almost guilty saying no: they so wanted it to be exciting, and isn’t the first time anywhere always more exciting? I went to the doctor and checked my immunizations, got a refresher on typhoid, was glad to learn I was up to date on tetanus, because regardless of India, I frequently get scratched by hedges and stray bits of fence as I work in my garden; picked up antibiotics at the pharmacy because I’ve got a 5:7 ratio on getting food poisoning.
I had heard that Delhi was different, and on the one hand, I thought it must be; and on the other, I thought, It’s still India, and although difference might be obvious to someone from there, who saw nuance I couldn’t, I wasn’t convinced it would seem all that different to me.
Delhi: a walking tour through old town, with the smell of the spice market and trash mingling in the heat; chai from a chai-wallah, snacks from a storefront proudly claiming its founding in 1952; the Red Fort, which I saw only from outside; flying a kite off the top of a building made of crumbling concrete, with teenage boys doing laundry in buckets on the roof; another rooftop covered in drying flowers, saffron-yellow and bright fuschia, to take to the temple as offerings to the gods; looking down into a room with no roof, with shadowed figures making rotis by hand and then carrying them up a ladder onto yet another roof to dry. Stepping onto the metro, brand-new and shiny, quieter and faster than any public transit system I’ve seen in the US – not that that’s much of a standard – and air-conditioned. It moved so smoothly that although it was so crowded, I couldn’t reach a bar or ceiling handle to hang onto, I had no trouble staying upright when it stopped and started at stations. Talking with a woman on the team in Delhi, who’d started at the company two months back, about what it’s like to live in Delhi, and what it’s like to live in California. We met with people in their homes, saw the neighborhoods they live in, dodged potholes and dogs and piles of refuse, accepted chips and Coke and hospitality. I did not get food poisoning. I didn’t even really get jetlag (although I am looking for wood to knock on as I write this).
And now I’m back.
So was it different? In some ways, yes – it’s been five years, and from a tech company perspective, many things have changed. You don’t call your driver and leave a missed call to tell him you’re ready for him to pick you up; you just text. You don’t give someone visiting you elaborate directions; they just call when they’re close, and you talk them in. On-app shopping, delivery, calling for a car – all are now common. At a mass level, India essentially skipped the laptop stage and went straight to smartphones. From a broader-than-tech-company-perspective, things have changed too. The metro is incredible; the last time I was in Bangalore, theirs was still until construction. The middle class in India is visibly growing, and becoming more middle. A whole host of changes, really fundamental shifts, go along with that.
But then again, in some ways no. The poverty is staggering. Walk down the street and try to count the number of people who at least to Western eyes appear to be malnourished: there are so many that you won’t be able to. The infrastructure, metro aside, simply isn’t present in the way it should be for a city this size. Basic systems for water and hygiene aren’t present, or can’t keep up, or both. There’s a major marketing & infrastructure campaign going on about restrooms in India right now, and while that’s a step towards having decent restrooms, the need for such a campaign highlights what isn’t present yet. The growing middle class, at least the people I talked to who I think would fall into that group, feels precarious. They’re hanging on more tightly and working harder and more hours than I would imagine for a middle class almost anywhere else. I suspect it’s very very easy to glance over your shoulder and see how easy it would be to fall out of this group, down to the next.
So would I go back?
During my last trip for my previous team, five or so years ago in Bangalore or Hyderabad, I didn’t know that it was my last trip. I didn’t anticipate changing teams, and I thought India was part of my rhythm. Two or three years later, after I changed roles and my work shifted, I realized I might not have a reason to return to India again. I didn’t see this most recent trip coming, until it did.
Hard to say. Who knows?