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Revealed: The Great Indian Melting Pot

15 June, 2011

Here is a puzzler for all of you: In India, what are the two places that bring together the entire strata of society from the poorest of the poor to the wealthiest? Although it may sound like a 'jeopardy' game answer, here we go: It can be a railway station or a place of worship.

The Railway Station

Last year, I had the chance to pack in both in a span of roughly 24 hours. I always enjoy my trips to Delhi/Roorkie for Attero's Board meetings. Attero is an investee company of DFJ's in the electronic waste recycling space. Even though the corporate HQ for the company is in Noida, the recycling plant is in Roorkie. The most efficient and safest (as I have found out first hand) to travel between Delhi and Roorkie is by train and that, too, a 6:30 am Shatabdi Express. The entire experience is an adventure. Given that the founders/promoters live in Noida, the Ghaziabad train station is more convenient than the New Delhi Railway station, and although I have not been to the latter in over two decades, my guess is that it's a slight step-up from Ghaziabad.

Train stations in India, like many cities and towns, never sleep. Ghaziabad is no exception. There are mandirs (temples) and masjids surrounding the station and from early morning till late at night, the sights, sounds and smells from the various institutions fill the air around the train station. Of course, this time, it happened to be in the thick of monsoon season with puddles of collected water, armies of mosquitoes and variety of people in some form of ill health, alongside the well-dressed 1st class AC types, all gathered in and around the train platforms. The day before, Delhi had seen more rainfall in three hours than the Silicon Valley sees in a year, with traffic snarled and the entire Jolly family confined to a hotel room for most of the day. But, back to Ghaziabad.

The night before, while sitting in the hotel room with three kids and my wife, I decided to turn on the TV to check on some news. By the way, I am becoming more and more convinced that watching TV can be extremely hazardous, since there is hardly anything uplifting. To give you an example, in the course of 10 minutes, the entire family was painfully pummelled by everything that is wrong with India. There were four stories highlighted severe water shortage in areas of Bihar and UP (while Delhi was being drenched); urea being mixed with milk to enhance the texture and longevity and also in ghee to make sweets which were then packaged in boxes with reputable brands on them; civil war in Kashmir valley and the Commonwealth Games fiasco, courtesy Kalamadi and his shenanigans (now enhanced by many other like-minded public servants).

After that 10-minute barrage of bad news, I was clear on two fronts. One, the jolly kids were in complete shock (and as a result, not so jolly). The only positive to come out of the situation was that our middle child, who loves anything sweet, decided that she would not have any more sweets in India. Secondly, there is a dire need for MeTV or Smile TV, a feel-good channel that only highlights what's good in this world and brings about tears of joy, rather than agony, pity, hatred or apathy.

All you Mumbai readers, if you do launch a MeTV/Smile, just remember to ensure some due credit to yours truly. Now, back to the story at handâ

Ghaziabad train station definitely tests all your senses of smell, sound, sight and if you are brave, taste. What was interesting this time around was the fact that the new investor in Attero was along for the train ride to Roorkie. As we made our way from the muddy parking lot (thanks to all the rain), through the dozens of folks who were sleeping on the floor and up the stairs to the platform, we all (especially Sameet, the new investor) were trying not to step on some bodily fluid or solid. Additionally, I made the point of mentioning to Sameet that dengue-carrying mosquitoes are usually found in the morning (which is something I had also learnt the night before).

With that as guidance, Sameet was in full swingâ literally, as he swatted at anything that moved around him (mosquitoes, flies, little kids etc.). But we were all brave, opting not to go to the parallel platform by using the pedestrian bridge (which was longer), but rather choosing to do what the locals do, which is to simply climb down from the platform and then crossing over the train tracks and climbing up on the other platform. In a strange way, we all knew that we had done the wrong thing, but simultaneously, we were proud of the fact that we didn't do the typical NRI thing, but rather something more common place. India has changed me.

I actually enjoy the train ride a lot. I enjoy the scenery, the comfort and the food (yes, much to my wife's dismay, I actually look forward to the omelette and corn flakes with hot milk on the morning ride). Speaking of milk, I also happened to mention to Sameet the story about urea and milk. As a result, he opted for the corn flakes, but dry, without any milk. It was clear that he wasn't going to have any dairy for the rest of his stay in India. I refrained from scaring Sameet any further, since that would have made him flee the country overnight.

The train ride itself was uneventful, until you get to Roorkie station which, again, is a sensory overload. The car ride from the train station to Attero's plant is very similar to a Disneyland roller-coaster, without the price tag. I was ready for a neck massage once the 15-minute drive was over. Once we got to the plant, the plant manager greeted me with a hug and mentioned, "Mohanjit, I just met someone who looks exactly like you." I will abruptly switch topics and come back to that quote in a bit.

After the Board meeting, we piled up in two cars to get to the station just in time to catch the train back to Ghaziabad. To make Sameet's trip memorable, the car's brakes failed on the way to the train station. The driver was calm throughout the incident. No one was hurt and the car came to a stop in a muddy patch via the laws of physics. Amazingly enough, drivers in India drive crazily but stay relatively cool in the face of, what the foreigners or NRIs would consider, catastrophe. Some time ago, I had written about my experience with the burning car at 1 am which didn't faze the driver and he had the car spic and span by 9 am (you will simply have to dig the VCCircle archives to find that piece). The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful.

Upon returning to Ghaziabad, I discovered something interesting. One gentleman had set up a makeshift temple in one of the corner locations and amazingly enough, the janta (crowd) was lining up to pay respect, drop some money as offering and leave with a smile on their face. I wish I could have stayed to determine what actually happens with the money. But on we went to get to the cab. As we walked, there was loud music coming (at 11 pm on a Thursday) from various places of worship around the train station. It was, quite honestly, a fairly moving experience.

The taxi driver did what a taxi driver usually doesâ went right through red lights and across major intersections without any street lights working. I found myself praying (which I don't do enough, according to my wife). I found myself looking forward to being greeted by the security guards outside the hotel entry. I am sure many readers are familiar with the these guys who wear intimidating uniforms, carry a stick along with the mirrored device looking for bombs in the undercarriage of vehicles. I have actually asked these guys if I am carrying a bomb in my lap rather than under the car, then what? Usually I am met with a smile and a statement: "Sir, we are only supposed to check under cars." Then there is the metal detector before one enters the hotel lobby. Again, the mechanism beeps every time I go through but there is really no check at many hotels (some hotels utilise more robust procedures than others).

Speaking of doing without thinking, I recently came across a very interesting phenomenon (another aside). In north Bangalore, I saw an old man holding a large water hose connected to a water tank truck and slowly moving down the median watering plants/trees. That, by itself, is not that interesting, except that it was raining (not drizzling which I could potentially understand but actually raining). I asked the driver to stop the car and help translate the obvious question I was going to ask the gentleman. My driver asked, "Why are you watering the plants in the rain?" And the old man answered, "Because that is what I am supposed to do every Tuesday of the week at this time. And if I don't, I will be fired." I use this example and one of the security guards above to show that often people simply don't think, but rather go through the motions. And it doesn't have to be a low-wage worker, but I would argue that similar behaviour exists in established companies, from start-ups to multi-nationals. Again, I digress.

On the morning of Friday the 13th, the Attero investors were going to meet with someone at a hotel. I got there first and engaged in a conversation, and after a few minutes, my fellow Board member, Kumar Shiralagi from IndoUS Ventures, came down to the coffee shop and the first words out of his mouth were, "There is another Mohanjit in the hotel lobby."

Apparently, like the Attero plant manager the day before, Kumar had seen another Sikh gentleman who looked exactly like me and asked me to run up to see for myself. I was curious but decided not to meet my twin at that time. Although there were two Mohanjit clone sittings within a span of 48 hours, I have not yet met another Mohanjit in my life. I would appreciate if anyone knows one to make an intro.

Going back to the point of the article — the railway station epitomises India. There are masses across the entire strata on top of one another (from those travelling in overcrowded bogies to 1st class), with what seems like complete randomness and disorganisation. Yet, it works, in chaotic harmony. I could seriously spend an entire day at a railway station, simply people-watching. Relatively speaking, railway stations in other parts of the developed world are boring, mundane and overly predictable.

The Golden Temple

That afternoon, my family and I headed to Amritsar. Since I was getting back from Roorkie late at night and was gone the entire day, I asked my wife to take the kids and spend the day and the night at a friend's house in Gurgaon. I arranged for a taxi to pick them up from Gurgaon at 11 am and bring them to the airport. The next morning, after my morning meeting, as I pulled up to the airport, I got a call from my wife. It was 11:30 am and the taxi had not arrived to pick them up. We had a 1 pm departure. I called the guy who owned the taxi service and chewed him out. At 11:35, the taxi showed up to pick up the family. At 11:40, the phone rang and again, my wife was very upset. "This guy has pulled into a gas station since his tank is empty." I called the taxi service owner, yelled at him again and told him that if we were to miss our flight, I would not be paying him a penny (he asked me what a penny was). In any case, after all that drama, the family made it and we caught the flight to Amritsar.

We had never flown to Amritsar before but the flight was pleasant as was the staff. We landed at the airport to find only one taxi service stand, which means only one thing in India. He has paid either someone from the airport authority or the transport ministry in Punjab to have a monopoly. He quoted an amount for a drop to the hotel which sounded high to me, but in a typical foreigner fashion, I simply accepted the overcharge and moved on. He upsold me indicating that he will charge me 50 per cent if I agreed to buy the return trip at that point. I said yes, counted the money and told him that I didn't have enough for the entire amount. He indicated that was not a problem and there were ATMs near the airport and I could simply give the driver the money. This is what I call a negative working capital business, where you get the cash up front for service to be delivered in the future with potential for breakage, which results in pure bottom line profit.

We packed our stuff in the car and headed to the nearest ATM. I wanted a private bank ATM since my bank refunds me ATM charges from other banks and I can withdraw slightly more at private ATMs than I can at public sector banks' ATMs. In any case, there was an Axis bank ATM right outside the airport. The driver stopped the car, I walked across the street and opened the door only to find a guard sleeping in the chair inside. He woke abruptly to tell me that there was no cash in the ATM. Great, a bankrupt ATM. Disappointed, I got back in the car and headed to the next one. It was, unfortunately, an SBI ATM, which also had no cash. I knew that the state was in financial trouble, but didn't realise that it had trickled down to the ATM level. Eventually, I found an ICICI ATM which refused to accept my card and I finally had to resort to using my American ATM card, paying roughly $10 in fees and getting about Rs 4000 out.

We got to the hotel. I must admit, I do look for a deal when I am travelling. That's partly why I invested in Cleartrip because they offer some amazing deals. We stayed at the Ista. As we got closer to the hotel, we realised that due to inadequate drainage, the entry to the hotel was flooded. There were a couple of auto rickshaws that had gotten stuck as well. In any case, we made it to the room where we hit a bit of a shock. The room was about 100 square feet (with two twin beds) and there were five of us. Rather than opt for a second room, which would kill the budget, we decided that we would somehow manage, since we were going to be there for only two days. The intent was also to spend most of the time outside the hotel at the Golden Temple, other gurdwaras and sightseeing. We spent the evening at the Golden temple, which was great. The highlight for the kids was the rickshaw ride from the parking lot to the gurdwara itself. We got back to the hotel. We pushed the two twin beds together (which revealed some structural damage and holes in the wall that were nicely covered by the beds). I slept perpendicular to the family since there wasn't enough space for all five of us to sleep on the combined beds. However, I struck a deal with the taxi driver who drove us to the hotel that day to arrange for a taxi for the day at roughly half of what the hotel would have charged us.

Our goal was to visit some other gurdwaras around Amritsar (and there are many), which we did and then eventually get to Wagah border to see the daily ceremony that takes place around 5.30-6 in the evening. Eventually, we got to Wagah at around 4:30 pm, after stopping at a dhaba close by. I knew the stop would be a disaster even before we stopped. Given some health issues we have had with the kids, my wife is paranoid about hygiene, cleanliness and we always carry a 'costco' size bottle of sanitiser, wipes and all other hospital-grade cleaning supplies. But even with that, I knew there would be issues.

We opted for a simple daal and tandoori roti. The flies were in full force and our server was sweating profusely running around in the heat and humidity. I was carefully watching the sweat to make sure that a grape size sweat bead didn't end up splashing into the daal (at least not while my wife was looking). The paranoia of how clean the server's hands were or the cloth that was used to clean the table we were sitting at, caught up with her and she ended up not eating and not letting our 9, 7 and 4-year-olds eat either. Of course, that meant more for me which I thoroughly enjoyed, sweat or no sweat.

We made our way to the border and again something told me that this would not work out the way I had planned it. It was August 14, Pakistan's Independence Day and a Saturday afternoon of sweltering heat. I had done some research which had indicated that typically, the ceremony at the border (equivalent to but far less extravagant than 'changing of the guards' at the Buckingham Palace) attracts a few thousand people on a weekend. But by the sheer volume of people, cars and fake Bisleri water bottles, I knew that today the number would be an order or magnitude higher.

The driver dropped us off near the place where people had started to congregate. In no time, there were virtually thousands of folks pushing and shoving their way to the entrance gate (which hadn't yet opened). There was a separate line, supposedly for women and children, but in the chaos, the implementation of that interesting thought failed. Before we knew it, we were pushed from all sides and found ourselves in a muddy mess. It was extremely clear at that time that Wagah was not going to happen, at least not on Saturday, August 14, 2010. It was not for lack of trying. My wife and I were both pushing and shoving. It was during those series of unnatural acts (at least for the Americanised desis like us) that we looked at each other and said almost at the same time, "Let's get the hell out of here."

What had dawned on us were three things: Ours were the only children among the masses; even if we somehow made our way in and suffered through the heat/humidity since there were not going to be enough seats for everyone, we would have to deal with the same chaotic mess on the way out and finally, we had clearly chosen the absolutely wrong day of the year to witness the spectacle at Wagah border. Being the optimist that I am, I saw the glass as half full and told my wife, "Look, at least we can tell people we came here and saw the show outside the gates, rather than inside." To capture the memory, I snapped two photos one of the family with the out-of-control crowd in the background and a second with a jawan carrying a machine gun stationed outside the military compound near the border. That way, we could at least claim that we came to Wagah (and got our Americanised desi behinds kicked). The moral of the Wagah story: Go, see the ceremony mid-week, off-peak during acceptable weather conditions.

The saga doesn't quite end there. The family was scheduled to travel back from Amritsar on the morning of August 15. My wife, the more religious and spiritual than I, decided that she was going to get up at 3 am and go for the early morning service at the Golden Temple that takes place around 4 am every morning. She got up early and went, along with some other brave souls who were staying at the hotel. Of course, the rest of the gang slept on and around 6:30 am, she returned in a less-than-pleasant mood. I was going to wish her "Happy Independence Day" but given the Wagah disaster the day before and from the look on her face (it looked like another disaster at the Golden Temple), I smartly refrained from any national-pride filled statements.

I asked lovingly, "What happened?" She replied, "There must have been 100,000 people at the Golden Temple, even at that hour. After waiting for over two hours, I came back without even getting a chance to enter the main building." She was appalled (as were the other high-flying NRIs from the hotel) with the pushing and shoving at a place where one goes for peace of mind and cleansing of the soul. Again, given that it was a Sunday morning, which typically is the most crowded day at the Golden Temple, combined with the fact that Monday, the 16th, was a holiday, made for a bad timing overall. The Lesson learnt: Go to the Golden Temple mid-week, off-peak, during acceptable weather conditions. But the main purpose of the trip was achieved. We did visit the Golden Temple on Friday evening when the experience was much more pleasurable than either Wagah on Saturday or again, the Golden Temple on Sunday.

What was only a four-day trip seemed like a month-long with Bangalore-Delhi-Roorkie-Delhi-Amritsar-Delhi-Bangalore being covered via planes, trains, automobiles and rickshaws. One of the big reasons for moving from the USA to India was to give the family, primarily the kids, a flavour of what India is all about the diversity, the contrast, the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the country. But as I landed back in Bangalore on Independence Day, I looked back at the last 72 hours and thought this is, indeed, an incredible country. But what is its strength is also its weakness at this point its people, and managing, moving, feeding, entertaining, clothing, housing and growing the masses. But I guess from a VC standpoint, that's clearly what drives the consumption story and creates the opportunity and excitement in India.


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Revealed: The Great Indian Melting Pot

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