Saturday, May 8, 2010

A (Different) Passage to India

Written July, 2007

Though I have traveled extensively, the Indian sub-continent had escaped my footfalls.  So, when a company upon whose Board of Directors I sit was contemplating an acquisition, which included an Indian facility, I enthusiastically volunteered to make the visit to determine if the operation was as described.  Arrangements were made for my departure to Mumbai from New York at 8:30AM on a Monday morning, returning in time to report prior to the closing of the transaction.

Or so I thought.  My youngest daughter had thoughtfully borrowed some travel books on India for me to read, and I finally got around to examining one while sitting in my car around 5PM on the preceding Friday.  I noted with interest a section headed “Passports and Visas”, anticipating that it would include a lengthy description of requirements for those other than myself.  Silly me.  The words on the page read, “every US citizen traveling to India must have a valid passport and visa”.  Panic ensued.  Hasty phone calls to my sponsors and hosts surfaced conflicting information about how long the visa process would take, putting the finely tuned schedule at risk.

Monday / Tuesday

On Monday morning, I took my baggage and headed to the Indian consulate in New York.  I was prepared for the worst.  My mood was not improved by lugging two bags around in the pouring rain, or milling about the dripping subterranean entrance to the visa office waiting for a consulate employee to provide a token to allow me to stand in line.  Nor was I encouraged by the horror stories shared by my fellow millers.  However, by 9:30 in was in line, paper number in hand, by 9:45 I handed over my passport and some cash, and was told that I could pick up my visa by noon. 

I ducked into a nearby coffee shop to kill time and stay dry, then returned to the consulate to retrieve my visa and met my driver to head for JFK for an 8PM flight.  My mood improved considerably when I discovered that a business class ticket on British Airways entitled me not only to use of the well-stocked lounge, but also a complimentary massage.  Since it had been a while since my last business class trip, I thanked airline competition for this and took full advantage. 

Bolstered by the massage and several bloody marys,  I finally boarded the plane at 8PM for my 8:30 flight.  Once again, I was stuck by the changes in business class travel since my last trip.  I had read about the “flat bed wars”, where airlines competed for business on the totality of their seat recline, and was eager to benefit from that skirmish.  However, I was not prepared for what I encountered next.  Instead of the familiar two-by-two seating, I was delivered into a maze of the airline equivalent of cubicles, one of which contained my seat.  Moreover, my seatmate (cubicle mate?  pod mate?) faced me, separated by a motorized divider reminding me most of the “cone of silence” from the old Get Smart television show.  I cannot say this is a complete improvement.  For me, what little benefit comes from sitting in an airplane seat for ten hours or more is the chance to interact, even for a short while, with my fellow passengers.  This new configuration effectively eliminates that interaction.  It also turns the flight staff into contortionists as they try to pour drinks and serve food over and around the partitions.  As I was watching a glass descend from a disembodied hand over my divider, I had a flash of empathy for my daughter’s guinea pigs at feeding time.

On the other hand, if sleep is your priority, this setup delivers.  Unless you or someone else has to make a trip to the rest room mid-flight, in which case you are either a hurdler or hurdlee, given the lack of pathways resulting from closely spaced prone or supine bodies.  Moral:  get the aisle pod, or practice your gymnastics before you leave.

My outbound flight connected through London Heathrow without incident, but probably set a record for longest distance between connecting gates.  Ensconced in my new pod, I was enjoying the view of (for me) new territory, when it dawned that shortest route from London to Mumbai would probably take us directly over Baghdad.  The red line on the moving map display confirmed this, and I was relieved when we veered left and then right as the pilot negotiated a path between Mosul and Tehran toward our destination.  Finally, after about 18 hours elapsed time from JFK, I could see the lights of Mumbai and we touched down at around 1AM.


The target of my sponsor’s intentions uses a cheetah as its corporate mascot.  This made to easy to spot my driver, holding a stuffed one, in the throng at the arrivals point.  On the short walk to the car, I noted that the temperature (high) and humidity (high) were as described in my daughter’s book, and was thankful for the air conditioning in the car.  We left the airport, and headed for my hotel.  On the way I was able to catch a few glimpses of the local area, which reminded me initially of my visit to Peru years ago – the same kind of bi-modal wealth distribution was apparent after passing the Intercontinental Hotel and a row of humble shops within five minutes. 

Darkness and jet lag prevented me from further detailed viewing, but I did note the increased vegetation as the trip proceeded – then a checkpoint with oil drum barriers and collection of what I hoped was a toll.  Past the checkpoint, we were escorted by a pack of enthusiastic dogs who followed us for half a kilometer or so.  After encountering another guarded gate, we proceeded up an assortment of paved and unpaved roads until we reached the hotel.  Check-in was uneventful, my room was nicely appointed (although the large flat-panel television on the wall required the application of a hotel slipper in its mount to become parallel to the wall), and I was quickly asleep in a rather comfortable bed.

Morning was a slightly different story.  I drew the curtains and took in a panoramic, if not attractive, view of the major construction under way around the hotel and building skylines on the horizon in all directions.  The weather appeared partly cloudy – pleasantly surprising because this was supposed to be monsoon season.  I was to have water poured on that naive observation soon enough, but meanwhile I was having a bit of trouble getting my shower to pour any water at all.  So I resorted to the tub, where I found water, but not the hot variety.  Jolted awake but clean, I went down to the lobby for lunch with my host.

Over a very nice Indian buffet lunch, I learned that most of the area surrounding hotel (a very extensive piece of property) was owned by an individual who had struck a deal with the Indian government, in the interests of preservation, not to develop more than ten percent of his holding and not to sell any of the land.  So he is building high-rises on the ten percent and offering 999-year leases on other parcels.  I noted that beating the system seems to be a global pastime.

We then proceeded to my hosts’ offices, and I found myself traveling back toward the airport, through the lightly populated area from the previous evening. This turned out to the Aarey Milk Colony, formerly the primary source of diary products for Mumbai, now less so.  Some limited cattle farming remains, but recently an IT industrial zone has been added into the mix.  So one can add “programmers” to the list of cows, dogs, pigs and goats roaming the area, along with villagers living in conditions that were quite poor but by no means the worst I encountered.

The offices are housed in a four-story building close to the airport, in an area that can be generously described as “developing”.  The building is one of the nicest in the adjacent few blocks, originally built for a bank, and slightly renovated so as to qualify for the same favorable treatment as those in the IT zone mentioned previously.  The building and offices are quite modern, and redundancy has been addressed.  There is a diesel generator for backup electricity, and multiple backups for Internet and phone connectivity.

A major bus station is very close, and a light rail station is rumored to be in the works.  Busses are the favored mode of public transport in Mumbai.  Fares are low, even by Indian standards (fare for a 2 kilometer trip might be $0.25 or less), and busses are frequent.  The two major commuter train lines in the city are stressed to their limit, always overcrowded and are to be avoided if at all possible.    Many of my host’s employees commute by bus, although a significant number ride motorbikes, and a few have private cars.  Road traffic in Mumbai rates further discussion later.

I spent the afternoon with software engineering management.  This included project and quality managers.  I heard a detailed presentation about the organization, and about the processes currently in place.  As noted prior to my visit, I was impressed by the company’s process maturity relative to its size and age.  The employees I met with were attentive, engaged in conversation, and appeared willing to take feedback.  They responded to my questions without becoming defensive, and we ended our meeting with a wide-ranging discussion of global IT issues.

At 5:45, I left the office to make a quick stop at my hotel and then continue to a dinner meeting in southern Mumbai.  This was to be a treat for me – thirteen years ago I attended a Harvard program where an Indian gentleman was in my “living group”.  Though we had shared many experiences during our time together, and communicated infrequently by e-mail in the time hence, we had never been able to reconnect in person.  So it was with pleasurable anticipation that we arranged to meet at the Bombay Gymkhana Club, where he was a member.

At about 6:15 we left the hotel for a thirty-kilometer drive in Mumbai’s rush hour, which I would describe as the worst traffic I have ever encountered, except that it got even worse later in my trip.  Indian roads are generally unsigned, unlined and Indian driving is best described as a freestyle event.  The good news is that the vehicles are generally small.  Three-wheeled “rickshaws” and commercial vehicles abound, and the typical American driving view of a large metal SUV backside is mostly absent.  It is replaced by painted invitations on trunk lids and rear doors for drivers to use their horn, and use them they do.   This is a far cry from cities like New York, where a misplaced honk can result in a $350 fine.

Given the road capacity, and the incredible number of vehicles, and the Brownian motion of those vehicles, I was amazed that a) we made reasonably good time, and b) I did not see a single accident along the way.  Later I was told that drivers in Mumbai are the best in India and that “if you can drive in Mumbai, you can drive anywhere”.  The person saying this was referring to India, but I would extend her comment to the entire planet.

We arrived at the Gymkhana about 7:50, well in time for my 8PM meeting.  Suffice to say it was a very pleasant reunion, which included a wonderful story I had not heard of my dinner host’s trip to Harvard, including an unspecified illness, admittance to a Massachusetts hospital, and favorable treatment by a Pakistani doctor there who offered to help him escape the implausible (to them) financial tentacles of the US health system.  Though this happened 13 years ago, the story is amazingly topical, pinning both the social and political irony meters.  I made a note to send my friend a DVD of Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. 

My return from the Gymkhana (which sports a cricket pitch that must be among the most valuable undeveloped pieces of land in the world) was uneventful, even by new-to-Mumbai tourist standards, and quick.  I hit bed at about midnight and was immediately asleep.


I did not want to seem the ugly American, so had not made a fuss over the hot water situation in my room.  But I did discreetly ask my host if this was a cultural or a plumbing issue, and he had someone call the hotel.  They said they would take care of it.  I guess the plumber didn’t get the memo. Once again shocked into consciousness and cleanliness, I met my driver and we made our way to the office. 

The morning’s meeting was with the marketing staff, which included people working on web search-engine optimization, direct mail and other lead generation, and marketing collateral.  This group represented more diversity of background than the software engineering group, which was not surprising given the relative youth of the software industry in Mumbai.  However, I found the same openness and willingness to learn that I had encountered with the previous group.  The search engine optimization activity is mostly manual but extremely effective, resulting in #1 results for many relevant keywords with no direct payments to Google, MSN or Yahoo.  This expertise should be translatable to my sponsor’s products.  On the other hand, a wider gap exists between the Indian marketing activity and the American market.  This is mostly due to limited experience with American cultural and language issues.  I suggested several ways for improvement in these areas, and am confident that others ideas can be developed and adopted.  We also spent time discussing the lead process, and the need to change the group’s current definition of “qualified lead” to be more in line with standard practice. This process change is underway.

For lunch, a larger group of us ventured to a Gujarati restaurant (Gujurat is the Indian state north of  Maharasthra.  Mumbai is the capital of Maharasthra).  Several of my hosts are of Gujarati decent, and were eager to show off their version of “grandma’s cooking”.   The restaurant was in a large shopping mall in Goregaon, whose development has exploded in recent years due to the rapid growth of the Indian IT outsourcing industry. Construction cranes were everywhere, and the multitude of English road signs suggests the high number of direction-hungry American drivers on the road.
After lunch we did a complete mall crawl, which proved once again that the US still leads in brand marketing.  Any American would feel completely at home here, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

We returned to the office where I met with the administration group, and learned of the ways that my hosts use to recruit and hire in Mumbai.  As one might expect, these are substantially different than in the US.  One useful differentiator is that my hosts run a
product company.  Most Indian IT employees are in service businesses, and many desire work in product companies.  As one of the few software product companies in Mumbai, my hosts are able to use this attribute to offset negative perceptions, such as their small size or unknown brand.  Another issue is that my hosts must run their US support and sales in US real time, which means that a majority of their employees work the Indian night shift.  Several methods are used to make this attractive and palatable, including salary differentials, commuting differentials and office benefits.  For employees who are deemed “keepers”, my host will sponsor and pay for a US green card.  This is a five-year process, which helps minimize turnover. My hosts have developed a close relationship with the US consulate in Mumbai, and can smoothly navigate this process.

Last I met with the sales group.  In many ways, this was the most “American” group, which is not surprising.  An effective salesman must become like his or her customers, and an Indian salesperson targeting the US market is no exception.  Furthermore, some of the sales culture is universal, including the thirst for, and grousing about, leads and quotas.  This group was much more concerned with performance than grousing, and excited about the prospects for growth in both the US market and internationally.  We spent the latter part of the meeting exploring possible scenarios for international expansion, and the challenges and benefits that could result.  For our hosts, a benefit includes the possibility of work beyond the Indian third shift, which they see as both an aid for recruiting and lateral movement.

Dinner was with another large group at a local Chinese restaurant.  We had a wide-ranging discussion about business and culture, as befits a gathering of this type.  I was presented with gifts of Indian dress, and a large carving of the Hindu god Gamesh.  Gamesh is the god of prosperity, and is typically acknowledged by Indians at the start of new ventures.  Since I had accomplished my sponsor’s mission, my host suggested that I spend Friday touring Mumbai, and suggested an itinerary that was busy but seemed doable. 


I awoke to clouds.  Since another call to the hotel had been made, I was eager to check on the hot water situation.  There was some progress – I had hot water in my sink.  I wondered if there was a Hindu god of hot water I could appeal to as I took yet another chilly shower. 

I went to the office and spent some time with my host discussing business development issues, and then left for downtown escorted by two of my host’s female Indian employees and our driver.  The plan was to grab a snack, see the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Hotel, take a boat across the bay to the Elephanta Caves, return for a drink at the Taj, and meet for dinner before my flight. 

Like many plans, this one was disrupted by the weather.  As we were heading south, the sky opened up on us, providing a typical tropical downpour.  I’d seen this weather before, but not in an urban area of  13 million.  The combination is dramatic – road flooding begins quickly and what was slow traffic becomes glacial.  But the rain let up and I had a good tour of the older, wealthiest part of Mumbai, some of which is spectacular, and the part most Americans see in the tourist guides.  Since we had lost some time, I suggested we try to go directly to the caves, which featured carvings dating back to the 5th century.

We got tickets and boarded the small passenger ferry to Elephanta Island.  I noted that there were maximum loads posted for “fair” and “foul” weather, and that the safety equipment consisted entirely of old tires draped around the hull for use as life preservers.  But we weren’t the only passengers, and everyone else seemed game, so off we went into the bay.  We passed a large Indian naval installation, and were reminded not to take any photos only after all of the passengers had snapped everything in sight.  As an American, I was interested to see a large collection of Russian-built warships in one place.  We also got a good view of the oil tankers and supertankers offloading – one really doesn’t get a good sense of the size of a supertanker until passing it at about 5 knots – it takes a long time.

We reached Elephanta Island after about an hour of peaceful cruising.  The weather was gray, with a slight drizzle, and there were not a lot of tourists about.  This was a problem for both the vendors lining the walk to the caves, and for the dogs and monkeys who beg or steal from unsuspecting visitors.  I watched a monkey relieve a tourist of a just-purchased ear of roasted corn and was impressed by its well-practiced finesse.  The walk to the caves is uphill for about half a kilometer.  The caves are impressive, especially considering their age – they were carved by hand and essentially on-the-fly – no CAD systems or power tools to make the job easy.  The quality of the sculptures is also very high.  By the way, the island and caves were “discovered” around 1400 by the Portuguese, who ended any chance of completing the project by using it for target practice.  Yet another example of progressive foreign relations.

As we were admiring this antiquity, the sky opened up again, and this time, the rain wasn’t stopping.  We were thoroughly drenched, which wasn’t horrible since the air was warm, but I was getting a bit concerned about our boat ride back.  We boarded the last boat off the island, close to or exceeding the “foul” passenger limit, and began chugging back to Gateway of India.  The rain got harder; the wind started getting stronger, from the southwest.  This meant we would be beating our way back – not so bad in two foot seas, but potentially very, um, interesting in 3 foot seas or better.  More rain.  Wind picking up.  Lightning visible ahead.  One or two waves broke over the deck, but it didn’t feel like we were shipping any considerable water.  The pilot was doing a great job, keeping our bobbing motion to a minimum.  Should I now mention that a group of young Indian males started teasing my female companions, and that our driver began a heated defense, and had to be calmed down by the ladies?  I had visions of the Gilligan’s Island opening crossed with a western bar brawl and me ending up in the soup – but calmer heads prevailed.  

We climbed out of the boat at the Gateway of India and went across to the Taj Mahal Hotel – not to have a drink and pretend we were VIPs, but to find the rest rooms and use all their towels to try to get dry.  We squished our way across the very nice lobby, shivering from the air conditioning.  Outside, the rain persisted, and our driver brought the car around to take us back north.  Heat on full blast, rain on full blast, traffic at a dead stop or close to it, we made the return trip to the office in about three hours. 

After bidding my guides a fond farewell, my host and I had a quick dinner before he dropped me at the airport for my return trip.  My clothes were mostly dry by then, although my shoes were still pretty soggy.  I figured they could dry out in my pod.
This had been a worthy travel experience – my business and social missions had been accomplished, and I got in a side order of travel adventure.

Mumbai is a confluence of contrasts – it is at once modern and ancient, luxurious and squalid, thought provoking and mind numbing.  It is a driving force in India’s future, and I look forward to getting to know it better.

That said, I was very happy to arrive in London and have my first hot shower in four days at the British Airways arrival lounge.  I grabbed a cab to my hotel in the West End, changed into truly dry clothes, and promptly walked over to the Savoy, where I sat contemplating the incredible range of contrasts I’d experienced in my journey, including the current moment, over a drink at the American Bar.

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