The Indian pilgrimage has become the staple of the West’s endless desire to ‘discover’ one’s self. Whether it be Wes Anderson’s beautiful Darjeeling Limited, or Ang Lee’s Life of Pi; you’d be forgiven for thinking India is a special part of the world where people go to deepen their own understanding. Not exempt from this phenomenon, nor denying it’s existence: the opportunity to visit this country of extremes was not to be ignored.

Firstly I’d have to acknowledge the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for their New Colombo Plan scholarship. Without such, attempting such a journey would not have been possible on the typical student’s disposable income. In a somewhat series of fortunate events, I was successful in obtaining funding from them and travelled with a small delegation of Australian students from all around the country.  Understanding the cultural context is always such a large part of the travelling experience.

mumbai-gateway-india-taj-mahal-palace-indogenius-dfat-new-colombo-plan
Travelling companions per se. There’s also a few domestic Indian tourists in there. Gateway to India is a very popular destination for Indians all across the nation.

The Indian diaspora for one makes this country more confronting than the usual. The sprawl, the extremes, the language. This is a country that in some miraculous way has held itself together despite it’s differences, and largely without conflict.* That’s not to say that I’m immune to my consultation, but India’s diversity is it’s biggest asset and it recognises this.

In history, everyone’s had a go at India. Whilst the British and their colonialisation habits are the most pungent, there’s no doubt that it did not begin with their corporate takeover of the sub-continent. Before we can even begin to discuss the influence of the British, we must first see India’s relationship with the Roman empire, and even the Ottoman empire.

 

Complexity in the Indian story

It’s interesting to see the relationships historic empires had with each other. Even more so when you’ve visited locations that connect so closely to each other in their histories. In my case, from visiting Rome (albeit very very briefly), to seeing the very gold that ended up in monuments, and construction projects all across the sub-continent. Even the relationship India has had with the middle east was still very much apparent when visiting the UAE, with many of the spices in the souks coming from India, and Sri Lanka. Although it may be the 21st century, the trade relations, and trade routes of the past still very much play a role in modern day society. This is something McLaughlin covers in depth in their fantastic book, The Roman Empire and the Indian OceanIn fact, the very words specific, special, and spices all derive from the tatarti (meaning 1/4) tarrif on Indian products bound for Red Sea ports such as Myos Hormos, or Berenice.

Whilst today we may attribute it to being an ’emerging nation’, it’s role in 16 and 17th century global trade was somewhat different. At the time, India held more than 25% of the world’s GDP, and traded in quite substantial surplus with the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish. You can imagine as the 17th century Portuguese(an) the appeal of having control over such a powerful trading partner is irresistible; much in the same way that Toblerone cheesecake is to me on a Friday afternoon. Although not a lot is known about the Portuguese colonial era in India, you can see it’s influence in parts of Mumbai’s (Bombay) architecture. Fortunate enough to visit the house of the legendary fashion designer James Ferreir, we got to see first-hand the influence (architecturally at least) the Portuguese had on Mumbai.

chhatrapati-shivaji-maharaj-terminus-mumbai-early-morning-bike-ride-india
Mumbai’s gorgeous CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, formally Victoria Terminus). With 80 lakhs of commuters every day, it easily takes the crown as ‘World’s Busiest Railway station’

Khotachiwadi, located in ‘South Bombay’ was founded in the late 18th century, and possesses a truly unique Portuguese inspired architectural design. Featuring large open front verandahs, courtyards, and external staircases. Home to Ferreir (which by the way, he rents out on AirBNB), he has campaigned long and hard to keep the still standing 28 original buildings, with 37 torn down through Mumbai’s expansive, and largely unregulated growth.

Mumbai itself saw substantial engineering works done under British rule. Commonly known in India, but seldom discussed abroad, it was originally seven islands. Extensive reclamation work was undertaken to create what is now the Mumbai peninsula. This also gave way to Marine Drive, which you’d be mistaken for being taken right out of the wide boulevards you see in the French Rivera.

My point rather inarticulately is India has always been a land of change, a land of trade, and a land of complex relationships.

 

Constantly evolving

There’s no denying that India is a carefully worded footnote to any history textbook. Despite it’s complex birth*, Indians are largely accepting that as a country it’s better to stay together than seperate*. To quote every cartographer’s favourite YouTube series Map Men, ‘As with many badly drawn borders, it’s starts with the British!’

What’s particularly interesting however is that where disputes lie within India (I am broadly generalising here! Really really REALLY generalising. Read up on the BTS for one), many are keen to stay within the Republic. On November 1, 10 and 15, 2000, three new states, Chhattisgarh carved out of a slice of Madhya Pradesh. As well as Uttarakhand which was separated from Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, the last one, was fashioned out of Bihar. All for their own reasons, but with the number of languages, and religions on this sub-continent it’s surprising India didn’t go the same way as Europe. The unifying force that (at least in Europe) comes from Brussels, and to a lesser extent Strasbourg (but do NOT get me started on that), is alive and well in India.

This isn’t a place to discover more about yourself, this is a place to discover more about the world you live in.

Landing in Jaipur, I saw first hand the differences between cultures within this nation. This isn’t a place to discover more about yourself, this is a place to discover more about the world you live in. My first real ‘touristy’ experience in India was visiting Amer Fort. An absolutely amazing construction, the craftsmanship and attention to detail rivals that of engineering marvels of today, be it the Burj Khalifa or the Eurotunnel. There was one issue though, tourists. Up until this point, we’d stayed off the beaten track as far as attractions are concerned (cycling around South Bombay at 6am anyone?). Coming across culturally Western travellers again was somewhat disheartening. People in their early 20s trying to ‘find themselves’, or the selfie-stick army taking photos of people without a glimpse of consent.

block-printing-jaipur-dye-india
Block printing is a very much a tradition in Jaipur, and it’s a tradition that despite all odds is still very much alive.

 

The Indian way

While a casual observer may see the Indian way as being nothing but chaotic, I can assure you that quite the opposite is true. It’s just a different way of operating. Whilst here in the cultural West we focus on ‘single-use’ spaces, India has never had this option. With a 18% of the world’s population living in one nation, neatly organising the cities into Industrial, Residential, and Commercial was not going to be an easy feat. While parts of New Delhi, and even mega-developments like Mahindra’s World City (where Infosys Jaipur is based) have planning to them, India is truth that emergent order can work.

For the uninitiated, there’s two conflicting beliefs within economic planning: Emergent Order, and Central Planning. The Cold War is the perfect example of this. The United States favoured the market having control over prices, whereas the USSR preferred having bureaucrats set prices. Two vastly different systems with their own pros and cons to their operation.

barclays-rise-mumbai-fintech-coworking
Coworking spaces are popping up all over Australia. Multi-use spaces are part of the Indian normality, and have been incredibly successful. We visited Rise Mumbai, a FinTech coworking space operated by the UK bank Barclays.

We see this come through in all aspects of politics. But to avoid the possibility of disclosing political affiliation, I am emphasising this is an economic theory and not a political one.

Some of these aspects are cultural, and some of these aspects are dictated upon. This is largely why we travel, not only to see the way others do things differently. But as to what WE do differently. While the Dutch may open doors in a different way, and the British are irrationally scared of mixer taps, each of these cultural facets has come from historical context. The same happens in India.

While India had maintained an interesting relationship with the USSR during it’s early years of independence, India these days is the very definition of Emergent Order. Government regulation exists and is quite prevalent in some industries where intervention was required (such as dairy); there is no Government involvement in other aspects of the nation.

The Indian philosophy is self-made. With so many people, you can’t promise the educational stepladder that we see in the West. Instead, India had to find a way to encourage entrepreneurial spirit and drive people to solve problems.

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Seeing one of USHA’s Silai schools in action in Delhi.

My favourite example is USHA’s Silai school programme. A simple idea, from a company that has been manufacturing sewing machines for over 80 years. Education has always is an enabler, and that’s exactly what USHA recognised. Here’s a corporation that was not running a CSR programme for sales, or press. What they are doing is providing sewing machines, and course syllabus to rural Indians who do not have the opportunity to go study at large institutions such as IIT.

 

Expatriation

India is intriguing, and given 50 years to travel it you would still have only uncovered the very beginnings of the Indian story. I’ve always had an interest in this country, but I’ve never really considered it as being home… till now.

There’s no doubt that India is a two sided story – those who have, and those that do not. With a Gini Index of 35.2 in 2011, the extremes here are very evident. But that doesn’t change my views on this country, it’s a place of opportunity. Keep your eyes out, India is now on the world stage.

Would I move to India? Whilst the Mumbai lifestyle is more suited to my personal preferences, the commute and property prices are likely to lock me out. New Delhi on the other hand has more businesses related to my career trajectory. I would need to think twice about the air quality, but I’d definitely consider expatriating to India.

 

 

* I make notable exemptions for Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kashmir.


Cameron Morgan

Brisbane based nerd, and former startup guy. Now working for a branding studio. I like making things, breaking things, and fixing things. Love aviation, travel, and technology. Hear more about what I'm doing now, or some facts

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