Age is not the graying temples or the crinkles around your eyes, or the constant backache. Instead it is the faded memories of your life – like snapshots left exposed to the direct light for a little too long. Age is also progress, as you try and remember the past and sync it with your present.
In the wee hours of the morning, just when the sun was trying to rub sleep out of its eyes, I stepped into the front yard of my childhood home, mind and body ravaged by the transcontinental time drift. A slight cold drizzle fell as I cupped my first cigarette of the day.
As a kid, it was my favorite time of the day: waiting for my grandfather and after him my father to walk me across the street to the school bus stop. Three decades later, things were very different. Instead of the crow’s craw or chirping of the sparrows, all I heard was the bleat of the horns. And when that subsided, the audible whoosh of an ultra modern Metro zipping on the overhead tracks.
The sounds of my childhood, replaced by the symphony of a modern metropolis, Delhi, that was trying to shed its old skin and boldly embrace the future, however uncertain it might be.
The smell of fresh raindrops on parched earth was another memory of the past, now replaced by a peculiar smell unique to most post-industrial conurbation: smells of diesel fumes, rotting garbage, and the breath of many million souls. New York, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong and New Delhi… They share these smells in different blends.
Disoriented by the rapid change in time zones, I tried to get my bearings by looking toward the heavens. Instead I saw haphazardly constructed concrete homes, rising up and blocking the lights of the day. Soon even higher buildings will replace them, each packing in dozens of middle class families – many of them very young – like any other big city.
The streets where we played cricket are now jam-packed with the tiny Hyundais, Suzukis and Tatas. I wonder where my little nephew will learn how to play cricket, break his first window and get into a verbal joust with a grumpy old man, who never completely understands the joy of hitting a ball with a bat, sending it soaring in the sky. It reminds me of how East coast-centric baseball suddenly started finding new heroes in Houston, San Diego and Kalamazoo. But then this is part of economic growth.
As I stood outside, letting the cold wet raindrops hit me, time just flew across my eyes. The childhood memories mixed with visages of the crumbling façade of my kindergarten, the slight shake of my father’s hand, the wide green spaces that don’t exist anymore. The boulevards, wide and gracious a long time ago, seem like varicose veins on the arms of an aging beauty,
Zipping around in a haphazard way are makes and models you might find on a freeway near Chicago or Los Angeles: Audis, BMWs, Accords and CR-V’s, and even an occasional Chevy. All of them fighting with space for CNG powered three-wheeler auto rickshaws and buses in state of utter disrepair.
Three years ago, when I visited my parents, while reporting a story for Business 2.0, my observation was that technology/call centers might have catalyzed the Indian economic resurgence; the momentum would come from the Indian consumer. It would be an economic makeover that would be less like the Asian Tigers, and more like the U.S. consumerism; reduced to micro chunks that are accelerating through an IP network, like packets desperate to meet their destiny.
Three years later, consumerism is raging in India. While newspapers buckle under lethargy in the U.S., in India, the real estate sections are beginning to resemble the entire papers in America. The end of season sales, a phenomenon I had never encountered till I saw my first Macy’s, is a commonplace occurrence now.
My dear friend Sramana Mitra once told me that the organized retail and real estate were the best opportunities in India, not technology. On this trip, her words became all too real. There is a lot of U.S. capital that is flowing to India, mostly to invest in technology.
Poor misguided souls. Soon, Wal-Mart and other big box retailers will be setting up shop there, and will compete with emergent local retail giants like Reliance. Starbucks is on its way there, and more will follow. There are a lot of local chains that are coming up – Big Apple for example. There are others but their name slips my mind now!
This is where the story gets interesting, and perhaps more meaningful. While organized retail might prove to be fatal blow to the traditional corner shop (or it might adapt, to compete with the giants), it is going to do something else: it will help set up a supply chain that ends at the mega store, but starts where heart of India is – in the farm land.
The supply-chain in the literal sense of the word threatens the middlemen, but could finally get the rural farmers – whose plight only rarely makes it to the pages of Economist or WSJ – their due. Local sourcing could have a profound impact on India’s economy because it would lift the agriculture sector.
The retail chains could finally begin to employ those millions of graduates who are not computer experts, or don’t know English, and put them to work as sales people, stock room person or even accountants: they are jobs.
Jobs, as my fading memories tell, that never existed about 20 years ago. I could go on, but I am saving my thoughts for another day, for another venue.
Progress, they call it, and progress it is. In time it will turn more places from my past into simply memories – but so what! More field notes in the near future!