Saturday, May 30, 2009

Two ends of the spectrum

We were driving amidst green and serene coffee plantations in Coorg, Karnataka. Due to some commotion ahead, our car had to slow down to a crawl. The entire Coorg area is at an elevation, and while not really hilly, the roads were narrow and winding with lots of ups and downs.

These plantations employed the absolute state-of-the-art technology for coffee cultivation. They were able to simulate the timing and amount of rain needed to maximize their crop output. All this technology, combined with migrant labor (needed to harvest the coffee) made for a winning formula for the plantation owners.

The commotion ahead of us was because a huge red tractor had overturned by the side of the road. I don’t mean that it was tipped over to its side. It had turned over 180 degrees, with its 4 gigantic wheels facing up. I fully expected to see the mangled remains of the driver, but fortunately it seemed that he had jumped out in time.

There were around 12-15 men (workers and passers by) who had gathered, and were pushing the tractor with all their might, trying to turn it back on its wheels.

Now, if this was in the US, a traffic cop would stop by, summon a tow truck which would get the vehicle upright, take it to a shop to get it checked and be done with it.

But in India, even with so much technology around, it was just a few people trying to do it with their bare hands. There was no use of levers, and not even one rope was being employed.

To me, this seemed a very apt metaphor for what I’m constantly seeing in India. A select few are able to leverage automation and technology to attain stratospheric opulence, while the masses are still relying on brute manual labor to achieve their modest goals. For the few minutes that it took us to get pass it, the tractor hadn’t budged an inch.

Monday, May 18, 2009

There is no such thing as Free Lassi

We had just boarded the train in Mumbai, enroute to Bhilwara and my wife couldn't contain her curiosity any longer. She asked the group sitting opposite us, "Where did you buy the packets of Lassi?"

It was a scorchingly hot afternoon, and while waiting to board the train at Bandra Terminus we had seen this group sipping their lassis. Tempted, we had gone to at least five different food stalls in the railway platform but not one was selling lassis (sweetened buttermilk).

"Oh, we didn't buy them here. We have brought them with us," one of the ladies told my wife.

She went off somewhere and a came back a few minutes later and proferred two lassi packets to us. We tried protesting but she insisted that they had lots of extras and so we accepted. The train started to move. Amul's Rose-flavored lassi felt cool and creamy, just right after wandering in the sun.

Almost as soon as the lassi was done, that same lady said, "We are a big group but we didn't get seats together. Would you mind exchanging your seats with some of the other members of our group so that we can all sit together?"Since you can't really enjoy someone's lassi and refuse to cooperate, we agreed. In a few minutes we had been relegated to one end of the compartment with our bags.

There was no way the lady could have pre-planned this, but I was struck by how smoothly she had operated with great presence of mind. And for me, there were a couple of small lessons of life in India. Always be careful of accepting 'free' gifts. And if you want to get something, be prepared to give something first.