India’s Innovation Front Lines, Part 7: Of Trains, Countryside, and The Great Indian Laughter Challenge

1/5/09Follow @vinit44

Mumbai-Delhi, Tuesday, December 23—I boarded the overnight train to Delhi at Bombay Central Terminal (the mixed use of old and new city names for Bombay is a metaphor for old and new India—the old structures retain the original Bombay, and everything new is named Mumbai). I had forgotten to print out my e-ticket and was prepared to battle/sweet talk my way onto the train. My last train ride in India was over 20 years ago, and I have a lasting memory of patiently standing in a queue that never moved to purchase a ticket, as people kept muscling their way to the front of the line. Getting on the train required sharp elbows and more than likely the conductor had sold your seat to the highest bidder. The contrast this time was stark. I had to pay Rs.50 ($1) to get a ticket printed out on the train. The familiar red-clad coolies/porters were still around, but there was no need for their help; the boarding of the train was orderly, seats were assigned, and the conductor was Amtrak-like amiable.

The train departed Mumbai on time, the orderlies prepared my bed in the four-bed compartment with spartan but crisply laundered sheets, and I promptly went to sleep. A couple of hours later I was joined in my compartment by two gentlemen who had boarded at an unknown station. I was on the Rajdhani express, a series of overnight trains between the metropolitan cities in India. My ticket had cost about $65, a flight would have been $110. I wanted to experience train travel and get a sense of the geography of India’s industrial corridor running between Mumbai and Delhi, encompassing the modern states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, the central state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), the tourist state of Rajasthan, and the largest and one of the poorest states in India, Uttar Pradesh (UP). I was traveling on the most expensive ticket on the Rajdhani; the least expensive was about $1.50.

I woke up at the crack of dawn when the porter entered the compartment to offer tea. I watched the sun rise over a misty, flat landscape. Everywhere I have been in India the sky is hazy. I cannot ascertain if it is industrial pollution, winter mist, or smoke from wood fires, or perhaps a mix of all three. Even here in the countryside the sky is hazy. It is as if the entire country is an incense-filled temple. The passing landscape is a dusty brown and is dotted with patches of green marking small farms, stunted trees, and an occasional herd of cows. Every 30 minutes or so we pass through a small town with a train station. Garbage is strewn everywhere on the tracks, and occasionally there is a garbage dump alongside the tracks at the edge of a town, with foraging pigs and cows.

One of my companions is a Sikh gentleman (see photo) whose cell phone jingles a bhangra ringtone every few minutes. He appears to be a little under the weather and sleeps in between calls and occasional visits from people on the train: “Papa-ji kaisay ho!” (How are you, pops?). Just passed a larger town called Ratlam. We must be in MP, since this where my wife used to get off to go to Indore, the capital of MP, and onto the hill station of Mau to visit her aunt.Greatlaughterchamp

The landscape is greener now, dotted with yellow fields of mustard, irrigation-fed no doubt as the last rainfall was likely during monsoons in July/August. The train passes over largely dry riverbeds. Power lines and telecom towers are everywhere. Motorcycles and trucks wait at level crossings. Kachrod station passes by in a flash of yellow walls and red bougainvillea. A field of cotton with a dozen men and women hand picking. A southbound flatbed freight train passes by, our train slows down with jerky braking, dwarf palms dot the sides of the tracks. I recall Yasheng Huang of MIT mentioning that India is a tropical country while China is a temperate country and life is more difficult in tropical climates. Two days before Christmas I am sitting in an air-conditioned train looking out at laborers working in what appears to be hot sun. In the bathroom I poke my hand out the open window and the air feels cool. We fly by Nagda, a larger town in MP. I have a conversation with a porter in the hallway. Apparently this is a special Rajdhani that runs during holiday periods. He says that it is not as luxurious as the daily Rajdhani from Mumbai to Delhi.

I don a long-sleeved t-shirt as the AC is slightly chilly. I have managed to avoid sickness so far, neither catching a virus nor bacteria via contaminated food or water. My travelling companion has a bad cold, and I want to be cautious. I offer him a Motrin from my medicine kit.

We slow down to pass by Suwasa. There are a few schoolgirls, all dressed in school-colored salwar kamiz, riding their bicycles on the road parallel to the train tracks. Their braided ponytails and dopatas (long scarves) trail in the breeze as they chat and ride. The landscape is increasingly turning yellow, with fields and fields of mustard. The country side appears to have more people. A child is flying a kite that apparently iz not made of traditional tissue paper, but of foil. I had met a businessman who is supplying foil for kites, and my first thought was the environmental damage all these abandoned kits would cause.

Stopped in Kota for 10 minutes. Got a chance to step out and stretch my legs. Lunch was being loaded. Crossed the Chambol river, which is really a stream threading the middle of a huge flood plain. Got into a vigorous conversation with my cabin mates about the problems in India. This seems to be a favorite topic of conversation. Just found out the Sikh gentleman is Pratap Singh Fouzdar, who is a minor television celebrity who won the second season of a reality TV show called The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. That’s why everyone keeps stopping by to say hello to him. On top of this he is a minor industrialist, manufacturing synchromesh gears for jeeps and army vehicles out of Agra. I am astonished by the level of entrepreneurship in India. There is no social safety net, so everyone is hustling to make a living. Every commercial transaction has an element of negotiation, generally humorously exchanged. There is surprisingly very little pleading or bitterness evident from the poorest of street hawkers when you don’t buy—someone else from the mass of consumers will.

The other cabin mate is a Bihari from Patna, who is a project manager for Neptune, a manufacturer of industrial power conditioning equipment. He commented on the sarkari (subservient) nature of Indians: conditioned in pre-colonial and colonial times to a hierarchy that exploited them—peasants by landowners (zamindars), they in turn by the Rajas, and the Rajas by the British. This hierarchy sucked wealth out of the country during colonial times.nizammudinstation

We arrived in Delhi almost two hours late—so much for Lalu-inspired efficiency! The car park at the Nizammudin train station was packed and chaotic. As with everything in India, great intent, lousy execution.

[Editor's note: This is Part 7 of a travelogue written by Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan, who is in India visiting venture capitalists and startups with an eye to bridging the Boston and Indian startup ecosystems. We published Part 1 on December 5, and you can find a guide to all Nijhawan's previous India posts here.]

Vinit Nijhawan, an entrepreneur, angel investor, and former venture capitalist, is Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence in the Boston University School of Management. Follow @vinit44

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