How I Spent My Indian Vacation

by Tom Veatch

A couple of months ago, my sister Andrea said to me, "Tom, I'm going to India to do a rotation of my medical residency in a town in the boonies of South India; I'm nervous, can you come along and show me the ropes and help me settle in?" I had been to India twice before, on spiritual & linguistic study trips in my early 20's, so I happen to know a fair amount of Hindi, and since I hadn't been back in more than 10 years, I was happy to take some vacation and go. After all, January is the slowest month of the year for Sprex.

Then Mom decided to tag along, and it became a wonderful family affair. The Indians gave us a lot of respect for doing the family thing together, and it was a great way for us all to both spend time together and also to see and make use of each others' strengths, since we are all so different. Andrea's sensitivity, my experience in India, Mom's amazing energy level. It worked out very well.

My mother, if you don't know her, is an amazing and crazy woman, with the energy of a bumblebee. She would disappear on a day trip to Mysore or something, and when I see her next she would be gesticulating and laughing wildly at the train station to some poor local who couldn't speak English about how she didn't want a BIG (jumping in the air, arms spread wide) piece but just a LITTLE (hunched over, hands a finger apart) piece of jasmine flower garland. The Indian family standing behind her and keeping the beggars off was so happy to meet me (Hindi gives a big impression, even if the local language is Tamil!) and so sad to say Goodbye to Mom, but then we ran to our train and jumped in.

Look, everyone has to go to India some time in their life. Even Alexander the Great made time for it in his busy schedule. No, you must go, that's all there is to it. Think of it as a long soak in a hot tub. It's hot, first of all -- jeans in January are rather too heavy, and if you stand for more than a few seconds in the sun you will be dripping sweat. And your senses are constantly and intensely stimulated, if not assaulted, by the sights and noise and smoke and smells of spices, incense and cows, by the constant encounters with a hundred people a day who don't think anything of coming up to you and making friends even if they never met you before. And just as a hot tub drains first the tension and then the strength out of you, India is both relaxing and exhausting.

I used to think I could tell how long a tourist had been in India by looking at them, and if they looked like they were at the very end of their rope, then that meant it was about two weeks. Now however, my estimates seemed to be biased low, either because life is actually a little better than it was in the mid-1980's, or perhaps because it was winter, and therefore the heat and bacteria weren't as oppressive. I told Andrea, "12 days", about a couple we then introduced ourselves to, but they had actually been there for 14.

The differences were noticeable, as compared with my previous visit. It seemed bigger and more crowded in the big cities, but the countryside seemed more productive (intensely so) and the people seemed to be doing better. I never saw a woman or a clearly retired old man riding along on a scooter in 1986, but now it is a commonplace thing, which implies that many families now have enough resources for a second vehicle. The automobiles were newer and of a much greater variety. The trains seemed much the same.

Well, this report will never be organized if I don't start at the beginning. I flew Tower Air from San Francisco to NYC -- dirt cheap and with a free upgrade to First Class because my friend Helene Martel happens to work the Tower Air departure gates! Then after a couple days visiting friends in New York, it was Gulf Air to London, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, and finally Chennai (Madras's new name). Fly Tower if you have a chance, it's very affordable, and big and comfortable, too. But don't fly Gulf Air unless you want to get fumigated in transit, a rather appalling experience. Also they aren't very nice about bringing fragile things on board -- they lied (it turns out) in denying they had a wardrobe in the cabin for tall fragile items, and they forced me to check through the new sitar I was carrying back, a fragile musical instrument, despite my repeated (and prophetic) insistence that it would be broken if checked through to JFK as luggage.

My sister, Andrea, and I arrived in Madras a couple of hours before my mother arrived, coming the other way around the globe via Tokyo, Okinawa (visiting another sister who lives there), and Kuala Lumpur. After waiting long enough to build up either our nervousness or our courage, I'm not sure which, we both timorously and bravely pushed our way through the packed, four-deep crowd of aggressive autorickshaw (three-wheeled scooter) drivers to our reserved taxi, and zoomed at a breathtaking 20mph downtown through and past the smoke, traffic, cows, and FedEx billboards, to the local Quality Inn (amazing, Quality Inn turns out to be a big fancy chain in India!)

I think I took $300 cash to India, and while I used my credit card for a couple of hotels, I still counted $220 in my wallet after I got back. Amazing because although the Quality Inn wasn't the most expensive hotel in Madras, all the other hotels we stayed at were indeed the very top hotels in their respective towns. So the plane ticket was by far the dominant expense.

Well, after Madras and museums and the Quality Inn, Mom and Andrea and I rented a private car and driver to take us to Pondicherry, a hundred miles away. The traffic on the average urban road travels at speeds ranging from walking to running, where the advantage of being in a scooter or car is that you can sit on your backside and that you get twenty-yard spurts as the traffic periodically opens up in front of you. But basically you are within touching and talking distance of your fellow travelers on the road. It's quite a change of pace. Anyway, after arriving in Pondicherry several hours later, with all the beach hotels full, we got rooms up the hill at the top hotel in town, and proceeded to enjoy a pampered holiday consisting of breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, a visit to the french bakery downtown, dinner, and finally an ice cream snack. (Even with all that I lost 3 pounds on my trip!) My goal was to take it really easy in India, and keep my family healthy and comfortable; I think we did okay. Also I wanted especially to reduce, as much as I could, the culture shock and linguistic incapacity which sets visitors symbolically at sea, making them functionally insane, in an incomprehensible and strange foreign world where yes means maybe and every answer seems to be an answer to a different question. So we made a relatively gradual entrance into the third world, what with Quality Inns and Pondicherry French bakeries. It was certainly shocking enough; I think Andrea didn't actually come out of a state of high physical tension and shock until the third or fourth day.

Well, so, from Pondicherry's French food and rectilinear street layout (and amazingly, clean streets!), we went to Vellore, probably the namesake of the fuzzy cloth we all know and either love or hate, wherein is located the top medical center in India, out in the middle of nowhere in Tamil Nadu in the south of India. Rice and sugar cane fields and coconut palm trees all around, Vellore is a highly urbanized, noisy place. Again into the best hotel in town ($15 a night, if I recall correctly), Mom and I only stayed a couple of days before tripping off to Bangalore to find software developers to work on some projects I have planned. I bought a stack of postcards from the Indian Government Archeological Survey at the Vellore Fort, for 1.25 cents each, but when I got them home I realized that they all seemed to prominently feature naked breasts,and in addition I didn't have my address book. So I gave them all to my sister, who for some reason thought she wouldn't be as embarrassed to send them to her friends, and I gave up on sending postcards from India. If you go, don't follow my example -- bring your addressbook!

Long before I got to Bangalore, the software capital of Asia, it had become clear that computer software had captured the imagination of India. In little villages where I visited I saw innumerable banners proclaiming the opportunities and advertising the local training classes in computer networking, C, and Java programming. In the bookstores, it seems as though half the shelf space was full of gods, philosophy, gurus, and Hinduism, while the other half was devoted to computer books and manuals. There is an "Eastern Economy Edition" of some publishers' technical computer books, whereby books that cost $40 or $80 in the US cost $2 in India. I bought a number of excellent technical books there, some of which I had never seen in the US, which filled up my return luggage.

I must say that I was truly impressed, how India, so painfully prostrate at the feet of the export-oriented industrialized world, with 400 million illiterates (here's a way we can help them) and so little to sell, was so focussed on computer software. And when I visited the hot technical people in Bangalore and in Madras, they knew what they were talking about and they were fully capable, though they generally did not have a very good sense of what would sell in the West. It is a wonderful surprise to go from one minute, being symbolically at sea and failing to successfully be able to ask directions on the street, driving around the oxcarts and potholes of India, to the next minute, talking at the edge of my technical competence about sockets, communications protocols, TCP/IP, and programming network-distributed processes, with people who after a few minutes conversation could make insightful, technically astute suggestions for improvements in systems I had been thinking about for months. But that's just what it was like in India.

Some interesting points about the computer business there. Corporate income tax on exported computer programming services is an amazing zero percent. Now that's government encouragement! Also it turns out that their internet service costs were affordable ($250 for 500 hours of access over a year, plus initial setup costs of about $10), although internet service in India is, first, a government monopoly; second, limited to half a T1 line for the entire country (i.e., only 4 times the bandwidth of the ISDN line in my bedroom) ; and third, restricted as to what kinds of traffic can go over it (no voice data, for example, which would bypass the other government monopoly on telecommunications). Most of the companies I visited had Intel hardware running Linux on half their machines, and Windows 95 and MS Visual C++ on the rest. Some were solely (and ignorantly as the whole world often is) Microsoft oriented, but others were sophisticated Unix developers as well.

In the belief that you find a good lawyer by asking an accountant, I initially went to the computer engineering academics in Bangalore, visiting with Captain J. V. Avadhanulu at the Indian Institute of Science, the top educational institution in the country. JV is a deep, wise, and mature technical manager, formerly a Captain in the Indian Navy, and later a VP of Cirrus Logic, who is now the industrial relations person for the IISc Electrical and Communications Engineering Department, devoted to connecting Indian technical academia to industrial partners in and outside of India. I spent the good part of a day talking with him about my projects, about how academics might be able to help with them, about the software industry there, and about specific technical development partners. He put me in touch with several appropriate and technically competent companies there. His advice and strategic insight were highly insightful and helpful to me; later I assuaged my conscience for taking so much of his time by sending a donation to his program.

In the next day and a half, I spoke with 5 software development and outsourcing companies, ranging in number of engineers from 80 to 32 to 12 to 8 to 2. The big ones are used to long term contracts from huge American companies paying locally exorbitant rates for highly documented, tightly managed, workflow-structured, software development projects. The smaller ones are much smarter, faster, and more affordable. Average engineer rates, as I understand, are $12k US annually, but some will also ask you for as much as $42k/year. So if my project gets funded, I'm pretty sure I will be able to get the development work done quickly and affordably, so my business needs were well satisfied. The second evening, then, Mom, having gotten back from Mysore, met me at the railway station, and we clickety-clacked first class back to Vellore. What excitement!

I won't tell you about sitar shopping, the Pondicherry Police Museum, or the lovely view from the women-only residence floor of the Christian Medical Center. My only regret is that we didn't more quickly find some quiet, beautiful, rural place to stay in, such as a hotel on the beach, for example, rather than spending much of our time in the big, noisy, dirty cities. But it was a very exciting and wonderful trip, and the saddest thing is that it is already over. In the West, time is like water running out of a sieve, while in India, time is like relaxing on a bed. It was a wonderful way to get away from everything, and really forget about the world at home, and however much I love it at home, it was a great thing, and I recommend it to you. Some day, some time in your life, take a month and go to India!


Copyright © 1998 Thomas C. Veatch.
Last Modified: February 22, 1998