Observations from my first 2 weeks in India

As I write this, I am a bit worried about getting reactions similar to what Patrix got  for his observations about Panvel. Anyways, here I go.

After 10 years in the US, I and Priya Raju relocated to Chennai, India exactly 2 weeks ago. I took my first week off so I have completed 1 week at work as well. India has changed dramatically as everyone says. Lots of good things and bad things as well.

1. SMS rules here. Every one has a cell phone and SMS has become a key mode of communication. I have become a convert as well. It has all the conveniences of email minus the hassle of a PC and Internet Connections. I am told that your neighborhood vegetable vendor takes orders by SMS and delivers it to your home. I haven’t tried this one yet. A few more indicators of how pervasive SMS is – at a local restaurant – they had posted a mobile number to SMS your complaints. In Chennai, if you are caught in an accident, you can call the police by SMS! Given that cell phones are so ubiquitous, there are mobile charging stations at public places like airports, malls and restaurants and its free of charge. Nice touch by the cell-phone service providers. These charging stations have all types of connectors, so almost any cell phone can be charged.

2. No Voice Mails just Missed Calls.  If you are scratching your head after reading that, welcome to the world of Missed Calls. I was a bit miffed that almost all the mobile numbers I called did not have voice mail and I thought maybe India has not advanced to the Voice Mail culture. As I was wondering about this Voice Mail stuff, one of my colleagues called me and inquired why I hadn’t called him back. When I denied having received any call from him, he said he had given me a Missed Call. Slowly it dawned on me that, because caller-id is pervasive, when you call someone and disconnect after the first 1 or 2 rings, your number appears in the list of Missed Calls. The tacit expectation here is that you keep checking your Missed Calls and call them back. Upon further inquiry, I learnt that you have to pay more for voice mail and any case, most often, you just leave a vmail with a contact number to call back and Missed Call does exactly that free of charge! Another example of Indian ingenuity.

3. Chennai is crowded, traffic has increased 10 times. Going any place within Chennai takes a lot of time these days. The quiet Chennai of my childhood is gone. However, the number of cars, restaurants, motorbikes have all dramatically increased and made me feel happy that there is some amount of prosperity as well. Opulence is clearly visible. Our favorite haunt while in School – Hotel Coronet is still in the same location but now has an extension with Air Condition. The McRennett bakery chain which has been around for a long time, now sports snazzy interiors. It seems as though many commercial establishments have received a good upgrade. At the same time, as Prof. Madhukar wrote in his insightful Invisible India post, the gap between Visible and Invisible India is unconscionably high. Something has to be done about this.

4. Real estate is booming is an understatement. Priya has higher standards than me and the only 2 areas she liked was Valmiki Nagar (in Thiruvanmiyur) and Kalakshetra Colony (in Besant Nagar). Its Rs. 3600-3750 per square foot in these areas and asssuming you want around 2000 sq. ft, you can do the math. If you intend to come back to India ever, buy your land now regardless of which city you are going to live in. I just read a report in the Economic Times yesterday that a Flat in Cuffe Parade has been sold for Rs. 40,000 per sq. ft and a developer in Chennai is offering flats for $1MM. Don’t believe it if someone says prices have saturated. Thats what people said when the prices were Rs. 5000 per sq ft in Cuffe Parade a decade back. So don’t postpone your decision. Even if you don’t live its fine, you can rent it out. The amenities in the flats have also progressed quite a bit – although central airconditioning is not yet here in houses, you can use a Split AC in every room and achieve a similar effect. In Chennai, Old Mahabhalipuram Road (OMR as its affectionately called) is now the IT Corridor and is being converted into a 6 lane highway. All the IT majors (major is another oft-used term here) – Cognizant, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, Accenture, Satyam are on this road and more are planned. This is one main reason for the substantial appreciation in real estate prices around this area.

5. Another problem is that (which Priya pointed out) people don’t seem to care about the facades of the buildings and the neighbourhood as well. So its pretty typical to find a posh looking construction with squalor all around. As the posh building becomes older, no one bothers to re-paint the facade. So the apartments inside are well-maintained but the outside does not look good at all. One would think that if the neighborhood looks good and the facade looks good, the value of the property would increase quite a bit.

6. Domino’s, Pizza Hut are here in Chennai. We also ate at a very good Malaysian Chain called Marry Brown’s. You can get food delivered to your home at no extra charge for a reasonable size order from almost any restaurant. Pizza Corner which is the local favorite is actually pretty good with Indianized pizzas. In general, customer service has dramatically improved everywhere. Everyone is very courteous and try their best to be helpful. You can still observe some establishments that are totally clueless about customer service but those are very few.

7. Excellent cars are available from Hyundai, Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Suzuki etc. Interestingly Toyota Corolla is a premium brand here and goes for almost $30,000 equivalent in Rupees. If you are new to Indian driving conditions, the best bet is to have a driver. Not very expensive to have. Last time, I was in Chennai, I noticed that the traffic light going red commanded no respect and almost everyone was jumping the red. Now in many traffic lights, there is a count down clock that indicates how much longer the Red or Green will be on. This seems to have brought down the number of people jumping the red signal. Another great idea. I have only seen such count down clocks for the pedestrian walk signs in the US or Europe.

8. I also had the opportunity to travel to Pune and Delhi this week on business. We landed in Mumbai and drove on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Everyone had hyped up this highway for me, so I had a lot of expectations. This expressway, is one truly world-class road. The Maharashtrians should be proud of this one. We were able to reach Pune in 2.5 hours flat, the car was doing 120 Km/hour effortlessly. As a data point, you can reach not more than 40-50 Km/hour in any city (this is the residential speed limit in the US) and in traffic conditions only 30-40 Km/hour. Even a small distance (in US terms) of 10 Kms takes you 45 minutes to an hour. The weather in Pune was not as hot as in Chennai. It was as congested as Chennai (Pune-ites may like to argue that point). The Mumbai Domestic airport was an excellent one. The architecture was pretty classy and also the amenities and look and feel inside was excellent. I am told this is one of the best in the country. After seeing the Chennai and Delhi airports, I will have to agree.

9. We landed in Delhi and drove to Gurgaon for a meeting. Gurgaon actually surprised me quite a bit. Its filled with Skyscrapers, all of them of modern design and swank-looking. Probably only Mumbai’s Nariman Point would rival this skyline in India. Traffic was bad like everywhere else and roads were bad as well. We finished our lunch meeting and on our way back to the Delhi airport, we took a small detour and visited the famed Qutb Minar. I had seen this monument a long time back. They are in the midst of restoring Qutb Minar and its starting to display its original maginificent looks. We engaged a local guide who gave us some half-baked explanations about the monument. Its surprising how under-developed India is in this respect. There were no souvenir shops for you to buy memorabilia. This is actually an observation one of my British clients made about tourist spots in India in the year 1994 and it still rings true. Maybe i am rushing to a judgement here, but considering that Qutb Minar is in the National Capital Region, I guess i won’t be wrong.

Overall it has been a very interesting 2 weeks here.









  1. Anonymous said January 25, 2006, 12:53 pm:

    Interesting viewpoint of India. Have you hit the malls like Spencer Plaza and shops like Pothy’s etc.

    What used to be sleepy bylanes have become main roads because of the many one-ways to regulate traffic.


  2. Anonymous said January 29, 2006, 10:30 pm:

    Thanks Sriram. I have hit Spencer Plaza and Pothy’s. I will write more on this topic later.