Why a handful of Indian firms are rediscovering Russia

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THIS AUGUST, Russian investment mogul Yuri Milner’s Bengaluru visit popped up in headlines in the Indian business press. That in itself was not surprising. Milner, who has backed Facebook, Twitter, and Airbnb, is a familiar name in India’s startup circuit too, having pumped personal money as well as funds from his venture capital firm DST Global into companies like Flipkart, Ola, and Practo. But this trip had a different agenda: The billionaire was soliciting India’s help for his $100 million (Rs 666 crore) Breakthrough Listen project—through which he hopes to find proof of alien life. In Bengaluru, Milner, a physicist by training, reportedly screened a documentary on aliens before the founders of select startups and senior executives of investment firms, though neither DST Global’s India office nor the invitees would speak to us on the evening’s revelries.

You may find it bizarre, but Milner’s charming little party was a relief from the relentless flow of bad news around all things Russia. In the recent past, Time and Newsweek magazines have put Russia on their covers for completely predictable reasons: President Putin’s tense diplomacy with the West around Russia’s participation in the offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, and the alleged retaliatory bombing of a plane carrying Russian tourists in Egypt by ISIS. Elsewhere too, the leitmotif in stories about Russia has been the West’s crippling economic sanctions against it as punishment for its annexation of Crimea, and the collapse of oil prices that hit the large Russian oil companies hard. The country’s once-promising tech startup scene has disintegrated. Google has shut its Russian engineering ops, and Intel has pulled the plug from its developers’ blog in the country. In a survey by London-based strategic advisory firm Global Counsel, six times as many multinationals viewed the Russian market negatively as those that viewed it positively. Notwithstanding Putin’s hulking claims of restoring national pride, it is clear that Russians could do with some good cheer.

A few friendly extraterrestrials won’t be half bad.

Time was that the country didn’t have to look so far to find friends. India, known to Russians as the land of Bollywood showman Raj Kapoor, had it in a warm embrace. Russia’s role in building India’s defence and manufacturing sectors is well preserved in history. But with the demise of the Soviet era, some say the legendary friendship is an anachronism. “For all our claims of understanding Moscow, we need to remember that the Moscow of today is a very different place,” says Pripuran Singh Haer, who served as India’s ambassador to Iran and is now secretary-general
of the Delhi-based India-Russia Chamber of Commerce. “The Soviets were, by and large, fascinated by India. The challenge for India now is to find relevance among the Russian youth, who are exposed to the best of Europe.”

In a world where commerce is the fastest vehicle for building bridges, those comments are a cue for Indian businesses to court the Russian consumer starved of options. Notwithstanding his aggressive nationalism, Putin knows that the shortage of public goods could dent his popularity among the Russian youth who are used to the good things in life, argues Rajrishi Singhal, geoeconomist with Mumbai-based foreign relations think tank Gateway House. But by all indications, India hasn’t exactly grabbed the opportunity.

According to Department of Commerce data, Russia accounts for an anaemic 0.7% of India’s exports in the last five years. (Its share in Indian imports isn’t much better: a shade less than 1%.) Exports to the U.S., meanwhile, have averaged 11.9% of India’s total kitty. In FY15, India-Russia trade stood at a severely below par $6.3 billion, with $2.1 billion coming from Indian exports. The two countries have set a target of $30 billion in trade by 2025. Compare that with over $64 billion worth of trade India already does with the U.S. “If there was any advantage to be derived by being in the Russian market at a time when the rest of the world has withdrawn from it, Indian firms haven’t been able to exploit it,” says Haer.

Does that signal a monumental lost opportunity, given Russia remains a “strategic market”, as Harkirat Singh, managing director of outdoor-apparel maker Woodland, one of the early Indian companies to have made inroads in the country, describes it? Or does a struggling Russia not matter to an India that is basking in its newfound clout in the West engineered by a savvy Prime Minister? Those are complex questions, but Haer says “there is no way” Indian businesses can ignore Russia. The crisis will pass, and the market is bound to grow. “We simply cannot miss out.”

He finds support in Singhal. Russia is going to increasingly look east due to the sanctions from the West, and there are fewer barriers to doing business with Russia than with mainland Europe, Singhal points out.

Our e-mails to the Russian embassy in Delhi went unanswered, but Global Counsel’s report shows most MNCs are also thinking like Haer. “[Even though] the overwhelming majority of firms have a bleak assessment of Russia … twice as many firms are committed to the Russian market and expanding their presence there as those that are reducing it,” the report says. Food retailer Cargill has announced a new plant in Russia and bought a stake in a Black Sea port, while consumer goods giant Unilever has expanded its product offerings in the country, even though both remain antsy over the direction of the Russian market and public policy. The report calls this strategy “doubling down” and offers multiple explanations: “One is that the firms are holding their options open. Another is that they genuinely see countercyclical opportunities and are seizing them.”

There is a third, far more significant reason. Russia under Putin has made giant strides in business friendliness. In 2011, the country ranked 120 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, when Putin decided to enter the top 50 by 2015 and the top 20 by 2018. Today, Russia ranks 51 on the index. Be it in getting credit or paying taxes, it has shown consistent improvement across categories—some of it miraculous. For instance, in the “getting electricity” indicator, where Russia ranked 143, it now ranks 29. But murky geopolitics has taken the sheen off those achievements: Tellingly, it is placed 170 in the “trading across borders” indicator, below Pakistan and a clutch of sub-Saharan countries.

“SOME PEOPLE SAY you shouldn’t have come now,” Singh of Woodland tells us. The Singhs’ family-owned company and Woodland’s parent, Aero Club, first entered Russia in the Soviet era, selling four million pairs of shoes annually. Singh was then a student in Russia. “Back then you could not sell directly to the consumer. It was a government-to-government relationship. Business was very safe, because when you are working with the government your payments are secure and commitments are kept,” he recalls.

The breakup of the Soviet Union proved disastrous for Woodland. The company lost a lot of money trying to do business with fly-by-night operators that had cropped up amid the chaos. It didn’t suffer alone: inflation, cumbersome customs procedures and tax laws, the rise of a mafia, and an unreliable banking system in the 1990s made it difficult for all foreign companies to do business with post-Soviet Russia, writes Sanjay Deshpande of the University of Mumbai’s Department of Eurasian Studies in the book Significance of Indo-Russian Relations in the 21st
Century. To compound matters, there was the August 1998 financial crisis that sent the rouble into a free fall.

India’s exports to Russia (pharma products, machinery, and apparel are the major export items), in particular, copped a blow when the key port of Odessa became part of Ukraine with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Exporters had to find alternate routes, through the Suez Canal and via Finland and The Netherlands, resulting in far longer delivery times. Woodland’s shipments, for instance, take 45 days to reach Moscow after setting sail from Mumbai. As a result, the cost of Indian products when they arrive in Russia makes it tough to compete with European goods. “Shipments from Germany reach Russia in four or five days,” says Haer. “Why would the Russians choose Indian products when they take so much longer?”

Singh, the third generation in the family business, is conscious of the historical baggage even as he takes Woodland back to Russia. “I see this as an opportunity, as not too many people are thinking of entering the country at this time,” he says. “It is a big economy, and in the long term it has to become stable. If we can survive now, we will do well later.” The company has a centralised warehouse in Moscow that caters to multiple markets including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Omsk, Vladivostok, Kazan, and Chelyabinsk. Sales happen through multi-brand outlets as well as e-commerce sites, and there are plans to
start exclusive Woodland outlets by the middle of next year.

The ride won’t be easy. For starters, any company going back to Russia now has to shake off the comfortable, state-supported ways of the past. For over four decades, Indian exporters depended on the Soviet foreign trade organisations and Government of India departments and banks to secure contracts, writes Deshpande. “They executed the contracts without knowing the ground realities, like consumer preferences,” and Russian policymakers feel that Indian businesses have not been able to keep up with competition and the changing norms of doing business in the country.


However, assuming that the state hand has disappeared is naive. Recently, Russia opened up to dairy imports from India, thanks to the embargo on food imports from the West. But only two Indian companies, Parag Milk Foods and Schreiber Dynamix, received clearance from the Russian government, thanks to an archaic regulation that a dairy exporter must own at least a thousand milking animals. India’s parleys to relax this clause have been time consuming. On the Indian side too, progress has been impeded thanks to reported delays in finalising a disease control protocol by the Export Inspection Council. “For trade to flourish, the governments have to recede and let businesses have a free hand. But in the case of India and Russia, the governments are very much in control,” a former diplomat tells us on the condition of anonymity. “This is one of the key reasons for the stagnation in trade.”

Russia’s banking system is another weak link. With economic growth slowing to 4.1% and credit slowing due to steep key interest rates, Russian banks are under stress. Moody’s Investors Service forecast that bad loans in the banking system would jump to 15% by the end of 2015 from 9.5% at the start of this year. The country has over 800 licensed banks, simply too many say experts, forcing the central bank to shut mismanaged and undercapitalised banks. But despite the surfeit of banks and the reforms, Singh of Woodland says opening a corporate bank account in Russia can be an ordeal.

There are other challenges peculiar to the country, notably its daunting  geography. Pharmaceutical major Dr. Reddy’s (No. 84 on the Fortune India 500), which entered Russia in 1992, says it takes about a month to ship its products to Russia, and another month for the products to reach the eastern corners of the vast country due to challenging logistics conditions. Temperatures in several parts of Russia tend to fall way below the freezing point, and it can be extremely frustrating for a patient who ventures out in the cold to not find a medicine in the store. “But it is very difficult to predict what will be needed three or four months from now in some far-flung corner of Russia,” says M.V. Ramana, the company’s executive vice president and head of branded markets, India and emerging countries. The long time taken for shipments to travel from India also adds to the futility of forecasting demand.

Just like in India, a company can sink a lot of money in Russia and not gain any substantial footing, Ramana adds. You need to be clear about the value you are providing, and then be flexible in your strategy to overcome the country’s unique constraints. Dr. Reddy’s, for instance, decided to shift from a forecasting-led model to a consumption-based model. The company collects information from retailers every day and has created buffers in its central warehouse from where new supplies are shipped as soon as stocks get consumed. Orders are placed at the Indian manufacturing facility based on inventory movement.

RAMANA SAYS ONE TRAIT of Russian consumers makes all the trouble worthwhile: their brand loyalty. “Russians are brand conscious and reward you when you keep a long-term view,” he says. “Since entering Russia, we have witnessed two crises—the 1998 rouble crisis and the 2008 global meltdown. Many companies several times our size quit the Russian market, but we stayed on.

Today we are the No. 1 Indian pharmaceutical company in Russia [by volume]. The companies that had left haven’t been able to find a footing again.” Dr. Reddy’s crossed $200 million in sales in Russia in 2011 and claims to be growing at 14% annually. Revenue for the second quarter of FY16 stood at $45 million, down 29% year-on-year. However, it grew 11% year-on-year in constant currency terms. “There was complete chaos when the currency broke the barrier and got devalued,” Abhijit Mukherjee, the company’s chief operating officer, said in an analyst call referring to the fallout of the sanctions. “Retail trade tried to increase prices, so basically on a wallet which was getting leaner, it was a double whammy. I think the turmoil is over,” he added. Dr. Reddy’s now employs 850 people in Russia, out of which 840 are Russians and 80% are women.

Singh’s big learning from Woodland’s two innings in the country is that “the Russians like to become friends first”. The advantage: They stick by you when the going gets tough. There is a view that the harsh climate and turbulent past have made Russians partial to stability and predictability, qualities that a company can demonstrate by not running away at the first sign of trouble. Those are also qualities that endear a company to its employees. “Once they trust you, they stick by you and help you grow,” says Singh.

Given Woodland’s past association with the country, it already had allies there. But this time, the company didn’t employ the same people it had decades ago. “To do business now you have to hire the new generation. This time our sales people are mostly 30-35-year-olds. They understand brands better and know how to do business like the Europeans,” says Singh.

But old loyalties remain handy. Singh tells us of a time he had to leave the Woodland stall at a Russian trade exhibition for an urgent meeting, putting two Indian colleagues in charge. The problem: They couldn’t speak Russian. Coincidentally, Singh got a call from a former Russian associate he hadn’t spoken to in years. Out of desperation, Singh asked him for help in manning the stall till he returned. The meeting lasted much longer than he had anticipated, and the associate ended up spending the whole day at the stall “though he didn’t have to”, says Singh.

WHILE FIRMS LIKE WOODLAND AND DR. REDDY’S are hustling it out in Russia, such examples are too few to make a meaningful dent in the deep-rooted inertia. Business will get a crucial fillip with the launch of the International North South Transport Corridor through Iran, a ship-rail-road route connecting India with Russia and the markets of Central Europe. An intergovernmental panel recently cleared the draft transit and customs agreements to set the corridor in motion.

Haer suggests that so long as Russia-bound businesses get such enabling conditions, they wouldn’t be bothered about Putin’s larger troubles. Trade cannot be equated with politics,” he says. “An apparel manufacturer in Karol Bagh is not interested in foreign policy.” If anything, experts say India’s relationship with Russia hasbeen freed from ideological baggage under the Putin regime.

Writes Deshpande: “In the Soviet era, bilateral ties were cast in the paradigm of Cold War compulsions … but Putin has put partnership with India on the solid base of … ‘the concurrence of long-term national and geopolitical and economic interests of Russia and India’.”

That said, several insiders we spoke to point out that business ought to be a two-way street, and Russian firms need to do more to demonstrate interest and build trust in India. Between April 2000 and September 2015, Russia invested $1.07 billion in India, a measly 0.4% of India’s foreign direct investment receipts. “Many Russian firms find it very difficult to participate in the tendering process in India because all the forms and documents are in English,” says Haer. But it is hard to have empathy for that problem at a time when India has emerged the world’s top FDI destination, attracting tens of billions of dollars from other non-Anglophone countries like Japan and the Netherlands.


Two recent big-ticket announcements promise to impart new momentum in business partnerships. In July, the Russian government and Anil Ambani’s Pipavav Shipyard tied up to manufacture a naval frigate under the Make in India programme. The deal size is estimated to be upwards of $3 billion, making it the private sector’s biggest-ever warship-building project. There’s also Russian oil major Rosneft’s proposed acquisition of a 49% stake in Essar Oil (No. 14 on the Fortune India 500) for a reported $2.4 billion.

Ultimately, such deals will push both countries to cast aside history and let business refashion the relationship. “The partnerships that will be formed now will not be based on nostalgia but purely on economics,” says Ramana. That, plus our shared hunt for other intelligent life in the universe.

(Additional reporting by Rajiv Bhuva; illustrations by Nilanjan Das; first published in the December 2015 issue of Fortune India; one fact has been corrected since this story was first published.)


How Politics Destroyed India’s Biggest Ever Science Project

The hills of southern Tamil Nadu will soon shelter India’s biggest basic-science hub. Unless canards bury it first.


Artist’s impression of India’s largest science lab – the Neutrino Observatory coming up near Madurai. Illustration by Nilanjan Das, based on actual site photograph.

THENI is one of those spots in Tamil Nadu that come comfortingly suffused with temples and lush scenery and the lingering echo of the Western Ghats. “Spicy green ornaments” is how the local administration’s website describes its key attractions. But the lyricism is under threat as the district, which is home to some 12 lakh people and has Madurai (100-odd km away) as its nearest urban callout, is put through seismic churn: It has been chosen as the site of a contentious Rs 1,500 crore neutrino observatory, which will come up under 1,200 metres of rock cover in the Bodi West Hills region.

Neutrinos, one of the most abundant and least interactive particles present in nature (the sun produces over 200 trillion trillion trillion of them every second), are often described as ghost particles for their elusive quality. Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which is hosting the project, explains that the background of cosmic rays and natural radioactivity make it almost impossible to detect neutrinos on the surface of the earth. Though not nearly as fabled as the God Particle chased by physicists at Geneva-based CERN, the world’s preeminent science lab, TIFR says neutrinos hold the key to several fundamental questions on the origin of the universe, energy production in stars, and the structure of the earth. But that’s hardly the point. The observatory, unmatched in its scale, is a muscular statement of India’s arrival in the comity of Big Science, dominated by the West and feverishly courted by China.

For all that, it has raised the hackles of Vaiko, general secretary of Tamil political party MDMK. Claiming that the observatory will spell disaster for the people and environment at Theni and the neighbouring district of Idukki in Kerala, Vaiko moved the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, prompting it to issue notices to the central and state governments. At the time of going to press, government lawyers were busy formulating their response.

“When we proposed to build the laboratory (the Cabinet signed off on the funding in January), local people were fearful as they did not know anything about neutrinos and why we need a big underground [setup],” says Naba Kumar Mondal, professor at TIFR and spokesperson for the project. “On top of that, some people, for whatever reason, started a campaign to mislead the locals by saying neutrinos are dangerous for human beings.” There were canards that the underground site will be used for dumping nuclear waste (fact: there will be no such thing), that agriculture will suffer because of the heat from the project (no heat will escape), and that the facility’s 2 km access tunnel will damage a dam which Mondal says is at least 50 km from the site. And then there were questions bordering on the ridiculous. Sample this from the project’s website: “If you are building a world-class lab, all the world’s eyes will be on it. What if an atom bomb is dropped on us?”

The project team enlisted a group of scientists to quell these fears. Locals were also told about the jobs the project would create and the benefits that students in the region could expect from the observatory’s outreach activities. But none of that has been enough to convince Vaiko, who is now persuading the people of Kerala to join his tirade. The day Fortune India visited the site, the road leading up to it was being laid. Initial orders for material have also been issued to Saint-Gobain (for the glass to be used in detectors) and Essar Steel, but the litigation has thrown a huge spanner in the works.

THE IMPASSE DISMAYS people like Mondal all the more because this project was seen as a salve after India lost out to relative minnow Pakistan in the race to become Associate Member at CERN (in December)—thanks to inordinate indecision on the part of the previous government. With it went the opportunity for Indian companies to access CERN’s annual Rs 2,000 crore component-order ecosystem, to speak nothing of the priceless learning that comes along (see ‘Business and the Big Bang’ in Fortune India’s January 2014 issue).

“Science cannot wait for government policy to fall in place,” says Bikash Sinha, former director of Kolkata’s Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. Beyond its esoteric goals, particle physics is big business, with multibillion-dollar applications in everything from archaeology to nuclear medicine. Missing the CERN seat could well have set Indian science and allied industry back by at least a decade. India can hardly afford an encore.

Few know that neutrino research in this country has already traversed a circuitous path. The first underground laboratory to study the particles was set up at Karnataka’s Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in the 1960s. The lab carried out several pioneering experiments in the area of cosmic rays and particle physics. In fact, atmospheric neutrino was first detected at KGF way back in 1965. The facility was shuttered in 1992, and serious discussion and preliminary work to identify a new location started in 2001.

In 2006, scientists submitted a detailed report to the funding agencies (Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Science and Technology) about an alternate location. “By 2009, we were almost ready with a site and received environmental and forest clearance,” Mondal says. “However, the government later declared that site as a tiger reserve, and the clearance was withdrawn. We were asked to look for a new site.” The team zeroed in on Theni in 2011 and received all the statutory clearances that same year. From then, it took four years to complete the process of funding approval. Apart from the funding agencies, the process involved a set of international referees, the Scientific Advisory Council of the Prime Minister, and the (recently scrapped) Planning Commission.

Meanwhile, China is galloping ahead with its own neutrino programme. Work started last year on the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory, located 700 metres underground in the Guangdong province, and reportedly costing $300 million (Rs 2,084.6 crore). The project has attracted 30 international partners and a fair amount of gung-ho press. When we last checked, there was no talk of armageddon.

(First published in the February 2015 issue of Fortune India.)

The Third Space: Business and the Culture of Coffee in India

India may not have a Silicon Valley equivalent just yet, but something’s been brewing amid the hum in its coffee shops.


Harpreet Grover, 30, says half the techies his company employs have permanently shifted base to cafés. “In the office, people bug them with random questions,” the CEO and cofounder of Gurgaon-based assessment and campus hiring startup CoCubes (backed by Infosys cofounder N.S. Raghavan’s Ojas Partners) tells us. “They concentrate better in a café.” He adds that in some of CoCubes’ other locations, like Pune, there are no offices at all. “Instead, we give people a Rs 2,000 monthly café allowance. They can work from anywhere, so long as it’s somewhere inexpensive—mostly a CCD [Café Coffee Day]!”

Till 2012, Grover’s tribe would have fitted the stereotype of startup junkies allergic to formal workspaces. But research published that year by Ravi Mehta, who teaches business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hints that their café love reflects something more universal. “We found that ambient noise”—like in a coffee shop—“induces distraction, and a moderate amount of distraction helps you move away from very focussed thinking, which in turn enhances creativity,” says Mehta. “Previous research has argued positive correlation between creativity and risk-taking. That speaks well with innovation and entrepreneurship, which involve the willingness to take risks.”

Risk is a word Grover and his co-founder Vibhore Goyal understand well: Both are IIT-Bombay grads who left promising jobs at consultancy Inductis and Microsoft Research Centre, respectively, to start CoCubes,which has been adjudged one of India’s ‘Top 10 Emerging Companies’ by Nasscom. Many in their 40-member team (average age: 27) are of the same mould.

MEHTA’S RESEARCH finds prominent mention in online chatter around the mushrooming of portals which recreate the café hum for those who need their fix on the go. Coffitivity, one such portal, even made it to Time magazine’s best 50 in 2013. While Mehta studied predominantly North American individuals, he says the creativity-boosting effect of the sound is a “human phenomenon” that should be just as valid in the Indian context. But the marginal status of the creative type—innovators and entrepreneurs—in India meant no one here had time for such trivia.

The attitude is now changing, with the rush of big money and media attention sparking unprecedented interest in the anatomy of the entrepreneur, a la Silicon Valley. And, intuitively, cafés are emerging as a key symbol. It’s not just about eccentric geniuses though. “Cafés are a blessing for sales guys, who need to park themselves somewhere between meetings,” says Grover.

“I conduct most of my meetings in coffee shops—including with investors and clients,” says Arpit Gupta, the twentysomething cofounder of Piquor, a startup based in Gurgaon that helps companies connect with their target audience through branded selfies. “They are accessible, comfortable, and no one bothers you if you sit for long hours. Importantly, they are cheap.” That last point resonates loud and clear within the entrepreneurial community. “That’s why we love CCD. Startups can’t afford Starbucks,” says Grover.

The accent on affordability is a departure from the origins of the coffee culture in India. “It was triggered during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when India’s upwardly mobile middle-class was thriving on the IT boom,” says Ankur Bisen, senior vice president (retail) at consultancy Technopak. But for patrons like Grover and Gupta, it’s all about the idea of coffee rather than an indulgent drink.

“IN THE GLOBAL NORTH, people still go to a café to drink coffee first,” says Ravi Murugesan, former vice president at Mumbai-based language services startup Cactus Communications and consultant with an HR startup in Wisconsin, who now works in the development sector and shuffles between Africa and India. Murugesan says in India—where per capita coffee consumption is a measly 90 gm compared to 4.2 kg in the U.S.—it’s the third space between work and home, a space occupied by pubs in the West. “The few places in India that have a homegrown coffee culture, like my hometown Chennai, don’t have the same buzz around cafés. Everywhere else, the label on the mug matters less than familiarity and vibe.”

The café’s informal vibe is finding use in traditional businesses too. Vipin Clement, senior talent development executive at the Bangalore office of British risk management, reinsurance, and human resources solutions provider Aon, talks of “no-obligation meetings” which are increasingly popular at mature organisations. “As part of succession planning, more and more organisations today encourage business heads to meet prospective talent at cafés. Both parties know there’s no immediate intent to hire; such interactions just won’t work in a typical office.”

(Published in the October 2014 issue of Fortune India, with inputs from Anjali Kapoor. Artwork by Nilanjan Das.)

Why I hope #AchheDin won’t reach Andaman’s primitive Jarawas

Amid the euphoric surround sound announcing Achhe Din (“Good Times”) for every Indian courtesy Modi, newspapers recently reported the anointment of Dambaru Sisa, a member of Odisha’s primitive Bonda tribe, as a Biju Janata Dal MLA. “I do not want framed photographs of my people decorating drawing rooms of the rich,” Mr Sisa said. “I do not want people making money from development programmes meant for Bondas.”

The nexus of tribal life and development reminded me of a brush I had with Andaman’s primitive Jarawas 10 years ago. (It was actually during the 2004 tsunami Christmas, when I was vacationing at the pristine beaches of the Andamans – and later at relief camps across the islands – but more on that in a separate post.)


The Jarawas of the Andamans; photo courtesy The Unreal Times

Not much is known about Mr Modi’s views on India’s tribes. But based on my experience with the Jarawas and their relationship with money/development, I am not sure if his Achhe Din paradigm should stretch quite as far as them. And no, I don’t say that as a breast-beating, development-will-ruin-the-tribal-way-of-life-spewing, jhola-type. I say that purely as an anxious middle-class tourist, for whom Jarawa-watching has traditionally been a money’s-worth part of what is otherwise a ridiculously expensive holiday destination.

Here’s an edited excerpt from something I wrote immediately after my 2004 trip that explains my stand. Pardon the mawkishness; I was only 21.

…The protected territory marked for the Jarawas has the ambience of a safari, so that the tourist sitting in his moving vehicle constantly hopes to “spot” Jarawas as if they were a featured species on Animal Planet. In my own vehicle, at least three cameras were ready to carry back home proud evidences of having seen a “real” Jarawa. At every Jarawa-less winding of the hilly road, my father and my cousin would let out sighs of disappointment. They had had enough of trees and rocks, they now wanted the real thing.

Before entering the territory, forest officials had expressly forbidden us from giving the Jarawas any food or money, or getting too cozy with them. Thus alerted, the word Jarawa invoked several exciting images. Mystery. Animal power. A mythical cannibalistic relationship with the civilised world. A language-less-ness that added to the occult feeling. In other words, a platter full of delicious assumptions of difference. The typical tourist spends money traveling precisely to max out on such difference. Seeing a buck-naked Jarawa is quite the jackpot for him. 

(Of course, later in our trip, stranded at a tsunami-hit jetty, we would learn from a forest officer how Jarawa men now hum DDLJ songs and love wearing T-shirts and pants. The officer would also tell us how in his hurry to reach his flooded village, he had to depute a Jarawa youth to man an outpost meant to guard a portion of the Jarawa territory from prying eyes. But at this point of the trip, our innocence was still in tact.)

Sensing my family’s growing restlessness, our driver decided to entertain us with stories of his daily rendezvouses with Jarawa folk on the route. “I can guarantee you will see one today,” he said. “And don’t be bothered by the forest people’s nonsense. Of course you can give money! They know what money is. Just don’t give a badi patti, else they may get pissed off.”

Now for all our eagerness, we were not about to part with a badi patti (100 rupees or more) for the pleasure of Jarawa company. Like all good middle-class tourists, everything we did followed a strict budget. But why would a poor Jarawa not like being given more money?

They are only familiar with fivers and tenners yet,” the driver explained, “because that’s how much tourists generally give. If you give any more, the buggers think it’s fake money and get very angry. They even attacked a friend’s car a few days ago…”

Sadly then, our mysterious, brutish, animal-like Jarawas were getting civilised. The good thing was, it wasn’t happening fast enough to make people like us redraw their travel budgets.

PS: We did see a Jarawa that day. I do not have photographs.

Who renamed my city?!

RAVIWORDLYTIESRavi. The first guest writer at Wordly Ties. Head, I-Osmosis, the premier Indian firm offering English language teaching services to ESL learners ( Has lived in close to a dozen cities around the world, including  some before he was formally born. Anal about language. Fierce traditionalist, Bombay loyalist but compulsive introvert because he still cannot make the tsssssk sound. Upset at governments, to the point of ranting.

The world that I know of seems to have gotten city names right. They’re short, often with just two or three syllables. They can be pronounced differently – “shi-ca-go” for an American or “chi-ca-go” for an Indian who goes about his English-speaking life with spelling pronunciation – but they’re easy to spell and remember.

Strangely, here in India, Jingoistic government officials who should be given straight-jackets instead of policy-making authority have been sane enough to stick to short names when indulging in the contemptible act of changing the names of cities. Thus, Bombay did not become ‘Mumbadevimahanagar’. ‘Madras’ did not regress all the way to ‘Chennaipattinam’. Talk about Best Practices.

So although ‘Bengaluru’, which hopes to become an incurable pandemic of a name like ‘Mumbai’, may thwart any chance of the city underneath the name to develop the aura of history and allure that New York does, the Bangies – if that’s what they like to be called – should be thankful that they are not living in Bendakaalooru.

Bombay – III

Considering that it was in Bombay last time that I fell simultaneously out of and into love, the current inning is turning into a bit of a letdown. It’s all one big case of Bangalore redux for me so far – after having resolved that I will turn into a ferocious socialite the moment I set foot in Bombay, reversing two years of moss gathering and self pleasuring in Bangalore, I have not managed to make a single new acquaintance yet, if you discount my ex-colleague’s brother-in-law who was clearly impressed enough by my general knowledge (read: the HSBC stamp on me) to think of me as a matrimonial candidate for someone in his family, till I told him I am actually just a “writer looking for work”. Or my friend’s DJ brother’s DJ friends, they of the relentless enthusiasm to get me stoned and cutting-edge hiphopspeak . I don’t know whether I look like kin to them because of my rebellious unkempt looks, but I am having trouble explaining that it may not be a good idea for them to go Red Indian with me because my stoner jokes still revolve around Neetu Singh, whereas the world has clearly moved on. To save them from disappointment, I have been spending most of my time in theatres or locked up in the bedroom calling up non-existent potential employers. Alone.

The main reason for Solitude 2.0 is perhaps that I am yet unable to make myself a part of the concentric circles that define the lives of every girl I know in the city – circles converging on a maniacal work and party regime. There there, don’t go all ‘awwwww’ at me. I have been doing rounds of the city in crowded local trains (why, I even did a return trip in general class yesterday!) and watching sold-out films all right. The only issue is that my sleep cycle is still a bit screwed to be compatible with those who can give my social life a facelift. I still go to bed at the blasphemous eleventh hour of the night, and I still watch films in the early-evening shows, not to mention my acute sensitivity to collective fun given its implications on my savings.

But as always, time spent in idle self-contemplation ever so often opens the doors of perception (besides making me want to smoke again). Since falling in love was one of the subtle agendas of my return to Bombay, I have been harking back on ALL the SMSs I have ever received with the word ‘love’ in them. It helps that I suffer from OCD and still have all the nine SIM cards I have used since getting my first cell phone in 2002. These do not include the two that were stolen from me, along with the phones, in Delhi in 2004 and 2005, respectively. That’s not a big loss though, thanks to my mirror-shattering geekiness back then. Anyway, it has been an interesting study, because in these past seven years I have fallen and generally been in love and love-like things five times, with women from a range of very different cities in North, West and East India.

What stands out is the peculiar vocabulary of romantic expression used by these women. While women from the north and the east have been quite liberal with the use of the first-person pronoun in their love missives, those from the west, from Bombay I mean, have shown a striking aversion to the use of “I”. And what a world of difference there is between “I love you” and “Love you”! Whereas the former establishes the coda of the relationship in no uncertain terms – “I love YOU (and no one else)”, the latter warns against such complacency – “love you (and him, and him, and him too)”. The missing “I” renders the admission of love eerily impersonal and transient, as in “you are worthy of my love right now”, “or I am feeling love for you as of this moment” rather than “I am in love with you.” It has been too recurring and prevalent a pattern to write off as a coincidence, and I think it makes sense given that Bombay is truly the city of the missing “I”.

Bombay teaches you how to hoard your “I”, lest you distribute it too freely among the clamouring many. It does not prevent “I” from loving, but it does discourage”I” from loving too easily and exclusively.  “I” is at once precious and irrelevant in Bombay, because its sweltering public places and parties often do not have the room for and the solemnity to accommodate this demanding vowel. Bombay is more comfortable with “we” or nothing at all channeling love and cheerfulness at a well-defined recipient but choosing to remain a slippery silhouette itself. Love you, Bombay.