Friday, 14 November 2008

Gateway of India

I am in Mumbai, India today pitching Garlik to the VC arm of one of those huge Indian corporations that are the size of a small country.

It's my first visit to India and one thing I can say for certain is that there is serious money in this country...and serious poverty too. As I watch the breaking news about India's moon landing satellite and read todays paper with the Forbes list of Indian multi-Billionaires I am reminded again as I was in China a couple of months ago, how the old order is changing.

Mumbai is somehow much more familiar to me than Beijing was. It's the type of developing country I recognise and understand from Africa, with its dust, noise, energy, free-wheeling exuberance and raw ambition. Some people find big Indian cities crazy on their first visit. I just switched into Africa-mode and actually found Mumbai strangely calm, safe and well organised by comparison. Even the traffic lights work here! True, the taxis largly ignore them, but they do work.

I put my Africa-mode mindset to the test in a side street store. The store manager was delighted to see me, positively rubbing his hands with glee as I wandered in. "From England, Mr Tom? Man United eh, Mr Tom? Cricket eh? Just look at this one Sir, don't worry about the price. Look at this one. She will love it. Don't worry about the price, I will make you a fine, special price Sir".

So I asked the price. He looked pained as if I had pointed out an unsightly boil on his nose, but forced himself to tell me. Then the haggling began in earnest. Or rather it didn't, as I adopted a little known technique called SILENCE. I invaded his body space, stared at him quizically and went silent.

"What's the matter Mr Tom? What price do you want? Name your price. Don't be embarrased."

I said "I want the price please".

That is the correct price, he claimed, then grabbed a big calculator, theatrically proded some buttons and showed me a new price that was 10% lower. Look, he said, almost as if he was surprised himself, that is the new price? Okay? Is that okay? Why are you staring at me.

I smiled and stared. I want the price I repeated.

This went on for about half an hour. He dropped his price three more times. He hit the side of his head angrily. Threw the calculator on the floor. Begged me to say something, name a price even if it was zero. Accused me of wasting his time. Advised me to join the police if I was going to stare at people like that. Explained his family circumstances and appealed to my better nature.

Finally he stopped speaking. I stared. He stared. We stood nose to nose in a little upstairs store in a backstreet of Mumbai staring at each other in silence for five minutes. Sweat pouring from his brow. Me, smiling quizically. Then he broke "Okay", he said "take it for this price" and he threw up his hands in disgust. Then the final insult as I handed him the money "You lied. You are not from Britain at all. Where are you really from?". I smiled, invaded his bodyspace one last time and left.

On the way back to the hotel, as dusk drew in, the driver stopped off at the majestic Gateway of India, standing proudly in its faded Mumbai glory with people teeming around its base, selling giant orange balloons (why?). I swaggered around in Africa-mode, pushing past outstretched beggers, waving away balloon sellers, threatening photographers, stopping traffic imperiously as I crossed back over to my car and driver.

That's when I noticed the small boy walking along next to me. About 6 years old I would guess. No shoes. Rags. Silent. Just inside my bodyspace. Staring at me. I stared back and waved him away imperiously, like Emperor Nero. He looked at me. I looked at him and saw my son, a few years ago. I thought about the life this little boy will lead and I thought about our lives. People, if you have a computer and you can read this then you are soooo unbelievably lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky. Recession? Credit crunch? Job security? If we think we have problems, we just have no idea.

As a nearby hotel security guard wandered over with a stick to drive the small boy back into the snarling traffic I did something I never do (in Africa-mode). I reached in to my jacket, pulled out a decent sized note that would mean nothing to me in pounds and handed it over with tears behind my eyes. He looked at the note as if there must be some mistake, looked at me with empty eyes and darted back into the traffic before I changed my mind. As we drove away I looked back across to the Gateway of India. I saw him skipping, yes, skipping along. Like a 6 year old boy. Oh, God. What sort of a messed up world do we live in.

1 comment:

Bart Stevens said...

Glad you were out on time ...