Monthly Archives: June 2006

Everything I need to know about India, I learn from my chauffeur

I went down to town this morning with Jack (not his real name), my trusted chauffeur, who is an Indian Muslim that speaks good English, Telegu, Urdu and Hindi, that I might go to the bookshop and then to have breakfast; and also because I wanted to widen my social network with a visit to the British Library just not very far away from town center.

On the way, I turned to him and asked him if he had his breakfast.

Jack: Yes Sir. I had my breakfast.

Me: What did you have?

Jack: Some roti and omellete.

Me: Say, how much do you normally spend on food?

Jack: For my family of four i.e. me, my wife and two small children, I spend for rice and wheat, around Rs1,600 per month. Vegetables around Rs500 per month and if I got enough money, I buy some mutton. That is about Rs500 per month. Total about Rs2,600 per month. (That is about USD59 per month. For all conversion rates, roughly, Rs1000:RM83:USD23).

Me: Is that what the normal people spend?

Jack: That is about right for normal “middle class” people.

Me: What about rent? How much do you pay?

Jack: Depends on where. If like in Banjara Hills around your area, bungalows will cost about Rs50,000 to Rs70,000. Apartments like yours will cost about Rs25,000 to Rs35,000. But in outside area, you can get a 2 bedroom apartment for about Rs2,000 per month.

Me: I see. What about your children? They go to the government school for free?

Jack: Oh no. Government school is free but they are very bad! The teachers are very bad. They cannot even speak English. Most of the schools have no tables and chairs. There are no rules and regulations. I don’t want to send my children there.

Me: Then where do you send your children to?

Jack: Private schools.

Me: How much do you spend on that?

Jack: For my 8 year old daughter who has just enrolled, I spend Rs4,000 for registration. Then Rs2,000 for books and Rs600 for school uniform. Every three months, I pay a school fee of Rs4,000.

Me: Wow, that is not exactly cheap! And I presume the cost will increase as your child goes to higher levels?

Jack: Yes, the fee will increase by about Rs400 per level.

Me: Do normal people send their children to these private schools or are you an exceptional case?

Jack: Normal middle class people that works like me (his definition of middle class includes anyone who has a secure job and above) sends their children to these private schools. We cannot trust to let our children to go to government school.

He points to some wayside illegal fruit sellers pushing a cart.

Jack: People like these sends their children to the government school because they cannot afford it.

Me: This is terrible! If the state of the government school is like what you said, then these people will be forever poor.

Jack: Sir, I can take you to a government school one day and you see for yourself.

Me: Then there must be a lot of private schools around?

Jack: Yes. But some are also bad. You have to choose carefully.

Me: Is this situation happening only in Hyderabad or is it the same in the whole of India?

Jack: I think whole of India is the same. Even in Delhi.

After some moments of pondering.

Jack: But the rich gets so much richer. You see, those people with high paying IT jobs, more than 90% of them comes from rich families. People like us, like them (pointing to some road side people), will never be able to afford that kind of education. You also have to know people to get in.

Me: What about healthcare? Do you all get free healthcare?

Jack: The government hospital is free but there are so many people. You have to pay middle persons to get an appointment.

Me: What about those outside clinics? Do you have to pay as a citizen?

Jack: Oh yes. Those hospitals (they call clinics hospitals too) charge about Rs100 to Rs300 per consultation. Pharmacy fees is separate.

I then recall going to one of these hospitals and indeed this is so. I paid Rs100 for consultation and about Rs200 for medicine.

Me: I don’t quite really understand this. India’s tax regime is crazy. They tax you for almost everything and at very high rates indeed. Where did all these tax money go?

Jack: I don’t know. Maybe building roads.

Me: But roads won’t cost that much money.

Jack: But the middle person takes a lot of money. Even the MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) takes money. A road that costs maybe Rs50,000 to build, they will bill the government as Rs50lakhs (Rs5,000,000). A lot of money gets spent that way. For example, in government schools, the school provide lunch for the children but the food there is terrible! But who made the money? The middle person! There is too much corruption in India.

Me: What then you think is your future?

Jack: I don’t think I have much future here in Hyderabad. I do not earn a lot. I don’t even have a bank account. My daughter is 8 years old now and in 10 years time, she will get married. Where am I going to get the dowry money?

Me: How much is the dowry, normally?

Jack: For us, maybe about Rs1 lakh (Rs100,000). Sometimes, the other party can ask for Rs2 or even Rs3lakhs. Depends on how educated is the male family. The more educated, the more they will ask.

Me: This is absurd. It should be the other way round.

Jack: Yeah, but this is how it works here. The Rs1 lakh or so is just cash. I have to prepare for some gold, buy TV, fridge, beds, etc. But the male side will bear the cost of the dinner.

Me: And after all these, there are still so many cases of bride burning! What’s this place??

Jack: Yeah, it is not easy to live here. I am now looking for a job in Dubai. My brother is there and he is helping me to look for a job. If I go there, maybe I will have some chances. I don’t mind working hard. Any hard job I can do, not only being a driver.

Me: Well, all the best to you. By the way, our company has operations in Dubai too. Let me know if you need some help.

And by this time, I have reached home, with a copy of the June’s edition of the Harvard Business Review in hand and the British Library card in my pocket. And I begin to think, what has all these magazines and libraries got to do with a normal, struggling but hardworking Indian. But I believe it has a lot to do with them. Give India some time. It will catch up.

Jack: So Sir, what plans do you have tonight?

Me: I have an appointment to watch a movie tonight at about 6pm. I may go in their car. Anyways, I will call you half an hour earlier to confirm.

Jack: What about your laundry, Sir?

Me: Oh yeah. Maybe you can collect it and pass to me this evening.

Jack: Ok. Thank you.

Me: Thank you.

Wow, it has been a long journey. The whole conversation above actually took place in parts and in between my stops.

India is really a mystery. Incredible India!

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Will this happen in Malaysia?

First, the censors passed the film. Then the government banned it. Then the high court removes the ban. And now the government strikes back.

I almost thought I will miss this film. Oh, by the way, I have checked out the Prasad IMAX cinema. Watched Poseidon on the very big screen (not 3D) and it was an absolutely wonderful cinema. Finally, something to look forward to! The cost of the ticket is not cheap though, or at least not as cheap as in Malaysia. It costs about RM15 (USD4.1) per ticket versus about RM10 (USD2.7) per ticket in Malaysia. But as many people know, the ticket prices in Malaysia is very low compared to a lot of countries. But as far as I am concerned, I am worse off. So, who says India is cheap?


Hyderabad, June 22: The State government on Thursday decided to move a division bench of the High Court against the order of a single judge striking down a government order prohibiting screening of the controversial movie The Da Vinci Code. Sources in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) said that the government plans to appeal after receiving a copy of the full judgement.

Justice G. Raghuram of the AP High Court had struck down an order by the government prohibiting exhibition of the film on Wednesday. But The Da Vinci Code’s distributor is not discouraged.

Stating that the State government had every right move court for an appeal B. Subrahmanyam of Lakshmi Ganapathi Films said, “As far as we are concerned, there is a clear High Court judgement lifting the ban and we will start screening the film from Friday, June 23. We plan to have one show each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Prasad’s multiplex at 3.15 pm. From Monday onwards there will be three screenings.” In other theatres of the city and the State, the film will be released on June 30, Mr Subrahmanyam said.

Meanwhile, Christian and Muslim organisations while welcoming the decision of the government to go in for an appeal, said protest demonstrations will be held at the Prasad’s multiplex on Friday.

The National Congress of Indian Christians youth wing president and general secretary C.A. Daniel Adams and G.S. Alwyn Enoch respectively said, “We went to the theatre on Thursday night but found that there were no posters of the film put up. Nor was the booking on. We will go again on Friday and hold demonstrations.” Earlier during the day, they met special chief secretary (Home) Paul Bhuyan and expressed their unhappiness over the “presentation/argument” given by the government on The Da Vinci Code film in the court.

They demanded that the government should ensure that the Telugu version o the film is not allowed to come into the market and impose ban on dubbing the film in any language. Even the St. Josephs Cathedral Parishioners’ Association demanded that the government immediately appealed against the release of the film.

MIM legislator Asaduddin Owaisi welcomed the government decision to move court and said that it reflected that the government was really concerned about the feelings of minorities. He appealed to all the cine-goers to respect the religious sentiments of the Christians and Muslims and said they should not go and see the movie. “Sky is not going to fall if the people do not watch this movie which hurts the religious sentiments of crores of Christians and Muslims. If they encourage production of such movies now, tomorrow another film hurting the sentiments of other communities will be produced and screened,” he said.


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Is India a bubble?

After a couple of weeks in India, I began to think to myself, “How could a place such as India with such poor infrastructure and such a large population that is still not prepared can aspire to be an economic superpower?” Of course, anyone who has at least some interests in what is going on in the world would have read, or at least heard of, Thomas Friedman’s megahit “The World Is Flat”.

With the rising costs in India, which include fuel prices which is more than double of that in Malaysia and the rising cost of utilities and labour, not to mention the fickle mindedness of the the labour pool which job hops like mad, I will think that unless India do something to address the basic problems, the Indian bubble will burst very soon.

The economic foundation of India is not the same as in China. China, for what you would want to call it, is still basically a command economy. When something needs to be done, the central government will issue an instruction and it will get done. This system did prove itself to be rather effective in such a giant country like China which has to cope with accelerated growth.

India is the world largest democracy and democracy is not always the best way forward. It may even hamper growth even before the country has grown. To deal with acclerated growth in a huge country like India and China, I do think that democracy will be quite a handicap. This may be one reason why the government of India is fretting on why they are still lagging behind China by so far.

All these are speaking from a speed of growth point of view.

The Indian model, if the government is persistent enough to put through reforms to eliminate bureaucracy and corruption and improve on it’s infrastructure and mass education, will come out of the race with China a stronger country. One key reason is that India is more of a knowledge and services based economy whilst China is still a rather manufacturing based economy. The way the Indian economy is built and it’s foundation in democracy and individual enterprise will make it a more resilient economy. But then again, the government must get things moving forward as soon as possible. Before the bubble bursts.

For them

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In the land of Ashoka the Great

Finally! My first blog entry after almost coming to 2 months now. I am not sure if I still know how to blog.

The internet connection in my house now is finally working. India, or at least Hyderabad, is a very weird place. It is a place where opposites exist harmoniously with each other. I have never really seen a place where extreme opposites can co-exist at the same time. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Extreme high-tech and extreme low-tech. Extreme intelligence and extreme low awareness. Extreme rigidity and extreme flexibility.

For example, to get a mobile telephone line, you need all sorts of documentations. Pictures, passports, etc. To get a gas regulator, you need to apply for it as if you are applying for a passport. To get money transfered out of the country is so very difficult. At the same time, bribery is everywhere. This is aptly put by the tour guide in Agra. We wanted to take a picture but there is a no entry sign. The guide just asked us to go in and wanted to take the picture for us. We pointed at the sign and he said, “This is India. Everything is possible if you have money”.

I live in an apartment that costs about RM600,000 (approx. USD160,000) but just right next to it, I see many people sleeping in self-built tents made of waste wood and plastic papers which can hardly hold water if it rains. We see people peeing at the roadside everywhere. It is not uncommon to see perfectly well dressed young professionals carrying notebook computers passing urine by the roadside. On the road, everyone is rushing for time. The drivers drive very fast and beating traffic rules all the time. I almost had a heart attack the first few days I was here. But if you think that these people are super efficient and fast workers who races against time like the Hong Kong people do, then you are wrong. In other things except driving a motorised vehicle, to get them to get something done will take ages. They promise but they never come. If you think Malaysian time is bad, then the Indian can be worse. If in Malaysia, you say 7.00pm people will turn up at 7.30pm, then here, if they say they will do something for you at 7.00pm, you can expect them to turn up no earlier than 10.00pm.

It is interesting to see what the other expats are saying about their experience, and if you are interested, here is one thread:

All these makes India a really interesting place to be but not everyone will like this place. It is either you love it or you hate it. The people are at once genuinely very nice but also at once very greedy for money. Sometimes I do not know what to make of all these but this is very good adventure.

The weather is very hot and reached about 45 degrees celsius during our trip to Delhi-Jaipur-Agra. I almost got sick on the third day after visiting the Taj Mahal. Never ever visit India during March-September. Avoid it like a plague if you cannot stand the heat and monsoon rain. November, December and January are good months to visit India.

I do miss the food back in Malaysia although the Biryani rice here is superb. Luckily our company has a restaurant here just next to the office and the chef is from Ipoh, the same town where I came from. Thanks to him, I can still manage the food here and at the same time, get adventurous and try out other restaurants.

The rule of thumb is really never to eat or drink anything from the roadside. Many people, including the locals, really got sick from it. So wherever we went to eat, we made sure that it is a proper restaurant which has a proper water filtration system. We drink from bottled water. Coca-cola and Pepsi is doing very well with their own brands, Kinley and Aquafina, respectively. I think I will take these precautions until a time when I can feel really comfortable with the food and water here. But still, I will avoid a roadside sugarcane water stall like a plague.

I am settling down well with my job although there are many things to catch up. At least right now, I know how to differentiate an Iranian marble from an Indian marble.

In terms of social life, there are no Go clubs here but I have yet to check out the film club except for a courtesy phone call. I have not been to the cinemas but the hottest show now is “Fanaa”, something not unlike “Dil Se” in theme. They banned the “Da Vinci Code” here and I thought the censors in Malaysia were terrible.

Well, so much for this first post.

The Taj Mahal: “A tear drop on the cheek of time” – Rabindranath Tagore

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