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August 15, 2011

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An intriguing insight into Indian life

EIGHT years ago, in pursuit of an international education, I found myself in India. Divided from China by the Himalayas, India is a place that sounds so familiar to us, yet we know so little about other than a few old Hindi songs and the acknowledgement that it has a booming IT industry.

I still remember the first night I arrived in Mumbai: waiting in the burning heat of the airport lacking air-conditioning, getting lost in the monsoon-washed parking lot, surviving the five-hour bumpy ride up the hills near Pune - it was not an easy start, but by the end of my two years spent in India, I realized how fascinating the country is. The richness of its culture, the amount of energy and aspirations, and even the way it functions despite a poorly organized environment. It's a place one takes time to discover, to understand and to appreciate.

I knew I had more to learn there. After completion of my university degree in the United States, I decided to return to India, to the nation that had once sparked a spectrum of emotions in me. This time, living in the country's most cosmopolitan city - Mumbai, working at one of the largest Indian industrial houses - the Mahindra Group, and traveling across the country has benefited me a truly Indian experience.

Nothing tells a better story of the ancient times than a historical site. Amer Fort, one of the major tourist attractions of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, was built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh I. It is often known as "Amer Palace" as a palace complex with red sandstone and marble is laid out within its walls.

This fort is well connected with the Jaigarh Fort, located above the same range of hills, by a subterranean passage. The passage was meant as an escape route in times of war. Climbing up the fort, embracing the breeze from all directions and overlooking the surrounding mountains and rivers, I could not help thinking of the Great Wall. It strikes me how these two iconic heritage sites exert such similar spirits of power, ambition and vision.

An experience one cannot miss in India is to attend an Indian wedding. Indian weddings are known for being elaborate, large in scale and long in duration. Given the diverse nature of India, wedding traditions vary across religion, region, community and family.

I had the fortune to attend a north Indian wedding with a south Indian touch. The baarat where the groom arrives on a horse with all his relatives dancing, the bridal wear lehenga and the wedding rituals with the pandit (priest) were strong indicators of north Indian tradition, while an important south Indian element was when the groom tied the taali (a yellow piece of thread) around the bride's neck.

Interestingly, there are a lot of similarities between Indian and Chinese marriage culture such as the emphasis on family involvement, the importance of choosing an auspicious wedding date, and even the small traditional practices such as hiding shoes in exchange for money at the wedding (except that the Chinese hide the bride's shoes while the Indians hide the groom's shoes).

Mumbai, at first sight, appears to be rather chaotic and disorganized. On one hand, one gets frustrated by the endless traffic and poor infrastructure; on the other hand, one enjoys the vibrant social life, the culture of a true melting pot, and how things magically work out despite all the complications - it is a land of contradictions. Home to numerous domestic industrial houses, multinational companies and Bollywood, it attracts the best educated people, the most innovative ideas and investments from all over the world - it is a land of opportunity. It did not take long before I started immersing myself to become part of it, and finding it difficult not to fall in love with such a human, tolerant and aspiring city.

Although still a relatively poor country, India does not lack a number of world-class local-born corporates. Fluency in English, long-term vision, open mindset and creativity have helped many Indian entrepreneurs and managers rise on both domestic and international stages.

A unique blend of tradition, multi-ethnicity, and modern development, India is truly a country of intriguing qualities and calls for a better and deeper understanding from its neighbor acrossthe Himalayas.


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