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Notes on South India
Observations from a brief visit
I recently travelled to India for the first time. I visited Chennai for five days, and Pondicherry for four. This was a ludicrously short time in which to visit such a big and diverse country, but I was logistically constrained on both ends.
Before going there, I knew almost nothing about India. In preparation, I read John Keay’s India: A History and Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. I also listened to the back catalogue of three podcasts about India: Ideas of India, The Seen and the Unseen, and Empire.
Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, and Pondicherry has the slightly unusual administrative designation of being a union territory (more on this later). Chennai contains about nine million people, and, per capita, it’s about twice as rich as India as a whole. Tamil Nadu has a population of 72 million, and per capita, it’s about 50% richer than India as a whole.1
The first thing I noticed upon landing in India is that the infrastructure is remarkably good. Chennai International is like any other airport I’ve been to, except that – ironically for a city with some of the best cuisine on the planet – the food is completely disgusting. The roads are in great shape. The only exception I experienced was when we briefly travelled on dirt roads… somewhere. Our taxi driver was rather uncommunicative, so I still don’t know where I actually was. When you drive from Chennai to Pondicherry, the roads are in better quality than they are between Dublin and Donegal (the mobile data was also faster for me). Chennai has a metro system, but I didn’t get a chance to use it.
While economic growth in India has slowed to an extent, I’m told that the pace of progress in infrastructure is, if anything, increasing. It feels exciting: our hotel was surrounded by 24/7 construction sites. The labourers work in eight-hour shifts (while I was there, it rarely (never?) dipped below 30 degrees Celsius) and often have Chinese supervisors.
Indians love renaming things
The second thing I noticed was how many places have been renamed in India. Everybody knows about how Bombay is now called Mumbai, and how Calcutta is now Kolkata. But I hadn’t realised the extent of it. Renaming things is practically the national hobby. Chennai was called Madras until 1996. Pondicherry is now called Puducherry, Bangalore is now Bengaluru, Orissa is now Odisha and Mysore is now Mysuru.
Some of these renamings have really caught on – I don’t think I heard a single person utter the name ‘Madras’ on the trip. My flatmate is from Mumbai, and I’ve not once heard her say ‘Bombay’. In other cases, everyone seems to agree that the renamings are acts of tribal identity politics. Pondicherry is now officially called ‘Puducherry’, but every Indian I spoke to said that everyone still calls it Pondicherry (or Pondy, more affectionately). It was hinted to me that, if anything, it would be offensive if I called it by the new name.
So, why do Indians keep renaming things?
Most of it is the general process of decolonisation and nationalism. It would be crazy for Zimbabwe to still be called Rhodesia. I can see why you might want to transition away from names that were popularised in the colonial era. The new names also often align better with local languages and pronunciations, or are the historic names (‘Puducherry’ is the original Tamil name).
The opportunistic politicians are now trying the ultimate renaming: to rename India itself (to Bharat). Pakistan has hinted that, if India changes its name, they will change their name to India. My mischievous friend suggested that Ireland now needs to change its name to Pakistan. A complete re-assignment of all country names is the only solution radical enough to decide once and for all what Macedonia should be called.
Indian bureaucracy is insane
Before travelling, I tried to book a long-distance train in India. Taxis are eye-poppingly cheap, even for long distances – but I still thought a train would be fun. Booking a train in India, as it happens, is more complex than quantum physics.
Sneakily, the site charges you for the processing fee and currency conversion before it charges you for the ticket. It’s still a trivial amount of money, but I did end up paying considerably more than the cost of a ticket on these fees, whilst never actually succeeding in buying a ticket of any kind.
My Indian friend offered to help me out, but he couldn’t figure it out either. He created a group chat so that he could get advice from his friends. With time, more and more people were added to this chat. At one point, this group contained me and five Indians, one of whose father works for the Indian state railway company. Their advice was to give up and get a taxi.
Booking a train was uniquely difficult because I don’t have an Indian phone number. I was told that, through a series of conscious policy decisions, more and more identification and booking in India is conducted through phone numbers – so if you don’t have a +91 dialling code, you’re a second-class citizen.
Why are South Indians so good at chess?
One of the stated motivations for holding the Emergent Ventures Unconference in Chennai was the city’s strong culture of mathematics and chess. Over a third of Indian chess grandmasters are from Tamil Nadu – while Uttar Pradesh, with almost 200 million residents, doesn’t have a single one. Vishy Anand, five-time world chess champion, is from Chennai. Ramanujan was born in what became Tamil Nadu.
I haven’t looked into this. If anyone has any hypotheses for why Tamil people in particular are so good at chess, please let me know.
India has only one timezone, Indian Standard Time, which is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT. It’s slightly absurd that India is off by half an hour from everyone else – but the country is so large that it straddles two timezones, so it’s not entirely indefensible. The truly hilarious time change is when you cross the border into Nepal, when you must move your clock forward by fifteen minutes.
A fun trick is that, if you’re in the UK, you can tell what time it is in India by looking at your watch upside down. The trick only works in the winter, because India doesn’t have daylight savings time (hooray!).
I had a good chuckle when my friend joked that the timezone of Chennai is IST: Indian Stretchable Time.
India’s government is federal and has a bicameral parliament. The country consists of twenty-eight states and eight union territories. Union territories are governed directly by the central government. The largest of them is Delhi, or the National Capital Territory. Confusingly, Pondicherry refers both to the city of Pondicherry, and to the union territory of Pondicherry, which consists of four geographically unconnected cities (only one of which is Pondicherry). Other union territories include Chandigarh, India’s only centrally planned city – conceived by Swiss modernist architect Le Corbusier.
Why do union territories exist?
They all appear to share unusual geographical, historical or strategic features that mean they wouldn’t easily fit into any existing state. Pondicherry was colonised by the French, not the British – and after the British left, the French didn’t give up Pondicherry until 1954.2 Given this history, it was decided to keep Pondicherry separate from Tamil Nadu.
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was a state until 2019, when it was controversially split and reorganised into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) argued that J&K’s statehood was being exploited by Pakistan to promote terrorism, and so it needed to be under more direct government control. This involved repealing3 Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave J&K an unusual degree of autonomy as a state to begin with (it was the only state allowed to have a flag!).
Demonetisation has indeed accelerated contactless payments but it was still a stupid idea
In case you’re not aware, in November 2016, the Indian government announced that all 500 rupee and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender, effective from midnight following the announcement. This represented 86% of all currency in circulation. The population was given a window of time in which to exchange the old notes for new ones at a bank or post office. Yes, that is as insane as it sounds.
The stated motivations for demonetisation shifted over time. At first, the BJP emphasised ‘black money’. If you are concerned about organised crime or black markets being financed with cash, one thing you might do is remove the highest denominations from circulation, and require some checks on people depositing suspicious amounts of those notes. This is exactly why the 500 euro note is being phased out. But it turns out that Indian criminals are remarkably sophisticated in storing their wealth not in the form of cash. Over time, the stated goals of ‘DeMon’ shifted to the modernising benefits of card and contactless payments.
And indeed, you can now pay for a remarkable range of services in India using Google Pay and other contactless payment apps. The most extreme case I saw of this was a street vendor outside a temple, whose entire wares consisted of six water bottles, and who preferred contactless card payments. Presumably, this would have been highly unusual before 2016.
DeMon, insofar as it has a coherent ideology at all, is cart-before-the-horse development economics. I think almost no one can view the extent of destitution in India, and honestly conclude that the problem is not enough contactless payments.
I personally used cash, as I didn’t configure any payment app in time. I spent a sufficiently small amount of money that I didn’t lose much by paying the ‘idiot foreigner’ exchange rate. What I lost in the exchange rate I more than made up for with the haggling assistance of my friends. I bought my mother an elephant carving, and negotiating the price down was a truly chaotic and memorable experience. Few of us at the event spoke Tamil, so on a few occasions, the communication protocol was for me to get my friend to translate English to Hindi, and then have someone else translate Hindi into Tamil – and back again.
Business in a low-trust economy is psychologically painful
India was my first experience of a low-trust economy. We kept running into people who were running low-level scams, or otherwise attempting to evade the rules. I found getting an Uber to be extremely difficult – not because of a lack of drivers, but because the drivers so often try to game the system.
At one point, we ordered seven Ubers in a row to our hotel. Some of them accepted the trip for a low fee, then phoned and tried to get a better price – and when they didn’t get it, they would cancel. Others just didn’t show up. Sometimes your driver will cancel at the last second before arriving so that the trip is never reported and you pay entirely in cash. I was also told about some cases of someone ordering an Uber and having the driver immediately drive in the opposite direction of their destination, in order to force the passenger to cancel. There is some interesting applied microeconomics going on here.
My friend and I took a taxi all the way from Chennai to Pondicherry (150km). We negotiated a price which we knew was above market rate and which included some kind of a surcharge. When the driver dropped us off, he started getting angry at us for not giving him more money, and begged for more, causing a scene outside our hotel. The first thought that went through my head was: my mum would hate this. If she had been there, my mother would have given the guy her life savings out of guilt – and it is for exactly this reason that she will probably never go to India.
People feel camaraderie with other former British colonies but the cases are so different that maybe we shouldn’t even be using the same word
When you travel abroad as an Irish person, your nationality tends to be quite popular. Ireland hasn’t pissed off too many countries, and, insofar as foreigners know anything about Irish history, they generally have a sympathetic view. One woman told me about the similarities she saw between the British colonisation of India and of Ireland (and strongly insinuated they were similarly bad).
Needless to say, I do not think this is a good analogy. To paraphrase the historian Roy Foster, Ireland was a special kind of colony, if it ever even was one.
Like most things in life, the colonisation of India is often misunderstood. It might surprise non-Indians to learn that the British Raj lasted for considerably less than a century. Pondicherry, as I mentioned, was the epicentre of French rule in India. The old town looks a bit like New Orleans.4 The Dutch and Danish also had a smattering of tiny colonies. The Portuguese were in India too: their largest colony, by far, was Goa, which they didn’t give up until 1961.
But more than any national government, India was colonised by the British East India Company. India was primarily managed by the East India Company until 1858, when the Government of India Act was passed, making India part of the British Empire. As I understand it, the EIC established a serious foothold in the mid-18th century; prior to this, India was controlled by the Mughals.
At the risk of derailing a light-hearted travelogue, I’ve always thought that it’s under-discussed how much of a counter-example the East India Company is to certain libertarian or anarchist views. India was de facto run by a private company for over a century, and it was a complete disaster. The usual libertarian response to arguments of this kind is to find some trivial level of government involvement, and blame that. But the British government had no direct stake in the EIC until the Regulating Act of 1773. As far as I can tell, from the 16th to late 18th centuries, the European colonisation of India was a free market equilibrium.
Alcohol (sorry Fergus)
The food in Chennai was superb. Contra the sceptics, the spice level was perfect for me. Perhaps unlike for other countries, Indian cuisine seems to have been exported to the West with relatively high fidelity. I can’t think of anything we ate which couldn’t have been found, for quintuple the price, in (say) a very good Indian restaurant in Glasgow.
My only complaints are about the drinks. The non-alcoholic drinks were far too sweet – one night, my appetite for vegetables was completely spoiled by intensely sugary fruit juice (Why did I drink it then? Well, there were no other drinks, it was already poured out for me, all my friends were doing it…). It was also explained to me that the state of alcohol is poorly developed in India. In four states, alcohol is banned entirely. In Tamil Nadu, all alcohol must be sold through a state-owned company. Alcohol is much more lightly regulated in Pondicherry, and I’m told boozing is a big source of their tourism.
One of Amit Varma’s favourite stories of Indian regulatory insanity is two laws from Tamil Nadu. One of them, from the alcohol regulator, stated that establishments that serve alcohol must have only one entrance. Another, from the fire safety regulator, stated that establishments that serve alcohol must have more than one entrance. Hence it was literally impossible to run an alcohol business in a way that wasn’t, on paper, illegal. Of course, such businesses still existed – which shows how endemic bribery and non-compliance are in Indian business.
The only alcohol I ended up drinking on the trip was a few sips of rum. I asked my friend from Barbados – a major rum snob – how he would compare it to proper Caribbean rum. He wriggled his nose a bit and paused before saying “...I wouldn’t.”
The 1991 reforms are well understood by my friends but probably not by the general population
The period from the 1950s to the early 1990s in India is sometimes called the Licence Raj. During this time, Indian businesses required a large number of difficult-to-obtain permits to operate. Then, in 1991, India was faced with a major balance of payments crisis. The International Monetary Fund offered to bail them out, under the condition that certain economic reforms were made. Within a short window of time, the government, led by Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister, ended License Raj, reduced tariffs, and deregulated many aspects of the economy. Most economists regard the reforms as very successful, and having unleashed India’s tremendous subsequent growth.
The IMF bailout was a last resort, and Singh had previously been one of the architects of Indian socialism. There is not a single political party in India that supported the reforms; they all fought tooth and nail against what was, if this analysis is correct, the greatest event to occur in modern India.
Such is the passion my friends feel about this topic that Shruti Rajagopalan and others launched the 1991 Project to share essays and perspectives about the reforms. They were a common source of discussion at the Unconference. I was told that younger generations have no memory of how overwhelming Indian state economic involvement was, and don’t understand the significance of ’91. Another story Varma uses to jolt awake younger people is that, prior to the reforms, India was the only country in the world where a second-hand car cost more than a new car. The waiting list for a new car often stretched for years, because of import restrictions and licensing requirements on manufacturers. When this delay was taken into account, many were willing to pay a premium to have a used car instantly instead.
When the president came
Modi is the prime minister of India, and a woman named Droupadi Murmu is the (mostly ceremonial) president. At one point in Pondicherry, our taxi was caught in a traffic stop that lasted for almost half an hour. Our driver told us to get out, and it turned out we were being delayed by President Murmu’s motorcade. It contained a frankly ridiculous number of cars – many more so than for, say, the President of the United States.
I did not get the sense that Murmu is having a particularly big cultural impact. At one point, I was with a group of Indians, and only one of them knew her name (and even he didn’t know how to pronounce it).
The presidential visit ended up being rather inconvenient for us. We had been planning to visit Auroville (the “weird meditation orb”) that day, but were told it was closed for her visit. I do not know why the president of India was visiting a weird meditation orb. Given the extraordinary security costs and disruption, having the president visit your city is a questionable value proposition.
Instead, we paid a taxi driver and told him to drive us “somewhere interesting”. He brought us to a waterpark, which looked like something between a deeply incomplete investment project and a money-laundering scheme. The adjacent beaches were stunning. There was a man there whose full-time job seemed to be blowing a whistle and telling people to leave a specific strip of beach. You could walk either side, and you could walk around, but you couldn’t walk on the strip. I have no idea what was going on there.
At one point on a podcast, Tyler Cowen said something to the effect that the two most important groups to understand for the 21st century will be the Chinese state and the Indian people.5 The old joke has it that communism is the only economic system so terrible that it can make German people poor. One is reminded of this when you see the astonishing success of Indian people abroad, and compare it to the deprivation in much of India. England, Scotland, and Ireland are now all led by men with parents from the Indian subcontinent. Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Adobe are all run by CEOs who grew up in India.
While acknowledging that colonialism in India was a catastrophe, most of the people I talked to blamed few of the country’s current problems on it. Many of the economic structures were a homegrown form of stupidity. Among the items on my very long to-do list from this trip is to look into where the intellectual foundations of post-independence India came from (I gifted my father a copy of Nehru’s Discovery of India from the trip; the spine remains unperturbed).
Dealing with any kind of bureaucracy in India does not inspire confidence that the government has the will or ability to improve. With hope, the extraordinary success of Indian people abroad is an existence proof that the country can flourish.
Many thanks to all my travel partners, patient question-answerers, and the exceedingly generous event organisers for giving me the opportunity to visit. Thanks also to [redacted], for whom I kept these notes. As you can see, they became rather long-winded to fit into one email.
It looks like de facto Pondicherry has been under Indian control since 1954 but France didn’t formally ratify the treaty agreeing to this until 1963.
Well technically ‘abrogating’.
Some of the street names are in French, like ‘Rue de Bussy’. But mostly the French connection nowadays is fairly tenuous, and perhaps played up for tourism.
I could never hope to actually find this, given that Tyler has been on just about every podcast known to man at this point.