Ahmedabad's Sunitaben shows the way
Updated: Apr 22, 2019
Sometimes I think it’s nice to live outside your own country because there are so many nuances you miss when it’s a part of everyday life. Last week I was in India, in the western city of Ahmedabad, to see my mother. I knew it was going to be a good trip from the start: I did not have a single trolley get intimate with the back of my ankles at either Mumbai or Ahmedabad airport.
India really lives up to its tag line of Incredible India but the fit is probably a bit different than intended by its creators. One can’t help but admit that there is something incredible about a country being successful in so many ways, while being such an embodiment of organised chaos. Every time I am in Mumbai traffic, or for that matter anywhere in India, I am amazed that we haven’t hit someone or been hit, en route from A to B.
And yet things move. Things happen. You wonder how, when there is so much bureaucracy and so many political games.
In Ahmedabad, I went to get a new WiFi connection for my mother, quite unsuspecting of what lay ahead. The number of signatures and documents needed to get a mobile phone line or a data SIM card is crazy. You can also go home with your Internet dongle to find that they forgot to give you the SIM. That they cancelled your main phone SIM (for no reason) and gave you a ‘new’ SIM, which was a replacement of your old SIM. Chaos is an understatement here.
But where else can you show up at the store past seven in the evening and get service after the shutters are halfway down? Where else will a chap who is halfway to another state, on his weekend break, still take your call? And fix the problem and apologise? Ankur Shah, you were a star.
The funny thing is that somehow entrepreneurship thrives in all this madness. I am not talking about the Tatas and Birlas, but the little guy who goes from being an odd-job carpenter to setting up a thriving furniture showroom. Quite like the typical Bollywood entertainers of 30 years ago that existed solely to sell hope. Hope that even if you started life as a security guard, you could become an IG of Police. A vegetable vendor could become a five star hotel owner. It helps of course if you are Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh Bachchan.
Which brings me to dinner and Sunitaben. I have no idea about her antecedents but she could very well be on her way to her happily-ever-after, Bollywood style. On my first night in town, with a tinge of trepidation, I had gone along with a group of my mother’s friends for dinner. I was told one of them had recommended a ‘really good place, like a roadside place, very good aloo tikkis (potato cutlets)’.
It wasn’t 'like a roadside...’, it was roadside. We literally sat on the side of the road - on plastic tables and chairs but ate out of very environmentally-friendly plates made of betel nut leaves. The tikkis had enough chilli to blow up a medium-sized human, but the stuffed potato/cheese/spinach bread (paratha) was amazing.
It was fascinating: Matriarch Sunitaben sat in a modified autorickshaw and cooked. I was told that her husband, Rajubhai, had joined in as the business grew and even their son, a young man with apparently a good office job, was right there serving. I loved this fact.
It proved that there can be no shame in enterprise, in honest, hard work. And looking at the number of cars that came by on a weeknight, I am willing to bet they make more money than many of the nice air conditioned restaurants around.
Back in Muscat and on the way home from the airport on Saturday night, you notice that you are gliding along smooth, wide roads with no cars within hugging distance anymore. And it reinforced the feeling that you can’t succeed without effort. In 1970, the only single-lane tarmac road existed between Muscat and Bait al Falaj. Dusty, sandy and mountainous described the terrain. Look around you now.