Posted at 12:38 PM ET, 12/30/2005

Stories

At last, the stories I reported in India have started to run. I hope you saw the one this week on call centers. Be sure to check out the photo gallery and the audio. The latter will give you a sampling of the music experienced at all those nightclubs and parties I mentioned! After hanging out with the call center set for countless hours, my plans for New Year's feel quite tame.

Today, the business section ran the story about Fairfax County's office in Bangalore. After returning to the United States, I discovered that the state of Maryland is also about to open one up in two weeks. It seems local governments have realized this globalization thing is here to stay and they need to lure business back to their jurisdictions.

We're hoping the story I promised on Pune runs soon. Several Northern Virginia companies exemplify how the level of work being outsourced has really moved up the corporate food chain.

Finally, look for a story soon about the number of Indian expatriates moving back to their homelands, having a dramatic effect on both workplaces here and there. In many cases, though, families discover an India quite different from that they left -- just as I did on my reporting trip.

Eventually, we hope to do an online chat so I can dissect and discuss some of these issues with all of you. The Web site, of course, will keep you posted. Please keep your feedback and story ideas coming.

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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 12/ 7/2005

Back Home

So this journey ends pretty much the way it started: me in my bedroom surrounded by suitcases. They are calling out to be unpacked, but that's not likely until I finish the four stories I promised I'd write for The Post.

Thus this final post is really not a goodbye, as you will likely be hearing from me in the weeks to come, albeit through longer stories, not blogs. There are many elements of Indian life I did not blog about, and perhaps some of that material might supplement those more traditional pieces.

If you'll recall, we began this trip with me in a quandary over whether to pack more saris, salwar kameez or Western attire. I packed a little of all three genres, but I return with a fourth: fusion gear. I first noticed women in the Indian workplace wearing something that looked not quite like shirts and not quite like a kameez. "Kurtis," someone told me there were called -- short, ethnic-looking blouses that can be worn with jeans or flowing pants. They look like they are from neither here, nor there.

Neither here, nor there. That about sums up the Indian economy and country in transition we set out to explore in this space. Consider my last morning in Delhi: I entered a sleek coffee shop in a mall and ordered a cappuccino and a muffin. A pretty American experience, possibly European, I thought.

But as I settled into my seat, Hindu hymns started to blast over the loudspeaker. A manager told me the mall plays them every morning so shopkeepers can start their day with prayer.

I suppose it's not all that different from those rare times these days I find myself in a D.C. nightclub and suddenly hear the deejay play bhangra music -- and white people on the dance floor actually know how to dance to it. It shouldn't surprise me that globalization goes two ways, that despite the marble floors and signs of Nike and Reebok everywhere, a merchant in the mall still starts his day the same way merchants have across India for hundreds of years: with prayer.

On a daily basis, many Indians negotiate between the West that has been allowed to enter and the East they have always known. They have come much further than just embracing American products, but also American ideas and ideals. Perhaps they are shunning naan and rice in favor of the Atkins diet, or employing a "team" approach in the workplace instead of the "top-down" strategy  of many Indian companies. After decades of prefacing comments with "sir" or "ma'am," Indians are initiating conversations with counterparts across the world as peers. Their confidence is remarkable and revolutionary -- and necessary in a globalized world.

Growing up, I became one of two Mitras, depending upon the situation: the Indian one and the American one. These last few months, my daughter Naya picked up snippets of language from her Punjabi and Assamese relatives and a Bengali babysitter. She has now returned to a household where her parents converse in English, while her babysitter and I communicate in Spanish.

It will not be so easy for Naya to become one of two Nayas. But after our time in India, I wonder if she even has to choose. I wonder if more people in the world will define themselves as being from neither here, nor there.

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Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 11/26/2005

Signs

Dey3Among the things that make India's street landscape so distinctly Indian: Cars dodging herds of cattle, three-wheeled motorized and bicycle rickshaws, and handpainted billboards boasting everything from laundry detergent to Bollywood movies.

My week in Guwahati unveiled quite a few signs of change -- literally. There's an overall sleeker look in the city -- more malls, condos and fancy restaurants -- and the once cartoonish billboards along the side of the road have also gone high-tech. Increasingly they are digitally produced, according to sign painter Arun Dey.

Dey1Nitin, whose photos accompany this entry (click them to see full-size versions), stumbled upon Dey painting this sign for Amul, a food production company, and asked him about his profession.

Dey4It's a dying one, Dey said. He estimated that 95 percent of new billboards are now designed on a computer. They often cater to regional markets, such as mobile provider Airtel's advertisement here showing a drum adorned with a traditional Assamese gamocha, a red and white cloth. Dey2Sign painters now get more business from adorning the backs of rickshaws and sides of trucks with advertisements.

It takes Dey about two days to paint a billboard like the one shown here. Sure enough, when we drove by 24 hours later, the sign was complete.

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Posted at 3:48 PM ET, 11/23/2005

Reader Response

Here's some of the feedback we've been getting to the blog:

It is close to 10 in the evening and even as I'm typing these words in my reading chamber, I can hear the Hindi film music blowing out from outside. There is this grand Diwali festivity going around in the suburban Delhi apartment I live in. Young people are dancing on a makeshift wooden floor on remixes of old Hindi music while older people (gray-haired gentleman with pot-bellies and fat ladies decked in shining silk and dyed hair) are gossiping and laughing in small groups. Some are feasting on badly made delicacies in the numerous food stalls lined on one side of the community garden, while another group is busy playing Tambola (a kind of gambling game).

 I realize that life has to move on and there is no point in sitting glum-faced just because a tragedy hit so near to home yesterday, but it would not had been out of place at all if they had a basic decency to observe a minute-long silence in the memory of the people who died in the blasts and also in respect and compassion for their dear ones left behind.

Life must and will go on, but it remains doubtful if this "resilience" is any kind of life-affirming statement or merely a lapse in sensitivity noticed by nobody.

-- Mayank Singh

I have spoken with family and friends in India who say that American "outsourcing" is disrupting the mosaic of Indian family and society. I'd like to suggest that Ms. Kalita do some research, that she specifically interview a few families, a few young men and women who work nights and sleep all day and make huge salaries and tell us what she hears from them.

A cousin of mine who is an executive with Exxon Asia wrote to tell me that the very high salaries ( by Indian standards)  that young people can earn right after high school are keeping scores of young middle class men and women -- educated in English medium schools -- out of college. They now prefer to answer phones at 1-800 "toll free" lines for Delta and every other American company and use their "own" money to support drug and alcohol habits.

So, not only are we exporting jobs and increasing unemployment here, we're also improving profit margins for corporate shareholders here by paying these very smart, enthusiastic and talented young men and women great salaries and granting instant affluence to immature youngsters who don't have the maturity to handle the sudden excess of riches. We're also exporting money for a new drug, alcohol and pleasure industry and market! So know it or not, we're also exporting cultural decadence. Perhaps this is why people like Mr. Bin Laden hate us?

Perhaps this is what Ms. Kalita should research. The dark underside of "outsourcing" --

-- Derek Coelho

I was born and raised in India until I came to the U.S. five years back. Being an Indian, I was really excited to see that The Post started a blog -- India 2.0. In the introduction the author wonders whether to pack jeans or salwar kameez. Western dress has always had a tremendous influence in India. It has seen everything from bell bottoms to tights. The movies of the '60s and '70s bear witness.

I read the article on the Diwali celebrations in Delhi and was disappointed to find that a party was covered rather than the significance of this unique festival and the tragedy of bomb blasts that killed several people. Diwali is the most important Hindu festival celebrated in India. A good number of people from other religions join in because the spirit of Diwali is inescapable. Though it is known as the "festival of lights," Diwali is celebrated as a day on which good triumphed over evil. On the eve of such a day, for a horrible terrorist attack to destroy so many innocent lives is such tragic irony.

Another article opened like this, "I saw something this week I rarely see in India, let alone the United States. Someone gave a beggar money." Seeing a beggar is no more rare in India than people giving them alms. Today in some parts of the country beggars have unions and territorial rights. A good number of temples and churches have beggars all over India, because what better place is there to count on charity, and when it comes to giving alms Indians are very generous.

The city of Bangalore has traffic jams, but so does the Washington D.C., metropolitan area. There is a gap between the haves and the have-nots, not just the IT and non-IT people. Which city doesn't?

Bangalore is known as the garden city because it is greener than many cities in the region. And Bangalore residents love their trees and parks.

I find it unusual that the city of Bombay is not being covered. Bombay is the commercial capital of India. It is where the western celebrities and the rich people of the world come to. It is also the trendsetter for the rest of the nation. Not covering Bombay is like writing about the United States and leaving out New York City.

Since the Washington Post is widely read in US, I wish there was a little more depth in the coverage, explaining all this to a readership that has very little idea about India.

-- Lekha Murali

We're so glad you didn't miss your parties no matter what. Screw the news of the dying and homeless -- we've had all that, and anyway it's just a rerun of New Orleans for desk editors except  for being up in the mountains, and the poor are not obese on junk food.

No, it's good your hosts put ancient rites before today's dying, you get a bigger gin-tonic that way. Thank God the Upper-Class Delhi-ites are OK. (On the same day I was cursed with some of their families in a Singapore hotel, where they could not behave and their rich kids ran wild, disturbing everybody.)

For your Wapo readers, you might have mused upon the hideous sight of American airmen once again soiling India's soil, while their leader and his Libby are slowly uncovered.

But maybe you have to be really Indian to think like that.

-- Jim Hodgetts

You paint a skewed picture. The prices in malls are inflated because they cater to the naivete of the people. I stayed in Bangalore for four years and I could have my whole day's meal for 50 rupees. Here is the breakup:

1. Breakfast - a plate of idli -- 8 rupees
2. Lunch - a vegetarian South Indian meal -- 20 rupees
3. Dinner - either a meal or a masala dosa -- 20 rupees

 And all these were from clean and hygienic restaurants which dot South India. I admit that such cheap and clean food is not available in North or East India.

In Bangalore I also had the choice of going to the best Italian restaurant in town and have a dinner for two for 1,500 rupees. A dinner for two at the best Italian restaurant in the California Bay Area would cost you much more than that and would be comparable in quality.

All things considered India is still quite a cheap place to stay. In fact, not a day goes by without my lamenting about how cheap, wholesome and varied food is back in India.

-- Shubhabrata Sengupta

I was worried that your blog would be another "India Shining" let-us-sing-and-dance sort of a blog. Good to see that you have also made a point to the other picture that you rarely see in "popular media."

I lived in the U.S.for nearly 14 years and returned to India two years ago with my wife. I made it a point to go out and see the rural India, and I agree with Atanu Dey that the lack of investment in the rural sector is a scandal.

Given the multitude of fronts on which the poor and lower middle class in India live out lives that would simply not be acceptable anywhere else -- and I am not talking about an ambulance getting to my apartment in 90 seconds flat in Princeton after a friend complained of chest pain, but about a person being able to make it to a hospital in time -- no issue is a permanent issue or vital enough to hold a government responsible for. This seems to be Kenneth Arrow's criticism of how individual voters can never coalesce to ensure a coherent set of political and social choices in a much more intense Kafkaesque state of nihilism.

Some one recently (I think it was Sumesh) remarked that Lenin said "one child's death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic"! Does the scope of tragedies in India overwhelm us and inure us -- so much so that it becomes a mere statistic? Is that why we are capable of rushing off to help the victims of the tsunami, because we can achieve concrete results, and just cannot conceive of making a difference with the larger tragedies that unfold every day?

I think that it is time that we took our communities back -- by participating in events and issues that concern our notion of our humanity. It is wonderful to say people like Dey being involved in such projects. There are others - like a group of Indians who returned who have started an organization to keep a watch on how government projects get implemented. They are doing some wonderful work.

-- Pramod Reddy

I came across your article on SMSing in India. Communications depends to a large degree on SMS in India. The ability to reserve/change/cancel train tickets, pay bills, book movie tickets, request for favorite songs on radio stations -- everything is SMS-centric.

I have since become very proficient with SMSing -- on my last trip a month ago, I was SMSing even as I was changing gears in my car! After a three-week trip, I had over 550 messages in my Inbox and about 500 in my outbox!

I am surprised that SMS is not as popular here in the U.S. Most of my friends/colleagues here heard about SMS after watching American Idol. When I text folks here, they hardly respond back and most often don't even realize they have a message in their inbox. Some of them have begun to appreciate it and the convenience it offers. But it is strange that the wireless carriers are not aggressively selling this feature to their subscribers. It is a gold mine waiting to be explored.

-- Bala Krishnamurthy

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Posted at 8:38 AM ET, 11/13/2005

Delhi Nights

We finally headed to Odyssey to see for ourselves what a nightclub in a mall would feel like. Nitin took some pictures so you can share our experience.

One note: Admission to the club -- like so many purchases in India -- is negotiable. For five of us, we got in for about the equivalent of $30.

We had one "stag" member but he was white so the bouncer said he would have let him in anyway. No joke. It's apparently very in vogue for clubs to have lots of expats around.

The first three pictures show revelers at Odyssey, a club at the Sahara Mall in Gurgaon (all photos by Nitin Mukul).

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The next two show Q'Ba, a 14,000-square-foot restaurant and nightclub in Delhi.

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[Editor's note: Posted by washingtonpost.com Business and Technology editor Bob Greiner on behalf of Mitra, who is currently offline for a bit more than a week.]

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Posted at 8:05 PM ET, 11/ 7/2005

Building Home

 

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Buildings under construction at ATS Greens Village, a condo complex in Noida, a city near Delhi. (Photos by Nitin Mukul -- click for larger version)

The brochure from ATS Greens Village, a new development in the Delhi suburb of Noida, lists the type of people buying dwellings in high-rise towers that look out onto a shopping complex, a gym, a pool, tennis courts and a clubhouse. Topping the list: NRIs.

My in-laws are among them. 

I've written once here about NRIs, which stands for Non-Resident Indian -- or among those who deride us, Not Really Indian. I have been doing some reporting here on the NRIs who are coming back to India, lured by its booming economy, better job opportunities, aging parents or a desire to have their children raised in their homeland (and for some, all of these factors have brought them back). A new acronym (remember the Indians love to abbreviate) has emerged: RNRI, or Returned NRI.

Again, I am writing a fuller story for The Post on this phenomenon later in the year, so it shouldn't have surprised me that my in-laws and parents have become a part of a trend.

Earlier this week, Nitin, Naya and my father (he arrived on Sunday -- more on that in a bit) went out to the ATS construction site to see how far along the flat has come. It is a three-bedroom with marble floors, servants' quarters and Western kitchens and bathrooms that should be completed by December. As my husband and I stood out on the terrace looking onto the other buildings, I remarked that the compound resembled a Courtyard Marriot -- but nicer.

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the 732 flats have been bought up by NRIs and RNRIs, according to Sanjeev Kathuria, ATS vice president of marketing. Prices, too, have skyrocketed, reflecting global trends in real estate and fueled in part by expatriates buying second homes in their countries of origin.

"There are two categories of people," Kathuria said. "Those who have gone to the U.S. for the IT industry and are coming back to work here. Then there are people who, like your in-laws, want to come back after being in the U.S. 20 to 25 years and might want to spend the winters here."

 

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Development is coming to define this former agricultural and industrial suburb of Delhi. (click for larger version)

In Noida there is also a housing complex called "NRI Colony," but Kathuria tells me that is just a marketing ploy. Real Indians (RIs?) live there, too.

My in-laws, who left India in the 1960s, actually are still working quite happily in western Massachusetts but wanted a place of their own in India -- a place to possibly retire to for a few months of the year. Like me, they have spent much of their time visiting India shuttling among extended family.

That was the same thinking that went into my parents' decision to build a house in Assam. A few hours before we toured the Noida flat, I picked up my father at the airport because our family's house in Guwahati, Assam, is finally complete. Gone are the days of extended clans clustering under one roof or compound, so it has become very difficult for us NRIs to lug suitcases from one uncle's house to a cousin's to a great aunt's and on and on.

At least that's been the case in my family. As a child and teenager, it was great fun to sleep with cousins and talk into the wee hours. In those days, I thought life's greatest truths and secrets could only come out under the mosquito nets -- and of course what was uttered under the mosquito net stayed under the mosquito net.

Now that I know who I married (eliminating at least 50 percent of what we discussed back then), I think it's time for a room of my own.

Tomorrow morning, the four of us depart for Darjeeling and Sikkim for a quick holiday in the Himalayas. Then it's off to Assam so Nitin and Naya can meet my relatives and help my father and I pick out curtains, furniture, dishes and linens. How ironic that Nitin and I just spent our year in Washington trying to make our house look Indian (Target's ethnic line helped, as did World Market) and now we will try to make our home in India feel American enough to be comfortable.

My blogging will likely take a break for about 10 days as I take one, too. I've left a few photos related to earlier musings that will be posted over the next few days so please do check back. I also have received quite a bit of reader feedback and portions of that will also be posted. Perhaps if the blogging mood strikes I will log in from Assam and let you know if it feels like home yet.

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Posted at 8:32 AM ET, 11/ 7/2005

More Than Mobile

A few mornings a week, I am awakened by a call on my mobile phone. The offer ranges from a new credit card to more life insurance to banking services, and I usually hang up once I hear stylish, sing-songy, pre-recorded Hindi.

 

From left, Shohinee Ghosh, 25, Nitin Mahajan, 26, and Rahul Sharma, 26, use mobiles at Cafe Coffee Day in New Delhi. (Photos by Nitin Mukul)

During this short time in India, my phone here has morphed into much more than its counterpart in the States. And there's more to it than the fact that I call it a "mobile," not a cell phone.

To invite people to a birthday party for Nitin (yes, he arrived on Wednesday, hence the delay in blogging) this past weekend, I text-messaged them. He also received more text messages wishing him "many happy returns of the day" (that's a taste of Indian English for you) than phone calls. Oh, and forgive me for using the term "text message"; here, it's "SMSing," an acronym-cum-verb that stands for "short message service."

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Rahul Sharma, 26, shows off his mobile at Café Coffee Day in New Delhi.
I've become addicted to this television program, "Nach Baliye" -- imagine a Bollywood dance version of "American Idol" -- and to vote for my favorite couple, I punch 646 on my mobile phone and type in their special code.

My mobile's address book came with phone numbers for food delivery (the cuisine of "pizza" gets its own entry), astrologers, a car helpline, cricket scores, doctors, florists, breaking news and train schedules. Many coffee shops have kiosks where you can charge your mobile. You can pay your bills via mobile.

The most low-tech-looking street vendors -- people who usually peddle newspapers and paan, a betel leaf wrapped around a mixture of pastes and spices and sometimes tobacco -- now sell pre-paid  SIM cards. Rare has become the surface, from bench to bus to billboard, that is not covered by an advertisement for a mobile company.

The growth has been explosive. In 2001 there were 5,479 registered mobile lines in India. Now there are 69,074 -- more than 12 times as many in just four years.

 

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Shohinee Ghosh, 25, sends an SMS at Café Coffee Day in New Delhi. The billboard boasts the services of mobile service provider AirTel.

But according to at least one telecommunications analyst, India still has a way to go before catching up to fellow Asian nations.

"When you compare India with other markets, it's behind," said Farid Yunas, a Malaysia-based wireless and mobile analyst for the Yankee Group. "Outside the cities, there isn't much mobile penetration. In India, mobile penetration is still in single digits." (Taiwan is over 100 percent, by comparison.)

Which led me to wonder how far behind the States might be. It's about 50 percent, by one estimate.

Penetration aside, I still feel like an idiot compared to urban dwellers here. For Nitin's invitation, I could not figure out how to get a zero into the message (the "0" key is the space bar on my phone) so I asked people to arrive at 8:31 p.m.

I am also a slowpoke SMS-er.  The other day, while trying to let my cousin Pinku know "we are close" I found myself on his front porch before I could send the message ... er ... SMS.

And this afternoon, as we drove through Delhi with Nitin's uncle Gega, he kept trying to turn off what he thought was a loud Bollywood song on the radio. Oddly enough, it just kept playing.

Finally, Nitin noticed the sound coming from Gega's pants, not the car speakers. Apparently, our cousin had installed it on Gega's mobile, unbeknownst to him and unrecognizable as a ring tone to us Americans in the car.

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Posted at 7:55 PM ET, 10/29/2005

Life Goes On

The roads were uncharacteristically clear and free of traffic. Officers at checkpoints peered into our SUV with flashlights. But people also laughed, danced and played cards tonight in Delhi as Diwali festivities went on, hours after the bombings.

As I write this, it is 5 a.m. and I have just gotten back from two parties, which gives you a sense of the kind of affairs these were. Upper-class Delhi-ites throw Diwali parties where flickering candles compete with glittering saris, where drinking and gambling goes on into the wee hours, and dinner gets served around 1 a.m. (if you're lucky).

To be sure, the bombings came up in conversation with almost everyone, and several people likened the day's events to the London bombings. A few would-be revelers heeded the government's warning to stay home.

But one host remarked to me that she just didn't feel right canceling something commemorating one of the most important days on the Hindu calendar. "Life must go on," she said. "It's just a matter of destiny."

With only two shopping days left until Diwali (yes, it shares a commercialism here akin to Christmas in the States) and Eid -- another big gift-giving holiday here -- also coming up soon, a lot of people pondered whether they should venture out to markets tomorrow. Having done no shopping for anybody, I'm in the same quandary.

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Posted at 12:35 PM ET, 10/29/2005

Holiday Bombings

The scenes have been eerily familiar: the news consumed with images of people running and crying, my mobile not working, family and friends trying to get through any way they can to check on me.

Three bomb blasts shook Delhi today, killing at least 50 people on the eve of the Hindu festival of Diwali. I had planned to do some holiday shopping of my own today, but most markets are shut down and people have been warned to stay home.

I was a reporter in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and people's gut reactions in times like this are really universal. Binny (my husband's cousin) asked his daughter Pranati -- out with friends for a Diwali fair -- to come right home. My uncle, unable to get through on my mobile, called Namrata, Binny's wife, to make sure I was safe.

To make matters scarier, fireworks and firecrackers are going off every few seconds across Delhi -- across India, really -- this weekend to celebrate the holiday. 

Unlike 9/11, when I jumped out of a dentist's chair and ran out the door with my notebook to report, I am readying myself for a Diwali party tonight hosted by my husband's cousin. I will try to report back when I have a better sense of what it's like out there.

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Posted at 9:50 AM ET, 10/26/2005

Bangalore Dreams

On the day I arrived in Bangalore, one Sunday talk show dedicated its entire program to dissecting the question: Is the Bangalore dream dying?

I watched as IT workers debated non-IT workers about everything from congested roads to rising prices in India's "Silicon Plateau," but didn't quite understand the show's premise.

Not until a full 24 hours later, during a literal standstill in traffic -- my driver actually turned off the engine -- that was part of a 90-minute trip to the part of town headquartering dozens of tech companies. This marked my third visit to Bangalore -- all after India's economic liberalization -- and I do not recall traffic ever being so bad.

Granted, this city has just experienced its highest rainfall in several decades, but multiple residents and drivers assured me that Bangalore's infrastructure was being pushed to its limits long before the monsoon, that the the bumpy roads and rising cost of living are simply deepening the divide between industry and government, rich and poor, IT and non-IT.

On Monday morning, just a handful of employees at Wipro, India's third-largest software services provider, could get to work in Electronics City. Even on a good day, the road is "dusty and crammed," said Sachin Mulay, a marketing manager.

He said the company eagerly awaits the construction of a two-tier toll road to ease the commutes of thousands of employees. (To hear Mulay's thoughts on how other cities have been able to capitalize on Bangalore's growth woes, click here.)

Varun Singh, a developer at Wipro, calls what is happening in Bangalore "the IT crush." He said he feels the ire of longtime residents, especially those not in his field.

"They vary from us in their lifestyle, their attitude,"  said Singh, who earns about $6,000 annually. "We live in style. We want to enjoy. We feel we are not lazy people. Our brain is always working."

Across India, tech industry analysts say salaries are going up quickly because demand for the workers is so high, but they worry about what that means for a country that is supposed to offer a cost advantage. Most agree the trend is most noticeable in Bangalore, where starting salaries can hit five digits (as measured in dollars).

The IT and the non-IT folks find common ground on one thing: Neither side can wait for the proposed highways, the toll roads, the metro system. At a Barista coffee shop today, Mathew and Seema George sought shelter from the rain and sat sipping mugs of tea and coffee. The husband-and wife architect team said they cannot blame IT for the loss of the charming city they once knew, because it has also been responsible for the boom in their business designing homes and office spaces.

And then there are those who say they don't feel they live in a boom town. B.N. Bhaskaral, a truck driver who has lived in Bangalore for 25 years, says he still earns about $100 monthly -- and he says he feels he's been taking more of a loss lately because of high gas prices. When asked about change in Bangalore, the first thing he mentions is how he gets from point A to point B.

"If I need to go here to here," he said, showing a straight line, "I go around to avoid the traffic."

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Posted at 4:55 PM ET, 10/24/2005

It's Time to Party

That people ate, drank and danced at swanky joints across Delhi this past weekend might not surprise you.

But it wasn't always this way.

Years ago, most urbanites looking for a meal outside the home had choices at opposite ends of the spectrum -- restaurants in five-star hotels or fast cheap eats at roadside dhabas. The liberalization reforms of 1991 allowed franchises like McDonald's and Pizza Hut to enter India, but they also spawned homegrown competition. Pizza Corner, for example, serves spicy pies catering to Indian tastes, while Café Coffee Day offers curried vegetable puffs and paneer sandwiches alongside chai and coffee.

Proper sit-down restaurants are now opening at a rapid pace in major metropolitan centers. Besides Indian cuisine, of course, there's Chinese, Thai, Italian and a genre repeatedly described to me as "conti" until I figured out that "continental cuisine" had fallen victim to Indians' tendency to abbreviate. ("No probs" is something I have heard at least a half-dozen times in the last two weeks.)

Many times, the eclectic cuisines are served under the same roof or in a buffet, sometimes the same plate.

That's the case at Q'Ba, the relatively new restaurant/lounge/bar where I spent Saturday evening with two of its partners. (Disclosure: one is a cousin by marriage, Atul Kapur.)

Over grilled paneer, kebabs and mojitos served on a terrace, Kapur and partner Harpartap Singh described the mission of the three-floor establishment. Dance music blasted on the floor below -- from "La Bamba" to Bollywood favorites -- for a corporate party celebrating a joint venture between Reuters and the Times of India to create a new news network. 

"Customers here are looking for a change," Kapur said. "They are sick of the five-star hotels."

For one, those places intimidating, said Singh. "A lot of people in Delhi are not going to the five-star hotels," he said. "They may touch the wrong knife or fork."

It wasn't so long ago that Delhi-ites would gather at someone's house for a few drinks and then go out to dinner, Singh recalled. "That breaks up the party," he said.

Like businesses everywhere, these entrepreneurs clamor for a unique identity and niche market.

"We want to give you the feel of being on a cruise ship," manager Faiz Ali Khan said, as he gave a tour of Odyssey, a restaurant decorated in mostly blue in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon.

At night, the lounge charges a $25 entry fee per couple. A bottle of Corona is about $7.

"Young people really are so busy now that they really want to enjoy," Khan said.

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