Conversation: India-Today: 55 Things That Make India Proud
Subject: India-Today: 55 Things That Make India Proud

India Today's special issue on Independence Day. 
Happy Independence Day !

55 Things That Make India Proud

We often belittle our achievements. That's a crying shame. A sense of pride has the power to raise people's lives and hopes from the ordinary to the truly extraordinary. Pride also makes a nation, and in times of despair and helplessness, can lift the spirit of a billion people.

And there is a lot to be proud of. Amazing strides in infotech. An army that defends the nation against stupendous odds. A revolution in agriculture. A thriving, free media. Great institutions of learning. Prostheses like the incredible Jaipur Foot that helps a shattered Afghanistan walk. Protest movements of immense courage, like the Chipko Movement and the one that saved Kerala's Silent Valley. Even the dream factory of Indian cinema.

These achievements celebrate the spirit that is India and touches our soul with its heady mix of do-good and feel-good, things that make us swell our chests with pride, maybe squeeze out a tear or two of joy, and fill us with a sense of appreciation and purpose. In this tumultuous corner of the world where much is wrong and much needs to be done, India Today offers this tribute to India.

India's Fire Wall



The defence services of any nation are usually a source of pride, reinforced by trial and heroism. India's are no different. For the past seven months, more than half a million troops of the Indian Army have been strung out from the inhospitable Siachen Glacier in Jammu and Kashmir to Sir Creek in the Rann of Kutch as part of India's coercive diplomacy against Pakistan. Even for a million-strong force that has seen no respite since the 1980s, this must be a bit tiring. Be it Operation Vijay in Kargil or the continuing Operation Parakram along the western borders, the army troops are relentlessly taking the battle to the enemy inside and outside the country's borders.

India's professional standing army of 1.1 million is the second largest in the world after China's. Yet it has steadfastly kept away from politics.


Top Flight

Sending a rocket that would launch a satellite in space in a precision orbit requires the accuracy of a shooter striking a rupee coin 10 km away. Such precision and reliability are not normally associated with things made in India. That's why the string of successes in rocketry and satellite technology that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has notched up lights up the faces of millions of Indians.

In the three decades of its existence, ISRO has thrust India into the exclusive space club of a handful of nations by building over a dozen sophisticated satellites-beginning with the pioneering Aryabhatta, named after the ancient Indian astronomer, in 1975-for communications, weather prediction and mapping natural resources. It has made INSAT (short for Indian Satellite Systems) a household name, with the bulk of telecommunications and television broadcasting still being beamed through it, and has boosted India's missile programme. It is now in a position to build the giant rockets needed to launch these satellites, saving millions of dollars in foreign exchange and enhancing India's prestige abroad.


Blast Force

On May 11, 1998, defence research chief A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was in Pokhran wearing battle fatigues, masquerading as Major-General Prithviraj. His colleague and chief of the Department of Atomic Energy, R. Chidambaram, was playing his own part in India's nuclear play, acting as Major-General Natraj.

As the then Planning Commission chief Jaswant Singh put it, "It's one-sixth of humanity seeking its rightful place in the calculus of great powers." The regional balance was changed forever-in the great game, India counts.



Will of the People

Shaped by some of India's finest minds, drafted by a committee headed by B.R. Ambedkar and conflating the world's best political systems-the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Ireland and Canada-India's Constitution has two birthdays. It was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949, and formally enforced three months later on January 26, 1950.

If democracy is religion, the Constitution is the Gita and Bible of sovereign India. A critic once called it a "beautiful document" enshrining the fundamental rights of citizens irrespective of caste, creed and religion, unblemished by its 84 amendments. The Constitution is too often shrugged aside as an idealistic document, a First World rulebook. It is a bit like the best prefect at school-whom you attempted to circumvent, but who stood by you if the going got tough.

Right of Passage

Army convoys at a border road at the 11,500-ft-high Zoji La

What is common among Nathu La in Sikkim, Bomdi La in Arunachal Pradesh, Khardung La and Siachen in Jammu and Kashmir? These remote spots, mostly passes, are linked to the country through an impressive 32,800 km road network built by the low-key but effective Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Besides 13 road projects-including an extensive network along the Indo-Bangladesh border-the bro has diversified into infrastructure like airfields and strategic bridges. The 22-year-old organisation, set up under the Ministry of Defence after India's military debacle in 1962 against China, is fast becoming a key artery in India's strategic arm. Having dedicated the 160 km Moreh (Manipur)-Tamu (Myanmar)-Kalemyo-Kalewa road, (called the Burma Road), to the growing ties between India and Myanmar on February 13, 2001, bro is looking at road building opportunities in Afghanistan. To cement Indo-Afghan friendship, the bro engineers are examining ways to link Kabul and Herat via Bamiyan, famous for the Taliban-destroyed Buddha statue. As much as those in the business of transmitting data through ether, bro knows that the future belongs to connectivity.

United Ladies

Ela Bhatt (left) and SEWA changed the lives of Gujarat's poorest women

Some movements have a life of their own. The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is one such, now bigger than the wildest dreams of its founder, a feisty lawyer-turned-labour leader from Ahmedabad-Ela Bhatt. Technically, SEWA is still a labour union, registered as such in 1975, three years after its inception, to safeguard the interests of impoverished self-employed women. They were slum-dwelling weavers, cigarette rollers, vendors, waste-paper pickers and construction workers. Today, its over two lakh members make it among India's biggest trade unions, its reach spread beyond Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala and Delhi.

Through their organisation, SEWA members have successfully negotiated with employers to establish health, death and maternity benefits, set up 71 cooperatives of various trades to share expertise, develop new designs and techniques and for joint marketing. Each cooperative has an average of 1,000 members.

Most importantly, SEWA, in 1974 established a micro-finance bank that now has 70,000 accounts. This has rescued thousands of women from money-lenders and pawn-brokers, allowing them to accumulate land, assets and means of production. Another triumph: the repayment rate on its loans is an impressive 96 per cent. SEWA has shown that self help works and works well.

Active Justice

The British set it up as early as 1774 in Kolkata, with jurisdiction merely over the Crown's subjects in the colony. After Independence, the Supreme Court in Delhi became an institution which, unlike many others that besmirch India's name, pride and future, has lived up to the responsibilities the Constitution vested in it. It has given distinct meaning to the fundamental rights of citizens-except for two years between 1975 and 1977, when every institution espousing civil liberties and justice, including the Supreme Court, was subverted by the Emergency. It has put the concept of equality on the sound footing of reason, and has reconciled the needs of a welfare state with the right to freedom. Since the 1980s, it has expanded the scope of public-interest litigation, giving the affected minority a voice against decisions imposed on it by the brute majority-affirmative action by another name. The fruits of positive interference by the apex court are now evident in a host of public policy initiatives, be it in combating environmental pollution or in the battle against executive corruption and high-handedness.

First Among Equals

It's official. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, is the toughest management school in the world to get into, ahead of Harvard Business School, Columbia University, Spain's Instituto de Empressa and France's Insead, according to a survey by The Economist. There's more. In terms of course content, it comes in fifth after Yale, Harvard, IE and Paris' Haute Etudes Commerciales. The IIM graduates have gone on to prove their mettle in leading India Inc and fairly impressive niche of World Inc. Sunil Alagh, managing director of Britannia, M.S. Banga, chairman, Hindustan Lever Ltd, and Sanjay Kumar, CEO of global major Computer Associates, have all passed through the IIM portals. Even in times of crisis in the global job markets, the McKinseys, JP Morgans and AT Kearneys of the world flock to recruit youngsters from the IIM campuses. They clock an average pay of Rs 21 lakh a year-a little less than half the starting average for graduates of Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford. But you will agree that it's hardly shabby.

Dosa Express

Sometimes the best-kept secrets spread like wildfire. Take Udupi. This small temple town of Karnataka is known as the birthplace of Hindu saint Madhavacharya, who set up the Puthige Krishna Math here, one of the seven centres of Hindu pilgrimage in India. Since it was set up several centuries ago, it has been a Math tradition to feed the devotees the typical vegetarian Brahmin cuisine cooked by the Math's pundits. The cuisine uses coconut, rice, lentils, jackfruit, cashewnuts and other local agricultural produce. Some cookery historians believe that masala dosa, one of the world's favourite south Indian dishes, was conjured on a tawa outside the Udupi Krishna Math.

As with the spread of dosa, Udupi, also known as Udipi, with its staple fare of idli, uthapam and puri palya, has spawned a vast network of hotels across India, besides the tiffin-room culture in southern India. You will also find Udupi hotels in Chicago, London, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg and other points in all five continents, offering three surefire guarantees: a clean place serving good food at reasonable prices. It may not be a chain but Udupi has become a symbol, even a brand.


The Food Chain

Mumbai's tiffin delivery network has notched the Six Sigma rating-just one error in six million transactions.

What do global giants like General Electric and Motorola have in common with a humble tiffin delivery network that delivers lunch boxes to citizens in Mumbai each day? For starters, they reside in the rarefied stratosphere of a Six Sigma rating or an efficiency rating of 99.999999-one error in six million transactions, a feather in the dabbawalla's Gandhi cap-as rated by Forbes Global, a big American business weekly.

Each day in Mumbai, 3,500 dabbawallas deliver nearly 1.5 lakh lunch boxes to Mumbai's hungry officegoers, as they have for over half a century. Tiffins are collected from homes and passed down a network of hands, sorted and delivered to offices, and then returned the same day.

Their Six Sigma secret lies in a system of colour-and number-coding tiffins that ensures even the bulk of the largely illiterate dabbawallas can grasp addresses easily while carting tiffins across trains and handcarts. They make just one mistake in two months. All this for a measly Rs 150 per tiffin per month, which when pooled among these magical lunch logisticians, gives them a take-home pay of around Rs 3,000 per month. Who needs management gurus?

Green Warriors

CHIPKO ACTIVISTS: original tree huggers

Chipko in Hindi means "stick to". In the early 1970s, that's what thousands of villagers in the fertile valleys of the upper Himalayas did when wood contractors came to fell their trees. They hugged the trees and dared the government to have them cut. The contractors backed off. And so, one of the greatest ecological movements of India was born. It was coordinated by the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh, then a tiny Sarvodaya organisation, headed by the rugged Chandi Prasad Bhat.

Women, the worst sufferers of environmental degradation (in villages they have to draw water and cut firewood and fodder), became the spearheads of Chipko. Such was the following they built in Garhwal Himalayas that the Uttar Pradesh government was forced to ban felling of trees in high slopes of the mountain range. They also got the Central government to bring in new laws on forest felling that ultimately gave birth to the Department of Environment as we know it today.


The Simple Solution

The Rural Water Supply programme has used more than 30 lakh Mark II pumps in India and the device has also been exported to Africa and Latin America.

For appropriate technology, this Indian wonder, like the Jaipur Foot and low-cost housing, is also a globally respected phenomenon. In the late 1960s, when drought scarred India, a search for a durable water pump began; with aid, it was easier to drill boreholes than work the long-used, cast-iron pump based on American and European designs. That was for family use, to be pumped a few times a day. India needed hand-pumps that worked round the clock.

So at a workshop sponsored by UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the governments of India and Karnataka in 1975, the search was initiated for a pump that could be manufactured in an unsophisticated workshop, would be easy to maintain, and wouldn't cost more than $200 (less than Rs 1,800 at 1975 rates of exchange; it costs close to Rs 10,000 today).

As teams scoured the country, a Sholapur mechanic's design was found to be the most workable and durable, and the India Mark II was born after field testing. Over the years, the pump has become more sophisticated with increasing use of stronger, lightweight metal, and has spawned the new avatar of the best known hand-pump in the world: India Mark III.

Banishing Drought

The ancients were wise because they had less. And many of those who have less in modern-day India, and they are legion, have taken to the ways of the wise. See what has happened with check dams, which archaeological evidence suggests existed even 5,000 years ago.

But in a poor country low-tech and low-cost work best, and these small barriers built across the direction of water flow on shallow rivers and streams have made a roaring comeback, thanks to the effort of pioneering NGOs in Rajasthan and Gujarat. According to Engineers Against Poverty, an NGO, up to 30 per cent of irrigation water in India could be sourced from community-run check dams.

These dams retain excess water flow during monsoon rains in a small catchment area (aquifers) behind the structure. Pressure created in the catchment area helps force this water into the ground, and this replenishes nearby groundwater reserves and wells. The cost of irrigating one hectare of land using a check dam is between Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 compared to a large dam and canal network that costs more than Rs 2 lakh to service.

The initial investment in a check dam-depending on the size, anything from Rs 20,000 to Rs 6 lakh for these community projects-can be recovered in one or two seasons through an increase in crop yield. Also, unlike large dams and other large-scale irrigation projects, the technology, finances and skill for maintenance are nominal, making them more accessible to poor farmers.

This has changed the face of water-scarce areas near Alwar in Rajasthan, Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, parts of Andhra Pradesh and the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, with the state having kicked off a scheme to build 2,500 check dams. The low-tech community project has spread to Uttaranchal and Bihar. As parts of India reel under sub-par monsoons, they can take heart from the fact that a majority of check dams are brimming with cached water.

Write to Know

There are more than 5,000 dailies, 16,000 weeklies and over 6,000 fortnightlies in all Indian languages.

It's possible that were it not for an institution upholding freedom of speech and expression, and the right to information, you wouldn't be reading this. The irony is, of course, that arguably the most subversive mechanism in any society, the free press, is the greatest champion of India's Constitution, democracy and freedom.

There is much that India's press still needs to learn, a growth curve that mirrors the country's. However, the media, earlier through print but now also via television, remains the greatest insurance against corruption, political skulduggery and corporate excess. During disasters, it brings vital news that helps raise funds for relief work, and prevent misuse of precious aid. And next only to general elections, it's the nation's most emphatic vox pop.

Today, there are over a hundred satellite channels that beam news and entertainment, over 5,000 dailies, 16,000 weeklies and more than 6,000 fortnightlies in all Indian languages. Because people have a right to know.

White Knight

For almost 36 years the Amul moppet hid one of the biggest natural produce movements in the world. By 1966, when the girl edged into India's consciousness selling her "utterly, butterly delicious" product, Amul cooperative was quietly weaving what would be known as the White Revolution. Technically the Kaira District Cooperative Milk Producers' Union Ltd, it was set up in 1946 on the advice of Vallabhbhai Patel and former prime minister Morarji Desai to break the cartel of milk contractors. Today Amul spearheads the National Dairy Development Board's proudest statistics to come out of Operation Flood, a milk and dairy products initiative: India has the world's largest milk production at over 78 million tonnes a year, ensures the livelihood of almost 11 million farmers in 96,000 village-level societies across India.


Footprints in Time

"If all I saw was your nose, it would be enough for me to sculpt the likeness of your body," says one-time wood-carver, Ram Chandra. Few would need to go that far. As it stands, thousands of people across the world's war-torn and disease-struck zones are relieved that Chandra and his colleagues at the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, a charitable trust, have for more than 30 years, often without seaeing their bodies, made the likeness of their limbs. It is one reason why people in remotest India or Rwanda or Afghanistan, who may not know much about peace or the rest of the world, are aware of Jaipur, the birthplace and headquarters of an amazing prosthesis called the Jaipur Foot.

Chandra used to see amputees fitted with cumbersome limbs that were too heavy and impractical, making it impossible to sit cross-legged or squat. So after a lesson in the anatomy of the human leg from doctors at the Sawai Man Singh Hospital, Jaipur, Chandra set to work using vulcanised rubber and wood. Tens of thousands of limbs and callipers later, it still takes about 45 minutes to make one, costs about Rs 1,500 per limb, lasts about five years and allows a person to walk, run and lift heavy weights. The Samiti undertakes annual roadshows across India for fitting prostheses and has established centres in the Philippines, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Honduras and Panama. Last January, accompanying the planeloads of aid from India to Kabul was a team with 1,000 sets of the Jaipur Foot for Afghans.

Life Line

They call yoga an elixir. By practising one of the yogic techniques, the khechri mudra, Devraha Baba, the sage of Vrindavan and a favourite of India's senior politicos, claimed to have lived for 700 years. It may be purely anecdotal, but the efficacy of this 5,000-year-old holistic science, first noticed in an Indus Valley seal of a yogi and later codified by Patanjali in the 2nd century B.C., is accepted without question as a superb mind, body and soul exercise. Yoga schools have proliferated in thousands all over the world, and yoga teachers are the rage in urban India and among karma tourists.

Gurus claim that if followed correctly, yoga reduces heart attacks, incidence of cancer, controls diabetes, cures asthma and numerous other ailments. Scepticism exists because its advantages are not as sharply defined as an aspirin throttling a headache. Yoga is a better analgesic and anti pyretic, but as it combines the mind, body and breathing, the results are more complicated. But it's well worth it. Imagine for how long Rekha, star-yogin at 50, could be around if she practised a little khechri mudra.


Heroes No. 1

Every cricketer who plays for India receives a cap with a number on it, indicating his place in the list of Test players. Parthiv Patel is No. 244.

t's only a game, but without it life in India would hardly be the same. They all end up human, fallible, but at their best, they have always seemed like gods-been gods. They don't even know you, but they figure in some of your happiest memories. Tiger, Bish, Sunny, Kaps, Kiri, Azzu, Sachin, Bhajji ... intimates who feature in class-room debates and tea-stall arguments, materialise at your dining table, on the street, in your head. They come attached to a string of letters and numbers-1983. SMG. 101,22. GRV. SRT. 10-74. 281. VVS-a secret code only Indians know and use to unlock the safe to their hearts.

India is not the best cricketing country in the world. Nor, from a stumbling start in 1932, has it ever been. But cricket and cricketers move us to degrees that defy sanity and reason. When the men in white win, they seem to redeem all of India. When they lose-damn their underachieving, money-grubbing souls-life seems more wretched, bosses more obtuse, the neighbourhood dirtier ... Only a nation of such extremes could have produced cricketers so singular in their capacity for magic, mystery and mood swings.

Unit of Strength

The Chowdhury family of Kolkata

It stays together, eats together, celebrates together, prays together, works together, even dodges taxes together with the help of friendly regulations for the "undivided family". The extended Indian family is generally melodramatic-from the Ramayan to Hum Aapke Hain Koun?-sometimes quarrelsome, and occasionally stifling.

Yet it is the basic unit of Indian society, the perennial social support system in a country where public institutions are notoriously unreliable and the population simply too vast for a social security structure of unemployment and old-age benefits, as adopted by First World nations in Europe and North America.  What is even more remarkable is that in this age of dinks (double income, no kids), of staying single, of the glories of individualism, the joint family persists. All trends point to the family-complex and joint or plain disjointed-being a bit of a dinosaur.

Wheels of a Nation

The largest railway in the world is also the largest employer in the countryIndian Railways has a network of 1,00,000 km, 7,000 stations, it runs 11,000 trains daily, and ferries one million passengers a day.

If anyone looked at the Indian Railways in terms of pure statistics, it would appear that it exists solely to dazzle trivia buffs: tracks of 1,00,000 km, 7,000 stations, 300 railway yards, 11,000 freight and passenger trains a day, over a million passengers a day, longest tunnel in the world, the highest station in the world, the largest railway in the world. There is absolutely no doubt about what transports India: resilience and the railways.

And like an integral organ of a body, it chugs away despite abuse by India's demanding public, and the occasional tragic outbreak of disease-accidents caused by a weakened bridge, human error of signalmen who work shifts often aided by primitive equipment for a pittance of a salary.

But despite these blips, every year the railways carry more people and freight for fares that count among the cheapest in the world from North to South (the Himsagar Express runs 3,726 km between Jammu Tawi and Kanyakumari) and East to West on three different gauges-another record for a railway of this size. Now, this gargantuan institution, the nation's largest employer with 1.65 million on its rolls, is trying to move into the fast track with better training, higher safety standards, better technology, more innovation and better service.

Shivaji Park

It's not even a park. It's a patch of brown, flat land about 1 sq km in area, consumed by cricket. Home to eight cricket clubs, 30 playing strips, at least 60 daily nets (coaches train children as young as five on half a stretch of pitch) and thousands of aspirations, Shivaji Park in Mumbai is not just a public playing field. It's a striving and an idea that no matter who you are, son of a tinker, tailor, soldier, bai, if you want it enough, come to the maidan and practise hard, nothing is impossible.

A Shivaji Park XI made up of Ajit Wadekar, Lalchand Rajput, Sachin Tendulkar, Sandeep Patil, Vinod Kambli, Chandrakant Pandit, Ramakant Desai, Raju Kulkarni, Baloo Gupte and Padmakar Shivalkar (a great spinner unlucky enough to play at the time of the Quartet) would be a handful for any opposition, not just any other Maidan XI. Two more India players, Pravin Amre and Manohar Hardikar, figure in the reserves.

Self Help Success

Lijjat has 40,000 members and sales of Rs 300 crore

India's most popular accompaniment after pickle, the papad, is also a symbol of empowerment. On a sultry, mid-March day in 1959, seven women from poor families gathered on the terrace of an old building in Mumbai's Girgaum locality and held a little ceremony. It marked the production of four packets of papads and a firm resolve to continue production-on a borrowed sum of Rs 80.

Today, the Bandra-based Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad is an operation with 60 centres countrywide involving 40,000 women and annual sales of over Rs 300 crore. The cooperative has paved the way for marginalised women brutalised by poverty and domestic problems to build a life for themselves and their children with a simple motto: self-help.


Holy Managers

Devotees queue up for the two-second darshan of the Lord Tirumala

There's a mythological tale that priests at the Lord Venkateshwara temple, Tirupati, like to relate. It's about how Kuber, the Hindu God of wealth, loaned a large amount of money to the temple's deity for his marriage with Goddess Padmavathi. "I don't know when the Lord will be able to repay his debt," says an official facetiously. The country's richest Hindu temple, with an income of almost Rs 500 crore a year, epitomises Kuber. It also symbolises superb management.

On a lean day, the Devasthanam, perched on the Tirumala Hills near Tirupati, attracts an average of 45,000 devotees, showering cash, gold and hair. On New Year's Day, numbers swell to two lakh.

The temple's priest-managers have mastered the fine art of crowd control. Each devotee is issued a wristband embedded with the time of darshan, and the temple's famous laddoo. Offerings are collected at bank counters outside the complex. And for those unable to visit, a website permits prayer and donations.

India's Champagne

A tea planter takes the rounds of his Makaibari estate in Darjeeling

The fact is, tea from Darjeeling estates, celebrated as the champagne of teas, is the undisputed leader, with that one geographical reference raising Indian teas to respect across the world.

About 150 years ago, Dr Archibald Campbell, a British civil surgeon, started it all by planting tea seeds in his garden at Beechwood, Darjeeling, 7,000 ft above the sea. He was apparently successful because the British government was inspired to plant tea nurseries in the area in 1847. The first commercial tea gardens were the Aloobari, Steinthal and Tukvar estates. Today, there are 86 gardens spread over 19,000 hectares employing 15,000 people and producing up to 11 million kg a year. If there was ever a crown required to stave off pretenders, a kilo of Darjeeling from the Castleton estate fetched the highest ever price of Rs 15,000 at the Kolkata auctions in 1998. The Darjeeling Planters' Association now guards that achievement by marketing its premium offerings with a special logo, Darjeeling's own.


India Calling

A hello from Madhuranthakam town in Tamil Nadu

What in other parts of the world-and in almost all Indian languages-is "long distance", in English, it has the same acronym as a communicable disease. But STD, or Subscriber Trunk Dialling, and the ubiquitous STD public call booth have, in fact, turned out to be the cure for the country's communication ills. In a nation where only four in a thousand own a telephone, the "Hello Point", as it is widely known, has, with a tremendous policy boost from the Department of Telecommunications, helped connect India with over six lakh STD booths offering national and international direct dialling facilities. Its cousin, the rapidly sprouting cybercafe, which offers the cheapest rates in the world (in places Rs 10 per hour), is growing well, but the clear winner for the next couple of decades is the phone booth. From a nation where even 20 years ago making a long-distance call was a nightmare-a trunk call meant exasperated shouting, a habit still imprinted in Indian DNA-it has come to a point where even Zero is a number with value: 037892.


Festival of Democracy

From 173 million voters 50 years ago, the number grew to 619 million in the 1999 general elections, making India's elections the largest in the world.

To the political scientist, an election is a dry exercise that involves stamping a piece of paper or pressing a voting machine's button. In India, the election is a folk theatre, a boost to the local economy, an occasion for public retribution, an all-purpose tamasha. Beginning with the first one-in the winter of 1951-52, when Lok Sabha and assembly elections were held simultaneously-the Indian poll has also been a statistical and logistical nightmare. Fifty years ago, there were 173 million voters, a majority of them poor and illiterate. Almost every global pundit was pessimistic whether the one man/woman-one vote system would endure. It did, changing governments, overthrowing egos, punishing betrayal, growing physically-the 1999 Lok Sabha had a 619 million electorate-as much as it did in popular psychology.

The Indian election is, to use that chestnut, a festival of democracy. It is the sinew that keeps the nation one. The little man's five-yearly-mid-term polls permitting, even yearly-chance to say his bit and punish the blackguards keeps him going; as it does India, the world's largest, most raucous and colourful democracy.

Gem Relay


It is a matter of great surprise to anybody except those in India's diamond trade that in this age of distrust and suspicion, the Angadia system can even exist. Diamond traders routinely send crores of rupees worth of diamonds from Ahmedabad to Surat, from Surat to any town in Gujarat or on to Mumbai, the country's diamond trading hub with an Angadia, a door-to-door service, without any receipt or record of transfer. Angadia firms even ferry cash.

Gujarat has practised the system for nearly 300 years. It grew out of the need for traders to transport vast sums of cash and valuables such as textiles and diamonds from one town to another or to Mumbai, seen as an extension of Gujarat. This unique system is based entirely on trust and a breach is unheard of in a business involving 60 angadia firms and their 5,000-plus employees. Diamond traders from Gujarat are the biggest clients of angadia firms, whose nondescript couriers-perhaps the biggest guarantor of security-either strap on the stones or simply sling them in an ordinary bag. It's as simple as that.

India's Shangrila

A tourist gets some help with his Kathakali mask

Consider the hype: God's Own Country. The surprise: it works. India is full of places that would make the mythical Eden look like a hovel. Then again, Eden didn't have ayurveda. It probably didn't have much by way of food except apples and culture beyond snake oil. Moreover, it never had a bunch of clever tourism officials who would combine its a destination's charms with a superlative sell-job, helping create a fresh international destination after the jaded decades of pushing Agra, Jaipur and Khajuraho. If India is ayurveda and the improbable land of tranquillity, then Kerala has reintroduced the idea to the world with its enticing, healing bouquet. And in the bargain, doubled foreign tourist inflow in five years to over two lakh a year, and maintaining a five-fold increase in business compared to the national average.

The elegant mix of herbal cures, spa tourism, beach holidays and wildlife backed by world-class marketing has led to Kerala being voted among the best destinations by the planet's major publications and TV channels. Today, Kerala is mentioned in the same breath as Bali. In India, it has become a textbook example of tourism promotion. When you hear people talking about the "Kerala model", it is wise to ask if it is the path-breaking blueprint adopted for socio-economic development, or tourism-an industry even government officials openly claim is the one thing that works in the state. If Kerala's tourism growth keeps its head, it may come to mean the same thing.

Food Forever

Never take a dhaba at face value-you never know what you'll find. This once-lowly roadside eatery is going places: from Punjab, where it was born as a highway truckers' halt serving food at dirt-cheap prices (the dirt sometimes came with the main course), dhabas have now become global.

In Massachusetts, you could find an "upmarket" dhaba that serves naan for $1.50 (about Rs 74). In London, it may come with a hip crowd and stylised bhangra. In India, five-star hotels have food festivals built around it and at least one has a restaurant actually called Dhaba, complete with the side of a truck as decor. There are now two kinds of dhabas, one for truckers and one for travellers. Most live up to generic qualities: quick service, Punjabi fare like tandoori roti and black dal and parantha, washed down with lassi or milky, sweet tea at unbelievable prices.

Desi Dream Works

When Piyush Pandey, Ogilvy & Mather's group president, took a Gold Lion at the annual Cannes International Advertising Awards this June for the superb campaign on Fevicol, it implied a recognition of the Indian idiom. Indian advertising has crafted an ingenious idiom to communicate in a land as diverse as India and as complex as Bharat. Bobby Kooka's Maharaja, Alyque Padamsee's Liril Girl, Sam Balsara's "I love you, Rasna" were the first pixels of the desi metaphor.  Even multinationals have to walk the talk. Pepsi was quick to realise that endorsements by American stars are meaningless without the jingle, "Yehi hai right choice, baby". Coca-Cola now mouths "Thanda matlab Coca-Cola" in Hyderabadi. American Express cardholders play Holi in London. It has even become part of war lore. Remember how a young lieutenant in Kargil turned the Pepsi line into a posthumous cry of immense attitude: "Yeh dil maange more"? India wouldn't have it any other way.

Motifs of a Nation

Handicrafts, like copies of Chola bronzes, once paid for most of India's fuel bills (they still do to some extent). It was made possible by the initial, post-Independence push by pioneering patrons such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhayay, who vigorously sought out dying crafts and their practitioners and with state backing, ensured that a the nation's priceless heritage was preserved. Today, when we casually talk about applique work, tribal handicrafts, or Gujarati motifs, it's almost like taking it for granted. That is a tribute to the entrenched revival of India's crafts. And such a glorious revival it is that countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka have gratefully followed the Indian example.

Uncommon Carrier

Bicycles are the most popular form of transportation in India

When an NGO wanted to empower village women in Tamil Nadu, guess what it picked. Bicycles. Just your average black standard with square-set handlebars and hard brakes, but enough in it to free them from the bondage of having to trudge to work. It freed their minds and with it, changed the gender equation.

Much like these ladies, India moves on bicycles. There are roughly two and a half times the number of bicycles as there are motor vehicles. And before you sniff derisively, consider how much more useful it can be to an urban traveller. It takes 2 per cent of the cost of running a car; in peak hours, the speed of a bicycle, between 15-25 km an hour, is faster than a car or bus, and requires less than a tenth of the parking space. India with its 13 million bicycles a year, is second only to China and boasts the world's largest maker, Hero Cycles, which makes close to six million a year. The classic cycle still accounts for four million.

Eternal Folds

The sari has endured centuries of changing fashion

Exposing a strategic circumference of skin, as the sari does, seems almost anachronistic in modern India. That's because its gathers-rich silhouette shows a high degree of comfort with the human body, an attitude probably killed bit by bit by the rigours of colonial morality, Hindutva sheepishness and the eccentricities of the Censor Board.

But the sari, and the midriff, have managed to surmount the sartorial faultlines, ever growing in stature and form-successfully battling the salwar kameez with constant reinvention to remain as a turn of the century garment of choice. New designers play with its six to 10 yards of possibility. There are more than 100 different ways of wrapping it, with twists in folding, tucking and pleating, which have been identified by "sariologists". The variety in textures, weaves and motifs is even greater, perhaps explaining its timeless, enduring, sensuous appeal.


Dream Factory

Somewhere beyond the blue hills of fairyland (and the Western Ghats), lies the dream factory of Indian cinema: Bollywood. It produces 300 feature films every year, has an annual turnover of Rs 6,000 crore and gives jobs to more than two million people, some of whom occasionally get arrested for taking their fantasies too seriously. With its three-hour capsules of burlesque and beauty, Bollywood is able to give formulaic sustenance to millions of Indians looking to forget droughts, power cuts, politicians and lost cricket matches with song-and-dance tales of love, betrayal and victory-sometimes told many times over in the same movie.

Now Bollywood's riveting inanities-frolicking in snow while being scantily clad, and torrid kissing between, well, two chrysanthemums-have found fans abroad. Films are selling briskly in East Asia, Central Asia, North America and Africa, and experts say that the export earnings will more than double in the next six years. Earlier this year, Lagaan made it to the Oscars, and a musical based on Bollywood, Bombay Dreams, opened to some acclaim in London. Bollywood, the overly decorated window to our soul, is now the world's window to India.

Envoys of Enterprise

The Indian Diaspora has some 20 million people worldwide

The non-resident Indian (NRI) is a mythical being in some respects, the prize catch in matrimonial ads. These are the ones that got away and built for themselves a better life, good careers and often, fabulous wealth. This diaspora spanning two centuries, but largely, a rush that began in the 1960s, total an estimated 20 million people worldwide.

Together, NRIs, who still hold Indian passports, and PIOs, who have adopted the citizenship of destination countries, account for an economic output of about $400 billion (Rs 19,20,000 crore), not appreciably less than the GDP of India. This global community is a living tribute to Indian enterprise, rising through the ranks and fighting discrimination with determination and talent. It hasn't been easy and will never will. But each successive wave of these can-do achievers holds up a candle to India as if to say: We have done so much, why can't you?


Throw and Use

If in the next few weeks and months you see this page forming a paper bag, don't snigger. Instead, celebrate one of the most efficient and low-key recycling systems in the world and the people who run it-the persistent neighbourhood kabadiwallas. In India, it's possible to sell and recycle almost any junk, from newspapers to old plastic jars. According to one estimate, India recycles 60 per cent of its plastic waste. The figure for Japan is 12 per cent, for China 10.

Discarded objects are reincarnated as new for someone less privileged. Poverty forces an estimated one million kabadiwallas to spend hours earning a few rupees this way. But in large part, it's driven by a cultural conditioning. People are loathe to throw away old things. The concept is even leveraged by marketing wunderkind. They offer discounts on new TVs and fridges if you turn in old ones.

Reinventing Roots

Ethnic chic is more complicated than just Gujarati mirror-work cushion covers, Padmasambhava in polycotton T-shirts and the intrinsic belief that Vajrayana and Vedanta can solve all the world's problems. It's a concept that takes immense pride in local phenomenology and philosophy, yet doesn't extol either at the cost of external aesthetics. The realisation emerged during the stylistically corrupted 1980s when the Indian middle class and sections of the intellectual elite grew tired of appropriating western design, which did not come to India in its pure form anyway. They had to discover India.

Ethnic chic, as it moved beyond a fad, began to glamourise elements of rural India. What emerged were not just Sanganeri prints that could be quilted into jackets with wooden buttons or khadi paper bound impeccably into photo albums, but an entire industry busy with intelligent reinvention. Without the wave, many of India's proudest possessions on the verge of extinction, like the Santhal lute, would only be in museums or heard of in folktales.

Now ethno chic has also caught the fancy of the world and many international style gurus take it directly from its sources, while Indian trendsetters get the same on the rebound. The other irony is that many of the Ganesha prints, bindis and such icons of pride are now made in China. It's cheaper.


India has won two Miss Universe titles and three Miss World titles since 1994.

Universal Appeal

In 1994, two gorgeous young ladies stood in front of packed auditoriums in foreign lands-and by extension, TV audiences numbering tens of millions. With looks, stage presence and presence of mind, the two claimed for themselves the Miss Universe and Miss World crowns.

But Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai did much more than put Indian beauty on the world map and chart a path for another Miss Universe and two Miss Worlds to follow. In a country where baby girls are killed for being baby girls, the two led a coming out parade for modern Indian womanhood riding public adulation and attitude that, at least in urban India, permanently changed the perception of women.

Indian women have long been respected for being among the most resilient in the world. Now as large numbers work to look good and feel good and stand up for what they want to be, it's a celebration of beauty of a different kind-or a beautiful celebration.

Write Stuff

Saleem Sinai's first cry in Midnight's Children was a wake-up call. Salman Rushdie's sprawling, spiralling saga was more than imagination's most daring translation of the sighs and sorrows, magic and melancholy, history and hysteria of India. This enduring landmark in modern fiction inspired a generation of Indian novelists, Macaulay's smartest children, to write stories in English. Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee, I. Allan Sealy-suddenly the voice of India, in curry-flavoured accent, started talking back to the Empire.

In the marketplace of metaphor, the Indian Novel in English has become saleable, and with the arrival-Tiger Woodsian as John Updike called it-of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, it has become a Booker-worthy sensation. Today, midnight's grandchildren are writing their way to inter-national bookshelves.

The sun may have set over the empire, but the old colony has become a brewery of the literary sundowner. It has enough inspiration; in 2001, another the son of the empire, V.S. Naipaul, won the Nobel for literature.

A Grand Harvest

India is now totally self-sufficient in foodgrains

In the mid-1960s, famine stared India in the face. The US, which exported 20 million tonnes of wheat to India in 1965-67, was using the gesture to squeeze India geopolitically. The then agriculture minister C. Subramaniam imported thousands of tonnes of two varieties of hardy Mexican seeds, Sonora 64 and Lerma Rojo. Eager farmers in Punjab lapped it up and India harvested 17 million tonnes of wheat in 1967-68, seven million tonnes more than the previous year. Urged by Subramaniam, a crack team of Indian scientists set about indigenising the Mexican varieties and Kalyan Sona and Sonalika were born. Last year, India produced 71.47 million tonnes of what. Ironically, self-sufficient in foodgrain production, India now faces a problem storing the foodgrain produced.

There is a subtext to the success story. In Subramaniam's words, the real heroes of the Green Revolution were Punjab's farmers. "They are enterprising people. But for them, we wouldn't have succeeded."

Perpetual Healing

An Ayurvedic oil therapy

Chances are, you may not have heard of Charaka and Sushruta, the ancient practitioners of a healing art that glorifies bioenergies and gauges wellbeing as a balance of vaata (wind), pitta (bile), kapha (phlegm) and tridosha (elements).

But there it is. The science of ayurveda (ayur means life and veda means knowledge) has walked in from hideaway rural and urban pharmacies into urban India's medicine cabinet and the world's consciousness. The impact is significant. The stressed in India and the world increasingly search out ayurveda massages and cures for a hundred ailments ranging from migraine to paralysis. And global drug companies are tumbling over one another in their rush to research biocures and patent processes. It is easy to see why. Modern research has confirmed at least 60 uses of the humble neem tree. It's nice to see that a form of healing that began about 5,000 years ago is still yielding its mysteries to leading-edge research.



Populism that Works


MGR's mid-day meal scheme fed 6.8 million poor Tamil Nadu children one solid meal every day and triggered a social revolution.

It was the granny of all populist schemes. Beginning July 1, 1982, the government of M.G. Ramachandran fed 6.8 million poor Tamil Nadu children one solid 400-calorie meal every day at 52,000 centres, most of them schools. The mid-day meal scheme was scoffed at. MGR, as the then chief minister was known, and his lieutenant Jayalalithaa-at the time a political tyro without the additional letter in her name and who cut her teeth with the programme-were accused of waste, profligacy and throwing aside Rs 150 crore a year. Even teachers grumbled at the idea of having to come to school on Sunday so that their pupils could eat.

But the response was astounding. Indigent parents made sure they sent their children to school if only to get their best meal of the day. International agencies began to take notice of a developmental scheme that seemed tailormade for Third World conditions. In 1995, then Union finance minister Manmohan Singh spoke of replicating the mid-day meal scheme across the country. MGR's brainwave triggered a social revolution that saw Tamil Nadu's population growth rate fall dramatically. Now it's just over 1 per cent and should reach zero in another decade, shortly after Kerala. To think it all began one hot afternoon in Tamil Nadu.

Soul Kitchen

Maybe there is some logic in the inverse logic that this raucous patch of the world is an attraction for spiritual travellers of the planet. Perhaps it is maya, an illusion of peace. But undeniably real is that somehow, it helps India's teeming millions find peace, at a temple, mosque, church, gurdwara, immersed in asanas by the banks of Ganga in Rishikesh or in enclaves of experimental communities like Auroville. Perhaps that is why this curious cradle of peace spawns healers of the mind, body and soul by the dozen, leaders of the spirit who weave great global empires of the devout with simple solutions, deeds and lifestyles, taking the soul kitchen of India to the rest of the world.

Surely this innate sense and celebration of the spirit of man and his questioning mind, irrespective of the form it manifests itself in, must find room even in the hearts of the most fiercely atheistic-or the bigot. Because it melts away violent resistance, to welcome the world's spiritual pilgrims to find solace in the ultimate waystation for soul that has given birth to four major religions and countless ways of living. For seekers of peace, Indian spiritualism is home.

Toilet Training


Embarrassingly for a country whose satellites ride homemade rockets into space, public sanitation is still largely a disaster story: only 1 per cent of the rural population has access to sanitary facilities; in urban areas it's 20 per cent. A significant move to redress the situation has been made by Sulabh International, an NGO that began working for an appropriate technology solution in Bihar, in 1970. A low-cost, eco-friendly alternative for rural areas, small towns and slums in large urban areas, the steep, sloping toilet bowl of the Sulabh Shauchalaya (Sulabh latrine) and its compost latrines cost about Rs 2,000 to construct. It uses a fifth of the water used by cisterns to flush, doing away with the vastly ineffective septic tank system, the degrading use of human scavengers to clean excreta, and reducing the incidence of disease.

The Delhi-based organisation claims to have set up 7.5 lakh units in India, earning a commission for each toilet system sold-bought directly by communities or supported by government initiatives. It currently maintains 5,000 pay-per-use public toilet and bath complexes in India, mainly in towns and cities. V.S. Naipaul, who once wrote that India defecates in the open, would be pleased.

Song of India

It's a telling statement that in the era of the unstoppable onslaught of satellite television, radio rules in vast parts of India. No other single programme has beamed itself across the country, for more than 30 uninterrupted years as has Vividh Bharati. The entertainment programme was inaugurated by air in 1970, presenting a mix of film music, skits, short plays and other features, and then as now, broadcasts for 14 hours a day, beaming countrywide from almost 200 stations. This is much greater than the present reach of fm radio, restricted to metros. The population coverage of Vividh Bharati is 97 per cent, more than Doordarshan and cable TV. Not just longevity, Vividh Bharati is about bringing connectivity and entertainment to India's masses who need only to fork out less than Rs 200 for a tiny receiver to feel like they belong in the greater scheme of things, that there's some joy in life in India's vast rural beyond.

An Amazing Tale

Amid filth and chaos, the Metro is a showcase of success in Kolkata

Tolkien might be pleased to know that Kolkata has an entire Middle Earth population: two lakh daily commuters who use, and swear by, the city's fastest, cleanest and most comfortable mode of transport-the Metro Railway. Even if nothing works in Kolkata, the Metro does. And it works on time in a laid back, filthy city that acts as if clocks belong in a Daliesque tableau and urban cleanliness is at best a theoretical concept.

For a city beset with traffic snarls and potholed roads, there was no way but to go subterranean. In 1973, when prime minister Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the Rs 1,800 crore Ministry of Railways project, it was to be the perfect high-speed, hassle-free means to get around. It took a nightmarish 15 years and immense cost overruns to complete. Today, the Metro's 16.45 km stretch can be covered in 32 minutes-a fourth of the time it takes by road. Plans are on to add another 8 km to the southern end through an extension plan. Despite minor snags the Metro has worked so well that Delhi (and, probably sometime soon, Hyderabad) is replicating it.

Brain Fever

IIT Delhi is one of the seven premier engineering institution

To hear an IIT-ian talk, you would be forgiven for thinking that such gibberish couldn't possibly account for active grey matter. But those hardcore arbit guys from the Indian Institutes of Technology, have done jhin-chak stuff to do a negation number on sceptics.

The seven IITs-the first set up in 1951 in Kharagpur and the others in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur, Guwahati and Roorkee-were conceived by the late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Today gaining admission is itself an achievement here. The elite techie boot camps produce fewer than 2,000 graduates a year-2,500 are admitted from an aspiring one lakh-that organisations in India and abroad gratefully accept into their folds. Among the IIT alumni's internationally known names are Victor Menezes, managing director, Citibank NA; Rajat Gupta, managing director, McKinsey & Co; Vinod Khosla, partner, Kleiner Perkins and co-founder of Sun Microsystems; Arun N. Netravali, president, research, AT&T Bell Laboratories; N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman, Infosys Technologies Ltd ... The list is growing.


If anybody says Indians aren't innovative, just stare them down, and call them rude names. Innovation is the mother of all invention in this vast, impoverished country where common folk have turned make-do into an art form. Take the bicycle rim on the rooftop behind the gentleman in this photograph. It is a tv antenna. It works fine for catching Doordarshan's news and entertainment channels.

In Punjab, there is the Maruta, a rural transport vehicle fashioned from a pump, wood planks, cannibalised steering, tyres and other junk. In Gujarat's Saurashtra region, the only difference is that the stuff is new and the machine gaily painted. In scorching summer, lassi is made by the hundreds of litres in modified washing machines. Grain threshers arrive for door-to-door service, powered by the engine of the tractor that pulls it. Kitchen knives have been sharpened for decades by on grindwheels powered by pedalling a stationary bicycle, and dosa mix is churned by a motorised pestle in big households and restaurants.

And there are few car mechanics in India who cannot repair stalled wheels, whatever the make, sometimes even using turmeric, a natural coagulant, to plug radiator leaks. Anything to ensure you make it to your destination-or at least the nearest service centre.  Is it any wonder that Indians are considered among the best troubleshooters in the world?

Simply the BEST

Mumbai is geographically challenged, probably the only city in the world where the "city centre" is actually lodged at the southern tip and the suburbia at the other end. Rush hour is a unidirectional lemming-like frenzy. Making up for the space crunch and inept planning is a smoothly running transport system. Calling it the best in the country would be an understatement. The 3,380 efficiently running best (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking) buses and over one lakh taxis and autorickshaws are known for their honesty.

But the backbone of the city is its "locals", a euphemism for a network of 162 suburban trains running over 200 km, making it the world's largest suburban network. Packed in "crush-dense capacity", a term for trains carrying passengers four times their capacity, the system trundles along with a doggedness that epitomises the spirit of the city.

Global Dish

In Britain, curry and its succulent Anglicised derivative, the chicken Masala, have replaced fish and chips as the most preferred dish, and many food foretellers are baffled by McDonald's non-introduction of the McTikka. Robin Cook called it the national dish of Britain, and football icon David Beckham celebrated his World Cup qualifying winner by having chicken korma at Manchester's Shimla Pinks. (He presumably mourned with fish and chips after his team got knocked out.) And now honorary Londoner, Madonna, after working on her accent, has been ordering a taxi curry takeout to feel as British as possible.

Curry in India, the real curry, which some suggest was invented by the Buddha himself, is wonderfully sprinkled with spices that could burn an Occidental tongue. Some haute curries from a pool of hundreds have more than a hundred ingredients, evolved in consultation with a hakim, the acidic inputs well-placated by counter-herbs to maintain a digestive balance. But after centuries of casual cooking, the curry is now in trouble: two Japanese patent ensnarers have an application pending that could give them exclusive rights to the general process of making it. In all likelihood, it will be thrown out. The dal makhni, as yet, is safe.

Paradise Saved

Silent Valley is among the top 10 biodiversity spots in the world

The name is a misnomer. Silent Valley is actually teeming with some of the richest fauna and flora found in India. Nestling in the wooded Western Ghats in Kerala, it is so called because of the near absence of the omnipresent crickets that provide the background hum in most tropical forests in India. Identified as among the top 10 biodiversity spots in the world, this ecological rarity would have been swamped in the 1970s by a proposed hydel power project.

But an ecological movement to preserve it grew spontaneously and drew massive support all across the country. The movement's mascot-the highly endangered lion-tailed macaque-became the symbol of India's first major ecological battle. In a landmark decision in 1980, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered the state government to abandon the dam project.

Now the Valley's pristine forests are there for generations to admire, and act as inspiration to let nature be.

Byte-ing the World

Till the early 1990s, when NASSCOM, the Indian software industry's association, talked about Rs 4,000 crore of software exports, it was dismissed as a pipe dream by bureaucrats and politicians. It's the best thing to have happened.

Companies like Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro have steadily tracked global trends, networked with technical institutions, pitched for projects and built on each success one step at a time. Global giants like Texas Instruments and Motorola, impressed by India's growing pool of it talent, came to the nursery to set up shop.

Today, Indian software professionals are among the most sought after in the local and global markets. Global corporations are moving their backroom operations to India. So when NASSCOM projects $60 billion or so in software exports by 2008, more than India's total exports today, nobody blinks.

Everywhere Delivery

Even in the age of telephone that soothes the disadvantage of illiteracy, the Indian postal system, the largest in the world, thrives with a network of 1.5 lakh post offices countrywide, in remote jungles, still more remote mountain communities and hamlets in the middle of the Thar desert. The postal system ships more than a million money orders a month-even spawning the phrase for communities with migrant population, the money-order economy. By virtue of its amazing network, the postal banking system is effectively the biggest small savings institution in the country. It also services over 25 lakh postal life insurance policies.

It's probably why the nation puts up with the now-creaky, now-efficient system, despite the droves of postal workers who descend for festival baksheesh. Maybe it's not such an unreasonable demand. Where else in the world would you write "Darkness, Mumbai" and have the letter unerringly delivered to the suburb of Andheri?

Power Dress

The Nehru jacket, a fashion oddity with its lack of lapels and the conventional collar, has perhaps travelled much wider and has proved more durable than its originator, India's first prime minister.

In the 1960s, it stormed men's wardrobes, thanks to star supporters like Johnny Carson and the Beatles. It would have slid into oblivion in the latter part of the decade but for the James Bond films, with the original Bond, Sean Connery, appearing in a Nehru-collared jacket in Dr No. The dress swam back to the future in the late 1990s-again tracing the 007 route-when comedian Mike Myers sported the Nehru jacket as Austin Powers, the ultra-hip British agent. It soon became a retro resurrect-something the Mao jacket never succeeded in doing. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone to town in a Nehru jacket and former South African leader Nelson Mandela has professed his fondness for the cut.


18 major languages
6,400 castes and sub-castes
6 major religions
1,600 minor languages and dialects

52 major tribes
6 main ethnic groups
29 major festivals
7 union territories
28 states
1 country