Published on July 21, 2007
India is a study in contrasts. ITC Welcomgroup operates two of the finest restaurants in the country - Bukhara, with its frontier cuisine, and Dum Pukht, featuring steamed nawabi delicacies. Both are at the Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi. The same group runs one of the few airport lounges at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport.
So, I waved my Marco Polo Club lounge card and staggered towards this beacon of hope at the usual ungodly hour that international airlines tend to depart from the subcontinent.
In a country of haves and have-nots, where the average annual per capita income hovers at a subliminal US$300 (Bt10,200), the ITC Welcomgroup lounge at Delhi airport is a haven of succour. Here, guiltily, business travellers can fall upon the breakfast buffet. It's a difficult choice - hard curry puffs, rock-hard rolls, slices of day-old cake solid enough to build a small typhoon-proof house with and more hard curry puffs. As a proud Indian, I marvel at this progress, especially at 4am when the last bit of enamel falls off with that crunchy first bite.
A new international Delhi airport is on the way, hopefully just in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. There's nothing wrong with athletes chomping on hard curry puffs or using them as dumbbells for warm-up exercises, but a new airport is deemed essential. The facility will handle the huge influx of visitors and athletes, though Delhi itself has nowhere near enough rooms to accommodate any of these people.
India Tourism has thus launched a brave drive to co-opt private homes that pass quality standards into a bed-and-breakfast list capable of accommodating almost 20,000 people. Disappointingly, at these homes, visitors will just get juicy tandoori chicken, aromatic kebabs and spicy masala dosa - but not curry puffs that kids can use as cricket balls.
Creeping modernity is everywhere. In Delhi, a host of new flyovers transport vehicles efficiently across busy intersections. Where once scenes of chaos awaited motorists at difficult road crossings, these modern bridges ensure a smooth ride across to the next scene of chaos, about 100 metres farther, where the flyover deposits motorists back in the thick of the scrum to test their road skills. In India it's "survival of the biggest".
The cows are regularly carted off to the riverbanks and beyond city limits, but as the Yamuna floods the critters come mooing back. Something in their genes ensures that they home in on the busiest streets where they take up strategic positions, slowing traffic and making it easier for the police to scan for possible terrorists, or "miscreants" as they are called in the Indian press. Rajasthani cameleers and cattle herders too drive their flock through the suburbs looking for a suitably green munch. And all of them give way to wandering elephants. Incredible India indeed.
Above the fray, 30,000 feet aloft, the new Jet Airways B737-800s transport passengers in whisper-quiet comfort, in leather seats, where they can prod at large private LCD screens. On trunk routes, on both business and economy class, JetScreen lets you play, pause and rewind any programme at will, making it one of the most modern in-flight touch-screen entertainment systems anywhere. It easily beats anything Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines offer in cattle class. The system is so easy a child can use it. Seasoned business travellers may be flummoxed, however. I stared a good half hour at the JetScreen welcome image, rolling my eyes every time a stewardess passed by, until my irritated teenage son elbowed me in the ribs and touched the screen to get things moving.
Yes, India is a land of contrasts. An average per capita of $300 does nothing to deter the air traffic congestion at major airports like Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore. Hotel rates are stratospheric. Executives travelling to Bangalore for high-powered meetings prefer to stay in Chennai and do a day commute in and out.
The country is on the move. On a recent trip to Delhi, this was evident everywhere. Thousands of people trudged along streets and main roads from early morning till late at the night. The city's notorious "killer" Blue Line buses had pulled off the roads after police threatened to take them to task. The police have a point. It helps when passengers get deposited at their destination instead of under the wheels. The Delhi underground Metro rail system groaned with overuse but managed to cope.
Bombay hopes to have an underground rail system too, eventually, and a new airport. It has also gained approval for a spanking new drainage system - the last one was devised in the 1800s - to prevent a repeat of the July 2006 floods that brought the place to a standstill.
Incredibly, India is coming of age. Applaud. But get there quick to catch the last of those rock hard curry puffs.