S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 

More Things Change



p>As I clamber onto the two-seater Honda behind Simha, my new 24-year-old friend and tour guide, I'm hoping for a full tour of Bangalore. I want the ride to expose me to some part of India's leading tech town that I wouldn't see on my own — something exotic. Instead, as we buzzsaw around, with Simha's faulty brakes and (of course) without helmets, one of the things that strikes me most — after the throngs of people, the riot of colors, the filth, the moonscape roads, the stench, the hair-raising traffic and the cows — is the advertising. With Bangalore's flourishing dot-com industry desperately vying for recruits and mindshare, the billboard business has seemingly ballooned.

The slick English-language slogans for "revolutionary" middleware applications and one-liner business plans writ in 1000-point type could easily be mistaken for those lining Route 101 outside San Francisco Airport. But there's something off about the graphics here — specifically the typography. The signs' letters are all factory-second quality, the straight lines a bit wobbly, the spacing a bit out of true. And that's because most of the billboards in India, even for the most ultradvanced laser-enabled global-economy wireless Web wunderproduktion, are still painted freehand. Subtly but literally, Indian IT companies advertise that their claims of new-century cybadvancement may still be a few chips shy of a server farm.

Make no mistake: Internet-based tech is booming, bringing unprecedented prosperity to hundreds of thousands of the country's best-educated citizens. The energy, drive and outright intellectual brilliance the country is putting into its tech industry are breathtaking. But there's a good measure of wishful thinking in India's silicon fantasies — the wish that anyone in this extraordinarily complicated, sensory-overloading country could completely transcend the reality of their being, ultimately, in India.

There were many reasons for a Suckster to make the trip to the Subcontinent: I could find fantastic business plans to mock and then steal, or at least a refreshingly nostalgic whiff of delusional Internet optimism. Perhaps there would be some nonsensically risky, currency-leveraged enterprises to invest in. And there was the almost guaranteed shot at bacterial dysentary (no five-star hotels on the Suck budget) — clearly an offer too good to refuse. Along the way I'd take tea with the country's wealthiest software baron; befriend Bangalore's own ersatz Kozmo.commies, crash a sweetheart high-tech real-estate deal, meet one of India's new accidental Internet feminists, and see what may be the world's most gapingly large digital divide, first-hand.

And I didn't even get sick until the very last day.


We didn't have to put around Bangalore more than a few minutes for me to soak up the contrast that defines the city. It's like the one you'd find in any American metropolis, but more so.

On the one hand, it is overrun with the business of what Indians universally call IT — information technology. The quick-wired buildings, the billboards, the cybercafes and tin-shack surf shops where a buck buys an hour of snail-paced browsing. The newspapers overflowing with stories about the Internet's wonders and (more to the point) dozens of full-page recruitment ads trumpeting salaries (millions of rupees) and lists of benefits (health clubs!) that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Most of downtown and newly upscale neighborhoods like Koramangala teem with India's best and brightest, walking around the muddy streets bantering into their cell phones, in English, about which brew-pub they'd visit that evening.

Bangalore is Bangalore for pretty much the same reasons the Valley is the Valley: Decades ago, the local universities began churning out a lot of brilliant technologists, and since the climate was nice, they stayed. A bit after that, tech entrepreneurs from other parts of the country started relocating to Bangalore, where the talent was plentiful and the land was cheap. (Infosys, which I'd visit later, was one such company — it actually started in Bombay.) Along with its relative wealth, the city's population has exploded in the past ten years to nearly five million, and the once vaunted clean air is history. But the city remains one of the most socially liberal in India.

A moment's motorcycling from clubland lie the hundreds of back streets and dirt lanes filled (and I do mean filled — Indian roads burgeon with more forms of transportation than any other place I've been) with people to whom IT makes not one whit of difference. And that's if they even know about it, which they may not, since all the relevant ads are in English, and most of the residents (if they read at all) read only Kannada, the local dialect in Karnataka state.

"This is the real Bangalore," says Simha. We've pulled up in front of a mechanic's shop that seems bereft of tools or parts; a fourteen-year-old wearing a shirt that appears literally to have been dipped in grease emerges, takes a look at Simha's snapped brake cable, and disappears. Simha peers around at the fruit dealers, basket sellers, cow herders, and minions of other passers by busily doing god-knows-what.

"For them, the Internet does not exist. Most can't really read, and the Kannada newspapers don't speak of it anyway. They mainly have stories on local politics and sports and Rajkumar" — the local movie star whose kidnapping a few weeks earlier by the outrageously mustachioed Veerapan, India's leading poacher/smuggler/jungle bandito, had shut down the city. (It seems Veerapan had claimed alliance with a neighboring state's Tamil-speaking rebels, making himself the sworn enemy of Kannadans. Riots choked off streets and shut down businesses, schools closed for two weeks, a curfew was imposed, and only the day before I arrived had the citywide liquor ban been lifted. A few months after snatching the star, but not before utterly humiliating the governments of two states, Veerapan released Rajkumar; the bandit himself is still at large.)

The boy returns with a length of wire he's obviously just removed from some other bike and deftly performs an emergency bypass on Simha's ride. Five minutes later we're back on the road, swerving to avoid oncoming buses and emaciated cows, headed to Koramangala.


Next stop: "Koramangala's Most Happening Place," — why waste time with the second or third most-happening, thought I — which turned out to be the modest, well-kept home of Balbir and Amrit Singh, proprietors of Koramangala.com. I'd found the site, which caters to the Bangalore IT crowd with a combination of semi-regular local-interest articles and a few e-shopping offers, via Google; Balbir had replied to my mail immediately, and enthusiastically, "with me and Amrit, you'll never feel shy from the minute you meet us." And sure enough, over the next few days, the Singhs shuttled me to appointments, fed me, and generally treated me like an old friend. Since I represented media coverage, I was never sure, in that Almost Famous sort of way, if I was being spun. But by and large the Singhs seemed extremely genuine.

Earlier in the year, Balbir and Amrit went out looking to get some venture funding for Koramangala.com, using a Wired article on Bangalore as Exhibit A to establish that they were, indeed, very happening. Balbir asked if I'd seen the piece in Wired. I hadn't, but he had several copies around.

Brad Wetzler had actually led his story with Balbir; by my reading, he made him out to be some sort of manic, delusional enterpreneur, an ambitious buffoon drunk with get-rich- quick possibilities. Despite the characterization, the Singhs proudly and constantly talked about the piece.

Apparently the local VC community agreed with Brad; they were concerned with the Singhs' pie-in-the-sky plan to compete directly with India's quite-well-funded portals (Rediff and Satyam). The Singhs would provide the high-service Bangalore alternative. "They said we were just a mom-and-pop site," Balbir grimaces over a late-night supper of homemade idli. "Well, we're going to be the best goddam mom-and-pop site out there. And we're not taking venture money now, which is good, because we don't have to answer their damn questions and we can grow Koramangala.com more reasonably."

Frankly, if I were an investor I wouldn't put ten rupees into Koramangala.com, either. Since Balbir has to devote at least some time to his well-salaried, well-resented day job selling consumer-product packaging materials, Amrit handles most of the incoming orders of flowers and sweets and whatnot. Amrit picks everything out herself so it's all very fresh, and she delivers punctually. They provide great service (other services frequently botch the deliveries, but not the Singhs) but their DIY method isn't scalable worth a damn - it's never going to throw off the cash flow that would make an investment worth a VC's time.

But that doesn't mean it won't still be a great business for the Singhs. This year Koramangala.com will pull in revenues of perhaps Rs300,000 ($6600) and make a profit of around $1200 — a meaningful boost to the Singhs' already solidly middle-class household income. With their costs so limited and their time available (Amrit's especially; despite her economics degree Koramangala.com is her first job in twenty years), it doesn't take much to make the site a worthwhile family venture.

More than a business, though, Koramangala.com is the Singhs' pet project, the vehicle for the social as well as financial ambitions of a very highly educated but until now strictly middle-class couple. One senses that the Singh's are doing Koramangala.com at least as much for the notoriety and access that accompanies being local media celebrities. They like to interview government officials who wouldn't otherwise talk to them. They like to write editorials about the conditions of Bangalore's roads. They like to email local CEOs and get responses, and to drop their names in conversation. Which is somewhat refreshing: In a climate crazed with money, they're good old-fashioned social climbers.


Despite the late hour, Amrit wants to introduce me to her next-door neighbor, a 22-year-old woman who has just finished college. Having had her pick of programming jobs, she has signed on with Medicom, a medical-supply B2B and is poised, in her first year out of school, to earn more than anyone in her family ever had. Amrit says this girl represented the tidal shift in what sort of lives Indian women could today lead.

Sure, I'd love to meet her.

Shubha Lokeshaiah greets me in her flourescent-lit living room, which is all of fifteen feet from the Singhs' bedroom. Her mother is here, too, and so even if she does seem raptly to be watching a dubbed Friends episode on the TV, Shubha and I awkwardly, silently negotiate that we will not risk the impropriety of shaking hands. Instead, Shubha simply sits down across the room from me, next to her mom.

In contrast to the Singhs, Shubha speaks with a thick accent, and so quietly I could hardly hear her from eight feet away. She is dressed in a vivid red salwar kameez gown, which covers her from neck to toes. Despite her outward modesty, though, she stares me in the eye and speaks proudly and forcefully, as though everything she was saying was a matter of pure fact. I ask how she became interested in computer programming, which until very recently was rarely a woman's occupation.

"This is a communications time," she explains. "One hundred percent different than 10 years ago. Most firms would rather work with women today, because we are more serious." She looks forward to getting her own apartment someday — a radical break from tradition, in which women live with their parents at least until marriage, often longer.

I assume that makes her family uneasy, and ask Amrit to ask Shubha's mother — who presumably hasn't understood a word up until now — how she feels about the prospect of her unmarried daughter leaving home. "It's like breaking up with our servants," she says: a matter of economic reality. She thinks the family will be better off. And so what 10 years earlier would have seemed inconceivable — some inseparable blend of shameful impropriety and financial impossibility — is now A-OK. The fact that some young Bangalorean women have become quite rich, in the space of a few years in their twenties, has very quickly put the kibosh on whatever age-old cultural traditions and taboos once held.

Then again, there is that television. The new structure wouldn't look so good, and maybe mom wouldn't be quite so supportive of sending her unmarried daughter to live on her own, if she herself didn't spend her hours watching those attractive, friendly Americans live their shiny lives in their parent-free world. The Internet is having its liberalizing effect on some Indians' lives, but only in the context of television, which — way more pervasive, way more persuasive — has already done most of the cultural heavy lifting.

I expected food to preoccupy me in India. In particular the part where eating eventually makes pretty much all travelers sick had taken up a lot of brainspace as I prepared for my trip. But somehow I escaped what some call Delhi Belly until my last day in the country, leaving me free, up until then, to obsess about something I had thought India would enable me to think about less: money.

Granted, I was not traveling in the India of dhoti-clad ascetics or spiritual seekers. I was firmly in bourgie territory, where everyone's decisions are virtually by definition economic. That said, I found it impossible to travel in India and not have the dismal science on my mind 24 hours per. A loyal Economist subscriber, I was reasonably well-versed in the gospel of comparative advantage and economic-development cycles and such. But confronted up-close with very intelligent, well-educated business executives ten years my senior who make, in absolute terms, substantially less money as than I do as a freelance writer — never mind a rickshaw driver who might take home annually about what I pay for one month of health insurance — well, it was enough to turn day-to-day economics into an obsession.

Oddly, this strikes me most on those occasions when I temporarily step out of India and into of Bangalore's countless Net-access stalls. Websurfing is supposed to be a locationless activity, but when you're looking at Yahoo! or CNN.com while sitting in India, you're immediately aware that most of the ads are for stuff you, by virtue of where you are, can't have. It's a little like being a middle-class American and reading a copy of the Robb Report — all those pictures and inaccessible offers may seem irrelevant at first, but before long their very inaccessibility makes you want them much, much more.

Very roughly speaking, everyday expenses in India (food, transport, a place to stay, services of any sort) seem to cost about one-sixth what they do in the States. That means the average income of less than $400 a year translates up to about $2400 of purchasing power — still exceedingly poor by US standards. But a $10,000 starting programmer's salary gets you the equivalent of $60,000 in consuming muscle — more or less even with what your average smartypants CompSci grad in the US might earn. And Bangalore salaries are on the way up: a US firm that had a $60k budget for a starting coder could double a Bangalorean's salary and still be paying him much less.

Bangalore's truly global labor market is warping the local economy in other ways, not all of them necessarily appreciated. In August one city paper reported that Bangalore was experiencing a shortage of M.D.'s. The reason: so many doctors had left their practices to go work for the emerging medical transcription (MT) industry, where they could earn much more money. US doctors get their voice-recorded notes digitized, satellite-beamed to Bangalore, and entered into computer files overnight. MT companies need doctors to do the transcribing because they can properly understand the technical language in which the notes are dictated. Their time is worth much more when they act as night-shift secretary for a US physician rather than as a working doctor.


Don't get the wrong idea: much of Bangalore's vaunted success is the real thing. The prime example is always Infosys, the first Indian company ever to list on the Nasdaq. INFY has produced several hundred US-dollar millionaires, and, along with a few other massively successful companies, has planted in millions of minds a very important idea: you can create a fantastic amount of wealth in the space of a generation.

But it's not just the raw cash that's made INFY the most admired company in India. It is also, for lack of a better word, style. Infosys chairman and CEO Narayana Murthy, is legendary — truly one of most admired men in the nation — not just cuz he's rich (which he is; more or less a billion bucks worth) but because of how he's handled it.

First off, Murthy, a former flag-waving Socialist, created India's first employee stock-option plan at Infosys. Everyone at INFY gets shares. In the context of hierarchy-minded Indian corporate tradition, this was a move even more radical than it was in the US.

On a more personal level, Murthy and his wife still live (as everyone in Bangalore knows), in the same modest house they have since before Infosys went public. He eschews jet-setty living for gardening; he still wears a dhoti around that house, still gets up at the crack, still eats, when not at a business function, with the fingers of his right (and never his left) hand.

What Indians love, basically, is that he's Keeping it Real — not becoming some slick-haired Bombay business-wallah, but remaining a typical Indian husband, frequent-flyer platinum status notwithstanding. Many Indians are consequently crazy about him. They love the humility; most of all, they love the idea that their dreams of infinite wealth might not necessarily force them to abandon their identity. To put it another way, when was the last time you heard a Valley CEO discuss his daily prayer routine?

Five thousand years into Hinduism, India is not a place where values change for change's sake. By Murthy's own admission, what conversion to the New Economy takes is nothing less than a bit of schizophrenia, a split-personality syndrome he says Indians have always been good at, and even admired. Which is why he — the toweringly rich, hugely accomplished but still humble Hindu — has won the national media's reverence.

Murthy suggests that leading this double life represents a very Indian value. (The idea probably seems less strange to a culture where the # 1 deity, Lord Brahma, has four faces.) "We Indians are used to having two completely different personalities: one in public, one in private — we are pretty good at living one kind of life in the office and another at home." In the Murthy school, that's how you resolve the Indian ambivalence about "progress," the tension between modernization on the one hand and anxiety about losing traditions and identity on the other.


Next time you're in Bangalore, you might try to arrange your own interview with Murthy; another facet of his mythology is that, schedule permitting, he'll talk with most anyone. A Web producer friend of mine had visited him several months earlier on no greater pretext than that she was in town doing "research." I simply emailed him and asked for an appointment; he set a time and it was done.

Monday afternoon the Singhs volunteer to drive me out to the Infosys complex — they have never seen it before and also have to collect a flower-delivery debt from an INFY employee. The ride out on the bomb-cratered, cow-filled highway takes about thirty minutes; we park in a dirt lot that would soon house one of the next Infosys buildings — another in the series of California-style low-slung tech-park offices that several thousand Bangaloreans commute to each day. Then the Singhs happily sit in the headquarters' lobby while I go upstairs to Murthy's second-floor boardroom.

After some introductory questions, the talk turns to Murthy's revolutionary stock-option plan. In Silicon Valley, employee options began as an incentive for engineers, and only gradually did they filter out to other parts of companies. Murthy went all-out from the start: everyone got stock. He couldn't be more proud that the guy serving me my milky, supersweetened tea, who has evidently been serving Murthy's guests for many years, is worth something like half a million US.

There it is, Internet myth #1 — the legend of the wealthy secretary. What's impressive, or seemed impressive, about this is that social mobility in India (by which, of course, I and most everybody else means economic mobility) has traditionally been much harder to come by than in the US. Of course I have no real idea whether my tea-man has a university degree or a 5th-grade education. He's dressed in a nice shirt. But then again, he has a half-million bucks in a country where a nice shirt costs $6 custom-made.

According to local editor/publisher/trucking-fortune scion Bipin Vashisth, 32, it is not Bangalore but Hyderabad — the 10 million-population city in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state that has begun to rival B'lore for the title of India's prime tech city — has been blessed (or something) with the most New Economically progressive state government in India. Chief Minister N.C. Naidu's huge infrastructure projects are meant to create the closest thing India has to a Western business environment — decent roads, decent air, decent bandwidth. So far so good: while the H'bad IT industry is still only a fraction of Bangalore's, it's growing much faster, and it's capturing the imaginations of the city's educated class.


Today Bangalore's relatively large student population, and their counterparts in H'bad, are very much in the middle of South India's new-wave businesses. The taste of opportunity, the idea that any smart person can go into IT and make $10,000 a year at age 23 is changing attitudes in tens of thousands of Shubha's peers. And, says Bipin, these future leaders need a place to turn for their cues on how to attain the lifestyle they want.

If you believe Bipin — South India's would-be Jan Wenner — they look to The Cult, a 10,000 circulation monthly he founded in early 1998. Bipin distributes The Cult only in Bangalore and in Hyderabad, where the awakening student population want to "freely express their views" instead of being "repressed by teachers" all the time. The Cult is that liberating vehicle.

At least that's the theory.

In practice, The Cult is a monthly 40-page pamphlet-size 'zine with short articles on pop music, cricket, polls-n-quotes pieces on dating ("Do you support live-in relationships?"), plus some tame nookie puns. Aside from its local cultural references, it's nothing you couldn't find in the US version of Seventeen, which, of course, is written for twelve-to-fifteen year-olds. The savvy ironies that pervade Spin or Cosmopolitan or Jane or Suck are absent. The college-age "youth" of India's high tech cities want more independence — meaning they want to be able to stay out at the pubs until midnight — and they want to know if it's OK to kiss someone you might not marry.


Despite having chosen Hyderabad as his second city, Bipin, a Bangalore booster to the core, greatly enjoys disparaging the place for its lame quality of life. The best thing he can say about it is that Hyderabad "is the only city in India that gets swept every night." (Native Hyderabadis confirm that their hometown is an unusually clean Indian city — a bit like saying A.J. is an unusually intellectual Backstreet Boy.) "They have nothing to do there — virtually no pubs and no discos. Hyderabad is going to be a manufactured city — like Singapore." From his standpoint as a publisher that makes Hyderabadis a dream readership: a captive audience.


Bangalore by contrast "has a history of being more laid back," says Bipin. "If a guy in Hyderabad has a similar job opening in Bangalore, he'll choose Bangalore, one hundred percent." It may not be as easy to drive around, and the air, while still far cleaner than any of the "metros" (Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras), is still pretty filthy. But there are more than 300 pubs, Bipin says, "and the best liquor companies in India are here in Bangalore — Kingfisher, United Breweries, Peter Scott." If quality of life correlates with blood-alcohol content, the Karnatakan capital wins hands-down.

To an extent, Bipin practices what he preaches. For one thing, he heads most evenings to the Bowring Institute, a private club descended from the British, for badminton and copious whiskey. More significantly, Bipin married his college sweetheart even though she was >from a family two full caste levels below his own. This took no small courage; his family stopped speaking to him for a time, threatening to cut him off.

Still, for all Bipin's talk of youth expressing its independent spirit, it's a fairly straitened rebellion The Cult expresses, and that's the narrower sense of troublemaking that the educated youth are tuned into.


There's a famous bit of dialogue in The Wild One, the 1954 film starring Marlon Brando as motorcycling bad boy Johnny Strabler. A bewildered local asks, "What are you rebelling against?" "Whaddya got?" replies the black-leathered Brando. Point being, obviously, that for Johnny the act of rebelling was way more important than the substance.

I'm reminded of this scene when I pull out of a sardine-packed minimall parking lot on the back of a motorcylcle belonging to Ankit, The Cult's Hyderabad lieutenant. Ankit is Bipin's protegŽ. Like Bipin, he comes >from money — dad's in banking — and he shares a tremendously ambitious drive to make more by getting into the media business and targeting India's ripest consumer-marketing territory: young Internet users. Also like Bipin, Ankit has several businesses under his command, including a small ad agency, a party-planning company (raking in rupees from profligate dot-coms — instant nostalgia for the circa-1999 Alley), and the Hyderabad arm of The Cult. Oh, and he's 18.

As he kick-starts his Honda, he turns over his shoulder and asks me what brands of consumer goods are very popular in the US.

"Brands of what?"

"Of anything," comes the reply. Doesn't matter what the stuff is; what matters is the act of marketing.

Reassuringly, shopping is evidently not the only flavor of social dissent in today's India: later that evenings Ankit shows me some of the places where Hyderabad had violently rioted two days before I arrived. It seems that the Chief Minister Naidu had been angling to cut the state's electricity subsidies, which would raise power prices statewide. Opposition-party politicians organized several thousand people to march on the Andhran parliament and, well, somehow things got a little out of hand, and some state troopers murdered some protestors, and the rest quite reasonably turned parts of the city upside-down. Now that's rebellion.


My main contact in Hyderabad is J. A. Chowdary, president of a start-up named PortalPlayer, but more importantly the man who led the creation and development of something called Hi-Tech City. Chowdary had invited me to meet him at his office, but the address he'd provided was deep in the midst of Jubilee Hills, a new neighborhood whose unnamed, nearly unnavigable streets are chock-full of brand-new 6000-square-foot houses. Well out of center city, the area is perfectly insulated from whatever disturbances took place: a perfect illustration for why Hyderabad makes its tech industry's physical aloofness from the city a selling point. Through sleet or snow or rioting or kidnapping, Cyberabad would be able to go about its business.

PortalPlayer's logo adorns what looks to be a big house. I step in, through a nicely appointed foyer, past a living room packed with Windows workstations, and into a spacious American-style home-office: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind a large L-shaped desk with a 17-inch CRT and a multiple-line phone. Chowdary's nine-year-old boy is there (school's out for Ganesh's birthday), having commandeered his dad's rig to surf the WWF website. On one wall hangs a snap of Mr. Chowdary with former US Ambassador Dick Celeste, and on another a photo shows him walking down a New York street with Chief Minister Naidu.

Ever the incisive reporter, I begin our interview with a probing, insightful question. "So, um — where are we? Is this your house or your office?"


His house, he says, is a few blocks away. This lovely new manse is in fact PortalPlayer's Indian headquarters. It's not the only Hyderabadi start-up to have a master bedroom instead of a boardroom; many of the other houses in Jubilee Hills are also being used as corporate digs. Zealous real-estate developers built the houses thinking they'd soon fill with cybermillionaires — forgetting that you don't get the rich folk before you get the start-ups. So the baby companies take whatever space is available — much of it in the form of 5-bedroom estates.

Chowdary and I chat for awhile about why Hyderabad is a vastly superior location to Bangalore, with Chowdary making more or less analagous points to those I'd heard several times down in Karnataka. Sure, Hyderabad's new hi-tech real estate developments would be artificial, with few connections to the city's indigenous culture. But that was a selling point! Clean air, open spaces, easy parking — the new Hyderabad is a place to which anyone from anywhere could comfortably move tomorrow. Bangalore is expensive, dirty and crowded — no place you'd want to have a family.

Then two of Chowdary's friends arrive — a prominent cardiologist and a now-turned-out former member of the national parliament — and we drive the 15 minutes to Hi-Tech City. They have never visited, but are thinking of getting into the real-estate development game that Chowdary knows is going to blow up fat.


Basically a decently-built bandwidth-laden office complex six kilometers northwest of downtown, HTC has been filling up fast with big software firms' Andhran outposts. It is the envy of Bangalore, if only because it has been visited by President of the United States Bill Clinton — a saintly capitalist blessing that bestowed the highest possible status on HTC and, by extention, on the H'bad Internet industry.

HTC's round glass tower looms over a dusty plain otherwise covered in patchy grass and big rocks. In fact, a few years ago, nothing was here but the boulders; a few years more and there will be a dozen or more shiny new office blocks, all loaded with fiberoptics and Mensa-level codewriters. Of course the two-lane road into the complex >from the airport will have to be widened, but that would hardly be a big deal in the context of Naidu's plan to build a brand-new airport to serve what would within months be an officially separate city called Cyberabad. Yes. That will be its legal name.

What I hadn't understood until Chowdary explained it was that the rioting that shut down Hyderabad the previous week related directly to these plans. (The state has to generate some revenue before it can make these infrastructure investments, he said; cutting the power tariff — which will encourage more rational use of precious electricity and maybe even decrease the number of Hyderabad's power outages — is the most sensible way of doing that.) To realize the Cyberabadi dream — a synthetic, gleaming city remote from the crowded squalor of downtown Hyderabad, designed to tend to the specific needs of the IT industry — the rest of the state, everyone, will literally pay a price.

The result, ostensibly, will benefit Andhra Pradesh with huge job creation and a corpulent new tax base. Naidu is going to drag Andhra into the new century, but first there will be a lot of kicking and screaming, not to mention fatal shootings.

Such development may indeed be the best thing for the long-term health of the region's economy, but on the way there some folks are going to suffer, and others — notably, real estate developers — are going to get rich. Shades of Chinatown.


Up in a top-floor HTC meeting room, someone (someone who, without Infosys options, was presumably worth less than a half-million bucks) brought snacks: lethally sweet mango-creme cookies and to wash them back, Pepsi. The idea on the board-room table was that the former MP (now an extremely connected businessman), along with the cardiologist with whom he operates a leading Hyderabad hospital, would create an incubator. The incubator bug has a very first-quarter 2000 feel in the US, but it has only recently been spreading to India. A few hundred thousand square feet of new office space, some amenities like a health club and a golf course, and start-ups from around the nation will be begging to trade a bit of equity for a few years' rent.

The MP isn't convinced; this high-risk VC way of doing business troubled him when his money could be drawing 18% in a simple Indian bank account. But Chowdary persevers. After an "all this could be yours" rooftop tour of what would be (subtext: "with or without you") India's crown infrastructural jewel, the MP asks about construction details, and the doctor wants to know if it would be wise to station his gleaming glass office tower right in the middle of the golf course he'd build.

They will build it; the cyberpeople will come, and if all goes as planned, a new city, unlike Calcutta, Bombay or Delhi, unlike Bangalore, unlike Hyderabad itself — unlike them in that it will (they dream) be miraculously absent of India's problems — will rise from nothing.



courtesy of Steve Bodow
jc@suck.com


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