Recently, I was asked to speak at a business conclave in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal. After a rather tiring day and grueling evening, I walked up to the concierge at the Soaltee and asked him what I could do to unwind, other than whiling away my time at the bar or lying in bed watching old Hindi movies.
“Well Sir, you could go to the Casino”, he said stating the obvious.
I smiled. “Now, why hadn’t I thought of that before?” I said, as I walked away in the general direction that he pointed me towards.
Now, I am not a gambling man, but I do enjoy soaking up the excitement of the baize table and watching others make or break their fortunes in spin of a wheel or the deal of a hand(remember the ‘winner’s curse’? I always seem to ask myself in a throw back to a game theory lesson of yore…). As I walked up to the Casino doors, I was met by three uniformed guards who stared at for a moment, before smiling and waving me through, “Go on, Sir”, they said, as I started to pull out some ID as required by the establishment. I thanked them and walked through the doors and went up the stairs to reach the sanctum sanctorum.
I stopped for a moment and looked around me. To the left of me, there was a performance in progress: a number of provocatively clad young girls were taking turns to ‘groove’ to a series of Bollywood item numbers even as their audience – tables of sweat-stained, drunken men – either sat and stared at the performers on stage or tried to dance wildly at their tables in an attempt to catch their attention. To the right of me, were rows of smartly stacked slot machines, each of which whirred and jangled as customers stared fixatedly at the rapidly, but asymmetrically, spinning rows of oranges, pears, cars, bells, crowns and cherries; and straight ahead of me – covered in a light haze – were a dozen or so baccarat and roulette tables, complete with uniformed croupiers, stacks of coloured chips, whistling cards, a rattling ball set loose against the grain, food and drink laden waiters, and of course, the occasional sigh, moan and guffaw of emotion.
What surprised me more than anything else in the half an hour that I was there was the fact that most of the customers in the establishment looked Indian – blue collar workers who lived in Kathmandu; potbellied businessmen who had travelled there from India on work; or executives like me who were passing through like I was. A conversation with the manager of the hotel, who had also stopped by for a moment confirmed what I believed, that there was an astounding amount of money that changed hands here every day, but the regulars kept on coming back…
Sharing my experience with a leading entrepreneur in Kathmandu the following morning and the fact that I had hardly seen any Indian tourists (couples and families) across Kathmandu otherwise over the past couple of days, I was surprised by his smile. ‘Yes, we do need to something about the quality of Indian tourists who visit us nowadays, and we definitely need to do find a way to get rid of these Casinos’.
Though I am sure there are many who would disagree, I believe that the brain drain from India in the 1980s-1990s actually did us a world of good. For starters, it helped equip some of our finest human capital with the best learning opportunities that the world had to offer. These skill-sets were then put to the test by in an enabling environment in the global arena; and many went on to contribute to the growth and development of Silicon Valley. What is even more interesting is that many of these individuals have since returned to India and / or have actively been involved in the development of thinking, policy, and education in our country. They are also to be credited with embedding the ‘technology prowess’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ labels that many people in the West and in other parts of the world ascribe to us. These individuals have been nothing short of the finest ambassadors that the country has had.
But these people haven’t been the only flag-bearers we have had over the years: remember the migration of our Kutchi and Gujarati brethren to the Kingdoms of Arabia and East Africa in the 19th Century where many of them helped develop and ultimately run large commercial establishments? Some of these people – those based in East Africa – moved again in the 1970-1980’s to the UK, thanks to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his counterpart in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where they initially took over corner (kirana) shops and hotels in search of work. Think back also to the movement of our Tamilian and Malayali brethren to the palmolein fields and rubber plantations of Malaysia and the construction sites of Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Singapore (we were also involved in the development of the railway systems in East Africa). These gentlemen played a crucial role in providing the vital manpower that these countries needed to develop and run these industries. Finally, think of the Canadian attempt to woo our celebrated Punjabi farmers in the 1980s and 1990s in an attempt to revitalize farming in the country.
Of course, these ‘migrations’ and the reasons behind them were markedly different from the one that ended up in the Valley; they are also different from the trade winds that over time has helped us (our fellow brethren!) contribute significantly to the development of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.
However, despite these differences, each of these migrations have one thing in common: they have given us an identity and lent shape to the image of the ‘archetypal Indian’ in these countries; a frame of reference that we have had to work hard to change as India and Indians got to be known largely and variously as a nation of farmers, blue collar workers, traders, doctors and technocrats. (I remember travelling back from Thailand in the early 1990s and being stared at strangely by the cabin crew as I was the only Indian who didn’t appear to be carrying an entire electronics shop with him!).
Given this, I can’t help but wonder whether there is a way to better balance our people exports in so much as to purposefully shape an impression our ourselves overseas, even as we strive to find our place in the sun? Is there a way we can incentivize our companies and our people to grow in particular areas which allow us to harness / demonstrate the skills that would put us as a country in perspective? Should the development / sharing of manpower constitute a vital part of the bilateral agreements we sign as a nation and as corporate houses?
Think back from this to where we started this journey, the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal. While I know there is a basic flaw in the question that I have raised, I would hate to think that everyone in the Himalayan nation should think of us as an overbearing nation of drunken gamblers who shamelessly yearn for other women when we are away from home.
This first appeared on my Times of India blog: