December 8, 2017
Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India
Like in a cinema hall when the lights come on, everyone was up in a few seconds and scrambling for the exit. But it was not a cinema hall; it was a sleeper coach in a train from Mumbai that had just pulled into Ahmedabad station after an overnight journey. It was five minutes to six, on a cold morning.
I was in Ahmedabad with my boss, who owns and runs the advertising agency. I am a copywriter, and we had come to meet the scion of a business family who needed some branding and advertising ideas for a chain of schools he has acquired.
Instead of staying in a hotel, we were to stay at the home of one of his close relatives for a day. They were a small family of four who lived in a large house in the city’s posh suburbs. After arriving, we had a few hours to rest and to freshen up before our meeting. I placed my bag in a room that had been decorated with characters from a fairy tale. The little girl who once slept in that room had grown and was now in college.
My boss tapped away on his laptop, doing some last-minute changes to his presentation.
The home had a lawn where we sipped sweet tea, and a little girl who lives next door came over and said, “Bow, Bow.” I later understood that this was the child’s very interesting way of greeting and getting friendly with strangers.
Ahmedabad is still a new city for me. I have been here before, but only on very short trips, so I soaked in as much as my eyes could see on my way to the meeting. The weather was cool, and the light was perfect for a city, so dry and dusty, with uncollected plastic and paper swirling in the breeze. On the way, my boss stopped for a smoke. Unlike the roadside stands you are likely to see in Mumbai, this city has large cigarette shops. They also sell paan, the leaves that people here love to chew.
The meetings went on for about eight hours, which helped us understand the business they were planning to expand and how we could help. I think the people in this city like their meetings to be extended as long as possible. The people of the city are known, in fact, for their long conversations and business acumen. Unlike the swift and direct style in Mumbai, where I come from, business here seems to involve a lot of face-to-face interactions, lubricated by sweet tea.
My boss made his presentation, and they were polite, because we were guests, but it seemed like they were waiting for it to end. The real business began in the talks and discussions that followed. By the end of the day, we had learned that the important thing was to read between the lines of what was being said.
On the street, we met a man who spoke well and resembled the prime minister of India. He even spoke with the same accent and mannerisms, and knew how to speak as well as his famous look-alike.
The lunch deserves a special mention. Ahmedabad is famous for its variety of food; for lunch, it’s usually a thali or a plate with assorted vegetable dishes and sweets served with flatbread (rotis) and a little rice. However, we had a light one in the South Indian style, different types of dosas (rice and lentil pancakes) served with sambhar and coconut chutney, as good as any you would get anywhere in South India.
After the meeting, it was time to go back to where we were staying, where my boss had to catch up with his folks over a few drinks. Though the city is in one of the states in India that prohibits alcohol, you can smell how effective the prohibition is by walking past a policeman on the street.
The discussion was the same as anywhere in India. Business, real estate, cars, and politics. At the place I was staying, each one of us was given a small hand towel. Was it to rest our drink on? Was it to wipe our hands? I don’t know.
A neighbor walked in with a dish featuring peanuts he cooked himself and a bottle of scotch. As the discussion progressed, I found myself on the wrong side of the political spectrum. The alcohol didn’t help. Unlike other places, I discovered, the people here took their leader very seriously, as an extension of themselves. Criticism of his policies was taken as a personal attack. They felt offended that we didn’t feel the same love or respect that they had for their favorite politician or party. It was all perfectly civilized, but the debate about the economy and politics in the country saw me on the other side of the table. It was a lesson I will remember for a long time: to be careful what one says to a host, and not to talk about politics when drunk.
Before we knew it, it was two minutes to midnight and our host decided that we would go out for dinner. They were members of a club that was open until three in the morning. It was filled with the well-to-do in this rich city. When we walked in, we were informed that we were lucky to have found a table without waiting, because we were early. (This city sleeps very late.) The dinner however was very good and, luckily for me, without any talk about politics. Afterward, we headed home.
Our train back to Mumbai didn’t leave until the afternoon. That would allow me to get some extra sleep and avoid a massive hangover.