A young boy came up to me on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in Hampi*, and tried to sell me a guidebook. He was no older than 7 or 8. He says, in Hindi, “30 rupees – very good price.” Before I could politely decline, the young salesman continued: he opened the inside front cover and pointed to a sticker saying MRP Rs. 20, then flipped to the back to reveal a map of Hampi, with Rs. 5 printed on it. Finally, he answered the question that was on my mind, and said, “and 5 rupees for me.” A brave move by any salesman, but let’s credit the transparency about his profit margin – certainly a bold, and I felt opportunistic and enterprising, approach.
It got me thinking about the grander spirit of opportunism and enterprise that is often talked about and, in my experience, Indians claim to inherently possess. The story that’s left a lasting impression over the years is the one about Starbucks’ launch in India. No, not the story of yet another megabrand coming to the subcontinent, but that of the opportunistic tea vendors, chaiwallas, that started selling tea to those standing in ridiculously long lines for coffee.
Another spot in Hampi that epitomized this spirit was Hoova Café, our venue for lunch one day.
It was one of two restaurants on the north side of the Tungabhadra, and the other was already closed at 2:30 p.m. It was, let’s be frank, an extension of the owner’s house. If you need evidence, the restroom I used had eight toothbrushes in it—I’m assuming he has a big family. The chairs were dust-laden and no menu existed, but he said he could get us a platter-style meal. The food took a while because his wife was cooking it fresh, but when it came it was very palatable. But let’s focus on the end result: good money for a monopolist restaurateur working from home!
I’ve been back in India for only about 3 months now, and I’ve already seen enough to think the spirt of opportunism and enterprise is alive and well. India’s Silicon Valley is how many people described Bangalore to me before I got here to join Babajob. A few weeks ago, I really experienced why: I was attending a conference of tech startups, and came across several young Indians with big ideas and their own ventures. I had the good fortune to meet Rohit Bagaria, founder of India’s first online Recommerce portal, www.budli.in – a portal to easily value and sell your used devices. He was from Calcutta, like me, and had left the comforts of home to start Budli.
I’ve been very impressed by people in Bangalore and their drive to go solo and try to build something of their own. But while Bangalore has provided me with many examples of stories like Rohit’s, what impressed me most about his story is that he’s one among very few Calcuttans. The steps he’s taken are rare for a 20-something from the City of Joy, and that to me is a sign that there is a contagious drive spreading through the country, inspiring people to take a risk and try start-up life. (I hope that over time entrepreneurs don’t feel a need to flock to Bangalore, but that’s a story for another day…)
It’s exciting, intriguing and inspiring, to be in Bangalore and take in what’s going on in the space around me, and I’m definitely enjoying it so far. That said, let me leave you with a reminder that there are always two sides to every coin, and that the Indian opportunistic approach sometimes steps into the unethical and illegal…
*For those curious about what Hampi is: A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Karnataka, an overnight bus journey from Bangalore. It was the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th century, and has ruins that are 500+ years old. Some photos below: