‘Soul’ is a word I’ve heard often in the past 10 days, specifically during three impassioned debates on development in India that have involved quite different people—one a Singaporean expat wife who’s trying to set up a clothes business in India, another a Wharton MBA grad who dumped his posh investment banking job to become a social entrepreneur in India, and a third a private equity analyst who analyses multi-million dollar deals across South Asia.
Interestingly, although these three people have never met, they have almost identical views on India's progress, and certainly all three were at odds with what I have to say on the issue. A friend of mine involved in private equity told me I had what he called ‘growth impatience’. I think he was using a euphemism for my incessant groaning about the mess urban India is in. An Indian born in Bihar, one of the country's poorest states, he studied at the upper crust Doon School and graduated from the top-notch St. Stephen's College in the early 1990s. He insisted that I’d forgotten how much India had changed, to which I always retort, ‘clearly not enough’.
But the pace is clearly one the lady from Singapore endorses, saying there are few places she has found as inspiring as Delhi, and despite the traffic, the congestion and the heat, India had just ‘so, so much soul.’ In fact, she said she hoped India would be able to show the westernised world how to straddle soul and modernity.
I’ve never understood what soul is. And I might be considered impatient, but to my view, doesn't looking for ‘soul’ in our urban chaos amount to romanticising underdevelopment? Or is this what happens when you’ve tasted development? I guess as the banker turned rural BPO manager told me, ‘When I was in America, I thought only Coke could quench my thirst. Now, I know water does that even better.’