International travel can be demanding, starting when you get off at the airport. Everything is chaotic. Few seem to speak English. People are abrupt, impatient, rude. Nobody wants to help.
And that's just New York's JFK.
By the time you get to Delhi, though, all that has changed. There's a gentleness and graciousness that permeates the Indian culture.
But, like so much of India, that presents an anomaly, a contradiction between what Westerners understand and what they see. For example, gentle, meditative Indians are maniacs behind the wheel, swerving, cutting off, changing lanes, honking horns. (The legend is true: They stop only for cows in the road.)
They have one of the most sophisticated IT industries in the world, supporting the West's entire infrastructure. And yet, they have trouble maintaining a system of safe drinking water.
Their economy is strong, and they feel they're on the brink of a significant boom when, in a couple of years, changes in World Trade Organization laws will release limits on foreign investments and what India will be able to export. And yet, that growth is based in part on a low-wage structure that appears almost feudal.
That economic boom seems tied to a retail boom, with a growing consumer class supporting significant expansion. Young women show up in malls and department stores en masse, and midriff-baring Levi's low-riders are the garment of choice. Yet men are still the dominant consumers. A retailer, explaining why his men's department is on the fourth floor of a 5-story department store, says getting men upstairs to shop is no issue. They continue to represent more than half the store traffic and more than half the purchases. (Though that is shrinking as a percentage.)
Menswear is Westernized. The stores are stocked with brands from the U.S. and U.K. - Levi's, Dockers, Lee's, Van Heusen, Allen Solly. Womenswear is partly Westernized, but still retains a solid core of the traditional. A stylish career woman told me her closet is divided roughly in half between designer suits and beautiful, colorful, flowing saris, while men almost always go to work in a shirt and tie.
Women as a part of the professional class are coming on! A student fashion show I attended at the National Institute of Fashion Technology's summit meeting in Hyderabad represented the work of eager, talented youngsters, half of them young women. They're smart, bright-eyed and ambitious, and should be influential over the next decade or so.
And yet, a great many marriages in India are still arranged. And dowry remains a part of Indian life (albeit, a controversial one).
So yes, this huge sub-continent of 1 billion people and primarily one religion is mystifying to the Western eye and mind. And yet, it is a place of spectacular design and unbelievable potential. It will be a force, I believe - in fashion, economics and retail growth. Opportunities abound for Western retailers, store designers, visual merchandisers, fixure manufacturers, mannequin suppliers, decorative houses and the rest of our industry.
Fly into state-of-the-art Delhi International Airport. Walk the streets of trendy Mumbai (formerly Bombay), lovely Bangalore, bustling Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Pick among the exquisite silks and cottons. Buy gorgeous jewelry and historic artifacts.
Just don't drink the tap water. And don't even think about driving.