04/10/2013 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mumbai: Jenn Goes Jain

MUMBAI-- As a person of East Indian descent, but an American through and through by birth and upbringing, I have always wanted to journey to the motherland to explore my Jain heritage. An invitation to attend Mumbai's second annual Global Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Conference as a speaker and award recipient finally gave me the right excuse to pursue this dream. Here is my report:

My adventure began with a trip from LAX to Newark, where I boarded a United flight direct to Mumbai. This flight was packed to the rafters with a large number of screaming kids for good measure. The line to the bathroom snaked halfway down the long aisle for most of the 16 hour ride. By the time we touched down in this 500-year-old city, let's just say I was not 100 percent and was very pleased to be shuttled direct to the Taj Mumbai Land's End hotel, a luxurious venue overlooking the Arabian Sea. To get there, we drove through neighborhoods right out of Slumdog Millionaire, which are seemingly adjacent to the upscale areas of Malabar Hill and Bandra. Indeed, the organized chaos in the streets and unending throngs of humanity cannot be compared with anything we have here in the states; even Times Square seems sparsely populated by comparison. To borrow from Hollywood again, the street scenes reminded me of footage from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (although that film actually takes place in Jaipur, a city of only three million compared with Mumbai's 20+ million inhabitants).

Taj Hotel, Mumbai

Each year on February 18th, the Global CSR Conference hosts a gathering of industry leaders to observe World CSR Day and spread the message -- making a difference to the community at large. Founded by Dr. R. L. Bhatia, author of 60 books on management and professional success, the event brings together 600+ people from around the world. As this year's host, Dr. R.L. Bhatia, Director General & CEO, Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, expressed his appreciation for opportunities he enjoyed during his career, including 12 years as executive assistant to India's top corporate titan, Ratan Tata; and a long stint at McKinsey & Co. prior to that. By contributing to this event, he said, he has found a way to give back to his native land.

Other key speakers included serial business innovator Dr. Maximilian Martin, Founder & Global Managing Director of Impact Economy, who spoke on the potential and the levers to mainstream impact investing for companies in order to drive both positive change and business innovation; Christoph Stuekelberger, who addressed "Ethics, Ecology and Economic Needs" including culture and religion; Microsoft Senior Director, Citizenship and Public Affairs, Dr. Akhtar Badshah, who discussed how Microsoft is supporting programs that empower youth to realize their potential, and become change makers to catalyze social good. The company had its first "Innovate for Good" networking event, which brought together 100 change makers to help advise its leaders about giving back through cash donations and in-kind tech donations. Among other speakers was yours truly, as I delivered a presentation on 10 technologies I feel can ignite change in the developing world over the next 10 years.


My ticket to Mumbai: Receiving my award at the Global CSR Conference

Following the conference, and through the courtesy of connections provided by the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and Sundeep Waslekar, the prominent Indian author of best-seller Eka Dishecha Shodh, I was fortunate to see some of Mumbai's truly inside and exclusive functions and events. First, weddings.

Weddings in India make even deluxe affairs in America seem like a casual barbecue. February-March is traditional wedding season, and the nuptials I attended were for the son of India's largest tea company, Society Tea. Another involved the grandson of India's most prominent astrologer, Jayant Salgaonkar, actually a very important position in this spirituality-based land. I had the privilege of meeting many dignitaries, including Governor of Maharashtra State, the richest state in India with Mumbai as its capital; Narayan Rane, Minister of Industries of the State; and Raj Thackrey, firebrand opposition leader with a massive following; among others.

The wedding proceedings can last up to a full week, consisting of luncheons, pre-parties, the formal ceremony, the receiving line (which can last for many hours as each guest is expected to meet the entire family on both sides of the marriage), the reception and more. The costumes are very elaborate, and a special luncheon is given for the bride to select her sari for the ceremony. Grooms generally wear a Western style suit over a Nehru-collared shirt. The invite list among the highest classes can go over 2,000. Food is largely vegetarian, with various stations serving tapas, curry bar, traditional Indian food, Italian (cheese pizza with peppers), wraps with hummus, and many more. One small catch, however -- NO alcohol, at either of these weddings. While not all Indian weddings are "dry," let's just say that Wedding Crashers it ain't. There is much less emphasis on partying, drinking and nonsensical speeches and toasts, and more focus on the union of the two families, and religious customs depending upon whether the event is Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist or other faiths. As in America, inter-marrying among religions is becoming much more common. Overall, it does feel like the caste system is fading, to the good.


The receiving line at an Indian wedding can last for hours!

I also was fortunate to visit Indian homes to enjoy traditional Indian fare and observe the culture and how they live first-hand. I saw their artwork, cooking style, met their friends, families and learned about their businesses and hobbies. The first group was Micky and Bela, whom I met via YPO, as Micky serves as Forum Chair for the Mumbai WPO Chapter. His family is well established, as his grandfather owned several high-rise condo buildings that are situated on the Queen's Necklace, a ring of valuable real estate that surrounds the Arabian Sea coast with views of the skyline and the water. Interestingly, many of these buildings are in some state of disrepair because rent control is very prevalent, so, there is little incentive for landlords to invest in upkeep and improvements.


Mumbai Harbor, Queen's Necklace

Over a traditional Indian lunch featuring a mixed vegetable puree, rice bread, fish with pesto sauce, all very spicy but tasty, with Kingfisher beer to drink, I learned about Micky and Bela's 32-year marriage. One child has graduated from Northwestern University outside Chicago, while the other just returned home after schooling in the U.S. Micky has a background in sustainability, as his previous company recycled PET plastic bottles which they obtained by importing barges of trash from the U.S. This became problematic as the trash contained so much electronic and other hard-to-process waste that the Indian government outlawed this practice. Micky's company went bankrupt, but he quickly rebounded and is now one of the founders of a large software operation with 2,500 developers to service Microsoft among other major clients. The day I left, Micky and Bela were off to Allahabad to attend a dipping ceremony at a point where two major rivers meet. This encourages immortality of the soul, and can only happen once every 16 years.

I also was taken on an architectural tour of Bombay's past. It was not until 1996 that the city was re-named Mumbai to emphasize its Indian autonomy and non-British rule. This tour was narrated by Bela, who provided insight into the seemingly disparate neighborhoods of the city. A portion of Mumbai is reclaimed, built on what is essentially a swamp. The British influence is obvious and the buildings are Victorian, and it is unfortunate to see the rundown condition of many of these structures, again due to the rent control and related issues. The Victoria Train Station could be considered one of the Eighth Wonders of the World, so ornate, flying buttresses, clock tower, intricate detail, truly a visual delight. While not restored to the highest standard, it still makes a very strong impression. We also viewed a number of other Bauhaus-style, Art Deco buildings along the Queen's Necklace section, which can't help but remind one of London and thus Mumbai's British roots.


Mumbai's British roots reveal themselves in the Victorian architecture

As my limited time was near expiration, I took a private car tour, only to have the driver get into an accident and then nearly a full-on brawl in the street with the opposing vehicle's owner. This took over an hour to sort out before we were en route again.

To further accentuate the occasional love-hate relationship with India, I experienced a mosquito infestation and attack... in the United Airlines jetway and aboard our flight home. After not seeing a single mosquito during my stay, we were lined up in the damp, un-air-conditioned jetway for United non-stop to Newark, and many passengers found themselves under siege. Upon bringing this to the attention of the clearly battle-weary veteran flight attendant, we were told that there was nothing that could be done to remedy the situation.

As a Jain, I was interested in learning more about my religion. Although Jains are only 0.4 percent of the Indian population, they are the most educated among demographic groups, with a literacy rate of over 94 percent. They are typically very spiritual in outlook and practices. They believe no creature should be killed for any reason, thus are vegetarian and will not even eat legumes for fear of offing insects during harvest. Jains have no caste, no priest, no warriors. Taking this to an extreme, Jains will cover their mouths during worship to avoid killing microbes. I must admit, Jain or no Jain, I wanted to kill all the mosquitoes in that jetway... a humorous and ironic final exclamation point to a wonderfully strange visit!


Jain temple vegetarian feast


Jenn goes Jain

Read more by Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.