One expects to see a range of living conditions in a developing country, but through a number of visits to India as a chemical-industry consultant, I have been shocked to see, firsthand, two very disparate economic worlds - primitive squalor and modern opulence - existing so closely together.
I stay in Noida, a prosperous suburb having a relationship with New Delhi akin to that between King of Prussia and Philadelphia. In addition to gleaming office parks housing the headquarters of prominent corporations, Noida is home to two of India's largest shopping malls: the Great India Place and the Mall of India.
In either mall you can ride the escalators between sprawling floors of air-conditioned consumer heaven. Many of the stores are the same as those found in malls at home, staffed by courteous sales associates speaking impeccable English.
Electronics die? Just stop by the Apple or the Samsung store. Forget to pack enough shirts? Visit Forever 21 or United Colors of Benetton. Sneakers wear out from too much sightseeing? Replace them at the Nike, Adidas, or New Balance stores.
Stopping for a snack in the food court, however, provides reminders that I am far from home. For example, the pricing at the 99 Store is in rupees, not cents. The multiplex cinema shows more movies from Bollywood than Hollywood. The McDonald's where I eat serves nothing "all beef," but does make a tasty chicken masala.
Even in one of the most luxurious neighborhoods in India, one need only walk out the door from where the "haves" shop to see how the "have nots" live. Past the metal detectors and machine-gun-toting guards enforcing the separation of the two worlds, I am instantly hit by humid, sour-smelling air and the din of traffic, but it is what I see that I remember most.
An unattended toddler, naked, balances on a street curb, inches away from speeding traffic. One woman squats next to another, picking lice out of her hair. A boy of five crouches on the sidewalk using a brick to grind a handful of grain for his meal. A street vendor huddles under a tattered umbrella trying to roast an ear of corn over a couple of flickering coals before the threatening skies deliver the next round of monsoon rain.
The scenes of desperate poverty are like those you would see flipping through an old copy of National Geographic, except they are now and close enough to touch.
Back at my hotel, an ultramodern Radisson Blu, I sip a cold Kingfisher beer and think about what I have seen and why I am here. After my business meetings, I spot in the lobby a framed quote by the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda: "The more we come out and do good to others, the more our hearts will be purified and God will be in them." I wonder if the actions from my trip will do good, in a small way, for some of the many in this country who have such deep needs.