I first visited India some nine years ago, and a lot has changed since then. India is developing fast, and it seems to be doing so without selling out its culture too much, which is a huge relief, because it's the culture and the people that make India such a phenomenal destination. Here, in no particular order, are the things I've noticed that are completely different to 1998.
Mobile phones are everywhere, and don't you know it. India is still at the stage where having a mobile phone is a considerable status symbol, so people let their phones ring as long as they can get away with it, so everyone knows that, yes, you've got a phone and you're not afraid to use it. There's also a complete lack of phone etiquette; you can be merrily talking to someone when their phone goes off, and without any comment or apology, they'll answer it and head off into a completely different conversation, oblivious to you. I even had this with a tout who was trying to sell me a room – he'd started the conversation but got sidelined into a phone chat, but he still insisted I stay talking to him, the fool. Even in the Malabar House, one of the poshest restaurants in Kochi where two men sat cross-legged, one playing the tabla and the other playing the violin as if it was a cello, the curse of the mobile phone struck. As the sweet music lilted through the still night air, I could have sworn that the bleep of a mobile phone cut into the amplified sound... but then it disappeared again, only to appear again a few bars later. Judging by the slightly guilty looks on the violinist's face, his phone was going off, but skilled musician that he was, he'd simply altered the raga he was playing to fit in with the ring tone until it finally stopped. Hats off to his virtuosity, but I'm not sure classical Indian music should really have that much in common with Nokia's signature tune...
ATMs are also everywhere, and so are people using them. When I last travelled in India, getting money out of a bank was an all-day affair, but now it's quick, easy and often air conditioned. Indeed, the march of electronics is not confined to the banks: conductors on state buses now have electronic ticket machines that whirr out a printed ticket, along with your point of departure and destination, and most train stations now have computers that can book tickets instantly, something that was in its infancy ten years ago, and crashed as often as it worked. It all makes life a lot easier, I must say.
India has gone crazy for energy-efficient light bulbs, and even in the most dilapidated shacks you'll see the complex squiggles of fluorescent tube-based bulbs. This is impressive, especially when you consider it was only a couple of weeks ago that the EU decided to phase out the traditional light bulb in favour of energy-saving devices. On this, India is well ahead of the game.
Travellers in India seem younger and more technological than ever before, though perhaps this is more an indication that I'm ten years older and middle age is approaching. That said, in the space of two weeks, we saw three travellers with full laptop computers, sitting there in traveller cafés or outside their bamboo huts, uploading pictures from their digital cameras or checking their email. When I set off in 1995 with a palmtop computer, a modem and an acoustic coupler, people thought I was a spy; these days, the mandala-covered paper diary has been replaced by mobile technology and blogging. I wonder what's next...
But despite the changes, India remains, at its core, the same entrancing country that it was in 1998, with the same attractive qualities and the same irritations. It will be interesting to see how things develop, as India's global influence gets ever stronger and her economy grows. Getting on an international flight out of India provides an insight into the challenges India faces in integrating into the world stage without losing her identity; whereas flights in Europe or North America are fairly reserved affairs, flights out of India are a chaos of coughing, snorting, hawking, sniffing, belching, sneezing and barging, and you only notice it because this is an aeroplane, where this sort of behaviour is generally regarded as impolite. In India itself, the incredible noises of its inhabitants are insignificant compared to the cacophony of culture that surrounds you at every turn, and it's only when the West bumps up against the wonderful madness of India that you notice just how different it really is.
And long may it continue. Where the cultures of southeast Asia are in danger of disappearing in the face of increasing tourism, and the whole world wants Coca-Cola, fridges and MTV, India is still unique, and shows no signs of stopping. Bravo.