Monday, May 30, 2005

India it is

India’s pretty intriguing. Even for Indians.

When you travel the length and breadth of the country (which I haven’t) I guess you’ll be surprised every inch. The latest incident that surprised me was the episode involving the rickshaws.

I remember traveling in rickshaws in Madurai during my initial school days – when I was maybe ten years old. That was the age when you don’t really know what sympathy means. All I wanted back then was a game of cricket every evening before crashing into the bed. I was then was transported to richer places like Coimbatore and Chennai (occasionally) and Bangalore. I almost forgot about the existence of rickshaws coz there were none in these places. Almost 12 years later, I traveled in rickshaws that are driven by men – sans motors – in Delhi and I’m pained. Not that I didn’t know about its existence, but traveling in them was like really tough all of a sudden.

A couple of us took the Delhi metro for the first time this weekend. It was AWESOME. It beats most of the metros that I’ve seen in Hollywood movies. The thing works like a breeze – with zilch noise and terrific acceleration. The whole station, metro, escalator – everything – is clean like crazy. Hell, you wouldn’t believe you are in India. It just costed seven bucks for like a 7 Km ride. I wouldn’t’ve minded paying 35 bucks! Once you are out of the metro, you see the rickshaws. Loads of them. I’ve come to realize that this is the first thing that strikes a foreigner. A life of contrasts. Five star hotels, and rusted vehicles outside. 1st class trains and platforms filled with people without shelter. Flashy cars and bullock carts squeezing for the same space. The place we wanted to go was two streets away, and we didn’t want to walk in the Delhi afternoon sun. Rickshaws seemed to be the answer. I couldn’t believe that we were going to take a rickshaw. We hesitated to walk, and are we going to make that guy pedal a huge thing with two bullies inside? Sounded like the 1900 master-slave culture. I really couldn’t make up my mind. But not using the rickshaws would also mean no business for those folks. My friend said: “Well, this is India, and this is their livelihood. Let’s take it. Give them some business”. I gave in. I couldn’t convince myself that not traveling in it was a solution, simply because it wasn’t. It was one of those moments that really put you on hold with no way to go.

It was even more painful to see the guy pedaling on slopes. He literally had to put the whole body load on the pedal. Fortunately, the road was pretty much even throughout, and that saved him. We didn’t have to get down either. I gave him 15 bucks instead of the 10 bucks as agreed. I really don’t know why I did it. My extra five bucks isn’t a solution to anything. We aren’t going to change India through charity. But still, it kind of gave a satisfaction. Maybe I thought he deserved it.

Even worse was the next incident. We were walking along a small pavement with soft drink bottles in hand. The place was pretty rotten and smelling real bad. We were pretty much scrambling out of the place when a rag kid asked us some alms. We were in no mood to give charity. After realizing that we aren’t going to give him anything, he cursed us… loud enough for us to know. I was pretty depressed for a moment. For such kids, it’s almost a right to claim for alms. Wonder what that kid would become if he grows up. It would be no surprise if he goes out of the way. For him, it’s just his life and everything he does is justified. You really can’t straighten out guys these later after having grown up in an ambience like this.

All this makes me think of another issue. Lots of people I know give alms, which is a short term solution to a long term problem. A lot of them don’t because they believe alms would just encourage these folks. For me though, it remains a tough question. For once, both parties seem right.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Quest for the “King”dom

All over the world, in almost all of the marketing related lectures, discussions and conferences, one phrase that’s used is “customer is the king”. Don’t even get me started about the books and speeches of those marketing gurus. You’d get an impression that if you don’t use that phrase, you are in Stone Age. I’ve heard this phrase so many times in my company, in my team and in the marketing classes that I take it for granted.

But I should’ve known that the era of the Kings is history.

A friend of mine and I entered a flamboyant looking hotel in South Delhi with a flamboyant looking name written in a flamboyant font. The aura smelled of money. It radiated opulence from every corner. Clearly, it was a place for people who pluck money out of trees. But we decided to take the brunt. Just for once. We sat at a table overlooking the road. Five minutes went past. Nothing happened. I picked up the menu from a table nearby. No item in the menu, except maybe the soft drinks and the smallest of all ice cream scoops on earth, was less than hundred bucks. I wanted to run, but impression management stopped me. Then my friend saw the menu. And he grinned. Maybe he wanted to run too. We never spoke about it. 10 minutes passed. Still nothing happened. We got out of the hotel, thanking God that waiters didn’t serve us well. We would’ve tolerated if the order took a long time for preparation, but we couldn’t tolerate the fact that no one even bothered to serve us water! That we weren’t thirsty is a different matter.

I didn’t know that that was just the beginning.

The episode involving the Laloo-looking shopkeeper was even more eye-opening. It was a Reliance shop, and this geeky friend of mine wanted to connect to the internet using his laptop through mobile phone. All we needed to do was to get a cable. The Laloo-clone, the owner of the shop, was munching paan (no-brainer!) and watching the India vs. Pakistan cricket telecast. He was cursing. We couldn’t guess if it was meant for us intruding in or for Ganguly and his blue-clad men who were getting roasted – both by sun and by the opponents. With an indecent glance, he asked us what we wanted. The look was more like “you guys are the second pain in the ass”. For all I could guess, Ganguly must’ve been the first one. He then gave us the cable. Fortunately, he didn’t have that look when he received the money.

As – who’s that guy who said everything will go wrong? – said, the cable didn’t work. We met the Laloo-clone again in the evening. He wanted us to be there at 8 pm. He didn’t tell us that it was for admiring the beauty of the closed shop. We met his brother next day who asked us why we didn’t check it then and there. I felt like saying “This isn’t Coke dude”. Fear was the only thing that stopped me. Laloo was far better. He was courteous enough not to curse us right in the face. It took six more days with two more CD changes and two cable changes to make it work. In the end, everyone was happy. Well, not exactly, but we’ll let it pass.

Our travails didn’t stop. Our company had to contact software companies for getting some details about ERP solutions they provide. To make it short, of the 12 topmost Indian software companies contacted – which had the possibly of a business worth millions of rupees – only 2 responded, and none followed up.

I guess I’ve made my point. Now where exactly did they say is that utopian land where the customer is the king? Ofcourse, there are a lot of companies out there that care for the customer, but it is surprising that the difference between textbooks and reality is quite stark.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Am I a part of the minority? Am I?

One of my friends told me today morning that Kingdom of Heaven is slowly dying off in Indian theatres. That set me thinking…

Why is it that a movie like Hitch is running full house whereas Kingdom of Heaven isn’t? For that matter, even Lord of the Rings wasn’t a big hit in Indian theatres.

Is it that Indians don’t like to know about evolution or history? Is it that we just want to pass time without bothering to read into things and learn? Why am I a minority who appreciate KoH more than Hitch?

Why is it that Times of India with its sort of news (or lack of it) is the market leader vis-à-vis other worthy competitors (say The Hindu)?

I agree that papers such as The Hindu sound a bit drab due to the quantity of news and lack of colors and images and bikini-clad models, but does that mean that majority of Indians buy paper not for news but for such stuff? If soft-porn and images are all we want, just how many movies or TV shows do we get? Why a newspaper for that? Shouldn’t the lack of news should be deterrent rather than abundance of it?

Why am I a minority here again?

Now that I’ve vent out my minority frustrations, I guess this is some serious food for thought for marketing management classes. After debating/arguing with numerous colleagues and friends about this, the only thing I could figure out is that people seem to like things that are ‘light’ - stuff which needs less of thinking over and more of colors and images and the like. Or am I mistaken?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Nightlife at a premium

Being nocturnal comes at a cost in Delhi.

At about 10 o’clock in the night, IIMI would be full of life. Nothing ever happens in the morning. Except a few larks, no one wakes up before 8 o’clock. People fight to keep themselves awake in the morning, trying to catch up with all the lost sleep. Many crash into the bed during the afternoon. Some souls go into ‘sports mode’ in the afternoon/evening and crash after dusk, after rummaging through the evening snacks. Some souls (like me) used to make it to the gym in the evening, grab a quick nap and wake up in time for dinner. Net-net, all of them would be awake at 10 pm in the night. That’s when things really happen – studies, assignments, mugging, group meets, batch meets, game tournaments… you name it.

But then, the summer message is: life can’t be same all the time. If you try to take that 1 year weird habit of yours into the rest of your life, you’re ruined - especially in a city other than Mumbai, as I hear.

A relatively darker version of Chandoo, as he signs himself these days, told us that he’d be in Delhi for 3 days and he wanted to meet people ‘face to face’. Poor soul, he’s been traveling under the hot sun in arguably the hottest (for all the wrong reasons – weather) cities in India – Nagpur, Baroda, Ahmedabad etc. A marketing field job really kills you. At the least, it darkens you. Since we had other plans (later canceled) for the weekend, we planned to meet on the day he arrived. We had to meet after 8 pm in the night because he had scheduled visit to some hospitals in the evening. Since he was put up in a hotel in the far north side of Delhi and we (Amit and I) were put up in south Delhi, we had to meet up somewhere in between. All I could think of was Connaught Place and the first place that came to my mind was McDonald’s. It sounded simple. No one in Delhi can be unaware of CP, and once in CP, McDonald’s would be one of the easiest to find – or so I thought.

Amit and I reached the place on time – 9 pm in the night. That’s when I realized that Delhi doesn’t have a night life. Shops started to close, crowd was 1/3rd of the usual quota, and even autos were lesser in number. Chandoo had real difficulty in finding the place since his auto driver didn’t know what the ‘inner circle of CP’ meant and he dropped him in the outer circle. For a person who’s new to CP, it could look like a maze. But for the hotels, fast food outlets and bars, most of the shops were closed. Crowd was clearly the car-owning type - mostly families, or couples or single men. You don’t have to be a genius to figure that single women won’t dare to step into the dark streets in the night. Not in a city that’s also famous for all the wrong reasons – rape. You could almost expect a news clip or two about rape in page 3, which is supposed to contain news about the city.

Finally, after several frantic calls, Chandoo made it. It was 9.30 pm. As the ‘closed’ signs were being programmed into all the billing machines, we managed to squeeze an order. And then another one. It was 10.30 pm when we were done with all the eating and chatting, and I knew that commuting would become a problem. We decided to leave, without other choices.

Most of the shops were shut. Crowd was few and far, mostly in bars etc. Fortunately, we found some ‘friends of travelers’ – autos – around the corner. Chandoo, having stayed in Mumbai for about a month, was clearly not amused. He was asking us “How could the national capital shut down at 10 pm in the night?” I thought may be Delhi is unsafe for women in the night because all the establishments are closed? If market places are crowded - given a chance, I guess it would be - wouldn’t those felons think thrice about abducting girls? Chandoo was still cribbing “Mumbai barely starts at 10 pm, and that’s when people do serious shopping!” If only answers are so simple…

Monday, May 16, 2005

Lesson @%#$3: Don’t taxi around in Delhi

Even before starting to Delhi, a lot of my friends warned about auto-wallahs in Delhi. They told me to watch out for crooks. Right at that moment, I kind of knew that I’d be cheated – someway. I’ve never ever made a good bargain. I’d probably be the last person to be sent to a place if there is bargaining involved. A little secret: If you are selling me something, just make a sympathetic face, and boom, you can part away with the deal without bothering to bargain for a higher price. With such credentials, I was always looking out for cheats. But this time around, 5 of us were cheated. As a part of ‘Dilli Darshan’ we went to CP for catching with unlimited khana at Khana unlimited private limited. If you’ve survived that, read on…

Despite seeing so many malls and even getting bored with it, we decided to have a glimpse at the famed Anshul Place, for lack of a better thing to do. Five of us… simple math of two autos vs. one taxi… decided on a taxi. We never realized that taxis could be at a premium in this city autos outnumber taxis 1000:1, if you could let my exaggeration pass. The driver came in with the aura of a millionaire. A well built body with jeans, Nike sneakers, a clean, checkered shirt and a commanding voice. A friend of mine who was close pointed in the direction of his shoes and then that of the drivers. Actually, for a moment, we all didn’t believe he was a driver. We started the car, and in a matter of 20 minutes in Delhi traffic, we reached the place cool and comfortable, but for the meter that was quite determined to win the Guinness.

There were just two levels of amplification – what looked like 8 Km was shown as 20 Km in the meter and what should’ve been 120 odd Rs. for a 20 Km drive was 250 Rs. We called our Delhi friend who had told one of us a cheat-episode involving him, but he couldn’t of much help. We took pictures of the car registration plate and the meter. Actually, we were taking a shot at scaring the driver. Failure. He was unmoved, literally. His face read like “Even if it comes to a 5 vs. 1 wrestling, I’m game”. Without many options, we requested him to let us go with lesser amount. He gave in for 200 Rs. 200 Rs for an 8 Km drive in the capital. I had a feeling that a Porsche would’ve been cheaper.

That re-eye-opening apart, we spent some gala time in Dilli haat – if you define gala as having not-so-bad lemonade. Thanks to a nocturnal 5 ft odd creature in my room, we all slept at 6 in the morning. Sunday was better. We woke up at 1 in the afternoon, and made it to the Darya Ganj book market at 5 pm in the evening. There were so many books, but since I wasn’t interested in cracking any more competitive exams, I settled for Timeline - a Crichton book. We then made it to Noida for watching “Flight of the Phoenix” in Wave. I thought it was a rather pleasant action movie. Nothing to take home or watch twice, but a nice piece of action – set 100% in the Mongolian desert.

Come Monday, and Mark Twain comes to mind. “Monday morning found Tom Sawyer miserable…”

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The good, the bad and the ugly 43 percentage

I saw "The good, the bad and the ugly" starring Clint Eastwood this weekend. It’s a very good movie with the vintage cowboy aura, with even better teaser music. You got to see the movie just for the music even if Eastwood doesn't rivet you.

Incidentally, when I checked the review in IMDB, this movie figured in the all time top-100 list. On further checking, I noted that I've seen 43 of the all time top 100 movies, including all of the top 8 ones. It was a pleasant surprise coz I used to feel a bit intimidated when discussing about movies with some of my more movie-savvy classmates. Btw, if you beat this score, which I guess a lot of you would, leave your number. It’d serve as a benchmark for progress. :-)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A couch tomato in the making...

I thought ‘couch potato’ falls short of explaining the whole nice and ugly phenomenon and hence rejuvenated it and made it ‘couch tomato’. A tomato, bulky, lively, juicy and semi-solid as it is, better explains what I, in the current form, am destined to become.

3 years back, I feared about living a life sitting in front of a stupid and so-called intelligent device trying to make it do things, instead of being in the field somewhere – anywhere – where the action is. I feared that a ‘sitting duck’ or what-I-call the ‘couch tomato’ kind of work would make me fixate my body in a single place yearning and crying for mercy. I feared that it would bloat me horizontally and I would burst in the end. My worst fears came true when I went to work as the software engineer. All I did was eat and sit before the computer churning out lines of code, apart from numerous human actions that don’t deserve a mention. Next was the lucky break in the form of IIMI. Although we were forced to sit in the classrooms, it wasn’t that bad a tomato thing. And, there were other really bloating-in-the-process tomatoes that gave a sort of a sadistic satisfaction coz I figured that I wouldn’t be the first among the lot to burst out.


A lot of my friends dream and carry it onto their everyday lives. They explain stories about roaming white ghosts, witches, legless children etc. They ask if I dream. I neither get the pleasure of seeing the ghosts nor get to dream about them, but the only dream I ever remember is that one fine day I bloat horizontally and burst out. As you’d expect, that scares the hell out of me. With a BMI well within 25, I’m anything but fat right now, but then, you know, there is no logic behind nightmares. They simply come and bulldoze you through and you can’t do anything about it. What a wicked and unjust world!


So, here I am in Delhi, and the worst nightmare has come true again. With a vintage couch-tomato work to boot, I’m feeling haunted again. I have this other problem of a loss of self-conscience when getting into the eating fast-food mode. There I was, eating chocolate flakes and Black forests yesterday without an inkling of the remorse. So all I want to do right now is to get into a field work or go home – go home and pray that I’m relieved out of my nightmares.