Sunday, July 31, 2005

I want some sunshine

As I write this, an Air India London-Delhi flight is preparing for emergency landing at Delhi airport. This is 'breaking news' on Star and Aaj Tak.

So many breakdowns, in so short a span of time. Some natural (non-stop rain over large parts of India), some man-made (ONGC fire, terrorist attack in Srinagar, the earlier plane skid involving - is it more than coincidence? - Air India).

Yeh ho kya raha hai. We've always been a country where things are not quite perfect but somehow life continues to function 'normally'.

Those who believe in that astrological alignments would say 'buri dasha aayi hai'. Philosophy kaho ya realism, the events of the past week have brought home the fact that life is very fragile. When your time on this earth is up, it's up. Nothing you can do about it...

Death be not proud
Sometimes it can come up on you unexpectedly - like it did for the many whose houses collapsed all of a sudden on July 26. Or the three teenagers who were asphyxiated in their car outside Mithibai college.

At other times you can see death approaching. And that, is even worse.

My favourite uncle started having 'back pain'. All kinds of remedies were tried - it would just not go away. Two months later came the startling diagnosis: cancer in the kidney, stage 4.

Last Wednesday he passed away. It took less than 8 weeks for the disease to ravage his body, his mind and his family.

Life is so unfair. That a man so good, so kind, so generous, so wonderful, jovial and loving should die at the age of 48. Just like it's so unfair that those 3 teenage boys should die in this freak rainfall - a few minutes after calling home to day they were OK.

And at times like this all I can think is the 'cycle of rebirth' makes sense. Maybe we do suffer in this life for past sins and lead a better one in our next birth.

And I say this not as a devout Hindu but just as someone searching for some kind of answer to the cards which appear to be dealt out so randomly by the Hand Above...

Update @ 11.30 pm: The Air India passengers landed safely... NDTV is reporting today's rains were 'not like last time'. Now all we need is a little sunshine to really lift the gloom hanging - literally - like mist over this city....!

So far, not as soggy

At 6 pm I dropped off a colleague in Andheri (E) and put another one onto a rick towards Borivili. The Western Express highway was deserted and not water logged at all.

I came home to see Srinivasan Jain standing under an umbrella giving grim commentary about how bad the situation is. Maybe things had changed drastically in the 45 minutes it took me to reach Vashi. I don't know...

Another channel had on its ticker:"Road to and from airport flooded": Civil Aviation ministry. From what I could see off the highway that didn't seem to be quite the case.

What I saw
Of course stretches of the highway are in v bad shape. Esp right outside the airport. And a few parts near Fantasyland are still looking like rivers. In housing societies like 'Greenfield' cars inside the building compound are still almost half submerged in water which is refusing to recede.

But on the whole it was OK. I passed by Sion - all clear. Picked up bottles of Bisleri as the muddy tapwater situation in Vashi continues -trying to buy bottled water there is a nightmare.

The self-serve grocery from where I picked up the water has candles prominently displayed at the counter. And torches. I bought both. Nice man is not charging more than normal rates, at least.

Some areas I passed are water-logged. King's Circle, bits of Chembur and Matunga for example, but somewhere between ankle and knee deep. Like it happens every year.

The Central Railways was down earlier in the day though services have apparently resumed now. But that appears to be the worst affected area this time.

But better safe than sorry...
Almost to make up for the fact that they didn't get it 'right' last time the government has been in overdrive. And I'm not blaming them, just making an observation here.

The police commissioner sounded a 'red alert'.
Met Dept predicts heavy to very heavy rainfall.
Luckily for them, being a Sunday, compliance was not an issue.

What do you believe?
At about 7 pm NDTV was flashing pictures of people wading through water... Some Chunilal Chowk which I can't place. Not clear which specific part of Bombay. Considering how large the city is, I think they should give news from 6-8 different locations and especially main arterial roads.

Star News had a more accurate description: "Some low-lying areas of the city are water logged, normal life disrupted.

Another strange thing: Conflicting reports coming out of different channels. One channel says "flights cancelled", another is still flashing "flights resume".

It's all a bit confusing for the viewer. The only sure way to know what the hell is happening at any given point is to call up someone (since phone lines are thankfully working!) and ask: paani bhar raha hai kya?

Or call in FM radio and ask the listeners to help you out. They're still doing a far far better job than TV! Stick to Go 92.5 if you need info.

To panic or not to...
By late evening, Colaba had recorded 60 mm of rain while Santacruz recorded 66 mm. Which is not unusual.

But considering the trials and tribulations the majority of Mumbai has been through, it is hard for them to be 'rational'. So what will happen tomorrow?

DNA has hoardings all over the city showing a vegetable vendor and a tick mark against the statement: Will be at work tomorrow.

Is that really gonna be the case? Or will the famed Mumbai resilience and spirit crumble/ play it safe. I have a feeling there will be very thin attendance in offices tomorrow... But let's wait and see!

Meanwhile instead of blaming further rains for inability to clear the streets of debris, Vilasrao Deshmukh and BMC commissioner Jony Joseph need to display some leadership. Maybe, even symbolism - such as picking up a broom themselves. Trying to galvanise a work force that never works requires drastic action!

Kaam kaise chalega?

I am typing this from my office. Yup, a few of us are here on Sunday, trying to complete the work that was scheduled for Tue, Wed, Thu and Fri which were washed out.

But would you know, it's raining again. Raining heavily. And moms are calling in advising, "Come home right away!". Junta is a bit tense, although convinced the show must go on.

Unfortunately JAM is not a kirana shop which can be shut for a few days. It is a magazine and it's already running 2 days late. It should have been out on stands yesterday...

The question is who should we be more responsible to - ourselves, or our readers and advertisers? How much rain is too much to function?? How much should cause us to panic and rush home???

The employer and employee will always have different perspectives on these issues. J P Morgan, for example, has called in some of its staff today and booked a hotel next door to ensure they land up for work tomorrow.

We as a small company can't afford to do so.

But either way, the employer thinks he's doing a great service and 'taking care' of his people. While the employee does appreciate that, there is a hidden undercurrent of resentment...

I don't have the answers. When 3 people out of an ediorial strength of 8 are down with fever and other "26th July related illnesses", already the pressure is on the rest of us.

It's not like people who work for me are shirkers - they're extremely hard working and responsible. But there is a fear... And they are mostly young people, barely into their first jobs.

I've promised two moms their kids will reach home safe and dry before this day ends. Let's hope the weather Gods allow me to keep that promise!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Yeh picture kyun bani...

Last night I saw the last one hour of Dil Chahta hai on cable and you know what, it was as enjoyable as it was the first time. And the few other times I've caught bits of it on TV.

It's like every frame and dialogue of the film, every actor and character was perfect in its place. This film - even 20 years from now - will be a classic.

At the other end of the spectrum is Virudh, a film which should never have been made and certainly should not be seen. Just about everything in Virudh has been seen before/ done before in some other film and yet, we are told 'it's different'.

The old and still in love couple: Amitabh and Hema Malini were far better in Baghban. Love in old age, by the way, is all about remembering one's spouse takes his/ her medicines on time.

"Amitabh Bachchan" - 30 years ago he was the angry young man. In Virudh he becomes the angry old man. He couldn't have hoped to top his performance in Sarkar - and doesn't.

John 'cardboard' Abraham: John is only good for certain kinds of roles - the kind where he wears gunjees or rides bikes. In Virudh he flits in and out of scenes dressed in a spotless white kurta. "Surprise" . White = ghost = dead son narrating story in flashback.

VJ Anusha - An entirely unconvincing firang girlfriend. Just because your boyfriend's mum oils your hair you agree to marry him?

Sanjay Dutt: Plays the mandatory Muslim character 'Ali', the friendly neighbourhood mechanic who beats the lawyer who loses the old couple's case to a pulp. He should have beaten up the director instead.

Mahesh Manjrekar: I always thought this guy was the poor man's Ramgopal Varma. Even that sounds like a compliment after this film. Clearly his heart was not in this film. Nor was his head.

I think a film either has to be interestingly realistic (Chandni Bar, Page 3 types), or completely candyfloss and over the top (Karan Johar style). Virudh is neither here nor there.

On the one hand, we're told this is an old retired couple (one, a school principal and the other an Air India employee). But, they live in a palatial bungalow in Vile Parle.

There is something very fake and disconnected about Virudh - you don't really care when John dies so how would you care whether his father avenges his death?

The funniest bits of the film, however are the three advertisements it features. I call them ads and not product placements because that's what they are.

a) Elf lubricants: Ever seen all the mechanics at a service station togged out in spotless navy blue Elf lubricant overalls? Standing under an Elf signboard?? There's a small lecture thrown in too - on the importance of using the 'correct' engine oil.

b) Nerolac paint: Mera beta do saal ke baad London se aa raha hai! So, Papa and his four friends - all age 60 and above - paint the house. They can afford Nerolac emulsion but not a painter.

c) Western Union money transfer: Amitabh asks Sharmila - 'Aap ke paas paanch hazaar rupaye hain? Lawyer ki fees deni hai". Then he reminisces... how his son used to send him money from London (most students I know of ask their dads to send them money nut never mind!)

Son on the phone from London: Dad ek short code hota hai ...
Dad: Mujhe paise mil gaye
Son: Itni jaldi?
Dad: Yes, thanks to Western Union
Or well, something like that....

And to think the Times of India gave this movie FOUR stars!

Friday, July 29, 2005

Why we need to crib

Nandan Nilekani, in an interview to Businessweek magazine explains the Indian way of getting things done.

Businessweek: Things are happening much faster in China, where they build infrastructure so rapidly.
Nilekani: It's going to happen, but not the way it happens in China. In China, a bunch of guys get in a room and decide to build a 16-lane highway from Shanghai to Beijing, and it's going to happen.

There's no way that will happen in India. It's too chaotic and argumentative. But what's going to happen is these 200 planes will be ordered, they won't land. They'll be circling. Everybody will get [very angry].

Finally, there will be such public outcry that the airports will get built. It's a different model. But it's a model.

And hopefully a day will come when we won't need to get angry anymore...

Had it rained in China...

A friend from Spain who is spending 6 months in China on a sabbatical (lucky bum!) sent me a mail asking: "are you OK?!"

She adds: "Nature and its elements are just inpredictable; here in China there also were floodings in the mid-south but you don´t hear that much since mostly negative things are covered up or simply not talked about".

Hmmm. I wonder - if Shanghai had received 944 mm of rain would it have coped better? Or would we just not have seen ugly pictures and hence never known about the magnitude of the disaster??

I think that kind of cover-up would be hard for a major commercial center housing so many expatriates. But then China - you can never underestimate that country!

Anyhow, I take back some of my words on the suburbs vs south Bombay situation. It did, apparently, rain far far less in 'town'.

But as I drove past the filthy slums on Mankhurd-Ghatkopar link road this morning, where kids routinely shit on the street in full view of cars, where garbage always lies in fly-infested piles, I still can't help feeling... This was a disaster waiting to happen.

70% of our citizens can't 'somehow' manage in sub-human conditions, without the System breaking down at some point. These are people who probably earn Rs 3000-4000 a month - they own small TVs, even mobiles but can't afford a 200 sq ft room with concrete roof over their heads.

And as mill lands are becoming available for redevelopment, all that developers - even the likes of Manohar Joshi and Raj Thackeray - can think about is constructing more malls...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi...

So, the Ordeal is over and just about everyone has a Tale to tell. Mine isn't exciting or heroic or memorable. And I'm extremely grateful for that.

The skies were literally black and water had seeped into our ground floor office - for the first time ever. Something was horribly wrong, I realised, looking at huge, huge jam at Prabhadevi, going towards the suburbs. And the empty road going the other way beckoned instead.

It was an easy decision to make because I live in Vashi but also happen to have a home in south Bombay - the one I grew up in and where my parents still live.

But I'm sure many many of us have friends and relatives we could have chosen to stay with - had we known the situation was so bad. And many more would have stayed put in their offices - again if they had an inkling they would have to spend the night in cars and buses.

But information, which is so very plentiful today was just not there on Tuesday evening...

Whether bureau
And I agree that weather forecasting is not an exact science but our met department has such a bad record that had they actually announced "heavy rains expected" no one would even have believed them.

Still, just a simple early warning system that monitors the amount of rainfall by the hour and the flooding situation in about 10 key problem areas could easily be set up. Once the mm of rain and/ or water levels rise above a particular danger level the information could be broadcast over FM, cellular networks and TV.

Now the problem with this is there could be false alarms - logon ko ghar jaane ka bahaana mil gaya, some khadoos bosses might say. But the only other option is jaise chal raha hai - 'bhagwaan bharose' .

Excuses rain down
The most maddening part was Vilasrao Deshmukh coming on TV and laying all the blame on Nature. What about the garbage situation? The desilting of drainage pipes - which never takes place?? Not to forget - miserable suburban town planning.

It takes less than half an hour of medium rainfall to turn the road outside Andheri station into a river of mock amazonian proportion...

Travelling to and fro - even on 'normal' days - is often a nightmare. It really doesn't take much for the whole system to collapse!

The Eternal divide
Restaurants were packed but otherwise things were normal in south Bombay. How, and why? Midday asked the question on many people's minds: Why did city float while suburbs sank?.

On Tuesday, the rains erased all class and economic differences. But the difference between south Mumbai and the suburbs remained stark.

While people from the suburbs were stranded or had to walk for hours to get home, for the lucky south Mumbai lot, home was only a short cab ride away. Why?

Of the many explanations given, the one which was most disturbing but at least partially true: The real reason is that the BMC and other agencies cannot afford to have the ministers and high-profile people living in south Mumbai inconvenienced.

Update, Jul 29: Just learnt that south Bombay received only 73.4 mm of rain so maybe all this analysis is crap - townies were simply lucky!

As reports poured in...
Star News had the most dedicated coverage, I thought, while NDTV scored a coup by pressing Gautam Singhania's helicopter into service to give aerial shots of affected areas.

Makes your wonder, given the competition between news channels, will a fleet of helicopters become as integral to Indian TV stations as OB vans are currently? That is, after all, the American way...

But getting back to the coverage, more than TV, the FM stations provided vital information and connections between people trying to reach each other. Because they had more 'micro' and more frequently updated information about the situation in specific areas - not just the broad picture. As a local medium rightly should.

FM also ruled because there was no electricity in large parts of the city. And with the mobile networks down, about the only useful thing one could do with the handset was tune into the radio!

Wonder though how many cells suffered 'death' by drowning... Despite 'waterproof' covers : )

The Day After
Yes, we are 'bouncing back' - but what choice is there? Mass emigration to Canada??

The newspapers are full of the Mumbaikar's 'never say die' spirit but as Amitabhji once said in that famous song from Mr Natwarlal : "Yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai, lallu?"

There just may be some hope with younger politicians like Milind Deora at least having the guts to admit - on national television - that something is wrong.

But he is merely a Member of Parliament. Not a BMC worker...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Stop selling for once!

SMS from Airtel: Stuck in the rain? (half of Bombay is , today!). Dial 501 for information on the nearest coffee shop.

%&^%$$*. Would it kill them to provide some useful info instead. Like which train lines are down, when the water is expected to recede etc etc etc?

Kuch ghaas nahin

"One ounce of wheatgrass is equivalent to more than 2.5 lbs of leafy-green vegetables," screamed the signboard at Juice Zone, a Canadian'juice bar' franchise at the local mall.

As a compulsive tryer-of-new-things, I could not resist. So I forked out 25 bucks for the 'super juice that is a concentration of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and cholorophyll'.

Well, it's 'fresh' - that's for sure. They uproot the grass growing in a box right in front of you. Then they wash it and plonk it into a mixer. Voila - wheatgrass juice ready for consumption.

How does it taste? Slightly sweeter than you'd expect but vile nevertheless. Luckily, you only get a small 'shot' of it in a cup which looks like it's stolen from a kiddie kitchen set.

Curious to know more about the 'health benefits', I did a net search. There are many who swear by its efficacy but some have expressed doubts - and I lean towards that school of thought.

Unfortunately there’s little scientific evidence that juiced wheatgrass provides these benefits. And while it may be a good way of getting a limited amount of a whole range of nutrients, it’s certainly not a direct substitute for a kilo of veggies. Plus, if it’s extracted juice, there’s no fibre in it.

On the other hand it’s probably harmless, and makes an interesting alternative to a coffee or Coke — as long as you can bear the taste!

Here's an even mroe bizarre piece of information. The idea that wheatgrass can benefit serious disease sufferers was conceived by one Ann Wigmore.

Claims are that the juice "cleanses" the body, neutralizes toxins, slows the aging process, and prevents cancer.

Wigmore's theory on the healing power of grasses was predicated upon the Biblical story of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar who spent seven years, insane, living like a wild animal eating the grass of the fields. Because he recovered, Wigmore theorized that the grasses had cured his insanity. The common observation that dogs and cats nibble on grass, presumably when they feel ill, also strengthened Wigmore's belief in the healing power of grasses.

The fact that grass-eating animals are not spared from cancer, despite their large intake of fresh chlorophyll, seems to have been lost on Wigmore. In fact, chlorophyll cannot "detoxify the body" since it is not absorbed.

In 1988, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Wigmore for claiming that her "energy enzyme soup" could cure AIDS. In fact, when challenged legally, Wigmore backed away from healing claims stating that she merely had an "educational program" to teach people how to "cleanse" their bodies and make vegetable juices.

Moral of the story: You won't get a high of any sort on this grass! Just eat your green leafy veggies at home and dig into the junk food at the mall once in a while and you'll be OK.

After all human beings weren't designed to eat chaara. With the exception of the honourable Laloo Prasad Yadav...

Strange e-male

There is one thing to be said about the readers of - they are very vocal with their opinions. I've been doing a column for the site -mostly on careers - over the last one year and received some terrific feedback.

By terrific I don't just mean "great! we love what you wrote!!" - that is, of course always welcome :). But I have also received critical feedback and differing points of view, which have been valuable in their own way.

But this is the strangest email I have received- ever. It came in response to my piece 'The Truth about Sex' (adapted from my blogpost 'The One Thing' ). Here's how it goes...

Your article is disgusting and I must say that it's written in a bad taste just to get some cheap publicity which is not warranted from an IIM alumnus. Today for the first time I'm feeling ashamed of this association.

Following are some quotable quotes from your article and they only go to prove your poor (and sick), biased thinking. I seriously suggest you to get out of the business of writing. It already has done more harm than good for you.

"Boys want only one thing... be careful"

"God -- whichever one you believe in -- created a virus in the image of man. And woman. Now the trick to spreading the virus quickly and effectively was to have it replicate on its own. So He invented sex."

"Yes, I will refer to God as 'He' because I think our Creator must have been a guy. Had it been a woman, She certainly would've given us periods annually -- not every month!"

"As an added safety feature, God gave man a reproductive organ with a mind of its own. One that did not always and necessarily obey the commands from the High Command."

"Men consistently get erections in the presence of naked women and want to have sex."

I don't know whether you've drawn inspiration from certain Ms. S D to be in the limelight but plz for the God's sake stop pouring this filth in the public domain. You might've your own views about the world but nowhere in democracy you are entitled to show them blatantly. I pity rediff for putting this.

May God bless you!
******* (name withheld by me)
IIM Lucknow (Class of 2005)

Hmmm. I am more amused than anything else, especially at this statement: You might've your own views about the world but nowhere in democracy you are entitled to show them blatantly.

Maybe I should move to China?

Idealism and the ideal SOP

Can being a little more idealistic improve your chances of winning a 25,000 pound scholarship? The answer, it appears, is yes.

But clarity of purpose is even more important. And how you communicate that in your SOP - and interview - can make all the difference.

A panelist for the prestigious and rather generous HSBC scholarship details the issues that were wrestled with. And provides insight into how final selections were made. Read it here.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The truth is out there

The National Board of Accreditation (NAB) which provides accreditation to engineering institutes in the country will now outsource the process to independent credit rating agencies ie ICRA, CRISIL and CARE.

"This will help graduates of accreditated programmes in India to get recognition from the 8 member countries who are signatories of the Washington Accord," says NBA chairman and IIM A director Bakul Dholakia.

- Sunday Times of India, July 24 2005

In plain and simple terms what this means is an alternative to AICTE, which has granted too many dud institutes affiliation and thus inspires little confidence.

But while I am hopeful that ICRA, CRISIL and the like will do a better job - after all they have their own credibility to think about! - I would submit that the entire process must become more participative. The only way to monitor colleges on an ongoing basis is to keep an open channel of communcation with their biggest stakeholders - the students.

I would therefore advocate:
a) Transparency: The parameters on the basis of which accreditation is granted eg infrastructure, permanent faculty and lab requirements must be clearly mentioned on the NAB website.

Further, the claims of each college in terms of what it provides must be individually detailed on the site.

b) Accountability: Students must be encouraged to inform NAB if there are any deviations from the standard. Because it is common practice for colleges to set up facilities (which are otherwise non-existent) just before inspections (of which they always, mysteriously receive prior intimation).

The NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) is plagued by this problem. A couple of years ago NDTV did an expose of DY Patil Medical college - which in Munnabhai MBBS style set up an entire functioning hospital for the benefit of the Medical Council of India inspection.

It was reported by NDTV at the time:
The team of inspectors faced hostility at the college until the Governor of Maharashtra intervened and sought dates. When they finally managed to inspect the college, they found that D Y Patil's Navi Mumbai College had no functional hospital. Medical, dental and engineering colleges were being run from the same building and the forensic department had been created in basement just two days prior to inspection.
In the medical college run by D Y Patil at Kolhapur, the team found most patients were fake. One hour after the inspection admitted patients had disappeared, even those who were given tractions were nowhere to be seen.

You get the picture. Similar things are known to happen in engineering colleges. And B schools (here, the biggest problem is inflated placement statistics).

The point is, there must be a helpline/ email id through which students can alert NAB to these kind of ghaplas. ICRA should guarantee that the student's identity will be kept anonymous AND that the complaint will be acted upon - maybe by a surprise inspection - within a 7 day timeframe.

Action is the keyword here. AICTE does provide an email id for queries/ suggestions by students but we have no idea whether they are taken serious note of!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Stomach this

In countries where order and sanity prevails, young people get their dose of thrills by bungee jumping and mountain biking. In India, the most popular - and easily accessible - adventure a young person can seek out is street food.

Yes, even as Macs, Domninos and Subways sprout up everywhere, the Kailash Parbats and Brijwasis expand their reach and completely new outlets like 'Wraps n Rolls' enter our food courts, street food continues to flourish. Especially in a city like Mumbai.

If anything, there's more of it now than there used to be. And it's also cooler to eat off the streets than to be a sissy and say, "Sorry I don't have that stuff".

I used to be that kind of person - it was the way we were brought up. Carry tiffin with you, eat at a place with a table, if you really must.

Even on the annual trips to Juhu beach when hicktown cousins came a-visiting, we'd drag along a picnic basket full of aloo-puri. The max you were allowed to buy at the beach was a bhutta.

Though I am now 'converted', the fear still lingers... However I see no such inhibitions with the majority of the college junta of today!

Khaate raho
Why is street food so popular? Well I guess because of two factors:
a) It's cheap and it's everywhere: If you can whip up a decent bhelpuri rest assured you will make a living in Mumbai city. Even after paying off the BMC and cops for standing under a tree somewhere.

And you can sell your bhel for 7 bucks vs the 15 rupees it will cost in an Udipi, or 20 bucks in a mall.

Besides, the 'wallahs' are at every street corner and outside every college. Just seeing the little crowd of people standing there waiting for their food fix makes you hungry!

b) It's unique: Unlike the mass produced mastication material churned out by chains and even Udipi restaurants, street food vendors often have the X factor.

And those that do become 'famous' for particular concoctions. Like the dosawallah outside Sophia college, the sandwichwallah outside National college and so on and so forth.

The famous guys actually command pretty good prices. I'd like to visit their homes and check out what cars they drive!

Dirty secrets
Coming back to the adventure bit. Well, 99% of this street food is made and served in the most unhygienic and filthy conditions. Guess it gets that raw and edgy 'flavour' partly from E coli.

The trick to eating street food is to never stare too closely at the vendor's grimy nails or the water in which the plates are washed.

JAM magazine once did a story on the 'dirtiest secrets' in street food and guess what. There are some big time bhel wallahs who mash potatos with their knees...

And yet, people who eat this food are not dropping like flies. Of course, at any given time there are hepatitis and amoebiosis cases going around but on the whole, the regulars seem to have developed an acceptable level of immunity.

From time to time - like during the jaundice epidemic last year - the BMC will come out with 'rules'. For example, all vendors were asked to wear plastic gloves. And no cooking per se was to be allowed - only assembly of food such as sandwiches, bhel etc.

But neither rule is being followed. Chinese carts are still around. And the gloves were quickly discarded because
a) No one came to fine those who didn't wear 'em
b) Customers didn't seem to care either!

It's the second bit that's actually more disconcerting...

The future of street food

I think street food is definitely something which is desirable. All of south east Asia and even a country as advanced as Japan is fond of its street food.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) is working with local governments to upgrade street food standards. Visit Bangkok - a country not all that ahead of India - and the hygiene levels are amazing. Didn't just happen by magic though - it took effort . The problems were very similar, but they've been successfully tackled.

But it seems to me that changing attitudes will be difficult as long as the majority of vendors live in pretty miserable housing and sanitation conditions. When hygiene isn't a part of their lives anyways - how can it be reflected in their food?

And so, the adventure continues...

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Sabse tez ya sabse dumb?

A prime time news item on NDTV India last night: Yuvraj Singh goes in for a 'new look'.

Forget the debate about what constitutes news... I couldn't even figure out what new look. It just seemed like a stylist had ruffled her fingers through his hair.

And yet, 3 whole minutes - or maybe more - was spent discussing it. And what Yuvraj likes to wear. And which cricketers he thinks dress well. And so and so forth.

It's great that our news channels have moved beyond covering politicians. So every time Mayawati sneezes she does not make headlines. But the channels have not figured out what to air as a replacement, and this problem is especially acute with the 'mass' or Hindi news networks.

This is actually phase 3 in the television news shift.

In the DD era, news used to be autocratic. Salma Sultan, with a rose in her hair, read out details of the PM's daily schedule - cutting ribbons, launching books, being received at the airport.

In the Aaj Tak era, the coverage became more democratic - politicians of every hue got their mugs on air.

In the Too-Many-Channels-To-Count era - dumbocracy rules. Channel heads realised no one really cares about netalog's antics. So given that there is no earthquake, plane crash or terrorist bombing, you gotta load up on 'human interest' stories.

Now what constitutes interest, and to which humans is the question. For example, a couple of weeks ago, Zee News ran a detailed segment on how the planetary alignment of Rahu, Ketu and Shani is expected to impact inflation (I am not kidding!).

This was followed by a segment on how petrol pumps in Delhi are giving out saplings to car owners in Delhi in a bid to encourage planting of trees. One sapling for every litre of petrol filled. A noble but ludicrous scheme - but one which got covered as 'news'.

And there lies the crux of the matter. These are really what newspapers publish under 'features' - except there is no such classification in broadcast. So everything - from the earth-shattering to the inane is lumped into one big basket.

Why am I watching this channels, anyways, you might ask? Well, I'm not. But given that surfing constitutes 90% of TV viewing for many of us, you absorb bits of their coverage by default. The answer is to flick the button and move on...

So, dumb down all you will, for all I care. But please, Yuvraj, the next time you want a 'new look' get a real hairstylist. Borrow Aamir Khan's.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Print

Pirated copies of the latest Harry Potter are all over the city. Funny thing is, I haven't seen anyone carrying one around. Except for the boys selling them at signals.

Now surely at 300 bucks (less than half the price at bookstores - even after 'discount') there must be enough takers. Only, they're quietly reading the cheapie copies at home, while those with the original hardbound version are busy flaunting it.

Yes, despite the fact that the 600 + page book is hardly 'portable' I've seen folks hanging onto it in the bus and train. A fan in my office lugs it to and fro everyday. And last night at the local mall I spotted one with the salesgirl manning the juice counter... Jai Harry Potter!

Potty thoughts
As for me, well, I did devour it on the first day itself. But I didn't feel like writing about it. I mean, whether it's a 'good' book or not is really a technical point. If you've read the first five books you ARE going to read the sixth one - no matter what.

In a nutshell, Book no 6 is much more interesting than no 5 - which was way too long, dark and in parts dull.

Plot-shot chhodo, what I have always liked about Harry Potter are the small touches - the names of the potions and spells, the creatures and teachers. And all the parallels between the magical world and the real one.

In book no 6, for example, I thought the "Apparition" test was cool. A neat spin on the driving test we muggles take as we 'come of age'.

And J K R has got the whole teenager-in-love bit just right. Ron and Lavender's mouth-to-mouth marathons are unlikely to be seen in India. But we've all known our share of 'chipko' andolan couples :)

The thing I really admire is that Rowling does not talk down to her audience. Using terms like 'Pensieve' for example - you might think it will go over the aam young readers head. But what it does is build a multi-layered experience.

Maybe the readers age 9 and 10 don't 'get it' but that doesn't stop them from enjoying the story. Whereas for the older kids and adults it raises the level far beyond a 'children's book'.

It's a strategy which Walt Disney uses in its animation films. The genie in Aladdin is a perfect example. His wisecracks were for the parents, antics for the kids.

May magic continue to enter our lives - in the form of books - long after Harry Potter. Amen.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


I am an Eco graduate, although English Literature is what I really wanted to major in. And to this day, I regret following my head and not my heart.

Like many other Eco grads in India I switched to Arts after studying Science upto class 12. Economics was the easiest subject to sell to my skeptical-about-Arts dad.

Growing up in a colony of scientists bursting with high-achiever kids was what made all these justifications necessary. Even to myself, I guess. Smart people just didn't do Arts in those days (and even now, rarely do).

Given that all my friends were either in IIT, medical college or studying physics (leading to the clear and acceptable career path of an MS and PhD in America), Economics seemed to be the most acceptable option. The compromise option.

My argument was: "It's almost a science - even has its own Nobel prize!". And that, I discovered, was the crux of the problem. Economics has so much mathematics that it defeated - for me - the purpose behind quitting science in the first place.

Wealth of notions
The first year, first month of Eco featured concepts like "Diminishing Marginal Utility" which made a lot of sense. Of course, the 6th chocolate was going to be less fun to eat than the first one you put into your mouth.

As time went by the behavioural aspects started taking a backseat to
a) Facts & figures
b) Mathematical equations or "econometrics".

In FY and SY there were, at least, other interesting subjects like French and English Lit. Studying economics and only economics in the third year made life in the classroom a crashing bore.

The fact that I passed with 'flying colours' as they say is besides the point.

It was in this context that I was amazed and pleased to read Freakonomics. Of course, Steven Levitt is not representative of your average eco professor in an American university, but it's great that economics is - at last - producing such mavericks.

Because like other sciences, eco needs experts who can make the subject more relevant - and more exciting - for the aam aadmi.

As I wrote in my review of the book for Businessworld magazine

Reading a book written by a professor of economics for pleasure - not passing an exam - is like attempting to climb Mt Everest in a bikini. It's simply not done! Unless, of course, the professor happens to be University of Chicago's bright and borderline Steven Levitt, the 'rogue economist' who in his new book, Freakonomics, explores the hidden side of everything.

What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? These are some of the intriguing chapters in the book, the 'riddles of everyday life' which interest Levitt more than where interest rates or global trade is headed.

As The New York Times article on Levitt (which led to this book) notes: "His abiding interests are cheating, corruption and crime". You might wonder, though, what do these subjects have to do with 'economics'? To which, Levitt would say: "Cheating is a primordial economic act: getting more for less."

Hmm. Wish Ms Jasdanwalla of Sophia college had similar views. I would have spent a lot less time doodling in class.

You can read the rest of the review here (free registration available for those in India). Also check out the Freakonomics website and blog here.

The book does cost about 800 bucks - not cheap - but is worth it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Universe needs 'Business Process Re-engineering'

Evolution, they say, takes millions of years. We didn't get transformed from apes to homo sapiens in a couple of hundred.

But look what we homo sapiens have done in the just that timespan. Changed our lifestyle so completely that the evolutionary mechanism has been left far, far behind.

Take the human reproductive system. It was designed for a species which lived a maximum of 30-40 years. Hence we were made biologically capable of reproducing around the age of 14 - giving enough time for the offspring to grow into an adult while the parent was still alive.

But in the last 50 years, the human lifespan has increased by leaps and bounds. The average Japanese can expect to live to be 85. The average Indian, about 61 years.

Since you and me belong to a class of Indians with better access to healthcare, sanitation and nutrition that would definitely be much higher. Closer to about 75 I should think.

And yet, our bodies are functioning according to the old requirements. Girls will start 'maturing' around the age of 11 (even earlier than previous generations - thanks to better diet and other environmental factors). And so will boys.

At an age where we are expected to bury our noses in books, hormones start raging in our systems and instead, we start mooning over each other.

"Yeh padhai-likhai ki umar hai," say parents. And frown upon any 'distractions' from studies. It's like - the tap has been turned on - but there is no outlet.

My point is, in the '15-17 years of study' format of life, reaching sexual maturity at age 12 makes no sense - from an evolutionary standpoint. The idea was to enable propogation of the human race, right? In the modern context it works in quite the opposite manner. Especially for women.

The human female is born with a limited no of eggs. And the quality of these eggs declines with age. Hence doctors advise, women should consider having a baby by the time she is 30. And definitely not wait beyond 35.

This, effectively gives a woman just 5-8 years to establish herself in a career. Given that you complete an MBA or similar post graduate degree by 23-24, you now have to swiftly get ahead in your job and find a mate and have a baby in the next decade.

If you challenge nature and postpone having a baby, you may find it difficult or impossible to do so. There are modern fertility and reproductive techniques - but they cost a good deal and offer no guarantees.

Meanwhile, men can become fathers at 40 or even 50 or even 60!

So, if evolution was an efficient mechanism, women should actually become fertile closer to 18 - and stay so till their early 40s. That would still give the child born a very good chance of growing into an adult under the care of living parents.

And give women a better shot a 'equality' in high pressure careers and modern life in general.

I mean, under-age marriages still occur because dakiyanoosi thinking parents would rather have a girl who's crossed puberty safely chained to a husband. Instead of risking she complete her education and be exposed to temptations of the flesh outside. Crude but that's how a lot of people still think!

Bottomline: Like any other System, the one God created up there to manage the business of planet Earth and earthlings, just may need some re engineering...

Monday, July 18, 2005

Feeling good?

For a Mumbai socialite, it scarcely gets bigger and better than this, reports Indian Express.

Prerna Goel, "porcelain perfect 33-year-old homemaker and mother-of-one" has been selected by the ultra-luxurious Chanel to star in a television documentary on the fashion house.

"It’s quite a prestigious thing," says the Lagos-born, London-raised Goel, just back and jet-lagged from shooting in Paris for five days. The Chanel team was also in Mumbai for three days last month, shooting Goel as she went about her daily life—meditation, playing Mom, charities and of course, some evenings well spent at Mumbai’s top restaurant, Indigo.

"I was chosen for their accessories profile," says Goel, who owns over 35 bags (the lowest price for one is Rs 50,000), and numerous belts and shoes.

I don't grudge anyone their share of designer labels - wear 'em if it makes you feel good. But 35 Fendi bags? If I had several crores in my bank account - and 18 lakhs was mere spare change - I still wouldn't buy 35 of those obscenely priced thingies.

And the luxury retailers who think India is the 'next big thing' need to look beyond the small, extremely creamy layer of society for whom carrying the 'right' bag and wearing the 'right' shoe is a matter of do or die.

The rest of us have a life.

And an identity which is independent of the labels we may choose - or choose not to -display.

Minding your business
So like I said - good for you, lady.

But would you mind if the media also took a quick peek at your husband's income tax returns? Just to confirm, you know, that the money spent is tax paid. And save you the trouble poor Ramdeo Agarwal is now going through.

After coughing up Rs 3 crores as ransom money -which was recovered when his son's kidnappers were nabbed - the high profile stockbroker has generously offered that the I-T dept keep Rs 84 lakhs of it. It was, he admitted, black money - when asked to explain the 'source of income'.

Should we stand up and applaud this honesty? Or wonder how many more such crores are stashed away??

Under the Income Tax Act, all payments and withdrawals above Rs 20,000 have to be made by cheque.Interestingly, the officers in Mumbai have been told the currency notes meant for the abductors are accompanied by bank slips and are in Rs 1,000 denomination.

Is Mr P Chidambaram at all concerned how easily and legitimately black money is circulating in the system???

Evidently not
Which is why the name "Thanks" for the new luxury designer store in Mumbai's Worli area is so very apt. Thanks, Mr Chidambaram, for taxing cash withdrawals of Rs 10,000 but not digging into the Cartier skeletons in our closets.

The new 10,000 square feet store houses top brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino RED, Stella McCartney, Juicy Couture, Chloe, Paper Denim, etc. Prices? From Rs 4,000 for a 'regular' Juicy tee to lakhs of rupees for Fendi and D&G accessories.

Says Sunday Mid-day," The attempt here, is to really save you a trip abroad for shopping..."

And, I might add, the ignominy of being caught evading customs duty on several lakhs worth of luxury goods. Like two loaded and well known gentlemen.

It used to be known as 'smuggling', you know, at one time... But let me not spoil the 'feel good' factor.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Desperate – and not just housewives

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s. And as a stylish 21st century TV drama brings home the point– they still do.

Man or woman, rich or merely comfortably middle class, we’re all desperately seeking something more from our lives.

Desperate Housewives captures that feeling in telling the stories of four suburban American women – and their men – as they seek answers to the questions we were never supposed to ask. Not into our accept-you-can’t-have-everything 30s and 40s. A stage in life when it’s always safer (and wiser) to remember: things could have been a lot worse.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Aur bhi gham hain zamaane mein and all that jazz. The fact that you and me are ‘luckier than most’ is especially hard to ignore in a country where every citizen can’t take two square meals a day for granted. But even as we lucky ones move from roti, kapda aur makaan to salad, short kurtis and SUVs, there remains – often unfulfilled – another basic need.

The need for intimacy.

The need for a man or woman in our lives.

Not just any man or woman but one who understands, who accepts and yes loves us for who we are. The man or woman many of us thought we were getting married to who, somewhere along the way, retreated into a Harry Potter-like Invisibility Cloak. Or left the building altogether – if not in body, in spirit.

If you take a closer look at the problems of the women of Wisteria lane – they all stem from this very same source. The longing for love and companionship. Acknowledgement and appreciation. As the desperate housewife who blew out her brains in the first episode observes from her permanent philosophical perch: “Human beings are designed for many things. Loneliness isn't one of them”.

Take Lynette, the career woman who gave up her job to raise 4 kids. She’s exhausted and frazzled and of course wondering “did I really make the right decision”. But what’s really eating her is a husband who seems to have no idea what she is going through. How could he even suggest they “take a risk” and have sex without a condom, when there are four such risks already running around the house in muddy shoes?

Then there’s Bree, the everything-must-be-perfect homemaker whose husband wants a divorce because he’s tired of living in a ‘detergent commercial’. But would things really be any different if Bree didn’t subject her family to gourmet meals every night for dinner? Her friend Susan manages to burn even macaroni and cheese, which makes her ‘human’ and ‘real’ – just what Bree's husband says he wants her to be. But hello - Susan’s husband left her for his secretary.

For all its popularity, Desperate Housewives is being called an idiot box illusion - a fantasy which gives the impression of reflecting reality. “The main characters are 21st-century women, with 21st-century wardrobes and attitudes, but they’re dropped into 1950s suburbia,” says one op-ed writer. A suburbia of domestic claustrophobia that does not exist anymore - at least not in America.

According to the most recent U.S. census, 52% of American marriages will end in divorce, so if you’re trapped it’s really out of choice - not lack of it.

But that, I think, is the brilliance of the show. Yes, there is always the option of walking out but even in a society where it is commonplace, people choose to pretend things are working. Or live on hope.

As Mary Alice summarises it from Up Above: “Each new day in suburbia brings with it a new set of lies… We whisper them in the dark, telling ourselves we're happy, or that he's happy. That we can change, or that he will change his mind… Yes, each night before we fall asleep we lie to ourselves in a desperate, desperate hope that come morning - it will all be true.”

If anything, Desperate Housewives reflects more accurately the state of affairs in upper middle class India, than suburban America. A society where divorce rates could potentially be as high as 52% but aren’t because couples somehow ‘adjust’ and carry on.

I once asked a shrink who treats mainly south Bombay and yuppie types how many marriages, in his experience, would be classified as ‘happy’. He paused a moment and pronounced: “Three out of ten”. And then he added, “It's funny. That's worse than the cancer survival rate after 5 years!”

So why don’t 7 out of 10 marriages end in divorce in India? Simple. We learn to channelise the energy and passion that should have gone into the relationship elsewhere. Not just into extra-marital affairs – that, of course works for some. But most pour themselves into work, some into religion. For women, it's often their kids.

Marriage becomes a joint project: a lovely well run home in the right neighbourhood... Where the children attend the right schools, the men (hurts to say that, but it's usually the men) make enough money for annual foreign vacations and women quietly polish their life until it gleams with perfection. Except they're perhaps not as suicidal– thanks to domestic help.

And no, this is not the last word on the subject. The jury is still out on ‘kidnap aunty’...

Friday, July 15, 2005

The light is quite bright

The business of newspapers is to give news. And that, happily, seems to be the business the Hindustan Times is in.

DNA has been far more aggressive in terms of 'marketing'. But finally, HT pulled the rug from below their feet by not only launching its newspaper 15 days earlier than DNA, but doing so with a really Big Bang.

Not with some mega promotion like "buy this newspaper and get X, Y or Z " free. And not because the paper itself is free.

HT said "buy me because I have a story you just have to read". The Salman-Aishwarya transcripts will be remembered for a long time to come. It's not a new story, just concrete proof of something we have always known. But chilling for sure, to see the words (and such unparliamentary language) in cold hard print.

Questions which arise:
- Why would someone like Aishwarya put up with this kind of abuse? The tapes are from 2001, she finally broke up with him in 2003.

If a woman as beautiful, talented and rich as Aishwarya is willing to behave like an insect in her personal life (aap gaali dete raho, main sunti jaaoon), what hope is there, really?

- Kitna sach ar kitna jhoot in what Salman says about his underworld links. If these links exist, why did he get away with it while Sanjay Dutt and Bharat Shah at least went to jail?

- Why doesn't Salman seek psychiatric help?

Since the story has become a national media obsession, HT continues to milk it on the second day of publication while TOI ignores it completely (sister publication Mumbai Mirror has a cover feature on the subject but refers to it 'as reported in a section of the press').

All in all, HT has managed to pull off quite a coup. In one fell stroke it erased the perception many had of it as an outsider, a 'Delhi paper'. Bollywood and underworld are the two things intimately associated with Mumbai. Two things Delhi does not have.

A story with only Bollywood would have been too frivolous to be a lead. And there's too much underworld already, everywhere. What HT pulled off was therefore a 'dream debut'! And a tough act to follow for DNA.

On the whole, HT is an interesting read. There are too many typos in the supplement but I guess that should get ironed out in time. Of course, page 3 people are featured but somehow it's not as in-your-face and low IQ as Bombay Times.

Also, the design of HT is easy-on-the-eye and makes that of TOI look a bit jaded.

HT is definitely on my reading list, despite the 'over 100 pages' also arriving at my doorstep. But a bod can read only so much and so I think the Asian Age will be the first to drop off my radar.

How well Mumbai has taken to HT will, of course, only be clearer in a month. By which time the novelty factor wears off and the real readership pattern will emerge.
And it just may have some surprises...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

'Phoney' videos

Nokia is airing a commercial which focuses on how mobile technologies can potentially change film-making. The url appears at the bottom of the screen.

It's a pretty nifty site, with "lessons" for first-time film-makers. There's an example of how 30 seconds of planning can transform a point and shoot video ("a rag-tag collection of boring jerky shots") into something watchable.

The site also links to "First Time Filmmakers", an initiative by Discovery Channel which first debuted in 1995 in Europe. FTF commissions and showcases the work of emerging film makers, and has had two successful runs in China. India should be next on their radar.

Of course, although the initiative is being 'supported by Nokia', these films are not made using mobile phones. My 1 megapixel Nokia 6670 allows 10 minutes of video recording - of awful quality, even to view on a phone.

But I don't doubt a day will soon come when much better filming will be possible. Not television broadcast quality but definitely for mobile and internet viewing.

At JAM, we use a 2 megapixel camera phone to make short films which are hosted on our website. The section is called JAM TV. We've even had a 'hit' - our Rabbi Shergill film has been downloaded over 7000 times.

So yes, becoming a Bollywood director is still a long-shot but I see a day when a few creative individuals - armed with next-generation camera phones - will be able to make a living by selling short films shot and even edited on their phones.

Take a simple example. Today phone providers offer restaurant listings. What if u could actually view a 1 minute video of the restaurant - see what it's like? You might pay 5 bucks to see such a film, before spending 500 bucks there.

The possibilities, really, are endless. 'Interestingly shot' and 'nominally priced' would be the two key factors in success.

Boon or goon
Unfortunately, the reason mobile phone film-making is in the news is quite different. The 'point and shoot' killer application it turns out is porn.

The chart-topper of the week is the Mallika Sherawat video/ MMS. The amusing thing is how many of us are watching it just to confirm whether it's really "Mallika or not".

But celebrities inhabit a different universe. At the end of the day, they come out of these scandals (self-created or otherwise) unscathed.

It's ordinary, girl-next-door videos which are really scary. It started with the DPS MMS clip but there seem to be hundreds of other foolish girls who've let their boyfriends/ husbands film them in various states of undress. And, these clips are floating around everywhere.

There are clips titled 'AmitsGF', 'Policeofficersdaughter' and even 'Suhaagraat' (the woman is wearing mehndi and the chooda traditionally worn after marriage...).

In some cases, the women appear to be unaware they are being filmed, but that can't be true for all. Mobile phone cameras have to be used at a fairly close range.

So the bottomline is they trust these cads. These women are in love and can't imagine their guy would ever do something as disgusting as forwarding a video of a private moment. These women are idiots.

When will the porn clips come to an end? When women stop co-operating with the filming , I should think. Hopefully all the media publicity given to MMS sex clips will drum some sense into their silly heads.

Of course there will always be available bodies , but then they'll be doing it for money - not love. Which makes it cold, commercial and far less exciting than peeping into someone's privacy.

Hopefully, we will eventually tire of all this. And the focus will then shift to how mobile phone technology can change the business of film-making. Not just pornography.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Real State of Real Estate

For the last 4 days I've had my 2 slices of bread in the morning cooked on a tawa, instead of a toaster. And showered with cold water. And used the stairs, not the lift. Because at precisely 8.45 am every morning there is a power cut.

I live in Vashi, which is for all practical purposes considered a suburb of Mumbai. However, technically, it falls in district Thane - outside of Mumbai city limits. So we don't enjoy the same 'special status' when it comes to uninterrupted power supply.

Things weren't been too bad in the past - bijli went gul only on the occassional Friday. Now, it's like 'kabhi bhi ja sakta hai'. But unlike Delhi, residents here are still in a state of denial. Must be some temporary problem, we're thinking, instead of rushing out to buy inverters.

Meanwhile thousands of square feet of mill land in central Mumbai is being freed for "redevelopment". But can I ever hope to buy a home that isn't 20 km away from town? Not on my budget.

Only the very rich or the very poor have that luxury. And of course, those whose grandparents came and wisely occupied rent-controlled housing decades ago.

Theoretically, more land and more apartments becoming available should lead to more affordable housing. But trust me, none of those new 'centrally located' houses are going to get on the market for under a crore ($200,000 or so).

And since the land is being parceled out piecemeal, each project will be a lurid, fenced-in recreation of First World living conditions in Third World surroundings.

Mera Ghar, mera fort
In the old days, the likes of Shivaji built fortresses as protection from invaders. Modern day builders are building modern day fortresses to protect us from our fellow countrymen.

As an ad for a project at L B S Marg promises: "every Mumbaikar's-wish-come-true city": Kohinoor city. Going beyond the mere swimming pool and granite platform, this one offers "customisable IKEA kitchen" as well as:

* Site meets US green building code
* Guest parking and guest rooms for visitors
* Holistic spa, premium lifestyle club
* International shopping mall
* Modern centre for performing arts
* International hotel and office plaza
* 3 schools on campus

Throw in an engineering and MBA college and maybe one can go from birth to death without having to step out and face the 'real' Mumbai city at all!

With the government unable or unwilling to take a holistic view of how to develop neighbourhoods, 'People Like Us' are increasingly opting to live in this highly artificial and insulated manner.

This is the 'Gurgaon' model of development. But is this really progress?

If you simply want a modest home located next to a garden, with wide roads and functional footpaths (without shanties) - all of which you and I pay taxes for - there are very very few options. Besides Vashi, Sector 17.

If only "let there be light" wasn't just a slogan... for HT.

Believe it or not? Not.

Even as HT is busy putting up POPs at newsvendors in preparation for its launch in Mumbai tomorrow, DNA has fired the next salvo in its (never-ending) hoarding campaign.

This series features "people who have already booked our paper - really!" which include the likes of...

"Jim Dias. Lives for science. Dies for cars.
Booking no twenty thousand something"

And I am an Eskimo...

"Jay Sharma. Ex-model. Future Astronaut.
Booking no thirty thousand something"

Make that a vegetarian Eskimo!

Monday, July 11, 2005

Social entrepreneurship: A big idea

We live in a country with a hell of a lot of problems. But instead of just complaining, at last, there seem to be folks from a cross section of society actually doing something about it. And doing it differently.

My batchmate Venkat Krishnan, for example. He runs Give Foundation which is not an NGO, but more like an 'NGO for NGOs'.

GIVE Foundation is a professionally governed and managed Indian nonprofit organisation dedicated to promote "giving". We help "good" NGOs raise funds and promote greater transparency & accountability in the voluntary sector.

Our mission: To promote efficient and effective giving that provides greater opportunities to the poor in India.

Our vision: A strong "giving" culture where Indians donate 2% of their income every year to give the poor a chance. A vibrant "philanthropy marketplace" to ensure that the most efficient and effective nonprofits get access to the most resources.

The point is, had Venkat tackled the 'let me do something for the less privileged' in a conventional manner he would have started a charity - a school, or hospital, or home for orphans. Which, surely, would have been a good thing. But not as good as what he is doing now. Because 'Give' is conceived in a manner that is delivering far greater impact.

'Give' is an example of 'social entrepreneurship', a subject on which I've written a piece in the latest Businessworld.

The term 'entrepreneur' generally brings to mind the likes of Bill Gates or Dhirubhai Ambani: individuals with drive, ambition and vision - and enormous bank balances. Entrepreneurship is so firmly associated with the creation of wealth that using it to describe non profit-driven leadership and innovation is initially a little hard to digest.

But as management guru Peter Drucker so rightly puts it, not every new business is entrepreneurial and not every entrepreneurial venture must be in business. He defines an entrepreneur as one who "always searches for change, responds to it and exploits it as an opportunity".

Here's the interesting bit

While the term is relatively new, social entrepreneurs have always been around. Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave are vivid examples. The problem, says David Bornstein, author of How To Change The World, is that historically we have looked at such individuals as humanitarians or saints.

"Great social entrepreneurs are not the geniuses of society," argues Bornstein. "They are not the best educated or the richest or the most talented. Rather, they tend to be the people who are the most strongly motivated in a particular area..." People who have done remarkable things, he says, didn't begin with the knowledge and capacity to run a large organisation. They acquired it along the way, step by step.

It's the same as in business. The great entrepreneurs aren't necessarily the best educated or 'most talented'. They are the ones who are most motivated, the ones who don't just think but focus on implementation.

You can access my piece: "The Big Social Idea" by picking up a copy. If in India, you can also read it on their website after free registration. If abroad, you'll be asked for a small registration fee.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Yahoo male

Yahoo has just launched a new campaign to promote "Yahoo India Mail" featuring Malaika Arora Khan. Mumbai Mirror gushes:

"This is the first time that a leading internet company in India has shot with a Bollywood personality for an internet campaign".

Model and vejaay, yes. But Bollywood personality?? Malaika, as far as I can remember, has appeared in one item number on top of a train.

The company elaborates: "We were looking for a vibrant, regal, fashionable, easily recognisable youth icon and someone the youth of the country could easily identify and connect with."

Someone who'd charge less than Rani Mukherjee or Shahrukh Khan, I guess. But the basic question is: can a celeb add any value to a brand like Yahoo mail?

I have a yahoo account, am reasonably happy with it and too lazy to shift elsewhere. But if I had to open a new one today I would probably opt for google. Because I perceive it as better, faster and 'cooler'.

So sure, yahoo is feeling the heat. It's much lower on the 'gotta have' scale than it used to be a while ago. But I don't think having Malaika to greet every user who wishes to sign up for a new id is gonna do the trick. (no kidding - that's part of the deal!)

Note the manner in which the company's communication tom-toms Malaika and mentions the tech bits just by-the-way. Like yeh Indian userlog na, kaafi dumb hain.

"The company perhaps hopes to put the heat on hotmail with its own online hottie. And yes, Khan brings with her larger storage space, greater attachment capacity and advanced spam control. And if you still need more Malaika, you could actually have her... on your mobile phone as well. Yup, Malaika themes, wallpapers, screen-savers, video clips and even Malaika games!

Exclamation marks kis liye bhai. Are Malaika games and wallpapers the ultimate in excitement? But wait, there's more...

"Malaika's expression in the advertisement has been able to convey the key product feature and its utility to a celebrity like her."

Well, I haven't seen the ad but sure hope the expression is an improvement on the Pizza Hut ad - where Malaika's 'expression' conveyed the impression of a large marble stuck in her mouth.

I may be completely wrong. Maybe all the research and deliberation yahoo has done is right and there are thousands of starved young men out there (the kind who post ads on dating sites like:"hi i m jayes and i like to make friendship with girls!") who will appreciate this campaign and sign up in large numbers.

But my personal view is that while celeb endorsements may work for a soft drink or a clothing company (if at all they do work!) they do nothing for a brand like yahoo except cheapen it.

To make a mark in the online world your inherent offering needs to have sex appeal.

But full marks to Malaika's publicist. If anything, the yahoo campaign puts her on a far higher pedestal than she actually occupies!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Major dilemma

When Major Devashish Chakravorty, Lt Cdr T Balaji and Flt Lt Nilesh Gupta move around the sprawling campus of Indian Institute of Management (IIM A), it's no secret mission they are carrying out, reports TOI.

All three are ex-defence services officers now studying for their management degrees. A sad but interesting statistic which clearly highlights the growing unattractiveness of 'careers for life' in general and careers in the defence forces in particular.

Says the army guy: "I joined the Army for a life of adventure and valour. That was a stage when I wanted physical challenges in life. Now I seek mental challenges". Which, he specifies are: a career in investment banking or consulting.

It will be interesting to see what kind of placement he gets. 13 years of experience - that too in the army - is an unusual kind of profile. Even for a lateral recruit.

Of course, a lot depends on how well he performs academically. I would think he should not find the 'pressure' too much, having been through much worse at NDA. And he must be pretty motivated, that's for sure!

The navy chap is an electronic engineer who joined the forces out of fascination for the uniform, the sea and the thrill of life in the forces. But he was on a short service commission.

The air force fellow is the most candid: "It was a feeling of accomplishment to be in the IAF. But gradually I began feeling the monotony and wanted a change".

Monotony? Well, if you look at the issue dispassionately, clearly we haven't had a real 'war' since 1971. Kargil was an undeclared war, but one where the Air Force wasn't allowed to cross the LOC and bomb out the enemy camps.

So all they do really is keep training, staying fully prepared and alert for a war that never happens. Now this is necessary in the national interest - but not an exciting thing for the talented individuals serving in the forces.

No, thank you
When I was in school, several of my classmates had an army-navy background. A fair number of the boys were quite gung-ho on joining the NDA/ IMA and I know for sure at least 3 did so.

Today, it's rare to find such enthusiasm among officer's children. One such offspring declared to me," Only the duffers among us try for defence service ..."

Slight exaggeration perhaps but yes, the smarter ones aren't waiting 13 years to realise they want "mental challenges". They're trying for MBAs or studying abroad from the start.

As Vice Admiral S C S Bangara, former commandant of the NDA candidly admitted to in an interview

It is a fact none of the crème of our youth opts for the military... We have middle class and below, and more so in the lower middle class families coming into the NDA. But is it unique to India? No, my answer is it is not unique to India. This is the global trend.

At a recent Passing Out Parade at NDA it was observed that a significant % of the graduating class were children of jawans and JCOs. For them, becoming an officer is the ultimate in 'upward mobility'.

As they say, one man's punishment posting is another's dream job. So even as the dream sours for some, it glows brightly in the hearts of some others...

Qualitatively speaking
The decline in interest among 'elite youth' is often attributed to the fact that other professions pay more. But that's too simplistic. Those who've experienced the privileges of an army/ navy lifestyle know the 'quality of life' is great. In fact it's the kind of quality money cannot buy. Says the Vice Admiral:

I have a son in the corporate world who at a young age has reached a fairly senior position. He does not have the same quality of life despite his income being higher than that of a young officer in the armed forces.

But the general feeling is you aren't 'going somewhere'. Most do join the forces with a great deal of josh but it quickly wears off.

There is frustration with the hierarchy, the lack of modernisation, the politics. The constant relocations to small and boring cantonment towns. And an additional, often overlooked problem: the fact that your spouse will never be able to have a proper career.

If it were easier to leave the forces, I suspect many more would actually do so. Meanwhile, the army/ navy/ air force need to figure out how to deal with a whole new mindset. One that aspires for 'more' than previous generations.

A challenge as grave as the actual threat posed by our thorny neighbour...

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Mujhe rang de

Replacing the staid stripes with sequins, banal checks with brocade patches and formal suits with fun shirts, men are adding more colour to their lives, believes India Today.

I asked half a dozen young men who work in my office and each of them gasped," I wouldn't be caught dead in that". That being the floral print pink shirt worn by the model in pic above.

And I get the feeling not many guys would disagree.

Thing is, every media vehicle worth its salt is desperately searching for trends. But there's a difference between 'trend' and 'trendy' - as trendspotter Irma Zandl so rightly points out:

Trend vs Trendy:
Why it's important to understand the difference.

A trend is driven by demographics, lifestyle, technology -­ it moves forward steadily and relentlessly. It provides the foundation for building businesses and new brands/categories.

Trendy phenomenon ­ or fads - often seem to spring up overnight, burn intensely and then die out just as rapidly e.g. scooters, swing dancing, gin martinis. "Trendy" looks good but generally does not fit into the pattern of people's lives.

Flowery pink shirts do not fit into the pattern of men's lives and hence, in my opinion, need to be classified as 'trendy' - for p3 and wannabe p3 people. "Our niche market is the rich daddy-kid and the yuppie," says the MD of Tuscan Verve. Point taken - a market exists. But why does the writer have to make sweeping statements like:

"Checks and pinstripes are bowing out to colours, frill and funk. Men's wardrobes are resembling women's, with embroidered collars, patchwork pieces and retro prints."

Really? Checks and pinstripes bowing out to embroidery? Flamboyant shirts are going to be loungewear or clubwear - not replace standard business clothing or Friday dressing.Even for rich daddy-kids and yuppies. I mean, who will take a male CEO in a pink paisley shirt seriously??

The article, predictably, concentrates only on the tiny designerwear market (declaring breathlessly: Rohit Bal's floral and polka dotted applique shirts are 'flying off the shelves'). Except for a brief mention to Provogue - a relatively mass brand.

But yes, there is actually a trend hidden away in the focus on trendy.

Men do want to go beyond blue and grey - they want to look good. But except for a tiny fraction of a fraction they do not identify themselves as 'metrosexuals'. They want to look like guys, not girls.

So when pink has to be added to the wardrobe, brands like Arrow are the ones which will do the trick. The normally staid company has become a lot more adventurous of late. It's introduced colours like bright pink and lime green pinstripes (and it looks quite decent!).

Allen Solly - the Friday dressing people - have lots of colour in their store. But it's all checks and stripes, in novel and interesting design and colour combinations.

Will they introduce paisley prints and embroidery? I think not. Yes, Indian men are now more style conscious and willing to experiment. But like I said, the experimentation will be within certain bounds of masculinity.

It's like guys may have started wearing beads - but they're NOT going to adopt dangling earrings. At least, I hope, not in my lifetime...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Asking for it

"Can you cook?"
"Can you dance or sing?"

These, reports TOI, are some of the 'unrelated' questions asked in recent admission interviews to institutes like NID, CEPT and Nirma - in order to test the candidate's character and personality.

"The questions are not meant to throw students off guard but guage their understanding, common sense and aptitude. With coaching classes available now, it is difficult to know calibre and true worth of students," says Akhil Succena, NID activity chairman for education.

I would tend to agree. The perfectly programmed and pantomimed answers to all the 'usual questions' often leave little scope to differentiate one student from the next.

IIM interviews have always been a little more edgy and asked these 'unrelated' questions. I remember at the IIM Calcutta interview, which was held in the commanding Hindustan Lever boardroom, I was asked things like:

* Can you recall a few lines from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
* Who painted the mural next to the library in TIFR
* What was the O Henry short story 'The Last Leaf' about?

Of course, these questions were not entirely unrelated. Gettysburg came out of my passing class 12 from an American high school, the mural from the fact that my dad works at TIFR and the O Henry question from stating 'reading' as a hobby.

All this info was listed on my form, which lay before them. Luckily I could answer everything - although I messed up some of the routine questions (guess coaching wasn't as sophisticated back then).

But I must have done alright coz they sent me an admit letter, though I chose to join IIM A.

As far as 'unrelated' goes, asking a physics graduate the principle behind the working of the ceiling fan may sound irrelevant to his or her aptitude for management. But what the panel is really checking for is how well you know your basics. Are you a thinker, or a mugger?

Believe it or not, many people cannot answer such simple questions because they have passed exams with flying colours through ratta. And they cannot 'think through' or connect the theory with the practical. Which definitely does not bode well for a future career in management! Or any other field, for that matter.

The other quality which gets tested in the process is integrity. If you say "I speak 5 languages" but are unable to actually do so, you will probably be dead meat. The only thing worse than not being able to answer is faking it. How can they tell?

Well, years of experience give these panels the intuition that Malcolm Gladwell described so wonderfully in 'Blink'.

Still, you might argue the 'cooking' is going a bit too far. I'm sure that's just one of the many they ask - and you won't be automatically flunked for saying you have never touched a stirring spoon.

It happens to be highlighted simply because it makes a good headline. But NID has give the following - valid - explanation: "Considering that students are overprotected by their parents, we want to see if they can do things independently."

Bottomline: Sadly, only a few institutes of great repute can undertake such subjective interviews. Because in the general scheme of things it would most likely be 'hijacked' ie used to give backdoor entry to the-less-deserving-but-willing-to-pay ...

Monday, July 04, 2005

Gullibles Travails

If you are a surfer of late night television, you cannot miss the ubiquitous teleshopping ad. From magic mops to machines which make your stomach as flat as Lijjat papad, there's a whole range of dubious products on offer.

Products which - they promise - will work like magic on problems of magnificent and everyday importance.

Do they? Of course not! Phir unka dhanda kaise chalta rehta hai, you wonder? Adman Prasoon Joshi offered a bunch of reasons in a recent column for Businessworld magazine:

The first is timing: often either late at night or in the afternoons. At this time, one is not at one's sharpest best. Or maybe, not much is happening with life at that moment, and boom! Somebody and some magical thing promises to change one's life so quickly and easily. It is hard not to get tempted.

Second is repeated reinforcement: instead of the regular 15-30 second commercial, what gets beamed ad nauseam is a 3-minute hard- sell of the product in question, literally lulling you into believing.

Next is the extensive use of testimonials, especially by many has-been or not-so-happening celebrities. What is disturbing is the use of celebrities, who are regarded as trustworthy by their screen image alone.

To the above list I'd like to add a few more factors:

The late night or afternoon time slot is one where you are likely to be watching TV alone. This is important because otherwise there would be some sensible soul around to scream "stop"! Before you actually 'call now' and give out your credit card number to buy a jar of magic car wax polish for Rs 1999. (two 'free' magic wipecloths included at no extra cost).

Secondly, the 'repeated reinforcement' is done in a very clever way. It's not like when you watch the same ad 3 times in a row before the movie starts at Sterling theatre. That's plain irritating.

The teleshopping ads are more like mini-soap operas with a mix of characters, drama and emotion. The 'Miracle Blade Knife' is an excellent example.

It's not just the way that chef chops up everything from tomato and bread to pineapple and fish. It's also the non stopbak bak and excited oohs and aahs that go with it.

Kadwa sach
The fact of course is - however great the knife and the blade - ultimately only years and years of skill and practice result in the spectacular cutting demonstrated on-screen.

Same goes for all those 'ab isolator' equipment. The guys who demonstrate it on screen are already reasonably fit. A genuine fatso - looking for the easy way out - would not have the strength or willpower to actually do those exercises!

But what teleshopping networks bank on is this: the gullible fools who bought those magnetic earrings hoping to miraculously lose weight will be too embarassed to tell anyone they've been duped.

And even if - over the long run - a particular product is discredited, there are always enough new products to be advertised. And enough bakras to be mesmerised.

Kya idea hai
If nothing, one has to admire the grasp these companies have over human psychology. And their 'creativity' in coming up with more and more saleable ideas.

My all-time favourite is the 'Butterfly abs' - a small device which they claim makes you lose weight from whichever part of the body it's strapped onto. So, you're told, wear it while sitting around watching TV, or in the gym, or even in office. Yeah right.

A person who used the product (tho she claims did not buy herself :) says the vibration or "buzz" from the butterfuly abs is so strong and uncomfortable you can't stand it against your skin for more than a couple of minutes.

Besides which - it doesn't actually work. If it did, I'm sure McDonald's would set up a factory and hand out a 'butterfly abs' free with every order! Now that would make their greasefest a truly 'happy meal' :)

The spirit is willing...
The new and ultimate masterstroke has been to transcend into another realm of products. A realm where performance is simply not a parameter. Where purchase is made on faith alone.

It started with 'Shree Yantra' - a crystal pyramid with beneficial properties which Tulsi bahu promoted as the harbinger of sukh, shanti, chain and aman in every Hindu household. Little mythological playlets and references to Ram, Sita etc are slipped into the ad. I'm sure they've had plenty of sales...

Now, Kader Khan appeals to Muslims to order 'Allah ke Darwaaze ka aks'. The infomercial used terrific Urdu, mixed with a muezzin's call playing subtly in the background and actual maulvis in the foreground. Declares an impassioned Kaderji: "Hum aapse is darwaaze ki keemat nahin maang rahe hain... hadiya maang rahe hain". (sirf Rs 1999, naturally)

I can tell you this product has just the right mix of novelty + religious call of duty to become a huge success. And surely Sikh, Christian and Jain products will follow...

Bottomline: Teleshopping may be borderline legal and you can argue it's upto each individual to safeguard his or her own interests.

But must these infomercials run on trusted channels - like Discovery and Sony? And are our celebs so desperate to make an extra buck that they will lend their names to any old thing?? Certainly looks like it - right now.

Some kind of regulation - whether self imposed or by an external authority - is surely in oder.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A magnificent obsession

There are many reasons not to have a child. Selfish reasons. But here's one completely selfish reason to go ahead and reproduce: You have the perfect excuse to shed your adulthood once in a while and relive the simple joys of being a kid again.

One such simple joy: playing carrom. My daughter is currently crazed by this game and has reignited the spark in me as well.

I'm not sure if carrom is a 'game' or a 'sport'. Apparently there is some kind of world carrom championship but I've never seen it telecast - or even covered in the papers.

A google search confirms there are entities such as the 'international carrom federation' but it's more a case of 'world famous' in India. Most of the international players are also - it appears - of Indian origin.

Other nations with 'strong' carrom teams include the likes of Sri Lanka and Maldives :)

Carrom, incidentally, is the ONLY 'sport' on planet Earth I can claim to have some mastery over. Because God, when he was handing out genes, forgot to add the khel-kood one in me...

Kya shot hai!
Whoever invented the game of carrom had a great sense of elegance and beauty. A properly put together set of 9 white coins, 9 black coins and one queen in the centre is a most satisfying visual arrangement. And managing to get one or more coins in with the first strike is an amazing feeling.

There are the 'simple' coins one can try and put into the pocket in an ordinary manner. By taking careful aim with the striker. But even here, hitting with the right force makes all the difference. (Liberal sprinklings of boric powder help too!)

The more awkwardly placed coins must be conquered with flamboyant 'cuts' and 'rebounds'. Which, to the layman, appear to be flukes!

It's all about practice: chhote chhote shehron mein, khaali bore dupaharon mein... aur bade shehron mein bhi!

Carrom, in fact, was our colony's rainy season ritual. And every August 15 we'd have a carrom tournament - singles and doubles. A few rusting little 'cups' which came my way for winning those frenetic competitions still peep out of the back of a showcase somewhere...

Something classic
One of these days we might have video and mobile gaming versions of carrom - but there's something special about the physical aspect of the game.

The impact of the striker on the coins. Of a pocket come unsewn in one corner, so you have to keep your hand underneath and catch falling coins. Of waiting - with baited breath - to see if the cover will be taken after the queen.

Excitements captured just right in Munnabhai MBBS.

Pool tables were a brief craze which came and went. Snooker remains an expensive and inaccessible shauk. But I think carrom will definitely be handed down from one generation to the next in our country.

Like a bridge between the physical past and the digital present.

So the next time you have to give a bratty little nephew or niece a birthday present, skip the Barbies and the racing cars. Pick up a wooden carrom board - and enjoy it together!

And yeah, if 'sudoku' can become a worldwide hit, who knows what a clever toy company can do with apna carrom?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Kaun flakes?

On my table lies an "information kit" from Kellogg's India - courtesy of some hyper-efficient PR agency - which states:

"Kellogg India and the Indian Medical Association launch month-long 'anaemia-free India" campaign.

Wonderful. This is all part of a larger plan to have an anaemia free India by the year 2010. A noble objective, given that "90% of adolescent girls, women and children in India suffer from the deficiency".

And what is the solution to the problem? Kelloggs believes that:

a) "One of the most effective ways of communicating the message on the importance of diet in addressing anaemia is through collaborative efforts between health professional associations and the food industry committed to the cause... "

b) "Iron fortification of basic foods is the most essential, economic and convenient approach to address this health condition, as it does not require food habit modifications."

So far, so good. But further into the press release Ms Usha Kiran Sisodia, chief dietician of Nanavati hospital points out: "A typical Indian diet, being largely vegetarian, might not be able to meet the daily requirements of iron due to limited iron-rich vegetarian foods and lower bio-availability of these resources."

She goes on to declare...
"A single 30 g serving of Kelloggs cornflakes, fortified to deliver 25% RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) of iron is one of the best vegetarian sources of iron (underlined by them, not me). Moreover it provides 50% RDA of Vitamin C another critical factor that enhances iron absorption."

Never mind that a family of 4 guzzling 30 g of Kellogg's cornflakes a day will end up finishing a 500 gm pack costing Rs 120 in 4 days flat.

A formula which adds to our health and their wealth. As the average household would spend about 900 bucks a month on cornflakes...

Ground realities
I'm no dietician, but surely adding green leafy vegetables to your diet is a far cheaper solution? And 'fortification' of basic food is more easily done in the form of adding shredded paalak or methi to ones atta and dal (we do it regularly).

One of my maids used to have fainting spells - due to anaemia. A pack of dates (khajoor) costing around 10 bucks is what my doctor recommended to her. It is, I am told, the cheapest and most effective source of iron.

Now of course, Kelloggs being a commercial entity will try to have a commercial angle while supporting this 'noble cause' - and not promote spinach or dates. So go ahead, sell us your cornflakes... But try and understand the Indian psyche, so you meet with greater success!

The problem, dear Kelloggs people, is not just that Indians prefer 'hot breakfasts' and all that jazz you told us at the glitzy press conference at the Oberoi rooftop I remember attending circa 1994.

The problem is your cornflakes are too damn expensive. Cellphone usage has jumped exponentially, due to lower rates. So would the popularity of cornflakes -if you cared to bring down the price.

Right now we pick up one 500 gm dabba and eat it with kanjoosi for a month. At 49 bucks a box I bet we'd be OK polishing off a box a week.

And then, all this Iron-Shakti business I'd happily swallow. And so would Indians across SECs.

Till then, can you please pass the paalak paneer?!

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth