Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So What Should I Do?

Reminds you of the question that Doc Daneeka asks of his patients in Catch 22 - so you think you have problems, what about me? But the above question is one that almost all figures of authorities put back to you when you go to them with a request / a complaint - anything the requires them to exercise their authority.

The private sector merely responds to requests / complaints with inaction or bad service, or a plain deflection of the request with some of the following well-known responses:
  • Sorry sir, company policy (actually.our company policy is to say 'sorry sir, company policy!)
  • Sorry sir, we are not authorised to do that, (or anything to help for that matter).
  • Not our department, contact xyz. (who will forward you to abc and so on)
  • Please contact customer support, manufacturer etc (and if you can get through to them tell us where they are located.)
  • Go to service center (which has been specifically set up for you in the boondocks)
  • Do whatever you please sir, (go to hell sir).

But it is in the public service area that we find a different set of responses that leave you speechless. After an issue a couple of days ago when some young artists decided to spray paint cars in the colony, I met two representatives of the public who came back with the same question. One was the SI of our police station and the other was our colony general secretary. Both of them asked:

  • So what do you want us to do?

I must confess I had no answer. It is a brilliant counter question that tells the complainant to come with the solutions himself - so these guys can take credit for it later. I guess almost everyone in our public space have mastered the art of posing this counter question - so what do you want us to do? Other responses that one hears from public servants or people in public service  include some of the following:
  • What is this? (has it been authenticated by all departments and stamped yet?)
  • Who are you? (do you have your ration card, driving license, passport, utility bills, photos and duly attested copies of the same by anyone in the government who you do not know but you have bribed?)
  • Who sent you in? (what makes you think you can walk into a public place - get out!)
  • Why are you here? (.....speechless)
  • Come back later. (I am not in the mood for your type of cases, I am waiting for the right types that interest me, until then please go)
  • Call this number later. (no one will pick it up anyway, it rings continuously  or it will be engaged continuously)
  • Get your own paper and pen. (all our stationery is for private use only)
  • Go outside and write. (I cannot stand the sight of you here)
  • Show us the documents. (Get out)
  • Where is the application? (You fool)
  • Do whatever you want.(There is nothing you can do)
The whole idea is to get rid of the person at least for the moment. One would think that they would at least nod sympathetically and ask - so what is the problem, we will do something about it etc - so we would all feel that something is being done and go home happily. But now the whole approach is - so what do you want me to do? Whether it is a hospital, a bank, a police station, a passport office - the scenario is the same specially for those who wish to go about it the normal way i.e. directly. The responses change only with a change in approach. So when you do see a person who is genuinely doing a job he or she is getting paid to do, it is a pleasure beyond compare!

Monday, May 30, 2011

My Best Customer Care Experiences

These are personal experiences and have no bearing on the organization. Most of them are those moments when I suddenly found an experience which I did not expect, a response that make me happy and taken care of, a response that made me feel a great loyalty to the provider. Most times it was just another person across the table who had imbibed the spirit of service and who was doing her best for the customer, for the organization. Sadly I had to wrack my mind to come up 10 experiences - I either tend to forget the good ones or there are really no good ones - I don't know. You tell me if you you can come up with 10 good customer care experiences and I will know if I am the exception.

1) Lufthansa: Nothing beats this experience of mine. In the year 1997 or so my mother, a first time flyer went to the USA aboard a Lufthansa flight to visit her nephew. She was very nervous and almost wanted to cancel the whole trip at the airport. She did not know much English, had been a housewife all her life - but she had the spirit of a warrior queen about her - so she did. I was concerned about her well being because she had to first figure out her way inside the Mumbai International airport past all the checks and then change flights at Frankfurt. I was worried that she might just be wandering around the Mumbai airport itself! The first thing I did when I reached my office at 9 a.m. the next morning was to call Lufthansa if all was going well. I was just sick with worry. Now in Mumbai nothing starts as early as 9 and I would have perfectly understood it if no one picked up the phone. But someone did. A lady. I told her that my mother was on a flight that left last night to New York and I wanted to know if they could tell me that all was well with her since she was a first time flyer. Did she check in at all? I had no ticket number, no flight number nothing - just a name. And I had rung up the first Lufthansa number I got. 'Just hold on a minute sir,' she said even as I waited for her to tell me to call the marketing office at 1030 or to speak to someone else and first get all the details of the passenger. Nothing like that. In five minutes she was back, telling me that my mother has arrived in Frankfurt (aaah!) and what's more, she even said that she had checked into the Frankfurt-New York flight and was seated inside the flight as we speak. If I could see her, the lady on the phone, I'd have given her a big hug! I could not believe it - one call, with no information from my side, at an early hour and one lady who picks up the phone tells me all this. Wow! To me that remains the epitome of customer service in my experience when the person on the line assumes the face and responsibility of the organisation and delivers - maybe beyond their call of duty. Fantastic!! I will never know who she was but madam whoever you are, great job!

2) Westside: This experience happened as recently as two years ago and I was really impressed with this boy. I bought a pair of trousers and gave them for alterations. When I came back an hour later for the trousers the boys at the counter said that the tailor had not yet come and could I come back in the evening. I told them a bit exasperatedly that I could not keep making trips for my trousers like this and why don't they deliver it at home. The senior guy at the counter looked quite reluctant but the other boy said he would. He took down my number and address and said he would deliver it after work. And so he did, even coming to another place where I was at the appointed time and giving the parcel over to me with a smile. I forget his name, and I do wish I had taken it and written to the store about his work, but anyway, with an attitude and work ethic like that, he will need no testimonials to grow. But that experience also amazed me in a world where we have an increasing number of people who shrug and cite company policy or some stupid excuse. One reason for me patronising Westside to this day remains my experience with that boy who I do not remember - but I do remember his act.

3) Mohini Restaurant: I forget his name, Nanju, was it, but he is one who has single handedly made Mohini one of my favourite restaurants in those days. Mohini restaurnat, Basheerbagh, has been around sicne my school days but it served some superb biryani during the days I was at IDBI (it does not anymore, sadly the biryani has lost its touch). This waiter Nanju, a senior chap, would come up, take care to see that you were seated well, remember to serve you some good stuff, always polite, always making you feel special, remembering your friends and associates who came with you, and doing that extra  that makes you feel wanted in that place. For over fifteen years I have seen him and nothing has changed in his manner, and unfortunately I do not go to Mohini because they do not serve as good a biryani as I enjoyed those days, I always stop by just to say hello to Nanju. He is good at making one feel special and not just me, a whole lot of people vouch by him. 'I can deliver it at home if you want saab,' he says. I hear that this man also does a lot of charity work from his modest earnings. But for customer service that goes beyond his calling, Nanju stands up there.

4) AP Telecom, Vikram Building counter, Hyderabad: When AP Telecom computerised its billing, the end of those long lines was expected. Earlier, in the same Vikram building, one would have to queue up in serpentine queues that came up to the road - a distance of almost 500-700 yards. Policemen had to be deployed to keep order and we would lose more than an hour in queues, and our tempers of course. When their swanky new set up came up, it was like a dream. The chaps at the counter were so fast that you never knew if you were coming or going, that quick. The moment you pass the bill they'd scan it and by the time your money was coming up, their hands were out reaching for the money, tearing out the receipt and, next! It was really something and I am yet to see that kind of speed in billing anywhere. Almost like they had the fastest draws in that counter. Super stuff. I could park my scooter outside the building and be out with a receipt within 3 minutes!

5) Indian Oil, Somajiguda: I forget the name of this filling station but from the day I have started using it, I have been a die hard fan. It is a small no-nonsense bunk right at the Somajiguda circle, beside the Hindu office. The boys there do not dawdle or chat among themselves as in most other bunks but are always alert for customers, a result of good training and management perspective. The seniors are always guiding the vehicles in as they come in, there is not a moment's delay more than required, a chap with a windscreen cleaner is almost always there to clean it up, the procedure of showing zero before filling is always followed (some bunks do not), the chap at the air filling station is always there and doing his job very pleasantly even at late hours. The quantity of petrol you realise pretty soon, is correct, and the quality shows in your engine's running and smoothness. I pass at least seven bunks much closer to my house, 3 within 500 meters of my house, to go to this place. All things are just right, and one gets a thank you and a smile more often than not. This is what they are expected to do and they do it, night and day, without letting up in spite of heavy traffic. Where I saw this bunk go the extra mile was when Shobha had a flat on her scooter in the bunk. The manager asked her to sit in the office while they sent a boy to get the puncture done! Good stuff guys!

I am scratching my head right now for more, and I am sure there are many, but until then these occupy pride of place. I have to constantly put away bad customer care experiences of which there are many!


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vandalism or Street Art

I saw this news item in the DC a few months ago about how public property was being vandalised by youngsters on bikes. I saw some creative minds speak up vociferously in support of this by terming it as street art, an expression of angst. I have heard of such things in foreign countries, I heard that such things also happen in posh localities.

But I had a close encounter with it today. I saw some of this vandalism in our colony - four cars were spray painted by these artists. Call it what you will, to me it is vandalism. Of course they were choosy too - preferably cars with a light colour so the art shows up well, also a preference to slightly bigger cars. I do wish these artists are given access to the cars of the creative minds who support this street art. You have a willing canvas - so use it!

The response of the SI in the police station after he saw the pictures and heard us out was priceless. 'What do you want us to do?' I hope someone out in the police department tells these guys what they could do.

Dhoni - The Good Guys End Up First

When CSK won the IPL 4 yesterday it was indeed fitting that the team also won the Fairplay award. Thanks to some wonderful role models in politics, in every field these days - we are used to believing that the good guys always end up last. It is even more unfortunate that the current generation seems to have more and more proof that the good guys always end up last.

In my lectures and workshops I always find it difficult to give examples of people winning fair and square, winning by using the right ethics. I believe that one can - call me naive but I do - that with more transparency one can make money, attain success, ethically in the new world.  Unfortunately in the past few years, specially in the corporate world, in politics, in success stories - there have been very few examples that one can give that a company or person has been ethical in its/his growth. I used to cite the  Tata's as an example with its code of ethics, the IT sector, but how can one defend them after the  Radia and 2G affair, the Satyam scam?

Most MBAs I meet are openly sceptical that anyone can build a business empire ethically and I do not blame them - they have no clear role models.  The youngsters (several of them) believe that we have to use the system - fairly or unfairly - and the only objective is to win. In a world where the good examples are few and even those good examples are falling everyday, Dhoni goes and does it  and sets a wonderful example in what is probably the most transparent example - winning a game of unpredictable, high voltage cricket like T20 through fair practices and good deployment of skill. Winning the IPL and also the Fair Play Award. Come on all you guys out there listen up when the man from Krypton emphasizes this very attribute on another big night in his life - 'that one can play fair and win as well.'

Many teams in the IPL, and across the world can learn so much from this. Not just teams, many individuals who have chosen the ethical path, can now just feel a little more comfortable. It is not that the bad guys only win - the good guys also win. And when they win, they win a lot of respect and love. That is the quality of a true winner. And once again one must thank MSD for giving many who have tread the lonely path hope, and for giving me a wonderful example to cite in my lectures and interactions, that one can win fair and sqaure.


Dhoni - Closing the Loop in Effective Leadership

I missed this interview after one of the last IPL matches, but I heard what Dhoni had to say about how he gets his players to play out of their skins. What intrigues me about Dhoni's leadership is the way he gets everyone to perform way beyond what even (I suspect) they think they are capable of. In such circumstances you don't need superstars because everyone in your team starts playing like a superstar. From Joginder Sharma to Raina, Ashwin to Jakati, Murli Vijay toBadrinath, every one puts up their hands at the right time.

Many an Indian captain has been guilty of saying this in pre-Dhoni days - "All the players are now international players. We cannot tell them anything. They all know what they have to do." Now they may know what to do  - but it is important that everyone knows what the rest of the team is doing, what the leader expects from them and what their roles are. Else you do not need a leader at all! So whether you are an international or whatever, it is imperative that everyone knows and is made aware of their expectations, roles and responsibilities. The distinction between giving them space to perform and find their best response to the situation, to giving them the direction in which you want the ship to move is very thin. Robert Greene, in his book 'The 33 Concise Strategies to War' describes the situation as that of an expert horse rider who holds the reins with the slightest pressure - just enough to guide the horse. Not the other concept of not having any reins at all which indicates no control!

Now what Dhoni has said is something like this. 'I let the players figure out how they want to play in the broad scheme of things. They are all experienced enough and I give them freedom to deliver in their own way. In the process they make mistakes sometimes. When they make mistakes I step in and tell them what the mistakes are so the do not repeat them.'

The old way of leadership was to 1) either tell them everything and get mad at them when they would not do it exactly the way you wanted it (the control freaks) 2) not tell them anything and wash you hands off completely and pray to God that it all works out (the don't-touch philosophy) 3) tell them a bit and start frowning or yelling at the players at the first sign of things going wrong variety (the blamers) and 4) the ones who had their own agenda of promoting some players and not-promoting some others (the manipulators). One can see all these leadership styles clearly as one remembers some of the old Indian captains who have led the country - good players but lousy man managers. No wonder we hardly won any games those days.

This statement by Dhoni closes the loop very effectively for me. Let your team members know what you expect, their roles and responsibilities but let them figure out how best to do it. Give them space and time to execute the jobs and do not show your anger and resentment on the field at the first sign of things going wrong. On the field they need your support so they can pull back even on a bad start. Any corrections should be done off the field, before you come on. Or, after you go out of the field. Then, you tell them where they went wrong and how they can stop repeating the same mistake. No wonder Dhoni does not get upset with his players or even with himself on the field. It is just not the place for getting upset with oneself.

Thanks MSD. Another wonderful show of clarity from you and a great lesson in leadership!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Choice - Og Mandino

Og Mandino's self help books have sold over 50 million copies in twenty five languages. He also had a very interesting life before he became a self-help writer. Of Italian descent Mandino (1923-1996) had a normal childhood until he lost his mother when he was in school. After working at a paper mill he went and joined the US Army Air Corps as a bombardier and did 32 bombing missions over Germany in World War II - with the famous Hollywood star James Stewart as his fellow pilot. Returning from war he found no jobs and became an insurance salesman. He turned into an alcoholic, lost jobs. Soon his wife left him with their child. Mandino became suicidal and almost ended his life but somehow survived. He came upon motivational books, like them, devoured as many as he could, and finally wrote his own classic 'The Greatest Salesman in the World'. Mandino has written about 20 books and his name is up there with the best self-help authors of all time.

When I met Sreenath the other day (he was visiting Hyderabad from Bangalore) he suggested that maybe I might enjoy reading this book after he heard about my workshops. I decided to give it a go and got myself a copy. It looks slim and small and very easily readable but there is a lot of content and it does not get over as quickly as you think it would.

'The Choice' (162 P, Bantam Books) is the story of a successful sales manager Mark Christopher who is having a great life with a wonderful career, a happy wife and two sons. One fine day he realises that he is not spending enough time with his family and quits his job to take up writing. Everyone thinks he is crazy to give up everything - a secure job, a salary, a promotion, a fine house and lifestyle but he sticks to his guns. They sell off their house, move into the country, work hard as their savings dwindle, while Mark writes his book 'A better way to live' (a book that Og wrote). After a few rejections the book finds a publisher and soon hits big time as the biggest success book ever. Mark turns into a millionaire and is all over the television and magazines. Before a book tour he gets a note from an old self-help author whom Og admired and who had vanished from the world, to meet him. Mark meets him and the old author tells him that one of his family members is going to die and there is only one way to avoid that - at the height of his success, give up his life in exchange for his son's life. Mark has to make his choice clear on the day he addresses a huge gathering - whether he would like to be the replacement for his son or not.

The story is told is a thinly veiled fictionalised non-fiction voice which I do not much like. I either like fictional voices or non-fictional voices (though I have one such veled non-fiction on my mind for later) and the essence seems to come down to the final speech that Mark makes where he says that we are the chosen ones but we are always despairing, unhappy and all that. To change for a better life Mark says that everyone has a choice to have a better life and that making the choice is the key. In the speech he gives four pointers - 1) to be grateful that one if alive and live every minute with that gratitude since the moment one wakes up, 2) to be aware that happiness is within and that one can be content with what one has and share - happiness and knowledge and everything that one has to be happy 3) to do every bit of work and give more than is expected from one by throwing oneself into every chore however boring, 4) to take risks and persist and keep at them till one becomes a success. I will leave it to you to figure out what happens to Mark after the speech when you read the book. But that is not important - what is important is that Mark Christopher lives the life he preaches by taking risks, by doing things he likes to do and doing them well, by being grateful for his existence and by giving all he can to this universe. He shows the path and leaves it to you to take it or smirk cynically and go back to complaining which seems like a far more interesting pastime to most people.

Self-help is a big thing in the USA and even in India these days. Publishers are a lot more open to publish self-help books than fiction. This book must have been written in one of the early days of self-help and it shows. Simply written it addresses the main issues well. But now self-help books have added on a touch of philosophy, some amount of science, in the past decade or so and it is really a highly evolved market. But Og Mandino stays up there in the list, as one who has changed many lives, by changing his own and writing of his experiences. As Sreenath predicted, I could identify with Mark Christopher and his dilemma, his contentment - of course in a much smaller scale. Og Mandino has certainly steeled my resolve further to write my self-help soon. For the first time reader 'The Choice' would seem outrageous and would certainly open up the reader's eyes. For the one who has read several self-help books (including 'The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari' which is a lot like 'The Choice' in that the successful executive gives up everything there as well) it may not shock and thrill as much. But value there is of course, in abundance, as millions have already testified.

Anjali - A lesson in Comfort

I was in a regular dilemma. What to wear. These days I ask Anjali and she promptly and with great clarity and confidence suggests some shirt or T shirt to wear. So when I asked her today whether the t-short I was wearing was fine or should I change it for another before went out, I got a long lesson in how to pick what you want to wear.

'First show me what are the other shorts you want to wear,' said the three and a half year old. I complied. But as I was rummaging through the shirts she is behind me - 'Look for something that does not poke you, something that is soft.' It is a big thing for her that clothes should not be poky. Makes sense. So I gave up on one of the stylish shirts (or so I thought) and chose a plain white one. She felt it and nodded.

I asked her again if I could go with it and whether it was now final that my t shirt which I originally wore was out of the picture. Pat came the answer. 'Nanna, first wear that shirt. You wear it and then if it is not poky and soft then only you wear it. But first wear it.'

Ah, if only I had this wisdom while I bought my many shirts, pants, shoes, socks, ideologies, philosophies. Anyway, better late than never. So here I am going out with a shirt that may not look as good, but very comfortable. Which might make me smile a bit more at life!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Customer Service In India - A Long Way to Go

I walked into Landmark, Somajiguda the other day with a Transcend USB that I had bought from there a couple of months ago. For some reason my system stopped detecting the USB and I took it back since there was a warranty period. The salesman checked it and said that even his computer was not reading it. He took it to the floor manager (or store manager) who was nearby and he checked it as well. The questions that followed were on expected lines - when did you buy it, do you have a bill for it etc. And finally, the "you must take it to the Transcend service center." If that was the case, why ask these standard questions - would it have changed anything? Anyway I suggested that maybe they could send it to the service center themselves as the retailer but they suggested that they had a policy about after-sales and that was not their domain. Politely of course.

I asked them where the Transcend service center was and they started rummaging in desks and mails and made some calls. They were very polite, but they could not get me the address of the service  center in Hyderabad. Since I was waiting, the young salesman said that he would text me the address and also mail it to me so I need not wait the extra ten minutes. I returned home late in the afternoon found that there was no mail or sms. I finally checked online at the Transcend site and got the address from its India website. It was only late in the evening that I saw a mail from the salesman. What bugs you most in customer service is when you promise something and do not deliver it as per your promise. So when they start talking ten minutes or so, I give it half an hour, one hour, but not six hours!

All this for a USB that they had aggressively promoted when I went to buy it. It costs some Rs.1200 or so and I thought that maybe, since even they had checked it on their systems, they could exchange it or replace it. But I have another trip to make to the service center, which may result in another trip to pick up the USB after it is repaired, travelling some 8 kms either way in peak traffic to places that have no proper parking. You get it - it is not the easiest once you have a problem after the sale is done. And one of the reasons why I shop at Landmark is because I feel that the retailer would give me some comfort. If it does not, I can as well buy it anywhere else.

It is in these small things that I find customer service fails to go past the smile and the politeness - when it comes to the actual act, they are found wanting. I faced a similar problem with Sony when their service personnel did not turn up for almost 4-5 days after the tv was delivered to install the television and when they did - it was with great reluctance, a lack of a smile, and a vibe that pretty much said - "ok, so you want it installed today, I'll do it, but only because my boss asked me to." Of course the store manager was good enough to call me when I was just about to flip, and tell me that his technicians were in Chennai for some training program and he was short staffed. But that would have sounded so much better if he said that to start with and not after me making calls to the call center! Or even Airtel DTH which took a month to install their service that came along with the Sony TV. Was it because of the low priced scheme that they decided to give it low priority? One month when every competitor is installing it the same day? Come on guys, its time to move beyond the call centres and really thinking about what customer care means. It merely means that you deliver what you promised. Else make no promises.

Since I started writing about my customer care experiences I thought of the best and the worst ones and believe me, I really had to search for the good ones where they did just that little extra bit to make me feel taken care of. Where they were professional enough to take the query and handle it competently - and in a few cases actually took the trouble of gong the extra mile, putting the smile on my face, making me really grateful for their service and making my day. But the ones that are lousy came up in a trice, for sheer lack of customer orientation, lack of consideration for after sales relationships. From banking clerks and officials who behave like customers are a bunch of retarded bozos who are completely infringing on their time, to supercilious salesmen who ask inane questions in the hope of putting you off even before you make a request, to those who believe that passing the buck is the best way to handle customers - you have it all. I will list my experiences next, in praise of the best and a mention of the worst later.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stanley ka dabba - Fantastic stuff

I watched Amol Gupte's 'Stanley ka dabba' this afternoon at Inox. As with any good movie of its type, there was the danger of theatres not being available for it after the second week, so I rushed to Inox, which was one of the two theatres playing it. The other is Prasad's, another multiplex, so you can have all the trade experts (who can predict nothing), categorize it under a multiplex-movie - whatever that is. It is not - it is good for every one who can watch good cinema.

I liked it better than 'Taare Zameen Par' because it stays true to its story and tells it simply. From the first shot the camera enters directly into the centre of world of the school children of Holy Family High School, somewhere in Andheri, Mumbai. It sneaks into the world of Stanley a gifted, loveable, unconventional boy of the 4th standard - 4thF. Now Stanley's life is not normal as you can make out from the bruises on his face, his torn and slightly soiled clothes, his penchant to tell stories and his heightened sensitiveness. Stanley is also the only boy in the class, consisting of a motley group of kids from different backgrounds, who does not get a dabba for lunch, making do with drinking water to fill his stomach. But his friends are more than willing to share their lunch with him and he promises them that the moment his mother returns from Delhi, he will get his dabba as well. But these dabba problems do not stop him from reciting wonderful poetry, singing songs, writing excellent essays, playing good soccer, making creative science projects - and being the darling of some teachers and being hated by some - like Varma sir, the Hindi teacher (Amole Gupte).

Now Varma sir does not get his dabba and loves eating off others dabbas. And when the school decides to add extra periods during Christmas to cover up some lost time, all children are told to bring a bigger dabba for the bigger recess. Stanley does not get his dabba as usual, a fact that irks Varma, but his friend Aman Mehra brings a dabba big enough for everyone. Aman has a heart as big as his carriage and he asks everyone to share, mostly Stanley. With his friends Aman, Abhishek and company, Stanley eats his lunches happily until Varma sir eyes Aman's delicious smelling dabba. He shares it with them one day and wants to eat it everyday - leaving them all little to eat. The boys hide from him and eat their dabbas and he chases them until a day when he finds them - he shouts at them and seeing Stanley, the one without a dabba, who he suspects is eating up his share, tells Stanley not to come to school if he does not get a dabba. Stanley starts missing school much to the consternation of Rosy teacher who is his English teacher and his friends. He even misses out a concert in which all schools participate. Now Stanley is a natural for that concert with his singing and dancing skills and his friends finally locate him and send him to the concert. Stanley is a big success at the concert. But before that he brings a huge dabba to school and takes it to Varma sir to seek his reentry into class. Varma sir realises his mistake.

I will not reveal why Stanley cannot get his dabba because I have given away too much of the story already. But it is worth finding out. Stanley ka dabba is brilliantly made and extracts wonderful performances from young children - Partho, Abhishek, Aman Mehra (I forget his name but he is wonderful as a big hearted friend). Great show boys - all of you! The teachers are cast well and turn in solid performances - Mrs. Iyer is superb, Shyam Zutshi is good to watch, the English teacher, the lady teacher who brings bread and butter, the Principal. Even Akram. Its fascinating to see everyone through their dabbas which are as intimate a peek into someone as it can get.

After watching 'Stanley ka dabba' I wonder what Amole Gupte would have made out of 'Taare Zameen Par' if left to himself. He would have certainly taken it to another level because of his amazing connect to children and his ability to get right into their midst without seeming obtrusive. Despite all its success, TZP got a bit plasticky for me, a bit too preachy as some element of dishonesty crept in - something that does not work with children's movies. 'Stanley ka dabba' goes straight to the issue, puts its arms around the children's as one of their own, shares their dabbas and draws us wonderfully into their little world without excessive sentimentalism. The only hint of a tear on screen is seen once in Divya Dutta's eyes when she comes to know why Stanley has been missing. Don't miss this out because this will leave a huge impact on you and the way you see children, the way you see yourself. And those who want to watch it, do it in the theatre - it is wonderful to see it on the big screen.

The movie was apparently made over weekends, during workshops, without auditions, in four hour schedule with two recesses, loads of fun and in the true spirit of cinema as Amole Gupte says on his website. Fantastic stuff. Amole Gupte, don't grow up! Stay there at the children's height because we need some adults who can listen to them. And make movies on your own. You are doing wonderful work.


The Aggressive Vacationer - The Changing Face of India

To see the changing face of India one needs to go on a vacation to a popular holiday spot. Here we see unleashed, all that we hear about and more, of how India is changing. In my recent visit to Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani I noticed the affluence, the changing culture, the eagerness to have a good time. But despite the show of affluence and money, the confidence and aggression, there is clearly one leg still stuck in the old paradigm somewhere. We still do not belong yet.

The first thing that strikes you is the number of cars and private vehicles on the highway as we head to the destination. Cars of all makes fly around you - from an old fiat, a crowded 10 seater, a Maruti 800 with an old family, a new Santro with a couple, the Mercs, the Audis, the BMW SUVs - they are all ripping down the highways, scrambling up the hills, their mountain bikes strapped on, carriages fitted with luggage. Everyone has sunglasses on, they are in their shorts and three quarters, singlets with outrageous slogans that make you wonder if they know the meaning of what they are flaunting. Yes, we are on a holiday!
Waiting for the sun to set at Mahabaleshwar

Of course the cars are all overtaking, squeezing in, trying to push you off the road because we are all self righteous and feel that we own the road - and all others can go live in the ditch. And what the hell, we are on vacation so we must have a good time and no one dare spoil that. From toll booths to small traffic jams we see this obnoxious road behaviour where cars just go up the wrong way to the top of the line, not giving a damn whether the entire line gets jammed because of their idiocy. And the aggression comes from pockets that are heavy with vacation money. So what - even we pay our taxes. We also have money and that will compensate for everything else. Luckily I did not see too many people flinging trash out of the car which was one of the better things. Maybe because they all had children aboard. Or maybe they just did not want their air conditioning effect to go.

And the spirit shows in the clothes as well. The Die-hard vacationeers are dressed out in gaudy, ill fitting clothes that I am sure they would not normally wear at their homes. This is vacation wear folks and all of us are allowed all freedom. So the pallu wearing, bindi flashing, conservative bahu, dons her ill fitting jeans and skirts barely fitting into them, her flashy sleeveless tops, her imported sun glasses and becomes the beer sipping bahu for the vacation. The guys are at the aggressive best, sleeveless tops, shorts and an urgency to ensure that their family gets everything first even if it means stamping and trampling on everyone, babies included. They will outshout, out-abuse anyone who dares come between them and their perfect time. One gets to see the most number of ill attired, loud mouthed people in these vacation spots - I even saw one girl on a honeymoon probably, who wore a short frock that kept flying off all over the place - but what the hell, we are on vacation pal. And she was with one sleazy looking type and one can only send a prayer up for her.

The third thing about our new Indian vacationeer is the gadgets they flaunt. Cameras are flashing all the time as people are more interested in clicking pictures for their facebooks, blogs and tweets rather than enjoying the scene. Maximum number of spots have to be covered, snapped at and compiled as conquests. Video cameras come out, cell phones are used to photograph and also convey the exact amount of fun that is being had orally at the loudest shout. We have to share how good a time we are having right now. From cars to clothes, gadgets to sights, we have covered much but we cannot forget our great Indian obsession - food.

This is a sight to be seen. All food joints are packed with people who want to eat. And our new Indian vacationeer, the one with the car, the gadgets, the clothes is in no shape but he and she wants to get their fill. He and she have been binging their guts out and they all arrive with their fat bellies, thick waists, layered faces and hungry looks, waddling in to eat more and more. Quantity is the key, and after all we are on vacation. Money flows like water as our vacationeers eat and eat and eat. What is more intriguing is that they all want to eat food from their region - no one wants to try any food from the new place. Arre, we don't get apna food here yaar! And in a couple of days of binging, of trampling everyone and everything in the way, after spending most of the money they got, they leave, content that they have had a good holiday. Clothes come back to normal, bahu goes back to sipping beer on the sly and we can all plan the next holiday where we can have fun - to hell with everyone else.

Maybe this is a case of too much too soon. Maybe at some point we will learn to be more civil, more kind, more polite and have a good time without ruining it for all else. Maybe we can also learn to imbibe the place, let it sink in, instead of trying to gobble it all up in one gulp. And maybe we can learn to make it a rich experience, not just for us but to others there as well. I hardly hear a civil conversation as everyone barks, scowls, huffs and puffs. But I remember seeing an old couple, immaculately dressed, perfectly behaved at the sunset point in Mahabaleshwar and they were such a refreshing change from all others who were shoving one another out of the way to watch

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kanthapura - Raja Rao

I picked up 'Kanthapura' by Raja Rao (Orient Books, Rs. 150, p184) a long time ago and finally got down to reading it and finishing it. I had one start before, but I gave up after a few pages. One of the main motivators for me to read Kanthapura was the discovery of Mulk Raj Anand's 'Untouchable' and of course, several of R.K.Narayan's books that I read over the last year. 'Kanthapura' comes with an impressive testimonial by E.M. Forster that it is the finest novel to have come out of India in those years.
Kanthapura - Orient Paperbacks, Rs. 150, p 184

'Kanthapura' is by no means an easy read because it is told in the voice of an old woman in the village Kanthapura. That is brilliant because Raja Rao uses her tone to great effect, never letting that rustic quality of telling a tale, an event of importance, describing the people, describing rituals and habits, using all that she had in her knowledge to add to that tale. For use of the language in such an Indianised way and for getting that effect of the old woman telling the story, Raja Rao is amazing. To me this use of language is the best yet, in all of the Indian Writing in English that I have read. But precisely because of the old woman's narrative, it is also difficult because she tends to digress, she tends to pick her favourites, she tends to lament, curse, wish, bless, describe as she goes on telling the incredible story of Kanthapura. It really is incredible to me.

The old lady starts with a description of her village high up in the hills of the Malabar coast, someplace close to Karwar. The setting is in the 1930s when Gandhi is making his presence felt and giving the British a run for their money. In the village there is an estate, the Skeffington estate, with a sahib, who hires coolies from Karnataka and Andhra. The village itself is full of systems that plagued India in those days - casteism, religion, British rule, illiteracy, landlords, moneylenders, child marriages. There is a brahmin quarter, a weaver quarter, a sudra quarter, a pariah quarter for the untouchables. And amidst this chaos there comes Moorthy, a young educated city boy who is influenced by Gandhi and the freedom movement. And along with his raw idealism he brings with him Gandhi's take on ahimsa, untouchability and so on and causes a huge upheaval in the village. Moorthy followers start in a atrickle and swell in numbers soon with many from the pariah quarters , women and even some powerful men like Patel Gowda joining the movement and the Congress.

The divisions in the village - among the high castes who do not want the untouchables to come near their houses, the rich like Bhatta who is a sly man who wants to bring down the movement so he can continue his divide and rule policy, the system represented by Bade Khan the policeman, the progressive women folk and the idealism of young Moorthy - are shown beautifully. From initially accepting the Gandhian philosophy, the villagers are slowly drawn into more and more confusion and strife as Moorthy introduces the alien concepts regarding untouchability, toddy, equality, ahimsa. The administration becomes aware of the village uprising and they arrest Moorthy and beat up all those who resist - despite Moorthy's cries for ahimsa. And the struggle intensifies as first the strong and rebellious pariahs, the men folk and then the women folk join the movement as it goes from head to head - picketing toddy shops, courting arrest, getting beaten by lathis, molested by the police - but still they struggle peacefully as cries go on 'do not fight', 'do not abuse them' as Moorthy observes his Gandhian principles exactly as he learnt them.

Kanthapura is ravaged in this struggle but the denizens are proud of what they have done. From their fears they rise, again and again, overcoming their doubt and questioning the basics of their faith, as they blindly believe Mahatma who they believe is a saint. The castes and communities mix, cultures and hopes merge, as Kanthapura is laid to siege by an army of policemen who occupy their lands and beat them up black and blue, women included. All the villagers believe is that their Goddess Kenchamma will save them from everything. And when the narrator tells the story a year after the Kanthapura uprising, there is hardly anyone left in the village except a few, including '...Concubine Chinna who still remains in Kanthapura to lift her leg to her new customers.' Such is the way the old lady narrates.

It is wonderful to hear the story told by the old lady and I suspect that if ever 'Kanthapura' is made into an audio book it should be delightful to hear it. The voice is haunting, funny, knowledgeable, honest and knows how to tell a tale. In the creation of this voice and in setting the backdrop of such turbulent but fantastic times, Raja Rao is brilliant. Characters like Moorthy, Waterfall Venkamma, Coffee Planter Ramayya, Temple Lakshamma, Fig Tree House people, Corner House Moorthy, Beadle Thimayya keep popping out of their pages with their quaint and rustic language, their quirky mannerisms. It is difficult to conceive such writing and only Indians can identify with it and its many sub texts. To say so much in 180 pages, in such a creative tone, with the backdrop of such a complex philosophy as Gandhi's, Raja Rao is a genius. But do not expect an easy read because it is not - instead let the old lady take over and listen to her.

Raja Rao is also from Mysore state, born in Hassan, and educated in Nizam's college, Hyderabad where his father taught Kannada. Once again, it is a wonder how two literary giants, Raja Rao and R.K.Narayan, came from the same place, in almost the same time. Raja Rao however lived for most part abroad, in Europe and USA, and married thrice, all foreigners. He died in 2006.

Small Time Crooks - Woody Allen

Woody Allen's movies are nice and short and never seem to go beyond 90 minutes. So when the heat got to me today I decided to play this movie and watch it as long as it takes me to get bored. Full credit to Woody Allen that I never turned it off and sat through it without a break.

'Small time crooks' has Woody Allen playing the role of Ray who is a - small time crook. He thinks he was known as the 'Brain' when in prison - a term that we come to know was sarcastically used on him - and schemes many robberies. His latest is to hire a front as a cookie shop where his wife or girlfriend Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) makes and sells cookies while he and his gang of crooks try to tunnel into a bank nearby. The gang specialises in mucking up everything and they end up tunneling into a cloth store where they are held by a police officer. Now, the police officer makes a deal with them - he will let them go if they give him a franchise for their Sunset Cookies which are now a rage. People are waiting for half an hour, so much so that Frenchy gets her slightly retarded cousin Mae to help her. Anyway, it turns out that the cookie business franchise makes them overnight millionaires.

Frenchy wants to be upper class and hires David (Hugh Grant) to train her in the finer things of life. Woody hates this finer things business and they drift apart. Woody drifts to Mae, and Frenchy drifts towards David who is now looking at her to finance his deals. While on a trip to Europe, Frenchy is informed that her accountants have swindled her out of everything and she has become bankrupt. Woody meanwhile is trying to rob a priceless jewel with Mae's help, by replacing the original with a glass one and while replacing it, brings back the glass one! Frenchy and Woody meet, down in the dumps, and plan to start all over again. Woody proposes that his newly acquired diamond necklace will help, Frenchy takes one look and tells him its glass. And once again it is Frenchy who saves the day - he has cracked David's safe and got back a valuable lighter she had gifted David sometime ago.

Frenchy is brilliant, I really liked her performance. Hugh Grant fits the part perfectly and Woody is his bumbling self. Mae is a classic - where did they find her? Some scenes are hilarious. The part when the gang starts tunneling, the one when Woody tells his partner that he thought up this scheme as the 'Brain' and the partner tells him that it was supposed to be sarcastic, the interview by a television channel with the top management of Sunset Cookies who are clueless, Mae and her responses especially at the party, Woody and Mae's date over television and Pepsi. Good lighthearted fun that makes the world seem so much more bearable what with such crooks around. You don't have to be perfect you know!


Monday, May 23, 2011

Going Places, India's Small town Cricket heroes - K.R. Guruprasad

This is a slim easily readable book (Penguin, 166 p, Rs.199) that presents some great insights into how the small town cricketers made it big in India. K.R. Guruprasad, the 34 year old author, is a sports journalist with DNA and he knows his cricket well enough to write interestingly about the journeys made by players from small towns in India where there were no role models, no facilities and no money to the glitz and glamour, fame and money of playing 'big cricket' in India.
Going Places India's Small-Town Cricket Heroes

One of the most fascinating accounts in the book is that of Guruprasad's childhood itself which he spent in Bellary. His early cricketing heroes in Bellary, colony cricket, school cricket, television, Indian cricketers, his cricketing ambitions and how he finally decided to pursue a professional career made a compelling read and was as good as all the other stories. I am sure any kid from small towns would identify with Guruprasad's story and I do wish he had written more of his cricketing stories. Maybe later.

But the stories of eleven small town cricketers - Dhoni (Ranchi), Harbhajan (Jalandhar), Sehwag (Najafgarh), Sresaanth (Kakur), Raina (Murad Nagar), Praveen Kumar (Meerut), Munaf Patel (Ikhara), Vinay Kumar (Davanagere),  Ravindra Jadeja (Jamnagar), Ashok Dinda (Naichanpur) and Iqbal Abdullah (Azamgarh) - make fascinating reading. The sacrifices, the desire, the hardships, the dilemmas are story-book stuff and highly inspirational. Every one of them comes from a middle to lower middle class background where the choice between playing cricket versus a regular job was always going to be tough. Small time jobs, general store owners, small businesses that lost money, autorickshaw drivers - their families had little or no means to buy cricket kits or even to spend time on wasteful activities. But somehow the families did support them and their internal dramas are as good a family drama as any. Parents who would not want them to play, siblings or most often the other parent supporting them to give it their all, siblings and friends and relatives taking over their burden, these stories of family support and sacrifice show how much the family counts. 

And that was not all. In today's cynical world, most of these cricketers were lucky to have their talent spotted by committed coaches who gave them all their time, financial and emotional help. Some coaches even put up their wards at their homes, went out of their way to recommend them, to have selectors look at them, most gave them free coaching. This is as much the story of these wonderful coaches who believed in the Indian tradition of guru-shishya as much as it is about the sacrifices made by the families and of course, the hardwork put in by the cricketers themselves. One of the best things about North Indian wards I have seen is the way they always touch the feet of their coach when they come in, stand or sit at his feet while the coach talks. I have seen several of them do it with Mr. Rehmat Baig and I am sure these cricketers do it when they meet their old coaches. There is the story of Ravindra Jadeja's coach who walked to a temple to pray for his success, just as there are stories of coaches like Vinay Kumar's, Sehwag's, of Naushad Khan from Azamgarh, or anyone else for that matter, who would out everything aside and give them practice and advise - and a clip on the ear when they went wrong.

Sreesanth's 16 km bicycle journeys to KSCA, Dhoni's phenomenal rise in Ranchi, Raina's days at a sports hostel in his early days, Jadeja's and Sehwag's commitment to improve, Harbhajan's hardwork - so many stories that now make sense. Now I understand how these cricketers are so resilient today, how they can stand up to the best, how their hunger is more than anyone else's that they can win the World Cup under so much pressure, that they play with the same focus after so long and still have the hunger to keep at it despite all that they have achieved. If we want champions, we need more hunger and this hunger is most evident in small towns in India which gives them all the opportunity to reach for the stars through hardwork, resilience and desire. The cars (I was shocked to know that Sreesanth has four cars that include two BMWs), parties, high life, glamour of mingling with the high and mighty of the czars of industry and film world, and they are still rooted because they have seen the worst, the lows.

One interesting factor is that of the sports colleges in Lucknow and Kanpur. It was certainly a factor in the development of cricketers from UP, whatever some cynics had to say. It also goes to underline the fact that if someone loves doing something badly and if they are given half a chance, they will go all the way and conquer the world. Well done Guruprasad, your effort puts in perspective the returns of success for these small town boys just as much as the hardwork, sacrifices and frustrations they had to overcome before getting there! Definitely worth a read, its gripping, quick and highly relatable and also very inspiring! And yes, a fine cover too - I really liked it. Good pic by Herve Blandin and good design by Saurav Das.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Concise 33 Strategies of War - Robert Greene

Read the book 'The Concise 33 Strategies of War' (Viva Books, Rs. 150) by Robert Greene. Suresh Reddy, my friend, gave it to me and asked me to read it because he found it interesting. It is a nice read and deepens, broadens your mind about how it is to be at war consistently - with oneself, with people around, within organisations. The strategies, even if read superficially will remain etched in your mind and you can use them in tricky relationships personal or professional, to gain ground in business or career or relationships or in any place or situation where you wish to gain an advantage. They will certainly leave you thinking a bit more deviously, a bit more proactively. Highly recommended for any circumstance in life. The book is divided into 5 parts - Self Directed Warfare, Organisational Warfare, Defensive Warfare, Offensive Warfare and Unconventional Warfare.
The Concise 33 Strategies of War

In Self-Directed Warfare Greene says that any war starts in the mind and is won only through strategy. Unless the mind has clarity and urgency, the strategies do not work. So he suggests that one declare war on one self to attain clarity, to root out enemies of the mind. Now this is done through the Polarity Strategy (find your mind's enemies and declare war on them), The Guerrilla strategy (new patterns, surprise, guerrilla war on your mind by disturbing past patterns), the Counterbalance strategy (expose mind to adversity, toughen your mind) and the Death ground strategy (get into situations like death ground where you have to fight like hell to survive to create urgency).

In Organizational (team) warfare he suggests the Command and Control strategy (a chain of command to be created, right people in right place, address the team and not the leader), the Controlled Chaos strategy (create speed and adaptability through flexible organization, little independent groups) and Morale strategies (get individuals to think of group, lead from the front).

In Defensive Warfare he suggests the Perfect Economy strategy (pick battles carefully, fight on your terms), the Counterattack strategy (hold back, then counter attack at the right moment), Deterrence strategies (deter the enemy so there is no attack, act unpredictably, scare them and leave hem uncertain) and the non Engagement strategy (gain time by refusing to fight, do nothing).

In Offensive warfare he suggests the Grand strategy (focus on the end not on little twists and turns), the Intelligence strategy (read opponent leader's mind, weaknesses, to use to your advantage), the Blitzkrieg strategy (speed, and catch off guard with full force of your attack), Forcing strategies (control the overall direction by different strategies to control the enemy), the Center of Gravity strategy (search for source of rival's power and strike that), Divide and Conquer strategy (look at joints and links, parts that make the whole and divide into small parts), Turning strategy (attack from the side, at tender spots), Annihilation strategy (psychologically encircle them), Ripening for sickle strategy (confuse, maneuver the enemy to weak positions so they fall), Diplomatic war strategy (take more and give meaningless concessions in negotiations), Exit strategy (avoiding conflict from where there are no exits).

In Unconventional Warfare he suggest Misperception strategies (disturb the focus, create misperceptions and confuse), Ordinary Extraordinary strategy (do some thing ordinary and then follow up with something extraordinary so the enemy is surprised), Righteous strategy (inflict guilt as moral weapon), Strategy of the void (give enemy no target to attack, many side attacks), Alliance strategy (create alliances that fit the need of the moment), One Upmanship strategy (defeat those who seem to be on your side but actually work against you by giving them enough rope to hang themselves), Fait Accompli strategy (take small bites so people do not realise what happened), Communication strategy (infiltrate your ideas behind enemy lines), Inner Front strategy (penetrate the enemy and fight from within), passive Aggression strategy (offer no resistance but dominate the situation)and the Chain reaction strategy (create maximum chaos, terrorise).

You get the idea? It is brilliant and certainly very helpful because it deals with all the grey areas and gives you one or more strategies that you can use anytime. For one it constantly keeps you thinking on the lines you want to, that is to promote your own agenda. Read it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pune to Solapur - The Pandharpur Road

Yestreday we drove form Pune to Solapur via Pandharpur to avoid the under construction, traffic heavy severely and bottlenecked NH 9 that is being four laned for this distance of 250 kms. Checking the map we found a road that was of the same distance - 250 kms - and looked like it was worth a try. We drove from Pune to Shirval on the Satara highway which is a dream but then Shirval comes (40 kms from Pune) or so and then after Shirval you find a board pointing to Pandharpur and you turn off left. The road if being laid and you have an indication of what to expect as there are stretches of a kilometer of laid road and stretch of road dug up.

We threaded our way through that road up to Phaltan, passing by a magnificent lake where the contractor, IVRCL, had the four laned road laid to add to the beauty. The road winds around the lake and since we were there at sunrise time it was a wonderful spectacle. But the road kept degenerating until there were stretches where there was almost n road at all. The drive up to Phaltan (a distance of some 60 kms from Shirval) was a nightmare and is best avoided until the road is laid - unless you fancy traveling at 30 kmph average and keep bumping along. I was in an Innova and still felt the pain, so you can imagine what would have happened if we were in our Santro. The only good thing about this road is no one uses it - no traffic at all - but that is understandable because there is almost no road! But if you have a flat or need some help god help you.

Once you reach Phaltan the road improves and generally gets a lot better up to Pandharpur, a distance of some 110 kms, and then there is a fine road from Pandhapur to Mohol.(40 kms). Once you hit the highway connecting Pune to Solapur you find that the heavy traffic makes you actually feel thankful for the other road. Mohol to Solapur is only 30 kms but it is a painful drive. There is little to toss up between the Pune- Shirval-Phaltan-Pandhapur-Mohol- Solapur road and the Pune-Solapur NH9, as of now. But if the road between Shirval and Phaltan is laid then you have a really good thing going as long as you are not traveling in the palki season when lakhs of devotees congregate at Pandharpur (normally June-July season). Alternately if one can find a decent route for Pune to Phaltan and make it in under two hours, then the drive to Pandharpur and Mohol is good.

The 250 kms drive from Pune to Mohol took 5 hrs and 45 minutes which is an improvement over the 6 hours and 30 minutes that the NH9 took a week ago but its still too long. What beats my comprehension is how these alternate roads were not developed or envisaged to lessen traffic on the NH9 which is in a pathetic state. This road would have been a wonderful alternative if the roads had been in normal state highway state. It amazes me how little thought or foresight goes on in the government and how things just go on in any fashion they deem fit. As you go from Maharashtra to Karnataka roads you heave a sigh of relief and when you hit the Andhra Pradesh stretch of 122 kms till Hyderabad you cannot but exclaim and say, wow, what roads! The Pune-Solapur stretch should take a year to get completer and until then it is better to take the train or find alternate roads. I wonder if there is some other road that connects Solapur-Pune - even if it is longer by 60-75 kms and is in state highway condition, it would be worth it if we could do 300 kms in say 5 hours.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mahabaleshwar - Land of strawberries and cream

Sunset at Mahabaleshwar
Drove to Mahabaleshwar yesterday from Pune. It is a wonderful drive of about 110 kms and very convenient as well because we just have to slide on to the Mumbai - Bangalore highway which is a few minutes drive from our house and that goes most of the distance. This is a brilliant road, four laned all through and an extension really of the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Even the Khambatgo ghat road is separate for to and fro traffic. .
People waiting for the sun to set

We hit Panchgani first and looked up the table top. Since this was a short visit and Sanjay had not been here before, we decided to have a look at all that needed to be looked at. So the tonga was a good option on the table top where they spoke of showing five points and nine points and off we went with Tarzan, our horse, and our dodgy guide, galloping over the gravelly roads much to Anjali's delight. Now the table top is pretty much what we get to see in Panchgani and there seems nothing else there and we went this way and that, ate some fine ice cream, saw the places where they shot some movies, looked at the spots from binoculars as if we hoped to see some magic remaining there and moved on. We reminisced our old friend from Osmania  University College of Engineering, the ruggedly handsome Ali Mumtaz, who studied in Panchgani during his school days and who disappeared off the radar after the college days.
360 degree views from the Connaught Peak, Mahabaleshwar

Off we went from there to Mahabaleshwar which is another 12 kms down the road, paying taxes and tolls all over. In Mahabaleshwar, every place was crowded with hundreds of cars and thousands of people keen to have a good time even if it meant running over the rest. But we had our plans set - strawberries and cream was the main item for me. Luckily the place where Sanjay had booked us in was a remote place on the road connecting Old Mahabaleshwar to Kate's point which is pretty far away (4 kms) from the rest of the town. It is a quaint little place called Honey Wood which is run by Mrs. Chenoy who was very helpful in terms of giving us directions and suggestions. I liked the way the place was built, simple and functional, away from all civilisation and wanted to have a chat with her before I left but I could not. I assume that she lives on the first floor with three rooms below, two cottages by the side with two bedrooms each, a living space etc. More info on the website on the net. I do think it is a place worth visiting again, perhaps in the off season because it is so far away from the rest of the crowd and out in the jungle.

After seeing some mandatory points etc, one of which was the less crowded Connaught Peak which was suggested by Mrs. Chenoy that gave us a fabulous view of the forest cover of Mahabaleshwar 360 degree almost, I took a walk along the tiger path at 5 in the evening which was lovely and managed to go further up than I did the last time. Since I was alone it was far more satisfying as I heard the bird sounds, the slithery sounds in the forest. Some time at the sunset point where the sun played truant but it was amazing for me just to see the number of people watching the sunset like it was a miracle that happened once in a lifetime. People gathered like believers waiting for the miracle to happen, cameras in hand to capture the moment.
Sunrise over the Savitri river at Kate's Point, Mahabaleshwar

Anyway from there we headed out to the Venna lake which always disappoints me because it is a very ordinary lake and not scenic at all because of all the work thats going on around it. Mahabaleshwar is also one place where they give all kinds of names that are completely far from reality. If I found the description of Little Kashmir to Tapola completely off the mark, the description of little Las Vegas to the little strip of shops near the Venna lake is even farther off. But it is here in these brightly lit shops that the Anarkali lies - the shop that serves some fantastic strawberries and cream, second only to the Mapro garden strawberry and cream  If there is one reason for you to go to Mahabaleshwar, it is for this strawberry and cream. Take it from me - it's heavenly stuff.

But it was the walk at night, in the quiet, the pitch dark of the road only lit by the moonlight, amidst the thick growth of Mahabaleshwar that I really enjoyed myself. The sound of the wind whistling through the trees, the quiet, the dark grew into me, and in a few moments I could feel why it was all part of me, and how I was part of it all. Once again I walked alone which made it all the more pleasurable.
Needle point, Mahabaleshwar

Today we headed out to the Kate's point and watched a mellow and ripe sun rise over the valley. It was a great sight and we sat and sipped chai in a small joint that seemed to be frequented by celebrities. Lots of photographs. Again on the way back we stopped at the Mapro garden on the way back to Panchgani. It is  a wonderful place with great views of the valley below and tons of terrific produce that includes jams, crushes, juices, honey etc.  Once again, one must gorge on the many delicacies that the Mapro garden serves, the fabulous grilled sandwiches, the cheesy pizzas,  the fresh ice creams. I gorged on another strawberry and cream and left Mahabaleshwar, content and fulfilled. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Karla Caves - 2nd Century Buddhist Caves, Lonavla

Visited Karla caves near Lonavla,  famous for the 2nd century BC Buddhist caves, this morning. Been to Lonavla many times before but never visited Karla caves. We took the expressway till Lonavla, got off, and took the old Mumbai-Pune highway which also had a toll road, so we had to pay another toll of Rs.39 for the 5 km to-fro drive to Karla. This in addition to the Pune-Mumbai expressway toll which is Rs. 99 till Lonavla. Now Milind tells me that the Pune-Mumbai expressway toll has been increased - I don't understand why? If at all give the contractors a longer recovery period - why tax the users with arbitrary increases in prices?.
The climb

Anyway the caves are to the left of the highway after the Treasure Island resort and you follow the directions till you reach the hill. You cannot miss it. The climb up the hill is really steep. Little tolls like the village development toll, the parking toll etc appear and you shell out small tenners as you go along. Once you park, you can relax in the shade of some tall eucalyptus trees, a fine spot for a picnic, with a lovely homemade kulfi before you start the trek upwards.
The Main stupa

It is quite a climb, almost 25 minutes or a little more than that and though there are steps, it can tax the old and the infirm and even those who are not used to it  Up there one finds  a temple that has now occupied pride of place in front of the Buddhist caves. Many people seem to be devotees of the temple deity and I saw a huge vinyl poster of the temple trustee in all likelihood, obscuring the temple itself, along with Bal Thackeray. Many devotees came with offerings of poultry and goats and sheep which were brought up there and then carried  away to some place for you know what. On the way down I saw a young twenty year old girl, who appeared to be possessed by some spirit, being led up to the temple steps. Maybe she is the oracle here just as we have an oracle in the Bonalu festival in Hyderabad.
Inside the main cave

The main cave is very well preserved. the caves remind you a bit of Ajanta, Ellora with the rock cut architecture and fine detail. The main hall had a high ceiling with sculptures on either side, of gods and goddesses, lions and elephants, wonderfully carved. I could see an Asoka chakra that was inscribed on one of the pillars and on another the famous symbol of four lions sitting back to back. It is really beautiful this cave. But once out of the main cave there is precious little to see. The other caves have some meditation cells and nothing much else.
Inscriptions on a pillar

The need of the Buddhist monks for isolation is amazing. I have seen Ajanta-Ellora which are so remote even today, Karla which is difficult terrain, and even the unbelievable Bellum caves which are underground, near Anantapur. The locations are so remote that it is amazing how they survived there. But every location is cool, peaceful and quiet - perfect for meditation. If in Lonavla and have a good three hours to spare, it is worth a visit. By itself, I'd give it a miss.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lavasa - A Fine Place to Visit

Visited Lavasa, a township being developed in the Sahyadris deep inside the hills near the Warasgaon lake by HCC, and being touted as a planned city, today. I had heard much about Lavasa from those of my friends who live in Pune. It had also been in the news for having been on the wrong side of the environment ministry. So when Sanjay, my old friend, was keen on visiting the place we took off at 830 in the morning.
Lavasa - as we go down to the city

From Chandni Chowk we took the road that goes to Paud village and travelled upto Pirangut, an industrialised town, where we took a left turn from the chowk to Lavasa (there are several boards indicating the turn). The entire distance to Lavasa is about 42 kms and it is quite scenic. There is a ghat at the end which peaks at Lavasa's entrance. Entry is free and the guards just asked a couple of questions about why we were there. Then the road descends into the city which is still being developed through a long winding road. Takes about an hour and half from Pune city to reach Lavasa.
A closer view of the town around the lake

At the bottom is a lake that has been made by cutting off the Warasgaon lake and it is around this lake that much of Lavasa City is located. The Town Hall, the Convention Centre, the Promenade with the shops, hotels, watersports, villas and apartments. We went around for a while trying to figure out what to do and then headed to the Information Centre where they showed a short movie (13 minutes) on Lavasa and its plans and how it was built followed by a 3D movie (7 minutes) which was equally good fun. From the Information centre we gathered that four hotels were operational, the water sports were operational and so we headed to the water sports part where the had stuff like boating, water scooter etc. We opted for a quiet ride in a boat and the adventurous ones went for a ride on the water scooter.
Views from the Information centre

On the way out we stopped at the Ekaant resort which is beautifully designed and had lunch at its fine restaurant. I liked everything - the view, the food, the service. We took a small nature trail from Ekaant which was suggested by the young lady at the Information Centre and really enjoyed it. It has some fine views, some play stuff at the top.
Ekaant Lodge

Lavasa is an ambitious plan which is built on the ideas of New Urbanism. Built of an area of 25,000 acres Lavasa promises its inhabitants a land where they can live, work, learn and play. It has all amenities, a fine design and is supposedly for people of all economic strata. It has plans of a film studio, a film school, a place where they wish to integrate and promote culture and arts, business and fun. There are villas and apartments on the lake front, hotels and convention centres, water and hills, greenery. An 18 hole golf course is being developed, office spaces, a hospital by Apollo, games and water sports by other organisations etc. Lavasa promises to be a self  contained township. It looks impressive for its scale and location, and one must wait to see if it delivers all that it promises.
Water sports area

Much of it is under construction. But for a weekend getaway Ekaant looked like a great place to go to with its wonderful views from atop the hill, its fine design and quiet. Once developed Lavasa should be a treat to the eyes with its European style buildings - it almost looks like a film setting. If in Pune, certainly worth a visit if you have a day to spare or maybe even an overnight stay at Ekaant or any of the other hotels.        

Sholapur - Pune -Look for another road

All those travelling by road between Sholapur and Pune better look for alternate roads for sometime. It took me about 7 hours to get from Sholapur to Pune, a distance of 250 kms. Most of the delays are because of the new four laning that is going on now- and will probably go on for a year at least before they become manageable. There is bumper to bumper traffic, and most times we travelled at speeds of 10 kmph thanks to a bullock cart leading our convoy. Since the roads are so narrow we have to wait for a break in traffic. It drives you nuts!

I have now decided to find alternate routes on the state highways for this distance even if it  a bit longer. I will post my new route and its condition when I travel by it later this week.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Great Indian Price Hike

Petrol just went up by Rs. 5 today. Apparently it will cost Rs. 67 per litre from midnight! It has now come to a stage when price are really hurting the common man. I remember the shock I got when I heard that a dozen bananas cost Rs. 42. Now with the massive price hike in petrol (apparently another similar price hike is to follow shortly because the petrol companies are still in deficit) and a Rs. 4 per litre hike in diesel prices, the prices of general commodities are sure to rise.

For the Irani cafe goer the indicator is the rate of chai which is Rs. 7 (no the size of the cup remained the same!) and for the one who has not boarded an RTC bus for a while, the minimum price in buses in Hyderabad is Rs. 7 as well. I have no clue how fast incomes are growing. But what certainly is growing is the
amount of money going underground, the black money, the scam money.

This must be a good scenario for politicians. All one has to announce is a free scheme for the poor or basic stuff at highly subsidized prices and the elections are theirs now. People will do anything to get stuff cheap! And the middle class and the salaried class is anyway there to pay the extra taxes so they can be taxed a bit more. But I think somewhere I can see the last straw on the middle class/salaried class camel's back breaking up. It never ceases to amaze me at how the government expects people in this class, whether salaried or in businesses, to remain honest and not be corrupt amidst all this. Once that camel's back breaks there will be no one to carry that load!

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's an ad, mad world - Godrej Power Play

I have no idea what this is about. I really tried. All I can make out is a bunch of people flying about in some futuristic shopping mall throwing balls. For good measure there are some cricketers as well who are whacking the leather off the ball and they all end up feeling pretty good at the end of it all.

Its too bizarre for me to make up a story. Every single character is disjointed and the only thing they are doing that is discernible is catch and throw a ball while flying off or landing in what seems to be a gravity defying shopping mall. Thanks Godrej for the entertainment but what was it about please!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

It's an ad, mad world - Nokia, tension mat le yaar

The new Nokia 'tension mat le yaar' or something to that effect definitely causes me tension. What's the purpose of the ad? Somebody please help me.

The ventriloquist and bemused sportsmen

So there is a team of cricketers who are apparently not doing too well because the owner of the team is giving them some valuable tips on how to go about what they know best. Now to help them out he has hired an excellent bunch of experts from all over the place - an old lady who makes good lassi, a champi tel maalish chap and so on. These chaps give out their advise to the cricketers and the owner becomes the medium as he gives them a tel maalish and lassi and what not. Now this owner has some powers of ventriloquism which he uses and amuses the bemused cricketers. How much this new method works we do not know because the team is still hanging out there at the bottom someplace. Maybe its time the team owner got some better advise.

And its probably time for Nokia also to come up with something better than just have SRK and the team of cricketers and a line that says tension mat le yaar or something like that. Did no good to anyone - Nokia, SRK, the cricketers or the KKR team if you ask me. Trashy campaign for Nokia. As for KKR, they better take more pride and be a little less self-deprecating - even if its for ads.

So what do you want?

Q) So what do you want from life?
A) I want to be successful. I want to write many books, make lots of money, earn fame and respect.

Q) Great! How many books would you write, how much money would you make, how much fame would you earn?
A) I would write as many books as it takes to earn much money, earn fame. Say 10 million dollars and lots of awards as the best writer.

Q) Good. And after that, after you have achieved all that, what would you do?
A) I'll chill out a bit. I'll buy myself a farmhouse and spend half my time there. I'll have a holiday. I'll go to the beach side and buy a house there. I'd do things more leisurely, meet people, watch movies, read books, garden, set up a school and teach children.

Q) Will you stop writing books?
A) I will write of course, but more leisurely. Differently. I will write what I want to write.

Q) So what you really want is a farmhouse, a holiday and a life of leisure. Writing is just a way to get the money is it?
A) Not really. But yes, I'd write lesser then. Do other things more.

Q) Then is it that you really desire a farmhouse and not this life of writing? Maybe you should just start working on that farmhouse idea and on writing the book that you will write when you get there - don't you think? Could you write that book now? Could you start planning for that farmhouse now?
A) Yes. I could write it now. I could plan the farmhouse too.

I was wondering what it means to ask someone what they want in life. Not many seem to know. It is amazing that even if we were to say, man, I am Alladin's djinn and I can give you anything, most of us have nothing to ask for ourselves. What we really want. Because we never thought of it. Twice in my life I was faced with this question and twice I blanked out. I could not think of a single thing I wanted.

Sometimes we do come up with some logic like the above. Some romantic notions of life bought from someone else. Maybe it is better we quickly go to what we really want to do (the farmhouse and the big book), find out if it is what we want to do, and then go towards it instead of saying I would like to do this so I get that and then I can do that. That last one in the loop is apparently what you seem to want to do so head in that direction. And if you don't want to head in that direction, maybe you don't want that either. Maybe, you just want to do what you originally chose to get there.

Maybe while doing this well (writing), you will get that (farmhouse)! But I suspect the catch is that it would require you to write like you would after you plan to go to that farmhouse - the real writing you are capable of!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Meeting With An Old Friend - Suresh Reddy, Chairman Ybrant Digital

There is something about that batch. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell who wrote the 'Outliers' would know more about it. I am talking of the 1982-84 batch from St. Alphonso' Junior College - then a little thatched roof setting at Greenlands, positioned as an alternative to the Little Flower Junior College which was the best junior college in town then for science students. The students at St. Alphonso's were a motley crew with boys from HPS, BHEL, IDPL and some from around the area. Overall it was considered a new but good junior college with good faculty and focus on academics.

Now the interesting part about this batch and the next of which I was also part of, was that there were many successful first generation entrepreneurs. Most came from normal middle class backgrounds with absolutely no connections with business environment. Ram Jayam who founded a software company and sold it off for a fortune was one. Jaganmohan Reddy who started Rain Calcining in Vizag is another, Sandeep Reddy of Gayatri Industries (not a first generation entrepreneur but entrepreneur nevertheless) , Sunil Ganapa who has set up a power plant, KRK Vijay Kumar who co owns Ybrant, Ramaraju who runs Gap Miners, Arjun Valluri and LV our juniors, and these are only some of the stories I know. There must be many more.
Suresh at the Ybrant Digital office

Prominent among this list of entrepreneurs is Suresh Reddy, the Chairman and Managing Director of Ybrant digital, a Hyderabad based company founded in 2000. Now in St. Alphonso's, Suresh belonged to the group that graced the first benches along with Ramaraju, Ram Jayam, Srinivas Meherji, Ruby Shankar and others, an ardent, studious gang of boys who studied hard and had clear ambitions of making it to elite engineering colleges. I was far removed from this gang as I occupied seats farthest from the front benches because I did not understand a word of what was happening and my academic ambitions were limited to passing the exams at best. Our worlds met rarely and the one person in this gang I was well acquainted with was KRK Vijay Kumar, a good and enthusiastic cricketer, and we played some inter group and inter college matches together. We all faded off to live our own lives until I bumped into my old friends a few years ago - almost 25 years later. They came to my book launches - Ramaraju, Ram Jayam and Suresh recently and watched the Golconda High School movie which was shot partially in Suresh's office. I wanted to know how Suresh went about building this company, acquired foreign companies in this space and grew it to this size, so we decided to meet for lunch.

It was an interesting story that Suresh told me when I met him yesterday for lunch. His father was an engineer in the defence and Suresh came to Hyderabad from Bangalore only in his seventh class. 'I was an average student till then. But when we moved here and joined Keshav Memorial school, I started topping the class. Much of this I attribute to my father who told me that state syllabus was really easy compared to my Kendriya Vidyalaya syllabus. That belief that he slipped into my mind worked  miracles well for me and my confidence soared after topping. Then I moved to St. Patricks in Secunderabad and later joined Alphonso Junior College. I studied hard those days and did well. I was keen on cracking the IIT and when I did not get it the first time, I joined JNTU for a year and then got through to IIT, Kharagpur later.'

Post IIT, Suresh left for the USA and did his MS in the University of Iowa circa 1990. He moved to Detroit for a job after his MS, and worked in the automobile industry with GM. Caterpillar, Chrysler for six years. It was then that the dotcom bubble began to grow and KRK Vijay who was in California then asked Suresh to join the bandwagon. Suresh laughs as he recollects how he studied a book on C programming, gave an interview and got the job. And then another job with a financial services company. In 1995 the two young turks from St. Alphonso's got the first bug of entrepreneurship. They started an e-greetings company called USAgreetings with some pictures uploaded from the many pictures KRK had taken!

Starting from that point on, they never really looked back. The model did not work - though there were many success stories being bandied about of similar companies being bought out for fortunes. Suresh and company went about now to create content - which they outsourced from India. Then Ybrant Technologies was headed by another of our classmates Ramaraju. Ad professionals were roped in to provide concepts, animations and copy. Greeting cards were developed in thousands and uploaded. Though they managed to survive, the model never took off. Suresh is disarmingly frank when he looks back at those years and confesses that they were really naive. But what worked for them when the entire dotcom bubble went bust was their resilience and never-say-die spirit. And of course a lot of heart and hard work. In his quest to meet any potential customers Suresh reminiscences traveling by train and meeting people. It was at a trade show called Ad Tech that Suresh finally met a bunch of young entrepreneurs in the same field; acquaintances that have remained with him till date. Acquaintances from a dinner called 'Last man standing'.

'One client gave me a mailing project to mail to his customers. I accepted it and we built the software and delivered the mailing solution which became a new revenue stream. We grew that business for a while until we realised that growth in this area was limited. At the same time I was still pitching for VCs. It was then that a friend of mine gave me some fine advise - to lie low for a few years, stop meeting VCs and develop a robust business model meanwhile. We moved into SEO and other web applications, until we finally found our calling - providing services and tools for enterprise marketing which covered the gamut of all that we did. Sometime in those years it also stuck me that we were operating from an engineer's paradigm - of making products and thrusting it on the market. We changed our thinking and started to be more aligned with what our customers wanted. That perspective helped us a lot. It also became the positioning statement of the company - something which I had never thought of till then. But by this time we had seen the worst periods and survived them, emptying our pockets and maxing our credit. But we stuck on instead of falling to the lure of going back to the job.'

What made you hold on, I asked. 'We were keen to make it work. We also had about 50 odd employees and we could not let them down. Most importantly we could not let ourselves down. Maybe that spirit changed the game for us. One thing led to another and we started growing the business by acquiring companies in the USA which were in similar businesses. We outsourced the work to our Indian ops. As the business started to grow bigger, we found support with investors. We were now a business that others were willing to take a business risk on. We kept on acquiring companies with similar businesses across the world that added value - in Israel, Serbia, Singapore. Now we have offices all over, new product and service mixes and plans for faster growth.' Ybrant has offices in 16 countries today, including US, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Ukraine, Serbia, Israel, China, India, and Australia, and with representatives or partners in Spain, Greece and The Netherlands.It has 450 employees.

Growing companies needs letting go and trusting others and this is the point I am most keen on knowing with first generation entrepreneurs. I asked Suresh how he did it. 'I was a hands on guy until I realised one day that it would not work. I cannot do everything myself if I wanted the company to grow. And I wanted it to grow. So I hired and let go. I never interfere with people and give them enough leeway to take decisions and work in the way they want. It has worked for me. So far people have given me no room for complaints. In fact they all took up the responsibility and did extremely good work. It is how I think we can get the best out of people.' I could not agree more. They say that the ultimate man manager is one who is similar to an expert horse rider. He knows that he has to hold the reins ever so slightly, light enough for the horse to feel free and just enough pressure to make it do what you want to!

I asked Suresh his philosophy of life and he had an interesting tale to tell. 'On my fortieth birthday I decided to just take off someplace where I wanted to be with myself. I told the travel guy to just book my tickets someplace so even I don't know where I am going. I landed in Chennai. And after some serious thinking by myself about me and my life I decided that what was more important was to be happy. Now we cannot be happy all the time so I decided that at least 80% of the time I'd be happy and 20% I'd leave to the not-so-happy times. Now to be happy 80% of the time I needed to spend 80% of my time with things that kept me in that state of mind. Which means that 80% of the people I meet needed to be people who keep me in that state of mind. My 80:20, 80:20, 80:20 formula for happiness!'

Suresh's enthusiasm, his energy and frankness are endearing. He is someone who does not wait for things to happen and moves around much, meeting people, trying out ideas. doing things - he makes things happen. He dreams big, has a vision that is well grounded in reality and backs it all with a lot of hard work. For someone who has taken up the responsibility of growing and visioning the company, he carries it all lightly on his shoulders - or so it seems. This leadership style is, according to me, one of the best as he gives each of his managers freedom and space and time and reaps the results of his trust. It is a shared responsibility with every one owning up his bit. Suresh is an avid reader of books and we discussed much on all kinds of books - fiction to philosophy. He loves Lao Tzu, Tao philosophy and the collection of books on his shelf makes really impressive reading. Between discussing books, movies, ideas, philosophies, time flew and it was a good three and a half hours after I had walked into his office, that I left, promising to meet again.

For any young entrepreneur Suresh's story tells the formula for success. Dream, sustain, innovate, hang on  and never give up in the hard times. I guess that's a good enough formula for life. Well done Suresh and I wish you good luck with all your future endeavours and growth plans. Ybrant Digital's website talks of a 700 crore IPO that is in the offing and a global expansion of business. Knowing Suresh,  I know that all his plans will be great successes - and soon!