Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How the other India lives and spends

A close friend's better half (BH) was distressed the other day. Their driver had asked for a loan of Rs100,000 and he already owed them over Rs40,000, a part of what he had borrowed exactly a year back for his daughter's wedding. He had spent Rs2 lacs on his daughter's wedding - a considerable sum, in general and surely for Lakshman - the driver - who earned about Rs7,000 per month.

"He takes us for granted and your friend never tells him anything. This time also he has agreed to give him Rs85,000," complained the BH.

"What does he need the money for now," I asked.

"For the bidaai ceremony," replied BH.

Seeing my open mouth, BH elaborated, "Lakshman's daughter is going to her husband's home for the first time after her wedding. There is a ceremony associated with this and therefore Lakshman is going to spend the said amount primarily on gifts etc."

It set me thinking. Exactly eleven years ago, I had spent all of Rs75,000 on my wedding and honeymoon. My wife's father would have spent a slightly larger sum and as some readers would know, the bong wedding has two parts to it - the wedding day at the bride's house and a bou bhaat (bride's feast) on the third day of the wedding at the groom's place. Typically expenses at each of the locations is borne by the respective families. I am giving this preamble so that readers do not presume that my in-laws were spending on my behalf. I could not afford to spend more because that is what my savings amounted to after four years of hard work and numerous weekend binges with my college mates.Obviously I was loathe to borrow and did not want my retired parents to burn a hole in their pocket.

Why does Lakshman want to spend way beyond his means? It has to do with what the biraadri (community) will think and say if he does not spend. If he does not spend then he will lose face in the community and this is the prime motivation to spend and get into debt, which he can hope to clear over a few years in the very least. I, of course, did not care two hoots about what the biraadri (community) said. I could afford to do that with my parents living in urban Calcutta (now Kolkata) and residing in Mumbai.

Is my friend encouraging his profligate spending by advancing him the money at no interest? No. If they don't give Lakshman the money, he will borrow it from a money lender at usurious rates of interest - ranging between 100-120% pa, a burden he is unlikely to recover from in a long long time. It is much more sensible and humane to give him the loan rather than have him get into the clutches of loan sharks.

But how does Lakshman even think of asking such a large loan from his employer? Would some Lakshman have done the same ten years back (that is as long as I have had a driver)? IMHO the increasing economic disparity and the increasing conspicuous consumption by middle and higher income group people, means that people like Lakshman have far better sense of their employer's spends and spending ability. He knows that his boss has bought this half a million dollar apartment (Rs2.5 crores) in suburban Mumbai, owns two cars (and changes his car every second year) and shops in glitzy malls every weekend, and surely then he can give him a loan of a lakh of rupees (couple of thousand dollars).

Looked at in this context Lakshman's demand is not as outrageous as BH would think it is. It is unfortunate that Lakshman will spend the money on what many would look as wasteful expenditure and not on acquiring an asset or educating his children or anything that promises a better tomorrow for him, his wife or his children. As he looks into the future, there is very little ray of hope. For him, life still remains a struggle to make ends meet even as wage growth in India is the highest in the region according to various surveys. I can only hope and pray that Lakshman's daughter is happy in her marriage.

PS: What would I have done in my friend's place and why? I am sure I would have behaved in much the same manner (and in the past I have). Apart from being compassionate (like my friend and his BH), there is another factor probably working subconsciously. Everytime I see a crime committed by a first time criminal, somewhere I know that people like us (PLUs) are potential targets. This hit home in Kolkata last weekend where Ravinder Kumar Luthra was brutally murdered by their domestic help of ten years. A six year old kid was kidnapped and brutally killed in a distant suburb of Mumbai and the murderer was well known to the family. Somewhere down there even I am scared. Irrespective of the walls that we build around ourselves to protect us and to keep out people like them (PLTs), we have to be mindful that at one level we remain vulnerable. And for a few thousand rupees I would rather have relatively happy people working for me rather than worry everytime my son or daughter is driven alone by the driver. Is this a form of insurance? May be and again may be not, but certainly it buys some peace of mind.

Monday, February 12, 2007

From Bombayite to Mumbaikar

I landed in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1991 with dreams in my eyes. More than two decades later this aspiring Bombayite is a full fledged Mumbaikar.

One of the first sights of Mumbai that has left a lasting impression was the sight of romancing couples with the fair one clad in traditional burkha on Marine drive. We stared gawkily at an alien sight. Conservatism, modernism, youth, progress, defiance, rebel, hope, love, tolerance – all rolled into one as two pairs of eyes locked into each other. That defined the quintessential spirit of Bombay, thankfully retained by Mumbai except minor disruptions.

Nearly twenty years later, on a pleasant December evening, I was sitting at Starters & More in Churchgate sipping an R&C when in walked four burkha clad women – unaccompanied by any male – and sat with panache out there sipping their non-alcoholic beverages, exchanging notes and devouring the mouth watering starters. Where else in India can you see a scene like this?

All these years haven’t changed the better things about Mumbai – the name change notwithstanding. And as the bard remarked, “What’s there in a name?”. As I look back, I focus on the changes for the better and mind you there have been many.

The good
Girgaum Chowpatty has been cleaned and how. What used to be a sleazy hang out place after dusk in 1991, is today a well lit place where family and friends (and not to forget the Dada-Dadi’s) can stay on till late at nite. Ditto in Bandra Band Stand and Jogger’s Park. If there is one thing that underlines both these initiatives it is the activism shown by concerned citizens and the citizen-government partnership. I believe such initiatives can change the face of Mumbai for all concerned for the better. Even as I write this, a group of citizens are putting finishing touches to the blue print for the development of Mumbai. AGNIs campaign ensured that more Mumbaikars came out to vote in the municipal elections held a few weeks back.

The could-be better
Mumbai year after year does see a gradual improvement in its infrastructure. Yes, it is still not anywhere close to what the denizens require. The roads have improved, there are many flyovers, we have the Mumbai-Pune expressway, there is at least one additional railway track for suburban trains and one for long distance trains, and there are more suburban trains with twelve coaches. The Western Express highway has been magically widened and further improvement work goes on thanks to the present CM and the MMRDA chairman. But has it eased the inconveniences? Not really since the population of the city has kept on increasing disproportionately.

Ten years back, a weekend meant spending time in a friends house or having five friends over. Today increasingly people spend their day out at shopping malls! Linking Road market is passé and InOrbit Mall, Life Style and Big Bazaar are in. But the city like India remains a city of contrasts and paradoxes. We have glitzy shopping malls vying for space with run down slums.

And the ugly
Even as thousands of shoppers throng the shopping malls on weekends, security guards brutally beat up a suspected shoplifter who later succumbs to his injuries. Has intolerance increased? Most definitely yes. Road rage is real and middle class and upper middle class people are more intolerant of other religions and regions. I understand there are leading Indian companies who do not have a single Moslem holiday in their calendars and thus, appear to be wearing their religion on their sleeves.

The more things change...
Mumbai has also had an immense influence across the country. The old lady of Boribunder has changed, probably forever, the way newspapers look. Today the Editor is no longer important, invitation price is in and the front page increasingly resembles Page 3, which anyway gets read the first.

If you have it, by all means flaunt it, is the new mantra of the chattering classes. And as someone remarked on the television channel, “If you can count it, then you don’t have it.” This is a sign of the changing times, pun intended. For the upcoming Valentine’s Day celebrations, you can hire a yacht from the Taj group and whisk your beloved to watch the sun setting on the Arabian Sea and a dinner afterwards – all for the princely sum of Rs100,000.

Culture and music have changed – redefined by the TV serials and the video remixes. A school teacher in distant Salem recently told me that most of her students aspired for modelling as a career and their role models had changed from the neighbourhood geek to Bips and Bebo (Bipasha and Kareena to those unfamiliar with Page 3).

Is all this wrong? Not really. Role models have changed, but look at the number of new career options that have opened up. Veejaying, DJing, modelling, teaching accents, TV newscasters – you don’t need to be just a doctor, engineer or a chartered accountant anymore. Rasna Pub has given way to Hard Rock CafĂ©.

...the more they remain the same
Many things have changed. But equal numbers of things haven’t. Mumbai still remains the land of hope and dreams. Kaun Banega Crorepati resurrected a has-been superstar into new iconic status and an unparalleled brand ambassador. Where else in India can you dream of that? Prithvi Theatre is still an outlet for some excellent theatrical fare (and also continues to serve a mean Irish Coffee), Nana Chudasma’s banner still flutters on Marine Drive and Amul hoardings still bring a smile on a dreary Monday morning as one drives to office.

Thank you Mumbai from this Mumbaikar!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Why Mr. Tata ?

At the onset let me make a confession. I am an unabashed admirer of the House of Tatas, their business ethos and ethics - all the more because through generations they have been able to preserve this. Jamsetji Tata, followed by JRD and then Ratan Tata have preserved the group character and culture. Even a brief visit to Jamshedpur epitomizes what the Tatas have stood for over a century. All this has been done without currying favors with politicians and the powers that be or breaking the law of the land. It must have hurt when their airline JV with Singapore Airlines was scuttled and rules and laws were changed to ensure that Tatas could not enter the space (no pun intended). But the Tatas stood their ground.

Today's anguish and criticism direct against the Tatas is therefore for a different reason. The textile mill of the Tatas was called Swadeshi Mills. Indian Hotels, the legend goes, was set up by Jamsetji Tata when he was refused entry into a plush hotel in Mumbai during pre-independence. Therefore I was very surprised and pained to see the "Advanced Internship Program" for MBA students was not open to students from the Indian management institute's. Clearly as Indian companies go global, they will become more multicultural and attract a truly multinational work force. The companies will go out of their way to attract a global work force and assimilate them into their fold much like Unilever, GE and Citigroup does.

But what anguished me was the seeming discrimination against students from Indian management institutes in this internship program. The program is open to only students of Wharton and HBS. Why not the students of IIMs? True that the program is not open to students of many other leading foreign management institutes like LBS or Stern or Insead as well. Are the students of Harvard and Wharton a class above others? The global experience does not necessarily say so. Sure they are best of the breed, but companies like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Deutsche, UBS, JP Morgan et. al seem to think the same about students from the IIMs and recruiting them for the same job and at the same salaries for global postings. Should not the Tata group be giving the same opportunity to students in India to see what the group is doing overseas and elsewhere.

The Tata Administrative Services, which used to be one of the most sought after jobs some decades back, has lost much of its luster after the onslaught of the MNCs, consultants and the investment banks on Indian campuses. This would be a very strong platform to revive this. I hope someone brings it to the notice of the group chairman to ensure that as they aim for a multicultural and multinational workforce, they should broaden their intake from different management institutes to get the best of the breed. If students from Insead, IIM A, IIM B etc do not make the cut during the selection procedure, for sure let them not be selected. But do not deny them the chance. The selection criteria on past work experience, academic excellence et. al. is absolutely fine. Let their be true meritocracy. I know that a company or group can go to the campuses it wants to go to and not to all and sundry campuses. But only Harvard and Wharton? Why Mr. Tata?

Tales of rum, milk and honey

This was originally posted at Bombay Diaries.


Tales of rum, milk and honey
Last night I had to meet for dinner a friend at a suburban five star hotel in Mumbai. I was early and thirsty (as usual my wife may like to add), and asked for a "bar menu". I was politely informed that it was a "dry" day and the next few days were also "dry" days, which meant NO ALCOHOL. Disappointed I ordered a fresh lime soda (sweet) and buried my head into "Saturday" (a novel by Ian McEwan), as I waited for my friend to turn up (he was arriving from Chennai).

Then I noticed that some people were being served drinks and it dawned on me that foreigners are served liquors even on dry days. They are not forced to pay respect to Gandhiji. On enquiring I learnt that even NRIs will be served liquor on producing proof of their being NRIs. That cheered me up a bit since my friend was a NRI and I promptly SMSed him to get proof of his non-resident status, which will buy us a couple to quench the thirst.

Once my friend came in he ordered two drinks - a W&S for himself and a R&C for me. And this is the fun part of it and how the law is sometimes an ass, as someone more eloquent than me had once said. The person who took our order took my friend's identification, gave it a good look up and down and noted down some numbers. He said that these details have to be sent to the Excise Department.

Imagine there is someone in that government department who is supposed to check that the hotel has genuinely sold liquor to only the ones who are permitted to drink (or who need not show their respect to Gandhiji).

I started wondering how will the hotel respond if the Excise Officer asked how and why one person was mixing his drinks by ordering R and W simultaneously and will the government ban such degenerate NRIs from coming into the country? Is mixing drinks allowed or is it against the law? Should there not be a restriction then on how much alcohol one foreigner or NRI can consume on a given day/ night?

I remember two incidents (1) once before breaking the law sitting in the environs of a five star hotel with a foreigner (gora) and quaffing a pitcher of the chilled golden brew. Then my friend's passport had ensured that we were not denied the elixir. (2) The second was related to me by a journalist friend of mine. After an awards ceremony (where else but a five star hotel), there was a dinner party. Some leader of some country had passed away and India had declare a five day mourning. The minister's and government officials were apparently under strict instructions not to partake in alcoholic revelries - that is a Government of India rule when it is declares mourning although many people drink when they are sad. So the chief guest, instead of attending the dinner, quietly slinked away to his room to have a couple. Before leaving he told my friend that if any newspaper the next day publishes his photograph with a glass in hand, then his political career could be jeopardized and therefore, he preferred to drink in the solitude of his room. I am happy to report the minister's career continues to flourish.

That brings me to why I was "inspired" to write this piece. Very early on I was once told that you command respect and you earn it, you do not demand it. So why do these state government's demand that we respect the memory of our leaders in this way? Does it really help or honor anybody, least of all the memory of a dear departed leader?

The liquor shops start telling their customers way ahead of the D-day to stock up. People who want to have a drink any way do. In fact I am told by an ex-student of IIM Ahmedabad that bottles were delivered to their dorms - this is indeed unique and must be thanks to prohibition in Gujarat because in other institutes (at least in the two I have studied), we always had to go out to buy. Their was no friendly neighborhood brewer or seller who did a door to door service. For hooch in Kharagpur, - that was all we could afford - you had to go to the den of the local madam brewer.

To respect the memory of Gandhiji, the government can take one more step. On his birthday and death anniversary, having sex in India can be banned, in respect to Gandhiji's celibacy vows and experiments. On those days condoms will not be sold and only foreigners and NRIs should be allowed to have sex (and only with their likes and not with resident Indians) in India and then report the same to the Ministry of Human Resources.

Better still, they should report beforehand their intention to engage in you-know-what so that an official of the Ministry can verify that they indeed are foreigners and NRIs. Hopefully Arjun Singh will be gainfully employed and have no time for looking at reservations and other pet issues of his. Gandhiji, by his own account, had alcohol and sex in his youth and gave up for his own reasons. How does his memory get respected by forcing his countrymen by banning alcohol in certain states and by banning alcohol sales and serving of liquor on certain days I fail to understand. I wonder how we should honor Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru's memory?

I will end this piece with the story of a lunch that I had partaken more than a decade back.

I was visiting a factory under construction in central India in the early 90s. This town in Maharashtra also practices prohibition. The first thing the PRO of the company had done was to procure a medical certificate, which said that for health reasons he is allowed to drink and buy alcohol. A group of ten people had a boozy beery afternoon and then toddled of to pay respect to the late Mahatma in his Ashram in the city. India must be the only country where people want to get themselves certified as alcoholics and that does not carry a stigma! It is high time such silly rules and laws are dismantled. The citizens will anyway pay respect to the Mahatma if they are aware of his teachings and believe in the same. A film like "Lage raho Munnabhai" does it far better than all the Congressmen (and women), the self proclaimed upholders of Gandhiji's legacy, put together.

I am reminded of a Hindi verse learnt in school (it was by Sant Kabir or Surdas) - "kar ka man ka dari de, man ka manka pher" (drop the rosaries in your hand, and try and reform the rosary in your heart.) And meanwhile lets say three cheers for "sura".

(The intention of the author is not to hurt anyone's sentiments. My apologies in advance to anyone whose sentiments may have been hurt by some of my comments above.)

Economic Times - how much lower now ?

This post was originally blogged over at Bombay Diaries.


The Times of India group every day sets lower and lower standards in journalism (if you call it that for the lack of any other more appropriate word) and never tires of its sick holier than thou attitude. One example was recently pointed out by Amelia Gentleman, a columnist at the International Herald Tribune.

The ToI group has this smartly designed logo (I must give credit where it is due - ToI groups ads and logos etc are smart; after all it is a marketing juggernaut and nothing about journalism) called " The Global Indian Takeover", which in a celebratory mood it appends to any and every article. Do not know which moron decided which article it should get appended to, but apparently last week it got appended to an article on a girl of Indian origin winning the Miss UK title (pointed out by the IHT columnist) . Someone out there is in a desperate need to have his/ her head examined.

Economic Times believes it is a financial newspaper just because it aped the colors of Financial Times many years back (called it salmon pink, I remember, although I am yet to see a salmon on my plate of that color. I have a suggestion - they should change the color to yellow). In recent times, ETs budget coverage has been deplorable especially for the visuals that they use. It suffers from an identity crisis as it tries to ape its sister publication Bombay Times.

But I am digressing. What takes the cake is today's article "Much ado about...." on page 3 of The Economic Times. This is on the picture of Rajasthan's CM and Biocon's CMD air-kissing each other, with the camera angle being such which invited a lot of comment and some called it obscene.

ET felt that the politicians and Hindi TV channels are bereft of ideas (true for once, but it forgets that it itself falls into the same category) and hence, debated on what was just another picture. Fair enough. But ET with all its sagacity and wisdom, decided to devote a couple of columns to it, after having published the picture the previous day. It castigated the TV channels and the politicians for starting a debate on the photograph.

And in its holier than thou attitude, ET went on to say "At ET, we had carried the picture in good faith, without any intention of hurting the sentiments of both Ms Raje and Ms Shaw. In our wall-to-wall coverage of the World Economic Forum, this is one of the few pictures we felt deserved to be carried." Good faith, ha, ha, ha.

Will the ET editor (if there is one, because the Jain's do not believe in editorial content or freedom or how can a newspaper have two viewpoints on an editorial subject matter on the same day) please clarify why "this one is one of the few pictures" that deserved to be carried? Were they the two most important personalities gracing the occasion at WEF on that day? Did they make some major news by what they had to say on that day? I do not remember ET mentioning anything about what they said in ETs "wall to wall" coverage!

ETs stooping does not end there. It also says, "As readers of ET know, air-kissing is a common phenomenon at corporate dos and high-society parties." ETs readers are indeed a wise lot. Other poor souls who do not have the benefit of reading ET do not know such social niceties.

Unfortunately (I believe) the ABP group (erstwhile owners of Business Standard) did not show its marketing acumen with Business Standard the way they showed with The Telegraph in Kolkata and T N Ninan unfortunately never had the backing of the financial muscle power of the Bennet Coleman group. BS would have punched ET if only FDI in newspapers and journals was allowed.

Guess which votary and champion of reforms puts out editorials against FDI in newspapers? No prizes for guessing - it is the venerable publications from the ToI group, which are so keen to protect their turf. Of course, their editorials are full of righteous indignation against Bombay Club and any whiff of protectionism in any other sector. Hopefully HT in association with WSJ will launch a paper which will tell us something more about business, companies and sectors rather than tell us what kind of kissing is a common phenomena at what dos. That I must admit can be safely left to ET, Bombay Times, Mumbai Mirror and of course, the one and only Times of India.

The first one

Just a brief post to notify that I am shifting my blog from here to this blog.