Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lunch at Apollo Gleneagles

What do Kolkata and Bengali's remind you of? If this question were to be randomly administered by a market researcher, I would surmise that eight out of ten respondents will say "sweets". If the horizon of the respondents could be broadened, I would say the answer is "food". Before Bongs take offence, let me inform those who do not know that I am also a Bengali or Bong, as my friends say. And I should know (about food). Even as we (Bongs) eat one meal, around the table the discussion usually turns to the menu of the next meal. As anyone knows, the success of any expedition rests on proper planning. See where President Bush and Donald Rumsfield landed USA in with hasty action and lack of proper planning. And for the Bong, every meal is a major expedition worthy of planning by Napolean or Rommel.

But the importance of food for the Bengali was brought to me - as if I needed a reminder - in a most unusual place. I stayed three nights at the Apollo Gleneagles Hospital in Kolkata (near EM Bypass and next to Swabhumi). The first morning I went down to get some tea at the cafeteria on the ground floor. What greeted me was surprising to say the least. It was a veritable feast. What was available is the following: masala dosa, plain dosa, medu wada, vegetable sandwich, cheese sandwich, chicken sandwich, fish roll, fish fry, vegetable samosa, chicken wings, chicken lollypop, chicken legs fried with corn, chicken tikka, chicken malai kebab, buns, sweet buns, vegetable fried rice, mixed vegetable curry, four varieties of pastries, chocolate brownies, fruit muffin, chocolate muffin, plain muffin, chocolate mousse, vegetable patties, chicken patties, loochi-aloo (Puris and potato curry), chicken pakoda and I am sure I have missed some more delicacies. This was not the menu, it was what was available on the shelves.

In drinks, apart from tea, coffee and aerated drinks, a reasonable variety of milk shakes were available. While waiting for my hot cup of tea, I noticed a sign board – mouth watering and your favorite delicacies now available in the multi cuisine restaurant at the Day Care Centre (part of the hospital). The accompanying pictures were of biryani, pasta and noodles. The Day Care Centre was opposite the main hospital building where OPD patients are seen. In the evening a friend dropped in to see me. He said, "Don't go to the cafeteria for meals. The restaurant at the Day Care Centre is better and the choice is much better." Apparently a consultant doctor at the hospital, I was told, invited his extended family for lunch one afternoon after this restaurant opened. And I happen to know that the story is not apocryphal.

On the second day my friend insisted in bringing me lunch from his home. My pleas that the hospital food being served was perfectly palatable fell into deaf years. And the lunch arrived. To call it lunch will be to do it grave injustice. It was a feast fit for a king. The menu was something like this: rice, dal, sukto (a mixed vegetable preparation), pat paatar bhaja (fried pat leaves), potol-potato curry, hilsa fish curry (a couple of large pieces with one of them being the peti, the most sought after part of hilsa) with jhinge (ridge gourd). No, there was no dessert! That was missed in a hurry. Bless my friend's wife who conjured up all this and offered to follow up with more at dinner time. I made some excuses. And now let me tell you a secret - while I protested and absolutely forbade them from getting me more meals, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and wouldn't have minded some more of that hilsa fish (hilsa from Bangladesh – paddar ilish, as Bongs would say - at Rs1,000 a kg).

I have reached the end. And it would be unfair if I do not mention the lunch on the first day at a doctor friend's house who lives a stone throw away from the hospital. The menu was: rice, sukto, dal, potoler dolma (potol stuffed with shrimps and coconut), chicken curry, lobster curry (with the head and tail of the lobster in tact) and mango chutney (the Bong variety) bringing up the rear. This on a perfectly normal working day. Now you know what I miss in Mumbai. And next time you are driving to Kolkata airport and want to have some quick snacks or a meal, do drop in at Apollo Gleneagles. It will not disappoint. I do not know if the same can be said about the other departments at the hospital.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Perils of the modern day - A short story

Beep, Beep...Beep, Beep. The beep of the incoming SMS woke up Debu at the ungodly hour when it was just half past six in the morning. Debu is the CEO of a new age media company and doesn't believe in getting into bed unless it is long past the Cindrella hour. Last night was no different. The only thing he remembers was the sweet red wine he was sipping in Good Earth, as his much younger colleague looking at the PYT sitting on the next table and scheming how he could obtain her mobile number. Groaning he fished for his mobile phone - iPhone, no less would do for our hot shot not so young media executive where appearances matter as much as, if not more, than reality.

What he read jolted him awake faster than an ice cold shower could or would. "Choli bhai, goodbye", was the message from one of his buddy's from engineering college days (Loosely translated: Going brother, goodbye). He immediately dialed Amit's number. No ring tone. Amit's phone was dead. Debu's mind started whirring and flashed back to his engineering college days, the adda at the pada football club, the first whisky they shared from the same glass (no rocks, no soda, only water and the glass of steel), the first woman they had a crush on (no she was not their English teacher, she was their Hindi teacher) and... well there were just too many memories. It was just last winter, when the two friends with their better halves had driven down to Jaipur from Delhi.

What had gone wrong for Amit to take this drastic step? This was no way to go. This was no time for a 42 year old to say goodbye forever. And there can never be a strong enough reason for this. Amit was one of the brightest persons in their batch and had lived up to his talents in his professional career. At the pinnacle of his career he had decided to take a mid-career break and take it easy - early burn out of living out of the suitcase in a 24x7 world? Definitely possible and very probable. Was he depressed? He didn't seem to be. Debu had spoken to him a couple of weeks back.

For a few moments, Debu's mind had gone blank. Who should he contact? Trying to contact Amit's wife, Rumi, was out of question. He didn’t have her number. Where was she? Did she know? Debu tiptoed out of the bedroom, not wanting to wake up his wife. Slowly his mind cleared and he dialed me – a common friend. I had gone to MBA school with Amit. I took the call in my car. I was driving into office really early on this Wednesday morning since I had to make a few urgent client calls. Debu broke the news to me. I decided to call Rumi as I had spoken to Amit over the weekend about their plans to come to Mumbai later during the week. Amit had sounded absolutely cheerful and normal and it was just three days back.

What had happened in the intervening three days? I knew that Rumi was scheduled to be in Hyderabad attending a conference. I called her up and it was obvious from the sound of her voice that I had woken her up.

Self: “Hey, Tora Bombay kobe aaschish? Toder plan hoye geyche?” (Hey, when are you guys coming to Mumbai? Have you made your plans?”)

Rumi (sounding sleepy, bored and also probably cursing me): “Na re. We are not coming this week. Amit kaaje Kolkata jachche aaj ke. O ekhon flight e thakbe.” (No, we are not coming this week. Amit is going to Kolkata today on work. In fact he must be on the flight now.)

I almost leapt with joy and quickly said goodbye to her. I slowly realized what had happened. After about three hours, I called up Amit who answered even before the second ring started – they teach this to you in MNCs and BPOs (not in HBS).

Self: “What SMS did you send Debu?”

Amit: “What SMS?”

Self: “Before you took your flight out today?”

Amit: “I didn’t send any SMS.”

Self: “Really? Did you send a SMS – “Choli bhai, goodbye.”

Amit: “Oh, shit! Did I send it to Debu in Bombay?”

By now you would have guessed what had happened. Amit and Debu (let me call him D2 for the sake of differentiating him from our original hero Debu) had left Amit’s home early in the morning to go to Delhi airport. Amit was flying to Kolkata by Kingfisher Airlines and D2 was flying to Bangalore, his home town, by 9W after spending the night at Amit’s house. Since they were in different terminals, Amit sent a message to Debu (by mistake not to D2 but to our hero) once he boarded his flight. Amit and I had a good laugh and I could still hear his laughter ringing in my ears as I disconnected the phone.

Monday, March 10, 2008

India abused

India Shining has been much used, but one phrase that should be brought into public lexicon is India Abused. One of my friends once said, "The poor do not need patronage, they need opportunities." But politicians and bureaucrats believe in patronage. Then and only then can they be the mai baaps of the aam aadmi, a much abused phrase in the UPA government.

Three different people (truly aam aadmi) and three similar experiences - that is what started the above chain of thoughts. The first one - My driver was saving some money for long term requirements and had asked for some safe investment options for Rs1 lac. After his initial query, he never asked again till I remembered after a few weeks. His reply stunned me. This is his true story - "My sister's son is a qualified carpenter and he had applied for a state government job in Mumbai. He cleared the exams, the interview and the medical tests. But before he could get his appointment letter, he was asked to pay a bribe of Rs1.5 lacs. So I gave my savings. At least he has a permanent job with Rs10,000 salary per month."

Story two and three are on the same day. Both the boys are from the hills - one from Siliguri and one from Darjeeling. They work with a movers and packers company in Mumbai. The immigrants against who Shiv Sena and its clones rave and rant against. Both the boys are very cheerful even as they were lifting backbreaking loads. I was moving residence - a regular feature in the life of immigrant workforce in Mumbai.

So how did these boys come to Mumbai? The Siliguri boy wanted to join the army or the police force. But in a regional sports event he dislocated his shoulder. On medical grounds he was rejected, which would have been overlooked if he paid a bribe of Rs35,000 to the recruiting agent! His family didn't have the money. Seeing the weights he was lifting, it was obvious that the dislocation was not hindering him at all.

The Darjeeling boy had a similar story. He cleared every test to join the army (he wanted to be part of the Gorkha regiment) - written, oral and physical - and was told to pay Rs90,000 bribe to get his appointment letter. He could not and today he works as a casual laborer in Mumbai.

Petty corruption has eaten away the core of our society. Almost every job in the government or its different arms is auctioned or bought. The bribery doesn't end with getting the job. A police officer or constable in service pay bribes to their superiors to get lucrative postings (Posta in Burra Bazaar, Kolkata is one such beat, according to rumors in Kolkata) and then they take bribes to get a handsome returns on their investment.

So what is new? It is appalling that the poor are denied a decent shot at livelihood due to such blatant corruption. When I asked the Darjeeling boy, "Even in the Army?" He said, "Sir, You don't know. Everywhere it is the same." “India Shining” or “Superpower India” and “Indians taking over the world” sound like cruel jokes as I, a major beneficiary of India’s growth story and economic reforms, think of the three people I met.

How did these conversations start? It all started when I asked the Darjeeling boy on why did the demand for Gorkhaland start again? He mentioned that Subhash Ghishing, the earlier hero of the Gorkha movement, was a corrupt person who had amassed huge wealth and done nothing since the Gorkha Hill Council was formed. He has now been driven out of Darjeeling, a new leadership has emerged and Ghishing has taken refuge in Kolkata. How will Gorkhaland - the separate state - help? It is hope that a new state - our state - will generate more jobs, will be less corrupt etc. But then Ghishing was one of their own and had fought for their own new state.

Vigilantism - is that the only answer then? Citizens embarking on their own path of justice outside the system a la Deewar and Shakti? Remember that famous Amitabh dialogue when he tells Dilip Kumar, "Mujhe mere ya mere saathiyon ke hifazat ke liye aapki ya aapke police ki zaroorat nahin hai." Recently citizens in Bihar pulled out an injured criminal from the hospital and thrashed him. Is that the future of India?

Maybe within democracy - Indian style - there is still hope. Narendra Modi's resounding victory gives some hope. As does my fourth story. Two carpenters from Rajasthan are working in my flat. I share a lunch of chapati and bhaji with them. They get up at 6AM, cook their food and then travel to Lower Parel to work in my flat - getting ready to move in this weekend. They get back home by about 10PM, cook their food and go to bed past midnight. They have a loose network of 70 workmen working on various sites. This group hails from a few villages within a radius of 5kms and reasonably close to Udaipur. Many of them are related. The classic story of hard working immigrants trying to earn an honest living.

I asked them, "Who will win the next elections in Rajasthan?" "BJP." There is not a moment's hesitation in their mind. "Vasundhara ji is doing a lot of good work," is what they said. But what about all the dissidence and the agitation and violence for reservations. That is all behind her, according to Hemraj and Kanhyalal, my lunch mates. Then they added, "Look at Modi and how he won even when the BJP deserted him. He should be the PM of India. Vajpayee ji did some good work and started building roads. The Congress government came and first took down Vajpayee ji's posters and then stopped the good work. We need BJP to come back to power."

I could not agree more. For the sake of the aam aadmi, for the sake of the immigrant workers in Mumbai, for the sake of our highways, for the sake of our pride as Indians, for the sake of India Shining, I hope the NDA is back in power and the UPA goes out. Hemraj also gave the example of Mahendra Singh, a Congress leader in Rajasthan and a descendant of Maharana Pratap. He had won an election on BJP ticket and was a well liked person in the area. Then he switched to Congress and visited Hemraj's village riding on an elephant in regal splendour. The people of the village drove him out and he lost the next elections. Yes, in democracy there is hope.

And then there is hope

A friend sent an email last week - what do you think of the bhisma pitamah remark? At that time I had no clue about what he was talking about. That evening I did not get the time to switch on the TV and only next morning read what the Prime Minister had said on the floor of the parliament.

I have for one long believed that India needs a national government for fifteen to twenty years, which has a national agenda for governance and development and is able to rise above the narrow considerations of rent seeking regional politics that our democracy has degenerated into.

It is in this backdrop my hopes rose when I read the PMs comments. Is it possible for the BJP and the Congress to come together on matters of national interest? Contentious issues on both sides can be put on cold storage. BJP, as part of the NDA, had put its core Hindutva agenda on the back burner. Can Congress do the same with its minority appeasement program? If the two can come together, then the rent seeking capacity of parties’ like BSP and the Left Front will dramatically diminish.

This needless to say is wishful thinking. Look at how the highways development program - the only major national program in the last twenty five years that I can think of except the telecom initiative during Rajiv Gandhi's time - has been virtually brought to a standstill in the last four years. The GQ project remains incomplete and the NSEW project has made marginal progress and is far from completion. The nuclear deal, which I believe is in our nation's interest, has been stalled by the communists, whose heart beat for China and Russia and most certainly not for India.

While there is hope, it is still fanciful. The PM while reaching out to Vajpayee, who is in retirement and deservingly so, snubbed Advani, the anointed PM candidate of the BJP. Therefore, it is unlikely that the two parties will at any point of time cooperate on the floor of the parliament for the sake of the country unless it is a grave issue like Kargil invasion.

There is no reason why the government did not involve the main opposition party to seek the broadest level national consensus on the Indo-US nuke deal. For the broadest level consensus, to use the PMs words, the BJPs involvement is necessary. And the Left Front's is not. The Left is a three state party although technically speaking CPI (M) is a national party. CPI, which rants and harangues at every given opportunity, has exactly ten seats in parliament.

Left Front's concurrence is only necessary for this government's survival and that too I doubt. Firstly, the Left is on the back foot in Kerala and West Bengal. It is not too eager to face elections. Secondly, if on the issue of nuke deal, there is a vote in parliament, and if BJP supports it, then this government will survive. The Congress instead of trying to divide the BJP should seek their cooperation in national interest. Then there is hope.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Akbar toda, not joda

Last night I watched Jodhaa Akbar. I must confess that I am no history buff and thus, had no interest in the controversy whether it was Jodhaa or some other Hindu princess who married Akbar. I have enjoyed Ashutosh Gowirker's earlier films and thus, went to see the film although the promos had left me pretty unimpressed and am not a fan of either Ash or Hrithik.

But I was amazed and amused as the tale unfolded in front of me. I think I was more amused than amazed. But before that, to give a movie its due, I must also say what I liked about the film (not much to like to be honest): gorgeous costumes, some beautiful landscapes, very good choreography of the large crowd scenes and the fights and gorgeous sets. I particularly liked the sheer muslin partition separating Jodhaa’s side of the bed from Akbar’s when Akbar comes to take her back.

Now to my views on the rest of the film – a bit late, I must admit. It is a run of the mill Hindi film where one could only shake his head in disbelief. We did not mind Manmohan Desai’s many films since he did not have the pretensions that he was making some great historical movie. Here is a movie, which has been making such claims and see what it dishes out to the unsuspecting public:

1. Mother and a shrew: The saintly mother who wishes her son good, but doesn’t dress or behave like a saint. Another woman (the dai, who breast fed Akbar) and whose words are gospel truth for Akbar and dresses like some holy woman is actually scheming against Akbar’s love, Jodhaa. She plays the role of the mother-in-law to the hilt. Very original?

2. Bad brother(s) turns good: There are two such characters in this movie – after all for a movie of this scale, there have to be more of everything. One is Jodhaa’s raakhi brother and the other is Akbar’s brother-in-law. One brother turns good and breathes his last in his sister’s lap, who makes a dramatic appearance in the war zone only for this purpose. The heavily injured brother lives only long enough to spout a five or ten minute dialogue. Obviously the brother does not have the histrionic capabilities of Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar or Sholay. What was an emotionally charged scene falls flat with either the brother not being Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya being no Nirupa Roy or Jaya Bachchan.

3. Akbar is illiterate and there is a poignant moment when he confesses this to Aishwarya. He never had the time to learn to read and write. But either he was very well trained in singing or like Kishore Kumar had raw natural talent in singing because immediately after the confession he and Aishwarya break into a song and dance routine to proclaim their love. Of course, Aishwarya’s attempts at mujra for Hrithik fall flat compared to Rekha’s in Muqaddar ka Sikandar.

4. In the entire sultanat, Akbar is the only Muslim (and to an extent his biological mother) who has tolerance for other religions (read Hinduism). Every other member of the ruling class (the court of Akbar was a caricature) disliked Hindus. And for some strange reason Akbar was also in all likelihood the only Muslim with a rajput moustache and no Muslim beard. All the others resembled bearded mullahs but Akbar was prince charming.

5. For such a revered emperor, Akbar for most par of the movie seemed very eager to believe whoever was the last person to speak to him. He would never verify or try to verify anything, but immediately take action. Later on he would defend his actions by saying it was due to circumstances. Such a weakling character does not somehow sit well with the image history books paint of Akbar.

6. The song of the sufi saints was worth listening to. But may be there are not too many followers of Sufism around these days. Otherwise along with the Rajputs, they also would have protested and demanded a ban on the film for turning them into qawwals swinging and singing during the marriage of the hero in the true tradition of Hindi films.

7. Most reviewers of the film had praised the music and songs. Couple of them (the songs, I mean) were good. For most of the time, the music was loud and resembled an angry elephant’s snorting. Or may be those were so loud that it kept ringing in my ears and head long after they had ceased. But the worst was when the praja of Agra breaks into song and dance routine praising who else but Akbar. In true spirit of national integration, the song had Hindus and Muslims dancing together. So far so good. Then in a sudden burst of inspiration some tribal caricatures come into the scene wearing thin bamboo sticks on their heads. This in Agra in whatever century. That song had the hallmark of those directors from south who used to revel in the Jeetendra-Sridevi pairing. Remember those songs from Himmatwala etc? Well, you have got it. The only bit missing was a holi sequence in the song.

8. One of the first shots was of Akbar taming a bad tempered elephant. Again good choreography. Also good for voyeurs who go weak in knees at the sight of a well proportioned male torso (in this instance that of Hrithik’s). This was a scene to delight the audience in true traditions of Manmohan Desai’s films. Remember Amitabh Bachchan taming tigers in Khoon Pasina, Mr. Natwarlal and a crocodile in Shaan. While no one thought Vijay was capable of such feats (except Rekha), in this case we are led to believe that Akbar every day performed such feats to drum up an healthy appetite for breakfast ad to make Rajput prince’s tremble with fear.

9. The sword fights were well choreographed, as I have said before. Somehow in fights, which usually end in a “draw” in Hindi films (like the ones between Amitabh and Shatrughan in Kala Patthar), in this case each fight had a victor, but thanks to some interruption by a sewak – every time!

In summary this movie would have done proud to the Barjatiya camp of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and such other mindless movies based on marriage ceremonies. All in the entire movie is an unmitigated disaster; unless you see the humor and have a good laugh, which a group of five sitting in the row was doing. They enjoyed it immensely and laughed throughout the movie. My eight year old son had a great time watching the sword fight sequences. He also asked me whether Hrithik in real life is an illiterate. My friend was not amused and wanted to leave at half time. I wish we had teamed up and left. What a waste of nearly four hour of drivel in the name of good cinema.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Of poverty and corruption

I have been silent for a long time - not for dearth of material or ideas to write on but from sheer laziness and at times hectic traveling. Here are some quick thoughts on some "things" that have been "bothering" me. Towards the end of the year, I was home early one evening when wife and son happened to be out. The only person home was our live-in help who has been with us for over five years. She had been trying to get in touch with her brother-in-law in a village in West Bengal (not very far from Kharagpur - for those who may not know, Kharagpur, or KGP as it is referred to by many, is home to the oldest and the biggest IIT in the country) to get some news of her parents. The b-i-l had a cell phone and was thus, accessible. But that evening she had been frustrated in her attempts to contact him and I told her to ring him up on my cell phone, which she did.

As I reclined, surfing channels for the lack of anything better to do, I heard snatches of her conversation with her b-i-l. B-i-l was asking her to send some money to her parents. She almost blew her top since five/ six months back when she had gone home, she had given her mother Rs5,000. She asked her b-i-l how could her mother have spent Rs5,000 in only five months! I felt miserable at the thought. Rarely has the feeling of bliss on reaching home early so rudely been shattered. Rs5,000 - we probably spend out on one evening's meal in most upmarket restaurants in Mumbai. In this village where her parents stay (a few hours from KGP), there is still no power. In the district headquarters, an uncle of hers lost his life recently because while he was in emergency ward, the 12-16 hour power cuts made sure that modern medicine did not stand a chance. Life is unfair; but that in today's world lives are lost, in a country that is aspiring to be among the world's best, because of lack of bare minimum basic necessities somehow makes a mockery of many of our tall claims.

This is also the same country where an industrialist recently gifted his wife an Airbus 319 on her 44th birthday. While India indeed is shining for a lot of people (including yours truly) and there is a lot to celebrate about, somehow there is a large cross-section of the population which cannot even start to aspire to get out of the grinding vicious cycle of poverty, corruption and darkness that envelope their lives. That brings me to my second story. My driver had saved up Rs100,000 to buy a second room where he stays (his is a family of four people - self, wife, one son and one daughter). The other day he told me that he will not be able to buy the dream second room for quite some time. The story goes something like this - his sister's son is an ITI trained carpenter. Recently he secured a state government job in Mumbai; but before giving him his appointment letter the state government official in-charge demanded Rs150,000 as bribe. The family had no choice but to pool in all their savings to ensure that the young boy received his appointment letter and had a shot at breaking out of the vicious cycle.

My driver told me that the young boy will be drawing his second salary of Rs8,000 in a few days time. The bribe he had to pay was over one and half year's of salary of the boy. I do not know how but somewhere the "system" or society has to become more sensitive and sensitized. Otherwise what is the use of India prospering? Some of us may be able to gift diamonds to our better halves, some will gift aircrafts, some of us may be just satisfied with old fashioned gifts like flowers, books and cards, but how does a greater part of India prosper, how do the have-not's not feel like not-wanted in their own country?