Thursday, June 23, 2011

Club Chicken

There is an unseemly controversy at The Calcutta Club over the suspension of 2 Management Committee members – a somewhat usual occurrence, if not entirely unprecedented. One of them had sent out an email to the general members leveling some damaging charges against the incumbent President of the club, which was considered, probably rightly so, as a major misdemeanour not acceptable of a committee member. What the suspension effectively does is to debar the members from contesting the forthcoming annual elections of the club. A political masterstroke of "all the President's men" !!

Politics is not uncommon in clubs. In fact, some would argue – a healthy dose of politics is what makes club life what it is. The antics and machinations of rival groups at The Delhi Gymkhana – especially between its civilian and services factions – regularly make news in the mainline dailies. Members of many well-known clubs have been known to periodically go to court.But, what makes the current imbroglio at The Calcutta Club particularly interesting is that, one of the main issues of contention – is about the affairs of the kitchen and the Bar (Wine and Cigar Department).

In one of my earlier blogs (Raj Redux - click here) – I had described the club – as an extension of the “baithak khana” (parlour) of a North Calcutta Zamindar residence. The atmosphere remains like that of a Bengali joint family of olden days – with their share of enfant terribles and a few black sheep. So, you can trust a quintessentially Bengali institution to get worked up on the highly emotive subject of Food & Beverages.

In the instant case – it appears that, the previous committee had after a lot of deliberation changed the source of fish, poultry and meat supplies from the traditional vendors of New Market – to a Multinational Cash & Carry chain – that came to Calcutta sometime back. This did not go down well with the old guards of the kitchen. The current committee has reversed the decision and re-instated some of the earlier vendors. The letter of the dissenting Committee Members insinuates ulterior motives to this move among a whole host of other damning accusations.

I am not going to take sides, getting into the merits (or, for that matter, the lack of it ) of the allegations – though I would agree that there was serious breach of propriety on part of the earrant committee members in sending out such an email to general members without first tabling it before the committee. But, my concern remains wholly about the quality of food - because for me that's the principle attraction of the club (apart from it's great location) - for which I am prepared to suffer the atrocious service and shameless soliciting (for tips) of the bearers.

Incidentally, the Steward of another venerable club of Calcutta – who too have switched their supplies to the same Cash & Carry outfit – had sometime ago confided in my wife similar reservations about the quality of their stuff, lamenting the fall in standards. One thing I can vouch for is – on a good day, the beckti at the Calcutta Club – in any form, fried, grilled or as meuniere – is simply unbeatable. I can't say that, about the the other club anymore - though it's culinary excellence is legendary and still remains it's sole raison d'etre.

By and large - I have given up poultry – unless it’s the country (desi or gauti) chicken variety or duck. I think the broilers served in restaurants and hotels (now also in clubs) are better described as ‘wrestlers’ – which are as rubbery as they are tasteless. But, there are still a few places – where I eat chicken. These are usually the Muslim eateries in Calcutta or Delhi’s Jama – Masjid area (Karim's or Al Jawahar).

Today, caught in a heavy afternoon downpour on the way back from an external meeting, went to Shiraz in Park Circus for an unscheduled lunch and ordered a Chicken Chaamp to pair with the Mutton Biriyani. It was the breast of a tiny bird – tender and succulent. I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that – it could not have come from a Cash & Carry supermarket. It may not have been a pure grain fed free-range chicken – but it wasn’t from a commercial poultry farm either. The Miyan Restaurateurs and Bawarchis know their chicken for sure – and they could teach F & B Managers at Clubs and Hotels a thing or two about how to judge the quality of meats from the butcherie or vendors of fish and vegetables.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Spiritual Bazaar and Testosterone UGs

the spiritual economy

I don't think even the most ardent devotees of the Sai Baba would be surprised by the discovery of crores of rupees plus bullion and silver from his inner chamber. Religion in our secular nation operates pretty much on the principles of free market economy. So I don't quite fault the sage of Puthapurty or any other Baba, Mataji or Guru for amassing the wealth that gullible followers throw at their feet.

But, I am not sure if anyone has done an estimate of the size of this "spiritual bazaar" in monetory terms. Baba Ramdev claims that - if all the black money kept in Swiss and other foreign bank accounts was repatriated - then poverty would disappear from this country. I suspect that - if all the unaccounted wealth of our Godmen, women and religious trusts are brought to book - it would certainly lower the poverty index by a few basis points. It's another matter that, some of it would no doubt have found a way from the religious coffers to the pockets of politicians.

It's not that it's not happening even today. It was interesting to read sometime back how the Shiv Sena and the NCP cut a deal over the control of some major temple trust in Maharashtra. Apparently (if newspaper reports are to be believed), while NCP allowed the Sena the rights for the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai, the Sena llowed them to retain the franchise at the Sai Baba temple at Shirdi. It is common knowledge, how the ruling party in Andhra Pradesh exercise its influence at over the affairs of the Tirupati Devasthanam Trust.

In this regard, one can't help admire the practical foresight of Swami Vivekananda -considering he died so young (at 39). Knowing that money could easily be the undoing of the Sangha he was establishing - he laid down water tight rules of financial management at the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. It was mandated - a writ which runs even now without any dilution - that a not a single rupee received as donation or income, nor any monies spent - can go unaccounted. Therefore, you will note that even the monks of the order (as, indeed, the nums of Sarada Math) would issue a receipt alomost religiously - for the smallest donation.

testosterone fortified UGs

Among the Commercials seen on Bengali TV channels - the ones I find most offensive are those for male undergarments - featuring the stud brigade of Bollywood - Sunny Deol, Salman Khan, Sharukh Khan Akshay Kumar and now even the Chote Nawab (Saif). Last evening - an unforseen exigency made me go UG shopping in Durgapur. With some difficulty I found a hosiery shop in the local municipal market. And oh boy - did I have a choice? I was spoilt e - between Lux Cozi, Amul Macho, Dollar Club, Rupa Frontline and more. Brands which I never thought I'd ever touch. The tag line of one sounded like that of a popular cement brand "bahar se strong, andar se strong".

But, that made me think that, Bengalis may be suffering from a sudden crisis of libido. The other sleazy advertisements one sees are for some shady brands of deodorants (Click here to see video) and a highly suspect "Japani Tel" - which shows a snake charmer arousing a serpent, with obvious connotations.

Psychologists say - testosterone surge occurs in moments of elation and success - when there is an overwhleming sense of power. I am not sure if the converse would also true - in moments of despair and depression - when the spirit is willing and badly needs a boost but the proverbial flesh is weak.

This might sound as specious psychology - but could well be true for a race which can boast of only 2 testosterone heroes - Subhash Bose and Saurav Ganguly.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hair-cut at a wedding

Drove down to Durgapur (West Bengal) this afternoon - braving the rain and an upset tummy - to attend the wedding reception of a business associate's daughter.

I was quite awe-struck by the size and scale of the function - haven't attended a "Bengali wedding" (if there is such a term) like this even in Calcutta.

Obviously, it was 'new money' (in Bengali what we refer to as "kaccha poyesha" - literally, raw wealth) on display. But, for me it was a lesson in socio-cultural change that seemed to have swept the society in this intervening years that I have been away from Bengal. Bollywood and TV Serials have been the great unifier in this country.

The event itself must have been outsourced to a professional wedding-planner (didn't know that - we had them in Bengal, let alone in a small town like Durgapur). At the entrance - instead of traditional reception by the host family - there was a "helpdesk". Announcements over a public address system - was directing the traffic and guiding the drivers to the parking lot. There were over 3,000 guests. Needless to say the food was lavish. Apart from the main dining area - there was a "mela" kind of tent outside - with stalls for "chaat" (Phuchkas), rabdi-jalebi, coffee and ice-creams etc. There was an open bar (unthinkable till some years ago). A live musical performance was on - compered by a female MC, right across the stage where the bride was sitting. Clowns were walking through the crowd - entertaining the kids.

But, the ultimate was a Barber Shop and a Beauty Parlour for interested guests. Couldn't take a peek into the salon - but found the chaueffeurs were making good use of it - getting a shave or a head-massage.

So, it isn't as if there's no money left in West Bengal. But, wealth seems to have flown in a different direction. While industry has died a slow death and there has been a flight of capital from the state - it is the contractors, transporters, wheeler-dealers and political middle-men who have made it rich.

There's another strange breed of organisations - which have mushroomed in recent years. Some of these companies' have a mind-boggling range of businesses - from cement and steel, to food products, cosmetics and personal care products (soaps, shampoos and toothpastes), education and even tourism (Read article here) . Their source of funding is anybody's guess and theories abound from them being cover operations for politicians' monies to chit funds and ponzi schemes. One will probably never know the truth - but veryone seems to think that - the bubble will burst soon - like the great "Sanchaita" scandal of the 70s.

Till then - the newspapers and TV Channels (some of them fronts in their own rights) can make hay - as many of them are big advertisers while they last.

At the risk of sounding shamelessly parochial, I must admit - I came back to the hotel with a mild perverted sense of satisfaction that, at least in this case - the owner of the wealth was an ordinary uneducated Bengali. A rare specimen indeed !!

Post-script: It would be an unfair commentary if I didn't acknowledge, the main dinner selection was excellent. One of the best Pabda-maach I had in a long-time. The Iilish -tho' not exactly the "barsha" (peak monsoon) variety was good too and so was the Fish-Roll. Simple dessert of Rasogalla, Pantua and Kacha-golla. Wrapped up with a nice paan (from one of the stalls on the way out) - it was a satisfying meal indeed. And, most importantly, the hospitality of the bride's father - dressed in a simple white-turned-yellow shirt (his usual daily work attire) was genuinely warm.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Random ramblings from the road

I. Ghosh and Ghose

Book marketing is a big thing these days. So, suddenly I find Amitav Ghosh all over in newspapers and magazines (probably, soon on television too, Sunil Sethi’s Just Books or Anuradha Sengupta’s Beautiful People) – with his interviews timed for the launch of his new book “The River of Smoke” – a sequel to the earlier “Sea of Poppies”, the second of his Ibis trilogy.

Excessive publicity of a book or a movie makes me wary – but I trust Arunava (Sinha)’s review (click here). Arunava – who was a year junior in school, has turned out to be one of the finest translator of Bengali literature. His – English rendition of Sankar’s Chowringhee is a big hit and was recently also reviewed in The Economist. I loved his – My Kind of Girl (Buddhadev Bose’ “Amar Moton Meye” ) and looking forward to another Bose masterpiece – Tithidore, to be published later this year. Arunava has recommended – the new translation of Shesher Kobita by Radha Chakraborty (Farewell Song , Penguin) will get hold of it soon.

Back to Amitava Ghosh and The River of Smoke – I am still a bit scared of getting mired in his excessive research, which has weighed down some of his previous works (especially – The Sea of Poppies). So, I have thought of a way out – just to be sure. I have promised to first gift it to a friend - who’s literary sensibilities I implicitly trust – for “book tasting”. But, the problem is – she is quite smitten by Ghosh the author. So, in this case, her judgement may not be entirely unbiased. Not that Ghosh will really worry about one less reader or a copy not sold.

(Read my earlier blogs on Amitava Ghosh In Bed with Ghose and Sailing with Priyanka on the Ibis )

II. Hardware vs Software

I have already managed to offend at least one person by professing my love for Mumbai on Facebook – while writing in the same breath that, I feel positively depressed every time I land in Calcutta or set foot on Howrah Station. We have agreed to settle scores in private.

For those of you who may be interested, I had written about my love affair with Bombay in an earlier blog (click here to read: She loves me, she loves me not). For Calcutta, I will probably have to write a book.

But, while channel surfing yesterday – I briefly heard Shuvaprasanna , the “poriborton sheel” (read “Trinamool panthi”) artist, say something on Star Ananda that struck a chord. He said – one of our inheritance from Rabindranath should have been the sense of aesthetics and beauty. Today, Bengalis seem to have lost it completely. He cited – Nandan (the theatre complex next to Rabindra Sadan) as an example – where one is blasted by the putrid smell of urinals as soon as one enters. I have never been there – so wouldn’t know and have to take his word for it.

For me the biggest eye-sores are the atrocious architecture – even in newer and more affluent areas such as Salt Lake. Some are not just ugly but real monstrosities that defy all sense of aesthetics. I have a theory for that. I think every Bengali is a frustrated architect at heart (apart from other things - such as a poet, see the fancy poetic names we give to our homes). Therefore, they do not find value in appointing a professional for designing their homes and would rather depend on the “raj-mistry” (mason) to do it at their bidding.

I have no reason to doubt Mamata’s resolve to transform West Bengal. Apart from turning Calcutta to London (which shouldn’t be difficult because Calcutta was indeed fashioned after London – as the comparison of the maps of Central London and Central Calcutta would easily show) and Darjeeling to Switzerland – I am told she wants to make Calcutta Airport an international hub like Singapore.

Everything is possible and putting together the ‘hardware’ is least of the problem. But, the real issue would be the ‘software’ – will she be able to change the mindset and work-culture of the people.

I think of this every time, I have to catch a morning flight from Dumdum and get stuck in long serpentine queues – sometimes up to almost an hour. I have taken a count – the Calcutta Airport has as many security scanners and channels as Bombay – which operates many more flights in any given hour. Why don’t we have such long queues in Mumbai then – it’s all to do with the attitude of the people. (it’s amazing how – the efficiency of the same organization like CISF or even the airlines vary from city to city).

Mamata's lofty declarations of “internationalizing” Indian Railways hasn't met with spectacular success. Therefore, I don’t feel so confident about the “poriborton” she’d be able to create, by rhetorics alone, without some major genetic re-engineering.

III. A matter of taste

Talking of cities – just returned from a short trip to Kuala Lumpur. This is probably my 5th or 6th visit to KL. But, I have still not warmed up to the city. I, probably, haven’t explored it enough – but don’t think it has too much too offer either. It still retains vestiges of its colonial past and has pretensions of being a ‘world city’ like Singapore – but somehow falls flat despite its put on neo-modern fa├žade (sometimes you get the impression that it’s trying a bit too hard). Bangkok – is crowded and dirty but it has greater character and, more importantly, it has life that engulfs you like a wave. Hong Kong is a study in contrast – between its British heritage and Chinese hum-drum co-existing side-by-side. Shanghai and Tokyo are a different world of their own (haven’t been to Beijing).

But, I guess the rest of Malaysia is very beautiful. Expatriates also like to live here – says it has got a lot more to offer than Singapore and is well located to travel to other parts of South East Asia and the Far East.

Malaya food is not a patch on Thai cuisine ( I like it only in the US – when I am dying for Indian fare, it comes closest to my taste. The Penang chain of restaurants in the East Coast are my favourites). It’s a fusion of strong spices from different regions (including, of course, India) but lacking in the subtle flavours of Thailand. And, when it comes to women. I am yet to find a real Malaya beauty. Finally, it's all a matter of taste.

IV. Murder in Dey-light

The murder of J Dey – the journalist really saddened me. He was part of the launch team of Hindustan Times, Mumbai Edition. In fact, the inaugural issue had the lead story with his by-line about the infamous “Ash-Sallu” tapes. Though later the authenticity of the tapes were questioned (forensic tests etc like all the recent tape “leaks”), it didn’t take away anything from his reputation of being one of the most formidable feared investigative journalist and crime reporter in the country.

A man of few words – his image in a checked short-sleeved shirt (usually green or crimson with dark checks) and jeans, clutching his helmet is still stuck in my mind. I doubt if anything will come out of the investigations – despite the cudgels being picked up by his former colleagues and compatriots. The rot in our system is far too deep and the mafia-police nexus far too strong. So, one can only pray for the peace of his departed soul. A sad commentary on our society. But, unfortunately that’s the reality of the world we are living in today.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Kasht-kar-ani-mar = Customer

Yesterday’s Mint carried a news (Read article by clicking here ) about Vodafone sending legal notice to a customer for “defaming” the company on Facebook. The customer, in turn, has threatened to go to the consumer court and also file criminal proceedings against the company.

I am not sure about the merits or the specific details of the case. But, to me it appears that, Vodafone’s action is not just directed at this single customer but is also intended as a warning signal to other irate users and beligerent customers not to mess with them. As one of my Twitter buddies quipped – it would seem that they have changed their credo from “ready to help” to “ready to sue”. I am also reasonably certain than many consumer and service companies will be watching from the sidelines the outcome this wrangle with active interest.

Packing a punch

The news had a minor import for someone like me as well (and, would make the wife worry silly after she reads this post) – beacuse I am also one of those vocal customers – who doesn’t take a major lapse in service silently. Email and Social networks have made lodging complaints easier from the days – a cartoon in Punch once beautifully portrayed – when you could only fume through the ears and curse “Wait, till I write a Letter to the Editor of The Times”.


I would like to believe that I am not a habitual cribber and have no aspirations for becoming a ‘consumer activist” (though – I know some have turned it into a very paying profession). But I am a stickler for service. A friend told me, in airlines parlance I would be classified as a PPC rather than a CPC - the former standing for “potentially problematic customer” and the latter being “chronically problematic customer”.

adat se majboor !!

What to do – adat se majboor hoon !! My mother was the favourite cousin “sister” of a large bunch male cousins whom she grew up with. And, being the only “bhagne” (Bengali for bhanja) – I was spoilt silly by all of them and , as my Dad always complained, each one gifted one of their personality traits to me. (May be I should talk about it to my shrink and then blog on it !!) The one who had probably influenced me the most – taught me to never crib about service in a tea shop and be grateful for what you receive – because it’s worth more than what you pay for. But, when it’s a five star – who charge you a bomb on the promise of a moon – they better live up to their standards. Over time – I have extended this principle beyond hospitality industries to other service providers such as airlines and banks – all of whom try to sell on the basis of “experience”, reliability, trust etc and manufacturers who guarantee “quality”.

whose call is it anyway ?

As we turned into a consumer economy and there was an explosion in the service industry – be it banks, airlines, insurance and hotels, on line shopping, travel booking – it meant a boom of the “call centre” culture. Taking a cue from their counterparts in the west – the customer service cells in companies and service providers quickly withdrew behind an impregnable wall of call centre numbers and impersonal customer service email ids. So much so – if you check the websites of many of these companies or banks – you won’t even find the postal address and general telephone number of their offices, just in case you think of sending them a letter by post or call to speak to a company official. And, about the kind of support or problem resolution you get from the call centre staff – less said the better. It is very well brought in the recent TV Commercial of a cell phone company –featuring the Kapoor brat in a stand-up comedian act.

me zozzoo ?

I for one have been a zozzoo all along - a die-hard Voda / Hutch / Max customer from the time of inception of mobile telephony in India. All our family connections (except my official Blackberry) are Voda. But, it is also a fact that – very often I have had to seek the favour of friends in the organization (or the Corporate Relationship Manager ) to resolve problems with my accounts – almost inevitably running into dead-end with Customer-Care. Recently, when I switched to 3G services for my Blackberry – I encountered a problem for which the “technical support” of our corporate service provider gave me the most ridiculous explanation. Again, I to get it sorted out only with the intervention of a friend in that company.

On a trip to London sometime back – as I came out of the tube station I received an SMS message from my bank saying that my international credit card has been blocked due to some “suspect transactions” (had used it to recharge my Oyster Card just before that) and advised me to call the customer care number (in India) for help. First, it took me a god 3 – 4 minutes to get to the customer-care executive by-passing the recorded phone menu. Then – after validating my T-Pin and answering a slew of personal identification questions – the lady at the other end asked if I could tell her the amount of the last bill statement. When I told her that, I have an automatic direct debit instruction to my bank for the card and, therefore, didn’t remember the amount of the bill – she wanted to know – what were the last 5 transactions I had made on the card. Dammit – it was 9 O’clock at night in the UK and well past midnight back home in India. So from where on earth could I get her all those details. I asked to speak to her supervisor – which she first resisted but finally got her on the line after being kept on hold for another 5 minutes. And, mind you all this was happening over an international ‘roaming’ call – which was costing me Rs 150 a minute.

Voda wins again...

On returning to India I found a Rs 6k charge on my phone bill – which in fairness I couldn’t claim as a re-imbursement from the company. So, I first spoke and then wrote to customer service. I got the same standardized reply that, I should have informed the bank before leaving the country. I couldn’t understand, what was the point of having an international credit card – if I had to intimate the bank every time I travelled abroad. Next, they would probably want me to take their permission before stepping out of my house. Exasperated – I wrote to the expat CEO of the bank. Promptly, I got an email from their Head of Consumer Banking and a call from the PR Chief and in no time my telephone bill was settled. It was just a co-incidence that, in the final analysis, it is the cell-phone company (Voda in this case) which was the biggest beneficiary.

In my own experience, when complaints per email or “feedback forms” have not elicited any response – a simple mention on Twitter and Facebook has gotten the company – an airline or a large hotel chain - moving.

David vs Goliath

I hold no brief for any rogue consumer. But, I think this case could have wide ramifications on the system of consumer complaint redressal in this country. As I have mentioned earlier – I don’t know the provocations for Vodafone to contemplate such an extreme step. But, in India – where consumer rights is still at a very nascent stage – it’s very often a David vs Goliath story. If company officials become inaccessible and customer service remains – unresponsive, insensitive or incompetent - social networks could well become a legitimate forum for airing consumer grievances. But, if the Voda case is perceived as an act of intimidation - which might encourage other companies to follow similar method of dealing with inconvenient situations – it wouldn’t augur well for development of a healthy consumer culture in the country and might call for intervention of the government or courts to protect the rights of the ordinary consumers - who would not have the might of giant corporations with formidable legal muscles.

nursery lessons

In the nursery of consumer marketing where I grew up – we were taught, for every one complaint that reaches the company there are at least a hundred dissatisfied consumers who don’t bother to call or write but simply walk away for good. So we learnt to put up with serial offenders who would routinely insert rusty iron nails into packets of tea or insects in cold drink bottles and claim compensation from the company – for the sake of the many consumers who may have faced genuine quality issues.

One may ask – how does the same system work in western countries – especially when most of the “call centers” are located in India or other 3rd world countries. The answer to me is “accountability”. Abroad, no company can get away with their responsibility towards consumers by simply “outsourcing” customer-care. They are acutely aware of where the buck stops. The fallacy here is that, sometimes Indian companies think that by 'outsourcing' the process they can also shirk off their accountability.

A senior associate working for a public-sector "mini-ratna" had once told me jokingly – their definition of a customer. For us the customer is neither a king nor a queen - he or she is just one of those millions of faceless individuals for whom life is “Kasht-kar-ani maar” - said Singhvi-saab with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Dying by banging his head against the wall - used to be the lot of the Indian Consumer till not so long ago. It would be indeed sad, if professional arrogance makes some our leading consumer companies start thinking like public sector companies used to in licence and permit raj era.

But, till then I will think twice before I tweet next time when I suffer from airline rage, cell phone gripe or hotel blues. Or simply think of the lovable voda pug as an antidote to anger !!