Sunday, November 25, 2012

A foodie at rest

Much as I love Mumbai, in my book Delhi is the Food capital of India. For sure this is going to upset the Foodie elite of  some other cities. But, none can beat Delhi for its sheer range and variety. From Street Food to Dhabas, Canteens and Eateries, Cafes and Stand-alone restaurants  to Specialty Fine Dining at 5 Stars  - no other  city offers as much choice and options as Delhi. For all their faults , let’s admit it, Punjabis understand food – more importantly, are willing to shell out money for eating out.

more style than substance

Bombay's food scene really started changing in the '90s with  the discovery and subsequent up-market transformation of Mangalorean  Sea-Food joints like Trishna and Mahesh. Next to arrive were western food  restaurants like Rahul Akerkar's Indigo (successor of Cafe uner the Over)  and A.D. Singh's Olive Kitchen & Bar. Much later came, Moshe's, Basilico, Salt Water Cafe and, more recently, Smoke House Deli and LPQ.  Many chic places have sprung-up since in mid-town (Lower Parel area) and the suburbs - most notably, Bandra, such as the Pali Café, but most of them are more style than substance –  feast for the eyes and wallet rather than the palate. The coming of age of Malwani eateries has added a new ethnic dimension at the budget end - but Street food in Mumbai has a limited variety -  largely restricted to the old Mill-workers’ staples. Mumbai doesn't have any real Dhabas. The old Irani Cafes have all but disappeared. Few people go to Sion Koliwada these days other than residents of the area. Muslim food  generally available around the city (not specific quarters like the Bohri Mohalla and  Mohammed Ali Road ) , as typified by Bade Miyan in Colaba or Jafferbhai’s Delhi Durbar, - is unexciting for those initiated into the finer traditions of  Mughlai / Nizami cuisine of Delhi, Lucknow or Hyderabad. Parsi and Irani food are difficult to come by and now exist only for the die-hards. After the demise of City Kitchen – New Martin’s remains the last flag-bearer of authentic  Goan fare.  I am not a great fan of GujjuFood – so won’t enter into a debate on the intricacies of Gujarat nu Jaman here (though you can now get it in Delhi too with Branches of Rajdhani  all over).  But, finally, at the top end, the F & B outlets at 5 Stars in Mumbai are miles behind  those of Delhi.

trying too hard

Like in many other aspects of cosmopolitan living  – Bangalore also tries hard on Food, but is yet to get there totally . Chennai is still too regional – barring the odd exception.  Calcutta – unfortunately, like in everything else -  has been out of  the race for quite some time now (ultimately it all boils down to a function of disposable income).

walled city to world city

What makes Delhi stand-out from other cities is – apart from  the original Mughlai, Punjabi and North Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) cuisine  – you can get food from practically all over India and also a wide international variety that is now available in the city. The last is thanks not only to the presence of a large expatriate population and  diplomatic corps, foreign tourists and business travelers but also a size-able section of the more discerning, well-traveled and well-heeled Delhiites - who believe in , to use the local parlance, a culture of "wining and dining". So, Delhi can now boast of some of the finest Italian, Western Grills, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and specialty Chinese restaurants and, mind you, not all of them at 5 Stars. Even Cafes like Big Chill or Turtle and boutique restaurants such as Basil & Thyme offer great quality and value. It's difficult to beat the ambience of some like Magic in the Garden of 5 senses (Mehrauli) or the restaurant in Lodi Gardens.  Borrowing a line from an old Times of India campaign, Delhi has - at least in culinary terms -  transformed itself from a "walled city" to a truly "world city".

intimations of mortality

As I turn older and intimations of mortality get louder by the day – I am trying to pare down choices to a few  favourites – knowing that time is running out. This applies to as much to people and relationships as it does to places  I visit, things I like and restaurants  I frequent.  On eating out I now feel an aversion to experiment  unless it comes  with very strong recommendation from people whose judgment I intrinsically trust.

selective binging

Now that I don’t travel to Delhi as often – I have become even more selective. For me – the food map of Delhi begins at Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk Area and restricted to the boundaries of the outer Ring Road. So the Haryanvi frontiers of Gurgaon  - which has its own gastronomical universe - are definitely outside my beat.  But, within this limited geography I am able to get my fill from both ends of the spectrum. These are my top 10 ‘do not miss’ picks for Delhi . Connoisseurs may not approve of the list and the true-blue Dilli-wala may dismiss the selections as far from being the representative best.  I too have been to and known better places. But this is all I have the time, inclination or budget for these days - when I'm feeling adventurous and energetic enough to step out from the IIC Bar:

  1. Karim’s Jama Masjid: Sheermal, Seekh Kebab (2 pcs) , Mutton Burra (1/2 portion), Roomali Roti with Chicken Korma (Breast piece) and Mutton Biriyani (1/2 plate) 
  2. National Dhaba, Connaught Place : Sag-Mutton, Gurda-Kaleji, Chicken Curry (Breast Piece) and Tandoori Roti;
  3. Taipan – The Oberoi : Dim Sums and  Roast Peking Duck –  Full Meal ( of Pancake Rolls; Duck-Meat in Black-bean sauce with Steamed Rice and Clear Duck-Soup)
  4. Tamura (Japanese) Green Park – Sushi, Sashimi, Pork Spare-Ribs, Agedashi Tofu; Omlette Rice
  5. The Goong (Korean) Green Park: BBQ Pork Belly and Kimchi 
  6.  La Piazza, The Hyatt : Almost everything – but never miss the Carpaccio;
  7.  India International Centre  (Main Dining Hall) : Roast Mutton and Ginger Pudding;
  8.  Chaat  Wala (Behind UPSC ) Shahzahan Road 
  9.  Andhra Bhavan , Ashoka Road: Veg Thali plus Mutton Fry and Chicken Curry; Chicken Biriyani for Sunday lunch.   
  10. Rick’s (Bar) – The Taj Mansingh;

the last stop before heaven

My last stop on every trip – before leaving for the airport is Jorbagh Market.  Smoked Chicken and Smoked Leg of Ham from Pigpo; Masala Sausages and Cheeses from The Steakhouse. While Pigpo, as the name suggests, is probably the best Pork Products shop in the country – The Steakhouse is one of its kind grocery store, which no Wal-Mart will ever be able to match. 

While Bombay has a rocking night-life, the food-scene in Delhi really rocks. But, I am a retired foodie - at rest now - so don't take me too seriously.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pride, party and pice

Reading Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography – Beyond the Lines (Roli Books) now.  Nayar is the sort of person – even whose best friends would find it difficult to understand the reasons for his rise to such fame.  His writing style is lackluster. He doesn't have the intellectual depth of say – B G Verghese, erudition of Sham Lal or even Khushwant Singh’s knowledge of history. His gossipy tidbits and juicy nuggets often appear as part conjecture and part concoction to be consumed with a large dollop of salt (he admits to having manufactured an 'interview' with Sheikh Abdullah, since the Sheikh had refused to say anything on record about the Emergency. His story of Narasimha Rao sitting at a Puja, while the Babri Masjid was being demolished is, at best, fantastic and his insinuations about foulplay in Shastri's death is plain grist for the rumor mill). He indulges in sweeping generalizations (Bengalis are “anti-centre” – we  are anti-everything!!), is an indefatigable namedropper and has deep personal prejudices (has something unkind to say about almost every one he has mentioned in the book and no qualms about getting even with his friends and contemporaries).  

To me – he was more of a reporter (than an editor or journalist) – who managed to position himself at the right time with the right people at the right place –   and obviously thrived on his ‘connections’ (including that of his in-laws, the Sachars. Old Congress stalwart Bhim Sen Sachar was his father-in-law and Justice Rajinder Sachar author of the famous Sachar Report is his ‘saala’). By his own account, he comes across as a bit of a 'political animal' too. He doesn't make any secret of trading in favours and takes pride in his purported back-room political dealings. He claims to have "helped" Lal Bahadur Shastri become PM ( Pg 262 -  why blame poor Barkha Dutt trying to put in a word for A Raja ?) Another reason for his success, perhaps, was that, he wrote for the lowest common denominator of the newspaper audience. For his time, he was relatively affluent too (house in plush Vasant Vihar). His book on the Emergency – 'The Judgment' – was an instant best-seller and riding on its popularity he was one of the first Indian journalists to syndicate his column (even before Khushwant Singh, I think). In short, he was an older edition of Shekhar Gupta, no wonder Gupta once referred to him as a “guru” (only to later axe his column from the Express).

Take it with these caveats and you might even enjoy this mildly salacious commentary on the history of post-independence India - seen with tinted (green not sepia) glasses and written with an obtusely slanted pen.  Though, I wish the editing of the book was a little more competent (habeas corpus is spelt as ‘habius corpus’ - pg 240) knowing that language isn't Nayar's strongest suit.

Is the Party over ?

Like every July 21st, this year too Mamata brought Calcutta to a grinding halt with Trinamool’s annual show of strength - the “Shahid Divas” rally (Kolkata's pain in Party's gain). All arteries of the city – including the Howrah Bridge – were choked with over 5 lakh people pouring in from all over the state. In contrast, the CPIM had organized a rally  of nearly a million cadres on February 19th , which was a picture of organization and discipline.  At yesterday’s meeting Mamata famously declared the Trinamool Congress’ decision to go it alone in the state, while still continuing to remain a part of the UPA at the Centre.

Mamata had clearly overplayed her cards on the Presidential Elections in opposing Pranab Mukherjee’s only to eat her own humble pie later on – after being ditched by her new found brother Mulayam.  She’s now stuck in an unenviable position where she can’t leave the UPA nor join the NDA – her so called ‘indispensability’ having been seriously compromised with the Samajwadi Party extending support to the UPA (without formally joining it, yet) and even Mayawati maintaining a neutral  - politically expedient- posture. It’s almost as if she’s begging to be kicked out of the house but Sonia is just extending her agony by not obliging.

Prior to this she faced the minor set-backs in the Municipality Polls (where of all Trinamool lost in Haldia) and the Singur case against Tata Motors.

Will these reverses sober her down a little? I think so. And, that might actually augur well for West Bengal as she is forced to focus on governance and development of the state. It's time to stop partying and start work.

Pice Hotel

Don’t know what’s the origin of the name “Pice Hotel” –  Siliguri is full of them.  ‘Kalpana’ is still the most famous but its quality has gone down in recent times I am told.  So on this trip, I was taken to Usha Hotel on Jalpai Mor. Lovely Mourola Maccher Jhol, Aad Maccher Jhaal and Shorshe Iilish. The Aad was really fresh and, I was told, comes from Katihar. The Iilsh is of Padma  smuggled across the border. Though very nice, the best of the season is yet to come.  

Next stop will be “Chalachal”  known for its Mangsho Bhaat.  A friend on Twitter (@deep_anchor) has recommended Jajabar Hotel on Teesta Bank in Jalpaiguri (specialty - Chitol). But, the place I am waiting to go is ‘Popular Hotel’ in Falakata, near Dhupguri – which by many accounts has the most outstanding ‘imported’ Iilish from Bangladesh.

P.S Another Twitter friend @filmichef thinks “Pice” has its etymological roots in Rice – as these were originally cheap “Bhaater Hotel”. Pice could also be a variation of paisa - writes @geffbeck - indicating you could get a meal for a few paisa here. Remember the adage 'one pice father - mother' ?  Or pice could also have come from piece - as you pay by the piece (usually fish). A number of my FB friends affirm the 'paisa' theory  ("ek poisha ye pet bhorti khabar"). 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mumbai musings

Mumbai is in the throes of ACP Dhoble (Assistant Commissioner of Police, Vasant Dhoble)’s “social” (as distinct from “moral”) policing. Ever since  the Social Services Branch of Mumbai Police – placed under him -  busted a couple of ‘rave’ parties involving kids of celebrities , high and the mighty –  who later tested positive for drugs – the city has been up in arms against him. Rallies are being held demanding his removal and ‘anti-Dhoble protestors’  are  valiantly courting arrests

The socio-lectuals  (Mumbai is proud of the fact – it doesn’t have any ‘intellectuals) are outraged.  The media Diva – Tavleen Singh tweeted:  “If someone wants to have a rave in a private home why should the police have a right to interfere”. She went on to add,  “surely the police must be doing more to catch drug dealers and terrorists and less on catching adult revelers”.


Pooja Bedi, another great mind hidden in a fab body,  had a different take in her weekly column. While taking care to stay on the right side of Dhoble (her own social diary must be quite a rave) ,  she says power should not be used “selective”.

All this, probably, inspired Aakar Patel – the only true intellectual of our time,  to devote his entire weekly piece on the ancient India’s connection with cannabis.

Ordinary folks have  more simple concerns such as places like Amar Juice Centre in Ville Parle (Irla, actually – opposite Cooper Hospital) closing down by 11  –  one of the few places  in the suburbs people could find something  to eat  (other  than  5 Star Coffee Shop)  after a late shift or post midnight show  movie.

The man is no doubt controversial and there can be two views about his method and motives. Surely, this can't be a clamour for legalizing drugs. That Mumbai is India’s most hip city – doesn’t give it an unfettered moral licence. Even New York had to contend with a Robert Giuliani’s tough act. It is his ‘cleansing’ drive that made New York the city it is today. 

In a country where, most laws are more than a 100 year old – the Bombay Police Act of 1951 would almost appear modern. But, it is a law that was followed more by exception than as a rule.  I also don’t buy the logic that – it is the drug peddlers who need to be targeted more than the drug users. Where there is demand – supply will always find its way. So both ends have to be tackled simultaneously for effective result.  But, interpretation of the law is always a tricky affair. 

So, it is a thin line that would distinguish a lady making liquor chocolates at home as a  commercial “hobby”  under the Excise & prohibition rules and another selling Bhaang Ka Laddus under the Narcotics act. What so different between discreetly adding a driblet of opium into a hookah as opposed to rolling a joint at a party  - or, for that matter, between having a swig and a sniff of Coke.


Finally discovered Arsalan in Khar having heard a lot about it from friends on Twitter. It is at the junction of S. V. Road as come from the Khar Road Railway Station. Didn’t go in to check it out –  will take the word of the Tweeple fraternity for it –  but I was impressed by the look and scale of the place, nothing like their rather shady outlet one in Bangalore. I am sure the prices will be suitably indexed over Calcutta by the PPP factor of Mumbai. Apart from home delivery – it seems they have already started also a home catering service as I figured out from the display on their van parked outside. Why can't they do something on a similar style in their 'home town' of Calcutta, I wonder. Mumbai broadens people's outlook for sure.


Auto Rickshaw

Auto rides have become quite expensive in Mumbai. Last time I took one from our company guest-house to the domestic airport early morning charged me Rs 70 and I thought he jipped me. But, today I paid Rs 50 each way to Khar and back. In comparison – on a relative scale – taxis seem less expensive. A trip to Byculla cost me Rs 125. Looks like – the Auto Drivers’ Union (probably controlled by one of the two Senas) is more effective than the ‘immigrant Bhaiyas’ dominated Taxi Drivers’ outfit.

Aaj ka Slumdog

Child labour still thriving in the heart of Mumbai.  This young boy  was working “bindaas” at the Banarasi Sweet Shop and Restaurant, where I stopped by for a Lassi. The owner couldn’t be bothered. Why should they be – if customers like me don’t raise a voice and are happy to go away just by clicking a snap on the mobile phone ?

Saturday, June 09, 2012


Spent a lovely week in Coonoor last month. It’s without a doubt our favourite hill station. The weather is just right -  never too cold - and it has little attraction for tourists other than the Sim’s Park for it to get over-crowded. We love  the Wellington Gymkhana.  Though the food , over the years, has become slightly indifferent and the service a bit variable – the view from the sit-out of the cottages , of the tea gardens and the golf course, makes up for everything.  For us it’s usually five days of doing nothing  - not even  Golf - except for long walks  and the mandatory visits to Bakers’ Junction in the evenings to pick up bread, locally made cheese (Gray’s Hill and Acres Wild) and Pomelo Marmalade.

The problem with Calcutta is the lack of getaways. It’s one more reason to miss Mumbai – with Goa just a handshake away or even Khandala, Pune and Mahabaleshwar at striking distance Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai all have more than their  fair share of places for short breaks.  It’s a pity though because very few states are blessed with such range of vista as West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee points out, for once got it correct (given her fantastic sense of Geography.  Remember her classic “Bengal is the gateway to the countries of the North East” and “Bangladesh, which is the border of Pakistan”? ).  West Bengal is endowed with natural bounty – from the Himalayas at one end to the Bay of Bengal on the other, traversing through forests, rivers and many heritage sites. But, the woeful infrastructure doesn’t offer many options for a decent holiday.  Especially after Darjeeling has gone out of bounds.,  a Bengali  traveling to the Nilgiris to enjoy the tea gardens may  not  be as New Castlenian (if one were to coin a term) as it may sound.  Today, Bangkok, Phuket and Langkawi (and even Kunming in China) have emerged as popular holiday destinations for Bengalis and Calcuttans thanks to ‘low-cost’ airlines and budget hotels.

On returning from Coonoor what hit me hard is not the steam-bath weather of Calcutta – but the cruel credit card bills. Though, we had the luxury of staying at the Club (which was a saving grace) – what dealt the killer blows are the air-fares and taxi bills.  Which begs the question – why can’t we holiday in India without having to go broke? Or is it that we have become too snooty and spoilt for our own good?

That’s probably being a little unfair. Basically, I don’t think we have got our act right as far as cost equations  go in the tourism and hospitality business  or  for that matter even in airlines ( perhaps,  Indigo  is the only exception).  So, what’s ‘affordable’ is really lousy quality and what is passed off as ‘budget’ is sometimes as steep as a good 4 or 5 star in Thailand or Malaysia.  Even neighbourly Nepal offers far greater value for money for an ordinary tourist. So, no wonder more and more Indians are opting to holiday abroad than at home.

There are exceptions, of course. Home-stays in Kerala have caught on. And, the latest Kerala Tourism ads promote it as a destination for all seasons and to suit all pocket sizes. Goa has something to offer at every price-point from the shoe string to the ultra luxury.  Rajasthan too operates across a range – from the bag-packers to the super rich.  But, that’s about it. In the rest of the country the infrastructure, particularly at the lower end of the spectrum, is worse than pathetic.

Yet, as the poet wrote, we travel the world but overlook the beauty at our own back-yard. As a Bengali, I am ashamed to admit that I have never been to the Sunderbans – partly because till recently no infrastructure worth its name existed there.  I am told now a few Eco Resorts have come up – which aren’t too bad.  Monsoons are certainly not the time to go there. But, I hope to make amends this winter and wade through a few pages of Amitav Ghosh’ The Hungry Tide. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Vanishing" Poriborton

So Mamata completes a year in office.  In the coming days newspapers , magazines and television  will try to outdo one another with articles and features analyzing ad nauseam her  performance so far, to which – no doubt -  Op-Ed writers and “Bidwojon-s” of  the National Media will add their wisdom and pass  ‘interim’ judgment. So,  thought it is an opportune time for me to tuck-in my 2 penny bits to it before other illustrious and more qualified people get into the act.

A very senior Delhi-based columnist and media commentator, a non-resident Bong, has been commissioned by a top national magazine to do such a piece on Trinamool’s 365 days in power. I was mildly flattered, when he invited me for a beer at one of the clubs – to have my take on some of the issues. And, it took  me just a swig of Kingfisher to launch into my pet rant on everything that Mamata and TMC seem to be doing wrong.

But, about half-way through our conversation, I paused like a subject on a therapist’s chair, and asked – wait a minute, are we being entirely fair to her? After a while – we both agreed, it’s probably too early to write her off yet and the jury is still out.  Disenchantment is a creeping process – though it may not take another 34 years, as it did to throw CPIM out – it’ll be some more time before it turns into a tide against her.  For that to happen earlier, she has to commit some terrible blunders – which she probably won’t, as – at the end of the day – she has too much political horse-sense to know she can’t mess around with her constituency beyond a point.

Megalomania or Incipient Paranoia

Yet, she is beginning to show disturbing signs of megalomania. Her intolerance to criticism, vulnerability to flattery and sycophancy  and – what the famous Ashish Nandy calls  - incipient “paranoia” (they want to “vanish” me ), reveals some shades of Indira Gandhi in the height of power. Though, it would be rather harsh to call them fascist traits as few die-hard cynics might tend to do.

Again like Indira Gandhi followed a different agenda at home and abroad – Mamata has a different line in the state and another one for the centre. When in Delhi, she flirts with non-Congress CMs to play the ‘federalism’ card (NCTC) , takes adversarial positions with the Centre on matters of fund allocation to the state and policy issues such as FDI in Retail. She wants to be consulted foreign policy issues with neighbours (Bangladesh - Teesta).  These too are reminiscent of Mrs Gandhi’s and parallels can be drawn with her dalliance with the Soviets and the “Non-aligned” Block or trying to prop up SAARC.  Back in Calcutta – she reverts to IG’s “Garibi Hatao” like populist chant of “Ma, Mati, Manush”.

Take a deep breath

There’s absolutely no denying , what brought  Mamata to power is her  call for change – “Poriborton” . But, while capitalizing on it for electoral success – she hasn’t been able to harness the goodwill, enthusiasm and positive energy of the masses for transformation of the state.  Something that, a Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Narendra Modi has been able to do. Today, one can feel a palpable pride among the Biharis – which has also been transmitted to the Diaspora living across the country and even overseas. In Gujrat too – the heightened sense of  chauvinism fuelled by the  state’s success in almost every field  is there for all to see – not just at the Vibrant Gujrat summits or the Amitabh Bacchan’s “Breathe in a bit of Gujrat’ TVCs.  ( See one by clicking here )

Attitude is everything

What is needed to transform Bengal – is a change in the work culture and attitude of people. Industry and investment will come in only with that – not by trying to market the state by signing up Sharukh Khan as Brand Ambassador and holding Bengal Leads or Rising Bengal Summits – a la Gujrat.

And, no one was better placed to do that than Mamata Banerjee. Even her worst critics would admit, Mamata’s singular strength is her ability to connect with people.  it's not for nothing that, TIME Magazine has named her among the 100 most influential persons in the world today. She has an earthy charisma and the girl from down the lane who-made-it-good  appeal, which she could use to her advantage to become a truly inspirational leader of the masses. Her call for change shouldn’t have ended with asking for votes for a change of guard at Writers’ Building – but going much beyond that to imbue the people with a new spirit of determination and enthusiasm to transform the state from within. Alas, this is where she has failed  to rise to the challenge and display the qualities expected of a visionary leader.

Governance is the key

The second issue where she seems to be completely out of depth – and in which both Nitish and Modi have scored spectacularly – is governance.  This is an area she should focus on to salvage the state from the morass it is swamped in. To do that would mean two things. One she has to cut off the politicians and establish direct channels of administration – as Nitish, Modi and – to some extent – even a Navin Patnaik has done.  But, perhaps – she can’t do that because she needs her party network to counter the grass-root machinery of the CPIM.

In the process, she is weakening the state administration, without - perhaps - realizing it,  even more than what it used to be during the Left Front rule. This is coupled with her lack of trust in her won colleagues and the scant regard with which she treats the bureaucracy or officials (as was evident in her action against  the South Calcutta Dy. Commissioner of Police, Damayanti Sen after the Park Street “rape” incident or from the peremptory manner in which she deals with senior  bureaucrats in public).

Forget a Nitish or Modi – who have some of the most competent and progressive officers  working for them , whom they have empowered completely –  a Mayawati or Akhilesh Yadav  too realize the importance of an efficient bureaucracy. People may have different views on the things Mayawati  (or, say  Jayalalitha  in her previous terms ), may have done in her 5 years – be it building gigantic monuments or getting private operators of her choice to make world-class Expressways. But, she couldn’t have achieved any of it without having officers with strong execution capabilities under her. And, all of them realize the importance of law and order in governance. So, even the detractors of Mayawati credit her for retrieving UP from “goonda raj”.

Listening (in)ability

The next is the ‘trust’ factor. All good leaders have a few strong aides, political managers and administrators around them. They understand the value of experience.  But, Mamata doesn’t make use of talent.  She has made all the capable people around her ciphers. A Subrata Mukherjee or Saugata Roy – could very well have played the role of elder statesmen in the party or government. But, they have been sidelined. The story of Dinesh Trivedy is well known. An Amit Mitra and Manish Gupta are non-entities in her scheme of things. She is the No 1, 2 and 3 of the party as people say of Sonia in the Congress (the cartoon below could have would be true of her as well  - just that no cartoonist would dare lampoon her anymore).  A leader must also have the time and patience to “listen”. But, she loves the sound of her own voice too much and is a narcissist when it comes to her own thoughts and ideas. 

But, more dangerously - perhaps - she seems to believe she alone has all the answers. someone joked, after Tagore, Mamata is probably the most versatile personality in the history of modern Bengal . She is at once a politician, an administrator, an artist, a poet, a singer, a town-planner, an educationist. The list can go on.

She is not Caesar’s wife. She is (still) single

The last count on which she makes me extremely worried is corruption. All said and done – during the Left Front regime “corruption” was almost miniscule – as compared to the rest of the country.  There is an apocryphal story about a late CPIM leader having gone to a non-resident Bengali  tycoon, who had the reputation of being a ‘banker’ to many politicians, asking if would keep some of his money. It seems the tycoon told him – 'I don’t deal in small change, first learn to earn and then come to me".

This is changing very fast.  And, perhaps unalterably so. It is common knowledge that Trinamool is breeding all pervading corruption in the system and her party workers and leaders are all on the take, trying to make a quick buck while it lasts.  I don’t believe this is something Mamata is unaware of. Though personally, she may be unimpeachable (it would probably be an affront to her maidenhood to compare her with Caesar’s wife) – but, perhaps, she is helpless as this is a by-product of the political structure and organization she has created.  But, if left unchecked this may come to haunt her soon.

Bengal at a cusp

In most marriages the ‘honeymoon’ lasts for some time. But, there are some in which the trauma and ordeal start from the nuptial night itself.  This one seems to be like that. But, there are instances in which the most troubled relationships settle down over time and even give way to love. Let’s hope this turns out to be a case of the latter.

So, as I said at the start, it may be too early to put a ‘paid’ stamp on the Poriborton bill. Mamata (and, by association West Bengal) is standing at a cusp. From here things can go either way.  With intelligence and some amount of  wisdom and vision Mamata can check the secular decline of West Bengal and change its trajectory like Nitish has done to Bihar or Modi has been able to accelerate in Gujrat. The sad contra scenario could be, she would  take it down like Lalu – not by her lack of integrity or intent (as Lalu had )  – but by sheer administrative incompetence.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Porn in the Gully

Food Porn, I believe, is the new  “in” term. Quite appropriate too – because much of what is dished out in the form of “food blogs” these days is so crass it could easily pass of as Porn.  Real Food writing is supposed to evoke the taste buds of the reader through words and titillate the palate by description of the experience (somewhat like what Music or Art critics do) – rather than photos uploaded from smart-phones with smart-alec captions.

Most people who like to call themselves Foodies actually know trifle little about food. Gourmets and Food Connoisseurs are a vanishing breed – not surprisingly, because ‘fine dining’ is a dying cult.

With fewer people cooking at home and domestic  chefs  (bawarchis and khansamas) nearly extinct  - people have to look outside  for great dining experiences.  But, even that is difficult find in a world taken over by  fast food revolution. What today passes off as  “specialty restaurants”  are rip-offs  and “nouvelle cuisine ” is a con-art.

Therefore, other than in Europe (essentially France), Tokyo, New York, San Francisco and, perhaps – arguably, London and Singapore  - the best places to eat are actually in the streets and hole-in-the-wall eateries. And, which can be a better place to go on a culinary expedition than in the by-lanes of Lucknow.

Tucked inside the serpentine gully encircling Awadh Gymkhana Club in Quaiserbagh is Sakhawat.  In my book , by definition, any food joint in Lucknow that has a web-site is at once to be disqualified, as it can't be authentic. Blatant self-seeking publicity is against the grain of the city’s Nawabi culture. So, as soon as Tunde Miyan’s decided to open outlets in Malls and extend franchises to other cities, they immediately got knocked off my list.  But, I am willing to make a concession for Sakhawat’s , as yet – even though they have a web site ( - warning terrible navigation) and the present co-owner Mukhtar Ali has a visiting card listing their credentials , which he hands out on asking.

Mukhtar Ali’s great-grandfather  - Nazim Ali - was a chef for a Brigadier of the British Army and had also cooked for several Nawabs’. In 1911, his son, Wahid Ali opened a small dhaba near a mazhar opposite the Awadh Gymkhana Club.  He later obtained the contract for running the canteen of the club, which he ran for 36 years till his death in 1960. Later, following differences with the Club Management – his son, Haji Sakhawat Ali, started the present day Sakhawat Restaurant.

Mukhtar Ali

Nazim Ali and Wahid Ali were highly decorated. But the subsequent generation too are accomplished as you will find listed on the site. But, what - to my mind – really sets Sakhawat apart is their Institute ( or Training Centre) of Awadhi Cuisine – which, if run well, can be a great service towards preserving the royal tradition of Awadhi Food .

Sakhawat’s has a repertoire of over 100 dishes – many of which they make only on order or for private catering. But, they have daily specials on the Menu, like the Mutton Champ and Boti we had on Thursday evening.

Wahid Ali's Decorations
Recent Awards & Recognitions

The Kebabs of Lucknow are characterized by their softness – “melts in the mouth” quality - unlike the more challenging, tougher and sinewy Barbecues of the North West Frontier that traveled to India via Peshawar. That's because most Awadhi Kebabs are “cooked” on Tawas or pans rather than roasted in the Tandoor. Even those – like the Kakori – which are skewered over fire – are mashed and tenderized to perfection. North Indian Kebabs use very little condiments other than ginger-garlic paste, dried red-chillies and yoghurt for marinade – but subtle spices like saffron and garam-masala make a quiet entry as  east towards Lucknow.  As the preparations rise up  the evolution ladder the more exotic nutmeg, mace, shah jeera and shah marich find their way  into recipes. The Boti Kebab  at Sakhawat was sautéed  with juliennes of ginger  and black pepper – which gives it a zing which is pleasant and not sharp on the tongue.  The champ, in contrast,  had a touch of elaichi and cinnamon.

Kebab Paratha being made
Even the texture of the breads turns more sensuous.  They are no longer the challenging ‘break me if you can’ variety of Karari Tandoori Rotis or Naan – but have a more inviting ‘bite me with love’ quality  of the  nubile Shirmal or the more sinful paratha. All this might lend credence to the theory  of the Lucknowi Nawabs having poor dental health.  However, at Sakhawat’s they make an interesting  variant of kebab - paratha by pounding the dough on an up-turned Kadai lightly brushed with oil. It’s a thin flat bread slightly burnt in the middle – crispy but only just so  to scoop up the masala of the kebab from the plate to linger on the taste.

Prakas Kulfi House -Aminabad

Like any honest "only meat" restaurant, Sakhawat doesn't serve any sweets. So, we had to adjourn to another part of the town to indulge our sugar craving.  Prakash in the old quarters of Aminabad – is a basic, no non-sense Kulfi-wala. The best part is – they make only one variety of Kulfi – take it or leave it – knocked out of old-style metal dabbas .  No weird variants of colour and flavours that’s become the bane of  so many, once traditional, dessert counters.

No not exactly a Nawabi end to an evening of food adventure – I succumbed to the Kulfi as someone had told me – the frozen condensed milk helps to settle a heavy greasy meal. Be that as it may, it was a nice wrap up of a professionally unproductive but gastronomically rewarding day.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Doctor, nay Director, heal thyself

Last week a Pune State Transport Bus driver ran amuck and killed 8 persons on the road and injured at least 28 others. Who should be held responsible for the incident – the Driver, the Managing Director of State Transport or the Transport Minister? The answer is clear – it’s the bus driver certainly. But, if we were to alter the situation slightly and it’s established that the accident occurred due to poor maintenance of the buses, which was within the knowledge of the administration – the proposition will change dramatically.

The primary responsibility of a public transport service is to ensure the safe travel of its passengers. If safety standards were compromised knowingly or willfully – the blame cannot be limited only to the driver and it should rightly go all the way to the helm of the organization. If it’s proven that, the bus driver was mentally unsound (just as it could have been a case of bad eyesight) the question would arise if the organization had a system of regular health check-ups of its employees – especially the drivers in whose hands you trust the lives of hundreds of passengers.

Since the AMRI incident, an analogy is being drawn with a train accident or deaths in government hospitals and the question being asked is – if the Railway Minister or State Health Minister are not arrested after a rail or hospital tragedy, why should directors of a private hospital be charged for an accident in their establishment. The question has been raked up again with the arrest of the 2 famous Doctors on the AMRI board - Dr Mani Chhetri and Dr Pronab Dasgupta - last Friday. In my opinion, the logic is both warped and specious.

The larger issue is one of Corporate Governance. Historically, Corporate Directorships were treated as a freebie – a lot of perks without responsibility or accountability. The Satyam, Enron and other cases of corporate misfeasance brought home the point that, Directorship is serious business. But, the focus was primarily on financial aspects and softer issues like safety at work place didn’t get too much attention. The only case in which the culpability of directors for an accident was tangentially touched upon was – perhaps – Union Carbide’s Bhopal Gas Tragedy matter.

Managing a hospital as a corporate business enterprise – where you are dealing with the lives of people is a different ball game. There is a huge element of trust and an unwritten contract of indemnity involved. When you are soliciting patients for treatment and care, in a way you are taking charge of their lives. Here, people getting onto the Board of the Hospital can’t treat it casually - like the Membership of a Club Committee – and must be conscious of the responsibilities that come along with it. You can’t accept the position of “Managing Director” being naïve about the legal obligations of the role.

The AMRI case is, of course, muddied by murky politics. Initially, there was a parochial twist given to it by insinuating that, only the Marwari (and “non-Bengali”) directors had been singled out. The subsequent arrest of the 2 doctors on the Board – could well have been as a reaction to that criticism. Now there is an outrage amongst the doctors’ fraternity in the city that, this will deal a severe blow to the medical profession itself. But, both don’t change the basic nature of the contentions.

The public has a right to know what kind of pecuniary benefits these ‘external’ directors drew from the company both directly and indirectly (e.g. did they treat patients privately in the hospital – which would be a direct conflict of interests unless they were also engaged in a ‘professional’ or 'executive' capacity and could itself could upturn the case on its head – taking the wind out of the claims of these doctors that they had no knowledge of the day-to-day running of the place). To what extent – they involved themselves in the affairs of the hospital beyond signing Board Minutes and collecting ‘sitting fees’. If they didn’t take interest in the basic functioning of the hospital it could tantamount to dereliction of duty.

A “company” is a creature of law. It has a ‘legal persona’ – which is represented to the world at large through its Board of Directors. In case of lapses, the final recourse of the law is to the Directors. But, if they can’t be hauled up – due to any lacunae of law – then it would tantamount to letting the companies go scot-free.
The defining question, to my mind, is – whether this was a sheer accident or was it preventable in anyway. If the weight of evidence points towards the latter and there is proof of legal violations found – there is no way the Directors should escape indictment.

To use a cliche - the law has to take its own course. But, the government machinery is notoriously inefficient. So, one can take it almost as a certainty that by engaging the best of legal fire-power – all of the Directors would walk out unscathed sooner than later. But, if this leads to people thinking twice before accepting directorships – doing their own due-diligence on the organization and credentials of the promoters and insisting on their rights as directors to be involved and kept informed about the operations of the hospital – it would still serve a limited purpose. The best, of course, would be if this restrains – at least to some extent – the crass commercialization of Healthcare in our country. But, perhaps, that’s a little too much to expect even after so many people paid through their lives for this sad lesson to the society.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Silk Smitha Vs Chikni Chameli

So the old lady from Mount Road in Chennai has decided to take hormone shots to counter her Botox rejuvenated contemporary of Bori Bunder, Mumbai ? The media fraternity – both journalists and the marketing / ad-sales lots – are drawing vicarious thrill from the duel and going gaga over the ‘tongue-in-cheek’  ad from The Hindu in retaliation to The Times of India’s rather ‘below-the-belt’ hit at them sometime back. Perhaps, much of the excitement is arising from the fact that such a spirited response is uncharacteristic of the hitherto conservative media-house that was Kasturi & Sons. Or it could be, at least partly, due to the filial envy most media people feel towards ToI.

First, let me say up-front – I found the ToI’s ‘sleeping old man’ ad not only distasteful but also quite unnecessary. Over the years they have been successfully biting away chunks of The Hindu’s readership – by cleverly positioning the paper to address a need gap within the changing demographic profile of Chennai.  Sitting North of the Vindhyas many of us don’t realize that, Chennai has become a much more cosmopolitan city today  ( and not the Tam-Bhrahm bastion as we still like to think of it as) – with a large population of “non-south origin” people and a sizeable expatriate community. Like all other metropolitan cities – the tastes and aspirations of the youngsters are changing (and, yes – they care more about the ‘size zero’ waist-line  of Kareena Kapoor than the thunder-thighs of Silk Smitha which their Dads used to salivate over) and to that extent they find the ToI much more contemporary and modern. This is the same challenge that the ‘ghee soaked’ Hindustan Times of yore and The Telegraph in Calcutta faced. (ironically The Telegraph was at the receiving end of the same game at which they had so comprehensively beaten The Statesman in the ‘80s).

Nationally, the Times of India has been adopting an “iconic” high-ground with some wonderful ads like “ A day in the life of India” or the very touching one with the “Dhyanchand like” octogenarian hockey Olympian (it’s , perhaps, not a co-incidence that - The Hindu ad mocks by asking: who was Dhyanchand ?). Therefore,  ToI stooping to take a pot-shot at an ageing competitor can only be attributed to the enthusiasm of a newly appointed Marketing honcho of FMCG roots. Instead, they should have let the product to continue to do the talking rather than yielding to the temptation of rubbing salt on a worthy rival.

Now coming to The Hindu’s ads. Apart from generating chuckles – would any serious marketer believe that it will succeed in wooing back an young audience who have shifted to the ToI by simply raising the prospects of looking ‘dumb’ amongst your peers (who are as dumb as you  – and may actually be thinking it’s “cool” to be so) or your parents (whom you consider fuddy-duddy any way). The answer would really have to come from the product – because for newspapers content (which includes design, ease of navigation and a whole lot of other things) is what makes the brand – not ( so much) advertising.

But then, The Hindu has had a change of guard at the top recently with a new “Editor-in-Chief” and a CEO. So, there’s always the provocation for the younger lot to say “what the heck – let’s give it back to the chaps”. In marketing there is always merit in saying ‘enough is enough’, ‘don’t take us for granted’  and “we won’t take it lying down” forever.  But, real marketing wars are not fought on bravado and machismo alone.

As the Hindustan Times in Delhi and, to some extent, The Telegraph has shown the work has to start with the product itself and marketing campaigns can follow. It would be rather naïve and simplistic to say that, the ToI is a ‘dumb paper’ any longer. Over the years they have systematically invested in improving content both in depth and range  ( having a ‘catch all’ positioning with offerings from sex to spirituality) – in fact, people would say they have successfully “dumbed-up” (as opposed to “dumbed down” – if there can be such a term) and it’s one of the finest newspapers today. The criticism against the ToI lies on another front of media-net and private treatise. But, that’s a different subject altogether. The Hindu, itself, has not been immune to questions about integrity of content.

The Hindu, therefore, first need s to re-invent itself – which is not an easy task as you always run the risk of alienating your traditional reader base without attracting the new. The HT faced a similar challenge of retaining its Karol-Bagh and Punajabi Bagh constituencies while trying to seduce the cosmopolitan yuppies of Gurgaon. After, faltering initially – when for a while it had become a Punjabi edition of ToI – under new leadership both on the editorial and management end it seem to have finally got its act together. In my humble opinion, The Telegraph is still struggling to do that and is caught in a time-warp of the 80s – when the people who had launched the paper were actually “young”. Sadly, they don’t realize it’s been 30 years since and during this period the people running the paper have aged as indeed the paper itself has.

After its “McKinsey-isation” – The Hindu is on a transformational journey (one hopes). Once their internal turmoil settles down and the new team finds their feet – who knows it could become the sex-siren from the South 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fests & Feasts

I have never been to the Jaipur Lit Fest #JLF). Over the years, by all accounts the event has grown  both in stature and scale. So, I was tempted to go there this year – work schedule permitting – and had discussed it with a friend, who I thought would also be interested to come along. But, over the last few months – I have been reading saturation coverage of a series of “fests”  – which made me quite skeptical. There was ThinkFest Goa, LitFest Mumbai, InkConference Jaipur, Sun Burn Fest Goa, Hug Fest Bandra, LitFest Jaipur and now even a Lit Meet (#KLM) in Calcutta. Somehow, I got the impression that these events were becoming big business and turned into jamborees for the upwardly mobile, nouveau cultural chatterati – especially the chic parvenu intellectual set of the Capital and a handful of their culture cousins from Mumbai and Bangalore. Now with Twitter being the flavor of the day, time-lines were choked with incessant tweets from those “who were there”. This only reinforced my take of what these events were all about and finally – the shameful affair of Salman Rushdie  and the Oprah spectacle at #JLF put the “Q.E.D” stamp on it for me. So, you may call it a confirmed case of sour grapes – but I was glad that  we couldn’t make it to Jaipur and instead went to Bhuvaneshwar and Puri for a long weekend. 

Bhuvaneshwar is a city I have come to like. Work takes me there often and sometimes I have been able to combine a little break with that. I see it gradually transforming into one of the nicest state capitals we have in India today – with shades of Chandigarh, which is - unarguably - a class apart. But, what’s more remarkable is the development happening there on the social and economic front.  Quietly, Bhuvaneshwar has become an education centre – an eastern clone of Bangalore. Once with only XIBM (Xavier Institute of Business Management) – it now has a clutch  good Engineering and Management Colleges. A visit to the local CCDs (Café Coffee Day) one can see a microcosm of the changing face of the city’s youth. It now boasts of many good schools – including the KiiT International  – and will soon have an IIT of its own. With Infosys and others opening shop – Bhuvaneshwar can claim modest success in the IT field too –  drawing on the good supply of technical graduates from the local institutes. Things can only get better – if large investment comes in with POSCO and others. The present BJD government has a reputation of being clean and progressive. One only hopes there is continuity in governance for Bhuvaneshwar and Odisha to reach their full potential.
While what Navin Patnaik and BJD have achieved in Bhuvaneshwar is commendable indeed – the same can’t be said about the rest of Odisha. One particular area that hasn’t received the kind of attention it deserved is , I think, Tourism. If Bhuvaneshwar could successfully follow the Bangalore model to become an Education and IT Centre – it could easily emulate Kerala for development  of tourism with its treasures of the sea, back-waters, lakes & lagoons and forests. Both Gopalpur and Puri are wasted – the latter especially with its unplanned growth. Chilka has the potential of being an international tourist destination – if proper infrastructure is developed around it. Bhitarkanika ( is the largest sanctuary of crocodiles and the home of Olive Ridley Turtles – but very few know of it. The forests of Orissa are one of the most beautiful in the country – now largely rendered out of bounds by the Maoists insurgents. But, planned development could change that – as it has in many countries including Nepal in our immediate neighbourhood. One hopes in the next round – the government would turn their attention to these softer aspects of development.

Short breaks are sometime more rejuvenating than long holidays. While the latter helps in recuperating drained spirits and cure fatigue – the former is like a quick re-charging of batteries or letting off steam from our daily pressure-cooker existence. Spent 2 wonderful days in Puri with friends at their company guest-house. Enjoyed pleasure of doing nothing  - except sitting with feet firmly up in the balcony watching the uninterrupted view of the seas, long walks, massages, gorging on simple home-style food cooked by the guest-house staff and the mandatory single-malt in the evenings. The visit to the temple on Saturday morning was like a restorative soothing balm. The overnight train journey both ways provided an added relaxation – compared to the madness of early morning flights at the chaotic Calcutta airport. And, the surprise of meeting an old school friend – after many years – in the rail coupe pleasantly wrapped up the mini holiday.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

What India thought yesterday, Bengal will think tomorrow

A development which has been irking me for the last few days – is the community twist that is being given to the #AMRI case. In what appears to be an orchestrated campaign a PR spin is being is being given – as if it’s a conspiracy against a particular community – namely, the Marwaris. So much so, I was quite astounded to see a front=page anchor story headline in the Economic Times, of all papers, “Marwaris feel the heat, as Didi breathes fire” click here to read (. Very unbecoming of a respected national newspaper, I thought and sent SMS texts to that effect to their editors.)

There is a larger legal question on the accountability of directors – on which I can hold forth – but that’s not my topic of discussion here. (click here to read) What’s bothering me is the gradual change of  Bengal’s social fabric.

To finish off the Marwari angle first. I was mildly embarrassed by a couple of pointed reference to that community in the comments to my blog on the #AMRI tragedy. (To the best of my recollection and belief –  in my post read here – I had not raised any pointing fingers at any one group  - but that’s beside the point). Even then I didn’t pay much attention there. There has always existed a tacit animosity between the ethnic Bengalis and the Marwaris – often translated in disparaging remarks about each other in private – but over time they have developed a symbiotic relationship. This kind of social stress exists in all mega cities – where migrants come to play a greater economic role. But, there is no overt confrontation and over-time they learn to co-exist, even if a bit uneasily,  without treading on each others’ toes (or snatching another person’s bread to put it more crudely). Calcutta has been no different in that respect – neither more nor less, I would say.

Changing gears slightly – a friend from Bihar, always told me – you Bengalis know nothing about caste system. I take that as a compliment. For myself – I first came to appreciate the realities of class conflicts, when as a Management Trainee I went to live in a village in the backward Etah District of UP – way back in 1984. Sadly, things have only deteriorated since then rather than improving , I am told, with newer denominations among Dalits and “Maha-dalits” emerging. When as a young couple we went to live in Pune in the mid-80’s – we were quite bemused at the ‘caste profiling’ even among the educated and elite Maharshtrians. How easily people typecast between Kokanasths, Saraswaths, Deshasths and CKPs. And, they had difficulty in fitting us into any of those classifications – as we were quite blissfully oblivious of our caste origins.

Last year, before the elections, Ashish Chakravarty – the much respected Senior Editor of The Telegraph – made a very incisive observation on a TV talk-show. He said, traditionally, Bengali Muslims never voted along communal lines. They were politically conscious and  concerned citizens as anyone else. But, this has changed in the recent past – with political parties trying play the minorities card even in West Bengal. Trinamool’s success in the last 2 elections has been largely a function of swaying some of this minority vote in their favour as statistics would reveal. Therefore, you now see bill-boards and posters of Mamata Banerjee wearing head-scarves – greeting people in Eid or welcoming back “Haj” pilgrims. She kind of turned the tables on the CPM by doing this – as they could,  by philosophy, not play the “religious” game – but had turned a blind eye on illegal immigration from across the border in the interest of creating a vote-bank for themselves. The strategy boomeranged when the Sachar Committee report indicted them for the poor lot of Muslims in West Bengal, which Mamata was quick to capitalize upon.

Well, I don’t think the issue needs further elaboration. I am afraid the secular credentials of Bengal are under risk of being surreptitiously subverted. In my private conversations, with some of my business associates from the Marwari community, I find a growing support for the BJP – as they feel the need for having a voice of their own in the state polity. Before, every elections now – we find the Lalus and Paswans making forays to the state to mobilize the Bihari and UP-ite constituency in Calcutta and North Bengal.

It would require a great measure of statesmanship – to arrest this disturbing trend – which, I am not sure, if the present Chief Minister ( or to be fair to her, any other leader of the present generation ) has it in her. Therefore, it is for the citizens and intelligentsia of the state to rise above these parochialism and re-assert Bengal’s cherished culture of egalitarianism – if indeed we are serious about regaining some of the lost glory of the state (even if turning it into a London or Switzerland remains a pipe dream of Mamata Banerjee). And, to do that – the media has to play a major role. But, in their pursuit for ‘eye-balls’ - TRPs and circulation – wonder if anyone has the time for such old world values.

It’ll be a real set back if we lose it though’ – as it would, like so many other things have, turn on its head the old saying of  Gokhale - which would now have to be re-written as “What India thought yesterday, Bengal will think tomorrow”.