Wah, Taj boliye!!!

When I visited Agra and the Taj Mahal last week, it was exactly after 10 years. That was in the midst of a hot summer in 2006. Much water has flown in the Yamuna since then and 10 years is a good time to see for oneself if the so called winds of change blowing across the hinterlands of India is for real. In these 10 years, the “Elephant” and the “Cycle” have got their opportunities alternatively to ride in Uttar Pradesh with the “Lotus” blooming or rather looming large at the centre!

We left Delhi pretty early (5.30 am to be precise) to beat the morning traffic till Noida. Close to Aerocity the new Airport hub replete with hotels and offices, even in the wee hours the roads were busy. One, with the slew of vehicles ferrying the staff from Call centres and BPOs of Gurugram after the night US shift and two, with the panoply of cars of all hue waiting in the roads for the call from their owners when they land at the airport. Now here’s the dichotomy. Folks who don’t bat their eyelids to write cheques for purchasing cars of the types of Audi, BMW,..  whine to pay the parking fees at the airport! So the drivers just hang around choking the roads leading up to the airports. (This by the way happens in almost all cities in India, I guess). After that initial congestion, the drive through the Lutyens’ Zone was nice. Lutyens’ Zone could be a credible advertisement for Swachh Bharat mission I thought. But then it’s always been that way.

Once we cross Noida, we quickly enter the new Yamuna Expressway which is supposed to make the Agra and the Taj trip more memorable. Earlier also folks from abroad always remembered the Taj Trip very well for the long travel from Delhi to Agra. The Expressway is international class so are the toll fees! But then if we need quality infrastructure and if private guys have to develop the same, you need to pay for it!  Along the Expressway one cannot miss the Buddh International Circuit built for bringing F1 to India. It’s sad that India doesn’t feature on the F1 calendar since 2013! The circuit now is reduced to hosting national races and being a promotional/testing venue for automobile manufacturers.  Blame it on the financial troubles of the promoter Jaypee group or the bureaucratic hurdles around hosting F1. One hopes F1 returns to India soon for the changes in brings in the landscape overall – partly which is even today visible. However just ahead, confirming the winds of change were the surprisingly neat and clean toilets at the 1st break at the food plaza!!!

The Expressway has a speed limit of 100 kmph for cars and 60 kmph for heavy vehicles. The driver of our luxury coach clearly believed that ours was a heavy vehicle and never for once allowed for himself the luxury of accelerating beyond 60 kmph. Never once. Now this discipline of following speed limits on highways must qualify as a big behavioral change!

As the Expressway ended and we entered the city limits of Agra, the dream drive ended. We were back to the early morning hustle bustle of a small town with buffaloes, dogs, hen and monkeys interspersed with a whole lot of people, handcarts, autos, crowded tempos,… on the roads. Busy road side eateries were rustling up morning snacks and the overall “dust bowl look” hardly can pose for Swachh Bharat. The road from where the Expressway ends leading to the Taj is surprisingly still narrow with chaotic traffic. The very impressive guide (impressive with his suave English and worldly knowledge) who joined us at Agra would tell me later that a highway straight from the Expressway to the Taj is ready and would be open to public soon. It was apparently waiting for the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav who has been busy with his parivar war these days!

The guide cautions us of all things prohibited inside the Taj. Well except for cameras, phones and wallets everything else is – looks like.  The 1st sight of the Taj as you enter from the main door is breathtaking and indeed the best sight!

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The guide no longer tells stories of why Taj was built as he knows very well that the tourists are all Google savvy these days. He focuses more on the intricacies of the construction and why it is a Wonder of the World. Talking of Taj being one of the Wonders of the World, at the Great Wall of China you can see an official certificate declaring it as one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”! Wonder why we can’t have a similar plaque at the Taj???

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The whiteness of the Taj has been fading thanks to the excess pollution over a period of time. So the authorities have undertaken a massive job of restoring the whiteness of the marble with surface treatment. We were told that they use what is known as Multani Mitti (mud from Multan). This process is underway and one could clearly see the difference in the 3 of the 4 minarets where the treatment is already over. The main dome will be up for treatment soon next year during which time it may be closed and will be a letdown for the tourists! Considering that Multani Mitti is from Pakistan – wondering if MNS will have a problem with that under the present Indo-Pak rough weather!

The Diana Bench which has now become the best photo-op place or rather selfie spot at the Taj– continues to reinforce what marketing and PR can do to a product. A spot where couples celebrate their love with that enduring pic is named after a person for whom love was elusive for most of her curtailed life!

Compared to the last time, the vicinity of the Taj is certainly neater, cleaner and devoid of general litter. Of course don’t expect us Indians to drop all the disposable shoes only in the bins kept for that purpose. Bins are provided and as is our habit we litter the shoes all over the place!

A good over 2 hours spent at the Taj and post lunch we visited the other monument – the Agra Fort. Agra fort is also impressive and brings a lot of high school history lessons back to memory! The emporium which the guide took us for shopping was expensive even for the foreign visitors in our group. But what was striking was the way they explained the process involved in the making of the marble handicrafts in understandable English. And didn’t do the pushing and shoving to buy! Talking of push and shove, the road side vendors hawking different “tourist targeted” stuff were polite and didn’t really hound us – a change from last time.

As we left Agra for Delhi, again a very pleasant but slow drive on the Yamuna Expressway was fantastic. In the backdrop of the setting sun, the smoke from burning of the agricultural fields create a hazy feel and of course add to the pollution of the capital. I read about this practice of burning the rice stubble by farmers once the harvest is over just few weeks ago in a “Swaminomics” column in the Sunday Times of India. Read here. As pointed out in that piece, it’s high time, they find an alternate to this polluting practice lest any “Odd-even” or other kind of idea is not going to help curb pollution levels in Delhi.

Once we crossed Noida, we couldn’t escape the now notorious evening peak traffic of Delhi. From Noida to the hotel took close to 2 hours! In India we now famously suffer from last mile connectivity! In almost everything. For example in roads, the highways like the Mumbai Pune Expressway or the Yamuna Expressway eases the travel between the borders of the respective cities but the journey from the end of the expressway to the heart of the city is still a nightmare wading through narrow roads and ever exploding traffic.

So to conclude, many positive changes are visible. Few legacy issues remain. As in many other areas, “the elephant” is on the move and we are getting there albeit slowly. Though visiting after 10 years, this is my 3rd visit to the Taj and somehow for the 1st time I really felt like “Wah, Taj boliye”!!!

Postscript: One of the enduring lines of the guide while explaining India’s high population – “In India, in the day time we believe in ‘Culture” and in the night – Agriculture😂😂😂

 

Back to Roots and Canals!!!

It’s almost the last week of May and the much dreaded Agni Natchathiram (Star of Fire) – the phase which is supposed to be the hottest in parts of India just got over. In India this time of the year usually apart from temperatures, the so called summer holidays also are at its peak. A season when these days most upper middle class folks and above head for the cooler parts of the planet and tick off their bucket lists. When some set on a discovery trail of exotic places within Incredible India – like the North East or Jammu & Kashmir. And when others settle for shorter junkets or IPL watching (abki baar yeh bus hai yaar 😁). But amidst all this, if there is one group living outside who religiously and faithfully return every year to their own Native place during summer vacation and make their vacation incredible, it must be the “Mallus” aka “Keralites”. And as we all know, there are more Keralites living outside than within Kerala itself 😁😁

During my growing up years while in school, our Annual summer vacation of 2 months was invariably spent going to “Native place” which was Kottayam in Kerala. (For a Tambrahm usually suffering from an Identity crisis of Epic proportion, Native place or in more technical terms – State of Domicile is Kerala but the State of Origin is Tamil Nadu 😁😁😁.  Wait a minute – Explaining this will call for a post by itself. Will let that pass for now😁).  And it was similar story for many of our folks too. Annual vacations were time for family convergence in Kerala and spending time together in grandparents’ house in a grand manner at minimum expense to the parents. But what is surprising is the zeal which Keralites show even today to spend the vacation time in their own “Naadu” (place) year after year.

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Unlike others, among Mallus, the conversation about vacations is not about – “Where are you going for vacation this year??” It’s more likely or certainly – “Eppala Naatilottu pogunne??” (“When” are you leaving for our state??) So religiously folks living outside plan their vacation (which essentially means timing the logging into IRCTC site with alacrity😁or grabbing the low cost airfare tickets during airline promos) every year to spend atleast 1 full month in their “Naadu”. It really doesn’t matter for them at all that the vacations end up being repetitive visiting the same place every year.

Even otherwise for a Malayali at heart – his Naadu comes first. Probably one would argue that for all people their homelands come first. But if you have been with Keralites even for a short while you will know what I mean. For Mallus meeting each other for the first time outside Kerala which usually starts with – “Naattil evadaya??” (Where from in Kerala??) usually quickly veers around all happenings back home including LDF, UDF, Mammooty, Mohanlal, Mazha (Rain), Pooram, Gelf,…,…😁😁 It’s almost like their heart and soul are firmly rooted back in Kerala while they physically continue to “exist” in their cities of work. Hence I guess the unflinching urge escape to their Native place – come the vacation time!

Talking of Mallu vacations, I know of many who even today, change to the more comfortable and airy – Mundu (Dhoti or Lungi for the uninitiated) the moment they step into their tharavadu (Family house) from the train/flight😁. Its Bye Bye for trousers, Jeans, shorts and the like for the rest of the vacation. And since summer vacation time usually coincides with marriage season, the one month vacation schedule is planned in such a way that one gets to “hit” minimum 3 sadyas 😁😁(Traditional Kerala feast). And apart from catching up with Amma (mom) and Achan (Dad) usually the vacation package includes spending time “with” Aaru (River), Ambalam (Temple), Ayurveda (these days a “Pizhichil session is a must) and even one’s favourite Aana (elephant)😁😁😁!! A Keralite’s passion for the Elephant is unparalleled in the world in terms of Human-Animal relationships😁. Take my word for it. A true Mallu will identify the name of the Elephant by just looking at the tail that too from a distance😁😁! (My Mallu friend just corrected me – that even by looking at the Aanappindi (Elephant’s excreta) a Mallu can say which elephant passed by😁😁😁)

And these days for the parents it is also a matter of gloating time to show off to their Gen Next Kids stuff which have now made Kerala God’s Own Country – Back waters, Kettu Vallam (house boats), Kathakali performances, Kalaripayattu sessions,… And all these in the form of pictures and videos find their way to so many walls all over the world – Facebook walls I mean😝

Apart from subjecting oneself to this “Naturopathy Detox”, I suspect the annual vacation time for most Mallus is also a time for “Stock taking”. As most of them still own large tracts of land back home where some kind of agricultural cultivation is happening the supervision of which has been outsourced, vacation time is also the time to check what’s happening. Check prices of commodities and decide between going for Kurumilagu (Black Pepper) or Kumbalanga (Ash gourd) in their lands. And review other Buy/Sell/Retain decisions and probably execute.

Ergo, for the Mallus, visiting their home land during vacation every year is a matter of going back to their Roots. And catching up with the Canals (Thodu). Still having doubts – try booking tickets to Kerala during vacation time!!!

P.S: Keralites wear their hearts on their sleeves. Hence even a reference to Somalia in the context of Kerala was after all not a good idea at all!!!

Writings on the Walls!!!

First a disclosure. The topic for this post is lifted from the ace columnist Shekhar Gupta’s columns – the ones he usually pens on his sojourns to the rural heartland of India during election times to gauge the mood of the electorate and to see for himself the changes sweeping the country. This piece is on similar lines. One which is based on my recent visit to Coimbatore where I spent the last few days of the 2015 and rang in the New Year. Coimbatore is the 2nd biggest town in Tamil Nadu and by no means can be categorized as a rural heartland. It has been an industrial hub with a higher than average per capita income in the state and the country. But for those living in metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or ChennaiCoimbatore is an idyllic place with much cleaner air and purer minds. And as you move further away to the suburbs of this town like Vadavalli the “Writings on the walls” are clearer. Let me attempt to recap some of those which I found interesting:

  • First up, as you drive down into the city from the airport, through Avinashi Road a commercial nerve centre a new Audi showroom has sprung up! Atleast I saw it for the 1st time. Not surprising though for a city where the entrepreneurial class had always high exposure and aspiration as far as cars were concerned. But what surprised me certainly was a brand new showroom which was getting ready for Harley Davidson bikes down the lane.
  • In a lazy afternoon, as we hit upon the idea of watching a film, Bajirao Mastani won the battle over Pasanga-2 (a Tamil film). My own snotty idea that tickets for a Hindi film will be easily available in a place like Coimbatore got demolished the moment I checked for tickets online. It was indeed a year end and generally a holiday week, the film screened only in 3 multiplexes and just 2 shows compared to 5-6 shows of Tamil movies,…,.. But still for the whole period we stayed there Mastani proved elusive. Still griping with the thought that Madrasis are Hindi haters –Think again!
  • More proof of this would emerge when I saw boards hanging like this in gates of houses. Note that stress on “Hindi”

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  • Coimbatore has huge gas stations. Once as our cabbie got into an IOC gas station, I saw this billboard.

Fitness catching in Cat d towns,122014Written in Tamil, it was talking of a promo by which those filling up petrol were eligible for VLCC gift vouchers. Was interesting to see the aspirational connect. And as we drove further I would see many more billboards for VLCC beauty products (Like this one)

Signage in a Vill petrol pump on face cream,1,122014

  • Again further proof for the increasing thrust on looks showed up shortly as I and the wife were going around looking for a friend’s house. The landmarks wereK.R.Storesand “a beauty parlour”. I kept asking few people for K.R.Stores in vain. The wife then took charge and asked the next lady the directions for the beauty parlour. And lo she clearly directed us to the house we were searching in the scorching sun for the last 15 mins😁. I wanted to tell K.R Stores to change from selling wheat flour, rice flour to being a beauty parlour😁😁
  • When the daughter pestered for taking her out, we went to a household products Trade fair which was going on in the Codissia Trade fair complex near the airport. Frankly I was going to such a fair may be after 15 years. My images of these fairs were always of stalls selling products like Roti makers, Vegetable choppers,… which usually work wonderfully in demos at the stalls but fail miserably at home😞. And then you had the myriad handicraft stalls from different states. Stalls hawking bedsheets, pillow covers,… What I saw this time was revealing. There were no stalls pushing choppers and roti makers first up. But one could see stalls selling organic food products, home security solutions, food products made of millet and other exotic cereals, solar products, foreign holiday packages and few stalls peddling fitness solutions including Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali products😃😃!
  • The neighbourhood cabwala whom we usually engage was now an Ex Ola wala. He got into the Ola App bandwagon and got out of it within few months. In his own words –‘Ola customerukku nalla Appu. Aana engalukku nalla Aappu!!’ (It’s a good app for customers but for us cabbies it’s a bad deal.). Apart from driving a taxi, he runs a provision store. His son is not interested in this business and wants to be an Engineer. ‘Avan eppo paarthalum ethanayachum kodanjukitte irupaan’ (he’s all the time fiddling around with something or other)
  • A videographer in the vicinity now offered live streaming of events. He claims this is a must now as folks abroad need to watch marriages,… live when they cannot attend.
  • And If I dare to call so, Coimbatore is fast emerging as the Retirement capital for Tamilians the world over! What started more as a social concept of community based living option for elders (whose children are mostly out of the country) has now morphed into an aspirational option. Coimbatore is now dotted with Gated community spaces designed specifically keeping “living alone senior citizens managing NRO accounts” in mind.

Now all these (except the last one) may not be unique to Coimbatore only. If one travels to a small town in Maharashtra, UP or Orissa the “Writings” may be similar. What is commonly wringing in all these so called “Writings on the walls” is the aspect of “Aspiration”. Whether it is craving for better looks or learning Hindi or wanting to ride a Harley Davidson or seeking better health, the new Indian (even senior citizen if I may add) is not satisfied with what he/she can make do with. But aspires for the better and the best.

It is this idea that Narendra Modi tapped into in his prime ministerial campaign successfully and rode to power. And it is important that his government doesn’t forget this aspect and does everything to fuel economic growth which will give wings to these aspirations at all levels. Ignore these “Writings on the walls” and the writing on the 2019 wall will be clear.

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from another of my China visit – Part 3!!!

It was about 3 years ago that I made my 1st visit to ChinaShanghai and wrote the 1st part of Chinpressions. Read here. In between that and my last visit this week, many more visits to China happened. Ergo, 3 years hence what are my impressions?

The visit this week coincided with Narendra Modi’s another foreign tour – this time to China. So obviously India was in the news. As is the wont these days in our PM’s abroad visits, he was in “Rock star” mode in China as well with local Chinese craving and crowding to take selfies with him. It’s obvious that in the last 1 year Modi has single handedly changed the perception of India for the better outside of India.

I had mentioned that in my last post that Shanghai was devoid of emerging market symptoms like touts at the airports,… I realized now that it’s not the case. There were the touts on arrival at the airport chasing you for taxi/hotels,… just that they were of the “suited and booted” types 😜 😜. Similarly I had the impression that Taxis were on meters always. Well, yes most of the times. But not always. This time much to our chagrin, we realized that beyond 10 p.m the cabbies were upto fleece passengers demanding 4 to 6 times the normal fare!!! While on cabbies, I couldn’t understand why the driver was always enclosed in a cubicle of sorts making it difficult to communicate with him/her even in sign language. (Trying to communicate in English is a horror left unsaid 😦 😦 )

For all the heavy duty infrastructure and the investment led growth strategy Chinese government has been adopting all these years with a fair degree of success, it is now clear that the growth is stuttering.  A 7% growth is being touted as the new normal. Print media is agog with articles questioning if the world’s 2nd largest economy is heading towards a protracted period of subdued growth.  China has now become the latest example to explain the Economics theory of the Middle Income Trap”

It’s clear that despite the pretensions of the Government taking China to being in the league of developed nations, it is still haunted by a few trappings of developing/underdeveloped countries. Which the people are yet to shrug off it appears.

  • Like the locals not caring about courtesy to others and smoking to glory in public washrooms.
  • Like the drivers continuing to smoke while driving in cars inspite of requesting them not to. (Blame the language)
  • Like invariably the noisy scenes you get to see in restaurants when Chinese get together to dine and drink. (Something like we Indians I must say).
  • Like the rounds of bargaining one has to do some times starting with 10% of the quoted price to purchase stuff mostly the imitations at the fake markets hawking branded stuff from I phones to watches to bags to clothes to everything. China’s tryst with IP regime may prove to be its Achilles heel sooner or later. Just couple of days ago while in China I read the news that top brands like Gucci were suing Alibaba the E-Com giant for sale of counterfeits through its marketplace.Like getting to see touts trying to sell I Phones at US$100 around to gullible passengers even inside the Shanghai’s Pudong airport terminal!!! I was surprised to see these guys inside the airports after the Check-in Area moving around looking for their customers!!! (This doesn’t happen in India even)
  • Like being amused to see empty chairs placed in sides of the road meant as parking lots. Something like placing the chair to reserve that lot. Reminded me of our Indian habit of placing towels/kerchiefs,.. in buses to block seats 🙂
  • Like for all the fascinating sights at “The Bund” at Shanghai (Clean, colourful, Hawker free,..,…) the urinals are still the old world style not seen even in towns in India these days.
  • Like finding grills in windows in residential apartments a la India type just that they were more uniform and still not spoiling the elevation of the building unlike in India where grills of all types and sizes spoil the frontage of most buildings.

Most of the above fall in line with the definition of “High Context Culture” as defined by Edward T. Hall in his seminal work – Beyond Culture, I feel. So not surprising.

But, these are just symptoms waiting to disappear soon I guess. Despite the current ills like ever rising labour costs, China continues to be the factory of the world. Global companies don’t have an option but to court the Chinese. Like Apple’s Tim Cook was attempting to do when he was in China last week logging on to “Weibo” – the Chinese microblogging site akin to Twitter. (Modi did the same on his run up to his China visit). The ever increasing aspiring class is a segment of the world’s largest population that just cannot be ignored.  But one thing which continues to amaze me in China even after being the world’s largest populous country is – Where are its people?? For example in Shanghai the world’s most populous city – you don’t get see crowds in the roads, in the malls, in super markets, in train stations,.. So where are they???

Let’s see if that mystery unravels in the next visits.

3 years hence, the impressions are still very good but may be the shine has worn a little bit.

 Postscript: Heard that the PM’s baggage on foreign tours will now have a “Selfie stick” 😜 😜

Mysore musings!!!

Mysore is a place I visit at least once a year since the last few years – of course on business. That often means a day trip up and down from Bengaluru. But the few hours I spend are enough to get the feeling of a city which is idyllic with its nice weather and expansive green cover. Coupled with the fact that it has many places of tourist importance made us look at Mysore for a short holiday during this Diwali holidays. The last time I visited Mysore for purely sightseeing was few decades ago when I was under 10.  Yes that was long ago. It was a road trip much before we knew what road trips were in what else an Amby from Trichy to Bangalore for a marriage. Only an Ambassador knows how it used to accommodate routinely 12+ people half of them adults with the accompanying luggage. Strangely, though I don’t have any memory of the wedding proceedings,… my memories of what happened on the sidelines are very vivid. After the marriage, remember going to Mysore for a day in which we covered Chamundi Hills, Srirangapatana, Tippu Sultan palace, St. Philomena’s Church and in the rainy evening a bit of Brindavan Gardens. I don’t recall us visiting the now famous Mysore Zoo or for that matter the Mysore Palace.

With my 7 year daughter in tow, the priorities in this trip were clear. To make this trip as memorable as possible for her as part of her childhood and growing up. So leaving aside the temptations for just chilling out in the resort which had a nice spa and the works, we tried to cover places of interest for her like the Zoo, the grand Mysore Palace,… Extremely conscious of not wanting to turn this post into a travelogue on Mysore for which Google Guru does a better job, I just want to touch upon few interesting things which caught my attention. So here we go:

  • It’s quite well-known that Mysore has probably the best Zoo in India thanks to its pretty collection of species, natural habitat and the fact that most species look healthy for a change!!! But what is surprising is that for a place routinely visited by tourists in the droves, the place is well-kept and can truly be a showcase piece for our PM’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
  • Additionally the Zoo is touted as a “Plastic Free Zone” like many other places in India these days. But unlike other Plastic free zones where plastic becomes freely available, this is indeed plastic free in letter and spirit. And in a unique programme (which I saw only in Mysore in the zoo and other parks) stalls selling water collect back empty plastic bottles and refund some money in a bid to prevent plastic littering.

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  • As in most of the zoos worldwide these days, in Mysore also most of the animals/birds,.. have been adopted by well intentioned human beings and corporate sponsors. And here, it was interesting to see the “King of the jungle” being adopted by once “King of Leg spin” – Anil Kumble!!!

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  • Want to visit Mysore?? Avoid vacation seasons like Diwali or Dasara holidays. Brindavan Gardens which is popular for its musical fountain show in the evenings was crowded and resembled a Kumbhmela. I can’t fathom if it’s a good idea to allow food hawkers inside the gardens and you can guess the ensuing mess. Brindavan Gardens which was a show piece of Mysore is a pale shadow of its past today and reminds us of the “Aswachh Bharat” we are living.
  • A Sand Museum is an interesting addition these days. One can find an extremely secular collection of sculptures carved out of sand. On enquiry, was impressed to note that these artwork have been the fine handiwork of a young lady by the name of M.N. Gowri, a Fine Arts Graduate. It seems she discontinued Engineering to pursue her passion in Sand Sculpting. A 15-ft high sand statue of a Lord Ganesh welcomes visitors to the museum. Other sculptures include Goddess Chamundeshwari, Laughing Buddha, Dasara procession, a striking work of Gitopadesha with Lord Krishna and Arjuna on a horse-drawn chariot, Disneyland, Islamic culture, a Christmas tree, Santa Claus,… An impressive place this!

 

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  • Karanji lake and Karanji Nature Park adjacent to it are increasingly getting popular among tourists I’m told. There is a butterfly park and peacock park there. You could do boat rides in the lake as well. What is alarming is – in spite of well-intentioned and well displayed warning signs of “No boating without life jackets” – hardly could you see anybody in the boats there with life jackets. And this is the kind of apathy over human safety which one finds routinely in tourist destinations in India. A tragedy happens consuming a few hapless lives and these issues get into “The Nation wants to know” routine for few days – only to get back to the routine slackness post that.

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  • The shopping market scene in Mysore reminded me of Trichy. There, in one NSB Road, you could find everything under the sun and moon. Here it was Devraj Urs Road. Along the main road and its alleys, one could see shops of all hues – of branded stuff and others. Disappointing though was to find shops closing as early as 8.30 p.m. here. Worse is, in other areas of the town shops wound up by 7.30 p.m. so much so in a handicrafts emporium where we stepped in by 7.10 p.m. – the display of frown by the staff there over shadowed that of the stuff sold there 😦 😦
  • The Mall of Mysore is a glitzy addition in this town reminding us of the proliferation of the young, aspiring class churning out codes in the Infosys’, Wipros, TCSs,... All these companies have impressive campuses in this city. The mall is still work in progress but has a food court and a multiplex with tickets as expensive as in Mumbai.

For a place with a fantastic, moderate weather almost throughout the year and many interesting tourist attractions in and around the city, my take is that Mysore is poorly handled and marketed. The Mysore airport is under connected even within the country. Which means reaching by road from Bengaluru is the only option. As Swapan Das Gupta says – “The unending journey from the airport to anywhere in Bangalore…” means a good 2 hours to just get out of the city and some 5 hours to cover a distance of 190 odd kms (from Bengaluru airport to Mysore). This is clearly a dampener for Karnataka’s‘One State, Many Worldstourism aspirations.  Dear Sarkar, please get a high-speed Express way fast.  And don’t worry, the IT folks will be ever willing to fork the toll.

Postscript: Just realized while writing this post that one cannot recall another city which has dedicated so much to the society – Mysore Sandal soap, Mysore Rasam, Mysore Bonda, Mysore Masala Dosa, Mysore silk and oh yes how can I forget Mysore Pak!! Appropriately the hotel welcomed us with this 🙂 🙂

Mysore Pak

Mysore Pak

 

Madras 375 – Not out!!!

HappyBD MAdras

I’m not a Madras boy. Not born there.  Didn’t quite spend my formative childhood years there.  Have not worked for long in that city as well. But have been frequenting Madras as a visitor since the late 80’s enough to suffer from “Madrasitis” 🙂  Ergo, as Madras, the oldest city the British built in India celebrated its 375th birthday last week I couldn’t help recount the different vignettes imprinted in me around Madras. I am aware that at best that can only be an inside view of an outsider, nonetheless an honest one I promise.

I have very foggy memories of the first 4-5 years I spent as a child in the 70’s.  So, nothing much really to recall except that we were staying few minutes away from Luz corner at Mylapore which is today stereotyped as the cultural nerve centre of Chennai.  So my account is all from the 2 years I spent in Madras when I worked in the 90’s and the few days I spend on and off every year mostly on business and at times otherwise.

Conservatism was at the heart of Madras. Keeping a low profile, being simple, not showing off and to some extent being subservient were drilled into as essential behavioural requirements for children. This drill over a period of time got into the genes and brought up Madras as a quintessential traditional society. A talented A.R.Rahman or a Superstar Rajinikant or a brilliant Maniratnam all products of this Madras would always be grounded even while flying high in their respective careers.  This conservatism had its share of problems as well.  Bachelors would find it difficult to get accommodation. Survival in Madras for outsiders if you didn’t know the language was a nightmare.  The opening up of the stock market in the 90’s and later the IT boom slowly brought what is today a cosmopolitan cut to the once traditional Madras. But there were other good things which didn’t have to wait for long. The beaches for one.

The Edward Elliot’s beach in Madras just few kilometres away from the more famed Marina beach was not as popular but had a quaint appeal to it.  With not many shops or eateries as it is today, the beach was clean and was a jogger’s delight. The sea with its characteristic rough and not so rough demeanour was inviting to even a diehard hydrophobic. As a child, standing in the water and getting lashed by the waves was an exciting pastime. Little one realized then that it would be the same even when you grew up. The mobile Aavin Van booth at the beach served the best fresh flavoured milk in town then.  The Marina beach ahead had a different flavor. More crowded, more eateries, more noise and more love birds hiding behind boats and under fishing nets only to be discovered by young boys selling ‘Manga Thenga Pattani Sundal’ a unique recipe of Sundal (Peas) generally sold only in the beach. As the evening fades and the dark sets in, the rotating light from the lighthouse gives you the signal to start packing off – and you do so reluctantly only to come again another day.

Moving away from beaches, the next thing which rings in your ear when you think of Madras is its moorings with classical music. Come December and the “Season” arrives with its characteristic charm. For the uninitiated the “Season” here alludes to the ‘Carnatic Music’ season. By the way Madras or today’s Chennai has 3 seasons. – Summer, Hot Summer and Music Season 🙂 🙂  So during this music season Carnatic musicians of all hue descend into the city and spread across 3 weeks play/sing “notes” of their lives in an attempt to get noticed. So much so even if you are a top notch Carnatic musician with acclaim elsewhere, you are a nobody until you have performed in this capital during the “Season” that too in the evening slots. Aspiring musicians pay money to sabhas to earn a slot in the mornings/afternoons just to be a part of the “Season”, I am told. Apart from performances, old mamas mostly and sometimes accompanied by mamis saunter across in the early mornings with mufflers and shawls (the only time in the year when you have to take these wear out in Madras 🙂 ) to different sabhas to understand the nuances of Kalyani Ragam and its variant Yaman Kalyani or other such purists’ lookouts in “lecture and demonstration” sessions.  For lesser mortals there is always the difference between Sada bajji and Mulaga bajji to worry about 🙂 🙂  During the “Season” for many, the filter Kapi (coffee) at the canteen outside is as important as the ‘Kaapi’ raga rendition inside the auditorium. Just cannot afford to miss both.

The filter Kapi brings us to the next attraction of Madras which is the food.  The city is a vegetarian’s paradise. For all those who get carried away by the Idli/Dosa/Vada/ Sambhar dished out at the various so called south Indian joints all over the country, you haven’t tasted the real thing yet if you haven’t tried all these in Ratna Café or Saravana Bhavan or Sangeetha or that Murugan Idli Kadai in Madras. Today joints like Saravana Bhavan are in the forefront of transporting the “Madras culture” to various cities across the globe where our bright IT Engineers are writing codes to glory.

Any talk of “Madras culture” is incomplete without reference to Mylapore located at the heart of the city.  Time permitting, I don’t miss a visit to Mylapore when in Chennai even today.  The long walks to Kapaleeswarar temple via Luz from my house, the compulsory visit to Giri Traders to catch up with latest on classical music, the mandatory check at the Ambika Appalam store for any new item ( 🙂 ), Coffee at Saravana Bhavan and the walk along Nageswara Rao Park smelling the Amrutanjan in the air and shopping at Rex Fashions are things which are etched well in my memory.

As I jog my memory further the other thing I enjoyed in the 2 years I stayed in Madras was catching up with Tamil plays in the weekends. The Mylapore Fine Arts was at walking distance and was popular with all the leading troupes of the day like Crazy Mohan, S.V.Shekhar, Y.G. Mahendran, Poornam Viswanathan,…  I am talking of a time when there were still takers for Drama.

Essay on Madras and no reference to the notorious autowallas??? I am told that “Amma” has been successful in implementing electronic meters in auto rickshaws this year and I hope the system is working. For years, one had to put up with the tyranny of autowallas in Madras. Those days when the train reached Basin Bridge, I used to brace myself for the fight with the autowalla at Madras Central Station. The autowallas knew to outsmart the passengers every time and ask for more. “Konjam Meterukku mela pottu kudunga, Sir” (Sir please pay more than the meter) used to be one jarring line one hated to hear. And the reasons for asking more than the meter were ingenious.  “Sir the destination is very far, Sir the distance is too short, Sir I will have to return empty, Sir you have 3 luggage pieces, Sir there the road is not good, Sir it is raining, Sir there is no light in that area and too dark, Sir the meter is not working, Sir prices have gone up, Sir Naan Pulla Kutti Kaaran (I have children),….!!!”  🙂 🙂 Invariably we were asked to fork out for the ills of everybody else!!! The advent of Call taxis and now the E-meters hopefully have put an end to this Autowalla tyranny.

I can keep writing on many other aspects of “Madrasitis” like the annual test match at Chepauk during Pongal, the influence of Kodambakkam aka films on people, the day long shopping by women for Silk Sarees at Mambalam, Woodlands Drive-in – the Salespeople’s’ adda, the poster culture eulogizing film stars then and politicians now (Witness “Amma” being elevated to a Durga one day Ganga/ Parvathi/Queen Mary/Radha/Kaali/Mother Teresa/,.. some other day in posters and cut-outs plastered all over the city) and so on.

This post has gone too long. But then 375th Birthday for a city doesn’t come every other day. Wishing our very own Madras (I’m not a fan of this changing names of cities when a party comes to power) while being 375 Not out many more runs and a long,…. innings!!!

Postscript:  People in Madras are known for their tongue ’n cheek wit and humour. This is one sample:

James Bond comes out of British Airways at Chennai, goes to his waiting driver and says “I’m Bond, James Bond. James to you”.

For which the driver replies “I’m Subramaniam, Bala Subramaniam. Balls to you…”

🙂 🙂 🙂

Is Kerala “God’s Own Country”???

Thanks to a family wedding in Trivandrum recently, got the opportunity to take a short vacation break at Kerala. Yet again. With both my parents hailing from Kottayam a district in Central Kerala, I have lost the count of times we have holidayed in God’s Own Country. As a child, our annual vacations would begin and end with sojourns to Kottayam. Throw in atleast one annual visit for some family occasion, Annual Sabarimala trip, 2-3 visits a year to Kerala was a given. That was till I got busy chasing entry to a “professional” course. After that the frequency of visits reduced. But the craving to visit hasn’t.

The initial visits to Kerala were long before it became “the Kerala” of today. It was just one’s own country. Beautiful, Green and generally serene.  The swaying coconut palms, photogenic countryside, colourful Kathakali,… were all there but we were never wide-eyed by those that time, as we are today!!! Swimming in the river, visit to coconut groves, sipping of tender coconuts, ride in the country boat, visit to rubber estates, seeing Kathakali performances in the night, feeding elephants in the house, watching highly traditional rituals in the temple,…,.. were all but quite the usual stuff we did year after year during annual vacations.

GOK

Somewhere in the late 90’s and the turn of this century was when the word Kerala started getting a new dimension. Coincidentally that was the time when my visits reduced in frequency. Am not sure which of these made a difference. Was it the superbly executed marketing campaign positioning Kerala as “God’s Own Country? Or was it Arundati Roy’s Booker winner –‘God of small thingsset in a small place called Aymanam in Kottayam that kick started the romanticism with Kerala? Nobody knows or may be God only knows 🙂  The next we hear was that Kerala has been ranked among the top 10 “Paradises on Earth“ by National Geographic Traveller! After this the Gods haven’t stopped smiling on their own country. Tourists by the millions have been ever since checking-in to the state – both Desi and the foreigner types. The small strips of waterways extending from the sea to the land became the “beautiful backwaters of Kerala”, the country boat which was perched from the roof and idling in everyone’s house transformed into a rustic Vallam (boat) and started fetching money in thousands if you are open to parting the same to hotels and travel companies. Spices like pepper, cardamom,..,… which were grown in the backyard became “Exotic products from the Spice village”!!!

Is Kerala really God’s Own Country? This question has been haunting me for quite some time now.  The last few visits to the state have helped in unravelling the answer to the question.

First up, am yet to locate another place with smaller confines like Kerala with sea on one side, hill stations on the other, a vast of green forest cover in between, water ways which are calm and landspaces which are clean. Having said that even in India, it’s not just Kerala which has been blessed with the bounty of Nature. There are quite a few other states as well. For example, Kerala’s immediate neighbour Karnataka immediately springs to my mind. But no other place has been able to leverage what it has, better than Kerala , “Gujarat’s Khushboo” and “Ajab Gajab Madhya Pradesh” notwithstanding!!!  Having visited quite a few other states in India I can vouch that Kerala is the most tourist friendly state in the country.

For a state with low or no manufacturing activity to speak of, the spurt in tourism came as God’s own blessing. May be for that reason, Keralites imbibed tourism as a possible panacea to joblessness in the state with little production activity. Fortunately tourism being a service industry has been spared of the ills of trade unionism atleast as I write this. The near complete literacy and more than that being a highly NRI populated state, the awareness levels on cleanliness and environment are very high. Tourism in Kerala is well-organized and touts few. Unlike the neighboring Tamilnadu where people have abhorred Hindi as a language for long, Kerala never did that. So the locals manage to speak in Hindi with visitors from the North though in highly accented version.  Plastic free zones are indeed free of plastics. Well, almost.

So gradually Kerala has started upselling itself from a plain vanilla tourist destination to panoply of value added offerings. Ecotourism, Ayurveda tourism, Spiritual tourism, Plantation tourism, Elephant tourism, Wellness tourism… ,.. and what have you.  In a product like tourist state most important is the experience of the visitor and the subsequent word of mouth or in today’s lingo viral communication.  Who is the brand ambassador for “Apple’s I phone”?? Is it a Bollywood actor? Cricketer? Nope. It’s you and me. A great experiential product sells by positive word of mouth of its users. So has been Kerala. Check this thumbs up from CNN!!!

So the answer to that question – Is Kerala really God’s Own Country” could very well be a big YES!!! If you have not visited, plan one asap. No, I am not paid for writing this!!!

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Postscript : The other thing for which Kerala is popular other than tourism are the “Mallu jokes” which is slowly threatening to beat the “Sardar jokes” which have been ruling the party circuit for long. Zimbly because Mallu jokes are vary Zimble, fandastic and vary funny and Goad’s Own Gontry is the best 🙂 🙂 🙂

Also watch – “Water Colour by God” – ad film by ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan