A for Amazing, A for Andaman!

‘Andamanai paarungal, Azhagu,…’ (Look at Andaman which is beautiful,..) goes a Tamil song from the film Andaman Kaadhali’ (Andaman lover)! The film featuring Shivaji Ganesan and Sujatha was released way back in 1978 and if my memory serves me right, did well at the box office! The song and the film I would reckon, were my first introductions outside of text books to the beautiful group of islands located east of the Indian coast in the Bay of Bengal. It’s a pity that it took 40 years since then to make a visit to Andaman, a few aborted trips for business notwithstanding!

I guess that Andaman hit the Indian tourists’ radar 5/6 years ago when it recovered from the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. Though Port Blair itself was not affected so much, parts of the Nicobar Islands, south of Andaman like Car Nicobar,… got battered badly. Today, tourism plays a major role in keeping the wheels of the Union Territory moving. Having spent a week there in the mid of May this year, I was keen to capture and record my impressions through this post.

  • First up, what strikes as a visitor in Port Blair and the many places that are part of the tourism circuit like Havelock, Ross Island,… is the cleanliness. One doesn’t get to see garbage littered around and I presume this was the situation even before Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign.
  • Having said that, trails of the cleanliness Abhiyan are felt everywhere as you see dust bins branded SBA prominently placed in areas where tourists visit even if they are remote parts of distant islands. This is commendable. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has hope.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Guides, car drivers and all make it a point to point out that crime rate is almost “0” in Andaman and that the place is completely safe for locals and tourists alike. I must add here that in the whole trip we didn’t spot any beggars or touts who chase tourists as in some of the other parts of the country.
  • Administration of Andaman, being a Union territory comes under the auspices of the Lieutenant Governor. And funds wise, supported by the Union Government. People seem to be happy with this arrangement without being under the mercy of political parties for local administration. However, who’s in the centre and its blessings have a direct impact in terms of funds allocation and development projects. With roughly 300 Cr income and 3000 Cr expenditure per annum, dependence on the Centre is very high for keeping the wheels moving.
  • Andaman provides a lot of connection historically to the Independence movement. Kala Pani or the Cellular Jail is a must visit for tourists today. It stands as a grim reminder of the struggles and pains freedom fighters had to go through under the British. The Light and Sound show at the Jail provides the ghastly details of the inhuman treatment of the prisoners by the British. The voice of the late actor Om Puri as the narrator is moving.  A walk through the corridors of the jail certainly chokes you with emotion. Among the many who bore the brunt of the cruelty, was Veer Savarkar, the controversial freedom fighter from Maharashtra. The NDA Government under Vajpayee did its bit to honour him by naming the Port Blair Airport after Veer Savarkar in 2002.

  • Surprisingly, we hadn’t learnt about Kala Pani or the Cellular Jail in history books while growing up. Not sure if it is a part now! So, my first introduction to Kala Pani was through Priyadarshan’s Malayalam film Kala Pani, way back in 1996. I am convinced that films have done a far better job in teaching history than text books to many of us!
  • While on historical connection, a 10 minute boat ride from Port Blair takes you to a small island called Ross Island. The British occupied and developed it as their base for stay. Ross Island today has been handed over to the Indian Navy which is maintaining the same. The island has remnants of the British rule by way of old but dilapidated structures and gives a peek into the luxurious British lifestyle which they enjoyed while thumbing down the locals. The Light and Sound show at the island incidentally directed by the Southern Actress Revathi and sound designed by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty is impressive and provides the historical context. Ross Island can be developed into a much better place of tourism interest. It looks neglected with hardly any upgradation or investment in the recent years.
  • Prominent in the tourist circuit today in Andaman is an Island called Havelock which you reach through a 2 hour cruise on high sea that operates regularly. They say that Havelock is becoming the Goa of Andaman! The beaches in Havelock like the Radha Nagar beach, Elephant Beach, Kalapathar Beach,… are all pristine with white sand and turquoise blue water. The beaches are neat and clean unlike Goa. People flock Havelock today for ticking one of their Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara bucket list. Meaning for their Scuba diving, Snorkelling, Jet Skiing and other water sports experiences! We too tried our hands or rather fins at Scuba diving and the experience was awesome though there was no Katrina Kaif around to train us! But the whole diving experience was fantastic. The trainers were professional and ensured that we had a memorable experience.
  • Havelock is laid back, has a small town feel with most restaurants resembling beach side shacks. It seems that Havelock used to be very popular among foreigners particularly, Israelis. I am told that with the increase in the arrival of Indian travellers now, the foreign tourists are on the wane. It is not difficult to fathom why.
  • Baratang Island is another tourist attraction in Andaman. The limestone caves supposedly formed over millions of years are visually spectacular. I would say that the saying – “Life isn’t just about the destination but about the journey too” fits this place very well. The travel to Baratang is a full day trip where you first travel 100 kms by road from Port Blair to reach the Middle Strait Boat jetty. And the interesting part is, a good 50 Km drive is through reserved forest area where you are allowed to drive only in security protected convoys which leave in 3 or 4 fixed time slots every day. The Jirkatang check post is where you wait till the convoy is allowed to proceed at the appointed time. The forest area is even today inhabited by aboriginal tribes called the Jarawas. You can spot them on the way at times as we did. Photography or video shooting are strictly prohibited in this area. We were told that the Jarawas changed their approach towards other people around the late 80’s but before that the travel was not so safe. We could see that the administration has been taking a lot of steps to mainstream them over a period of years. We could see schools set up for them and so are clinics. Security guards patrol the area regularly. From the Middle Strait boat jetty you are off- loaded into a huge boat which takes you to Baratang jetty. From Baratang jetty, again you have to get into smaller speed boats in groups of 10 people for a 45 min. ride which is extremely scenic, the last 10 minutes of which is through dense mangroves. From where you alight, you need to walk a good 15 mins walk through scenic green fields to reach the limestone caves. At the end of the day, as you return, you feel very tired as the 100 Kms road from Port Blair to the Jetty is bad and uneven. As a place of reasonable tourist interest, I hope the administration fixes this ASAP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • I must add here that the roads within the Port Blair town, Havelock,… are very good and well maintained.
  • Since Port Blair is connected to other islands like Havelock, Ross Island, Neil Island, The Long Island,… mainly through waterways, the boat jetties play a crucial role. Here, I must say that the jetties today are not equipped so well to handle the inflow of traffic. There is chaos and Indians being horrible travellers do their bit only to add to the chaos.
  • The whole of Andaman suffers from poor connectivity. The locals crib that they have still to do with 2G while other parts of India are enjoying 4G. Due to limited bandwidth available data uploads and downloads are possible only with Wi-Fi which is also slow. Work is in progress for underground sea cabling from Chennai to Port Blair which will improve connectivity significantly. This may be 3 / 4 years away from now.
  • Was happy to see the local CBSE school in Port Blair display a signboard of being part of Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission program and as part of that, it was an “Atal Tinkering Lab”!
  • Big hotel groups are yet to make significant investments in Andaman. Tatas have made the 1st move with a premium Taj Exotica property at the Radha Nagar beach in Havelock which opened very recently. This is under PPP (Public and Private Participation) model which I think is the way to go. One of the constraints for private investments I understand today, are the environmental clearances which I guess is a touchy issue not just in Andaman!
  • Once you arrive in Port Blair and wade through different tourist spots, it is clear that Andaman is now a hot spot for Honeymooners. Young couples lost in their own company, girl’s hands  clad in designer mehendi and weighed down by rows of bangles (chooda) are a common sight and give credence to my premise.
  • It is obviously clear that if the last mile connectivity infrastructure like the Airport, Broadband, highways connecting major towns, infrastructure at Jetties,… are improved, Andaman will lure tourists by the droves. Not that it doesn’t, today. But traffic can multiply and just by tourism alone I think it can stand on its own feet without Centre’s subsidy.
  • The Port Blair airport itself is just a functional one and for a tourist destination needs an upgrade badly.
  • I do get a feeling that, may be the administration or the concerned administrators don’t want to go the whole hog for fear of losing Andaman’s identity and rampant commercialisation. Look at what has happened to the popular hill stations in India which all have got savaged by explosion of tourism!

Overall Andaman is idyllic, beautiful and is a must visit. Incidentally I came to know that the opening shots of the song ‘Andamanai paarungal, Azhagu,… which I have referred to in the beginning of this post was shot at the Megapode Resort in Port Blair where we also stayed!!!

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Kumarakom yesterday, Vagamon tomorrow!

If there is one state in India, which has almost got its act together on tapping its tourism potential, it must be Kerala. I say, “almost” and mention Kerala in relation to other states of India. For a relatively small state, Kerala boasts of varied choices for a traveler from beaches to hill stations to back waters to Ayurveda to Culture and more.  In a strange twist of irony, for a state which still has its ideological moorings firmly tilted to the “Left”, it is “smart marketing” that has played a great part in positioning the state as ‘God’s Own Country’ over the years. To its credit, certain gaps notwithstanding, Kerala does live up to this tag line to this day.

I’m certain that there are other states which are bigger in size in India that can provide a better offering than Kerala to tourists. Karnataka, for example. And some of them have now realized the potential, tourism as an industry offers and are boarding the bus, though late.  The tourism circuit of Kerala over the years has evolved from just back waters of Kochi and hills of Thekkady in the 80’s to now Kumarakom, Alleppey, Munnar, and spots in Malabar area like Wynad, Bekal,… Outside of this circuit are a few places that are in the verge of earning their stripes. Of them is Vagamon, a hill station in the Idukki district and closer to Kottayam in terms of access, which I had the opportunity to visit last week.

Being a native of Kottayam, I have had the chance to visit Kottayam many times. It was the default summer vacation option while growing up. And with family roots still entrenched there, social visits have been a regular.  Though Vagamon is just 40 Kms from our place in Kottayam, we never thought of exploring this location in the past. Not just familiarity, but proximity also at times breeds contempt isn’t it?  Having been hearing of this place as an emerging hill station, we decided to visit Vagamon and spend a night there during this trip.

For long, Vagamon was mainly known for its milk – Vagamon milk is popular in the surrounding areas. Like all hill stations of India, though the British were the ones who discovered this place, I understand that it is the Christian missionaries in Kerala who developed Vagamon and among the first to live there. A Dairy farm that still exists was the early business activity to flourish and hence the popularity of Vagamon milk!  So one can say that it is a place where honey and milk literally flows! The road leading to Vagamon from Kottayam is patchy having been battered by the recent heavy rains. For a Mumbaikar used to pot holed roads resembling craters of the moon, they were still bearable, but then Mumbai is no bench mark for a tourist destination! As you near the place, the scenic beauty of the place and the accompanying chill weather just enthrall you.  The views on the way give you an idea of what to expect.

The resort where we stayed (Treebo Adrak Summer Sand Resort) is right at the heart of the town and has fantastic views. Located next to the Pine Valley which is one of the places of tourist interest, is neat, clean and very well maintained. The property is great and picturesque. However, for such a nice property, the staff is inadequately trained and is marred by slow and laidback service. We see this dichotomy in many small towns in India.

All places of visitor’s interest are in a span of 5 Kms which include breathtaking viewpoints, idyllic Tea estates, the Dairy farm, the Pine Valley,… and could be covered within few hours. Being a fledgling tourist destination, the infrastructure is just developing. One of the popular viewpoints has now become a paragliding point where frenzied construction activity is going on. I realized that as of now, Vagamon is more of a one day outing place for those nearby during holidays and long weekends.  The result – all the points of interest were overcrowded and vehicles parked alongside the narrow roads clogging the approach. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was tottering, with people who bring food along eating alongside roads and littering the place with plates, cups and left over food! This was sad for a state which I always thought was in the forefront of Swachata. Though declared a plastic free zone, plastic could be freely seen strewn in places where people thronged.

The 3.5 hour drive back to the Kochi International Airport, half of which is through hilly terrain is quite scenic. Airtel 4G connection of mine failed the test, as in many places my phone was out of coverage. On the other hand, our cab driver’s JIO connection passed with flying colours when we need to access Google maps. Not to mention of the equally effective cell phone coverage of BSNL in those far off areas! The drive through also gives an insight on why the “Left” is so well entrenched in Kerala.  Red flags flutter in regular frequency in a gap of 10-15 Kms even in those remote areas.  Even in a non-election season like this, there was a nukkad meeting going on being addressed by a spirited leader with at least a 100 keen listeners!  But one cannot dismiss the flowering of the Lotus here and there.  In fact, the day we were leaving Kochi, BJP was kicking off its “Project Kerala” in Kannur with Modi as the main face in posters alongside the Kerala BJP President Kummanam Rajashekaran, who incidentally resembles Modi in some angles. Yet, it will take years of labour to dislodge the Left from probably its last bastion in India!

With Nature in abundance, Vagamon has immense potential to be the next Munnar or Kumarakom of Kerala. Additional place of interest for Westerners is a place called Bharananganam which is on the way from Kottayam to Vagamon. It is the abode of Sister Alphonsa who was the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  But, to get into the God’s Own Country circuit, Vagamon needs to be developed in terms of its infrastructure. Incidentally, the same day I saw a quote of the new Central minister for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam who hails from Kerala, talking of Vagamon in the same breath as Munnar as an area to focus for tourism development.

The jury is still out as to whether development happens first and then tourism picks up or the other way about. But there is always a tipping point. Like for Kumarakom, when in the last week of December in the Year 2000, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to ring in the New Year at Kumarakom.  The musings of Vajpayee from Kumarakom still reverberate in the air! Similarly, another event that catapulted Kumarakom to its today’s glory was Arundati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Set in the village of Aymanam which is at a calling distance from Kumarakom, the novel made many Western tourists include Kumarakom part of their itinerary!

May be Prime Minster Modi, who in his last Mann Ki Baat address called upon people to explore new destinations in India to boost tourism, could emulate Vajpayee and take a break at Vagamon during Diwali! Who knows, in that calm, cool and scenic setting far away from the political nerve centre of Delhi he may discover some new ideas to bring back John Maynard Keynes’ “Animal spirits” of the country!!!

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???

great-wall

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”

Board in C'tore,012014

  • 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