18 March 2011

Long Day's Journey to Lavasa - Part 2

[An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Lavasa Blog.]

Up early and ready by 6 o’clock the next morning, we found ourselves one car short to take us around Lavasa. The photographers had left before us to catch the sunrise and, disappointed, we had to kill some time walking around before we could use the other car to head out to The Nature Trail and Ekaant, a resort 2 kms away up on the hills. It was my fault as I was responsible for taking care of the photographers and bloggers. But I must say that the bloggers were quick to adjust to the situation.

The Nature Trail was a walk in the woods through a narrow pathway up in the hills. We travelled part of the way, taking photographs and generally amusing ourselves, but returned to Ekaant to capture the beauty of Lavasa amidst the Sahyadri Hills at sunrise. Tea on the terrace soon followed and, if you ask me, the bloggers’ revelry came pretty close to the enactment of the mad tea party scene from ‘Alice In Wonderland’. It was good to see Lavasa bringing out this enjoyment in people.

We drove back down to the promenade for breakfast at the All American Diner – a mix of Indian and continental cuisines. The photographers joined us midway through breakfast and, after more waiting for what was next on the itinerary, during which the bloggers continued their revelry in high spirit, we drove to Bamboosa, a workshop and retail centre for bamboo products, located in another part of Lavasa.

Bamboo forests are nurtured in Lavasa and Lavasa Corporation employs local people and their skills to craft bamboo products such as artefacts and furniture. We bought a few pieces for keepsakes and thanked the artisans before leaving.

The sun was high above our heads and we decided to head back to the promenade. First off was a quick lunch. After last night’s happy dinner, we would have preferred another go at Chor Bizarre, but the restaurant hadn’t opened its doors by then. So, we strolled into the All American Diner and, after some hurried consultation with each other and the waiters, we were served a semi-American semi-continental spread. We dug right in with all the zest still left in us and, before we knew it, lunch was over.

We raced to our rooms, packed our bags and checked out of The Waterfront Shaw. The cars were waiting to take us back to Mumbai and we bade good-bye to each other in a rush, promising to keep in touch over the days and months. And so we did – over emails, tweets, Facebook updates and posts on our blogs.

My lady blogger friends, being far more prolific at creative writing than me, began posting their impressions of our journey to Lavasa not long after their return to their homes. I was the one who fell behind on his promise... but managed to put something together here. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.

However, to get the best and the most from my long day’s journey to Lavasa during the Lavasa Women’s Drive, you must read the personal stories of my lady blogger friends who accompanied me there and made my journey such a celebrated one. You’ll find their stories here (Anu), here (Kiran), here (Monika), here (Nisha), here (Pushpa), here (Ramya), here (Sakshi), and here (Shakti). Happy reading!

Long Day's Journey to Lavasa - Part 1

[This article originally appeared in the Lavasa Blog.]

It started around 7 o’clock on 27th February morning at the Reclamation Grounds in Bandra, when I walked into, what seemed to me, an open-air theatre. It was the stage for the flag-off for the Lavasa Women’s Drive from Mumbai, and the place was buzzing with people and cars.

They were all there to participate in and/or cheer for the participants of the Lavasa Women’s Drive (LWD) – a car rally to the beautiful hill city of Lavasa, in support of early detection of breast cancer in women and celebrate the modern Indian woman. Women sported the white LWD t-shirt and pink ribbons, their cars decorated with messages for the cause, like ‘Overtake Breast Cancer’, or in support of other social causes they believed in.

The event organisers and Bollywood celebrities flagged off the cars one by one and, soon after, my team of bloggers and photographers followed them on their journey to Lavasa.

Needless to say, the bloggers were all women, the modern independent-minded strong-spirited variety, and our conversations on the journey to Lavasa (and through to the next day) were profound. Topics ranged from Lavasa and how it was their first visit to the hill city, to bloggers as eye-witness documenters of present-day history to travel to food to women’s issues and the changing role of the urban Indian woman to personal experiences of gender compatibility (and attraction).

We travelled along the LWD route all the way to Lavasa without a hitch and, after some confusion over parking spaces and where to have lunch, we settled (somewhat late) in what seemed like a comfy restaurant with a strange name: the Oriental Octopus. Outside, we could see the LWD participants arriving in small groups, satisfied from their long journeys and their kabab and biriyani lunches which were specially organised for them, and milling about on the promenade.

Inside the O. Octopus, a feeling of bonhomie had developed and we all talked and tweeted away without a care in the world, sharing experiences, getting to know each other better.

However, while taking our orders and serving us at our tables, the O. Octopus got all tangled up and began to blot out our high spirit. Apart from the wait and differences over cuisines, some of us were served the wrong dishes while others didn’t get served what they had ordered. Words and feelings were exchanged – and tweeted – leaving us in some confusion. I guess a sudden invasion of high-energy bloggers and photographers was too much for them to handle.

Undaunted, we fanned out in different directions. Some returned to Mumbai to attend to their next-day’s work, while others decided to soak up some late-afternoon entertainment, catching up on the LWD post-rally celebrations. The Band of Boys was belting out a few happy numbers and the LWD participants and their friends were jiving to the rhythm.

When we reconvened in the evening, most of the LWD participants had left. The hustle and bustle of the morning and the afternoon was replaced by a calm which was a welcome break at a day’s end. While the photographers went off to shoot Lavasa by night, the bloggers and I gathered to re-cap the day’s events, sharing our thoughts about LWD. To cut a long story short, we were impressed by the turnout of participants, the support shown by so many others, and the seamless management of the event.

Dinner awaited us and Chor Bizarre on the promenade beckoned us in. It was an Indian fare and the decor inside the restaurant was quite appealing. The bloggers made the most of it by posing here and there, taking pictures of this and that, before settling at their tables for a taste of Chor Bizarre’s sumptuous Indian cuisine. The service was tailored to our needs and, before retiring to our rooms at The Waterfront Shaw, we talked of returning to the restaurant the next day.

However, to get the best and the most from my long day’s journey to Lavasa during the Lavasa Women’s Drive, you must read the personal stories of my lady blogger friends who accompanied me there and made my journey such a celebrated one. You’ll find their stories here (Anu), here (Kiran), here (Monika), here (Nisha), here (Pushpa), here (Ramya), here (Sakshi), and here (Shakti). Happy reading!

31 March 2010

Lies of Silence

Is it better to be a coward and live a happy life with the one you love? Or, is it better to do something heroic and risk your life and happiness? That’s one among several dilemmas Brian Moore grapples with in his book Lies of Silence.

Lies of Silence begins as a simple story about a Belfast hotel manager (Michael Dillon) who, unhappy with his marriage and his unfulfilled life in Belfast, decides to leave his wife for another woman and move to London. But, as he prepares to tell his wife about his decision, he is overwhelmed by unexpected and extraordinary circumstances.

Overnight, Dillon and his wife are taken hostage in their house by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). And, while his wife is kept hostage in the house, next morning, he is ordered to drive his car with explosives to the hotel, park it there and disappear. Should Dillon follow the IRA’s directive at the cost of many lives and save his wife whom he no longer loves? Or, should he risk his wife’s life – and his own, in the long run – and save the world?

Irish author Brian Moore presents this moral dilemma in a taut and gripping novel against the backdrop of a politically – and economically – volatile Northern Ireland. Faced with this dilemma, we get the feeling that regardless of Dillon’s choices, the outcome of Lies of Silence is unlikely to be a happy one. But how that outcome is reached is a credit to Moore’s storytelling.

01 January 2010

A toast to life

While we celebrate the coming of the New Year, let us not forget that our lives and our planet Earth are interconnected and dependent on each other.

The consequences of not understanding – or damaging or breaking – this relationship may be fatal to our future.

19 November 2009

Café Coffee Day rips off its loyal customer

Sadly, last Sunday (15 Nov), my lunch at Café Coffee Day (CCD) at Mumbai Domestic Airport Terminal 1 lounge turned sour. It started off as a happy lunch with fish and chips – not offered in most CCDs but a rather substantial and tasty offering I might add – and a portion of toasted garlic bread (not mentioned on their menu but served on request) on the side.

I relished my meal and, although the air conditioning wasn’t working effectively at the CCD lounge, I decided on a cup of hot coffee to pass the time... before clearing ‘security’ on the way to board my flight. So, I placed my usual CCD order of a cup of strong cappuccino and a walnut brownie with the young lady in a short navy blue skirt and a white blouse with a navy blue scarf (not the usual CCD service attire).

The young lady asked if I wanted a sizzling brownie or a plain one. I replied, “No, not sizzling, a plain one will do.” She then asked if I wanted the brownie as it is, or did I want the brownie warmed up. I suggested that if the brownie was cold, then could she warm it up for me in a microwave. She accepted my order and, not too long after, my strong cappuccino and my plain warm brownie were served.

Needless to say, I enjoyed this part of the meal as well. But, when I asked for my bill, I noticed that it contained a charge for a sizzling brownie for Rs.167/-. I drew this to the attention of the young lady who had taken my order and suggested that there was an error in my bill. That, a plain brownie at CCD doesn’t cost that much. The young lady, however, said that there was no error at all and that I had been billed correctly.

Now, I’m a regular at CCD outlets and I know that a plain brownie costs Rs.45/-. And, this plain walnut brownie looked no different from the ones I normally have. In fact, I had my usual CCD order of a cup of strong cappuccino and a walnut brownie at the CCD outlet inside Crossword Bookstore at Nirmal Lifestyle in Mulund, Mumbai, just the day before (Saturday, 14 Nov evening) and my bill was within Rs.100/-.

To the young lady, I pointed out my loyalty to CCD and our earlier conversation when placing my order for a plain brownie, warmed up, and not a sizzling one. The young lady, nevertheless, said that a heated brownie, which was what I had ordered for, was the same as a sizzling brownie – and that I should now pay my bill.

I was aghast. This was CCD ripping off its loyal customer. Since I didn’t want any unpleasantness at the airport lounge, I cleared my bill in cash, suggesting that their brownie at the airport lounge was overpriced and should be noted. Of course, these words fell on deaf ears, and the entire experience left a sour taste in my mouth.

I wondered about the customer-client transparency levels and the service levels that I had just experienced at CCD at the Mumbai Domestic airport lounge. I wondered how, in this day and age of customer consciousness and customer delight, when customer service is a key driver of a brand’s reputation, a well-known brand like Café Coffee Day could treat its customers so shoddily. This was against all principles of marketing.

And then I wondered if Café Coffee Day even cared for such things.

13 November 2009

A romance on illegal immigrants

In his 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things, British film director Stephen Frears paints a wonderful colourful picture of survival for a small group of illegal immigrants in London.

In the lead is Okwe (played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Nigerian with a past. His story unfolds slowly over the entire film, but right from the beginning we realise that Okwe is a man of honesty and integrity... and education. Although a doctor by profession, he makes a living as a part-time taxi driver and as a night receptionist at a mid-level hotel, The Baltic.

In fact, it is The Baltic on which Dirty Pretty Things is centred. The hotel also offers work to Senay (played by the lovely Audrey Tautou), a young and somewhat naive Turkish woman who dreams of going to America to join her cousin’s restaurant there. As a member of The Baltic’s housekeeping staff on the morning shift, Senay rents out her couch in her tiny flat to Okwe during the day.

For company, Okwe and Senay have a colourful menagerie of characters on the side: Juan – the hotel’s supervisor (played by Sergi López), appropriately called ‘Sneaky’ for his suspicious dealings; Ivan – an opportunist East European doorman (played by Zlatko Buric); Juliette – a prostitute with a heart of gold (played by Sophie Okonedo); and Guo Yi – a philosophical Chinese morgue attendant (played by Benedict Wong) who is Okwe’s friend.

But, when British immigration officers raid Senay’s flat and attempt to catch her working without a work permit, life becomes difficult for both Senay and Okwe.

Matters are further complicated when Okwe uncovers a racket in the sale of kidneys run within The Baltic by his supervisor, Sneaky, in exchange for false passports for illegal immigrants. In turn, Sneaky finds out about Okwe’s Nigerian past (Okwe being a doctor and being charged with his wife’s murder) and blackmails Okwe into performing kidney operations for his personal gains.

This is where Dirty Pretty Things moves away from ordinary human drama and into the realm of a crime thriller... climaxing with Senay taking up Sneaky’s offer in exchange for her passport to America.

With Dirty Pretty Things, director Frears works on a tight script by writer Steven Knight. The dialogues are minimal, but within those words, the story is told rather well. Together, Frears and Knight present a London most of us know very little about. Beneath the bright lights of the big city is a life lived by people who would be best described as marginal: people who have little going for them except their instinct for survival and their hope for a better life.

And, Frears delivers on that promise. Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frear’s romance on illegal immigrants of London, is a film crafted to perfection. It shows us why life is still worth living no matter how adversely our immediate circumstances overwhelm us.

26 October 2009

Why penalise the workforce?

The Indian economy is not doing badly. It may have slowed down after its exemplary performance in the last couple of years, but with a growth pegged at 6% or so in the current fiscal year, it is way ahead of the economies of the leading Western countries. If this be true, why are Indian corporate organisations and businesses, following their Western counterparts, adopting austerity measures which are affecting the Indian workforce negatively?

From retrenchment of workforce to delayed appraisals to delayed/non-payment of salaries to non-payment of performance bonuses for previous year’s excellent performance to cutbacks in salaries to cutbacks on perks promised... (the list is long)... Indian businesses, big and small, are trying to reduce costs in order to bring their businesses back on track. By which, they mean bringing up their businesses to previous levels of profitability.

Although there is a big question whether previous levels of profitability were/are sustainable over longer periods, I am more concerned about the negative effect these austerity measures have on the Indian workforce. The biggest negative effect is, of course, a disenchanted and disgruntled workforce. More so, because the workforce – at least, comprising of those who have retained their jobs – continues to work in the same dedicated manner that had brought in the revenues and profits in the previous years of growth and profitability.

If this be true, why are Indian corporate organisations and businesses penalising the workforce?