Rambling on….

about anything under the Sun!

After Cleartrip, its now Meru’s turn!

Wow, it sure feels like a personal Customer Service crusade – after Cleartrip, it now seems to be Meru Cabs at the wheel. And they are taking their faithful customers for a nice big ride around town, pun intended. Now, to be fair, between the wife and I, we have used Meru Cabs for almost 3 years now (ever since the new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport opened in Hyderabad) and at least 2-3 times a month, so that’s a sample size of about 100. And incredibly, not one out of those 100 trips have been anything but an incredibly pleasant experience. I repeat, every single one of them – That is world-class service, and especially noteworthy considering the typical bar that Indian businesses set for themselves.

Here is why I love using Meru – Their booking process is straight-forward and intuitive, the service is largely secure and professional, the cabs very clean and well-maintained, and the ride extremely comfortable. All of this at what I consider a very reasonable price. A ride will cost you Rs 15 per km, which in today’s Bangalore is only 1.67 times the cost of riding an auto, but quite a bargain considering how much more comfortable the trip is. So, if it’s not clear already, I’ve been a big fan of these guys, am constantly rooting for them and telling anyone who cares to listen about how wonderful they are – doing my bit of word-of-mouth marketing for them, you know. Of course, they are only available in select cities now and I can’t wait for them to come to Chennai, a city that I frequent quite a bit and where I miss the service dearly.

Anyways, all good things come to an end – and my Meru streak met with the same cruel fate on our trip to Kumarakom last week. The first element of surprise was when I made the phone call to book our cab. I was politely told by the IVR recording that I would be tagged an additional Rs. 50 as a convenience fee, with absolutely no explanation for what the said convenience was. Did they add a new toilet to the cab, I wondered. That thought was quickly put to rest when they followed that message with the offer of a generous discount of 50% on the Convenience charge if I asked for a cab within 35 minutes of my booking – if they did add the loo, am sure it would cost the same no matter when I booked, right? So anyways, I asked to talk to the friendly agent for an explanation of the charge. Turns out the “Convenience” refers to the use of their Call Center to make the booking, and she told me the fee would not be applied if I booked my cab online! Since when did calling a call center become a “Convenience”? Did I just blissfully miss that whole era?

Seriously, the whole notion of asking Customers to pay extra when they are calling you to give you business is nonsensical. Sure, find other means to encourage customers to use the web so you can improve operational efficiency but charging them more because they call you is a surefire way to destroy any goodwill you have built. And if that isn’t enough, their fee structure of charging less for a more imminent booking completely defies logic. I would think it aids their scheduling algorithm to know their demand in advance, but clearly they prefer the last minute scramble – kinda like JIT as if their cabs were perishable entities? And to top it off, they have an equally befuddling explanation of why it is the way it is on their website. Nicely done, Meru – clearly this whole decision came out of a half-baked committee with a confused set of objectives.

Of course, I still needed the cab and with no intentions of paying any silly additional fee, I went online. And their online booking process, while reasonably straight-forward, just gave me this sinking feeling that my booking was vanishing into a black hole. A very ordinary website and an even more ordinary process. Given how well-oiled their phone booking machinery was, I expected to be able to specify my phone number and have it identify me, but no such luck. Not even close. Just out of curiosity, I played around so more with their website – their user experience could use an upgrade…actually make that a rewrite. They should take a leaf out of Cleartrip’s book, or better yet, have Cleartrip build and host it for them. Maybe they could even sell package deals – suggest a cab booking for every flight/train ticket that gets booked etc.

And Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is virtually non-existent. I tried all the 3 leading Search engines and searched for the typical queries – “cabs Bangalore”, “Taxis Bangalore”, “Airport taxi Bangalore” and in none of the cases did Meru come out on top. In fact, in some cases, they didn’t even make it to the first page. Not what I would expect for what is easily the most popular airport taxi option in the city just judging by numbers. Nope, no ads on the Search pages either. For someone that’s trying to get their online reservation system going, I thought it was strange that they hadn’t even covered the basics? And instead unfairly passing the burden to the customer?

In any case, I provided the necessary information and submitted the request, but made one fatal error – I think it gave me a confirmation number and I forgot to take it down before I closed the window. The site asked me for my email address and my phone number, so I assumed they’d either text or mail me the confirmation? Apparently, that’s too much to ask for. Last I checked, email was still almost free but it didn’t matter. So the next morning comes around and no sign of the cab or any notification around it. I finally call and the Customer Service rep asks for the dreaded Confirmation number. I feign ignorance and give her my phone number instead and her system promptly tells her no reservation was made against that number. How can that be? I swear I saw a confirmation window pop-up on their website that said booking was confirmed. So I try pleading with her and she promptly redirects me to their phone booking department so I can make a fresh booking. For a small, additional convenience charge of course! I didn’t have anything to hold them on, so I couldn’t really make my case but they definitely lost an ambassador thanks to this pleasant experience.

If you are still curious, I did not call them for that cab in the end and found an alternate option to get to the airport that was a lot more reasonable. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like I am the only one that seems to have a problem with this. Hopefully saner minds will prevail in the end!

Cleartrip? Hardly Clear and no Trip in the end!

So if you are practical and you travel by train in India, (Yes, I can almost hear the smart comments about how much of a paradox that statement is, but enough already!), chances are you book your tickets using the Railways web portal, right? I mean, gone are the days when we stood in serpentine lines that were about as long as the train you intended to travel on, and waited an hour, sometimes two, to only find out that none of the trains headed to your destination weren’t interested in taking you anymore because they were so damn full. Right?

So yeah, most of us faithfuls that had access to the Internet simply switched over to using their website to book our tickets. But if only life were that simple? The Railways, true to form, strongly believe that one form of punishment should simply be replaced by another, and that’s not even counting the actual train journey. The web site is a disaster of astronomical proportions, and on so many dimensions. It is an ideal example of how not to build a product, the usability was simply left out of the site – most functions either don’t exist, or more commonly, simply don’t exist! I still remember the very first version of this monstrosity, and I regret not having taken a screen shot back then but I distinctly remember thinking it was a read-only information portal for the Railways, and then discovering to my pleasant (!) surprise that it allowed the user to perform some basic actions, including booking a ticket. In all seriousness, the current version of the site has been a huge upgrade over its previous incarnations, but it is still largely an exercise in torture to try and reserve a ticket through them.

And so, when Cleartrip came along and offered Train bookings on their site, it was nothing short of a blessing. Their user interface is fantastic – very, very simple to use and incredibly intuitive. Of course, if users had to justify coughing up the extra fees one pays Cleartrip in addition to what the Railways charge, then the experience had to be nothing short of stellar. And while there are a couple of improvements that are possible, I think they have more or less nailed it. Alas, that’s where the good news ended.

Pardon the tech diatribe here, but here is the high level flow for their application – Cleatrip calls the Railways service first to process the reservation details, then invokes the payment module to process payment, and once the payment is approved, it then returns to call the Railways service to complete the booking. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that could go wrong in between, and considering my proximity to Uncle Murphy, something did go wrong when I tried.

I was trying to book a ticket from Bangalore to Chennai recently, and it seemed easy as cake…until I got to the payment module. Firstly, the bank module where you provide details of the payment took forever. And after what felt like a year’s wait, the payment finally made it but then it croaked on finishing up the reservation. And the message I got essentially said “We took your money. Thank you! However, we aren’t really sure about your reservation, there is a good chance it didn’t go through. Why don’t you call us at this number and find out for yourself?” Classy…very classy. I was tickled that they were polite enough to thank me, honestly. How often does someone express their appreciation in a nice fashion like that after they screwed you over? Nope, you just don’t get that kinda courtesy anymore.

So anyways, I call the number only to find out that they don’t know if my reservation succeeded either. Nope, am so not kidding. So the customer service guy (think there is just the one guy – I called numerous times and always got the same individual) so nonchalantly says “No problem Sir, don’t worry. This happens quite often. Just wait for about 15 minutes for a text message (SMS) from the Railways Reservations system and that will contain the status of your booking. If it had indeed failed, then we can initiate a refund of the money that was taken, which will take between 3 and 14 days to make it back to your account. “How incredibly awesome? It took a lot of resolve on my part to not nominate this for some kinda Customer Experience recognition award. The guy didn’t seem to think at all that this was a problem – he blamed it on technical difficulties and that it was a common problem with those Railways guys and his wise suggestion was for me to check with the Railways directly on the ticket. Why I was paying Cleartrip a reservation fee is anybody’s guess. The guy thought the refund was the primary issue and as long as that got processed, then I shouldn’t really have anything to complain about? I can’t blame him though, such is the sorry state of Customer Service today.

Anyways, I wait…and an hour passes, and not a peep from any Railways service. While I was waiting however, I did get a couple of spam messages suggesting I buy some Insurance. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. So anyways, I call Cleartrip again (all of these are long-distance calls by the way, and they clearly tell you that the calls are your responsibility) and of course its the same dude, and he tells me, with relief in his voice, that my booking failed and that he will be happy to initiate the refund process. So I had no choice but to find alternate means of travel, and abandoned the attempt to buy that cursed ticket.

Now, I understand there are technology challenges to overcome here. Building anything that works with that archaic Railways Service is an accomplishment that calls for a Nobel Prize in Bravery, and all jokes aside, I tip my hat to the Cleartrip product team for even attempting to do this and having gotten as far as they have. But aren’t they missing the point here? It is my expectation as a paying customer that I am dealing with them and only them, and that it is therefore up to them to resolve any “internal” issues and give me an experience that is as delightful as their website. Sadly, things are a far cry from there at this time!

Can I have an extra napkin please?

There is apparently a crisis of massive proportions brewing in the nouveau fast food nation that’s India – apparently, the custodians of the industry seem to have a severe paucity of napkins, paper towels, tissues, whatever you want to call them. How else do you explain why these are doled out with about as much generosity as Bumble, the Beadle of Oliver Twist fame? The staff manning the counter at these fast food outlets never cease to amaze me with how well they have perfected the art form of handing out as minimal a number of square inches of tissue as is humanly possible without physically damaging the napkin. And yes, the experience is consistent across outlets, across brands, in case you are wondering.

Now, if these fast food conglomerates so much as care about the consumer, clearly they should realize a few things that they need to consider?

Firstly, we Indians are known for putting our bare hands to liberal use when it comes to eating. That is why most Indian homes have a wash basin right in the dining area? While this is a part of our cultural identify as a nation, on a relative scale, the folks in the North score a tad better on the clumsiness front, and that’s largely a function of the diet. The staple Roti dons the role of an organic glove, used to pick up other dishes from one’s plate, thereby effectively insulating one’s fingers from any culinary stains. Net result – the hands tend to be reasonably clean when the meal is done. One notable exception is the Madrasi that was mistakenly planted in the North – no guarantees of any sort there because the glove suddenly seems to become porous in such a scenario. And coming to the native South Indian in his home turf, well, it is not called the Land of Idli-Sambar without reason. The food in these parts is typically squashed with a violent passion, bordering almost on extreme use of the hand, before it can be considered ready for consumption. Net result in this case? The hand looks absolutely disgusting until one is done with the post-meal stain-removal process. So yes, that culture is not going to vanish overnight simply because McDonald’s and Domino’s decided to set up shop here?

Secondly, there is the desi-fication of dishes that seems to come with a predefined mandate for the chefs that run these joints – grease is free, throw it in at will. There is probably more lubricant in any of these fast food dishes than there is in a brand new can of Castrol. And while we can ponder over the benefits of getting that into your body on a different thread, the more immediate problem is that you have a sorry pair of hands to show for dinner. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that one will need multiple, heavy-duty napkins to clean that up?

Can you blame poor Mr. Srinivasan for eating Pizza like he would devour his dear dosa? For, that is what he has grown up on over the years – Hold down with the ring finger and rip apart with the index finger, and voila, you have a piece small enough to fit in the mouth. It doesn’t matter that there is now more cheese stuck to the fingers and more sauce dripping down his forearm than on the slice of pizza, that is how that shall be eaten. And after an ordeal that can only be described as a blood bath, you give the man a single, tiny napkin? To me, that’s ample justification for a lawsuit to counter the mental agony that the poor soul is subjected to.

And what is their problem anyway? The dudes at the counter will not give you an extra napkin if your life depended on it. And more often than not, it does! You can try asking, pleading, screaming, and sadly even offering to pay money, but they are not going to part with his treasure. They hand out other freebies that I am sure cost more (ketchup, mustard, spoons, forks, you name it) in such liberal fashion, so clearly the protectionist syndrome when it comes to paper napkins cannot be blamed on fiscal discipline? Do they not realize that napkins actually help with their brand messaging as well? It is the only freebie that has the brand’s name prominently on it, and any marketer worth his salt should know that these things tend to stick in peoples’ minds? So yeah, I’ll never understand why they do what they do, but I am not going to stop me asking for a couple of extras even knowing fully well that it isn’t going to yield any results. Someday, I’ll get my way!

Closing Ceremony for the Golu games

Yes, today marks the culmination of 9 days of glorious (golu-rious) celebration in the Hindu calendar, aptly named Navaratri, meaning Nine Nights. While we have typically let other not-so-important priorities get in the way in past years and largely let this festival pass us by, we weren’t as successful this time. For reasons that were mostly made up and contrived, we decided to celebrate Golu this year after a reasonably long gap. 

Ironically, today is the 10th day of a Nine-day festival, called Vijayadasami (Vijaya – victorious, Dasami – 10th day) and that’s when the curtains come down on those Golu celebrations for the year. And for the record, its officially a festival for women, of women, and by women!

As I was putting the wraps on those dolls, I couldn’t help but wonder whether all of the effort that had gone into the Golu was truly worthwhile. I honestly think the event has lost its sheen, the celebrations have become passe. This time around, it was hardly a social event, which kinda defeats the whole purpose. There were folks trickling in every other day, but no real gathering as such. The Sundal, which is one of the few benefits that the guys get out of this event, has now just become boring! No, don’t get me wrong, its not like its gone down in taste or anything but expectations have gone up and the poor Sundal hasn’t kept up – even if it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes every day, it just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore for what has now become a greedy, International palate.

And to top it all off, the festival now has zero entertainment value for the vast majority of us. But despite all this, there is so much labor that goes into organizing the whole thing that it feels like you are hosting a Superbowl party every day for those nine days. Just 2 problems though: 1. There is no Superbowl and 2. No Chips and Salsa, or beer either. Sorry, this is still very much a religious, rich-in-traditions kinda gig, so we can’t have none of that.

But it wasn’t always like this. Looking back, I can recall times when the festival was actually a lot of fun. Clearly, it had to do with expectations back then when we were kids – pretty girls decked up in the finest traditional clothes, singing their hearts out for a bowl of Sundal and some freebies that got doled out provided the entertainment. Setting up the Golu itself used to be exciting, and you tried to get creative every year by weaving in the latest fad into your Valley of Dolls – sometimes it was a cricket stadium in town, or a fancy park, or the new Metro in town – basically, something folks could relate to. Yeah, that sure was a lot of fun! Simple expectations, Simple needs I guess?

In any case, I think the event needs some sprucing up, some spice added to the variety, and I am not talking about just the Sundal. Maybe they should consider having a theme for every night and have folks lend color to the theme.

A game night maybe? How cool would that be? Yeah, we have these dolls on these shelves etc, and you can take a good look at em, but really, lets get down to a nice round of Pictionary…or Taboo, if that suits your fancy? The food could use a face-lift too. Don’t get me wrong, Sundal is great and healthy and all that, but come on…in a world where are all frying our way to cholesterol hell, how can you not have some of those deep-fried bad boys? And throw some good dessert options for good measure. And they really should do something about the entertainment – maybe a Salsa night? Other variants? The ladies up north seem to have figured this out a long time ago – and thus was born the Garba.

So yeah, the southern cousins needs to act, and act quickly. The occasion is too good to pass up, and unless something is done, it’ll just wither away. And while they are at it, I hope they find some fun ways for the guys to get involved too, beyond just unpacking and packing dolls.

Deception, Rape, Murder…and now Graver Injustice?

The High Courts in various parts of India certainly seem to have been busy these past few days. And sadly, not always for the right reasons. Yesterday, was judgment day for the Pratibha murder trial, and what was widely believed to be an open-and-shut case.

Here was an innocent employee, trying to get to work for her graveyard shift – completely deceived by the shuttle driver that picked her up, drove her to a desolate corner outside Bangalore, committed what can only be described as a heinous crime, and heartlessly ended her life in the process. There is absolutely no way that this criminal deserves any consideration, any mercy for what he did. The only explanation he could come up with was that he hadn’t had sex since his wife had gotten pregnant and so he was desperate?

So yeah, before the judgment came out, the reasonable expectation was that he would get the death sentence – not just to punish him for what he did, but equally importantly, also to send a stern message to society to seriously deter other such occurrences in the future. That would simply have been the right thing to do – what the man got instead was instead a sentence of much lesser severity, he was sentenced to a lifetime in person. Of course, he could always win a pardon based on good behavior, other circumstances etc and there is the possibility of him being released back into mainstream society, but for now, the sentence calls for just Life Imprisonment. Very disappointing, to say the least!

While the sentence itself seemed much milder given the crime, what was truly shocking was the explanation for the reduced sentence.

“There was no dominating control over the deceased. She was not a helpless woman,” the Judge noted in his 113-page judgment, adding the crime was not enormous in nature and not in the “rarest of rare” bracket. This was not a case of bride burning and not against a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or minority religion.”

No, I am so NOT kidding – this was the actual justification that was used. A rape committed at gunpoint…in the middle of the night, in an isolated corner of the city, and then promptly followed by murder. And the honorable custodian of justice in the state has this explanation to give? He doesn’t think this was enormous?

Let’s think for a second – how much more could the accused have done for it to fall into the “enormous” category? What else should Prathibha have endured? She wasn’t burned alive, so lets spare a thought for the killer and thank him with a reduced sentence? And yeah, the icing on the cake – that she didn’t belong to a specific caste or religion? Seriously? Was Pratibha being Hindu the justification for why this wasn’t as ghastly a crime? Which genius even wrote these laws? And here we are, aspiring and hoping that this nation will be a world superpower one day in the future, when we can’t even honor basic morals and values? What kind of example is this setting?

The poor soul hasn’t suffered enough, it seems like. I am sure she’s tossing and turning in her grave, wondering how much more she is going to have to endure? This judgment, in my humble opinion, is a grave mistake. To me, a punishment serves 2 purposes – it punishes the guilty for the crime they committed so they get their due and cannot commit another crime again in the future but more importantly, it also serves as a deterrent for other potential criminals.

This judgment does neither one satisfactorily. For a crime as enormous as rape (and yes, no matter what the honorable judge says, it is enormous), I would recommend that the least punishment is dismembering the guilty – to me, that will serve both purposes to a sufficient degree. Yes, I know that sounds harsh but any punishment should fit the crime, you know? I hope this mistake doesn’t get too far, and is quickly rectified. If appealing to a higher court is what it takes, then I hope that happens. Yeah, I know, am the hopeless optimist!

Black & White

So a friend and I were having lunch yesterday, and the topic of conversation veered towards Investing, and specifically Real Estate. That by itself is no surprise! The last few years, most conversations, no matter where they start, seem to always circle back to the subject of Real Estate in Bangalore. We could be talking about the reproductive cycles of the Wildebeest that inhabit the Masai Mara, and the conversation will gradually morph into how vast the game reserve is, how much open space there is in terms of acres, and subsequently in square feet (square yards if you are in Hyderabad) and how nice it would be if we had the same space in Bangalore, and if so, what it would cost to buy a plot of land there. Think you get the drift…and  sadly, I suspect the same is true of other cities in India as well. So anyways, here we were, talking about certain investments he was considering as he’s been looking to buy a house for a while now.

Apparently, his Realtor brought him a proposal recently that looked attractive, and so he started engaging in a deeper discussion. Pretty soon, one thing led to another and he was soon meeting the seller. Just so happens that the seller is a reasonably big celebrity in professional circles around here, so that just got my friend that much more interested in the whole transaction. So a meeting is set up at one of the posh hotels in the city (yeah, first red flag I guess – no good real estate deal  at this level ever gets discussed in such a setting) and they meet.

Some background about the celebrity – this is a well-known, much respected individual in society and is looked up to as a role-model, by those of us that aren’t as accomplished. As he goes about selling my friend on not just how good a deal this is but also how he wants the deal done – in total transparency, following all the rules and complying with every requirement in the book etc etc. (Red flag #2 – if someone is preaching beyond belief and it looks too good to be true, then chances are it isn’t!) Now, all of that is supposed to be a given, but in India, things work differently. Its the exception to follow the book, not the norm. So my friend certainly continues to be impressed and is just happier by the moment. That is until Mr. Celebrity pulls a fast one on him…

Apparently, he had been involved in another transaction where he was forced to bend some rules, and as a result, he has some accounting issues he needs to reconcile. So he asks, without batting an eyelid, that this transaction be done in such a way that it allows him to fix that earlier mishap, basically clean-speak for exchanging ownership for the property over a briefcase full of cash. And as if that isn’t enough, he goes on to explain how this is all common in India and one needs to acknowledge and act accordingly? Yes, those of us that have been at the receiving end of these conversations only know too well how seamlessly that question of payment terms is woven into the discussion. Its the biggest reason India continues to languish despite all our prowess!

So my friend is not just upset at the ugly turn the conversation has taken and how this whole exercise has been a waste of time for him and that he won’t be able to do this deal after all (yes, the terms were non-negotiable, of course) but he is just completely appalled at how this man could fall from grace so quickly and in such ugly fashion, how he with his status and position in society, could stoop so low.

After having heard the story, it really is hard for me to respect the guy any more. Its not like he has a real need for the extra money he is saving (or hoarding, to be precise) and there is really is no excuse. What in our instincts causes us to go down this shady path? Is it greed? Can we simply blame the corrupt mindset on our culture? Should we not find it in us to set the right examples and remove this deep-rooted evil? Will we ever grow past this as a nation? I want to be hopeful and to be optimistic but that is becoming really hard to do as you hear more and more of these incidents.

Motivations!

I came across this article in this morning’s paper on my commute to work. It revolves around CEO compensation, how its tied to the company’s stock price today and how that motivates them to perform. I thought the article made some very compelling arguments and it would be an interesting debate to see which metrics we could measure and how we tie that into compensation, but that is not what I want to talk about. Instead, I am going to go off on a tangent as always…

As I was reading through this piece, I couldn’t help thinking how the same principles of motivation apply to all of us, and not just in professional settings, but on the personal front as well. The fundamental assumption I am making here is that most of us are motivated individuals, we have aspirations on a variety of fronts and we go about finding and creating purpose in our lives. Right? The sad realization, at least from my personal perspective  is that a lot of times, the motivation really seems to stem from pleasing the other people in our lives.

Back in school, it was about pleasing the parents. Scoring good grades and having the teacher stick a gold star in your report card was clearly a motivator. All of the stars were made out of the same, silly gold-colored paper, it felt like your star was just a tad shinier than the rest. In reality, the motivation was not getting the grades and the star in the report card itself, but the satisfaction of taking it home and showing off to the folks. And if dad too had a good day in the office, the star would typically result in some kind of reward at home. But more than the reward, just the glint of pride in their eyes really was the prime motivator.

As life shifts into the professional phase, the motivations also shift. Initially, the promotions and the bonuses seem like the only viable path to corporate salvation. And sure, the money helps, but it really is rarely about the money. It is almost always about the recognition, about the honor, about the privilege of taking on bigger challenges. You want to look good in front of your peers, and you use that to push yourself. A few years go by, and you slowly start looking at world outside  – but that fire is still burning inside, only you are seeing it a little differently. Now the comparisons happen against one’s colleagues one’s classmates from school/college and you try and benchmark yourself against those peers. And as you find others that have had better career graphs, you tend to push yourself a little harder because you want to look good in front of those friends now.

Then you grow and mature some more…until you realize that the biggest motivation comes from inside you; comes from wanting to make an impact and from wanting to leave a legacy that you are proud of, no matter where you are or where you go. This is also the phase that seems the hardest – and I can think of a few reasons for why that is. For one, you are much older when you get to this state, so there are other pressing priorities in your life such as family that become important, and therefore take some of your bandwidth away. Chances are that you are in a more senior role at the company, and so, not only do the work challenges get harder to resolve, the corresponding expectations are also much higher. Also, when you are pushing yourself because you are motivated by how much impact you are making, then its much harder to be aware of how hard you are working and when you should stop, so you just keep running faster and faster, it seems like.

So yeah, as you look back, the motivation starts with family…then peers…then its friends and lastly its you. And the sad irony is that the motivation to push yourself harder and be the best you can be is driven by the need to please and impress these other folks in your life so that you can be happy and content, but the arduous journey to get to that ideal destination is strewn with so many challenges waiting for you to come along, and before too long, you are just buried in stuff, a lot of which was probably not even needed and yet you are chugging along. It is a good idea to pause and ask yourself if its all worth it…if the intent was to create happiness and fulfillment in life and this journey makes it very hard, or sometimes even impossible, to get to that destination, then one has to question whether the journey adds value at all?

That is probably why the spiritual route seems like a very popular detox solution from that rat race. So…yeah…it might not be such a bad idea to just force yourself out of the race, and instead go focus on the true purpose of why you want to do something. Motivate yourself by all means, but with the right set of objectives, priorities and environment. Easier said than done for sure, but at least gets you closer to that ideal end state, doesn’t it?

Magic at Mohali!

Wow! What a fantastic Test match! It has been a really long time since India came back from the dead to win a game like they did today. The last time we had a comeback as impressive as this was back in 2001, also against the Aussies and spearheaded by the same here, VVS. Coincidence? I think not! The man has found it in him to dig deep, motivate himself and take us home, time and again. It was only recently in Colombo where Sri Lanka had us on the mat, and it took another special edition from Laxman to redeem things.

Yesterday, was a few notches higher on the difficulty scale though. When the scoreboard reads 124 for 8 and you have a fiery Australian attack to contend with, the target of 216 is more than just imposing; it is almost in the realm of impossibility – if you leave one crucial factor, the Laxman factor. The name is so appropriate – the man is so lax, he is deception personified. He caresses, he nudges, he glides, he glances…all with the grace and elegance of a Russian figure skater and yet with the precision and purpose of a surgeon wielding the knife, any innings of his is a delight to watch. And I won’t even begin to talk about the back spasms – the man pulled off what he did when his back was so bad that he needed to bat with a runner all through. Facing an Aussie onslaught for a few hours is bad enough – and when you have to take stance 79 times in the course of that four hours, bending back and forth, that is just a lot of punishment. It takes a great fighter to just endure that battle, so one can imagine what it would take to come out on top at the end.

Those of us that have had the good fortune to meet Laxman in real life, we know he’s a class act. He’s been consistently under-rated and under-appreciated, and ferried in and out of the team more times than anyone else I can recall despite arguable being one of India’s biggest match-winners – to his credit, he has taken it all in stride and never let it get him down. Having watched him practice at the St Johns facility in Marredpally, it is no surprise that success follows him. A terrific work-ethic and really strong motivation to perform at the highest levels, the effort and commitment that he puts into the game is nothing short of remarkable. No wonder he’s able to pull one out of the hat almost on demand – and we do seem to demand that kinda performance quite often when it comes to Laxman, don’t we?

In all that celebration, lets not forget Ishant either – and again, how appropriately named. I-Shan’t! Another one that was ruled out of the first innings because of injury, he played the knock of a lifetime in shouldering the load with Laxman. One statistic that will probably get forgotten is that he faced more balls than any other batsman in the Indian innings. For someone coming in at No 10, that’s an accomplishment in itself – and when you consider the circumstances in which he accomplished that, it speaks volumes of his poise, his confidence and his resolve. And lets not forget the inspired spell in the second innings to destroy the Aussie top order and set up the win to begin with. It would have been poetic justice had Ishant stayed till the end to finish it off, but he got us close enough and that makes him a match winner in my book. Way to go, Ishant!

This is the first time, by the way, in India’s history that we’ve won a test with just one wicket to. Don’t know about you, but that tells me that comebacks aren’t our biggest strength. In fact, we usually seem to be at the receiving end of those comebacks – especially against an Australian side that is known to never give up. So it sure was nice to see us give it back to them for a change. There is a lot of talk about how special this test match was, how it was one of the best ever played and how its going to revive Test cricket’s popularity – I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it certainly was a very special finish to a very special game, and one that made several peoples’ day yesterday. Go India and Go Laxman, success couldn’t come to a more deserving individual!

Remembering Shankuntala

You know how we all have certain images that made their way into our brains for whatever reason, perched themselves in some remote corner, and never really go away? People…places…objects…events…you name it, and they are all there. Quite often, there isn’t a great deal of significance attached to these, but yet, they have become quite the permanent fixture and one struggles to understand why. And its not like they surface every other day – on the contrary, they rarely come up for air. And even when they do, its usually tied to some train of thought that eventually triggered pertinent memories. I’ve always had the urge to write about some of those lasting impressions in my life, and as is the norm with this blog, for no real reason of any value but write I shall! What better excuse than NaBbloWriMo to make that happen?

So yeah, I am going to make it a point to write about these images every now and then, and here is the first one – its about a lady who answers to the name Shakuntala. Absolutely no connection to Hindu mythology, this is someone that was very human, very alive and very active, at least until a few years ago when I used to know her. She was the maid at our neighbor’s – a strong, determined lady on the wrong side of 60, she would come into work every single day and religiously go about her chores. Worn down by age, fatigue and years of hard work, her face wrinkled beyond reason. She wasn’t exactly pleasant looking and had a fairly rude disposition, so one didn’t really venture into any normal conversations with her. But work hard she did, and that image is so fresh in my mind, even though its been almost 20 years since I last saw her. She would be there every morning, carrying two pots of water, one nestled in her left arm and rested on her hips, and the other hand clenching the second, making the long walk from the water pump to my neighbor’s house, with her typical hunched walk. Back in those days, Chennai was reeling under a perpetual scarcity of water and every morning involved a few trips for Shakuntala to store up water for the entire day’s usage. It was like clockwork, I could tell time simply by tracking her schedule. And it wasn’t easy work, she would make at least a dozen trips back and forth, and at her age, that spirit was inspiring, to say the least – or should have been inspiring, in any case.

Reality however, was different. The kids in the neighborhood were scared of her and back then, it was funny to watch them get in her way and promptly be at the receiving end of a fine lecture, with the choicest of words and expressions thrown in for good measure. We, the slightly older boys, always found ways to make fun of her, mock her and generally play a lot of practical pranks on her. No, I am most certainly not proud of those actions now, but back then, as an adolescent that was looking for some random entertainment, and she was an easy target. We would simply justify our gross insensitivity by reassuring ourselves that she was rude, and so probably deserved some payback! The poor thing would endure it all and scream out every now and then, but she knew it was all falling on deaf ears, so at some point I guess she just gave up. I don’t quite know why she has etched herself so firmly in my brain, its probably because there is some guilt laced with remorse there. Looking back, I feel bad…and I feel sad. Given her age, I doubt that she’s still around. But if she was, I’d want to go apologize to her – for all the things we did, for all the sad tricks we played and for just being plain old jerks. Sorry Shakuntala, you deserved better!

Endhiran, the movie!

So, after all the gruelling efforts to get tickets and the huge anticipation over the past several months, it was finally showtime! And here we were, assembled as a group, with 3 infants in tow, ready for the Superstar to enthrall us with yet another scintillating performance. After returning from the US a few years ago, this was the first time I was going to a Thalaivar movie this early after release – and it was very reassuring to see that nothing had changed. The sea of devoted fans, the excitement, the aura that only Rajni can lay claim to – everything was intact. This is possibly the one instance where you are excited to see and be in the midst of a mad rush of people – you actually enjoy the jostling and the haggling to get in and take your seat. What follows is more a commentary of our experience rather than a review, and I am going to make a conscious attempt to not be a spoiler here, for obvious reasons.

The movie had all the right things associated with it – Lord Rajnikanth himself, Director Shankar, Aishwarya Rai, Rahman’s music, Prabhu Deva, Raju Sundaram and Lawrence handling choreo, Danny Denzongpa playing the baddie (or so I thought before the movie). So how could it not be a blockbuster, right? It started off in style – the trademark sequence for Superstar’s credits kicking things off, except the fonts had been fashionably enhanced keeping with the Sci-fi, robotic theme. Yes, clearly we were off to a great start. But alas, as I was soon to find out, that was going to be one of the few high points in the movie for me. The first disappointment was Superstar’s entry – something that every loyal fan waits with bated breath for. Typically, its a bunch of idiot baddies that never seem to learn their lesson – they are robbing some old soul, misbehaving with a helpless lady or abusing some innocent kid – just what they do best, something of no good can possibly come. And just when you think its all over for the poor, defenseless victim, arrives His Highness in his inimitable style. The camera first focuses just on the feet and gradually brings into view the magnificence that is the Superstar. A couple of punch lines later, he quickly and effortlessly goes about meting out justice and restoring order – acrobatic stunts, flying bodies flung around with little or preferably no effort and the baddies are quickly sent packing. Rajni simply smiles and breaks out into a fast-beat number, with absolutely ridiculous dance steps that only he can pull off and come away looking simply awesome. If your body was not swinging into action and almost joining the fight with Thalaivar (not that he ever needs any help), or if your feet weren’t tapping to the music that followed and the rest of gradually breaking out into the dance moves, then you have simply failed the Fan test! This time around though, there was none of that – it was simply Rajni, a scientist, sitting inside a lab and tapping some keys on his keyboard and testing out his robotic creation. How lame was that? Sadly, it was a sign of things to come – it didn’t get much better from there on for me.

The movie had none of the things you expect from a Rajni movie – for starters, absolutely no Rajni-like fight sequences in the movie. The sequence in the train where the robotic Rajni fights was a poor replacement and you can never get it out of your head that it is actually a robot that’s doing the fighting. So its almost natural that you expect the robot to not be able to lose – of course, the same can be said of Rajni in the middle of a fight as well, but the human element does make a difference. At least in my head, it does. The comic thread – its yet another big reason why I am excited to go to watch his movies, the man is incredibly funny! His sense of humor is constantly understated but is most certainly there and shows up at all the right moments. Absolutely none of that either this time, and the only reactions that the two clowns that were specifically included in the cast as comedians, Santhanam and Karunas, evoked were disgust and irritation. They were laughable, and no, I am not taking about their comic abilities. I am really talking about their lame attempts to be funny. Rahman’s music was very ordinary and the songs hardly impressive – of course, the lyrics didn’t help much either. Describing Aish’s eyes as Bermuda Triangles because you could get lost in them? Seriously? Come on! Aishwarya Rai was beautiful as ever however, and it totally helps that the lady is just grace personified. Clearly, she had no role to play in the movie other than look gorgeous and flaunt her elegance and she did that to good effect. And boy, she looks good! Totally justifying the Miss World title yet again! Interesting trivia btw, that this was a Tamil movie where both the lead stars were from Karnataka and so watching it in Bangalore somehow seemed very apt. As for the story, there was really no plot. Danny was the bad guy because, well, lets face it, every Rajni movie needs a bad guy but it was tragic that he was hardly utilized. And the under-utilization seemed the norm really – Kalabhavan Mani, Devadarshini, Santhanam and of course, Superstar himself. The one exception was Rajni as the bad guy (am I allowed to refer to a robot as a guy? Sorry, spoiler alert I guess) which brought back wonderful memories of Alex Pandian in Moondru Mugam. That role was essayed to perfection and Rajni totally does justice – because its Rajni, you are rooting for the bad side and you almost want him to come out on top. The first half was passable and I was hoping for some serious redemption in the second, and that negative role was the only saving grace. The already weak plot seemed to weaken further, and Shankar in his typical style, just doesn’t seem to know how to finish movies – the punishment just kept dragging on and despite Rajni, it took some effort to sit through the whole thing in the end. At the end of it all, I felt cheated and let-down. Thalaivar has undeniable talent and that wasn’t put to nearly as much use as it could have been, and I hold Director Shankar squarely responsible. This was hardly a Rajni movie! There was a lot of raves about the special effects and how awesome they were and I am sure it took a lot of effort to put this thing together, but to the frustrated eye, the whole thing looked pretty ordinary. One thing however deserves special mention. The man hardly looked his age and was decked in outfits that would be deemed ridiculous for someone even 20 years younger, but he totally pulled it off and carried himself incredibly well against a heroine that was 25 years younger, like only he can! Yeah, I am sure the make-up artistes did a fabulous job etc but I am not talking just about the looks – the body language, the comfort and the confidence, the charisma, just the entire package that’s Thalaivar and that was awesome to watch. Watch out people, he’s not done just yet!

Of course, I think we have all now learned that with movies, the satisfaction really comes down to expectations. And with all the hype surrounding this movie prior to its release, maybe the expectations were on the high side – after all, a Rajnikanth movie is not any other, you know. This was the first time however that I saw a fairly broad spectrum of ratings for the movie, especially from folks whose opinions and judgment I consider reasonable. Some of them absolutely loved it and called it a must-watch. I am not going to question that call or wonder why it was different, except concluding that they were looking for things different from what I was (i.e. they did not come to watch a Thalaivar padam) and they were happy to find what they did, and that their expectations were possibly much lower than my own. Personally, this is one I wouldn’t have minded skipping if I go strictly on the merit of the movie and forget the Superstar factor. In any case, its all over and done with now and I can only wish that it had turned out differently.

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