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Tag Archives: India

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.

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.

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!

Happy Birthday, Bapuji!

141 and counting – one more year goes by, and the memories continue to fade a little more. The shy, peace-loving barrister that was the architect of India’s independence, now hardly finds mention except in history books, and except on this day, his birthday. Officially, he is still the Father of the nation, a nation that is now a billion-plus people – a fact that even Gandhiji, in his infinite wisdom, didn’t probably anticipate. For if he had, I doubt he’d have invested as much energy as he did on winning our Independence from the British. Surely he’d have known that they’d have left on their own accord by now?

But I digress…the fact remains that Gandhiji was probably the single-biggest influence in shaping our nation’s independent future, back when we were an oppressed colony, an integral part of the Empire on whom the Sun never sets. And he did that in a totally unconventional, radical yet peaceful fashion that he has become the epitome of non-violence the world over. And how do we pay our tributes to this great soul? Well, for one, we give ourselves a holiday..and the kids even get candy. Back in the day, it used to be the sour, orange-colored ball-shaped ones – it was the same every year, and what correlation it had to Gandhi and why that candy was picked, I will never understand. But, truth be told, its not all about just fun and candy. We do make some big sacrifices to celebrate this day, however. Its a dry day for one, so you will absolutely not be able to drink to the Mahatma, no Sir! (Unless of course you are the kind that plans ahead and stocks up the bar for the special occasion). And no meat either! That should count for something?

And oh yeah, the Gandhi statue that stands innocently by the street corner, serving more as a landmark for driving directions than anything else, gets its customary annual ritual. A sculpture that was erected to honor the man spends most of the year as the favorite resting and relieving point for the birds passing through the neighborhood. This one day, the structure bears a true resemblance to what it was meant to be. Washed, decorated and even garlanded by the local politician, its appearance today could almost lull one into thinking we actually care! Then there is the tradition that our friends in the Television world have so religiously adopted. At least a couple of channels will show Gandhi, the movie…and I am glad they do, for I will shamelessly admit that this movie was my biggest source of information on the man’s life. Yes, there was ample coverage in the history books, but all of those lessons largely centered around the Independence struggle and his role in shaping it. There was the odd anecdote or two that I remember reading here and there, but otherwise, what I learned about his life was largely thanks to Ben Kingsley and Richard Attenborough. Lately however, even that seems to be a thing of the past – the real Gandhi has been replaced by a more current practitioner of his philosophy, who goes by the name of Munnabhai and is supposedly better at demonstrating the principles of Gandhigiri even better than the inventor himself. Back in school, there was at least a semblance of homage – there were activities and competitions of various kinds – debates, quizzes, essay-writing, fancy-dress, maybe some social causes that the students participated in etc. that weren’t always the most fun, but certainly helped create awareness on the Mahatma. Sadly, one of that seems to happen these days – schools seem to simply declare a holiday and close, plain and simple. So yeah, quite the celebration for a man who lived such an inspiring life and made such a big impact during his time on Planet Earth! And that begs the question – why do we even deserve a holiday on this occasion? Its not like we did something to earn it, and we definitely aren’t honoring the man like he deserves to be?

What are the odds that the next generation India will even remember the man? I want to say it couldn’t get any worse, but I am pretty sure it will. Wanna place any bets on what Gandhi Jayanthi will look like a few years from now?

The Oberoi Wildflower Hall in Shimla

And here is the third and final post on the trip to Shimla, after this and this. Given that we spent the bulk of our time at the Wildflower Hall, it is only fair that I devote an entire post to the place. Technically, the resort is not in Shimla – it is about 19 kms north of Shimla, and on the way to Kufri, near a tiny village called Mashobra. And although the distance seems short, it is almost entirely an uphill stretch, and quite a steep and winding climb, and will easily take you about 45 challenging minutes to get there from Shimla. But it is so totally worth the effort, the Wildflower Hall really is special and delightfully pristine.

The Wildflower Hall resort

If your objective is to just have a completely relaxed break up in the mountains, then this is a delightful location to seek out. Oberoi labels it a luxury resort (you know what that means, right? Yes, it is time to break the bank) and rightly so. From the moment you step into the property, the staff will spare no effort to make you feel like your blood is blue. One tradition that I simply love about the Oberoi – they know you before you actually get there (yes, they call you the day before or that morning to find out when you can be expected), receive you very, very warmly and at the same time with a cold welcome drink…and best of all, they don’t make you wait at the reception to check in. Instead, they take you to your room first and then they come to your room to check you in. After a long journey to get there, that is such a blessing. So simple and yet so brilliant, right? Why can’t more hotels follow their lead? As a customer, they certainly get my vote for how they handle this.

The rooms were great, they have a really spacious bathroom and a nice large bathtub to pamper yourself…and some breathtaking views, especially if you get yourself a room that overlooks the magnificent Himalayas. Really, there are few better reasons to wake up in the morning and open your eyes to that sight, in the company of a loved one.

View of the mountains

The hotel pool is outstanding – its indoor and very, very soothing but the jacuzzi is probably their crown jewel. Its outdoors on the terrace, and faces the mountains. The warm water and the cold mountain air make for a terrific combo, and once you get in, you are probably going to stay there. And the food…it was simply fantastic. Chef Mohan, who runs their kitchen is one of the best in the business, I’m sure and he was very nice about customizing and cooking it just the way we wanted – really, every meal was special and delightfully so. And the staff was great too – were eager and ready to provide anything we needed, and yet left us alone to our privacy when it mattered. We had requested a candle-lit dinner on the outside terrace one night, and they made sure it was an unforgettable experience. Everything, and I mean every single detail, was just perfect and extremely well-handled. Their resident sommerlier even called me a few hours in advance to advise me on the various wine options that will go with the menu I had picked. I wanted the dinner to be special and they made sure it was. The Oberoi is a luxury brand, and they certainly demonstrate that class. It was hospitality at its very best!

As for stuff to do around the place, there are a few nature trails that you could take – they are fairly easy hikes and will last a couple of hours and you could choose to do a picnic lunch if you like. We tried it a couple of times and were pretty happy. Sandwiches do seem to taste better when you eat them out in the wild, especially after you’ve had a good workout! Then there was the supposed white-water rafting expedition – There was very little water, it was anything but white, and we certainly weren’t rafting. In the end, it turned out to a pleasant ride in the dinghy, the only saving grace being some absolutely stunning views of the mountains from the Sutlej river. To be fair, the hotel did the right thing by refunding our charge for the activity when we complained that it was pretty lame. And there’s plenty of other stuff to keep you busy, but we chose to take it easy – our schedule typically revolved around the pool, the jacuzzi and the restaurants. Also, they have a nice projection TV setup in the bar, so watching the soccer World Cup games on the big screen was very cool.

White-water rafting

Of course, not everything was perfect – for one, a trip here costs a fortune. And the Oberoi lives by a simple policy – air and water are free, but we should be able to make money off everything else, and we are talking some serious money. I think about 30-40% of our bill at the end of the day was extras, and we didn’t do nearly as many things as we could have, so that should give you an idea. The spa was alright – it is apparently rated one of Asia’s top spas, and if that is indeed the case, that is very sad for Asia. And for what seemed like a very ordinary message, the price was anything but. It will probably remain the most expensive massage I have had in life. And they invited us to some lecture about the local arts in the region – you would think that’d be offered as a free service, but like I said, it wasn’t water or air, so the Oberoi sees dollar signs where you and I don’t. Their wireless tariff was another such joke – they wanted us to charge more for a day of wireless access than it costs me for an entire month at home. But that was good in a way because we chose not to take it and that kept us away from the computer, which was great. Their front desk could use a serious upgrade, and I don’t mean the actual desk. Not only did they not give us the special view room I had specifically requested, but their front desk staff reasonably incompetent spend hours fixing a billing error which should have taken no more than 30 seconds. The excuse they gave me for the room was that the hotel was full and they couldn’t move us, but that was such a poorly coordinated lie – it was fairly obvious that the hotel occupancy was no more than 30% when we were there. Lastly, the reservations staff will try to sell you some lame package that throws in a bunch of benefits for a nice price tag – simply refuse it. You can always figure out what “benefits” you actually want once you get to the hotel and pay the real price for those.

All that said, the resort was great and we had a fantastic break. I can’t wait to go back there again and lie in the jacuzzi all day 🙂 And I will probably want to go there in the winter this time around – it is hard to imagine the place more beautiful than it was, but we all know that snowfall can indeed work its magic on any canvas.

Jai Hind!

Its the 15th of August – Happy Independence Day, my dear India! 63 years and counting…And all things considered, it has been one impressive journey. Of course, there is so much untapped potential, so much more to be done, and it is easy to be critical of everything that’s wrong with the country. But I choose to be positive today – and in that spirit, it is so worth looking back and appreciating how far we’ve come as a nation. After all, what was a suppressed British colony not long ago is now a democratic nation of a billion plus people, staking claim to be one of the world’s superpowers. Not bad, not bad at all!

Even as late as 10 years ago, the notion of India as a superpower seemed laughable. There was so much wrong with the country, and to a large extent, there still is. Mired in corruption, saddled with the sad legacy of a divisive caste system, a political establishment that is largely self-serving and a growing rich-poor divide all suggest a seemingly hopeless future. To predict a glorious 2020 vision for India at that point either had to be sheer lunacy, or visionary genius. Thankfully for India, it was the latter, and in the form of one of our most loved Presidents, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.

From his humble beginnings in a remote town in Tamil Nadu, Dr Kalam’s ascent to the highest office in the land is a remarkable journey – one that was built on integrity, on merit and on his very stellar accomplishments. It was therefore, only natural that he envisioned a similar path of greatness for the country he so dearly loved. When Dr Kalam, an apostle of peace and love, and an epitome of simplicity, shared that vision, it suddenly seemed very believable. And now, having witnessed the terrific growth and progress over the last decade, it is heartening to see how realistic that vision was, and how India is so wonderfully on course to achieving her true potential – this despite all the challenges and the hurdles that continue to plague this nation. Clearly, the journey has only begun and there is a lot more to be done before that goal is accomplished but now there is hope, there is optimism and there is vigor in the pursuit of that goal. That can only bode well for India, and for the rest of the world. Go India!

I received at least a couple of Independence Day messages this morning that were laced with guilt – talking about how much could be done, and how as individuals, we were doing nothing more than complaining, not really helping the nation’s cause to any degree. Sadly, very true! And the pity is that it is not that hard…it is actually very possible to start making a difference. In fact, the only way we are going to accomplish true greatness as a nation is if each of us does our bit. Sure, we take small steps at first but a lot of small steps add up, and nothing is impossible when those steps start to align in the right direction. So, today, this Independence day, as I read my pledge, I solemnly swear to stop languishing in my guilt of not having done anything and instead start acting – by this time next year, I will have made a difference to this wonderful country. No matter how small, it will still be a difference, and one that I am proud of. Jai Hind!

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We are proud of our roads in India and of how chaos rules those roads. As an ardent believer in gross generalization of anything and everything, I put Indian road users into three broad categories: Those that honestly don’t know or believe that road rules exist in the country, those that know that rules exist but believe they are meant for the Others and finally the Rest, or as I like to refer to this last group, the Idiots. (And yes, I count myself in that group)

In an ideal world, here is what an Indian driving license test would look like if it were to reflect the skills that one needs to survive here:

Please answer Yes/No to the questions below. Can you:

1. Go hurtling down the wrong side of a one-way street with no hesitation, concern or guilt?

2. Drive right through a traffic light that is clearly blazing red, with scant regard for other vehicles crossing the intersection?

3. Halt for the light in what is quite clearly a Left-only lane and block traffic when you intend to go straight? Of course, you should only do this when you know there is a cop waiting on the other side to catch you jumping the light as in #2 above, right?
(Hint: 2 points if you answer Yes to both questions)

4. Brake suddenly while driving on the left lane in rush-hour traffic, make what looks like a natural right turn right through flowing traffic and deftly execute a U-turn maneuver because you realized you should be heading the other way? And 1 bonus point if you manage to do this while still staying upright.

5. Park your vehicle in the geometric center of a No Parking zone blocking at least one lane of traffic behind you?

6. Honk really, really loudly for no apparent reason, and with no real purpose? The intent should be to simply convey that the light is Red, traffic is stopped and you are not happy.

7. Do your best to block an ambulance with wailing sirens from passing through, thereby helping to contain our country’s growing population?

8. Weave a complex helical pattern within a span of 25 ft on a crowded street with at least 3 completely needless lane changes? Yes, in case you are wondering, this replaces the infamous “Can you weave a number 8?” part of the Driving test. I had always wondered why they make you do that, now after driving in Bangalore, I know better.

9. Insist that you will only drive with the high-beam lights on even on a well-lit highway so you can successfully blind every vehicle that’s coming in the opposite direction?

Every question that you answered with a Yes fetches you 1 point. If you manage to score at least 3 out of 9, you are eligible to appear for the driving test and prove your mettle at the wheel. Score over 5, and the driving test is waived and your license granted. You clearly have far too much skill that is going waste every minute you are not on the road and driving. And if you scored less than 3, please go get yourself a bus pass, you are clearly not qualified to drive your own vehicle.

Yeah, that sadly is the state of affairs – road rules and etiquette have indeed become a joke as we so passionately embrace Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest theory on the streets of Bangalore. Thankfully, there was always hope – there are folks that religiously follow these rules and try to set an example. Yes, they are very much in the minority and easily look like the fools that don’t know better . And as someone that belongs in that group, I have always been super frustrated. I am at a huge disadvantage simply because I take the high road, pun intended? And it irked me no end that there was seemingly nothing one could do to counter – the only option to fight the battle seemed to be stoop down to those same deplorable levels. Until now that is…Our good friend, Mark Zuckerberg and his pals @ Facebook are giving us a break? New Delhi’s finest might have found us just the weapon we need, taking advantage of Facebook and the explosive growth of camera phones in India to give us a fighting chance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your engines, whip your cameras out and start shooting! I only ask that you stick to capturing just traffic violations and do so without putting yourself at risk on the street, and without holding up traffic yourself 🙂