Monday, September 30, 2013

London musings

In the words of Busybee, a few stray thoughts and random observation, all my own work.

Earlier this year, I had written about the sad fact that HMV, was shutting down. Well, the company was declared bankrupt and placed in the hands of Administrators. These guys shut down many of the stores, consolidated the existing stocks of CD’s etc. and started to sell the stock. If you went to the store you had rows of empty shelving. It was sad to see the state that vibrant store was reduced to. Then, in April 2013 a purchaser, Hilco, bought HMV for 50 million pounds and set about restoring HMV. In July the HMV store at Oxford Circus was alive, thriving and literally crammed with merchandise and customers. CD’s were being sold at realistic prices [read the same prices as online stores]. I was thrilled. Then, on 28th September 2013, HMV opened a new store on Oxford Street in the same premises it first opened in 1921. I hope HMV stays alive.

It seems to me, and I am not an economist, that things are getting much better in London. Though it is not tourist season, shops seem to have lot of people buying things. I am continually amazed at how many people, not just women, but men are simply sitting around in cafes drinking coffee. Be it a Starbucks or a Cafe Nero or a Costa Coffee or one of the literally thousands of cafe that seem to dot every building, people are drinking coffee. If they are not drinking coffee sitting down, then they have a paper cup or glass which they carry taking swigs from it as if they would lose all their bodily fluids if they did not. All this costs money - much money. I can assure you that seeing the number of people drinking coffee, London is doing well. In fact, when we go into the kitchen sections of big stores, everybody seems to be buying coffee machines. There are rows upon rows of machines on sale with smart salesmen extolling the virtues and features of every machine. Coffee is big here and dam fashionable.

Ferran Adria the Chef, part owner of the really legendary El Bulli was the subject of an exhibition at Somerset House. Frankly, he has in the last 20 odd years had a dramatic impact on food. El Bulli was a small restaurant in Roses in Catalonia in Spain that Adria joined in 1984 as a chef. El Bulli was named as such not after a bull, but after the pet bulldogs that the previous owners of the restaurant had. Adria bought the restaurant along with Juli Soler who was in charge of front of house. The restaurant won 3 Michelin stars and was regularly voted as the best restaurant in the world. Anthony Bourdain, whom I quite like, has a beautiful way with words. I reproduce what he wrote about Ferran Adria - "His book is a shockingly beautiful catalog of his latest accomplishments here… Pastry chefs everywhere—when they see this—will gape in fear, and awe, and wonder. I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines they will ask themselves 'What do I do now?' The man completely changed textures, flavour combinations and in many cases rules relating to food. His use of revolutionary techniques, jellies and foams, nitrogen have been deeply influential.

The beautiful  Somerset House where the exhibition was.

The exhibition was absolutely fascinating. Many videos showed what he did; the tools and the equipment he used were on display. It was really fascinating. On the day the restaurant closed a large bulldog was made out of meringue and a sugar as a sort of tribute. This too was on display. Absolute intricate work which must have taken such effort to make.

What also fascinated me was the deep research; experimentation detailing that was done before a dish was finally ready to be served. Many clay models of the food were made. These were then drawn on paper and placed in a plate to achieve the correct effect. Unbelievable. Have a look at his thought process that is shown on the chart.

The hundreds of clay models 

On the left a plate with clay models, on the right a drawing of how it should be plated

Once again, on the left a plate with clay models, on the right a drawing of how it should be plated

The thought process of Ferran Adria. Wonderfully illustrated.

I written about the fact that burgers are the absolute rage in London. We went to have a burger for lunch, beats the Maharaja Mac Chicken by a mile, at Tommi's Burgers in our old haunt Marylebone. We reached at 11.45 and got a place to sit. By 12 noon the place as jammed, a line snaked out of the door. I had a Steak Burger with Cheese and Bernaise while HRH The Queen had a Cheeseburger. They were totally brilliant. A day or two later when we were in Soho walking past a Burger and Lobster, which I had written about earlier, there was a line of people getting in. Such is the popularity of burgers in London. 

Tommi's Burger with a line at 12.15 after we finished

`S' for Steakburger - please note no fries!! No plates either.

The deliciously juicy Cheeseburger

The Steakburger 

Line outside Burger and Lobster

That’s all for now folks. More blogs, more food and more rants soon...      

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Clubs - what is all the fuss about?

Everybody in India wants to be a member of a Club. This is true in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai. I presume it is as correct in other smaller cities. Clubs are great places. By Club I mean an association that is formed to promote an activity. It could be a general sports club or one for sailing or even one for horse racing. I do not mean a heavy stick, as in, he was bludgeoned to death by his disgruntled wife who hit him repeatedly on the head with a club. I do not mean clubbing, as in, going to a night club to dance.

Almost across the board, and I know that I am generalising here, but I also believe this generalisation is accurate, Clubs have large grounds given to them by the Governments/Local Authorities at a nominal rent. Clubs are cheap places to eat and drink for primarily 2 reasons. First that they have virtually no land cost or rental to speak of, thus the large overheads that most restaurants have just does not exist. Secondly, Clubs are normally not-for-profit organisations. The necessary consequence is that Clubs are hugely popular and membership is coveted. Not only is membership coveted but becoming a member of a Club committee or becoming an office bearer of a Club is even more highly coveted.

The older Clubs, those that were formed by the British or formed as an answer to the then racist Clubs are regarded as the best clubs in Mumbai. The Willingdon which was formed to counter the racist admission policy of other clubs is still regarded today, 66 years after Independence, as a good Club. The Breach Candy Club which was till recently racist, is also a good club. The CCI or Cricket Club, the Bombay Gymkhana that used to permit only British members are all regarded as good.

Today we have a lot of new Clubs that have come up, and some are really popular. The Otters Club at Bandra, the NSCI, and the MCA at Bandra East are all good. There are many other Clubs that have a large and dedicated membership. The Goregaon Sports Club, Radio Club, the US Club, Bandra Gym and Khar Gym are some of them.

The matter which really amuses me is the bitterly and passionately fought elections for committee positions at clubs. This happens in most clubs in the last week of September. There is furious campaigning. I remember in the old days, often if you went to the bar, a candidate would approach you and buy you a drink. Alas, all that has now changed. Today, I believe, though I have not personally experienced it, parties are held outside the club premises where much wining and dining is done to get votes. I know when the Khar Gym elections are on because there are hoardings, yes, hoarding put up on billboards in the Bandra Khar area asking for your vote. A few years ago when driving back from Marve, I passed the Goregaon Sports Club on an election day. It was complete chaos. Banners, posters, and a police `bandobast’ to boot. The Yacht Club just concluded its elections. It was the `Parsi Gang’ versus the non Parsi lot. By the way, the Parsi Gang was trounced.

Being a member at a few of these clubs, I decided to have a look at the accounts of the Clubs. I wanted to figure out why there is so much at stake during elections. Frankly, if you ask me, a few hundred rupees as a tip to a few waiters will get you brilliant service at a Club. No need to go thru a trauma of an election and horror of horrors, the prospect of a defeat.

I have tabulated my findings. Just to put things in perspective, Clubs have two basic revenue streams. One is obviously the main business of the Club, providing sporting facilities, income from food and drink, income from rooms etc; this is what I have called `Activity’ revenue. The second is interest that the Club gets on the money it has invested. This money is from admission fees which the Club does not spend but keeps invested and survives on the income, i.e. interest.

My observations are surprising. The Hindu Gymkhana has the most members and the least revenue. Obviously no one goes there but merely sits on a membership. Therefore, one can presume it has an old [aged] membership or the Club is really the pits. Secondly, almost without exception, all the Clubs are desperately losing money on the main activity. If they did not have the interest income they would have had to shut down a long time ago. Thirdly and most importantly, look at the revenues. The maximum is the Willingdon with 41 crores. In today’s day and age is this a significant number? Should captains of industry be fighting hot bitter fights to become the President/Chairman of an entity that has such piffling [relatively] numbers? I really wonder. Look at the Yacht Club, shockingly low revenue of 7 crores. Many people have incomes of more than that. I really am amazed at how we all love to be in control and exercise power over minute kingdoms.

Everybody wants to be a Pasha if not a Raja.   

Willingdon Sports Club
Bombay Gymkhana
Malabar Hill Club
Royal Bombay Yacht Club
Hindu Gymkhana
No of Members
Activity revenue in Crs
Interest revenue in Crs
Total revenue in Crs
Expenses in Crs
Loss on activity revenue in Crs

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nothing like McDonalds for me. I am not ashamed to say that.

I am sure you must know the words from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech on the eve of India’s independence – “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. Well, we had decided to see the movie `Rush’ at 12 noon, at the PVR Theatres at Palladium Mall, not quite the midnight hour, but you get what I am saying, on a working day. So the other simile, while the world works we were at a movie.

As you know, lunch for us is something light and quick, quick being the most important. We cannot bear sitting down to a long lunch and seeing the day just flit by. At the times we are at the Palladium Mall, our favourite place to eat is McDonalds. This is quick, the food neither heavy nor light [stay away from the fries] and I assure you the food is most hygienic. I am serious, and not being sarcastic. It was 11.30 and we had about 20 minutes to eat and leave to be able to reach the theatre at 12 noon.

Right alongside McDonalds was Smoke House Deli. This is a very trendy restaurant. Everyone who is a somebody has eaten here. This is open from morning breakfast to dinner. So, logically speaking, 11.30 would have been time when people should have been having a late breakfast or a coffee or a midmorning snack. I suggested to HRH the Queen of Kutch that we see if they would serve us a sandwich, which, is another lunchtime favourite. In we went and to my considerable surprise there were no, I repeat, no, punters. The restaurant had lots of waiters, obviously with nothing to do, behaving in a loutish manner and generally playing the fool. At the take away counter there was a chef holding 18 inch French loaves in his grubby hands. No gloves, why should you care about hygiene. We asked for the menu and had a look at the sandwich section. Some usual sandwiches, Roast Beef and Onion, Vegetarian sandwiches, Mozzarella Panini and so on and so forth. Each one of them cost about Rs 450 on top of which I would have to pay taxes and the infernal service charge. So for the two of us we would have spent about Rs 1,100/- for two sandwiches all told. Add to this the drama of ordering, eating, billing, waiting for change. We both walked out.

Next door is McDonalds. The time was 11.35. The place was crawling with teenagers and young college students all happily tucking into burgers, bags of French Fries and slurping on all manner of soft drinks. My mood immediately lifted. We went to the counter and ordered. A Chicken Maharaja Mac for me and a Spicy Chicken for HRH the Queen. Nothing more. The money was handed over and within a minute we had fresh hot and in HRH the Queens case, spicy burgers. Job done. We ate, wiped our lips and headed to the cinema.

How much did this cost? Rs. 211/- yes folks Rs. 211/- For both of us. No service charge no jerking about. I was so pleased. Is there any wonder everyone all across the world likes McDonalds? Is it any surprise that Smoke House Deli had no customers at exactly the same time when located just 10 meters away? Is it because McDonalds caters to a different target audience? Or is it because sombody’s cannot be caught dead in a McDonalds? I do not know. All I know is that for a quick fresh hot tasty hygienic meal, Its McDonalds for us.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Schools - The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Following the last post, I received a call from an old friend and colleague. He was pricked or catalysed into calling me after he read the post. He had a most interesting story to tell.

Once again, this post has no real conclusion or point. It is just my observation on the current state of affairs.

About 15 to 20 years ago when a lot of my friends had children, whenever we met, conversation would inevitably turn to the tension, stress and trauma they were facing finding school admissions for their kids. Then the topic abated. I assumed that students, or more correctly the parents were relaxed and the tension of securing admission had abated because of the newer schools that had sprung up offering a wider choice of education. By wider choice I mean that instead of the ICSE and SSC choice that my parents had when I had to go to school, today you have three more systems. You have the IGCSE which is the international equivalent of the British `O’ level that is offered in the 9th and 10th class. You have the full IB which is offered from primary to class 12. You also have the IB Diploma that is offered in only class 11 and 12.

On looking further into this, coupled with the story my friend had to tell, I realised how utterly incorrect this assumption is.

Each of the schools offer these examination streams have a different fee structure. Let us break this down into some sort of numbers.

IB Diploma
IB Whole course
From class 1 to 10
Only class 9 & 10
Only class 11 & 12
From class 1 to 12
Fees from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 60,000/- per year
Fees of Rs. 200,000 to 300,000 a year
Fees of Rs. 500,000 to 1,000,000 a year
Fees of Rs. 700,000 to 900,000 a year

There are four caveats to this table. First, of course there are exceptions to these numbers, but, by and large, these numbers represent the fees being charged by the respective schools today. Secondly, there are good reasons why the IGCSE/IB schools charge more, and I mean this honestly. Third, the parents who I spoke to who had changed their kids from an ICSE/CBSE school to an IGCSE school were unanimous in their opinion that the IGCSE system was hugely superior. Lastly, the cost is only fees. I understand that extras like school trips, exam fees, books and social expenses like birthday parties, phone, gifts etc that happen at a different level in IB/IGCSE schools which are all elite high society schools. 

I am not getting into the question as to whether such high fees result in a profit for the school owners or whether education should or should not be for profit.

So a cursory look at the table should make it clear that while you have more streams, the cost of getting a child educated has dramatically shoots up if you want to change to one of the newer streams. Thus, is there a real choice?  And, is there a choice available in the primary school stage?

Not only has there been a change in the kind of exam system you wish to take, but there has been a bigger and far more significant change in the student population of schools. Now, this is where this post starts to tread into highly controversial waters. Before going any further, my position. Yes, everyone should have an education. Yes everyone is aspirational and will do his damndest to get what he wants, including the best possible education for his child.  Education should be available to everyone.

Bandra, historically being Christian, had a lot of convent schools. Just 1 square kilometre of where we live there are St Stanislaus, St Josephs, Carmel Convent, St Theresa, Durelo Convent, St Andrews College and of course my bete noire, AVM. If you stand outside any of the Convent schools at the time they shut, you will be rather surprised by the parents standing outside the gate waiting to collect their kids. Let me put it euphemistically, you would not have a cup of tea with many of them, they are `cutting chai’ kind of people, the others you could not have a beer with, as their religion does not permit it. I repeat the statements I made in the preceding paragraph.

Now, getting back to the story of my disturbed friend. He has a young daughter and has to put her into an appropriate school. Herein lies his problem.

My friend lives at Dadar, a good old traditional Mumbai neighbourhood. He went to a school within walking distance from his home. The first problem he faced was that the schools he went to as a child has totally changed. His old school continues to be an SSC school, and, the SSC course today is really woefully inadequate and inferior. Today, the student population of the kind of school he went to is rather `humble’. Anyone who would have gone to a Municipal School and done his SSC now takes admission into one of the older more established schools which also offer SSC. Why? Simply because the standards of Municipal schools have plummeted and with rising affluence, coupled with relatively cheap school fees, many more people can afford the old traditional schools. This has resulted in the change in student population. So local, neighbourhood schools are out for our friend.

Next step, our friend tries to widen his search and looks for schools a little beyond walking distance, say a reasonable car drive away. Dadar being very central, our friend tried the old Bombay Schools, you know the ones, Queen Mary, Cathedral, and Bombay International but in all cases, in his foolishness he had not registered his child with the school when she was born! So those schools were out.

Next up he widened his search to the IGCSE/IB schools and was shattered by the fees being charged. So these too were out. Now, friend was really worried. He then joked that the one school that was looming large was – AVM! Yes folks, AVM. It was close to his home and it was within budget. But, there is a problem. His 3 year old daughter categorically refuses to say her prayers! Looking a bit deeper he has now shortlisted 3 schools which fit his budget and are reasonably close. I do hope he does manage to secure admission.

So folks what does all this lead up to? On the one level from what I can understand, the old style humble schools are today inappropriate for most of us. There is a metamorphosis that is happening. People who went to Municipal schools are now going to humble schools; humble school students are now going to the more upmarket schools ICSE schools, the ICSE school students are now looking at IGCSE/IB. On the other level, the new IGCSE/IB schools are beyond the reach of many. So, have things really become better? Do we have a wider choice? Is a good school with reasonable fees, a decent set of teachers and a reasonable student population vanishing? I do feel sorry for parents today.

As a parent you need to be really on the ball on the matter of school admissions.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

School, religion, holidays and food

This post has got very little to do with food. This post is unusual in as much as I am rather confused as to where I stand in many matters I touch upon. This post is something all of you should think about. It is to do with schools, religion, children and upbringing.

First I must explain my own case. I lived in South Bombay and our family was Hindu, but none of us were/are `practising’ Hindus. No going to temples, no God in the house, no poojas etc. I was put into an all boys Convent school by my parents. The school was run by Jesuits and was called Campion. In those days, Campion along with St. Marys and St Xavier’s Boys Academy were regarded as the better schools in South Bombay. All were Convents and only for boys. Cathedral and Bombay International were not convents, were co-educational and were also regarded as good. Anyway, my parents thought Campion was good for me so there I was.

Being a Catholic school, there were prayers every day at assembly. Often teachers made us pray just before lunch. If you ate lunch in the school canteen i.e. the school lunch, you definitely said a prayer before eating. The prayers were all Christian – referring to God as `Our Father In Heaven’, and when praying before mealtimes the prayers were `Bless Us, Oh Lord, And These Thy Gifts Which We Are About To Receive From Thy Bounty, Through Christ, Our Lord.’ All of us said prayers like this. There was no issue. My classmates were Jains, Kutchis, Gujjus, Parsee, Muslim, Bohri, and everybody prayed. I am sure this sounds familiar to a lot of you. Every week the Catholics in class went off for Catechism lessons, while the rest of us grappled with Moral Sciences. All of us turned out well adjusted, happy kids and, by and large, are now successful. The points being that (i) no one gave a second thought of praying a Christian prayer in school (ii) the idea of praying itself did not bother me too much.

Some days ago we were speaking with a neighbour who for some time taught at Arya Vidya Mandir [AVM] a well regarded school in the Western suburbs. She said that the school was heavily Hindu oriented; kids are made to recite Sanskrit prayers every day. Every Wednesday there is a `Havan’ in the school. There are `Havans’ performed before exams. Wikipedia says a `Havan’ `refers to any ritual in which making offerings into a consecrated fire is the primary action.’ A cousin of HRH the Queen of Kutch has her daughter in AVM, and she confirmed this state of affairs. Is AVM the Hindu equivalent of a Madrassa? Would you like to bring up your child in a school which has no students from another religion? Why do you look at a Madrassa with contempt? Is this not the same?

On hearing this I was appalled. I will tell you why. Over the years I believe less and less in `God’ and religious rituals irritate me. I would never have put my child in such a school. The wise HRH the Queen of Kutch pointed out that how was reciting Christian prayers in Campion any different from a Sanskrit prayer in AVM? She was correct. Am I too westernised, whatever that term may mean? If I was a parent today which school would I put my child? In a Christian Campion or Hindu AVM? I believe my answer would be Campion. But, you see the conflict here.

Let us switch to another connected matter. The Education department in Maharashtra just a few days ago, in an unparalleled and unprecedented step, declared a 4 day holiday for all schools in Maharashtra from 9th to 12th September. The Department explained that the youth wing of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a political party formed by Raj Thackeray had demanded this stating that the Ganapati festival is celebrated by a large part of the population. As usual, when questioned, the Department said that they had given only two days holiday which would be made up by curtailing some Christian holidays that fell in the last week of December. It is true that Hindus form a dominant populace and Ganapati is celebrated by many. Frankly, I see no difference in granting school holidays for all or any festival. It is not that an Eid or Easter or Guru Nanaks birthday are less or more important than Ganapati. So, I cannot as such object to granting of these holidays. Furthermore, just because the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena demanded this is neither here nor there. My point being, is it a time to really rethink holidays, religions and the formation of schools. Should there be a minimum number of days a school should work and if it is a Muslim School like Anjuman Islam for instance, they can have 30 days off during Ramazan, if it is an AVM all the Hindu holidays and so on and so forth. Should we have religion-based schools? Should we have secular schools? Should secular schools have religious holidays?

Should parents be making such huge far reaching decisions on behalf of their children in putting them into an AVM or an Anjuman Islam or a Campion? Mind you schools are free to be wholly religious or vegetarian or impose any rules. The question is, should you as a parent knowingly put your child into such a cloistered school?

Turning now to food. I understand that we have different food habits. Vegetarianism, Jainism, non beef eating, non pork eating and so on and so forth. In Campion we had the good old Veg and Non Veg. Life was simple and uncomplicated. While I may have had a sausage sandwich in my dry lunch box, I looked with much envy at my friend Harsh Khatau who often got a box full of `chips’ or French Fries with a small container of ketchup. At times I yearned to have a lunch like that. I envied Harsh when he got chips for lunch. All of us brought whatever was given to us at home. Those of us who ate in school i.e. the school lunch ate veg or non veg with everyone else. The school had no rules and impositions.

Today 33 years after I have left school, I hear of schools which do not allow non vegetarian food to be brought into school by the kids. I am really horrified at this. No one is going to die if they eat non vegetarian food from their pals lunch box, they will not lose their hair or brains or turn black. I hear of school lunches where on certain days only Jain lunch is served. How can schools be so close minded? Of course no one should be forced into eating food which goes against their religious tenets, but should there not be a question of choice? Even choice for kids is to be removed? I feel so sorry for kids who today cannot even taste a non vegetarian curry and decide for themselves if they like it? HRH the Queen of Kutch grew up in a vegetarian home. But, neither  did her parents nor did the school prevent her from tasting a ham sandwich from a classmates lunch box or, going to a neighbour’s home and being given frogs legs for lunch. She had a choice. Today she eats literally everything, except raw onion!

So, as I said, I have no clear answers. I am shocked at how narrow-minded, closed and insular we have become. In 2013 parents actually choose that their kids should go to a vegetarian Hindu school while they themselves are non vegetarian at home and/or eat non vegetarian food at restaurants. Why? Schools have literally become religious ghettos. I feel so sad.

I firmly believe that in the last 33 years since I left school, instead of barriers breaking down, they have become worse. We are more intolerant, more rabid and simply worse off than before.