Thursday, December 28, 2017

Air conditioned trains and protests

I am sure that you must have read about the introduction of the first air-conditioned local train in Mumbai. Yes folks it is almost 2018 and we are getting our first air conditioned train. Wow!

Obviously, this introduction cannot be without drama, hoopla and insane protests.

Before getting down to the nitty gritty, let me point out my observation on the mode of protest in India. We have two broad modes of protest. Most protests, against anything, almost always fall in one of these two buckets.

Bucket one is what I call the “Exception should be the Rule”. Here the mode employed is to use an exception and protest that because of the exception, the rule should be scrapped. Let me give you an example. Take Aadhaar, this is a hotly protested issue. A small minority of people have worn out fingerprints. Reasons for this are many. For instance age makes fingerprints fade, as does manual labour. Out of the 1.25 billion people that we have, those with worn out fingerprints would be miniscule. But yet our die hard protesters will argue till blue in the face that Aadhaar in its entirety should be scrapped. This is what I mean that exceptions should be the rule. Needless to say, these protesters have perfectly readable fingerprints.  

Bucket two is what I call “there is another better way”. Take the proposal to have a Bullet Train. Cue to howls. Why spend so much money on the Bullet Train, you can have XXX trains with no air conditioning, dirty toilets and so on transporting the poor from Mumbai to Gorakhpur. Or, why have a Shivaji Statue as that money can be better used to maintain Shivaji Forts. Basically, in India we always have people who are poor, starving, diseased, and unable to afford medical care and uneducated. So whatever proposal is brought is met with an argument that there is a better way to spend the money, not this way.

Now let us turn to the air conditioned train. At this point the train has been introduced to run from Borivali at 12.42. As expected, howls of protest. A man who goes to work, yes folks, a man who goes to work at 12.42 has complained bitterly as his usual non air-conditioned Borivali train is now cancelled and substituted by this air conditioned train. He wants the grubby train back! Unbelievable. A man going to work at 12.42 cannot possibly, to my limited intelligence not be able to afford the higher fare of an air conditioned. But no, he will protest. He falls in bucket one. Also, and again to the best of my knowledge, there is a train from Borivali to Churchgate every 5-7 minutes. Mr Protestor, tomorrow try going in at 12.37 instead!!!

What has really intrigued me when reading of the imminent launch of the train was the absence of any noise from our Mumbai intelligentsia, you know who, the South Bombay chatterati and intellectuals. This lot has been saying, for years, that (i) in order to reduce vehicular traffic on our congested roads we should have comfortable air conditioned trains (ii) air conditioned trains across the city would further reduce cars as today we have several office areas and not just one CBD. You have seen the rise of commercial spaces in Lower Parel, the new commercial spaces in Kalina, BKC, Goregaon, along the Western & Eastern Highways, at Vikhroli. But, there is not a word of praise or appreciation from this lot. Of course, it would not be out of place to point out that none, and I mean none of these Bombay chatterati intellectuals have ever travelled by train in the last 10 years. But they are experts!

I think I know why they cannot get any praise out. Praising this would tantamount to praising Modi and that they cannot ever ever do. Of course, the truth of the matter is that all the work in starting the train was done way before Modi. But the Bombay chatterati intellectuals are still silent.

And the daft protests continue. We deserve the crumbs that we have. We deserve no better. The fault is our and our people. Just criticize. Remain in the gutter. This is sad.   

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Kulbhushan Jadhav, Bindis and the Middia

Over the last few days our ‘Middia’ has been in a real froth. The immediate provocation was Pakistan permitting the wife and mother of Kulbhushan Jadhav to visit him in the Pakistani prison where he is incarcerated for spying.

I am amused on one level. When the news broke that Kulbhushan Jadhav was in prison, our ‘Middia’ went blue in the face. I recall anchors thundering that with Pakistan’s human rights record [or lack of it] it was a distinct possibility that in fact he was dead, killed by the evil Pakistanis. Obviously he is not dead. But who is going to remind the ‘Middia’ of its rather incorrect strident views.

This time there are howls of protest, complete indignation at some of what I consider, minor aspects of the visit. Reports suggest that the terrible, heartless [add your chosen adjective here ______________ ] Pakistanis had the temerity of removing the “Bindi’s” from the two Jadhav ladies foreheads. In addition, their clothes were taken away and they were given replacements. The jewellery the Jadhav ladies were wearing was also removed from their person. Shoes were removed. All this, according to our rampant ‘Middia’ was a huge insult, was inhuman.

My view, or as they say, take, is different. I am sure that none of my readers have ever been to a prison. I have been, not once, but on several instances. Therefore, I believe, that puts me in an informed and somewhat advantageous  position.  There is nothing secret about this. I had written about this in an earlier post entitled “Going to Jail”, which you can read here. 

Well, like the Jadhav ladies, we too had to empty our pockets, remove our watches, and carry nothing except GBP 10 in coins. Not a shred of paper was allowed in. The reason being that paper is often impregnated with drugs. This is then slipped to the prisoners. Yes, we were allowed to wear the same clothes and our shoes remained on. But we were properly frisked and properly sniffed by drug dogs. Did we feel insulted? Not in the least. And, I suspect that the Jadhav ladies clothes were substituted, as were the shoes, since these could have carried listening devices or cameras or some other espionage equipment. According to me, perfectly legitimate suspicions on part of the Pakistani authorities.

I do find the opinions of the ‘Middia’ wholly provocative and in the realm of propaganda. This is disturbing. Further, the panels put together by the ‘Middia’ seem to know nothing, or, more disturbingly, seem to not want to point out the very logical explanations for the so called indignities heaped on the Jadhav ladies. An explanation much like I have put forward in the preceding paragraph. Sad.

Anyway, before I am accused of being anti-national or pro Pakistan, let me say Mera Bharat Mahan. Bharat Mata Ki Jai!

What do you guys think?      

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How to bash India and win - Learn from Dr Mallya

Dr. Vijay Mallya, the King of Good Times is certainly enjoying himself. I have been reading reports on the hearings presently on in the UK Courts. The Indian Government would like Mallya extradited to India so that he may be tried in India for the crimes he has allegedly committed. Mallya, obviously does not want to be extradited.

Reading the reports leaves me amused and disgusted at the same time. From what I know, these proceedings are not to prove Dr Mallya’s guilt, but, to show, prima facie, that he has committed an offence in India and should therefore face trial. Obviously, in line with the highest standards of equity, Rule of Law and human rights, the UK will be concerned that if they do order extradition, Dr. Mallya should not suffer on account of lower or less than ideal standards.

It follows, that while the hearings are on, the Crown Prosecution Services, briefed by our Government are arguing that of course India has the highest standards of equity, Rule of Law and human rights. On the other hand, Dr. Mallya’s team is busy stating the exact opposite.

This is where the fun starts.

I am rather surprised that our wise and overly Nationalistic and patriotic government had not realized what would happen in this case.

When presenting its side Dr. Mallya’s team has a free hand to take potshots at India. Over the last few days they have freely and fearlessly presented “experts” to expound on the position as it exists in India. On one day an expert came on board and said that the Judges of our Courts, when nearing retirement, are looking for post-retirement benefits. “Angling” was the word used. They would like to be given some posts, chairmanships and so on. So, according to the expert, our Judges are reluctant to displease the Government, hence would rule in the Governments favour. This would mean that Dr. Mallya would not get a fair trial.

Then, next day other experts came on to say that the CBI is a joke. This was based on at least two grounds. One was several instances of botched up investigations, then the allegations of corruption and lastly, the famous “caged parrot” phrase was bandied about.

On another day Dr. Mallya’s team waded into the Indian banking system. The team said that Indian banks had no idea of how an airline business ran. Since they did not know, they gave the loans. The money was lost plain and simple. There was no fraud.

So as of now, pot shots have been taken against our Jails, our legal system, our banking system and our investigative agencies. Great fun. I wonder how much more there is to go.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Taj Falaknuma - Adaa the Restaurant & their experiments with Credit Cards

HRH the Queen of Kutch has wanted to stay at the Taj Falaknuma ever since it opened. However, there were two challenges. One, it is a frightfully expensive hotel and, two, it is at least one hours drive [one way] from anything meaningful in Hyderabad. This dissuaded us. However, since we were going to Hyderabad in any event, we thought an easy way out would be to go to the Taj Falaknuma for dinner. They have a package where a tour of the Palace is included in the cost of a pre booked dinner.

A few lines on the Falaknuma Palace. This was designed by an English architect to be built for the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad. The construction of the 60 room Palace admeasuring 10 lakh [1 million] square feet on a 32 acre plot started in 1884, and needless to say, bankrupted the Prime Minister. To the rescue came the then Nizam of Hyderabad who bought the Palace and used it as a guest house. With the Nizam leaving India, and the usual internecine disputes in the family, the Palace was neglected till 2000 when the Nizam’s heir granted a 66 year lease of the Palace to the Taj. His ex-wife Princess Esra collaborated with the Taj in restoring the Palace, which has now become a full-fledged exclusive Hotel.

So once our dates were fixed, I made a call to reserve our dinner bookings. This is where the fun starts. First, getting thru to the Hotel was a challenge, for some reason it took them ages to answer the phone. Finally, I was told (i) the reservation office is open from 9 am to 6 pm so I should call during those hours and (ii) reservations can only be made 15 days in advance. This was to my mind, strange. A few emails and days later we got our confirmation and attached to the email was a “Credit Card Authorization Form” which I request you to read. I have highlighted the fun parts.

In typical Indian bureaucratic fashion, unthinkingly or probably arrogantly, I was to fill in the form and send the Taj a photocopy of the front and reverse of my credit card with the signature clearly visible (and I assume the CVV)!! No, that was not all, this photocopy was to be emailed [obviously after scanning] to several email addresses including – hold your breath – the hotel reception!         

I could not believe what I was reading. We are all repeatedly told not to give our passwords, CVV numbers and card details to anyone. Here is the Taj Mahal Hotel asking for exactly this and, to compound matters, send this on an open unsecure email i.e. the reception. I was horrified, and immediately shot of an irate email to all including the General Manager. Of course the usual meaningless explanations followed and the usual “but we ask this of everyone and everyone gives it to us” followed. I refused. Needless to say our reservation was confirmed without the card (and we were told in no uncertain terms that an exception had been made to accommodate us), the General Manager did not bother to respond at all – beneath his dignity I guess. I understand they need a guarantee in case we venal Indians do not turn up. Is this the way to do it? Surely an online payment could be requested, a payment link provided or even an RTGS/NEFT detail. A scan of a credit card???

We reached well in time for our tour. I must say the Palace is most wonderfully located at the top of a hill with the twinkling lights of Hyderabad below you. We were taken around the Palace by a staff member who did the guide duties. It is a Palace so all the megalomania surrounding its construction was spoken about – this is the largest stone, the most expensive carpet, this was made by 38 Virgins, that was made by a castrated blind Italian sculptor who was steadily going deaf and fingers falling off. You know what I mean, an abundance of hyperbole. But, the Palace is smart and beautiful. The Indian Hotels Company has, according to me, been ripped by Princess Esra in restoring the Palace. Photography is not allowed inside.

Tour done, on to dinner.

On being seated, the three of us were handed one menu. It took several requests before we got one more menu card. I had by then realized that the dolts in charge seat the entire dining room at once, immediately following the tour, and, do not have enough menu cards to go around! Madness. And surely basics in the hospitality industry. Drinks were ordered and a general consensus reached on what to order. The food is sort of Pan South Indian, part Muslim Hyderabadi and part Hindu South Indian Hyderabadi.

I am not going to describe every dish we had, the captions to the photographs below should suffice. I do not know how to put this delicately. Indian food looks really really terrible. When looking at the photographs I imagined how unpleasant life must be for a pathologist examining stool samples. Honestly, the food looks absolutely disgusting. However, it tasted fine, not great, but better than average. This disaster dish was the Scallops which were overcooked, covered with a foul “Mulgapodi” and dry. The most pathetic and pretentious was a Sorbet. This should have been tart, cold, fresh tasting and almost icy. What is ended up being was sweet, creamy and served with an oversized spoon. Come on Taj, wake up.

Jr Miss Stonethrower & HRH the Queen of Kutch

Patthar Ka Ghosh - Lamb Piccata, marinated and cooked on a stone 

Scallops with Mulgapodi - poor with a bowl of Prawns - decent

The Sorbet and the Spoon

No not a Stool Sample. Prawns in a Ghongura Leaf Curry. 

No not a Stool Sample either. Lamb Salan with Green Chilli

The Desserts

Service was pleasant, but I have come to the conclusion that in India whether you go to the Delhi Durbar for a Rs 500 per head meal or the Adaa for a Rs 5000 per head meal, our levels of plating and service do not change. A plate carried by a waiter in one hand and a fork and spoon in the other like a pair of tongs to serve your food is de riguer. Everyone does it, and simply dumps the food on your plate. I do find this quite disconcerting.

The desserts were a joke. They were neither desserts nor Petit Fours just over sweet luridly coloured confection.

The evening was pleasant. Visiting the Palace was good, the food sub-par. Sad. I cannot recommend this. Do go if someone else is treating you is all I can conclude.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Hyderabad - Golconda Fort, Charminar & Chowmahalla Palace

A two night three day weekend visit to Hyderabad was planned and undertaken.

We had an agenda. A visit and meal at the Taj Faluknama [a detailed post on that experience will follow] and some sightseeing – the Charminar, Golconda Fort and Chowmahalla Palace. We were travelling and doing “touristy” things in India after years. This was going to be fun.

One lesson rapidly learnt was that unlike in the West, you simply cannot walk on our Indian roads. We attempted to go to the iconic Necklace Road around Tank Bund but gave up. Second, Concierges simply do not have maps to give out. Third, except in Mumbai, rickshaw drivers, all over, are bastards, without exception. They charge what they like with no sense of proportion, Rs. 100 for a 2 Km ride. Fourth, no one understands what you speak. I do not speak French, German, Swedish or Italian, but that taxi driver will follow what I am saying. He can read the slip of paper on which I have written my destination. In India no driver can follow what you are saying. You may as well be speaking Spanish. Plus, you will get a long diatribe in a mix of Hindi and Telugu with lots of hand gestures, all incomprehensible. The silver lining is the Uber and Ola service. Saved the day. Thank God.

So, bottom line, tourism in India is very difficult unless you spend wads of cash in getting a Hotel car – approx. Rs. 5000/- per day for the usual 80 kms 8 hour package. If we were so bloody frustrated I cannot imagine the plight of normal foreign tourists.

First stop the Golconda Fort. A very pleasant guide latched onto us. I have no idea if what he told us was truth or fiction. Since I know no better, you will get what he told us. Some things are factual. Many of the important diamonds – Kohinoor, Hope, Regent and many others were mined in this area. The Fort was established by the kings of the Kakatiya Dynasty [which is why the ITC Hotel in Hyderabad is called Kakatiya] and finally fell into the hands of the Bahmani Sultanate. The Fort was developed hugely. A particular feature of the Fort is the excellent acoustics and the extremely breezy rooms. A clap of the hands at the main gate or the Fateh Darwaza echoes 24 times on account of the 24 diamond shapes [6 on each of the 4 sides] on the ceiling. Not only is there this echo but the clap can be heard at the Bala Hissar pavilion at the very top of the Fort, probably, a kilometer away. As you would have guessed, this was an early warning system for intruders. This was a self-contained Fort with an elaborate plumbing system.

The Carvings at the Fateh Darwaza

The diamond shapes cut into the Fateh Darwaza 

The sound goes all the way to the top

The queen’s quarters were huge and elaborate. Apparently, they were 3 storey structures, all of which have no collapsed or been destroyed. You can see the stray column clearly indicating the presence of upper floors. 

You can clearly decipher that these structures had upper floors

The Hindu Mystic/Saint Ram Dass, an employee of the ruler, much like our modern day Gurus, pilfered the ruler’s money, and was imprisoned. He wrote a bulk of the bhajans while imprisoned. A temple is made in his cell.

An abandoned Mosque

Tombs of some of the Sultans

The Bahmani Sultanate grew over the years and controlled large swathes of the Deccan Plateau. Aurangzeb started a battle and lay siege to the Fort, which as we have read ad-nauseam in Amar Chitra Kathas, was impregnable. The siege continued for years and ended when a traitor opened the gates and it was all over. Sigh! Aurangzeb promptly had everyone killed and the Fort/Palace destroyed. The Fort was neglected and looted over the following centuries by all and sundry. Today, much has been restored and the Archeological Survey of India [ASI] is in charge. It is a huge task. I must say that the Fort and its environs are quite clean, not as clean as the Victoria Memorial and its Gardens but clean enough. It is very sad that, to repeat a cliché’ we Indians are just wild, uncaring, allegedly Nationalistic but care so little for these monuments. Walls have names graffitied all over them, bottles and food packets are thrown around and not cleaned up. This is very sad.  But again, the Fort was clean by Indian tourism standards.

The Fort is built on a hillside and it takes some 360 steps to reach the top. It was a really glorious day, clear blue skies, a stiff cool breeze and bright and sunny. Great for photography. Frankly, and I say this with all sincerity, the Fort was much better than a lot of what we saw in Portugal. Plus, the visit was certainly not as back breaking and difficult or hot as most monuments in Lisbon. The Golconda Fort is well worth a visit.

From the Fort a convenient Uber ride took us to Charminar. A long serpentine queue of many unwashed masses meant that we were not going to go inside. If you buy a ticket you can climb to the top. We settled for a quick photo amid the cacophony of car horns and whistles of frustrated hapless policemen.

Photo taken, we walked to the Chowmahalla Palace. This is about 500 meters from the Charminar. The Chowmahalla Palace was the seat of the Nizams. This property is still owned by the Nizam, like the Falaknuma Palace, and is fairly well maintained. There are guards whistling and shooing people away from restricted areas. The walls are adorned with elaborate plaster carving and are really quite beautiful. Some of the private chambers were still magnificent.

I do suggest that if you have a day free in Hyderabad, you do certainly visit not only the Golconda Fort but this quite lovely, dignified and understated Chowmahalla Palace. Well worth it.

Enjoy the photos.