6 December 2012

A Journey of Discovery

Routine. Each evening, Rukmini would make a list of things to do for the next day, check the calendar, combine her list with the bar's needs, and she was set. Next day she would run her errands, cross things of the list and by that evening, sit down to make the next list. Life felt stagnant: an endless cycle of chores, and Rukmini felt sucked into the vortex of the mundane. She considered taking a holiday, but she hadn't travelled since Murugan's death and was apprehensive about being in a new place, alone with her thoughts. But the beauty of life is that adventure comes to those who seek it, so after a few weeks of mulling it over, Rukmini decided to get bold.

One of her customers had told her about a travel group exclusively for women. It was the type of tour where everything was pre-arranged and organized: all she had to do was follow instructions. This hadn't sounded too bad; after all, she was surrounded by the voices of women in the bar all the time, so she wouldn't feel lonely and empty on this type of tour. On enquiry, she learned that the next tour was scheduled in two weeks and called the "Holy circuit", because it covered Hindu pilgrimage sites. The trip started from Benaras, moved on to Haridwar, Rishikesh and ended in Uttarkashi. The next tour was three months later and would be "Hills of Sikkim".

Rukmini cringed when she heard this - going to temples and feigning piety was not something she would enjoy. Yet, her procrastination skills were so superior and her  discomfort with the idea of a holiday so strong, that were she to opt for the next tour, she would conveniently forget to plan for it. So before her mind had the opportunity to debate, she signed up for the temple tour in the hope that her fellow passengers would provide an adequate antidote to the ritualism toxicity that she was sure to experience.

She landed in Benaras on a warm afternoon. Standing at the arrival lounge exit was, as promised, a man holding a placard with her name. She walked into the grumpy face of a gutka chewing, pot-bellied driver, who had in seconds evaluated her net worth from the type of sari and amount of jewelry she wore. Based on this, he sized her up as a poor tipper and treated her accordingly. On the drive to the hotel, Rukmini felt that she experienced every pot hole and wondered if his driving was meant to help passengers remember the lord as a build up to the spiritual experience they were to have. He dropped her off at the hotel with as much disdain one would have for a rotting head of cabbage. As Rukmini entered the lobby she could hear a woman's voice, strident and angry. The linen in her room was dirty and despite several requests, it had not been changed. After saying her piece, the woman stormed off without waiting for a response from the reception desk. The man at the counter made eye contact with Rukmini, shrugged and said, "She doesn't have patience, Madam, what to do? She has a problem every 10 minutes and expects the hotel staff to anticipate it, and resolve it even before she complains." Rukmini for her part, had nicknamed the woman Ms Huffy, and hoped she was on the tour.

Dinner that night was hosted in a separate room for all the group members. Ms Huffy was there, harassing the waiter about the temperature of her soup. Rukmini took a seat at a table and was joined by a matronly sari-clad woman who clutched her handbag tightly. She wore a big bindi that matched her sari, and spoke softly but sweetly. Rukmini decided she was Ms Lily and didn't even catch her name when she introduced herself. When they had settled down to eat, Lily laid bare her whole life and in a few minutes was displaying pictures of her various grandchildren. Rukmini wondered why a woman like her was not traveling with her husband. She was compelled, in exchange, to talk about her life. Before embarking on the tour Rukmini had decided that she wouldn't talk about being a bar owner, expecting that a majority of her tour members would not be the type to appreciate it. So she painted herself as a widow on a pension, trying to make peace with her life, a description she mused dryly was not too far from the truth; for aren't we all trying to make peace with our lives?

Mid-way through the meal they were joined by a woman who either did not care how she appeared, or had forgotten what she was wearing. She was in a pink nightgown, with a bright blue duppatta thrown over her shoulders that clearly belonged to a salwar suit. Ms Loopey, as she was immediately named in Rukmini's head, sat down and started to cry. She had somehow managed to lock herself out of her room, and without her glasses couldn't see well enough to find the lobby. Lily just gawked at her shamelessly, her masticated shahi panner visible to all. Rukmini consoled Loopey, gently taking her glasses from her frazzled hair and handing it to her. She promised to walk with her to the reception after dinner.

A few minutes later, Huffy joined them. It appeared that all her dinner companions had conveniently excused themselves to either disappear to their rooms, or to other tables. Within seconds, Huffy launched into a tirade about the poor quality of arrangements, too much sugar in the dessert, weak coffee and everything that came into her head. The only redeeming feature of her verbal diarrhea was that no one was expected to engage in it. Participation was limited to listening or in Rukmini's case, faking listening. Soon though, Lily muscled in with grandkids and Loopey was asking them to make sure that the bus waits for her, in case her alarm fails. They had morphed into a group. Bound to each other to hold handbags outside toilets, the best seats in the bus or to simply be available to listen!

Rukmini felt at home, and smiled inwardly at the wickedly entertaining holiday she was going to have.

2 October 2012

Segregating waste - Help the BBMP Bangalore

Rarely do I see a bulletin from the powers that be on an issue that I feel deeply about: Garbage.

From Oct 1 onwards, only segregated waste will be accepted by BBMP. There's talk about how large apartment complexes will have to manage their own wet waste. I am not sure what rules apply to us. Anyway, we got a flyer talking about the six types of waste and when they would be picked up in our ward.

I made a half-hearted attempt few months ago with my apartment association about segregating waste; with the legal impetus, we now have common purpose. While there are a number of critiques about the proposed plan - the most difficult being a rushed deadline to comply rather than a gradual introduction - it's a decent start, and we must support it. 

Newspapers have carried detailed information about how to segregate your waste. But the # 1 question for me has been - how will it go from my apartment, to a pourkarmika/ garbage pick up contractor? With dry waste, storage issues are more about space; with wet though, the stink would be an issue. 

We plan in our building to have two bins assigned to each home. Dry and wet. It's the owner's responsibility to rinse out the bins. I still worry though that collecting this stuff, sans a plastic cover (prohibited by the law), will be a feast for rodents. Even a single day that it remains piled up will attract pests.

Just for the record though, this is how we manage our waste:

1. Wet waste
All organic kitchen stuff including spoiled sambhar, crisped-up rotis go into the compost. In the kitchen we have a container where this stuff is collected. Receipts, miscellaneous paper cut into strips is used as the dry matter. If you maintain a good ratio between the dry and wet, this mixture does not smell! Every 2 - 3 days, these contents are put into the Khamba. The waste compresses tremendously as it composts; the bottom pit of this khamba held about 6-8 months of our daily vegetable waste. Once matured, this compost is put away to be used in the garden, or can be spread about near the trees or gardens in the neighbourhood. 

2. Dry waste: We have a system for this:

Anything that makes money, my maid takes away. The incentive is that she gets to keep the money she makes from it. P, our maid, tells me she makes about a hundred rupees a month from the stuff she sells from our home. She sells: newspapers, plastic bottles, beer bottles (unfortunately, only kingfisher is worth much), milk plastic bags.

Newspapers we store indoors, so they don't get damp.

Milk packets are given a quick rinse, dried on the clothes line and then put into a separate bag.

Receipts, confidential letters, get into a bag to be used as dry waste in the compost.

Plastic bags, juice cartons, cardboard cereal boxes are put away in a bag. Everything is rinsed with hot water, or cold and then stored. Otherwise it attracts ants. The rinse-water is used for the plants.

Garden waste is put back into the compost.

With the BBMP's new system, we have a home for the dry waste that P can't sell - like wine bottles, miscellaneous plastic etc. Also, we never practiced safe methods with sanitary waste, which I am happy to put into practice (we hand it over in a paper bag marked with a big red cross)

All this may sound overwhelming to someone who has not lived in a system where recycling works, and thinks that as long as garbage is not in their house, it's not their problem. Waste segregation requires commitment, self-awareness and discipline. But with time, it becomes a habit.

Cultivate your habit Bangalore.

26 August 2012

Driving to success - Part II

Because of the vagaries of blogspot I am unable to post part II, after part I. So if you have the time, please read part I below before starting on this story.

"Manjula, would you like to learn how to drive? Then you can become a driver." From the silence that ensued, Rukmini guessed that her idea pitch was awful. A driver hardly conjured up a respectable profession for a woman, especially from her background. In the milieu that Manjula had grown up in, women either tended homes or worked to tend other people's home, or indulged in homely pursuits like preparing meals or selling food items. A job that involved dealing with strangers and working unusual timings was probably considered dangerous and a man's job. She tried again.

"Look, I know that this is not a career that many girls have. But you wanted to become independent and having your own taxi service is a business that you can do by yourself, and it is flexible in terms of time." More silence. Rukmini counted to ten, so she wouldn't lose her patience.

"Think about it. There are some nights that the girls are not sober enough to go back by themselves. We can offer them a taxi service from the bar. You could be the driver. Your being a woman would make them feel safer. Also, since we will run it from the bar you too will have a clientele you are comfortable with, and business is assured, at least on Saturday night. It will not be easy to get a license but if you make up your mind I am willing to loan you the money to learn driving and the bar can give you a car. Taxi service for women, by a woman."

They had reached Manjula's home. Rukmini brought the car to a stop and when Manjula did not make motions of alighting she reached over to help her out. That's when she noticed that Manjula was crying. What did she say to upset her? Rukmini tried to ask gently, even though she was very exasperated at this point, "What happened? I don't like women crying, so you better stop now and tell me what is going on in your mind."

Manjula was a leaking tap by now and unable to say a word. After five minutes she calmed down and simply said, "Thanks Rukmini-akka. You are a saviour." She opened the door and left Rukmini stunned. On the way back to her house Rukmini tried to analyze the situation but failed.

Next day Manjula arrived and asked for her first driving lesson. An official hurdle they would have to cross is getting her a license. But having limited literacy prevented Manjula from acquiring a learning permit through the legal route. From the start Rukmini had determined that she would only assist Manjula, not spoon-feed her. So she told her about the requirement for a learning license before she could get her first driving lesson and pointed her towards the regional transport office for the paperwork. Manjula began with the nasal whining that she would typically use on her mother when she wouldn't get her way. Rukmini put a stop to it immediately and bluntly told her that if she wanted to be an independent businesswoman she needed to start acting like one right away. Manjula first tried hanging around aimlessly around the bar but when she figured that Rukmini would not budge she tottered off. What Rukmini knew, and Manjula did not, is that around many such offices, dozens of touts hang about who would complete the paperwork for extra cash; literacy was no barrier. But this was a lesson that Manjula had to learn by herself. Rukmini did not see Manjula again for a week.

When she came next, Rukmini asked her what progress she made. Manjula was not sure how to respond - she was uncertain of Rukmini's response for admitting the use of underhand methods. What she didn't know is that to run a business, Rukmini had on several occasions needed to be sly. They played a game; each unsure of how to treat the other. Manjula asked for money to apply for a learning license. Rukmini agreed, but she told her it was a loan and as in all such transactions she required a guarantee. Manjula became downcast but returned with what she thought was obvious, "Akka, if I had money would I be standing in front of you with an outstretched palm?" Rukmini secretly liked that Manjula was not a pushover. But she knew that only if she too stood her ground, was there a possibility of success in this case. She replied tartly then, "I don't care. Ask your mother. Any time an employee borrows money I take a guarantee. It can be jewelry, kitchen utensils, wedding saree, anything, but it must be equal in value or more of what is borrowed. The total cost for the license and training you to drive will be five thousand rupees. If you want to do your Taxi service from my bar, we will negotiate the rates once you finish your training. I will loan you this money for a period of six months. If you do not return the money, I will sell whatever you leave as a guarantee and close the debt. Are you agreeable?"

On one hand Rukmini felt awful for being so tight-fisted and demanding, but on the other, having lost on several social investments, she knew she had to adopt a stern and non-negotiable countenance.

Manjula tried to plead with her, but to no avail. Finally, she looked scornfully at Rukmini and said loudly, "Here, take my gold bangle. This is the only jewelry I have." Rukmini tried not to look satisfied. She took the bangle and gave her the money.

Soon Manjula procured a learner's license and then began Rukmini's ordeal. Unable to trust the quality of teaching provided by the neighborhood driving school, Rukmini took it upon herself to teach Manjula. Each trip was an adrenalin rush, of the wrong sort. Rukmini would on numerous occasions step on her imaginary break, she would exhale loudly at near misses and after each lesson, her throat would be parched from all the shouting. However, they made progress and soon Manjula was able to drive Rukmini around on her errands. It impressed everyone at the bar that Manjula passed her driver's license test in one shot.

Three months after Manjula left her husband, she began her own taxi service. Rukmini mused that perhaps, this was the only social investment she had made, which actually had economic returns. That golden bangle on Manjula's hand glowed softly.

21 August 2012

Driving to success - Part I

Rukmini watched as Suhasini completed mopping the bar floor. They had a routine: just as Suhasini would start with the last stretch of mopping, Rukmini would prepare their coffee. They would sit together after the cleaning, sometimes quietly, sometimes talking. Rukmini believed they were friends, but it was hard for her to tell if Suhasini felt the same. There was always some tension in the relationship; Suhasini was her employee, but more fundamentally, their priorities and ways of thinking of choices in life were very different. They were both single, self-made women, yet their social environment had resulted in different belief systems. Suhasini could not understand why Rukmini would not remarry and Rukmini could not understand how despite being financially independent, Suhasini still considered a male presence paramount in a woman's life.

The biggest disagreement had come when Suhasini decided to get her daughter married at 14. Rukmini had protested to the mother, tried to talk to the girl to rebel, and when her imploring went no where, in a final outburst reminded Suhasini that it was illegal. They spent days not speaking to each other. But with the same quiet determination that Suhasini completed her cleaning tasks, she completed the marriage for her daughter. Rukmini could feel the happiness and liberation that Suhasini radiated afterwards; that she, a single mother, survivor of abandonment, civic apathy and social taunts was able to marry her daughter to a salaried man and in style, was a big achievement.

Five years had passed since. They did not talk about their disagreement. If the daughter came up at all, it was in context of her children or visits home during the festival season. At today's coffee session, many minutes had passed in silence and Rukmini sensed that there was something amiss with Suhasini. When the words finally tumbled out, Rukmini was left speechless.

"Amma, last night Manjula came home with her two children. She came with all their belongings and says she will not go back to that man. How can I take care of her? A woman's place is with her husband." Suhasini exhaled loudly and then continued, "I tried talking to her last night and this morning. That girl is acting very strange. All she does is cry and keep begging me to let her stay. So her husband beat her. It happens, you know. For such small things that girl can't leave him. What sort of respect will she get from society? It is the man's job to take care of her and the children. How does she expect to take care of them alone, without their father? All this I tried to explain to her Amma, but she is acting very stubborn."

Rukmini could not understand how as a mother Suhasini's emotions were confined to astonishment and dismay, not rage at the husband and sympathy for her daughter. But she had to remind herself that Suhasini herself had gone through similar abuse and was prepared to put up with it; in her case it just so happened that the husband had fallen drunk on a busy road and was run over. Rukmini tried to set her opinions aside and be a friend.

"Suhasini-akka, why don't you let her stay with you for few days? May be a change of scene will be good for her. After being apart for some time, may be both husband and wife will feel more accommodating? Let his anger subside and her pain become lesser?"

"Ayyo Amma. It has already become more complicated than that. Today morning the husband called me and told me that he won't take her back. He abused me and accused me of not telling his family about the mental state of my daughter. He also threatened that if I were to bring my daughter to his house, he will beat us both."

Rukmini watched helplessly as Suhasini wept.

Over the next few weeks it became clear that the ties between Manjula and her husband were beyond repair. Many harsh words were exchanged, emissaries sent from each family were abused and rumors began that Manjula's husband had taken up with another woman. Soon Suhasini tired of feeding 3 extra mouths on her salary and tried to get Manjula to work as a maid. Manjula though had not inherited her mother's stoicism or tolerance towards physical labour. But without an education, there was little choice for her. It was a defeated Suhasini that brought Manjula to Shantam Pappum and pleaded Rukmini for employment. From all that she had heard and the little that she had interacted with Manjula, Rukmini first decide to send Suhasini away.

She then asked the girl, "What would make you happy?".

"Money" came the reply; it rolled off her tongue, toneless and matter-of-fact.

"You know that money has to be earned?" Manjula nodded.

"Do you know how you want to earn it?". No, the nod replied. Manjula played absentmindedly with the end of her saree pallu while Rukmini probed.

"What kind of work do you want to do?" Manjula, whose eyes were downcast till this point, a forced participant in the conversation, suddenly looked up, stopped playing with her pallu and replied, "I want to be my own boss, like you. I don't want people telling me what to do, like they tell my mother."

It had surprised Rukmini, for though she knew the girl had gumption, she had not imagined her to possess such an independent spirit. "What sort of business do you want to do?" Silence.

Rukmini did not think that a lecture on the economics of running a business would have made much sense. But to be helpful to Suhasini she told the girl to come that evening to the bar. While Manjula figured out her calling, she could at least earn a living by being the odd-job person in the bar.

That evening Rukmini was surprised to see Manjula, because the expression on her face when Rukmini had suggested this assignment looked indifferent. Whatever the motivation, thought Rukmini, she is here so I must get something for her to do. It was a Saturday night and the bar was crowded. Girls, women and music, all competed for shrillness. That evening Manjula became a waitress. She ferried hot bondas and vadas to and fro; she was quick on her feet and adept at remembering all the little customizations the girls demanded: baked, not fried; less salt; extra spicy; extra chutney; four by three etc. As usual, late into the night, a few guests loitered around drunk. While Rukmini tried hard to make sure she withdrew alcohol service from those who looked too tipsy or who didn't have a ride home, on the busy nights it was hard to keep track. She sought Manjula's help and together they loaded the girls into taxis. She ruefully looked on as the last taxi sped away. That's when she an idea for Manjula...

19 July 2012

The devil in the numbers - 33

It was my mother who reminded me of the post I write at the time of my birthday, confirming that I have at least one faithful reader! 

I have become less detached about my birthday in the last few years and I do wonder if it's detachment or denial. My hair has grayed and rather than giving me a distinguished look, it gives the impression that I use bleach not shampoo as my cleanser. My body is getting chubby and I can no longer claim to have a metabolic state where what I eat has no affect on me. These physical changes don't bother me much though as I decided long ago that in my lifetime, I want to look my best at 50. It helps to have a long term vision. 
Other changes though are less apparent. For one, my ovaries are probably getting through the last third or so of eggs, which forces an important question - how much do I want my genetic legacy to be conserved? I am missing some evolutionary mechanism as a need to procreate has not yet arisen. The expiration date of my eggs though means that at least temporally my window for decision-making is short. It's an interesting dilemma. Science and technology have increased our longevity so we can really stretch out phases of living. 40 is the new 30 they say. Ho hum!

I think one of the strangest thoughts on my birthday though was what I thought I would become by the time I reached this age. Funnily, my mind is a blank. While I clearly recall at 20 what I wanted to be at 25, I have no recollection of ever thinking about my thirties. In fact all I do think about in my 30s is what I want to be doing at 60. The good thing about not having expectations is that I am neither disappointed nor overwhelmed with my achievements. It is nice to be happy and content, and this is an ambition that I never thought was important enough to spell out. You spend much time when young thinking about what you want to study, to become, to practice... but you never tell yourself that being mindful and together is a goal. You assume happiness just follows if you meet all your ambitions. Well, on my birthday, this was my epiphany - that despite not meeting the criteria of success by popular social indicators, my content and happy state of mind is all the ambition that I probably need and it's lovely that it is fulfilled. 

The pictures are of chorla ghat, swapnagandha valley, goa - the birthday weekend getaway to enjoy the monsoons in the western ghats. 

8 July 2012

No last name

"Do not judge a book by its cover."

We learned this in school and yet, everyday we let our minds make immediate assumptions about people based on their dress, speak and mannerisms. This was one of the hardest things for me to understand and then take into account when I started to work in a team in India. The nice thing about America was that you were granted the benefit of the doubt as far as your character assessment went. You were free to shape an opinion of yourself in other people based on your interactions with them; while your past could be used to colour your personality landscape, it was just a little dab of white. In India, regretfully, I feel that we do not do this. From marriage alliances to rentals to office interviews, a thread of prejudice remains. 

We carry around a format of how the world should be and each person we meet has to fit into a personality type defined by our cultural and moral perceptions. Veg vs non-veg; brahmin vs non-brahmin; south-indian vs north-indian; muslim vs hindu and the list is endless. Each of these items forms part of our mental list and is given a certain weight depending on our view of the world. I believe that we do this so unconsciously that we don't even realize it. Often I have had to catch myself from using my list to make up my mind about people. I have also been at the other end and I know that there's a breakdown in this checklist when I announce that I have no last name. Because nestled in that innocuous question, is an entire sub-section of items which cannot be immediately answered, but would have to be drawn out of me. And I, devious and devilish, do not wish to be categorized so I make all attempts to be truthfully evasive.  

Where were you born? In Rajasthan. We moved about a bit as kids since my dad was in the Air Force and fiercely non-traditional, my father insisted that my sister and I be born where he was stationed as opposed to my mother being sent to her parent's home. So, this too is a dead end. What's your mother tongue? My mother speaks six Indian languages fluently, but she counts in Hindi. No, no, what's your native language? Oh, that would be English. No, no, what is your house language? Kannada. You don't look like a south-indian. By this point you can be sure that I have already found a niche in their people-canvas. Ah, but now the tricky part where questions cannot do. How to reconcile how I look, speak and gesture with the fact that I am a no-last name south-indian who speaks Hindi fluently? The tactless ones will also remark about the colour of my skin not fitting in with the profile. The interrogation now takes on another hue to  determine my social pecking order. Veg or non-veg? Both. Siblings? One. Married? Yes, to a Sikh. The plot thickens. Are you from Bangalore? Yes. Which part? Indiranagar. Now some mental arithmetic follows where these are computed in the person algorithm. Beep. Bo. Beep. Enter. 

A smile follows. Despite the absence of a last name, I'm not a threat to their world view. Ah, but if only they knew my secrets...

24 June 2012

DIY - Cherry tomatoes from seed

I am one of those annoying women who when confronted with a new and different food dish will triumphantly exclaim, "I can make this and better." There is of course, a very good chance that I will never make the said dish or even have the slightest clue about how to go about doing it. It's an attitude though and now, I am discovering that it's a lifestyle.

Few months ago I was shopping at Namdhari's, a store that sells decent produce but one I don't frequent often - I don't like that much of the produce is already packaged in plastic. For me the produce experience includes choosing and fussing over the quality of every single bean I pick. The other issue with Namdhari is the price. So typically I shop at my local vegetable market, 15th cross Malleshwaram, where I have befriended couple of shopkeepers, and where I get my staples. For the more exotic stuff like broccoli, thyme, asparagus, there is Namdhari. One afternoon I spotted a cheerful box of cherry tomatoes, cheerful that is, till I saw the price. It wasn't much really but going with the do-it-yourself attitude, I thought to myself, "Why should I pay this much when I can just grow them myself?"

So I came home in a huff, halved a tomato, washed the seeds in water and inserted them them in an pint-sized ice cream tub stuffed with cocopeat. A part of me was skeptical, if anything at all would emerge - my mind buzzed with thoughts about how genetically engineered products sometimes have infertile seeds in them so you are forced to buy the seeds from source each time. Pure drivel, as it turned out. In just a few weeks I has saplings and I had underestimated their will to germinate. The pint sized tub was insufficient to hold them all. So I transferred them out and scattered the saplings into various pots. Three months later, I have cherry tomatoes.

If one were to calculate the amount I spent on the enterprise, it's clear that it was at least 20 fold more expensive than buying a box, whenever I pleased. However, who can beat the joy seeing the red globes hanging off a branch and munching them straight of the vine? Please note that a coconut tree has been provided as a size reference.

This success now means that in addition to gloating about preparing new food dishes, I can scoff at a pricey vegetable and exclaim, "I can grow this."

I just got more annoying!

7 May 2012

The human angle buying an apartment

On a typical drive through Bangalore your line of vision will be littered with enormous billboards, holding out the promise of luxury that would make your life even more heavenly.  It's materialism at it's peak and in tune with our culture, there are two asset classes which are predominantly advertised: Realty and Jewelery. 

Construction has been rife in Bangalore for the past decade. Buying a plot and building your own home has given way to buying an apartment with a gym and swimming pool - never mind that most people have neither the time nor inclination, to swim or use the treadmill. But how many times have you wondered about the people who have built these structures? Migrant labourers, with families in tow, have used bare hands and sheer brawn to put these edifices together. When you visit a construction site, their quarters are relegated to an ill kept corner. There are no proper bathrooms or sanitary arrangements, and their home is made of a tin or aluminum sheets which probably makes it a baking oven during the daytime. When you walk around a prospective apartment, you see children smeared in mud wandering about while both parents dredge up cement in their bare hands to plaster your wall. Hard hats are provided but gloves are too much of a luxury. When you purchase an apartment, have you ever wondered if these people, who built it, were happy? 

Before my tangent gets too entangled with my feelings about how shoddily we treat people who work for us, let me come to the main point of this post. I was thinking about how a simple policy on education of children of construction workers could go a long way. If it was mandatory for construction companies to provide education as part of their worker compensation, at least their children would have a shot at aspiring for something different to do. Perhaps education is too strong a hope; at least literacy then? If the construction boom has been around for a decade, so have these workers and their kids. Imagine the influence even a short time in a structured classroom could have on these children. 

I am not talking about providing K - 12 education. As their parents are migrants it is possible that they don't stay in one place for more than a couple of years and the children experience discontinued education. Thus, school as you and I know it might not work. A different paradigm would have to be adopted. For example, the curriculum could focus on a few subjects that are immediately relevant to them - a language and mathematics. There are going to be children of different ages at different learning levels, thus the numbers and type of teacher required would have to be adapted. A low student-teacher ratio is desirable, as is a teacher who can handle children at multiple levels of learning. It would important to get a good teacher and if each apartment is going to sell for INR1 - 1.5 Crore plus then surely a 25K/ month salary is doable? When you express interest in an apartment, the sales team goes overboard to ensure that you have a ride to the site. Why can't then the teacher be picked up and dropped off? Such small interventions I believe will go a long way in enhancing the quality of education the children will get. 

When you think about it from a consumer-end, what can you do? Sure I can take an extreme principled stand about not buying an apartment from a company that doesn't provide education. But as a single consumer, I hardly have leverage so this would only hurt my financial planning. I really don't have any solution as an individual. But it bothers me nevertheless and I am sorry that I can't do more.

22 April 2012

Balcony garden - recycling water to use in the garden

Looking at green stuff poking out of different views in our house brings me immense joy. So I have put in time to make our balcony spaces green. When N moved here a year ago, I plucked a spider plant and waxy money plant that were hanging out on a sidewalk  These beauties have now grown (Insets). After moving to Bangalore, I set about expanding this collection. Luckily, we have ample balcony space, and importantly, this space catches sunlight marvelously. We now have a row of herbs in the more shady balcony and a varied collection of vegetables on the other (Bottom picture). Thanks to valuable tips and detailed instructions by the Geekgardener, I have also started growing vegetables from seeds. 
Although this hobby is very satisfying, it comes with guilt - because of the water I need each day to pour into these plants. For the past three months, most plants have required daily watering due to the heat, which makes the current requirement about 15 litres a day!

Water is a precious resource and as we are finding out, in limited supply when not managed correctly. The newspapers are filled each day with pictures of people standing in long queues for water, stories of the water mafia and farmers with wilted crops due to drought. In this context, my hobby is almost a sin. For although the plants bring much happiness, they contribute nothing to our community. I am using a shared resource but not returning anything into the resource-pool that can be shared.

Thus in the past weeks I have been trying to think of ways to recycle the water in my apartment. I am aware of the technologies that are available today - rainwater harvesting, hydroponics etc., that could input into this cause. However, we live in rented accommodation and I have limited time. Not the best excuses but that's reality for you. The question I asked was simple - what behaviour modification is possible that would allow me to water the plants without tapping into a fresh supply? Here is what I have come up with. 
Dishes soaking in water and collected during cooking

I have placed a bucket next to our sink and fill it up with all my kitchen waste water. The natural tendency when we put dishes in the sink is to rinse them in some water before soaping. Now where is that water going? Instead of the sink, why not the bucket? We rinse greens in several washes of water, which is yet another source for the bucket. Below is a snapshot of our sink. We made idlis for breakfast. today. The container that held the batter is a mess and requires a thorough soaking. Instead of adding soap to the soaking water, I now simply let the water be. After a few minutes, the batter easily comes into the water and can now be added to the bucket. This way, each time any item is rinsed (blender container, coffee mugs, curry pots, my kitchen compost intermediate box), the rinsed-off water can be added into the bucket.
Waste water collected from dish rinses
Nothing I have stated above is original. In many homes, this is already practiced. The reason I am writing about it is because I found that simple behaviour modifications have helped to significantly elevate our water utilization efficiency. Sure, the bucket is mucky and stinks a bit, but I am sure the plants don't mind. I have tried to train my kitchen help to contribute to this, but its been slow going. She's great with chopping everything up for the compost though so I am hoping that with time she will incorporate this idea. Fortunately N does most of our dishes and he's been cooperative. Often, I just rinse out the dishes, pour out the water and then place them in the sink. Together, we have some sort of system and on an average I am able to meet at least 80% of my requirement through this. And if you did think that kitchen waste water is toxic, below are pictures of the plants from our balcony that have been getting a daily dose of this stuff!

20 April 2012

Thanks Ma

It had been Murugan's idea. It was not a desire that he had ever discussed with her and he had not sought her opinion on it either. Instead, much unlike him, he started planting small subtle hints in their everyday conversation. They would be holding hands and he would comment that he wanted their child to have her fingers. Or while she sipped coconut water, he would look lovingly into her eyes, sigh, look heavenwards and as if in prayer, ask for their child to have her eyes. So strong was the psychological imprint of this approach that when she became pregnant, Rukmini had felt that it had been a plan all along. As she swelled, she had hoped that the baby would help their families reconcile with them. The elopement was a bitter development for both their families and their union had not been accepted. What had once been warm relationships for both of them with their mothers, had turned into meaningless acquaintances. Rukmini hoped a baby would change all that and more.

Murugan had been a caring husband: monitoring her diet and supplements, fussing about her clothes, and accompanying her on every visit to the doctor. Each day she would have to recount the number of eggs she consumed, or cups of milk she had drunk. If he felt that she was wavering from the prescribed diet she would find reminder notes: on the fridge, in her purse, sometimes even in the lunch box she took to work. Although Rukmini appreciated the thought behind the mollycoddling, she found it claustrophobic, and secretly wanted to deliver the child as soon as possible so that Murugan's attention could be focussed elsewhere.

The accident had happened when she was in her last trimester, about a month away from the predicted due date. She had been informed at work - two policemen had come to her office and taken her aside to the manager's cabin. Rukmini had received the news calmly, and till this day, she does not understand why she reacted the way she did. Considering that Murugan was the only family she had, she should have crumpled into a heap, immobile in distress and weeping inconsolably. Instead, at that time she accepted his death completely, not even holding on to the hope that they may have the wrong body.

She had called Murugan's mother after she had confirmed the identity of the body. The family had rallied around immediately and without a preamble, claimed Murugan for their own. Not only was Rukmini overlooked, her pregnancy was blatantly ignored. It was this denial, despite a clear distortion in her bony frame, that plummeted her into a silence. She could neither cry nor speak. Murugan's family used this as an excuse to exclude her from their collective grieving. They asked her to be absent at the public ceremonies that accompanied the last rites and wished for her to leave. Rukmini did not even consider informing her family.

Once home, her isolation was complete. She couldn't remember what she did with her time; she had no memory of eating, cleaning or sleeping. The days melted into one another: a dark continuum that seemed to stretch forever. It was an unexpected phone call from the doctor's office that had forced Rukmini to acknowledge the life within her. He had made the appointment, and they had called to reschedule. During that phase, Rukmini could not even bring herself to say his name.

The doctor's visit had been her first social interaction in weeks and it had been difficult. Finding her voice was an overwhelming and tiring task. Inane questions strangers asked her because she was pregnant had previously been an amusing irritation; now all she heard was a torturous high-pitched sound. It was easier to ignore them than ask her mind to find the energy to engage with it. The doctor had confirmed that she and the baby were in good health, and handed her checklists to prepare herself for labour. When Rukmini saw the strongly beating heart in the sonograph, she had finally allowed her mind to form the words to reflect her feelings: She did not want to give birth. She had wanted the the baby to go away, dissolve, and she along with it. 

The silence and numbness had continued. She still cannot recall how she managed to get to the hospital when the labour pains started. But she remembers the pain of labour and the incessant chatter that the woman sharing her labour room indulged in. Despite receiving no encouragement from Rukmini, she had blabbered on, taking a break only when a sharp contraction distracted her from thinking.

Rukmini had given birth to a healthy girl. When the nurse held the child up to her, she turned her face. She couldn't bear to look at the child or hold her, for she remained a memory from Rukmini's life with Murugan, which no longer existed. The staff was surprised. The doctor tried to cajole, matriarchal nurses were called in and finally a psychiatrist was summoned. Rukmini remained uncompromising; she could not explain herself and her acute involuntary silence compounded everyone's misery. Somehow the hospital had pieced together that her husband was dead and had tracked down her mother. It was she who concluded the entire affair.

The woman who had shared Rukmini's room had given birth to a still born child. To relieve her of breast milk, the hospital staff had handed her Rukmini's baby. Noticing how the woman held the baby, it was Rukmini's mother who suggested giving the child up for adoption. In Rukmini's state, she was incapable of taking care of the child and with the existing family dynamics, it would have been impossible for her mother to bring home Rukmini and the child. Rukmini, whose predominant thought was to be washed away at sea, had agreed without much thought. She wanted to leave the hospital, leave Murugan's memory and sleep, never to wake up again. Either sensing her desperation, or simply out of maternal instinct, her mother decided to take charge and nursed Rukmini to a living state. Her mother had also kept the child a secret from the rest of the family and took it to her grave.

It had been a slow recovery equally populated by bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and nightmares. It took her months to just start talking and once she started, she felt like a flood unleashed. Only after she had exhausted her quota of self-pity, did she start thinking about what to do next. The bar was born then.

When Namrata had wailed about how unfair it was that she was adopted, Rukmini had thought about her daughter. She had realized much later in life that it was a choice. It was not good or bad. A choice that she made, perhaps she did not think it through, but in the state that she was in, it was possible that she wasn't well enough to anyway. In her depressed and suicidal state, and without family support, Rukmini thinks that she would have made a poor mother. But would her daughter understand that?

Author's Note:
This story has taken more than 5 weeks to come together mostly because the tone is rather sad and I am in quite a happy state-of-mind. Writing the piece was hard because I had to describe emotions I have not felt so acutely and also, because I have never been pregnant. Thus in terms of my evolution as a writer, this piece is significant. Enjoy!

1 April 2012

Rules at Traffic lights for Dummies who decide to drive/ride in Bangalore

# 1 Green means go, Orange means speed up and Red means dart without looking left or right.

# 2  If you drive a car, ensure your rear view mirrors are tucked inside. This helps two wheelers slip more easily between the curb and your car.

# 3  Honk indiscriminately. It helps to identify yourself on the road in case the invisibility cloak shield on your vehicle self activated.

# 4 Do not leave a single inch vacant. If you can't wedge yourself in, don't move. Let other fearless and common-sense challenged individuals race past.

# 5 It does not matter if you wish to make a right or a left. Don't try to get in lane. Just move in whichever direction the traffic is going. Then when you reach the critical junction, turn on your indicator, crank up the music in your ears (to muffle the sounds of ire from others) and blindly make the turn.

# 6 Auto drivers are always right.

# 7 Throw away your maps. If you need directions, simply wind down your window (if you are conscious about fuel efficiency, you could turn off the A/C first) or lift the wisor of your helmet and yell your request across to other drivers. Someone will respond. If traffic starts up, don't worry. Everybody understands that they need to be held up while you clarify which second left to take.

# 8 Traffic lights are the best place to take phone calls and not on the hands-free. Just turn on your hazard lights so that other vehicles can go around.

# 9 Pedestrians are for running over. It was not your choice that they decided to participate in a reality show called Pray or Die. And seriously, Zebra crossings - they are simply there to improve the aesthetics of roads. Have you ever seen a Zebra using one?

# 10 At the light, it's OK to breach the divider and be in the way of oncoming traffic. This way, everyone is late for work. A little gridlock goes a long way to making it a jolly and entertaining day for all. 

# 11 Do not listen to the traffic policeman/woman. They are probably high on all the fumes that our vehicles emit. What would they know about our suffering? All they ever do it seems is to mope about the intersection, listen to abuse, stand on their feet most the time and become asthamatic.  Yes, he might be someone's dad but making them human will only cause you to lose your focus on crossing the light. Also, when they tell you to do something, he or she is trying to restore order and sanity, and that's a violation of our fundamental right as Indians to chaos.

# 11 The above rules are not in effect from Mon - Sat from 11pm to 7am and all day Sunday, or if the traffic light is not working.

23 March 2012

Lost and found

Namrata was not sure which emotion she felt most strongly: Betrayal? Abandonment? Shock? Disbelief? Anger? Anguish? Sadness? Why had they told her today? Did they have to tell her at all? Who was she really? Up to this point in her life she had identified herself as Namrata Venkat, daughter of Sujaya and Vijay Venkat. She knew who her parents were; she could trace the family history back to its roots before they migrated from Thanjavur. Importantly, she knew she had an Amma and Appa - an integral family unit to which she belonged. But today she discovered that Sujaya and Vijay were not related to her by blood and genes; she was adopted. As that word echoed in her head, she convulsed again into loud sobs.

All Rukmini could do was hold her close and allow the tears to flow. A warm, unquestioning embrace was her response to Namrata's  tear stained face when it showed up this evening. Sensing that Namrata wanted some privacy, she took her to the office and with a box of tissues, planted her on a chair, allowing her to vent her feelings. The story came out piecemeal, as and when Namrata found the courage to hear it aloud herself.

Appa had been diagnosed with a heart problem and needed to undergo surgery. They discovered this last week and the family was still coming to terms with the news. It was difficult to accept that Appa, who never fell sick and who always played nurse in the family, was seriously ill.  The surgery had been scheduled this week and for it they required blood. Today, Amma was going to the blood bank and Namrata, gripped by the urge to do something, anything, for Appa had insisted on accompanying her.  Amma protested, and now she realized why. At first Amma had told her that she shouldn't miss work for a task that she could easily do alone. She added that Namrata would take leave for the surgery and Appa's convalescence so she should not miss work. When that logic failed, Amma became adamant, agitated even and sharply told Namrata not to accompany her. Like all children, Namrata's response to a denial was to crave to do it even more. Since Amma was unrelenting, she decided to go to the blood bank separately, knowing Amma's dislike of making a scene in public. She reached it just as Amma's turn came on the till.

When Amma passed the slip provided by the doctor to the receptionist,  she was informed of  the blood bank rule: for every unit given out, another unit had to be deposited. Typically, the unit was collected from a member of the family that required the blood. When she heard this, Namrata was glad she joined Amma and thought that Amma must be pleased as well. However, Amma's face turned white upon seeing Namrata and then she did something unexpected. She told the receptionist that no family member was available besides her and she was a diabetic, so she could not donate blood. Namrata was shocked by this. Amma, look at me, I am standing next to you, she wanted to scream out. Amma just looked straight ahead and her stare was met with equal consternation by the receptionist who said, "Rules are rules madam. Bring a friend then. Anyone. We must have a replacement unit before I can reserve the unit for you."

Namrata could not stand this any longer and blurted out, "I am his daughter. I can donate the replacement unit." Used to witnessing family drama, the receptionist motioned for them to see the nurse to confirm that Namrata could be a donor. Meanwhile Amma had waited in the lobby, absolutely silent; her face expressionless. Preliminary screening confirmed that Namrata was healthy enough to donate and she was taken to the transfusion room. When she emerged an hour later, Amma was no longer at the blood bank. Namrata had never had a stranger experience with her mother. When she called Appa he confirmed that she had already reached home and asked her to return immediately. When Namrata reached home, her parents were in their bedroom, with the door shut - she assumed that they probably did not want her to see them distraught or were taking a nap.

Later in the afternoon, she prepared the evening coffee and hollered across the shut door for them to join her. They both appeared on the table with puffy eyes and sipped their coffee quietly. Finally finding a voice, Appa had told her that they had something to tell her. Amma started to cry mutely and Appa was the one to break it to her. They told her she was adopted, brought to their home when she was 2 months old. She came from a home for abandoned children and they did not know or try to find her biological parents. She was found as a newborn in a crib kept outside the home. He cried freely while telling her this. Amma was afraid that she would discover this at the blood bank and that's why she didn't want Namrata to accompany her. He then told her that while the news may be shocking, to them she would always be their child, their kanna. They had talked about telling her this when she was younger but with each passing moment of her life they lost the courage to bear the consequences of the revelation. They didn't want to lose her. Namrata had listened to this open-mouthed and when Appa had tried to reach out to her hand, she had fled her house. 

This was an occasion where Rukmini did not offer a drink. She let Namrata cry away the pain, and talk. Many rhetorical questions followed. Namrata minutely examined her life for incidents when she may have been treated differently, because she was adopted. Rukmini said nothing. When at last Namrata had sat quiet for five minutes Rukmini gently nudged Namrata's chin so she would look up. Then, when she had locked her eyes with Namrata's she spoke in even tone, "Namrata, the pain you feel is real. It will not go away easily. But, you are confident twenty six year old today because you have grown up in the security of your parent's love. As much as you would like to imagine that you were treated differently, tell me, when you discussed your childhood stories with your friends, at that time, did your experiences really feel different? Yes, not knowing your biological parents is an issue you will struggle with, but can your parents be held responsible for a decision your biological mother or parents took? Don't you think you should talk to them about this a bit more? I will also advice that you discard this feeling of being a victim.  At this juncture you can make a choice - to accept and nurture the love that you share with your parents, or to look for ways to put you all through emotional upheaval. It's a choice; not fate, not God's work, not particular to you. There are plenty of adopted children out there and you aren't alone. The pain you feel now, your parents probably feel double fold. Grow with this awareness Namrata, don't let it turn into a bad thing. Go home and make reconciliation. Life is too short."

Namrata looked in disbelief at this lecture. She had not, till this point, considered how her parents would be feeling. She had the maturity to realize that she could not live out her life as a victim. Although unable to respond immediately, she got up, kissed Rukmini and said, "I am going home."

Rukmini watched Namrata's back as it receded through the office door and waited the few minutes it takes to hear the tinkling sound of bells as the door of the bar was opened. Now, she really needed a drink. With a glass in hand, she stood by the window and observed Namrata take out her scooter, put on her helmet and start her vehicle. She saw her ride away and allowed an indulgence: she wondered what became of the child she gave up.   

23 February 2012

How to keep Coriander leaves (cilantro) fresh in the Fridge

My fridge always has three things that I consider essential to my cooking: coriander leaves, lime and chillies. The latter two stay quite well when simply tossed in but keeping the coriander leaves fresh has taken a bit of experimentation. When I first started to maintain my own kitchen I asked around aplenty for the tricks people use, and discovered that there are as many way of doing this as there are recipes for garam masala. Here's mine for the record.

Step 1 - Buy Fresh. If you have a limp set of bruised leaves to begin with, there is no way you can be Nurse Herb.

Step 2 - Pick and soak.
Once the coriander leaves are home, don't abandon them and wander off to watch the Lord of Rings Trilogy. The leaves require immediate attention. If you aren't able to process them right away, do the Coffin:  wet a hand towel thoroughly and wrap it around the entire bunch, roots and all. The Coffin can be shoved into any corner of your counter. If you think that you'll be taking more than 24 hours to pick out the leaves, you can put it into the fridge at this point. The longest I have left the Coffin in the fridge is 48 hours, making sure the towel is wet the whole time.

You can do the pick and soak routine while doing other tasks like watching TV, arguing with your mate, listening to a podcast or gawking at pigeons on your balcony. You will need a bowl with lots of water and somewhere to store the discarded stems (great for the compost bin). I normally pick the leaves with a bit of stem still left on them and remove brown and black leaves at this stage. You can do this to the degree that you are obsessive. Toss leaves into bowl of water as you pick them off. Every few ticks, plunge your fingers into the bowl to make sure all leaves are covered in the water. My bowl here is a salad spinner. Things are pretty nifty if you are using a spinner. I do two washes (saving the water for the plants) and then a few rounds of spinning. The leaves should look dry but feel moist between your fingers.

For all those who pouted when you read salad spinner because it is not yet an item on your kitchen shelf, here's the alternative. Rinse the leaves in a couple of changes of water or how many ever times suits your paranoia. In India the leaves I get are quite mucky so rigorous rinsing is a must. After the final rinse, lay the leaves on a dry kitchen towel making sure you spread the leaves evenly over the surface. You are ready for the next step when the leaves look dry but feel moist between your fingers. This does take time depending on how hot and humid your kitchen is. You can speed it up by making another Coffin (with a dry towel though).

Step 3 - Store
Take a suitable size container (preferably plastic) which has a tight lid. I have tried using the stainless steel dubbas with holes in them - useless. Don't worry about squashing too many leaves in. As long as the lid stays shut once all your leaves are in, and you hear some rustling movement when the container is shaken, you are good.
Line the bottom with paper. I use supermarket receipts, ATM receipts - all those receipts that somehow find their way into my purse. Put the leaves in. I put another receipt on top. Close the lid and shove into fridge. This container typically lounges on the shelf right about the crisper on my fridge.

Other notes:
  • Leaves have stayed fresh in this system at my home for at least 20 days.
  • To most working folk, this whole rigmarole might seem like too much time. Train your maid to do it - my modus operandi! The protocol above is the Standard Operating Procedure for processing all green leafy veggies in my kitchen.
  • OK so don't have a maid to do this. Well, you can actually shove the whole bunch, as it is,  into a box as described in Step 3. The paper receipts, I have discovered, are excellent at maintaining the right humidity in the box. The annoyance in cutting through Step 2 is that each time you want to use the leaves, you would have to rinse them. I have done this in the past and not seen any difference  in longevity if the leaves are not picked. It basically boils down to how much time you have.
  • I think the reason this works well is that the receipts and the closed environment somehow keep the leaves at an optimum humidity. Often the receipts are wet to touch after a few days in the fridge. If your receipts are getting too wet ( as wet as if they had gone for a walk in the rain), you can replace them.

19 February 2012

Connecting dots

"He likes Chinese food and cricket," crooned Savitri as she watched the faces of her friends looking at the picture of Ashok on her phone. She couldn't stop smiling. The three friends had gathered to trade stories and Savitri was the first of them to be officially engaged. It was big news, heralding the entry of one of them into domesticity, the ultimate goal of their existence. 

Rukmini stopped by their table as the mobile phone was being passed around and asked the obvious question. The response was a fit of giggles. Savitri, Susan and Shanti had been meeting regularly at the bar and she liked their young innocence. It amused her immensely since the three girls, despite her entreaties, refrained from drinking alcohol. They came to gossip and seemed to require no more stimulus than a fresh lime juice or occasionally, a fizzy drink. 

It was Shanti who finally ended the giggling spree and blurted out, "Savitri is engaged to this boy." Rukmini was hoping it was only a boyfriend and was disappointed that Savitri was already contemplating marriage. She asked for all the details like a nosy auntie. After a sharp intake of breath, Savitri launched into a piece that would form the main content of all her conversations for some time to come. Ashok was tall and fair; Rukmini constrained herself from rolling her eyes at the mention of colour. He had finished his MBA and then got a job in a bank that had posted him in America. He was the only child. The match had been suggested by Savitri’s neighbour, and after their families had spoken, they had been permitted to speak with each other unsupervised. They tried to talk often but Ashok very busy at work. Even though they had not met in person, Savitri was convinced that he was the man of her dreams. They had similar family backgrounds, went to academically matched institutions and felt they were ready for marriage. The wedding was in two months, and she hoped to leave for America soon after.

Rukmini tried hard not to give Savitri a good shake. What was wrong with the girl? She was just finishing college, and seemed to think that marriage was simply a change of address and last name. But she didn't echo her thoughts aloud - when the girls wanted advice, she would be available, but till then her role was consciously limited. Instead, she smiled broadly and asked Manivannan to bring a plate of Gobi Manchurian to the table; it was on the house. She asked Savitri to bring her fiancee at his next visit to India. Despite the sign on the door that the bar was for ladies only, Rukmini as proprietor occasionally indulged in flexibility when a particular story had tickled her curiosity. The invitation elicited another round of giggles from all the girls. At Ashok' s next visit, Savitri and he would be married.

It was surprising to Rukmini when a couple of months later, Savitri bought Ashok to the bar. They were newly married and Savitri whispered that it was Ashok who wanted to come to the bar. Drinking alcohol was not acceptable in their homes and Ashok had wanted a break from the endless loop of congratulatory messages and insipid blessings. Rukmini was thrilled that he drank alcohol and quickly got organized to give the newlyweds some specials. Ashok wanted a fruity drink with plenty of alcohol; Savitri coyly asked for the same but without the alcohol. Rukmini also remembered Savitri's comment about the colour of his complexion. While she was at the counter fixing drinks, she asked Manivannan to turn up the lights near their table. It was then that she caught Ashok's face more fully. When bathed in yellow, his skin seemed speckled, an inedible reminder of adolescent acne, and despite the bushy eyebrows there was a trace of what Rukmini would consider handsome. The face felt very familiar. Even the loud flowery shirt he wore was somehow etched in her memory. Since the rolodex in her mind refused to identify the face, she soon forgot about it – after all, she ran a bar and Ashok’s face was common enough to be forgettable.

But Rukmini was the type of person who was very uncomfortable with unsolved mysteries so at every opportunity in the evening she stole a glance at Ashok, trying hard to make an identity match against the faces of all the young men she had tucked away in her memory. It was towards the end of the night that it finally hit her, like a lightening bolt. She had seen that face in an email her friend had sent to announce her child’s engagement. Attached to the email were photographs of the couple. She quickly checked her email to confirm – yes, the resemblance to Ashok was strong, and he was wearing the same shirt. Ashok looked happy and much unlike what he was with Savitri. So, he was engaged to someone else and had married another?

Rukmini’s mind quickly entered into chaotic thinking. What if this was a strange coincidence? Maybe she should just forward the email to Savitri and allow her to come to her own conclusions? May be she could slip a note to her. No, that would be cowardice. She looked at Savitri and a goofy face cupped in henna-ed hands stared back at her. That was enough to convince Rukmini that without a footnote, Savitri would not understand the email. Was it right for Rukmini to interfere, to be the bearer of news that would unsettle the young girl and possibly end her marriage?

Rukmini methodically rubbed the counter-top. The circular motions calmed her. This was not going to be easy. Rukmini did not immediately even know what words she would use to tell Savitri this. But it was not right to withhold this information. She caught Savitri's eye and beckoned her. Used to being docile and deferential to elders, Savitri immediately understood the gesture and started to walk towards the counter. Rukmini steeled her resolve, composed her face and started to mentally pick the words she might use to tell Savitri that Ashok possibly had another life, in which he was gay.

To Shoots for inspiring me to complete this story.
To N, for coaxing me into making it read better.

4 February 2012

Eureka Forbes Aquasure Water Filter, HomeTown, and Why India might never have a double digit growth rate

There are many in India who will read this post, nod vigorously as I recount my story, chew on the state of affairs and wash away the pain of incompetence with some Kingfisher beer. As writing for me is cathartic, this post is for medical reasons.

My time has been spent this week doing two things - getting a filter for our Aquasure non-electrical unit and chasing after HomeTown for a delivery.

A bit of background on the HomeTown. We ordered a cabinet on 15 Jan and after a delay, two boxes were delivered on 26 Jan. On 28 Jan an assembly person put it together only for us to discover that it was not what we ordered. Phone calls ensued - I was asked to repeatedly confirm on which floor we ordered it from and what the price was. That's how they keep stock of their inventory apparently. The store is 20kms away and I was asked to visit to confirm my order. I said I would, only if I was reimbursed petrol costs. Luckily the assembly person remembered that what they delivered resided on the 4th floor while I was clear from the start that my order resided on the 1st. The sales person and logistics incharge thus agreed that they made a mistake in how our order was coded. I got an email admitting this and a promise that Sunday would see a pick up of the old stuff and by Tuesday we will get the new stuff.

Read on for the rest of the saga...

  • Called the Eureka Forbes (EF) help line to ask where I can get a replacement filter. Was pointed to nearest customer service centre. Visited centre to learn that they don't keep parts. Was given number of sales rep who can help. S says he will come tomorrow with filter.  
  •  I call S in the morning to find out when he will come. Afternoon, madam.
  • Call HomeTown. They only open at 11:30am. Try reaching them after this - its more popular than the prime minister's office. Finally get through and informed pick up of old stuff will happen today.  Complain that this should have happened on Sunday. Don't know when they will come today. I ask for Manager's name and contact. It's her day off. I ask for the next incharge. They will call me. Hrrumph.
  • At PM hours S calls to say product is not in stock, he will get from other centre and come tomorrow. I ask for two filters. Sorry, only one is available. I don't understand how for the entire city of Bangalore only one is available!
  • I call HomeTown again about the pickup. No update. I write a stinker email to the logistics incharge.
  • I try the EF chat helpline. I give my name, number and product. I am informed that a technician will visit my home and charge Rs 200 for servicing. I growl - I need a filter. I can install it myself. I just need to know where to buy it. Chat reply - A technician will contact me shortly.
  • In the evening I pop into the nearby Croma, since they stock EF products. Not surprisingly by this point, they don't store replacement filters. I am provided numbers to follow up - all dead ends. I leave a complaint with the store to pass along to their EF contact.
  • I receive phonecall from Manager at Hometown. Sorry for delay. A pick up will happen this evening by 9. No one calls or shows up.
  • I call S to find out what time he will come. He's non-commital. I press for afternoon before 3:30pm.
  • I call HomeTown at 11:30am. Impossible to get through any number. At 1pm I am able to reach the Manager. He's surprised to hear that a pick up has not happened. It will happen today, I am promised. 
  • S arrives, bearing the wrong filter. S asks me to call EF helpline. Wait, isn't this how the whole story started? Chagrined and highly peeved I ask for the number of a manager to talk to about this. No show. S calls the call centre himself. I am provided a number of the service centre where filters are available. No address is given. I call - it's continuously engaged. I call the help centre and ask for the same agent who then gives me another number (Why didn't he just give me all available numbers the first time?). I call this number and reach P, who confirms that I will get three filters tomorrow. I describe the filter in length since here too there is no code that they seem to understand. I even give her the barcode number still stuck to the bottom of the filter. We finally agree that technician will come bearing three each of all possible filters. I ask where their office is - it's exactly where S came from. How is it that they have everything in stock? I rat on S. 
  • I call the EF main office and complain that no one seems to know where these filters are available and the customer being God is myth. I am asked to contact helpline. I scoff and say I want to complain to someone who is incharge of the Aquasure product line. She give me the number of the sales chap, whose mobile is switched off for 3 hours. I give up.
  • Hometown chaps show up. Wrong item is removed from premises.  
  • I call P in the morning to confirm when filters will arrive. She hands phone to technician. I once again try to describe the filter I have. We reach consensus on the colour of the filter. 
  • 11:30am: I try HomeTown. Impossible to get through as usual. I write another stinker email threatening consumer court action. 
  • 1pm: Husband calls HomeTown. Delivery of the correct cabinet will happen today. Don't know when. 
  • Technician arrives at 1pm. Hurrah, or should I say Eureka, filters are correct. I get three.
  • HomeTown calls. Driver on the way. Assembly chap calls me to ask if he should pop over. I inform that there is nothing yet to fix - still waiting for shipment to arrive.
  • 5pm shipment arrives. 7pm assembly person arrives. 9pm Ktichen cabinet assembled and placed in living area. 
4 days, 2 tasks completed. I operate  on prepaid now. Between calling HomeTown, the drivers, assembly person, Aquasure helpline, technicians, offices I have spent Rs 150. I am sure a few of my nerve cells have burned out in the process but these are harder to quantify.

I have three observations:

1. Processes are there. They don't work. helpline, chatline - useless. They have trained parrots to tell you that a technician will arrive and will cost you Rs 200. They are either trained to deliver a single response or not provided the authority to use common sense. No one listens to a question, and information provided is incomplete even if they do. For e.g., delivery will happen today. Er, when? I don't know.
2. There is inadequate information distribution in a company. One helpline person directed me to an office where no parts are sold, and the other gave me the number of a person who actually deals in these parts. The Office I visited gave the number of a salesperson who told me that his Office doesn't stock extra parts of the filter and then a day later, someone from that very office showed up with 3 of at least 10 different kinds. 
3. Zero follow through. You may be the customer but it's your responsibility to follow up through with the status. Except on Thursday, there was no communication from HomeTown to monitor the progress of a wrong delivery.

India shining? Better buy some Brasso. Buy 2 actually.