Thursday, December 23, 2010

Consumer rant #1: Maharaja moments


Everyone can have a bad day. But can a company in a service-oriented business have a bad day and ignore the very basics of customer service? Can a company that has run up losses of over Rs 5,500 crore and grovels in front of the government for a hand out afford to have bad days anymore? Can Air India continue to ignore the little but crucial aspects of business if it hopes to survive?
A little over a week ago, I flew from Bangalore to Trivandrum on Air India. The flight, IC 909 operates on the Chennai-Bangalore-Trivandrum sector (Yes, the airline still uses the IATA airline designator for Indian Airlines on its domestic flights 3-odd years after the Air India-Indian Airlines merger). By all accounts this flight offers the cheapest fares on this route and is therefore quite popular.
My bouquet of Air India moments began soon after I entered Bangalore’s smart airport. On the day I travelled, the airport’s check-in area was a picture of practised efficiency; except for the Air India’s check-in zone, which was on the verge of chaos.
Four check-in counters seemed to be open, but one was exclusively for executive class passengers and another was for passengers with only carry-on baggage. Nothing wrong with that strategy — all airlines do it. The catch was that Air India chose to operate just two check-in counters to process economy class passengers with check-in baggage. And when I joined the queue, there were about 80 people ahead of me.
In the 42 or so minutes that I spent in the check-in queue, the executive class check-in counter was used just twice. Wasn’t this a total waste of resources, besides being poor queue management? Wouldn’t it have made sense to direct some economy class passengers to check-in at the severely underused executive class counter? Such flexibility would have reduced pressure on the other check-in counters and enhanced the Air India experience.
Most full-service airlines across the world, including other airlines in India, seem to have such responsiveness built into their systems. So why not Air India? Is it that it doesn’t believe in such responsiveness or is it that the airline’s floor managers are not empowered to take such quick decisions? Or is it that the team on duty on that particular day were not very responsive and efficient?
Whatever the reason, this lack of initiative and common sense stood out. And as I finished my 42-minute check-in shuffle and headed for the departure area, there were still about 40-odd people in the queue with not a soul at the executive class counter!
In the departure area I had my second Air India moment — a wait that seemed to go on and on. My flight was scheduled to leave at 10.05 am and the information boards in the departure lounge initially declared that it was on time. A little while later, the board said that the flight would leave at 10.15 am. The departure board stuck very firmly to the 10.15 am departure time right up till 10.45 am, which is when the boarding process finally started.
Delays I can understand if not accept. What I’m neither able to understand nor accept is the total absence of any attempt at communication by the airline. Right through the two-plus hours we waited for the boarding process to begin, there was no announcement or explanation from Air India about the delay. Nor was there an Air India staffer in sight to answer passenger queries.
So finally, at 10.45 am, I board the flight and run smack into my third Air India moment of the day — there’s someone sitting in the seat allotted to me. We do the ‘let’s check boarding passes’ dance and find that we’ve both been allotted the same seat – 14A. Someone sitting nearby then chips in: “It’s free seating sir.” Free seating on an Air India flight? For a moment it brought back memories of Air Deccan!
Looking around, I see lots of other people going through the same ‘I think you’re in my seat’ routine. It is pretty evident that there’s been some screw up — in all probability the flight has been overbooked and everyone has turned up. So I quickly grab the first available seat. Fortunately no one evicts me and the rest of the flight is uneventful!
I know it’s not very fair — and logical, perhaps — to crucify Air India for its appalling performance as a company based on my one experience. As I said in the beginning, it could have just been a bad day for the airline. But then, from what I can gather, the airline seems to be having quite a few bad days.
Which is why I believe that my Air India moments show that the Maharaja is heading down a slippery slope and can’t afford to have any more bad days.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Airport tales

Over the past fortnight I’ve made a couple of trips through two of India’s new-ish airport terminals: Delhi’s cavernous T3 and the Bangalore airport.

Much has been written about both terminals, but I feel an inexplicable compulsion to add my paisa’s worth.

The Bangalore airport experience was pleasant from the moment I arrived till the moment I left. It is compact, warm and welcoming. The toilets were clean and smelt of citrus, there were no acres of carpet to wade through and we got our luggage in about 15 minutes of landing. Overall, the airport created an impression of brisk efficiency.

Delhi’s vaunted T3 though was quite the opposite.

For an airport terminal built in the late 2000s, Delhi’s T3 seems strangely reminiscent of the Soviet-era school of architecture with its vast echoing spaces, the famous tatty carpet, surly staff and faintly work-in-progress feel. Yes, I know it’s been built to handle millions of passengers — perhaps more than the Bangalore airport can handle — but surely today’s airport designers know a few tricks to make even a very large space seem warm and inviting. Delhi’s T3 on the contrary seems crude, cold and chaotic.

Going beyond the atmospherics. On my way into Delhi we had to wait almost 45 minutes for our luggage to turn up, which seems strange for a terminal that is supposedly state-of-the-art. The men’s toilets, both in arrival and in departure, were grubby and swathed in a bracing bouquet with a top note of urine.

And on the way out, it seemed to be a sort of free for all at check-in. Problems at check-in could, quite justifiably, be ascribed to the airline. But on the day I flew out, it seemed pretty chaotic at most airline check-in counters in T3. So, perhaps, it is a more generic issue.

Five-odd months after it opened, Delhi’s T3 — its domestic area at least — seems to have a locker-full of issues to resolve. The question is whether the airport management will get its act together quickly. I won’t hold my breath on that one though.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Facebook future

Softly, softly, Facebook has inveigled its way into our lives. And as this story in the FT explains, Facebook may deftly tighten its grip on our lives. So go read the story to get a feel for what the Facebook future may hold.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Old wine?

A few days ago, Kerala Tourism announced a new venture called SAPARYA. Anchored by Tourism Resorts Kerala Ltd, one of Kerala Tourism’s many satellites, the project is about ‘Synergising Actions through Participatory Approach’. From what I can gather, it seeks to put community involvement at the heart of tourism development in Kerala.
That is a very laudable objective. But most of the literature I’ve read about the venture describes it as “novel”, “pioneering” , “unique”, “the first such project in the world” and so on. These descriptions leave me faintly uncomfortable and quite puzzled.
Uncomfortable because claims about SAPARYA’s uniqueness sound hollow. Community involvement in tourism is an idea that’s been around for quite some time now. So SAPARYA is certainly not the first to venture down that road. It’s also not clear so far how this project is unique or different from similar ventures that have been launched across the world.
And I’m puzzled because I thought Kerala Tourism’s Responsible Tourism initiative that was launched with much fanfare in 2007-2008 is about involving local communities in tourism and ensuring that local communities benefit from tourism. So how does SAPARYA differ from the Responsible Tourism initiative? Or is SAPARYA replacing Kerala Tourism’s Responsible Tourism initiative? And if so, what went wrong with Responsible Tourism in Kerala?
On the whole, the new project raises lots of questions. Now if we could only get some meaningful answers.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wondering…

...What the picture above means? To be a little more specific, why are actors Amitabh Bachchan and Mohanlal in the picture and what is it meant to do?
The picture is an ad — that appeared in newspapers on December 1 — for an event called the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival. It’s organised by the Government of Kerala and is intended to turn Kerala into a shoppers paradise that will attract tourists in droves. Launched in 2007, the event is sort of expected to do for tourism and commerce in Kerala what the Dubai Shopping Festival supposedly did for Dubai.
But coming back to the ad. Does it mean that the two actors are going to be shopping in Kerala during the festival? Or are the two characters portrayed by Mohanlal and Bachchan in the film Kandahar involved in promoting the festival? 
Or will Kerala Tourism spring a huge surprise and announce that Bachchan is going to be Kerala Tourism’s brand ambassador.
And then, in today’s papers there’s this ad (the one on the left).
I won’t comment on the grammatical challenges it poses, but it does muddy the waters and raises the question: What is it that these ads are attempting to do?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kerala and the Big B: Cast asunder?

For a couple of week’s in March this year, there was great excitement in the media that the Big B was all set to become the ‘face’ of Kerala Tourism. Almost as soon as it was announced, the fledgling relationship was shown a ‘red card’ of sorts by the CPM politburo. Kerala Tourism though was unruffled by the ruckus and maintained that discussion with Bachchan were still on.
Eight months on, there’s no news on the health of the relationship. Even the media seem to have forgotten it.
So was it all just a summer infatuation?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Making sun while the hay shone


Object of desire: The Hay-in-Thiru bag
The first Hay Festival in Kerala was winding down. The young lady sitting beside me on the steps of the Kanakakunnu Palace, the festival’s venue, was nagging a young man who, I believe, was a festival volunteer:
Eda, eniku oru bag sangadipichu thada (Get me a bag, no),” she wheedled, pointing to the rainbow-faced jute bags that speakers and delegates got as part of the festival kit.
Adhungale nokku. Ende hostel ninumaannu. Delegate alla, pakshe randindem kaiyil bag inndu (Look at those two; they’re from my hostel and they’ve managed to get the bags though they are not delegates),” she fumed, as two young women tripped by toting the colourful festival bags.
Ni ende suhurthu alle? Eniku vendi ee cheriaya karyam cheythude? (You’re my friend aren’t you, so why can’t you do this teeny-weeny thing for me?)”
As the young man squirmed with embarrassment, the lady added: “Ivide ellavreyum ariyam en alle ni parayunne? Appo enikku vendi cheythude? (You say you know ‘everybody’ here. So can’t you do this for me)” she queried.
Grinning sheepishly, the young man said: “Ba, namaku nokkam (Come along, let’s see),” and they went off towards the information desk where the bags were stacked. I don’t quite know how that expedition ended though.
What this little exchange revealed though is — and perhaps I’m extrapolating like mad here — that across a weekend, the Hay Festival in Kerala has carved a space for itself in Kerala’s and India’s cultural space.
Or to put it more dramatically: Hay-in-Thiru — some call it Hay-on-Thiru, but I’d rather stick with Hay-in-Thiru since Thiruvananthapuram is a city and not a river — has arrived. And I’m sure most of those who attended the three-day carnival will agree.
I must confess that I was rather uncertain of the response Hay-in-Thiru would evoke, especially given the cold shoulder that the Kovalam Literary Festival, also held in Thiruvananthapuram, has received over the past three years. So it was great to see the splendid turnout at Hay, with several hundred people attending the 48-odd sessions, most of which were packed. What was especially fabulous was that the poetry sessions also drew large audiences.
I gather that around three thousand people ‘registered’ for the festival, but I suspect a good number of them were those who stopped by to see what the fuss was all about. Yet there were hundreds who stayed and attended several sessions, forming an informed, opinionated and diverse audience, with locals and visitors rubbing shoulders and often exchanging notes.
The programming was pretty good, with several very interesting sessions. Of course, parallel events sometimes meant having to choose between interesting sessions and therefore missing a couple.
One quibble though is that most of the sessions were a little too short to be really interactive. Many people I spoke to felt that the really interesting sessions were over rather quickly — the Vikram Seth one for instance.
Yes, I know that there were around 15 events packed into each day and that time was therefore at a premium. So fewer sessions on each day, with more time for each event is something the organisers may want to consider for future editions of the festival.
Another quibble, and one I’m sure will be taken care of, is that the festival’s programming needs to be tweaked to feature more writers and writing in Indian languages. Equally, it also needs to showcase more new, young voices writing in India’s many languages. Also needed are more voices from around the world — Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East.
Sting and Bob Geldof plant a nutmeg sapling at The Leela Kempinski Kovalam Beach
Hay-in-Thiru’s non-literary events were also a big draw, especially the Bob Geldof concert on the last evening. Yes, the one in which Sting was a surprise guest and also performed one number. 
Expectedly, there were logistical and technical challenges — ranging from limited domestic air connectivity to iffy acoustics in some of the halls — associated with running the festival in Thiruvananthapuram. These should, I expect, ease in time.
My favourite Hay-in-Thiru moment though didn’t actually happen at the festival. It happened a couple of kilometers away, in the faintly musty performing spaces of the Margi theatre: A conversation between two masters — Kathakali maestro Margi Vijayakumar and writer Vikram Seth.
Before I go on though, a confession: Much to my dismay, I wasn’t present during this encounter. So what I know is from what a friend who sat in on the conversation told me or, as a journalist would describe it, from a “very reliable source”.
Seth, it seems, wanted to learn a bit more about Kathakali, Kerala’s centuries-old dance-drama. So a visit to the Margi theatre and a demonstration by Vijayakumar was arranged. The instant chemistry between the two masters, says my fly-on-the-wall informant, was a delight to see as they used words, expressions and gestures to discuss Kathakali, music and other odds-and-ends.
What made this dialogue so effective, perhaps, was that it happened in a private space, far away from the public eye. But there is possibly something the Hay Festival in Kerala can draw from the encounter between the two masters.
If Hay-in-Thiru is able to create a space that welcomes a large number of people, but is also intimate enough to make eclectic and interesting conversations possible, it could very quickly evolve into one of South Asia’s definitive artistic and intellectual hubs. And that would be wonderful. For isn’t the Hay Festival ultimately about people, stories and ideas?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hay with sunshine and some showers


Vikram Seth at the poetry gala
The Hay Festival in Kerala may have begun a trifle strangely, with a lullaby, but on day two it was buzzing with action.
In one of the first sessions of the day, Kerala’s own Paul Zachariah set the tone in a discussion that was reflective, thought provoking and great fun. And things sort of stayed that way through the rest of the day.
Most sessions were packed and I guess that several hundred people attended the 15-odd readings and discussions that were held on day two. Overall, the turnout was quite impressive.
Some of the organisational glitches that dogged the first day seem to have been ironed out. However, the folks at the ‘information’ counter still seem a little uninformed at times. 
What I found most reassuring and encouraging is the response that poetry — in Malayalam, English and Welsh — evoked. If O.N.V. Kurup read to pretty much a full house in the morning, it was almost standing room only at the poetry gala in the evening, with readings by Vikram Seth, K. Satchidanandan, Tishani Doshi, Gillian Clarke, Menna Elfyn, Paul Henry, Vivek Narayanan and C.P. Surendran. And in between, there was yet another very well attended but intimate poetry session with Menna Elfyn, Paul Henry and K. Satchidanandan, chaired with great élan by Anita Sethi.
Arguably, the star of the afternoon though was Bob Geldof. I didn’t actually sit through his session, but it seemed to be pretty well attended with lots of media interest as well.
Early in the evening, the monsoon clouds rolled in. The showers that followed, however, did nothing to dampen the festival’s buzz. Now, I wonder if day three will top that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hay while the sun shone

Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury
What a perfectly strange way to begin a literary festival: Have a choir sing a lullaby.
That’s how the very first Hay Festival in Kerala was kicked-off this morning, with an ensemble performing a painfully long-drawn-out version of the traditional Malayalam lullaby ‘Omana thingal kidavo’.  Now if the song’s objective was to prepare the audience for the delights of the sleep-inducing inaugural session, then it was an inspired choice. Otherwise though, the choice of ‘Omana thingal kidavo’ as the inaugural anthem seems rather bizarre.
Things perked up though, when Vikram Seth came on stage for a chat with Anita Sethi in what was arguably the most attended session of the first day. Seth was a delight — absent minded at times, insightful, humorous and completely unassuming — as he reeled the audience in and kept it engrossed despite a pretty pedestrian audio system and poor acoustics in the hall. And towards the end of the session, Seth outdid himself when he read a couple of unpublished poems — pure literary bliss.
The other sessions of the day were a mixed bag though; some interesting and others not quite so... And then, there was the standard lit fest hazard of trying to find a balance between the pull of several parallel sessions. Decisions, decisions!
A very fuzzy pic of Vikram Seth and Anita Sethi
One inexplicable decision though was the insistence on needing the free pass to enter some sessions. In one case it was to a session that had an audience of about 20, with lots of vacant seating. At other sessions though, there seemed to be no entry restrictions; pretty arbitrary overall. The people at the registration/ information counter also seemed a little clueless, especially about changes in the schedule.
And as the sun shone and pushed humidity levels upwards, audience numbers dropped. Nevertheless, the turnout on the first day was quite decent for what one of the festival organisers described as “year dot” of the Hay Festival Kerala. While the turnout could have been much better, it was streets ahead of the rather sorry turnout at last month’s Kovalam Literary Festival. 
Oh, and those who shelled out Rs 1,500 for a delegate ticket got a jute bag with a couple of magazines, a coffee table book, a Parker pen and, I guess, lunch.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Khan’s calling

Salman Khan’s found a new calling: teaching.
I am, of course, talking about Salman Khan the hedge fund manager turned online tutor and not about the muscle-bound Indian actor. This Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, an online library of short, free lectures on a handful of subjects including algebra, economics, history and science.
The 1,800-plus videos on the site — on YouTube actually — are between 10 and 20 minutes long and lean towards quantitative-oriented subjects. Each clip breaks a specific topic down into easily understandable bits. Khan plays teacher, explaining things orally, while also using an electronic blackboard with doodles and pictures to illustrate what he’s talking about. Not very hi-tech, but interesting and effective.
Do check out the Khan Academy. Oh, and Sal Khan is touted as ‘Bill Gates’ Favourite Teacher’.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hay’s up

And so the programme for next weekend’s Hay Festival in Trivandrum is up, finally. With 49 sessions across three days — November 12 to 14 — it seems a pretty full schedule.
Most of the usual lit fest suspects are featured on the programme, but then so are a handful who aren’t regulars on the lit fest circuit; so perhaps all is not lost. And on the subject of lit fest programming, the Hay Fest seems to have borrowed an idea from last month’s Kovalam Literary Festival in Trivandrum — have a session with the Prime Minister’s daughter and some wall-to-wall buzz is guaranteed. At the very least, it will boost audience numbers since a little army of security men will need to be around!
At the Kovalam Lit Fest it was Daman Singh and at Hay it seems it will be Upinder Singh. Of course, I am assuming that the Upinder Singh featured on the Hay Fest programme is the historian Upinder Singh, who happens to be the Prime Minister’s daughter. But I think that is a safe assumption to make.
The grapevine initially said that the Hay Festival would be a ticketed event, but the Web site now says that ‘day passes’ will be free. So better sense seems to have prevailed on the tickets issue, given how abysmal the turnout was at last month’s Kovalam Lit Festival at the same venue; the Kanakakunnu Palace. And remember, entry to the Kovalam Lit Fest was free and the festival itself has been in Trivandrum for a few years now.
Of course, the Hay Fest is hawking ‘delegate tickets’ at Rs 1,500 per person per day — they include lunch, access to all sessions and a delegate kit. Why anyone would want to shell out 1,500 bucks a day for a meal and a delegate kit beats me; there are lots of interesting places to eat and drink in a 3 kilometer radius of the festival venue, so it must be the delegate kit that is the big selling point. Perhaps, each day’s delegate kit will be unique, custom-made and will come stuffed with special goodies!
Now, if the North East Monsoon showers would just stay away.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Memories of Angkor


The towers of Angkor Wat


A visit to Angkor leaves me with a backpack full of questions.
Whose tranquil face is it, I wonder, that is carved on each facet of the 54 towers that cluster thicket-like in The Bayon temple? Is it, as widely believed, the visage of Jayavarman VII, the great Khmer ruler who built The Bayon or is it of the Buddha? How is it that people who composed such exquisite verses in stone could also carry out acts of great cruelty some of which they depicted on stone panels? And what drove the apparently unassailable Khmer empire that created marvels like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to all but disappear?
But I’m getting ahead of the story, so let me go back a bit, to the beginning.
A few years ago, I was invited to a conference in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. Now Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park — a 400 square kilometer World Heritage Site dotted with temples, monasteries and other remnants of the mighty Khmer empire that lorded it over parts of modern Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar from the 9th to 15th centuries. The conference itself sounded interesting, but what was really interesting was that it included ‘field trips’ to some of the Angkor sites. 
Ta Prohm's gnarly trees
It’s not often that an invitation to visit a World Heritage Site comes along. So I grabbed the opportunity. A couple of weeks and a series of adventures — a visa that almost didn’t come through in time, waitlisted tickets and a flight on an Air India aircraft that shuddered and groaned ever so often — later I landed in Siem Reap on a lovely early summer evening.
Driving along sedately from the airport to the hotel, it was ‘Angkor’ and ‘apsara’ all the way. Every other restaurant, hotel or shop was either an ‘Angkor this’ or an ‘apsara that’. It was a gentle but extremely visual introduction to just how crucial the Angkor sites are to Siem Reap.
For Siem Reap breathes tourism. Tourism is the engine that powers the town’s economy. Yet, there was a very laid back feel to the place. Traffic — including the ubiquitous tuk-tuks — mostly puttered sedately along the leafy avenues with hardly a honk to be heard. Despite the frenetic construction activity, there was almost no rubble or dust on the streets. And though the US Dollar rather than the Cambodian Riel ruled, the bargaining was determined but friendly, with lots of smiles all around.
The Angkor Archaeological Park covers such a large area — some of it forested and difficult to get to — that it’s almost impossible to do any justice to it in a couple of days. So I didn’t even try and instead chose to spend a few hours each in a handful of the major sites.
Angkor Wat or 'temple of the capital city' is the acknowledged centrepiece of the Angkor sites. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, it was built by Suryavarman II as his state temple. Over the years, however, in keeping with the changing religious affiliations of the Khmers, Angkor Wat has also changed its affiliations.
The faces of Bayon
Yet, its Hindu origins are quite evident. For instance, the galleries that run along its façade have exquisite carved panels that depict scenes from Hindu religious texts including the Ramayana, and the Mahabaratha. Though some of the carvings have eroded with the ravages of time and human action, I could spot a few familiar images including one of Hanuman rushing to Rama's aid and another of Bhishma resting on a bed of arrows.
Angkor Wat is still a functioning place of worship, where Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism co-exist in apparent harmony. Turn a corner and you’d probably stumble into an alcove with sticks of incense, flowers and other offerings to the gods.
Captivating Angkor Wat is. My favourite site though is the slightly mysterious Ta Prohm with its towering strangler fig and silk-cotton trees sprouting out of the rocks, their roots twisted around the structure’s stone blocks in an embrace so tight that it seems as if it is all one pulsing being. And in a sense indeed it is, for the trees and the buildings keep each other going. Built by Jayavarman VII as a royal monastery or ‘raja vihara’, Ta Prohm is being conserved and restored by a team from the Archaeological Survey of India.
Jayavarman VII, it seems, had this thing for building. His greatest contribution, perhaps, is the walled city of Angkor Thom and the intriguing State temple The Bayon — with its forest of towers with giant faces carved on each facet. He’s also believed to have built Banteay Chhmar, one of the more hard-to-access Angkor sites.
Sculpture at Prasat Kravan
I was also fascinated by another Angkor gem — the smaller and rather less famous Prasat Kravan temple. Believed to have been dedicated to Vishnu, it consists of five brick structures built on a single platform. It was quite magical visiting Prasat Kravan in the gloaming, with its bas-relief sculptures on brick of Vishnu and Lakshmi bathed in the warm glow of oil lamps and a few diffused spotlights. 
The sculptures, which almost seem alive, are believed to be the only surviving examples of this style of work in Khmer art, said our guide Pich Keo, a former director of conservation at Angkor and a professor at the school for guides in Angkor.
 “Why,” I asked Pich Keo, “Did the Khmer empire crumble so suddenly?” It was, perhaps, a combination of factors, he replied. Changes in the weather patterns leading to droughts and floods, a falling water table, the spread of Theravada Buddhism and invasions by the Thais — all could have played a part in the decline of the Khmer empire.
Pich Keo, though, was more troubled by what could happen to Angkor today. With millions of tourists — including many Cambodians — visiting the region, the pressure on infrastructure is growing, the water table is dropping and some of the Angkor sites face issues like flooding, he said.
However, being a World Heritage Site also means that the Angkor monuments are part of a UNESCO-led effort to safeguard the site and its surroundings. Equally important, lots of Cambodians now visit the Angkor sites, obtaining insights into their heritage and the indisputable need to protect it. So perhaps this time around, Angkor has better prospects than it did as the heart of the Khmer empire all those centuries ago.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Responsible Traveler checks in

Responsible tourism is an approach to travel that’s been around for a while now.
Its appeal has been growing — leisurely but steadily — perhaps because of its emphasis on “creating better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit”. A tenet that allows people and destinations the flexibility to choose practices and strategies that suit the local needs and environment.
In India, a motley crew of hotel and travel companies, home stays, NGOs and the odd State tourism board have piloted responsible tourism, with varying levels of commitment and success. At the same time, Indian travellers too seem to be showing a growing interest in ‘ecotourism’ if not responsible tourism.
And now, MakeMyTrip.com, India’s oldest and, arguably, largest travel portal has dipped its toes into responsible tourism with the Responsible Traveler Web site.
Responsible Traveler is positioned as “an extension” of MakeMyTrip’s corporate social responsibility activities. At the same time, it seems that the company also “recognized the need for an ecologically-conscious community of travellers, who love travelling and their planet, equally; and thus the forum Responsible Traveler was born.”
So what is it that Responsible Traveler will offer? The site itself declares: “From the time you start planning your vacation to the moment you step back into your condo; Responsible Traveler makes sure that it gives you the right ideas, tips and advice to help make your travel eco-friendly, with bare minimum impact on the environment.”
For the moment though, the Web site seems a little raw, without a voice of its own; like a work in progress. Actually, I guess it is still a work in progress as it seems to have gone live only a few weeks ago.
However, the possibilities are tremendous. At the very least, Responsible Traveler could become the definitive Indian or South Asian resource on responsible travel. Commercially, the site has the potential to evolve into an online responsible travel company; one that allows travellers to book responsible holidays in India and South Asia.
It would, in fact, be a logical move for Responsible Traveler to become a link between travellers and hotels and home stays that practice responsible tourism. Consumer interest in this space is growing and it currently has just about one player — Travel To Care. With MakeMyTrip’s knowledge and experience of the market, coupled with its marketing muscle, Responsible Traveler has the potential to grow into a game changer for responsible tourism in India and South Asia.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gods on the roads

The idols of Saraswathy (on the elephant) and Subramania Swamy (on the silver horse) enter Trivandrum
Sometimes, even Gods need to travel on the roads built by men.
In September/October ever year, deities from three temples in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district go on a road trip to Thiruvananthapuram and back. The idols of Saraswathy from the Thevarakattu Saraswathy Amman temple in Padmanabhapuram; Subramania Swamy or Kumara Swamy from the Velimalai Murugan temple at Kumarakovil; and Munnuttu Nangama from the Sthanumalayan Temple at Suchindrum travel some 150 kilometers along India’s National Highway 47 on this annual jaunt. 
Of course, being Gods, they travel rather differently from ordinary mortals. For one, they are escorted by an entourage that balloons as they get closer to Thiruvananthapuram. And then, there are the vahanas or vehicles in which they travel — Saraswathy on the back of an elephant, Subramania Swamy on a silver horse borne by a phalanx of men and Munnuttu Nangama in a palanquin.
But why do the three deities go on this annual sojourn? To understand that, we need to back in time.
Many, many moons ago, it seems, there lived a Hindu mystic and poet called Kambar who wrote several works in Tamil, including the Kamba Ramayanam. Now Kambar, who travelled around a bit, always carried an idol of Goddess Saraswathy with him. Towards the very end of his life, realising that his time was up, the sage gifted the idol to the reigning monarch of the Chera dynasty that once ruled large swathes of Southern India. In return, the Chera ruler promised Kambar that the Navarathri festival to honour the Goddess would be held every year. 
The silver horse on which Subramania Swamy rides
All this of course happened long before the erstwhile Indian Kingdom of Travancore — which included today’s Kanyakumari district — even existed. However, over the years, those who ruled this part of the world kept the Chera monarch’s promise and honoured the Goddess every year; a tradition the royal family of Travancore continues even today.
It is, however, not very clear just how the idol of Saraswathy ended up in Padmanabhapuram. I guess the Chera King who received the idol built a temple for the Goddess in Padmanabhapuram, which of course later became the capital of the rulers of Travancore.
Late in the 18th Century, the capital of Travancore was moved from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. Soon after though, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, the then ruler of Travancore made a vow to the Goddess that the Navarathri festival in her honour would henceforth be observed with all splendour wherever the royal family resided, by bringing the deity there, writes Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the royal family of Travancore in her book Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.
And so, in the Malayalam month of Kanni (September/October) every year, the three deities are brought to Thiruvananthapuram for the nine-day Navarathri festival in honour of the Goddess. The festival is celebrated through music, dance and, of course, a panoply of poojas or religious rituals to honour the Goddess.
Once in Thiruvananthapuram, the idol of Saraswathy is installed in the Navarathri Mandapam that is part of the palace complex alongside the Padmanabhaswamy temple. The idols of Subramania Swamy and Munnuttu Nangama are taken to two other temples — the Aryasala temple and the Chenthitha temple respectively — till it is time for them to return home after the festivities.
The elephants lead the way
What I’m not very clear about, perhaps because I haven’t dug around enough, is why Subramania Swamy and Munnuttu Nangama accompany Saraswathy on this annual visit. However, a report that appeared in The Hindu a few years ago says this:

“The idol of Sarawathi, the patron goddess of the arts, learning and weapons, comes accompanied by the idols of Subramania Swamy and Munnooti Nanga. Lord Subramania, the warrior god signifies the king, and the sword, the ayudham (weapon) that he wields for the protection of his state and subjects, while Munnooti Nanga symbolises the kundalini shakti.”
As in previous years, this year too, the three deities arrived in Thiruvananthapuram a few days ago. The times may have changed and Travancore is now mostly a memory, but the devotion with which the Gods were greeted as they travelled to Thiruvananthapuram was perhaps as passionate as it was a hundred years ago. And as the procession wound its way towards the Padmanabhaswamy temple and the Navarathri Mandapam, the timeless sounds of the chenda and kombu merged with the strains of a police band’s rendition of ‘saare jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara’ to create a an exceptional symphony for an exceptional occasion.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lit fest thoughts

Some interesting conversations, a couple of fun readings, lots of rain, half an alphabet soup of security agencies and event organisers who need a crash course in Event Management 101.
That, in thirty words, is pretty much what Kovalam Literary Festival- Edition III that happened this past weekend was.
What I really enjoyed about this year’s festival was the change in venue — from the beach village of Kovalam, in Trivandrum’s suburbs, to the Kanakakunnu Palace in the heart of the city. This meant that people could drop in for a session or two, leave and return later for another session. And there were people who did just that — I for one.
Given how accessible the palace is, there were also people who came in for a ‘feel’ of the festival, decided it wasn’t quite their scene and left. The sad part, however, was that despite the change in venue, participation levels were still rather low; better than previous years, perhaps, but still low.
I’d expected at least a couple of hundred people to turn up. But I don’t think there were ever more than around 150 people at the festival, including the medium-ish posse of security men protecting Daman Singh, daughter of India’s Prime Minister, who read at the festival. I must confess that the rather lukewarm turnout on a long weekend puzzles me.
The festival sessions themselves were standard lit fest stuff; some entertaining and thought provoking, others not quite so. The hard part though was figuring out who was going to read or speak next as the festival schedule had undergone some pretty drastic changes, especially since a couple of authors did not turn up. But these schedule changes were really not communicated to the audience.
So there were no information boards or posters with the revised schedule. And things sort of chugged along.
Most of the time though, the really interesting things were happening not inside the main hall of the palace, but in the bandstand alongside it. Tea, smokes, cutlets, biryani and eclectic conversations. Conversations on how going for a run is the best way to orient yourself to a new city; on memories dredged up by the smoke from Pakistani Gold Leaf cigarettes; on how green Kerala is; on the hazards of being an artist or writer with an even more famous artist or writer as a spouse…
And that, perhaps, is where the Kovalam Literary Festival really came into its own — in the interesting conversations that happened outside the festival halls. For you never know just what those discussions may have sparked off. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lit fest hub?

Could Trivandrum be on its way to becoming India’s hot new Lit Fest hub? Over the next two months, the city will host two festivals of literature — the Kovalam Literary Festival and the Hay Festival in Kerala.
First, the Kovalam Literary Festival: The festival’s third edition will be held in the city this coming weekend — October 2 and 3.
The festival’s organisers have finally seen the light and moved it from Kovalam, in Trivandrum’s suburbs, to the heart of the city. Those who know Trivandrum would have told them that they should’ve done this from the very beginning.
While Kovalam is quite the exotic beach destination, it is — in the Trivandrum scheme of things — some way away from the city. And though the festival’s organisers had arranged for a couple of coaches to ferry people from the city to Kovalam, residents of the city had to make a conscious decision to attend the Kovalam Lit Fest. There was no question of popping in for an interesting session, then slipping out and returning later for another interesting session or two; something you can do with relative ease at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Faced with having to make a choice to either spend an entire day, or at least a large part of the day, at the festival or skip it altogether, most residents of the city choose to give the Kovalam Lit Fest a miss in its first two years. Which, for an event that should be inclusive and welcoming is not a very good sign.
I remember, in 2008, attending a session by Gulzar at the festival. There were at best about 50 people in the room, of whom about 35 had something to do with the festival — they were either authors reading there, publishers, festival organisers or support staff. While the sparse attendance made it a very intimate afternoon, it was a pity that so many people missed out on a wonderful opportunity to listen to one of India’s finest writers.
So it was good to hear a few days ago that the Kovalam Lit Fest will be held in the city this year. The organisers themselves admit that “local participation” in the festival has been poor and that the change in venue is part of an effort to “improve local participation.”
Kanakakunnu Palace, where the festival is to be held this year, was once the banquet hall of the erstwhile rulers of Travancore. Located bang in the heart of Trivandrum, it’s very accessible and a popular venue for many events; some cultural and others not quite cultural. It’s a welcoming sort of space and little effort is required to get there.
With entry free and a reasonable programming mix, this year’s Kovalam Lit Fest should see more people attending. Of course, it’s still too early to say that the festival is out of the woods, especially with the Hay Festival set to roll into Trivandrum in mid November. And according to whispers on the grapevine, it is also going to be held in the Kanakakunnu Palace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Remembering Aubrey Menen

In 1980s-Trivandrum, Aubrey Menen stood out like a sore thumb.
By then into the last years of his life, Menen looked quite like the quintessential Biblical prophet, a slightly impish prophet: serene face, flowing white beard and long-ish white hair. Of course, notions of prophecy were slightly dispelled by the tan shorts and sun hat that he often wore while pottering around Trivandrum’s central Statue and Pulimood neighbourhoods.
I think I was around 12 years old when I first saw Menen either in or outside Trivandrum’s British Library. More than the Biblical mien, it was his name that snagged my attention — Aubrey, I could understand, but Menen? Did he have anything to do with the cosmetics company Mennen, I wondered?
In the 1980s, Trivandrum — it had not yet become Thiruvananthapuram — was still the sort of place where everyone just about knew everyone else or at least knew of everyone else! So with little effort, I discovered that ‘Menen’ was a variant of the more familiar ‘Menon’; familiar to Malayalis that is. Aubrey Menen, I learnt, had an Irish mother and a Malayali father. I also learnt that he was a writer who had retired to Trivandrum.
Most often, I’d come across Menen in or near the British Library. Sometimes, I’d also see him making his way home, to his rooms in Lukes Lane just off the city’s arterial M G Road. On some of these jaunts he’d be accompanied by Graham Hall, his companion.
I never actually spoke to him. Nor did I read any of his work then, though I have faint memories of a couple of his books gracing the shelves of the British Library.
And then one day in 1989, I read in the papers that Menen had died. Hall, about whom I knew very little, continued in Trivandrum and I often used to spot him in the British Library. In the late 1990s though, I left Trivandrum and when I returned some years later, there was no sign of Hall. Memories of both Menen and Hall receded into the corners of my mind.
But it all came rushing back to me a few days ago when I found Classic Aubrey Menen, a new Penguin anthology of his work. In an interesting coincidence, Jai Arjun Singh over at Jabberwock has also written about Penguin’s Menen anthology. 
I’ve since discovered that Menen wore many hats — radio person, ad type, essayist, satirist, travel writer, drama critic and theatre director among others. Over the years, he wrote some 20-odd works of fiction and non-fiction including Rama Retold, an interpretation of the Ramayana.
Menen’s Ramayana, it seems, irked Indian sensibilities and was banned in the country for some years. And I’m not surprised. For the little I’ve seen of his work reveals that Menen’s humour is subtle yet biting.
He pulls no punches when it comes to making fun of holy cows. Whether it is India’s caste system and Brahmin notions of superiority in A Conspiracy of Women or cardinals and politicians in The Fig Tree — all of them get the Menen treatment. Yet, his is not the ‘a laugh every other line’ sort of humour. It is multi-layered, quirky and not always apparent at first glance. 
Consider, for instance, this gem that appeared in the 1987 edition of the Mar Ivanios College magazine. Asked, during the course of an interview, whether writers are born or made, Menen responded: “All writers are made writers, but in fact they are born. Journalists can be made, but not creative writers.” 
As Menen’s New York Times obit says: 
“Asked to give advice to writers, Mr. Menen, who was admired as a satirist, told the publication Contemporary Authors that '’the aspiring writer should perform a daily physical exercise. He should sit on his bottom in front of a table equipped with writing materials,' he said. 'If his top end fails him, at least his nether end won't.'”
Humour like that, though cutting, is priceless not in the least for its ability to make us laugh at ourselves, at least once in a while. As Menen himself reportedly said: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.”
While satire was, perhaps, his forte, Menen was also a bit of a visionary it seems. In the Mar Ivanios College magazine interview, he observed: “The West will turn to the Indian mind for the solution of its problems.” I wonder if he had outsourcing in mind when he said this.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Moment is Waiting


I’ve seen Your Moment is Waiting thrice. And what do I say? So I’ll let the goose bumps on my arms do the talking for a moment or two.
Sensuous, exhilarating, earthy, outstanding, surreal, haunting — Kerala Tourism’s new ad film is all these. But it is so much more, much of it indescribable. To borrow from a section introduction in Bearings, a collection of poems by Karthika Nair: “The attempt to capture the kinetic in words is somewhat like freezing a raindrop in mid-air. Before it changes shape. Before it merges with the earth.”
And that is precisely what I feel as I struggle to capture in words the emotions that Your Moment is Waiting arouses.
Stark Communications has always been ahead of the curve on tourism communication. But with this film Stark and Prakash Varma have outdone themselves and taken Kerala Tourism’s brand communication to an entirely new level.
A fitting tribute to God’s Own Country.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Your moment awaits

God’s Own Country is set to stun the world, again. Your Moment is Waiting, Kerala Tourism’s new ad film will premiere in London next week and going by track records, the film should be exceptional and enchanting, subtle and sensuous.
Travel is about experiences and transformations, and Your Moment is Waiting — it seems — taps into this belief. The film talks about the transformational experiences that people from across the world go through in Kerala.
The premiere in London on Tuesday next (September 21) is expected to be a star-studded event at a hip venue. London, I guess, is a pretty obvious place for the premiere, not in the least because it is Kerala’s largest international inbound market. Following the premiere, Your Moment is Waiting will debut on the big screen during the launch of the film Eat, Pray, Love and will then start airing on television channels around the world.
Developed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Stark Communications and directed by Prakash Varma of Nirvana Films, Your Moment is Waiting is in keeping with Kerala Tourism’s tradition of staying ahead of the curve. Kerala Tourism is, for instance, India’s first State Tourism Board to do a television commercial — the spectacular Watercolours by God, in 2000. This was followed, in 2004-05 by the more understated Life in a New Light. Both films were directed by Santosh Sivan.
What makes Your Moment is Waiting — shot in Thekkady, Kumarakom, Munnar, Thalassery and Kannur on a budget of about Rs 1 crore — especially interesting is that it has been directed by Prakash Varma who’s especially feted for the Zoo-Zoo ad films he did for Vodafone. I suspect though, that Varma will soon be equally feted for Your Moment is Waiting. Equally interesting is that music for the film has been composed and performed by Senegal’s Baaba Maal.
All in all, I can’t wait to experience Your Moment is Waiting and the outstanding campaign that, I expect, will accompany it.
Picture courtesy Kerala Tourism

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Numbers of note

Kerala Tourism finally let the cat out of the bag a few days ago.
After keeping uncharacteristically quiet about its 2009 numbers for over 8 months, Kerala Tourism has now revealed that there was a decline in the number of foreign tourists who visited the State in 2009. Nothing unexpected in that, as I wrote back in March. What is mildly surprising is that total tourist arrivals to Kerala in 2009 actually appear to have gone up by 3.42 per cent. Domestic tourists, it seems, have saved the day for Kerala.
According to this report in The Hindu, Kerala’s Tourism Minister says that approximately 5.57 lakh foreign tourists visited the State last year, down by about 6.96 per cent from 2008’s 5.98 lakh international arrivals. Domestic tourist arrivals, however, grew from 75.91 lakh in 2008 to 79.13 lakh in 2009, the Minister says. And it’s these 320,000-odd domestic tourists who, perhaps, helped Kerala’s tourism industry survive the recession; at the very least, these additional domestic tourists helped the State’s tourism numbers look respectable in a recession year.
What’s intriguing about these figures though, is that in February this year The Hindu quoted the Tourism Minister as saying that Kerala had clocked a 17 per cent growth in tourist arrivals in 2009. While I understand that those were probably preliminary estimates, I am rather puzzled how — in about 7 months — a 17 per cent increase in tourist arrivals has been watered down to 3.42 per cent; a 13 percentage point variation.
Notwithstanding such number-crunching mysteries, the 2009 figures indicate that Kerala Tourism’s decision to focus on the Indian market seems to have helped. What interests me though is just how the rise in domestic tourists has affected Kerala’s tourism revenues. Has, for instance, the revenue generated by the increased inflow of domestic tourists offset the likely drop in revenue from the fall in foreign tourist arrivals?
This aspect though has really not been covered in The Hindu piece. It does say that “Total income of the State's tourism sector in 2009 was Rs 13,231 crore.” This income figure is about Rs 100 crore more than the Rs 13,130 crore Kerala earned from tourism in 2008. And as the 2009 tourism stats still do not seem to have been published — at least not on the Kerala Tourism Web site — it’s a little difficult to obtain any real insights.
The bottomline, I guess, is that we should be grateful the State’s tourism sector weathered the choppy waters of 2009. And, perhaps, we should turn to celebrating accolades such as the ‘best holiday destination in Asia’. Or rejoice at the 13.9 per cent growth in foreign tourist arrivals in the first half of this year, rather than fuss over pesky little details like tourism revenues and how it will influence the sector’s future.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Farmers’ tales

It was one of those random little things that happen every day.
My friend over at First Discipline posted a link on FaceBook. The link led to a video on You Tube; a video of the Director of the Kerala Government’s Agriculture Department wishing farmers a happy Onam. Nothing unusual in that. What is unusual is the medium used — a video on You Tube!
Intrigued, I rummaged around and discovered the Kissan Kerala channel on You Tube. A trove of some 150 videos on things agricultural — from paddy cultivation in Kerala to rearing rabbits and pigeons, from organic prawn cultivation to creating roof-top gardens.
Now, Kissan Kerala is one of a clutch of e-Governance projects that have been commissioned by the Government of Kerala. As its name indicates, Kissan Kerala focuses on agriculture; more specifically it is designed to be an agriculture information system for Kerala.
I have not been able to go through all the videos on the Kissan Kerala channel, but from what I’ve seen they seem to be well produced. All appear to be informative and some are inspiring — like the one on the octogenarian lady farmer. And, most important, the videos all seem to be in Malayalam, which is Kerala’s language.
The channel’s been on You Tube for almost three years now and has got a shade under 600 subscribers, and the comments it has received mostly seem to be positive. According to You Tube’s stats, there have been some 155,575 ‘channel views’ and 881,361 ‘upload views’ — I guess that means a fair number of people have taken a look at the videos.
Overall, I’d say it’s been a pretty good show so far. One that has lessons for other government departments, but also one that can be improved so it reaches out to more people. A FaceBook page for Kissan Kerala, perhaps?
Picture used courtesy Kerala Tourism