Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stories from the dream factory

There’s little that can top a well-told story, especially if it is your own story.
The five stories I heard last Sunday were in a class of their own. They took me on long journeys across time, space and the recesses of the human mind. They were deeply moving stories of determination, passion and hope.
Above all, they were personal stories told by women and men who have fought the odds just to have the freedom to be themselves and chase their dreams.
So there I was at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs near Trivandrum. Every year, the institute — which is a project of Braille without Borders — runs a programme to mould visionaries and social change makers. Those who attend the programme come from across the world, from different backgrounds and with different physical capabilities. What unites them though is the determination to climb every mountain in pursuit of their dream.
Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg, the founders of the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE), believe that it is a ‘dream factory’ that creates leaders who will drive social change. So towards the very end of each year’s training programme, every participant gets to make a ‘dream speech’ — a presentation on the social venture they plan to run after graduating.
This year, 16 change makers are graduating from the institute, and their stories and dreams are as diverse as they are. There’s Marguerite, a single mother who overcame low self-esteem, got herself a degree in her mid-30s, turned around a business and, more recently, battled the loss of her eyesight. Phoenix-like, she has risen from each adversity, and now intends to create a learning hub in Baltimore to empower African American women.
Then there’s Marcus who saw his family’s fortunes turn to dust and his many ‘friends’ disappear. So what did the ever-smiling Marcus do? He went out and found himself a dream — to start a creative design-based programme to help Nigeria’s marginalised youth build an identity for themselves.
Being partially sighted has worked to her advantage, says Tahreer from Palestine. For it has enabled her to walk down paths that are open to very few women from Hebron. And now, she wants to help other women find ways in which they too can shape their lives. To begin with, she dreams of opening Hebron’s first Internet cafĂ© for women, which will also be a safe space for Palestinian women to meet, learn and empower themselves.
Raja’s story is one of spunk; of not letting his physical challenges get the better of him. It’s also a story of compassion for people who fall through society’s cracks. While talking to prisoners in the Pondicherry jail as part of his graduate research, Raja realised that their children often get a very bad deal. So his new mission is to set up centres that will take care of the young children of those who are incarcerated in India’s prisons.
And then there’s Nelson, who has seen death, torture and a million other horrors brush past him during Liberia’s long civil war. Now that peace has come, he wants to empower Liberia’s disadvantaged, especially those with disabilities, through a community radio station.
Beyond the adversity, passion and grit that runs through these stories is the tenet that hope endures. And that redemption is only a thought away.
PS: All 15 ‘dream speeches’ are currently up here and will also be available soon on the IISE website I understand.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Pandit phenomenon


I’m still reeling from an encounter with Santhosh Pandit. Fortunately, I’ve come away relatively unscathed since it was a virtual encounter — he was giving an interview on television last night.
But the interview, supplemented by some of his videos on YouTube, has left me almost speechless. Which, I’m told, is one of two customary reactions to Pandit, Kerala’s newest cultural icon. The other response to Pandit and his work, I gather, is to let loose a stream of invective broken by bouts of hysterical laughter. 
Who is this guy, I wondered when I saw him in action on television. And the more I saw of him, the more intrigued I was. His web site and Google threw up some answers, but his videos on YouTube were a revelation.
In a line, Pandit is a Malayalam filmmaker. And one who has donned several hats in his recently released debut film Krishnanum Radhayum. A more complex descriptor though, is that Pandit is a wave that’s sweeping across Kerala. 
From what I’ve heard, his film is so appalling that appalling doesn’t quite cover it. And if the videos on YouTube are anything to go by, execrable would be a very generous description of the film. His acting sucks, his songs suck despite the double entendre, the dialogues suck — everything about the film sucks.
Yet, people in Kerala are forking out money to see Krishnanum Radhayum.
A friend who sat through the two-and-a-half-hour film said it is so bad that you want to commit hara-kiri. Audiences were either in splits or busy abusing Pandit in Malayalam, he added. Still, people continue to go for the film and Santhosh Pandit is apparently one of the top searches on Google.
So what is it about this film and its creator that mesmerises? Is it his self-deprecatory, permanently goofy expression and facial contortions? Is it his ability to create an opportunity for us to vent? Do we identify with his ‘ordinary guy living out a fantasy’ story? Or have our standards fallen so much that we, in some strange way, find him and his work entertaining?
The answer, I suspect, is a combination of all these. But it is also something more complex, a reflection in some ways of the spirit of the times.
What intrigues me more, though, is what drives Pandit. Reading between the lines of the interview I saw on television and a couple on YouTube, it seems he knows just how awful his work is. So is he, through all the clowning around, taking carefully aimed pot shots at the holier-than-thou Malayalam film industry and cultural establishment? Or is he a canny businessman, who has discovered a new path to fame and riches? Or is he just a supremely confident chap living out his celluloid dreams?
I have no idea. What I do know though is that Santhosh Pandit is having a blast with his 15 minutes of fame. Which is, I guess, a great way to live.

Behind the scenes


Back stories are always instructive. And sometimes entertaining. So it is a delight to read one that is both instructive and entertaining.
For a behind the scenes look at what went into the stories in Desh, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s new production, go here, here and here. These back stories, of a sort, have been written by Karthika Nair, a poet, writer and dance producer. Oh, and in the interests of full disclosure, Karthika is a very good friend.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bus bay

Understanding the logic that underpins infrastructure projects in India is often a bit like trying to solve a puzzle. And in Kerala it is even more so.
The City Road Improvement Project — better known by the rather inapt acronym CRIP — in Trivandrum is one of those infrastructure projects that sometimes befuddle. In theory, the project is intended to transform 42-odd kilometres of Trivandrum’s roads into world-class thoroughfares. In practice, some road surfaces have improved, but there have also been inexplicable screw-ups.
Consider the picture above. It is of a ‘bus bay’ about 100 metres from a very busy junction on the city’s arterial MG Road. Bus bays are useful, but the thinking that has gone into designing this one seems iffy.
As the picture shows, one bus has stopped outside the bay, almost in the middle of the road, and the other has stopped ahead of the mouth of the bay. 
Over the course of a morning last week, I found that about 50 per cent of the buses that went past stopped outside the bay. And in the process blocked the road and created traffic snarls. This, I agree, is a problem of enforcement — the police needs to ensure that every bus uses the bay. But this is a route with a high volume of bus traffic and most buses stop at this point. So if every bus that passes by uses the bay — that can accommodate about two-and-a-half buses at a time — there would probably still be a traffic jam during the peak hours. This implies that the bus bay is simply too small to cater to peak hour traffic; which, to me, seems to be a design flaw. 
Which brings me to the next inexplicable aspect of the bus bay’s design. The entrance to the bay is about a foot or two away from the exit from an important government office complex. As a result, every vehicle that comes out of the office complex ends up blocking the mouth of the bus bay, at least for a second or two, laying the ground for a series of micro traffic snarls through the day as the picture above and the one below show. 
Given the constraints of this stretch of road, this is perhaps the only design possible for the bus bay. But that begs the question — Why have a bus bay at all, especially if it creates more problems than it solves?
That, perhaps, is a riddle that may never be solved.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Kerala gender conundrum

Quality of life means different things to different people. A thread that runs through this thought-provoking blog post by Viju Balanarayanan, a former colleague.
The overarching theme of Viju’s post, though, is that cities like Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi — and Kerala as a whole — are not very friendly and safe places for women. In other words, Kerala may score high on the ‘liveability’ index based on parameters like water, sanitation, shelter and literacy, but it sucks if you consider parameters such as the freedom that women enjoy. As he writes:
But if you are woman, you are at your own risk if you venture out after twilight. If you are a single, widowed or divorced woman staying alone, the city becomes a preying monster. Even without your knowledge, stories begin to circulate (especially if you smoke and drink) that you are ‘available.’”
While there are exceptions, much of what Viju says is true. The levels of gender disparity in modern Kerala are stark; as they are in many other parts of the country.
What puzzles me though is how often people are surprised at the gender disparity that exists in Kerala. And this, perhaps, has much to do with two decoys — Kerala’s high literacy and heritage of a matrilineal society.
Yes, it is true that Kerala enjoys almost 100 per cent literacy. But literacy does not necessarily lead to greater gender sensitivity and equality between the sexes.
And while some communities in Kerala, such as the Nairs, were (and are) matrilineal, they never were matriarchal. And that makes all the difference.
Traditionally, descent and inheritance in these communities was through the women, but power was generally in the hands of the eldest male — the karnavar — be it a brother or uncle. There may have been some families with a matriarch or two, but this was probably the exception rather than the rule.
So take away high literacy and perceptions of a matriarchal society and Kerala becomes pretty much like any other part of India. More educated, perhaps, and with better healthcare, but with many of the gender inequalities that exist in other parts of the country. Consider, for instance, the films and television serials that literate Kerala’s entertainment machine now churns out. How many of them feature strong, independent female characters, let alone strong, independent female characters in a lead role? And the few strong-ish female characters that appear are mostly the ‘bad’ ones who either meet a sorry end or see the ‘error’ of their ways. Yet, these films and television serials are lapped up by Kerala’s literate audiences.
None of this, however, explains why it isn’t possible to have a meaningful, equitable equation between women and men in Kerala and elsewhere. Finding an answer to that might just help make Kerala a truly liveable place for all people.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Changing learning

There are many things that India needs to do. On top of my to-do list for India, though, is a complete overhaul of our approach to education. We simply have to move to a system that hinges on learning rather than on passing exams.
So it was wonderful to discover the work that the Agastya International Foundation has been doing to transform learning, especially science education, across India. While the foundation’s emphasis seems to be on taking hands-on science education to government-run schools in rural India, its appeal is universal. In fact, I know of teachers from urban schools who have been blown away by the foundation’s work, especially the experiences at its centre in Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh. Equally important, I know of young urban Indians who’ve been through the foundation’s programmes and find them cool. Which is really cool, because it’s not often that you find teachers and students agreeing on something.
Of course what I have is second-hand information since I’ve not actually been to any of the Agastya International Foundation’s programmes or visited its centre. I plan to do some time soon, though.
However, from what I’ve been able to gather, its model is both scalable and replicable and, of course, transformational. Just the sort of thing we need to change education in India.
Staying with scalable, replicable and transformative learning models, it’s been almost a year since I first wrote about Salman Khan. Since then, the hedge fund manager turned online tutor has done a fair bit to change, at least partially, the way we learn.
Khan Academy, his free online library of short video lectures on all sorts of topics has evolved in various ways. Over the past 12 months the number of videos it hosts has grown from 1,800 to around 2,800. The lectures now cover more subjects, including sections devoted to specific examinations such as GMAT and India’s IIT-JEE. The team running the repository has also grown from one to about 18, including a couple of art history professors. This piece in the FT has pretty much the full story on the evolution of the Khan Academy, including the substantial funding it has drummed-up.
The Khan Academy’s value lies in its potential to transform learning in several ways. For one, you pay nothing to access the videos in the repository and, according to the FT piece, Khan intends to keep it that way. The videos themselves are easy to understand. And the concept can be replicated and improved by anyone who’s interested. Again, the sort of thing that should find a place in the Indian approach to education.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Consumer rant #4: The camouflaged opt-in


We really shouldn’t sign a document unless we’ve read and understood it. That, at least, is the theory. In practice though, we often end up scribbling our signature on something after, at best, a quick read-through.
About a week ago, I was at the Nokia Care centre in Trivandrum to try and fix my mobile phone. It was a busy day at the service centre — I spent about 30 minutes waiting for my turn at the counter. Once I’d explained what the problem was, I was told that I’d have to turn in my phone for it to be fixed. Then came a version of 20 Questions, including demands for my telephone number and e-mail address.
Questions answered, I was given a couple of forms/work orders and told “sign there and there”. I skimmed through the forms, but there seemed to be nothing alarming in them. So I signed, left and forgot all about the forms.
Early this week I was told my phone had been fixed and that I could pick it up. It was while I was at the service centre, waiting to pick up my phone that I actually read my copy of the form/work order. And that’s when I discovered that in one section of the form, I had actually agreed to let Nokia contact me with information on special deals, quizzes and so on. Now that is not something I would sign up for — ever.
Nokia is a brand I have a great deal of affection for. Like many others in India, my first mobile phone was a Nokia. Three-quarters of the mobile phones in our house are Nokias. That, however, does not mean that I want marketing messages from the company texted or e-mailed to me.
As I picked up my (repaired) phone, I asked the person at the delivery counter to modify my work order so that my name would be taken-off the company’s marketing list. I also asked her two questions: Why did the work order ask customers to agree to receive marketing messages? And why hadn’t I been told that I was also agreeing to receive marketing messages from the company when I signed the service centre’s work order? She hummed and hawed, and didn’t really give me an answer.
The answer is, perhaps, that in these times of ‘do not disturb’ registries and tough markets, opt-in marketing is a necessity. Something that many companies work into their marketing strategy. I understand that. However, isn’t informed consent a must for opt-in marketing?
I agree I made a mistake. I should have read the form/work order properly before signing it. At the same time, shouldn’t the person at the service centre have flagged it for me? Shouldn’t I have been told that along with agreeing to the service conditions, I was also agreeing to receive marketing messages from the company? Shouldn’t I have also been told that this was, presumably, completely voluntary?
Perhaps Nokia’s marketing policy does insist that informed consent should be obtained from customers. If it does, then that policy is merrily being flouted, at least by the company’s service centre in Trivandrum. Will the company fix this? I have no idea.
What I know though is that I’ve re-learnt an important lesson: Always read and understand something before signing it. I may sign on to receive information on special deals, but it will only be after I’ve read and understood what I’m signing on for.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The past is a mirage

It wouldn’t be surprising if the past counted for little in India. This is, after all, a country with over a billion people and all the challenges that come with that.
The reality though is that we obsess about our past. We lose no opportunity to tom-tom the glories of India’s culture and civilisation. It is, of course, another matter that this pride in our heritage seems to be wheeled out only on special occasions and is not really a part of our DNA. Why else would we be so indifferent towards visible symbols of our past — museums for instance?
Several weeks ago, I was at the Pondicherry Museum — the Puducherry Museum actually.  The government-run museum was then in the throes of a renovation, which mostly seemed to revolve around giving the building a fresh lick of paint.
What stopped me in my tracks though was the extreme casualness with which the whole process appeared to be carried out. To begin with, visitors were being allowed in, to dodge falling paint and bamboo scaffolding and see what they could of the exhibits.
The exhibits themselves were left to the mercies of the painters — very little effort appeared to have been put into protecting them from the paint and dust. There was, for instance, not a dustsheet in sight to protect the exhibits. Instead, just a few sheets of newspaper spread desultorily across some of the objects; many though were splattered with paint. And dust-covered furniture — I’m not sure if they were antiques or replicas — was stacked in the corners of some of the rooms on the first floor of the museum.
In other rooms, wiry workmen pushed around glass-fronted display cabinets that held shards of ancient pottery and antique weapons. Elsewhere, burial urns of clay nestled on beds made of old car tyres, propped cosily against walls. The glass on some display cabinets was long gone and a visitor could have easily walked away with a souvenir that was centuries, if not millennia, old.
I know it’s not easy to find the resources and expertise required to run a museum well, let alone renovate one properly. But surely, it can’t be too hard to find some expertise in a town like Pondicherry, which has a very active chapter of The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). And failing all else, is it so hard to bring some commonsense to how we manage museums and view the past?

Back

It’s been three months and a bit. Attribute the absence to the curveballs that life throws up occasionally. Staying away wasn’t easy. Writing happened though, but elsewhere. In TOI Crest for one:
It's a little past 7. 30 on a Monday morning. A woman in a green sari is vigorously dusting a large glass-topped table stacked with files. She pauses for a moment to straighten the chair behind the desk, before continuing to clean the table. It is an early morning ritual that happens in offices across the country every working day.
What makes this dust-busting exercise different though is that it is happening in the office of the chief minister of Kerala and anyone in the world can view it by logging on to www. keralacm. gov. in (Read the rest here)
The curveballs have been straightened out — sort of. And regular programming is set to resume very soon. Perhaps, even later today. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

God’s gold

Everything has changed. In the space of a week, Thiruvananthapuram’s Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple has gone from being one of India’s important Vishnu temples, to arguably the world’s wealthiest religious institution. And Thiruvananthapuram has suddenly become the centre of global attention
For years, it’s been hinted that the temple was the repository of a vast trove. But there was little to substantiate this.
Now though all those tales of untold riches seemed to have come true. For the committee appointed by India’s Supreme Court to inspect the temple’s vaults and prepare an inventory of their contents, appears to have found a king’s ransom of gold, silver and precious stones. While estimates of the value of this trove are rising every day, it is important to remember that we can only speculate about its value at the moment because:
  • The details of the inventory are not in the public domain, yet. 
  • It’s not just the intrinsic value of the artefacts that counts. It’s also their value as antiques, and this may be more challenging to figure out. 
Time will, of course, bring greater clarity to the many questions that the discovery has raised. It is especially important though that great thought and care are applied to the decisions being taken on the future of the trove. For it is without doubt a national treasure.
For the moment though, let us marvel at the fact that even in the 21st Century, there are treasures hidden in the heart of urban India. What other treasures do India’s cities hide?
PS: A post on the temple's Painkuni festival and another on its Navarathri festival

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What’s the good word?

I’ve always been fascinated by how we use words. Sometimes we string them together with only the faintest of ideas about what they mean. Sometimes it comes out right and sometimes …
Here are some words and collections of words that have caught my eye over the past few months. They come from across India — okay, Delhi and Kerala to be specific. Together, they are a testament to our way with words.
I start with the ‘curious and miscellaneous stall’ and end with my personal favourite — ‘Om Fizz, full of primordial elements to promote freshness’. May these words bring ‘freshness’ to your day, every day. 




Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mallus and money

Literacy levels in Kerala are very high. Among the highest in India at 93.91 per cent according to the latest census. Kerala also has nine universities and 300-plus colleges. So it would be safe to say that a good number of people in Kerala have college degrees.
Yet, people in the State seem to fall for all sorts of financial scams; from money chains to fly-by-night chit funds. The latest being an alleged real estate scam.
Why does this happen? Why is it that people who are among India’s most literate, educated and aware, don’t seem to be able to figure out what’s a con and what’s not.
One reason for the Malayalee’s susceptibility to financial scams, I guess, is a basic human instinct — the desire to get rich quick. So something that promises to double or treble money in a jiffy breaks through all notions of caution.
More important though, I believe, is our lack of Financial Literacy. Most of us just don’t get even the basics of finance; so the more complex stuff goes right over our heads. As the recent global economic crisis illustrated, we’re not alone in not being able to come to grips with the nuances of finance. But that’s no consolation at all.
What Kerala, and indeed India, needs is a new movement — for total financial literacy. A movement that gives us tools to understand and manage our finances and the skills to see through scams.
Financial literacy even needs to be a part of the ‘life skills’ courses that are increasingly being taught in our schools and colleges. For I really can’t think of a greater ‘life skill’ than the ability to understand money and how to manage it. Perhaps it’s time we established a Financial Literacy Mission.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One for Kerala

Kerala Needs You. Yes, it really does need you; rather us.
This post is a prop for Kerala Needs You, a new blog that’s been started by Swarup, a friend.
It is intended to be a space that will “highlight issues that threaten our identity and issues that need change management. These could be issues that no one might focus on today - either because there are no votes, media attention or money in it or simply because they are not seen as issues.”
The way I understand it, all opinions are welcome — even dissenting ones — on Kerala Needs You as long as they contribute to the discussion.
So if Kerala has you in its thrall, pitch in and let the ideas flow for a better Kerala. There’s currently an interesting conversation on Kerala’s — actually the Malayalee’s — new-found penchant for painting houses in all colours of the rainbow and then some!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Around heaven

First sight of the Lord: Guruvayurappan appears in the most unexpected places; like the hands of this poster vendor. Priced Rs 20 each, these posters of the young Lord Krishna offer devotees a visual souvenir of a visit to Guruvayur
Heaven on earth. That’s how Pepita Seth describes Kerala’s Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple in her remarkable book Heaven on Earth: The Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple.
And for the millions of devotees who visit Guruvayur every year, it is indeed heaven on earth. For Guruvayur is where they get an audience — even if for just a fraction of a second — with Guruvayurappan, on earth.
Dispeller of darkness: This traditional stone lamp stands firm in the middle of the approach to the eastern nada or entrance to Guruvayur’s Sree Krishna temple. A metal fence protects it from vehicles and other trappings of the modern world.
For many devotees the relationship with Lord Krishna, Guruvayur’s presiding deity, or Guruvayurappan as he is affectionately called is intense and personal. A one-way relationship that is an amalgam of familiarity, reverence, complete adoration and total surrender.
I know many men and women whose devotion to Guruvayurappan knows no bounds; who speak to Him in their moments of joy, cry out for His protection in times of sorrow and sometimes even squabble with Him. Who believe with every fibre of their being that He will take care of them. As Seth writes in her book: “… indeed there is a firm belief that He will grant any request that is made…”
Even up to a few years ago, it was possible to plan to visit Guruvayur on a relatively less ‘busy’ day, when the number of devotees was in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Today though, it’s a different matter altogether. Every day is a ‘busy’ day and the queues for a darshan of the Lord are always long.

Beginning of a busy day: Every day, it seems, is a busy day in Guruvayur. At 7.30 am on a recent Sunday morning, thousands of people make their way towards the Guruvayur temple’s east nada to join the serpentine queues for a glimpse of Guruvayurappan.
On a recent Sunday, the temple was packed with devotees even at 6.30 in the morning. Most of them would spend hours in a queue for a momentary glimpse of Guruvayurappan. Even the secondary queue that takes you inside the temple walls, but not to the sanctum sanctorum, was disappointingly long; and all I could see of the sanctum sanctorum, when I eventually got in, was a blaze of light. But as someone later told me: “You could not see Him, but He saw you. That’s all that matters.” Indeed, that is all that matters.

You are in the queue: Most of these people will spend several hours in the 
queue for an all too brief audience with the Lord.

Waiting: Many of the devotees who come to worship in Guruvayur do so in these hired coaches that are parked in a large yard about a kilometre from the temple. Often, people travel to Guruvayur in an extended family group that sometimes includes friends and neighbours.

A whiff of jasmine: Garlands of jasmine coiled high on a flower-seller’s rickety counter. Some of these garlands will soon be a part of a woman’s coiffure.

All that glitter: Is brass and steel. Gleaming metal lamps and vessels and religious bric-a-brac burst out of this shop on the eastern approach to the Guruvayur temple. It is commerce, centered around the temple that keeps Guruvayur’s economy humming. 


Treats: Sweet and savoury snacks of all colours, shapes and sizes are stacked in this store near the temple’s east nada or entrance. From crisp banana chips and crunchy popcorn to pappadams and sticky halwa, this shop seems to have it all.

Temple wardrobe: Lots of grand dresses to choose from in this apparel shop, including a wide range of the pavadas and blouses traditionally worn by girls across South India.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A shower of awards

For an ad that’s had lots of people taking pot-shots at it, Kerala Tourism’s new commercial, Your Moment is Waiting, has done pretty well. At least in the number of awards it has won. Nine at last count.
 Yes, I know awards don’t necessarily mean an ad campaign has worked. But then, I also believe that awards recognise and celebrate excellence. And excellence tends to go hand-in-hand with results.
After picking up a trio of PATA Gold Awards and a Das goldene Stadttor award, Your Moment is Waiting won four awards at this year’s New York Festivals. Nirvana Films, the ad film’s producer, won a bronze for cinematography and two ‘finalist’ awards for direction and original music. And Stark Communications, which conceived the ad, won a ‘finalist’ award in the travel and tourism category.
In April, Stark also won a bronze Abby Award for Your Moment is Waiting at this year’s Goafest organised by the Advertising Agencies Association of India and The Advertising Club Bombay.
And it’s not over, I suspect. I have this feeling that the film is going to get lots more recognition in the next few weeks. 
Pic courtesy Kerala Tourism

Monday, May 9, 2011

Going for gold

A decade ago, few people in Kerala had heard of Akshaya Tritiya. And fewer still observed it by buying gold or beginning new ventures. For Akshaya Tritiya, considered an ‘auspicious’ day to do things like buy gold or begin something new, was not quite on Kerala’s calendar of propitious days.
But a few years ago, change swept in courtesy a union between smart marketing by the World Gold Council and Kerala’s ever-growing craving for gold. Back in 2006 I remember walking into a large jewellery store in Thiruvananthapuram on Akshaya Tritiya and finding it buzzing at 9 in the morning; normally a time when cleaners and security personnel are likely to be the only people in the city’s jewellery stores.
What is it about gold that mesmerises the Malayalee so much? Hard to say, but as this recent article in India Today points out, gold has always been considered a good investment. It’s also a good way to flaunt wealth, especially the newly acquired variety.
And with Kerala’s love affair with gold growing stronger, the hype around Akshaya Tritiya has grown in tandem. And more people are coming to the party. As this report in The Hindu says, this year banks also joined in, selling gold coins on Akshaya Tritiya day. And the article adds:
“Jewellery outlets registered brisk sales on Thursday and Friday as the festival was spread over two days this year.

Most jewellery shops had made elaborate arrangements to meet the rush. Many of them were open by 8.30 a.m. and continued the sales beyond the normal hours in the evening.”
So does buying gold on Akshaya Tritiya beget prosperity for the rest of the year? I guess the jury’s still out on that. At the very least, Akshaya Tritiya does seem to add to the bottomlines of Kerala’s jewellers and, now, perhaps of banks as well.
Perhaps what Akshaya Tritiya’s blossoming popularity in Kerala establishes is that marketing campaigns that are pitched just so, work wonders.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Consumer rant #3: How can I ‘rely’ on them?

The stunts companies pull! All to ‘serve the customer’. Like this large telecom company that is my ‘Internet on the go’ service provider.
A few days ago — on April 23 to be precise — I got my monthly bill. Along with it came a sheet of discount coupons. Problem is:
a. Half the coupons on the sheet are for use only in Tamil Nadu. And I live in Kerala. So those coupons are useless.
b. All the coupons were valid only till March 31 this year. And I got them on April 23, three weeks after they have lost any utility.
I know that customer service is an oxymoron in India’s telecom industry. But I can’t help wonder what the purpose of this whole ‘privileges’ exercise was. As any basic book on marketing would declare, it’s not a very bright idea to offer consumers promotions they cannot use; you’d probably end up pissing them off.
Of course it could all have been the result of a ‘system error’, as this other experience with the same company shows.
Over the past three-four weeks I’ve received three calls from the company’s customer care executives wanting to know if I would like to upgrade to a faster ‘Internet on the go’ package. Each time it sounded like I was talking to the same customer care executive, and each time my answer was ‘no thank you’.
Logically, my first ‘no’ should have been captured by the company’s computer system and should have prevented follow-up calls. At least, follow-up calls over consecutive weeks.
So when I got the third call I asked the guy at the other end why the company was calling me a third time when I’d already said no twice. There was a moment of silence, followed by the cover-all answer: “Your ‘no’ is not showing up in the system.” Some system that, not to have got my ‘no’ twice!
Perhaps it’s just that the company’s marketing strategy hinges on the  ‘pester someone sufficiently and they’ll agree to anything just to get rid of you’ philosophy. Oh, and I got another call — the fourth one — yesterday offering to upgrade my Internet connection. I wonder when they’ll give up.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Moment of truth

A great victory was won in Delhi last week.
India liked, tweeted and candlelit its way to ‘persuading’ the Government to see the light on the Jan Lokpal Bill. It also helped that Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare went on a fast unto death to get the Government of India to act on the Jan Lokpal Bill. And so we had our own little Jasmine Revolution. Or so it seems.
There is, I guess, little doubt that the Jan Lokpal Act, also labelled the Anti-Corruption, Grievance Redressal and Whistleblower Protection Act, will soon be a reality. In some form.
And once the Jan Lokpal framework is in place, corruption will be a thing of the past in India. At least that’s what the theory is.
But try telling that to someone I know who had to pay a ‘service’ charge last week to have a vehicle released by India’s finest. Of course, this was in addition to a mountain of paperwork, including several ‘no objection certificates’. And this was for a vehicle that had not been in an accident or violated any rule.
So why did he pay, thereby encouraging corruption, even when he had done no wrong? “Because I paid, I got my vehicle back in a day. If I hadn’t paid, I would probably still be running around to get the vehicle back. Or I would’ve had to get someone influential to make a couple of calls on my behalf,” he said.
I’m not too certain how much of this will change with the Lokpal Act.
Yes, the version of the Lokpal Act drafted by a group of social activists outlines a system for people to make complaints against corrupt government officials. But how many of us will take the time and effort required to see the process through to the very end.
For all the tweets and candlelight vigils against corruption, how many of us will actually take the road that’s currently less traveled? Not just by not taking a bribe, but also by not giving one and also by not using our influence to get something done in government. Ever.
And do so knowing that not paying up is going to have a direct impact on our lives or the lives of those we care about?
That will be our moment of truth.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Waterspout


We were driving along Trivandrum’s Shangumugham beach on Sunday evening. Suddenly we noticed a commotion on the beach and the road alongside; cars were pulling up and people were pointing towards the South. We looked back and saw this slender column of water rising up of the sea towards the ominous sky.
By the time we were able to find a place to park and get the camera out, the waterspout had almost dissipated. The leaden sky, cleaved by flashes of lightning, still looked threatening though and we decided to leave, just in case ...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

For a billion minds

In about 12 hours, we’ll know who the winner of the 2011 Cricket World Cup is. Like in any other game, it will be the team that plays better during those 9 or 10 hours that make a one-day cricket match.
A billion dreams may be riding on an Indian win and several million on a Sri Lankan victory. But in the end, it’s just a match. 
At this moment it may be worth considering what US astronaut Jim Lovell told the Financial Times in this piece:
“The lunar flights give you a correct perception of our existence. You look back at Earth from the moon and you can put your thumb up to the window and hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything you’ve ever known is behind your thumb, and that blue-and-white ball is orbiting a rather normal star, tucked away on the outer edge of a galaxy. You realise how insignificant we really all are. Everything you’ve ever known – all those arguments and wars – is right behind your thumb.”

Thursday, March 31, 2011

It’s just cricket

Perhaps the billion prayers worked. For India won the semi-final against Pakistan in this year’s Cricket World Cup. And then again, perhaps prayer had no role to play. Perhaps it was just that the team that played better and held its nerve on the day won.
But was it war at Mohali?  Was it a life and death battle? One that determined the fate of the world? Not quite.
Will yesterday’s match, its result and the accompanying ‘cricket diplomacy’ solve all the puzzles that divide India and Pakistan? I would like to be optimistic and say ‘yes’, but I’m not so sure.
As Prem Panicker writes in this piece on Yahoo! - “The problems that confront us are too serious; their roots, nourished with the blood of so many innocents on both sides, go down too deep, for a mere game to set it all to rights — and those that pretend otherwise, including the holders of the highest offices in the land, do us all a disservice by trivializing these problems when they should be working to find lasting solutions for them.”
But in a world where hype often masquerades as reality, the spin machine forges ahead regardless; reality be dammed. So it will be enlightening to see how the spinmeisters position Saturday’s World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, let’s try to remember that it’s just another match. Yes, it is the final of the cricketing world’s showpiece event, but it’s still just another match.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Coming home to stay


A few days ago, I took part in a discussion on tourism at the Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum. It was a small, eclectic group, and almost everyone who turned up ended up participating in the discussion.
Much was discussed, but what struck me most was a comment by Josette Rey, a Frenchwoman who lives in Fort Kochi and dabbles in tourism. The homestays that are sprouting across Kerala, she said, end up disappointing many French tourists. The French tourist tends to opt for homestays believing that they offer an immersive experience in the local culture. The tourist, she explained, believes that a homestay will offer them a slice of daily life in Kerala; an opportunity to be part of the family, to eat with the family and learn from the family. Instead the tourist most often ends up getting the equivalent of a hotel room without the amenities that normally come with a room in a hotel, she added.
Josette has a point. Over the past few years, both Kerala Tourism and India Tourism have been gung-ho about homestays — India Tourism also calls them bed and breakfasts (b&bs) which is kind of misleading as a b&b can be rather different from a homestay. Both tourism boards have even crafted elaborate systems to classify homestays based on the facilities they offer.
What none of these classification schemes has been able to certify though is the emotional ambience of the homestay. By emotional ambience, I mean things like how involved the hosts are in the operation of the homestay, how much time and effort they put into interactions with their guests and so on. Little things at first glance, but actually vital ingredients of the homestay mix.
For running a good homestay involves striking a very fine balance between giving guests a taste of local life and giving them the space and privacy they want. A balance that needs to be reworked for each set of guests.
There is, I guess, no standard formula for this and it is arguably more of an art than a science. But there are homestays in Kerala that seem to have perfected the art of personalised inn-keeping — Philipkutty’s Farm, Tranquil, Gramam and others.
In the long term though, market forces will work on homestays as much as they do on any other sector. The good ones — that meet the needs of tourists — will thrive, while the others will either limp along or disappear altogether. Meanwhile, Kerala’s homestays could perhaps pick up a lesson or two from their more successful brethren, especially on how to bring more of the ‘home’ into the ‘stay’.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Another gold…

This time it’s in Berlin. Your Moment is Waiting, Kerala Tourism’s new ad film, has won a Das goldene Stadttor or The Golden City Gate award at this year’s ITB Berlin. The awards, which are exclusively for the tourism industry, are given out every year at ITB Berlin arguably the world’s largest tourism and travel fair.
Your Moment is Waiting won the Das goldene Stadttor award in the ‘TV Cinema Spot’ category. The recognition at ITB Berlin comes just a few weeks after the film won 3 PATA Gold Awards.
More accolades, I suspect, will come the film’s way before the year is over. 
Pic courtesy Kerala Tourism

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Consumer rant #2: Mind your language

Beats me, some of the ‘customer friendly’ things companies do.
My bank, for instance, has a language option on its customer care telephone helpline in Kerala. You can choose to speak to the bank’s customer care team in English or Malayalam. A useful option, I’d say.
So I call the bank a few weeks ago and choose the ‘English’ option. I’m connected to a male voice that greets me in Malayalam. Thinking I’ve chosen the wrong option, I ask if it’s the number that connects me to an English speaker. “Yes,” he tells me, and continues to ask how he can help me — all in Malayalam. “Shouldn’t you be speaking to me in English,” I ask and am met with a moment of silence, before he goes on again — in Malayalam — about how he can help me. I give up and continue the conversation in Malayalam.
A few days later I call the bank and go through the same bizarre exercise again. Except this time, it’s a female voice at the other end.
Now I have nothing against Malayalam or any other language. But when you offer the customer the option of speaking to someone in a particular language, shouldn’t you deliver on that, every time?
So why is it that my bank couldn’t get this seemingly simple ‘customer friendly’ measure right? And if it can’t get it right, why doesn’t it scrap it altogether? All possible explanations are welcome.