28 November, 2010

The quintessential bureaucrat

All bureaucrats are the same, but some are better than the others ! Each nation is blessed with a liberal sprinkling of "homo sapiens pointless bureaucracy-ensis". But the ancient land of India is surely the world leader in this matter. Meet Ramamritham - the quintessential member of this species.

Readers of this blog will know of my partiality to caricaturing a typical member of a group by a name. The Indian female has featured here so often that her name is now acquiring legendary proportions (pun intended). Having been accused of gender bias, I shall now strive to correct it with describing the masculine equivalent.

India abounds in Ramamrithams. Typically he comes from the state of Tamil Nadu or West Bengal - these two cultures seem to have a huge affinity for inhabiting the corridors of babudom. He takes great pleasure in designing the most elaborate and pointless of procedures. He squeals with orgasmic delight when he has the opportunity to add one more procedural step in an already lengthy treatise on pointlessness. The more the paperwork, the greater is his joy. The airport procedures that I alluded to here and here were designed by a particularly bright specimen of this tribe. He has also been behind the need to wave your photo identity card every 5 minutes at all and sundry - I think he is protecting you and me from an acute case of amnesia of our names and how we look. We shall pass lightly over the fact that being forced to look at my photo every now and then and being reminded of the passage of years is not improving my mood.

You can't escape meeting him. If you want a mobile phone, he's there. If you ask for a gas connection he's there. If you want a passport, a credit card ......, actually anything at all, you will have the full pleasure of meeting this wonderful man. If you are returning from abroad, and have to pick up the pieces of living in India, you will have the privilege of cohabiting with him intimately for a long time. Its now 4 months since I returned back, and he still hasn't left my house.

His latest fancy has been to give me his full attention in the small matter of obtaining a new credit card. He has decreed that not only should my address be verified, but my phone lines have also to be verified. Fair enough. Call me on my mobile, and you can verify it easily enough. He then wants to check on my land line as well. But then, our Ramamritham works only from 11.00 to 4.00 Mondays to Fridays. At that time, I am, alas, away toiling for my daily bread. Tring Tring he rings. No answer. He then calls me on my mobile and complains that I am not answering the landline ! Explanations of lack of geographical proximity don't cut much ice. Right; he can sit on my application grandly. As with wine, the older it gets, the sweeter it is.

I have movingly expressed my willingness to coo sweet nothings to him anytime on Saturday or Sunday , but weekend romance does not seem to catch his fancy. I have offered to bring the sainted instrument for him to caress in person, but his idea of intimacy does not seem to extend in that direction. I have even offered to overdose him with his first love - enough paper - to prove that the landline number is indeed mine , but he refuses to be titillated even by that ruse. He is steadfast, upright and represents the best of his tribe.

I hereby award the gold medal in bureaucracy to Ramamritham. May he flourish and conquer many new heights. May he continue to bring laurels to the country. And , no doubt, he will appear time and again, in this humble blog.

PS . All characters in this post are entirely fictional and the subject of this blogger's imagination and have no resemblance to any person living or dead.

21 November, 2010

Chicken Tikka Masala in Old Blighty

Chicken Tikka Masala is reputed to have taken over as the national dish of Britain. Perhaps the best example of reverse colonisation, although it must be said that overthrowing "British food" is not as great an achievement; such being the epicurean significance of the cuisine in Her Majesty's land. Actually its a Bangladeshi takeover, given that 99% of the curry houses in Britain are run by Bangladeshis. But we shall lightly pass over Bangladesh propagating "Balti"cusine" and such other monstrosities.

Stay with the chicken. British affinity to consuming this hapless avian is the only logic I can find (after much scratching of the head in vain) to explain the take over of Blackburn Rovers , a Premier League football team, by Venky's - an obscure chicken farming company from India.

Firstly the facts. Blackburn Rovers is a struggling middling football side in England. Its been bought out by Sri Venkateswara Hatcheries for £ 53 m , an Indian family firm, run by Anuradha Desai and her brothers. The takeover was completed yesterday and the team's home grounds are henceforth to be known as Venky's Ewood Park !

Foreigners taking over English clubs is not something new. It is mostly rich tycoons doing it for vanity - witness Roman Abramovic and Chelsea. They lose pots of money, but they don't care, for it barely makes a dent in their fortune. Owning a football club is like digging a hole and pouring money into it endlessly. Its the biggest dud when it comes to a business investment. Even Manchester United the most famous and richest of them all is financially in ruins. Nobody makes money except the players - its the only field where you can make outrageous salaries (think of a salary of £35000, ie Rs 25 lakhs per day) whether you perform or not.

Anuradha Desai does not fall in that boat. She is no playboy. She isn't a household name, even in India. She is known for prudently growing the company that her more illustrious father built. If she had a passion for football, it has thus far been well hidden. Beyond the usual blah blah that is made after any acquisition - we will grow together, we see a bright future, and such other rubbish, she displayed her ignorance of football by saying she is not going to pour money in to buy players. The economically challenged rabid English fan wants his favourite club to be owned by a zillionarie who'll write a blank cheque to buy every player on earth. He doesn't want to see prudent business principles.

There is zero brand value for this investment - can't imagine Venky's Chicken Tikka Masala in the menu. Sitting in the owner's box and watching Blackburn lose on a miserable cold and windy winter's day cannot be her idea of happiness. Back home in India, seeing handsome hulks sporting the Venky's logo on their football shirts is not going to make Rajalakshmi eat chicken.

Of all the bewildering acquisitions that happen in the business world, this must surely take the cake.

14 November, 2010

The sheer bliss inside the airport

It took us 74 minutes two weeks ago to enter the airport. It is now time to experience the blissful experience of actually being in.

Lets concretise the experience. Imagining you are taking an international flight out of Chennai airport, arguably the worst airport in the land. You may recall that the last step before being allowed entry into the hallowed portal is a painful check of your ticket and papers by an uniformed worthy. Immediately after you enter, within 10 yards, the same process repeats itself as you enter a fenced off area - another queue, another check.

You then proceed to yet another queue - this time to screen your baggage through an Xray machine . Not even in Timbuktu airport in Mali, which is essentially a cowshed, does this process take place. Huge queue. People on overloaded trolleys banging you from the back. Since Indians have a general disdain for queues, seven sub queues form which ultimately merge into one chaotic rugby scrum . And unique Chennai practice dictates that your bags be fed into the conveyor upside down - ostensibly the logic is that giving a through shaking of your bag is good for general health.

Having navigated this successfully, you then proceed to check in where it is an axiom that larger the flight, the smaller will be the number of open counters. No less than 5 persons will be at each counter - one operating and the others interfering. Inevitably each person checking in will have a slanging match on overweight baggage - after all every worthy has checked in with 100kgs which she is expecting to be taking for free. When told a firm No - she proceeds to open all her bags right here to retransfer stuff from one bag to another so that at least one bag could be left behind with the adoring multitudes who have come to see her off. So enough entertainment to occupy you for a full hour.

If you successfully navigate check in then you proceed to immigration. After the fall of the Soviet Union, India and North Korea stand unique among the league of nations where the immigration check for home nationals is more intense on the way out, than on the way in. He patiently flips through each page on your passport and wants to know why you are adding to his work by going somewhere - why can you not simply stay at home.

Then comes the famous security line. India stands unique in demanding that you put a silly baggage tag on your hand baggage which has got to be stamped - the most useless security measure I have seen anywhere in the world. Only one xray machine is working. There are no less than 7 people manning it - one feeding the bags, one seeing the stuff on the machine, one stamping that silly tag, and four resting. Just as your turn comes after 54 minutes of waiting, there come the cabin crew trooping in for your flight. They have priority, of course and you sigh as that lot jumps the queue. And just as you get ready to finally "make it" you are rudely shoved aside, by the Minister coming with a retinue of 12 all of whom have priority.

Phew. Past the security check, at last. Immediately your ears are bombarded with shrill announcements delivered at 1000 decibels and completely unintelligible. I am firmly convinced that the only criteria airlines use to select ground crew is that they must be completely in love with the sound of their own voices. Totally pointless announcements non stop, yelled in English, Hindi and the local language. Yelling for some passenger or the other to contact somebody or the other - and since they cannot get their names right, it makes for some comedy; the only saving grace. Announcing "boarding procedure" for a 20 seater aircraft which everybody ignores anyway. Asking you to check your baggage tack. Asking you to go to the loo.

The getting on to the plane. A long line has formed 2 hours before the plane is due to board. And since its late coming in from wherever its supposed to come from, its a three hour wait. Yet people love to queue up - there must be some intense satisfaction in getting on to the plane first ; a joy that has thus far eluded me. Maybe the fear that your seat may not be there if you are not the first to get in.

Aerobridges are only for ornamental purposes; they are not meant to be used. So you are told to stand on a rickety bus hanging on for dear life by the boot straps as the Lewis Hamilton wannabe shows off his braking and acceleration skills.

At last you get in. Only to find that the blighters before you have stuffed every available space overhead. The seat has basically been built for the pygmies of Andamans. You are wedged in the middle between two fat ladies who should have bought two tickets each to accommodate their bulk. Its 3 AM in the morning. Ah ! What bliss it has been.

07 November, 2010

The bridesmaid's hour cometh

Beijing, everybody knows. Shanghai, is equally well known. But most people's knowledge of China stops right there. The more enterprising will know of Shenzhen. But then , that's about it. The rest of China remains a mystery to many who have not ventured in that direction.

Well, its now Guangzhou's turn to be in the spotlight (pronounce the zh, like a j). The Asian Games start in Guangzhou on Friday, the 12th. It was my home city, until recently, and so, if I may, I will dress up the long suffering bridesmaid, as the bride that she will be for the next two weeks.

You may know Guangzhou better as Canton. The province in which Guangzhou is situated is called Guangdong which the British , long ago, transliterated to Canton. Confusingly, they ascribed the name to the city, not the province. But, even in Guangdong, the bride is often, the brash noveau riche, Shenzhen. Even in her backyard, Guangzhou remains a bridesmaid.

But for most of China's history, when the culture turned inward, the outside face was Guangzhou. It was always the most open and outward looking city. The Cantonese traveled far and wide in the world. Most of the "Chinatowns" that you see in every city in the world, is far more likely to be Cantonese. The Chinese food that you see internationally is mostly Cantonese. Even the infamous "Hakka Noodles" abomination that you see in India is of Cantonese origin.

What of the Asian Games ?? It will no doubt be a huge success ; Guangzhou has been preparing for it for years. It will have the usual Chinese efficiency, but it is likely to have more of a "heart" - something the Beijing Olympics lacked a bit. Cantonese are like that - they are less regimented and more spontaneous. The writ of Beijing lies like a heavy hand, up north, but down South where Guangzhou is, it is usually ignored.

The sport will be tremendous. In many disciplines, it will be a virtual World Championship - the only events where it will be short of world class will be Athletics and Swimming. China will sweep the medals, like always, but others will have their time in the sun too. For India, it will be a thud after the Commonwealth Games - those were far short of world class and India garnered a rich haul of medals. It won't be like that in Guangzhou where the standards will be much higher. But there will be quite a few high points.

From an Indian point of view, the star event will be the unglamorous 10m Air Rifle Event. In the Beijing Olympics, Gagan Narang, India's best bet faded away, but Abhinav Bhindra rose to win gold beating Zhu Qinan of China who had won the gold in Athens and was the favourite. Zhu was inconsolable and is desperate for revenge. But Narang is in terrific form as is Bhindra; it will be a great fight.

Vijender will win in boxing, but Sushil Kumar will have a tough fight against the Iranians in wrestling. Saina Nehwal, India's golden girl may struggle. Three Wangs stand in her way. On her day she can beat anybody, but to beat all three of them is a tall order. The women's 4*400 metres relay team will win gold. But the real high point for India may be the emergence of Tintu Luka. She's the favourite for the women's 800m, for long the domain of Shiny Wilson. She's a truly world class athlete emerging under the tutelage of PT Usha. In the Commonwealth Games she stood no chance against the Africans. But in Asia, she can, and should, win. She's young and rapidly growing, and will be the star of the future for Indian athletics.

So tune on the Telly. Watch the sport, but also enjoy the sights and sounds of "my city". She'll be at her best and wonderfully beautiful. Viva Guangzhou.