Author: arunava

Travels 2 –Seville :: Of Game of Thrones, white villages, pig cheeks and blood sport

It’s often said that even the best of mothers have a favorite child, for us, Seville was the favorite child- The best city of our trip. The place where we truly experienced Spain and Andalucía.

First a bit of history (Yes with me history is obvious) Seville was once the most important city in Spain. Ships from here would facilitate trade between Europe and the entire new world of Americas. As its river silted up, access to the ocean dried up and better port cities opened up Seville went into a slowdown- But its culture and enterprise still thrived. But even before this there were interesting events in Seville. Most of Spain was under Muslim rule and called as Al Andalus ( thus the name Andalucía) for many centuries leaving their imprint which is visible even today. (It is said that this was a golden age of enlightenment where scientific knowledge and tolerance co-existed- Barrack Obama too referred to the same during his historic speech in Cairo) However, the catholic kings slowly over the course of many centuries defeated the Muslim Arab rulers and finally united all of Spain only in 1492.

timeline

Everyone travels for different reasons—luxury, de-stressing, history, adventure and more. But at a very simple dumbed down level the travels that we enjoy the most are the ones that make us feel something. Something special, something memorable. Seville was exactly that. Made us feel special. It charmed us with its streets, caressed our taste buds, delighted us with its small quaint villages and impressed us with its historical monuments.

So let me start recounting the days in Seville and around.

Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye ( lets have something sweet) That’s how Indians celebrate and that’s how our trip in Seville began ( well before that we had an early morning flight, a pleasant drive and meeting our wonderful host – the most friendly  among all our AirBnB hosts – Susanna )

The beginning was the Spanish specialty of Churros and Chocolate. These are fluffy and lightly flavored fried dough sticks had by dipping in thick rick chocolate.

Churros

Churros

We had these at the cafe at the Hotel Puerta de Sevillea a historic boutique hotel. But the Churros were made not by the hotel but by a local guy who comes and sets up shop there. We noticed a bunch of locals enjoying as well as packing churros after their Sunday morning mass. Generally, a place where locals visit is a great spot.

Churros done we proceeded to WALK. Yes, the best way to explore small cities and towns is to just walk these quaint roads and soak it all in. And Seville has many of them..….  Small cobblestoned streets –no vehicles and interspersed with cafes and souvenir shops. As you walk on these pretty parts you are transported to medieval ages—you can imagine, knights, common folk walking, conspiracies being hatched, succession wars.  Getting lost here is part of the fun.

Streets of Seville

Charged up with coffee we continued towards the central square to come across this historic fountain. From there we moved to one of the prettiest parts of town—The Jewish quarter.  Almost all Spanish cities and more so in Andalucía have the three things a church/ cathedral, an Alcazar (or fort/palace) and a Jewish Quarter. The Jewish quarter here was quaint and pretty— again small streets but really well decorated with really friendly people. (In Spain people really really love their floral decorations) what struck me here is how these streets remain so clean and pretty despite so many restaurants. It’s one thing to build clean cities like Singapore, Dubai but doing so in a place which is 500+ years old is surprising.

friendlysevilians

Friendly People of Seville

Done with the Jewish quarter walk we went into the cathedral and what a cathedral it was – The world’s 3rd largest cathedral and the largest Gothic one in the world! You walk in and see the stunning nave and altar.

As with many cathedrals in Spain, this was originally a mosque, which was first chrisitianized ( by installing an altar and changing the orientation ) and then destroyed and converted into a cathedral. But in Seville , they didn’t want to build just another cathedral– In their words “Lets build a church so beautiful that those who see it, think we were mad”. No wonder it took them more than 100 years to make.

Facets of the Cathedral

Among the other important delights here – The tomb of Christopher Columbus – the man who discovered America. Apparently, his body traveled as much as he did till finally resting in the city where his ambitious plan to find a sea route to India was approved. Other important things here are brilliant pieces of art such as and in the treasury a jewelry box from Gujarat, India.

Monuments done we move to a unique Spanish experience- A Blood Sport- Bull Fighting

Indeed, Bull fighting is very very controversial – Animals are used for entertaining slaughter, it’s barbaric and possibly medieval. But Spain is also one of the only 3 countries where it still happens and is very popular here. So we just had to experience it.  The pageantry, the pomp was brilliant. In a moderately big stadium with an evening sun –it did feel like a roman arena. In the course of a typical bull fight, 6 bulls fight one by one with different types of matadors with the chief ones finally killing it off leaving behind blood and gore on the ground. I wouldn’t go into the details of the kills and the sport. The sight of locals enjoying an evening of sport and admiring with rousing applause flourishes in style, deft moves and the final plunge of the sword– It was surreal. It is practically like you being in Lords and giving a gently clapping to an elegant flick for a boundary, only here with a flick the matador dodges a multi ton beast trying to save himself…. Majestuosobullfight

Day 2 began with a trip out of Seville into the countryside for what is called the white villages. This was the only “guided tour” we took and were a bit disappointed- My advice avoid guided tours where possible. In this tour, we covered 2 white villages (Zahara de la Sierra and Guadalquivir), views of a stunning lake and finally the historic Ronda

The villages are the small ones with populations of around 7 to 10k. But are completely white washed and decorated with flowers everywhere.  No monuments to see but just experience the views, stroll the pretty streets, sample local delights like a peculiar goat cheese and pastries and pause and reflect….

The final stop Ronda, an old village city occupied since roman times is famous for its iconic bridge( actually there are 2-3 of them-built by romans, then Arabs and then Christians). It was great to go search for this old bridge through narrow winding medieval stairs. In the process, we also discovered the age old Arab Baths of Ronda

Also on the trip, we stopped at a dilapidated castle. As with most castles this too was purely for military reasons, however, this was not to guard a territory but to secure the underground natural water reservoir. The ramparts tempt you to act as archer protecting this arid region’s gold—its precious water.

It’s time to go to the “Pig Cheeks” mentioned in the title—that is time for gastronomy which was incredible here. Now is a time to give a shoutout to one of my favorite food bloggers Kalyan ( http://www.finelychopped.net/2013/02/in-shawn-hennesseys-seville.html ) whose blogs helped me zero in on some great dining options in Seville. His blog also led me to another one due to which I discovered Los Galondrinas 2 (http://azahar-sevilla.com/sevilletapas/2008/02/las-golondrinas-ii/ ) where I had the aforementioned pig cheeks. Also an exquisite squid.

This highly recommended restaurant is frequented by locals enjoying their evening tapas and drinks. (The concept of Tapas are just small portions, ideal for doing bar walks – a drink, a small meal conversations and then off to the next stop.) This restaurant is located in Triana a lovely suburb of Seville famous for its ceramic tiles which are used all over Seville to decorate streets to royal houses. To reach Triana one has to cross a pretty bridge over the local river.

Bridgeto Triana

Bridge to Triana

Coming back to the food despite sounding weird, it did taste good –soft and flavorful meat carved from the cheeks obviously.

Other great gastronomy delights were a light and lovely pig stew at La Teresa paired with Spanish champagne. Great seafood at  Café Gusto—we had an intense black pasta, roast chicken, and lobster pasta too. A special mention for the flavorful oxtail at Vineria San Telmo. The first day we were too late to this restaurant—it shuts at midnight on weekdays ( How un-Spanish ) So we made it a point to be on time the next day and we were not disappointed—Succulent meat in filo pastries and we also sampled that piece of forbidden heaven known as Foie Gras. Simply Brilliant. But still, the oxtail was the winner of the night.

It was also in Seville that I sampled for the first time the Tinto Verrano – this refreshing Spanish wine based cocktail. The Spanish, unlike the French, are not in uptight about their wine and love to play with it enhancing it to another level much more suited to its relaxed vibe and weather.

The only major major disappointment we somehow missed out on food pics (we compensated in other cities) and thus no food porn pics

Enough of gastronomy- let’s look at our final day with the most important of places in Seville – Its royal fort and palace known as Alcazar. Also, the place where Dorne of Game of Thrones is shot.

Having the same view as the royals of House Martell

The Alcazar also has the royal quarters where the current royal family stays when they visit Seville. The quarters make for an amazing 45 minute tour. But make sure that you book it in advance as you can never just walk in and get the ticket. Though highly controlled with no photography allowed, it was good to get a close look at how the royals of the past lived, the changes in furnishing which went in sync with their political condition and beliefs.

Parts of the Alcazar

Once the royal tour was done we started with seeing the different amazing parts of the Alcazar and its fabulous gardens.

It was here that we saw the hall where Queen Isabella agreed to fund Christopher Columbus’ journey and a replica of Columbus’ ships that discovered America. Also the medieval palaces and wonderful rooms at times ostentatious at times functional never boring.

We then moved to the beautiful open public space of La Esapana and Maria Lucia Park. But not before watching talented street performers enthralling us with a rendition of the famous flamenco dance.

La Espana was a pavilion built for an expo in the 1920s. The pavilion –just like our very own Pragati Maidan.

It highlights the different architectural styles of Seville from the Islamic Mudejar to the gothic and interspersed with the famous ceramic.

Plaza

Plaza de Espana

Adjoining it is the lovely gardens of Maria Lucia —

Cool green park with fountains and occasional animals makes for a wonderful place for picnic or cycle rides or just romantics walks…

park

To conclude our sevillian sojourn we had a nice walk in the main tourist district and admired the cathedral and its tower one last time—this time at night.

nightcathedral2

Seville will forever remain with me. In school, I had read a phrase—Like a perfume so hard to describe so easy to recognize. That’s what Seville’s charm for us was.

Bye bye Seville

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As Shakespeare said to bias or not to bias

Sunday morning – I woke up with a strong desire to overcome my laziness and finish my part 2 Travel blog. But as they say the best laid plans of men and mice…. I came upon this brilliant piece of journalism on the famous Kanwar yatra in Hindustan Times (http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/shiva-s-band-of-men-into-the-world-of-the-kanwariyas/story-4Z6ocbSPL2PoaSshyl1KwN.html )

A bit of a background- The Kanwar yatra is a famous religious pilgrimage in North India wherein devotees walk all the way to Gangotri to collect water from the Ganga which is then poured on the shivlings in their villages. Of late as with many large religious gatherings the scale of the yatra has increased and it has become more socio cultural in nature

But the article promises an in-depth coverage but instead gives out prejudiced opinion Here I deconstruct some brilliant lines from this piece. Snippets from the article are in Italics.

“Thousands of young men taking over every inch of public space to do what they think is their right – walking, running, driving, dancing, dressing, undressing, bathing, sleeping…”

Oh my God, these uncouth people how the hell do they have a right to walk, run and drive in the space shared with us.

And bathing like this….. How dare they offend us with their bodies?

Bathing

(Above Picture from the said article)

Can’t they be more stylish and enjoy themselves in an appropriate fashion like below. “Zara ke dukaan kam pad gaye kya”

Bieberfan
(The above picture is from an article from rediff  ( https://goo.gl/nS9H9V ) of stylish fans in a Justin Bieber concert. )

Kanwariyas make headlines for coming in the way of law and order. This season alone, Kanwariyas have been in the news for falling off trains, being electrocuted on a street, being hit by a bus…”

These morons – how dare they break the law& order by being hit by a bus?

“But who are these young men taking over the streets in much of north India and why is everyone afraid of them? For one, they are armed with hockey sticks.”

Oh my God! They are armed with hockey sticks in this peaceful city with absolutely no road rage.

“All of these men were born in the same village, belong to the same caste – Mali (OBC) “

Yes, let me run them down by mentioning the caste and then just to complete the job mention OBC in parentheses. For a supposedly detailed article let me not bother to get a holistic profile. Ideally, caste should have been avoided but if it had to be mentioned it should have been worded like this —that the only group I met among 20 million pilgrims were from this particular community.

“He is a small man with dark skin, high cheekbones and sunken eyes. “

Shee Shee. He is small and has sunken eyes… Caste run down done, appearance rundown done now let’s move to economic run down……

He and his friends make up the first generation of men in their families to work outside the fields; only one of them has gone to high school. Naresh himself dropped out in fifth grade to support his family. A vegetable vendor, Naresh makes Rs 15,000 a month and saves at least Rs 7,000 through the year to put in the Kanwar kitty. “Why spend the saving on Kanwar?” I ask him.

  • Chalo economic rundown doe.
  • School dropout, vegetable vendor, and 15k a month—The contempt just drips…
  • Why save and follow your passion for a few days in the year. How dare they dream of a road trip? Who the hell do they think they are – Do they think they are cool bikers on their Harleys, Triumphs, Ducatis, And Bullets ( middle class wannabes are also OK ) going to Ladakh

“A vast majority of Kanwariyas are young men from low-income families in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan who are themselves hanging on to the edges of the informal economy as drivers, laborers and security guards. The four words – Bhole has called me – are uttered less in devotion and more as a code for escape from the uncertainties of their daily lives, from chances of earning fixed wages to chances of finding a good wife. The Kanwar Yatra is their one chance to prove their talents – physical strength, resourcefulness, wit – without being faced with market realities.”

How dare they have escapist fantasies? Don’t they realize that they are poor help who can dream of such things? They are so disgusting that they can’t earn properly or get good partners and they dare to dream. Anyways what do they have in real life: strength, resourcefulness wit—useless skills.

“Apparently, only a man can understand what a Kanwar yatra means to another man. Married for four years, Naresh has never brought his wife along on a Kanwar trip.”

These uncouth people—they can have no concept of male bonding –who the hell do they think they are—characters from Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara that they can do a male bonding trip. (And no its not harassment when you sing — ‘Mujhko baahon mein tum ghero Samjhi Na senorita’. They are not classless poor people-they can buy Birkins)

“Delhi this is when Naresh and his friends come face to face with an urban middle class they only provide their services to otherwise. “

Finally, these louts are in Delhi—don’t they realize in this city they can only serve as cheap laborers as I have previously mentioned and not enjoy like us.

And create traffic—who the hell do they think they are? Are they a fashionable marriage party?

DelhiTraffic

From the HT archive. But middle class celebrations do not cause any inconvenience

“To have a good time with friends. To have fun,” he says, sharing on Facebook a selfie he has just taken with me.

On a serious note, that is the one line that touched me. Ultimately some (unlike the ‘journalist’ I can’t generalize and I agree that there are some bad elements in every gathering thus I use the word some) of these young men are just like us. Want some fun.

Not for once am I suggesting that the Kanwar yatra is all pristine and innocent. As per the journalists own figure 20 million people take part—even a fraction of these people being unpleasant elements will have a large impact. What I am against is the outright condescending and prejudiced article that reeks of arrogance.

Most of the so called sins of the Kanwars have been committed by practically each and every rock concert. Recently Justin Bieber had a 3 hour concert in Mumbai and it left the city in a chaos with people struggling on the road for hours, the venue was left incredibly dirty with the educated, ‘class-wale’ log strewing food and beverages everywhere. So many of us have either gone drunk or smuggled alcohol or other contra band into concerts. Two years back I was in Ahmedabad and attended an Arijit Concert- the new city with barely any traffic was choked up and the lesser said the better about the behavior inside the venue. It was so surprising then that my own class mates from Ahmedabad were complaining about the Kanwars. Forget concerts, even the few IPL matches held in Mumbai cause the same problems. The lane behind Taj is invariably jam packed after the match with people boozing up at Gokul and having kebabs at Bademiyan.

And it’s not just the Kanwars and this journalist–whenever there are mass gatherings of people who are not like us we upper classes invariably react this way. Obviously, the number of people who gather in such event will be more, much more than those at a rupees 10k, 3 hour concert and thus the impact may seem different. But the basic principles are the same.

Biebermess

A sample of what happens whenever crowds gather

 

One of my friends pointed out to me that it is natural to be prejudiced, however, a relative put it more colloquially in Bengali—Loosely translated – Your own farts don’t stink.

Maybe we can try to be more compassionate towards others, towards those who are not as fortunate as us—who can’t live the way we do. It doesn’t mean that we should condone all activities and encourage litter and congestion. But it also means that we should tolerate public celebration during Ganpati Visarjan and not abuse them for dancing on the streets of their own country while we dream of having our own Mardi gras or Tomatina.

I for one support and encourage occasional public celebration irrespective of class or religion. I am all for concerts and religious processions. I believe the authorities both police and civic should manage these events better (they largely do so). The over worked cops managing traffic should get extra wages ideally from the organizers. They can rope in organizers to ensure that people are educated on civic behavior so that neither Kanwars cause a mess on Delhi streets nor do Beliebers strew food all over the venue.

We may be an imperfect nation but we are a nation of equals. We all have our own problems which are hard very hard but as the young Kanwar, Vikram said—sometimes we just want to have fun and click a selfie with friends while grooving to a techno version of har har mahadev or shape of you or better both.

 

 

 

Travels……..

Why do we write about our travels?  In today’s era where great cameras, software, and filters can make even amateur photographers look like champions, where goggle earth lets you take 360 degree tours, where talented bloggers pour poetry into monuments—why should I write about my experiences.

Is it because we want to pen down how we feel, Is it because we have more to say than FB check ins/ posts, is it because we are all today in need of public gratification equated to likes, is it because we want to write down small details before we forget, is it because it will serve as a reminder to future self about what we liked/ did not like. For me, it appears as a mix of all these reasons and a few more. Thus here goes my travelogue about Spain. I shall write this in 3 or 4 pieces covering the cities we visited and the experiences we had.

But first a bit of introduction

Spain – Why Spain?

Spain is one of the world’s most visited destinations but strangely figures low on the priority list for Indian travelers who generally look at France, Switzerland, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Greece, Germany and even Eastern Europe. Frankly, you can take a map of Europe and throw a pin and you will find beauty, art, culture, and history. What piqued my interest were some discussions with friends who have previously visited, basic googling. Also, other factors played a role—We wanted to complete the trip by June, didn’t want too cold a place thus ruling out eastern parts of Europe, some budget restrictions, some members of our family had already visited France, Italy Netherlands. Thus we zeroed in on Spain. Members—Yes, both my wife and I wanted to take our parents (who haven’t travelled much out of Asia) to a big tour of Europe (bucket list maybe?) And thus our trip was now a big family vacation.

Sometime I may write on how once can budget, plan and execute an ideal vacation. But for now, let me talk about our first city–Barcelona.

A teacher once told me that Calcutta is the only city in India which has a soul- I don’t know about the ‘soulless-ness’ of other Indian cities but I am very sure that Barcelona indeed has a soul and its architecture goes a long way in contributing to that. Impressive, different, thought provoking, not beholden to ancient norms the architecture in Barcelona is a reflection of the city itself. One that has a strong streak of independent thinking evident in the strong sentiment of Catalonia. Locals here prefer you speak in Catalan and not Spanish, houses still display the Catalonian flag- people of Barcelona are proud of their autonomous heritage and status.

Going back to architecture–Antoni Gaudi was the leading contributor to its architecture.  Basically, what Sachin Tendulkar is to cricket in India, Gaudi was to architecture in Barcelona in the late 19th and early 20th century. Modernista Architecture came into global reckoning and Gaudi was one of the leading proponents. His flagship creation (still being created though) is the incredible Sagrada Familia Church (Holy Family Church) which we visited as among our first sites in Barcelona on a sunny yet cool morning.

One can see the exterior as one steps out from the metro and it stuns you with visual delight. But it’s the interior, the massive towers, the carvings— basically what the church as a whole does to you, is what’s important. It stuns you and compels you to bow your head in devotion. And that’s exactly what Gaudi intended. A masterpiece with a vision.

(The front or nativity facade, the ceiling and the layout of the alter)

When Gaudi started work on the project he knew it would never be completed in his lifetime and thus famously said “My Client (God) has no scarcity of time” and is still being constructed (for more than 100 years hoping to complete it in 2026- the centenary of Gaudi’s death yes ‘hoping’) In fact today architects are leading the construction using some of his diagrams and their interpretation (as most of the sketches were lost during the Spanish Civil war)

Gaudi was inspired a lot by nature and thus the interior of the church appears like a rain forest with stunning stained glass windows that plays with sunlight enhancing it and bathing the church indifferent hues. He even uses sunlight to showcase God as light right above the altar with the stunning suspended Christ looking up to it. Quite Pagan If I may say so. But expected from Gaudi. He did say the sun is the best painter.

DSCN0212

( Painting by the sun– natural light used for different hues)

We did go up the towers but that was a complete disappointment. Frankly, most of the tower climbing anywhere is gimmicky and touristy unless you can go seriously high.

After this experience, we moved on to Park Guell. The true mark of a genius is often measured by how ‘before time’ his or her ideas were. And the true pioneering ideas invariably fail! And Park Guell is exactly that- A big failure! More than 100 years ago a rich man Guell proposed a radical idea – An exclusive gated community of grand houses on a hill top amidst greenery overlooking the city designed by one of the world’s best architects- Gaudi something like the Hamptons in New York.  And the rich felt we can’t leave the squalor of the city behind and move to luxury villas-They rejected the idea with no houses being built ( barring the guard’s quarters only grand pavilions, amphitheaters, walkways ) Alas Guell only had the genius of Gaudi with him and not that of Unitechs/ Ansals and thus he went bankrupt. So this gated community is now a paid park for tourists to enjoy.

One of the few completed buildings –

DSCN0258(The Guard or manager tower. Basically watchman uncle’s hut!!)

Similarly, other Gaudi buildings evoke different feelings from amazement at Casa Batillo with its lack of straight edges to the impressive Palau Guell.

But I dont want this to be an architecture lesson , so lets got to the beach-clean blue Barcelona beaches….. Barcelona beaches are said to be the best city beaches in the world. Dotted with walkways, sitting, play zones, the beach is truly pleasant for a stroll and a dip in the deep blue waters (unlike the grey seas here).

beach

We ended the day with the magical magic fountain. Something about grand massive structures really enthralls me. And it rarely gets grander than this — a massive fountain in front of the Grand National Arts plaza. Barcelona was one brilliant day

If day one was about the brilliance of modernism and Gaudi, day 2 took us back a few centuries. We walked on the centuries old gothic quarters absorbing delights like a 12th century Church (Church of Santa Anna) which was at the same time beautiful and eerie—One can imagine a reboot of Omen to be shot there J. But first we began the day with a lovely ice cream (yes we can have ice cream as a second breakfast- we shouldn’t be Nazis about when to have ice cream) at the Planelles Donat delighting their customers with ice cream since 1850 ( yes centuries old that is a running theme across Spain or most of Europe ).  Strolling through the Plaza Catalunya, one understands how cities can marry modernity, antiquity, and tourism.

( A 12th century church flanked by modern buildings)

Enjoying the walk we ended up in front of a massive cathedral. Our guide books told us that this was the Barcelona Cathedral—we were wondering whether we should shell out the entry fee as we had many cathedrals lined up. But we did…and was I glad that we did. The interior is stunning. One look and we were blown away. Very very different from the modernist Sagrada Familia but equally stunning. Standing in front of the altar you feel transported to a period film—you can practically imagine The Knights Templar or other orders marching by and grand ceremonies.

Image borrowed from a super talented photographer friend and colleague Babul Bhatt ( http://www.babulbhatt.com/ )

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We followed the church visit with some of the key touristic things like a walk in the gothic quarter, looking at the brilliant street architecture of gargoyles and arched balconies, the buzzing street La Ramblas and finally a monument dedicated to Columbus. In all this, we also covered the famous market – not for faint hearted vegetarians with lots and lots of sea food being sold there. The day ended with a walk through Arc de Triomphe and Park, The Park was great with its central waterfall however after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this one was a tad bit disappointing.

DSCN0424

Our packed schedule in Barcelona didn’t give us much time to enjoy gastronomical delights but we did find a brilliant paella place and tried the famous black squid ink paella. Our only regret was not allocating good time to explore great eats. But we made up for that in the next few cities…….

With this, I end my tales of Barcelona and leave you with this delightful song…

Storytelling

These paintings are among the most famous in the world. What is so unique about these are some of the oldest art in the world. From 7000 to 15000 years old. One from South Africa and the other in central India.  There have been similar cave paintings discovered in all corners of the world. What is remarkable is that man at different periods of time not connected with his peers in other parts of the world decided to etch his thoughts on the cave? Why we wonder for there was no medieval court to commission art? No auctions of millions? And definitely, no likes and shares to be earned on social media.

I believe it is because man has always wanted to tell stories.  Art is one of the most powerful ways to do so. But it’s not the only one. Each civilization has tales whether Iliad’s odyssey or Vyasa’s Mahabharata or Incan stories of Viracocha. One can argue that there are different reasons create memories, religious (Ramayana or Da Vinci’s Last Supper) politics (Jacques- Louis David’s Coronation of Napoleon)   But at its crux man is telling a story. A story to compatriots, to subsequent generations even to the vanquished.

We are a species that make/ draw/ enact/ stories.  That is one of the many common threads among all humans.

Why then do we forget to tell stories when we conduct business? What is a story in a business context you may ask? Is it about a beginning and a happily ever after. No! A story here is less tangible.  It is, in fact, more to do with what you feel/ visualize/ imagine when you interact with a business. Remember the old era Parsi cafes of Mumbai, the Taj Hotels, finely crafted Benarasi sarees and others. Are such experiences only those of nostalgia then – Definitely No. Look at Tanishq and specifically Tanishq Mia which conveys stories of more contemporary times

Stories are essentially what a business communicates about itself which could range from its legacy to the experiences it brings to the customer.

I am lucky to have worked with one organization which stressed on selling via stories. At Salesforce.com we were told to share stories to our customers.  How in the B2B context is story telling important one may wonder? It is about stitching a narrative so that your customer can imagine your solution, it’s moving beyond the product features into what the product can do for YOU. It is about sharing personal stories. It is about building trust.

Before we do that we must identify the villain in the room, that stops us from doing the necessary —POWERPOINT. From using it as a powerful presentation tool we have gone to make it as our thinking tool. Most meeting preparation today begins with a discussion on how many slides are needed and what the headers will be. We have stopped thinking, talking about the idea that we are proposing. We have stopped thinking about the story or what we want the client to imagine.

An important component in storytelling is how we tell the story. I have observed that more often than not our stories are incredibly mundane. Worse than having no stories is having one that is boring. We tell our customers to buy us because we have 6 more features than our competitors. We share customer references by throwing some names but we never go beyond that. Our stories are simply not relevant! We do not tie the ends, we never stitch a story that connects—what happened when other organizations like you bought my software what did we succeed at what did we fail at, what legacy you the customer share when you stay in my hotel. These should be our talking points.

Recently on a flight, I was given a sample of a perfume launched by Titan- Skinn. It proudly and boldly said crafted in France and in small print said manufactured in Uttar Pradesh! As one of my friends suggested a perfumer is a perfect example to tell a story- use our history of royal families to craft and sell a perfume based solidly on a heritage of splendor. Instead, we choose gimmickry which is to use the cliché putting lipstick on a pig.

Till we do not start telling stories, we will continue hearing how Brand A kills 98% germs and Brand B kills 98.6% germs.

 

In defense of marketing

A few days back, I was in the midst of a heated political debate. A point that was repeatedly thrown around was how “X” is only a good marketeer whereas the others only failure is a lack of marketing. This is not the place for political discussions and I shall not delve into the merits or demerits of X. What I observe is that people often make this allegation that XYZ is only good at marketing—In the heydays of Apple vs Microsoft it was said that Bill Gates knows to market well whereas Steve Jobs doesn’t ( that argument has long been settled ) Aamir Khan is a better actor SRK is a better marketeer . What is implicit in this argument is that marketing at best overrides underlying faults in the product/ service or at worst is bad for the consumers. And that marketing is often equal to shouting from rooftops. For many marketing is many a times a slur.

In my opinion, this is a wrong interpretation.

The reason for such analysis is most people mistakenly equate marketing to advertising. Nothing can be further from the truth. The hoardings, the commercials, celebrity endorsements, reality show appearance is a small component of marketing.

Indeed few people do recognize this. Thus in the aftermath of a recent election, a lot of analysts kept saying that a particular consultant failed as he did not have a good product to market. Though true the statement is significantly incomplete.  Marketing is not shouting about a good product. In my opinion, it transcends almost all aspects of business. A good marketing strategy is not limited to deciding on a good product and then promoting it. It is about planning and executing every tiny nut and bolt of the business.

But many people don’t get this. In fact, even one of my professors had said that marketing and operations are often at loggerheads. It was only later when I took a class with one among many legendary professors at IIM Ahmedabad (Prof. Saral Mukherjee) did I realize that this statement is incorrect. He shared with us the famous Dominos Ad with Paresh Rawal- 30 minutes Nahin toh free (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lhq9jRnH_8E ). Many of us continue to remember the advert even though it aired many years back. In fact what it has done is cemented in our minds that Dominoes delivers pizza fast. (There are many other Pizza chains but how many such adverts do you recall?) An average marketer would have brought in the top rated celeb, at a huge budget, who would have stared into the camera and asked viewers to order a Pizza like He/she does. The consumers, on the other hand, may think—“Yeah right this perfectly chiseled Greek God/Goddess gorges on 12 inches of flour and cheese” This is similar to Hrithik Roshan endorsing Rupa underwear. You expect consumers to believe that a mega star who makes millions of dollars a year goes on a date with a Rado, a Canali suit, and a Rupa Macroman? (There are clear advantages of such ads and we will discuss that in a subsequent post)

Now coming to what a good marketer would do. He or She would get a character actor like Paresh Rawal and with a good agency create a script and jingle that connects. In the background, he or she ensure a stable network of kitchen and delivery centers such that despite Mumbai rains and traffic, you get pizza delivered within 30 minutes. We, consumers, are enthralled by the creativity, and rightly so, however, the genius lies in the entire execution creating a competitive advantage that still endures.

This brings me to my final insight on marketing for today which too was developed during my post-graduation. Good marketing invariably results in a strong and successful brand. A successful brand provides consistent, relevant value to the consumers (with value being benefit minus price) Look around and you will see this occurring in most products and services we repeatedly choose. Thus an Audi or BMW, as well as a Maruti Suzuki, works since both provide relevant consistent benefit (relevant being the operative word here)

It is believed that Mahatma Gandhi had said that “the customer is the most important person”. It’s marketing that gets him there, but more importantly, it’s marketing execution that will retain him/her. Yes, the means of communication will be in a state of constant change from print to television to digital to one-on-one influencers. Yes, there are organizations where marketing does not play a key role. However, it’s also true that only when marketing delivers value that businesses succeed and thrive. And thus you will often notice that marketing is the most important function for a CEO.

So the next time you think that marketing is all about billboards and advertisements remember that Xiaomi has had every single sale sold out in seconds whereas Micromax is struggling despite Hugh Jackman on billboards, newspapers, and commercials.

 

 

 

Answering the Aadhaar criticism

Last few days I have heard many arguments on social media and some news channels on how Aadhaar is evil and how the government is setting up something intrusive. Frankly, I was unable to find any strong arguments. What I found I have tried to counter here. I am open to other arguments on negative effects of Aadhaar.

The arguments

  • While today you support the government, tomorrow another government may come in. What if that government/ dictator wants to conduct a genocide – Such a powerful database at their hands will be disastrous. Honestly, I have heard of no dictator that went— “Let me kill a few hundred thousand people, Wait I don’t have a nice database. Ok, plan canceled let’s go and sip some Cosmopolitans”. In the past in Delhi 84, Mumbai 92, Gujarat 02 people have been targeted using voter rolls, if someone wants to do mass murder the lack of a national identity registry will not stop him or her.
  • It is intrusive – could be but this also the country where Arun Jaitley’s phone was tapped and even Pranab Mukherjee as finance minister received a call—Sir, do you want a personal
  • Violation of privacy – We live in a world driven by Facebook and Google we are looking at privacy far off in the rearview Every time you click one of those “Which historic seducer/seductress do you look like” apps you give an unknown entity (maybe Korean/ Russian/ Chinese hackers) information such as who you are, where you work, where you went to school and others. Even a simple game like Candy Crush can get your full Facebook profile. Google knows more about you than your spouse generally does. Most criminal cases in India today are cracked by police getting access to phone location records ( most often without a formal magistrate’s order)
  • Security and Private sector companies such as Jio getting access to your fingerprints. This is patently false –what happens is the Aadhaar platform can be accessed by APIs which returns fingerprint in an encrypted mode which is just checked by the Jio platform and not stored by them. It’s similar to keeping your first crush’s name as your bank password. Don’t worry your bank doesn’t know about the special one that got away.

Further, nobody seems to have a problem using fingerprint unlock on your phones even those made by Chinese companies with dodgy ownership. As with any technical trend fingerprint security on phones has reached maturity level and will be widespread on almost all devices. It is strange that we can’t trust one of India’s largest listed firms using our data from our own government managed platform but are gladly providing fingerprints to the Oppos/ Xiaomi/ Vivo’s of the world.

Yes nothing in the world is fully secure ( ask Hillary Clinton) but that said we can make continuous improvement on this.- Ensure that encryption levels are strong, data is stored on secure Militarized Zones and security regularly certified by third-party auditors.

  • Someone even told me that in future fingerprints could be stolen and put on murder weapons or used for other frauds. The problem with this argument is that once we start talking about what ifs in the future we can’t stop—what if robots take over, what if Skynet rules the world. Should we then start building terminators or better still Terminators riding Transformer trucks dressed in an Iron Man suit?

On a serious note as of today such technology is not available if and when it becomes easy to get your fingerprint on a pen drive and put it on a knife fingerprints will not be acceptable evidence in the same way as many medieval methods are no longer admissible in court.

It may sound like all these arguments apply for the upper echelons of society. It is not. I am from Mumbai, this is a city where literally thousands of people daily drop their pants and defecate on rail tracks in front of another million traveling in a train. So critics want to go to someone who forever has been relieving himself in public and tell him that Aadhaar may give you some benefits but take away your privacy. The irony sings

As I mentioned earlier Aadhaar will largely help government deliver subsidies and benefits to the underprivileged and help reduce leakages (more on that later) however most of the arguments are from the affluent section of society who are exposed to these risks from other sources. For example, any travel to US, UK or Schengen countries requires bio-metric applications. Strangely it is OK with giving biometrics to foreigners but not to Indians. In fact the bio-metrics along with bank statements, IT returns and others are given to not just a foreign country but private unregulated companies who manage visa processing. No one has ever protested against that.

A valid counter-argument is that such details (including Google? Facebook information even if we never read terms and conditions) are given voluntarily whereas the Government is trying to force us.  The reason you need to push people to get an Aadhaar card is for any system like this to succeed you need nearly 100% compliance. For example, it will be pointless if tax filings with Aadhaar are optional— It will defeat the purpose of ensuring that dummy returns are not filed.

Here the other aspect of Aadhaar comes in. Any government scheme/interface is at best non-comprehensive at worst full of holes. The ration card is completely corrupted with multiple fakes. The PAN Card has not even hit half the population and yet has many dummy PAN numbers, the Passport even less coverage. We have to use a national ID to roll out services in a manner without leakages. Few weeks backs thousands of fake students were discovered in the midday meal program, there are apparently 31million fake National Employment Guarantee cards. The NREGA gives every card holder 100 days of paid employment—imagine the loot 31m * 100 days of employment at the rate of at least Rs100 per day!!

Thus the necessity of Aadhaar is to deliver the correct subsidy to the correct person at the lowest cost. The fact that Aadhaar today has the highest penetration among national documents and with an added layer of biometrics opens it up for multiple use cases of delivering governance and preventing fraud. It is this very Indian necessity of fraud prevention, due to which we need biometrics unlike Social Security numbers of other countries.

All said and done frauds can happen (a few instances with Aadhaar has happened) but those, in my opinion, are risks which will happen in any initiative in any sphere. More people die due to bicycle accidents than flying –DO we stop our kids from cycling? The answer is being careful and getting the maximum benefit and that is where we are moving with payments and taxation being enabled and empowered through the Aadhaar platform.

To end I will cite a personal instance. After my twelfth grade, as many other confused students, I tried backing up my engineering chances with a career in medicine ( don’t ask me why?). I actually had a decent entrance score and I was eligible for a dentistry seat at one of Mumbai’s best dental colleges. At that time you needed to prove via a domicile certificate that you have lived in Maharashtra for more than 15 years for a medical seat. My father in his naivety thought that since I had the birth certificate of Mumbai and 14 years of formal education in Mumbai and residence proof I don’t need a certificate which states that I live here for 15 years. On the verge of paying my fees, my admission was denied as I didn’t have a domicile certificate. By the time I finally got one it was too late. Aadhaar may or may not solve such bureaucratic mess what I know is the Aadhaar platform and other digital services can only help in reducing pain and delivering benefits to the common man.

Lets talk insurance Mr O’Brien.

Most middle class kids in India have grown up watching Bournvita Quiz Contest. And many idolized Derek O’Brien. I follow Mr. O’Brien on twitter for a perspective into what TMC is thinking. While I do not respect TMC’s views on many issues I have immense admiration for Ms. Banerjee’s tenacity.

Today I read Mr. O’Brien’s post “Why the TMC opposes FDI in Insurance”. (http://quizderek.blogspot.in/2014/08/why-trinamool-opposes-fdi-in-insurance.html ) I expected some good questions on this issue instead what I found was a medley of questionable claims and half truths.

I quote here from the said blog “Insurance and pensions are crucial for the well-being of middle-class families. Such modes of savings are the ultimate nest egg for ordinary people. Ideally, the funds for these should be invested in mechanisms that have sovereign guarantees – government bonds, municipal bonds, fixed deposits and the like.

International insurance companies prefer investing in the stock market and in mutual funds, and in a sense gambling. “Actually every financial adviser with a modicum of integrity will always advise-to never mix savings/investment with insurance. It is this process due to which a lot of poor Indian families tend to have savings with low returns and insurance with low covers when age and assorted problems hits them.

That apart let’s go onto the meat of the argument about the working of insurance companies. Mr. O’Brien equates stock markets with gambling. While this makes for good rhetoric it is a complete lie. For example when Mr. O’Brien asked kids in BQC “Which is the oldest stock market in Asia?” he never listed a gambling den was not among the four options. So Sir, were you lying to students then or are you lying to voters now?

Now he also states that ideally Insurance companies should invest in mechanisms with sovereign guarantees, I would like to point out that all I repeat all these instruments are traded as much as equities. Since he refers to the latest market crashes it is important to note that countries like Greece, Portugal and others suffered not because of stock market crashes but rather because their GOVERNMENT bonds collapsed and in many cases these crashes occurred due to mindless populism the kind of which the TMC is famous for.

Importantly most insurance company policies are regulated so they can’t invest more than a certain amount of critical policies in equities and have to keep the rest in bonds and sovereign funds. In fact if and when India undertakes reforms, which the TMC opposes, the demands for these bonds will go up thus helping those very people TMC claims to fight for.
Insurance companies by their nature itself take on liabilities and to fulfil the same they invest in markets. If you want them to invest only in Government bonds how can they fulfil their very objective?

But significantly the largest insurer and the one to whom the poor of India turn to –LIC is the largest player on the stock market. Yes Mr. O’Brien LIC which takes money from the middle classes owns large stakes in many companies through the same evil stock market.What Mr. O’Brien should be concerned about is that the last government (including the time the TMC was part of it) used the LIC to buy government issued stocks in the name of disinvestment. The UPA disinvested some shares from PSU, but there were no takers in the market. To avoid failure of these initiatives UPA forced LIC to buy these shares at an inflated value which no one was willing to buy. Yes Mr. O’Brien money of middle class Indians was used to buy high valued stocks so government could balance its books. Now tell me when are you protesting this? NDA government is now planning to sell some portion of ONGC and other companies if the same repeats please oppose it—That will be supporting the poor.

Finally Mr. O’Brien Bengal recently witnessed the Saradha-kand which broke many poor families. There are many such ponzi schemes which are designed to cheat poor people. I am not sure how such schemes are regulated even you I am sure have no idea if they invest in equities or bonds or paintings. Banter aside let’s talk about how we can send banking, investment instruments to the poorest of the poor such that they get returns better than inflation without risk of being cheated. That’s a blog I want to read about from the people who purport Maa Maati Maanush.

I know that our insurers are not saints-most of them don’t necessarily put client’s interests at the top rather their sales. Even then I would rather keep my many with an HDFC rather than a Saradha; wouldn’t you?

Minimum Government Maximum Governance-A Small Step

Recently there has been some controversy about Governors of various states.

The BJP following past precedents decided to change a majority of governors who were either prominent Congress leaders(Sheila Dixit) or people close to the Congress (M K Naraynan-W Bengal)

There have been many arguments stating that this is political vendetta and that the BJP –the harbinger of change should refrain from such things. Supporters of the BJP have pointed out how similar practices were adopted by the UPA as late as 2004. In fact favourable governors were used mostly by the Congress and briefly by the Janata Party to dismiss opposition led state governments regularly. Ironically Nehru supposedly India’s best democrat did the first such dismissal-Kerala the World’s first democratically elected communist government. Sometime back the Supreme Court made it extremely tough for Union governments to dismiss state governments. Thus though the NDA-1 government tried to dismiss the Lalu / Rabri led government but failed.

Thus now governors have become largely ceremonial posts but not bipartisan ones—they intermittently trouble opposition led state governments; prominent examples being H R Bharadwaj in Karanataka and Kamala Beniwal in Gujarat.

Frankly the most important role that the governor‘s post fulfills is the leeway to phase out prominent but unimportant senior leaders. Every party thus uses this post to placate senior leaders when they do not find favour as part of the cabinet. It’s a brilliant retirement plan.

And as with any retirement plan it comes with a retirement home. In Mumbai a lush green forested 50 acre estate on the sea face in prominent Malabar Hills.

Gov1

Gov2

In fact the governor gets not 1 or 2 houses S/he gets 4 Raj Bhawan! Including a summer residence in Mahabaleshwar!!! If you thought this was a peculiar thing in Maharashtra you are wrong this reflected across all Indian states. The tiny state of Goa too gives its first citizen a 50 acre residence and in line with the Goan spirit a private beach too.

Now everyone knows that Indian politicians and even bureaucrats get the best of facilities and stay at some amazing places. But whereas one can argue the appropriateness of providing each MP with a house in Lutyens, its no doubt that MPs are one of the most important stakeholders in our national democracy.

The Governors on the other hand do no such function. Their existence and operation in the last 66 years have been anything but democratic. People, who equate the post of governor with that of the President, forget that the President is elected whereas the Governor is not. The President is elected by the peoples representative thus at the least he tends to be an indirect choice of the people. How is it that the first citizen of say Tamil Nadu can be appointed by a government in Delhi which the people of Tamil Nadu may not have voted for. That the same first citizen can hinder the function of the very state government which the people of the state have elected is an aberration!

It’s my strong belief that post of governor be abolished immediately. What can we have in place of the governor—Do we need a mechanism to oversee a state government.

Well what if along with the President election the MPs and MLAs elect a board of Governors comprising 5 individuals (such that 3 would be nominations from the ruling coalition and 2 from the opposition). This board based in the capital can achieve the bare minimum oversight if needed. Internally these governors may split responsibilities of sates such as North West South East and Central. We need not provide palatial housing in home states. Whenever required one of them can travel to the state he is supposed to manage and stay in the myriad state guest houses.

The beauty of this plan is not just this abolishing but rather that we can now put those palaces to some good use. I suggest the government can transfer all properties and resultant rights to a Special Purpose Vehicle or holding company which can then enter into a couple of JVs with related brands like Taj, Oberoi etc with a 100 year lease for these properties. I am very sure the Ritz Carlton would love a sea cliff Malabar hill property to take on the old world charm of the Taj Palace. We would not be auctioning the family silver nor creating unmanageable mess like Hotel Ashoka/ Centaur.

We would get immediate cash flows into government coffers additionally based on how the agreements are structured we can also have a share of the profits. Not only will we earn money from this form of disinvestment but also save millions in the operational cost of governor posts.
The 1000s of security men and women will be freed up to guard important places and protect our trains, our people from terrorism. The bureaucrats and other public servants attached to the Governor’s office can be free to oversee development and governance activities across the country.

May be this can be one of the easy to achieve reforms for the Modi government. Yes it is very drastic very unexpected but then this government was not elected for Status Quo—

Humbly Vindicated

In 2011, April & August when the Anna movement was at its peak, I had repeatedly criticized their means, attitude and objective. I was ridiculed. I had said change can happen only through the parliament and not through the street. A lot of my friends said “What the hell you support corrupt people”  “you are being naive too idealistic” “At least they are doing something “.

To those cynics, to those pessimists, to those anarchists, let May 16th be a constant reminder that change is possible. The people of India have spoken. Those who Anna derided as people who vote for a bottle of liquor; well they voted but not for a bottle but for hope. What can explain the fact that a party like the BSP drew a blank other than the fact that our poorest and most oppressed classes also voted for progress.  How else do you explain Nitish Kumar’s JDU winning the same number of seat as Modi himself other than the fact that people saw through his sham secularism?  How else do you explain the communists getting the same number of seats in Bengal as the BJP other than the fact that people declared them irrelevant? How else do you explain Congress giving free jobs, free food yet getting 44 seats other that the fact that people saw through such destructive schemes?

Maybe we the anglicised people of India need to give more credit to our disadvantaged brethren. May be we need to reduce our prejudices. The hinterland has spoken in a loud enough voice; they want progress not doles; they want real growth and that they are keeping an eye on our leaders as much or may be even more than what we do.

This nation can be changed and it will be by and only by the people and that too by a people who are all equal for each man has but one vote.  It may be a slow process but its results will be long lasting.  

Lastly while they adulate him they are watching too; for if Modi were in an unlikely situation to fail, they will throw him out too.

Jai Hind