Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stockholm : Serene yet Scintillating

Illegal polish immigrant stuffs 20 scotch bottles in his bag, starts his journey by canoe to Sweden. Once he arrives in Stockholm, taking advantage of Sweden’s high duty, he profits by selling 19 bottles in the black market at double the price. Now the remaining bottle comes into the play. He starts drinking while circling around the police station. Police promptly arrest him. First Charge: Drunken Driving; Second Charge: Illegal Entry in Sweden. He gets a punishment of two-month imprisonment that is equipped with heater/air conditioner, Laundry, Newspaper and even paid daily wages. Once his sentence is over, with the Govt money, he is safely back in Poland. The smart earned Swedish moola makes him enjoy Poland at leisure for another six month. Afterwards another business trip would begin to Sweden.

If one were to ask me ‘what’s so special about Stockholm?’ I would struggle for an answer. There is nothing spectacular about this city. Normally any big city in the world has an event, place, or cuisine that one associate with it, Stockholm has none, yet it evoked nice memories of my 4-night 5-day visit I made this month.

At 7am on Sunday, Stockholm Airport was almost deserted with the exception of two immigration officials and customer support counter. Ground to ceiling Posters of Sweden Celebrities welcomed me as I passed through corridor outside the customs. I knew about Bjorn Borg, Alfred Nobel, and ABBA but did not realize that Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Anders Celsius (centigrade fame) too were Swedish. They all welcomed me with smile to Stockholm and ushered me an airport bus that had only three other passengers besides driver. The journey was drab and boring with Pine trees along the side of road stood still as if being dreadful of impending winter. Valvo, Benz and Audi zoomed past with one thing in common – a hook on the car dickey to straddle a bicycle. I arrived at the Stockholm Grand Central station and I wondered if this place would ever match even fraction of the excitement as that any railway station in Europe. Instead of taxi, I opted to travel by suburban train, as I knew my room might not be ready by noontime. I took two stairs down to reach suburban railway line and as I entered the underground, life seems to have started buzzing with activity. Familiar signs of McDonald, Cyber café, Flower shops started beckoning me. People scurried past me in all directions to reach their destination. One good thing about being in Europe, you develop a familiarity with Asians. This person looked at me as if I had come from his neighborhood. He was not sure if I was Arab or Indian, for me he looked Turk. He was Kurd and proud to be Kurd as one Kashmiri was when I had met him in Abu Dhabi. My ‘Shukran’ was wholeheartedly reciprocated by ‘Afwan’ in welcoming me to this new place. I got down at Mariatorgot railway station that was just a block away from my Hotel RIVAL.

Hotel RIVAL is part of the verdant rectangle that houses water fountain in the center with benches around for people to relax. As I entered the hotel, I thought of hotel in Hamburg that I had stayed two years ago. Interiors of the hotel looked like a movie set out of Bollywood. Walls plastered with vibrant colors, designer steel chairs, multi-colour woven carpets, glass capsule elevators with Madonna portraits hanging in the corridor. The bar and the reception were separated by waiting room that had Hotel logo and its facilities written in different colors and fonts. Winding stairs extended the Bar to the mezzanine floor that housed b’fast in the daytime and became bistro in the evening (I had to look at dictionary to know the meaning of bistro!!). Wine glasses along the bartender table served as lampshades. The room was small but cozy and above the bed was a huge blow-up of a black and white photograph depicting a woman beside a water stream .The entrance door made in gray colour resembled like a security safe but luckily it operated with a key card and not by metallic spoke wheel. The hotel has an adjacent theatre with cafe and a bakery but I did not get chance to visit. During my stay I started admiring the innovative ideas and designs that they used in décor, it is no wonder IKEA took birth in Stockholm. In bedroom, Iron board stood vertically on slider that moved along the door cabinet. Iron was hooked on the board in a bracket that was fitted to the plug with a timer knob. A mechanism underneath the board made it horizontal to that turned board horizontal. An amazing space saving design that is sure to caught up in dense metropolis. Plasma TV was hooked on the top of work desk that also housed DVD player and stack of CD’s. Movie DVD’s were available at the reception. Two layered heavy curtains came handy to keep away long sunny days that extended upto 10pm. Bathroom fittings were small, elegant and functional. The bathroom had another set of speakers so that guests, while taking shower, can sing along the songs that they can play from CDs stacked. The only item that did not bear anything unique was ‘toilet paper’. I wonder how they spared this piece by not printing some cartoon characters or jokes. I was amazed by the creativity that has gone to make this hotel so refreshingly different but this genre of hotels known as ‘independent boutique hotels’ are becoming trendy and popular in Europe. As I rummaged through hotel booklet, I realized that Benny Anderson of ABBA owned this Hotel Rival . Now it made sense to have ABBA CD prominently kept on CD rack and ‘Rock & Roll’ ambience.

I was happy to have arrived on Sunday and that gave me scope to do gallivanting Stockholm. As I crossed the bridge to another island, place was buzzing with people but everything was orderly, sedate. Office goers were dressed in immaculate black suits, moms pushing pram with infants either in their sleep under the hood or sitting erect absorbing everything that was going around them, visitors just lazing around or sitting on benches reading a book or soaking under the sun, toddlers feeding ducks while a group of old men playing chess with human size pieces. I imagined Akshta in such a place.Her restlessness would corrupt the well-behaved kids of Stockholm. Every second shop was clothing and accessories and it seemed every item was a designer item that pronounced newest arrival in Swedish language, traffic islands spruced with colorful flowers. Everything around me was in Swedish and yet there was nothing foreign or alien about this place. Everyone spoke English and was willing to help. Red sign of Kebab Corner restaurants was the nearest that I could relate to Asia. In a matter of few hours, I was looking at Stockholm from discerning eyes of a designer.

Stockholm is all about innovative design that is exclusive. There is no place for the ‘run of the mill’ or mass produced commodities. Every product is processed, packaged, presented in unique manner. Be it a fabric, a candle, a book rack or a dinner plate- every piece is captivating by its colour, shape and pattern. These products are not exclusivity of any specialized stores but almost every next-door shop. French and Italian designers may be in plenty but I think Swedes must be their prime consumers.

Various bridges around the islands made me realize that I am in a country similar to Indonesia. Sweden has 24,000 Islands well connected by bridges, public utilities while Indonesia has long way to go. Perhaps, answer lies in disproportionate population. 240 Million Versus 9 Million. Only after I studied the map, I realized that I had walked past Gamla Stan (the old town) that had labyrinth of twisty little streets and alleys of cobbled pebble stones with facing green top architectural and sculptural masterpieces. Sitting on a bench, eating Mac burger I watched Royal Palace, Stadshuset - Stockholm's City Hall City Hall building that awards Noble prize.Walking past the island that housed my hotel to Stockholm, I could see on my right side ferries that took tourists to Finland but I was not sure that was Baltic Sea or the Lake Malaren. And also I am not sure which of these three island of Gamla Stan– Stadsholmen,Riddarholmen and Helgeandsholmen I visited from my Island My hotel was Sodermalm island .

King Gustav is one personality that stands out in Stockholm. Royal palace, Royal Garden, Royal Graveyard and His statues – every square in Stockholm bear his imprint. I was not keen to spend my precious days in studying about him .I prefered to walk around. Stockholm has 70 museums and they range from modern art, space science to music. The only indoor place I visited during my stay was Vasa museum. This is about a ship that was designed to attack Poland in 1600 but sunk within an hour of its inaugural journey. The ship was taken out after 300 years, restored and made as museum. It was not very massive as I thought but the carvings were intricate. Ambience was dark and I was not that keen to taste Swedish reindeer cuisine so I opted out to walk around and have Mexican food instead of Indian. Previous day I had Thali at ‘restaurant that had every gods and goddesses on wall and belted A R Rahman songs but palate vaguely tasted Indian.

I did not meet polish immigrant in the city but the above story told by Swede long ago – perhaps well before communist wall broke – made me experience Sweden’s elegant lifestyle, liberal human values and high tax structure.Its unlikley that I would have visited this place on family vacation but destiny gave me a chance to sample Scandinavian elite lifestyle. High taxes in Sweden mean, in a financial year, upto August Swedes work for tax collector and for the remainder year for themselves. Nevertheless, they get high quality free education, healthcare, pension and generous paternity leave. Everything about Stockholm is expensive but classy. People are relaxed and give lot of space to others. No wonder this place is so sedate and tranquil. The only blot on this cultured, elegant , tranquil Swedish lifestyle must have been assassination of Olof Palme.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Rabbit and Tortoise story in Marathi musical


ससा तो ससा की कापूस जसा
त्याने कासवाशी पैज लाविली
वेगेवेगे धावू नि डोंगरावर जाऊ
ही शर्यत रे अपुली

चुरुचुरु बोले तो तुरुतुरु चाले
नि कासवाने अंग हलविले
ससा जाई पुढे नि झाडामागे दडे
ते कासवाने हळू पाहीयले
वाटेत थांबलेना कोणाशी बोललेना
चालले लुटुलुटु पाही ससा

हिरवी हिरवी पाने नि पाखरांचे गाणे
हे पाहुनिया ससा हरखला
खाई गार चारा, घे फांदीचा निवारा
तो हळूहळू तेथे पेंगुळला
मिटले वेडे भोळे, गुंजेचे त्याचे डोळे
झाडच्या सावलीत झोपे ससा

झाली सांज वेळ तो गेला किती काळ
नि शहारली गवताची पाती
ससा झाला जागा तो उगा करी त्रागा
नि धाव घेई डोंगराच्या माथी
कासवा तेथे पाही ओशाळला मनी होई
"निजला तो संपला" सांगे ससा

penned by Shantaram Nandgaonkar wonder who is the music director. I love the tempo of this song


सांग सांग भोलानाथ पाऊस पडेल काय ?

सांग सांग भोलानाथ, पाऊस पडेल काय ?
शाळेभोवती तळे साचून, सुटटी मिळेल काय ?

भोलानाथ दुपारी आई झोपेल काय ?
लाडू हळूच घेताना आवाज होईल काय ?

भोलानाथ भोलानाथ, खरं सांग एकदा
आठवडयातनं रविवार, येतील का रे तीनदा

भोलानाथ उद्या आहे, गणिताचा पेपर
पोटात माझ्या कळ येऊन दुखेल का रे ढोपर

In my younger days, Radio Akashwani had Mumbai A and B channels, one of them was exclusively for Marathi and other for Engligh. On sunday, at 9am Gammat Jammat played this song for years- perhaps by then I had grown up !!


Friday, May 23, 2008

Driving In Asia: An entertaining exercise

I was excited and justifiably so. First time in my life, I was appearing for a driving test. My trainer in his early 30’s made me drive through the narrow lanes of Mahim while teaching me the utility of stretching my right hand and its palm outside the car window and creating different angles and rotations to give signals to drivers of vehicles behind me. After completing 30 odd lessons on Maruti 800, at an appointed time, I with my fellow students gathered at Bombay central Driving license issuance office. Hoards of people had already arrived. Like with any govt premises, touts and intermediaries were busy huddling with prospective clients while scurrying through office blocks that housed numerous clerks. Our trainer seemed proficient with the rules of this game. He made us wait for a while and after a while came out of the office accompanied by license issuing instructor. Trainer came running towards me “Your Turn now. Get Ready!” He pushed me inside his car while sitting next to me. Instructor meanwhile sat in another car ahead of us and as he squeezed in, my trainer asked me to follow the car of the instructor. Before I realized it, my test had begun. I was about to adjust the mirrors and seat when the trainer asked me to just follow the instructor car ahead. I ignited the engine. My car rolled few meters and when I was about to put second gear in action, my trainer uttered ‘stop!’ I was confused. Have I committed any mistake that would endanger people on the street? I saw the Instructor waving his right hand from the window and our trainer too reciprocating with his right hand. 'That’s great, You have passed’ said the coach. ‘But I didn’t drive at all!!’ I exclaimed. The trainer said ‘no problem’, ‘Instructor judged your driving from the rear view window of his car ‘. By evening, I was holding palm sized booklet wrapped with red colour bandaged cloth. It had few green pages and had my photograph defaced with smudged blue govt rubber ink proclaiming me as a certified Indian driver!!!. I wondered if I really could drive on Indian busy road but the utility of the right hand was well entrenched in my mind. This incident happened in 1992. I am sure things may have changed and so must have the use of the Right Hand outside the window.

March Issue of ASIANEWS published some interesting styles of Asians Drivers while waiting at Red Signal. I have reproduced below with few additions of my own based on my travel experiences.

Singapore: Car windows shut, air con on, driver tapping steering wheel in frustration
Hong Kong: Car window shut, one hand on wheel other hand texting broker to buy hedge fund option.
Kuala Lumpur: Car windows open, one arm out other hand holding plastic bag of tea
Jakarta: Car window open, one arm out, Cigarette between fingers.
Beijing: Car window closed, driver invisible behind black glass in black car speeding through red light with no number plate.
Colombo: Car window open, half of driver sticking out to make a room for nine family members crammed into it
Taipei: car window open, hands inside vehicle, eyes and tongue extending outside to leer at girls
Macau: Car window shut, driver is in trance as he tries memorizing blackjack card patterns
Manila: Car window open, one arm out m in car karaoke playing at full volume, driver singing
Dhaka: Car window open, driver head sticking out shouting at people to get out of the way
New Delhi: Car has already past zebra crossing, one hand on the horn and other hand screaming at traffic police officer.
Kolkatta: First situation: Car window open, hand firmly placed on horn and head outside asking people around the car to push the car that has stopped at the signal while spitting his bettle nut outside. Second Situation: Engine switched off, driver on the pavement chewing beetle nut and smoking while traffic chaos is over.
Sharjah: Car window closed, driver is engrossed listening to Dubai FM while crawling in traffic. Some intrepid ones are roving around to spot traffic police officer to swirl the car through yellow line
Dubai: Car window closed, one hand adjusting rear view mirror if pretty woman is behind else seeing himself with his new designer sunglasses.
Johannesburg: Car window tightly closed. Peddle on accelerator while eyes are roving for any suspicious movement of stranger approaching car.
Cairo: Car window open .One hand is firmly on horn while other one is engaged in heated discussion with fellow drivers.

When I arrived in Oman, I realized that my Indian Driving license was worthless. This did not surprise me in fact it reassured me that I would learn driving in correct manner. In all my earnestly, I started learning driving once again. Here my coach Shambe would sit with a stick and teach the nuances of safe and good driving skills that still hold me in good stead. In Middle East, driving license industry is only next to Immigration and visa industry and they are very good at it. Shambe was no exception; he had structured his way of teaching. There was no right hand in action but five eyes – two mine and 3 car mirrors. As I started getting confidence, he pushed me on highway in excess of 100Km while regaling me with his adventures with Indian prostitutes in Mumbai. Driving test in Oman was more difficult that my final year engineering. I had to pass reversing the car between two set of drums, using clutch, brake and accelerator on a steep slope and then road driving test in the company with two examiners – one next to me and the other on the backseat - both keenly observing my every move in my 30 minute test journey. I got my license in third attempt. The joy of getting my license through grueling yet satisfying ordeal was only next to securing my first job. Years later, when i moved to Dubai, I was lucky to spare another driving test as Dubai recognized my Oman license.

Singapore seems more obsessed with the theoretical aspects of driving. I must appear for 60-minute question paper that has multiple answers and must score minimum 95%marks to secure Singapore driving license. However, for now, I need not worry as I can drive with my international driving license. When I visit Australia next week and drive along the coastal route to Sydney, my driving skills that were honed and shaped in Gulf and practiced in Singapore would come to my rescue. Hopefully, I am able to add Australian driving style to the above list.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Being Nude under the sky and above the sea- Avillion Resort at Port Dickson, Malaysia

Last week, over 1,800 men and women arrived all nude at Vienna's Ernst Happel for a photo shoot. The shoot was a part of a cultural programme(!) running alongside Euro 2008 in Austria. They were volunteers who were not paid except to receive signed pictures of the photo-shoot. This story took me back to my stay at Avillion Resort at Port Dickson in January of this year. Taking a shower in an open arena under the open skies and above the surfing waves of the beach - albeit in a privacy of the hotel room – and my meeting with ‘Cape Town friend’- greeting me with his open feathers in spectacular fashion - made my stay memorable. I presumed my friend did so for welcoming me as there was no sight of any female around.

The luminance spectacle of my friend - Peacock stayed with me for a long time and I decided to know the secrets behind his enchanting hairstyle. Journal of ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ revealed the secret of luminescent beauty of the feathers in a peacock's . It attributed this not due to the pigment but just the reflection of light with frequencies within the partial photonic band gap. This article states- Peacocks and other structurally colored animals and things, such as rainbows, soap bubbles and the blue sky, instead get most of their color from light reflection. As a result, while human hair can look shiny clean, it can never achieve the brilliance and radiant coloration of a peacock's tail feather. "In human hair, color is due to pigment," "If you change the view angle, color is not altered. In peacock feathers, color is produced by the reflection of light with frequencies within the partial photonic band gap. If you change the view angle, the partial photonic band gap will shift to short wavelengths for oblique incidence." Says Jian Zi, professor of physics at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Each peacock tail feather possesses a central stem with an array of barbs on each side. Each barb, in turn, possesses an array of smaller, flat barbules. The outer layer of the barbules consists of a two-dimensional crystal framework made of melanin rods connected by keratin — a fibrous protein — in a lattice pattern. The number and spacing of the rods controls how light reflects which produces different colors. For peacocks, the colors are green, golden yellow, brown and a very bright blue. Male peacocks display their iridescent feathers for prospective female mates. Females may check out the feathers of a number of different males before deciding on a suitor. The length and quality of a male peacock's feathers can indicate his age, vigor, and status. Wow !!! isnt this creative ingenuity of mother nature ? I am sure,we are not far off from an era when one can have an option of transplanting hair from peacock to seduce a female.

Avillion is designed for romantic honeymooners by paying special attention to the landscaping and serene ambience. In the midnight rhythmic beating of tidal waves under eerie silence of dark can be good lullabies for lovers in arms but an intrepid mosquito or squeaking sound of board walk of fellow travelers can distort lover’s trance. But still, it’s worth paying extra price at water chalet –that is built on stilts that makes chalets stretch out in the sea than staying at Garden chalets that are like ordinary hotel room. The resort has its own beach that is fairly clean. The room had large Four-post wooden bed that reminded me of beds from Bengal. The bathroom however was bigger than the sleeping area but the cupboard that housed bath towels and soap was mid way between the bedroom and the shower room. If one has not planned to carry these accessories then one should be prepared for a nude catwalk on the wooden floor after a nude shower under the open sky. I didn’t see sun set from the beach but I enjoyed listening to chirping birds in the early morning darkness while taking a walk to breakfast arena that took me past the mini zoo that housed chickens, pigeons, turkey, rabbits and my Cape Town friend.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Sumeet Mixer: Is the company eroding its own brand?

‘At 60 miles per hour, the loudest noise comes from electric clock’. For me, this advertisement for Rolls-Royce made by Ogilvy remains my all time favorite. The punch line sums up the product attributes without a mention of any of its features. Alleque Padamsee in his book 'A double life' talked about the quandary of creative advertising professionals in India. “Where do we get such products to justify robust creative punch line?”

In India, we have few brands with enviable reputation of product quality, dependable performance and satisfied customer base. One such brand is Sumeet – Mixer Grinder. However, my recent experience made me doubt if great product and happy customers would be enough for the company to sustain its leadership in the industry.

For most Indians with interest culinary adventures, image of Sumeet is subconsciously nurtured from young age. Today’s young generation use Sumeet because they have seen their mom using it and some who have stayed outside India have switched over to Sumeet after seeing other brands not withstanding the rigors of grinding of Indian cooking ingredients. We also decided to change to Sumeet after not so pleasant experience with Maulinex. After years of happy experience with Sumeet, when we decided to buy another one - an ordeal began. A visit to Mustafa in Singapore and visit to LuLu in Dubai (both stores that practically keeps every possible Indian brand) - did not achieve much as the product was not available. A website of the company mentioned its availability in Middle East, UK and USA but without any presence in the south Asia. My Email to the company address bounced back saying that it did not exist. When I googled on Sumeet, it led me to several prospective buyers either asking about its availability or complaining about its after sales service. I was hoping to buy one in Chennai but when I visited two prominent stores –‘Vivek’ and ‘Vasanta’, they had every other brand – Maharaja, Preethi, Phillips but no Sumeet. Sales people in both shops tried hard in convincing me that other brands are as good as Sumeet. As a last hope, I called up Dubai distributor that company website had mentioned and succeeded in locating two pieces in store in Dubai. In today’s customer driven consumer industry, I wonder how long mfr of Sumeet ‘Power Appliances’ would survive when most of its actions tend to antagonize a prospective customer. The chances are that management of this company is either far too complacent with the past laurels of sales figures or they have lost zeal in doing the business. Whatever it is, my personal experience makes me feel that brand value of this product is receding at faster rate from every possible direction and the company organization is doing more damage than its competitors would do in undermining its presence in the market.

The origin of brands is a blog dedicated to various nuances of brand building and demolition. Author Laura talks about the ‘letting go’ as one of the way to have a brand innovation. She says some companies like Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble refused to relinquish control and in turn undermined the potentiality of the brand. Sumeet appears to have perfected this diabolical art of brand innovation. Mixer Grinder is a matured technology and except perhaps a ‘user interface’ one cannot differentiate one product to another. In order to develop or even ape Sumeet mixer, one would not need a battery of R & D engineers. Laura says, “The best way to run a company is by managing your brands much like you would manage a stable of race horses. Don’t over-train, over-race or over-fed”. Sumeet seems to have taken Laura’s advice far too seriously. They neither feed their product to distributors, nor provide correct communication channels for prospective customers.

I am sure, for Sumeet, it must have taken many years to reach brand recognition, but in an era of white goods explosion in Indian market, it is sitting on an edge of the precipice only to be overturned by the competitor who is hungry for success. Before that happens, I hope the company either transforms herself or sell the brand to a company that knows its worth.

I am generally cautious of being critical of any company or a product unless I have consistent unpleasant experience that goes beyond occasional personal bitter interaction. Sumeet unfortunately tested my endurance much the same way Air India did. Asian Brand Survey mentions Wipro, Colgate India, TATA, Hindustan Lever as top Indian Brands. For me; Amul, Nirma, Haldiram, Parle G, Jet Airways, Kingfisher are the toast of Indian success as these brands not just withstood competition from reputed international brands but made successful foray in their own domain. Some brands like Nirula, Bedekar, Milan Supari, Hawkins, Thums Up. Amritanjan are dwindling at rapid are from the mind of Indian Consumers. Is it because of inept management? I do not know. However, I would be keen to observe the way Sumeet would go in coming years.

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