Sunday, December 30, 2007

Old man and the dog

I was never an early riser but as my engagement was approaching hurriedly, and I wanted to look my best on the D-day - I embarked upon this task of getting rid of those extra pounds (believe me- very few) around my waist.

To achieve the set goal I decided on a three point action plan- morning walks, controlled eating and evening sessions at the gym. In the beginning itself I faltered on two counts- the diet part (because I just can’t control myself when it comes to food) and the gym bit (You know- I am not the gym kind. I feel like an odd man out there). So, the only option left was the morning walk.

For the first few days I would ‘sleep walk’ within my residential campus, quickly finishing three rounds and then hitting the bed again to fulfil the second instalment of my sleep. Not only that, I would even indulge in bouts of overeating without a trace of guilt assuming that I had done my share of hard work (three rounds) for the day. This definitely didn’t help and I grew by few more inches around my waist. With less than a month left for the ceremony I had to press the panic button. I was determined to resolve the ‘heavy’ crisis and hence follow the morning regime religiously.

It took multiple alarms to wake me up on the day one. Rather than stepping out half asleep, I did few stretching and warm up exercises before venturing out. This helped. For a change, I decided to leave the comfort of the known territory (my campus) and walk in an unfamiliar neighbourhood.

I had rediscovered the morning after a long time (since my school days) and the fresh air brought back some sweet memories of my childhood. Come to think of it- isn’t childhood a lot like morning- both symbolize freshness, purity and beginning.

Somehow the closed and shuttered shops reminded me of the day ahead, the usual routine of home office home- this made me think of many small things that used to give me so much pleasure when I was a child.

I saw a figure sleeping on a cot, on the pavement next to a bungalow. It was covered by a blanket from head to toe. Then I saw this adorable dog sniffing carefully around the bed. It was a healthy Labrador with a shining off-white coat. He had beautiful eyes and a very expressive tail. His pinkish wet nose was sniffing hard. His movements suggested that he was trying to wake this person on the bed. I loved dogs ever since I was a child but I could persuade my parents to keep one quite late in life (in my graduation). As a child, I remember bringing home stray puppies and feeding them on my share of bread and Parle-G biscuits. Dogs fascinated me even today.

As I was passing the bed, I caught his attention. Wagging his tail, he approached me. I couldn’t resist his friendliness and before I knew he was licking me all over. I didn’t mind it; actually I was enjoying his affection, while a voice interrupted our bonding session. The figure on the bed had come alive.

It was an old man, wearing a sweater of the same colour as his blanket (probably both were made of same material). He just had two teeth left in his mouth. His hair was sparse and of the moon light colour. It was evident that he didn’t shave for a long time now. As he tried to get up, I noticed his oversized trouser which was anchored around his waist by a string (like the one used to fasten a pyjama). His face was wrinkled and so were his hands (these we the only visible parts of his skin). The way he was looking at me suggested that his eyesight was failing or perhaps already failed. He commanded “Rustam Nahi” and the dog like an obedient student followed his orders and walked up to him. Now this old man was his world. I didn’t like my separation from Rustam and decided to continue with my walk.

Through out the day I kept thinking about Rustam and his possible relationship with the old man. I was sure he was not the owner of the dog. I recalled that the entrance gate of the bungalow (adjacent to which this man was sleeping) was open and imagined it as Rustam’s home.

That evening while coming back from office, I stopped to pick up the biggest pack of Parle-G available in the shop.

Next morning it didn’t take me much to get out of the bed. I was eager to meet Rustam again. As I walked towards that place I saw Rustam playing with the old man. His fore paws resting on the cot and his face buried in little place between the old man’s thighs. The Old man laid his arms around Rustam like old friends hugging each other. The sight made me jealous. I wish I had a companion like that and couldn’t stop myself from calling out- “Rustam”. He raised his head to see who wanted him now. To my surprise, he did recognise me. Wagging his tail he ran to me- and then he did a strange thing- he started moving back and forth between me and the old man. It was as if he, playing the role of a common friend wanted us (old man and me) to meet.

I walked up to the old man, today he was wide awake and greeted me with his two teethed smile. He said “Rustam to aap ka dost ban gaya”. I liked his hospitality. Between I remembered that I had carried some biscuits for Rustam. I took them out of my pocket and lured Rustam. He was so excited about this present. He stood on his hind legs to reach for them. I tried hand feeding him, but he took the biscuits (one by one from my hand) and placed them next to the old man’s feet. In his eyes I could see a desire to consume them but he was waiting for something. “Kha lo beta” the old man said, now I understood Rustam’s dilemma – he was waiting for the approval of his master to accept the gift. I was impressed with Rustam’s self control.

While Rustam gulped the biscuits, I tried talking to the old man. “Is this your dog?” I asked him. “No this is my son” he replied, and then he laughed aloud “I can’t feed myself, how I can maintain this English dog” he added. “Oh” I wondered. He sensed my perplexity and explained further- “I worked in this bungalow for thirty five years. I served two generations of the family. I used to do everything from house keeping, to gardening to guarding. They got Rustam four years back when he was just a month old. I brought him up. We have been best friends since then. I don’t have a family, but I never missed having one because of Rustam. I took care of him like a father and now he looks after me as a son”. There was sadness in his voice. “Do you still work there?” I probed. “No, my eyesight started failing a year back, but in last few months it worsened. It was increasingly difficult to perform even smallest of the jobs. So when I became useless they asked me to leave the house”. Rustam had finished his biscuits and now joined the conversation. He was sitting on his hind legs and looking at us as if we were talking about him. “I don’t have any place to go. So I started living here. The only good thing about this is that I can see Rustam everyday. They were kind enough to let him meet me”. I felt apologetic for starting this conversation and at the same time good to have discovered such a saga of friendship between a man and his dog.

It became a ritual for me to meet both of them everyday. Along with biscuits for Rustam, occasionally I used to carry bread and other eatables for the old man which he used to put into his plastic bag only to consume later. Now Rustam didn’t seek the man’s approval to devour on my biscuits. I imagined myself to be Rustam’s second best friend.

One of the good things about Bangalore is the weather. It is moderate for most of the year. The only problem is the rains. Not even rains, it is the after affect of rains like traffic jams and power cuts that I am bothered about. I like sunny days. May be because I stay alone- cloudy days make me gloomy. But come August and you hardly get to see the sun here.

Then came the first big pour of the year. It rained continuously for a day. For the first time in last fortnight I missed my morning walk… and Rustam. That night while I was watching rain from my fourth floor window- it suddenly occurred to me. What would have happened to the old man? He didn’t have a roof on his head. Did the owners accommodate him in the bungalow for the night or could he find some other shelter.

I grew restless and couldn’t sleep the whole night. I woke up before the alarm. Fetched some food for Rustam and more food for the old man and ran towards the bungalow. From a close distance I could see Rustam below the bed. The old man was still sleeping may be. On reaching the spot, I found the old man missing. The blanket was wet and dripping. Rain had washed away the plastic bag containing his food. I tried peeping into the bungalow and searched in the vicinity as well, but he was found nowhere.

All this while Rustam kept laying there- as if he didn’t notice my presence. He looked sad and tired. His head drooped next to his stretched limbs as if he was thinking something. I tried consoling him but he was too absorbed in his loss. I tried to feed him the biscuits but he dropped them on the floor. I pictured the old man nodding an approval “kha lo beta”.

Nothing could compensate Rustam’s loss. To give him his space I left him alone. After that day, for the next few days I kept going to that place every morning. The bed was still there but I didn’t see Rustam again. Everyday I came back with unconsumed biscuits in my pocket.

I stopped going for morning walks. I don’t like early mornings anymore and I just hate rains.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Khoya Khoya Chand- How a self assumed movie critic can screw up an accomplished work of art.

Watching KKC was quiet a demanding experience for me. I watch a good number of Hindi movies and especially make it a point to not miss any of the mainstream commercial movies backed by the moguls of the Indian film industry. I love the simplicity of the narration and syrupiness of emotions that these movies offer. These ‘super hit’ movies reinforce some of the fundamental moral science lessons that I learnt in childhood- Good always wins over evil, it’s always about loving your parents, adultery of any kind is a sin and many more which I can’t recall off hand.

So, when my friends suggested that we should watch KKC, I cautioned them-“you should be open to get surprised, it might not essentially be pleasant”. I tried explaining them that the guaranteed entertainers are only those that are directed and produced by the likes of Johars and Chopras. “With these guys like Sudhir- you never know what they might come up with each time. Their movies are so unpredictable. They are so indulgent that you have to keep guessing. I could get the story of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai just by looking at the trailer. Unlike, the Johars and Chopras, these other guys don’t know the pulse of the audience and their tastes. See that is the reason even the big super stars work only exclusively with established directors”.

But, my friends persisted- someone liked the music very much, one of my friends loves historic movies so he had to watch it and one of my female friends loved Shiney in Bhool Bhulaiya, so even she was very keen. Finally, I relented. How much I wanted to explain them that movie is like a work of art and they should enjoy it in totality, not in bits and pieces. As the say they – you should always see the ‘big picture’.

So as we walked out of the hall, they asked me the much obvious question. None of them liked it and now they wanted to know my opinion. As they respect my expertise on the subject they always await for special comments from me. Many a times they told me- “boss you see movie from a totally different angle”. Today, my opinion was not different from theirs. Only because I am sensitive viewer- I like giving reasons for my liking or disliking rather than applauding or dismissing something without giving any proper logic.

There were couple of reasons why I didn’t like KKC-

I started “Boss the fundamentals itself of the story were not clear. Every story needs to have a clearly defined bad guy and a good guy. That establishes the foundation for a good story. In this movie I could not figure out who is the Hero and who is the villain. Every character had some good qualities in him and at the same time bad qualities also. I didn’t know whom to support. Take an example- in ‘Krrish’ even before watching the movie you know whose side you are”.

My friend suddenly interrupted- “but come to think of it, in real life that is what holds true. Not everything is black and white; in fact most of it is grey. We have our own goodness’s and demons too”.
I excused his ignorance and corrected him- “dude that is real life you are talking about. In reel life this doesn’t work. You can’t risk a chance – that’s why they call it ‘Picture Perfect’. Even before you know Raj or Rahul, you fall in love with them”.

I thought I had put the discussion to rest, but, because they didn’t like the movie, they wanted to at least make this debate interesting. So came another wisecrack- “but I heard that as a story teller you need to look at the plot objectively. And some of the world’s acclaimed directors are celebrated because of their dispassionate and non- judgemental view of the subject. Isn’t it true that they are great because they restrain form any sort of emotional manipulation”.

I reasoned with him- “see don’t talk about west or arty stuff. India is a very sentimental country. As a story teller you should know how to make the audience’s emotions work for you. Remember how in ‘Kal Ho na ho’ when Shahrukh walks out of hospital with so much pain, we as audience could connect with his pain. That is the power of story telling- make the audience cry with you and laugh with you”

To reinforce my point I simplified further- “leave that, you know what the other biggest flaw of the movie is? There is no central theme for the movie. Is it about love, ambitions or complexities related to a particular profession? What is it about? He has tried to address many issues at one time and made a mess of it. I am sure you must have heard that too many cooks spoil the broth, similarly in case of movies- to many issues spoil the plot”

They were not ready to give up- “but…tell me, in practicality, how can one feeling be independent of other feelings. Like love might give rise to insecurities and ambitions may result in jealousies. Don’t we at any given point of time feel a mix of emotions and an attempt to show them as they are is an honest attempt than picking and choosing the one which is most convenient to show?”

I was ready with my reply “see I will tell you what works for us- if the hero loves someone- he should love her to death, if he wants to achieve something in life- come what may- he should not be distracted from his ultimate goal, and the heroine, if she loves the hero- then dare she sees other man, let alone touching him. This kind of absolute focus and dedication is needed to grip your audience”

They tried forcing a point again – “ok let’s talk about the most commonly showed emotion- love. But then love in itself is such a complicated emotion with varied manifestations. Don’t you think that the so called ‘hit’ movies make this far too ordinary?”

I retorted-“come on guys, the job of the director is to simplify the story. You should not trust the audience’s intelligence and leave anything for them to interpret. The mantra is to spoon feed the viewers” and with a strong intention to put an end to this debate, I concluded “and before you put forward any other doubt; let me use a quote from the film that describes best why this didn’t work. As some one tells Zafar- "waqt se aage rahna asaan hai, per use sehna mushkil hai”.

They finally surrendered “we thought you had objections with the length of the movie or the narrative inconsistencies or may be Soha’s inadequacy for the part but your issues are much more than these”

Victoriously I declared “there is much more than that meets the eye”

PS: For those who still don't get it- I am playing the role of a self assumed critic (Spoiled by the masala movies) and deciphering (interpreting in a wrong way ofcourse) KKC, which indeed is a work of art. I absolutely loved the movie.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mad? Is he?

Today- it was one of those lazy mornings when I don’t feel like giving up the coziness of my bed. Getting late out of the bed means arriving late at work which in turn means that I won't get the parking for my car (It’s a free parking so the first come first serve rule applies here). So I had to hunt for an auto.
As my office is on MG Road (one of the busiest roads in the city), the auto guys are generally not very friendly with me. Most of them don't even give me a fair hearing. After having turned down by half a dozen autos, I finally found an auto guy who was kind enough to ferry me to my destination with an agreeable surcharge of twenty rupees over the meter reading.
Even before I could rejoice in the fact that I finally got an auto, I sensed something wrong with the auto guy. He was talking to himself… kind of mumbling. I wondered if this is his way of entertaining himself. I understand that this job can be quite boring. Many a times I have witnessed autowallahs doing a karaoke with the radio or chatting up with the fellow auto drivers at traffic signals. But this behavior was first of sorts.
As the traffic intensified, this guy's conversations with self became louder and were complemented by strange and fierce body movements (actions). Now this was spooky. The first thing that occured to me was "Is this guy mad?” I was scared if this guy is going to bump into someone or something. I toyed with the idea of getting down midway but decided otherwise thinking that doing so might aggravate him. I was praying all the while that I should make it safely to the office. At traffic signals this guy was even more forceful in his actions. At every red light he was bursting into incomprehensible shouting and threw his hands like he was giving directions to someone. Obviously, on every such occasion we became the centerpiece of everyone's attention. While they were curious as to what this guy was up to, in their eyes I could also see sympathy for me. Anybody could guess how embarrassed I was to be sitting in that mad fellow's auto. The journey from home to office was the longest today. Enough of this fear and embarrassment- I wanted to be in the comfort of sanity. Finally I reached my destination. I had already pulled out the money- I wanted this association to end as quickly as possible.
As I was handing over the currency- I don't know why- but I asked him-"Why do you talk to yourself? The passengers will be scared". I was not expecting any meaningful answer but nonetheless wanted to listen to his explanation. He started to talk, contrary to the conspicuous behavior while he was driving; now he was speaking softly. He said "Saab, I had a 19 year old son, I taught him how to drive an auto. Last week while driving an auto, he met with an accident and died on the spot" My mouth had turned dry. He continued "I think, I somehow didn’t train him properly. So I am training him now all over again so that he will never have an accident again”.
I think even he wanted to get rid of me at the earliest; he did not wait for my comment and prepared to move on. "God bless him" I whispered, don't know if he heard that but I did not wish for anyone so honestly before.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Café Coffee Day: Review

Great brand. But is that enough?

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on whose side you are- mine or the company's) I am part of the team responsible for launching a casual wear brand across the major hypermarkets in the country. As a brand manager for a brand which targets evolved, fashion conscious and price sensitive youth (people between the age group of 20 to 30 years...ok as my PPT reads...not only the physical bracket of age but the youthful mindset) I am always on a search for ideal brands that can serve as reference point for us. These brands need not be essentially from the same category (apparel) but should be targeting the same target group. Brands which can teach us a trick or two on how to appeal (and more importantly sell) to the so called 'new and improved' youth of India.

And in my quest for such case studies Cafe Coffee day figures out on the top of the list.

Imagine a good old traditional south Indian boy spending forty bucks on a cup of coffee. CCD (that’s what the youngsters affectionately call it) has made it possible. I did my own dipstick study on a sample chosen on convenience basis and was amused by the results.

Out of fifty people whom I interviewed- none of them said that they come here for coffee. Most of them consider it as a hangout place (the modern day 'adda') where they catch up and chat up with friends, some 'use' it as a dating joint, few think that it’s a great place for meetings and then there were other ' I hate research' responses like- 'I like the music here' or ‘I come here to now would you mind...'

So people come here to chat, to discuss work, to flirt and even to kill time (all those who shooed me away with their ‘I like reading/ I like music' responses). And of course they do all this over a cup of coffee. It’s interesting to see that it’s all about the place- the experience. Coffee is just a just a consequence or a by-product. I bet that the place would do equally well even if they were selling something else.

For many teenagers CCD has become an important part of their lives. They see it as an extension of their own personality and I am sure even when they grow older they would keep revisiting it to relive some of their cherished memories (it pays to catch them young!).

CCD’s business strategy has been admirable- striking a right balance between the price and the product mix. Rather than catering to the connoisseur’s taste, it has benefited by serving to the popular taste. Anyways coffee served in these cafés is an acquired taste for most of us and hardly do we go beyond a cappuccino, a hot chocolate or a cold coffee and if at all in a mood to experiment may be a latté. Then why have varieties that a common man can’t even pronounce, let alone trying them.

Moving on to food, earlier they didn’t have much to offer for snacking except assembly line food like burgers, sandwiches, unpalatable samosas and pastries in unadventurous flavours like pineapple, butterscotch and chocolate. But now the food options have improved considerably (I particularly relish the corn and spinach sandwich and my cup of cappuccino with an almond biscotti) and the newly introduced lunch items (like pastas, biryani, paratha with curry, etc) have received a warm welcome especially by the corporate crowd. As a matter of fact, whenever I am travelling to new locations and I am not being my adventurous self I rely on CCD as my comfort food destination. I have grown to trust CCD for their quality, hygiene and consistency of food.

Apart from food and beverages the CCD team has made a commendable effort in leveraging the brand potential and the retail opportunity by introducing many brand extensions like mint, cookies, t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. and lets not forget that they even pioneered innovative concepts like jukebox and newsletter which were quite a hit among the youth.

Talking about the pricing I think they have a very clever strategy- It is by no means low-priced, but when compared to the price lists of other chains the CCD menu looks affordable.

Last year I read this book ‘High performance entrepreneur’ by Mr. Bagchi wherein he has written about the entrepreneurial beginnings of the coffee day. A young man named Sidharthta reinvented his coffee estate business based on one simple yet powerful insight- he realised that as a coffee grower you can’t decide the price of the commodity but when you value add and sell the drink you can charge according to your wish. On this realisation, he based his entire model and see where he has come today.

What I like about this guy is that not only is he a good thinker, but also a brilliant executioner. The pace at which he has scaled up the business is laudable. Lately they have been pretty aggressive in setting up their cafés along important highways that have become obligatory stopovers for herds of travellers.

Just when I thought that everything was going right for this brand, I experienced the biggest limitation of it- the service.

I have never been a great fan of their service but lately I have been disgusted by the inefficiency of the CCD staff. And let me assure you that this is not a biased reporting; I have heard similar tales of their service lags from several fellow CCD well wishers. Even in my case I haven’t been motivated to write this because of my bad experiences in one odd outlet. I have witnessed consistent service disasters at multiple CCD outlets.

Let me quickly give you a gist of my last five encounters with the CCD staff:

1st Encounter: I order for a veg pasta and they serve me a non veg pasta. That too I discover its non vegetarian origins after chewing on a piece of chicken and questioning the unfamiliarity of the taste. On demanding an explanation the waiter smiles and replies “No problem sir. I will get you the other one”. Whaaat? I have lost my chastity and you say “No problem”

2nd Encounter (same outlet and same waiter): I go with a hard core non- vegetarian friend. He orders a non veg curry and paratha. Playing safe owing to my previous experience I avoid food and stick to coffee. The food arrives and my friend is highly disappointed to see a palak paneer in place of some non-veg keema. On enquiry that waiter revolted “yesterday I got non veg and you got angry na sir?”

3rd Encounter (different outlet): I take my official guests for lunch and luckily everything goes well till we get the bill. I give my card to swipe but waiter keeps standing there with a smiley like face. “What?” I ask him. Unapologetically he announces: “Sir, swipe machine is not working since morning, please give cash”. What? Why didn’t you tell me this when I placed my order. How do you expect me to get cash now? He was generous with his suggestion “Sir all of you can pool in na?” Believe me that was the most embarrassing moment of my life- asking my guests to pay up for the meal.

4th encounter (another different outlet): As I am about to sip my coffee, I hear a lady screaming her lungs out. Abusing the staff and giving them management lessons, both at the same time. She looked like the corporate sorts. She had ordered for a portion of cheese potato wedges and while waiting for that she had already gulped three cups of coffee. Still the food had not arrived and one could see the mixed feelings of anticipation (for food) and anger in her eyes. That was an odd hour and the store was practically empty. She like a general was marching to and fro and cursing the army of guilty waiters.

5th encounter (where the day 1 episode happened): Between the three of us we ordered one Latte and two cappuccinos (one regular and the other slightly stronger), two packs of biscotti and a corn and spinach sandwich. The waiter arrives with a completely new order. He gets us the right sandwich, but three cappuccinos and two packs of chocolate cookies. When I try to correct him, he calls upon another waiter for assistance. I painfully explain him the situation and he reasons it out with me- “Sir this new guy is useless. I asked him not to take orders but doesn’t listen to me”. I snap at him “Boss this is none of my head ache. You sort out your personal scores but please don’t mess up with my food”

Recently one of my ex-colleagues joined the creative team of CCD. He told me that his key responsibility was to make sure that there is a consistent visual language across all the outlets. I.e. all the CCD outlets should have the same look and feel.

I was surprised at the management’s eye for detail. Because, frankly speaking I have been to a lot of CCD outlets across geographies and I did not see any inconsistencies on that end (look and feel).

But then I wonder that if such minute discrepancies are being investigated with such missionary zeal, how come such an important and fundamental aspect of customer service has not been prioritised yet. May be they want their waiters to be self trained, on the job at our cost.
Now every time I step into a CCD, a sense of anxiety dawns upon me, an uneasiness as to what is in store for me this time around.
Hmmm…Indeed a lot can happen over a cup of coffee!