Sunday, June 12, 2011

Don’t buy a house in Mumbai

1. INR 1 Crore is the erstwhile INR 30 lacs a few years back

You won’t find a house which costs less than INR 1 Crore (USD 230k or USD 0.23 Mn) – a modest 2 Bedroom Hall Kitchen (2 BHK) of size 1000 Square Feet (super built up, your carpet area or living area would only be 650 Square Feet) with one parking – Stilt / Open. This house is located not in the heart of the city, but spread across the suburbs on the outskirts.

2. The cost of your car parking lot would be 2-3 times the cost of your car!

You end up paying about INR 0.5 Mn (USD 12k) for buying a car parking space in your apartment. The cost of typical Indian small cars is almost less than this. A Tata Nano – the world’s cheapest car costs anywhere between INR 0.1 Mn – INR 0.2 Mn (USD 3k – 5k). It such a pity that the cost of parking your car in your apartment is more expensive than the cost of your car! Add to this – the fact that you spend more time on roads driving your car than in your apartment. Hence in your lifetime, you pay more money to have an empty square box called parking space for your car.

3. Maybe getting your dream girl is easy these days, but not your dream house!

The builder lobby is the real political nerve center in the city and probably in the country! These are the times when the Housing Loan rates from Banks are already at an all time high – to arrest inflation and curb house hoarding by the affluent. In the low interest regime, a lot of affluent folks ended up taking advantage of low rates and buying 2-3 houses and giving them on rent. To arrest this, the government increased the interest rates. At the same time, the builder lobby was still strong enough to hold on to the exorbitant rates for the properties they were developing. In between these two extremities of high interest regime and exorbitant rates charged by builders, the genuine home buyer still continues to dream about his dream house!

4. Builders escape any scrutiny or regulation that you, I or even the Telecom , Financial or Insurance sectors enjoy in our country.

To keep you in check in your personal life – you have your family, in your professional life you have your bosses – who ensure you don’t go overboard on any aspect that is not in line with them. Real Estate Companies / Builders are the only entities that are not yet regulated by any government body. They continue to get away with charging money for the views you may get from your apartment (even though you may be seeing some slums or greenery which will soon become extinct). For using the staircase and all common areas, you end up paying 30%+ more than what is mentioned in your agreement papers! This is the Super Built area! While buying your apartment, you pay the builder for the Super Built up area of the house, which is nowhere mentioned in any of the authorized legal papers, except for the brochures he prints to lure you into buying the house! The builders also charge money for parking lot – stilt as well as open! I have seen cases where most of the builders take this money in cash, don’t give you any receipt and just issue an allotment letter. What I mention here is not explosive truth that is being written for the first time! It just reflects that they can get away with what they want and no one can question / correct them. They have greased the government at the right levels and continue to go uncontrolled with a smile on their face and wiping their asses with the hard earned money that you and I earn after paying 30% tax to the government! Soon, the builders will only use INR 1000 currency notes as toilet paper!

5. Mumbai is sadistic enough to keep you out of your home:

The house that you buy for INR 1 Crore is the one that will serve you well for those 6-7 hours of sleep at night, when you enter your house exhausted after travel and office pressures! In a city like Mumbai, you can easily spend anywhere between 8 hours and 18 hours outside of your house each day – in Office, Roads, Traffic Jams, Restaurant Queues, Car Parking Queues or even waiting for your lift to take you down from your 24th floor apartment to the Ground Floor! This is true not only in the suburbs, but also in the heart of the city. INR 1 Crore is too high a cost to pay for a guest house where you spent 7 hours average per day over the weekdays and 48 hours in the weekend. Over the weekend, once can still debate the time one spends at home as it is usually loaded with shopping, socializing, meeting friends and relatives, watching movies etc.

6. Home Loan = Additional stress level + Limited resources for other expenses

The house you buy by taking a huge mortgage loan ensures that you are tensed for the next twenty years (the tenure of your home loan). It will ensure that you are on a shoe string budget and make you evaluate every dime you spend on other expenses like buying a better laptop or even getting that neat Jockey underpants you desired! In addition the cost of maintenance per month for your apartment would be anywhere between INR 10,000 – INR 15,000 (includes the maintenance towards society, modest electricity bill, water charges). The money would perhaps be the monthly gross income (including taxes) for atleast 40 % of the working age population! You may fear that seeing you smile, the builder may charge an extra “Happiness cost to you” as a line item on your Housing Payment papers!

The Final Diagnosis

If you now take a view of your house vs your car in Mumbai, you will see that immaterial of how many flyovers get built, how many metro’s are commissioned, you will always spend more time travelling throughout the city and in between traffic jams than anywhere else. You will end up having time for yourself - to think only during that time. Hence, it makes sense to have a decent car (probably with a chauffer), thus ensuring the comfort of your personal space that is used most of the time. The chartered accountant will argue that the car depreciates 20% each year and the house is a visible asset that appreciates and hence advise you to invest in the house. However, there is something beyond asset value, rate of returns and depreciation, which is - living the present comfortably, without frowns or worries about giving away 50-60% of your monthly take home salary towards your house to build a long term asset.

It makes sense to

A) Buy a decent car and employ a chauffer.

B) Rent a house in Mumbai and DON’t buy one (Rent in Mumbai has not increased at the rate at which housing costs have increased)

C) Invest 23-30% of the money you will spend in Mumbai to buy a house (around INR 25 lacs – INR 30 lacs) to buy a house in a Tier II non metropolitan city in India. It will be more spacious and give you decent monetary returns and better quality of life in the long term!

Obituary Note from the Builder to the Genuine Home Buyer

Genuine home buyer in Mumbai – may your soul rest in peace. It was a pity for you that Mumbai has gone down to the dogs. You as a genuine buyer were barking and bitching about it throughout your life. We, the Builders and real estate companies are unmoved by your whims and fancies. While the government is looking the other way, we can get away with what we want. We are the new Invincibles!

(PS: Ensure you deposit INR 10 lacs (INR 1 Mn)to our account, as your spirit may wander in the premises of my apartment complex! And yes, we can’t give you any receipt! If you want the graveyard view, we charge INR 5 lacs  (INR 0.5 Mn) extra !)

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Encounter with a German with Indian hangover at Oslo

It was one of those weekday evenings, which is like many others that you live throughout your working life. It is marred by suits, crisp shirts, polished shoes and a packed calendar at the start of the day that make you nervous in the morning and tired and stress free by night. It was a Wednesday evening and about three weeks before my last day in Norway. I was transitioning my role, responsibilities and customer relationships to my successor. We had returned after having a meeting followed by dinner with customer at a place which was about two hours away from Oslo by Train. It would have been around 10 pm when we had alighted out of the NSB train at National Theatret railway station at Oslo.

Just before the train came to a halt, i saw an old lady who would probably be in her late 50's. She was lean, relaxed and looked a weary traveler with a check in baggage that had weathered many a countries and a small trolly cabin baggage. The lady had gathered all her luggage around her and patiently waiting for the train to halt and doors to open so that she could alight. Very rarely does the gentleman in me wake up. Since i was not carrying any bag this time, i voluntarily offered to lift her heavy cabin baggage and place it on the train platform. Having done that, my colleague / successor immediately mirrored me and took her cabin baggage. Once we were at the platform and all the passengers started rushing towards the exits of the station, she paused and asked us "Are you from India". We answered in unison "Yes". She smiled and said she had lived many years there. This lady did not look Indian or Asian in any aspect. Over talks we realized she was originally from Germany but had travelled enough over the years. Her command over English also underlined the fact. Over conversations, we decided to walk down the long lonely platform of the station and took the escalators to travel up by two floors to reach the entrance of the railway station. The lady was thanking us for helping her and on the way and was interested to know about our backgrounds. So as two suit laden gentleman walked across the station with a lady and her bags in tow. we looked like her personally armed bodyguards out of a Hollywood movie!

The lady was a part of a cult in India called "Ananda Marga". It is one of those many organizations which preach ancient scriptures, Yoga and some teachings of the universe and life from Hindu religion. She had spent an impressive number of years (maybe greater than 10) in India and across the globe. Several other volunteers and peers like her travelled across the world to organize relief in places of floods, famine, earthquake or other natural / man made disasters. She also had a Hindu name christened to her by her Guru, prefixed by the word "Didi" which fondly means "sister" in Hindi. For sake of protecting her identity, i wish to not name her, but her pronunciations of her name and other Sanskrit / Hindi words were second to none.

As the conversation became more interesting, we decided to walk her a bit more further than we had initially intended to. We decided to slide her 40 kg luggage for over 20 minutes to the pier at Aker Brygge, where all the ferry's hop on and hop off passengers. Over the walk, i exchanged notes on Yoga, the book "Autobiography of a Yogi" and about "Paramguru Mahavatar Babaji". I was sharing also my own experiences of meditation when i was onto it years back. Her reflections and intelligent discussions on the subject with rich insights on Indian history and Yogic art were phenomenal. She mentioned that she was now coming to Norway for a short assignment and was pleased to find shelter in a small island off Oslo. Typically, people like her from the Ananda Marga (the meaning of which is "Path to Happiness" in English) live off such help from kind hearted people. They typically have their institutions in rural areas or off farms, so that they can cultivate their own food and consume it. They believe in being self sufficient internally than having to buy things from the market.

Since it was just two - three weeks since another Indian religious guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba had met his end, i asked her if she knew about him. Sri Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi had a huge following from India and all over the world. Its difficult for anyone to not know him. During his last rites, all the major cults had been to see him one last time. I remembered seeing the controversial peer Swami Nithyananda attending Sri Sathya Sai Baba's last rites in a newspaper clipping on the internet. We spoke about the reputational risks in philosophies like these as a lot of Genuine Baba's turn out to be scamsters and don't have a clean image. She was honest enough to admit that her cult also had experienced some allegations years back, but still those who believed continued with it. The conviction with which she spoke also highlighted the mind share that these guru's are able to have on their disciples over a period of time. Some of these Guru's would be actually the best "Salesmen" ever known. Selling something for money (short term) is one thing and selling something for nothing and yet gain their patronage for life (long term) is all together a different ball game.

We finally saw her off at the ship terminal till she boarded the ferry and waved her hand at us and thanked us profusely. We waved back at her, smiled and wished her all the best. I was smitten by this unique experience of meeting a European with more of Indian culture and knowledge of Sanskrit, yoga than an Indian in Europe was some experience.

The moonlight shone over the horizon. The ripples over the calm sea were colored with moonlight in patches as if by design than by accident. Staring blankly on the ships and private boats parked around the banks of the sea, my mind was wondering - Why did we meet Didi? What is it that the supreme forces of nature wanted me to experience out of this meeting? Is there more to life than just the capitalist undying quench to travel, earn, slog your assess off and yet be disappointed with what you have and strive for more? Is it important for us to appreciate and ingrain the deep reserves of mythology, scriptures, yoga that the rich culture of India brings along? Has the West now let go off plundering material wealth off India and looked forward to soak itself in our cultural richness to find their lost path? While they were finding their lost path's, are we Indians loosing our sense of direction by looking westwards for everything?

I keep thinking..and so will you!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Happy Bday!

Happy Bday to me
Happy Bday to me
Happy Bday dear DC
Happy Bday to me!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Turning and going straight ahead of 30!

Getting on the wrong side of 30's for the second consecutive year in a few hours! Cant believe time has flown so fast! Its as if only yesterday i fell down my bicycle, had my first crush, tried my first cigarette or had my first beer!  I have tried 1 of 2 things that i am educated about getting onto the 30's. First is that i saw the movie - " Turning 30" by Gul Panag. Pretty engrossing  - i must say! Second is that i haven't tried "30+" capsules that Jitendra recommended in those advertisements in late 80's and early 90's! Maybe its time to heed into vitamins, dietary changes to bring the weight which is numerically now equal to my year of birth! Lets hope i visit this blog in a years time with a trimmer waistline! Adios...

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The best things about staying in Norway – Part 1

I have spent close to two years in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Lasted two winters, summers and in two cities. Travelled quiet a bit in the country to various places and here is a list of the best things of staying in Norway or visiting it as a tourist.

#1 Experience Natural Beauty at its best

Norway is one of the most beautiful and unexplored places on earth. The checklist of the typical tourist to Europe typically features all the commercial places – like Switzerland, Italy, France, UK, Spain, Germany and Greece. It however misses the Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland for some reason. If there is one place you need to add to see one of the most beautiful sequences of Mountains and pristine seas – the combination also called fjords, Norway is the place to be!

# 2 Travelling made simpler

With a robust public transportation system including Underground trains (also called T-Bane / Metro Rail), Trams (yes, still trams run between certain sections of Oslo!), Buses 24*7, you don’t need to rent a car to go sightseeing within Oslo. To travel from Oslo to other cities like Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim etc, you have the overhead long distance trains run by the railway authority – NSB (similar to Indian Railways in India). You also have flights run by low cost airlines like Norwegian and others like SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). Long distance buses with varying fairs also ferry tourists and regular passengers between multiple cities. Apart from this, the Taxi’s are also available to ply between different points, but are very expensive and not recommended unless it is urgent.

# 3 They speak very good English

Norway is one of the few countries in Europe, where the tourist from an English speaking country can feel at home. Most of the Norwegians I came across during my stay  spoke very good English. They are happy to talk to you in English and assist you as required with a smile on their face. My experience in Germany was horrible as even a cab driver struggled to talk English in Cologne-Bonn and Frankfurt. The reason why they speak very good English is primarily due to the Oil boom of the sixties, which opened up the world to Norway. It is also due to the fact that most of the Norwegians move out of Norway for higher studies to a foreign country as the Government sponsors / gives incentives for the same. Hence they end up learning a new language and English is right up there as most of them ove to UK and USA. To add to this, with the explosion of satellite television, Norway opened doors to the American channels and movies in 1970’s and 1980’s. As a result people have grown up watching American sitcoms with the voice over in English – as is. Only subtitles are in Norwegian. All the travel books available in the Tourist Information Centers are in various languages including English. All in all, though you may see lot of signboards and information in Norwegian or Norsk, you can always request passers by for information in English if you don’t find anything printed in English.

To be continued…

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Mumbai -Car

If my experience of going by bus to office was one harrowing affair, from Day 2, I decided to reluctantly plunge into the other option – of taking my car to work. Our office has moved about 3-4 kms closer to home. This means I now need to commute for about 30 kms instead of 34 (each way). To commute to work from my place, I need to use a very creative combination of Bus, Train or Auto all the time, if I am not driving my car. Using this method of public transport takes about 2 hour each way. If I drive down my car – it takes somewhere between an hour and hour and a half each way. I decided to use this option, at the cost of my own personal stress of manoeuvring through narrow gaps in the traffic, day in and day out as my Swift chugs away to office and home.

I have seen people do a host of things while on their cars. Some who drive by themselves, always listen to music, attend phone calls or even cut nails (I know this sounds yuck!)while their hands are wrapped around the steering wheel! Some folks who have a driver for the car, sit back and read the newspapers and magazines, continue working on their computers or talking on their mobile phones. The latter is like a seamless transition to doing what you want and what is more productive from home onto your car and then finally onto your office and same thing in the reverse way. It of course comes with a cost – that of the Driver’s salary, overtime and other whims and fancies that they have. But nevertheless, it bails you out of the anxiety of driving in Mumbai roads.

Having spent a little more than 3 hours on my car each day since the last three days of this week, while commuting to and from office, I am beginning to think if the term “Mumbaikar” (it means Mumbai ite or person who hails from Mumbai in Marathi) is actually becoming “Mumbai Car”? People spent about 15-20% of the 24 hours in a day commuting in the city through various modes including cars. They may be spending more time in the car with themselves than with their family members at home. The car does become one of the most underrated assets on Mumbai’s roads. The most overrated and overpriced asset is of course housing in Mumbai as you pay a fortune to buy one, but have no time for yourself to spend at that home. Especially in a place like Mumbai, I see the car and driver both as an investment that contributes to your productivity. They are the winds of change that transport you between different environs like between home and office, home and gymnasium etc.

Lets see how long I last driving by myself to the city – everyday day in and day out. The temptation is too strong to hire a driver, but I somehow am not convinced of giving someone else the charge of taming my SWIFT while I sit behind and relax. Lets see…only time would tell.

Till then, continue enjoying your second home - the car!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

I am not a Madrasi or a Bhaiyya

Have now completed exactly 8 days in India. Joined office early this week and was brave enough to take the bus the first day of the week. Some new changes in this experience of going to office. First thing, my wife dropped me by car at the bus depot, which is a neat progress and makes me dream of getting drunk at parties and not worrying about driving back home! So far, my dad has dropped me by scooter at the station or the bus stop for years that I have worked or studied. So a well deserved rest for dad as well!

Second thing is that I used an air conditioned (AC) Bus from the bus depot near my house to go to my office at Powai – which is roughly 30 kms from my house. In the last few years, all the Public Transportation authorities like BEST, NMMC ply AC buses which ferry bus loads of harried Mumbaikars from one end of the city to another. It is such a pleasant respite from the hot and sultry travel times that were full of grime, sweat and dust over the years that I used public transportation. One can listen to FM Radio, enjoy the coldness of air condition and travel across the city by observing life outside their windows with no frown on their brows or shirt sticking to their backs. Indeed a small revolution, which would further explode with the opening of Metro Rail services.Way to go Mumbai!

The third thing is that the political parties in Mumbai, which have a strong linguistic and sons of the soil agenda have slowly managed to hallucinate the common “Marathi Manoos”. They are seeing easy ways of attracting followers by inciting strong feelings of pride amongst the “Marathi Manoos” ( a local citizen of Mumbai). They do this to pull the carpet over their inability over the years to do anything good for the upliftment of the same people whose support they now try to garner by inciting strong regionalistic sentiments. The gentleman next to me was a stout, dark middle aged man who generously spread his weight in the seat. He had a family of three seated around him and in front of him. It was time for this gentleman to buy his tickets from the bus conductor. The bus conductor / ticket dispatcher walked towards us and asked him how many tickets he needed. The gentleman replied “4 Tickets. What is the price?” in Marathi language. The conductor replied “Teenshe Vees rupaye (meaning Rs. 320 in Marathi)”.

Maybe the marathi gentleman spoke too fast without understanding that the conductor had replied in Marathi. The gentleman spew his venom saying “Marathit bola nah. Me kaay madrasi nahee tar Bhaiyya nahee!” which meant “ Talk to me in Marathi, I am not a Madrasi or Bhaiyya”. For non Indians – Madrasi’s is a common Indian racist slur used to address all South Indians from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Bhaiyya is a common Indian racist slur used to address a lot of North Indians – especially from states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and around. Over the years, the politicians in Mumbai especially and rest of India have done well to divide people based on this difference in language and region a person belongs to. While the likes of US and UK look forward to shut doors for Indian nationals or make it more stringent as they don’t want the smart Indians taking their jobs, similarly politicians in Maharashtra have been vociferous to keep out the “Madrasi’s and Bhaiyyas” using similar protectionist measures. Though it has not been that effective, but still they have been effective in creating a false feeling of pride of being “Marathi Manoos” by arousing unwanted strong regionalistic sentiments. I have nothing against Maharashtrian or Marathi’s. In fact I speak, talk and read Marathi much better than my “Madrasi”. I enjoy watching Marathi Movies (from movies of Dada Kondke, Nilu Phule, Lakshmikant Berde, Ashok Saraf to recent movies like Jogwa, Natarang etc), have loads of Marathi friends and feel more at home in Maharashtra than Tamil Nadu. I have been born and brougt up here and taken Marathi as a language for more than five years at school. I can hum Marathi songs and still remember the TV serials like "Aavhaan", "Gotya", "Bhikajirao Karodpati", "Zopigelela zaaga zaala" and other such Marathi serials which i watched as a kid on National Television - Doordarshan (DD). My mom and dad can speak broken Marathi and understand it totally. They infact own and read Marathi cookbooks like "Ruchira" which typically dictates some pickle and lunch menus. My sister and wife can speak it as flawlessly as i can.

What has let me down is that the real issues of education, poverty, social upliftment, job training have been ignored in the quest for Marathi pride over no solid foundations. God bless Mumbai and the Marathi Manoos. My fingers crossed for all my fellow comrades out here!

Marathi manasa zaga ho ! (Awaken Oh Marathi Man!)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Back in Mumbai in the sweltering heat!

Just over 5 days old in India! Just about winded off a long trip to Norway. Was looking forward to reach the “Maximum City – Mumbai” from a long time! Nice to see the end of Bachelorhood 2.0 and move back to family back home in India.

In less than 5 days, I have had a bath for over 15 times! Just goes to explain the irritation caused by a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius plus humidity of over 66%! Just getting used to the traffic, huge crowds and the dust in addition to heat. But again, this was where I was born in and is my Janmabhoomi (land of birth) and karmabhoomi (land of work), so no further cribbings!

In this blog, will continue updating pieces of how easy and difficult I am finding to adjust yet again in India. When I relocated back from the US, it was not that difficult as I dived straight into student life. This time, after having worked in continental Europe for over a year and a half, I have chosen the path less trodden - choosing to come back to Mumbai to see where life takes me next!

Will keep this updated. TC till then!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Norway: Stavanger: The trek to Preikestolen / Prekestolen / Pulpit Rock

On Saturday, May 14th 2011, me and my colleagues from TCS scaled Prekestolen, a massive cliff of about 2000 feet in the outskirts of Stavanger, Norway. This blog shares my experiences on the same. 

About Preikestolen:

Preikestolen or Prekestolen, also known by the English translations of Preacher's Pulpit or Pulpit Rock, and by the old local name Hyvlatonnå, is a massive cliff 604 metres (1982 feet) above Lysefjorden, opposite the Kjerag plateau, in Forsand, Ryfylke, Norway. The top of the cliff is approximately 25 by 25 metres (82 by 82 feet) square and almost flat, and is a famous tourist attraction in Norway.

Trail Map
The total hike is 3.8 km (2.4 mile) – each way and this is one of the most famous attractions to visit in Norway. It is quite dominant in a lot of souvenirs magnets, mugs, vodka shot glasses and other desk paraphernalia. A lot of books inciting tourists to visit various places in Norway are conveniently placed in the Oslo, Stavanger and other airports. Most of these books would invariably have a pic of the square 25 by 25 metres top of Prekestolen.

How to get there:

Ferry about to land at Tau
The best time to visit this place is between April and October. During the other days in the year it is not advisable to trek due to snow and ice, which make it a dangerous and impossible venture. The best way to reach Preikestolen is to travel to Stavanger city. Regular flights operate from all over Europe, Norway and Scandinavia. One can easily take the airport express bus / taxi from Airport to the pier from where ferry’s leave towards an island called “Tau”. The pier is called “Fiskepirterminalen”. One can also take their cars / vehicles on the ferry. Tau island is about 20 minutes by ferry. From Tau, regular busses operate till the base camp of Prekestolen, which is about 20 kms away. There is a typical visitor information center, parking lot, souvenir shop and rest rooms at the base camp.

Scenic drive to Prekestolen Base camp

Our Trek:

The Preacher atop Pulpit Rock!

I have been in the “Land of the Vikings “ or Norway for a little over 19 months. Apart from taking an unplanned short hike to Tau island, I had not had a serious trek in Norway. The country is famous for its huge mountains which open options for trekking outdoors to catch breathless glimpses of the natural beauty and the fjords. Before leaving Norway and probably never to come back, I got this opportunity to tick off one “must see” from my checklist almost the last but one weekend that I was in Stavanger. My office colleagues – Vikram, Ravi and Kim drove down from Oslo to Stavanger and crashed in at my place on late Friday night. They intended to trek Prekestolen the next day early in the morning. I was as usual having the typical dilemma of uncertainty that plagues us Geminines always. The uncertainty was to go for the trek or not to. On one hand what held me from going was packing, cleaning my house the last weekend that I was there before heading to Oslo. On the other hand, I wanted to go to catch glimpses of the view from the top of Prekestolen. My quest to catch glimpses finally caught the better of me! After reading the experiences of many folks on internet, I found it not to be that tough a trek. So if it was going to be risky, I had prepared myself to halt till the point I reached and wait till the rest of my team trekked up and came down. Only time will tell if I could scale Prekestolen!

The three musketeers from TCS office!

Between Friday night and Saturday night, managed to sleep for over 4 hours. We had a light breakfast and left by 8.30 am from my house, which wasn’t far from Fiskpeterminalen. After loading the car in the ferry and landing at Tau, we drove aimlessly for half an hour, loosing our way – thanks to the GPS in Vikram’s car, who had an off day on Saturday! Finally we circled back to the base camp and started our trek at 10.30 am.

The weather forecast for the day was rain from 3pm and so we wanted to come back before that. As usual the weather forecast was no good. Right from the time we started trekking, it started drizzling. Armed with just one bag with a bottle of water , a Kvik Lunsj ( a chocolate similar to Kit Kat found in India) and some dates, the Indian Vikings (Vikram, Ravi and myself) began to scale Prekestolen with the Norwegian Viking (Kim)!

Flat walkpaths in between
The trek to Prekestolen is a combination of slopes with sharp inclines at places and flat walk paths on wooden boards, when you are scaling between cliffs.

 There are boulders of huge rocks interlaced various stretches. These boulders weave a mosaic pattern and form a stretch of steep slope in between. The occasional odd water stream seeps between these boulders and with rain dripping down, its imperative to watch your step and step cautiously on the right rock. Avoid the ones which have a green tinge (marshy) or the ones which appear loose, as you may slip and fall. It is advisable to wear rubber soled shoes than the ones with heavy synthetic grip, as you get very good at very steep angles and its not heavy on the feet. You can stay nimble footed yet climb with no worries.

Scaling steep declines
We found a lot of fellow trekkers – Norwegian, Chinese, Japanese, British on our way who were either scaling up or trekking down after the view. They were of all ages from probably 8 to 65 – 70, climbing at their own pace. During our trek, while different people took the lead at multiple instances, I was always the last or the last but one in the group. I was really testing out my knees and ankles with the full load of 80 kgs of my weight! That’s about 10 kgs more than what they are designed for. I was just calmly hoping that I don’t break the non-stop rhythm we maintained during our conquest to the top with a request for a break / breather !

Glad that we finally reached the top in little over an hour and a half, which was a delightful surprise and good scorecard on our fitness levels. Typically depending on fitness levels it takes one to two hours each way. Once we reached up, we clicked pictures and enjoyed the scenic views of the Lysefjord from the top of Prekestolen.  The scenery is just out of the world!

Splendid View 1 from atop Prekestolen

Splendid View 2 from atop Prekestolen

The other side view from Prekestolen

Steep fall with small waterfall at the opposite end
Small waterfalls along the ranges looked like tears from the mountains, moved by their own beauty! Though it was a cloudy and rainy day, we still caught some fantastic views of the fjords. If it would have been sunny, it would have been much more memorable, though a little less adventurous. We had some water, dates and Kvikk Lunsj to recharge our batteries.

Finally we began the descent after our photo shoot session. During the descent we accidentally got separated. Kim and Vikram took one path to descend (the same by which we had climbed up). Ravi and I managed to take a different path downhill. The path we took was the one that was often described in most of the websites that I had read overnight. In some stretches, you had to hold on to chains / railings to descend tricky slopes. They were definitely safe, but a tad scary. This ain’t for the lighthearted folks! But having said that, if I could trek Prekestolen, so could a 7th grader who just began hanging out with friends without parental guidance!

The walk downhill to the parking lot
Ravi and I were exchanging stories of our lives and similar expeditions while climbing down and never indeed felt how the time flew by. We enjoyed the scenic views and various intervals with the rain splashing a tad harder on us. Finally we scaled down in less than an hour and a half. We managed to reach about ten minutes before Kim and Vikram. In the end, we all were overjoyed with the adventure and were glad we conquered Prekestolen! We did it in record time of three and a half hours, which includes halt taken for pictures and light snacks.

We were feeling warm and wet on the inside due to the sweater and jackets and workout and cold and wet on the outside because of the rain. Not the right combination for your body, but am glad we switched on the car heater to full blast on the way to Tau for the ferry back to Stavanger.

A Saturday well spent indeed. I am in person happy that I was not the weak link in the chain and managed to complete the trek without being the show stopper due to fatigue! Thanks to my office folks for driving down from Oslo this weekend. All in all it was a great adventure!

The trick in a trek: The Management Mantra 
The Long Term Goal!

As you decide to do a trek, there are a lot of feelings stirred inside you. It is anxiety, happiness and some worry of eventualities or casualities. At times its also your own lack of self belief on whether you will be able to make it till the top, given what you hear from folks and your history of fear of altitudes. In the end, if you break it down – there are just two things – short term goals and long term goals that you need to set yourself. Your long term goal is to reach the flat rock of Prekestolen at the top. The short term goal is the next 100 – 300 meters of stretch you see and plan to scale up and scale down, without looking it at the entire stretch. The entire stretch will always make you scary and make things go wrong. Just keep focusing on your short term goals – of scaling the next few meters and rocks and plan your strategy. If you get your short term strategies right, your long term strategy will be in place!
Indian and Norwegian Vikings atop Prekestolen!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Importance of Time

They say Life and Death are not in anyone's hands.

They are things that just happen every time and with everyone. Same is the case with time. Most of the times we take it for granted that there is always plenty of time. Due to this perhaps we indulge in various activities, which are a wholesale waste of time.

The clock is always ticking. The seconds keep on ticking just like busy ants. The ants keep themselves always busy by always hunting for food everywhere. Similarly the seconds always keep on ticking to attain short-term goals of making a minute with 60 ticks. After reaching a milestone of a minute the second's hand of a clock don't take a break, but start afresh for another round of 60 ticks. The take it minute by minute and inadvertently reach a quarter of an hour, and hour and then a day. They always focus on the smaller targets- that is a minute and the bigger aim of the clock itself gets fulfilled. That's why the minutes hand have to work less, as the seconds hand does most of the running around. The minute hand just has to make 60 movements on a clock dial. The hours hand is the luckiest of the lot. It just moves for 12 times in an hour. But the seconds hand movies for 3600 times around the dial for the same hour!

Parallel to this, in our life to we never realizes that we have lots to do. Between every big task we can always find enough time to fit in a plethora of smaller tasks. If you are waiting for a train at the station, you can always read a magazine or rather chalk out your study timetable for exams. While traveling in the bus too one can find enough time to at least skim through the previous days notes.

Be like the clock. Always keep on ticking by involving yourself in various things and learning new things. These small knowledge and experience modules will perhaps one day take you to your bigger goal some day. They say "Time and Tide waits for no man". If so, now stop staring at the screen and utilize your time effectively!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stranger from Faroe Islands

Staying away from home can be a delightful experience for the first few months. As the days fly by, the burden of a dreary and lonely life piles onto everything you do. At times you ask some thought provoking questions to the almighty – “Why me? Why is it that I need to go through this ordeal?” which further pushes you down the abyss of self pity. To restore sanity from this ordeal, it is essential to have new ways to entertain yourself, to keep the momentum going. The momentum is to be maintained till your day of redemption – of going back to your home, family and country comes good. 

Having friends around is surely a way to keep you safe from your own thoughts and influence. It helps you defocus from your mundane life and delve into topics of conversation and images in the mind that you couldn’t conjure in your loneliness. This Saturday evening, I had a friend down to my place for dinner. I had cooked a light meal of mixed vegetables – sauted in a backdrop of onions, tomato and some Indian spices.  My laptop conspired with the Bose speakers and youtube to fill in the room with some light music – typically old Hindi movie songs from the 70’s and 80’s.  The smell of freshly cooked curry, background music in the air – the stage was all set for us to catch up on our lives as we downed two swift pegs of Bacardi white rum with Sprite.  The conversations varied from personal to professional, life back home to life in this place and the lives of other common friends around. The background music also became a conversation topic and we exchanged notes on our views of the music and the movie it was from. As we exchanged those notes, each one of us in our own thoughts imagined how our life was, when we had first heard that song or seen that movie. Take for example the old hindi song “Aaye Meherbaan” from Madhubala. I have never liked such old songs from the black and white movie era as a rebellious teenager. With the 30’s kicking in and having seen life from different shades, I have succumbed to enjoying melody with meaning than noise with head banging.  The other song that further drowns me in the well of human existence, especially with a peg on my side is “Musafir hoon yaaron, na ghar hai na thikana”. With age, the idea of finding true meaning to life and our existence becomes an interesting thought which can keep your engrossed for lifelong and still not produce any tangible result. Coming back to ur present state and downing that last peg of Bacardi white rum, we headed to the kitchen and shared a Nan bread with the curry.  Through with dinner, the clock struck 12.40 am and we decided to go down to “Cardinals” – one of the pub where a common friend was part timing. 

We broke through the chilly breeze on a Saturday evening in Stavanger, marching through cobbler stoned pavements. There was an air of authority in the background – stamped by kids who are about to graduate from school to college. It’s a famous tradition during the months of April- May in Norway. This is the time when tenth graders march through the city on late nights –especially Friday and Saturday, blowing whistles in the air and march wearing similar red pants. Its almost like they are comrades in arms and have just come back from a hard fought war. It is a sign of throwing caution to the wind and announcing to the city and people that “Hey guys, we are graduating to go to college. Take us seriously in life from here on. We are no longer kids!” and there goes a whistle that pierces through the air and making your ears cringe in faint approval. 

Luckily, we did not have to wait longer to get inside the pub.  “Cardinals” is supposedly the second best pub in Norway and 35th best in the World. The music is not loud, there is no dance floor and the entry is restricted to ages 24 and above with a huge seating area spread across two floors. Its almost a perfect setting to keep away people who are yet not serious with their lives from ones who are and are ahead along the maturity curve. The traditional serving area of the bar is impressive with the bar counter arching across a corner of the room there by separating the demand and supply side – the customers and the bartenders. The bartenders and their armor of shining glasses, bottles and gallons of golden and transparent colored potions on the supply side indeed looks mesmerizing.  In the surroundings of the dimly lit lampshades, the yellow light striking on their faces makes them look like the Messiahs being specially sent by the Almighty to pacify us earthly human beings with their magic potions. Seated on high stools on the opposite side, the customers are all willing to gulp down their choice of potions in between conversations with others or with themselves. After me and my friend got settled into a similar high stool and were comforted by our friend who was working part time, we settled in for a Newcastle beer. It was one out of the 400 different choices of beer available at Cardinals. Ain’t that a cardinal sin in life to have limited your options to Ringnes, Kingfisher, Chakra, Tuborg, Carlsberg, Budlight and Corona?

Finally me and my friend were into that space of time where we didn’t have much to converse. To add to it, the background noise of other conversations was overpowering any attempts we would have wanted to make to strike a conversation. A gentleman seated to my left hand side then gently tapped my shoulders to strike a conversation. He started to exchange pleasantries in Norwegian.  Once I politely requested if he could speak English, we had an amazing conversation for the next few minutes. I have always only imagined this in my life – being in a pub, seated on the high stool and striking conversations with a perfect stranger. It was all happening on this Saturday night in the April I spent in Stavanger. 

The gentleman was a citizen of Faroe Islands, which is somewhere near Iceland. It’s an island country of not more than 50,000 people and apparently is under the control of Denmark. People in Faroe island speak Faroese, apart from Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Norwegian. The gentleman was in this city for the same reason as I was – for work. What was similar is that we both were not directly from the oil and gas industry, which makes us more exotic in one of the worlds most famous Oil and Gas hubs. He was a “Roof layer” by profession, thereby laying roofs for various houses and buildings in Stavanger.  Working ten hours a day for six days a week – he surely rubbished any first impressions my mind formed about another blessed individual with a relaxed work pressure, which is very common in the Nordic countries. 

The very struggle of him being in Stavanger and working long hours was a testimony to the limited opportunities that a small island like Faroe could provide to its residents. Still, the ability to go beyond the confines of the shipbuilding and fishing industry in Faroe Islands to make fortune in the nearby country of Norway was testimony to his ambitions in life. If the long hours laying roofs were a way of fulfilling his ambitions, so was being worldly aware and socially intelligent. We exchanged conversations on a variety of topics. Topics such as the top five countries in the world by GDP , the invasion of the Mongolians and the impact of the same on the world and his intelligence about India as a nation with nuclear and IT capabilities and the gift of freedom from Gandhi. He had never been to India, but was appreciative of Indians and thankful to an Indian teacher he had. Yes they had Indians in Faroe Islands too. We Indians are everywhere and we did not leave even a tiny island in the North Sea, which almost looks like ink droplets (No offence to Faroe Islands or other small places on earth) on a map of the world placed on the table!  Conversations revealed that Faroe Islands had close to 50-100 Indians and they also had some Indian restaurants. Not bad for an island where the total population was 50,000? 

Though he was apologetic for his English, I never felt he struggled to speak English. He knew India was literally the biggest English speaking nation on earth – thanks to the British. After the India adulation from a complete stranger that humbled me, one of the last few conversations we had was about the races. The fact that Europeans and Asians were a part of the Aryan race and further on we spoke about Genghis Khan and his pet projects which resulted in 1/16th of the world being his descendants – directly or indirectly! As we spoke more of the Mongolians, he began describing about a book he had read which talks about two sects of people – Mongolians with the flat eyes and flat noses and non Mongolians. The book was based in Afghanistan and had a character name “Hasan”. I immediately knew he was talking about Khaled Hossneni’s “Kite Runner” that even I had read about a month back. He was excited and glad to know that even I had read that book. After exchanging appreciations for the way the author had written the book, we overheard the bartenders politely requesting all folks to step out as they were closing .We wished each other good luck and decided to part ways. I got back to my two friends who were almost forgotten for the past few minutes since I was talking to the Faroese guy. After exchanging a few notes and hugs, me and my friend bade farewell to our friend who was part timing – thanking him for the hospitality, discounted beer and more important for the lovely time. 

We stepped out into the cold breeze of Saturday night in Stavanger. In the midst of teenagers and adults heading back from various pubs with a background of roadside guitar players strumming light notes into thin air, I was happy to have met the Faroese guy. Hope he does well in what he does. We never exchanged names, but he had pretty much defined his personality. He was a roof layer but could converse like any of the intellects on a range of topics, which were a delightful surprise. He will do well in life for sure.  As i head yet another day closer to my day of redemption - of leaving this beautiful city and country back to my homeland or Mother India, i can be rest assured that Stavanger city definitely has more to it than oil and gas professionals.  The Faroese guy and i testify that.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Subway Sandwich of Cricket, Politics and Bollywood

Last few months, the Indian economy has been like a long Subway Sandwich which has a lot of filling in it. The bread on either sides signifying the period between which you want to access what happened in India. The filling in between the bread being signified by Cricket, Politics and Bollywood and all seem to be intermingled.

Especially Cricket and Politics have added a lot of weight and meat to the thickness of the Subway Sandwich (India’s economy). The Indian cricket team’s tour to South Africa, followed by the 40 days of the journey to win the World Cup had already drained Indians of their craze for the game. If this was not enough, it was followed by IPL for another 40 days which is more like having twice the tomato filling in a normal subway causing the subway to explode. Thankfully the Indian economy won’t explode due to cricket in the real sense of the term. It would rather implode by the wavering levels of productivity that too much of cricket brings into the nation. Too much cricket means increased advertisements spends by various multinationals there by leading to a unwanted inflation in prices of items you are made to consume. The coffers of BCCI, cricketers are filled up from these advertisements and all that a spectator like you and me are left is heartache if India loose the match and future loss of hard earned money irrespective of their win or loss. The future loss is due to the potential increase in prices of things we consume from Car Batteries to Chyawanprash, caused by the money that a Yuvraj or Sachin needs to be paid to say a one liner to sell that product. Too much of tomato kills the taste of other ingredients in  a Subway sandwich. Similarly, too much of cricket kills the purchasing power capacity of the country as we pay more for the same products and also are less productive when matches are being played, leading to small setbacks in personal and professional life.

The story will now become more complicated. While you thought your Subway only had cricket in between, you never felt the taste of the black olives or politics as you munched the subway with your teeth. These black olives are way too much and signify the black mark the Indian politicians have left on our democracy. The black mark due to their unending corruption scandals which just keep getting better. If the Commonwealth Games farce was not enough, we were further brought to our knees by the telecom scam which is potentially the biggest scam of Independent India, masterminded by ex minister A Raja.   Raja became lion hearted by giving away telecom spectrum at throwaway prices in 2008, thereby causing potential loss to the Indian ex chequer by over INR 1700 Crores or INR 170 Bn. In return he did receive kickbacks, which are themselves to the tunes of money one can never imagine. So while we slog out and pay 30% of our income as taxes to the government, people like Raja and Kalmadi have figured out the best way to spend your blood and sweat. A few more scams and people like them, will ensure that we are without “Roti”, “Kapda”, “Mobile”, “Bijli”, “Sadak” and “Pani”. I do not wish to mention about “Makaan” as the real estate prices are already exorbitantly high – thanks to the builders lobby supported by politicians entering real estate business. Ironically the mantra of the Congress government had Roti, Kapda, Makaan, Mobile, Bijli, Sadak, Pani in all its political manifestos, speeches and message for the people when it was fighting for re-elections. The message just sunk amongst us innocent citizens that they promised to loot us of these comforts and not enhance these for better!

Bollywood is more like a sauce. A sauce that can mingle with tomato’s and olive and yet maintain its own flavor. Through the concept of IPL all the Bollywood stars – Priety Zinta, Shilpa Shetty, Shah Rukh Khan and host of other saucy pretty young entertainers mingle with the tomato’s or cricket. The only sources of mass adulation known to the sauce / bollywood is mixing with cricket / tomato or flirting with black olives/ politics. Power, popularity and money (PPM) attract themselves. No wonder the upper echelons in all three fields – Cricket, Politics and Bollywood always mingle with each other as the magnetic effect of PPM never wanes off. Income tax apparently is a non existent word in the dictionary of many a Bollywood personalities. They are able to evade this through connections to politics, smart chartered accountants and finally invest the saved tax in the largest and unofficial Section 80 C scheme for black money makers in India - the IPL! And this unofficial 80C surely does not have the Rs. One Lakh (INR 100,000) limit that us lowly nine to fivers struggle to invest for a financial year to save some taxes!

And as you think about the Indian economy and take that last bite of your subway sandwich almost in anger, you cant help but feel a bad taste in your mouth left by too much of tomato and black olives. The stain on your t-shirt caused by the sauce spilt on it almost underlines the fact that you can never escape the populism of the three forces in India that rule your life directly or indirectly - Cricket, Politics and Bollywood. You almost shrug your shoulders in despair and give into an accepted sense of defeat against the entire system.

And as you are given into the Goliath’s of the world,  it takes a 72 year old man from a non descript village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra to start removing the black olives from your subway sandwich. Well, lets just save the story of the David called “Anna Hazare” for another day!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Global Haircut Experience - Part 3

Price: NOK 100 ($ 18, excluding tip) in Oslo and NOK 200 ($36, excluding tip) in Stavanger. These are the minimum in these two cities for Gents. The rates otherwise can go upto NOK 400 ($72, excluding tip) for men and start from NOK 300 ($54, excluding tip) for women.

Norway is one of the most expensive places on earth. It’s a fact well articulated by the various surveys available on the internet.  If you come to Norway and stay here for some time, you realize the gravity of things being expensive. For example, take the case of the haircut. Haircuts are really expensive here and its no surprise that a lot of Norwegian men don’t have much hair or are close to bald. Is cold weather not conducive for hair growth on scalp? Or are the genes of the current generation Norwegians aware of the sky high prices for haircut, hence decide not to allow hair growth? I would though not like to generalize that Norwegian men are bald – but nevertheless was told about this by an Eastern European lady who was giving me a haircut in Oslo. In my 18 months in this beautiful country, I have had haircut only thrice – twice in Oslo and once in Stavanger. In between these, I had an opportunity to travel and hence the hairdressers in India and in UK shared the responsibility of trimming my tresses! It was more by accident than by design!

I was recommended this place for a haircut by my friend, who has been in Oslo for long.  On a Saturday morning, just a day before my wife joined me in Oslo I went to Gronland, the official residence for a lot of the Asian and African migrant population.  Gronland is very crowded on Saturdays and week days in the evening. This is because, all the different vegetables, groceries, food items , clothes are easily available here. Walking through the narrow allies can be scary and spooky at times, but will make you feel you are walking through three different continents at the same time – Africa, Europe and Asia. Gronland is also the place where we get all the Asian Groceries in Pakistani shops and have good Indian, Sri Lankan restaurants.

I waited for sometime for my turn at the hair saloon and was ushered in by a guy from Iraq. He could speak fluent Norwegian and some broken English. He had other customers in various other chairs so he pointed me to a lady in the corner who would cut my hair. Maybe she was the one who could speak the most fluent English. The lady hairdresser was nice. While she cut my hair, over conversations I got to know that she was from Eastern Europe and had worked earlier in Sweden. In Norway, she was working and saving money to fund a hair dressing professional course in UK. She already had an Apple iPhone and a Mac book laptop! Voila! This place is so different. Norway is one of the most die-hard fans of Apple’s products. Even hairdressers and the commonest of commons had an iPhone / Mac Book. Hope i live to see this day in India in the next 40 years.I decided not to talk about my Dell laptop of the past 8 years after i heard of her Mac Book! She was aware of the Indian diaspora doing well in the field of computers and then amongst other conversations, my hair was finally down to about half to three fourths of an inch from the scalp. A little close to being a Norwegian?

The remaining two haircuts were spread between Oslo and Stavanger. The guys who cut the hair were from Iraq / Iran and were total professionals. They took not more than 20 minutes to shape my long tresses the way they thought I had instructed them to shape. It was silence and some background English music all along. 

Over conversations with my colleague Kim today, i got to know that the reason why women are hairdressers for both men and women in these countries is only because hairdressing was considered pre-dominantly a feminine profession or pastime. If men are into this business, it means they are gay. Anyways, I believe for folks from Middle East and Asia this principle may not apply as our folks look at it as a profession and they necessarily may not be gay!

Psst psst..hairdressers make tones of money in Norway. I have seen so many saloons in Stavanger that I have lost count. A typical saloon is called “Frisor” in here and I hear its tough job to open one as one has to go through rigorous training, approvals etc. to be qualified to have a haircutting shop. But once they are established, there is no stopping the money from coming in as the hair tresses fall along!

The Frisor below my house is charging NOK 400 (USD 72) for a haircut for men. Can anyone please adopt me and gift me a haircut in there? Kidding... I will wait till i head back to India or go to UK to get it done at 1/6th to 1/7th of the cost!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Global Haircut Experience - Part 2

Unites States Of America
Price: $16-$20 including a tip (2004-07 prices)

Between 2004 and 2007, I spent more than 3 years in Connecticut, US. Thanks to the nomadic life that we all IT professionals so eagerly look forward to! During this period, I was coming to terms with the different way of doing things in a different part of the world. Be it transitioning from water to tissues or smiling at strangers and uttering “Hi. How you doing”, at the speed of light! I had my share of haircuts as well.

A lot of my colleagues in my previous organization wanted to cut cost on all fronts and definitely wanted to save on haircuts which were almost 13-15 times the hair cut cost in India. Some folks brought a hairdresser kit and did it themselves at home, while others used plain $2 scissors and criss crossed the mop of the hair on their head in the directions they wanted to. Its almost like a kid gone crazy with a pair of scissors in his hands! Others looked for cheaper alternatives like the Chinese/ Asian hairdressers who typically were less expensive than the US hairdressers.

I was of the firm belief of not taking this route and decided to do it the “American Way”. I started regularly going to “Cost Cutters” a chain of hair dressing shops in the US, which was located not more than 700 meters from my house.  The name misleads one to think that the cost of haircut may be less. Its actually no cutting on costs! Had it been India, I would have walked to have my haircut. But it was USA, so there comes my car. From the time I pushed the ignition, till the time I reached the saloon, it took no more than three minutes – phew maybe my car engine may not even have woken up from its slumber since the drive last day! Cost Cutters had chirpy hairdressers – all ladies. I never thought it was  common to have lady hairdressers in US.  Had it been India, people would have gone to a hair cutting saloon with lady hairdressers, with all the wrong thoughts in their head!

I soon realized that the parameters of giving my requirements for haircut changed in this new country. Gone were the days when Rajesh Khanna and I had an unsaid understanding or common language. Now I had to decide how long or short I wanted my hair in terms of levels of hair cutting where a scale of 1 to 5 indicated how long or short you wanted your hair to be cut. It is important to know which is the lower and the higher end of the scale, else the look of “Freshly Peeled Chicken” can haunt you in just half an hour of miscommunication! 

The hairdressers in US are chatty with their customers and peers around. They however want to spend less time or effort on your hair.  So they use more of automation – a machine like a grass mower which weeds of those long tresses of hair in a jiffy, than the clickety scissors which the Indian hairdressers love to use. Thankfully, I have never slept off during a haircut, but always kept my eyes closed – almost in a state of meditation. In this state, I think of the lives these hairdressers would be leading, while listening to their conversations. It definitely gives insights into their way of life, their struggles, their humane side. 

During special occasions, like Halloween, all the hairdressers dressed into funny costumes. It added a lot of variety and color to an otherwise boring experience for the customers. I was once attended to by a dresser wearing the costume of a “Witch”. The other time it was a buxom fairy tale princess.   Customers had an opportunity to vote for the best dressed hairdresser and finally she won some small cash prize. I heard the “Witch” did win once, so guess my vote was bang on the money. At the end of the haircut as you pay for it, its polite to pay a tip in the US as the hourly wages are low and tips bring in added revenues to the hourly workers. Dishing a decent tip also  makes you feel nice and brings a delight onto their faces.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Global Haircut experience - Part 1

One of the monthly rigors that you need to carry out – to appear clean, well groomed and approachable is having a decent mop of hair on your head. It is a critical indicator of your appearance to the external world and also for your own internal self confidence that is also defined by your looks. A hair cut can be a monthly routine or twice in three months routine, but nevertheless is a part and parcel of every working professional’s life in the corporate world. The only exceptions to this regular hair cutting regime could be due to fashion - AR Rehman , MS Dhoni (who had huge mops of shoulder length hair in the beginning), Radio Jockeys, actors  or due to religion.

For that moment lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour the hairdresser has complete control on you like no one else. Like a lead mentoring the orchestra with the swift movement of his music stick, the hairdresser uses his comb, scissor or razor in his hand. This movement of the comb/scissor/razor are the tunes to which your head subconsciously sways for that hour. Its like being in a rock concert with no music playing, but still your head-banging in and out. As you bow down, or sway sidewards all you are doing is dancing to the tunes of the hairdresser while his scissors chirp away to glory cutting those locks of hair that you managed to grow since your last haircut. Skillful and crafty enough – he not only saves your ears from being cut, but also uses that tiny razor to remove those microns of hair defining the boundaries of your sideburns and outline of the head meeting the neck. The craftiness of delicate work does make you tickle, or sends shivers down your spine. This experience is more out of your own anticipation to get hurt and then experiencing not getting hurt the next second or because of the sensuousness that your nerves detect when a razor just shaves a micron of hair just a centimeter above them.  Over the years, as I have taken numerous haircuts with hairdressers all around the world, I have realized that a lot occurs during haircuts.  If hairdressers are chatty enough – I can chat incessantly throughout my haircut. If hairdressers are quiet, I can go the silent way with my mind free to think what it wants to. If I have known the hairdresser for a long time, at times I even go to sleep during the entire haircut! I had the same hairdresser for 23 years in Mumbai, India during my growing up years and all it required for him to ensure my head obeys his orchestra is to gently tap my head in the direction he needs it  to move to, while I was blissfully asleep listening to the background radio playing old hindi songs. My head was totally obedient of the hairdresser as if in auto pilot mode, while i dozed off  in a world of Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar songs. However if you are having haircut in a new country, its important to ensure you don’t end up sleeping away to glory but are alert. The reason being that only you know how you want to look! The hairdresser can give you that “Fresh Peeled Chicken” look if left unguided, the look that will haunt you for weeks and make you the butt of jokes till then! Listed below are some of the experiences of having a haircut in a globalized world across Americas, Europe and Asia.

Price – INR 100 (approximately $2!)  This includes a head and back massage with special aroma oil

Having been born and brought up in India, of course most of the haircuts in my lifetime will be attributed to India and more specifically Mumbai. Though I have had haircuts in other cities while working there – Bangalore, Pune, nothing like the Mumbai hair cut. 

From the time I was a kid, I used to accompany my father to the same hairdresser saloon in Mulund and almost had the same hairdresser for 23 years since I was born, until we moved out to a different suburb of Mumbai. All the hairdressers in this “Maharashtra Hair Cutting Saloon” right opposite Mulund (East) railway station, knew us quiet well, including the owner - a Marathi manoos always dressed in Safari and somewhat resembling Mr. Sharad Pawar, the Maratha politician. It would seem slightly uncommon, but when we were shifting suburbs and moving to a bigger house at CBD Belapur in 2004, I had specifically gone to bid them goodbye for that one last haircut and believe me – it was an emotional moment. For those 23 years – usually on Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Wednesday (the only auspicious days when I was allowed to have a hair cut) of a month, I had my hair cut by my favorite hairdresser  - who resembled  Indian hindi movie superstar Rajesh Khanna per my imagination. He used to call me “Baba” since the time I was small enough  to fit into his big chair  and needed two big cushions under my ass to lift me till I could see myself in the mirror !  With Rajesh, he knew exactly what I wanted and sometimes the experimentation I carried out also came out well – like a crew cut, spiky cut which were a fashion rage during my college days. The haircut costed anywhere from INR 10 – INR 50 till I was 23. That including a handsome tip made the day for Rajesh and ended my monthly visit to the hairdresser. Even 6 months back, when i was in India on a vacation in Oct 2010, when i was in Mulund, i specifically stepped inside the saloon to search for Rajesh and he was just sitting outside, having a tea. We exchanged pleasantries and i introduced him to my wife was just waiting outside the saloon. Rajesh was glad and shared that one of the other hairdressers (who had cut my hair atleast once) died of a heart attack a year back. It was sad to know. Rajesh planned to retire in a years time and settle back in his hometown in UP. Hope i get that last haircuit of Rajesh before he hangs up his boots or should i say scissors?

Since we moved to a new suburb – CBD Belapur in 2004, I have literally stayed out of my suitcase – thanks to my work which took me to Bangalore, Pune, US, Norway and host of other places. Hence, when I am at home I have been going to the recommended hairdresser by my dad – Royal Hairdressers.  This hairdresser is now faintly familiar with me as he knows I give him repeat business a little less regularly – once every six months, when I am at home for vacation, but nevertheless with an unforgettable tip. To add to it he has been successful to upsell value added services like a head massage and back massage which I finally succumbed to. After all – if i can spend a minimum of 8-12 times the cost of a haircut in India while abroad, why not indulge in some self fulfillment when it costs a fraction of the amount it would otherwise cost abroad? A haircut in his AC room (non AC is less expensive), a massage for the back and head with aromatic Navratna oil including a handsome tip – all for INR 100! 

What more does one want in life??? 2 months before I come to India on vacation or just before I travel abroad, I ensure my haircuts are planned for this arbitrage and pleasure in India! 

To be continued...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 has sprung to life!

The 2011 Cricket World Cup has been very exciting in patches. Though it took time for the world to deliver the attention it needed, it has been worth the wait! The delay has been caused only because of the knock-offs against the “Associates” or second rung teams – which went on for close to a month from Feb 19th – March 20th. Too long a time. However, the Group B team has nevertheless brought the “World” back to the “Cup” as some of the sports analysts rightly mentioned in his article.

Group B sets the pace
The Group B team comprised of India, England, South Africa, West Indies, Netherlands, Ireland and Bangladesh. Though the last three countries are relatively minnows, they showed brilliance in patches. India stamped its authority against these countries to drive home an advantageous 6 points out of 3 games (each win gives you 2 points). Against the tougher opponents , we managed to tie a match with England, lost a winning match to South Africa and won a match against West Indies. So in effect this provides another 3 points (Tie / No Results – each give 1 point).  No wonder – India made it to the Quarter Final and maybe this layout of games for India was pre-conspired by the decision makers – ICC, Sponsorers and the BCCI – the Cricketing sport body of India which is pumping all the money into the sport. They have to. A cricket crazy nation can very well treat its guests (like Aussies, SA, NZ etc) well per the old Indian saying "Athithi devo bhava",  but if India are not in the later stages of the tournament the crowds and advertisers wont participate in the match and cut of the flow of funds thereby silently saying guests when would you leave? which in hindi means "Athithi tum kab jaaoge?"!

England - the rising and falling star of Group B
England have also kept the match interesting with that tie against India, losses against Ireland and Bangladesh and the matches they never looked to win – the one against West Indies and South Africa, which they finally won. They were on a cliff hanger till the last week and finally entered the Quarter Final after turning around a match against West Indies. If there is any side who can win it and have the hunger – it should be England. However , since their team members are deserting the main team right at the start of Quarter Finals due to injury, depression, hospitalization maybe lady luck is not on their side. South Africa have got the perfect balance in the side, with Pace, Spin, Fielding and some good batsmen in the team. Though their openers are not amongst runs, still they bat deep down the order and with the likes of Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Ab de Villiers holding fort amongst the top order – they are an enviable side to beat.

Unexciting Group A
Amongst Group A, now that Aussies are out of the scene - the scarrier opponents look more to be New Zealand, Sri Lank and Pakistan. The Friday and Saturday of this week will determine, who amongst these will make it to the Semi Final, when they play England and South Africa. Hope this world cup "is NOT time for Africa"! The matches in Group A though have been torturously boring and not as topsy turvey and unpredictable like that of Group B (thanks England, India, Bangladesh, Ireland for that!).

Incredible India!
India has been devastatingly over rated at the beginning of the tournament to lift the cup. Quite rightly Indian team proved otherwise with the way they have unconvincingly won against the minnows – Bangladesh, Ireland and Netherlands. This helped to get the pressure of the Indian team as the knives were then more on their poor fielding, lack of wicket taking bowling and inability to use the Power Play to the best of their abilities. A match against England gone down to the wire and being tied and a match against South Africa, which they lost closely however gave them the much needed training ground for relaxing their nerves and fighting till the end. India have won matches where irrespective of the toss, they have set targets or chased targets under pressure scenarios. This coming from a team who has not exactly been known for its bowling or ability to chase under pressure (till a few years back) is a revelation formed only over the last decade post the match fixing scandal. The one thing that invisibly guides all our match wins and the self belief that we are better than others is the backing, brave acts and mental toughness injected into the team by the likes of Sourav Ganguly. You just need to see the way he took off his T-shirt and swung it around in the players arena at “Lords” , England - the Mecca of Cricket when India won the 2002 Natwest Trophy final chasing a target.Yuvraj Singh was a part of that upset in the crease along with the now forgotten Mohammad Kaif. Along with the swinging off the T-shirt he was generous in a string of expletives especially against the loosing team – England, giving it back to them. 

India's thumping win against Australia setting the pace for "Mother of all Games" - India vs Pak in a Semi Final!
The ingredients of this experience of chasing successfully in One Day Internationals  + captains aggression + India’s wide experience and honest evaluation of its strengths and ability to weaken its weaknesses are instrumental in India’s win against Australia today, to enter the Semi Finals of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011. Today’s match by any reach was the display of a team which collectively fought the Aussies. The fact that India managed to use all its players in the initial Qualifying stages in Group B held us in good stead. We got the combination of team right today from a bowlers perspective. If the Spin  was the guile of R Ashwin, quick paced lollies of Yuvraj or the containers of Bhajji, the pace was done by the brilliance of Zaheer Khan who understands his limitations and exploits his strengths with loose Munaf Patel bearing the brunt of the Aussies frustrations. I strongly request Munaf Patel, Sreesanth S and Ashish Nehra to stop worshipping Ajit Agarkar for bowling skills! No wonder, we spew more than 6-7 runs per over from these guys! Looks like they cant sleep with a clear conscience if they don't leak runs at that rate! From a batsmens perspective, great to see the much hyped Indian batting order perform to its potential. Barring the crazy shot from Virat and Gambhir’s suicidal run out – there were no hiccups. Raina proved his selection over Yusuf and may well continue to cling onto his place for matches to come, which would hold India in good stead. As Indian cricket looks to loose Sachin, Rahul, Laxman in the next 1 year due to retirement – Gambhir, Kohli, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Pathan look well in place to shoulder the responsibility in various roles. Finally we avenged the 2003 World Cup Final defeat against Australia in style. In the end, though Aussies tried their last trick in the hat – sleding and abusing to unsettle Indians, we aced. As they say – you reap the results of your own efforts – maybe Aussies gave too much of lip service to our men on ground and we chose to deliver with the performance than abusing sledges! Either ways, the batting has been magnificient barring Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has been a shrewd captain with the right words in press conferences which never brings his own weakness – batting form under focus.

The Indian magic mantra to win the ICC World Cup 2011:
A) Win the Semi Final against Pakistan (The Mother of all games) @ Mohali, India
B) Win the Final @ Wankhede, Mumbai, India
C) Dhoni, Bhajji and Munaf to deliver and others to keep performing at their potentials.
D) Sehwag and Sachin to fire incessantly for A and B with Sachin not scoring a 100 (so that India wins! Sorry Sachin, just feel your centuries jinx our winning chances. Also, when you dont score and India wins, its good experience for the next generation of players to continue winning in Indian cricket re. Am sure you understand!)

Fingers crossed, hope we lift it this time! Chak de India!