Exploring Tamil Nadu: Part 2 – Rameshwaram

We were supposed to be traveling alongside the river the entire journey to Rameshwaram. At least, that’s what Google maps said. Real life is a different story. There is a river, as seen by the basic overgrown with plants. But either lack of rains or a dam somewhere has stopped the water, making parts of the basin slushy and the rest barren.

Barren soon became the word of the day as we headed closer to Rameshwaram. The landscape grew flatter and more barren. There were long stretches where you could see miles on either side, and there was barely a bush in sight. Brick kilns were common, and progress was slow because the road remained a narrow two-lane ‘highway’.

Rameshwaram was a barely ignored ‘second-grade township’ in Tamil Nadu, and their sole claim to fame was the legend that stated Lord Rama built his bridge to Sri Lanka from here to rescue Sita, his wife. There’s also a place that Hanuman supposedly leaped from to reach Sri Lanka.

The town’s modern claim to fame is one of India’s most renowned personalities & former President, Abdul Kalam.

 

Salt basins and palm trees are common as you get closer to Rameshwaram, almost frightening in its starkness and flatness.

Soon, the road began to narrow again and we were on the famous Pamban Bridge.

The bridge was first a railway bridge only, built in 1914, connecting the island town of Rameshwaram to the mainland.

Rameshwaram is actually located on Pamban Island. The railway bridge was India’s first sea bridge of any sort, and the longest till the Bandra-Worli Sea Link displaced it in 2010. A road bridge was constructed parallel to the rail bridge in 1988.

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I was super thrilled by the colours of the ocean as we got on the road bridge, and despite multiple “No Stopping” signs that every other car was ignoring, we pulled over to take photographs.

As I often say, a photographer sometimes just clicks the shutter. Nature does the rest. Right as I ran over to the side with my camera, a train was on the bridge. There are very few trains, so it was a stroke of luck that I got to shoot it, and in such awesome light conditions. The wind is strong enough to knock you back a couple of steps, so I had to struggle to keep my bandanna on and shoot at the same time. The ocean looks wild, with a multitude of hues of blue that I’d last seen on the Australian coast.

We then wandered over to the other side of the bridge, which looks like an entirely different world. The colours are still vivid and varied, but the ocean is calm and serene. Infact, it looks like a postcard, with fishing boats bobbing gently in the water, and quaint little huts on the beach.

***

The town of Rameshwaram is literally a back-of-beyond town in Tamil Nadu. Reading the stories of Kalam gives one a picture of the town about 50 years ago, and seems like it has only progressed a little since then.

Since the primary visitors here were temple devotees, who preferred simplicity, the infrastructure is built to accommodate that.

It means basic hotels, with mostly vegetarian restaurants.

I ended up signing up at the most fanciest place, since that was the only one with car park, and of course, we didn’t really want to rough it out.

The sense of ‘flat & straight’ continued past the bridge, almost seeming like we didn’t move the steering at all, except to avoid pedestrians crossing the street.

It was close to 4.00 PM by the time we arrived in town, and our first concern was to find a place that served something beyond the typical idli & dosa fare popular in the region. Luckily, we passed a “Sea Star Hotel” with a massive board sporting photographs of various indistinct dishes.

The hotel turned out to be THE fanciest hotel in the place, at least from the outside. On checking in, we realised it was still for the devotees who came to the temple but didn’t want to rough it out. The food was vegetarian, the hallways had the smell of incense and decorations of flowers, and our welcome booklet included the various times of aartis and poojas happening in town.

We had two destinations here: Dhanushkodi, located about 20-odd kms from Rameshwaram and the newly-inaguarated museum of President Kalam.

It was close to dusk by the time we started out to Dhanushkodi. The moment you veer out of Rameshwaram, the bleakness starts. Salt marshes on both sides of the road, and water that seems like land.

Dhanushkodi was declared a Ghost Town after it was badly hit by a cyclone in 1964. Exposed on all sides, there are little scrub bushes that offer no protection from the wind. The visibility is great, and the road straight & long enough to land a plane.

All the earlier research I’d done indicated that you couldn’t go right till the tip in a car, and would need to rent a jeep or a 4×4. But to our surprise, the road continued. Unfortunately, there are cops patrolling the area and no people are allowed beyond the point after 6.00 PM, and we had to turn back.

(To Be Continued)

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Has Life Really Changed After Demonetisation?

The blackish-golden anniversary of Demonetisation. This was definitely the biggest defining moment politically in my lifetime. After all, I was not a child of the freedom movement, nor was I around during emergency. I was around when the economy opened up in the early 90s, but that was a gradual impact.

Something as explosive as this? Yep. First time. And a part of me hopes there will be more and a part of me hopes for a quieter life.

Has life really changed after demonetisation? Living in Bangalore, I could perhaps say yes. My grocery store accepts PayTM now. I can pay as low as 10 bucks in PayTM. People who would have never gotten a bank account are online now and use it frequently.

I’ve fallen back to the habit of carrying little to no cash (picked up on my days abroad). So yes, I can live without cash now.

But what about outside Bangalore?

I still ensure that I carry cash when I go traveling. Because especially after demonetisation, there is a fear of ATMs running dry. That is the biggest nightmare. Stranded somewhere without money. Because a lot of other towns and cities are not as happy with online transactions. Card machines don’t always work. Or they say they don’t work, because they still do not trust banking and online transactions.

The culture of cash and mistrust of banks is too deeply rooted in us to be removed by one round of demonetisation. It isn’t just the corrupt guys who like to keep cash. It is everyone. My parents. Maybe your parents. My neighbours. I’m sure your neighbours too.

Did corruption come down? I seriously doubt it, especially since the number people asking for bribes or cutting short things hasn’t really gone down.

But in a country like India, the only way we’ll ever do anything is if we are dragged, albeit, kicking and screaming. So maybe the demonetisation did not entirely work as intended but it did make us aware of online payments, get a section of people on it, and it taught us how to stand in line. Pretty good for a first attempt, I guess.

Happy anniversary!

A Rant on Shopping

Four hours on the street and not a single thing bought. Three hours online and all I have to show is a single little top that, lucky me, was on a sale.

The modern woman today is apparently particular about what she wears. The modern Indian woman is apparently even more exacting.

Why then in the hundreds of sites and apps are similar products of bad quality? Where are the rich fabrics, the fun designs? And if you do come across one or the other, they come with a hefty price tag with it.

Shopping today is no longer fun. It is a riot of clothes, bad tailoring, worse fabrics and makes you wanna scream. Every time you see those little list “5 must haves in your wardrobe”, you wanna slap the writer because you know most of that is paid. Or the writer has a fantastic salary or an inheritance.

The common girl simply cannot survive fashionably in this city. Reading the listicles online make you wonder if all those good things are simply eluding you.

I’m someone who appreciates quality. I hate this concept of fast fashion where you clothes not only go out of style in a few months, but fade away as well. As someone who has my favourite clothes from a decade ago (and yes, many of them came back into fashion as well!), I choose my clothes with care and love and I want them to last.

But in the days where ‘subscription’ is the norm and not buying, fast is preferred over quality, fashion doesn’t allow you the same luxury. From what my fashion-conscious friends tell me, there are some brands that do last but the price tag… well, I mentioned that before already right?

There was a time when I bought Ferragamo and Bardot and dailywear were brands… but it is all so boring today. Putting together a look requires more effort… even the t-shirts are badly shaped! The $2 t-shirt fits me better than the $20 branded wear.

And since this is a rant, I can perhaps conclude it – where the hell do you get quality, funk and prices for normal human beings?

Superwoman

Once you are past the age of 30, your Facebook feed invariably consists of baby posts and mommies posting about their adorable munchkins or how tough it is to be a mommy. There are those one-off posts from women who do not want to have babies, and are feeling pressurised by society to have kids.

Strangely, most of the women are sharing posts about how tough it is to have it all and how they don’t want their child to grow up being a ‘latchkey’ child.

The term ‘latchkey child’ apparently originated in 1942, but in India, I first heard it at the age of 18 when someone called me a ‘latchkey child’. And here I was thinking it was pretty cool to come home, open the door myself and decompress after school, and that my mother thought I was responsible enough not to burn the house down in the few hours I was at home by myself.

I loved coming back to an empty home, with the knowledge that others will be home soon. The house is quiet, nobody is asking you annoying questions about how your day went and you can just sit and stare at a blank wall and let all the stress of the day go away before the others come home.

I’d be mostly out of home in half an hour, playing with friends, so my mother had the same privilege of coming home and not having to tend to a child immediately, after a stressful day. She’d sort herself out with her stuff and was probably a lot calmer.

Looking back, I had absolutely no issues being a ‘latchkey child’ and would not want to change that for all the money in the world. It taught me how to be alone and keep myself occupied. I did not burn the house down. I did not even flood the house. I learnt how to sleep alone. I wasn’t afraid of the dark or cockroaches and lizards.

So when I hear about all the fuss and worry about mothers wondering how to let their kids alone, I wonder if it is more guilt on their part than about the child. With the numerous technology tools today, it is easy to monitor the child at home. And thankfully, being in India, you always have neighbours to look out for the child. Massive apartment complexes have enough security that you do not have to worry about your child running out on the street.

Being a working mom can be challenging, no doubt. I can only imagine the guilt you would feel for enjoying yourself when your child is home with the father or other family members. Perhaps you feel guilty about enjoying your work and wanting to go back to work. One of the Sex & The City Episodes is one of the few popular media to cover this logically… about a woman wanting to go back to work after having a baby. Fathers do. Perhaps they don’t have a choice, even if they wanted to spend the whole day with the child.

So why do women question themselves when they have another interest other than the baby?

Are we bad at customer service?

So the world’s talking about Indian startups and companies. About time too, since we have a few in the top 10 unicorns, and we are the call center of the world. India’s name is definitely on the map.

We’ve tough contenders for Amazon, Paypal, Uber and several other modern-day firms. But when it comes to customer service, Indians seemed to have skipped a page in copying their foreign counterparts.

For instance, Flipkart & Amazon. I’ve been using both for a while. And to be honest, I supported Flipkart a lot stronger than Amazon initially. ‘Apna company’ and all that. But eventually, I got tired of waiting for the company to get their act together and entirely went off the site. There were a few strong reasons, and all of them were related to customer service.

I ordered a TV… and after several days of hemming and hawwing, Flipkart said they cannot deliver the TV. True, this is a vendor issue.. but if Ebay and Amazon can do it, why not Flipkart. I’ve had mostly bad experiences with Snapdeal.

Amazon on the other hand, had a great customer care service who respond to you prompty and ensure that the problem is SOLVED.

Next, Airtel vs Vodafone. Airtel has the worst possible customer service – ever. In any field. Their representatives are rude, nasty and honestly, don’t know what’s happening in the cubicle, let alone the company. I’ve had wrong billings, active connections long after the cancelation requests were placed, arrogant retention service reps telling me to go to Vodafone & refusing to give a decent postpaid plan. The arrogance of the company is horrifying! You’d think they were doing you a favour.

Uber vs Ola: Tried talking to Ola customer care? Or hell! Even a cab driver? The process of reporting is convoluted. The cab driver once charged me extra for toll charges, and when I received the bill (a whopping 650 bucks for 6 kms or so), it included the toll charges. The CC asked me send a mail, with copies of the toll paid and several other details. It was so tedious that I never followed up. Uber drivers on the other hand are some of the most well behaved.

Why do we lack customer service? We are supposed to be among the most hospitable cultures in the world. Then again, we also have a ‘make do’ attitude to do with that hospitality.

One company that I do appreciate is UrbanClap. They’ve got a brilliant customer care team who are tracking queries and more importantly, follow up with you after a few days to ensure that you aren’t facing any issues. More importantly, the person who calls you introduces themselves by name. Each email has a name and a number. Such a level of initiative is unprecedented, particularly in startups! I hope they continue!

Most recently, I’ve had the unfortunate experience to deal with Infibeam. I ordered some toners from Canon (after a loooong search!) and surprisingly, Canon outsourced this openly to Infibeam. The mail I received was cc’d to a rep of Infibeam. Its been more than 20 days and there’s been no sign of the toners, nor any incoming updates from Infibeam. When I reached out, the standard reply has been “give us 48 hours to look into this.”

I wonder why a full fledged company should have so many issues in communicating, when a small manufacturer in Ebay or Alibaba respond to you quicker.

If we truly want to be an international player, we need to up the game – not just in other countries, in India as well. The Indian sentiment will only go so far!

Books on Indian Startups

I’ve been reading about startups… Or tech companies that were once startups.

So far I’ve read about Twitter (a couple of books), Amazon, Facebook, WordPress (in progress) and a few others.

Midway through this process I began wondering about the “inside story” of Indian startups. We’ve got some good ones. We have a few in the top 10 unicorns as well. So where are their stories? Considering some of them have been around for nearly a decade, hasn’t it been long enough for some books to surface? Or is it too early?

I found one book about Alma Mater. An autobiography. That’s it. There are bibles mentioning a ton of them but where are individual books?

It is the world of click button publishing. An authorized bio, no matter how white washed, could be out in a matter of a few weeks. Haven’t any of the PR Gurus thought of this for their clients?!

Growth & Corruption

“The only way to peace is through war” a quote read in one of the prescribed books in university.

As I read one of the biographies about one of the companies in India, which is generally touted as a massive success story, I wonder if the only way to success is through corruption.

India is a country that suffers from a massive dynastic hangover. Be it a political party, the movie industry or the corporate world, it is filled with people who are ‘connected’. Apparently, who your father is or who you know makes a difference to your success or failure.

Despite, or due to, such dynastic philosophies, corruption has become an embedded part of our culture.

The only way a newbie can probably succeed is by bribing a few people. Yes, there is much being said about the new start-ups and their success stories. But watch closely and you can probably hear the tremors of them navigating the red tape.

I recently read the biography of the Ambanis, which had once been banned in India, or at least tried to. A few pages down, I realised why they tried to get the book banned. It paints a very ugly picture of the way the company was built, how it promoted corruption and the deep corruption embedded in some parties of the country.

Of course, nobody can ever prove what was and what is. Many of the participants of this story are long dead and gone, leaving behind legacies that are probably too massive to dig into. But you flip through the pages of media stories on them and you can read between the lines.

The Indian media today is in the worst possible situation today, with almost nil autonomy. If they were once coralled by the need for advertisement revenue, today they are directly held back by their owners and deep party loyalties.

The days of Khuswant Singh and Goenka are long gone, who put the truth of journalism before friendships and families. Today, we have reporters angling for a plum retirement plan, inciting NRIs to their own benefit.

The Social Media Wave is truly that… it builds up with one little news item, crests and then builds up again as a follow up, till there is that big 7th wave and it cools down for the next wave.