Business

Twinkle Wrinkle

The two cups of hot tea that he makes for us, two weary travelers, on a cold Udaipur morning fills the air. As the chill of the morning seeks renewal with a fresh gust of cold air, every sip of his tea seems to set the system right. 
He speaks, well, succinctly. He doesn’t need to speak a lot more. For his tea does the talking. It is both hot and crisp and with a sting of something like ginger. Keeping us awake. 

As the tea sinks in and the eyes see more of the man, the wrinkles became apparent. First, some. And then, some more. As he adjusts the apology of the woolens that’s on him, even more become visible. 

Ten rupees gets passed on to him. 

He searches for change of which there is none. He searches some more, rummaging through what seems to be a sheaf of yesterdays newspapers. Perhaps he has some cash there.  After another hurried ruffle, looks up and with an apology laced accent, says, “I don’t have change”.

“How much does it cost?  How much do you have to give”, I ask. 

The combination of abundant chill of the winter morning and the travel induced weariness that seamlessly envelop every bone, checking for the price of his tea before drinking it, was missed. Besides, this is a roadside stall. How much could it be!?! 

“Nothing”.  “I have nothing”. He says falteringly. “Actually, I had, but can’t find it”.  

Sheepishness announcing its presence through a substantial drop in the decibel level of his voice at the end of each sentence. 

“Doesn’t matter”. I say.  And move on.  Not bothering to stop and check with him. After all, It was ten rupees. Not a million.  The old man with the wrinkles indeed made a very genuine attempt and seemed sincerely out of change.  

As I get into the cab, the old man shouts out. “Wait”. He says running  as fast as his wobbly feet can bring him. “Now, what did I miss”, I wonder and hurriedly get out of the car. 

He grabs my hand and passes on a pack of biscuits to me. “For the five rupees”. He says. “Your balance”.

“It doesn’t matter”. I repeat. 
“To you”. He completes the sentence. And then adds, “It does matter. To me.” With a firmness that befits a commander at war. 

I smile and accept his biscuits. The wrinkles on his face stretch in sweet surrender to a smile that sprouts from nowhere. Perhaps to announce a quaint victory. Maybe in satisfaction of preserving what is dear to him: his pride. 

I swallow hard. The lesson stays. I say “thank you”. We look at each other for a few seconds.  He smiles. Suddenly, the twinkle in his eye outshines every wrinkle on the face. I smile too.   

Whats with the dabba business ?!?

At a business conference, the other day,  a question was posed. ‘What is the most difficult aspect of a dabbawallah’s job?’

The simplest of human desires can translate into the tallest of a business propositions.  Isnt it true to every single discipline of life?

The desire for travel from point A to point B has spewed horses, horse carriages, cars, bigger cars and these days has even sent Curiosity across to Mars!  From the desire to cloth oneself to having a roof overhead, to showing love to the cat on the corner right upto inventing robots with a soul, new industries have sprung with a frequency of a 3rd grade scam exposed by a fourth grade TV channel ! 

Each industry providing for suits, boots, countless strategies, long meetings arranged in an amiable ambiance with appropriate snacks, and consultants adding ‘value!  Being part of the circus doesn’t mean the clown cant have a good laugh at the circus ! And regular readers know me too well! 

Well, well, well,  such stuff makes the world go around. Doesn’t it. 

The Dabbawallahs of Mumbai have been written about no end.   There is enough material about them like this and this , that you can use to fill a full MBA course, heaping hapless students with hoary details and hoards of questions. 


Their offering is simple. They get you YOUR home cooked food. On time. And port your lunch box home, while you can walk with a free hand. For a small fee..  That’s the business model.  Its done to scale though. 

[Wikipedia says : In 2002, Forbes Magazine found its reliability to be that of a six sigma standard. More than 175,000 to 200,000 lunch boxes get moved every day by an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas, all with an extremely small nominal fee and with utmost punctuality. According to a recent survey, they make less than one mistake in every 6 million deliveries, despite most of the delivery staff being illiterate]

How simpler can it get? To think that ‘eating a hot, fresh, home cooked meal everyday at work’ can generate a unique business opportunity and stand for the ingenuity of a city is remarkable isn’t it ! 

Not to mention the methods that they have deployed and the fame has followed. Consider the acclaim!  6 Sigma ratings. Invitation by royalty. Mentions by management gurus. Film makers and the rest. Thankfully, the Dabbwallahs themselves haven’t let any of this affect them. To this day, home cooked lunch gets to Mumbai’s office goer on time. Every day.

Much has been packed into boxes about their unique methodology that they deploy to do this. With a simple system of marking and a assortment of handcarts, bicycles, innovative hand / head carts  and a legion of men can be spotted on any active day, walking the streets with a colourful range of lunch boxes. 

And coming back to the meeting where my rambling started.  It was one of these conferences where  the natty suits amble about with a sense of importance.  The gentleman paused and asked with a certain sense of certainty that only accompanied me when I knew what question will be asked the next day in the Physics exam : ‘What is the most difficult aspect of a dabbawallah’s job?’

Timeliness. A tenacity of surviving Mumbai traffic everyday. The ability to memorise so many addresses. Dedication. Passion. Customer service.  And all other stuff that would exemplify a consultant’s vocabulary was spoken with charm, elegance and an equanimity. As though they were squeezed out of the same toothpaste!  

By then I was already operating on the fringes of my mental capabilities to process pedantic stuff. 

Come on, I thought. To carry an array of lunch boxes knowing fully well that a mouth watering spectrum that could arouse every conceivable taste bud was within arms reach, yet to go and deliver it to people in opaque buildings and omnipresent business houses !?! 

Now that if that is not tough, what is !?! 

Honour in Strawberry picking

It was a perfect summer morning. We were driving from somewhere to somewhere in California. This big signboard was significant enough to grab and hold the attention of folks in the car. STRAWBERRY PICKING.

In no particular hurry to get anywhere the mind didn’t need any effort to get enticed to alight and set afoot to do some picking. Strawberry picking !



It’s got some level of physical activity for all in the family. For the kids to run around. For the adults to run after the kids. For adults to become kids. And for kids to chase the new found adult kids. In between, of course, plucking and heaping up strawberries in small containers.

There were very few instructions to follow. This board illustrated all that was needed to be done. Which was as elaborate as : Come here : Go pick : Come back & Weigh : Pay up : Go !









Pick we did. With some gusto. Any first timer could have mistaken us for folks that have never seen strawberries before or for folks that have been kept restrained for long. Slowly the baskets kept filling. The red strawberries glistened to the background sounds of cars and big Harleys whooshing by, which in themselves were dwarfed by the shrieks of joy in finding a bigger strawberry !

Soon we were done. There was enough energy left in the nieces to pluck the entire strawberry. It was us adults, who were tired. And folks like me still calibrating the dollar-rupee equation and wondering how much we would have plucked for !


That brought me face to face with the ‘honour till’ as they call it. The concept is simple again. It goes like this.

a. You bring in the strawberries that you have plucked

b. You weigh them yourself

c. You calculate how much to pay

d. You open the till ( ‘cash box’, as is better known in our part of the world )

e. You pay the money

There is no ‘cashier’. In fact, no one from the store is around. There are no cameras. Nothing. The folks just trust you to weigh correctly and pay appropriately. Guess what, we lived up to their trust, in right earnest. Paying to the last dime. That perhaps is the model. Trust people to pay and they will ! That was interesting. To say the least.

Its about a month ago that we did all of this. The rain drenched Mumbai air provides a distinctly different flavor to the senses. Much different and much enjoyable too. Yet, dipping into memories of red berry dotted rows of green, is done with no difficulty.

The days when adults became kids and kids remained kids are not days that are forgettable. The expanse of nature and the fresh clean best complimented by an expanse in the trust of the ‘honour till’. The clean blue skies and the fresh stillness of farmland only to be punctuated by those shouts of joy from such adorable nieces.

Well, some memories are truly priceless.

Moped memories



‘That’s the morning round’, says the milkman when you chat him up. He is quite happy. And sports a perdurable smile that is instantaneously strikingly envy provoking! You notice that it’s a can load of milk. Another can on one side. Yet another in the front.

Zipping in and out of narrow streets. Every household’s door knocked and delivered. An important vehicle in the distribution chain.

That causes you to wonder. How much can you accomplish in two wheels ? Especially when the two wheels are not big fat wheels that would take you long distances or are powered by engines that would equal an entire top notch stable.

There was a time, when going to school in a ‘moped’ was the thing! When classmates used to haul themselves and those heavy satchels into the school bus, you would dream of ‘zipping by’. It is completely another matter though, that the needle on the speedometer moving up by another centimeter would mean the engine having to quiver like a frail patient in an air-conditioned room with 106 degree fever and ratchet up a noise that could wake up someone in Hawaii.

But if anyone cared, it wasn’t you. For, you had a moped! You had mobility. You had freedom. You were a teenager looking into the future filled with possibilities and the two thin wheels of the moped had ‘arrived’ you.

Like all things, this status changed. In a blink of an eye, the big bad bikes replaced mopeds as the aspirational status symbol for boys. As life progressed and as the boy morphed into a man the moped was a relic, alive only in his memory.

But then, the moped continues to live on. Like with the milkman. In a very different avatar though. The moped had now dons the mantle of a partner for businesses.

Quite often, slipping to don the role of a load carrier.


These are small retailers. Hoarding their mopeds with merchandise, that any lay person would think that one more gram could appear to break the chassis. That’s when the man will haul himself atop all of his merchandise and drive off with a palpable disaffection for any sentiments and focused solely on getting ahead with business.

Safe travel is fortuitous and living is more than just merely ‘getting by’! The milkman and the shopkeeper represent a world that not many peep into. Taking for granted all that’s delivered at home when the only bones that are to be moved are those in the fingers, to dial a number.

But there is world out there. Still on the moped. Underpowered and over-delivering ! Spare a thought. Say hello. Sprinkle a smile. Pass an encouraging word. Give way..

If not for anything else, atleast for those moped memories from those teenage years!

Restrictions

Paying Guest. In my humble opinion, that’s an oxymoron. For guests don’t pay. Are not expected to. Never. At least that’s my belief. And generally spoken word too.

What gets passed off as ‘PG’ accommodation these days can be best called a hostel in most cases. Perhaps ‘Paying Guest’ perhaps gives a ring of graduation to the professional world. Hostels are for college goers. (I havent seen any PG accommodation here in Mumbai so i have no idea of it here)

And perhaps also delivers another punch. With ‘Payment’ inherent in ‘Paying guest’ what it also perhaps signifies, is a degree of ‘self respect’ to the individual in question. That the stay is paid for !

Whatever be the logical reasoning around this, ‘Paying Guest’ continues to be an oxymoron, to me that is !

The world however moves on. Irrespective of what i think of as an oxymoron or otherwise. And PGs are advertised. Or… are they. Sample this.


These advertisements make the brain cells work. Wondering what is being communicated.

The ad on top. It talks about ‘Males in Powai’. As though the males in Powai are a special species, looking for such accommodation. Perhaps Powai breeds such males. hmm. But look at what follows.

No Brokerage.
No Deposit
No Restrictions

So, for for males in Powai, i guess these are the three principal woes. Brokerage. Deposits. And restrictions.

Move on to the ad below.

Which introduces us to a new form of human life called ‘Rentals’. What else would ‘ Boys & Girls & Rentals’ mean ?

Hmm…they could some thing else as well, but hey, i am not going there at all.

But here again : ‘No Brokerage No Deposit. No Restriction’. The brokerage and the deposit i can understand. But this ‘No Restriction’ business i find difficult. What kind of restrictions will boys and girls ( & rentals of course) usually suffer from, that would make them seek out such accommodation ?

Males in Powai, Boys, girls, rentals will be paying up. And staying as guests. With no deposits. And restrictions. Hmm.

I wonder why my mind is working this way. This post was supposed to be about the ‘Paying Guest’ being an oxymoron.

But you know, I am consciously practicing letting my thoughts flow on this blog. Without restrictions. Maybe thats why.

‘No restrictions’ for males in powai seems to be in. ahem.

Missed calls and milk !

a temple with a telecom tower as its backdrop
and a statue with the legendary conch at the front end. Kodai
There was a far away time when conches were blown to announce battle. Of course, pigeons flew with messages. The temple bell rang to announce day, and night.

Those were different times though. It must have been wonderful, to live in those times. In the midst of simple joys and comforts of nature.

Well, the conches, don’t exist anymore. At least not as a communication tool. And definitely not to announce battle ! Pop corn fed pigeons don’t carry messages. And living life by the bell happens largely in prisons !

But think of the modern day mobile phone. Isn’t that a conch of some kind ? That which announces love, battle, news, net..what not ! A little stretched perhaps. But somewhere there !

There was a time, not very long ago, that a call on the mobile phone, used to cost Rs. 16/- a minute. These days, you can get by for months at that cost. Especially if you know of the “Great Indian Missed Call trick” !

The other day, the missus’s mobile rang. One ring, two rings. And stopped. The missus looked at who is calling, and didn’t pick up the call. But went about attending various chores.

Looking particularly puzzled, (which is a slightly different from the ‘perpetually puzzled’ look that the missus thinks is part of me), some sniffing around was done.

Only to find out, that two rings, at 9.00 AM, from the maid who comes to clean, translates to : “I would be late for work today”.

Not a rupee spent. Message conveyed. To simplistic minds like mine, this sounds like the Chinese Army exchanging war messages !

And when friends tell me ‘Give me a missed call. we’d come down to get you’, the mind leaps in amusement. For, my elementary mind works this way : “a call can be made. To miss it or not, is the receiver to decide. How can a missed call be given?”

But with a ‘missed call’ pact like that, what they mean is ‘when you call, i will be missing it…but i’ll get the message that you are here’ !

Zero cost ! Not that they are in abject penury. Or doing this blaming the economy. This has how it has been when Lehman brothers and the others were still standing.

So,if you are in India, and are wondering why call rates are going south, you know why. Don’t you! There sure must be many reasons. But, my elementary mind thinks only of the great Indian missed call trick!

With the vegetable vendor to the CEO carrying phone, of course, we have one of the cheapest call rates in the world. Take a look.

A glass of tea is Rs. 5
A glass of milk is Rs. 10/-
A glass of badam milk is Rs.15/-

But down there…intercity dialing. All India..is 1 Rupee !

Here is a Choice. Between a glass of milk and ten minutes of talk on the phone ! My elementary mind stays with the mobile phone.

For with calls, you can miss them, and still convey the point. There is no point with spilt milk. Not even crying. Hmm.

I rest my case.

Loo business !

We were at Bryant Park. Kodai. It was a cold day, and we were slightly wet. Because of the rain. Nature was calling, and we had to attend !

So, we go around asking where the nearest ‘toilet’ is. The security guard says, ‘ah Toilet-Bathroom’ is on the other side’. And that ‘toilet-bathroom’ is said as one word. We had to struggle to pick it up !

We trudge the a small hillock to come in front of this ‘toilet’.

Here is a rough translation.

Kodiakanal Municpality
Plan – – RSVY 2006 – 07 ( Tourism Development )
Task : Building of Ultra Modern Men’s toilet
Estimate : Rs. 7.00 lacs

‘Ultra Modern’ and Rs.7.00 lacs, to me, meant a swank place with heavenly aroma, flowing water, soothing music, spic and span floor. Of course, i was disappointed. And let me leave it that, sparing you the more gory details.


In some distance , i spotted this ‘Modern Mobile Toilet’. It must actually be written as Modern-Mobile-Locked-Toilet. For in the days that i was there, it never was open !

But its a good idea. I wonder, if they would attach it to a tractor or something, and go about town. Like a mobile library or something of that sort.

Hmm. I wonder, how this works.


At Madurai and some other places, i have seen pictures of Kareena Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai and hold your breath, Kate Winslet, promote bathrooms & toilets!

I haven’t really understood this. To expect a man (or a woman) to get enticed by a Kate Winslet, on a Madurai street’s hoarding to relieve himself or herself and have a bath….is a little far fetched. To my mind.

Irrespective of how much of a fan he or she is of Aishwarya and however many times he or she has seen the Titanic sink…. it does sound a little stretched that he or she will think of such women in a moment of ‘urgency’.

Well meaning friends have told me that i read far too much into such things, and ask unnecessary questions. This is just differentiation, they tell me !

But please tell me, if there were two pay-for-use ‘Toilet & Bathrooms’ next to each other. One sporting a Aishwarya Rai on the hoarding, and another sporting a Kate Winslet….where would you go ?!?

I asked the same question to the missus. She for some reason said, ‘HOME”.

VIP !

There have been numerous ads for new flats going on sale. Enticing they seem, from afar. Only when you go closer, do you realise that the asking rate for these flats is an arm and a leg.
From this birth and the next one too.

You drop the idea and want to walk away. Only to be enticed into seeing the sample flat. And the salesman wants you to remove your shoe to go inside and look at the sample flat.

You frown hoping that he gets the translation of the frown as ‘you must be nuts to ask me to remove my shoe’. Surprisingly it works. He asks you not to bother, and leads you to another part of the room. To this box.


He asks you to put your leg into the box. And voila, there is a plastic cover that envelopes the footwear. Like a spiderman web. Or something like that.

And tells you that after walking about in those blue semi-transparent overalls, you can discard the plastic and walk away !! And keep your shoes on.

You stare open mouthed. The salesman is quick to spot that all his talk about the flat, its layout and features didn’t get you as excited as this plastic vending gizmo. He adds. ‘This is for VIP customers sir. We cant ask everybody to remove their shoes’ !

VIP customer ! You try best to control the laugh. A chuckle escapes. And almost at the same time, he says, ‘In the US this is used in hospitals. Doctors use them’.

You are silent. Still struggling to come to terms with a label like VIP customer, and a special distinguishable perk : A blue plastic covering your shoe.

He walks you around the sample flat. It is immaculate. He explains every corner and commode. With a swollen chest and beaming pride, almost certain that he would get you to buy the flat, he asks, ‘So, sir…do you have any questions?’

And you answer. In a hesitant tone.

‘err…can i keep these plastic covers on my shoes?’

His swollen chest shrivels. He still smiles. And walks you to the door.You walk with pride. You are a VIP. With a funny blue plastic on your shoe as proof.

Free Business

And so the TN government is distributing free TV sets to anybody who has a ration card ! What was supposed to get you two kilograms of rice ( amongst other stuff ), getting you a television set… is a giant ‘freee leap’ in fortune. And we talked about it.

Tax payer money being frittered away. Scheme being misused by well off folks who use their four wheelers to go and get themselves a free TV etc are legitimate and important issues that need to be debated.

For the moment, lets look at this ‘Free’ business. Visit any mall. Or any kirana store. Or watch the ads ( the serials are boring anyway & Rakhi Sawant has chosen). Or flip a magazine. What catches our eye, are the words, ‘OFFER’. ‘SALE’, and of course ‘FREE’ !

We ( the missus and me) are quite often amazed at the freebies that are being away. And the combinations.

Buy ‘Mixed fruit Jam’ free get ‘tea bags’.
A brand of soup, free with chicken. Soap with shampoo.
Get Shampoo free with shoe polish.
Vacum Cleaners free with ‘Holiday resorts’.
Dish washers with toilet cleaners.
Magazine subscriptions with zoo entry tickets,
cars with TVs,…and the like.

You get the drift..don’t you. And theres the other genre. Discounts.


Flat 50 % off. Upto 70 % off.
70 % + 20 % off. ( An offer where you get a 70 % off, and a 20 % off on the balance)
Buy one get four free !

(And obviously with that ubiquitous asterix leading to a ‘conditions apply’. Of which we will not speak of now).

Such offers tempt. And i am sure must be some part of the brain which gets activated, when this word ‘FREE’ is seen. Maybe ‘aroused’ is a better word there. And sometimes ( read ‘often times’) reality, need and such else is suspended. The card swiped, the purchase made and the deal done.

And leaving the wondering on whats to be done with the freebie (Or the main product), for later.

Like here. In this motel on the way to Daman. Buy ‘one Pakoda, get one tea free’ !!! Phew !


This was the most elegant offer that i have seen ! And unfortunately seen when we were well into plouging into our meal.

I was amused in a surprised sort of a manner. And even before the surprise was settling in and the lips could contract from the smile, the Pakodas were ordered, ( i bet they wouldnt have been ordered if wasn’t on offer).

And voila, after the sumptuous meal there wasn’t space in the tummy for tea ! Some freebie. This tea.

But today, i must tell you, we got two kilograms of sugar free. For using some card or something like that. And we have been gloating like Mohammed of Ghazni after his conquest of Delhi. Or some place like that.

PS :

1. Please notice, that i have said ‘WE’ all along.
2. And i must say this again. Any indication in this post that i am poking fun at the missus or that she is solely involved in this, is pure conjecture.

Just saying.

The business of enterprise

This is the second post of the Defining Images ’08 series. Two more posts to go !

An autorickshaw meter. Mumbai ’08

2008 saw some of the craziest ends of the spectrum for ‘Enterprise’ ! From surging highs to commanding lows, we saw it all. We saw the investment banks zoom up and in no time go down to touch what seems like a bottomless pit.

No, This post isn’t about them. It isn’t about Madoff. Or of Lehman or that ilk. Or or Satyam or Satyam reversed, called ‘Maytas’ ! Or whatever. I hardly understand their world. This is about a world my plebian mind can understand. But hasnt connected to in a while. 2008 was when i dialled and reached out to them. Here are a few images, reminiscences and lessons.


Image 1
Mumbai ’08

I stumbled into this gent. A barber by day and an odd poster sticker by night. I caught him staring into faces, carrying a box and wandering around. His Modus Operandi is to stare just long enough into faces just to catch the subtle stubble or extra centimeters of hair on the head.

Upon such spotting, a quick conversation follows, and in no time, a roadside place identified and there is lather on a new chin. Every stroke on the chin, complimented by a new honk from a different car in the background.

10 – 20 customers is all that he gets a day. ‘On a good day, 20’. He adds. Rs. 50 – 60 a day is good enough. And then, with a smile he adds : ‘i sleep well’. ‘Where do you live’, i ask him ? With a toothless smile he asks, ‘Can i give you a shave ?’

Image II

Mumbai ’08

In a central suburb of Mumbai, early in the morning. These stores are yet to open. And these obviously are not stores demarcated with branding on neon signboards with semi naked men and women exhorting me to open a spent wallet.

These are road side stalls that have its occupants selling fish. Each stall having a loyal client base. I see them following simple principles : Arrive on time. Serve every customer well. Stick to business. Be fast. Recognise the ones who come back with a wave and quick value adding banter. Move on. Keep overheads low.

They sustain. Every day, thousands throng here. It truly is a fish market in the auditory sense, at peak periods. Recession or no recession, the din continues here.

Except during non business hours. Like this morning, when empty baskets and an expectant stray cat greet my camera. Somehow that is much unlike the neon sign that are yet to switched on giant malls some distance away.


Image III

In a market. Mahabaleshwar ’08

He says, with a slight hint of a gasp for breath. But only slight. “I do trips like this all day long. The man who sells me this, cant find good customers. And the man who i sell these to, cant find good quality sellers. I connect them up, but i cant find transporters who will ferry small units and my shoulders just grow stronger !!

My perfunctory questions follow. And he answers in the same vein. ‘I don’t keep count of the number of trips. I just watch for sellers and buyers. And their mood and what they say. Sometimes the sellers are desperate. Sometimes the buyer has a large order to service, and all they do is find me. Or someone like me.’

Someone who is truthful and honest’

I ask, why he does what he does. He looks puzzled. A new set of carrots arrive. He sorts and loads them on. With one final glance in my direction, shouts out, ” You wont understand’. He carries on.

I am left holding the camera and searching for meaning.

Those defined 2008 on the Enterprise side for me. Stick to simple principles. Seek out people and not things. Stay sensitive. Glitz is not growth. Honest still is the best policy, however cliched, old fashioned and disregarded that principle is. And don’t complicate things. A clear conscience and sound sleep is a natural consequence !

2008 reinforced all of that for me. Tapping me on my shoulder and helping me realise that i i perhaps could be veering off course, were i not careful.

Coming to think of this, this post was after all about satyam : The original straight forward satyam : Truth ! That was Enterprise ’08 for me !