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Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Of objects of desire and gratification

In blah, life on July 5, 2013 at 8:22 am

On newly graduating to the 5th standard and moving from pencils to fountain pens, the object of desire was a beautifully shaped “Hero” pen with the distinctive dark green body and the shiny gold cap with “Made in China” engraved on it’s clip. This is when the phrase just meant “foreign and awesome”. I remember asking for one for my birthday, feeling ecstatic when it was approved, then going traipsing around the neighborhood looking for one only to be stymied in my efforts after several hours. Having to settle for an imitation that sucked so bad, it caused significant heartburn until a friend’s dad was able to procure the genuine article a week later.

Through most of school, it was sneakers, or any pair of shoes that weren’t the regulation black leather pair that was mandated by the school. I distinctly remember the first pair of sneakers I ever owned with the big lotto logo on the sides. Though I’m fairly sure they were fakes, the thick cushioning with the curves and the multi-patterned fabric made them the most awesome thing I’d owned. Of course, they were never used for anything as mundane as sports, but only for the most “special” occasions. It was a sad day, when after over four years of sterling service, the sole decided to cash in its retirement check.

Through college (undergraduate), there was this fascination with worn jeans of the just the right fit. With the usual suspect brands priced at outlandish four-figures, and even Indian brands in the high three-figures, we went looking for, you guessed it, counterfeits. The thing about them of course was that they were often shaped like they were made to fit no one in particular and hence they’d have to be taken to the neighbourhood “jeans alteration” specialist who would then transform the shapeless mass to hip-hugging, thigh clenching, boot-flaring perfection. Of course, the whole exercise setting you back something like Rs 400 meant that it was an annual or even a bi-annual affair. Oh but the joy of getting that perfect pair.

Then came employment and with it the opportunity for an underperforming wallet to hold currency notes, yes plural, and then, hot damn! a debit card! I think for the first few weeks after getting it, the lot of us made trips to the conveniently located ICICI ATM within the office premises just to enjoy the feeling of abundance that can only come from a machine that makes a series of robotic whines before spewing cash. The freedom that it bestowed was euphoric. My first ever purely non-functional purchase, a U2 compilation cassette tape remains one of my fondest. My first laptop, a refurbished Sony Vaio bought on an auction site and it’s successor 3 years later, a newly launched model were two purchases where I remember refreshing the “Track your package” page for 3 days straight, waiting for it to arrive and then feeling the same kind of elation.

So the relationship seems logical; The amount of gratification from a “shiny new thing” is a function of how long you’ve had to wait for it from the time you first wanted it and how much it costs relative to your financial situation.

Therefore as the time lag between “wanting” and “having” diminishes, the first part of that equation, and the relative size of the purchases also moves  in your favour, it stands to reason that it would start taking larger, much larger purchases to provide that same thrill. Project that trend a few years and you can explain the sale of Baum et Mercier watches and Audi A6’s, each providing progressively lesser gratification than the last.

Research supposedly says that wanting expensive things makes us happier than buying them. I’d rephrase that line to say “…makes us happier than having them” because the purchase still tends to be pleasurable in anticipation of what we think we’ll get from the ‘thing’. Another school of thought suggests that experiences are better than possessions. And there is certainly some merit to it, thinking back to some vacations that have stayed in the mind much longer than the excitement of a new phone. While that makes more intuitive sense, I’m not convinced that a round-the-world cruise would be very different in its characteristics from the latest overpriced gadget.

What’s your take? Do you find the same joy in acquiring things or was there something in the “unattainability” of it?

What are we really proud of?

In blah, life on November 12, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Before the oft-repeated cliches became those, cricket commentary used to have the occasional nugget of insight. One of those was when the batting team was cruising along at 114/1 and the commentator on air then said something along the lines of “it’s a good score right now but you have to add a couple of wickets to the score to see if it still looks good because that’s how quickly the game can change”.  And sure enough, more often than not, a clump of wickets would fall and 114/1 would become 118/3 and then 124/4 and make a seemingly impregnable position look decidedly precarious. Who said those words isn’t particularly important in the context of this post, because the cricket reference is only to draw an analogy.

The point is a simple mental exercise.

What are the elements that your sense of self-worth is tied to? And what happens if the most important ones are eliminated?

It’s a funny question to answer and depending who it is posed to, the answers are likely to be grouped into a few broad buckets; intellectual prowess (IQ, ranks on entrance exams, undergrad / grad school, post-graduate degrees),  physical prowess (physical condition, sporting ability), aesthetics (purely chance arrangement and proportion of features that denote “good looks” in the classical sense), professional status (not hard for most B-school grads to relate to), artistic talent and so on.  The buckets mentioned here are by no means exhaustive, just indicative.

Barring movie stars, scientists, professional sports persons who might have a large part of their “stock” tied to one of those axes, I think it’s logical to assume most people would ‘define’ themselves by two or three dimensions.

Like the radar graph illustrative here showing how two conventionally successful people might assess themselves. So, a large part of one’s sense of self might arise from his / her exemplary academic qualifications and the sought-after job they bagged and now potent amounts of money earned. For person 2, it might be the fact that they played national level volleyball , have run 3 marathons under 4 hours and possess the musculature of one of those Greek sculptures.

However easy it is to fall into the trap of classification, there are no “good” and “bad” axes. Sure Charlize Theron was fortunate to be born with those physical attributes but then it was just such a chance combination of genetics that probably enabled Stephen Hawking author his books. Similarly, it’s fair to say that a lot of what makes us tick is a combination of the raw material we were born with, some work and lots of luck. But exploring that is a digression as well.

Now, add a couple of wickets to your “score”. Meaning, knock off one or two of those high-scoring axes on your graph, or rather, the signaling mechanisms that indicate high scores. Let’s say all records indicating your performance on that entrance exam over a decade ago were lost or the bulge bracket investment bank that establishes your credentials is erased from the history books. Or if your cheekbones lowered themselves overnight, just enough to take you from an 8 to a 4. Or the skill you pride yourself on became irrelevant.

Would your interactions with the world change? The tone we adopt when introducing ourselves to strangers, when interacting with peers, with people in more and less fortunate situations in life? If yes, would it be for the better?

Is humility an externally demonstrable trait or an internal state of mind?

What’s your margin for error?

In blah, life on June 4, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Picture a crowded street chock-a-block with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Shouldn’t be too hard if you live in any major city in India. Vehicles honk and beep their way around the people, haphazardly parked vehicles, stalled tempos, customary branches embedded to signal larger than normal potholes. Progress is marginally faster than walking pace as the veins of traffic trickle in both directions. And every now and then a fresh obstacle brings the trickle to a halt, be it the inevitable fender bender or truck deciding to perform a multiple-point U-turn in the middle of it all. The already narrow space is now further restricted. Traffic slows as drivers need to factor in the reduced space through which to pass.

A combination of driving experience and spatial awareness helps you estimate where your car ends and therefore if it can make it through available space. Some drivers swoosh through the narrow space with coats of paint to spare, while others pause uncertainly. Urged on by the driver of the oncoming vehicle they inch their way through the space peering all around in trepidation until they finally clear the obstacle, their relief showing in the surge of acceleration that follows. Why the difference?

Most estimates of the space available would, I daresay, be similar. What probably differs is the perceived margin for error tacked on to that initial estimate. Meaning, if I’m confident of the space available to within a few inches, I glide through the space. If my margin of error is a foot, I’m terrified, as I inch through that same space.

And our internal “margin of error” calculator goes a long way in determining how we take our decisions. From estimating travel times to airports, to investments, to career choices. What time should I leave to catch the 8pm flight in peak hour and 15 kms to cover? What’s the minimum monthly income that can cover my needs for the foreseeable future? How many months can I go without a paycheck before I go under? What is the networth at which money ceases to be a factor in all my decisions?

I increasingly think most of us, when it comes to the big decisions, apply margins of error that are too wide, overestimating downsides, instilling hurdle rates that are too high, and in the process, closing off potential avenues of personal growth.  It will take a conscious effort of will to narrow that margin of error so that more varied options and choices stay longer on the table and in the consideration set.

And maybe a few scrapes on the car might not be the end of the world after all.

Template Not Found

In blah, life on November 22, 2011 at 5:05 am

This is a most unsatisfying blog post. Because it rambles and because it left me more confused at the end than I was at the beginning. Because it raises more questions that I have answers.

Quick question: If you had to draw a pie-chart of how you spend your time in a typical day / week / month and bucket all the things you did, into logical categories, what would the breakdown look like?

Let’s see, a large chunk would fall under ‘work‘, medium chunks would fall under ‘TV / Internet’ of which you could subdivide probably 25% as ‘active’ and the remaining 75% as ‘brain-dead time’, a smaller slice would go to ‘family & friends’, even smaller slices under ‘Admin’ like shopping for groceries, getting car insurance etc. and if you’re one of the lucky ones, a sliver under ‘personal interest(s)’. Now, partly because of a middle-class upbringing which hard-wired the concept of ‘work-save-spend’ and mostly because of inertia of the mind, the breakdown above seems about right. Or rather, we tend to go with it unquestioningly, as the template of a normal life.

The question is: What should the pie chart look like, if there was no template? Now and 5-10-15 years from now?

In a way, it was an easier answer in the India of 25 years ago. Combine a huge young population with the ‘Hindu growth rate’, and you had few jobs and modest salaries that were stretched to satisfy monthly needs.In 2011, it’s a trickier question.

The most logical answer (courtesy PK) I’ve got is to take the components from the ‘Now’; work, TV/Internet, Family & Friends, Admin and Personal Interests and rebalance by +/- 5-10% at the various milestones. So an 85% work allocation typically reduces to 75% by year (t + 10), while the good stuff creeps up by little increments. Mind you, we aren’t yet questioning the ‘How’ in making these changes happen, because then I’d just break the timeline into 1 year increments and ask how in heaven’s name will pursuing that promotion to V.P. align with bringing down that percentage?

And it’s NOT like the much-maligned  ‘work’ that we’re talking about is the fulcrum of evil or even mind-numbing tedium. In fact, let’s say it is fairly interesting and rewarding for the most part. But it’s still mainly about widening the difference between what you need and what you can afford. But then even outselling the competition 100:1 will only provide a short-lived feeling of fuzziness and maybe get you to preorder the next Apple product for no other reason other than the fact that you can.

On the other hand, how much more utility there is in exclusively pursuing those ephemeral personal interests? Meaning will the additional internal gratification from playing a sport of choice far exceed the absence of external feedback that will accompany being a thoroughly average sportsman? Will the 3 months spent travelling through a continent seem like the most exhilarating experience or will it seem like the kind of empty self-indulgence that you know very few can afford?

Or Is the problem the predictability of it all? Maybe what we need is periods of intense immersion into the various aspects that make up our lives, switching back and forth between 3 months of 16 hour workdays and a month or two of reading and travelling to new places, all of it interspersed with meaningful interactions with friends, asking demanding questions about untapped potential, about why they haven’t started that food blog they would be so brilliant at (you know who you are), followed by a month of reconnecting with all the members of the family (the ones you like), then working on that crappy backhand to be able to string together some respectable winners down the line or working on building endurance by training for a marathon.

Basically to do things like you mean to do them and not just go through the motions because you’ve slipped into this comfortable routine.

Maybe the problem is the very existence of a template of any kind. But only maybe…

Go on, be a Tiger. Seriously.

In blah, life, opinion on November 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

Tiger Woods. Kobe Bryant. Rajat Gupta. Steve Jobs.

No, they’re not members of a “fallen heroes” club. They’re just names that large swathes of population are aware of, and subsets revere or have revered at different points in time and then cast aside. In the case of the last name, there might be several rounds of both for a while.

What triggered the line of thought was the HBR article titled “Idolize Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs”. The author repeatedly asks the question “who to idolize”, almost as if desperate to have some kind of template of greatness to aspire to. I have serious doubts about that line of thinking.

The reasons that cause us to bestow “hero” status on certain individuals are easy enough to understand, typically boiling down to excellence in a chosen field. What causes us to rip the plaque off the wall with disgust, not so much.

Their Rocky-like ascents to greatness, in our minds, are usually accompanied by well-documented stories of coming from unfertile backgrounds and using sheer force of will to impressive achievements. As they emerge from oblivion to cause us to take notice, the sole point of discussion is their field of work or play. As Tiger Woods was in the process of making golf sexy, I doubt there were many admiring conversations about his charitable donations or his exemplary manners, or for that matter, his fidelity. With 14 seconds to go and a point down, Lakers fans didn’t want the ball to go to Kobe for his graciousness but for his ridiculous talent honed to near-perfection with hundreds of hours of hardwork.

But once their achievements are widely acknowledged, something funny seems to happen. The goalposts shift. The smallest inkling of a character flaw is examined, magnified and discussed. So much so that not-so famous peers huddle around tables analyzing so-called behaviours from ‘way back when’ that apparently got them wondering. The author of the above article points to Jobs concern for Apple as a reason to rank him below Gates who spends time with his foundation. Seems like flimsy reasoning to me. As if there is some kind of direct causality between any perceived errant behavior and all the achievements. It’s almost as if being made aware of a flaw in such a person gets us to heave a collective sigh of relief that goes “so that’s what was wrong with him so now I don’t have to aspire to that kind of greatness”.

The flaw, I think, lies in the concept of “idolizing” individuals. To really be able to do so, you have to be aware of, not only their achievements, but also their motivations. Something we can never be sure of. Would it not make a difference if you were aware that a given athlete’s superlative performances stemmed from a deep-rooted insecurity about their self-worth versus one whose motivation was just to be the best?

Instead, we would be better off recognizing greatness in deeds rather than associating them with the very human individuals that carry them out. That a bright young engineer from a lower-middle class Indian background went on to become not only the first non-American partner but went on to head the most recognized management consulting firm in the world for well over a decade is a deed worth acknowledging as great. Sketchy information about a few ill-advised phone calls do not detract from that deed. It would therefore be a pity if young professionals refused to take inspiration from such examples, at the same time recognizing that that they are distinct unit of muscle, bones and tissue.

Fools admire, men of sense approve

~Alexander Pope

Is “good enough” good enough?

In blah, life, sports, work on June 23, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Muhammad Ali. Steffi Graf. Ayrton Senna. Michael Jordan. You get the idea.

Now think of something you reckon you’re pretty good at and also enjoy. While it doesn’t really matter what specifically, try and think of something that involves conscious effort, maybe even some preparation. So, near-perfect poker games and presentations you nailed count. Witty comebacks and  picking the fast lane at the supermarket don’t.

Think back to the last time and to how you felt as you completed “the task”. I like replaying in my mind, specific cricket strokes I played, for example, a bowler applauding after I stepped out to hit him over a position just after he’d moved the fielder. There is that feeling of well-being because of the way things came together just right and you know it was no fluke.

Imagine that as you completed the above mentioned task, you hear a strident voice announcing all the things you did wrong, berating you for the hand where you should’ve gone all in but didn’t, pointing out that you spent too much time on slides 4 & 11. Also imagine being told that you’ll need to run through that same task a dozen times to iron out the kinks and to do it not just well, but flawlessly. Sounds wrong doesn’t it. What if that strident voice is in your head? Still wrong?

How do you differentiate between an unhealthy obsession of a perfectionist and a genuinely fulfilling pursuit to get good at something?

The names at the top of this post invoke awe precisely because of their dedication to being better than everyone around. You’d have to be pretty ungracious to dismiss them as just lucky recipients of  a genetic lottery. No way that the talent wasn’t combined with years of hard unglamorous practice.  And after all that there exists the realistic possibility of being shown up in front of millions by an opponent in superior condition or brandishing a natural advantage. So are they all unhealthy perfectionists to be appreciated but never emulated?

Or maybe it can’t be that only the wrong kind of effort causes disappointment and hurt. Maybe wearing that cringe that says you cared is the just the other side of the warm glow from having done something really well. I mean, would we appreciate Federer as much if he didn’t break down after losing the Wimbledon final to Nadal?


Curling freekicks and soaring GPAs

In blah, consulting, life, work on June 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Stereotypes. We debunk the idea publicly but cling to them personally and maybe feel guilty about it. Logic suggests that they are at best, exaggerated and at worst, misrepresentations. Think about it, it’s just not possible that every South Indian school-going kid excels at academics and sucks at sport or that every Brazilian kid can curl stinging free kicks around corners (actually am not sure about this one). In some cases we overcompensate to demonstrate the lack of a bias, which by itself proves the existence of one.

But any viewers of American late night talk shows would be led to believe that everyone in America is either progressive and open-minded (Democrat) or ridiculously close-minded and backward-thinking (Republican). Now, I know nothing of politics in general and so I think the idea of such clear and non-overlapping ideologies is convenient. Which means it’s impossible.

One of my work assignments was for a large company with it’s headquarters in North America. Since part of the work involved meetings in India, a senior big-designation type person from above company flew down. Over the course of the next few days, 3 specific interactions stand out:

  1. Within a few minutes of introductions, he had made clear his affiliation to the Republicans, and then went on to criticize the Obama-led government. I wondered at the wisdom of starting a strongly opinionated political discussion within 30 mins of having met someone from a different country but then put it down to him (rightly) assuming that I wouldn’t care about American politics
  2. During the course of the day, he kept going back to what turned out to be his favourite topic, politics. He started innocuously enough, by criticizing policies and went on to slightly dodgy territory, Gun control. He stated his opinion about how guns were a reason rural crime was low. “Any ***** person breaking into a home in rural America knows that the owner probably has guns”. Note that the ‘bleeped’ part of the statement was a reference to a colour. Yup, you read right.
  3. Meetings done, the team (3 of us) and the client executive drove back to the hotel. As is the unfortunate case with our higher-priced temporary accommodations, there was a security check process to get through that included a beautiful German Shepherd. The exec made a remark about how that was a happy dog who probably would think of a stick of dynamite as a chew toy. Polite laughter ensued from the team billing his company by the hour. Enjoying the mirth he caused, he went on to say “That dog doesn’t care if there’s a ****** in the car”. fill in the ‘bleep’, terrorist/criminal? nope, he mentioned a religion. And guess what, one member of our team did belong to that religion. I don’t believe my dropped jaw picked itself up till I got to my room.

For the remainder of the trip, I kept waiting for him to say “Gotcha!”  to say that his portrayal of the caricature of the hick Republican was a joke he’d played on us but to no avail. In fact, he only added to it later by asking me if I was from a privileged Indian background going by how I spoke ‘his’ language.

Not quite an ‘aha’ moment but it was one of the few times that a stereotype seemed to affirm itself.

Speech is silver, Typing Golden?

In blah, life, opinion on March 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Many years ago, I was asked to do a presentation on ‘Communication Skills’ for a  monthly knowledge-sharing session. The kind of thing bosses come up with when they skim the back-cover of business books with “Leadership” in the title. Having drawn the short straw, I set about gathering the requisite information through painstaking research. Yes, I clicked ‘Google Search’ since clicking ‘I’m feeling lucky’ would’ve been plain laziness. After clicking through a few sites with textbook definitions, I came across a paragraph that made sense

“When two people are talking, there are six perceptions involved; What each person thinks of themselves, what they think the other person thinks of them and what the other person really thinks of them”

(I couldn’t find the resource and so have paraphrased).

Job interviews are prime examples of the ‘2 people, 6 perceptions idea’ where the seeker is constantly trying to fill in any silence by taking it as a sign of disapproval and trying to compensate for perceived weakness from the previous answer.

Not just high-pressure interactions, the ‘noise’ creeps into most of our interactions. Just the possibility of being judged as perceived by inflections in tone, mobile eyebrows and changes in posture tend to influence behaviour and therefore undermine the purpose of communication. Just the other day I was on the phone with our local restaurant ordering takeout for a weeknight dinner. Having decided that I only needed a soup, I dialled:

Restaurant : Hello, XYZ

Me: Hi, I’d like to order for delivery

Restaurant: Yes, what would you like?

Me: One chicken shorba.

Restaurant: Onnnne chicken shorba [as he fishes out and writes on a pad (approx 7 seconds)]….then?…..

Me: ….ummm….[accompanying thought process: it’s lame to order just one thing for delivery]

Me: One Malai Chicken Tikka.

Restaurant: …Malaaaai chicken tikkkaaaa….then?….

Me: That’s it.

I put the phone down, safe in the knowledge that I won’t be the lame customer who made a delivery guy toil all the way to my address to deliver a miniscule order. I’d let the perceived question mark in the other person’s voice (that’s his job) as a signal of expectation to order more, defying any rational thought process that the number of items have nothing to do with inconvenience to the delivery guy! And now I’d overeat because I was influenced so easily.

My ideal world, communication-wise would be Gaia, a networked world. All information available to all without the distorting effects of any form of communication. Sure, it’d make a game of chinese whispers impossible but would reduce a fair bit of angst arising from mistrust and the perceived lack of information that created the ‘Lemon Market Theory

Which is why I like written communication. No verbal cues or body language shifts, just the message. Thought through and articulated, the message is in black and white. Some advantages that I think the written medium offers:

  • The receiver has multiple passes at it and is not being distracted by voice modulations that might indicate impatience/boredom/anger or any other emotion.
  • Responding to a written message involves structuring your thoughts around what’s on paper (the issue at hand) and eliminating unfounded opinions.
  • It also eliminates that most infuriating experience of watching the listener’s lips moving to formulate a response before you’ve made your point which in turn results in the urge to interrupt the speaker to ram home your point and so on and so forth.

Yes, caps locked text, multiple exclamation marks and non-existent grammar sometimes destroy any hope of sense from a written communique but I think it takes more effort to screw up in writing than in speech. And no doubt, certain situations lend themselves better to certain modes of communication.

What do you think? Have you felt yourself responding to the tone rather than content? To preconceived notions based on history rather than the facts at hand? Has a gum-chewing bored-sounding customer service rep made you see red even though his tone had nothing to do with your issue? Or found yourself in a meeting with each participant looking to “say her piece” causing the discussion to meander? Or does what works depend on how our individual brains are wired thus negating most of the points made above?

It’s payback time!

In blah, life on November 13, 2010 at 6:52 pm

11am, Tuesday. Office.

It was around 11am on a working Tuesday and my phone rang, flashing an unfamiliar number. Considering I was in the middle of work I needed to get done as priority, this could only mean one thing. One of India’s burgeoning group of “knowledge workers” had arrived at my number on his/her list and was going to attempt to enrich my life by increasing my ability to spend beyond my means by offering me a credit card.

I was wrong. A south-east asian sounding voice asked to confirm my name and proceeded to ask whether I had heard the name “Zegna”. Took me a couple of excuse me’s to make sure I’d heard the name right but then a half page ad from the day’s newspaper popped into my head. Picture with a white dude in a brown suit, waist coat et al, shoes polished to a mirror finish, looking at the camera, with the look that said “good luck trying to look like this after a couple of cab rides and a flight in between. Oh, and without the square jaw and the makeup”.

Apparently “Ermenegildo Zegna” is an Italian suitmaker. And as we know from our movies and sitcoms, the Italians who don’t sport well-oiled bushy moustaches and bake pizzas exclaiming “mama mia!”, walk around looking dangerous in their expensive suits, ordering hits on rivals.

Anyway, this South-East Asian sounding lady was wondering if I’d be available for an appointment at the Taj with their master tailor who’d be in town for the weekend. Now, after my mind, on autopilot, had tried to estimate the price of their suits, such as to cover the costs of a business class trip from Rome to Mumbai accompanied by a 2 day stay at the Taj, I got around to wondering what marketing list had me on there as having the kind of disposable income to buy Italian suits.

8pm, Wednesday. Traffic.

Around 8pm on a working Wednesday and my phone rang. Not my regular phone, but my new work number that serves the sole purpose of giving me instant access to email updates I’d rather wait to get. Considering I haven’t handed out that number to anyone, it could only mean one thing. One of the ignored acquaintances of number’s past owner was attempting to establish contact.

A look at the screen showed one of those +532 set of digits. Curiosity piqued, I answered to hear “Robert” introducing himself as “Executive Director” at “Exe…<name drowned out by traffic at Khar subway>”. I was about to make my apologies and hang up when Robert asked for me by name. My mind tried unsuccessfully, to connect the dots.

Robert then proceeded to embark on a monologue about a valuable network of professionals with access to senior management of fortune 100 companies. Being invited to join was no mean feat; Robert assured me, and a sign of recognition as a valued professional at the helm of my profession. I got even more chuffed when he told me how accepted members receive an engraved wooden plaque and copies of a press release announcing acceptance to the elite group of professionals.

Now, bear in mind, fellow motorists of the great city of Mumbai ensured I missed every 4th or so word of Robert’s eloquent prose but it was starting to look like I’d done a lot more with my career than I gave myself credit for! That’s when I realized good ol’ Robert had paused in his paean to me and there was a question mark in the air. He repeated his question. Would I like the lifetime or the 5 year membership? Accompanying the sound of cascading pennies, I asked “what’s the difference?” to which the response came. Lifetime was $899 and a 5 year membership only cost $499 and they accepted, hold your breath, Visa AND Mastercard. Yep, W…T…F…

Bottomline, it’s really happening. Marketing teams around the world are squinting into google maps and looking up “India”. Someone’s been telling them that roughly 300 Mn now have more of the best kind of income. The disposable kind. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all these sales reps in these countries, hassled with credit card offers and customer service issues are just going “It’s payback time!”

Man versus Food

In blah, life, opinion, the (much) better half on September 8, 2010 at 12:02 pm

The wife and I have a long-standing argument about food. Particularly the kind served at restaurants around the city. My contention is that there really isn’t much difference in the taste and/or quality of food delivered by our local “free home delivery” joint and what is brought in meticulously arranged piles on weirdly-shaped slabs of china at those that regularly rate mentions in newspaper supplements. Any perception of superior taste is really nothing but a fallout of the fact that the former usually are named after the proprieter’s wife or assorted dieties (Priya/Sadguru) and the latter have cryptic call signs for names (San-Qi/KOH) and better interior designers. (ducks instinctively from the flying book/cushion that invariably follows such a statement)

Now, there is no doubt that she knows food better than I do. My expertise at distinguishing what’s on my plate is limited to being able to tell thai red curry from green (scratch that), being able to tell red curry from green. I can even go as far as to announce that a ‘mutton balti’ had been placed in front of us as long as it was actually served in one of those miniature copper buckets with “mutton” printed in bold on the side. She, on the other hand, can rattle off statements like “i’d prefer this with fussili and not the rigatoni” and “there’s not enough hollandaise in this”. Aside from politely pointing out that the restaurant didn’t make any claims to serving dutch food I usually refrain from commenting.

I say, take away the nebulous concept of ‘ambience’ and they’re all the same. I mean, come on! Are we already not subconsciously assigning a premium to the cryptic call-sign restaurant (refer 1st para) when we walk in to be told that “the kitchen here is run by chef so-and-so”.  And as we walk by the fountain and sit at the pinewood table with the tulip centrepiece, have we not already given the place a hard-to-beat lead? note to wife: tulips, now those are dutch <chuckle>.

The Four Seasons in Mumbai, (i’m told) has made it fashionable to have a lobby that looks crowded with more than 1 person in it and to report “parking charges” as their most profitable service offering. I’ve heard statements like “You know they charge 90 bucks for parking?! Ridiculous! Shall we do lunch there this friday?” But I digress. Its when we come back to the staples of British dining; paneer tikka masala, chicken biryani, butter naan that I think, the playing field is level. In a blind taste test, would the fare from at the call-sign restaurant beat that from the local joint? It’s really hard to say. Packaged in unmarked creaky plastic boxes would the INR 650/- biryani with a string of adjectives be able to differentiate itself from the “raita Rs 10 extra” variety? That’s the question.

Not a simple answer. Think about it. If you go to a joint having seen a reference to the place in Vir Sanghvi’s article in HT marvelling at the lusciousness of the frou-de-pomage-a-la-bleh (not actual dish), then read a couple of more reviews (which might or might not be PR pieces), read a bunch of tweets from a bunch of people with handles like @foodgoddess or @youreanidiotifyoudoubtmyopinion, then does the restaurant have to do more than provide a passable frou-de-pomage-a-la-bleh for you to be doing Meg Ryan impersonations (you know the restaurant scene I’m talking about)?

The argumentative amongst you might insist it’ll actually work the other way and they’d go in with high expectations which the food might not be able to live up to. To those, I refer you to @youreanidiotifyoudoubtmyopinion

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