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Starbucks in India – a preliminary review October 24, 2012

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The missus and I are in Bombay all this week. It’s been a while since I was in Bombay and it’s always nice to see what’s been happening in your absence. Plus, if there’s one passion I have it’s Coffee.

So, when we heard that India’s first Starbucks was opening the very day we arrived we knew we had to go. Except…..

Except when we got to the Horniman Circle – the location of the grand opening – we saw a line running all the way out the Starbucks and around the corner past the Tata Croma next door. The fact that the line seemed to not move at all for the 5 minutes we were there inspired no confidence in us. This was just coffee after all. There was no way we were going to wait in line for this.

We went back the next day. The missus believed, ostensibly, that we went to eat at Cafe Churchill or explore the Colaba Causeway and that  Horniman Circle was a convenient detour but, at heart, I think she knew. Except….

The line was longer this time around. Early in the evening. On a Monday! Back to the drawing board. Or Bandra, in this case.

We consulted with Ravi and Shruti – our gracious hosts. Consensus had it that we should leave right after the first wave of office traffic subsided. So, the intrepid couple set out at 11:30 a.m. When we arrived, an hour later, there was no queue to be seen outside the Starbucks. Our hearts leaped. We walked nonchalantly into cafe only to find that there’s no escaping a line in India.

This was just 15 people, though. Pitted against the legendary Starbucks service we have all heard of.

The missus went upstairs to get us some seats and I waited patiently behind a couple of Japanese businessmen making their first trip to a Starbucks as well.

35 minutes later I was still waiting behind the Japanese gentlemen as the patrons ahead of us relished their respective first turns at ordering at a Starbucks. The counter we were approaching – inexorably but incredibly slowly – comprised the food counters and the tills. Orders were taken and a smattering of items, such as brewed coffee, were dispensed from there. I found this rather counter-intuitive; people were frequently stepping in and out of line to get a better look at the food or switch between the vegetarian and non-vegetarian sections.

At this point I must explain the title of the post. This isn’t a finished review of Starbucks. Simply because Starbucks isn’t fully ready yet. The process flow hasn’t been optimized, the customers haven’t figured out the lay of the land and the staff has miles to go in their training. Supervisors were guiding their subordinates, peers were helping out, questions were being asked, discussed and answered. And all of this was reducing to a trickle, the flow of money into the cash registers.

Here’s the approach to the first counter:

Approach to Counter 1

Approach to Counter 1

And here’s the queue (small as it is):

This never dwindled

This never dwindled

See that counter over on the right? That’s where you collect your orders:

Order receiving

Order receiving

In time these issues will be resolved; the staff will learn as will the customers. The managers will exercise their discretion and tweak the global Starbucks experience to the unique Indian environment. The free Wi-fi will work. All of this, eventually. At  that point we will be able to speak about the Starbucks Experience. Till such time, however, let’s confine the discussion to the coffee. And the food.

Before we do that, however, let me just say the staff was fantastic. All departments. Moving on…

I ordered a Double Espresso and a Tall Americano for myself and a Tall Hazelnut Latte for the missus. To eat, the currently-vegetarian wife got a grilled paneer bun, I got myself a chicken and mushroom pie and an oatmeal cookie as dessert.

A word about pricing:

Starbucks is priced very competitively. Slightly higher than Cafe Coffee Day and slightly below Costa. See bill below:

The Starbucks Bill

Competitive Pricing

I downed the Espresso as I waited for the rest of the order. The Crema was a spotless off-white. I personally prefer a mottled crema with some red in there. The coffee itself was not bad – but too bitter for what is pure Arabica bean. I guess that means their focus is on getting a good latte out rather than the best Espresso shot. Fair enough.

Here’s a couple of shots of the coffee bean they’re using:

Coffee Bean Display at Starbucks

For the world to see…

Coffee Beans at Starbucks

Dark, dark roast. Heavenly latte, espresso shot – not so much

We tried the other stuff after I joined the missus. The Americano was a clean brew with no real signature. Decent but unremarkable. The latte, the missus tells me, though, was fantastic. As was her paneer bun. I can attest to the brilliant taste of the oatmeal cookie. the pie was a disappointment, however. The filling was too meagre and too mild to leave a good impression.

Overall, I’d say I understand the pricing model at Starbucks. They aren’t bringing anything revolutionary to the table and they are charging accordingly.

That said, the location and ambience are a large part of the attraction of a QSR like Starbucks and are built into the pricing. Judge for yourself:

Soaking in the Atmosphere

Soaking in the Atmosphere

Rustic Coffee Feel

Rustic Coffee Feel

A lot of Tata and Tata Coffee presence at the cafe.

Large open spaces @ Starbucks

Large open spaces @ Starbucks

View from the First Floor

View from the First Floor

Indian Spin to the Decor

Indian Spin to the Decor

Lots of Seating for a QSR. Flagship store, anyone?

Lots of Seating for a QSR. Flagship store, anyone?

More merchandise being sold than coffee

More merchandise being sold than coffee

So, they have an interesting sign at the Second Counter:

A higher standard?

A higher standard?

Sweet. As a coffee geek, though, I wish they’d hold themselves higher.

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If you must cry for me… December 10, 2009

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No balm will bring succour to these lips
I am afraid they are too far gone
for they have tasted Theobroma
and its absence has left them worn

No gloves for these hands, I fear
they are far too callused to hide
for once, they straddled a Stradivarius
and now, these hands, they are denied

And shield not my eyes, my friend
the Sun can do them no wrong
for once, they beheld True Beauty
and its light was far too strong

Bleed, if you must, for this heart
for it could not bleed if it did try
for once, it bled with all its might
and now it hath bled itself dry

Take to it with sledgehammers
swim across the moats that surround it
and pound into dust, verily
the walls it hath built around it

And push some blood into this heart
help prop up this lifeless form
and will it flow through wasted veins
and pray that this corpse will warm

So cry for my heart, if cry you must
cry not for the shell that is but a ghost
for, of all the things I have loved and lost
of them I miss my heart the most

Untitled November 17, 2009

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Put your guns down; you are fighting phantoms
The Revolution, it passed you by
The fall from the stars to the gutter
all happened in the blink of an eye

The bedrock that you stood proudly on
was nothing but a pile of dust
and the iron fist you once ruled with
has rotted and given to rust

Your silk totem, once resplendent
now tattered, flies half-mast
for the ideology that held it aloft
has floundered, failed and breathed its last

And, behold! The Golden Army
now just old men with broken backs
The flanks have fled, the rear crumbled
under Time’s relentless attacks

And your enemy’s outline is murky and gray
you no longer know who you are fighting or why
And there is much soul-searching to do
but you no longer have the energy to try

For if you did you would be forced to ask
What purpose with which to greet the coming morn?
But you shrug your shoulders and realize
Your only choice? To soldier blindly on.

www.makbog.com October 7, 2009

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I bumped into an old friend from college the other day and, during the usual round of questions, I discovered that he was trying to do something on his own as well. Kudos. So, Kapil, here’s a shout-out to you and your coterie at Makbog.

Their website, explaining all that they do and showcasing some of their work can be found here. The folks at Makbog.com describe themselves as IT Consultants and Website Designers based in Delhi, providing end to end Web Site Design, Web Hosting, Software Development, Search Engine Optimization and Internet Marketing.

If you can spare a moment drop by their site and have a dekko.

Cheers, mate. And all the best.

Sub: Application for Clemency August 6, 2009

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Is it over yet? As in, has all that is to be said and done about this already happened and will every word written and uttered this point forth speak of “this” in the past tense? Or is there more to unfold in this tale of ours? In short, is there hope for us yet? Or are we done? More pointedly, are you done with me so completely that my not being done with you is, now, only of academic interest and that we are, in fact, done? History?

I ask, not from a lover’s point of view but from that of a writer’s – although, I would understand your confusion about the difference. Lovers aren’t allowed the luxury of knowing where their tales are headed. Theirs not to know the verdict on their existence. Theirs, only, to plunge blindly ahead. But, in my secondary role as my own chronicler I need to stay a little ahead of the curve.

As an author I have a responsibility towards my reader. My reader expects a plot, a variation in tempo, a twist in the narrative. Without that twist I am doomed. I am not a Dostoevsky who, with but a single emotion in mind could pen a classic like The Brothers Karamazov. And only too long has my story languished in the doldrums. What it needs is for a chapter to end and another to begin.

What would be best for the story, my readers tell me, is a little song and dance, some flowers and whole-hearted reciprocation of the professions of undying love we have already discussed in previous chapters. A lot of correspondence I receive from my adoring faithful complains of a feeling of being short-changed. Too long, they say, have I subjected them to dry spells of unrequited love on the part of our protagonist. The general trend the last few chapters have established is one of overall ineffectuality on his part. Our hero, it seems, runs a very real risk of being branded a Wuss.

Understandably, that was not the intention we started out with. When we began we had envisioned a Magnum Opus – the story of a Prince among Men, an Influencer of World Events, the Uber-Mensch Nietzsche spoke of. It is safe, now, to divulge that the story was supposed to pick up in his thirtieth year and, thereafter, he would have enjoyed the two most productive decades anyone has seen barring, perhaps, Einstein and da Vinci. We would never, explicitly, have spoken of The End and, after his fiftieth birthday, the narrative would have jumped to the next generation; kind of like how The Phantom is succeeded by The Son of The Phantom but the unsuspecting Public can never tell the difference. Such would have been our hero’s legacy.

In light of such an epic backdrop you can sense the chagrin of our readers seeing how the highlight of the last six years – certainly the entirety of our hero’s productive life – has been pining for a heroine they do not completely fathom. The blame, of course, lies squarely on the shoulders of this chronicler but, as I have pointed out previously, when protagonist and chronicler become one the waters of the narrative tend to muddy rather than clarify. It has been said that our hero seems in love more with a concept rather than an actual person and there is some substance to this charge.

In one of the ancillary volumes – to where we have relegated the less scintillating events of our hero’s biopic – we talked about how the two central characters have met only a handful of times and how most of the jolly back and forth has happened over, either, the telephone or the Internet. What we have neglected to mention, even in the secondary volumes, is how when our hero dreams of our heroine the dreams are, usually, about e-mails from here rather than of her in person. I will go so far as to reveal that he dreads these e-mails fearing that each may be the last.

This is no Internet Romance, however; in so much as it can be called a romance. There is substance to this below the, seemingly, non-descript facade. However, to exhibit the substance explicitly would be to undermine all that has been achieved thus far. The subtlety with which this Romance-of-the-Ages has played out has escaped all but the most discerning of my readership. And, surely, the reward for such insight cannot be for me to flush the subtlety down the proverbial drain.

All are in agreement, though, that our heroine is a keeper. The little we have glimpsed of her has been enough to convince all but the most ardent sceptics that our hero could not have found a worthier foil. There are hints of royalty in her blood – true royalty and not the, merely, titular, aspiring type – but not enough for her to lose the Common Touch. Her eyes, it is fabled, speak of mountain mists and ocean breezes, all at once. The wisps of her hair trail off as, surely, the manes of unicorns must. And to actually hear her speak must feel like being in the presence of God.

To try and answer the question of how our readers, or even our protagonist, know so much about the female lead of the series, who, to the casual reader, seems little more than a spectre till now, would warrant a lengthy foray into the art and science of subtlety, of smoke and mirrors and of Truth and Illusion themselves – an undertaking far too grand for a mere application for clemency, for that is all this humble piece of literature is. I ask you to trust me on this. For now.

And it isn’t only the feedback from the hitherto adoring masses that is giving me cause for concern. Of late the bulk of the communication from my publishers, restrained and deferential as it is, has been strained. And I understand only too well how this situation might be awkward for them.

When my original publishers had signed on to this project they had been assured of a handsome Return on Investment. Our hero had already established his credentials and they were only too certain that an episodic chronicle of his achievements fit all their equations. There was much nodding in agreement when the matter had come up before the Board. The verdict had been unanimous – their fledgling business had found its Cash Cow. A suitable liaison had been appointed and no more thought was given to it. After all, all said and done, over-achievers were a dime a dozen. Every publishing house worth its salt had a few to spare and, now, they had theirs.

It had been an over-zealous proof-reader who had brought it to the notice of his immediate superior who, in turn, informed his boss and so on so that, by a couple of weeks after the fact the entire company knew that the hero of their most successful franchise had found himself a love interest.

Not that that is so remarkable in itself. Why, even our hero, himself, had had a few dozen immediately preceding this. But this one read differently. It might be of interest to note, at this point, that the afore-mentioned proof-reader has, since, launched his own publishing house, outdoing his previous employers by several orders of magnitude. I only mention this now because this publishing mogul is soon to become a Person-of-Interest within this sequence of events.

Meanwhile, the original liaison was replaced by an Interface Team whose responsibilities now included monitoring the story, the subscription rates, reader feedback, market research designed to offer the biographer suggestions for developing the plot and, also, overseeing the dental and medical plans for the protagonist and maintaining his general well-being. They reasoned that, while they had a good things going, a solid romance could push the story into the realms of greatness. The proof-reader, the one I had mentioned earlier, quit to start his own publishing enterprise and brought in a team of Private Equity experts who, using complex methods of Debt-Restructuring, Balance Sheet Expression and Reverse Acquisitions, bought all the rights to The Franchise. The Interface Team came included.

Mr. Ex-Proof-Reader knew that he had gambled big on this one piece of Human Interest. He implemented measures that would help him monitor and protect his investment. Assessment Banks were set up to do real-time monitoring of the readership and public sentiment regarding our protagonist and his story. The leading lights in Public Psychology and Public Relations were employed to, respectively, figure out what sequence of events would best excite the masses and how these could be packaged. A discreet security detail was provided to the hero, without his knowledge or consent, and attractive and interesting women were discouraged from befriending our protagonist too much lest his attention wander.

Over time, these measures proved remarkably successful. Far from waning, public interest in The Story continued to grow. Marginal media like Twitter and Facebook came into the fore riding on the back of the largest ground swell of public sentiment since they discovered that the moon landing had been faked. This added to the sense of confidence of our young entrepreneur and, like all young, foolish men, he gambled bigger. Pledges were made, contracts signed and undertakings undertaken. Deals with the Devil, and other publishing houses, were made. Where it stands today is that, depending on where the main story goes from here, the publishing house of interest to us could, either, grow to become a juggernaut the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Department of Justice took such a dislike to monopolies or could crumble leaving a trail of destruction among Media, Investment Banks and Governments the likes of which we haven’t seen since, well, October 2008.

Our hero, meanwhile, continues to live an exemplary life. He is on the cusp of setting up a Food and Beverages empire. In the interim, he moonlights at a weekend job where, by all measures, he is a resounding success. My publishers, nonetheless, have cause for concern. The narrative, while nowhere near being a disaster, runs the real risk of being a has-been. Unless something momentous happens within it the public will just move on, not realizing the destruction their short attention spans could cause. They would find another fad to hang their eyelids on for the briefest moment. The next Facebook. Or Twitter. Or, gasp, even some MBA who fancies himself the next Cervantes.

And then there are the readers. What of them, you ask. Well, consider how most of them have grown up rooting for this Hercules of today. Imagine what learning you and I would have derived had the Aegean Stables flummoxed our hero in that tale. And then there is the entire class of people who have lived off the glory reflected off our protagonist. Their lives, should our hero fail in his endeavours, would collapse like Lehman Brothers.

Note how I ask you to spare no thought for the protagonist himself. He has no say in any of this. I hope I have resolved your confusion regarding the duality of my roles and you have seen how steadfastly objective I have been in keeping my roles insulated from each other.

Let’s take a minute to do a quick recap. At this point, what hangs in the balance are the careers and lives of thousands, if not millions, involved in the publishing industry and all associated fields like Finance and Media who have helped prop it up, the lives of the millions who depend on those already mentioned for food and sustenance, the billions of readers who hang by every turn of phrase our hero employs and the protagonist himself. No, scratch the protagonist.

I am sure the quandary is great and weighs heavily on your shoulders. But, being so closely associated with our protagonist has taught me two things. First, I never present problems I do not have solutions to. Secondly, I care deeply for your well-being. Keeping both these considerations in mind, I am happy to announce that I have a ready solution for this predicament.

I propose a December wedding – the kinds with lots of flowers but little pomp and show. A small, private affair with only the most close-knit in attendance. A honeymoon in New Zealand and an indefinitely long happily ever after.
The readers will never see it coming. Neither will Mr. Ex-Proof-Reader. And what little stock I hold in his company will soar through the roof and then some. What say?

Disservice December 20, 2007

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I’m in Bombay these days. It is so nice to be back in Bombay – more than eleven months after I left. For the record, I’m here on work. Off the record, however, I’m just soaking it all back in. I’m put up with friends. So you can guess exactly how much work I’m getting done.

We go out a fair bit. In the sense it rains in Cherrapunji a fair bit. The other day Ravi suggested we try this Indian restaurant that everyone was talking about. Ravi is about as “in” as you can get so his recommendation counts for something with us, country bumpkins. Plus, I was tired of my daily diet of pizzas so I readily agreed. “Caravan Serai” is on Waterfield Road, Bandra, right above Red Box Cafe. It is beautifully done up and its patron-list boasts the Who’s-Who of Bombay.

We were lucky with our timing because we found seating as soon as we walked in. Our server turned out to be a weird mixture of indifference, baritone and laryngitis and the impression I got was that he enjoyed making us strain to hear him. We decided to skip the starters and proceed directly to the main course. Ravi ordered buttermilk to go with the food. Sidin ordered one too but when it was pointed out to him that he had a bad throat he asked the server to get him one at room temperature. The server shook his head. It took us a minute to understand that he meant that buttermilk could not be served “hot”. Cancel our order, we said. He pottered off only to come back with two buttermilks: both cold.

When we told him we had ordered only one he begged to differ. We asked him to take it back at which point he shrugged his shoulders and just stood there. It cheeses me off no end when a service establishment does not heed the customer. We weren’t about to make a scene, however, so we took the buttermilk. If that had been it, however, I wouldn’t be writing about it.

Our food arrived in a while. The meat was soft but drowned in seasoning. Not great, but edible. The breads were nice and soft. But it was the Dal that took the cake. Without going too much into the recipe let me just say that a nice Dal Bukhara uses a fair amount of tomato gravy. However, when tomato is all you can taste, Houston, we have a problem. We had already been rather accommodating on the buttermilk issue. The meat had further brought out our stoic side. The Dal, then, was the last straw. We called back the server and told him that the Dal was, well, tomato puree and little else. He shuffled off and returned with his manager.

We repeated our complaint.

But, sir, our Dal Bukhara is world-famous.

So is Dharavi, monsieur. But you wouldn’t want to live there, would you?

It took him forever to understand that this group was not going to put up with their Dal Bukhara.

I’ll have it made again, sir.

Yeah, right.

The next instalment, when it arrived, tasted exactly the same – hot tomato puree. It was at that point that we decided to retaliate.

There are several issues at stake here. There is, of course, the issue of a bad product in a restaurant. No one should have to put up with that. Especially when the restaurant operates on a plank of “good food”. There is the issue of a restaurant with potential being let down by apathetic staff. Servers, and managers, who drag their feet will drag any restaurant down with them, no matter how world-class the food and ambience. There is the issue of empowerment. The more the authority to make decisions at a lower level within the hierarchy the more responsive the service and this translates, directly, to customer satisfaction. The server should have been authorised to take back a below-par dish without consulting his superior. But what irks us the most is the fact that customer feedback, which is the driving principle of Kaizen (continuous improvement) within the service industry, is met with defensiveness and diffidence. If we had come in asking for their world-famous Dal we’d only have gotten what we deserved with that swill. However, when we asked for just the Dal – no titles attached – we expected a level of quality that, if not present, we had every right to reject. I haven’t even started my restaurant but I already know not to act in this disastrous manner.

Fortunately, there is a fair bit that the customer can do. We could have made a scene within the restaurant. We could have fought tooth-and-nail to have the offending items struck from the bill. We could have whispered to other patrons that they were being short-changed. But we didn’t do any of that. What we did was to pay exactly the bill amount – no tip. I have actually heard of someone who deducted the standard tip amount from the bill. Her explanation was that a Zero bill amount doesn’t punish bad service. It is like saying that while you will be rewarded for good behaviour there is no punishment for bad behaviour. I completely endorse her view. I guess I just don’t have the cojones to do what she did. Luckily, we had the exact change needed to make the amount. I just hope it was a statement that they didn’t miss.

My writing this blog entry is part of that retaliation too. There is no excuse for apathy at a restaurant. None, whatsoever. A product that is not up to expectations may yet go unnoticed. It is a documented fact that service complaints far outweigh food complaints across all types of eating establishments. Also, service dissatisfaction is more likely to make customers vow to never return than complaints with the food. It isn’t very difficult to understand these concepts. But, at the very least, you need staff and management who care about the restaurant and, consequently, the customer. Without that the road ahead is a dark, downward spiral.

Ruchika, Sidin and I headed to the nearest coffee shop to help get rid of the bad taste of tomato-Dal from our mouths. Ravi came to get rid of the vile taste of the complimentary Paan at “Caravan Serrai” which he had picked up to get rid of the taste of the tomato-Dal. Poor fellow! We tried to not ruin the night any more for him by pointing out that going there had been his idea in the first place. Oh, I just pointed it out, didn’t I? Oops. Sorry, Ravi.

And…..back! December 19, 2007

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More than a year. That’s how long it has been since I last wrote. It isn’t like the blog was very popular but the few who did log on have felt cheated. And, rightly so. My apologies. Let me quickly run you through what I’ve been up to since you last heard from me.

After I signed off I served out the period of my notice rather uneventfully. It also left me free enough to make sure two of my friends got married. To each other, no less. I came back to Delhi in January and my mother, who had been so stellar in her support, previously, was worried sick.

“Don’t tell me you plan to sit at home now.”

“My son. Unemployed.”

She was aghast. I was quite happy to sit at home in the beginning. But three weeks is all I could tolerate. And, pretty soon, I was doing the one thing I never thought I’d do again – making my resume. A week later I was mathematics faculty at an institute that prepares people for the CAT. Ironic, considering my entire preparation comprised two simulation tests. I signed up for the weekends, originally, but as the CAT approached, and my interest in teaching grew, my hours shot up like mad and the time and opportunity to fully pursue the restaurant dream became hard to come by.

I did, however, manage to get some experience and a lot of learning under my belt; thanks, mainly, to some amazing people and a fortuitous series of events.

It happened like this. Near the end of January I was showing one of my ex-corporate friends around my favourite part of town – Connaught Place. And, as I rounded yet another corner I brushed past a tall chap who said, “Hi, Rajjat.” Instinctively I replied, “Hi, Gaurav.”

Truth be told, I was surprised that he remembered me. What was more surprising was that I remembered him. I suck at remembering names, you see, and to do so for someone I hadn’t seen in eight years wasn’t something I trusted myself to do.

I asked him what he was doing.

“Not much. Dad bought me some share in a restaurant so that’s where I spend my time.”

Funny how my Dad never seems to do stuff like buying me part, or all, of a restaurant, all things considered.

I made some remark to that effect; we exchanged numbers and set off on our respective ways, not expecting to hear from each other ever again.

He called back the next day.

“Rajjat, would you want to come down to the restaurant some time and have a look around? Make some suggestions, maybe?”

I said I’d like that and went the next day.

It was a pretty affair with good food but a huge location disadvantage. Gaurav was hoping for ideas and suggested I make the trip to the restaurant a regular affair. I told him I’d love to. It would be a huge learning opportunity for me. But, I warned him, I’d like to keep a large chunk of my time free since I was planning to intern at a restaurant or two.

“Which ones?”

I told him.

“Oh, they’re Dolly Aunty’s places.”

Err, who’s Dolly Aunty?

“My partner in this restaurant.”

Hmmm. You wouldn’t consider getting me an appointment, would you?

“Of course.” Beep beep beep beep. “Hullo, Dolly Aunty? Gaurav. I have a friend who’d like to meet you. Tomorrow?” I nod. “Tomorrow sounds great.”

As we drove over the next day Gaurav asked how I was going to put a spin on my internship so that Aunty saw some value in the arrangement for herself. I wasn’t sure.

Dolly Aunty turned out to be a very sweet lady, almost Buddha-esque in her demeanour. When Gaurav suggested that I consult for their restaurant she was all for it. It took her a while, naturally, to digest how I came to give up a plush corporate job to start my own restaurant. It’s a hard life, she cautioned.

And then she quizzed me.

Do you cook?

What cuisine?

How do you make Crème Brule?

It was only when she was satisfied about my intentions that I brought up the main agenda.

Aunty, all things aside, do you think I could intern at your restaurant?

“Which one?”

I named one.

“Why don’t you intern at all of them one-by-one?”

Much gushing.

When do I start?

“Come tomorrow.”

This was turning out better than I hoped for. I went the next day.

There’s three of them: Aunty, Aunty’s husband, Charan and Manav, celebrity chef extraordinaire. It took a while for Aunty to justify my presence there but once I’d made some recommendations for marketing and service I was very welcome. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen – mainly watching but, when the camera crews came along, I cooked up quite a storm.

Work at the restaurants was fun and, as the incremental learning tapered off I decided to move on. Concentrated on my teaching, added some presentations and Q&A to my repertoire and made the most of days off.

All this while the restaurant was at the back of my mind. The fact that I had no one to unload my concerns and worries on worried me more than the worries themselves. I found a lot of solace discussing my concerns with Nikesh, a batch-mate from campus and a friend from Bombay. Nikesh operates his family business in a related field and he is everything I am not – reserved, grounded, pragmatic and sincere. Everything I was looking for a in a partner, basically and we had mutually agreed on the partnership way before either of us spoke about it.

Nikesh has been stellar. He has had me whipped for a long time now, thinking and re-thinking concepts, pricing staff requirements and the like. We drew up a mental business plan. Just in time, too, because the very next week we got called to conduct a workshop on Business Plans at IIT Delhi. I remember that, at the end of a four-hour workshop, Nikesh had spoken for barely 10 minutes. When I apologised for my boorishness he assured me that it had been exactly to his liking. I said it then and I’ll say it now: Dude, you and I are going to get along just fine.

The CAT came and went. While not difficult, the paper was a tad unexpected and therein lies its beauty. My students’ exams go on till mid-January after which the teaching comes to an end. Mostly. Nikesh and I are busy looking at potential locations for our restaurant and we hope to be up and running by May 2008. If my luck holds we shouldn’t have too much of a problem.

What luck, you ask? Well, I consider myself extremely lucky for having run into Gaurav, Dolly Aunty and Nikesh – all chances that were too slim to factor into any plans I may have had when I came back to Delhi. (Confession: I didn’t have any plans at all). I was very lucky to have had a very rewarding stint at Dolly Aunty’s restaurants. I was also lucky to find a very rewarding part-time vocation teaching – something I enjoy more and more as time passes. I have been very lucky to make all sorts of new friends this past year and to have renewed several old acquaintances. And, most of all, I consider myself very lucky for the unflinching support I have received from family, friends and strangers alike.

Well, that’s it for the update. Look forward to fresh posts soon.

Carry On, Fungus October 23, 2006

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I thought it would be a lot tougher than this. People labour through fourteen years of school, four years of engineering, a couple of years doing an MBA and then much effort goes into making CVs, fitting into expensive-looking suits, fake smiles, misleading answers and misplaced expectations before you land that first job at the IIM. Corporate life, with all its allures, beckons. Different motives drive people to corporate life. Money would be the usual suspect but for most people it is because they’ve never actually thought seriously about any other way of living – our society seldom lets us think for ourselves anyway. Some have responsibilities that only a steady, salaried income can fulfil. For some the glamour of an Investment Bank or a Consulting Firm is irresistible. I always knew these were slots I didn’t fit into. But till very recently I didn’t know where it was that I belonged. I didn’t think I was ballsy enough to be an entrepreneur – they give up cushy jobs for a life of uncertainty and poverty (yeah, that’s what I thought). So that was out. Or so I thought.

I didn’t think I was going to be an entrepreneur. Sure, I’ve talked about it in the past. But everyone who has had a bad day at the office or the whiff of a better salary, or the desire for a new car or a better boss has threatened to walk out on it all and do something on his/her own. No one, actually, wants to be tied to a chair, or a company, or a boss, or a salary. We would rather all be there trying out new ideas, making tonnes of money and being our own bosses. We’d all, rather, be out there creating value and employment rather than seeking it. But most of us don’t have an idea that singular that we would risk our comfortable 9-to-whatever routines for, some don’t believe in themselves enough and most of the rest just don’t have the balls. There are some, it must be said, who exist to do salaried jobs. We need the Investment Bankers, the Consultants, the Brand Managers, the Sales Managers, the secretarial staff and all the others. Some people exist to be exactly what they are. But we all wish it could be different. We all complain. If only things weren’t tight right now I’d be out of here. If only this report didn’t have to go or these plans didn’t have to be made or this deal didn’t have to be struck I’d be exploring my options. And I thought I’d comfortably ride out the next few years, till I knew what I really wanted to do, making excuses for myself in the very same way. But then my bluff got called.

It wasn’t any one particular thing. It was a fortuitous series of events that led up to the Big One. A friend had passed through town a few days earlier and we had talked about his plans (already put into action) of quitting and starting something on his own. As always I had told him what it was what I would be doing if it weren’t for such and such. And, for the first time, I actually discussed the feasibility of my not-so-concrete plans with him. It made me feel a whole lot better because setting out on my own seemed a lot less scary and a lot more promising than it had in the past. The next day my Vice President of Sales came up to me and told me that he was shipping me out to a Sales role – something, he claimed, the others would kill for. I wasn’t particularly looking to leave the cosy confines of the Bombay office or those of my newly-acquired apartment. I was loving the easy routine that let me do this and that on the side, the facilities at the office and tonnes of personal space, not to mention easy access to a bunch of good friends who were in Bombay. I told my Boss I wasn’t particularly interested in going. He responded: if you want to stick around and make a career here it is best if you go. But I wasn’t particularly looking to make a career there. In fact I hadn’t, yet, thought of my job as a career and I had no intentions of doing so henceforth. I told him. What was it that I wanted to do, he asked. Well, in time, I wanted to do something on my own. He laughed. Of all the people who say they want to do “something on their own”, he said, hardly any ever got down to it. According to him, I should either quit straight away or resign myself to the fact that this was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life and put up with it. I went home pensive. It didn’t take a lot of thinking, though. A couple of sick-days later I came in and told my Boss I was quitting.

I thought it would be a lot tougher than this. I had no qualms, no reservations and no second thoughts. There was no worry in my head. And all this not for any lack of knowing what I had to do. Oh, I knew. I called up my Mom and told her. Her reaction was most reassuring. When you need to sign up people, she said, go for the brains, the money will come. I told my Sales Vice-President. He couldn’t believe his ears. I almost felt bad telling someone who has been nothing but supportive and trusting albeit, in his own way, that I was leaving. The moment passed, however, and I was composed while I dealt the death-knell. It took a while for him to come around. He still looks at me wistfully at times and shakes his head as if to say I could have gone so far. Everyone else reacted in a different, but consistent, way. When I tell them I’m leaving they look at me in a manner most surprised, ask where I’m headed and shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them. Then they encourage me whole-heartedly and tell me that the World is mine for the taking. I tell them that I know it already. My gratitude to all who have been supportive and encouraging.

So, what is the plan, Fungus? Hmmm. Brace yourself. And if you’re expecting me to launch a strategy to take over the world I would ask you to sit this one out. The plan is to start my own restaurant in Delhi. A small, high-end, speciality cuisine place that promises you the best food in town. The key words are “small”, “high-end” and “speciality cuisine”. I want to cook myself but I’m open to other possibilities. This much I have decided. What I haven’t decided is what cuisine I’m serving, where in Delhi I’m going to set up shop or how I’m going to finance the whole shebang. Not the most trivial details, I know, but I have a lot of time to finalise them. You see, and here is where there is a twist in the tale, the plan is also to spend all of 2007 as an apprentice in a similar setup in Delhi and start 2008 with my own label. So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the extent of my plans. None of the details have been finalised but they will sort themselves out. Rather, I will sort them out but only if I have no options, so to speak. Desperation is a great motivator, especially in my case. So I’ve handed in my papers, packed my bags and am all set to make a triumphant return home.

Of course it is scary, the prospect of not having regular job, of not having a steady salary, or the prospect of having to, possibly, mooch off my parents for a year or, shudder, more. But Valhalla beckons. And, by Odin, I shall go there worthy of judgement.

I have one regret, however. In my habitual need to make more of my plans than necessary I have not informed a whole host of near and dear ones of my plans. Others I have told multiple times. There is one lady, in particular, who I haven’t kept posted with my life despite demanding to know what’s going on in hers. And for that I am sorry. But now you know about the Big One. Wish me luck.

Heartbreaker July 27, 2006

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You know you have completely lost it when even Red Hot Chili Peppers and Led Zeppelin songs start applying to you. I know people in love seem to think how every Bryan Adams song was written for them. But exactly how twisted would you need to be to believe that RHCP knew exactly what was going on in your life when they started putting their nonsense sentences together? And Robert Plant’s cocaine-induced reveries? Surely coke doesn’t give you the power to look into the future into the life of an insignificant mosquito and write about him and his troubles!

Well, presenting a song of each of the above twisted, unhinged bands that seem to fit my life to a ‘T’. OK, the Led Zep song was till last week. This week RHCP dominates. You would be amazed – actually, I am – how perfectly each line, each word fits perfectly. Other RHCP songs seem to talk to me too. Wonder what I’m snorting.

Heartbreaker – Led Zeppelin

Hey fellas, have you heard the news? You know that Annie’s back in town?
It won’t take long just watch and see how the fellas lay their money down.
Her style is new but the face is the same as it was so long ago,
But from her eyes, a different smile like that of one who knows.

Well, it’s been ten years and maybe more since I first set eyes on you.
The best years of my life gone by, here I am alone and blue.
Some people cry and some people die by the wicked ways of love;
But I’ll just keep on rollin’ along with the grace of the Lord above.

People talkin’ all around ’bout the way you left me flat,
I don’t care what the people say, I know where their jive is at.
One thing I do have on my mind, if you can clarify please do,
It’s the way you call me by another guy’s name when I try to make love to you.
I try to make love but it ain’t no use.

Work so hard I can’t unwind, get some money saved;
Abuse my love a thousand times, however hard I tried.
Heartbreaker, your time has come, can’t take your evil way;
Go away, Heartbreaker.

Dosed – Red Hot Chili Peppers

I got dosed by you and,
Closer than most to you and,
What am I supposed to do,
Take it away,
I never had it anyway,
Take it away,
And everything will be okay…

In you a star is born and,
You cut a perfect form and,
Someone forever warm,
Lay on, lay on, lay on, lay on,
Lay on, lay on, lay on, lay on…

Way upon the mountain where she died,
All I ever wanted was your life,
Deep inside the canyon I can’t hide,
All I ever wanted was your life…

Show love with no remorse and,
Climb on to your seahorse and,
This ride is right on course,
This is the way,
I wanted it to be with you,
This is the way,
I knew that it would be with you,
Lay on, lay on, lay on, lay on,
Lay on, lay on, lay on, lay on…

Way upon the mountain where she died,
All I ever wanted was your life,
Deep inside the canyon I can’t hide,
All I ever wanted was your life…

I got dosed by you and,
Closer than most to you and,
What am I supposed to do,
Take it away,
I never had it anyway,
Take it away,
And everything will be okay…

Way upon the mountain where she died,
All I ever wanted was your life,
Deep inside the canyon I can’t hide,
All I ever wanted was your life…

Stupid quizzes seem to catch me spot on too. I took the “Which Led Zeppelin Song Are You” quiz. The results are below for all to see.

You Are
Whole Lotta Love

You are interested in 2 things in this world: Love and sex. You are a complete romantic (and probably a big whore.) You just want to be loved.

You really value your friends and your family, but more than anything, you value your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/person you are stalking.

You don’t necessarily value yourself very much, but it’s OK because you will find someone else to value you. Sad, but you’re oblivious, so it doesn’t matter.

Take the Which Led Zeppelin Song Are You? Quiz

So, obviously, I think I’m in love. The “think” is a disclaimer because she doesn’t “think” I am. And she is in love with another. How fair is it to assume that your love is love and someone else’s love is just a “phase”? Feel like writing her a song but if she doesn’t even remember me writing her two earlier what good would yet another do? My laptop does little but cycle through her pictures. My hand does little but reach for the phone every so often and stop just short of calling her. I just can’t. She gave me a chance to be a friend and I couldn’t abuse that by trampling all over her privacy. We talk. She accidentally calls me by his name while telling me how much she loves him and how great they are together. She tells me how no one else has so much as a sliver of a chance with her. She giggles; she shakes her head over the phone. I smile on the outside. I bleed.

She scares easy. She won’t let me inside her head. She says it is too twisted to open up to a stranger. She hates when I try and help her. How dare I! I skirt around subjects with her, afraid that with every statement that slips out of my mouth I risk riling her up and losing her to a tantrum of indignation. Flowers and long walks and puppies and silk and champagne and hearts and chocolates and chamomile tea and fragrances and teddy bears and floral prints and elaborate dinners and mushy movies suddenly seem to make perfect sense. I close my eyes and I see her. I open them and I don’t. Why would I ever want to open my eyes?

Something I wrote a while back. Fits, but with a twist. She’ll understand…

You let the alcohol overcome you
an excuse
to confess, admit
so you can get it off your chest
and she won’t remember
…but she won’t remember
you decide
every time you see her
every time you don’t
every time she’s close
every time she’s not
she’s all that you can think of
if only you could stay asleep
for every dream tells her tale
her face, etched upon your brain
her every mannerism, magic
seductive
an invitation you dare not answer
a challenge you dare not take
Enough!
You sleep,
a silent prayer upon your lips
Lord, let my dreams be of her again.
They will!

I’d ask you to bleed for me. But what good would that do?

Presenting: Hafta June 5, 2006

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In all its glory, allow me to present: Hafta, the weekly Mumbai-centric magazine designed to stimulate the intellectual we all have, buried deep within us somewhere. Yours truly is but one the many contributors. Be sure to go through all the content, presented in convenient, bite-sized offerings. And by the time you've read through all that we have to offer this week we'll have fresh content for you next Monday. Truly, lunch breaks will never be the same again.