Category Archives: travel

Sri Lanka diaries: Hotel of the tour

The “hotel of the tour” award for my just-completed vacation in Sri Lanka goes to Pigeon Island Beach Resort in Trincomalee. Now, it is not that they had the best rooms. It is not that the rooms were the best maintained. It is not that the service there trumped the service at every other hotel that I stayed in. It was simply that they seemed to have given the most thought to the hotel design.

At first look I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hotel. Now, it is a highly rated hotel going by TripAdvisor, because of which we had booked it, but the first impressions weren’t great. The reception area was small – just one table, staffed with people not in any uniform (it’s a beach resort – so I should’ve figured that the T-shirts they were wearing was actually uniform!). The hotel was rather small and narrow, with access to a narrow sliver of the beach. The rooms were big, but the loo seemed uncomfortable, with the way the pot was wedged next to the shower cubicle. And the air conditioning never seemed to cool the room enough!

It was after a trip to the beach later in the afternoon that I figured out the value in the hotel design. Now, when you go to the beach, you can expect to get all dirty and muddy. So resorts usually have a shower installed on the way back from the beach to the rooms. This was there. What really impressed me, though, was the tap in the garden right in front of my room! Now, even after showering on the way back to the room, my feet and slippers had got all dirty and muddy. It would have been a mess to clean up the room had I walked in with my muddy feet. So this tap meant that I could wash my feet once again before stepping into the room, thus saving the hotel the trouble of cleaning all those rooms whose occupants had taken care to wash their feet!

Then there were the clothes hangers outside each room. Now, you don’t expect everyone who go to the beach to be wearing swimsuits, and that means a lot of wet clothes. People usually fill up the bathroom with these wet clothes and it can get uncomfortable! Again, it was great thought to put these clothes hangers so that you needn’t fill up your bathroom with the wet clothes! It was another matter that they didn’t have enough of those, and we had to dry our clothes on a chair outside the room!

The following night we stayed at Hotel Earl’s Regent in Kandy, a new hotel inaugurated by “His Excellency President” Mahinda Rajapakse in January this year. It is a hotel which showed a lot of promise, and we were even upgraded to rooms with Jacuzzis. But the detail in design was missing.

For example, at one end of the bathroom was the Jacuzzi and at the other end the shower cubicle. Now, the towel rack was right above the Jacuzzi, and there were no towel hangers on the doors of the shower cubicle. This meant that once you got out of the shower, you had to get all the way across the bathroom to pick up your towel, thus wetting it in its entirety! Then, despite having bathing spaces at either end of the bathroom, there was only one foot mat. Again, this meant that if you failed to move it to your side of the bathroom when you stepped in, the bathroom was again liable to get dirty!

It is amazing how much people are willing to invest in hotels, without getting these small details that can delight a customer right!

Then there was the issue of the plug points. Sri Lanka uses Indian plug points, which meant that we hadn’t bothered to take adapters along. Both in Earl’s Regent and in Cinnamon Grand in Colombo (a five star hotel), most of the plug points turned out to be British-style! Now, you might get a lot of your guests from Britain and it might make sense to have those plug points, but it is surprising that only one point in each room can take Sri Lankan plugs! Now, when each of you has a phone, and then you have an iPad, all of which need charging, it becomes real hard to manage with such plugs!

I don’t know what it is about five star hotels that they refuse to offer health faucets! Every hotel on tour offered them except Cinnamon Grand (the most expensive), where we were forced to use toilet paper. Now, you might get some Western guests who don’t know how to use health faucets, but having them in the room does no harm, while providing great value to Asian and Middle Eastern guests! On a similar note, the Palm Garden Village Hotel in Anuradhapura (a massive forested resort) didn’t offer a health faucet but instead had a separate arse-washing pot. It was again inconvenient and ineffective design, when a simple health faucet would have done the trick with less real estate wasted! And if they had space for a separate arse-washing pots, they might have as well put Sochi-style adjacent pots – it was after all a romantic hotel, with adjacent showers, etc!

Cinnamon Grand also had the worst showers. They had two taps – one for adjusting the level of the hot water, and one for the cold water, and they were the only two controls you had to adjust both the temperature and the pressure of the flow. So if you finally (after a lot of trial and error) got control over the temperature, and wanted to increase the pressure, you had the unenviable task of adjusting two taps simultaneously! Or if you wanted to stop the shower to soap yourself, you had to again do the trial and error thing of finding the right temperature!

The shower at my home has three controls – one tap each for hot and cold water, and another to adjust the overall pressure of the shower. This third tap can be used to adjust intensity after the first two have been used to adjust temperature! The other hotels on tour offered a single lever – right-left movement adjusted the temperature while up-down movement adjusted the pressure! Worked beautifully. Maybe there is a theorem somewhere that the best shower controls have an odd number of levers!

The Goa Project

The last three days I was in Goa, attending the second edition of the Goa Project. Considering how stressed out I was with work last week, it was a good three-day break, and I had a good time meeting new ! people, getting to know them, generally hanging out and drinking (though I must admit I got sick of beer).

The Goa Project is an interesting concept. The basic idea, as one of the organizers put it, is to get a bunch of interesting people together and put them in one place for two days and let the network effect take over. There is no particular objective in terms of immediate outcomes from the workshop – it is simply about connecting people! Talks are scheduled through the days and at any point of time one typically has three sessions to choose from, but like in any good conference, most of the “useful stuff” happens outside the lecture halls – where participants meet each other and just “hang out”.

I took an overnight bus to Goa (first time I used VRL – was pretty good), and so reached the venue only at 11:30 am. The first pair of keynote lectures (those that don’t have any “competitors” and thus don’t give you a choice to not attend) had just got over and people were moving around. The first set of “real sessions” were starting, and I realized there were few people I knew. But then, the point of an event such as this is lost if you end up knowing a lot of people there, and don’t make any effort to expand your network.

In ten minutes I was in and out of all three simultaneous sessions – all of which I found rather uninteresting. Then began my quest for what I called the “white noise space”. The problem was that the microphones at all three venues had been turned up, and it was impossible to have a conversation without any of those lectures disturbing you. Finally I reached what is possibly the “weighted centroid” of all the loudspeakers, where sounds from each of the three lectures could be heard equally loudly, so that they cancelled one another out, allowing us to have a conversation.

Two or three weekends back, I was reading this book on networking called “Never Eat Alone” (on Gandhi’s recommendation), which for a “management book” was a really good read and rather insightful. It was while I was in the middle of that book that I got an invite to speak at the Goa Project. So it can be said that my visit to the Project was an attempt to put what I read in that book to practice.

During the course of the two days of the workshop I don’t think I talked to more than twenty people (there were over two hundred there). My wife had made twenty five or so new business cards for me to give out at the workshop, and I gave out less than ten. I collected three of four business cards. There was this small group of people (some of whom I knew earlier, but not too well, and most of whom I had never met earlier) that I met, and this group expanded during the course of the Project. So while I didn’t expand my network wide, I did manage to get to know a few people well.

The irrepressible Krish Ashok (with whom I hung out for a large part of Day One) gave an absolutely kickass talk on day one about mixing and making music. Fittingly, it was heavily attended, despite it eating into lunch time (inevitably, I must say, there were delays and the schedule got badly mangled). There were only two other sessions on day one that I sat through till the end, though, with most of the others being rather underwhelming.

When we got married, my wife and I had decided that we would not have live music for the reception, for if you keep it too soft, the artists will get offended, and if you keep it too loud, it can interfere with conversation. The live music at the end of day one had the second of these effects, and with some people who I’d hung out with that day, I went to a far corner of the venue (where the music was actually enjoyable) to eat my dinner.

I was talking about the economics of auto rickshaws – perhaps a part two of the talk on Chennai auto rickshaws I’d delivered in Chennai in 2011. I got slotted into a track called “society”, where interestingly I was perhaps the only speaker who was not an activist. In some senses that made me a bit of a misfit with the rest of the track speakers. Sample this interaction during my talk:

Audience member: Given that the auto driver is under privileged ..
Me (cutting her short): Policies should not be framed based on who is under privileged and who is over privileged. They should be based on sound economic reasoning.

The audience member was a bit stunned and took a while to recover to continue the question I had cut short.

Anyway, the lady who was managing my track had sent an email asking us to rehearse our talks and also sent Amanda Palmer’s TED talk to tell us how we should structure our sessions. She had asked us to script our talks, and rehearse it a few times. While my experience on day one indicated that few other speakers had bothered to actually rehearse, early on Day Two, I thought I should rehearse at least once before the talk.

And talking in front of the mirror as I made coffee and dressed myself, I over-exerted myself and promptly lost my voice.

The rest of the morning, before my talk, I decided to “conserve my voice”, and thus not being able to speak, I decided to attend some talks. I sat in the front row when Lucia director Pawan Kumar talked about how he crowd-funded and made the movie. I listened to this guy (who I know via a “secret society” but had never met before) talk about his experience of being a cop in London. In between, I walked about, talking in a low voice, with people I had met the earlier day.

Mangled schedules meant that my 12:40 talk started only around 1:50, when lunch was underway. It didn’t help matters that it was scheduled in the arena farthest from the cafeteria. Calling it “economics of local for-hire public transport” also didn’t help. But that there were less than twenty people in the audience meant that I could settle down on the stage and deliver my talk.

And so I delivered. Mic in hand, low voice didn’t matter. Small crowd meant I could take questions through my talk. Hanging out with a few people through the length of the workshop meant they helped enhance my audience (a favour I returned). And a lunch-time talk meant that when I started getting too many questions, the track manager declared “lunch break” and I slipped away.

I was wearing a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, over khaki cargo shorts. Sitting on stage cross-legged (which meant that the fact that my shirt was untucked or that the shorts were cargo didn’t show), with a microphone in my left hand and waving a pointed right forefinger, I think the only thing that separated me from an RSS pramukh was a black cap on my head!

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The rest of the day went well. I attended some excellent talks through the afternoon and evening, though not too many others did, for the schedule had played havoc again. Dinner time saw a nice band playing, though I stopped drinking since I got sick of beer. I met a few more people, gave out a few more cards, “watched” Liverpool massacre Arsenal via Guardian minute-by-minute commentary, and returned to my hotel a happy man.

The Goa Project continued into its unofficial third day today, as I met a few of the other attendees for breakfast (we were all at the same hotel), a few others for lunch, and some more at the waiting area of the impossibly tiny and congested Dabolim airport as I waited to fly back to Bangalore.

I’ll be back next year.

 

The Economics of Forts

I had first planned to write this post back in February 2012, when I visited the magnificent Kumbalgarh Fort in Southern Rajasthan (this was part of my bike ride around that state). However, I didn’t have a typing device handy, so I postponed the post, and it got postponed indefinitely until I visited the equally magnificent Chitradurga Fort in Karnataka recently.

The fort in Chitradurga is famous possibly because of the early 1970s Vishnuvardhan movie Naagarahaavu (cobra) which is set in that city. A lot of the action in the movie takes place in and around the fort, and there is a famous song which is picturized in the fort. The song goes back in history, too, to the battle between Nawab Hyder Ali of Mysore and Madakari Nayaka of Chitradurga back in the 1770s, when after multiple attempts Hyder Ali finally managed to capture the fort. The heroine of the song is one “Onake Obavva” who slays a number of Hyder Ali’s soldiers entering the fort through a small gap in the rocks using her pestle, until she is attacked from behind and killed.

The fort at Chitradurga is popularly known as the “yELu suttina kOTe” or “seven layered fort”. This is not entirely correct. The fort has seven “layers” of walls only on the front side. At  the back, where it is bordered by another hill, there are only two layers of walls. However, the terrain meant that the back was not easily approachable for invaders so most invasions happened through the front. In that sense, the name wasn’t so wrong.

I could write this post about the design of the fort itself (and there is a lot to talk about it -from the rain water harvesting to feed the moats, to the L-shaped design of the gates to the attention to detail in the positions of the soldiers and guards, and arrangements for their camps, and so forth). However, I would prefer here to talk about the economics of building the fort.

The Nayakas of Chitradurga initially started off as a vassal state to Vijayanagara. When Vijayanagara fell in 1565 following defeat at the Battle of Talikota, Chitradurga and the Nayakas became independent. The Nayakas ruled for over 200 years until they were defeated by Hyder Ali in the 1770s. During that period they built this magnificent fort. The question that arises, however, is about how they were able to finance it.

Building a fort with seven layers is no joke. Stones had to be quarried, cut and raised to build each wall. Considerable engineering and architectural acumen also went into the design of the fort itself. It apparently took several generations for the fort to get completed. Considering that there was little economic activity in and around Chitradurga those days apart from agriculture, one can only suppose that the state that built the fort was extractive.

On a visit to Bikaner last February, someone pointed out to me about the quality of the craftsmanship that went into creating the stone carvings in the palace there. “You will never get such quality nowadays”, this person surmised. I agreed with him, and my reasoning was that nobody is willing to pay for such intricacies nowadays. It is only in an extractive state where the taxpayer has no control over the state’s finances that a ruler can spend thus to beautify his own residence rather than spending on the development of the state itself. Where there is a “large coalition” whose support the ruler draws to stay in power, he is forced to invest in projects that benefit this large coalition at the expense of those that just benefit himself.

Wandering through the Chitradurga Fort on Sunday, I thought the expenses on developing the fort could be justified as simply a “large defence budget”. However, the problem with this hypothesis is that a fort doesn’t really provide ‘national security’. What a fort instead does is to make the capital city strong and defensible, but this comes at the cost of securing the borders. People outside the fort are perfectly susceptible to plunder and pillage by the invading party. All the fort does is to protect the capital and the treasury, and thus the king.

The next time you see a magnificent palace or a fort, think of the economic conditions in the state that built it. Think of how the structure might have been financed, and if so much could be spent on a structure such as this what the total size of the royal budget might have been. Then imagine what the tax rates might have been if the royal family managed that large a budget, especially when the kingdom in question was a rather small one like the ones at Chitradurga or Kumbalgarh. Then decide if you would have wanted to live and do business in that age.

After two hundred years of solid resistance, the Chitradurga Fort finally fell to Hyder Ali, in the old fashioned way. Hyder Ali simply bribed some of Madakari Nayaka’s officers, and got them to switch sides. A path through the back that was normally used to supply milk and curd to the fort was discovered, and with the complicity of some of Madakari Nayaka’s officers, Hyder Ali invaded through this route. And the fort fell.

Radhakrishna, the tourist guide who showed us around the fort on Sunday put it best. “Of what use is two walls or seven walls”, he said, “if you can’t exercise control over your own officers?”

 

The day I learnt to stop worrying and learnt to protect myself

For at least six years, from early 2006 to early 2012 I “suffered” from what medical practitioners term as “anxiety”. It was “co-morbid” with my depression, and I think it was there from much before 2006. I would frequently think about random events, and and wonder what would happen if things happened in a certain way. I would think of “negative black swan” events, events with low probability but which would have a significant negative impact on my life.

While considering various possibilities and preparing for them is a good thing, the way I handled them were anything but good. Somewhere in my system was wired the thought that simply worrying about an event would prevent it from happening. I once got fired from one job. Every day during my next two jobs, I would worry if I would get fired. If I got an uncharitable email from my boss, I would worry if he would fire me. If my blackberry failed to sync one morning I would worry that it was because I had already been fired. Needless to say, I got fired from both these jobs also, for varying reasons.

I used to be a risk-taker. And it so happened that for a prolonged period in my life, a lot of risks paid off. And then for another rather prolonged period, none of them did (Mandelbrot beautifully calls this phenomenon the Joseph effect). The initial period of successful risk-taking probably led me to take more risk than was prudent. The latter period of failure led me to cut down on risks to an unsustainable level. I would be paranoid about any risks I had left myself exposed to. This however doesn’t mean that the risks didn’t materialize.

It was in January of last year that I started medication for my anxiety and depression. For a few days there was no effect. Then, suddenly I seemed to hit a point of inflexion and my anxious days were far behind. While I do credit Venlafaxine Hexachloride I think one event in this period did more than anything else to get me out of my anxiety.

I was riding my Royal Enfield Classic 500 across the country roads of Rajasthan, as part of the Royal Enfield Tour of Rajasthan. The first five days of the tour had gone rather well. Riding across the rather well-made Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) roads set across beautiful landscapes had already helped clear out my mind a fair bit. It gave me the time and space to think without getting distracted. I would make up stories as I rode, and at the end of each day I would write a 500 word essay in my diary. All the riding gear meant that the wind never really got into my hair or my face, but the experience was stunning nevertheless. For a long time in life, I wanted to “be accelerated”. Ride at well-at-a-faster-rate, pulling no stops. And so I rode. On the way to Jaisalmer on a rather empty highway, I even hit 120 kmph, which I had never imagined I would hit on my bike. And I rode fearlessly, the acceleration meaning that my mind didn’t have much space for negative thoughts. Things were already so much better. Until I hit a cow.

Sometimes I rationalize saying I hadn’t consumed my daily quota of Venlafaxine Hexachloride that morning. Sometimes I rationalize that I was doing three things at the same time – one more than the number of activities I can normally successfully carry out simultaneously. There are times when I replay the scene in my head and wonder how things would have been had I done things differently. And I sometimes wonder why the first time I ever suffered a fracture had to happen in the middle of nowhere far off from home.

It had been a wonderful morning. We had left the camp at Sam early, stopping for fuel at Jaisalmer, and then at this wonderful dhaba at Devikot, where we had the most awesome samosa-bajjis (massive chilis were first coated with a layer of potato curry – the one they put in samosa – and then in batter and deep fried). For the first time that day I had the camera out of its bag, hanging around my neck. I would frequently stop to take photos, of black camels and fields and flowers and patterns in the cloud. The last photo I took was of Manjunath (from my tour group) riding past a herd of black camels.

I function best when I do two things at a time. That morning I got over confident and did three. I was riding on a road 10 feet wide at 80 kilometres per hour. I was singing – though I’ve forgotten what I was singing. And I was thinking about something. My processor went nuts. While things were steady state on the road there was no problem. There was a problem, however, when I saw a bit too late that there was a massive herd of massive cows blocking my path further down the road.

There was no time to brake. I instead decided to overtake the herd by moving to the right extreme of the road (the cows were all walking on the road in the same direction as me). To my misfortune, one of the cows decided to move right at the same time, and I hit her flush in the backside. The next thing I remember is of me lying sprawled on the side of the road about five metres from where my bike was fallen. There was no sign of the cow. The bike was oozing petrol but I wasn’t able to get up to lift it up – presently others in my tour group who were a few hundred metres behind reached the scene and picked up my bike. And I don’t know what state of mind I was in but my first thought after I picked myself up was to check on my camera!

The camera wasn’t alright – it required significant repairs after I got back home, but I was! I had broken my fifth metacarpal, which I later realized was a consequence of the impact of the bike hitting the cow. There were some gashes on my bicep where the protective padding of my riding jacket had pressed against my skin. I still have a problem with a ligament in my left thumb, again a consequence of the impact. And that was it.

I had had an accident while traveling at 80 kmph. I had fallen a few metres away from the point of impact (I don’t know if I did a somersault while I fell, though). I fell flush on my shoulder with my head hitting the ground shortly. It was a rather hard fall on the side of the road where the ground was uneven. And there was absolutely no injury because of the fall (all the injury was due to impact)!

It was the protection. No amount of worry would have prevented that accident. Perhaps I was a bit more careless than I should have been but that is no reason for there not being an accident. When you are riding on a two wheeler at a reasonable pace on country roads, irrespective of how careful you are there is always a chance that you may fall. The probability of a fall can never go to zero.

What I had done instead was to protect myself from the consequences of the fall. Each and every piece of protective equipment I wore that day took some impact – helmet, riding jacket, riding gloves, knee guard, shoes.. Without any one of these pieces, there is a chance I might have ended up with serious injury. There was a cost I paid – both monetary and by means of discomfort caused by wearing such heavy gear – but it had paid off.

Black swans exist. However, worrying about them will not ease them. Those events cannot be prevented. What you need to do, however, is to hedge against the consequences of those events. There was always a finite possibility that I would fall. All I did was to protect myself against the consequences of that!

Despite contrary advice from the doctor, I decided to ride on and finish the tour, struggling to wear my riding glove over my swollen right hand – stopping midway would have had a significant adverse impact on my mental state which had just begun to improve. I’ve stopped worrying after that. Yes, there are times when I see a chance of some negative black swan event happening. I don’t worry about that any more, though. I only think of how I can hedge against its consequences.

Air India

There’s something quaint about traveling air India as I just did on my way to Mumbai. The aircraft are old of course and you can see some parts of the seats are broken. Apart from that though it was a rather pleasant flight.

The food was great as usual. Fluffy and creamy omelettes served with bits of zucchini and peppers. Papaya that was route and fresh unlike what jet airways serves. And the same old naayi bun and coffee.

It was a pleasure watching the stewardess through their weight around, though. One could say that their snarkiness was a welcome change from the sugary sweetness of jet and indigo stewardesses. It was rather charming to watch.

Now these stewardesses are from another era, one where air fares were expensive and only people from a certain strata of society flew. Now these people don’t seem too have taken too kindly to the egalitarian shift in passenger  profile and have consequently put on a condescending attitude to passengers

As they came around with breakfast they snapped ‘sir don’t you want breakfast’ brusquely waking people up in the process. I happened to ask one of them what was for breakfast and she snapped, ‘we always have omelette for breakfast’ with her tone indicating that I was a philistine who hardly flew. I wanted to tell her that I rarely fly air India but then the creamy omelette beckoned.

The best part of today’s journey, though, was that for perhaps the first time in six months during which I’ve probably taken two dozen flights there was an empty middle seat next to me. A the joys of the old times of 70% passenger load factors!!

Teerth Yatre

The Yatre (journey) took us through four different worlds. All at the same time. We kept flipping from one world to another. Each of us were going through the worlds independently, yet we seemed to meet in one of the worlds (let’s call this one “reality”) once in a while. Time moved extremely slowly. It was like TDMA (time division multiple access) was going through our minds, as we went through the four or five worlds simultaneously.

Parts of the human brain are sequential and parts are parallel. I discovered during the course of the Yatre that our minds are equipped with a parallel, maybe even superscalar, processor. However, certain features such as context switches are not very well developed in human minds so this capacity is seldom used. The human mind prefers linear processing and thus most of the time, all but one processor is shut. And there is a continuous stream of thought that allows us to “execute”.

Those like me with ADHD seem to have an easier time in context switching. While this results in a generally higher level of mental output, it also means that there is greater discontinuity in thought. This discontinuity in thought leads to what psychiatrists term as ‘lack of executive functioning’. “Executive functioning” as us humans have defined it depends on a single train of thought working continuously to get things done.

The Teertha (holy water) however ensures that all human beings, ADHD or the lack of it, become equal, and opens up the superscalar processes in people’s heads. It is like everyone who imbibes it reaches a state that is an advanced level of ADHD. Four or five streams of thought. Parallel inhabition of four or five different worlds. And constant switches between the worlds. One moment you have a sense of achievement. The next you are paranoid. Paranoid about getting through the madding crowd and back safely to the dirty hotel room.

Fifteen minutes past six, we are on the way to the river bank to watch the world-famous aarati. An eternity later (but with the watch only showing six twenty) we see a chaat shop on the way and decide to imbibe some chaat. Another eternity later, some parallel thoughts drive us to the aarati, the rest recommend stopping at the restaurant for an early dinner.

I order pav bhaji. Four pieces arrive. In my journeys through the various worlds, I think I’ve spent an enormous amount of time eating it. During fleeting visits to “reality”, though, less than one piece has been eaten. The rest of the table also consists of plates with a lot of leftover food. I break a piece of pav. By the time I bring it to my mouth I’m in another world. And when i return to “reality” the piece of pav is still in my hand, uneaten.

The final bit of the teerth yatre is the most surreal, when we have to get back to the hotel. We are in no mental state to tell our driver where to reach us. We decide to take cycle rickshaws. To get to a cycle rickshaw, though, we need to go through a sea of humanity.

We don’t know where we are going. We hold hands. In the moments when we are in “reality” we check if we are still together. In the fleeting between-moments, we worry about losing each other. We do our independent trips of the other worlds (I think we have our own set of worlds and the only intersection is “reality”). We independently worry where we are going. The sea of humanity means that traffic is rather slow and there is little chance of being run over. Yet, we worry.

The teertha in question is a product of this tiny store at Godowlia Chowk called “Mishrambu”. It came highly recommended by a friend who had studied at the Banaras Hindu University. It was sweet, laced with dry fruits and nuts, and dollops of butter. “Shall I put a little or more?” asked the kindly shopkeeper as he displayed a dirty-looking green paste from a small stainless steel box. In one of those collective fleeting moments of bravado we asked him to put ‘lots’. Maybe our inexperienced showed up there.

So what if we had gone to Varanasi and not seen the famous Ganga Arati? So what if we didn’t take the boat-ride to see the various famous ghats, and instead settled ourselves in a rooftop cafe on the banks of the Ganges (we were the only Indians there)? So what if we went all the way to the Kumbh Mela and spent our time mostly clicking photos and walking around, and didn’t venture close to the river?

We’ve undergone the most exhilarating Teerth Yatre ever. I’m not sure any of the religious experiences could match this parallel journey across four worlds.

Khamir Rouge

I spent most of the last weekend at a workshop organized by this not-for-profit called Khamir somewhere near Bhuj in Kutch. It was a rather small-scale festival they had organized called the Desert Art and Music Festival (though the fees were anything but small scale, setting each participant back by seven and a half kilorupees). The art on display were crafts local to the Kutch region, and we were given hands-on training in various crafts by artisans that worked with Khamir. The music, sadly, wasn’t Kutchi, as two rather large bands had been imported from Rajasthan (from Bikaner and Jaisalmer) and local musicians only played the opening acts.

I’m not entirely convinced by Khamir’s business model. Ok that may not be an accurate statement since strictly speaking Khamir isn’t a business, but to put it in another way, I’m not convinced that Khamir’s contribution to the ecosystem of handicraft artisans in Kutch is entirely positive. It may not be possible to make a convincing economic argument right now, but my sense is that they are distorting the market for handicrafts.

Actually it may not even be their fault. In a rare conversation on economics with one of the artisans, I found that it is actually easier to start a not-for-profit than a for-profit. This artisan wanted to train youth in his village and surrounding areas, and had found that there was considerable demand abroad for what he made. When I asked him why he didn’t set up a for-profit company instead, the answer was that it was next to impossible for him to get a bank loan for one such venture. But he had found some means by which he had tied up a rather large no-questions-asked donation from the Government of Gujarat.

Coming back to Khamir, they are in the business (ok it’s impossible for me to think in a non-business sense) of promoting the crafts of Kutch. They have a number of “studios” where local artisans, who have been given raw material, work and they sell the products in their own local shop and also in the US and Canada. Apart from this, they procure stuff from other local artisans and sell it on. In that sense, they are just like any other middlemen – except that they are not for profit.

If you ask why this is a problem, I point you to the Indian airline industry. When one player in the market doesn’t have a strict profit motive (like Air India), they can work on wafer thin (or even negative) margins, a level at which their for-profit competitors cannot really compete. Sooner or later, the for-profit competitors get driven out of business (like Kingfisher Airlines, for example), and soon the market itself has disappeared!

While Khamir itself might be too small (their campus suggests they are rather well funded, but their scale of operations doesn’t seem commensurate), the fact that it is easier to get funding for not-for-profit than to start a for-profit business in this space (as the artisan alluded) raises the sceptre that there could soon be more such not-for-profit middlemen in this business, which might make a real dent in the business of Kutchi crafts.

The story of intermediation in this market is also interesting and deserves to be sold. Both the artisans we spoke to said they don’t prefer to do business with large for-profit middlemen such as FabIndia or Mother Earth since the latter demand a high degree of standardization, which is tough to achieve in a hand-craft environment. Rather than face high rejection rates at such middlemen, the artisans instead find it more profitable to peddle their wares at sundry craft exhibitions all over India, where they are more likely to sell their stuff, though with a higher risk in terms of profits and considerable hardship in terms of travel and sales.

The thing with handicrafts is that the market is rather fragmented and it is only really large-scale players such as FabIndia or Mother Earth who have cracked the model in terms of effective intermediation (the large scale is necessary given the fragmentation of the market). The “illiquidity” in the market means that inventory costs can get rather high, and thus a considerable retail margin needs to be allowed for to enable effective intermediation. In the face of this, organizations such as Khamir who “work to give as much money as possible to artisans” can get rather distortionary.

Two minutes was watching a weaver work at the Khamir facility drove me nuts (it was such a laborious process I wasn’t able to take it any longer). So there is this wooden piece that has to be tossed from one side of the loom to the other each time a thread is passed (and the thread has to be practically hammered in to the rest of the cloth) so even a full day of work by a skilled artisan can only produce a few meters of cloth. Watching the hand loom weavers work even made me wonder if promotion of such arts only serves to keep people poor.

So the problem is that handloom weaving is a rather laborious process, and extremely inefficient economically. The same kind of cloth when produced by a machine results in significantly lower cost, and by that logic, handloom weaving being an ineffective process should probably go extinct. While premium branding for handloom in certain circles has ensured higher prices that could possibly compensate the weavers, it is not unfathomable that machines will be soon able to make (if not already) cloth in a texture similar to what is produced by hand looms.

For someone with a short attention span and ADHD and for someone who is a computer programmer, it was unfathomable that people do a rather laborious task repeatedly through the course of the day, and over several days, to earn their living. We asked an artisan why he continued to make cloth by hand, and he replied that the handloom tag helped him earn a better margin. When I suggested to him that greater volumes would make up for the lesser margins that powered looms would offer, he talked about certain intricate designs that according to him only hand loom could create. I could only think of one thing at that moment – the CNC Lathe.

I find the entire ecosystem disturbing. That it is easier to find funding for a not-for-profit venture than for for-profit. That these funds are being used to keep alive trades that have no business to do business (given their inefficiencies). That these efforts put the artisans into a false lull that there actually exists demand for their produce, and at a level that can compensate for their inefficient processes. Which prevents creative destruction, and holds back innovation. And leads to the not-for-profits painting a rather romanticized picture of poverty and traditional rural crafts to get more funding. The cycle continues.

Given that the festival did not have sponsors, I would assume that a significant portion of the fee I paid would have gone into paying the musicians. For that level of fee, I expected a rather small and intimate concert. Instead what I got was two public concerts (where the general public got to watch for free) where there were more speeches than there was music, and one of which started so late into the night that I drifted off.

In the world of not-for-profits, I suspect that “value for money” is perhaps a dirty phrase.

Non competitive hobbies

During my riding trip two months back, I was wondering why I enjoyed riding so much more than any of the other “hobbies” that I have indulged in over the last twenty years or so. It was tough for me to think about any other hobby that had given me as much pleasure in the early days as riding did, and no other hobby seems or seemed as sustainable as this one. As I rode, and daydreamed while I rode, I thought about what it was about riding that gave me the kind of unbridled joy that any of my other hobbies had failed to provide. The reason, I figured, was that it was not competitive (no I don’t intend to be a motorcycle racer, ever).

Looking back at the hobbies that I’ve had since childhood – be it playing chess or playing the violin or even writing, they have all been competitive hobbies. As soon as I got reasonably good at chess, I started playing competitively, and soon the pressures of tournament play got to me, I lost my love for the game and stopped playing. Violin was a little better off in the sense that for a reasonably long time I only played for myself (apart from the occasions when I had to entertain random visiting relatives). But then, I was asked to take up an examination, and then enter inter-school music contests, and I find it no surprise that I quit my lessons six months after my examinations. I must mention that I’m on the road to committing the same mistake again, in my second stint at violin learning. As things stand now, I’m scheduled to appear for the ABRSM Grade Three examination this October, but I have my reasons for that and don’t think the process of appearing for the exam will kill my love for music.

Writing remained a passion, and a hobby which I think I was rather good at, until the time I started thinking about monetization. The minute I started thinking about wanting to write for money, I lost the love for it, which might explain the deceleration in activity on this site over the last three years or so. I had lost yet another hobby to the competitive forces.

The thing with competition is that it puts pressure on you. You have to being to hold yourself to a standard other than your own, and that means you will have to do certain things irrespective of whether you think it makes sense to do that. Soon, your hobby ends up as a slave to your competition, and it is unlikely you’ll be able to sustain interest after that. You can say that the moment a hobby becomes competitive, it ceases to be a hobby and becomes “work”.

The reason I’m bullish about motorcycling at this moment is that I don’t see a means for it to become competitive. Since I don’t intend to race, and don’t care about whether others have ridden more than me or whatever, I’ll be mostly riding for myself. Yes, when I planned my Rajasthan tour, I did think of monetizing it by writing about it for the media, but that I think was more a function of wanting to monetize my writing than my riding. In the event, i didn’t get a mandate to write, and that in no way affected my enthusiasm for the ride. Rather I felt freer that I could enjoy the ride rather than thinking about what I would write about it.

As I go along, I hope to pick up one or two more such non-competitive hobbies. Of course I intend to make motorcycling a “major” hobby. As it is, I love traveling, doing it my own way and going off the beaten path. And I love the feeling as i accelerate, with the wind penetrating the air vents of my riding jacket and my thighs grabbing the petrol tank. Now if only I can convince Pinky to also take this up as a hobby..

You don’t need grammar to get a visa

Last year, before we traveled to Turkey, I had carefully written out a covering letter along with all our documents and sent it across to the consulate. However, after it turned out that there might be some problems with the application (since I wasn’t working, and Priyanka wasn’t getting a leave letter), the agent decided to re-word the application.

In general, whenever I’m writing something, I’m very careful about the spellings and grammar. I make it a point to write well and make sure there’s no room for ambiguity. However, considering that the following letter was actually successful in getting me a visa, such care and precision is perhaps not required. Here is the letter that the agent wrote on my behalf as part of my visa application.

*******************

To

The Consul General
Consulate General of Turkey
Mumbai

Dear Sir

I am Management Consultant (freelance) is enclosing herewith my visa application along with visa application of my wife Mrs. Bharadwaj Priyanka Venkatesh, dully filled in and signed by us for necessary tourist visa.

We are planning a holiday visit to Turkey during the visit we will stay at hotel ALTINOZ, Ragip Uner Cad. from 23rd till 26 Oct 2011 and at hotel Best Western Mimar Mehmet Aga, Caddesi No.17/19, Sultanahmet, Istanbul from 26 Oct till 29 Oct 2011. The Hotel confirmation and other relevant documents are attached herewith for your reference. Hence I request you to kindly grant us necessary tourist visa at your earliest and oblige

 

Thanking You

 

Yours Faithfully

Shashidhar Karthik

****************************

I’ve typed out the letter here exactly as the agent had written it out to the consulate (he had given me a copy). While I’m sad that such a horribly written out letter had to go out in my name, I’m at least glad that I managed to get the visa to Turkey well in time and without any hassles.

Boxer’s fist

That’s the “disease” that I’ve been diagnosed with, following my rendezvous with a cow last Saturday. Before you begin to get ideas, let me explain. On day six of the Royal Enfield Tour of Rajasthan, I was speeding at about 70-80 kmph on a Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana road between Devikot and Shetrawa in Western Rajasthan on my Royal Enfield Classic 500. I was day-dreaming I think, but when I “woke up”, I realized there was a huge herd of cows ahead on the road. I panicked, and instead of applying the brakes, revved up and tried going around the herd. Unfortunately for me, one of the cows too decided to strafe to the right. I had no choice but to hit her.

The next thing I know, my shoulder has already hit the ground and my helmet is hitting the ground. My camera that was around my neck has been thrown off, and the part that connects the camera to the lens has been broken. I’m dazed, my bike is flat on the ground with petrol oozing out of the tank and I can see major scratch marks on my visor. And my right little finger and left thumb hurt. Manju, who has just overtaken the herd, sees my fall in the rearview mirror and comes to my aid. The Shimoga boys soon materialize and pull up my bike. Then, the Enfield support team arrives and puts both me and my bike back on track in 20 minutes. My hand still hurts, though.

An X-ray the following day reveals a fracture in my fifth metacarpal. The resident at MG Hospital in Jodhpur (a Sarkari institution) wants to put a cast, but I want to ride on and finish the tour and I resist. Anti-inflammatory drugs, a crepe bandage and a promise to get a cast as soon as I return to Bangalore form a compromise solution. I take off the bandage every morning to put on my riding gloves, and ride on. With a minor adjustment in riding style, I completely forget the injury. I get back “into form”, ride the way I used to in the first half of the tour, have another (less serious) accident, complete the trip, go to Indore for Gandhi’s wedding and return to Bangalore.

I go to see my uncle who is an orthopedic surgeon. Taking a look at the X-ray, he asks me if I’ve been punching walls while drunk. I’m suffering from a “boxer’s fist“, he says, and adds that there is little that can be done to “cure” it. My hand will heal on its own in a month, but when it does, my fourth knuckle would have disappeared, he says. “Then you will go to a pub, and hold a mug of beer, and people around you will see that you don’t have a fourth knuckle. And they will assume that on some drunken night you were punching walls, and have thus ended up with a boxer’s fist. Then, you can tell them that you injured yourself thus when you had a riding accident with a cow”.

The injury was due to impact. Because I panicked when I saw that cows, I held on to the bike’s handlebars too tight, and when I hit the cow, the handlebar jammed against the side of my hand, thus breaking my fifth metacarpal. Protective riding gear meant that the actual fall itself left me unscathed despite my head hitting the ground. My helmet needed a new visor (who would’ve thunk that the extra visor I carried in my luggage would come useful?), my riding jacket has been torn at the shoulder and the protective padding on the back of the hand of my riding gloves has been badly dented. When my bike arrives in Bangalore, it’ll be sent to “hospital” to cure a few dents. It still runs well, though.