Conversation with an Afghan-Dutch taxi driver

We got back to London yesterday, and were welcomed with atypical London weather – thunderstorms. While it is common to stereotype London’s weather as being typically shitty and grey, it doesn’t normally rain all that heavily here – most of the rain that London gets is what is called “spitting rain” – slow drizzly rain best dealt with with a nice cap.

Also welcoming us was an Afghan-Dutch guy who drove us home in his Merc (we hired him through Uber). We got talking and there were a few interesting things from what he said that I though were Pertinent.

  • When we told him we were from Bangalore he said something that sounded like “cooley”. First we interpreted it as him saying that the city is cool, and then realised that wasn’t what he was saying. Then I thought he was talking about Coolie which was filmed in Bangalore, but it wasn’t that as well. Finally we realised he was talking about Virat Kohli, who plays for Royal Challengers Bangalore. It’s funny how Kohli is identified with Bangalore abroad though he’s only nominally based there only during the IPL season
  • We spoke a bit about the IPL and he said he was disappointed that “our team” lost. A minute later he said the team was Sunrisers Hyderabad. For a while it wasn’t clear as to why the Sunrisers were his team. Then I realised they have two prominent Afghan players – Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi.
  • He was studying to be a dentist, and decided to spend time in England learning English because a lot of the dental course was in English. Apart from putting himself through formal English classes, driving an Uber was a way for him to become better at English (it’s interesting how at times in our conversation he switched to using Hindi words – some of which I’m guessing are common to Pashto as well), apart from making money
  • My wife later told me that it was common for continental Europeans to spend a gap year in England learning English. And that apart from taking classes they take up jobs where they can practice the language – like driving a taxi or waiting tables.
  • The conversation also got me thinking about gap years and saving up for education – something that doesn’t at all happen in India. In India, the standard practice is to go to college immediately after school, when one is still being funded by parents. In one way, this reduces social mobility since people whose parents can’t afford college end up not studying. Also, the returns to education in India are high enough that the compensation for blue collar jobs (that one can find without a college degree) isn’t enough to fund a later degree.
  • Despite having Afghan parents, this guy has never been there. “It’s way too dangerous. I can go see relatives but will end up spending most time indoors, so not much fun”, he said.

Every time I have a conversation with a taxi driver I’m reminded of what I was told by a friend on the day I moved to Delhi in 2008. “It might be common in Bangalore to chat up auto and taxi drivers”, he had told me, “but in Delhi it is not the done thing”. I still wonder why.

A Dying Complex

During a walk through Jayanagar Fourth Block last evening, I happened to walk through the shopping complex. Now, this isn’t something I do normally – while my usual Jayanagar walking route goes along one side of the complex, I seldom cut across it.

As it happened, my wife had asked me to buy coffee powder from a specific shop (from where I’d last bought coffee powder twenty years ago), and the easiest way to get to it after I had remembered to buy coffee was to cut across the Shopping Complex.

And it was dead. In my childhood, I spent most evenings “putting beat” around Jayanagar 4th Block with my parents, and we would invariably go to the shopping complex. The complex was then full of respectable stores, including a HMV outlet, a fairly high end tailoring outlet (called Khanate) and the shop where I bought my first ten pairs of spectacles. It was then natural that a shopping trip to 4th block included a visit to the shopping complex.

Not any more, for the shopping complex is dying, if not dead already. The walls look the same, the shop structures are the same, but most respectable businesses seem to have made their exit from the shopping complex. In their place you have stores selling cheap footwear, cheap clothes, possibly counterfeit goods and suchlike. There aren’t too many “respectable shoppers” in the complex as well.

On the other hand, the area immediately around the now-dying shopping complex has emerged as a brilliant retail destination. You can find large-ish outlets of most major brands, a wide selection of restaurants and stalls, fresh vegetables, hardware stores and yes – shops selling coffee powder! Just that the shopping complex has pretty much died, and faded into insignificance.

Quickly walking through the shopping complex last evening (it didn’t appear that safe), I mulled over why it had died, while the surrounding area had flourished. I have one hypothesis.

Basically the shopping complex is owned by the government, and the rents in the complex didn’t rise along with the market. This meant that businesses that were not exactly flourishing (or sustainable) continued to do business in the complex (low rents meant businesses could afford to be there even when they weren’t doing well). This reduced footfalls, and reduced business for the relatively healthy businesses. Which again didn’t move out because they could still make the rent.

And so the shopping complex went through a downward spiral until the point when businesses that had chosen to remain got crowded out by less respectable ones, and figured it was time to move out even if the rent wasn’t much. And so you have some of the prime real estate in Jayanagar being squatted upon by sellers of cheap footwear and cheap clothes and electronics of suspect make.

TV Punditry

Those of you who might be following me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIN) might know that I’ve started a career in TV Punditry over the last week. Well, it’s not that much of a career – I still need to figure out how to get paid for it.

Anyway, so I was on News9 once on Saturday (analysing exit polls) and again on Tuesday (analysing the election results). It happened pretty much at random, from a random twitter conversation:

And so Mathang (who I’d first met in 2004 when he had interviewed me for Education Times) set me up with Anil Kumar from News9, who presently asked me for my number. A couple of twitter DMs, a couple of emails and a couple of phone calls later, I had been asked to come to the News9 studio at 5pm on Saturday.

Saturday’s session was really enjoyable, and I spoke a fair bit on the process of conducting an exit poll, the importance of sample sizes and representative samples, the process of converting votes to seats, etc. A 5 minute monologue on sampling process got the anchors interested in me, and they kept coming back to me. As is my wont, I summarised the import of my arguments for Mint.

And so I got invited again for Tuesday’s post-counting session, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it that much. As the elections threw up a hung assembly, the politicians on the panel spent their time shouting at each other. I was seated in an inappropriate place – right between a loud JDS spokesperson and a loud BJP spokesperson. I recused myself from much of the discussion and was only brought in because the anchors probably thought I should be “given some lines” – an opportunity I used to comment on the parties’ election strategies.

So two TV appearances later, I must say I quite like the format – it’s good footage (literally) if not anything else, but it can be a bit painful. Writing is easy in the sense that you just collect your thoughts and deliver them at a time.

Video means that you are virtually participating in a group discussion, and need to butt in to make your point. You might have something insightful to say, but need to wait for an opportune time to interject. You might be in the middle of a long point but get interrupted by another panellist. You might wait for ages to say something but the opportunity never comes. At other times, you might get a question that you’re not prepared for.

The worst thing as an analytical guy on TV is that you need to keep referring to your data, and your analysis. So there was one occasion on each session when the anchors asked me a question to answer which I’d to write some code to answer. So each time I mumbled something and bent down to my laptop, and got bailed out by the anchor who got someone else’s view in the time I took to get the requisite data.

In any case, I want to do more of this. I also hope that like with my writing, I can some day hope to get paid for TV appearances – this is a hard job since panellists representing political parties don’t charge anything – it’s in their parties’ interests to be represented on the show.

But, some day..

A journey back to civilisation

Earlier this evening, I was at a coffee shop in Whitefield with a friend when it started raining cats and dogs. I got a message from a wife stating that it was raining insanely in her part of town, and that I should be careful while coming back. I promised her that I would wait it out before returning, and returned to my conversation.

I made my first attempt at booking a cab at 1845, by which time the rain had stopped. Uber showed that the nearest cab was 8 minutes away, except that when I tried to book it it failed to find me a ride. Ola was no better – except that it showed that the nearest cab was 20 minutes away when I opened the app.

I continued waiting, and continued checking on both platforms. No cabs materialised. And after some 45 minutes of waiting thus, I decided to get out and find a bus. My friend was surprised that I was willing to change buses to get home. “I would never do that”, he declared, adding that it would be easier for me to move back to India.

I walked up Varthur main road looking for a bus stop. It had stopped raining but there were huge puddles on the roadside, and mosquitoes buzzed all around. There was a huge crowd at the bus stop. The first two buses came at an interval of five minutes each. Both were jam packed.

It was clear that Varthur main road wasn’t a great place to be, since the bus frequency there was low – most buses would be coming from the other side of Whitefield, so it was clear that I should get to Kundalahalli gate.

Presently an “illegal bus” (an office bus picking up passengers for some extra income for the driver) materialised, and it was a good opportunity to get to Kundalahalli gate. The bus sped there, and charged 10 bucks.

As expected, there were plenty of buses, including Volvos, at Kundalahalli Gate, except that there was no room to get into any of them. Once again, there was no luck to be had on the Uber or Ola front. I even tried UberPool and Ola Share (stuff I normally never use), but nothing materialised. The only result of all that was that my phone battery drained like crazy. And it started raining as well – I was happy I had behaved like a rich man this morning and bought a new umbrella when I realised I’d forgotten mine at home.

An airport bus appeared as a sort of a saviour. It was empty, and the conductor said passengers not headed to the airport weren’t allowed on it. I offered to buy a ticket till the airport, and was allowed on. The conductor said I best get off at the next stop (Marathahalli bridge) given where I was headed. He charged me Rs. 16.

So at every step I got closer and closer to civilisation. Kundalahalli Gate was civilisation compared to Varthur Main Road. Marathahalli was civilisation compared to Kundalahalli Gate. Another illegal bus there dropped me to Domlur (Rs. 20), and under normal circumstances that should count as “proper civilisation”. Except that the design of the Domlur flyover means that it’s rather desolate and dark and unwalkable under it. So I needed to reach the next stage of civilisation, which I did when yet another illegal bus dropped me to Richmond Circle (the driver demanded Rs. 15, but I gave only Rs. 10 since I didn’t have change).

At all stages, I continuously tried to get cabs and autos, but perhaps due to tomorrow’s state elections, none materialised. Most of the time I was on one road (Old Airport Road), and most sections of it are rather badly lit and seem unsafe and “rural”. This was a journey I would have never done if I had been with family.

And the mode of transport was bimodal – three of the five buses I took to reach home were “illegal”. Two others were the most expensive Volvos. The last leg of the journey was completed on yet another airport Volvo, where the conductor made no fuss of letting people in, and not only gave me change for Rs. 100 (ticket cost Rs. 37), but also gave me 5 100 rupee notes for a 500 rupee note I handed him.

The entire journey, from the time I started hailing the cab to when I opened my door, took exactly three hours. A cab would have cost me upwards of Rs. 500, but my bimodal transport cost me Rs. 105. Frankly I would’ve been more than happy to spend the former amount for the pleasure of getting home an hour and half earlier, and being able to do something productive on the ride home.

But then it’s not often that an NRI has an adventure such as this!

NRI Diaries: Volume 2, Number 2

I’m writing this while chomping on a bar of Amul Colombia Classique Black Single Origin Dark Chocolate. You read that right. Amul now produces single origin dark chocolate (55%) using chocolate from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela (!!!).

It was only six months back that I first came across the concept of single origin dark chocolate, when a (then) colleague in London offered me some Haitian dark chocolate he had bought at Waitrose. I had been bloody impressed, and fallen in love with this brand of chocolate then, but now I’m reminded of what my father used to say – that there’s nothing that is not available in Bangalore “nowadays” (to put that “nowadays” in context, he died in 2007).

The said bar of chocolate was purchased at Namdhari Fresh, which I visited with the express purpose of checking out what exotic foods are available in Bangalore nowadays (and Namdhari is hardly the place where you get the most exotic stuff in Bangalore nowadays – it just happens to be within walking distance of my house).

And now I see that several kinds of cheeses are available here – apart from the “usual” Cheddar and Mozzarella, you get Feta and Halloumi as well. Well, Feta we used to get back in 2016 as well, though not always (which prompted an entire chapter in my book), but this is the first time I’m finding Halloumi in Bangalore. It’s expensive, though – INR 640 for a 150 gram block (if I remember correctly). To compare, a 250 gram block of Halloumi costs GBP 2.25 (~INR 200) in London.

On my long walk to “flowth block” today, I felt like an NRI. I felt like someone who’s visiting India from abroad, and who is very impressed with the “energy” and growth. A couple of my old favourite restaurants had shut down, I saw (La Casa and Gramina Thindi, for those who want to know), but there were also loads (and loads) of small cutesy places that had opened up. There is plenty of construction activity, and plenty of investment in the city. Some of the investment will surely go under, but a lot of it will produce outsized returns. In a way, compared to when I left last year, based on very tiny anec-data, it seems like risk-taking ability of people in Jayanagar has gone up.

Another piece of evidence of the vibrancy of India is in the mobile internet space – I was telling a friend I met today that before I moved last year, I had a package that provided me with 3GB of data per month. The pay as you go plan that I use now offers me 2GB of data PER DAY! And I pay a fifth of what I used to pay in 2016.

And this has set off another wave of entrepreneurship, since this has resulted in a massive spike in the amount of video consumption (the friend I was talking to today quoted some impressive numbers in terms of this growth).

Earlier in the day, I took my wife’s old scooter to move all round town for a series of meetings. Based on anec-data (once again), traffic actually seems to have better, at least in parts of old Bangalore that are now served by the metro.

I might have a different opinion of Bangalore’s traffic tomorrow, though, since I’m headed to Whitefield (not taking the scooter there, though).

The Government Should Regulate Cooks

I wrote this for Pragati Express. Reposting it here since my general readers might find it interesting as well. This follows from my old blog post that bathrooms should be banned

Yet another wedding, yet another truckload of wasted food. If, in reality TV show style, we were to try to identify the “root cause” in this instance, it was the cook (or the team of cooks, rather). Each of the seven respondents this correspondent surveyed expressed their displeasure at the quality of the food. One even called it her “worst ever Indian wedding dinner”.

This wedding was only one isolated instance – it is all too common an occurrence in these parts for copious amounts of food to be wasted all because of a cook who ended up cooking badly. And it is all the fault of the cooks, most of whom have never gone to culinary school (we don’t have too many of those in India), and many of whom haven’t gone to school either.

When thousands of people in India die of hunger everyday, and farmers continue to kill themselves in Vidarbha(and elsewhere), this wastage of food is indeed criminal. It comes at a high human cost. And that it comes out of sheer incompetence of unregulated cooks makes it indeed tragic.

There is only one solution to this – the government should regulate cooks. Not just wedding cooks – since wastage of food at weddings and other parties are only part of the problem – the government should regulate anyone who wants to cook. The other day my daughter refused to eat an idli. We decided to salvage our karma by feeding it (the idli) to the neighbourhood street dog, who took one bite and promptly ran away.

Whether you want to make yourself a 2-minute Maggi, or Shantavva in Santemarahalli wants to make a ragi ball, or chef Madhu Menon (hope he doesn’t edit this bit out) wants to make bloggers’ b***, you should need a licence from the government, which certifies that you are a cook of a high enough quality that what you cook will not go waste.

That’s the only way we can save millions of our population from hunger. There is already enough wastage of food because farmers cannot coordinate on what to grow, and because of inefficiencies in the food supply chain, and because of the way agricultural markets are regulated. We don’t want badly cooked food to add to the wastage. And the only way to ensure that is by having the government regulate cooks.

PS: As Ravikiran Rao, a former editor of the former avatar of this publication, likes to put it, “#thatzwhy we need strong regulation

PS2: Some readers might be advised to consume irony supplements along with this article