We’ll miss sushi

One food item that my daughter and I will really miss when we move back to India is sushi. It is not that it is not available in Bangalore – restaurants such as Matsuri and Harima make excellent quality sushi, just that the transaction cost of procuring it will be far higher.

I grew up vegetarian, and didn’t eat meat until I was twenty eight. The decision to try meat was ad hoc – at a restaurant in Monastiraki square in Athens, the meat looked fantastic and the vegetables looked sad. And I decided that if I were losing my religion, I would lose it all the way and started my meat-eating career by eating beef souvlaki.

It wasn’t until a year later that I tasted fish, though – from childhood the smell of fish had put me off. As it happened, I first ate fish at a restaurant in Karwar, en route to Goa. Then, a consulting project in Mumbai happened, with a fish-loving client who took me to the best fish restaurants in that city (sometime during this time, I discovered I’m allergic to prawns).

It would take another year or two before I would have raw fish, though, in the form of sushi and sashimi. The first time was a trip to Matsuri, where my wife was treating me. I quickly grew fond of it, and would have a Japanese meal (at either Harima or Matsuri) at least once in six months (these are easily the best and most authentic Japanese restaurants in Bangalore. Edo is good but overpriced).

My love for sushi really took off during the three months I spent in Barcelona in 2016. That city has loads of sushi shops (it helped we were living in a dense district), mostly run by Korean immigrants. it is not too expensive either, which meant I would have it once a week at least (I might have eaten more often, but the wife was pregnant then, and hence off raw fish).

London doesn’t have the same density of sushi shops as Barcelona, but there are some chains that make pretty good sushi (Wasabi and Itsu, though I prefer the latter). Like other things London, it is not cheap, but we end up eating it reasonably often (it helps that the daughter loves sushi as well, though she only eats salmon nigiri – which also happens to be my favourite kind of sushi).

While craving sushi and planning a sushi run for dinner earlier this evening (finally we ended up eating at a Korean restaurant), it hit me that I won’t be able to have sushi so regularly in Bangalore. I started wondering what it would take for the likes of Freshmenu to be offering sushi on their menu. And I remembered a chapter in my book on specialty food.

The problem with low demand products is that the volatility of demand is high relative to the average demand. This means that for a retailer to stock items with low demand, either the margin needs to be high, or the inventory levels will be so low that customers might be disappointed rather often – neither of which is sustainable.

Making matters worse is the fact that fresh fish is an integral part of sushi, and it has an incredibly short shelf life. So unless demand can be aggregated to a high level (which Harima and Matsuri do, by being located in the middle of town and especially catering to the Japanese population in the city. In fact, I’m told the Chancery (where Matsuri is located) is the hotel of choice for Japanese visitors to Bangalore), it is not feasible to run a sushi restaurant in Bangalore.

Oh, and in the same chapter in the book, I discuss why people like to live with other people like themselves – others demanding the same thing you demand is the only way you can ensure that there is supply to meet your demand.

Information Technology and Large Cities

In my book Between the buyer and the seller, officially released exactly a year ago, I have a chapter on cities. In that I explain why industry clusters form, and certain cities or regions become hubs for certain types of industries.

In that, I spoke about the software industry in California’s Silicon Valley, and in Bangalore. I also mentioned how the Industrial Revolution wasn’t evenly distributed around England, and how it was clustered around textile hubs such as Birmingham and Manchester. I also used that chapter to talk about the problem with government-mandated special economic zones (this podcast with Amit Varma can help you understand the last point).

Back when Silicon Valley was still silicon valley (basically a semiconductor and hardware hub), it wasn’t as concentrated a hub as it is today. It was still fairly common for semiconductor companies to base themselves away from the valley. With the “new silicon valley” and the tech startup scene, though, there is no escaping the valley. It is almost an unwritten rule in US Tech startup circles that if you want to be successful with a tech startup, you better be in the valley.

And this is for good reason, as I explain in the book – Silicon Valley is where the ecosystem for successfully running a tech startup already exists, including access to skilled employees, subcontractors and investors, not to speak of a captive market. This, however, has meant that Silicon Valley is now overcrowded in many respects, with rents being sky high (reflected in high salaries), freeways jammed and other infrastructure under stress.

In fact, it is not just the silicon valley that has got crushed under the weight of being a tech hub – other “secondary hubs” such as Seattle (which also have a few tech majors, and where startups put off by the cost of the valley set up) are seeing their quality of life go down. The traffic and infrastructure woes in Bangalore are also rather similar.

So why is it that information technology has led to hubs that are much larger than historical hubs (based on other industries)? The simple answer lies in investment, or the lack of it.

Setting up an information technology company is “cheap” in terms of the investment in capital expenditure. No land needs to be bought, no plants need to be constructed and no machinery needs to be bought. All one needs is an office space (for which rent is paid monthly), and a set of employees (who again get paid a monthly salary). Even IT infrastructure (such as computing power and storage and communication) can be leased, and paid for periodically.

This implies that there is nothing that stops a startup company from locating itself in one of the existing hubs. This way, the company can avail all the benefits of being in the hub (supplier and customer infrastructure, employee pool, quality of life for employees and investors) without a high upfront cost.

Contrast this to “hard” industries that require manufacturing, where the benefits of being located in hubs is similar but the costs are far higher. As a hub develops, land gets expensive, which puts off further investors from locating themselves in the hub. This puts a natural limit on the size of the hubs, and if you think about it, large cities from earlier era were all “multi-purpose cities”, serving as hubs for several unrelated industries.

With information technology, though, the only impediment to the growth of a hub is the decreasing quality of life, information regarding which gets transmitted in indirect means such as higher rentals and commute times, and poor health. This indirect transmission of costs to investors results in friction, which means information technology hubs will grow larger before they stop growing. And as they go through this process, the quality of life of the hub’s residents suffers!

NRI Diaries: Volume 2, Number 1

We were welcomed with the mildly warm mildly humid air of Bangalore as we walked out of the airport early this morning. It was that nice kind of humidity, that makes you feel good without breaking a sweat.

The exit from the airport had been rather smooth, except for a bit of a wait at the baggage carousel. Passport control, which had taken 30 mins during our December visit, took 3. No questions asked anywhere.

The airport taxis seemed rather disorganised, though, with random (non-licensed) taxis standing in the same rank as the licenced taxis, and drivers shouting to attract customers. This is a departure from the usual practice at Bangalore airport where the taxi rank is rather well organised!

First order of business after landing at the in-laws’ house in Rajajinagar was to go for breakfast, which was at CTR. The driver of the first auto rickshaw we sat in insisted on filling up gas before he dropped us. So we jumped out and let him have his gas instead.

The vaDe at CTR was average. The masaldose was good but not great. Based on recent samples, I’m once again in the Vidyarthi Bhavan camp in the great north-south dose battle. The dose there during my last visit in December had been brilliant. I’m going there again next week.

I had a work meeting in the afternoon. Over the last year or so in London I’ve consistently eschewed the big chains in favour of the numerous independent hipster cafes the city is littered with. Suddenly, here I was at a loss in terms of meeting venues – not finding anything beyond the chains in the area of town I’d to go to. I finally picked Coffee Day Square at the Tiffany’s junction, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Then, for the first time this season, I’m getting to watch the IPL live. Living in the UK, where cable TV subscriptions are not a thing, I’ve hardly watched live sport. I occasionally buy day passes on Sky TV to watch football, but taking a specific subscription just to watch IPL doesn’t seem worth it.

And as it happens, my in-laws have only once channel that shows live IPL – Star Suvarna Plus, with the channel’s specialty being Kannada commentary! While it’s pleasant to hear fresh voices describe the cricket, somehow it feels weird listening to Vijay Bharadwaj and B Akhil talk about the game. And I didn’t feel this way when listening to Kannada commentary of Ranji trophy matches on radio in the early 1990s. As I write this, I’m watching on mute.

Oh, and I’m still yet to adjust to the time zone change. At 3:30 this afternoon I was wondering why the IPL game hadn’t yet begun, and while writing this at 8:30 I’m wondering why the Guardian hasn’t started its MBM on the Atletico-Arsenal game yet!

Finally maybe it’s because it was a shorter gap between India visits this time (4 months), but I feel less like an NRI. I’m not too fazed by the heat, and most of the day has felt “rather normal”. Maybe I’m getting used to being an NRI!

NRI Diaries: Day 3

The longer I’m here, the less I feel like an NRI and the more I go back to my earlier resident self. You can expect this series to dry out in a few days.

So Saturday started with a reversion of jetlag – I woke up at noon, at my in-laws’ place. One awesome breakfast/lunch/brunch (call it what you want – I ate breakfast stuff at 12:30 pm), it was time to get back home since I had some work at some banks around here.

I decided to take the metro. The wife dropped me by scooter to the Rajajinagar Metro Station. The ticket to South End Circle cost Rs. 30. The lady behind the counter didn’t crib when I gave her Rs. 100, and gave change.

Having used the metro as my primary mode of transport in London for the last nine months, I’m entitled to some pertinent observations:

  • Trains seemed very infrequent. When I went up to the platform, the next train was 8 minutes away. And there was already a crowd building up on the platform
  • Like in London, the platform has a yellow line and passengers are asked to wait behind that. But unlike in London, the moment you go near the yellow line, a guard whistles and asks you to get back. I’m reminded of Ravikiran Rao’s tweetstorm on Jewish walls.
  • For a Saturday afternoon, the train was extremely crowded.
  • My skills from an earlier life of expertly standing and grabbing a seat in a BMTC bus were of no use here, since other passengers also seemed to have that skill
  • My skills from the last few months in knowing where to stand comfortably in a crowded train were put to good use, though. I managed to read comfortably through my journey
  • It took 20 mins to get to South End. Another 10 mins walk home. Not sure this is quicker than taking a cab for the same journey

Afternoon was spent running around banks updating mobile number and Aadhaar. It was all peaceful, except for Punjab National Bank asking for a physical copy of my Aadhaar (which quite defeats the purpose! HDFC told me to update Aadhaar online. ICICI did it through ATM!).

In the evening I let go of some more vestiges of my NRI-ness. I got the water filter at home cleaned and started drinking filtered tap water. And then I went and had chaat at a street gaaDi. I promptly got “spicy burps”. I guess it was the masala powder he added.

I quickly made amends by going to my favourite jilebi stall and belting jilebi.

Then I went to meet fellow-NRI Paddy-the-Pradeep for coffee at Maiya’s in Jayanagar. We ordered bottled water, discussed first world economics and made jokes about NRIs carrying around bottled water. And then we walked out carrying the leftover bottled water as a NRI badge.

On my way home, I went to a nearby bakery and got plain cake, nippaTT and Congress.

All is well.

NRI Diaries: Day 2

NRI Diaries: Day 1

NRI Diaries: Day 2

I know this is a day late, but the reasons for that will be apparent by the end of the post.

Day Two (15th December) started with waking up at 9 am – jetlag had clearly not worn off. I was going to be late for my 10:30 meeting and started getting ready in a hurry only to see a text from the person I was meeting that he was late as well.

Once again I took an auto rickshaw for breakfast. Meter showed Rs. 35. I handed a Rs. 100 note. Driver said “no change”, and didn’t seem to mind when I told him that I’ll get change from the restaurant I planned to eat at and that he should wait. I bought coupons for my food, and brought back Rs. 50 for the auto guy, and he promptly gave me the change.

The meeting in question was on the other side of Silk Board, and I was dreading the commute. Surprisingly, the commute was rather smooth, taking less than 20 minutes from Jayanagar 4th T Block to HSR Layout. Along the way I got to hear the driver’s life story as he was constantly on the phone with a friend of his.

Traffic was worse on the way back from the meeting (started from HSR around 1230 pm). Took nearly an hour to get home (Jayanagar 3rd Block). And along the way I saw this:

I honestly miss this kind of stuff back in the UK, where I find people taking “data science” too seriously (another post on that sometime in the future).

Lunch was swiggied. Main course came from Gramina Thindi, It’s a tiny restaurant and doesn’t have a computer, so it’s not integrated into Swiggy’s ordering system. So swiggy actually sent a guy to the restaurant to place my order, and he waited there while it was being prepared and then brought it home to me.

I totally didn’t mind the Rs. 35 “delivery fee” they charged on top of my Rs. 55 lunch.

Dessert was from Corner House. Cake Fudge was as excellent as usual. Made a mental note to introduce this delicacy to the daughter before this trip is up.

And then it was time to go launch my book. Sales of the book are not exclusive to Amazon any more – it’s also available at Higginbothams on M G Road, which is where the book launch happened.

The launch was at this nice outdoor backyard of the store. I spoke to Pavan Srinath about some of the concepts I’ve described in the book. After that I signed copies, trying hard to get a wisecrack for everyone I signed for. I mostly failed.

The highlight of the launch was this guy zipping across the venue right behind me on a scooter, and then loudly honking. He was followed by another guy on a bike.

After the launch function was over, the wife and I decided to head to Mahesh Lunch Home for dinner. We took an auto. The guy at MG Road demanded Rs. 80 (ordinarily an exorbitant amount) to take us to Richmond Circle. We instantly agreed and got in.

He may have had some sense of seller’s remorse after that – in that he probably priced himself too low. So he drove slowly and, as we got to Richmond Circle, he said it would cost us a further Rs. 20 to take us across the road to Mahesh. We paid up again.

Something’s seriously wrong with Uber in Bangalore it seems. Out of six times I’ve tried using the service, I’ve got a cab within 5 minutes on only one occasion. On a few occasions, it’s been upwards of 10 minutes. And when the app showed that the nearest Uber was 20 mins away, we simply decided to take an auto rickshaw.

Except that we’d not bargained for drivers refusing outright to take us to Rajajinagar. One guy agreed and after we got in, asked for Rs. 300. This time, with our stomachs full, we were less charitable and walked out. Some walking and more waiting later, we were on our way to Rajajinagar, where I spent the night.

Oh, and it appears that the daughter has been afflicted by NRI-itis as well. She bears a red mark on her cheek following a mosquito bite.

NRI Diaries: Day 1

So I arrived in Bangalore this morning, after nine months in London. This makes this my first visit to India as a “Non Resident Indian” (NRI), and since foreign papers quite like getting opinions of India from NRI observers, I thought it makes sense to document my pertinent observations. I should mention upfront, though, that nobody is paying me for these observations.

The day began after a very short night’s sleep (we went to bed at 11 pm British Time and woke up at 7:30 AM India Time, a total of three hours) with a visit to one of our favourite breakfast establishments in Bangalore – Mahalakshmi Tiffin Room.

It was the daughter’s first ever auto rickshaw ride (back when we lived here we had a car and she was really tiny, so didn’t need to take her in an auto). She seemed rather nonchalant about it, occasionally turning her head to look outside. The auto ride cost us Rs 30. We gave Rs 100 and the driver asked us if we didn’t have change. Living outside makes you unlearn the art of change management.

We got our usual table at MLTR and were greeted by a rather usual waiter plonking three glasses of water on our table. We politely declined and requested for Bisleri.

After breakfast, it was time to get connected. I went to a medical shop near my home which I knew offers mobile phone top up services. Topping up the wife’s phone was rather straightforward, though it took some time given the crowd. During my fifteen minutes at the medical shop, at least six people came requesting for mobile phone top ups. Only two came asking for medicines. India seems to be getting healthier and wealthier.

Airtel decided to reassign my number to someone else so I needed a new SIM. I asked the medical shop guy for a Reliance Jio SIM. He spent ten minutes trying to log in to his Jio vendor app, and I gave up and took my business elsewhere. This elsewhere was a really tiny hole in the wall shop, which had a fingerprint reader that enabled the issue of a Jio SIM against Aadhaar authentication. The process was a breeze, except that I consider it weird that my mobile number starts with a 6 (the number I lost was a 9845- series Airtel).

Waiting at the hole-in-the-wall also made me realise that standing at shopfronts is not common practice in London. Thanks to high labour costs, most shops there are “self-service”. It’s also seldom that several people land up at one shopfront in London at the same time!

Losing my old number also meant I had to update the number with banks. I started with State Bank of India. The process was rather simple – took no more than 2 minutes. While at it, I asked about Aadhaar linking of my bank account there. There seems to be some confusion about it.

For example, I heard that if you have multiple accounts with the bank, you should only link one of them with Aadhaar – which defeats the purpose of the exercise, if one exists! Then, joint accounts need only one Aadhaar number to be linked. The linking process also differs based on who you ask. In any case, I encountered one rather helpful officer who completed my Aadhaar linking in a jiffy.

Then, my book is launching tomorrow which means I needed to buy new clothes. I landed up at FabIndia, and as is the practice in forin, I kept saying “hi” and “thank you” to the salespeople, who kept muttering “you’re welcome, sir”. While at it, the missus discovered that FabIndia now has rather explicit sales targets per store, which possibly explains why the salespeople there were more hands on compared to earlier.

Later in the evening, I got a haircut and a head massage. The last time I visited this salon, it was called “noble” (a rather common name for haircutting shops in Bangalore. Like Ganesh Fruit Juice Centres). Now it’s called “nice cuts”. The head massage was fantastic – I miss this kind of service back in the UK. I also borrowed the inlaws’ car and drove it around and even managed to parallel park it – nine months of no driving has done no harm to my driving skills.

Hopefully I’ll have more observations tomorrow.

Kadlekai Parshe

This afternoon I visited the Kadlekai Parshe (groundnut fair) with the in-laws. It was the second time I was visiting the fair, and the first time during daylight (the last time was in 2011, with the wife, and I remember getting incredibly pained with the vuvuzelas all kids seemed to be blowing then). Some pertinent observations:

  1. Considering that it was a groundnut fair, an activity that all visitors could be expected to indulge in would be to buy groundnuts and eat them as they walked through the fair. Eating groundnuts has the externality of skins, and there weren’t enough dustbins to effectively dispose of the skins.
  2. As you might expect in a fair where you have a large number of shops selling pretty much the same goods, prices were largely the same. A litre of raw groundnuts (yes, that’s how whole groundnuts are measured and sold in Bangalore) cost Rs. 25 in most roadside shops, while a litre of roasted groundnuts cost Rs. 30.
  3. We ended up buying groundnuts from several shops, and the quality varied widely, though the price didn’t. Some had too many “buDDes” (groundnuts with underdeveloped nuts), some were not roasted well enough, some were roasted too much and so on. Yet, price didn’t vary by much. This is puzzling since it was possible to sample a couple of groundnuts before making the decision to buy.
  4. There were a lot of people and most of the road space was taken up by pedestrians. Yet, there were vehicles plying (well at a slower rate), leading to traffic jams all around. A better solution might have been to turn the stretch of Bull Temple Road between haLLi mane and Kamat Bugle Rock pedestrian only. Would’ve ensured greater safety and possibly faster traffic flows on alternate routes.
  5. In terms of food, there was a large number of chaat carts, carts selling slices of a kind of thick (15 inches diameter) edible root, carts selling potato chips (which looked quite good and reminded me of Prague where I remember buying similar chips at St. Wenceslas’s Square), etc. Being noon, none of them seemed to be doing much business. Hopefully they’d’ve had better luck in the evening
  6. Stalls were licensed, as I happened to see a license number on a “stall” (basically groundnuts heaped on the ground) selling groundnuts. This is a good move. We need full time licensing of city food carts.
  7. The entire stretch of BP Wadia Road bewteen Bugle Rock Park and BMS College for Women was occupied by Lambani tribespeople selling plaster of paris figurines. Again, around noon, not much business, but enough attention to block traffic on that road.
  8. There was a massive crowd going into the Big Ganesha and Big Bull temples. We steered clear and stuck to the peanuts.
  9. There were a few people with DSLRs clicking away (I was one of those on my last visit). No groups though.

It seems like a fairly fun event. With better management (traffic, dustbins) it can be even better.