Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Five-star nonsense

Last week I had to attend a work-related presentation at a five-star hotel.  This particular hotel has a grand name and a cramped lobby with a ceiling that might make the average basketball player sue it for damage to the top of his head. The lobby has a rather strange seating arrangement – four chairs sit at four corners of a rug that has a soleful look about it. (Soleful is not to be confused with ‘soulful’ and it means ‘something that has been trampled on by many soles’. No, ‘The stampede was a soleful sight’ is not correct usage and is in fact rather cruel and only the electronic media is allowed it.) The four lonely chairs seemed to be the hotel’s way of telling you not very subtly, ‘Sit here you freeloader and move onto the coffee shop when the person you are meeting arrives’. Well, these are difficult times and the recession might have receded here in shining India but not in the developed world where most of these starred hotels have their headquarters (defined as a place where ‘business heads count and cling onto every quarter’).

I was early for the presentation. I am a punctual kind of chap; when there’s free food and booze involved I prefer to start early. But the client was late because the grand hotel is near Mumbai’s international airport – a place where people spend two hours or more to reach, fighting their way through bad roads and crazy traffic so that they can reach three hours early for an aeroplane journey that sometimes lasts for a couple of hours.

But back to the hotel - Sitting there on my solitary chair I had nothing else to do but to observe the events happening in that microcosm of the world (defined as ‘a cramped place where people of various nationalities are forced to spend time waiting for someone to buy them a coffee at the cost of an airline ticket’). I decided to begin my observation by looking outside. No, I didn’t get up from my chair, lonely or not, at my age sitting on one beats standing on the old legs any day. For a while I admired the ramrod-straight back of the durban (Hindi word for ‘man who opens doors and wears a turban. Do not confuse with the city in South Africa with the same spelling), and also the valets, who are strange kind of spirits that appear magically when you drive into a hotel lobby and disappear magically when you want to hand them the ticket to get your car back. But I tired of the game soon enough. I could have continued staring outside - there is nothing to beat ‘Count the number of white versus black cars’ game while sitting in a five-star lobby but I only play it when the lobby has comfortable sofas and there is no danger of falling off when you begin dozing. Once I had shifted my gaze inwards, realization dawned up on me – I wasn’t alone. There were many soles trampling the rug and resting their weary feet by taking refuge in the chairs. A lady of advanced and indeterminate age hailing from that large and rich place called the Middle East (which is really the Middle West if you are in India but entire cultures have crumbled in the face of the American onslaught and in comparison, geographical accuracy is a minor casualty). The lady had a couple of large plastic bags which is understandable if you are a tourist– Indian culture is not without its influences and the lady must have succumbed to the uniquely Indian habit of carrying stuff around in plastic bags. Riddle:  Q. How do you recognise an Indian tourist abroad? A. By the plastic bag he/she is carrying. The stuff we carry in them when abroad ranges from water bottles, boxes with goodies from home, napkins, ketchup and other sachets picked up from flights, hotels and restaurants and clothes washed just before checking out from the hotel.

The Middle-Eastern lady reached deep into one of the bags and extricated a pair of sneakers from it. Obviously, she had been shopping. Or to Siddhivinayak Temple. She smiled at the sneakers and proceeded to try one. Her smile turned into a grin. Unable to bear so much happiness in one sole, I shifted my gaze to a bunch of Far Eastern gentlemen who debated loudly about – how am I supposed to know, they were talking in Far Eastern. And suddenly, out of nowhere, Santa Claus emerged wearing a silk sari and with two attendants in tow. She proceeded to the large Christmas tree strategically placed to hide a tear in the wallpaper and placed the gift boxes in her arms at its base. Her attendants followed suit. Her task done she turned around to face me and the light shone off her brass name tag and my apologies her name wasn’t Santa but the more Indian, Shanta. I wondered if I were to pick up a box would I find sneakers that fit me. But after a while I tired of this game too. The activity in the microcosm had became repetitive. The valets appeared and disappeared. Bell hops hopped. The front office girls parted their lips, showed their teeth and shut them, the chairs didn’t move a butt, sorry, a bit.

I decided to explore the men’s cloakroom (called rest room in four-star, bathroom in three-star, toilet in two-star, loo in one-star and raised little finger in no-star hotels). Now these five-star cloaks (that’s the fashionable abbreviation and not SMS lingo), are wonderful places and I have spent many a happy hour in them trying to figure out how to make the faucet work or where the flush lever is. No, there is never a plastic mug or a jet spray in these places so don’t even bother looking for one. I ambled gently towards the cloak, a smile of anticipation on my parched lips (unlike humbler places they don’t offer you free water here. In fact, most take it as a personal affront if you say no to bottled water and show faith in their in-house water purifier). I had visions of doing my business, washing my hands with fine perfumed liquid soap, splashing some water on my face, wiping both with three tiny napkins held out by a man wearing a uniform made from the same material as the napkins and after wiping, indulging in the act of dropping them into a wicker basket unmindful of the laundry bill. That, and having my shoes shined by an automatic shoe-shine machine free of charge. But I was in for a surprise. The grand hotel had outdone itself. There were TV screens inside. Mini ones, embedded in the wall above every alternate urinal and tuned into CNN! And they were showing the live telecast of the Nobel Prize Ceremony where ninety per cent of the screen time was spent on showing an empty chair where Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner from China was supposed to sit. (I am tempted to make a corny comment about my being pissed off about his absence but in the larger interest of Indo-Chinese relations, I will desist.)

I cursed myself for sitting outside for so long, wasting my time watching occupied chairs and trying to convince myself that like the great Somerset Maugham I was sitting in a hotel (he sat in the bar the lucky…), I was observing the world with a cynic’s eye. Damn! Never again shall I be tempted by solitary chair or cushy couch or Shanta Claus. This is where I will head to in the future – for entertainment and to take home a napkin as a memento. Who knows, they might soon have iPads in here and I will be able to read my blog - what better place, eh?!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

One story, two books and an award.

Every year since 2005, Penguin India publishes an anthology called ‘First Proof – The Penguin Book of New Writing’. The book comprises fiction, non-fiction and poetry by first-time writers, established writers writing in a new genre and translations from Indian languages. This year’s book was published in November 2010 and this is how the cover looks.

Northshire, a book store in Vermont, USA, is one of the few surviving independent book stores in the US and it held a contest earlier this year called ‘2010 Shires Press Short Story Contest’. The winners of the contest were declared a couple of months ago and a book containing the award-winning story and nine short-listed ones was released on December 8 in Vermont. This is how this book’s cover looks.

The two books have one story in common – ‘Aaba and Other Mysteries’ written by me.

Now for the award part. ‘Aaba’ is not only in the Shires book but it also won the top prize in the contest.

‘Aaba and Other Mysteries’ features in the fiction section of ‘First Proof’ and is a thinly disguised memoir; the story is set in the seventies and early eighties and told from a boy’s perspective as he grew up in the textile mill area of Mumbai.

Here's a short review of 'First Proof' from The Times of India:

‘First Proof’ was out in November but for reasons beyond the control of Penguin India, it is taking its time reaching book stores around the country. The last I checked it hadn’t reached Landmark, Crossword and Strand in Mumbai. A dear friend of mine stumbled upon two copies at the Crossword store at Bangalore airport and picked them up for me. I ordered mine on www.flipkart.com last Monday and they delivered them in 48 hours flat. If you want to buy a copy of the ‘First Proof’ I recommend www.flipkart.com – it also offers a discount of Rs.47 on the printed price. Click here if you would like to buy one.

I would love to send soft copies of the story to whoever cares but honestly I would rather not. Apart from my story ‘First Proof’ has many others and they are all exceptional in their own ways. ‘First Proof’ costs Rs. 250 (Rs. 203 on flipkart). That’s cheaper than the price of weekend ticket at most multiplexes. And unlike a movie it will last much longer than 2 hours and can be enjoyed by more than one person or many times over by the same person until the book falls apart. Or the person, whatever comes first.

Those in the USA can buy the book online from the Northshire site by clicking here - It costs a little more over there - $9.95. I don’t know if that’s a bargain, reasonable or expensive; I don’t know the price of a multiplex ticket in that country.

Happy reading.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Another (M)ad Piece

I make a living by writing for advertising and design. This gives me valuable insights into the workings of these industries. Yes, they are industries and not exotic places where long-haired men wearing earrings hang out with short-haired women wearing navel-rings and both use phrases like, ‘out of the box’, ‘creative’, ‘disruptive’, ‘big idea’ and ‘pass me the joint b* because I paid for it’. Though I must admit I chose this profession because like most people I believed that these exotic places and characters really existed. I was sadly disappointed of course. However I have to confess that I do use the phrase, ‘out of the box’ when I am asked, “Where do you live?” and I answer, “Like all residents of Mumbai I live in a box and I look forward to holidays when I can live out of the box”. For some reason people find this funny and they compliment me on my sense of humour.

In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that most people in Mumbai get up in the morning and rush to work only to they can escape the narrow confines they call home and reach the wide open and brightly lit air-conditioned spaces of their offices. That is also the reason why the average Mumbaikar reports to work even on the day after a bomb blast, riots and on December 6, when all the followers of Dr. Ambedkar in the whole world descend on the city to observe his death anniversary.

Baby Ambedkar follower: Dad, where are we going?
Daddy Ambedkar follower: Mumbai.
BAF: Why daddy?
DAF: Because the travel, accommodation and food are free.
MomAF: Don’t teach the kid wrong things! Baby, we are going to observe our dear Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary.
BAF: If we all do that, will it bring him back, Ma?

All that is set to change of course. No, not the hordes of mourning FAFs (Families of Ambedkar Followers), but the matchbox sizes of Mumbai apartments. Come on, don’t tell me you haven’t seen all those ads for residential buildings with apartments big enough to accommodate a dozen FAFs and each with an attached swimming pool since they all need to take a bath very badly.

But where did this piece start? Ah yes, advertising and design. To go back to the originally planned subject – insights into advertising and design – and the totally fictitious story behind the advertising campaign that has taken the whole country by cyclone. Yeah, the correct word would be ‘storm’ and not ‘cyclone’ but the first time I saw this particular ad campaign it was in the form of a cyclone cleaning up the home page of The Times of India online edition and settling down to form the shape of the new symbol of India’s largest cellular service provider.

(Needless to say, this is not the only ad or ad campaign I have an opinion on. I have one on every ad, just like Gavaskar has one on every ball that is bowled and every ball that is hit or not hit and every run that is taken or not taken and whether the bat was grounded and why the umpire didn’t refer to the third umpire and etc. Or even Sanjay Manjrekar for that matter who went to the same school as I did but I sat in the classroom and attended lectures and he went to the playground and played cricket and look where he is reached and if you have a kid send him to the ground because there is more money and fame in playing cricket, why even just talking about it – look at that MBA bloke called Harsha. Yes, life can be Harsha even if you have an MBA.)

The alert reader, defined as the one who keeps on reading my posts in the hope that someday there will be something worthwhile to read, must have realized which logo design and ad campaign I am referring to.  So here’s a malicious (defined as ‘delicious food made by ma’), and fictitious (defined as ‘all other food not made by ma and hence not delicious’), look at what transpired behind the scenes or, my version of the Radia (defined as ‘random stuff that gets leaked to the media’), tapes:

Tape 1
Design Firm Rep: I have just got out of the client meeting!
Design Firm Boss: Good news or Bad?
DFR: Bad! They chose the lousy logo design we had created to help us sell the good one!
DFB: That’s good news you moron!
DFR: How?
DFB: Because they have bought a logo design and now we can collect the full and final payment and both of us can collect our bonus!
DFR: I have so much to learn from you, Boss.

Tape 2
Ad Firm Rep: We have got the business boss.
Ad Firm Boss: Great now let’s change everything.
AFR: Why? They are doing great. They are number one. They are growing. They are going places, like to Africa.
AFB: Because, if they changed their ad agency, they did it because they hated all the advertising they have done so far – advertising that had been created by the earlier agency! How else do we justify our creative fees or plan our bonus, dude?
AFR: I have so much to learn from you, Boss.

Tape 3
AFR: I have a terrific insight into our newly acquired brand! So let’s brain-cyclone.
Junior AFR: What’s the insight?
AFR: Yesterday the client was chatting about their new logo! I asked, ‘So what is it called?’ And guess what, they had no clue!
AFR: So dude, we’ve shot the expensive commercials in exotic locations, used celebrities left, right and centre, taken all online and offline media by cyclone… basically used up every trick in the book. So where do we get our next set of revenues and bonus from?
JAFR: Where?
AFR: From a contest – We have a logo. It doesn’t have a name. Give it a name and win big prizes. Splashed across all online and offline media of course.
JAFR: I have so much to learn from you, Boss.

Sorry, I have to stop this piece now; a high court official is at the door and I have to hand over the tapes to him. And there is work to be done of course – my boss just called to say I have to write my next ad campaign. He is a great guy, my boss, there is so much to learn from him.