Friday, March 28, 2008

My Best Haircut Ever

Today I had my best haircut ever. I go to a saloon called 'Air-Cool' next to Churchgate railway station, south Bombay. In my life up till now, this is my third regular saloon. My last saloon was Precious Hairdressers at Kemp's Corner. But for the past two to three years I have been frequenting Air-Cool. Precious was good, not great. Barbers were inconsistent and they were not particularly clean and well-dressed. The place was, at many time and especially on Sundays, over-crowded. Sometimes, I had to wait till eternity for my chance to come. Barbers there used to take far too many tea breaks, they chat with one another even when cutting our hair as also keep sipping tea. The place is expensively done up, but gives you the feeling that it wants to look rich, but really isn't quite rich. I like to go to saloons that are well-maintained and the service should be nice, warm, friendly and the place should look clean and inviting, despite being a barber shop. Precious was expensive, but not classy.

Air-Cool, on the other hand, is a cut above the rest. The place resembles like a factory line; two long rows of customers seated in chairs and barbers clipping away their scissors like in a perfectly choreographed motion, without looking here or there and wasting much time. The place always has lots of customers so chairs are seldom empty. Time is of essence there, so jobs are done on time and even on a crowded day, your turn comes quickly, comparatively. All barbers wear neat and sparkling white uniforms and look and sound polished.

So what was special about today's haircut? One of things good at Air-Cool is the high standards they maintain. Unlike other saloons where you have favourites because some give you a nice haircut and some always give you a so-so to bad haircut, at Air-Cool, all barbers are well-trained. So there's very little to differentiate one barber from another; whoever cuts your hair on any day, you can be 99% sure you'll leave the place satisfied. There is just one barber there who has not satisfied me up till now.

Today's barber, though, turned out to be the best. I am a cleanliness freak, so I was quite impressed when, for the first tine, he dipped all the equipments, including combs and scissors in a glass of dettol and then wiped them nicely. Then, like few barbers, he wet my hair at the outset and started his job with scissors and combs, straightaway. This is a dying breed these days. if you have curly hair like I do, most of the times these days, barbers use an electric razor to chop the stubborn bunch of hair on the surface and then proceed with scissors when, frankly, they have already cut around 70 per cent of my hair. Not only do scissors do a better job than electrical equipments (provided of course the barber is skilled), but it also shows that the lazy lot go for the shortcut and resort to the razor.

So my barber went about his job, not once using the electric razor, clip clip clip to my right, then to my left, working on my side locks patiently like a potter carefully tending to his pottery, carefully combing my hair and then another round of clip, clip, clip all over. All this with good speed giving me the impression that he has been doing it for years. And he probably has been. Then, in the end, instead of just combing my hair, he held his razor (isstara) in the same hand as the comb, but slightly at the back, and then started to comb my hair. It was like a regular combing, but this technique, he told me, is to be used when you want to clip the unwanted and loose ends of each strand of hair, so that in the end all strands, if measured, should be of the same length. Those loose edges of your strands are done away with.

To top it all, he was not grumpy, unlike some others who have tended to my hair. I had read somewhere that you must always strike up a conversation with your barber because it adds to his morale and he feels more involved. I am not quite sure about this as i do not want to disturb him when he has scissors and razors in his hand, lest, GOD forbid they catch on to something else other than my hair! But I try and come up with something or other to talk about, like my most standards questions, "what are the timings of the saloon?" (despite going there for the past three years : ) ) "is your saloon open on Mondays?" (despite knowing that all saloons are closed on Mondays. Not for anything else, but to let them to know that I am awake and watching their moves and so they better do a good job with my hair. But then, this is Air-Cool. They always do a good job because they are professionals. By the way, I have not yet figured out why all saloons are closed on Mondays.

Anyways, all of the niceties at Air-Cool comes at a steep cost. A simple haircut costs Rs 70. When I first started to go there, the price was Rs 40. Plus, the tip. And since this is, you know, Air-Cool, Rs 2 to Rs 4 tip is not doable. There are standards. So its Rs 10 for me on an ordinary day and Rs 20 for an exceptionally job done. Today it was Rs 20, though i think Rs 30 was more like it. But I cannot imagine spending Rs 100 on my haircut, so I gave Rs 20. Though, at Air-Cool, a Rs 100 haircut does not seem to be far away.

By the way, the gentleman at the cashier never hands you the change. He always keeps the change in a small silver tray on his table and you have to collect your change from it. Talk about systems. And if you're wondering how to get hold of my favourite barber, ask for No 4 when at Air-Cool. All barbers there have a designated number. This way you can take appointments with them, in advance.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Sania Mirza all hype?

Instant fame beckoned her in a sports hungry (other than Cricket, of course) nation. But Sania Mirza has failed to live up to the hype.

There is no doubt that Sania Mirza is one of the most talented tennis players India has ever produced. She made her Women’s Tour Association (WTA) debut in 2005 and soon became the first Indian women’s tennis player to reach the third round - and later in the year the fourth round - of a grand slam. That was her breakthrough year where she won became the first Indian women’s tennis player to win a WTA tour title. From a ranking of below 200 at the start of that year, she cracked the top 50 by the end of 2005, becoming the first Indian women’s tennis player to be ranked in the top 50.

Good start…
Small wonder then, that the ever-hungry-on-quality-sportsperson Indian media went ga-ga over her and many of them proclaimed her to be the next No. 1! Don’t laugh; I am serious, I used to watch T.V. in 2005 also. Instant fame and instant recognisiton came her way. In 2006, the government of India gave the Padma Shri award – the fourth highest civilian award in India after Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibushan and Parma Bhushan - to Mirza. There was no looking as far as Indians were concerned where Mirza stood. She was all over TV, newspapers, magazines and was giving out as many interviews as, say, Serena Williams would probably in USA.

But was that all worth it?

….gone wrong
2008 is Mirza’s fourth year on the WTA tour. In the past three years, she has not won a single singles titles after her 2005 Hyderabad triumph. That lone title, too, came in her hometown in front of her home crowd that would obviously vociferously support her. But it takes real guts to win a title on foreign shores - playing against an opponent who belongs to that same country and therefore also – in front of a partisan crowd. Her best grand slam result so far remains a sole fourth round appearance.

What’s wrong with her?
Let’s get the facts straight. The problem is that Sania Mirza is not dedicated enough. It’s easy for a player to jump from 200 to 50 or at best 25-20 in the world’s rankings. But to crack the top 20 is another matter altogether. I am not even getting to the top 10. You need to be consistent. Your body needs to be great shape for most part of the year and it also requires constant exercising and also conditioning. Plus, you have train like a thorough professional and have access to all the facilities.

Sania Mirza has done nothing of the above. She is injury-prone; in 2007 and just her third year as a professional tennis player, she had knee and wrist injuries, apart from a surgery. That cut short her 2007 tour abruptly in September.

Mirza also has an incomplete game. She has only one weapon – her forehand. Her serve – especially second serve - is her weakest weapon in her repertoire. In tournaments after tournaments, her opponents have ripped apart her weak serves. Lack of proper toning and conditioning has also limited her mobility; her movement on-court is lethargic. She has no net game either and she isn't a very cunning player on court also.

Wrong guidance
The biggest problem with Mirza is her entourage. Obviously, she is not getting right guidance. She does not even have a proper coach. In the past three years, she has changed six coaches. (Presently, her father is coaching her.) Typically, it takes around 4-6 months for a player to get adjusted to his/her new coach and results to show. But half the time, Mirza has been adjusting to her coaches and before things start to get a little bright, out goes the coach and in comes yet a replacement. Either the choice of coaches is wrong or her approach towards coaching is faulty.

The other problem is her place of residence. With infrastructure being a problem in India, especially a crowded city like Hyderabad, does she have access to all kinds of courts and surfaces for her to practice on? I don’t know how she prepares for the clay and grass court season, but India certainly lacks quality clay and grass courts – the ones required for the European clay and grass court season. You cannot land up at the event after a 12-hour long flight and then start practicing for the event, merely 5 hours before your first match. You need to practice in your backyard and then go to countries to participate in the tournaments.

Avoidable media glare
Last, but not the least, all the unwanted attention. Media has a knack of playing up under-achievers to the hilt – there are a gazillion examples in Cricket, sometimes the entire cricket team – and putting them on a pedestal. The fact is that no Indian athlete has won an Olympics gold medal in the last 50 years. With just one title - that too in her own hometown- and no singles grand slam titles, not even a quarter-final appearance in any of them, Sania Mirza is already a Padma Sri. GOD knows what will happen, if she ever were to win a grand slam. Of course, as per current standards, a open-air, double-decker bus ride from the airport to the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium, Hyderabad her home town, where she will be felicitated by the who’s who of the State’s political machinery. The point is so much media attention and adulation also goes to a player's head. He/she starts to believe at some level that they have done enough already instead of the reality that the game has just begun.

As per current standards, Sania Mirza looks, at best, a player who might reach a career-high ranking of 20 and nothing more. Pity, this was a lot opportunity.

The Best Dhansakh in Bombay

Ask a Parsi what Sunday means to him and he’ll most likely tell you: Dhansakh. Their Sundays are incomplete without Dhansakh for lunch, which is usually followed by a long siesta. Though this is natural – after having Dhansakh, you wouldn’t want to do anything, but take a nice long nap.

So, what is Dhansakh? Dhansakh is a thick brown masala dal, chicken or mutton cooked in it, served with brown rice. A Vegetarian Dhansakh – dal without chicken or mutton is sacrilege. The rice is brown because of caramel sugar and fried onions. Portions of masoor and tur dal and stewed pumpkin are used to make the Dhansakh dal. The preparation is served with kebabs (chicken or mutton) and a salad made of raw onions, cucumber, tomato, coriander (also called Kachumbar). Lime, preferably lots of it, should then be squeezed over the Dhansakh. Surprisingly though, this is not the dish for auspicious occasions. On such days, Parsis cook either mora dal chawal; the dal is yellow and non-spicy and thicker than the Hindu yellow dal and minus the sprinkling of tomatoes and vegetables, or a variant of Dhansakh called Pulav Dal – where the chicken or mutton is cooked in the rice instead of the dal.

But we’re talking about Dhansakh today. Topping the list of the best Dhansakh available in Mumbai is this nice and neat restaurant tucked away in Coloba, called Paradise Restaurant (Rs 120). The portion is generous and the chicken and mutton are consistently well cooked and tender. Paradise doesn’t serve Dhansakh daily; mutton Dhansakh on Wednesdays and chicken Dhansakh on Saturdays. The dal is very important and Paradise takes great care in preparing it – it’s not bland, but it’s not too spicy either - just the right mix. And it tastes good even if gets cold! The only problem here is the accompanying kachumbar is not complimentary - as it is in all other places rightly.

Britannia restaurant, a lunch-only restaurant (closed on Sundays) in the business district of Ballard Estate that specializes in Parsi food, also serves Dhansakh. Earlier, one portion here would have been enough for two people, but lately, they have reduced the portion. Yet one plate is sufficient for one person. And unlike Paradise, they serve it everyday. Be there between 12.30 and 15.00 hours, sit back and eat to your heart’s content. They cook limited portions of everything, so be sure to book your order in advance if you have a big company or if you think you’ll be late. But if you’re there, we recommend you may as well have their famous Berry Pulav. That is the Parsi Pulav Dal, but the rice is generously sprinkled with cashew nuts and red berries, specially imported from Iran, and served only at Britannia. Oh and make sure you don’t have a busy schedule later that afternoon, you won’t feel like doing any work after this sumptuous lunch. Trust me!

By The Way, at Gamdevi, near Chowpatty, is an interesting place. Run by the social welfare organization for women, Sewa Sadan, this restaurant was recently re-done to suit your taste palettes. The place is managed by four women – one of whom is a Parsi, so you can rest be assured your Dhansakh doesn’t lose its Parsi touch. The place is simple, yet elegant and the service is very warm, yet professional. Try their Vej Dhansakh if you’re an herbivorous. They also make home delivery if you’re staying somewhere nearby.

Jimmy Boy is an old-timer at Dhansakh. But then, they also serve other Parsi dishes. Dal is slightly spicy, yet it retains its tangy taste. And Kebabs are included here. Ripon Club, Fountain, has been known for its famous Dhansakh for years. Available only on Wednesdays and open only for its members. Take-aways are open for all though.

So feast on this priceless dish and let me know which one you liked the best.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Potential Loss for BEST?

Monthly and quarterly passes from the brihanmumbai electric supply & transport (BEST) is probably one of the best, albeit much-delayed, things to have come out. It does away with the need to have change in your hands every time you board the bus. Besides, with nobody except the BEST accepting 25p coins, you would have got saddled with these coins that aren't accepted, pretty much, everywhere. First the BEST issued monthly passes, but now even quarterly passes are available, so it's very convenient. Besides, passes work out to be cheaper than tickets in the long run.

However, there's a problem. Many bus conductors do not check the passes for their validity. As it is a tedious process to check the pass- the pass needs to be placed properly below the card reader, itself a bulky calculator-like device, identity number needs to be fed, etc., bus conductors sometimes do not check all this. They just see a pass in our hands and acknowledge their acceptance and move ahead.

To you and me, this may sound a good gesture, that the bus conductor trusts you, etc., but it could be misused by a number of people in the long run. As passes become more popular, more and more people will start using it. Cunning passengers who observe certain gullible conductors that do not check passes, may be tempted to use their friend's or acquaintance's passes and travel on buses on free. The BEST could loose precious revenue this way.

It is in the BEST's interest that the bus conductors start checking each and every passes on all routes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Walk On A Sunday Evening

After a long, tiring and hectic week, there's nothing so refreshing like a Sunday evening walk. It revitalises your spirits, energises you, removes the lethargy from within you and pumps up your spirits. Walking as an exercise is so simple, yet it pumps you up like few other forms of exercises. Yoga is perhaps the only other exercise that give you as much as a nice, brisk walk does. Being a South Bombaite fortunately, my options are Worli Sea Face, Hanging gardens and Marine Drive. I'd like to take a walk at all these places turn-by-turn to avoid monotony.

I never go to Worli Sea Face alone. It's always with my neighbours. For them, it's a Sunday evening ritual. It's almost like rain or shine, they have to go there, even if it's extremely windy during winters. If they can't take a walk, then at least a motor ride. GOD forbid if they do not take a walk here on Sunday evenings! And yes, they travel in a motor, not a car. :p

The sea face promenade would be around 2 kms. I start at the Worli dairy end, brisk walk and all, keeping pace with professionals, go right to the end at Worli village, just before the road takes a right and proceeds towards Century Bazaar, touch the wall - you must touch the wall - and then return. I think the total walk to & fro, should be around three and half to four kms. Unfortunately, Worli Sea Face these days seems to be like in ruins. A big portion of the sea wall is broken. Infact it broke so badly, I suppose because of no upkeep and also tides, that a large portion of the footpath has also caved in. The authorities have cordoned off this area because of which a large portion of the footpath, towards the Worli dairy is not available for pedestrians. Yet another portion of this pavement, towards the Worli village end, is also cordoned off because of the Bandra-Worli sea link. The sea link that starts from Bandra will culminate here and merge with the Worli sea face road.

Unfortunately, because of these disruptions, it's not possible to walk seamlessly. Plus, the promenade is always over-crowded on weekends, especially Sundays. Even though for regular walkers its a paradise on account of a long and beautiful stretch, you always have to maneuver your way through the Sunday leisure crowds, large families, canoodling love-struck couples and friends and acquaintances who bump into one another inquiring about stocks markets, families and the week that went by.

Hanging gardens, comparatively, is less crowded. Partly because it's on a hill and a little cast away from the main city, you mostly get serious walkers there. There's the garden in the middle where the leisure crowds, families, north Indian migrants sit and pass time in gossip, etc., the serious walkers walk on the red-muddied pathway that encircles the large garden. Hanging Garden was one of my childhood's hotspots where my mom & I used to go there on weekends. It's a beautiful place to walk and better than Worli Seaface, but since I have to climb the Malabar Hill to reach there, I feel a little lazy to go there. Uh-oh, if the Batliwalas were to read this, I am in for a big lecture :P

Marine drive is my sentimental favourite. I have been on marine drive all my life, yet I can never get tired of this place. It's also called the Queen's necklace because the coastline, when fully lit up in the nights, resembles like a necklace worn by a queen. I was there for 10 years of my school-life and I have been passing by it for the past seven years to & fro my office. So Marine Drive is very close to my heart. If I do not see Marine Drive for over a week, i feel very cut-off - like I felt when I worked in a bank at lower parel for six months.

Crowds at all these places are quite different. Worli Sea face is mostly frequented by the slightly rich and urban crowd. You do have fisher folk from the nearby fishing colonies and also the young crowd, but it's mostly the CEO-type that you get to spot there. I think, slightly rich-type, is the right word.

Hanging Gardens is the place for the rich Malabar Hill Gujarati housewives of rich Gujarati businessmen. Saree-clad ladies with tight blouses, bunch of keys tucked in their sarees that pull their waist-line further down, much like low-rise jeans, exposing their fat stomachs (that's why they take walks in the first place, I suppose) and fair skin, brisk up and down in their Nike's and Adidas that their husbands must have got from abroad, discussing affairs from their kitchens, neighbour's kitchens, Tulsi Virani's kitchens and all that sort of thing.

Marine Drive, on the other hand, sees a healthy mix. you have people from all sections of society there. The promenade is newly done up there, so the pavement is very smooth to walk on. Since it's also very wide - the widest footpath you will ever see in the country I think - Marine Drive never seems crowded. It's perhaps the only place in South Bombay that you can also run and jog comfortably, without having to sweer right, left, right, left.....

The sea wall though, towards Chowpatty, is full of north Indian migrants. As you move towards marine drive and churchgate, you spot families, couples and collegians in groups. The sunset, as watched from Marine drive, is awesome. It's a kodak moment as you watch the sun glide down towards the horizon and slowly disappears in the distance, from behind Walkeshwar and Hanging Gardens. If you come to Bombay, you must take a walk here and watch the sunset. And if you meet me there, do say 'hello'.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Agents Join Hands

Changing regulatory scene and dominance by the big boys, small-time agents want to heard

On the back of the securities and exchange board of India’s (Sebi) allowing direct application and the abolition of new fund offer expenses, small-time mutual fund (MF) agents are feeling the heat. Some 150 plus small-time agents have now come together to form an association, called Financial Advisors Association of India (Faaida).

The plan
In 10 October 2007, when Sebi had issued draft investment advisor (IA) guidelines , it had stipulated that agents must be a part of a self-regulatory organisation (SRO). This SRO should be registered with Sebi and will be responsible for the standard of its members that are expected to sell a wide range of products. Presently only the Bombay and National Stock Exchanges are SROs and so only their members (stock brokers) can sell financial instruments. Even though the financial planning standards board of India (Fpsb) – a body of qualified certified financial planners (CFP) who sell a much wider range of financial products as against just shares that the stock exchanges’ brokers do - has applied for an SRO licence, that would still leave out around 50,000 active, small-time MF distributors and insurance agents.

As non- CFP agents – like the ones associated with Faaida – are not affiliated to Fpsb, Faaida was mooted to eventually become an SRO. Infact when Sebi had invited suggestions for its draft IA guidelines in October 2007, Faaida had suggested setting up of multiple SROs and had offered to apply for an SRO licence in future. Adds P V Subramanyam, trainer who is empanelled by Faaida to train its members: “Every small-time agent is not equipped to appear for the CFP course because of cost and competence required. Faaida is a platform for such agents to come together.” Presently, to become a member of FPSB, an agent needs to clear the CFP program – a 3-year certification course.

Is there a hidden agenda?
As Faaida aims to channelise the resources of more than 50,000 agents throughout the country, it would also boost penetration. If Sebi’s IA guidelines are finalised and with only Fpsb interested in becoming an SRO, these agents could loose their legal status and also livelihood.

Deep down however, market sources claim, it’s not just about investor servicing. Some agents who have so far avoided Faaida told Outlook Money that big distributors, especially banks, enjoy an upper hand with MFs on account of the huge business they bring. Hence, during new fund offers, while larger distributors successfully bargain for higher commission, small-time agents lack muscle. Sebi’s decision to curtail MF expenses has further skewed this relationship.

Faaida’s founding member, Hasan Wangde also hinted that it’s also about getting a voice. He says: “A MF cannot get away with shoddy treatment when it’s dealing with a bank. But small-time agents have no choice but to put up with MFs that may not service them properly.”

A long road
Even though Faaida has around 150 people on board – and still counting – it needs to have a corpus of Rs one crore to get an SRO licence, as per Sebi SRO guidelines, 2004. Besides, it needs to have adequate infrastructure; a costly affair, if Faaida intends to reach out to agents across the country.

Training is another issue. A significant chunk of Faaida members, as Subramanyam admits, are incapable of clearing the rigorous CFP course. But while the CFP course guarantees certain minimal standards, there’s no telling how Faaida’s own training program, once it gets underway, will shape up its battalion. Faaida also involves discount brokers – agents who supply forms with little or nil advice – who many believe do not deserve to earn as much commission as full-time financial planners (2.25 per cent, presently) charge.

Ultimately, once Sebi IA guidelines are in place, every SRO will have to ensure the quality of each of its members and ensure that investor interest is the top priority. Else, if Faaida’s interest, as sources suggest, is to mainly get a voice, investor interest will take a backseat.

DakshinaChitra @ Chennai

An ordinary work meeting with an acquantaince in Chennai led to a beautiful discovery, called DakshinaChitra. DakshinaChitra, which literal...