Saturday, January 31, 2009

Where is my Ratan Tata Industrial (RTI) institute?

If you are a Parsi, then the words RTI shouldn't be Greek and Latin to you. But for the uninitiated, RTI stands for Ratan Tata Industrial institute; the once-upon-a-time ultimate stop for Parsi cuisine, sweets, delicacies as also mouth-watering cakes and pastries. It started out from inside a building at Hughes Road - before it moved to a new location, just opposite to its original location, into a much swankier place - and branched out to about six other places in Bombay. From my personal observation and one of its loyal customers for ages, what was once a thriving institution is now half its original glory. 

I have many pleasant memories of RTI. In the olden days - gosh, I sound like an old Bawaji - we used to refer RTI as Industrial. I think it was because it was situated in an old building outside Khareghat Colony where if you'd step inside that building, it kind of resembled an industrial unit. Which actually, in a way, it was. I do not know RTI's history, but from whatever little on it I have come across on the Internet, it was started as an unit to make widowed Parsi womenindependent by providing them employment and making them self-sufficient. Hence, if I am not mistaken, most of the staff at RTI originally - and maybe it still is this way - are Parsees. RTI has never been just a store. It was a movement of sorts and has become an institution in its own right over the years. 

Every week, as a kid, I used to look forward to eating their famous chocolate cake over my evening tea on my weekends. My earliest memory of this fantastic cake takes me back to a timewhen it used to cost Rs 8. Today I think the price has gone up three times; I no longer eat this cake so I wouldn't know exactly. I also used to look forward to my evening tea, mostly because of the stuff I used to have with my tea such as the yummy shrewsberry biscuits that, in those days,Moti mummy used to get for me from her Poona trips, or RTI's chocolate pastries. As a child I loved chocolate cakes and I still do. Even today I do not miss an opportunity to feast on pastries and desserts. In my office, people say there is a rule: If you are ordering desserts, make sure you ask Kayezad too what he wants!!! 

There were other things that we regularly used to buy from RTI such as its chicken patties and cutlets. They are not the healthiest of the stuff to be had, but when you're 10, you do not think about all those things. Anyway, I have patronised RTI over many years. I do not much now, though occasionally I still go there. RTI could do much better and ought to become more aggressive and give its competitors a run for their money. I really wish the house of Tatas should take steps to rebuild this flagging enterprise.

RTI has lots of potential. There is a huge demand for Parsi cuisine and delicacies from not onlyParsis - we anyway have Parsi cuisine day in & out - but more so from non-Parsis who enjoythier food. And God bless them, there are plenty of those in Bombay! Infact, the owner of theDadar-based franchise of Monginis - a famous chain of confectioneries - had once told me whenIwas working on a franchise story for my magazine that if there's one chain that could give tough competition to Monginis, it would be RTI. I had never felt prouder about RTI than that moment. Sadly, RTI's potential is grossly underutilised. 

I am not sure what the problem at RTI is. Though I think it could be lack of funds. It is still a charitable organisation and employs women and young parsi girls, both from Bombay and outside Bombay, and train to be self-sufficient. It could be because of the lack of adequate staff that their scale of operations have dwindled over the years. The main-course dishes available out there is in limited quantity. Food prepared is often sold out within three to four hours in the morning, though some of it is also due to demand. I wish enough quantity is prepared so that stocks across items and variety last atleast till about 3-4 pm. The shop has done well to extend the timings though; I quite liked that initiative. It has also added a tea/coffee machine and has put extra furniture (sofas and tables) for people to sit there and have food. This is a good initiative and bodes well for patrons on the go wanting to catch a quick bite there. The pastries and confectioneries are good, some main dishes though are quite so-so. They have increased the prices over the years to combat rising prices - but dishes available here are still very modestly priced as compared to others. Having said that, I don't find the quality to be like what it once used to be, in the good-old days. 

Overall, the quality should also improve a bit. The main course dishes have a lot of scope for improvement. I also wish they would recruit more people. You don't see those grand old -and may I say most-efficient -ladies there anymore the way you used to in days when I was kid. Today, the staff is handful there and often you have to wait for more than 15 minutes to be attended to. I would understand if salaries are a problem since RTI doesn't seem to be a commercially intensive place. The place is just about half its glory since it was during my childhood days. I wish RTI would regain its past glory and become a compulsive destination for food lovers. Will the house of Tatas do something to revive the sagging institution please? 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Postal Savings Schemes - Big returns + pathetic service

It's ironic that on one hand, the Indian Postal Service - a government agency that runs popular small savings schemes like Monthly Income Scheme (POMIS), National Savings Certificate (NSC) and Kisan Vikas Patra (KVP) - offers most attractive risk-free returns to the tune of eight per cent, and on the other hand offers really sloppy and pathetic service. Does it really make sense going for postal savings?

Most post offices do not have computers. They write pass-books (POMIS) manually; they maintain records in their dirty large gigantic ledgers and then when we go to them for passbook updation, they write down the corresponding figures in our passbooks. No computers, only manually! As a result, they make several mistakes. The onus is on us - the investor - to monitor our passbooks and ensure there are no mistakes. Talk about living life in the 21st century.

The service standards at most of these post offices is pathetic. Some of them talk endlessly on phone discussing thier domestic gupshup and / or are very slow in their work. Although I do know some post office employees that are genuinely helpful and co-operative. 

A post-master recently told me this when I suggested that these post offices should be computerised just like our banks are: "What computerisation (in a tone that suggested that I had majorly offended his credibility)? Even computers make mistakes. Do you think computers do not make mistakes? They are as smart as us; if we make a mistake in programming them, even they will make mistakes." I was -and still am- at a loss of words. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A talent named Ravi Chekaliya

That talent is available in plenty in India is not a doubt in anyone's mind. But whether such talent is noticed and thereafter nurtured in another question alltogether. Here is an inspirational story of a young 16-year old lad named Ravi Chekaliya. This story appeared in the Bombay newspaper, Sunday Mid-Day, dated 25 January 2009. (Click the link before to read the full story and to watch the video.) There are countless of such young lads who are born in poverty but, if given a chance, can prove to be as good as anyone else you'd know. 

Here is reproduced story in case the above link does not work in your browser. 

AS part of a Republic Day celebration, Nirmal Nagar Ground in Mulund will see 16-year-old Ravi Chekaliya showcase his talents to thousands of students from 40 of the city's schools.

His unique ability to understand and speak ten foreign languages without any schooling caught the eye of an event organiser from Mulund, who then invited Chekaliya to the celebration. 

The youth, who is usually spotted selling peacock quill with his grandmother at Hanging Gardens (also known as Ferozeshah Mehta Gardens), Malabar Hill, can understand and speak English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian, Arabic, Russian and Israeli. He revealed that his tutors were his own grandmother and friends. "Earlier, It was difficult for me to understand foreign languages, because of which my business used to suffer. Thanks to my colleagues, friends and my grandmother who taught me these languages, they are now my bread and butter," he said. His abilities give the advantage of marketing his product to tourists. But due to no formal education, Chekaliya cannot read or understand the languages that he is seemingly fluent in. 

When asked if schooling was not on the agenda, "As I was the eldest son in my family, I had the responsibility of three younger brothers. From food to education, I wanted to give them everything that I was deprived of," answers the young entrepreneur, who has been in the business since he was nine. 

The linguist's daily earnings are Rs 250 to Rs 300 and Rs 600 to Rs 700 on the weekends.

Apparently, many visitors approached him, assuring financial help for his studies, but Chekaliya feels that it's too late for him to go to school.

(the above story is courtesy Sunday Mid-day newspaper, edition dated 25 January 2009)

Grit and combacks at the Australian Open 2009

Probably the first time this week, I have been able to enjoy the Australian Open tennis championships all day long on TV. Of course, today being a Sunday, it helped. Roger Federer played Tomas Berdych in a classic 5-setter. I did not expect Berdych to play this well, especially the way he opened the match and rushed through the first two sets. Berdych is a talented player and has good groundstrokes and a big serve. I watched him play a very good match against Dimitry Tursunov in the finals of the first edition of Kingfisher Open (Mumbai) in 2006. Whilst Tursunov had very narrowly won that match, Berdych showed a lot of promise. He has won four tournaments till date and remains one of the few active players to have won a title on all three main surfaces, clay, grass, hard-court and one even on carpet. Experts say that his lack of self confidence has prevented him from doing great in the Grand Slams. Out of 21 appearances in Grand Slams, he has gone past the Round 3 just nine times. His best showing in a Grand Slam remains a Quarter Final show in 2007 Wimbledon. 

But he played magnificent tennis today against Federer in Round 4 at the Australian Open 2009. It's not an easy task to go up two sets to love against Federer, but he matched groundstrokes to groundstrokes against Federer. In the first set Berdych's serve was the key as his first serve percentage was 72 % as against Fed's 57%. And more surprising was Federer's massive comeback as he clawed back from two sets to love down. I do not really associate Federer as someone who would have such tenacity to come back from two sets to love down in a grand slam, but you gotta give it to the guy for fighting for his life out there today. But then again, Berdych is not the toughest mental guy out there. If Federer wants to have a decent chance to win the title, he'll have to do much more. 

The story of the tournament so far has been Jelena Dokic. What a match that was. Jelena Dokic beat Alisa Kleybanova, 7-5, 5-7, 8-6. Kleybanova played very well and did almost everything to beat Dokic, but still Dokic came out trumps at the end, despite being injured. The crowd was all behind cheering Dokic -and reasonably so -but it took a lot out of Dokic to get the better of Kleybanova. To borrow a quote from Andy Roddick, Kleybanova threw kitchen sink at Dokic, but Dokic went inside and got the bathtub. Could Dokic surprise the world by going all the way, just the way Jenifer Capriati did in 2001 (she won the Australian Open beating the then-world No1 Martina Hingis, after having gone without a single win for five years in a grand slam prior to that)? You never know...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

looking ahead at Down Under...

So the Australian Open tennis championships are under way. It's a pain to get up so early at around 5.00 am (India time) to watch the Open, I prefer to catch up the results on its official website. I used to get up early when I was in college during Steffi Graf days. Her matches were scheduled to be the first -or at worse the second -match of the day. She always used to prefer it that way. Her early round matches usually used to get over within an hour, so it fitted well in my schedule. But those were my good, old days. 

Of course I did not expect India's Sania Mirza to do much. She could at best crack the top-20 and then taper off, but she's definitely not a top-10 player by any standards. Expectantly she lost to Nadia Patrova, 6-3, 6-2 in just 70 minutes. Not that Petrova is a push-over exactly, but if Mirza is at her best, she has the game to beat Petrova. I still feel that no matter how much she'll try and regroup herself going from here on (especially after a dismal and forgettable 2007 and 2008), Mirza will not break the top-20 unless she has a dedicated and a quality coach and she has access to adequate infrastructure in her hometown (courts other than hard-court to practice on). Still, the Indian media will go ga-ga over Mirza and the oldie lot of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi; I don't understand why. I was just watching Times Now and their day's round-up of Australian Open in their sports capsule started off with "Good news for India; Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles have entered Round#3...". We Indians seldom look anywhere beyond cricket, and even there we're not the best team!!!

For the 2009 Australian Open, I am placing my chances on Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. Though I would like Federer to win, I think his best days are behind him, as seen by his high standards. I do hope I am severely wrong on this; it's a treat watching him play. And though Nadal lost tamely in Doha earlier this year, I just watched his convincing victory over Tommy Haas of Germany and you'd be a fool to completely rule him out. Sure Nadal hasn't yet won a hardcourt Slam, but his game has improved tremendously over the years. This could be his breakthrough year at the Down Under. 

The woman's field is wide open but I like Elena Dementieva's chances this year. She's in fine form, unbeatable in both the warm-up tournaments she's played so far this year. Dementieva is a very good player and she's had some great results; she 's a runner-up at the French and US Opens in 2004.  The way she's playing these days, you cannot rule her out. She has the goods, but does she have the head? We'll see. But that is also why I would place Jelena Jankovic a bit higher on the chances-scale. She could well end up surprising Dememtieva and the rest of the field and I have a feeling this is her Open. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

cliche...cliche...Ghajini....

After almost a month of its release, I finally saw 'Ghajini' last Saturday. Although the premise was interesting, the movie did not work for me. It was disheartening to see Aamir Khan - I am a fan of his - to be associated with a movie containing too many Bollywood chiches, after having worked on novel movies (by Bollywood standards) like Rang De Basanti and Taare Zameen Par

The romance build-up between the Aamir and Asin wasn't convincing. Apart from a scene or two, the comedy wasn't genuine. I just could not buy the fact that someone can be so silly - not to mention foolishly gutsy - to play up such an outrageous story the way Asin did and go along with it even after knowing that the story had inadvertently been carried in the press. The plot did not work for me. Plus, nobody recognises Aamir when he freely roams the street, in a BEST bus, etc., after the gory incident in which Aamir loses his memory. This, after supposedly running what seems like a very successful company (they got the licence to get all London/Europe/international calls routed through their network), writing guest columns in India's largest business newspaper and giving interviews to CNN. 

Another silly thing. When Aamir is dating Asin and the two stop at a roadside stall to eat watermelon, his company executives happen to pass them by and spot him. They do a salaam to him. Now which company executives' subordinates do a salaam when they bump into their bosses on the road? At least I don't!!! 

Lastly, on the performance front, Aamir was good in the first half of his role, as the company executive. But all this six/eight pack act of teething with anger, howling like a wounded tiger in the bathroom and hospital looked artificial. Plus, I wonder how he still maintains this body after the incident despite losing his memory. You need lots of diet and the right work-outs with the right kind of equipments to maintain a body like that. How did he remember do all that after the incident?  

Like a typical cliche Bollywood film, the songs do not fit in. Jiah Khan's song looked the most forced. One moment we're shown a rickety-rackety stage of her college auditorium where her performance was due, and the next moment it magically gets coverted into this super-duper magnificent set where Ms Khan descends to do her item number! Please! And the clothes looked quite flashy too. Another cliche: all songs were shot at exotic locales. 

Finally, it sounds quite impossible that someone could bash up so many people at one shot. That's one cliche we thought we'd seen the end of, especially in an Aamir Khan film. And ripping off the tap from its sink? Wow, kamaal ka strength!!!! 

Overall, I feel the film just about passes the muster. On the positive side, the movie cleverly switches between the past and the present and offers a decent thriller than most of the stuff doled out these days. The execution could have been better, the editing could have been much better. 

K-rating: * * * (out of 5)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Can striking unions hold public to ransom?

Today, 9 January 2009 Friday is the third day of the strike organised by Oil Sector Officer's Association (OSOA). This strike is taking place across India as a result of which oil is not supplied to petrol pumps and the latter have dried up. There is no petrol and compressed natural gas (CNG) and therefore public transport is hit the hardest. Reports indicate that around 95 per cent of the petrol pumps across the country are running dry. In Bombay, as per my observation and estimate, almost 80 per cent of the taxis are already off the roads (at around noon) and B.E.S.T. buses are running jam-packed even after the morning peak hours. I am sure local trains must also be jam-packed. Today I had to go to Duncun Road (Gol deval temple area) for some work. 

I was quite hassled on my way back since I didn't find a single taxi who was willing to take mom home. While most of the taxis were off the road, the remaining few weren't stopping. The handful remaining few were seen refusing to take passengers. I don't know why but I could only guess that perhaps due to the scarcity of CNG, they may not want to venture out too far from their residences lest they run out of fuel in some far-flung area and have to walk back home, leaving the taxi deserted in that area!

Who and why? 
Reports say that around 45,000 officers across 12 state-owned oil corporations have joined the strike, demanding hither wages. Sources say that these public sector executives (PSU) executives get a hike in once every 10 years. Their last such hike was supposed to be in 2007, but the staff wanted a bigger hike -they claim the government had promised them - than the one the government decided to give them. But not all officers across all PSUs have gone on strike. Typically, the hierarchy of a PSU oil executive, as per my sources, is as follows (the red-coloured highlighted designations have gone on strike):

Chairman
Director
Executive Director
General Manager
Deputy Manager
Grade A Chief Manager
Senior Manager
Manager
Deputy Manager
Assistant Manager
Officer - grade I
Officer - grade II

Is the strike justified?
I am told that since these PSU executives get a hike every once in 10 years, as against their private sector counterparts, they are justified in asking for their pound of flesh. Probably, feeling cornered or atleast that's what they claim to feel, they have resorted to possibly the biggest weapon in their arsenal: strike. The strike has paralysed the entire country with choking oil supplies across sectors like power generation, cooking gas supplies, airline fuel, petrol, diesel and CNG for vehicles and public transport, alike. 

But clearly, I do not know who is right and who is wrong in this particular tussle, because I do not know how much they get and whether their demands are justified. What I do know, is that strikes should not be allowed. Such strikes should be banned and people/officers/workers who go on such strike should be put in their places by authorities. I am a Bombaiyite and I have suffered several times in my life due to these strikes, as all other Bombaiyites have too. Motormen going on strike and throwing train schedules out of gear, BEST staff going on strike and buses going off the roads and now oil company officers going on strike paralysing public transport and supply of piped gas supplied to our homes. But on the other hand, knowing our Indian masters and how miserly they can be - I am not saying the Indian government is, in this particular case they are the bosses - but I mean in general and across industries - must also wake up and realise that people who work for them deserve to be paid their dues. I should know! In the presence of a weak judiciary, it's not hard to see why employees resort to such cheap tactics like strike. Nevertheless, all things being said, a strike that cripples normal life is a nuisance and it needs to be nipped in the bud. It must be stopped. Enough is enough! 

Freeing oil prices and companies?
The current crisis could be averted if the oil sector and companies are allowed to be privatised. Also, oil pricing policy should be changed and be made market-linked. The current scenario where the administered price and the market price are very near to one another provides a good opportunity. Marking the oil prices to market also removes the burden from the ruling political parties who constantly resort to tweaking and manipulating oil prices as populist measures to win votes. Maybe it's also time to look into the merits of privatising oil companies. Once competition is brought in, such strikes could be averted and employees also are better rewarded. And if they are not happy with their employer, they would be free to go and work elsewhere. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

Good time to invest in Debt funds

When equity markets are giving sizzling returns, we tend to forget about asset allocation and join the herd in maximising returns by aggressively tilting our portfolios towards equities. It’s only when equities land with a thud, like it has done in 2008 (the Sensex has dropped 60 per cent from its highest closing on 8 January, to its lowest closing on 20 November), that we flock towards alternate asset classes. Asset allocation is about striking a balance according to your needs and risk profile, across all asset classes. One important asset class that was long forgotten has staged a quiet comeback. It’s safer and less volatile, and merits attention in 2009. Reintroducing the humble debt fund.

Low interest rates
Debt funds and interest rates are inversely proportional. When interest rates fall, net asset values (NAV) of debt funds rise, and vice versa. India, as in the rest of the world, is witnessing drastic rate cuts. The global credit crisis has slowed down economies across the globe. India’s industrial production recorded a negative growth of -0.4 per cent in the month of October, as against a positive growth of 12.2 per cent the same time last year. Due to an unprecedented decline in domestic and foreign demand, industrial productivity has dipped for the first time in more than 13 years.

The ensuing liquidity crunch has hit us hard and the banking system has been starved of cash. Already banks have been finding it difficult to lend money and are also facing the threats of defaults. Companies are expected to deliver poorer results because of fall in demand for goods and services. Added to that are the revised growth projection of 7.5 per cent for India, down from 8 per cent earlier. India, like many other economies, is facing a slowdown, if not a recession.

As a move towards boosting economic activity and ensuring liquidity, central banks all over the world have been cutting interest rates. Says Laxmi Iyer, head, fixed income, Kotak MF: “Interest rate cuts have now become a worldwide phenomenon so that economies do not go into recession. Interest rates are cut to spur growth in the economy, to make funds available at cheaper costs to facilitate low-cost borrowing and increased production activity.”

In India too, the Reserve Bank of India has cut its key rates repeatedly between October and the first week of December and made over Rs 3,00,000 crore available to the banking system. The benchmark interest rates were again reduced on 6 December 2008 as part of the government’s economy stimulus package as a signal of a benign interest rates regime.

Drop in inflation
Another reason why interest rates in India are headed south is a drop in inflation. From a high of 12.91 per cent in August, inflation has fallen to 8.90 per cent, as on 8 November, due to a fall in oil and commodity prices. typically, when inflation is high, interest rates are kept at a higher level to keep the real rate of return (interest rate earned after deducting inflation) high.

Says Ritesh Jain, head, fixed income, Canara Robeco MF: “Inflation is expected to come down to around 4-5 per cent levels around March 2009 and to near-zero levels in June 2009. If inflation is low, the government’s monetary policy will be in your favour as, in India, monetary policy follows inflation.” In short, in India, low inflation indicates low interest rates.

Reduction in Spread
Typically, bond funds invest in two kinds of instruments, government securities and corporate bonds. A debt fund’s NAV largely depends on which of the two segments it has invested in and in what proportion. When interest rates fall in these segments, bond funds’ NAVs appreciate. Although interest rates on debt scrips have come down, rates of
government securities have fallen more than those of corporate bonds.

For instance, the benchmark 10-year government security rate has fallen to 6.79 per cent as on 3 December, from 9.47 per cent on 15 July, a reduction of 269 basis points. In comparison, interest rates of a similar AAA-rated corporate paper haven’t dropped as significantly. The difference in the interest rates, called spread, between the two kinds of papers has in
fact widened to around 396 basis points in November, up from around 138 points in July.

Says Nandkumar Surti, chief investment officer, fixed income, JP Morgan MF: “This spread will have to narrow down as interest rates are on their way down. Interest rates of corporate bonds will, therefore, have to come down too.” When spreads reduce, bond funds will benefit more than gilt funds.

Debt funds
We suggest you consider long-term gilt funds and long-term bond funds. While gilt funds will solely invest in government securities, bond funds would invest across all debt asset classes such as government securities, corporate
bonds or certificates of deposit.





Asset allocation. “Invest around 50 per cent of your corpus in gilt funds and the rest in bond funds,” says Iyer. Note that while government securities are safer than corporate bonds since the former comes with a government guarantee, they could also be more volatile as they are the most liquid of all debt scrips and, hence, change more hands. However, Surti recommends a tilt towards bond funds as he believes the spread compression, when it happens, will result in bond funds outperforming gilt funds. By one estimate, well-performing debt funds are expected to give 15-20 per cent returns in 2009.

Some of the fund houses listed in Outlook Money recommendations (‘Strongest Bond Funds’ and ‘The Brightest’) have both bond and gilt funds. Although both kinds of schemes from all these MFs are worth investing in, we suggest you diversify across fund houses.

Duration. Look at long-term debt funds with a time horizon of one year. Avoid them if your limit is less than six months. Go for liquid funds if you want temporary parking space for your funds. Or, you could go for short-term bond funds if you are willing to take the risk, for tenures of not more than three to six months.


Watch out for...
...Credit quality. While government securities are guaranteed by the government, a bond fund’s portfolio carries credit risk. The more your fund’s assets are in higher-rated securities (AAA-rated and equivalent, including government securities), the better it is, for two reasons. One, fund insiders say that the default risk that plagued the fixed maturity plans (FMPs) not so
long back, is still around. A bond fund that takes on too much credit risk might put your principal amount at risk. Two, higher rated securities are also more liquid and can be easily sold by your debt funds.

...Maturity. As long-term funds will benefit more than the short-term funds going ahead, look at your fund’s average maturity. Avoid funds with a lower maturity.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

South India tour: Day 6 - Ooty (29 December 2008)


Taj Savoy Hotel is as beautiful as it can get. It is an old heritage hotel and the management has done its best by any standards to maintain its rich heritage. The beautiful and self contained cottages are neatly nestled amidst the beautiful and manicured hotel gardens. Very English type. All rooms have a fire-place, the staff will light it up for you as and when you request them. A well lit-up fire place lasts for an hour and its warmth can last for an entire night. The staff is very cordial and friendly as with any other Taj property staff, food is just exquisite with a sumptuous buffet offering over breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

So after a heavy and delicious breakfast, I headed off to Ooty railway station, in time to catch the 9.15 narrow gauge train to Coonor. This is a must-do in Ooty. But even though as recommended by the Taj reception to reach the hotel by 8.30 am to stand in the ticket queue (tickets are given on a first-cum-first-served basis), I was way behind in the queue. It has to be God's intervention I firmly believe that I still managed to not only get tickets, but I also got one of the best window seats, despite a mad rush and scrambling to get in the train. Thankfully, station masters were present at the station and there was a queue to get inside the train. The views that you get from the train are breathtaking, especially as you approach Lovedale station (2nd stop, right after we leave Ooty). The train was on time, the speed was just right and numerous photo opportunities. Remember, take II class ticket (only Rs 4/-), avoid I class as the I class compartments' windows do not open fully. And take a seat to the right side, going towards Coonor, left-side while going from Coonor to Ooty.

Coonor is a beautiful hill station, though I found both Ooty and Coonor very commercialised. Tea estates (picture 1) , Sim's Park are a must-see there. I had lunch at the Taj Garden Retreat at Coonor since my package included lunch too. Taj has a good system, they have synchronised their Ooty and Coonor properties so that we can lunch at either of the two places even if our package covers only one of the two hotels. 

After a sumptuous and yet again delicious lunch, we headed back to Ooty, this time by car. Ooty's botanical gardens is a beautiful place, but then again, if you've seen one garden at these places you've seen them all. But Doddabetta peak was different and a good experience. You get fantastic views of Ooty from here, the highest point in the Nilgiri mountains. My last stop was a boat ride at the beautiful Ooty lake (picture 2) before we checked in back at our hotel, had a nice cup of tea in the lawns outside the hotel's tea lounge amidst the cool winter breeze.  

South India tour: Day 5 - Bandipur Tiger Reserve (28 December 2008)


After checking out of Misty Woods, and this time reaching the highway to Mysore (en route to Ooty) correctly, we were on the main highway in three hours flat. Taking the outer ring road of Mysore and bypassing the foothills of Chamundi Hills, we were on our way to Ooty. 

I stopped briefly at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve - a vast expanse of protected forest land in South Karnataka and home to wild cats such as tigers, leopards, panthers and also deer, wild dogs and an array of snakes like Cobra and Python. The sightings on that day I was there were very poor as I was told by a senior forest ranger with whom  I had a nice, long chat. But I  decided to take a chance. Jeep tours were discontinued but buses were there and fortunately I happened to be 
 there a good 1/2 hour before the next bus ride. 

No, I did not spot any wild cat. But no regrets! The safari was good (45 mins), it was my first ever safari, so in that way, it was quite memorable. I only spotted langoors, deer and wild boars. 

We continued on our way to Ooty, past by the Bandipur and later Madumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and a subsequent 30-km steep climb on the ghats leading to Ooty. We checked in the magnificent Taj Savoy Hotel. 

South India tour: Day 4 - Coorg Dubare Elephant camp (27 December 2008)


Back to our sightseeing ways, today was a visit to the Dubare Elephant Camp. This is a unique elephant camp where elephants are preserved, nurtured and kept in safe surroundings. So after a a 2-hour ride, past bustling towns of Virajpet and massive coffee estates of Siddapur town, we reached Dubare. A small boat ride took us across the elephant camp. You could also wade through waters and what looks like a natural pathway of rocks to get across if you are adventurous. It ought to be great fun! 



The elephant camp's main attraction is an
 elephant ride (Rs 100 per person). Three rogue elephants (one of which was caught a couple of days before I went after it had gone on a rampage destructing property, farms, etc.) were held in large wooden cages and were being tamed.

At the camp, names, sex and ages of all the elephant members are listed and next to it is the kitchen where their food is cooked in a gigantic bowl that was boiling at the time I was there. Knowing an elephant's appetite and the enormous quantity of food these creatures need, I was not surprised that an elephant ride costs so expensive. 

Meanwhile a baby elephant was clamouring for our attention and was ably surrounded by its doted parents. I patted the baby elephant and realised its hide was extremely thick with thorny little hairs. Magnificent creatures, these elephants are. 

South India tour: Day 3 - Coorg Misty Woods (27 December 2008)

Hotel Misty Woods is a holiday resort deep in the forests of Kakkabe in the district of Coorg. It's a task reaching there allright, with numerous twists and turns along the narrow -and at times muddy roads -winding through the densest of the forests. The forests and the greenery of Coorg is unbelievably beautiful. But because Misty Woods is so deep inside Kakkabe, it's always recommended to reach here before dark. It gets really dark after sunset. But once you reach Misty Woods, you are in heaven. The resort is on a steep hill, the reception is below and the cottages (only cottages here, not rooms) are scattered all over its hilly property. The cottages are beautiful, very heritage type, typical South Indian superior woodwork. No T.V. and heater are its only minuses. But these are small sacrifices to be made, and if you are in Coorg, you have ample of nature for good company. Savour it while you're there; it's quite unlike anything you've seen before. The manager Daniel -ably assisted by his team -was committed to make our stay a memorable one. 

As we were quite tired with all the travelling the day before, we decided to take the day off and
 remain enveloped in nature (picture 2). Misty Woods is a huge property, and offers ample of scope for short walks and treks. It's a hilly area all the way, so I had to do a lot of climbing up and down whilst exploring the beautiful area, coffee (picture 1), pepper, cardamom plantations and also a waterfall in the vicinity apart from a small and deserted ancient Palace just outside the resort complex that is manned by only one gatekeeper (entry free) . As I said, I am not complaining!

South India tour: Day 2 - Mysore-Coorg (26 December 2008)



After a heavy breakfast at Hotel Sandesh - The Prince (great hotel, value for money, very clean, good food and centrally located), I proceeded to the Mysore Palace. A beautiful and a very imposing structure, this is Mysore's biggest attraction. Unfortunately cameras aren't allowed inside, else I would have freaked out. Wonderfully and artistically built, it's interiors are India's ancient architecture at its very best. The authorities have also maintained it quite well. The Durbar Hall is quite unlike anything I have ever seen. It's very grand and gives a commanding view of the palace grounds in front. 


Then, we proceeded to Chamundi Hills. There's a temple on top of it, but since I was there on a Friday -and the temple is most visited on Fridays, hence it was very crowded -and I decided to give it a miss. So we proceeded down the hill again, taking in breathtaking views of Mysore city from up the hills and passing by the Nandi Bull -an imposing structure of Lord Shiva's mount. Within minutes, I was heading towards Coorg. A brief lunch stopover at a roadside restaurant called Hotel Annapurna where delicious south Indian fare was had and savoured, served over traditional banana leaf, much like during Parsi weddings and navjotes. But this time, the fare was complete vegetarian. But I am not complaining at all. And very economical too. Rs 55 for a heavy lunch for two! Can you beat that? 


Next stop: The Tibetan Nandroling monastery. The monastery is in a small town called Bylakupe, I am told this is one of the largest Tibetan settlements in India. The monastery, like any other Tibetan place of worships, is spotless clean. The Tibetans sure know how to not only decorate their places of worship with fantastic and unbelievable architecture, paintings, artifacts, etc, but also to maintain them. The monastery is also called the Golden Temple. It glints in the far distance as you approach it. It's worth spending easily an hour here and just savour the beauty and positive aura of this magnificent place. 

Half an hour on the highway further is Cauvery Nisargadham, a small forest connected to the mainland by a rope bridge. Nothing spectacular here, but just like anywhere else in Coorg, the beauty of the nature and forest is on display here and at best a short walk along the long and winding pathway in the forest is recommended. 

After driving for a further three hours (20.30 hrs), we reached Misty Woods, in complete darkness. I had almost torn by hair apart by then. What ought to have taken us just three hours from Hotel Annapurna where we had earlier had our lunch, we reached after five hours because we missed our turn, stopped over at the above two places, and did not head the advice to reach Misty Woods before dark. 

South India tour: Day 1 - Mysore (25 December 2008)

The new Bangalore airport rocks, it's the best Indian airport I have seen so far. However, there's hardly much to be seen after you disembark as you are quickly led to the baggage claim area and in no time, you are out. 

I decided to skip Bangalore taking ample cues from several recommendations from friends. So I proceeded straight to Mysore. My first stop was Srirangapatna, former capital of Tipu Sultan. I stopped by the most important tourist destination in this town - Dariya Daulat Baug (picture 1). This was the summer palace of Tipu Sultan. It's set amidst beautifully manicured and vast lawns. From the outside, the building looks quite ordinary, however it has a treasure of precious paintings, coins, swords, guns and such ancient and historical artifacts. 


Next stop: Brindavan Gardens (picture 2). The one thing that you notice once you enter this place is its ample number of water fountains. We were there at about 17.00 hrs, but the place really comes alive once the lights come out at 18.30 hrs. Although in hindsight, i felt it was a good idea to reach there a good hour or so before sunset so that there's enough light to admire the beauty of the gardens and then also get to see it under the lights. A brief sound & light show also takes place at either the north/south-end (I was unable to figure out the directions) of the gardens. This is like the water fountain in all colours and music being played in the background. Something like the Ballagio musical fountain in Las Vegas. But if you've seen the latter, you will easily forget the Brindavan gardens sound & light show. 

Following is the video I shot whilst taking off from the Bombay airport. It was a very hazy morning, so the views aren't spectacular. Enjoy! 




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