An Indian Summer : Book Review

Title: An Indian Summer
Author: James Cameron
First Published: 1974

A middle-aged man, in love with and married to someone much younger and of a different nationality. After being in a head-on collision with a truck, making his way to the newly formed Bangladesh border in pouring rain, in the opposite direction of the refugees pouring in from the east, recovering from an open heart and his teeth being pulled out (to avoid any infection), Cameron wrote “Indian Summer”. Somewhat of a memoir, something of his observations about India (and Britain) and sketches about cities, our people and personalities that we are familiar with, or not or have been expected to revere.

If you do not like writing which is frank and provides honest feedback, this book isn’t for you. Especially, if you are Indian or British and if you are “liberal” minded. James Cameron, working for a “lightish” journalistic assignment, is back in India as he had been a few times, in the last three decades. It is clear from his writing, his relationship with the nation is like that with a feisty mistress who loves, hates, gives tremendous heart ache, is vengeful and yet sets the bed aflame in the night, in the morning and in the afternoon. All without notice, unpredictably. And the marks (of all those) remain.

India Summer - book cover

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What was serendipitous for me was discovering that his young bride Monisha Cameron (later married Denis Forman, after Cameron’s passing away) was from Bangalore and that he spent some time here, working and musing over the way people around were. Her father was a police officer (then retired) and had taken residence in a bungalow, with a retinue of servants right here in Richards Town, in Bangalore where I currently live. Cameron mentions many things which are familiar in this neighbourhood, and also other places and local institutions of the city that we Bangaloreans have grown to be fond of, like the Westend Hotel (now a Taj).

With Moni (fondly referred to thus), he goes through journeys and much else. He speaks of his arrival at Bombay airport only to realise that the hotel where his reservations were supposed to be, have not received the telegram. While he tries to resurrect the reservation or get accommodation in a different hotel. He writes “…they looked back at us with patient, courteous indifference, hoping we would go away. They had all the time in the world and we had not; They could afford to wait.

In this situation, India will always win. There is no purpose in being right if one is powerless …”

His humour is beyond cheeky, and style of writing almost gleeful. His observations, as the newly married couple travel through Calcutta, Madras, Delhi, Bombay and parts of Rajasthan, are nothing short of merciless and scathing, but polite. His admiration open and honest. Consider these.

He had spent some time with Nehru, even riding together every morning in Simla, and were much more than acquaintances. Apart from much else, he describes Nehru as a “purposeless tyrant”. Similarly, he finds Jinnah to be more concerned about his attire than even what was to be Pakistan. He recounts that Jinnah had run away from an interview upon noticing that his servant had dressed him in a pair of not matching cufflinks.

One senses faint but mixed admiration for Mrs. Gandhi and absolute disgust for Attlee, and the then British government during India’s independence and cleaving.

He comments on the corruption, the filth, rows of Indians doing their morning number two, facing away from railway tracks. Cameron, towards the beginning, uses verbiage from Naipaul “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly by the railway tracks…”. Naipaul gives much consideration to this phenomenon in An Area of Darkness as does Cameron. But, then again if you are unable to appreciate Naipaul’s jabs about India, you won’t Cameron’s either.

He shows sympathy for the thousands of Hindu refugees coming in from East Pakistan, spends time with the then Maharana of Jodhpur. Jodhpur, he was young then, speaks about the removal of the privy purse, but with less hurt than the rubbing of the nose in dirt that Mrs. Gandhi deliberately gave all the erstwhile princely states.

His admiration, for Nirad Choudhuri, the latter used to live somewhere near Asaf Ali Road in Delhi those days, is sky high and unadulterated; but mixed with some sympathy. “…Choudhuri was for me by far and away the most interesting and complicated English writer in contemporary India”. “I greatly wish I could read as much, and remember as much, as that little Nirad Choudhuri. I know I shall never be able to do that”. Of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which was dedicated “To the British Empire…”, he describes the Indian intelligentsia immediately swallowing the bait and twittering with indignation. “Having read no more than the dedication they did not appreciate that it was a monstrous tease…”. Not much, sadly, has changed in India even now. The intelligentsia is the same, their malaises likewise.

His views of some of our cities seem rather relevant and astute. Of Madras, he writes “Madras has not the second hand self importance of New Delhi nor the hysterical ugliness of Bombay, it is a million miles from the despairing horrors of Calcutta. It is an agreeable, rather boring place; it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town.”

Cameron’s writing in a way is something like that of Malcom Muggeridge, rather stylish in a literary sense, but autobiographical and yet journalistic in nature. With the backdrop of his recent marriage, perhaps makes his story more compassionate than just plain journalistic essay in long form. He is self-deprecating often, slightly morose about his age, the accident, the surgeries, and his ill-health.

By the way, those of you know only James Cameron the movie director might want to look up the journalist (also author of more than a dozen books). He was good enough for a prize to be instituted in his name, for journalism. Since 2017, the University of London kept the memorial lecture, but the prize was replaced by the Eric Robbins prize.

His prose is tight, observations beautiful and the book, slim and deceptively delightful, superbly entertaining and honest.

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Of public spaces, museums and galleries…

There was a time, when most of our cities had lung spaces, parks, public spaces where we could go to “shoot the breeze”, have a “walkabout”, set up a cricket field or play football.

Cut to today. Most large cities in the country have lost their lung or public places. Delhi still has some inside-locality parks, some large parks and lawns near India Gate. Mumbai has nothing. Calcutta has little to talk about except the one lake and the maidan. Bangalore has one constantly shrinking and being encroached upon Cubbon Park. You get the picture. The story isn’t too different in other places.

So, where would people go? You guessed it right. Malls – the large air-conditioned, non-interesting walking spaces filled with same-old same-old retail stores, cineplexes and food courts. What happens in the malls tells you what people are looking for. The footfalls are high, the conversion to sales (except food, and movies) is abysmally low. Why? Because people are just looking for public places where they can spend time, and not necessarily bunch of money. What better than being in an air-conditioned space (especially in our kind of weather), grab a bite and maybe catch a movie?

What if going to a mall isn’t your thing and you don’t want your kids getting stuck on malls? There actually are some choices in every major city. You might not be able to go there too many times, but even one time each is better than none.

If a city thought about it, places to send folk to would be museums and galleries. Most large cities, or locations of historic importance have museums and galleries. Our country has a bunch of them as well. India’s largest and the oldest museum opened in Calcutta in 1814. And over the past two hundred years, many more have opened. Some are just museums, and some are galleries displaying art of various kinds.

The problem is that people don’t visit galleries or museums. At least most people do not. It might really be about culture and what we perceive to be important for us and our children. But then, concerts do get audience in auditoriums and bar atmospheres. But, have you seen most of the museums in our country except the super famous ones? Exceptions are places like The Railway Museum, Dolls Museum in Delhi, Prince Albert Museum in Mumbai or some of the galleries where the rich and the famous want to be seen at.

A museum is an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary .

Allow me to name a few places which are either brilliant or hold a tremendous value in terms of novelty.

National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore
National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore

National Galleries of Modern Art – there are at least three of them. One in Delhi, in Mumbai and in Bangalore. The first two are large establishments, but the one in Bangalore is relatively smaller. It is housed in a much smaller Manikyavelu Mansion on Palace Road. The place is green, serene and beautiful. Besides the permanent exhibits which are worth a visit, the place always has temporary stuff, film shows, talks etc. Entry Rs 10, and Re 1 (for children)

Chitrakala Parishat Gallery in Bangalore
Chitrakala Parishat Gallery in Bangalore

Chitrakala Parishat galleries – CKP, of course. People go there for the annual festival, but when I went we were the only visitors. Besides many others, there is a Roerich gallery and a bunch of Jamini Roys there. Entry Rs 10.

 

Naval Aviation Museum, Goa
Naval Aviation Museum, Goa

Naval Aviation Museum, in Vasco – this is located sort of behind Dabolim Airport in Goa. Some local folk know about this, most don’t. This is a decent sized museum, houses a history of naval aviation and over 20 aircraft.

Government Sculpture museum – in Bangalore, the red building next to Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum. Over 200 pieces, at least 700 years old; all local, primarily from Karnataka. This place has decent amount of footfall though. Entry, Rs 2.

Philately Museum at the GPO, Bangalore
Philately Museum at the GPO, Bangalore

The Philatelic museum – at the Bangalore GPO. It isn’t large, is in a largish hall on the first floor. Get to the philately museum and ask the Deputy Post Master (currently Deputy Post Mistress). The ever smiling lady is delighted to have the museum opened up for you to visit. Did I say “opened up”? Yes, because no one visits it. Entry Free.

Maritime Museum, INS Dronacharya, Kochi
Maritime Museum, INS Dronacharya, Kochi

Naval Maritime Museum in Cochin – located at INS Dronacharya in Fort Cochin. This is again small, but relatively new and very well maintained. Check out Naval guns, beautiful scale models, Radars, Uniforms, Side arms, and a photo history of the navy and a Sea King helicopter. Fantastic. Use google maps to get there because locals aren’t even aware of it. Entry fee, Rs 5.

How many of these have you been to? All these are way more fun than any mall for sure. Do you want to take your kid to the mall every time, or maybe once to these places too? You decide.

No return, No exchange?

unacceptable no return and no exchange policy of health and glow. Competition in this niche area, whenever it appears, will set these policies right almost automatically.

no exchange, no return policy at Health & Glow
no exchange, no return policy at Health & Glow

Retailing policies, often arbitrarily setup, often amaze me. Here is another one of those. Health & Glow, as many of you know are aware, is a JV between Dairy Farm and Arko International with 65 stores in India operating from four metros. Dairy farm also runs similar health & beauty formats elsewhere in Asia under Guardian and Mannings brand names. It also owns and operates Foodworld in India.

Neatly carved out niche in the Indian market without any other format competitor to really talk about except Dabur’s NewU. But the typical Indian retailing bug has bitten these folk too. As you will see in the cell phone picture above, they don’t allow returns and exchanges. Given the fact that this is a cosmetics type convenient store, I do appreciate that they need to be wary of returns and exchanges especially because if their items get used, they can’t be put back on the shelf at all – as is, or refubrished.

But, there will be occasions where the product is defective, doesn’t work or there is a quality glitch. Completely beats me how can they not return or exchange in those cases. This can’t even be legal. Whatever said and done, customer service and retailing in the country are still distant cousins who have not yet met.

Codeshare between full service, and low cost

Unfair code share between full-service and low-cost carriers. Jet charges more on their web site than Jetlite on the same flight.

Many of you have spent considerable amount of your work-life, or otherwise traveling between cities. Over time, you have noticed the advent of bucket shops not only in brick and mortar format, but also on the web. You also have seen the advent of all the travel portals in India. While all this has been happening commercial aviation in India has also moved a distance with two carriers getting acquired by two other full service carriers.

Deccan became Kingfisher Red, and more or less kept its older model, though there are seat numbers allotted, and there is food served during the flight.  Sahara became Jetlite (reminds me somehow of yogurt, but that is a different story), but Jet opened up Jet Konnect as well.  Both in Jetlite as well as in aJet Konnect flight, you will need to purchase food (or bring your own).

jetlite schedule
Jetlite schedule showing 1750 flight, for 11th March 2010(click to see larger image)

My post today is however, about pricing and the way code-shares seem to happen in India. I know of at least one particular flight, because I have flown at least twice on that. This is 1750 service between Delhi and Bangalore, operated by Jetlite as S2  233. This is code shared by Jet Airways too as 9W 7075. Jetlite, on their web site, charges Rs 5379 as the lowest fare. Jetcharges Rs 5529, on their web site for the same fare. And

jet airways fare
Jet Airways schedule showing 1750 flight, for 11th March 2010(click to see larger image)

Cleartrip charges Rs 5470.

I understand the last one.  But, how do the first two fares work?

  • Jetlite is a Jet Airways subsidiary (or not?), and one would expect ticket pricing to be the same.
  • How does a company do a code share between a full-service airline and a low-cost carrier? Are these not two completely different product offerings for the market with different levels of service? If you flew Jet Airways (on one of their regular flights, you would not have to buy food), and if you held status on their JP program, you could go sit in the lounge as well. Jetlite passengers don’t get to use the lounge

Clear trip price
Clear trip schedule showing 1750 flight, for March 11 2010 (click to see larger image)

regardless of their JP status, and they also need to buy food on the plane (if they want that food). Is this a fair trade practice?

  • The Jet Airways price, on their web site, is higher than even the price offered by Cleartrip.

PS: I have cropped and rejoined some of the pictures to show the particular flight, and make the images fit. Images (and data) are have been extracted from the web sites, and are owned by Jet Airways, Jetlite and Cleartrip respectively.

Getting it right – Part 1

getting the basics of retail right in India is still a challenge!

We talk about the future, and what Retail will look like in 2020 (or 2010). We talk about how supply chain needs to be optimized and how we need to get customer centric. However, even now there are some basics of Retailing that are missing in our country. Many of these also have to do with their IT implementation. This is the first in the series of posts discussing such issues, with examples.

Making a promotion flow through

This is a pretty common one, and one would think that retailers could get this right in the first shot and in a jiffy. I have noticed this many times, and surely you have too. The shelf has a designated price for an SKU and has a promotion running. You pick the item, and when checking out the POS does not seem to recognize the promotion.