In Kaatru Veliyidai, the auteur’s worst and best work ever!

There is a scene in Kaatru Veliyidai when Dr. Illyas (RJ Balaji’s character) is speaking to Nidhi (Rukmini Vijayakumar) and he asks her how Leela (Aditi Rao) is able to forgive someone as flawed as VC (Karthi) over and over again and manage to have limitless love for him. By the time that scene played out, I had already been squirming in my seat for over half an hour and was truly disconnected from the plot. So the question seemed like something I could stand up and ask the other 249 people in the hall that night. Only, it will not be about Leela but Mani himself. Why is it that we, his audience, continue to look forward and patronise his work, even when it has been many years since we last related to his narrative? I am sure it is not a simple answer.

Kaatru Veliyidai is an overwhelming sensory experience. Ravi Varman (true to his name) brings to us the most visually stunning piece of cinema made in this country in more than a decade, by some distance. But that is not new. Mani has always, almost compulsorily had that extraordinarily beautiful handwriting – cinematography, music or sound design. Except, it comes together in KV, better than ever. There is a scene where the two protagonists are standing next to a jeep on top of a hill, in momentary silence and I would be lying if I told you I did not feel the gush of a cold mountain breeze and shiver a little inside the Chennai theatre. Aditi (aided beautifully by Krithika Nelson’s exquisite dubbing), shines through in a surprisingly impactful performance by a female protagonist. Surprising as they together pull off the ‘looking lost in love’ and ‘sounding lost in love’, with extraordinary authenticity. The scene in which she is humming while making tea for her grandfather and then stepping out at the sound of a fighter jet whizzing past is sublime.

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The one who seems completely out of touch though is the writer himself. The mind that penned films that eventually became pop culture for an entire civilisation, seems to struggle to connect anymore. Not with a different generation, but the one that knows him intimately as a creator. He has always erred on the side of brevity when it comes to dialogues and his characters have mostly been comfortable switching between their native slang and poetic Tamil. This streak in them has mostly been for the effect, for a great one liner that heightens a scene, rather than something that is organic and native to the character itself. And we have always enjoyed that. The prospect of an auteur presenting world class cinema to us, rooted so much in our sensibilities has always been exhilarating and we have lapped it up instantly. And proudly.

However, Tamil cinema has moved on. We are bang in the middle of a unique revolution, one where we have willingly traded aesthetics for the rough edges and compromised poetry for authenticity. It is the age of Kumararaja and Vijay Sethupathi. One where the school of Mahendran has already married that of Mani Ratnam and Balachander has already stepped out onto the fields with Bharathiraja. So no, we cannot relate to a Hero who yells ‘kaatru veliyidai kannamma’ from a mountain top or calls his girlfriend “chella kili” or a character referring to her friend’s love by saying ‘avalukku avar mela oru kannu’. It breaks the spell and if you try, you can hear people shifting in their chairs. It is probably blasphemy, but I have often wondered this week if KV would have resonated better as a film with someone else’s lines.

But it is also among the writer’s best.

In between the unreal lines is a real, significant departure. There is an extraordinary scene in the film when Leela and VC fight over a snow storm – a fight between rationale and romance. This one scene is the film in itself. It is also screen writing at its best.

While Mani is not new to a flawed male protagonist, he has very rarely dived this deep. While Velu Nayakkar or Lallan or Mouna Raagam’s Divya are all flawed, we rooted for them. Much like Brando’s legendary ‘Stanley’ from ‘A Street Car Named Desire’ – a film that is an obvious influence in many of Mani’s leading men. But not this man. Mani’s VC is a case study and I would pay to buy a book on him. And so is his Leela. Flawed in her naivety.  While flawed protagonists by themselves are not ground breaking, what is new is that the love itself is mis-shaped. It is the real Kargil in the script – one fraught with landmines and one that shouldn’t exist.  In a land of stories where Love is above all else, this is a beautiful departure. And for a writer / director who has always been comfortable on the surface of any issue, this is significant. One just wishes that we could have cared about these two people more in the couple of hours we spent with them.

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Which brings me to the craft.

While it is evident that Mani Ratnam’s audience don’t connect with his stories any more, the reason for this ironically seems to be the director actually trying to better himself as a story teller. Exhibit A: In Baradwaj Rangan’s recent book, Mani talks at length about his thought process during the making of Guru: “…you have to, without being hurried and you also have to move in chunks. You cannot have a lot of moments and rush through each of them. Ten years back, may be…..it is better to choose the right ones and linger on them….If we can get it in one simple emotional moment, then it seems enough instead of dwelling…”. There is enough evidence in his last three films to suggest that he is moving towards more “efficiency” in story telling. In this effort to create tighter narratives, I wonder if somehow the soul has been subconsciously traded.

I left the theatre after watching KV, with a sense of longing. Like being unable to relate to your childhood friend anymore. With each passing film, the director and writer that I grew up with, whose work I used to long for, seems to matter less and less. But like with all relationships, I guess we will continue to look forward. Clearly, nothing else explaing the packed theatres on a weekday night in a Chennai suburb. By the time the next release happens, I am sure the Leela in me would have forgiven my VC – my man from Venus Colony!

Mondays with Vardah

I have always been a coastal kid. Which means, my mind processes the words ‘cyclone’ or ‘hurricane’, just like it does ‘heavy rain’ or ‘hot summer’ or ‘world peace’ – sub consciously. The howling of the wind through the shut windows and doors that others find ominous, is something a coastal mind (or a Mumbai high rise mind, if you please) adapts to over time and I am a seasoned campaigner. The Madras cyclones of the 90s and the ones I experienced later off the Galveston coast, have made me more realistic in my worries. I remember a time at the peak of Hurricane Katrina, when a friend sitting in my third floor Houston apartment was worried our windows were going to fly in. I was terrified too. We did not have enough chips to last the night.

But that Monday was different.

There is something extremely spiritual about storms. Amidst all the disaster and general chaos, there seems to be the biggest evidence of ‘a plan’. An order. And for a non-believer like me, that can be overwhelming. Which is why, like all great spiritual experiences, I choose to enjoy storms with a dash of music. Over the years and after many iterations, I had found my ideal OST – Bocelli’s Romanza. In the calmness of his opening, in the crescendo and in the mystique of the composition itself, Bocelli intends to explore the deepest corners of love in one’s heart. But strangely (or perhaps predictably), I have always found only a cyclone in it.

Every time a fierce depression sets in on the Madras coast, every time people avoid the Marina, I have found myself taking my Santro to the beach road, just to experience this song with the storm. Or may be to experience the storm with this song.

But the Santro remained parked that Monday.

10:36 AM:

It all started with the cane blinds. Dad usually ties the ones in the long balcony to the iron grills behind them during heavy winds, so they don’t fly wildly and break the window glass panes. Dad is not just good at this. He is extra-ordinary. Once he is done, they stay in place and no rain or wind can seep through them. None had, in over a decade. But on Monday, the wind scored early and it was evident even at 11 AM, who was gonna win this game. One by one, the blinds were unchained and their unharmonious, unsynchronized patter against the walls were beginning to sound ominous.

The thing about coconut trees:

Trees lie often. Almost always, actually. Peak summer is often misrepresented as being bearable, thanks to the Mylapore roadside giants. The obscenely green parks in South Delhi (almost) give you the impression that something is terribly wrong with the scales by which pollution is measured. Almost all kinds of oaks lie about wind speed. You could be in the middle of an umbrella breaking gust, but these guys will be unmoved, like Deve Gowda at a trance party. But coconut trees are always honest. I grew up with five of them in my backyard and they always let me know if there was a party up there. Even a mild storm will result in a thud on the soil – a few fruits here, a branch there and some times the whole damn tree. So that morning, I looked to them first from my terrace and they were telling me a wild tale. With a tragic ending.

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The radio games:

A lot has changed in Chennai over three decades. But one technology has transcended time. All India Radio continues to be the only source of news during natural disasters. When I was a child, cyclones meant the family sitting around a kerosene lamp, playing a never ending card game, with food magically reappearing on plates and listening to the radio – not for entertainment, but to hear a specific combination of words ‘cyclone – land fall – Vishakapattnam’. Vizag has long been our trusted friend when it comes to taking the ‘fall’ – both literally and figuratively. We have diverted more cyclones there than SBI has funds in failing airlines.

But that day, it was only a land fall. No Vizag.

It is 2:30 now and the voice on the radio is asking people to not venture outside. It is warning against mistaking brief lulls for the passing of the storm. I can hear a baleful thud against our three storey apartment building. Is that the mighty rain tree near our gate? I cant be sure. I am not venturing out to take any more pictures. Not so much out of fear as it is out of a sense of foreboding. Dad and mom seem to sense something as well. The cards are not out and neither are the snacks. Laptops and phones are breathing their last until further infusion of life. This cyclone is different. It sounds and feels different.

Death toll:

Sometimes we sense bad news before it is broken to us. It is like you are going to the hospital to visit an ailing relative and you know even on your way that it will not end well. Thats precisely how I felt when I was walking down the dark stairs an hour later. There had now been more than half an hour of silence and it was deafening. I could smell death as I emerged outside and true enough, the mighty one at the gate was dead, in what seemed a bloody killing.

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I made my way on to the street. It was one of those moments that I probably will remember even a few decades from now. I could not see a road. There were things all over it. My brain was telling me that those were trees, but I was in denial. I could smell a forest. Or was it the stench of death? Death of the original inhabitants of the land I was standing on. A tribe that had been around eons before I set foot there. There were human beings emerging from the wooden rubble. It was like a brief respite from relentless bombing. Everyone was trying to make sense of the present.

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I could see buildings I had never seen before, even though I have lived in these streets for many years. The entire street had been stripped naked and I could not watch it. I could not process it. The former chief minister’s daughter, who we knew as a polite neighbour was out. She was not talking much. Her eyes seemed in denial as well. Now that the Neem in their front yard had fallen, I noticed for the first time that their house had a balcony. I trekked further. Most roads were un-passable, even for pedestrians.

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Destruction makes for great conversation starters. I realized one of the guys next door was a jazz drummer. There were talks about worse destruction elsewhere in the city. There was also a fear looming. Vardah had two eyes (or depressions). Only one had passed. The other will make landfall in a couple of hours. It was a break. The enemy was merely refuelling. I went back upstairs. The night passed. Nobody spoke much. I looked outside in the middle of the night. The moon looked more like a watch tower flashlight. I remember a NASA press release a couple of days back saying tonight the moon was gonna be 30% brighter. I wondered if anybody in Chennai would notice it.

Tuesday morning.

I couldn’t tell if more trees had fallen overnight. We were still naked. The 70 year old who delivers milk packets in our colony was about her business. I asked her why. “the truck had delivered all these packets. Imagine how much milk will be wasted if I don’t deliver!”. I didn’t have a come back. I walked past her.

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Probably the only one who stood his ground against a hostile 145 KMPH and batted through the night was the banyan. I made a mental note to refer to him as Sachin, in the years to come.

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People are up and about in the city and even electricity came back a day later. It will take a week for the streets to be cleared and even after 3 weeks we wouldn’t have any wifi. But on my way to the airport the next morning, I felt a sense of gloom. 13000 trees had fallen that Monday and every park in the town had been decimated. A large part of why home was beautiful had been erased. It will be another two decades for us to grow them back like they used to be. May be I will live to see it. As I glanced at the picture of my street in my phone, I couldn’t believe this was clicked just a few weeks back. I couldn’t understand why we were getting on with life like nothing happened.

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A life long disagreement. A lump. A void

I cant remember the last time I had a lump in my throat when a politician died. I do today. I surprise myself because I have never voted for the person, hated her brand of leadership and rarely agreed with her for the most part of her career. But her career also panned my entire adult life and I realize today that the battles we fought together and against – me as a citizen and she as my representative, have defined a large part of my life. A part that ended today. So it is difficult to differentiate the personal from the political, when it comes to emotions on this day.

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The Misfit

I felt for her as a ten year old boy watching the live telecast of MGR’s funeral, when she was man-handled out of the gun carriage carrying his body. Amidst hardened coterie men, she was an odd one out in that picture. I couldn’t help thinking that she somehow just did not fit in. If you had told me that day that the same cadre will fall on her feet willingly and worship her only a decade later, I would have been very happy with the World’s justice mechanism.

I had to take 25 C to my school and every time it crossed church park, there will invariably be someone whispering “that is Jayalalitha’s school”. I was proud of her. There is no country man outside my state who had / has a Chief Minister who topped the state in the Matriculation exams. She just seemed to never fit in! Years later, I would Love to show off her interview with Simi Garewal (1999) to my friends from elsewhere. I even bought a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham, because she mentioned it as her favourite book in that interview.

I did not root for her in the first election that ensued. It was also the first that I actively followed in my life – a time when the term “Amma” referred to someone else in TN politics. An election that fascinated me as a boy because at barber shops and family functions – my biggest source of political discourse at the time, it was pitched as the battle of the wife Vs the lover. And marriages have always won in this part of the World. As she would point out in an interview many years later, almost all of the female leaders in Asia have been related by blood or marriage to a male leader. Though on this occasion, both lost.

The walking tragedy

What happened in the TN assembly in 1989 shocked me even as a boy. Probably the first of many incidents that would disillusion dravidian politics as a concept for me.

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When I read about her in those years, her loneliness drew me to her. The child who lived away from family, the girl who was forced into an acting career she did not like, the man who took her entire youth as hostage, a lover and a political successor who was just left to fend for herself…her melancholy was not just sad. It was mythical, somehow. And magnetic.

The Hatred

I protested against her and got lathi charged during the 1996 elections. That campaign involved morphing of her images onto photos of goddesses and religious icons. It had outraged all of Loyola College at the time for some strange reason and we walked down Sterling road in protest. In that phase of my life, my political views were being shaped more by anger than by inspiration. And those were not her finest years. That made it easier.

My Mom spent her entire career in the state government and when their union strike in the late 90s was met with an unprecedented iron fist, my anger against her found a new high. I was still too young to fathom the concept of decisive governance. But that notwithstanding, she was at that point more a despot more than a democratic leader.

I hated her for the hours I spent at traffic signals on my bike, under a scorching sun, so that her never ending entourage could cross. They usually stopped traffic about 30 mts before it crossed a spot.

It was around this time that the corruption allegations surfaced as well. But the TN polity has always been comfortably numb with the concept of corruption. The hero worship which is the base of politics in this state, almost justifies it to a certain extent. But nothing justified THAT wedding!   The obscenity of wealth on showcase during that week was probably what alienated her forever in the minds of families like mine.

The resurrection. Of sorts.

In 2001 when she won, I was heartbroken. But something had changed. There was a pronounced objectivity in her actions and even a cynic like me started to believe in her intent. It was as though she suddenly realized that time was short. Most importantly, she started fitting in. Or may be we just reconciled to her norm. Either way, my views also matured from the personal to the objective. It was becoming less about the entourage and more about the economy. We profited from the real estate boom around the IT highway, but I could also see a vision of some sort taking shape. What happened from an industrial perspective in that term was unprecedented for the state. It is also the reason why I later found humour in the so called Gujarat story, which was a much lesser product (on most indices) compared to Jaya’s, except it was marketed better.

I admired her when she banned religious conversions in the state in 2002. I cannot think of a more decisive and rational move at the confluence of religion and politics, made by an Indian leader.

I admired her for being the ONLY politician in the south to have a consistent view on Sri Lanka throughout (pro Eelam but anti LTTE). This, while I disagreed with her vehemently on the subject.

I always felt secure with her representing my state’s interests with the central government. Whether it was Kaveri or GST – no one could mess with her. No one did, until the end.

I am not a fan of welfare politics but I could see that behind the megalomania of self branding across the canteen, pharmacy, salt and water, there was an agenda. I don’t buy into that agenda but I respected the plan. I have eaten at Amma canteen and the food was great! It is an administrative gold standard that she was able to maintain the food and the premises at such high levels of quality, even after many years. In a country of ‘great ideas’ and ‘bad executions’, she was miles ahead as an administrator.

In many ways, that is the real void she has left behind. We have so few of such managers left.

Her legacy. My lump.

I hate her brand of leadership. I loathe her for creating a party and a government with no second line. Not even a spine. I find it insulting to the intelligence of the entire state. But that is also the tragedy of Jayalalitha. This is evidently not her chosen career. But one she stuck on because of her bullheadedness – one that she handcrafted for survival. In many ironical ways, hers is the antithesis of a tamil cinema script – A leading lady, a hero who is also her villain and an ending where she has her revenge but somehow still manages to eke out a tragedy.

I hated how she treated my city’s icons. She converted a 450 Cr structure meant for the legislative assembly into a hospital and was threatening to shut down my favourite city library as well. Why? because she could. Because they were created by her rival. I hate her for making my city’s street corners into filthy wine shops.

I hated her party men for what they did during the Chennai floods when hundreds of relief volunteers were forced to stamp her stickers on supplies. I hate her for never speaking about it.

I am scared by the leadership void she has created in my state. I fear for the future of my city. But as I see her last procession to the burial ground, it is a strange love that rises up to my throat. Because I know that person. I know her story. We were in this together. I know her mistakes but I also know her injuries. I know what she had to endure. All I want to do is to hug that 15 year old girl from church park, before she was pushed into the tumultuous world of fame that will eventually consume her and tell her that it will be all be OK. We will all be OK.

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Why I love an errant Meru and hate the awesome Indigo!

Lao Tzu famously said ‘A Journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step’. For me, it has always been a Meru. I cannot think of an occasion where I have not taken a meru to an Indian airport – irrespective of which city I have lived in. And not just to airports. Whether it is a loved one leaving home in the night or when a friend is stuck somewhere, it has always been this brand that was top of mind. I am not exactly sure how / when this kind of an extreme loyalty happened.

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A few months back, we were brain storming for a campaign in our office. The question was: ‘what are the brands that you trust unconditionally’? There were many suggestions. Mine were Reynolds pens, Meru and Apple. The common thread here was the ability of these brands to deliver quality consistently, over long periods of time – to a point where you take them for granted. With Meru, quality for me was availability, punctuality and demeanor of the staff. The first two are operational, but friendliness and courtesy are softer skills. What differentiates a Meru driver for me from any other service provider is their professionalism, their customer-friendly communication skills and the evident consciousness that they are part of the service industry.

Over the years, a lot of the operational efficiency has been eroded. There have been occasions where a chauffeur has not shown up or the app has been erratic or card readers haven’t worked. There was even that one time when three cars drove up to our gate for one passenger, because of a system glitch. The fleet is ageing as well and that isn’t pretty. But the service hasn’t changed. A few weeks back, I was taking an early morning flight and took a Meru to the airport. Half way during the trip, I realized that I did not have enough cash and that the driver did not have a card reader. But thankfully there was that one road in between, where there were three ATMs. We quickly stopped at the first one, but soon I realized that the machine was out of order. Normally, I am a reasonably lucky person (I have gotten away with more shit than I should have, in life). But that morning, everything I touched was kaput. What are the odds that all three ATMs on the road would fail? Well, pretty high apparently. So I get into the car panicking, as I realized I had lost a good 15 min in all this and my last resort – the airport ATM, was at the very end of the building and will definitely jeopardize an on time check-in. I had never missed a flight in life and I was not planning on breaking that record that morning. And then the man behind the wheel said something: “Dont worry sir. You can pay me after you return to Delhi”. I clarified that I was going to be out for a week. He said he was OK. “You have my number. Call me when you return and when it is convenient for you”. I wanted to hug the man, fist bump, kiss him and buy him a beer. But then I got myself together, made a mental note to blog about him, renewed my love for Meru and dashed into the airport.

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There is this other brand that I adore – Indigo airlines. Put simply, it takes a monumental vision, brilliant management and truck loads of chutzpah (Not to mention an absolutely killer Upma), to make a  600 Cr profit in a market where all of your competition is making thousands of Crores of losses. It is not just their operational efficiency that I admire, but also their entire branding. With great minds, everything can be a media property – the flight ramp, the bus, the in-flight magazine, the biscuit tin and hell, even the head rest. And when their ‘on time is a wonderful thing’ campaign broke out, I was definitely sure we had our own, homegrown Southwest. Only a better version!

But things changed a few years back. Flights were delayed, delays were rarely acknowledged, check-in experiences became disastrous, egg-shells started appearing in sandwiches, in-flight service went from non-existent to streaky to just plain absurd some times (There was this one time when I was served food 2 minutes before we commenced descent),  and the staff went from being generally excitable to largely indifferent and frequently rude. I once witnessed a passenger behind me almost passing out mid-flight, but thankfully doctors were on-board that day and they recommended that the man be given some food for blood sugar. When he was revived though, he was promptly handed down a receipt and was asked to pay for the sandwich they served him – with a smile, of course.

But the tipping point for me was the 27th of September. I had another early morning flight (6:20 AM) from Mumbai to Delhi and thanks to a long check out process at the Hotel and a slightly late cab, I reached the airport about 55 minutes before take off. Too close, even for my standards. I had no check-in luggage and so immediately went to the closest counter. The lady there was servicing a customer and so I politely told her that I was taking the 6:20 Delhi (which she acknowledged) and went back to my place in the queue. Five minutes passed and then my turn came. She told me I was too late and can’t make the flight. I was a bit surprised and told her to please check again. She asked me to speak to her manager. I waited another 5 mts for her to come over and told her about my situation. She immediately declined and told me that she had ‘sent the papers to the pilot a long time back’ and I had no option but to buy a new ticket. She continued to chat with me about the ‘process’. This must have taken another 5 mts and while I was patiently listening, I was also sub-consciously analyzing my options.

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Then it struck me. I looked at the watch and it was still 40 mts before take off, which meant I must have been there at least 50 mts before the flight (I was sure I had been at that counter for at least 15 mts by then, but I want to give the benefit of doubt to the airline and went with 10 mts)  and so I stopped the manager and asked her to tell me what time I asked to be checked in. She asked the person at the desk, who replied “5:35 AM”. I asked how that was late (as 45 min is the legal deadline to check in and my flight was at 6:20 AM). Then she said “No sir, wait….it was actually 5:33 AM”. My tone was rapidly moving from polite to disappointed to angry, but the manager’s was consistently ‘rude’ from the beginning. Two minutes later into the discussion, I was given another time of “5:31 AM”. Now, I am not an expert on airline data systems but to put this in perspective, either this is a field that ‘is’ recorded in the system or it ‘is not’. If yes, then it is a number that doesn’t change and if not, then I am reasonably sure my watch is working. My hypothesis is that Indigo is happy to close a flight 5-10 mts before the 45 min deadline, if only a negligible number of passengers (read 0-3) are yet to check in. I am not basing this theory on one isolated incident (where all things considered, I was a borderline case), but on accounts from so many friends and colleagues. The reasons are obvious.

Two days back, my wife missed coming home for Diwali because an Indigo flight from Bhubaneswar was late by 80 mts and so she missed her connecting (Indigo) flight from Hyderabad. The treatment she was meted out by the staff at the Hyderabad airport (post mid night), when she enquired about her options was indifferent, rude and inhuman.

These incidents led me to wonder if running a tight ship meant losing the service DNA. I don’t think so. I can give you at least ten organizations who have grown in scale and trust, simultaneously – from Saravana Bhavan to Red Bus to Uber. The reason I write about these two contrasting brands together is because they make for a fascinating case study. Both are in categories where dog eats dog. Both need to analyze every measurable data point and ensure maximum efficiency to stay afloat and they do. One company seems to have its customer service DNA intact and the other seems to have lost it to some sterilization along the way. When did the ‘plastic’ nature of Indigo’s customer-facing organization set in? May be around the same time their hostesses were asked to use wigs?

The thing about Sundays…

Elections are over. IPL has become predictable. It is too hot for a brunch. And all your worries about the Indian economy have been magically wiped out on May 16th. Now, what will you do with your Sundays? Aren’t you worried? You should be.

How about throwing in a haircut? What’s that? I struck a chord there? Of course. You can thank me later.

The thing about Sundays is that it can be the best and the worst day of the week for a hair cut. Best because you appreciate the rhythm of the scissors more on a Sunday. Your mind is open to it. On any other day, it almost sounds like channel music on an elevator – you hear it, but are really not listening to it (think Kenny G).

Why is it bad? Well, because it invariably ends with a mild head massage – one, which can vary from a prolonged, pleasurable event (if the barber in question believes you are a big tipper) to a mild dusting of the hair (if he is not sold), which is more like a faked orgasm or non-alcoholic beer. Now, if you got the former, you are gonna feel reasonably sleepy and if you live in a city of ‘chronically sensitive’ drivers like Delhi, you do not really want to venture walking by a road on a Sunday morning (*cough*hangovermornings*cough*).

But really, none of these are as important to the Sunday haircut ritual as your regular barber itself. Think of it like going to your most frequented watering hole in the city:

“Welcome sir” says the beaming bartender. He then vacates your ‘favourite’ table and pauses expectantly.

“The usual” you say in the most indifferent manner possible.

“Of course” says the bartender as he turns his attention to your date, who is by now expectedly impressed (significantly increasing the prospects of the evening).

Cut to the Hair Salon.

“Welcome” says the owner of the shop and calls out “Asif, Karthik Sir aaye huey hain”.

“Hello Sir” says a beaming Asif, as he walks you inside, completely indifferent to the 3 other people who have been waiting before you.

As you settle down on the chair and as Asif is done placing the ‘reverse super hero cape’ on you, he politely enquires “regular same sir ji?”.

Your most minimalistic smile is usually enough, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the music.

So you can imagine my shock the other day, when I entered the place and the owner welcomed me and yelled “Naushad!”. He might have as well pulled out a Walther PPK .8 mm and pointed it at towards my left ventricle. My reaction would have been largely similar. Reading my mind, he said ‘Asif is on leave, sir’. The revolver was still pointed at me. So he added: ‘Naushad is excellent sir. Very good’.

When it comes to choosing between the opportunity to cut a queue and the prospect of an unknown barber, the human mind (of the Delhi variety) usually decides in favour of the former. You may think it is not a wise choice. But when you have spent multiple Sunday mornings of your growing up years waiting for ‘Uncles’ of varying sizes to bleach their skin, dye exactly 5 strands of hair, mow nasal lawns or clear dense ear tunnels, I am sure you will catch my drift.

So here I am, on the guillotine seat and Naushad has just caped me down, with something that has a L’oreal sign where there should have been a bat. And he is waiting expectantly for my orders. I mumble something about how it should be short overall and even shorter around the sides and the back of the head.

“Machine? Number 3?” he asked. And all my worst fears came true. Which self-respecting barber uses a machine? That is like Rembrandt using a stencil.

For years, I have scoured through hundreds of election manifestos of different political parties, looking for a specific combination of words – “We will standardize machine blade measurements across barber shops in this country”. No, along with Dalit rights, and sustainable energy, this issue continues to be largely ignored by the political class. Let me explain why this matters – if you got a #3 cut in ‘Ambuli Saloon’ in Chennai and if you got the same in “Hair we ‘R’” (real name) in Malviya Nagar, Delhi, the length of your hair vary between Malinga’s and Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s. In other words, I have no fucking idea what Naushad really means when he says ‘number 3’.

“Scissor se?” I say, with the same look that Rahul Gandhi had when Arnab asked him about the 1984 riots. And so it began. The symphony of metallic clicks suddenly felt like tremors of a 7.6 on the richter scale – with every sound, I had to check if there was a structural damage. After 7 minutes (which in earth quake time is about 47.2 years), Naushad moved away briefly and I surveyed the epicenter: for a moment, the whole head ‘seemed’ a bit….out of shape. It seemed like the backside of a Maruti Ritz or the façade of Antilla or the home page of IRCTC – you get the drift.

That sinking feeling that I will never look the same again crept it (I hear you say “dei, it is only 4 weeks max”, but rationale was not exactly in the top 5 priorities at that moment). I was framing an angry sentence in Hindi in my mind (a process that usually takes a minute when emotions are running high), when suddenly, an alternative thought revealed itself – “Dude. On fourth thoughts, it doesn’t look that bad. Wait…you might even like this, actually”. And then it happened. Like the Indian market embracing Hyundai Santro, like an average Rahman song growing on you, like how our senses learn to survive an Arnab News Hour, like how we started appreciating Nargis Fakhri for things besides acting, I found contentment in my new look.

Meanwhile, Naushad was back with his knife. Apparently he wasn’t done yet…

the unbearable cruelness of radio…

Wine was born in the middle east, exactly in the same countries where it is banned today. There was a time when people mixed wine to purify sea water and make it potable…

The rebel group in Syria asks:”why this outrage over chemical weapons? we have been dying for years and the ‘method’ they use to kill us is what really bothers the outside world now?”

Steven Soderbergh never did a screen test of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon for ‘Behind the Candelabra’. It could also be his last film ever, as he wants to take a sabbatical to ‘tear down everything he knows about film making’ and start as a ‘primitive’ again.

Jim Morrison did not write ‘light my fire’. Robby Krieger did and he composed its first version as well. But it is the tweaked Ray Manzarek version that eventually made it to our ears. Among his many inspirations for that piano riff was Johann Strauss.

Joseph Kennedy – the patriarch of the Kennedy family outlived nine of his children and also went through the mental illness of his daughter Rosemary, whose lobotomy he ordered when she was 23.

Pandit Ravi Shankar hated the Woodstock. He calls it an experience that he had to endure. He felt that the people in the audience were like ‘water buffaloes’.

Sarah Polley, who won multiple awards for her film ‘Stories we tell’, found out during the filming of this documentary that her father was not her biological father. The film was about the life of her mother, in the words of her family and friends who knew her.

For more than half a decade now, I have started a majority of my week days listening to anecdotes like these, in first person, thanks to a certain Terry Gross – the legendary host and executive producer of ‘Fresh air’, on NPR.

It is a radio experience like no other: the art of conversation so evolved that the audience becomes the third person at the table – whether they are driving on a San Francisco Interstate (where I first heard Terry on air) or passing the Sultanpur metro station. If you are one who likes the pursuit of information and experiences, then you will love the Terry experience – like how an entire generation before us did!

The art of interviewing is a delicate craft. Far beyond the worlds of Arnab Goswami or Charlie Rose or Simi Garewal or Tim Sebastian or even David Frost, there exists a realm where the interviewer has no ego. No temptation to judge. There is openness and wit, admiration and panache. Indulgence and Honesty, even. That is Terry’s realm. And you should take a trip there. It is a delightful place and I go there every morning, almost. And over the years, it sort of feels like the right thing to do while driving.

And then there are days when I forget to update the podcast or the phone runs out of juice. Well there is always the local Delhi FM, I assure myself. And with great indulgence and patience, I drift on from 91.1 to 105.7, patiently and intently waiting for that one sound. One sound that will hook me and make me take my finger off the scanner…..dinkachaka, realty ad, Ranbir’s last film’s song, prank call by RJ, realty ad, dinkachaka, ranbir’s new film’s song, prank call by ‘guest’ RJ….wait….what is this? wow….94.3 has changed programming to entirely English music? That is refreshing….at least a change from about 10 other stations playing the same genre….lets listen in….’Good morning! This is Kris, your host and coming up, Bryan Adams with Summer of 69…are you excited???’…..

On those days me and my car decide in favour of silence. Just us and the road. You should try it some time…

You ain’t got ‘Class’!

I took my first flight ever in 2001. One of the soft benefits of choosing a niche career in Internet security used to be the paid-for trips to “cryptography conclaves” across the country – the real life equivalent of a ‘Big Bang Theory episode’. I was making one such sojourn from Chennai to Bangalore. 300 Kilometers for a crow. 45 minutes for Boeing – not exactly ‘Bon voyage’ types, but hey it was my first time ever in an airplane! I was genuinely excited.

They had me at Fresh Lime.

It was a Jet Airways flight and I had a lot of thoughts about the journey before I boarded. But a welcome drink wasnt one of them. For someone whose travels to Bangalore hitherto have been either in a ‘state transport corporation’ bus or a sleeper coach in Brindavan Express, I wasnt used to in-flight ‘anything’. So when the radiant smile asked me “orange, fresh lime or butter milk?”, I made a random choice at the time – “fresh lime, thank you”. Little did I know that it was a ritual I would end up following for years to come. It was a beverage befitting a great airline – you could almost hear it say “sit back, relax and enjoy me”. I would never ever know how their orange juice and butter milk tasted.

A perfect start to a ten year affair. I was smitten by most things about Jet Airways from that day – the yellow on white, the radiant smile, the classy magazine and even their Pongal-Vadai. It is not easy for an airline to find ‘True Love’, in our times. If you are a frequent traveler, that means about 7-8 ‘magical dates’ in a month. And thats not easy, what with the taxes, fog, terrorism, share holders and governments – ask Cinderella! But over the last 11 years, Jet remained my first choice airline, since that first date – business, personal, domestic or international. The reason was simple. All airlines screw up and Jet would as well. However, there was always a minimum service level beneath which a 9W experience would never go. Which is why it quickly became one of the brands I would trust Blindly – like Bose, Royal Enfield, Hamam, Southwest Airlines, Samsonite and Alacrity.

And I got used to the love. Many of times that I would have an argument at the check-in, an upgrade would wait for me at the gate. Every time a Mumbai flight got delayed, the Clipper lounge would make me feel at home. Hell, I even have the airport manager’s cell phone number and she would always pick up the phone and make an effort to resolve. I was a content customer. Something drastic needed to happen to shake my loyalty.

And happen it did. A few months back, I was buying tickets for my sister and four-year old nephew from Chennai to Delhi and back. As any self-respecting ‘mama’ would, I wanted them to travel business class, using my upgrade vouchers. And I planned meticulously for this (people who know me would find that completely out of character, but that’s for another day). I called Jet Privilege roughly 8 weeks before the proposed date. Strangely, they told me that all ‘voucher quotas’ were filled up for ALL days. I was baffled – 56 days, 112 flights and not two seats in business? Why were so many people traveling from Chennai to Delhi? It wasn’t even 2G season yet. Still, I gave JA the benefit of doubt and stayed on the ‘waiting list’.

A few weeks went by and I got a call from JP, claiming that they have blocked a few dates and that I can buy the tickets now. I was delighted. I booked the tickets in 5 minutes flat, beaming. Only to be told later in the day that I apparently booked a wrong class. The conversation went something like this (not verbatim):

Me: What class? I booked the ticket on Yatra. They don’t tell me ‘class’.
Jet: That blows, man. Hey, you can always book it on our site. We got ‘class’
Me: How much would it cost me.
Jet: Rs. XXX
Me: What the hell! But that’s only Rs. 200 below the actual cost of business class. Isnt this supposed to be ‘free upgrade’?
Jet: Shit happens, dude.
Me: but I am a JP Gold member and all that shebang.
Jet: That’s pretty cool, man. But it is what it is.

I was baffled. The romance was developing cracks. My family traveled ‘on time’ by Indigo and my wallet remained a tad heavier. But I did not give up. I tried many times over the next few months to exhaust my pile of vouchers – 5 days before, ten days before, one month before, 45 minutes before – but it was always the same set of responses:

“your class isn’t A,#,$,%,^,&,Y. Not even #,$,%,^,&,* or (”.

“Quota over”. “Full flight”

What I have learnt through all this are two things. One – there probably is no system behind the usage of upgrade vouchers at JA. IF there is one, it definitely seems as complex as the algorithm for building a large hadron collider out of confetti. Nobody at JA clearly has a clue. Two – The purpose of the JP program is not customer delight. It is more of ‘how can we create a perception of delight, without actually having to add value. Any value.

I started seeing others. A few dates with Indigo and even got Kingfisher’s number. And just like that, we broke up. (FYI Jet, it dint help that you changed the Fresh lime to LMN). After 11 years.

In passing, I wanted to share something that happened 5 days back. It was 12:30 AM in the night and I was supposed to fly to Mumbai early next morning on Air India. But the meeting had just got cancelled. So I called Air India (I know, right? Who the hell is going to pick up the phone past mid night in a state run airline?). Not surprisingly, the call got cut. I was about to go to bed, when the phone rang: “Hello Sir, I guess you were trying to reach us? Sorry the call got cut. This is Air India. How can I help you?”.

Airlines calls back? At 12:40 AM? What the fuck? What else have I been missing?