Monday, May 29, 2006

Globalise Maddur vada

(The piece dated Dec.2002 was inspired by a protest in vain by swadeshi activists against the opening of a KFC outlet in Bangalore. Did some imaginative thinking on their behalf to suggest causes that could promote their agenda. But then no swadeshi outfit, nor a Maddur culinary tycoon, appears to have taken me seriously.)

Grand Sweets of Adyar has a brand image among NRMs (non-resident Madrasis). MTR of Bangalore has globalised its rava-idli mix. And Krishna Sweets is the Mysore pak market leader in Coimbatore. I believe we have some food for thought here. Why not promote a brand image for idli-dosa in the global food courts? How about globalising gulab jamun mix? Why can't we float a chole-kulche company with market presence in WTO member countries?

I am not talking about the mushrooming of Indian eateries run by NRIs the world over. You can find websites listing desi khana outlets in places such as Miami and Michigan. What I dream about is a maddur vada joint in Manhattan as part of a sambar-vada multinational chain on the McDonalds pattern.

It was in 1948 Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the first fast-burger joint. Within the next four decades McDonald's came to be represented in 103 countries. Its hamburger has been hailed by The Economist as a "symbol of the reassuring predictability, pre-packaged straight forwardness, the sheer lack of pretension of American life." For all this, it wasn't even American in origin. Hamburger, they say, came to the US with immigrants from Hamburg, who had themselves acquired the habit of eating ground beef with onion juice from the nomadic Tartar tribes. As it evolved in the twentieth century a hamburger came with ingredients other than beef, to cater to non-beef eaters and even vegetarians. Around 1920 the burger came to be sheathed in bun.

Maddur vada is known well beyond the geographical confines of Maddur in Karnataka's Cauvery belt. Those who have travelled on the Bangalore-Mysore train could not have failed to taste it. Like Mac-burger, vada lacks any trace of snobbery and is classless insofar as it is consumed with relish by peasants and company presidents. Vada, with all its variants such as sambar-vada, thayir-vada, sada-vada and masal-vada, is a candidate for brand-building on a global scale.When you think of it, vada is just one of the scores of items conducive to standardization, branding and marketing in our globalization efforts of the culinary kind.

If pizza can make it around the world, why can't masala-dosa do the same? It is not as if people in Berlin, Boston and Bristol are not familiar with our tandoori dishes. Some desi stores in Fremont, Sun Valley and Orange County selling condiments and pirated CDs of Indian films have also opened pani-poori counters. I know of a Karnataka gentleman who makes a comfortable living flogging home-made idli-dosa at a desi store in Phoenix during weekends and at NRI social and cultural get-togethers in Arizona.

South Indian thaali meal used to be a speciality at India Club on London's Strand. That was when they had a cook whose rasam was drunk with particular relish by V K Krishna Menon. It is said Menon, our first high commissioner in London, had brought the cook from native Tanjore. Krishna Menon survived on tea. He had a kettle on the burner all the time. The only other liquid he relished was the rasam made by the Tanjore cook.

In London during the sixties we could live on Indian food, if one could afford it. For Indian food cost more than burgers at Wimpy's or fish and chips. There were more of our kind of eating houses in the suburbs than in central London. My personal favourite was Agra Restaurant at Golders Green. Oddly enough one found quite a few other restaurants by the same name in many other parts of London. If there were more than one such eating place in the same locality, the other one was most likely to be named Taj restaurant. The other odd thing was that many of these places were not run by Indians. They were owned by Pakistanis, mostly from Sylhat district (now in Bangladesh). The place was known for its cooks, like Udipi in Karnataka.

Perhaps, the most serious snag with Indian food joints abroad is their varied taste and quality of items. The eats in all Udipi places in the US are not uniformly good and don't taste the same. Besides, some Indian restaurants do not adhere to the high standards of hygiene prescribed by local authorities.Uniformly good quality and taste, and value for money are the key features of the US burger and pizza multinationals.

To make maddur vada or masal dosa truly global, its promoters should address issues of HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) and ISO 9002 quality certification. They should standardize the process system to control hygiene with bacteria-free environment at production facility and sales outlets.

I recall that Swadesh Jan Manch or some such outfit launched a stir against the opening of a KFC outlet in Bangalore some time back. It is, perhaps, time they switched strategy and took their battle to KFC's home ground, instead of fighting their presence in India. 'Be Indian; Buy Indian' has become old hat. Our new slogan ought to be, 'Be Indian; Go global'. Maddur vada in Manhattan should be on the swadeshi agenda. Vajpayee, Advani and Gurumurthy of Swadesh Manch could work on this. Togadia could help, if he stays off it. For no swadeshi cause can be truly lost till it has his support.

And then there is a foreign policy implication. We have the opinion of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who declared some five years back that countries with McDonalds did not go to war against each other. As Tom put it, "with the hamburger comes an established middle-class which makes a country too sensible to cause trouble." Yashwant or Jaswant or whoever holds the external affairs portfolio when we get to set up a transnational food company would do well to ensure that maddur vada joints are opened in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Coonoorian couch potatoes

(Wrote this piece, Nov.2002, when I was based Coonoor and hosting a weblog – The Coonoor Connection’. Which is now in a state of total disconnect. It died of neglect, when I shifted base to Mysore)

Ideas move the world, they say. This might be the case elsewhere, but not in Coonoor. I can claim to speak from experience. Take this 'couch potato' idea I floated in my homepage, 'The Coonoor Connection.' I thought Coonoor could do with an outfit like the Long Beach (California) Society of Couch Potatoes.I promptly posted a message on the web site about the Long Beach society and its ten-point exercise programme for members - 1) skating on thin ice, 2) casting aspersions, 3) throwing caution to the wind, 4) bending the truth; 5) digging up dirt; 6) flogging a dead horse; 7) going the extra mile; 8) jumping to conclusions; 9) lashing out, and 10) marching to a different drummer.

It has been a year since this message was posted . And I have yet to hear a word from anyone by way of response. Not because of our inadequacy. It is my firm belief that Coonoorians are in no way less accomplished than Californians on any of the ten counts. My own favorite is flogging a dead horse.Coonoorians, with their web silence, convey a message. That they are one better than Californians. Our couch potatoes are much too lazy even to organise themselves on the lines of the lazy ones of Long Beach.

Our plus point is the Nilgiris weather. As Kalyani, my friend from Ooty, put it, weather here for much of the year is just conducive to laziness, warm blankets, hot tea and pakoras, and, of course, good books.Speaking of Coonoorians' propensity to stonewall ideas, the very idea of my starting a homepage was to try and put our heads together to break this stone wall and promote online interaction on life in Coonoor, the feel and flavour of the place, its people, their lifestyle, its flora and fauna.

I opened an 'Ideas' page to which those who believed in bettering our quality of life could send their input. I made it a point to mention that we prefer ideas that are weird and wild. Never mind if they think you're crazy. I can't think of anyone crazier than that Newton bloke who played ball with an apple, instead of eating it. And we all know what he came up with.

Some people see sausages and think of Picasso. We could do with those who think on such lines in Coonoor. Who knows, some such crazies might even think of starting an art gallery in town. In 'The Coonoor Connection' I have had people posting even some sensible ideas. But till date none of the ideas or the issues raised in the web site has made a difference to Coonoor. My homepage remains firmly stuck at home.

"We live in our own cozy world," says Thomman Kuruvilla, a public-spirited youngster, "if change is the rule of life, Coonoor has been an exception". According to Sangeetha Shinde, a Coonoor girl doing MBA in London, Coonoorians are status-quo-happy - "I can't see the peers in Coonoor allowing a Mcdonald's or Pizza Hut to set up shop anytime soon." On a more serious note Sangeetha says it was time we decided whether we need to produce more of our tea that has lost its market or shift focus to tourism, cottage crafts and other sectors with exports earning potential.

It is input from the likes of Thomman and Sangeetha that makes our day in the Coonoor Connection team - myself, son, daughter-in-law and my wife, without whose tolerance and tendency to ignore mounting dial-up internet bills, this site would have folded up a long while ago. I would like to share with you samplings of the mail we get at the Coonoor web site.Marshall Gass who left Coonoor over three decades back to settle in New Zealand has this to say: "So many mates from the old school days have made contact since my e-mail went on your web site - Hindley, ramamurthi, natarajan, Francis Mathews, Eates. Amazing. It was the best fun in the world catching up with those guys I played marbles with 35 years ago."

Of his old school, Lawrence, Edwin Good from Melbourne said: "Lovedale was tough, but there is little doubt in my mind that I would not have achieved what I did, only on a junior Cambridge certificate, without the grounding and character-building that went with it in Lovedale. The motto 'Never Give In' has always stood me in good stead in times of adversity." Edwin was a student in 1943-48, of what was then the Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, Lovedale.

Son of a locomotive driver, Edwin, on finishing school, moved to Nairobi and spent the next 40 years as an oil company executive in Dar-es-Salam, Kampala, Lagos and, finally, Melbourne. Happily retired now, Edwin has a wish to fulfil - "God willing, I intend to take Margaret to India on a sentimental journey."

A Londoner, Agnes L'hostis, wrote that Coonoor by night resembled a Swiss Alpine resort. However, daytime Coonoor was a picture of, what he called "Indian urbanity of jostling market-place, throw-it-anywhere (usually in the river) untidiness and a predictably chaotic bus station." The picture doesn't deter Warren Ezekiel, who lives in Melborune and "is still not tired of travelling to Nilgiris once every 18 months."

From Delaware, US, a non-resident Coonoorian, Susan Grandy posted a message on the web site saying that she was rather distraught after her last Coonoor visit. The Ooty flower show brought back memories of the good old days when the Kuriens of Strathern used to walk away with the prize. She could not accept the fact that they charged an entry fee at Sims Park - "I remember we used to go there in the evenings for a walk." Raiding the Sims Park orchard used to be the favorite pastime of Nina Varghese, a Chennai-based journalist who grew up in Coonoor; even though one ran the risk of getting caught by the mali.

A retired army officer who was once posted at Wellington wrote us to compliment the Nilgiris people for their ban-plastics campaign. Said Colonel (retd) A Sridharan, VSM,: "We were pleasantly surprised in not being handed out any plastic carry-bags wherever we went. Yes, we did see an odd carry-bag here and there on the roadside and these were, presumably, the ones left behind by tourists from the plains." The colonel was being charitable to Nilgiri folk.

And then we have Navin Williams who makes periodical trips to Coonoor from Mumbai to visit grand-parents. They keep telling him about how Coonoor has grown in all the wrong ways - traffic, the noise, dirt and the general downward slide of what was once a quiet and elegant town. What Navin would like to know is: "Since we have such a large populace around the world that is in love with Coonoor, can't we find ways that we can all contribute to improve Coonoor?"


Comment: You are too unkind to us. Beaches are WARM and you have to get up and do things. We are cool people and believe that life is in being, not doing. Thanks for quoting me. Makes me feel I've written something worthwhile if someone can remember it - Kalyani

Saturday, May 06, 2006

No ideas, please, we’re Mysoreans

As someone who hasn't been in Mysore long enough to take it in our cynical stride, I was envious of Mangalore when I read in The Hindu about the success of their Jana Mana TV serial. The Mangalore city channel programme had completed 250 weekly episodes and we haven't emulated it? Never mind that Mysore hadn't thought of it first. Can't we copy a good idea when we see one? We have a Mysore city channel; we don't lack people with creative resources or talent to produce a TV programme. With some lobbying in the right quarters, we could even find sponsors with a charitable disposition. Why, then, can't we have a Jana Mana in Mysore? Why... WHY?

I gave vent to my feelings in And there wasn't a spate of e-mail by way of reaction. Three persons wrote back, though I alerted 30, seeking feedback to my website message. An excellent idea, wrote Bapu Satyanarayana, an articulate senior citizen who takes active interest in civic issues.I phoned friends and acquaintances. Got a sympathetic hearing and many reasons why they thought the idea wouldn't work. A commonly heard line was: ‘Mysore is no Mangalore’. It was as plain and simple as that. I was being such a ‘tube light’, not to have thought of it.

For those who might be unfamiliar with Jana Mana, it is a community-driven TV programme that is informative, educative, entertaining and interactive. The weekly TV programme, devised by a group of public spirited individuals, addresses everyday concerns of people. They get people with hands-on expertise to answer FAQs phoned-in by viewers. They tell you how old one's neighbourhood church is, or where one can take a course in nanotechnology, the recipe for Kori Sukka, or how to crack CET.

Among the three respondents to my website lament was Anil Thagadur, a spirited Mysorean located in Dulles. He offered to contribute his bit and also his time to mobilise Mysoreans in the US, if only someone at our end took the initiative to put together a TV programme. He spoke of PBS TV and the National Public Radio in the US that are known for exceptional programmes on community development. Anil said, even in the US it was a struggle to find adequate support to start a not-for-profit venture, but once it got going it could really become the voice of the people, for the people. He suggested we collaborate with those running Jana Mana in Mangalore.

Bhamy Shenoy, a social activist, would like to see Jana Mana do more than address civic issues. “We need programmes that debate issues, expose shenanigans in public life, bureaucratic hassles, and expose frauds played on consumers by traders”. Don't we see a touch of Ralph Nadar here? Shenoy's prescription could keep away potential sponsors and prove to be the proverbial red rag to the establishment.

But then Bhamy Shenoy isn't frightfully optimistic about making a go of Jana Mana in Mysore. “I wonder how many Mysoreans would take interest in such things”, he says. He reckons that the main challenge here is motivating people to get involved in civic affairs.The educated and the social elite don't usually get involved, in the belief that they make little impact on civic affairs. The gullible are easily mobilised by political netas for bandhs and street protests.

To protest is our birthright, but it takes a nattering neta to turn it into vandalism. A recent street protest in front of the DC's office turned violent. There was slogan-shouting that went with some window-smashing. The DC's office furniture got thrown about, as in a John Wayne movie. I don't recall who the protesters were or what they were protesting. The thing that has stuck in the public mind is the ransacking of the DC's office.

Trouble is our netas who choreograph political stunt scenes with the vote bank in mind are not usually imaginative. Same old slogans and tiresome attacks on familiar targets. In Mysore, the other day, some so-called Kannada activists went around prime commercial areas blacking out hoardings with messages in English. I believe it was a Sunday morning, when the high streets were deserted and shops closed.

In such unguarded urban settings it wasn't a daring thing to do, going about with a can of paint and a spray gun to disfigure hoardings. It pales in comparison to the ransacking of the DC's office during working hours, in full public glare. The English-baiters with paint cans were led by an MLA. While the protesters with spray paint were at it in Shivrampet, someone drew their attention to vehicle number plates. The MLA is reported to have promptly picked up a can and brush to work on a number plate that carried the registration number in universally understood English format!

Maybe Shenoy has a point. How do you motivate the spray paint brigade to see that a Jana Mana programme, rather than disfiguring vehicle number plates, might have a better chance of promoting the Kannada cause? You have got to have civic sense for this, a certain spirit of inquiry, openness to ideas; in other words, you have to be Mangalorean.

A message posted in the context of some other issue in the Mysore website evoked a cryptic response from Mahadev, another non-resident Mysorean:”We see a lot of ideas on the Net, but the net result is minimal”. Mysore's answer to the Jana Mana idea is: “No ideas, please; we're Mysoreans”.

(When this piece was written in May, 2005, there was response from three persons to the ‘Jana Mana’ idea. There has been no addition to the number in the past year. Post on ‘Jana Mana’ is still there on the web along with several others waiting to be noticed.)