About harinair

After spending 15 years in management consulting and corporate finance, I now am deeply into the world I love - everything to do with travel & vacations.

Aam Aadmi Party

The online battle for 2014 has been joined by another active participant. Got this email from Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi party, presumably part of a big outreach to the business community.  I like his dedication to the cause of cleansing up what is obviously a creaky system and I certainly admire his personal integrity. What I am troubled by is the sense one gets of a backward-looking socialism in his economic thinking; I believe that is absolutely not the right choice for India.

Dear Hari Nair:

Today, I am writing to a select set of business leaders to seek your support for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

We are living in a time when corruption is uncontrolled, the rupee is in a free fall, and our natural resources are being plundered. Our political system has deteriorated to such a point that we have criminals routinely contesting and winning elections. This all round slide should deeply concerns every citizen of this country especially those in business. After all, public corruption not only undermines the rule of law, it erodes social trust and the integrity of institutions so necessary for a thriving business culture.

I am sure you agree that unless we put an end to it immediately our country’s future could be jeopardized forever. Surely, we can’t let this happen. But we need to act and act NOW!

AAP is committed to ensuring greater transparency, delivering good governance, implementing strong laws to root out corruption and restoring trust in the political system. We will end the practice of crony capitalism and create an environment that encourages and facilitates businesses to start and thrive. We will strive to create a level playing field and unleash the spirit of entrepreneurship that is naturally ingrained in our people. In short, we will provide the political leadership that envisions and creates an India that does justice to the hopes and aspirations of young Indians.

Hari Nair, I firmly believe that we can resurrect the India story on the global stage. To do this and much more, AAP needs your support. Your support could be decisive for the country.

You can support AAP by donating for our cause, voting for our candidates and passing our message to your friends and co-workers.
 

Regards,

Arvind
@arvindkejriwal
https://www.facebook.com/AAPkaArvind
http://www.aamaadmiparty.org

Listening to the user

Given this is the longest running topic on the internet, I will keep my  two cents very short. Every time I set up a calendar slot or an alarm on an Apple product, I find it just that bit easier – for the simple reason that Apple offers me only multiples of 5 (for setting minutes) which makes the whole thing much faster. So I can set up an alert for 9.15am or 9.20 am but nor for 9.17 am or 9.21 am. Think about this – how many of us really need to have alarms set up for 9.17 or 9.21?

Having said that, I have also realised how difficult it is to truly listen to users & ignore conventional wisdom – which seems to always be on the side of more bells & whistles.

Dhingana, Bombay Royale and Indira Gandhi

 

As I listened to a medley of popular 70s hindi music over the last couple of weeks on Dhingana, the online music app I have recently discovered, a thought struck me. Seventies hindi music seems to have had a huge amount of western influence. Much more than the hindi film music of now and certainly more than that of the 60s, 50s or before. And a couple of days ago, this thought was reinforced by an interview on BBC. They were doing a special on the Glastonbury music festival and were  interviewing the Aussie band “Bombay Royale”. The Bombay Royale, in case you have not come across them, is a bunch of white aussies and 2 people of Indian origin who have teamed up together, they say, to produce the ‘epic’ sound of 70s bollywood music. And in the interview, one of their leaders – The Skipper – mentioned that he particularly liked the fact that 70s Indian film music had a very international feel to it. 

All of which, on a bit of reflection, starts to sound strange. In the 6 decades of India’s independence, there was no decade more decidedly inward-looking and clearly not international as the 1970s. Remember this was the decade when Indira Gandhi had nationalised everything leading to no need for any foreigner to be in India for business, had proclaimed the emergency which did not leave too many of leaders outside jail for them to go abroad and and had a perversely socialist streak which led to ordinary Indians being allowed a princely sum of $8 dollars for the entire trip for every person going abroad. On the whole most of us sat at home and looked longingly at our lucky cousins who went away to Africa. And to add insult to injury, Richard Nixon (or was it his sidekick Kissinger?) called India, “the largest unimportant country in the world”.

So this was the 70s in which suddenly our film music was all international. How did this happen?

Bicycle Travel

Got this Youtube link from my old colleague, good friend & mega bike-enthusiast Mohit. And since I wholeheartedly approve of the notion of slow travel in its ability to suck out every bit of juice of the world around us, here it is for all you. A reminder that Fast is sometimes the enemy of the Great – especially in travel (actually also in Food, but that is another story).

The population conundrum

Mauritius is a country in the Indian Ocean with a population of 1.2 million people. India (the country from which, incidentally, the Indian Ocean gets its very name) has 1.2 billion people – which is exactly 1000 times the population of Mauritius.

This fact struck me as we were driving across Mauritius last month. As we drove past the softly rolling country, I got to see huge expanse of land on both sides of the road with very little sign of human habitation – totally unlike what one sees in India. Clearly this was a country with a small population.

Till I thought a bit more about it and decided to dig further and examine this whole population issue from the density perspective. Population density of a country is the number of people living in a square kilometre and should normally reflect how congested living conditions are likely to be in that country. Here is what I found:

India has a population density of 382 & Mauritius has a population density of 631. Which means that Mauritius has double the number of people of India living in one square kilometre. So, why is it that India feels so crowded and Mauritius so open?

The answer – India’s overcrowded & over populated cities. India is not as crowded a country as seems to us urban folk. Those of us who have spent time travelling in the rural interiors of India (especially in the North) have encountered large tracts of land with very little signs of human habitation. The problem of crowding seems to a uniquely urban phenomenon. So I looked up some more numbers.

Here is the population density of some of India’s top cities:

Delhi – 9340

Mumbai – 21,261

Bangalore – 4378

The problem, though lesser, continues into some of the smaller cities as well:

Ahmedabad – 890

Kanpur – 1449

Coimbatore – 748

So clearly, we need to quickly figure out how to make Indian cities less congested & so more livable.

Incidentally, the world average for population density is just 45.3 people per square kilometre of land area. A good target to try to get to.

Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, Bangalore, December 2012

Was at Dr L.Subramaniam’s annual fusion music festival last night. He started with a real foot stomper called ‘Indian Express’ (poetic justice indeed, since the festival itself is sponsored by the Times of India) and ended the evening with Don’t Leave Me. In between were pieces by  his wife Kavita Krishnamurthy, their kids and two other musicians. Except for the odd flash I pretty much forgot HolidayIQ for over 2 hours; evidently the music was absorbing.

A small regret – I would have liked the two global musicians to have got a bit more of play time. Froy Aagre from Norway on the Sax & Chris Rhyne from LA on the keyboards.

MOMA/Iwent

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Last month while in Manhattan I visited the Museum of Modern Art for a few hours. And was captivated by an initiative they have right at the lobby.

Here is what they do. All visitors to MOMA can pick up a piece of paper and write/doodle/whatever they want to on it, ideally about how their MOMA experience went. Then they can scan it in a easy-to-use scanner and up their masterpiece goes on to the MOMA website inside the ‘iwent’ section (incidentally it also gets projected on to a wall in the lobby). You can go later to the MOMA website and ‘claim’ and share your scan using the unique id that each piece of paper has. Essentially, this is a really creative and cool method of giving user feedback, a whole lot more fun that just writing a Review. Exactly mirrors our thoughts on how HolidayIQ’s hiq! should feel. Loved it.

Read more about this here: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2011/12/07/i-went-to-moma-and-it-s-back/ & here: http://www.moma.org/iwent/

Coke Studio Pakistan

Last weekend I seriously overdosed on Coke Studio Pakistan on Youtube and have not been able to purge it from my system since. Looks like this weekend is set to be a repeat.

As many have pointed out before, Coke Studio Pakistan is better than its Indian avatar. I had never heard of Rohail Hyatt – the producer of CS Pakistan – before ; but the guy shows sheer genius. I have forever been wary of fusion music (as also fusion food) given the difficulty of creating something truly seamless by merging massively disparate cultural contexts. But this man has absolutely done it. Read an excellent interview with him here.

And as another weekend creeps up, I am completely lost between the smoky voice, the aquiline profile and haunting melody of Meesha Shafi crooning Chori Chori..

Online music is here

This is one of the better things to happen for Travellers. As I wait for another delayed flight at Bangalore airport the magic of online music hits me. Switching between Saavn (the online Indian music service funded by Tiger) and TuneIn Radio (a worldwide selection of internet radio stations) I am definitely spoilt for choice.

India’s inbound tourism – in search of a ‘new’ paradigm

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Seeking in India

India has always sold itself well to ‘seekers’, never really to ‘indulgers’. And in this lies our inability (not withstanding the regular self congratulatory blurbs emanating from our tourism ministry) to jump-start our inbound tourism.

‘Indulgers’ look for experience and that means they are looking to do something now – the Today matters to them. ‘Seekers’ on the other hand are looking for answers and are very likely to look for them in the past. And practically no country on earth has so much mind-share of Seekers as India.

The real question I guess is – can India be relevant to both?

HolidayIQ in Indonesia

HolidayIQ launched its Indonesia website today, our first real foray outside India. The soft launch is designed to allow domestic Indonesian travellers to add their photos, hotel reviews and the like. What a journey this has been!

A few years ago the only thing one had was this passion for travel and a desire to do something unique around it (read: not become a travel agent). And from an idea sparked off by reading an article about Zagat Survey to a 2-person team in a little room to now 150+ people across three countries, the journey has been a lot of fun and of course an ulcer or two.

New York city after a year

I was here at the Mandarin Oriental in NYC exactly a year ago for the last Tiger conference. The last time I was a newbie to the conference, Tiger having just invested. This year, one is a bit of a veteran since there were so many new investee companies.

Sitting at tables or standing with coffee, making boc phet on all matters big and small with a group of almost 200 other founders of internet businesses across the world, I am struck for the first time by this whole new brotherhood. Almost everyone here is from the non-western world and absolutely everyone is a product of the 30 year reign of prosperity in the developing world let loose by the Thatcher+ Reagan regime in western countries. The world view among these 200 people is surprisingly uniform and upbeat, a far cry from the relatively pessimistic view from Larry Lindsay, the ex economic advisor to the previous POTUS, George W.

There is simply no doubt that the internet and mobile are together making fairly significant changes to just about everything human beings do and I am definitely happy to be part of this. Of course, the fact that I do something that is of real interest to my two sons is the real payoff. How many dads can say that :). Certainly keeps me young.

Jakarta vignettes

As the Garuda Indonesia flight takes off from Singapore, all I can make out of the announcement by the pretty little stewardess is a single word loudly repeated thrice  – evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. My strong instinct to dive under the seat is tempered by the realisation that none of the other passengers  have twitched even the smallest muscle. Apparently catastrophe is not imminent. Actually the Garuda fight between Singapore and Jakarta isn’t bad at all. In addition to having lovely stewardesses, Garuda served a rice meal on the flight that had a very interesting dish of dried anchovies and peanuts. The last time I had small dried anchovies in food was when I was around 12 or 13 years – so it was with pleasure that I found that the decidedly acquired taste had not deserted me after all these years.

The first impression of Jakarta to an Indian eye brought up on classical Indian languages is the preponderance of Sanskrit. As you swing out into the highway from the airport you see big signboards that proclaim Soewarna Technology city. It is soon followed by Jalapuspa hotel and Sampoorna Square. Markers of an ancient connect with Hinduism are abundant everywhere; I start to dimly understand how westerners feel as they travel the world finding markers of their culture dominate the landscape in most countries.

Driving in Jakarta is educative.  Getting tired of the legendary traffic jams of the city, the good men running the government there came up with what sounded like an eminently reasonable solution. They mandated that cars have to have a minimum of 3 passengers to be allowed to traverse some of the main city thoroughfares during peak hours. The obvious idea was that single or double passengers should not take cars but use public transport so that cars do not take up too much of scarce road space. Unfortunately Indonesians are as adept at Jugaad as Indians and the impact of this rule has been to actually increase the number of people using roads. Since all cars now need to have 3 or more people, there are men hanging around intersections who rent themselves out as a additional passengers for a fee to motorists with lesser number in the car. So a large number of unemployed youth who otherwise would not be using roads or footpaths are all over the place now. Another strike for the law of unintended consequences.

You can’t escape SRK in Indonesia either. Shah Rukh Khan is repeatedly mentioned as the one Indian that everyone, especially the women seem to know about. Most of the time, the only Indian. Along with Korean superstars, SRK is up there in the not-too-hip celebrity scene in Indonesia. All the young hipper-than-hip hipsters are rooting for Justin Bieber. East Asia is definitely the latest theatre of war for pop culture supremacy and it is a three-cornered fight between Hollywood, Bollywood and the Koreans. It will be interesting to see where it ends up.

I return to Jakarta in another fortnight- cannot wait to see what I will uncover next..

The neuroscience of meditation

 

I remember reading some time ago that the Indus Valley civilization (one of the oldest known human civilizations) had no concept of Police, or any other violent means of controlling internal behaviour (different from the notion of a standing army which is meant for repulsing outsiders). The historian-author of that book speculated that internal order was likely maintained by a system of mental conditioning of citizens and not by violence.

This came to mind while recently watching a Google TechTalk video that explored the Neuroscience of meditation (see that excellent – but long – video above). One of the points made by scientist Richard Davidson in that talk is that the practice of meditation, even for a duration as short as 3 weeks,  can actually increase ‘virtuous qualities’ such as Compassion in its practitioners. Here is a serious western scientist demonstrating with western scientific approaches and data, the power of calm contemplation to fundamentally alter human behavior.

It then seems to me no huge surprise that the locus of the science of  such contemplation or meditation lies in the East, particularly in ancient India and thereabouts. For, it seems logical to assume that it was this sort of thing that enabled the peoples of the Indus Valley Civilization to maintain internal harmony without policing. And that if they had figured it out 5000 years ago, it is their direct descendants who are most likely to retain the knowledge.

Seafood Paradise at Changi airport

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The check-in area is not a natural place to have food in the airport; so much better to go past immigration and security. But fate willed otherwise since the check-in was delayed for some reason. Demolished another crab, presumably from somewhere in the south china sea. Fate.

Rapid Mediterranean

Sure, visiting Italy, Greece and Turkey over 5 days is not a recipe for immersion. But surprisingly, what it did allow me to do was to make a rapid comparison of three of the world’s prominent ancient civilizations. And here is my 6 line primer on these three great cultures :)

The Roman civilization was obviously a martial empire and the one thing that stood out was its emphasis on physical discipline and organization. The Appian way, the Roman baths and of course the Colosseum speak of a people obsessed to physically building order.

The Greeks on the other hand (incidentally an older civilization from whom he Romans gathered much) were clearly more intellectually inclined. The Greeks, using a new tool called Reason, gave rise to many seminal intellectual developments including such gems as the notion of equality of men and the premise that ideas are more important than physically perceived reality.

What about Turkey? Turkey was the gateway through which more ancient human achievements of the East reached Greece and then over millennia onwards to the wider West. And in this process of creative transmission became one of the great cosmopolitan civilizations ever.

Top 10 Travel Websites in India

Comscore has reported its independent list of the Top 10 travel websites in India. And HolidayIQ is one of them. And with that, we have joined the leadership group led by the venerable (and massively visited) Indian Railways booking site.

What is particularly gratifying is that HolidayIQ being a niche tourism site with information only relevant for holidays, unlike most of the other sites which offer broad travel or transport solutions/bookings, managed to make it to this list. What is also good for HolidayIQ is the fact that we are probably the only site in that list (excluding of course Indian Railways) that has practically no advertising used to drive its traffic. On the whole, a good place to be :)

Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung

Yup, I know that is a mouthful. And to top it, we had to wait for more than 20 mins to get a table for 2. But boy, was it worth it!

The first time I had Xia Long Bao was on the last day of a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago. And the taste lingers. Xia Long Bao are steamed dumplings that have warm broth inside along with the more usual shrimp/meat mixture. The sheer mix of flavours and textures that this gives your mouth is crazy. I love it.

Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese mecca of Xia Long Bao. And since they make it so well, they have now spread everywhere in Asia including to Singapore. On Saturday I went to their outlet at the Paragon Mall in Orchard.

Thanks to Martin for suggesting this place and accompanying me for an awesome meal.

For a useful lesson on how to eat Xia Long Bao, click on the above photo.