Indian Coffee House – the McDonald’s of Kerala

Kerala is predominantly a tea drinking state. Munnar, one of the most popular tourist destinations within the state has quite a few tea plantations which adds to its allure. Yet, one brand which stands out in the state is Indian Coffee House, with a heavy amount of brand loyalty among most. It is run as a cooperative model.

  1. McDonald’s of Kerala: McDonald’s in Kerala is limited to just 4 major cities. Indian coffee House is present with about 51 branches in almost all districts. The costumes of the servers
  2. Workers’ costume : Dressed in a style reminiscent of the Air India mascot, the workers sport turbans and all white (unlike the mascot)gal2
  3. They serve more than coffee : Even tea, and breakfast and lunch .. oh yes and dinner but with a set menu (remember McDonald’s standardization). Their biriyanis are extremely popular and so are the local delicacies which are served as snacks for tea (pazhampuri, cutlet ) – all subject to availability. The crowd at the restaurant especially during lunchtime serves as a testament to the quality. However, be warned during peak hours there is a possibility of people queuing behind your seat/ table.
  4. AKG photo: A.K. Gopalan, a communist leader from Kerala and a member of the Indian Parliament for nearly two decades played an important role in its founding. The laid off employees of the coffee houses of the Coffee Board were organized into a cooperative which currently forms the largest restaurant chain in Kerala – The Indian Coffee House. Hence, every ICH outlet has a photo of the founding member near the billing counter.
  5.  “Unique” Masala Dosa : A typical masala Dosa has a yellow masala – the yellow due to the turmeric added. Though, in ICH the masala is red, reminding strongly of the Communist colours. The red due to the presence of beetroot. Rest assured the taste is similar to the usual masala dosa

(Picture Source – The internet)

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The view from above

I went to B school, and like in any B school which prepares you for corporate life, we had a lot of group projects, case studies and presentations. This poem was conjured during one such presentation and, erm.. my team was presenting. 

Bored and listless a Face, Not keeping up with the case.

Passionate & Energetic the speaker went on

All the while the tutor’s eyes leered on

A flash of light within my sight,

Selfies and photos being taken on the right

Some reading across(in secret) to be kind

Phones on table, fingers sliding across,

Some heads were bent not listening at all

Another’s vacant expression, a distant dream,

Off to La La land, and others gaggling in teams,

One Engaging a lady, then engaging another,

And a fiery debate ravaging on for two others

I Caught a smile across, flow of thought disrupted

Smiling back, the look and understanding

Before I went back to my musings

(Picture Source : Internet – For representation purposes only)

Sun, Sand & Sex @ Konark

Sandy beaches, Sun Temple and Erotic Sculptures at a place dedicated to Sun

Orissa is blessed with a lot of sun and sand. And for those looking for a good relieving smoke, or external stimulants for internal reflection, the government runs a shop selling versions of Cannabaceae in the capital.

Bhubaneshwar, the capital still gives the feel of a quaint, rustic city where time has stopped and modernity is yet to catch up. This is coming from someone who landed in Orissa from Mumbai. Konark, a UNESCO world heritage site is about an hour’s drive away situated close to the shore of Konark beach. Konark’s name is derived from Kone (Cone/angle) and Arka (the sun) and thus dedicated to Sun God. Also known as “Black Pagoda” due to the black stones used in its construction, the sailors of yore used it as a landmark.

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According to legend, Prince Sambha, Krishna’s son was cursed to be a leper. His obeisance and prayers to the Sun God followed by a bath in Chandrabhaga river, which ran through Konark helped him cure the disease. Ever since the place assumed significance as a holy place for Sun worship and healing properties of Chandrabhaga river. The river has dried up now.

The temple was commissioned by King Narasimhadeva in 13th century. The site was chosen due to the significance of the healing properties of the lake, and the prayer centre for sun devotees. The temple brought a lot of artisans from across the world who laboured on it for 12 long years. Huge stone blocks were carved out and they in turn were interlocked using iron bans in the structure. To keep the stone and metal intact, the crown stone contained a giant magnet. As per legend, post construction of the temple, it was discovered he crown stone could not be put unless the rest of the structure could be dismantled. With the temple nearing completion, none of the architects could find a way out. The only solution was to climb the top of the temple, put the stone, and fall to certain death in the river below. The chief architect was worried as the king had ordered beheading of 1200 workers if not completed by the next day. The day of the deadline, the workers were relieved as the crown stone was finally in place – all rejoiced except the chief architect. The architect’s 12 year old son – Dharmapada who had come to visit him had saved the lives of 1200 workers and their families at the cost of his own.

The temple itself was constructed in the form of a chariot with 24 wheels ( for 24 fortnight’s ) being driven by 7 horses (signifying the days of the week). The upper portion of the wheel signifies day whereas the lower one signifies night. The entrance to the temple has a statue of a man under an elephant, which is under a lion (NaraGajaSimha). Several interpretations exist but the most common is with the growth of money and worldly power (elephant) in man, his power and pride (lion) also grow, finally crushing him. Another interpretation of the same is Hinduism (lion) dominating over Buddhism (elephant) and both the religions dominating over man. It has also been interpreted as spiritual power (lion) overcoming worldly power (elephant) and man is at the mercy of both.  A fourth interpretation is Sun god (lion) overcoming Indra, the god of rain whose mount is an elephant.

As reinforced by the guide a system of magnets, which held the temple together. The most powerful being the magnet in the crown stone. The stone structures had iron content and bands in them. The locals allege the deity of the Sun god in the main sanctum was floating in air without any support, using the top magnet, and a set of reinforced magnets and iron bands around the temple. The statue itself had iron content.

The current state of ruins of the temple is attributed to the absence of the crown stone. Some suggest that the temple was invaded by Mughals who also destroyed the crown stone.  Another theory is that Portuguese sailors discovered that the strong magnet interfered with their navigation , rendering their compasses useless. As a result, they destroyed the crown stone, which led to a disintegration of the entire structure.

Restoration work is ongoing.  Exquisitely carved structures surround the temple. As per the guide, STP – Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning was followed keeping in mind the audience was the general public. Horses and elephant carvings at the foot of the temple were for young children. Sculptures in kama poses, and figures of women which  adorn the wall are for youth. Spiritual figures present at upper elevation are for older people.

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A vast majority of the sculptures at eye level and a little higher comprises of amorous couples (triples and quadruples in some cases) in different positions, women with varying poses. Allegedly, after finishing the brahmacharya or student stage, the student was asked to come to pay respects to the Sun God. The amorous figurines were meant to titillate him so that he would embrace the grihasthya or householder stage. Those who were unaffected by these  figurines were given the choice of sannyasa by the guru.

IMG_20170729_130224“All forms of marriages are depicted – monogamy, polygamy, polyandry,” the guide explained. He cited the examples of polygamy for Krishna and polyandry for Draupadi, and pointed to a set of sculptures. Polygamy and polyandry have been depicted as threesomes. Clearly in the Mahabharatha it was mentioned Draupadi slept with one husband and reserved herself for him through the year. He also pointed to a set of sculptures which had two women indulging each other – “Lesbians!:, the guide pointed out “Indian society was so forward thinking at that point.” “Self sex “, he exclaimed pointing to another sculpture which showed a woman in a squatting position with some kind of object in her hand.

It was interesting though  that there was no sculpture depicting gay sex or men masturbating, especially when the latter is a far more frequent (what I did hear from my friends of the opposite sex). Probably the Indian sculptors assumed all men were heterosexuals. The primary target audience in this case was definitely straight men. Lesbians, women masturbating, angel’s threesome and a devil’s threeway.  “The women were very strong then also, and dominated men at times”, the guide went on to show a panel which depicted infidelity. The wife was beating the husband with a stick and a small bob of a lady head at the background. Apparently the husband went to meet his mistress infuriating the wife.

Besides kama poses, a panel also depicted a king riding on an elephant being received by another with his subjects. The panel also depicted a giraffe. The guide explained that the kings of that time had visited Africa, with the giraffe being proof of the same.

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The wheels of the temple serve as sundials. Tiny beads have been carved along the inner periphery of the wheel. Each bead represents 1.5 minutes, the sundial – being the axle of the wheel. The wheel itself has been divided into 8 sections and each section divided into a further half. Each section depicts what an individual/ couple can do during the day. Apparently the wheels cater to both married and unmarried women and men, couples etc. depicting when they should have food, take bath, have sex and in which positions etc.

Here’s another interesting story which I heard : Apparently, you’ll have dark sheep in families of repute and prominence as they were not conceived at the right time. So, it is best to conceive during the morning/ dawn as compared to dusk. The ancient kings would also consult astrologers to determine the best time to conceive with their wife / wives.

“How about for old people ?”, I asked. “There”, he pointed to a section above the first and second level of the temple. Spiritual figures were at a level very high up. The older folks when they come they look directly at the statue of sanctum sanctorum, with devotion in mind. The spiritual figures at the top were keeping that in mind, their vision more skyward. Temples of Chaya and Mayadevi, wives of the Sun god are also present in the vicinity.

The sheer magnanimity of the temple; the intricacy, imagination & detailing  of the sculptures, accurate depiction of time, orientation, and even the open attitude to art and life  – The ancient Indians were truly ahead of their times.

 

Existential Crisis 101

Written from the dingy confines of an inconspicuous cubicle within the corporate office of a sprawling business park from the finance capital of India

Standing figures discussing over the computer screen;

A phone stuck on another guy’s ear;

The deal seems off but he is keen;

With the desktop switched on, eyes on the mobile screen

For quite a few – Whatsapp, Facebook or lovelorn;

I care two hoots – nope, not even if its porn;

My head turns and looks on at the lone empty seat quite forlorn;

The one who heads the division has been away since morn;

Corporate ladder – go to hell; Newton’s law of inertia will prevail;

Engineering, MBA, a corporate job, however fancy – its just a veil;

I look back at the non-existential work and wonder, ” What a farce !!”

Dances of Kerala

Kerala is home to many arts – classical and folk, each with its distinctive flavor. Each dance immerses the viewer in a unique experience.

A trip to Kerala cannot be officially complete without watching a Kathakali performance. Kathakali was traditionally the bastion of only men, who donned female costumes as well. With colourful face makeup, elaborate costumes and headgear, kathakali artists intrigue and enthrall the viewer. The sounds of the drums and cymbals along with the accompanying vocals and the dancer himself makes time stand still and transport the viewer into the actual scene from the mythology/epic from where the story is told. It adds to the mysticism around kathakali.

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The swaying of coconut trees with the gentle breeze influenced the movements of another classical art form in “the land of coconuts” – the graceful Mohiniyattam. The only Indian classical dance form performed exclusively by ladies. Literally meaning dance of the enchantress, the seductive glances, the swaying movements of the torso, the expressiveness of the face adds to the allure and grace of the dance, enchanting the audience in the process and living up to its name. Temples in Kerala host kathakali and mohiniyattam performances, usually after twilight, for the benefit of devotees.

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Theyyam is part ritual and part spiritual dance from Northern Kerala. Performed predominantly by people hailing from the lower caste, once in Theyyam attire, the artist transforms himself and is considered equivalent to God by the locals. Sounds of chenda (drum)  in the background, the clanging of theyyam’s anklets, the headgear and face makeup add to the ethereal feel. Theyyam is usually performed in temples and ancestral homes(tharavadus) in north Malabar. If you are a culture buff like me, be prepared to lose yourself in these dances of Kerala – where journeys end and stories begin.

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Experiments Flashing Fiction#2 : The Morning After (Vagaries in Vegas)

 

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“Can I join you ? “, a tall buxom girl asked the young man sitting alone at his table, at the hotel buffet. Thick eyelashes with a dash of kohl – his middle eastern features stood out.

“Sure”

“Thanks for doing this”, she said pushing a wad of notes in his hand.

The young man was surprised. The girl seemed vaguely familiar. He tried to think hard. Was she another agent ? Did she do a striptease for a bachelor party? It was Vegas – anything could happen.

The nasty headache was not helping either. He tried to remember yesterday’s assignment – the club, the blaring noise of the loudspeakers, the girl. She was alone at a corner, probably waiting for someone. It was the red dress she wore which stood out.

“Do you have a boyfriend ? “, he had slided into the couch, knees touching hers. She had worn fishnet stockings.

“No”

Here eyes and hair – were they from the same country?

“Sarah”

“Jacob”. They shook hands.

It started with long island ice tea followed by tequila shots, some crazy dancing, invitation to his room and a sleepover.

************

He looked at the buxom girl and sat bolt upright. Recognition had hit him the previous night before the soporific effects of alcohol took over. It somehow never occurred to him till now.

The tall girl continued, ” I was worried about my sister. I just wanted her to stay safe. She was upset after her breakup. I took her here to forget that jerk.”

“You know, I had a huge crush on Sarah since school. Better let her not know you planned her date “, he told Sarah’s sister. ” I am planning to go on a real one with her later this evening.”

 

 

 

Vishu Trivia

Vishu is a traditional festival celebrated in Kerala, India every year mid April. And it is a festival dear to my heart not only because it symbolizes the new year for us, and hence new clothes, my birthday follows a couple of days later, which means prolonged festivities.

The highlight of Vishu is The Vishu Kanni, an assortment of items which promise a good and fruitful year- and yes literally a “fruit”ful year – What you see is what you get. It also falls during the jackfruit season and the start of the mango season. An example given below :

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The flowers associated with this festival is the Konnapoo from the tree cassia fistula. It always flowers during Spring around the time of this festival.

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It is the national flower of Kerala and Thailand. Moreover, the tree, called the golden shower tree (we can see why) is the national tree of Thailand. Its yellow flowers symbolize the Thai royalty.
In Ayurveda, the tree is called Aragvadha, meaning disease killer.
As part of Malayali folklore, the flowers please Lord Krishna, and hence is offered during Vishu Kanni.
The flower has also found its way on stamps across countries (20 Rs. stamp in India, 48p in Canada)

 

Ode to Boredom

Boredom, why do you continuously haunt thee?
Why do you make your presence only to me?
My patience has reached the end of my tether
And it ain’t made me any wiser.
Papers after papers i sit and surf
With only gloom & angst to turf..
Luck , have i grown so ugly
That you cant show thy face to me.?
Where art thee?
I am keenly awaiting your presence to aid me
Take me out of this dilemma.
Before it becomes a tragic drama.

Perspectives of Leadership

As part of one of our courses, a leader had to be interviewed to gain perspective. I interviewed a person working in public sector. Being a leader there can be challenging as corruption is accepted as the standard norm, and bringing in change is considered a herculean effort.

During the interview process what struck me was the clarity of thought and vision in every role played with  a clear mandate on what was right and wrong. In a study by Nandal and Krishnan, it was discovered there was a positive relation between charisma and lack of role ambiguity. The study went on to note that it was the absence of role ambiguity and not the charisma of the leader that could directly result in empowerment of followers by increasing their self-efficacy.

The system in itself had its flaws. A lot has remained unchanged since the British times, with the system designed to foster a trust deficit between authorities and the public. Unfortunately, this attitude continues to this day. This strongly seemed to suggest that the organization structure inspired the strategy and not vice versa. Unlike the lackadaisical approach of most officers, this person’s subordinates are inspired to think out of the system to set up a new structure keeping in line with the democratic ideals of the country.

I realized that in order to grow and create an impact, one must constantly challenge the system. As George Bernard Shaw had said “Progress is impossible without change, and those who can’t change their minds cannot change anything.”

In public administration and other organizations, personal charisma does not always work to get the work done from subordinates at the lower level. It is more of a position based influence, where follow-up is extremely essential to see things through. Only then would they build their expectations of the type of person you are and do the work which they are supposed to do. However, despite the hierarchy, inspiring rather than a strict command and follow structure seems more effective.  Some well performing members should also be given a certain degree of autonomy when working. I was reminded of Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership theory where there is a lot of direction in the initial stages and delegation in the later stages.

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According to De Jong et al, to enhance individual innovation among the employees, leaders could do one or all of the following:

  1. Creating a positive atmosphere – By giving employees sufficient autonomy to carry out their tasks and recognize initiatives and innovative efforts
  2. Monitoring – Some degree of monitoring is necessary, although excessive monitoring may lead to bad vibes.

A good leader has the right balance of both autonomy and monitoring.

In “One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, two of the three secrets for managerial effectiveness are One minute praisings and one minute reprimands. One minute praisings help in “catching people doing something right”, whereas one minute reprimands are highly effective due to the instant feedback and focus on the wrong action.

According to this person,  the two most important leadership traits for a bureaucrat are compassion and spine-Compassion to empathize with the people he meets (general public, corporates, rural poor, staff) and spine to stand up to unethical practices and taking tough calls when necessary. To ensure no corruption occurs within his offices, a feedback loop (media, local politicians, general public etc.) is maintained.  In an environment rampant with “jugaad” – the shortcut way of doing things, and making subordinates the scapegoat, owning up or taking a stand against an issue is very tough. Just like saying yes to things, it’s also important to say no to things to be successful.

Corruption in the public sector is a constant concern among the general public. In addition to employees’ attributes, the superior’s empowerment strategies emerged as the most important dimension of ethical leadership, in a study by Khuntia et al. Moreover, in high contextual countries like India, a positive relationship with the leader provides the employees motivation and commitment to the work. If the employee feels secure enough and nurtured under his manager, he would be loyal to the manager and the organization.

Appreciation for sincere job done and harsh punishments for offenders ensures minimal corruption. Emotional intelligence of the leader also comes in handy to nurture employees. In public administration, personal charisma and credibility at the ground level matters to get noticed by superiors. Credibility is indicative of integrity. Public administration and the corporate world are not too different that way.

 

 

Gondola to Golden Island.. Varkala Diaries

Most people go to Varkala for beaches, yoga, ayurveda, and some good R&R. Varkala’s claim to fame are the cliffs which line the beach and being a beach person, I was eager to go there – and the R&R part too. And not too far are the backwaters which let you discover them via the indigenous Gondolas of Kerala.

 

Unfortunately for us, it was not yet the season – the sea was rough. The coast guard advised not to get too deep into the water and the waves were coming dangerously to the shore. So after a day of eating European food, getting tanned on the beach and staring at the waves, we decided to go sightseeing.

 

From the list of places suggested to us – Golden Island sounded intriguing. It was an island around 10 km away from Varkala on the backwaters.  The local name is Ponnamthuruthu – named so after rumors of the Travancore Royal family stashing their gold there.  A Shiva-Parvati temple is present on the island, a major reason why people visit. So, on Day 2 after having a hearty breakfast, we hired a scooter and off we went in search of Ponnamthuruthu relying heavily on Google Maps.

It was one of the few times we learnt Google ain’t that good for “really local”locations. Following the maps to a T, we found ourselves in some unknown street with no boat or waterbody within our view. However, the best part of Kerala is the-always-willing-to-help locals. So while we were confused about where to go next, someone suggested of a  place nearby which takes people across the banks via boats, which was a 2 min drive away. We found someone who could take us across to the island. It was 10.30 and I heard the temple shuts at 12.00 pm so I wanted to get there soon.

Thus, we found ourselves on the traditional wooden boat  gently gliding across the backwaters  taking in the Kerala landscape. Coconut and areca nut trees on the coastline gently swayed with the breeze. Small fish jumped across the water, and we found a dog swimming across the river.

I was strongly reminded of the Gondolas which glide across the canals in Venice. While my friends on exchange were taking their Gondola rides in Venice, I was having my very own Gondola ride, tucked away within the backwaters of Kerala.

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The ride took around 45 minutes but completely worth it along with snippets of information from the oarsman. He talked about the month of October when the season really began, and the place would be flooded with tourists and eateries, including on the island itself. The island was called golden island as many locals believe the Royal Travancore famiy stashed up their gold in that island. Until recently the royal family owned the island, and now it has been sold to someone else. The Shiva Parvathi temple is open in the morning till 12. I glanced at my watch. It was already 11. He pointed to an egret eating fish and spoke of migratory birds which came to the backwaters during the winter months, and gave their names in Malayalam.

He also informed us the actual place where we had to board the boat from was near a bridge, which we had overlooked. Considering the actual boat would have been a  motor boat which speeded across the backwaters, I was not too upset that we lost our way and ended up on this boat taking sights of the landscape. Lot of eagles flew around.  There were other birds also along the banks. It was a perfect paradise for nature lovers.

We reached just in time on the island. The bell sounded-signifying closing time. The island itself was very small, with the temple at the centre. It was dedicated to Shiva Parvathy. It also had the deity of Vishnu. One thing which I found interesting was the temple had a small place dedicated to Yakshi. I had seen  a lot of temples which had a small place for Yaksha, but this was probably the first temple I visited which had a dedicated space for Yakshis. Yakshis in local folklore are portrayed as demonesses who take the form of a pretty lady and seduce and kill men. Whereas Yakshas are revered but not feared, and are generally considered benevolent. I asked the priest about this curious trait. He informed me it is basically to ward off fear. For folks who have nightmares, praying to Yakshis help.

The priest does not live on the island either. They live across the backwaters where majority of the settlements were there. Outside the temple was a smaller area for worship of Nagaraja – the snake king.

The priest gave us the temple offering – Payasam, and after roaming around a little on the tiny island we decided to head back.

The ride back gave a more pronounced sighting of different bird species. dsc00840

He also told us of an amazing place where we could get sea food. “It’s always the fresh catch”, he assured us. And considering the long boat ride, the restaurant Kayalaoram, was where we were headed to right after . I was thankful for the off season for it not being too crowded.

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The food was a delicious spread for a sea food buff, albeit a little spicy (for me). Rice, Tapioca with prawn curry, karimeen fry, and kallumakaya (mussels ) fry on traditional banana leaf – all for 150 bucks. And sorry – no pics of the food – I was too busy wolfing it down. Maybe next time.