Thursday, June 25, 2009

No Cup of Coffee Between Rs. 20 and 35

You can’t easily find a cup of coffee priced between Rs. 20 and 35 in Bangalore, and this surprised me.

I was able to find lots of places where a cup of coffee was Rs 15 or cheaper, and several others where it was Rs, 40 or higher.

At the lowest end of the price spectrum (that I was able to find) is the three-Rupee mini-cup. This is really only 2 ounces or so, and I will take this in a real pinch when I really need the hit. . Slightly higher up, for 5 or 6 Rupees, there is filter-coffee in the ubiquitous “darshinis” or fast-food places. Because I am not confident of how well they wash the stainless steel cups, I always ask for a plastic one. The coffee is invariably good, and is actually my choice among all price ranges. In Nescafe kiosks, coffee is anywhere from 7 to 10 Rupees. In slightly better sit-in restaurants, a cup is priced usually from 12 to 15 Rupees. I have found no correlation between price and taste in these restaurants. It is whatever the market can bear.

Between Rs. 15 and 35 is this mysterious price gap.

Once you go over to the other side of 35 Rupees, you can get lots of fancy coffee. Clearly, these places sell the ambience, since I personally find the lower priced filter coffee to be a lot tastier. But these cafés are good places to meet business acquaintances, new friends and old college-mates, to catch up in leisure. There are also the higher priced (more than Rs 100) cappuccinos, espressos, and Café Americanos, but there you are paying for the idea of coffee in a very fancy place.

In Bangalore, I haven’t seen any Starbucks at all, though I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is good or bad. Café Coffee Day has more than stepped in to fill that role.

So why is there this big gap in the pricing? Here’s my unscientific theory. I suspect that the middle class, who would have been the natural target customers for the 25- and 30-Rupee cups of coffee have upgraded. Having come into lots of disposable income thanks to the IT and the real-estate pricing boom, they have upgraded and shifted right in the coffee price continuum, leaving this gap.

Friday, June 19, 2009

From Beirut to Jerusalem - Book

“Why can’t the Israelis and the Palestinians stop fighting and just get along?” I used to wonder from the comfort of my couch in America, when violent images and news from the BBC World Service about that part of the Middle East disturbed my suburban peace.

I am quite sure that I am not the only one guilty of such simplistic thinking. Tom Friedman’s book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem” tells us why.

It is a book of his 10 years living in and reporting from Lebanon and Israel. It was written exactly 20 years ago, but is still just as relevant today.

Once in a long while, a book about a place comes out which is better than even going to that place. FBTJ is definitely one such book. Less than a year ago, I was in Israel and we visited Jerusalem and the West Bank. But there is no way that wandering about as a tourist for 10 days can compare with the writings of an insightful journalist who’s spent years there.

Friedman is a three time(!) Pulitzer-winner, and he won the National Book Award for this book. With a newspaperman’s eye for telling anecdotes and a novelist’s ability with visual metaphors he makes this book very readable, though it is not light reading by any means. In the book, we meet the frustrated Palestinian young woman who says “Arafat is the stone we throw at the world,” and the top Israeli officer who is so worried about the possible consequences of the intifada that he privately admits, “The sooner the Palestinians return to terrorism, the better it will be for us.”

The book helped me understand how the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have different goals from the Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan and Syria and from the Israeli Arabs. (I will go so far as to say that this book should be made mandatory reading for college students who study the Middle East.)

I realize that not everyone has the time to read a 570 page book. I read a few pages a day in several places in India, and in trains and it took me a long time to finish the book. If you are really pressed for time, you should still consider borrowing the book from your library and read just the chapter titled ‘Faultline.’

In this very skillfully written chapter, Friedman has us angry at the Palestinians for the ways in which they make Israelis' lives uncomfortable, and a couple of pages later, we are fuming about the way the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Throughout the chapter, Friedman does this over and over, and we are disabused of our ideas that any simple solution would work and we realize how complex and layered the problem is.

For those who want to learn about the region, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A mass love affair with tobacco in all its forms

Here in India, I see people consuming tobacco in more forms than I knew existed. I must not have paid attention before.

Right from the morning, on my way to breakfast I see old ladies who sell vegetables popping some brown stuff from shiny sachets into their mouths. I have seen these being sold in newsstands and pan shops. These packets hang in long strips and people buy 1 or 2 at a time. They are ubiquitous and dirt cheap.

India is apparently the second biggest consumer of tobacco in the world, right after China. But unlike China and the rest of the world, in India cigarettes make up only 30% of the tobacco consumption. The rest of it is sold as beedies, gutka, Zarda and chewing tobacco.

Since I haven’t personally experienced the alluring call of tobacco (coffee is my addiction) it is perhaps easy for me to question this attraction. But at another level I fully understand. I see hordes of people here, in what looks to me like very monotonous jobs with no prospects. They have to get through not just the day, but the week, and even the years.

Undoubtedly the tobacco helps. Because it can suppress appetite, angst and even ambition.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Taken for a ride in Bangalore

I’ve always felt that people exaggerate when talking about how unscrupulous auto-rickshaw drivers are. But perhaps I am looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.

We had taken a rickshaw to RT Nagar Police Station. Our relatives in RT Nagar said that it should cost no more than 25 Rupees. And that the distance would be around 4 kms.

This particular rickshaw had a digital meter, which showed not just the fare but also the distance traveled.

After we set off, we had already traveled 7 kms and RT Nagar was nowhere in sight. So we pulled out our map. Instead of traveling essentially due west, the driver (after figuring out that we didn’t have a clue but the streets of Bangalore) had turned southwest, and presumably was planning to turn northwest to reach our destination.

I knew he was taking us for a ride when we crossed the railway tracks once, and then crossed it again real soon.

“Where are you taking us? We should have reached a long time ago.” I said.
“Sir, there are a lot of one-way roads,” he said. We were going through small roads and if there were one-way streets, we didn't see them.
“It should only have been 4 or 5 kilometers. I am not going to pay you what the meter says.” It was not so much the amount but the fact that he was trying to outright cheat us.

After a very long ride, we reached RT Nagar police station. When he stopped to let us off, his digital meter showed 11.1 kms.
“Let’s go to the police station and settle this. I am not going to pay you what the meter says,” I said.
“Pay me whatever you wish to, sir,” he said.

I offered him half of what the meter showed, and to my surprise he accepted without a murmur of protest.

When we take autos now, we try and fix the fare beforehand, rather than relying on the meter.