Friday, November 07, 2008

Remember the Rajanigandha

Last week, I was walking through the bustling Santa Monica Farmer's Market, picking up a few fruits here, a strawberry confit there, and generally enchanted by the happy buzz of freshly scrubbed people amidst fresh produce. I was walking towards a stall selling butternut squash when I suddenly stopped. I sniffed. And sniffed again. Yes, it was unmistakable.

At that very instant, I was transported back to a night in a Bengali village many, many years ago. To a house bustling with people, all running around. Some ordering the cook to hurry up and finish cooking the last batch of sweets, some arranging garlands of marigolds and mango leaves around the house, and some painstakingly decorating the nicest room in the house with a profusion of tuberoses, rajanigandha in Bengali.

In the confusion, a little girl had slided in unnoticed into the room, and the heady smell of tuberoses made her dizzy and enchanted at the same time. In the middle of the room stood her aunt, looking strangely distant and yet so exquisitely beautiful as a bride, with four other aunts fussing over every detail of her dress, her saree pleated perfectly, her make-up expertly applied. That day the image of the bride and the smell of the rajanigandha fused together in the little girl's mind, and to this day she cannot smell the flower's fragrance without it invoking the most wonderful memories of family weddings.

I retreaded my steps back, to a flower seller who was selling a large variety of blooms, carnations, orchids, lilies and so on. I was puzzled - where were the rajanigandha? Certainly they were there - I had smelled them, and no other flower could smell the same. And then I saw them, hidden from view, just a few stems bunched together, ignored by the patrons who seemed more keen on the dramatic orchids. I leaned towards them and took a deep breath. And was slightly disappointed. These were Mexican rajanigandha, and their fragrance is not nearly as mesmerizing as the Indian rajanigandha. But the Indian varietal is delicate and fragile, and cannot survive the journey across seven seas. So, I had to be content with not the same, but close.

I'm always amazed by the ability of some smells and tastes to immediately conjure up the most vivid memories. What surprises me even more is how sharp and intense these memories are for the most mundane things. Things that I seem to have prioritized over more precious memories that have become faded and threadbare over time.

When I was in school, I had once been invited over to the house of a friend of mine. It was the very first time I had been invited to spend an entire day at the house of school classmates and it was as exciting as any adventure. We spent the day gossiping about boys (13 yr olds have an endless reserve of boy gossip), watched videos and then were served lunch by my friend's mother.

She had made chholey-chawal (chickpea soup and rice) which is a classic North Indian comfort food. Now chholey that is sold in restaurants is usually heavily spiced, but this version was `
very delicately spiced, almost bland in comparison. We ate our meal and then went back to more boy gossip. After finishing school, I lost touch with this friend of mine and never saw her family again.

Years later, when I moved to the US, I was suddenly struck with the desire to recreate the chholey I had eaten that day in my friend's home. Now usually, I am a pretty good reverse engineer cook and can recreate a lot of dishes that I might have had somewhere and liked. But this one proved elusive. Try as I might, I just could not get the spicing and texture right. And the oddest thing was that even though it had been more than 15 years since I ate chholey-chawal at my friend's home, I could remember the taste like it was yesterday. And nothing ever seemed to measure up. I still keep trying, hoping I'd have my eureka moment and hit the magic formula one day.

In a similar vein, let me tell you about the time that I was invited to the house of my friend ME for dinner. He had invited a whole bunch of us from the department and had cooked a fantastic salmon. The conversation at some point turned to the rice we ate and he said that he only bought Basmati rice. He had cooked some of this rice and wanted to show it to me and get my opinion on it. I took a whiff of the aroma of the cooked rice and then said

TM: "M, I'm really sorry, but this isn't Basmati rice"

ME: "What are you talking about? Here, see - says right on the label - it's Basmati rice from India"

TM: "Yes, I know. But this isn't Basmati"

ME: "Why do you say that?"

TM: "Because I've had Basmati only once in my life, and I'll never forget that aroma."

If you think this is an odd statement coming from someone who grew up in India, then hear me out. It is true that as a Bengali family, our standard everyday rice was parboiled rice, with the Gobindobhog varietal used for making things like kheer (rice pudding). For making pulaos, my mother would use the long-grain rice that is widely sold labeled as Basmati both in India and in other countries. So why am I saying I've only had Basmati rice once in my life?

Many many years ago, when I was a little girl, one of my aunts and her husband visited us in Delhi and wished to travel to Mussourie, which is a lovely little town up in the Himalayas. My father and I agreed to go with them and we set off on our journey to Mussourie. Now the town of Mussourie lies above the town of Dehradun which is nestled in a valley and is the birthplace of the Basmati rice varietal. We decided to stop for a night in Dehradun before continuing our journey on to Mussourie.

In the evening, for dinner, my aunt and uncle decided to eat at the small restaurant attached to our hotel. We ordered a simple meal of vegetables, chicken and rice. The waiter told us that the rice they served was real Dehradun Basmati rice and then brought two plates of the rice to the table. It was one of the most ethereal smelling dishes.

I did something that I had never done before and haven't done since. I picked up my spoon and proceed to polish off the rice on its own, without any of the accompanying vegetables and curry. My father, uncle and aunt were extremely amused at my performance, but they knew that the rice was very special and launched into a discussion of how it was becoming more and more difficult to find real Basmati outside Dehradun.

I think I was about 8 0r 9 at the time. Ever since nothing had come even close to that memory of Basmati rice. I would get very puzzled when I would buy bags labeled Basmati sold in US markets and then on cooking, the rice would smell nothing like the Basmati I had many years ago. I even thought my memory was playing tricks with me. Surely all this is traditional Basmati rice, and I'm just being over picky and delusional.

And then on one of my trips home I met an old friend who was then working for one of India's biggest Basmati rice exporting companies. This friend had grown up in a town near Dehradun and had access to Dehradun Basmati growing up. I discussed with him how I just couldn't seem to find any Basmati that matched up to my memory of the rice I ate a long time ago and I was wondering if my memory was playing tricks with me.

He laughed and said

"You know TM, your instincts are spot on. Just think about it - the Dehradun valley is a tiny strip of land that can barely grow enough rice to support local demand. And there are huge quantities of so called Basmati rice consumed in India and internationally every year. Something doesn't add up, right?"

And then he told me of how the Basmati rice sold by his company was grown from a hybrid variety of Basmati developed by agricultural scientists in India that was different from the traditional Basmati varietal grown in Dehradun. Of course if you've never had real Basmati in your life, you'd never know the difference. Legally, the rice is still Basmati, but the hybrid just does not match up to the delicate yet intense aroma of the traditional varietal. I have since tried to find rice wholesalers who source directly from the Dehradun valley but have been unsuccessful so far. And given the rate at which urban sprawl is gobbling up agricultural land in Dehradun, that rice may remain a memory forever.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

How to Lose Money and Piss Off Lots of People

I just noticed that on my last blog post, someone has left a comment wondering why I haven't posted any opinions on the cataclysmic events in the stock market in the past few days (weeks? months? oh what the heck - it doesn't matter any more). I'm flattered and amused in turn.

That anyone would care about my opinion on the matter, when there are plenty of excellent minds who can offer far better insight into the complex issues involved. Gosh, you guys are sweet (...wait a minute, are you trying to pull a fast one on me?). Anyway, here's a nice bulleted and chronological list of my own progression through this matter, mercifully brief and laconic.

Early 2006: I was amazed when an acquaintance of mine told me that their house in Irvine, Orange County (OC) purchased in 2004 had nearly doubled in value when they sold it last week. I was convinced we were in the midst of a crazy housing boom, but I had no idea if we had peaked yet.

Late 2006: I was in the Silver Lake neighbourhood of LA and had to while away an hour waiting for a friend. I started walking around, saw a house for sale sign and decided to check it out just out of curiosity. The house was nice, but a bit old and insanely overpriced. The owner was a young man in his 20s who was very sweet and friendly, and when he asked me if I was interested, I excused myself by saying that it was a bit more than what I would pay ("bit more" ha ha ha).

Anyway, so we got talking and I found out that he owned a total of three houses, two of which were rental properties. Incredibly, he told me that he had acquired these properties with zero down payment. My jaw dropped.

TM: "So, by the way, what do you do"

Owner: "Oh, I'm a musician"

Take a minute to appreciate this. Most struggling musicians barely make minimum wages waiting tables - this one owned three homes with zero down payment - whose mortgage payments he was paying with rent from the other two properties.

I knew the peak had been reached, it was just a matter of a couple of months before the downward slide would begin.

Early 2007: I had signed up for a tour of downtown LA once, by virtue of which I would keep getting emails from a lot of residential property sellers. I noticed that week after week, I would keep getting emails from the same sellers promising exciting offers (discounts, upgrades) for apartments that would have been pre-sold just a year ago. Also, every time I would drive around, the house for sale signs were everywhere.

The decline had begun.

October 2007: The first rumblings of the sub-prime mess were being felt in the stock markets. The foreclosure rate was climbing, some of the mortgage backed securities were declining in value, affecting the stock prices of the companies holding these assets in their balance sheets.

However, the denial PR mechanism of the financial industry was in full force. The losses were inconsequential and the financial system was robust enough to deal with these shocks was reassuring line we were being fed.

In the meanwhile, this rather innocuous looking paragraph from the Financial Accounting and Standards Board Statement 157 was causing some discomfort to investment banks and sparking lively debate on investment forums:

"Fair value is the price that would be received to sell an asset or paid to transfer a
liability in an orderly transaction between market participants at the measurement date."

Ok, sod accountant-speak, what this basically means is that you cannot pull a price out of your ass and stick it on your asset and claim all's well even if your asset is stinky rubbish that no one would pay two nickels for. And this applies to all types of assets, Level 1, 2, and 3.

Now Level 3 assets are of especial interest, since they are valued using significant unobservable inputs, which basically mean the company's own assumptions regarding risk and how the market would price it (refer "pull a price out of your ass"). There is no verification of these assumptions and valuation models (Hallelujah!).

Guess what is the most significant kind of these Level 3 assets? (hint: starts with an M, ends with an S and has a B in the middle. Yep, Mortgage Backed Securities).

These rules went into effect in November 2007, and the investment boards were buzzing with discussion about the huge amounts of such Level 3 MBS assets on the balance sheets of investment banks. Then, it was like a domino effect - suddenly people also started talking about the ridiculous levels of leverage taken on by investment banks - debt that was 20-30 times the equity invested.

Between 2004-2007, this leverage had given the banks fantastic profits and generated huge bonuses for the employees. Now, it was feared that leverage would brutally enhance every small loss suffered on the way down.

Everyone was convinced that the imminent demise of an investment bank was coming, and bets were being taken on who would be first. A lot of people guessed Lehman, simply because out of all the investment banks, it had the largest proportion of exposure to MBS. However, when Lehman declared their 2007 results, they maintained that they had suffered minimal damage from sub-prime exposure.

January 2008: Surprisingly, despite all the doom and gloom predicted by the bears, the market sort of wobbled along, dipping only slightly, giving a false sense of security. In hindsight, what basically happened was that there was there were a few shining new toys in town - energy, basic materials and commodities.

At first, the pat explanation was that oil prices were rising because of growing demand in emerging markets, but that could not account for the dizzying heights scaled by oil prices in a few months. It soon became obvious that the energy market had attracted a large speculator crowd who were not the usual players in the field. Between August. 2007-May.2007, the Energy sector on NYSE grew 26 per cent, Basic Materials went up 45 per cent. In the same period Financials declined 10 per cent and the S&P 500 declined 3 per cent.

March 2008: Everything changed on March 17th when news came that JP Morgan Chase was buying Bear Stearns for $2 a share. Of course investors knew Bear was in trouble - it's credit default swaps had shot up, its shares had been dropping considerably, and there was a huge volume of puts (a kind of insurance against price decline) on Bear shares in recent days. But seriously - $2 a share?

There was much talk of how the Bear headquarters alone was worth a substantial chunk of the price JP Morgan Chase was paying. Any reasonable person would soon put 2 and 2 together and wonder - was the price so low because the liabilities were so onerous and the assets had precipitously declined in value? But then, the CEO of Bear Stearns had famously assured the markets that his company was in good shape. If Bear was pretending all was fine, while it was being hollowed out inside, what were the others (and investment banks are kind of clones of each other - same business model everywhere) hiding on their balance sheets?

(The Bear share price was later upped to $10 per share, but that was still small change compared to its book value).

This is a table that someone had uploaded on an investment forum around that time (don't know where he got it from, but if anyone knows, please let me know and I'll quote the source).

Note where Lehman Brothers is on this table - right at the bottom. At a time when Merrill went ahead and wrote down some of their MBS to 22 cents on the dollar, Lehman stubbornly refused to mark its investments down.

And the rumour mills just won't stop churning.

Right after Bear got bought out, Lehman credit default swaps shot up and its share price suffered its first significant decline. Of course the Lehman CEO famously blamed short sellers. In fact, the man continues to blame short sellers for his firm's fall. A lot of people were convinced that Lehman was next. But Lehman continued to insist that its fundamentals were strong and it had adequate capitals to support asset write-downs.

September 2008: After months of speculation and denials, the inevitable came to pass. An initial trickle of clients deserting it to go to other investment banks had turned into a steady stream. The stock price was declining steadily, assets were losing value, and its creditworthiness was getting shot. Whatever Lehman did at this point was too little, too late.

This is where the story starts to get murky. Was Lehman the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back? Or was the systemic rot spreading so fast at this point that it was but the first act in the grand spectacle of chaos that was to unfold? I honestly don't know. I'm sure Lehman's failure added to the woes, but AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's problems predate Lehman. In fact, if Bank of America hadn't bought it, perhaps Merrill would have met the same fate sooner or later.

October 2008: Let's do a slight digression at this point and check up on the pesky little thing that started it all - declining home prices. The Case Shiller Index for US residential properties went from 185 in 2007 quarter 1 to 155 in 2008 quarter 2. Obviously as the economy gets worse, this index would decline further.

The crisis of confidence in the financial markets though is several times worse than that in the housing market. Let's see what we've got on our plate so far:

1. Of the major banks - every one of them have suffered major write-downs of assets. One has gone bankrupt (Lehman), four bought out (Bear, Merrill, Wamu, Wachovia), and one tottering on the brink (Morgan, plagued by rumours that Mitsubishi no longer wants to buy a stake). A number of smaller banks are on the edge as well, about to keel over at the first major knock to their share price.

2. Yesterday they settled credit default swaps on the debt of Lehman brothers. Which means that if A sold a credit default swap to B guaranteeing Lehman's debt, then A has to pay B based on whatever Lehman's debt was valued at. Based on this valuation, A has to pay B nearly $270 billion, which is a neat pile of cash in these troubled times. And that's not all - there's Wamu and Icelandic banks to come (poor Iceland just cannot get a break - first it's currency gets assaulted by hedge fund short sellers, now its banks are kaput).

3. The difference between the Treasury rate and the LIBOR rate (the so called TED spread) has widened dramatically. What this basically means is that banks perceive a lot more risk and are charging a lot more to lend to each other.

4. Commercial paper, short term loans used by companies for ongoing expenses has been in crisis in the past few weeks. The panic is so great that no one wants to lend money for fear of it getting entangled in bankruptcy claims if the company suddenly goes under.

5. When you need money on home turf, global ambition is the first thing to be scuttled off. And hence, large sell-off by American hedge funds and investment banks had started in the so called BRIC markets - Brazil, Russia, India and China. Noticed how Indian, Chinese and Brazilian stocks listed on NYSE have been losing tremendously over the last month? (speaking of which, I saw that a big loser was Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited ADR. Who the hell was buying MTNL in the first place?)

October 12, 2008, 12:35 a.m.: Where do we go from here? Well, I heard a talk on the credit crisis a few days ago that really appealed to the optimistic side in me (my other side is cynical and would make "Irrational Exuberance" by Robert Shiller required reading for everyone). So this person, who's a hedge fund manager said (and I paraphrase)

Right now, we have a climate of pervasive fear and a heightened sense of risk. No one wants to either invest their money or lend it because no one can accurately assess the inherent risk in these activities. However, there's plenty of global capital that will need to be invested at some point. Bonds will mature and then would have to be re-invested.

Someone, somewhere, would stick his neck out, decide that the return is worth the risk and put his money out there to work for him. Slowly others will follow suit, and we'll have a functioning financial industry again. How long will this process take? No one can tell. It could be 6 months, 2 years or even 6 years. But recover we will, no matter how many doomsday scenarios you hear about.

In the meanwhile, chin up a la the Brits, shore up your savings, and keep those spirits flying.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Get Out of Your Cars and Go Underground!

The extension of the Los Angeles Metro system has me all giddy and excited. It's a dream to be able to take a Metro all the way to the Westside and hopefully I'll be able to do that while I'm still living in LA. But reading up on the Metro expansion also gave me the idea to rank up cities I've been to on the basis of their public transport systems.

So now that we have begun, let's get the very best out of the way at the outset.

Madrid: Best underground transport system ever. May the bastards who blew up a part of it die a thousand deaths - thankfully the system is back to what it was and functioning as wonderfully as ever.

I was in Madrid in 2001 and staying with a friend in the still kind of working class but rapidly gentrifying suburb of Valdeacederas .

Every morning after my friend would leave for work, I'd walk to the nearby metro station, passing tiny neighbourhood bars open at 9:00 a.m for customers who might want a morning glass of beer to refresh them in the heat.

This is what I loved about Spain - it has an incredibly civilized beer drinking culture.

You walk into a bar, ask for a beer and are given a small glass of beer (only 1 Euro at the time) with some pickled gherkins and cocktail onions. You munch on the pickles, drink your beer and are on your way. In the 10 days I was there, I didn't see a single person get piss drunk and wasted.

So from Valdeacederas, I'd take the metro to go to the heart of the city (Quatros Caminos, or Atocha I think) and the ticket was only 25 cents. And, and, here's the best part. You could use that ticket unlimited times as long as you were inside the station. The metro network was amazing - you could reach practically any part of Madrid using the subway.

And once I saw an adorable scruffy boy sitting across from me reading Umberto Eco. That should be enough to love any metro system, no?

I've been told that the metro system to rival that of Madrid in its breadth is the one in Moscow. I mean, damn it, just look at that map! I'd love to visit Moscow and find out.

Now, honourable mentions -

Rome: Rome is perhaps my favourite city to visit in the whole world. It's such a mesmerizing, enchanting place, with layers and layers of splendid architecture, vibrant street culture, so throbbing with life and you get to hear the musical Italian language everywhere.

So this means that in all probability I'm biased. But my friend Beck and I took the metro all the time, during the night as well and it was safe, reliable and got you to the suburbs and the Vatican easily.

One of the highlights of our Rome stay was when, on an impulse, we just boarded the metro and got off at one of the stations close to the Vatican and just walked in the neighourhood and found a fantastic shopping street. The best part of the street were all the shoe and clothing vendors sprawled on the pavements. And you could haggle away to glory.

So me and Beck (who's American from the Midwest but totally got into the haggling game) went crazy shopping and gave the tenacious Italian grandmas a run for their haggling skills. And then, wandering around, we smelt the most amazing aroma of food coming from one of the side streets. We were intrigued and also hungry, so decided to investigate.

We followed the smell to a small neighbourhood place bustling and packed to the gills with customers (in fact, reminded me of some of the busiest sweet shops like Bikanerwala in Delhi). It was a place that served Lazio style pizza, which is basically a long rectangular pizza sold by the slice with a gazillion different kinds of toppings. They also sold typical Sicilian snacks like arancini. We tried a few different slices and loved the food so much that we were back in this neighbourhood the very next day for more.

(Ok, I'm officially stunned. I tried to google and find this pizza place and turns out that it's Pizzarium Bonci at via della Meloria, which serves the best Lazio style pizza in town and is a huge favourite with Romans (go do a google search for it and check out the effusive praise). And to think we found it by just following our noses!)

Here's a video of the place (only the first part of the video is about Pizzarium, and an interview with its owner Gabriele Bonci) - aww, now I miss Rome.

Singapore: It's tiny and rich, so it would be a surprise if it didn't have a decent public transport system (oh well, I guess it doesn't work for Dubai). Extra points for announcements in four languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

London: The London tube has the most recognizable symbol for any public transport system in the world. And you can get all the way from Heathrow to the heart of city using light rail and then get into the underground at the same station so that's great. Not so great are the fares. A lot more expensive than comparable systems in other cities. But then London in general is daylight robbery.

Moving on to "good work guys, now hurry on and catch up with the rest"

Athens: Poor Athens - it gets a bad rep. I'm yet to meet a Greek, or for that matter an Athenian Greek who unequivocally loves the city. Greeks lavish affection and wax poetic on their mountain villages and island paradises, but mention Athens and they'd tell you how every summer they cannot wait to get out of the city.

Overcrowded (half of Greece lives in Athens), polluted and with nightmare traffic (sounds oh so familiar if you're Indian). I actually like Athens, I find it interesting and charming and soulful, but so far I've not been able to convince a Greek of the city's charms.

But things are getting better, what with all the public infrastructure improvements put in place for the Athens Olympics. Including a brand new gleaming metro.

Athens has the newest metro in Europe, which means it looks the swankiest. But that's not the only attraction. Basically, given that Athens has been inhabited continually since antiquity, when they started digging for the metro, they found layers and layers of urban settlements. So they put a lot of the artefacts excavated during the metro digging on display in the stations. In fact, in the Syntagma station, you can see an entire cross-section of the layers of settlements.

My only complaint is that the line is rather limited if you are travelling to the suburbs. But if you live fairly close to the centre of the city, the metro is great. In fact, a friend told me of how everyone takes the metro to go clubbing on weekends, parties all night and then takes the first metro the next morning to go back home.

Delhi: For the last two decades, Delhi has been the pits as far as public transportation is concerned. When I was a little kid, and the city was still a small, charmingly provincial and yet surprisingly cosmopolitan, compact, green urban centre, the Delhi Transportation Corporation (DTC) ran a tight ship.

The buses were never overcrowded, they were on time and anyway, the distances between destinations were hardly more than 20 minutes each way (I know I sound like a fossil saying this, but I'm talking early 1980s here, not generations back in time).

The immigration explosion of the 1980s changed all that. Suddenly, neighbourhoods started sprouting up in all directions overnight, the buses became frighteningly overcrowded and getting from point A to B became a nightmare. The government solution to this was to privatize public transport, which brought the horrific Redline service to the city (since renamed Blueline) with badly trained, reckless drivers and a tremendous rise in road accidents.

And then, something happened in the last 5 years to dramatically lift the public transportation scene in the city and relieve some of its worst traffic bottlenecks. The Delhi metro has been a life-saver for Delhi residents, and is as clean, punctual and well-run as any metro in any city I've been to.

Hopefully, we keep our long exemplary record of wrecking civic infrastructure at bay and the metro continues to function as well as it has in the last few years (being Indian and knowing my countrymen, I'm not so optimistic). The line is being extended to other parts of the city, and the existing lines have drastically cut down travel times to older parts of the city - which means that I have great access to the perfume shops, jewelery makers and kebab sellers of Chandni Chowk.

Chicago: Well, you can take a light rail from the University of Chicago to the Art Institute and the downtown which is great. In fact the best thing about Chicago was that every single major attraction of the city was so accessible if you were staying anywhere near the University. I love how the University is seamlessly integrated into the best parts of urban life there.

Which is all I really know about their transport system. Others tell me it could be better so I believe them.

Bucharest: I loved my time in Bucharest. Yes, there are plenty of hideous Soviet style concrete buildings. I guess they don't bother me as much because I saw plenty of crappy apartment blocks growing up in Delhi. What a lot of people seem to willfully ignore is that Bucharest has a lot of fantastic turn of the century French-influenced architecture that has been surprisingly well-preserved. And it has a breathtakingly beautiful lake in the middle of the city. And lots of public parks.

However, throughout my stay in the city, I never took the metro. Yep, not once. I'm puzzled why this was the case. Perhaps it was because my dollars went a long way and taxis were very reasonable (I've never felt so rich in my entire life as I felt in Bucharest. Taxis everywhere, dining in the finest restaurants in town, buying flowers and the finest glassware for myself just 'cause). But I think I vaguely remember my friend telling me that the metro is fairly complicated to use if you're a tourist and cannot speak Romanian.

In fact, not one person in our large 30+ group ever took the metro even when they wandered off to explore the city by themselves. That really says something, no?

San Francisco: The funny thing is, I've been to SF so many times and I've never taken the BART to get into the city. Hopefully, sometime soon in the future. I've taken buses within the city and they are great. The Bay Area in general though is as bad a public transport nightmare as Southern California is (and don't you snooty NorCal folks tell me otherwise).

And now for the "I have no idea how you grew so huge when no one can get from point A to B"

Los Angeles: Bad rep. Well deserved. The boyfriend was desperate to take the metro to work when he worked in Chatsworth, an hour away by car from downtown LA (two hours in peak traffic). He was in for a rude shock when he checked the fare. The daily fare worked out to be some $10 and the monthly pass was a ridiculous $300. The worst part was - the last train left Chatsworth at around 6:30 pm. So basically if you are even a little bit late at work, you're royally screwed. No thanks.

Same story for the other lines. The evening service is sparse and at times erratic, the trains are no faster than cars because, get this, they stop at traffic signals because there's no grade separation (I've never seen something so nonsensical anywhere else in the world).

I think people are slowly coming to their senses as the I-10 and I-405 freeways are virtual parking lots all through the work day. The weird thing is, I distinctly remember that when I first came to LA, there was very sparse weekend traffic on the freeways. Now even on the weekends the freeways are jam packed. Yeah, sometimes, all this laissez faire business gets to its logical conclusion and bites folks in the ass. Hopefully the Westside line is completed before things get so dire that it becomes faster to walk from downtown LA to Santa Monica than to drive.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Class Anxiety

My family's what you would call solidly middle-class (lower middle-class, if you ask my father, but then, he has a self-deprecation thing going on. He's a mechanical engineer who gets a kick out of referring to himself as a mechanic).

My father spent an entire lifetime working in research labs, a respectable but not exactly well-remunerated profession. Till my early 20s we lived in a succession of rental apartments that were neat and cozy, but cramped and not exactly sophisticated.

My mother's idea of livening up the walls was hanging up the paper calendars we received every year from our local grocery shop, that featured the very definition of Indian calendar art - Raja Ravi Varma inspired paintings of gods and goddesses.

Scene I:

Delhi, India
Time: A few years ago

I am at the the house of a colleague for lunch. I know her as someone who had spent years working for non-profit organizations, extremely down-to-earth and charming, with an air of subtle sophistication about her.

The house is a large impressive bungalow, laid out with impeccable taste decorated with chic furniture, luscious carpets and huge expanses of impressive paintings.

This was a mini-museum of artwork by contemporary and early 20th century Indian artists. Canvases by Raza, paintings and high backed chairs by Ara, a massive canvas by Hussain with his signature horses, and on one wall a gorgeous and unmistakable Jamini Roy. My boss sees my awed expression and whispers to me - "It's all original artwork - that's a real Jamini Roy".

I walked around the house in a haze, never had I been in a house where wealth and taste had been so exquisitely combined.

When I came back home that evening and entered our apartment, a pall of gloom came over me. And when I saw the glossy fading Jamini Roy print in our living room, hot tears rolled down my cheeks.

My parents had to scrimp and save to buy our sofa, our dining table, the show case and everything else that had been lovingly assembled bit by bit in that apartment. And yet despite imbuing it with all the affection and regard of a beloved home, that day it fell woefully short and looked impossibly tacky in comparison to what I had just experience. I think I may have just ruined my contentment in middle-class comfort and conformity at that very moment.

Despite this, the very solid middle-class values of thrift and valuing a solid intellectual education imparted by my parents have stayed on. To this day I cannot bring myself to buy something full price at a store. And I have a nagging, compulsive need to read something, anything on a daily basis.

Yet often, I reflect on my life as a process of becoming, of constant self-evolution. And over the years I've narrowed down to a fairly stable image of what I'd like to evolve into.

I can see that woman clearly - she has an advantage of stellar academic education, but has also improved herself through reading and a strong intellectual curiosity.

She is elegant, well-groomed and always impeccably dressed. Her taste in clothes is understated, refined and yet cool and chic. She has a sophisticated palate, she understands wine and fine tea, tries different cuisines and is incredibly well-travelled.

She has a quirkiness to her, she memorizes botanical names of flowers for fun (that crosses over from quirky to batty I guess), and she humours her bohemian side from time to time by running off to work in the kitchen of a little island tavern in Greece.

This almost sounds like a caricature. Actually, it's more like a pastiche, a collection of every interesting quality that I've collected from books that I've read, films I've watched, women I've observed.

And sometimes I think that there are others who receive an impressive head start to becoming this idealized person, given their peculiar combination of wealth, not excessive but sufficient and savoir vivre or a cosmopolitan upbringing.

In one of his columns for The Hindustan Times Sunday supplement, the journalist Vir Sanghvi spoke of going for vacations as a child to Geneva with his parents. There, they would always go to this one restaurant and he would order steak frites every time.

It still sounds such an incredibly remote and cosmopolitan experience to me, though by now I've travelled to Geneva, a charming city (Switzerland as a whole I could take or leave).

I also find it terribly exotic when my boyfriend tells me how he used to go skiing with his family in Austria as a child. For him it was just another family vacation and frankly he infinitely preferred going to some small seaside town in Greece, but to me it is the glimpse of a life I never had, and I sometimes wonder how it would have been to live such a life.

Perhaps I would have been less unsure of myself, less trying. more confident in my judgment, and be able to affect the blasé disdain of someone who has seen it all, and knows it all. Despite all the veneer of worldly sophistication that I've tried to assiduously create over the years, inside it all is a middle class girl who's very unsure of where she fits in.

For instance, when we go out to eat, I can never be the one who is presented with the uncorked wine bottle for approval. Even if I feel the wine smells like vinegar (a very remote possibility, but what if), I'd never be able to say it aloud. I'm very diffident about my choice in clothes. I can always identify chicness and elegance in others, but never seem sure of it applying to my own style.

I become acutely conscious and hypercritical of what I wear when I have to attend an exclusive or formal event. I feel gauche and silly, often unable to make decent conversation because I am constantly holding myself back from making a faux pas and exposing myself as coarse and unrefined.

And yet, there are times when I realize that sometimes, in the midst of this grand self-improvement project, I forget those things that make me what I am and to be comfortable in my own skin (as the French say - "bien dans sa peau").

Scene II:

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Time: Two years back

The residence of the Consul General of Finland is the venue of a reception on the opening day of conference on mobile technologies. Why the Finnish Consul? Well, because Nokia is Finnish and the Finnish government seems to be a very enthusiastic and strong promoter of Finnish business interests.

The event is perhaps one of the most high powered events I've ever attended, with several very senior executives from all the major players in the mobile industry including Deutsche Telekom, SKII, Sony, Nokia, Motorola, etc.

So apprehensive was I of not embarrassing myself that I went out and bought a brand new shirt the night before and got my hair cut and blow dried (usually I'm too cheap to pay extra for blow drying at the salon. No, strike that - usually I'm too cheap for a professional haircut and just let my hair grow like a flower child).

The Consul General's house was in what is perhaps the most exclusive neighbourhood in all of Los Angeles - a gorgeous cul de sac in Bel Air discretely gated off from the access road, set within a profusion of flower hedges and vines. Keeping the handsome house company on either side were the homes of consul generals from Sweden and Denmark, thus creating their own little Nordic corner in this part of LA.

Let me put in a caveat before I proceed further. Mere wealth never really impresses me. Last year I went for a party to the house of a multi-millionaire several times over who has an outlandish mansion in Pacific Palisades (neck and neck with Bel Air for being the most exclusive address in LA). The house is a monument to kitsch, with large classical Corinthian columns supporting ceilings achingly weighed down with enormous chandeliers.

Large Renaissance era paintings look down on a jumble of Qing dynasty artifacts from China, a huge Gothic style library is filled with books that look like they've never been read, and the floors are covered with carpets that are an insult to the fine art of Persian carpet weaving. Bear in mind that the house was not bought in this current state, but built to the taste and specification of its current owner.

If ever there was evidence that money cannot buy taste, this was it. Later, the boyfriend and I had a good laugh over the tackiness of it all. If you want to see the Indian equivalent of such kitschy and tasteless home decor, check out the pictures of Shahrukh Khan's home here (apart from the overdose of very trashy versions of Louis XV chairs in Shahrukh's home, the homes are surprisingly similar).

Anyway, enough digression. The Finnish Consul General's home was at the opposite end of the taste and refinement spectrum. There was plenty of dark wood, for the cupboards, the dining table and sofas. Lots of very interesting art work by contemporary Scandinavian artists and a cool collection of antique Swedish porcelain dolls. This was a distinguished house that made you tread with light steps and speak in hushed tones as you delicately nibble your canapé and sip your wine.

And in front of me, I saw people who looked so incredibly worldly and sophisticated, the global emissaries of a global industry, mingling and talking with ease. Suddenly I felt very, very unsure. I wanted to sidle up to a group that seemed to be engrossed in a very interesting and lively conversation on one side. But I just couldn't muster up the courage to do so.

Throughout most of the evening, I wandered aimlessly, once in a while striking a conversation with a friend of mine who was also present at the reception, sending him off after a few minutes to network with the impressive roster of guests there. But I myself just couldn't be that elegant, relaxed, charming and witty girl that I always long to be.

Towards the end of the evening, I had to call up my boyfriend to have him come and pick me up. It was then that I found out that I had no signal on my cellphone. I asked a guest standing next to me if I could borrow his cellphone. Surprise, surprise, no reception on his phone either. In fact the entire house had no mobile signal whatsoever. Imagine the irony of this happening at a reception for a mobile technologies conference.

One of the servers saw what my problem was and led me to a room with a land line phone I could use. I called my boyfriend and he promised to be there in an hour. When I hung up and looked around, I saw the room had about 4-5 really quirky, unique chairs lying about. These were chairs that were minimally elegant, but with a twist or an interesting shape. I ran my hands over the chairs feeling their strange undulations.

"Do you like them?"

I started and looked up and saw a lovely older woman standing there, someone I recognized as the Finnish Consul's wife who had greeted us earlier.

TM: "Yes, they are very cool and interesting. Who are they by?"

Consul's wife : "Oh, these here are by Alvar Aalto."

TM: "Alvar Aalto? That's incredible! I love his architectural work, though I've never seen any furniture by him"

Consul's wife: "Yes, he designed a lot of chairs, and glass objects as well."

TM: "By the way, is that porcelain doll collection downstairs your personal collection too? That is so cool!"

Consul's wife: "Yes, that's mine. Do you want to see some of the other artwork in the house?"

And so off we went, chatting animatedly, on a guided tour of all the art that the couple had collected over the years and used to decorate the house. Some were big name Scandinavian artists, but mostly they were works by obscure artists in Finland and the US whose works the couple had appreciated and acquired.

These were people whose house was a reflection of their personal good taste, who had used their comfortable means well to achieve this. And this is where I found her a kindred spirit. She was what I wanted to be. Elegant, well-read, well-travelled, with impeccable taste and with the warmth and generosity of putting her unsure little guest completely at ease. At that moment, I become quite oblivious of my dress, my hair, my very middle class commonness and was engrossed in this mutual appreciation of interesting art.

I often reflect on this very American desire of mine to re-invent myself. I am still chasing this elusive ideal of being the woman who in my imagination has it all. But there is also a gentle voice in my head that reminds me that perhaps it is not half so bad to be what I am, with all my imperfections, so very stubbornly middle class.

A few years back, I was visiting my family in Delhi and I was showing them pictures of my trips through Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Also included in the set of photographs were a few photos I had taken of an emerald green pond in my father's village when I had visited the village earlier. After looking at the photographs of Brussels and Geneva, my father turned to me and with a disarming smile said

"TM, all this Geneva and Brussels is fine, but isn't that pond the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"

And I smiled back and said:

"Yes Baba, it is the beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Train Adventures - Germany

I really need to write this down. I realised I was forgetting details when I just couldn't remember the name of the protagonist any more. there anyway to unload useless trivia from our minds so we only remember the essential?

This adventure began in the Venizelos Airport in Athens, Greece. It was the summer of 2003 and I was about to fly to Frankfurt. I was attending a conference in a small town in Belgium named Leuven (Louvain in French) and because of some convoluted travel plans, I was flying to Frankfurt and then taking a train into Belgium.

At times I have an almost cavalier attitude to travel. This is especially true when I'm in countries where I tend to almost reflexively trust the transportation system. In my mind I was to disembark in Frankfurt airport and then immediately be whisked away by train to Leuven. Hard to believe, I know, but I didn't even check to see if there were indeed trains going from Frankfurt to Leuven.

A short, uneventful flight took me to Frankfurt and I landed at 7 pm Frankfurt time. I found out that the there was a train station right inside the airport where I could take long distance trains. Score one for German efficiency! My faith in German efficiency was a bit shaken when I was informed by a sullen looking ticket clerk that the next train to Brussels (with a stop in Leuven) would be next morning at 5 a.m. Umm...what do you mean there are no trains at all times of the night. You're supposed to be German and efficient, remember?

Anyway, I resigned to my fate of spending most of the night at Frankfurt airport, which is really not as exciting as it sounds (or maybe it doesn't even sound exciting). I slumped on a bench and spent several hours just listening to constant flight announcements. This was peak vacation travel season and there were budget flights leaving throughout the night. At some point, the announcements faded out and the terminal became almost quiet.

Apart from the fact that I was all alone and the sole keeper and defender of my luggage, I have a terribly hard time falling asleep in public places. I cannot sleep on a plane and can barely sleep on trains. So I spent all night wide awake, not a wink of sleep throughout this time. With an hour to go for my train departure, I trudged down to the train station below the terminal.

It was still dark and the train station was lit up with harsh neon lights. I realized that besides me the only one there was a skinny man in his early 20s, who looked like he could be Italian. He shot me a sheepish grin, but I was just uncomfortable about being alone on a deserted train station with him and just looked the other way.

After what seemed like eternity, the train rolled into the station. I walked towards it and with great effort started hoisting my suitcase into the compartment. But I had a suitcase that seemed to be filled with rocks (just my clothes and papers dammit) and I was struggling with it. Suddenly, I felt the suitcase being effortlessly lifted into the compartment. I turned around, and there was the man with the sheepish grin , grinning even more this time. In a second he was inside the compartment, and turned around and pulled me in.

I was a little stunned at his move, but glad to finally be inside my train. He motioned me to follow him, dragged my suitcase into the compartment vestibule and walked into the first empty coupe. He hoisted my suitcase up into the luggage hold and then with his happy grin intact, parked himself onto the berth, motioning me to the one opposite him. All this had been accomplished without a word exchanged between us.

I felt compelled to speak, so thanked him for his help with the suitcase. He was eager for the ice to be broken, so began a rapid-fire round of questions in broken English -

My name? Where to? Where from? What for?

I answered them and found out that my companion (let's call him Hasan, I'm so ashamed I forgot his real name) was originally from Algeria, but worked as a musician in Switzerland. He was traveling to Belgium to see his mother who lived there. All this was communicated with great difficulty as he spoke very little English. He really wanted to talk to me and asked me if I knew any of these languages

Arabic? No, not really.

Parlez vous francais? No, sorry.

Espanol? Nopes

He cursed in frustration. Here we were, with not a single language in common except an English vocabulary of maybe 100 odd words. But none the less, we tried. Bit by bit, with some effort, we created a pidgin vocabulary of English supplemented with Arabic, French and Spanish words that I might reasonably guess the meaning of.

I found out that he was frustrated by the attack of Islamic fundamentalists on musicians in Algeria.

Hasan: TM, Islam - good, fundamentalist - bad, very bad.

TM: You really love music, no?

Hasan (eyes lit up): Oui, oui - No I mean yes. I love music. Old Arabic music

TM: Like Umm Kulthum? Or Farid el Atrache?

This time his eyes were positively shining with joy.

He: You know! You know them! Wait, I give you something

With this he started fumbling into his backpack and then produced a cassette tape that was obviously a mixed tape he had made himself.

Hasan: Take.

TM: What's this?

Hasan Oh, all songs - Umm Kulthum, Farid el Atrache, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, all, all.

TM: I can't take this. It's your tape.

Hasan: No, no take, please take.

And with this he pushed the tape into my hands and refused to take it back. I put away the tape.

Hasan: Ok, how old?

TM: You mean, how old am I?

Hasan: No, no - me, how old?

TM: Oh - I don't know, you look like you could be 24.

Hasan: Ha ha, I'm 22. OK, so how old?

TM: Huh?

Hasan: You.

TM: I'm 27.

Hasan: Yallah!!

TM: What happened?

Suddenly he was clutching his forehead with his hand and blushing and laughing.

TM: O....K...You thought I was younger, right?

Hasan (still laughing): Yes

TM: How old did you think I was?

Hasan: 22. But ok. It's ok. 27 - no problem.

TM: You're funny. Why did you even want to know?

Hasan: Boyfriend?

TM: Yes

He kept grinning. And blushed a bit more. At this point my sleep deprivation started catching up. I could barely sit up, so I lay down on the berth. He did the same. And with his broken English started telling me how happy he was to visit his mother, how he missed her, how he wished he wasn't in Switzerland but with her in Belgium. And then suddenly, he said

Hasan: TM, I wish you all the happiness, all you want.

TM (surprised and a little affected): I wish the same for you.

At this point, my eyes closed involuntarily, but sleep would not come. I was shivering with cold. My scatter brained travel plans meant that I was dressed for a Mediterranean summer in Germany, and to add to my misery, the vestibule AC was on full blast. This problem could have been solved by closing the coupe door, but Hasan had kept the door open to make me feel comfortable.

I had shut my eyes and was shivering for a minute, when suddenly I felt something warm being placed on me. I looked up to see that Hasan was draping his jacket over me. When I looked at him, he patted my head and said

Hasan: Sh sh! Sleep, sleep.

TM: But you'll be cold

Hasan: No, no, no cold

TM: Hasan, please.

Hasan: No, no, sleep.

I had no energy to argue. And as soon as the warmth of the jacket hit me, I was transported to the sleep I had missed so intently in the last few hours. I must have slept for only about an hour or so when I woke up again. I felt refreshed and decided to sit up and look outside.

Hasan was sleeping on his berth, and we were passing through the gorgeous Rhineland. Out of my train window I could see the lovely Rhine river, gleaming with the morning light and at short distances, there were castles and forts on top of small hills in the distance. Very surreal and very German.

Hasan turned in his berth and opened his eyes.

TM: Hasan, look, isn't it gorgeous?

Hasan raised his head and craned his neck to look out. And then with a glum look put his back on his berth.

Hasan: Eh, still Germany.

TM: But so beautiful, no?

Hasan: Eh.

And then he turned away and went back to sleep.

How odd! He had absolutely no appreciation for the beauty of the landscape. He just didn't care.

I kept looking out and admiring silently. At some point, the train veered away from the Rhine and the landscape changed. The hills and castles were replaced by meadows and grazing cows. After a little while we pulled into a station and I missed catching the name. After a few minutes, a train superintendent with a jolly face walked in and said:

Bonjour mademoiselle et monsieur! Welcome to Belgium. Passports please.

Hasan woke up as soon as he heard French being spoken, and his electrifying smile returned.

Hasan: Bonjour, bonjour!

We both showed our passports and the superintendent left. After a long time, the train started rolling. Now it was Hasan's turn to get excited, he was glued to the window, his eyes wide, breathing in the landscape.

Hasan: TM, so nice, so nice, no? L'Belgique, it's l'Belgique!

TM: Err...yeah, lots of cows.

Hasan: Nice - very nice. I like l'Belgique. Don't like Switzerland.

It was then I realized that since he lived in the German speaking part of Switzerland, he had transfered his dislike of Switzerland to Germany as well. French was his second language, so Belgium was like a second home. Besides, his mother was here.

His station was fast approaching. Mine was to come 20 minutes after his.

Hasan: What number in Louvain, I call you.

TM: I don't know. I don't have a place yet.

Hasan: Ok...Ok...I give my mother's number. You call, ok?

TM: Hasan, I don't promise. I really don't know if I'll be able to call. Is that Ok?

Hasan: Ok, ok. But try.

TM: I will try.

Hasan: I never see you again, no?

TM: Maybe not.

Hasan: Good luck then, yeah?

TM: To you too Hasan. Take care. And I'm sure one day you'll be a famous musician.

He smiled and glowed. After nearly a year, he was visiting his mother. He couldn't wait to see her. I sat alone in my coupe, waving goodbye to Hasan who was on the platform now, wondering about the surreality of this life, of the kindness of strangers, and of those whom we shall never meet again.

It doesn't matter, no? There is magic in the ephemerality of it all, the harsh glare of quotidian life destroys it. I never called Hasan. I just didn't want to.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Marriage Season

My Yahoo email account settings show me as still living in India. Not an inconvenience at all, especially since I get to see lovely ads such as this flash on my screen.

A banner ad for, showing the beaming face of an Indian woman, with the headline and tag -

1.2 Crore Partner Choices
Should you look elsewhere?
Your partner is waiting for you on BharatMatrimony"

Lovely - BharatMatrimony - now exclusively for bisexuals!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Financial Bloodbath

Ok, I won't lie. I'm absolutely stunned at this news about the Bear Stearns buyout at $2 per share. Darn, wasn't Bear Stearns trading at $30 per share till even yesterday? Well granted that this was after a free fall from around $150 per share sometime in the middle of last year when sub-prime wasn't a term that had imprinted itself into public consciousness.

Which then begs the question - is Bear Stearns the only major investment bank out there to be in such serious trouble? Weren't the Bear executives, just like the executives of all major investment banks swearing up and down that the effects of the sub-prime loans, credit crunch, market downturn etc.,etc. were rather negligible? I mean, damn it, look at this statement from the Yahoo article

JPMorgan's acquisition of Bear Stearns represents roughly 1 percent of what the investment bank was worth just 16 days ago. It marked a 93.3 percent discount to Bear Stearns' market capitalization as of Friday, and roughly a 98.8 percent discount to its book value as of Feb. 29.
How is that even possible unless assets were ridiculously overvalued (I'm looking at you creative accountants)? Hmm...maybe I should have taken those Chartered Accountancy exams anyway (not too late to get a CPA though). Accountants shall inherit the earth.

You know what, much as I try, I just cannot squeeze out even a shred of schadenfreude about this. I mean sure, investment b(w)ankers have a reputation for arrogance and general assholic behaviour, and at least the top executives at Bear Stearns deserve to be skewered for their general incompetence and short-sighted focus on fat cat bonuses while running the company to the ground. One cannot talk enough about the moral hazards of playing professional investment banker with someone else's money.

However, Bear employs 14000 employees, and there is great uncertainty about the future of those jobs, given that no one has a clue as to what exactly JP Morgan wishes to do with the company. This is a distress sale, and Bear Stearns couldn't possible dictate any of its terms.

Tomorrow brings much palpitation and trepidation to the financial markets. The fallout of the Bear Stearns affair promises to be messy. This is where it helps to be the over-educated poor. One can watch with bemused disinterest and sigh over human folly. No money, no cry.