Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Runaround!

Have you ever been given the runaround?  If you're living in India, then I'm guessing you have!  It could be for a drivers license, paying a bill at a Government office, or even procuring a school leaving certificate.

I used to think that runarounds were confined to Governmental offices, hospitals, or educational institutions.  I was so wrong.  My tryst with the seemingly endless runaround circle happened when I tried to get my rightful customer service from a Multinational that had long established its presence, not only through endorsements on TV and print media, but also through the adoption of its wide array of consumer products in Indian homes.  I'm going to refrain from taking names here, as I would like to believe that my experience was a standalone one.

The product in question was a hair trimmer.  Yes, in Mumbai, men haircutting saloons are a dime and dozen.  In fact, they are not very strategically placed as they can be seen at every nook and corner, and are still thriving.  After all, everyone needs a haircut, right?  Anyway, my hair is of the stubborn type that doesn't respond to any sort of styling.  So once in awhile, I just  run the trimmer through my hair.

My few month old trimmer suddenly died out on me one day (luckily not in the midst of a hair mowing).  It was well under the warranty period so I knew that the company would take care of it.

I called the Company customer service line in Hyderabad or Bangalore - I can't recall.  I expected to be apologized to for my inconvenience and assured that the needful would be done immediately.  But instead, the Customer Service Representative (CSR) asked me irrelevant questions, as if he was interrogating a criminal - "What were you doing with it when it stopped working?", "Did you try to shave your face with it?", "Did you drop it?", "Are you sure?" and so on.  Soon a 'case' was opened and I was given a case number.

The CSR asked me where I lived.  When I related the details to him, he provided me with their Mumbai Service Center Number.
"Don't worry, Sir," he said, his voice taking on a reassuring tone.  "Just give them a call.  And they will come and pick it up from you and fix it."
"But shouldn't your company be replacing the product?" I asked.  This was the norm with the same company in the US.
"No, Sir.  We will fix it.  It'll be as good as new."
"I don't want it fixed," I protested.  "I bought it new, and it turned out faulty.  Your company should not be selling products with defects.  It's your duty to..."
The line went dead.

One thing that I learned from dealing with people working in customer service is that you need to be nicer to them than them to you.  They get hassled by all kinds of people all day, and if you turn out to be one of "those," they will just hang up and let someone else deal with you when you call back.

So I tried calling the Service Center Number.  All the numbers were not in service.  I was shocked.  How could I be given a wrong number.  So I called Customer Service again and explained the situation.
"I'm sorry Sir.  These are the only numbers I have on file."
"How does that help me?" I asked, agitated.  "If you don't give it to me, who will?"
"I'm sorry Sir," the polite lady said.  "These are the only numbers were have.  I could escalate your claim."
"This is not an insurance claim.  Just a simple problem.  What is the process of escalating a claim?"
"It would be put on priority.  And then transferred to the regional office, who will get in touch with the Service Center and have them call you."
"But how will your Regional office get in touch with them if the numbers are not working?" I asked challengingly."
Silence.  She was trapped.
"That's true, Sir," she finally spoke.
"Can you give me the address?"
I jotted down the address and thanked her.  She apologized for her inability to solve my problem, but promised to "escalate my claim."

So armed with the defective product, original bill, and frustration, I set out towards the service centre.  An hour later, I reached the area but had to let the rickshaw go as the gully was wide enough only for a two wheeler to enter.  By the way, the rickshaw ride cost me a hundred rupees during which I inhaled exhaust fumes from all possible vehicles gracing the streets of Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the best way to find a place is to ask for directions.  I made several enquiries and was directed into a chawl colony.  I was directed twice again till I found myself outside a chawl of which the door was shut.  Several angry voices emanated from inside.  They were muffled but it seemed like a domestic argument.  Nevertheless, I knocked on the door.

A woman answered and I asked if I had reached the right location.  She banged the door on my face.  I was stunned in shock.  Was that a yes or a no?  A few seconds later, an elderly man answered and beckoned me in.

As I stepped inside I noticed that the chawl had been partitioned into a home and workspace area by a curtain.  The workspace area, that we were standing in, had shelved of electronics stacked haphazardly.  I explained my problem and showed him my bill etc.  He made no attempt to look at the bill and instead inspected the trimmer.  His hands went in a blur as he fidgeted with it.  Within a few minutes, it was working!

I enquired about paperwork.  He merely smiled and handed my trimmer back to me, "as good as new."

And that was it.  True story!

Where there's goodness in people, there's hope for the country.

Today I went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan.  The movie was delightful, despite my five-year-old daughter whispering the events (right before they appeared on screen) into my ear as she was watching the film for the second time.

When we were driving back home after the film, I felt in my pocket and was shocked to find that my wallet wasn't there.  I pulled the car to the kerb and searched frantically all over the car.  My wallet not only housed my bank debit cards, but also my drivers license and pan card.  Alarmed, I rushed back to the cinema hall.   

After haphazardly parking in the compound, I pulled my daughter up the staircase and retraced our steps.  I rushed back into the cinema hall, where the next show of the movie had already begun.  I told the usher of my predicament who wasted no time in training his flashlight on my seat and around the area.  All eyes were glued to the Salman Khan blockbuster, yet people (who got wind of my ordeal) joined in my search.  As expected, the wallet was nowhere to be found.  I presumed that someone had picked it up.

Once I reached home, I got a call.  It was the theatre usher, Sanju.  He informed me that after we left, he checked all the rows and happened to find my wallet a few rows down.  I must have accidentally dropped it while walking down the aisle.

I rushed back to the cinema hall, raced up the three stories and found Sanju.  He handed me the wallet.  Everything in it was intact.  There was a little over Rs. 2000 in the wallet and it was all there.  Sanju appeared to be from an impoverished background.  He could have easily taken the cash and told me that's how he had found it (that's how lost wallets are usually returned).  Yes, he had opened my wallet, but only to look for a visiting or ID card which would have my contact details.  I was so touched that I took all the cash out and forced it into his pocket.

The cash wasn't a small amount.  But honesty must be rewarded in the most gratifying way possible.  That would only encourage a person to stay honest.  My tip/reward was probably twenty times more than what anyone would have normally given.  So I believe that my amount makes up for the next twenty times Sanju does the same thing for any other lost items.

This incident reinstates my faith in people.  Where there's goodness in people, there's hope for the country.  If we all could do the right thing for others whenever the opportunity presents itself, our country could never go wrong.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Does a book benefit when launched by a film star?

Does a book benefit when launched by a film star?  The answer is Yes.  Here's why:-

1) So that people attend.
Sad but true, people make an effort when stars are present.  You may post an event on Facebook and get innumerous confirmations.  But on the actual day, only few of those attend.  However, when a star is present not only do the confirmed ones attend but there are many walk-ins as well.

2) So that the press picks it up.
The press follow stars.  So if you have a star at your event, you will surely find press there as well.  The press has options for events to attend every day, so your star has to be the bigger one else the press will go to the 'other' event where there are bigger stars present. 

So, does your book actually benefit with the presence of a film star at the launch?  

A year or so back, I attended a book launch at Landmark Bookstores at Infiniti Mall in Andheri (W).  I lived in the vicinity at the time so happened to wander in towards the end of the event.  The event saw the presence of a movie star.  The venue was filled to capacity.  All in all, it seemed like a successful event and that the journey of the book seemed to have started on the right note.

However, once the star left (before the book signing by the author) more than half the people disappeared just like that.  The line queued up to the get the book signed by the author had barely fifteen people.  When I glanced at the side table where the books were stacked, it looked barely touched.  The book-signing was over in less than fifteen minutes after which the event immediately packed up.  Out of curiosity, I followed the book's journey and unfortunately, despite the grand launch and subsequent press, the book did not take off.  So basically, most of the people in attendance were there to see the star.  In addition, the book was a serious fiction and not a mass/popular fiction.

Having a film star at a book launch event has its pros and cons:-

PROS: With a film star present at a book launch, people attend as do the press (as I mentioned before).  People instantly become aware of the book (if the press features pictures of the star holding the book) and it definitely arouses curiosity.

CONS: While the press may pick it up, they may not feature the star holding the book.  At most, they may mention that so and so star was seen at a book launch event, without even mentioning the name of the book unless you're a journalist/author yourself or the book is authored by a reputed name or if you have enlisted the services of a reputed PR agency who can push the publication to position your book appropriately.  But, even if the press does feature the star with the book, it may not really help unless the star personally endorses your book the way they endorse products (which they get paid for).  So they would need to talk about your book in the press and social media platforms.  They need to say that they are using your product.  Will they do that?  The answer is mostly, NO.  

You need to have a close association with the star for them to do you that favour.  I learned that companies pay stars to endorse their products on Twitter and Facebook, so why would they do yours for free?  The answer - if they know you really really well and so they personally want to help you.  

Another CON is related to the connection between the star and the subject matter of your book.  If you're writing a mass fiction, it would help to have a star endorse your book.  Otherwise, if you have written a literary fiction or something more 'meaningful,' it could go against you.  There are serious readers out there who have drawn a fine line between Bollywood and books.  And if a star (who they know isn't a serious reader or doesn't have an 'intelligent' image) attends your launch, they may not take your book seriously.  Mind you, this is not based on presumptions but on feedback from 'serious' readers.

There are roughly 50 fiction books (conveyed to me by Late R.H. Sharma - Ex Editor-in-Chief at Jaico) that release EVERY WEEK.  This figure is from a few years back, so the number may have gone up or down.  The book will have a shelf life of 3-6 months, maybe longer if the book is successful.  Most of these 50 books don't make it to the bookshelves of reputed stores though all books (including self-published ones) are available online.  So there's a lot of competition to garner attention for your book.  So what is the right thing to do?

A book launch definitely helps.  But the right celebrity is important.  One should invite a celebrity/known figure based on the subject matter of the book.  For example, (ideally speaking) if it's a book on crime I would like to see a known person attached to the Police Force at the launch.  Would  the book get press?  It might but definitely not as much as a Bollywood star.  But it would get the right readers.  Now, when I mean press I'm referring to write-ups and pictures of the book launch.  Book reviews are separate which are handled by the publishing company.  Now, there's a tradeoff - immediate press or targeting the right readers?  Which is more important?  For immediate sales, it's obviously press.  

In the West, when it comes to a book, it's the author and only the author who is the star.  But in our country, nothing seems to be above Bollywood, which is sad but true.  Bollywood has taken over the advertising world as well.  Around 70% of ads feature film stars, which in turn pushes sales of the product.  But does this translate into the reading world as well?  The answer - as I said before, only if the star is shown using your product.  And the flip side to that is, many of the star fans may not be readers themselves.

I think it was the big authors who started inviting stars to their events.  And that has set the trend for book launch events.

Publishing is a serious business.  When books don't sell, it's a loss for the publisher as the books gather dust in the warehouse.  From the publishers' point of view, a star is essential as it could ensure the sales of at least the first print run and kick in word-of-mouth publicity immediately.  But without a star, your book may sail through if you do your bit to promote the book in print and on other platforms.  But if you're book is really good, it will sell regardless!

All in all, if you can get a Bollywood Star to attend your book launch event, you're golden and your book will draw attention all over India immediately!  But make sure that the cons don't work against your book.  

HiFi in Bollywood - It's important for film aspirants to have a backup plan

Bollywood is a hot topic and there are many books out there that try to cash in on the same. And they always start with the typical dream, and end with the protagonist achieving that dream with struggles in-between. They always end with somewhat of a fairy tale ending. But the film industry is actually far from that.

Having worked in the film industry for many years, I decided to reflect on my own journey while trying to keep it entertaining at the same time. In actuality, the struggle is immense and most of the time people don't have a backup plan which is very imperative when one deviates from the 'safe' route. I have seen many people getting thoroughly disappointed, becoming cynical and even misusing their positions to demoralise others. The film industry is mostly full of people who are stuck in the jobs that were never on their list, just because they didn't plan sensibly. 

I subtly tried to highlight the backup plan part and I hope that you catch it. During my career, this is something that Salman Khan had actually told me - it's very important to give yourself a timeline and have something to fall back on before you enter the industry. This is something I kept with me while writing my book. .

Despite the opening up of career avenues, most parents insist on their children taking the safe route (I don't blame them for that) as it is important to hit milestones at the right age. We realise why only when we grow older. So parents are not wrong. However, kids do absorb a lot from the media and environment which exposes them to a lot more of possibilities that their parents may not be aware of. I feel that it's important to somehow realise that you're talented at and passionate about something before treading on the untoward path towards it. But more than that, it's important to give oneself a timeline and know when to call it a day. In my eyes, that doesn't make one a quitter. But a true winner.

Vanita (one of the man characters in the book) chooses the medical profession also because of the money part.  And there's nothing wrong in being honest about what you want and why you want it. She is a level-headed girl and probably defines the woman of today - practical, intelligent, but yet thinks with her heart. I feel that it is very important for a woman to be financially independent, which is why I took care not to portray Vanita as one of those pining and heartbroken women, who is totally dependent on a man for her journey. She is a woman of substance who though doesn't appear much in the book, is actually the driving force of this story. I believe that women are superior to men in every way. And the reason, why our 'progressive' nation lacks in many ways is because men either don't realise or acknowledge this fact as they do in the west. The progress of our nation lies in gender equality.

On a different note, my first book - Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai - has a strong-willed, independent female character who is suppressed in every way because of the traditional society she lives in. I do hope that women all over, find their own way to break from the meaningless shackles of society and find their own place in the world. And I strongly believe that only education can do that. Education is in a sense, freedom.

I have attempted to write the book in an entertaining way so that it is lapped up by more readers. But more than that, I wanted Rayhan's journey to be inspiring and hope that it inspires you as well to follow your dreams.  It's never too late.

It is very helpful for an author to know how readers take to his/her book, so please do write in. HiFi in Bollywood doesn't follow the conventional commercial fiction format but I'm sure you will enjoy it!  At the end of the day, it's all about entertainment! 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Changing Lives - One Person at a Time

I vividly remember an incident way back to when I was seven years old.  My father and I were at a traffic light in Mumbai.  A young beggar boy (probably in his teens) peered through the window of our taxi, and started reciting his sob story.  His face convulsed in misery as he recounted a nonstop rendition of how he hadn't eaten in days, and that a rupee from me could feed his starving stomach.

I was immediately taken by this young boy's woes.  His sorry face showed no tears, but his matted hair and dirt-streaked face painted the perfect picture of a young boy trapped in hopelessness.  And all it would take is one rupee to morph his sad face into one of temporary hope.  I fished into my pockets and found a one rupee coin.  Before I could place it in the boys waiting palm, my father clasped his huge hand over my thin wrist and brought it down.

"What are you doing?" demanded my father, shifting his irritated gaze between my face and coin.  "Someone asks you for money and you will just give it to him!  Nothing is wrong with this boy!  He is just lazy!  Look at him!  He is hale and hearty - why can't he work?"

I looked at the boy closely.  The boy didn't understand English but his uncertain expression indicated that he knew he was the bone of contention between father and son.  I noticed that even though the boy had successfully forged a sad tone in his voice to supplement his miserable story, there were no tears at all.  And he was a little on the plump side - a little ironic for a boy whose words had almost led me to believe that for him, food was a luxury.

The traffic light changed to green.  Our taxi zoomed ahead leaving the boy to his life and me with a philosophy for the years to come on how to deal with beggars.

When I hit my teens, and my awareness and sensibilities kicked in, I learned of the beggar mafia.  It had been reported that all beggars worked under a 'Dada' (local gangster) to whom they had to give their earnings of the day.  Some reports mentioned that children and people of all ages entered this profession both voluntarily and involuntarily.  Either way, it was a profession that fueled the mafia and did nothing to improve the circumstances of beggars.

This morning, I was returning from Lokhandwala Market in the Andheri Suburb of Mumbai.  At the Adarsh Nagar signal, a young beggar girl (no more than 12) jumped up from the kerb when she saw my rickshaw come to a full stop.  Wrapped around her, in a dirty cloth, was a sleeping infant.

She started a familiar rendition in Hindi - "My child is hungry, saab.  Please give me something, anything so that I can feed her.  I myself have not eaten for two days."

Her words brought back the incident at the signal with the beggar boy, years ago.  After accustoming myself to the flashback, I mildly unleashed a chiding tirade on her.

"You should be ashamed of yourself carrying a little child in the heat just to make some money.  If you choose to do this, then why drag the child along with you?"

She looked at me sadly and said, "Saab, this is my child.  And there is no one else to take care of her.  And I beg because my family needs the money."

"I'll give you Rs. 500 if you're story has any truth to it," I replied and turned ahead.

I expected her to back off, but she remained standing there her sad look piercing into my eyes.

"Come with me, if you don't believe me," she said and walked away.

Her challenge took me by surprise.  Ordinarily, I would have ignored her and gone on home.  But there was something about her innocent face and sadness in her eyes that made me curious.  Besides, it was broad daylight and I doubted that she would be stupid enough to lure me into a situation where I would be roughed up and mugged by older associates.

I paid the autowallah his fare, while he shook his head in disapproval.  The girl walked ahead and I followed her, staying a few feet behind.  She turned around periodically to check if I was still following her.  The faceless baby remained asleep throughout, his/her tiny feet popping out from his/her child-mother's bosom.

Our destination was 500 meters down the road.  An open gutter ran the entire length.  Over the gutter were several shanties (slums).  The makeshift house was big enough only for two people - it was so small.  The girl ducked into one of them and within seconds, pulled out a frail hand along with her attached to a perpetually coughing woman.

"This is my mother," said the girl.  "She is paralyzed waist down.  The doctor said it was blood clots.  My father lives in a chawl in Behram Baug there, but threw us out and took in another woman and her children.  We have no money and I'm the only one to support my mother.  No one will hire me as a servant because I am too young.  This is the only work I can do."

"And the baby?  Where is the father?" I asked, too taken in to employ any tact.

She looked down and kept her gaze fixed on the dirty gutter.  At that moment, it seemed to offer her more solace than my shameless face.

It all came to me in an instant.  This girl didn't know who the father was.  Because her innocence was taken from her against her will and her soul ripped apart in the process - not once but probably several times by different men.

I felt tears welling up in my ears.  I felt foolish.  But my dark glasses hid my shame well.

I had studied an MBA in Sustainability, focusing on both the Environmental and Social Sector.  On the social side, I had studied about all about the poverty traps that kept the impoverished poor along with other social issues plaguing the less privileged the world over.  Armed with that knowledge, I began to look upon India in a different light - and that long-term change could happen only one person at a time.  The Government and charities were offering only short-terms solutions.

After all those case studies, volunteer/community work, late night studying, papers, presentations, exams, non-profit/foundations exposure, and top grades - here I was standing face to face with a girl one-third my age, but whose experiences had made her grow up before her time and see three times as much of life's misery than I had.  Here I was, the typical wary Mumbaikar, reduced to someone who had learned everything in college, but who knew little about the reality behind all those concepts and stories.

On one hand, I felt ashamed for having doubted her.  On the other hand, I was grateful for having opened my eyes into learning about something that every Mumbaikar ordinarily ignores.  I took out a five hundred rupee note and pressed it it into her hand, along with my card.  I told her to call me if she needed any medical assistance for her mother.  She finally allowed her listless expression break into a slight smile and returned the card.

I didn't ask her why but understood.  People in the past may have offered to help her.  But they had either taken advantage of her or just went back on their word.  On seeing her plight, I knew that her long-term solution was money.  I gave her Rs. 1500 more and decided to deliver Rs. 2000 to her personally each month.  It would eat into my monthly budget and I would have to give up on some of my monthly outings.  But she needed basic food more than I needed to eat out.  Hers was a necessity.  Mine was a luxury.  This was the most I could do for her now.  And I sincerely hope that I can do more for her further.  But I know that at the end of the day, our own responsibilities make us lose sight.  And it might happen with me too.

It got me thinking.  We all talk about quitting certain vices - like smoking, drinking, non-veg (I don't consider it a vice:)).  But we always want to do it for ourselves.  How about doing it for others?  How about calculating the money we save, and using that to help someone else - someone we don't even know.  After all, I believe, we can help the less fortunate by helping one person at a time.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mind your Umbrella!

The Mumbai Monsoons hit really hard today, announcing their final arrival in their full splendour and glory.  An umbrella is a must, and you should have it with you at all times!  By "at all times" I mean - never let it out of your sight!  Yes, there are umbrella whackers out there!

I went to the Medical Centre to pick up my reports today.  I should have gone much earlier, but got kind of lazy about it.  Anyway, the rain was pouring hard, so hard that I needed my umbrella from the autorickshaw to the entrance which was literally a few steps away.  Outside the entrance was a green plastic bucket, housing inverted wet umbrellas in various stages of wear and tear.  As you know, in most establishments, you are expected to leave your wet umbrella outside in such a container.  However, there is no provisions of specific security to safeguard your umbrella.

Once I collected my reports, I stepped back outside and retrieved my umbrella.  There was a family of three looking searchingly in all directions.  I figured that something was wrong and asked if I could be of any assistance.  Apparently, their umbrella got whacked.

The man told me that they had stepped in for a few minutes, and when they returned their umbrella was gone.  I asked him if it was a fancy umbrella and he replied in the negative.  He went on to describe his umbrella - it was one of those plain sturdy black ones that offer protection to three people and never threaten to overturn in gusty winds.  I then saw why his umbrella was 'the chosen one.'

I offered my sympathies and prepared to set out in the heavy rain.  Of course, I did offer him a lift to an auto rickshaw.  But he politely declined saying that he, and his family, would prefer to remain there in wait in the event that someone had borrowed their umbrella for a short trip and returned soon.

As I walked away, I realized the sad state of affairs.  People don't seem to think twice about inconveniencing others, as long as it meets their own benefit.  How can a person whack someone else's umbrella?  I mean, if the person somehow got there without an umbrella in the heavy rain, can't he/she find his/her way back the same way?  Why should someone else suffer?  Besides, what if the person really really needed the umbrella for some other purpose (like in the clip below)?


It got me thinking - is whacking umbrellas worse than stealing shoes outside a temple?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai - Several tracks

The book 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai' runs on several tracks - love, hope, courage, just to name a few.  When I got down to creating visual trailers for the book, I decided to explore Mumbai visually on these three tracks.  So the first promo is all about hopelessness and hope.

The song was recorded by music director duo Sangeet & Siddharth.  Earlier it was meant to have only a female vocalist.  But when Sangeet started singing to direct the female singer, I instantly realized that a duet would be more effective!  Through melody, short track is a communication between two lovers.

The girl's voice is laden with hopelessness.  The guy's voice is lined with hope and a slight lift of spirits.  Earlier, I was planning to shoot with a guy and girl sitting facing the sunset - with the girl being sad, and the guy trying to reassure her.  But then, I found that a little too literal.  So I decided to go abstract and shoot at Bandra Railway Station (one of the characters) and relate the song to the spirit of the people that make Mumbai tick.

Hope you liked the promo!