Friday, September 30, 2016

Lessons in Management, Leadership and Flawless Execution

Anticipating a nice long nap on a flight from Jaipur to Bangalore, I was instead given a memorable life lesson or two...

A few nanoseconds after the seat-belt sign went off, a flurry of activity ensued.

Three people in seats around me jumped up, bags and boxes of food were opened and paper plates magically materialized. Kachoris, chips, two types of sweets (laddoo and another one I couldn’t view due to the alacrity of operations) were put in each paper plate and the game was officially on.
There were at least twenty plates that were distributed across the aircraft, incredibly enough with very little communication and zero confusion on roles and responsibilities. One guy was opening the food boxes at high speed, the other was loading the plates ensuring perfect balance in portion size and one more guy was going around the plane dishing out the plates. The frenzied efficiency of the entire operation was a sight to behold. There was even this one white guy who just couldn’t resist all this food being passed around and requested for a plate. Not an eyelid batted; he got a plate with no disruption to the supply chain operations. The flight stewardess wanted to bring her food card down the aisle to serve us less fortunate mortals but she was informed politely but firmly that she’d have to wait 2 minutes.  The estimate went up to 3 and then 5 minutes all within a matter of a couple of seconds but at the end of 5 minutes, the perfect operation culminated with a trash box to gather the remains.

My learnings:
1.       Overall Planning – These folks were born to do this. At no point was there any sign of trouble or mismanagement. They made it look easy and seamless. I’m sure that only comes from years of training in the trenches of kachori and ladoo service with the constraints of time, space and resources
2.       Capacity Planning - Ability to cater to unplanned demand (they even asked the stewardess if she wanted a plate)
3.       Scale and Speed - The entire operation was geared for the shortest possible flight duration.  A 20 minute flight suffices for end to end execution
4.       Division of labor - Immaculate – everyone knew their role with minimal inter communication
5.       Optimization & Efficiency - Only three people were involved and 20+ people in different parts of the aircraft got served in under 5 minutes. As my colleague on the same flight put it, this was a surgical strike done with clinical precision
6.       Customer Satisfaction – The white guy had his fill and promptly fell asleep with his mouth open and a look of contentment on his face
7.       Quality – Zero defects, zero wastage, zero evidence of any food/service

Needless to say I couldn’t sleep after this immersive educational experience and spent the rest of the flight in a state of anti-climax.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Bates Motel (A Review)

Bates Motel is slick, entertaining and addictive. The name of the series naturally drew my attention with all the memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller and I just HAD to watch. One always wonders about Norman Bates’ past and this series does a bang up job of presenting an amazingly well thought out perspective and context.

Before your very eyes, you see Norman evolve (not sure if that’s the right word here) from a gawky, innocent and shy teenager to a young adult with psychological problems due to his mother’s difficult childhood, his own encounters with the opposite sex and his coming to terms with his mental condition.

Without giving too much away, a quick summary/review of the series.

Set in modern day Oregon (though shot in British Columbia), the story is developed subtly and with extreme intelligence. 

The fact that murders are commonplace in the small town Norman (Freddie Highmore) moves to and lives in is explained well with the town’s own issues, problems and generally weird goings-on.  

Norma Bates’ personality spanning multicolor hues is richly portrayed by Vera Farmiga as you end up sympathizing with her in one scene to feeling she’s a real bitch in another. The conflict and anguish within her are evident as she realizes her son is not all there and she becomes the controlling mother in Hitchcock’s narrative. The subtlety of the series shows up in a few ways here. Her hair which is initially blond and wavy in Season 1 slowly makes way to the silver colored bun that is a hallmark of the movie. In another scene, Norman is sleeping in his bed and she’s rocking back and forth on the chair that is unmistakably reminiscent of the movie.

The relationship between Norman and his mother also slowly changes as he starts realizing what he’s becoming and Norma’s helplessness as she attempts to cope with her own life and his. Shades of the Oedipus complex show up in flashes providing some explanations to his eventual persona.

The show is far from one dimensional with Norman’s elder brother thrown in the mix. Relatively more normal than his sibling and mother, the brother’s character only evokes empathy as he’s a man with a good heart and readily bails out his family from trouble which Norma and Norman keep getting into. As the town sheriff says in one scene to Norma ‘You seem to always attract trouble’ or something to that effect.  There’s also the girl who helps out at the motel and always wants to help but feels excluded from the psychotic whirlpool that is the Bates family.  Other characters include the town’s enigmatic sherif and the shifty uncle from the past.

Every aspect of the Norman Bates character is explained down to the tiniest detail including the reason that the Bates house is full of stuffed dead animals and his voyeurism.

The series has you on the edge every minute of every episode. One cannot do justice to it in a write-up. Scary, thoughtful, provocative and intensely brilliant and definitely worth a view.

Just make sure it’s not the last thing you watch before you switch off the lights to go to sleep at night.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Zak the Gentle

Zak died on May 22nd and with that, he took a part of us with him.

He was withering away for the last week or so prior to that and there was something deep inside that knew he wouldn't make it. Still that doesn't make it any easier. The second time we've lost a beloved family member in a few years time. Sol died when he was seven and  half and now Zak at six.

From the moment we got him as a 30 day old, it was evident that he was playful but extremely disciplined. None of us ever remember training him but he just listened. Like any other puppy, he was a joy to be around and watch.

During my startup days, Zak regularly accompanied me to work where he was just another member of the team and he made sure to spend time with each of us during the day. Birthday celebrations were a big deal for Zak as he always got the first piece of cake,

Zak didn't really fancy too much activity or the company of other dogs. He always considered himself one of us. He's probably barked a few times in his entire life. Most people who've been terrified of dogs got over their fear just by being with him a few minutes.

In our apartment complex, we were all known as Zak's family and that sums up his presence. A beloved soul whose only need in life was to be loved and his fur to be ruffled.  His only time of insistence was when you stopped petting him and he would place a purposeful paw on your leg just to remind you gently that he was not done.

He enjoyed our long trips and the girls spent many an hour in the cargo section of the car just being with him. We took him everywhere and he took it all in with the pleasure of a baby.

Zak passed away when we were out of the country and now that we're back, it's inconceivable that he's not around. I expect to hear the frantic paws on the floor every time I call him as he scrambles to get to me. It will take a while for us to get over his loss but the memories never go away and I know he's in a good place wherever he is. Goodbye big fella....there's always a place in our heart for you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Two decades and counting

My cousin who is a journalist and an exemplary writer recently wrote about her 28 years of marriage to a military spouse. An inspiring read to say the least but it got me thinking of my marriage and where  (after 20 years) we've come to from our early days together as husband and wife though neither of us are in the military.

I've always had relationship issues or to put it bluntly, had no relationships at all with the fairer sex during my wild formative years in the northern regions of Nigeria nor during the obligatory four years of engineering in India. 

The whole concept of getting married came quite out of the blue as I was merrily going about my first job in the US after completing my graduate degree there. My uncle in India kind of suggested I consider this girl who was a distant relative of mine. The type of decision making one does in the younger days is so unfettered and liberating. Being the 90s, I got her photos in the post and showed it to my ex-roomies who asked me what I was waiting for and that was it.

Vaishnavi and I did talk a lot during those early days apart and though I could ill afford the multi-hundred dollar phone bills, it didn't stop me. Though we were related, we'd hardly seen or talked to each other growing up so this was essential for both of us to do. When I did go to India for the the 2-in-1 program (engagement followed by wedding on consecutive days), it was still quite awkward for both us to say the least.

Our early days together in the US were hard only when we look back on them in today's context. We didn't have money and often withdrew cash from credit cards to put into our bank account (don't really remember why the convoluted transactions). We never thought of these as hardships though and just went with the flow. 

When she cooked for the first time in her life, I made an innocent comment on the sink being full of pots and pans and pretty much a single cooked offering to show for it. She burst into tears. I also had to alter my daily routine drastically. I'd come home from work, have tea and take a nap. Hmm...

For a girl who's been around family all her life, being away for the first time in an alien land with a stranger cannot be easy any way you look at it. I must say she adapted remarkably well very quickly.

The start of the new millennium gave us our first experience of true adversity.  We realized that we couldn't have children. It's when you know you can't have something that you want nothing else. It did take us a while to even accept this fact. We'd read about teenage kids aborting their pregnancies and newborns flushed down toilets and we'd cringe and lament at the unfairness of it all.  

We finally reconciled to the harsh reality and then went about figuring out a solution. Numerous tests, prodding and medications followed. We found this amazing doctor  specializing in IVF at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and we were there a few times a week.  It wasn't all bad. The whole experience was turned into an entertaining aspect of our lives and I still remember both of us laughing insanely at the stupidest things as we went back and forth from the hospital. An unforgettable quote from one of the doctors - 'you have a beautiful uterus' - cracks us up to this day.  

Towards the end of 2002, we were informed that two eggs had fertilized and were on the merry path to parenthood. Neither of us believe in miracles but if there ever was one, this was it. And in the 37th week of our tiny adventure, during a routine examination, Dr Lindstrom (who Vaishnavi thought was very good looking) said these words - 'Let's get those babies out of ya. Would 1 p.m work for you today?'

We moved back to India in 2004 with our twin girls and life's been good. Our girls have grown up to be strong independent little women and we can't imagine how we survived before them. We have had job changes (me more than her), gone through distressing financial times and tough relationship times. 

If I could draw a graph, I must say, overall, things have been well above the median in terms of how our relationship has evolved. Yes, we have become older, more irritable and grumpy, but when I see Vaishnavi,  I still see the slim, long haired gorgeous girl all of 22 years old.

What prompted me to write all this now? One was definitely my cousin's eloquent recap of her married life.  Other than that, memories started flooding back last night. Vaishnavi and I took a long walk and we talked about our future, our children's future, what and how we should plan for them. We got to thinking about how we started out and the fun we used to have together. It was time to pen down our joint history.

For most of us, there are no defining moments in life but a series of incremental events that define our relationships. The two of us are very different but our core values, morals and beliefs are the same and that's pretty much my nugget of wisdom for those embarking on the journey of togetherness.

I can't but resist ending with a few lyrics from an old Paula Abdul song because this so us!

Baby seems we never ever agree 
You like the movies 
And I like T.V. 
I take things serious 
And you take 'em light 
I go to bed early 
And I party all night 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Running on Full

Not one of those heroic tales this. A run in Mumbai is always magical though and worth documenting. Well over 6 hours to finish 42 km but that is another story...

From the moment one enters Azad Maidan, the energy and excitement are palpable. Thousands of runners from all over India nay from all over the world are here. There are the loud ones, the ultra fit ones and the debutants all raring to go.  We are all penned into alphabetical enclosures, with 'A' being for the human torpedoes. In the dismal 'C' category with only the 'D' category bring up the rear.

5:40 a.m - A huge reverberating cheer ensues and we know that the race has started somewhere far ahead. The cold winter air brings a small shiver, or is it just the nervous energy. Church Gate passes at the start point. The 'C' folks are already 10 minutes into the race even before the start line.

Lovely running the first 10K despite the tumultuous Peddar Road. Loud cheering all the way. Music blaring, cops waving, yes, this is the Mumbai Marathon! The half marathoners go by and a few celebrities swish by at considerable speed.

Amazing to run on the sealink. 20K done. The elite runners with the BMW lead car go by silently at well over 20 km an hour. Just have to take photos as they glide by and can't help but marvel at how some humans are engineered.

Great support all the way. Cookies, oranges, ice packs, energy drinks, fruit juices, chocolates, peanuts are on offer from the thousands of residents who come out for the sole purpose of supporting foolhardy strangers.

Cramps at 25K but manage to finish with a hobble, limp, walk run combo. Going past the final electronic timer, the mind is already on 2015. There's romance and magic here and one can only dream of coming back year after year.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: An American in Madras

I'm really no expert on movie reviews, especially documentaries. However, this is one that I just had to write about. Karan Bali is my class-mate from my early school years and it was great to be able to see his work first hand.

Not one for watching documentaries unless it's about food or travel, there definitely was some trepidation when I entered the beautiful premises of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore. However, in a few moments after the screening started, I was totally into the narrative and picturization. I won't go into the details of the documentary itself as people more competent than I will do a better job.

For me, it was fascinating that a white man would come to South India and the Tamil film industry and make Tamil movies in the late 30s and 40s. The  combination of sheer determination, creativity and focus of Ellis Dungan was a treat to watch.

With the right pacing and an engaging narrative, the events and interviews unfolded chronologically (in time) resulting in simple and effective storytelling. Like most documentaries, it was informative as I had no idea that Dungan had directed movies like Meera and Shakuntala. To me, the highlight will be the heartwarming look into the early movies of  the legendary doyen of Carnatic Music - M S Subbalakshmi. A truly ethereal beauty with a voice quality I have not heard from anyone else. As Sarojini Naidu says in the documentary, MS WAS Meera!

 I had never actually seen MKT Bhagvathar on-screen and getting glimpses of his acting and singing gave me an unique insight into his persona. And of course, who can forget the scenes of MGR in Sathi Leelavati.  Some trivia here - I learnt that the signature MGR tiny beard was a clever ploy to hide a small cleft in his chin as such deformities in heroes were frowned upon! Who knew!

There wasn't actually a single dull moment in the entire seventy odd minutes of the documentary and the ending with the felicitation of Dungan in Chennai did leave me a bit teary eyed, especially seeing MS, still classy and dignified.

The research done, people interviewed (including Kamal Hassan), the rare footages; pretty much the entire package was something that I will cherish for a long time to come.

After the program, I overheard a Caucasian lady in the audience say that it's not often one gets to meet a director during a movie preview and wanted to go up and talk to Karan. I felt proud that I know a very good filmmaker well and sincerely hope he continues to make lovely movies of this nature in the future.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Wrapping up 2013 musically

The music season in Chennai is one rocking affair. Multiple sabhas around town host some of most talented and popular musicians and events starting in mid December and going on until early January. Past attempts at attending have been half hearted and unfocused but this time I was determined to make full use of a week. Fair warning for the remaining part of this article - so many adjectives used that I ran out of them at some point.

The Music Academy in Chennai is an awe inspiring auditorium comparable to most music halls in the west. The cavernous interiors with well laid out seating and incredible acoustics lend themselves to a superior experience for your senses.

I had the honor of opening my account with U Srinivas; a master of Carnatic music on the mandolin. His use of the low bass is exemplary and one wishes he just plays bass all the time. This is not to take away from his overall mastery and control of a difficult instrument like the mandolin for playing Carnatic music. Accompanying U Srinivas were S.D. Sridar (violin), Trichy B. Harikumar (Mridangam), E.M. Subramanayam (Ghatam) and Selvaganesh on the Kanjira.

The start was the haunting and melodious Kaanada raaga which pretty much set the stage for the remaining performance. This was followed by a mesmerizing piece in Bahudari, Nattai, Sriranjini, Shanmugapriya (Thiru Venkata Muraya Jaya Jaya Govinda). With my 10 year old daughter attending her first full performance, we didn't get to stay till the end but I got a good dose of some amazing mandolin playing.

Unfortunately, the Music Academy is a bit uptight about their tickets and one needs to get there at 5:30 a.m. to get a token which can then be exchanged for a ticket at 8 a.m. As a result, I was not able to get any other events by well known artistes. Oh well....

On Christmas day, it was off to Krishna Gana Sabha in T Nagar for Sanjay Subrahmanyan who's one of the young breed of vocalists making big strides in the musical halls of fame.  Again, the presence of two fidgety ten year olds cut short the experience but from what little I was able to listen, I was determined to attend his concert the next time I had the chance.

The highlight of all the kutcheris I attended was undoubtedly Kadri Gopalnath on the saxophone. Unadorned by company, the focus was complete during his three hour non-stop performance which had me in tears for most of the time. What made it better was the fact that he played the ragas and compositions that I am familiar with. An opening with the evergreen Vatapi Ganapathi in Hamsadwani just sealed the deal. He was more than ably accompanied by A Kanyakumari on the violin who is a top notch violinist in India. The lilting Moksha Mogalada in Saramati was the piece de resistance and the gamakas were something else. To top that, he played Innu Daya Baarade and this was easily a 15 minute performance and the way Kanyakumari kept up with him was a treat to watch and hear. Both mridangam and tabla accompanied this great musician who has no equal in India or for that matter anywhere in the world for playing carnatic music on the saxophone. The finale was Bhagyada Lakshmi Baaramma and the last few minutes showed us why he's the best as the increasing tempo and crescendo to finish with a bang threw us off our chairs for a standing ovation.

Back at Krishna Gana Sabha a couple of days later, L Subramanyam hosted the Global Music Festival which saw stalwarts like Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna and Pandit Jasraj perform short and sweet gems leaving us yearning for more. The alaap recital with Pandit Jasraj and L Subramanyam was truly other worldly! The day also saw the introduction of Oystein Baadsvik to India. Hailing from Norway, he's pretty much the only solo tuba player and his mixture of tuba playing and lecture demo were astounding. Hubert Laws on the flute was yet another extraordinary event.

Proving that talent runs in the family, the daughter and son of L Subramanyam sang and played violin (respectively) and assured us that the future of music is in good hands. Kavita Krishanmurthy then sang a few bhajans and her powerful and passionate renditions were calming and invigorating at the same time.

Finally dragging the wife, we finished our Chennai trip with a vocal recital by the Malladi Brothers with the superbly talented Mysore Nagaraj on the violin. The brothers complement each other in every way and their music is pure, imaginative and rich. 

Lots more to write but want to stop before the rambling gets worse. At least one of the new year resolutions is to revive my own musical learning so we'll see how that goes.

Here's to a great new year to everyone and for me - more running, writing and learning.