The things you can learn from an auto driver…

Taxi drivers anywhere in the world are a chatty bunch. Well, guess what? Auto drivers in India are no different. Below is the exchange between my wife (P) and the auto driver (AD) after the younger one had been dropped off to school. The conversation took place in Hindi but I’ve transcribed Hindi & English for AD’s dialogues and English only for P.

AD: Is school ke liye kitna donation lagta hai? (What’s the donation to get a child into this school? School in question is NPS Koramangala)

P: This school doesn’t require any donation.

AD: Kya? Donation nahin lagta? (What? No donation?!)

P: No, thats one of the good things about this school – one of the reasons why it is in demand.

AD: Fees kitna hai? (How much is the fee?)

P: Annual fee for first year is Rs. 7o,000 but, for subsequent years, the fee actually reduces.

AD: Acchha. Maine Rahul Dravid ko teen bar dekha. Uska beti yahan jaata hain nan? (I see. I saw Rahul Dravid thrice recently. His daughter goes to this school, right?)

P: No. His son goes to this school. It’s Kumble’s daughter who also attends this school.

AD: Aakpo pata hai Dravid kahan rahta hai? (Do you know where Dravid lives?)

P: (vaguely recollecting) Indiranagar?

AD: Nahin. Indiranagar mein to uska maa baap rahta hai. Dravid to Forum ke pas bada building main rahta hai. (No. It’s Dravid’s parents who live in Indiranagar. Dravid lives in Koramangala, near Forum).

P: I see. At the Prestige Acropolis?

AD: Haan. (Yes.)

AD: Kumble to Basavangudi mein rahta hai. (Kumble lives in Basavangudi)

P: (exclaiming) Wow! he comes to drop his kid from that far?

AD: (continuing) Jis building mein Kumble rehta hai, woh usi ka hai. (Kumble owns the building he lives in)

P: (now impressed) Is Dravid a Kannadiga or Tamilian?

AD: Arre! Dravid to Madhya Pradesh se hai. Bas – uske maa baap yahan aake settle ho gaye! (Dravid’s not even from this area – he’s from Madhya Pradesh – his folks came and settled down in Bangalore!)

AD: Haan! Kumble yahan ke lagte hain! Kannadiga hain. (Kumble, on the other hand, is a bonafide Kannadiga)

When something’s not easy to do, you are doing it wrong

Pic: courtesy Bing Images

It was early days for me at the University of Houston campus in the Fall of 1992. One of my initial starry-eyed memories was that of purchasing my first Coke can from a vending machine on my way back to the Cambridge Oaks apartment. This was my first-ever encounter with a Coke can (for that matter any soft drink can). I examined it as one would a hard-earned trophy. It was chilled to the perfect temperature, the bright red Coke colors and the calligraphic lettering epitomized to me excellence, beauty and perfection — all things I associated with the American Dream that I was here to pursue. And I had just bought it for 60 cents. It was thrilling.

At this point, most normal people would have pushed the tab open and started glugging away. For some odd reason (daftness perhaps?), I decided that one had to twist/rotate the tab (step #1) and then pull the tab (step #2). Not surprisingly, after I had executed step #2, I was left holding a detached tab and a (still unopened) Coke can and feeling rather silly. I hurried my way back back to the apartment with a mixture of how_could_I_be_so_dumb and a steely resolve to make amends. Later in the kitchen, a few deliberate pokes with a screwdriver yielded results and I was soon slaking my Coke thirst. This was incident #1.

Incident #2 involved the American matchbook – which is quite different from its Indian counterpart (which we call “match box” or “matches”). For the benefit of my Indian readers, let me describe the American matchbook – 2 rows of soft matchsticks are fused inside a thin cardboard flap, there’s only striking surface which is on the outer side of the flap. In case you are wondering, I’ve been a smoker for a grand total of 3 1/2 years – the latter 2 years were during my 1992-94 Houston stint. My roommate (another smoker from India) and I used the matchbook like an Indian matchbox – i.e. tear off the soft stick, and strike it against the striking surface. After a few days of low hit-rate match-strikes, we concluded that the Americans didn’t know how to manufacture matchbooks. Along comes Beaumont-Srini (a senior in Business school) who  showed us the correct way of using the American matchbook — twist the flap around to almost touch the striking surface and simply pull out the match between the striking surface and the flap. Voila! (Friction + chemistry = fire).

As I reflected on these 2 incidents, our mutual good friend, philosopher, guide and senior – Soumya (of fame) had this pithy summary about life in America: when something’s  not easy to do, you are doing it wrong. Over the years, this served as a reliable guiding litmus test. When I found myself waiting for hours at the DMV, turns out I could have called a toll free number to book an appointment instead. Years later, when I kept getting placed on hold on that toll free DMV number, turns out I could have booked my appointment (via the web) in less than a minute.

Now let’s look at India. The same pithy litmus test can be applied here – you just have to flip it on its head: when something’s looking very easy, you are probably doing it the wrong way. If you got your driver’s license in a single afternoon, chances are you bribed the RTO officer or utilized the services of a driving school agent. If you bought the latest video game or the newest Bollywood release from a footpath vendor as you were lounging down Indiranagar’s 100-feet road or Koramangala’s 80-feet road, they were definitely pirated (and you knew it!). If it’s taking you fifteen visits to the Corporation office to register your recently purchased property and you still don’t know when it will finally be registered, you (my friend) are doing it the right way!

If you found my description of the American matchbook to be inadequate, here are some visuals via Google Images: click here

The curious case of the traveling chairman

NPS Koramangala - Pic courtesy

It was Bangalore Day #5 and our first Friday. I had taken the day off for the express purpose of visiting the top school on our short list – National Public School. In a separate post (Masti ki paathshala), I will discuss our criteria in choosing the right school for our kids and how National Public School (“NPS” for short) captured our imagination. NPS Indiranagar (the first campus) was founded in 1982 by Dr. K. P. Gopalkrishna, and who still serves as the Chairman of the (now) four campuses. NPS Koramangala (started in 2003) and NPS HSR Layout (started in 2007) were our target locations since we were converging on Koramangala as our future neighbourhood.

Since the school year had already started 2+ months ago, a colleague advised me that our best bet was to ‘seek an audience’ with Dr. Gopalkrishna and impress upon him why NPS was our top choice. So off we headed to NPS Koramangala. We got there pretty early but were greeted by a queue of eager parents ahead of us. “Early parent catches the proverbial school seat”, I muttered to myself. I joined the queue while P kept the kids busy in the waiting area. I stated my desire to meet Chairman G and pat came the reply – “the Chairman is traveling”. Attempts to gather an eta proved futile. Dejected, I rounded up the family and we started trooping out.

As we reached the gate, a spanking green Skoda Laura passed us. Like any self-respecting nosy Indian would do, I peered inside the tinted windows. I glimpsed a suited gentleman in the back seat. My Sherlock Holmes instincts on overdrive, I asked the guard if it was Chairman G in the Skoda. He answered in the affirmative. We hurried back inside the school and I got back in line. When I announced that I wanted to meet the ‘recently returned from his travels’ Chairman, the lady (now smiling) asked me how I knew. Purely rhetorical question of course. Now that the cat was out of the bag, she asked me to write down my ‘particulars’ (Indian term for name & purpose). After an additional thirty minutes, we got the audience.

We had no real expectations from this meeting. False! The eternally unrealistic optimist (read “me”) expected the closing lines to sound something like this “Mr. and Mrs. Kuruganti, I am so impressed with your background, credentials and excellent moral standing. Even though the school year started two months ago and our classrooms are full, I’m willing to make an exception for your boys – in whose eyes I can already see their future academic brilliance.”

Ok. So the interview didn’t quite end that way but you knew that, right? We had a really interesting (and at times argumentative) discussion. I’ll save the specifics for a latter addendum. This post has gestated a full 50 days – if I postpone any longer, it won’t see the light of day.

Dec 21 2008 Update: Found this comprehensive and excellent post on Bangalore schools by blogger Chitra Iyer (this is her new blog site):

Feb 21 2009 Update: In late January, out of the blue we got a call from NPS Koramangala that our 3 year old had been accepted into the Montessori program. Apparently the Montessori 2-year program runs parallel to the kindergarden program. We had applied to the kindergarden program yet they considered our son for the Montessori. After thinking about the admission decision for a few days (virtually unheard of based on the reaction of the admission officials), we accepted. We had to pay the entire school year’s tuition 6 months before the school year even began – nice! Then again, this appears to be the standard operating procedure in all Bangalore (perhaps all Indian?) schools.

Apr 18 2009 Update:  Shortly after S wrote the admission test for NPS Koramangala (1st Grade), we made a few trips to both the NPS branches – Koramangala and HSR Layout. Turns out my mind had played a trick and I owe someone an apology. When I wrote this post in mid-Oct 2008 and compared the NPS Koramangala receptionist to folks working in a government office, it was really the NPS HSR Layout receptionist I was thinking about. The receptionist lady at Koramangala, with whom I had several recent cordial conversations recently is a fine and decent woman and I’m sorry I mistakenly maligned her (via this blog post) from Oct ’08 to Apr ’09. I’ve edited the relevant section and moved it below..

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If you haven’t been to an Indian government office in quest of [insert_your_favorite_service_here], some background is in order. The person ‘behind the desk’ holds a position of great power. And clearly they never heard of with great power comes great responsibility. Entire tomes can be written about the government peon, the clerk, the hospital compounder (Indian title for a medical assistant) but… suffice it to say that a common operating theme is to infuriate the ‘service requester’. This is not to say that they are all cut from the same cloth. No sir! Their style can range from the bored and the lazy ignorerto the doing_you_a_big_favour to the cant_you_tell_I_am_really_important.

NPS Koramangala HSR Layout is no government office but the lady at the reception desk was an interesting blend of the aforementioned profiles. When it came to my turn, her expression bore a mixture of boredom and mild annoyance.

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