Uber in Mumbai

I’m writing this from the Terminal 2 Lounge of Mumbai International Airport. I was in the city for a day of meetings today, and I’m glad I stuck to my policy of booking outgoing flights only from Terminal 2. I just can’t imagine spending an hour and a half (the length of my flight delay) waiting in the bus stand that is Terminal 1.

It was one of those visits where I’d bunched together several different meetings with several agendas (or should it be agendae?), which meant that I took a lot of cabs. All my cab rides here were through Uber. Some pertinent observations.

  • Whoever decided that the WagonR is a good car to be a taxi? It may be a great own-drive vehicle, but the back seat is significantly inferior to the kind of back seats you’re generally used to in cabs.
  • Except for the first and last trips of the day, I was forced to take the aforementioned WagonRs. in Bangalore, I instinctively book Uber Premium, and am usually rewarded with sedans (Etios or Swift DZire) driven by drivers with high ratings. In fact, in Bangalore, Uber sedans are so liquid that you sometimes get them even when you book an UberGo.

    Not the case in Mumbai. Liquidity of sedans is far far inferior to WagonRs. Once today, the sedan waiting time was 15 minutes (and only one was nearby) while hatchbacks were plentiful around, and one materialised in two minutes. The other occasions I checked and simply booked WagonRs.

  • On the one occasion when I waited for a long time for a sedan to appear, and then cancelled and booked a WagonR, I was thankful I did so since the route involved some impossibly narrow roads (this was after Uber had failed to recognise a one way road)
  • In general, all the drivers I encountered today (I did five trips in total) were rather professional. Arrived and drove quietly. Air-conditioners always switched on. No calls either to me or anyone else. Occasional polite conversation. This was very different from my experience with Ubers in Mumbai on my earlier visits this year, when I encountered paan-stained cars, nonstop chattering on mobile phones and a driver who gave me a virus.
  • Both in Bangalore (on the way to the airport this morning) and in Mumbai (on the sea link), the taxi drivers hadn’t installed FASTAG. The former resulted in significant delays, and my reaching the gate just in time to board my flight.


Mumbai breakfasts

Mumbai does breakfast like nobody else in India, or so my limited data points tell me. No, I’m not talking about the vada pav places here. I’m not even talking about the “Udipis” (sic, for that is how Mumbaikars spell and pronounce “Udupi”). I’m talking about the kind of places where you get poached eggs with yoghurt. Yes, really, that is a thing, and the number of such breakfast places in Mumbai is not funny.

I’d been to Cafe Zoe in Parel once before, a couple of years back when I met a friend for drinks and dinner there. I remember it as this “happening” place in the middle of this old mill complex, with loud dhinchak music and a rather youngish crowd. So when it was suggested that we begin our series of meetings with breakfast at Zoe, I wasn’t sure it was a great idea.

But the place inside was different (I have very hazy memories of my first visit there, thanks to the quality of its alcohol, I guess!). The skylight meant that it was rather well lit, and the music was soft and of the pleasing variety. The tables had been sparsely occupied (it’s a large place), but among those that were there, it seemed like people were working there. Laptops were out, though it was hard to find a single one not made by Apple. The place had a leisurely unhurried feel to it, and I could wait for a while without being hassled to place my order.

And the menu card told me that the place opens at seven thirty! Seven thirty! Nothing save the Darshinis are open in Bangalore at that hour. Even the Egg Factory, that wonderful set of breakfast places here, opens only at eight. And thinking back, Zoe is hardly alone. I’ve been to at least two or three similar places in Bandra that serve “hipster breakfast” well-at-a-leisurely-pace. It seems like such breakfast places are more like the norm in Mumbai.

And it is not hard to reason why – simple revenue management explains it. Real estate in Mumbai is so prohibitively expensive that rents form a huge part of restaurants’ costs. And given that it is a fixed cost (you pay the same rent irrespective of how many customers you serve), a good strategy is to “amortise” it – across a larger number of customers. Other costs of running a restaurant, like labour and cost of food, pale when compared to the cost of rent.

In a situation with high fixed costs, it makes no sense to utilise your resource only part of the time. Whether your restaurant is open for four hours a day (as some are) or for all the time local regulations permit you to be, the rent you pay is the same. And in the latter case, you are making much greater use of the fixed-cost resource at hand, which is a prudent strategy!

Opening for breakfast probably means adding an extra shift (or half a shift) for staff. It means running the restaurant at a time when there is no chance it is going to be full. It means keeping the kitchen open all the time, and “normal” principles of restaurant management probably suggest it’s not a good idea. But when your fixed costs are as high as they are in Mumbai, it makes sense to marginally increase the fixed costs (by paying for additional staff cost) in exchange for making significantly superior revenues.  And that is what the likes of Cafe Zoe do!

Utilisation at non-peak (non-lunch, non-dinner) hours is never high (except maybe on Sundays), but what matters is it being strictly positive. Low utilisation means it gives a leisurely feel to the place, and customers can be allowed to linger. People use the place as a meeting spot (coffee is very reasonably priced there, and you can get beer to fuel your meetings!). From the looks of it, some others use it as a workplace. And all this results in revenues for the restaurant, valuable when real estate costs are so high!

Surely other cities, such as Bangalore, can do with such places. In Bangalore, for example, there is a severe paucity of places to do breakfast meetings at. Traditional South Indian places are too hurried, and buffets are never a great place to do meetings (five star buffets have turned out to become a kind of “standard” place for breakfast meetings). There is the egg factory, of course, but there is none else! We could surely do with some of our “lunch restaurants” opening up for breakfast. Just that real estate costs here don’t offer as compelling a reason as they do in Mumbai!

And for the record, the poached eggs with yoghurt was absolutely outstanding. At least I hope the Egg Factory manages to replicate that here!

Revisiting MIG Colony, Kalanagar

I first landed up in MIG Colony, Kalanagar, Bandra (East), Mumbai in the summer of 2006. I had just moved to Mumbai for my first job, and had heard lots of stories about the difficulty of finding accommodation in Mumbai. When my aunt’s friend told me that she had two rooms to let out in an apartment she owned in MIG Colony, I jumped. I didn’t bother taking a look at the house, or what it was like, or what the facilities were, and I jumped at it. And moved in.

For my first week in the house I positively thought it was spooked. I would hear strange noises, suddenly smell cigarette smoke though I didn’t smoke. There were lots of dark paintings on the walls (the house came furnished, and the landlady had kept one room for her family’s use), and I would imagine them coming to life and coming after me. I even remember taking a video of the house on my point-and-shoot camera and showing it to my folks in Bangalore, just to show them how lousy life was in Mumbai. And as if all this was not bad enough, the house was on the third floor of a building without a lift.

Soon enough my flatmate Brother Louie moved in, and life became better. There were times when we would lock each other out, or leave the key on the door itself (thus enraging the landlady), but things were better. There was this Maharashtrian restaurant called Amey close to where I stayed, where I would eat most of my dinners. The tea there was especially good. Then there would be fruit and vegetable vendors at the intersection closest to the house – and they would give coriander and curry leaves for free with vegetables. Louie found a guy to iron our clothes, and some others to deliver stuff home. But on Sundays I’d take the train and decamp to South Bombay, to just walk there.

And then things quickly went south. Work started getting bad. The monsoons arrived, and every day my worry would be if I would be able to get out of my apartment. Soon a point of inflection was reached. Ours was among the few houses in the colony whose balcony wasn’t barred. I remember standing there staring down, contemplating if I should jump. Then I decided I was much better off simply quitting my job. Two days later I literally ran away, with a one way ticket to Bangalore. I came back a week later, resigned, served notice and moved to Bangalore for good.

In the last one year I’ve had several opportunities to visit and live in MIG Colony. As you know, I’ve been freelancing as a management consultant for a while now, and one of my clients usually arranges accommodation for me at a guest house in Bandra East. Each time I’m here I want to just roam around the colony to see if it’s changed, and somehow never get to do it. It was only today, though, I managed to find the time.

Just before I moved back to Bangalore, my landlady had told me that there were plans to redevelop the area. All buildings were only four storeys high, a function of the time before elevators were commonplace, and also thanks to regulation given the proximity to the airport. However, with lifts having become common and the building height regulation also being relaxed, there was now scope to unlock the value in the unbuilt height of these buildings. All these four-storey apartments would be torn down soon, I was told, to be replaced by high rises. The owners had all agreed on this redevelopment, and I’m sure they had been adequately compensated.

I took a rather circuitous route back to my guest house this evening, after having finished off a fish thali at Highway Gomantak (one place I never visited during my stay here in 2006, since I was vegetarian then). The Bank of Maharashtra branch is still there – I remember looking at it in 2006 as a “useless” bank, since my SBI ATM card wouldn’t work there. A little down the road, Amey is also there, though now it seems like a little more jazzed up than earlier. In fact that road in MIG Colony (which also houses the MIG Cricket Club) has hardly changed in the last seven or more years.

However, that’s only one of the few things about this area that has remained constant in seven years. Redevelopment has started, and is in full swing. I’m writing this from a nine-storey building in this area, while there was no building taller than four back then. Near where I used to stay, there is an even larger complex coming up, and which looks like it’s near completion. Other old buildings still stand, but they have asbestos sheets around their compounds, indicating impending demolition. They look occupied, though.

The building in which I used to live still stands, though there is a board outside that indicates it is up for redevelopment soon. The bhelpuri stall just outside is still there, as are the vegetable vendors in the intersection nearby (who look more organized now, though). There are more tiny roadside stalls in this area now –  I don’t remember these petty shops occupied by tailors, barbers and tea stalls.

It is interesting, interesting to visit a place you were once familiar with after a long time. It is interesting to see what still stands, and what has changed. The question is which surprises you more – that which has still stood or that which has changed.

I’ll end this post with a few pictures from 2006, which I took the day before I left for Bangalore for good. Incredibly, those pictures are there in this laptop – having traveled through several other computers I’ve owned.

My room, during my brief stay in Mumbai in 2006
My room, during my brief stay in Mumbai in 2006
The building I stayed in
The building I stayed in
Constructed in 1963. It better be redeveloped now, before it falls
Constructed in 1963. It better be redeveloped now, before it falls

Ramzan Walks

Seven Arabic years ago, when I was still vegetarian, and a rather squeamish one at that, a friend had regaled me with stories of going on a “meat walk” on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, savouring delicacies (I took his word) like ox’s tongue and cow’s udders. It was Ramzan, he said, and it was the time of the year when delicacies which were otherwise hardly available would make their way to the markets. He was going to make it an annual ritual to “do the meat walk”, he had said. I’m not sure about him, but I know that people who accompanied him on that walk do make it a point to repeat it annually.

I might have documented elsewhere about my transition to a carnivore back on our vacation to Greece two summers ago. At a streetside cafe there, the vegetarian stuff looked insipid while the meat looked succulent, and I converted. “If I’m to lose my religion I’ll lose it completely”, I had decided and started my meat eating career with some beef souvlaki. In the intervening two years (mostly in the last one year), I’ve tried several species, and nothing makes me queasy in terms of the source of my food – though I might change my mind after I complete the holiday I’ve been planning to the Far East.

My first “Ramzan walk” was in Bangalore two Arabic years ago. These walks (in each city) have their own ritual to it. In Bangalore, it starts at Albert Bakery on Mosque Road in Frazer Town, then proceeds across the road to Fatima House where they procure Haleem (flown in daily from Hyderabad). Then round the corner on to Madhavaswamy Mudaliar Road for some kebabs and then across that road for chaat and kulfi. I’ve done the exact ritual twice over already, and have quite enjoyed it (though the first time around I didn’t get down to eating Albert’s famed Brain Puffs). But people had so far told me that I hadn’t done “the real thing” until I did a similar Ramzan Walk on Mohammad Ali Road.

So this evening I made amends to that particular deficiency in my meat eating career. A bunch of people from my client’s office were planning their annual visit to the famed road for this evening, and I tagged along. I write this on a sugar high, after having stuffed myself with sweets through the evening.

The waiter at Tawakkal Sweets, off Mohammad Ali Road, reminded me of the priests at Mantralaya (of the Raghavendra Swami fame, in Andhra Pradesh). Priests and temple officials in Mantralaya are famed for their “maDi”, and their way of keeping themselves clean is by not touching anyone. So you have this ritual where one of the monks there gives you a stole, but in which he throws it over you from about a feet above your shoulders to prevent touching you. I don’t know if the waiter at Tawakkal had similar constraints in terms of keeping himself clean, but he kept plonking our sweets from about a few inches above the table, just enough to make sure that the Mango Malai (something like mango souffle with condensed milk) didn’t arrive on the table perfectly set. But I’m sure I ate more than my fair share of the Malai that arrived at the table, thus giving me the sugar high, which persists.

In Kannadiga Brahmin functions, I’ve never understood the concept of adding plain (unsweetened) milk to the sweet obbatt (aka hOLige). “Why add something that is not sweet to a sweet dish”, I’ve reasoned. After tonight I begin to suspect that the concept of obbatt with milk is borrowed from Malpoa with Malai. I used to think that the Malpoa is something like the “kajjaya”/”athrasa” but here at Tawakkal and elsewhere it seemed like a reconstructed French toast – where wheat flour is mixed with eggs and sugar to make a batter that is deep fried. And it is served with unsweetened thick cream – which perhaps my ancestors adopted as obbatt with plain milk.  It is possible that all my previous encounters with Malpoa have been at vegetarian sweet shops, and hence the absence of the egg.

We wouldn’t be done after the Mango Malai and the Malpoa. There was still space left for food in our stomachs and sugar in our blood streams for us to eat mango phirni (kheer made with mashed rice and mangoes). And it wasn’t even the first time in the day that we were eating sweets. The Mumbai equivalent of Albert bakery is the brightly lit Suleiman Usman Bakery, with boards everywhere claiming it has “no branches”. Except that round the corner at EM Road (perpendicular to Mohammad Ali Road) there are at least two other shops which call themselves “Suleiman Usman Bakery”, and which too prominently display that they have no branches.

We began the meaty part of our walk at EM Road (the one with the two Suleiman Usman Bakeries (with no branches). To celebrate the occasion of the holy month, the street was extremely brightly lit, and shops had put out makeshift tables and chairs under a canopy on the road to accommodate the extra crowds (normally, like at other Muslim establishments, food is cooked at the entrance but served inside the shop). Maybe to add to the effect they had strung up what looked like pieces of chicken in psychedelic colours, and for further effect, displayed cages with little chicks even!

Chicken has taken over the world. Traditionally, Muslim establishments are known for their mutton, and sometimes beef. In certain circles (again primarily Muslim) it is considered beneath establishments to offer chicken. But this particular establishment on EM Road only seemed to serve chicken, apart from the odd mutton dish. It’s not really worth writing home about. And the lack of a regular menu means that people who look like tourists are likely to be overcharged.

Soon we were back on Mohammad Ali road for the main course, which was at Noor Mohammadi. Nalli Nihari was consumed with Tandoori Roti and onions, and washed down with Thums Up. This is one of those old style establishments, and one that doesn’t get bells and whistles for Ramzan. There is this ancient Hussain painting hanging on the walls, and next to that is a large board with the menu. Service was quick and efficient and one was reminded of Bangalore’s Vidyarthi Bhavan as the waiter pronounced the bill without much thinking and with great accuracy.

I’ll probably do a formal comparison after I experience Fraser Town sometime later this month, but in terms of sheer numbers (of people) and atmosphere, Mumbai definitely trumps Bangalore. In terms of food, though, I’m not so sure. Those little paper plates of kebabs you get in that corner shop across the Mosque on Madhavaswamy Mudaliar road seem much better than anything Mumbai serves up. But then, your mileage might vary.

The curse of geography on Air India

International flights are regulated by a strange agreement, in which at least one end of the flight should be in the country that is the “home” of the airline. For example, Jet Airways runs flights along the Mumbai-Brussels-New York route, but is forbidden from carrying passengers solely from Brussels to New York (that market is a monopoly for airlines based in EU or USA). However, if Jet has flights from Mumbai to say Brussels and Singapore, it can carry passengers from Brussels to Singapore, since they’ll be touching the ground at Jet’s home country.

Secondly, airline ticketing is usually done on a “source-destination” basis, and not based on each leg. For example, the price of  a Brussels-Singapore ticket on Jet Airways has nothing to do with the price of Brussels-Mumbai and Mumbai-Singapore tickets. As far as the airline is concerned, all these are independent “markets”, and the price for Brussels-Singapore is set partly based on what other airlines charge for Brussels-Singapore (taking into account flying time, layover time and all that).

These two together give an undue advantage to airlines that are situated in countries that are “in the middle”. The best example for this is Emirates, which flies, on the one hand, to several destinations in Asia, and on the other to several destinations in Africa, Europe and the Americas. This allows Emirates to effectively aggregate demand from all these destinations and connect them up in the form of a hub.

For example, there may not be too many people who want to fly Bangalore-Venice. However, if you aggregate all destinations Emirates serves to the West of Dubai (in Europe, Africa, US, Middle East, etc.) there will be a lot of people who will want to fly from Bangalore to all these places put together. Similarly, if you aggregate all destinations in Asia, there will be enough people from Venice to fly to all these places put together and thus Emirates, by providing a hub, creates an effective market. This is what I mentioned earlier as the advantage of geography, of being situated “in the middle”.

Now, if Air India were to be profitable in the international sector, one way of doing so would be to create a “hub” in India, where Air India connects up passengers to the east to those in the West. While that sounds simple enough, what we need to see is if any place in India is situated conveniently enough to function as a hub. Now, look at the map of India, and see what is around.

To the north-east lies China. There is a lot of nothingness between India and the parts of China that generates high airline traffic (the coast). To the northwest, you have Pakistan, Afghanistan and barren republics of Central Asia. The “business parts” of Russia, again, are quite far away. To the South of India you have vast oceans, the south-east and west already have thriving hubs (Singapore, KL, Bangkok, Dubai, Doha, etc.) and India is again not well placed to compete effectively with any of them. I know this isn’t a rigorous analysis, but look in any direction, and you’ll find it hard to believe that there is reason enough for people living there to fly internationally using India as a hub.

This is the curse of geography that India suffers from, and there is nothing we can do about it, and this is something we need to accept. Given this scenario, the best airlines from India can do is to connect various places in India to places abroad where there exists a “direct market” (for example, Kochi-Dubai by itself is liquid enough so you can have Indian carriers operating that route). Thus, airlines from India can never aspire to achieve the scale and connectivity of an Emirates or a Malaysian. The sooner the airlines accept it, the better.

The moral of the story for Air India is that it should recognize this curse of geography and give up on its dreams of connecting the world. It should stick to connecting destinations within India, and “direct markets” from India  to destinations abroad.

Name mutilation

Like Bangalore supposedly became Bengaluru a few years back (when HDK was cheap minister), West Bengal is going to change its name to “Poschim Bongo” or some such thing. Now, unlike Bombay-Mumbai or Madras-Chennai, the thing with these name changes is that they are merely globalization of local names. Let me explain.

Bombay (bom bahia or good port in Portuguese) and Mumbai (of Mumba Devi) are fundamentally different. Madras (mad race? ) and Chennai (beautiful) are again fundamentally different. While I disagree with those name changes and still prefer to call those cities by their former names, I see that the change in those names at least has some merit. They wanted to get rid of their colonial British-given names (and i’m sure Tams wanted to prove they aren’t a mad race, though they might have achieved the opposite through this action) and chose local names in the local language.

When Bangalore’s name was supposedly changed to “Bengaluru” a few years back, Kannada newspapers (I used to subscribe to Vijaya Karnataka back then) had a tough time explaining the name change. Because Bangalore has forever been known as “Bengaluru” in Kannada. Even now, when I speak in Kannada I say “Bengaluru” but I say “Bangalore” when speaking in any other language. While it might have been a noble intention by HDK and UR Ananthamurthy and others behind the name change to get the non-Kannadigas to use the Kannada name, the effect has been completely counterproductive.

Till date, I’m yet to meet someone who is not conversant in Kannada to pronounce “BengaLuru” correctly. First of all, most people can’t say the “L” sound and instead pronounce it as “l” (in Kannada that can make a profound difference. for example “hELu” is “tell” while “hElu” is “shit” ). Next (this is the problem with most North Indians), people have trouble pronouncing the short ‘e’ sound. Finally, it’s hard for people to figure out that the first U in Bengaluru is to be pronounced long and the terminal u should be pronounced short. The combination of all these means horribly messed up pronunciation, which makes one wonder why they bothered to “change” the name at all.

West Bengal doesn’t seem to have learnt from this experience of Bangalore. They want to call themselves “Poschim Bongo” it seems. Not being a bong, I’m going to have major difficulty in pronouncing that name, and I might end up pronouncing it in a way that makes most bongs cringe. I really hope they see sense before they make this name change official and opt for a saner name, if they want to change their name at all that is.

One thing they could try would be to knock that “west” off their name (I believe the Times of India has been campaigning for this). West Bengal was the primary reason that I got my directions and geography horribly wrong till I was some eight years old. I used to assume that “West Bengal” was at the western edge of India! Especially since Bangladesh is no more called “East Bengal”.

Given that they are mostly commie, one thing they could try is probably to go the East Germany or North Korea way, and name themselves “Democratic State of Bengal” or some such thing.

Short selling Indian Hotels

I’m writing this post in protest against people who have stupid ideas such as declaring “no blog day” in order to protest against “hatred and terror”. I’m sorry I don’t get the point. I dont’ see how this kind of thing is going to help. And I don’t know how anyone who cares will be bothered by this.And if you don’t like this post, you might want to take some tablets which can cure irony deficiency.

So yesterday morning, after the end of our usual morning meeting at work, I switched on Bloomberg as is my usual practice. After checking on the Nifty, I  opened another window and checked up on Indian Hotels (the Tata group company that owns the Taj chain, among others). The stock was down 15%. Ruthlessly hammered down. By short sellers.

While the Taj Mahal was burning, and our security forces out in full force in order to salvage it, you had ruthless short sellers and market operators who were trying to profit from it by shorting the stock. This smacks of disrespect and needs to be condemned using the strongest words. What the owners and managers of Indian Hotels now need is our support, and you have people who are doing exactly the opposite.

Strong steps need to be taken by the government to improve regulation of markets in order to stop capitalists and monopolists from taking advantage of other people’s troubles. One model we could adopt is what has been seen in the Karachi Stock Exchange, where stock prices are not allowed to go down. This is an excellent step, and can be used to prevent operators from making a fast buck out of someone else’s misery