Picked up a fiction book after a long time. I do not read fiction too often. My go-to genre is business non-fiction with a little bit of self-improvement genre thrown in here and there. But this book was constantly popping up on my recommendation list as well as the best seller list whenever I logged on to Amazon. So I went ahead and picked it up to break the monotony of subject.

Only once I was well into the book, did I realize that this story was based in Sweden (when I came across the first mention of the currency used in the book – kronor). And that this book was a translation. I had a recent bad experience reading a translated book, so I was apprehensive. But I went ahead. And I am glad I did.

The plot of the book is simple. The central character is Ove (we never get to know his last name), a grumpy old man who lives in a quiet residential neighbourhood. Ove mostly goes about doing his business every day. Which is not much except making sure that all the rules laid down by the Residents Association are followed to the last t. He makes an unofficial daily patrol through the residential area to ensure this. All the while snapping at any of his neighbours who dared to transgress upon any of the rules.

Without putting any spoilers, the story further explores how Ove’s attitude changes towards people in general, and how he slowly learns to accept his neighbours as an unneeded yet an integral part of his life.

The book follows two time-lines, which is a very popular trope in story-telling considering its presence in many novels lately. One time-line explores the present day life of Ove, while the other explores Ove’s back story. Although an overused writing structure, I guess it is here to stay as it breaks the monotony of a linear plot line.

The book beautifully captures the loneliness in the central character’s life. It is especially amusing to read how Parvaneh’s (his new nosy neighbour) initially unwelcome intrusion into his life annoys Ove, and how he gradually becomes comfortable with it (all the while maintaining an external grumpy demeanour). Parvaneh and her two girls are the only other characters that are sketched out in detail. The rest of the characters simply serve to build up the story. But on the other hand, I liked that the author chose to keep the story crisp and avoiding any irrelevant side plots. Yet I would have liked if Backman had detailed out atleast the characters of Rune and Anita, the couple with whom he shared a special love hate relation.

There are some truly beautiful lines from the book worth mentioning here.

You miss the strangest things when you lose someone. Little things. Smiles. The way she turned over in her sleep. Even repainting a room for her.

…most of us fear more than anything that [death] may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.

One of the most painful moments in a person’s life probably comes with the insight that an age has been reached when there is more to look back on than ahead.

A man called Ove is a quick read and a poignant one at that. Now that I think of it, a close match to the general plot that his novel follows would be something like Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. Pick this book up in case you’re looking for a breezy read. At times, the book can get a bit heavy, but the underlying message of the book is clear – life is meant to be celebrated with those around you, no matter how much you think you don’t need them. Let me close this with yet another poignant line from the book.

All people at root are time optimists. We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like “if”.

I’m not sure if providing the source or inspiration of every book does add any useful information to the book review. But it helps me keep track of which recommendations work and which don’t. In the past, there have been some recommendations that have proven to be very wrong. These include recommendations by one of the richest men in the world today, and by one who is a maverick entrepreneur in multiple industries. But I guess no matter what the source, it’s a hit or a miss considering the sheer number of books available in the market today.

I picked up this particular book as a recommendation from one of the leading portfolio managers in India today, Raamdeo Agarwal. He heads Motilal Oswal, and I came across this book in one of his interviews.

This book closely mirrors another book that I’ve read recently – Makers and Takers. Both the books are about the same topic – the rise of finance as an industry from a supporting sector to businesses and entrepreneurs to an end-in-itself. The book traces the birth of modern finance during the 1960s when the Eurodollar market was set up as a “work-around” to the strict Regulation Q that limited the amount that American banks could give out as interest. The author talks about the early days of banking, when it was considered as a stewardship of people’s savings. Now a majority of the revenue for banks comes from trading and investment. The dropping of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 only served to hasten up the inevitable crash that would happen some ten years down the line, when financial institutions were up to their neck in exotic and complicated derivative instruments that ultimately resulted in the sub-prime crash.

Modern Finance is no doubt very complex, but it is ironic that this complexity was once considered as its strength. This, by no less than the doyens in the Finance field, names such as Alan Greenspan and Tim Geithner. The part about the Jackson Hole conference, where Raghuram Rajan made a fervent plea to check the excesses committed by the financial sector. Of course, he was ignored.

The excesses went on unabated and it caused the government to bail out these too-big-to-fail institutions by using tax payer money. And what’s worse, many of the executives of these financial institutions went home scot-free. After all, the financial sector does not have the same accountability that other sectors, such as airplane manufacturers may have in case of a major goof up from their side.

The book argues that part of the strong interconnectedness between the financial sector and the government is that many government officers have transitioned into high-level private sector jobs, and also the other way round. Robert Rubin, who served as the Secretary of the Treasury during Clinton’s term, was a Co-Chairman at Goldman Sachs.

The book concludes by setting out the urgent need for reform in the financial sector. The different aims of a commercial bank and an investment bank should be recognized and followed diligently. Firms that sell extremely risky or complicated products to the general public should be allowed to fail if the need arises. After all, most of the money in the financial system today is “other people’s money”. For example, “in a modern institution such as Deutsche Bank, around 3 percent of the capital at risk is the bank’s own: the other 97 per cent belongs to lenders and depositors”. Making managers more accountable, like in other industries, for their decisions will help straighten out the creases as well.

All in all, this is a good book for someone wanting to learn more about how the finance sector has changed over the years. We can already attribute at least one crisis due to this changing nature of Finance. And in absence of major reforms, there certainly will be more. As I’ve mentioned earlier in my review, the book touches the same topic as one other book that I’ve recently read. You can choose either one of these books as both provide a similar if not the same perspective towards financialization. Check out Other People’s Money here or Makers and Takers (and my review) on Amazon.

Other People's Money
John Kay
Finance, Business, Non-fiction
mobi, paperback, hardcover

Had the most annoying conversation with a Tata Sky call centre rep. First some background information. Since around two years, I have cut the cord. Although I have a Tata Sky HD box (with recording feature, no less) installed at my home, I no longer watch TV. Whenever relatives visit, I activate it by recharging it for a couple of days. But for the most part of every month, the account stays inactive. And apparently my DTH operator does not like that.

I get a lot of calls from them reminding me of the inactive status and asking me to recharge. This, in spite of me having told them not to bother calling me. Today I got yet another call from Tata Sky. This is how the conversation went.

Rep: Sir, I’m calling from Tata Sky, I want to share some information regarding your account. Right now…

Me (interrupting): Yes, I’m aware that my account is inactive. I’ll recharge my account when I want to. Right now I do not want to.

Rep: Sir, may I know why you do not want to recharge?

Me: Because I do not watch TV.

Now, wait for it. I thought the rep would end the conversation here. I’m not sure what kind of sales playbook has been given to Tata Sky reps, but this is what she asked me instead.

Rep: Sir, but there would be others in your family who would want to watch TV, na?

Part of me wanted to say, “Yes, too bad I don’t ever let them out of the dungeon…” and then let out a Frankensteinish laugh. But I recalled that “all calls to our customer care centre will be recorded for quality and service purpose”, and for that reason, I gave the more politically correct answer,

Me: Whenever they want to watch TV, they’ll let me know. And then I’ll recharge my account.

Never thought that I’d have to prove myself to my DTH operator that I’m not a heartless husband, for the most part.

Picked up this book as a recommendation on a podcast. Had come across this book and its peculiar cover a few times on Amazon, yet it did not pique my curiosity enough to pick it up. On this second recommendation, I chose to give it a try.

Amazon.com gives it four stars. In hindsight, that should have been a warning sign. Amazon.com ratings are often a very good thumb-rule for me to short-list books to read. Normally, I avoid anything that is not above 4, thanks to the wisdom of crowds or some such behavioural goobledygook. But the draw of the unique plot line made me disregard the rating.

I found the opening chapters funny enough, but somewhere after the first 10 chapters, I lost all interest in it. The humour is too dry and sparse. The events are repetitive. Following is a typical example of what transpires in each chapter.

  1. Hitler demands/mentions something.
  2. The people around him assume he is in character.
  3. They laugh.
  4. And a case of convenient miscommunication ensures that the plot moves ahead.

The original book is in German, and I’m not sure if the English edition is a case of lost in translation. The author also chooses to use a first person narrative. This is always a tricky device. I wonder if the story would have been more engrossing if the author had used a more traditional narrative. But then of course, we wouldn’t be able to know what Hitler was thinking all the time. Making Hitler as the narrator and spelling out the obvious, the writing felt too amateurish. It quickly became a case of show less, tell more. And the premise itself, after its initial novelty, quickly becomes convoluted. Imagine Hitler, or for that matter any other leader, waking up and realises that it is after over 50 years that he was last seen on Earth. What would his first question be?

Hitler: Is the war over?

Passer-by: Which war?

Hitler: The one with the Allied forces – Britain and USA.

Passer-by: Yes it is. The Allied Forces beat the crap out of the Nazis.

End of novel.

Even if I suspend my disbelief for a moment and agree that the people around him were just assuming that he was an actor simply portraying Hitler, I would imagine that Hitler was smart and sensible enough to realise that after fifty years, he is a lost cause. Or was he?

In the end, I chose not to go ahead with the book as I felt the rest of the book would contain more of the same events happening over and over again. However if you’re interested in knowing what happens to Hitler, have a look at Look Who’s Back. I, for one, will probably watch the movie instead.

Look who's back
Timur Vermes
Fiction
mobi, paperback, hardcover

Came across this book on Kindle Unlimited, and was interested in it as it was of a different genre than what I was reading lately. I am also going through a phase of learning more about Urdu poetry and this book seemed to fall into the right category, considering that Gulzar is one of the most respected names in Urdu poetry today.

The book is in the form of questions and answers, done through an interview, surprisingly on Skype. The author, Nasreen Munni Kabir, I learnt later through the book, is also the creator of the documentary, The Inner/Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan. As a side note, that documentary is one of my favourites. It provides a candid glimpse into the inner world of one of the most successful actors in Bollywood.

In the Company of a Poet traces Gulzar’s entry into the world of poetry, and into the world of films. Gulzar started out as an assistant to Bimal Roy and has since played many roles in Bollywood. He was a writer, director and of course a lyricist. After a career spanning over 50 years, Gulzar chose to return back to his initial love – writing. And hence, after his last directorial venture Hu Tu Tu (1999), he left directing for good.

The book is an easy read and can be finished over a few days. In the book, Gulzar mostly reminisces about famous writer-poets of that time, including Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Salil Chaudhury, and others. He appreciates how the film industry has changed over the years and brought in new talent.

There were some new discoveries for me while reading the book, and finding that the writer of some of the most classic Hindi film songs was Gulzar was quite joyful. However, I also found that the book simply scratched the surface of Gulzar’s life and his works. Maybe it was the impersonal medium of conversation (a web cam interview) that prevented a more detailed examination, or maybe the author preferred to keep it that way. Hence, the book takes a brief dip in the vast pool of talent that is Gulzar. His daughter, Meghna Gulzar, has already written a biography on him. Maybe that calls for a more detailed and personal look at his life.

In the Company of a Poet mostly provides a few amusing anecdotes about the quirks of famous personalities of the film industry of yore. Read it if you’re interested in knowing more about the works of Gulzar.

In the Company of a Poet
Nasreen Munni Kabir
Biography
epub mobi

Way back in college, there was a perennial debate that raged on in classes. Whether people pursuing Finance as an MBA specialization are actually doing anything to contribute to the real economy or not. One side of the debate argued that Finance MBAs do not contribute anything real to society. It is entrepreneurs and manufacturers who are the real heroes of the economy. They’re the ones who create physical assets. All Finance MBAs do is conjure  assets up out of thin air (that are likely to disappear into thin air as well), a house of cards, so to speak. The other side fought for the view that Finance is very much a rock solid constituent of the world economy. It lubricates the wheels of business, by moving capital from where it is available to where it is needed most.

No points in guessing which side of the debate this book would take. But what we would have never discussed in our debates is how the financial economy would not only contribute to the world economy in such measure, but also control the functioning of the real economy. Makers and Takers explains this phenomena in the book in detail.

The book starts with the author quoting what seems to be her favourite statistic, [Finance] represents about 7 percent of our economy but takes around 25 percent of all corporate profits, while creating only 4 percent of all jobs.

The book goes on to describe how Finance has risen in the economy in the recent few decades. The author has even coined a term for this phenomenon – calling it financialization. The author explains that a majority of this was due to the incessant lobbying by the heads of the financial sector to make the authorities go easy, and in some cases, even reverse certain laws, for their convenience. What is even more shocking is that many such lobbyists and heads of too-big-to-fail institutions later get plum government positions after they retire.

There is an interesting bit of history about Corporate America’s obsession with numbers and the gradual shift towards cost-cutting and optimization. This the author argues is partly due to the way management education (read MBA) has changed over the years. The focus, according to the author, has shifted from managerial skills to balance sheet manipulation. And that leads to questionable decisions and a lot of short-term fixes.

There is an entire chapter (and rightly so) that is devoted to the bad boys of Finance. No, I’m not talking about the investment banks (although they’re there too). I’m talking about the creations of these investment banks – derivatives. The notorious financial weapons of mass destruction. The author explains the danger inherent in giving derivatives a centre-stage in the financial market through an infamous example. In around 2011, Goldman Sachs had cornered the aluminium market and had caused its price to shoot up, much to the detriment of major aluminium consumers such as Coca Cola. This story alone is a must read for those wanting to understand how derivatives can cause an uncontrollable change in commodity prices suddenly.

The author closes the book by discussing the impact of the growing financialization on the retirement and taxation benefits of individuals, and what are the possible solutions on how “finance might be put back into the service of the real economy.”

The basic question that resonates throughout the book is – why does a sector that was meant to facilitate business now have such a stranglehold over the very businesses that it was meant to support?

What makes the book engrossing is the author’s use of real life examples to explain how the financial sector has crept slowly into the realms of the real sector. Old and reputed institutions such as Citibank, GE, Enron (reputed until it no longer was), Goldman Sachs, had a major part to contribute to this growing financialization in the American corporate economy.

There were some concepts that I did not agree with, though. The author seems to be very much against buybacks, arguing that companies should utilize this money into more meaningful endeavours such as research or investment in factories and other infrastructure. This expectation goes against the very fundamental goal of a business. According to the economist Milton Friedman, the main purpose of a business should be to maximize profits for its owners, and in the case of a publicly-traded company, the stockholders are its owners. If investments in real assets would be the most profitable investment, then a business should do so. Else, if there is no future growth in doing so, the company would do well to distribute its earnings through dividends or share buybacks. In fact, Warren Buffett was one of the strongest proponents of buybacks, and has mentioned it in his letters many a times. According to Buffett, when used correctly, buybacks are one of the most shareholder friendly ways to improve the ROE of the company.

Also, the author seems to repeat many points to a point of infatuation. I feel the editor could have done a snappier job in identifying and reducing these. However, for someone interested in the learning about how Finance has today become the biggest cog in the global economy, this book will be a very good place to start. Get this book on Amazon.

Makers and Takers - The Rise of Finance and The Fall of American Business
Rana Foroohar
Finance

Prior to this book, I have kept reading Osho off and on. His books are no more than a compilation of the talks that he gave when he was alive. And hence it is easier for most people to look up his videos on the Internet. I don’t think I have completed any other book of his from cover to cover. But a chance conversation with a relative led me to pick this book up for my next read.

I had heard from many people that Osho’s writings make you pause and introspect – about your thoughts, your philosophy of life, and your beliefs. People say he was one of the most intelligent observers and sharpest commentator on religion and spirituality. In his time, he was definitely a controversial figure, but many of his teachings were probably misinterpreted or twisted from what he originally meant.

I chose this book based on recommendations on Goodreads and Quora. Krishna – The Man and His Philosophy is a massive 850 pages long and by no means an easy read. You have to take your time with this one. Rushing through this book will be a waste of time. There are two reasons for that. First, if you rush through this book, you’re not likely to understand a lot given the denseness of his teachings. Second, as I mentioned above, your brain would want to slow down and introspect, as he demolishes the grand models of life that you’ve so carefully built over the years.

As the title suggests, the book is about Osho’s interpretation of Krishna’s philosophy. Osho refers a lot to the Bhagavad Gita, as a majority of Krishna’s philosophy can be derived from what he spoke to Arjun on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. However, Osho also touches upon other parts of Krishna’s life, mainly his youth. Many of the questions asked by his followers refer to the differing personality of Krishna painted in the Bhagavata Purana and in the Bhagavad Gita.

The book’s scope is so vast that you may not resonate with all of what Osho explains. There are some parts that you may want to gloss over, while others need to be highlighted in red. For example, the concept of advaita is still too abstract for me to visualize, let alone imbibe. In this humongous book, there have been many instances where the sheer monotony of the text wanted me to close this book and look for something more inviting. But every time I decide to read one more paragraph and the roller-coaster ride starts again. There Osho is again, with a new interpretation on things, hacking away at your marble palace.

Osho mentions in the book that what he is saying is his interpretation of Krishna. Yet, he encourages others not to blindly follow his interpretation. Instead, he encourages everyone to be independent and think for themselves. Another thing that Osho was known for was his bluntness. On a very contemporary topic – cow slaughter, he has a view that would probably not sit well with the right wing. Osho mentions that although he is against slaughter of any animal, cow slaughter is something of a necessary evil. He questions the motives of those who are protesting against cow slaughter, and even goes so far as to call them hypocrites  He mentions that although their motive is noble, their reasons are wrong. He questions whether the people who protest cow slaughter are in a position to provide better facilities for the animals when they’re still alive? Judging by the condition in which these animals live and by their health, it is unlikely. Caring is possible only when you are in a position to take care. Without the facilities and the wherewithal, caring is impossible. We have to be pragmatic; it is no use being sentimental. Also he mentions that the earth does not have enough plant-based resources to support the entire population. So what, according to him, is the harm of letting people prefer meat over vegetarian food? The cow cannot be saved when man himself is facing death. As I said, something that the right wingers would not take lightly.

It is all the more amazing when you realize that these sentences were first recorded sometime late in the 20th century. And they still ring true in an India that is wanting to stake its place in the global economy. But Osho speaks it like it is, not pandering to any religion or group. Another instance of Osho truly speaking from his heart, is when he claims that Mahatma Gandhi was a violent man. The only difference was that Gandhi used violence upon himself.

For example, Gandhi thinks fasting is a kind of right means to a right end. And he resorts to fasting – fast unto death every now and then. But I can never accept fasting as a right means, nor will Krishna agree with Gandhi. If a threat to kill another person is wrong, how can a threat to kill oneself be right?

Gandhi once undertook such a fast unto death to put pressure on Ambedkar, leader of the millions of India’s untouchables. And Ambedkar had to yield, not because he agreed that the cause for which Gandhi fasted was right, but because he did not want to let Gandhi die for it. Ambedkar was not ready to do even this much violence to Gandhi. Ambedkar said later that Gandhi would be wrong to think that he had changed his heart. He still believed he was right and Gandhi was wrong, but he was not prepared to take the responsibility for the violence that Gandhi was insisting on doing to himself. In this context it is necessary to ask if Ambedkar used the right means, or Gandhi? Of the two, who is really non-violent?

There are countless such moments in this book, when you’ll be forced to put the book aside and think – think hard – as you carefully collect the pieces of your thoughts that have been broken so effortlessly by this fearless man. Go pick up this book if you want to understand more about Krishna’s playful philosophy towards life and want to watch your mind get twisted by one bold badass of a guru. As of the time of writing, this book is available on Kindle Unlimited. Else buy the Krishna – The Man and His Philosophy on Amazon.

Krishna - The Man and His Philosophy
Osho
Religion, Spirituality
Jaico Books

This is probably something that you would be asked while interviewing with a management consultancy firm. But this question popped up in my mind while enjoying yet another bite of this strangely irresistible (and unhealthy) food. So I set out to find the answer to this question. There were two approaches. The first was to approach it in the way that one would in an interview i.e. by making initial assumptions and using a few heuristics, one would be expected to figure out the solution to this problem. As the interviewer would say, yada yada, we don’t want an accurate answer from you, yada yada, we just want to know your thinking process. But with the convenience of the Internet and the lack of pressure of being in an actual interview, I wanted to find out a relatively more accurate answer to this.

The first step was to find base data. Was there any pizza chain that had shared their consumption/sales figures? I was in luck. What is the first brand that comes to mind when you want to have pizza (at least in India). For most people, it would be Domino’s. In India, Domino’s is owned by Jubilant Foodworks Ltd, a publicly listed company. This would mean that it would have shared some details of their revenue/sales in one of their annual reports. This was the first piece slice of data that I found in their 2012-13 annual report.

Looking at the various emerging trends, the organised sector in FSI, which currently accounts for 30% of the business, is expected to account for nearly 45% of the total food service sector by 2015.

This would mean that Domino’s falls under the 30% of the organised sector. Further,

As India’s largest and fastest growing food service company, Domino’s Pizza India enjoys a dominant 62% share in the organised pizza market and more than 70% share in the pizza home delivery segment countrywide (as per Euro monitor report 2012).

Thus, out of the organised sector, Domino’s has a 62% market share. And lastly,

…it sells nearly 66 Lakh pizzas a month across its network of 576 stores across 123 cities in India.

So by a simple calculation using ratios and proportions,

  1. Pizzas sold monthly in the organised market = 66 lakhs / 0.62 = 106.5 lakhs
  2. Pizzas sold monthly in the total industry = 106.5 lakhs / 0.3 = 355 lakhs
  3. Pizzas sold yearly = 355 lakhs * 12 = 4260 lakhs = 42.60 crores

There you have it. For a country of 120 crore people, 42.60 crores pizzas were consumed in 2012-13. This is, of course, nothing compared to the pizzas consumed in the US. The average figure is 3 billion which is equal to 300 crores.

There are still many assumptions in the above calculation. For example, I’m assuming that the market share mentioned in their annual report is by numbers and not by value. This itself is not likely to be true. The above market share would most definitely be on the basis of value. And because the price of a Domino’s pizza and the price of a pizza sold by a local eatery would be different, Domino’s would have a less market share in terms of numbers than the values mentioned in their annual report. But as I said, the goal is to find a relatively more accurate answer and for that purpose, this assumption seems alright.

Today smartphones have proliferated in use across the world. Along with them, there has been an explosion in the number of apps that are developed for smartphones. Each of these apps performs a specific function. Getting directions, booking movies, deciding where to eat out, editing photos etc. Because most of these apps perform one (or few) targeted functions, users normally have quite a few installed on their mobiles at any point of time. This can lead to a lot of clutter and space utilisation on their phones. Although storage is getting cheaper day by day, having a lot of apps also results in them asking for unnecessary permissions. This poses a security threat as well as a battery drain, what with every app running in the background now and then to try and reach the mother ship.

Elsewhere on the blog, I had written about how disposable apps could be one way to reduce the clutter on the mobile phone. I talked about how single-use mobile apps could be downloaded, used and automatically deleted once the user is done with it. This would ensure that users get the UI/UX of a mobile app while keeping their mobile free of clutter. You could think of this as Rent-An-App model. Of course, there are two prerequisites for that. One, such apps need to be small in size. Second, Internet speeds need to be fast enough. However app developers would not like the flexibility that this model gives the user. Any point in time, their app could be replaced by other apps that are giving better deals at that time.

But there is yet another way to reduce the clutter on the mobile phone where an average an app is used occasionally. And there is one obvious medium that can take care of this seamlessly. Which category of apps does the average smartphone use the most? For 8 out of 10 users, it has got to be messaging. Although traditionally the messaging apps have been used purely for that, lately some messaging apps have expanded their scope to include various other services – hail a cab for example, or order in at restaurants, or even shop online. Amazon had long ago introduced ordering through Twitter. But private messaging apps seem to be more preferable in terms of ordering more personal stuff online. This integration of messaging apps and various services can be called SAAM (Service as a message). In various messaging apps, this is possible currently through bots, that can perform basic functions.

It is a highly potent concept, still in its infancy. There are lots of issues to take care of – good enough natural language recognition, payment methods, etc. But this is something that can be resolved rapidly in the near future. After all, the newer generations are going to be more and more addicted to smartphones, and even more on messaging apps.

Who knows, in the future you may just be type in the following in your favourite messaging app. “Book me two movie tickets for tonight at the nearest theatre for that new movie starring Ryan Reynolds, and an Uber to pick us up.”

Or better still, use Siri to speak to it.

Nowhere on earth is there a higher population density than on the 8:20am Virar-Churchgate local. The per square inch pressure experienced in the second class compartment is higher than found in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean. The locals – as the Mumbai suburban trains are popularly known – collectively carry a population equal to that of Switzerland. Daily. It is no wonder then that the locals are known as the lifeline of Mumbai. In the morning, people get in, fresh and healthy like red blooded tomatoes. In the evening they drag themselves back peeling off on the way like wilted cabbages. Like arteries of a living organism, they transport people to and fro tirelessly. And any rupture in this circulatory system can put the city in a medical emergency. No wonder why citizens go berserk any time there is a major deviation from the norm, be it in terms of train timings or in the fares.

Although travelling by local trains may be the fastest way to commute, it is not the most comfortable way to do so. This is because like everything else in Mumbai, there is a severe mismatch in the supply and the demand. Each train is filled with hundreds of passengers more than it was designed for. This means that each local train is a highly pressurised container where the slightest physical or verbal infraction can cause a sudden outburst of rage among the passengers. Fights are frequent, arguments even more common. Inspired by the capacity of a Mumbai local, Walmart and Big Bazaar have conducted secret studies on local trains to understand and replicate how so many people can be packed in such a small space. This, they say, would result in huge savings in warehouse spaces.

In a Mumbai local, people hold on to whatever they can – greasy handle bars, broken seats, or even other passengers, to keep themselves from toppling like dominoes with every lurch of the train. It is a Herculean task to survive that forty-five or so minutes to their station. Once their destination arrives, the ordeal ends and out they flow with other passengers on to the streets. But for those forty five minutes, the train is their home, a dense cloud of people, their conversations and their bodily excretions – sweat and farts mostly. The daily commute of Mumbaikars is the real Mumbai Marathon, in which millions participate every day, covering distances much more than forty kilometres, in the hope of reaching that ever elusive finish line.

The Mumbai middle class truly grows up with the local train. The day you can recite all the stations in the correct order from one end of the line to the other is when you have achieved puberty. It is said that you stay a virgin until you have travelled in one of the local trains. In a second class compartment. In rush hour. Many families still consider this as part of the initiation rituals for children. There are different levels to be cleared, failing which the child may even be exiled from the family. The levels vary in difficulty, starting with the easiest level, which is travelling without a ticket. And the most difficult. Getting on to a Churchgate-Virar local from Dadar and then get down at Borivali. Many people undertake months of rigorous training to complete this task.

In fact there is a viable business opportunity in Mumbai for classes which teach newbies the art of travelling in the Mumbai locals. Who knows maybe one day, some of the IIT-JEE coaching classes or the flight-attendant training academies may introduce this as one of their courses.

Western, Central or Harbour

The Mumbai suburban train network is spread across three routes. The first one is called the Western Line. It runs from Churchgate in the south to Dahanu Road to the north.[However people need to change trains at Virar.] The second line is the Central Line which runs from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (a sister station to Churchgate) and branches off in three directions ending in three stations – Kalyan, Kasara and Khopoli. The Harbour Line starts from CST as well but doesn’t really go anywhere. If and when the trains do run on this line, they do so with utmost laziness and without a care in the world.

“Where the hell are the seats?” -First time traveller on the Mumbai locals

The local train is around 9 to 12 coaches long. A few of the coaches are reserved for women while the rest are split for the general public into First Class and Second Class compartments. With a frequency of every few minutes, trains make multiple trips daily carrying lakhs of passengers from their homes and back.

At this point, if you’re new to Mumbai, you might be a little excited in starting to think what could possibly be so difficult in travelling in a Mumbai local? After all, getting a First Class ticket is always an option, right? Wrong. First, the only difference between a First Class and a Second Class compartment is how likely it is that you will be able to glance at the seats. Not sit on them, mind you, glance at them. Think of the last pilgrimage you took where you stood in a long snaking queue, getting pushed ahead every now and then. The success of your pilgrimage depended solely on one factor, whether you were able to get a good look at the deity. Similar is the story on the Mumbai local. In the densely packed crowd of a typical compartment, people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to touch the seats, let alone sit on them.

Of course in the First Class compartment, you may get a chance to sit for the last few seconds or so before the train pulls in to the last stop. And some commuters, indeed, do not let go of even this brief opportunity at comfort, considering the expensive ticket which they have paid for. It is an altogether different story in the Second Class compartment. The Second Class has been so crowded with people throughout the day and night that no one has been able to see a seat in the last 4-5 years. Rumours are that the Railways has just removed all of the seats in the second class compartments, and no one has even noticed it.

People are so relieved at being able to get on to a local train that all other things are forgotten. Travelling in a local train reminds me of the sage advice of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Just do your duty. Do not think of the consequences.” I’m not sure if he had the Mumbai local in mind but it fits quite nicely with the situation. Your duty as a commuter is to push, shove and do just about everything to get yourself on the train. Everything else is secondary. For those who do have had the beautiful experience of travelling in a Mumbai local, let me take you through a typical journey in a Mumbai local. For the sake of continuity, imagine yourself getting down from that bus in the previous chapter. As soon as you get down, you weave through crowds towards the ticket counter. The queue for a Mumbai local is almost as long as the journey itself. At peak hours, it snakes out of the actual ticket room, onto the street and back to the ticket room. Mumbai – a city where people queue up even for a ticket to hell. For the next few minutes of your life, you patiently wait in the queue guarding your position and preventing people from trying to cut the queue. You see a lot of those, people trying to cut through the queue. The first excuse is always that they did not realise that there was a long queue. Sometimes it is a made-up emergency. But it is not that easy to break the queue in Mumbai. The rest of the passengers already standing in the queue, with their pitchforks, ensure that order is maintained at least before getting into the train.

But there is yet another group of people who will brazenly ignore the queue, walk up to the ticket window, and thrust their hands directly into the small opening, demanding for a ticket. These are not relatives of politicians or other VIPs. These are the demi-gods of the Mumbai locals, the first-class passengers. Although women do not have a separate queue for tickets, first class passengers do. It is easy to identify these passengers from far away, from their chubby fingers filled with gold rings. Treat them with deference, and if you can find some space, bow down before them. They have earned their right to pay more to travel in the same amount of chaos.

The snake dance

If you are new to Mumbai, sometimes you will see people standing in the queue for tickets doing some kid of a strange snake dance. This is not some esoteric Hindu ritual to get tickets faster but simply that time of the day when the clerk at the ticket counter leaves for lunch. At the exact moment when a “Closed” sign comes up at one counter, another ticket counter opens. And what you’re seeing is the whole queue shifting to this counter. At this brief moment of chaos, you have a chance of improving your position in the queue. But you have to be quick. The disintegration of the queue from one ticket window and its magical reappearance in front of the other window is almost instantaneous. If you’re not quick, you’ll find yourself starting from the back of the queue again.

As a result, by the time you get a ticket you are already late. You’ll have to catch the fast train again. So you grab the ticket and run up the footbridge towards the platforms where the fast trains stop. After a few minutes of waiting, you spot a train turning around a bend and creaking slowly into the station. People are hanging out of the doors from both sides of the train. Roughly, the Railways recommend as many people hang out of the train as there are within the train. This maintains the balance in the train and enables it to run with maximum efficiency. As the train nears the station, you slowly warm up and loosen your muscles, rotate your neck slowly and channel both Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali into your body. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You keep repeating the mantra to yourself. Although you don’t have that precious mouth-guard to protect your teeth, that piece of gum you have been chewing for the past few hours will do nicely.

Can I get on now?

Getting aboard a Mumbai local is an art so ancient that Zen Masters have written about it in many books. One of the most famous Zen teachers in recent times said

Smile, breathe and go slowly –Thich Nhat Hanh.

But I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh ever had to get on a Mumbai local. Smiling is definitely not useful while trying to get on to a local train. Showing your teeth is not only a sign of aggression among apes and other mammals, it is also risky. An accidental knock on your exposed teeth from one of your fellow passengers will quickly turn your mouth into a bloody mess. There is only one thing worse than not being able to get on to a local train, and that is not being able to get on a local train with a broken tooth. All the more painful. So, gentle is not what you want to be doing on the platform. Instead you need to be someone like Bruce Lee.

Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless – like water. –Bruce Lee.

Yes, that is more like it. Bruce Lee hit the nail on the head with that quote. In order to successfully get on to a Mumbai local, you have to acquire the precise properties of water. You must be able to twist your body out of shape; you must be able to flow around people and other solid objects and settle down in gaps or crevices in between them.

Keep in mind that as soon as the train stops, there will be an army of people rushing towards you. Imagine King Leonidas facing the mighty Persian Army without his loyal band of 300 soldiers. Imagine Neo having to fight an army of Agent Smiths just after his parents reveal that he is not the Chosen One. It is like Saving Private Ryan, it is like… well you get the point. But don’t lose hope. The next section gives a detailed step by step instruction for becoming a master of local train travel.

As the first wave of alighting passengers surrounds you, grab the door handle with one hand while hanging on to your bag, purse or child (you brought your child along?!) with the other. Curve the toes of your feet upwards in case you’re wearing chappals to make sure that they stay under your feet. In case you lose any one of your chappals in the melee, I would advise you to kick off the other one as well. You are better off bare-feet than hobbling on a single chappal throughout your entire journey.

Hold on to the handle as strong as possible. As soon as the first wave recedes, start to push any passengers in front of you so that they start moving inside. By this time, the train would have stopped moving, and it would be easier to get on. Do not worry about the subsequent wave of passengers trying to get down. They may complain and crib but there is no space for the lazy and the slow on the Mumbai local. Assuming that you do manage to get inside the compartment, find a comfortable space and try to maximise this as much as possible. Comfortable is just a relative term here, and how much space you are able to capture depends on the time of the day and the route you are travelling on. The world record for the longest travel using the smallest space possible was held by a government employee who used to travel daily on the Thane-CST local. Last heard, he was planning to undergo surgery to separate his limbs which were fused together from years of travelling in congested spaces.

All of this may sound very scary but it is easy provided you keep your focus on the goal. And that goal is to put as much distance as possible between the door and yourself. Under any circumstance, do not turn or look back at the door. The unwritten rule of travelling in Mumbai locals is that the person faces the direction in which he wants to go. In case you turn around, people standing by the door will assume that you want to get off and will enthusiastically help you in getting down, whether that was your original plan or not.

So let’s assume that you get enough space to stand inside the compartment. Unless you are travelling after midnight or unless you are a former Youth Icon trying to mingle with the common man, you won’t immediately find a place to sit in the Mumbai local. But here are a few tips to improve your chances of getting near a seat. First, the ground rule. The number of people who can fit on a row of seat is flexible. Although the seats were built to comfortably seat three people, you can always fit in a few more. This secret is known to all people regularly travelling on local trains and a simple flick of the hand pointed in the general direction of the seat can magically create space where there was none before.

Here’s a bonus tip for you. In case you have already bagged a seat and another commuter asks you to make some space. In such instances, you do not have to actually move. Just pretend to slide to one side but instead just wiggle your butt in place a couple of times. This technique always works. You sacrifice nothing but a few inches, and the other person will happily fit in whatever space you make for him.
If there are already four or more people sitting in a row, you will not immediately get a seat. But you can improve your chances of getting a seat the next time someone gets up. There are two ways of doing this. One is by standing in the centre aisle, facing either side. This will make you the de facto bouncer for that block of seats. The only thing missing is the red velvet rope separating the haves from the have-nots. Any person wanting to enter or leave that block will have to take your permission before moving in or out. As soon as someone gets up, you can slide in between the rows and occupy that seat. The second way to maximise your chances of getting a seat is to position yourself between the rows of seats itself facing either row. So as one half of the people stare at your crotch, the other half face your butt. If the thought of staring at your butt for the next half-hour doesn’t cause one of the passengers to get up, the sudden smell of mooli paratha in the air will definitely claim a few victims.

The fastest gun in the west

Mumbai locals come in two varieties – the slow and the fast. If the slow ones look crowded, the fast ones literally overflow with people. The reasons why fast trains are more crowded is because they apparently stop at fewer stations and take you to your destination faster. According to my calculations, this difference is on average 7.9 minutes. Thus the mad rush for the fast local. But taking a fast train does not always guarantee that you will reach your destination faster. This strategy can, at times, work against you. This is because fast trains have an annoying habit of halting for long durations between stations. No one has been able to find out the exact reason why they do so. But just like you have to be patient with cows standing in the middle of the road, you have to be patient with these fast locals. The fast trains halt for not more than fifteen minutes. Compared to road-side traffic jams which can add hours to your commute, fifteen minutes doesn’t sound too bad. But when you’re squeezed on all sides by sweaty passengers, each minute can seem like an eternity.

The people having the best seats in the local train are ironically the ones who travel on the foot-board. This is where you don’t have to ‘adjust’ to share your precious space. Nor do you have to deal with the fans facing the wrong way or simply not working. There is a constant cool breeze refreshing you as the train ploughs through station after station. Although a very dangerous practice, thousands of passengers continue to travel this way, often supported by only one hand. A sudden push or shove can cause people to lose your balance which can prove very dangerous for not only them but their co-passengers as well.

However when you are stuck in a situation mentioned earlier, the people on the foot-board get the best ring-side view of the situation. As people within the train keep on grumbling, you on the foot-board don’t have any such problems. There is still a light breeze which keeps you from breaking into a pool of sweat. In the meanwhile, slow trains amble past and you have to deal with vulgar gestures from the people hanging out of those trains. You pretend to look at your watch as the passengers in the slow train show you the middle finger. But the civilised human being that you are, you refrain from responding in kind. Every few seconds, people keep shuffling and asking each other about the reason for the delay, as if they have a hotline to the control room. But secretly, everyone is pleased. This unexpected delay means that they can spend that much time less in the office listening to their hyperventilating boss.

In Mumbai, you can always blame the delay on the traffic or the trains. Be it a meeting or a date, an interview or a wedding. Be it film stars or politicians. Be it friends or relatives. Everyone in Mumbai uses this get-out-of-jail-free card. And there is only one reaction possible to this. The other person can only shake their head in agreement because they would be guilty of using the same excuse at some point in time.

Battle hymns to the God

During the long arduous journey in a Mumbai local and especially during such unscheduled stops in the middle of two stations, there is one group which can instantly raise everyone’s spirits. I’m talking about the bhajan mandali groups. Yes, Mumbai has a brilliant, free of cost service for listening to devotional songs while you commute. What better than spending an hour or so in an atmosphere of devotion and purity. Leave your iPods at home, mute your mobile phones, and sit back and enjoy the soothing tones of these enthusiastic singers. In terms of sheer practicality and reach, the bhajan mandalis are more widespread than the Ramdevs and the Nirmal Babas in spreading Hindu faith among the common-folk.

It is not clear how this concept started. Maybe a group of people got tired of reading newspapers daily, or listening to stock market tips. Maybe they got bored of playing cards. But whatever the reason, they are not firmly entrenched in the psyche of the local train commuter.
These bhajan mandali groups bring their own musical instruments, which thankfully consists of mostly small cymbals. But I’m sure as their popularity increases, they would not be averse to introducing additional instruments like harmoniums, drums, and trumpets in their repertoire. Who knows one day college students may also introduce a drum set, complete with electric guitars. The main function of the bhajan mandalis is to regale fellow passengers with their music. Self trained in the classical gharanas, they tirelessly keep the mood of the passengers upbeat with their soulful renditions of famous bhajans of whichever deity they are associated with. With the Hindu pantheon consisting of million of gods, theirs is an extremely long playlist.

But lately, these groups have come under the scanner due to complaints from fellow passengers. Railway officials have started to crack down on such groups in undercover raids. In spite of the danger of such raids, these bhajan mandalis continue to spread the message of Hindu culture. Rather than cracking down on such group, I would only wish that their representation grows day by day in number. Not only that, I also urge brothers and sisters from all the other religions to join in to spread their respective culture and religion as well. I mean, who wouldn’t love qawwalis and carols in local trains? If this doesn’t bring Mumbai together, I don’t know what will.

So, after what seems like an hour or two, the train suddenly lurches forward. There are audible sighs of relief. It was nothing but the collective will of the passengers which caused the train to resume its journey. You look out the window as the train gathers speed. Within a couple of stations, you would be almost back on schedule. Slowly but surely, the fast trains catch up with the slow trains which had gone past a few minutes ago.

When two local trains run neck to neck, it is a moment of great suspense and tension. It is like one of those standoff in a cowboy movie. Who will win this battle? Will your train go ahead or the other? As you spot those guys in the slow train who had earlier given you the middle finger, you realise that this is the moment you were waiting for. You stare at the offender while he glares back. This is when it gets intense. Everything is a matter of luck and chance. Right now, both the trains are running head to head and it is not clear which train will win. Warily you look at him without making any move. You slowly channel Clint Eastwood and start to squint at him. You feel your train slowly inch forward as it picks up speed. Apparently the fast train has been given the green signal. This is the right time to make your move. This is the right time to show him who’s the boss. Your hand slowly reaches down, and you grab your crotch and thrust it in the air menacingly towards the person in the other train. By now the other train has slowed down considerably. Knowing that he has been defeated fair and square, the guy on the other train starts looking elsewhere. You mouth your favourite dialogue from that old Clint Eastwood movie, “Hasta la vista baby” and smile smugly. Now you’re left in peace to pursue the rest of your daily activities in the train, which are mainly ogling at the passengers in the ladies compartment and picking your nose (not necessarily together).

With each subsequent station, the train starts getting less crowded with more people getting off the train than what get on. Slowly, the bhajan mandalis run out of bhajans, the stock market punters run out of tips, and the college students run out of gossip. As the train cruises through the last few stations, the remaining people in the train spend the rest of the journey mostly in silence. It is almost as if they rue the ending of the raucous yet unavoidable journey which is part of their everyday lives. Even before the train stops at the last station, the train empties almost instantly. People head in different directions while the Mumbai local stands in silence for a few minutes, as if catching a breath or two. It cannot rest for long though. The electronic notice boards have updated to show the new destination of the train. The new drivers arrive and check their instrument panels. As the timer ticks down, people come running from all directions so as to not miss the fast train. Welcome to Mumbai, where people spend years of their lives trying to save a few precious seconds.

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This was a free chapter from my book, The Immigrant’s Guide to Surviving Mumbai. If you liked the chapter, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the book. Do share this with the people you think will enjoy the book. Thanks for reading.