The Puneri

Pune etc. Nowadays, mostly etc

Finding Your Garlic

It’s the peeling of the garlic that gets to me.

Doing the dishes is just fine. If anything, I worry that I have become addicted to it. There is a soul satisfying pleasure to be obtained by looking at a spotless sink. Accentuated, no doubt, by the fact that you’re looking at the result of your own work, which makes it all the more pleasant.

I have also become fairly adept at folding clothes. I would have scoffed if you would have told me a couple of months ago about the small frisson of pleasure to be gained from looking at a perfectly folded t-shirt. Said item of clothing is a daily staple on the sartorial menu these days, so there is plenty of practice to be had.

And any day now, I’ll be putting up a YouTube video about how to slice onions ever so fine, with perhaps a follow-up video on the art and science of cutting up a carrot. If mis en place were to be an Olympic sport, India could rest easy on my account. We’ve got us covered.

Except, as I was saying, for the garlic peeling. I turn into a persnickety old curmudgeon when it comes to that obstinate little bulb, for an imperfectly peeled clove is a blot on an otherwise impeccable dish. Not just a persnickety old curmudgeon, mind you, but a p.o.c with the vocabulary of an inebriated sailor.

Some of you might wish to share tips to help me out of my troubles. Use oil, some of you might say, while others might speak of breaking the tips. Or something else altogether. It has all been tried and it – and this is putting it mildly – has failed. One particular specimen from a batch that used the oil strategy ended up on intimate terms with the kitchen ceiling. We shall speak of the matter no further.

Now, I’m as depressed as the next person about the times and circumstances we find ourselves in, and indulge in all the petty sniping, whining and moaning that all of us are wont to.

But I reserve all of my rage for the garlic. I rant, I rave, I scream and I turn into a mountain of smoldering fury when dealing with that little clove. It makes for quite a sight, I suppose, for I am a man of generous dimensions. Length and width, both. To see me turn into the incredible hulk when dealing with something as tiny as a clove of garlic is something that the wife and daughter mark out on their calendars.

There is an easy enough explanation, I suppose. I’m taking out all of my rage about the times we live in, and all of the attendant troubles that come as part of the package, on that tiny little clove. The proximate cause, as it were, but it allows me to vent out all that I want to.

And it helps, of course it does. Far better that I vent here than elsewhere. The tiniest punching bag, and perhaps the smelliest one too.

We all need one during these times, of course. You, I – why, society at large needs one. Any psychologist will tell you that.

Find your clove of garlic, for you need it. And if you don’t find one for yourself, your brain will for you. And your brain, being the lazy bugger that it is, will likely find something you hate already. Or much, much worse: someone.

And we wouldn’t want that, now would we?

Surely we wouldn’t.



Imagined Realities

The process of transliteration is oddly unfulfilling, and so is the act of explaining it.
For a satisfying explanation depends on both parties knowing both languages well enough. Consider the word chai, for example. Using the word in conversational Hindi evokes a different feeling when compared to reading the phrase “turmeric chai latte” on a board in a fancy cafe. It is the same word, and it means the same thing. But it is not (and you know what I mean now, don’t you?) the same thing.
Oddly unfulfilling. It is like running into a relative you’d rather not speak with at a family gathering. You say and do all the right things, and you smile and exchange all the requisite pleasantries. But you know, and they know. It is not the same thing. You do it anyway, of course, because the alternative is worse.
That is what transliteration is like.
Aji is one such word. It doesn’t convey the spirit of the word at all.
Paati in Tamil, ba in Gujarati, didima in Bengali. Aji in Marathi. Each of those words – aji, ba, paati, didima, they all mean the same thing, but they don’t mean the same thing when read like that in English. You need the context, and the comforting embrace that only your native tongue can provide.
Words and languages are like people and countries in that sense. Exchange makes the world better off, it is true, but the people who move feel rootless.

So, anyway. I wanted to talk about aji today.
She just turned 89, a week or so ago. And as is to be expected at that age, she isn’t quite there anymore. We don’t know where she is, exactly, in her head, but she isn’t here with us – that much is for sure.
There is a reality in her head that is perfectly true, real and sensible for her. But that reality, which is her own, and hers alone – that reality doesn’t always mesh with the reality that we live in. And that creates issues.
She would like to do tasks that are possible in her reality. Make tea, to give you one example. Roll out chapatis, to cite another. She suffered a fall late last year, and underwent a hip operation. She now needs to walk with the help of a walker, without which both motion and balance are challenging. For that reason, both of these tasks are beyond her.
But they are beyond her, you see, in our reality. In our reality, there are laws of physics, and there are hearing aids, and walkers and suchlike. In her reality, these things aren’t there, except as annoying intrusions and hindrances. She doesn’t get why they exist, and why they keep being foisted on her by all these people who are in her home.
Remembrances, both long and short term, work differently in the two realities. We, on this side of the divide, expect her to remember things spoken about and discussed twenty seconds ago. But she, on her side, keeps short term memory in the category of strictly optional concepts. If that.
The question of when to have lunch, for example. It will be served at one thirty sharp, we might tell her at twenty minutes past ten. And barely a minute later, she will ask in a conversational manner when lunch is to be had. There will be a slight gritting of teeth, and the same thing will be told to her again. Only, as you have no doubt discerned, for the same question to be raised before the second hand on the clock can complete another sweep.
Does she do it deliberately? That is a tricky question to answer, for it depends on which reality you are in. In our reality, we know she doesn’t do it deliberately. That is, she is not doing this in order to troll us, and that is what we mean when we say she isn’t doing it deliberately. In her reality – and this is, of course, a surmise on my part, for I am not party to her side of things – she actually does do it deliberately.
Because, you see, for her it is a genuine question. It was a genuine question the first time, and it was a genuine question the twentieth time around as well. In our reality, we are cursed with having to recognize the sameness of the twenty questions. But not in hers; they are all separate queries, each of them. So, yes: deliberate indeed for her. She would be horrified to learn that she is troubling us in our reality, for that is of course not her objective. Just as we are heartbroken to realize that in her reality, she isn’t troubling us, not at all.
It is just that we can’t live in her reality, and she in ours. And so there are quarrels, and there is yelling. On our part when it all gets too much and we need to vent, and on her part as well, for probably the same reason.
And so it goes, on and on. Two realities, one of which is shared by the rest of us, and one that is hers alone to live. These two realities run in parallel, one now above the other, now below. Sometimes they collide, these realities, and sometimes they converge. But they can never again become one and the same, and so it goes. On and on.

The parallel that I cannot help but draw is a painful one to consider, for all of us.
How many times in a day, I wonder, do we ask ourselves the same question, over and over again?
“When will the lockdown end?” “When can I go out again?” “When will the wine shops open?” “What about the restaurants?”
On and on, practically every minute. Almost as if we don’t get the new reality. Scratch almost. We just don’t get the new reality. I mean, we do. Of course we do.
It is just that we don’t like it. And so, like Aji, we prefer to live in our own, imagined reality. Fantasizing about the days in the past, and the days to come. Looking for excuses to get out of the house, if only for a few stolen moments of uncaged respite. Anything to ignore the imposed tedium of the reality that surrounds us, that implacably exists, that refuses to bend itself to our will. Anything to live in our imagined reality. If only.

Aji has the moral high ground, though, if you ask me. She is, remarkably, one up on us.For here’s the thing: her refusal to acknowledge our reality is involuntary.
If only we were so lucky.

You cruel, cruel thing, cricket.

Back in the day, many many years ago, I had a small superstition.

Sachin, and this was a deeply held conviction, would do well if he skied a ball early on in his innings. If he did so, but he wasn’t caught out, he would settle down to score  a big one. I have no memory of this actually working out, but I remember the superstition very clearly.

And so there was an ache in my tummy while watching Sachin bat – but here’s the thing. That ache came not from wanting him to play a good shot. Quite the opposite. It came from wanting him to miscue one and for it to not be caught.

Makes no sense? Welcome to the world of the Indian cricket fan.

But then Sachin retired, and we won the World Cup, and we got a genuinely good team together, and I grew older. And cricket just didn’t have the same grip on my life as it did earlier. When we got knocked out at the semi-final stage four years ago, I felt bad, sure, but meh. No agony, no feeling bad, and certainly no tears.

Tonight, when Guptill ended Dhoni’s innings, and therefore India’s hopes, I didn’t cry, but I did feel bad.

And god, feeling bad felt so good. That passion, that irrationality – it had just lain dormant, but it was still there.

All through that great partnership, I was on my sofa, fingers crossed on both hands, arms crossed, legs crossed, and toes crossed. Every ball. It didn’t help, and you know how it all ended. But I was being stupid, I was hoping, and I felt bad. Still, all these years later. Thank god.

Inches. It all came down to inches. If that delivery from Pat Cummins had struck Dhawan a couple of inches up or down, he might still be here. If that ball had struck Kohli’s pads an inch or two up from where it actually did, he might have lasted longer at the crease. And worst of all, if Guptill’s throw was just  that inch or two wide…

That’s how close it was this tournament, but ultimately, India fell short. Agonizingly short, full of what-ifs, but inches short. Sport is cruel.

Australia looms large over every Indian cricket fan’s consciousness. I think  I speak for every Indian fan now: New Zealand, England and Australia, in that order.

Kane Williamson’s team is genuinely good, and genuinely likable. England play good, attractive cricket. But (and only whisper this), they of the green and gold uniform are peaking at just the right time. Five times already, stop it, won’t you?

If he does walk off into the sunset, well played, and thank you.

A Walk With Time

My grandparents used to stay right behind Good Luck Cafe in Deccan Gymkhana. And for as long as I can remember, my grandfather would set off every evening for a walk on the tekdis.

It used to be a long rambling walk. He would walk up the Maruti tekdi, having climbed up the path that ran alongside the Gokhale Institute, climb down onto Senapati Bapat Road, and then climb up Vetaal tekdi. The descent would be from Chaturshringi Mandir, and from there, he would make his way back home. That’s a fairly long walk, and he would do it every evening.

I would accompany him occasionally. Walking with him was a treat, and in more ways than one. He used to take hard boiled sweets with him on these walks, orange flavored, and I could count on getting some at regular intervals. We’d meet his friends and their pets on these walks, and those encounters were always fun. But the time I got to spend with him on these walks was, in retrospect, the most valuable gift of all. All these years later, I can’t remember the conversations we had, but I do remember the route, the people we met and just the fact that we spent time together.

Time and my grandfather moved on, and as with most other people in this city, walks on the tekdi became an increasingly rare activity. Once a year at best, although in truth, even that would be an exaggeration.

But this past year or so, things have changed. I am a father now, and my daughter is now old enough to take for walks on the tekdi. And every chance I got this year, we’ve been doing just that. We climb from the Senapati Bapat Road side of the Maruti tekdi and get down on the other, but apart from that, the route remains the same.

Now, on that hill, towards the Deccan Gymkhana side, lie two little rocky outcrops – protrusions from the ground, really, that look for all the world like two chairs. One is much larger than the other, and the smaller one can comfortably seat only a child. I and my grandfather used to rest for a while there, I on the small rock and he on the big one, before resuming our evening walk. I had forgotten about those rocks over all these years, until I climbed the hill again with my daughter.

But that first time this year, when I climbed the hill with her, she ran towards those rocks as soon as she sighted them, and sat on the small one, and excitedly bade me to sit on the other, much as I must have done with my grandfather.

It was the most important promotion of my life, getting to sit on the big rock. Everybody of a particular age must experience these moments, I suppose, in one form or the other, and see life come full circle. That balmy summer evening, it was my turn to experience nostalgia, pride, love and poignancy all at the same time.

My grandfather passed away in 2001, and my daughter was born in 2013.They never got to see each other, and I say that not in order to communicate an obvious fact, but convey an enormous regret.

But sitting on that rock on that first walk on the hill with my daughter, and on every trip since, is an enormously joyous, this-is-what-life-is-about kind of feeling. It reminds me of those walks all those many years ago, but also promises me so many more walks to come in the years ahead.

When I became a father three years ago, I was convinced there could be no better feeling.

I was wrong. Being a bridge between the past and the future is even better.


The Growing Irrelevance of Examinations

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to examinations.

You hate ’em.

If you’re a student, you hate preparing for examinations, and you hate writing them. If you’re the teacher, you hate setting the paper, and you positively loathe correcting them. So if you think about it, one way of defining the education system is to say that it collects money from one group of people and gives it to another and makes both do something they would rather not do.

Which doesn’t add up, you might think, and you’d be right. And yet here we are. All that the education system does is make students write papers. Dozens of them.

And it’s not just the fact that students have to write examinations. It’s that they have to write examinations. This is the sixteenth year of the twenty-first century. We have driverless cars in California. They talk of sending people into space for tourism. Oculus Rift is about to be launched to the public.

And we still have answer any four of the following in detail (15 marks each). Students still draw margins on the right and the left, and underline important words and all that jazz. They are not, you understand, going to be ever again doing anything like this. They will sit in air-conditioned offices, in front of sleek, gleaming computers, and work out, collaboratively, answers to problems.

Collaboratively is a big fancy word that means, in UGC parlance, copying. If, in a modern corporate organization, you don’t copy, you are shunned as a lone wolf. Why then do we insist that every student memorize, and write out in detail,  the nine tasks that the FSLRC set out for itself in its draft report? Who exactly does this benefit?

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, original thinking. That the educational system isn’t working, and that examinations in particular just don’t make sense is something that everybody knows, but inertia. There are hajjar things wrong with the way we conduct examinations, but today, I want to focus on one positively fatal flaw.

And that fatal flaw is this: in examinations, teachers frame the questions, and students answer them.

So obvious, so matter of course, so banal is this statement that it takes a little time to realize how horrible a system this is. All we’re doing, when we ask students to do this, is learn the subject well enough to be able to answer whatever question we throw at them. And therefore, when they get out there in, y’know, the real world, they ask for a problem, so that they may solve it.

But in the real world, more often than not, you’re paid to frame the question.

Because in today’s collaborative world, knowing how to solve the problem isn’t the challenge. Identifying a set of problems, and prioritizing them, for that moment, in that organization – that’s what makes your bank account go kerrchinnnggg on the first of every month.

And until we help students get the ability to do that, in situations that approximate what their eventual jobs will look like, examinations will continue to be little more than what they are today: a process that nobody wants to, but everybody must, go through.

So what can change? Well, here’s something I tried out in a course I taught this past semester. My final take home assignment was something like this: “Set the final question paper for this subject. Ask any five questions that you think are appropriate, and in each case, explain why you chose that particular question. Also explain why you left out the topics you did”.

Students were free, in this case, to speak to each other, to me, or to whomsoever they wished to while researching this assignment. They could look up stuff online, consult textbooks, do pretty much whatever they wanted. The idea was to make each of them think about what was important enough to be asked, and what could safely be excluded, and why. In other words, learn how to frame probing, comprehensive questions.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that  this is a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is (to me, at any rate) a step removed from the path conventional examinations take. And the farther we move away from answer-any-four-in-detail world, the better the education system will be for it.

That’s a journey of more than a thousand steps, and a single blog post isn’t the place to detail every one of them. But this post was, for me, a place to state what everybody knows to be true: exams are pointless, and they need to change radically.

How exactly this might be done is a story that I’ll attempt to flesh out in coming days.

But first, this is the third installment in a five part series about what’s up with education these days. Part one and part two are here, and in the next post, I’ll try and tackle part four: pedagogy.

Textbooks have become (mostly) pointless

Imagine you lived in a Google-less world.

Or, if you’d like an alternate phrasing, imagine its pretty much anytime before 1999. If you wanted students to have a reasonable amount of information about a subject that you were going to teach them, it was incumbent upon you to recommend a textbook. And anytime before 1999, this made perfect sense.

You could say that if you wanted to have beginner/intermediate/expert level knowledge about Subject A, well, then, boning up on textbook B was de riguer. You could, on the other hand, dig up fifteen to twenty papers by different authors, which collectively would be the Bible of the subject in question. But dragging up the papers would take time, arriving at a consensus on exactly which papers to read would be a huge exercise, and in any case the list would have to be updated every now and then. Plus, and this is a well known fact, papers are drier than groundwater reserves.

It would not be possible to read up-to-date musings of industry experts for free (blogs), it would not be possible to interact on a real time basis with the acknowledged experts in the field (Twitter) and updating the textbook would be an exercise that resulted in a new edition, which essentially meant higher prices for next to no reason.

But in a class conducted this year, I was able to recommend podcasts featuring Nobel Prize winning economists, blogs written by people from the same exalted category, Twitter accounts of people who were in the industry, applying the very theories we were discussing in class, and a whole host of papers that were online, for free. I was also able to conduct entire courses without once having to open a textbook – and that was a truly wonderful thing.

I have developed, over the last seven years or so, a visceral hatred for textbooks. Its not that textbooks are all that bad – they’re limited, they’re expensive and they’re straitjacketed in terms of content and structure, but all of this together isn’t why I hate textbooks.

Its because we have students who demand a textbook in every single course. Over time, we have reached a mentality that says that a course must have a recommended textbook. Instructor must assign chapters from said textbook. Students must read chapters and solve end-of-chapter problems. Instructor will design paper on basis of said textbooks, students will write exam having prepared accordingly, and all is right with the world.

Except of course, all that has happened is students have gotten better at knowing part of one specific textbook about the subject.

It does not amount to knowing the subject. The blinkered approach that textbooks invoke in students is what has made me hate textbooks with a vengeance. Because the impression that students, teachers, colleges, parents and everybody else associated with the educational system  have is that the-textbook-is-the-subject.

And in a world in which the Internet exists, not only is this untrue, it is dangerously limited, restrictive and frustrating. There is so much to be learned out there, for free or otherwise, that limiting yourself to a textbook just makes no sense. Use it as a reference, use it as a handy tool to help you understand stuff that needs clarification, but do not, for the love of god, pretend that the book is all there is to it.

And it gets even worse with the “end of chapter problems”. The expectation that the examination will have the same “type” of problems as does the textbook might be convenient in the short run, but it doesn’t teach you how to adapt to problems as you might encounter them in real life. Worse, and this is a point I’m going to write about at length in my next post, this approach simply helps you solve problems, not identify them. And in my opinion, identifying problems is a far more important skill today than having the ability to solve them – but more about that in a later post.

In short, then: textbooks are static, limited and structured ways to learn about a subject, and it is entirely possible, and desirable, that we enrich students knowledge about subjects by giving them much, much more to learn than just a textbook.

Technology and Education

What is education all about? It’s about learning, and it is usually involves a person delivering knowledge to another person.

What is the education industry all about? It’s about signaling to the world that a student was good enough to get into a particular college, that a person was good enough to graduate from said college, and is therefore (probably) good enough to do work in the real world.

Technology has changed both education and the education industry, but I’m going to try and argue in this piece that it hasn’t yet figured out how to do both at the same time. This might become clearer by the time I get done with this post, but here’s a one line summary: there’s LinkedIn, and there’s Coursera, but we don’t, just yet, have LinkSera.

It’ll take a while, but I’ll end up circling back to that point, because that’s the Holy Grail of tech in education, right there.

When I was finishing my Masters degree, OHP slides were still in vogue. We used to photocopy notes, textbooks and academic papers, and the internet was a way to use Orkut.

Today, I routinely get students who walk up to the lectern and place their phones there with the voice recorder on. I have students create Google Docs documents and work on collaborative note taking. Students are more than willing to look up stuff as I speak, and help the class along by supplying the latest, most up-to-date statistics in whatever subject is being discussed at the moment. I use free, online resources like Gapminder World to help students understand the beauty of data, or to help them uncover the mysteries of monetary policy. Collecting data and validating theories is increasingly easy, and not just for American data.

Simply put, used correctly, technology is a fantastic enabler of more relevant, more interesting methods of teaching. I can speak with authority about the fields in which I have taught, but I have no doubt that all fields of study are reaping the benefits of technology.

But technology isn’t just about an aid while delivering lectures in a physical classroom. It also allows you to conduct classes virtually (think Coursera, Udacity or Marginal Revolution University). It allows you to verify whether students have in fact learnt everything that is being discussed in class, and allows you to build basic CRM’s around an educational system.To cut a long story short, the delivery of, the validation of, and the data storage and retrieval associated with the academic process is now much easier because of technology. And over time, it will only get easier, better and quicker.

Technology has also made it easier to tell the world who you are. Your LinkedIn profile is your way of telling the world where you’re from, what you’ve been doing, and what reputed people from your sphere of influence have to say about what you’ve been doing. Your Facebook profile does much the same thing, though arguably in a non-corporate fashion. Your Twitter  account, your blog (cough, cough), indeed, your avatar online is your signaling device to potential recruiters: this is who I am. And for the most part, this happens whether you like it or not.

But, in my opinion at least, technology hasn’t yet married these two disparate aspects. It hasn’t yet come up with a unified, scalable model that applies technology to both education and the education industry at the same time. We trust Coursera et al to teach us stuff, although it doesn’t always pan out the way you might think – dropout rates for courses offered online are scarily high. We trust LinkedIn to act as a platform via which we tell the world how good we are – but we don’t have a service, just yet, that does both.

Well, we don’t have an online service that does both. We do have an offline service that does both – it’s called a college. A college offers an education, and a college works as a signaling device. And the reason Coursera isn’t likely to replace a college anytime soon is because while it may be solving at least part of the former problem, it is nowhere near cracking even a fraction of the latter problem.

A college offers an education, and works as a signaling device, and charges you a bomb because it is able to do both things at the same time. MOOC’s offer you education, LinkedIn et al offer you a signaling device, but neither can charge you a bomb because of the marginal cost argument, and because neither offer you both at the same time.

But in the future, one of two things will happen: either colleges will offer both but at a lower rate, or tech companies in education will offer both, and charge you marginally more than free.

And since my money is on the latter being far more likely, I’d be short colleges, and long tech in education.

Next post: the scam that is the textbook industry.

Taking stock of education: 2009-2016

I teach for a living, and have been doing so since 2009. I’ve dabbled in other things over these seven years, ranging from working as a consultant, joining an organization on a full time basis for about a year, trying to start my own business, working as a trainer and what not – but the one thing that has remained constant over these seven years has been the fact that I have taught every year, and in multiple colleges.

In that sense, and maybe for my age, my career choice has been a little unconventional. I work as a visiting faculty, which means that I am not affiliated to any one college. I teach several courses in economics, finance and statistics at several  colleges, each of which is at liberty to not call me back the following semester (as am I at liberty to not go back to a particular college the following semester). I’m grateful that most colleges have in fact chosen to call me back – but that’s not the point of this blog post.

The point of this blog post is this: given that my teaching for the current semester is just about over, I’ve been thinking about how teaching has changed over the past seven years. Not just my particular style of teaching, although that has evolved, of course. I’m talking about trends that have manifested themselves over these seven years, and their implications for the field of education.

In other words, what was teaching like in 2009, what it is like today, and what it likely will be like (and, for that matter, should be like) in the years to come. The obvious disclaimer applies: this is but one man’s thinking, and one man’s opinion. All of what that entails should be kept in mind while reading what follows.

There are five broad trends that I think are easily discernible in the field of education over the time that I have been a part of it.

First, the use of technology has gone up really, really sharply over these seven years. This could be something as simple as projectors and computers becoming the go-to tools for most teachers, or could be the increasingly heavy usage of stuff such as podcasts or TED talks.

Second, textbooks have become pointless. They have always been a scam, of course, but its gone beyond that now. They’re static, unchanging, blinker-mentality-inducing wallet drainers, and the internet – that gloriously dynamic, impossibly rich, perennially beguiling temptress is the new textbook for every subject under the sun. Corollary: a syllabus is pointless. It  works as a compass at best, pointing out the probable direction you ought to take in a subject, but that’s about it.

Third, exams are pointless. They always were, but that last vestigial relevance they had to reality has also long gone AWOL. Why (and you’ll have to imagine me gritting my teeth and banging away furiously at the keyboard)… why should students write mini-epics using pen and paper in 2016? That, and a whole big caboodle of questions that come back to the same point – exams serve no real purpose.
Fourth, we still thinking of teaching as a process that tells students what we think they ought to know. Teaching today ought to be a process that tells students how they should find out for themselves. In other words, here’s the problem, here are the basics, and here is the internet. Now go play Sherlock, and figure out the answer. That’s how it should work. But it doesn’t, and we’re worse off for it. Corollary: teaching today should be about helping students frame problems. It shouldn’t be about telling students how to answer them.

Fifth, colleges as we know them today will not exist tomorrow. When I say tomorrow, I do not mean in the next 24 hours. I mean my daughter, currently all of 30 months, will not go to college the way her old man went to college. I don’t know exactly what will replace colleges, but I know their current avatar will transmogrify. College today is too expensive, too static and too dogmatic for it to survive the 21st century. And that’s a fact.

Each of these is a separate blog post in and of itself, of course – maybe more. And now that I have some time on my hands, I’m going to go ahead and write those blog posts. One idea at a time.

J1, The Flying Duck and Pal@table

Every single day of every single week, I remain besieged by one central question. It is a question to which I give a great deal of thought, and it is a question that gets increasingly difficult to answer with every passing year. Said question is this:

Where shall I eat today?

Not for your author, gentle reader, a life in which one eats so that one may live. The antimetabole applies in my case, and so I live so that I may eat. For if a good meal is not the point of the whole thing, than it is scarcely worth doing.

But a good meal is a tricky thing, and devilishly difficult to guarantee. It involves thinking very carefully about many things at one go: one must consider the weather, the cuisine one is tempted by at the moment, the restaurants in the vicinity, the time available at hand – there are very many things that go into the choosing of an appropriate restaurant. A disappointing meal is one of three opportunities in a day wasted, and the good lord has allocated but a limited number of days for me on this planet. These are not, in short, decisions to be made lightly.

Since my job involves traipsing all over town, I get to try out a lot of new restaurants, and I want to share with you two newish restaurants that I think are worth trying out. The food is excellent at both places, although the places are different, as are their (in my opinion, at any rate) raison d’etres.

The first restaurant that I end up going to quite often these days is J1 (or Jevan). This is located just opposite to MM Joshi Hospital, off Apte Road, and is where Papa Johns used to be earlier.It offers fine dine Maharashtrian cuisine, and does a very, very good job of it. Whoever the owners of the restaurant are, they have certainly put a lot of thought into every aspect of the restaurant, right from the old school switchboards on the wall to the fairly authentic accompaniments they provide to the meal.

Virtually all of the dishes I have tried over here have been worth the money, but the kheema and the Kolhapuri mutton deserve special mention. The breads are also remarkably good, including the vade and the tandlachi bhakri. A meal here will set you back by about 500 rupees per person, but it is value for money, considering what you get in return for your hard earned cash.

What really interests me about the place, though, is the fact that this is, to my knowledge, Pune’s first truly fine dine Maharashtrian restaurant. Put another way, this is the kind of food that your grandmother or aunt or mother would have made for you on a Sunday, or on a special occasion – it’s that good, but served up in a very sophisticated way. And to me, this says two things – one, that people are willing to pay top tier prices for local cuisines (increased demand) and two, the ability and willingness to pay top tier prices is an outcome of more members of a household being out at work through the week (reduced supply). Put another way, you’ll likely see more restaurants like J1 pop up in the future, but the price the average Punekar will pay for this is a reduced probability of getting this kind of food cooked at home.

The second restaurant that I have really enjoyed eating out at is The Flying Duck. Located on the Baner Pashan Link Road, it is a really small place, and very easy to miss. Run by an Assamese couple, it is a restaurant that seems to chug along on passion more than anything else. They don’t even have a PoS machine for example, and it is painfully apparent that they are understaffed. But don’t let that deter you, for the food is truly exceptional. Everything I’ve eaten over here so far has been very good, but the pork dishes (and the ribs in particular) are worth all the time and trouble.

This restaurant fits right into the mould described by a book that I truly enjoyed reading, called “An Economist Gets Lunch” by Tyler Cowen. He describes places that are likely to spring up in the outer suburbs of a city that attracts a lot of people from outside – these places, he says, are likely to offer authentic but exotic food, reasonable prices and above all, truly interesting food. The Flying Duck, I’m happy to report, ticks all of these boxes and more. I hope they settle down and more than break even, because Pune needs many more places like this one.

Which brings me to the third of the troika of things I wanted to talk about in this post – an app that I think is an excellent idea. This app is the brainchild of a blogger I have been following for a long time: Shantanu Ghosh, author of Traveller’s Tales. The app itself is called Pal@table. The idea is fairly simple – use the app to host a table at a restaurant, and invite like minded people to join you at a predetermined date and time. It allows you to try out new restaurants, cuisines and dishes in the company of people who will, hopefully, share some of your interests – a way to socialize over a meal, essentially. I haven’t gotten around to trying out the app just yet, both in terms of hosting a table or joining one – but I do hope to do so soon enough.

But to my mind, each of these three are an example of Pune’s eating out scene changing, and for the better. Whether it is authentic Maharashtrian cuisine being made popular and haute cuisine, North Eastern cuisine being introduced to Puneri palates, or an opportunity for like minded people to socialize over a meal – all are very welcome additions indeed.

At Face Value

I got a facial done yesterday, for only the second time in my life.

The first was not, as one would have expected, on my wedding day. I got ready for my wedding by shaving twice – once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. That was the extent of my wedding preparations (and if I may add, understandably so. Polishing gold is a largely pointless exercise).

No, the first time I got a facial was after I got a haircut – this was during the days when such an exercise was necessary – and realised that I had forgotten the keys at home. Upon finding out that the missus would not be home herself for at least an hour, I had sixty minutes to spare, and the barber, having overheard the entire conversation, suggested that I try a “phasial”.

Now, in the barber department, I’m pretty well served if there is a chair, a comb and a pair of scissors at hand on the premises. Not for me the contraptions that seem to be mandatory in most modern establishments, and the facial was of a similarly basic nature. The barber slapped some cream on my face, scrubbed around in charmingly untutored fashion, and declared the routine over after about three rounds of the same steps.

The reason I tell you all this, dear reader, is because without this background, I could simply not have begun the tale of horror that follows. And horror, as you will find out anon, is not too strong a word – quite the opposite, in fact. Here goes:

I’m on holiday as I type this, with the pleasing prospect of doing nothing for days on end – a sport at which no one, bar none, can better me. And during the ante meridian hours of one such lazy, languorous day, the wife suggested that I go get a facial done.

She does this, the missus, bless her heart. She’s always giving me advice that she truly believes will be good for me (“try Amul Lite, it’s good for your heart” or “don’t have another round of desserts, you’ll get a stomach upset tomorrow”). And in this case too, she truly believed that the experience would do me good. I had no reason to not believe her – my first experience as a customer of a facial wasn’t all that bad, and what’s more, I have regularly observed female members of my family fairly salivate at the prospect of getting a facial done. And so, without giving another thought to the consequences, I assented and made my way to the nearest parlour.

Except that this time around, we were in Delhi, and not Pune. Which meant it was not my regular barber who would be slapping on the creams, but so, I reflected, what? How different, I idly wondered as I settled in to the chair, could a facial possibly get? And to be honest, in some ways, I figured this would be an improvement – the place was air-conditioned, with reclining leather chairs and what not. Exactly the kind of treat one should subject oneself to on a holiday.

And even half way into the experience, I was still smugly congratulating myself. Creams had been expertly massaged on to my face, water had been dextrously sprayed and hot and wet towels had been interchanged more often than politicians change parties – all in all, I was being pampered on a suitably large scale. And so there I lay, half asleep, idly wondering what treat was next, when those fateful words were uttered.

“Just get me the blackhead remover, will you, please” said a person in my general vicinity. And I remember, even now, wondering without being overtly curious what exactly a blackhead might be, and why its removal was necessary.

I’ll tell you what blackhead removal is. I know now.

Blackhead removal is what the Spanish Inquisition stopped short of. It is where the Gestapo drew the line. It is the point beyond which the henchmen of the KGB would not go. It involves using a slim, slender, unbelievably pointed object to poke holes around the tip of the nose. And when I say poke holes, don’t for a moment think I’m using metaphors. That blasted man actually poked holes into my nose, even when he, more than any other person on the planet at that point of time, could see that I had two rather large and perfectly operational nasal cavities working just fine.

At one moment I was inching close to slumber, and at the next I was bucking about in the seat like a rather plump gazelle, tears of pain in my eyes, ready to tell him whatever it was he wanted to know; ready to give him anything, including all of my kingdom and more, if he would just stop poking holes in my nose.

But he was made of stern stuff, this person who ran a salon by day and auditioned for the post of India’s Chief Torturer by night. “I know its painful, Sir” he said, as he continued to construct s series of tiny borewells around my nostrils, “but you have a lot of blackheads.”

And I want all of them, every single last one, I wanted to scream, but couldn’t, since every single nerve ending was yelling more than Arnab has managed to in his entire lifetime. And still he continued, the Grand Pasha of Pain, on his relentless march of unceasing torture. It couldn’t have lasted for more than five minutes, I suppose, but every single second felt like an eternity, thrice distilled. At the end of which he leaned back, obviously satisfied with his handiwork, and raised the chair so I could look in the mirror and appreciate his skills.

I looked in the mirror, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer stared back at me.

My skin, I noted in passing interest, looked cleaner than it had ever been. But my eyes were mostly drawn to my nose, which at that point of time was the brightest celestial object in the visible sky. They could have stood me in stead of one of the towers during a day night match at the Eden Gardens, and nobody would have noticed the difference. Ray-Ban could have sold sunglasses in my vicinity and increased their profits twice over.

“Its because you are getting this done for the first time, Sir,” said the Grand Pasha, having stared at my reflection in politely horrified fascination. “If you do this once a month it’ll get better with time”.

“Or whenever you want next”, he hastily amended, as he noticed me turning towards him, menace writ large on my face.

Here’s the worst part, however. The entire experience, after a fifty percent discount, cost me seven hundred and fifty rupees. A meal at Barbecue Nation, to give you one of many, many counterpoints, costs about the same. That restaurant also has air-conditoning and comfortable chairs.

And here’s the clincher, I said to myself, as I and my newly obtained halogen lamp walked back home: the good folk at that fine restaurant don’t come anywhere near your nostrils for the entire length of time you’re there.