Customer Care

At the car service center today the service representative was courteous as always. He listened patiently to my broken German as I listed the issues to be checked during the service. Last Saturday, while reporting a problem with the front brakes, the other representative presented himself in a manner so cheerful that for a moment I forgot I had a problem on hand.

It has always been this way as far as I can remember. Customer service has been excellent with this carmaker: you are made to feel important, yet there is a simplicity to the approach that makes the care seem natural. The relaxed attitude of these representatives complements the discipline conveyed by the workmanship one sees in the product.

All this will make it much more difficult to switch brands when I have to decide on the next company-car a year from now. The options are many, but would I want to let go of this kind of service? 

Customer care is a very old formula for success in business, and its charm is hard to resist even today.

Swiss floods

Floods have devastated parts of Switzerland in the Bernese Oberland region we visited a couple of weeks back. The pictures seem unbelievable.

It is an unfortunate irony that I had referred to the "cultivated landscape" of Switzerland, highlighting how it added to the beauty of the surrounding scenery and made it attractive for ski-lovers in winter. Today, the same cultivated landscape, stripped off its trees and thus vulnerable to landslides, has caused unimaginable damage to people living in the surroundings.



Your response was unexpected, and hence, a pleasant surprise.

Writing to one another through blogs has been done before – I had written about one such encounter last year – and while it forms a charming little alternative to the usual blog-post, I think it is a difficult model to sustain over a longer period: keeping it interesting enough for other readers wouldn’t be an easy task. What would be worth considering, though, is the idea of taking forward Samuel Pepys’s diary-blog into the plane of letters: to publish an intense correspondence between two individuals as separate blogs, with each letter as a post, thus serializing the correspondence into instalments spread over a few years. There are many candidates for such an undertaking, and a few readily come to mind: the correspondence between Katherine Mansfield and her husband, which offers an intimate view of the person behind all those brilliant short stories you must surely have read; the letters exchanged between writer Nayantara Sahgal and E.N.Mangat Rai, whom she eventually married.

I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this has already been attempted in the blog world. But what I am experimenting with in this space is of a different nature. My attempt to bring the “you” into a post has its roots in the difficulty I faced trying to write a diary entry addressing no one in particular. And once the “you” came in, idea to address a particular “you” occurred, which I found exciting enough to pursue immediately. The mention of specific events, I reasoned, would probably make readers wonder if there really is someone I’m writing to, and in some cases that particular “you” might – just as you did – take up the thread and continue it further, leading to unforeseen possibilities.

I’ve addressed two people so far, and intend to intermittently address many more (not necessarily in response to emails), while at times addressing no one in particular. I do not know where it will lead to, but on this occasion I’m thrilled it was taken a step further – thank you, for writing in a similar vein.

Back to earthly matters. I’ve just returned from a weekend trip to Switzerland, and shall soon write about it. The pictures of our hike reminded me of others I’d seen in the past: your Himalayan trek, the Zion trek of our friend in Chicago, and photos of Ladakh from yet another common friend. It was the difference in landscape between these locales that struck me – take a look at the snap below, and you’ll understand.


A Reply

You pine for the city that was once made of seven islands, and you are not alone. Another friend, who now lives in the city people some years ago likened to a large garden, has similar emotions. Yet another, after a not-so-pleasant stint in a city labelled with aristocracy, is back to living by the sea, and cannot stop talking about it. And I, never having known a city, long for such obsessions.

You wrote to tell me that you shall soon encounter Snow, after putting An End To Suffering. You will be curious, then, to learn more about the one whose Name is Red. Read on – I shall not betray anything that robs your reading experience.

Among other things, My Name is Red is about an encounter between two radically different cultures. It speaks of a time when the culture of Islam, at its heights in the Medieval Ages, is struggling to hold on to its beliefs threatened by the diametrically opposite culture of the West, of Christianity. The illuminators, who for centuries followed strictly orthodox practices and painted the world “as seen by Allah”, are awed and shocked in equal measure when they encounter portraits of living men and women in houses of Venice. Describing a scene where he is left alone in a gallery of portraits in a Venetian house, an old master tells his apprentice:

“….I saw that these supposedly important infidels had attained their importance in the world solely on account of having their portraits made. Their likenesses had imbued them with such magic, had so distinguished them, that for a moment among the paintings I felt flawed and impotent. Had I been depicted in this fashion, it seemed, I’d better understand why I existed in this world.”

Hearing these words, the apprentice understands the master’s fears.

He was frightened because he suddenly understood – and perhaps desired – that Islamic artistry, perfected and securely established by the old masters of Herat, would meet its end on account of the appeal of portraiture.

And the master continues to express his own desire to “feel extraordinary, different and unique.” He hates it, and yet finds himself drawn towards it:

“It’s as if this were a sin of desire, as if growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the centre of the world.”

The conflicts brought by this exposure of Islam to the ways of the West may have started in the Middle Ages, but continues even today. Is it, I wonder, because of the exclusivity preached by this faith? Is it because it does not embrace other ways of life? Is it because it says, unequivocally, that there is no God but Allah?


I want to tell you about two Alfred Hitchcock movies I recently watched, but first allow me some space for a few preliminary thoughts.

When we approach the work of an artist we’ve heard a lot about but experienced little, our expectation of the encounter comes in the way of looking at it for what it simply is: a work of art. But when do we ever explore art we know little about? We read reviews of the work, hear about it from friends, familiarize ourselves with the artist’s biography, and by the time we come upon the work our minds are conditioned – we are no longer that blank slate on which the artist wishes to sketch her landscape.

And what can equal the joy of that chance encounter with something beautiful that strikes a chord within – that piece of symphony you stumble upon while switching channels on the radio, or that unforgettable scene from a movie you come across by chance on TV? Untainted by reputation, these encounters carry the power of something original, pure; a mystery surrounds them, and they leave us in delight and wonder.

The two Hitchcock movies I watched were Vertigo and Rear Window. Vertigo was my first Hitchcock movie in a long time, and I approached it carrying all of Hitchcock’s reputation as a master of suspense. No wonder, then, that I came away disappointed. The suspense was there all right, but it was too dramatic and overt to my liking. Further, the parts where Kim Novak tries to seduce Jimmy Stewart with her charms appeared artificial, and, consequently, a bit ridiculous.

With this experience behind me, I started Rear Window knowing what to expect. And here I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike Vertigo, the suspense in Rear Window is subtle: it moves like a slow, slithering snake that may or may not strike.

I shall not reveal details and spoil all the fun, but let me tell you about an aspect both these Hitchcock movies share. In both, the viewer knows more than the protagonist does for a good part of the movie, which is a interesting device because it introduces a layer of mystery into the plot. You think you know more than the poor hero who is trying to crack the puzzle, but, as you’ll see in Rear Window, you never can be sure.

Rear Window makes me want to watch more of Hitchcock’s classics; you should do the same if you haven’t seen them yet. And remember to leave behind all that you’ve heard about them.


I’m trying to imagine a farmer in Afghanistan. I’m trying to imagine his life as he works in his poppy fields, as he offers his prayers five times daily, as he sits together in the evening with other village folk and as he plays with his son before going to bed.


The farmer is now in a cell in Guantanamo. He is lying on the floor, wrapped in an Israeli flag while his interrogator stamps The Koran with his feet. He has been subjected to loud noise – cats meowing, infants wailing – which has deprived him of sleep for many days. Once, a female interrogator tried to seduce him, offering sex in exchange for information. On another occasion he was stripped, told to bark like a dog and pick up piles of trash. There have been weeks when he has been denied toilet paper and water for washing himself – weeks he has ended up defecating on himself.

I close The New Yorker. What comes back to my mind is a quote from the article: “If you don’t have a terrorist now, you will by the time he leaves.”

Random thoughts

Tour de France is in the air. I’d seen posters on sidewalks and heard reports on the radio, and a couple of days back I noticed a Tour-de-France dish on the menu. It was a non-vegetarian dish, so I decided not to take the ride. During lunch, C mentioned that this weekend the riders would be reaching Karlsruhe. I then revealed my ignorance by asking a few questions about the race. Would they start the next stage in the order they came in at the end of the last one? No, they would all start together, C explained. The time taken for each stage is recorded, and there are bonus points for the top three in some stages.


I recollect being intrigued by the passion Germans carry for cycling. I couldn’t see the point in cycling 20 kms to office each morning; I’d have to rest the whole day if I tried that. The cycle Colours bought has been lying unused next to the stairwell for over a year; she’d be quick to point out that had I filled air in the tyres, many things would have been different (one, of course, would be the air in her own tyres).

I do not remember thinking of cycling as fun. Riding to school was a convenient means to reach on time and get back early, and the big black Hercules dad had acquired for me met this purpose. An incident comes to mind: one evening a little while after I got back home from a game of badminton, I realized that my cycle was missing. I reported it to dad, who took the matter seriously and asked me to accompany him to the colony secretary’s house. There probably were a few other incidents on his mind – nothing else could explain the intensity behind his complaints on the deteriorating security situation in the colony. Something must be done about it, he said, adding that the gurkha slept all day and played cards at night. Before leaving, he even suggested searching the gurkha’s cottage if nothing else yielded result. When we got home, a friend was waiting for me with my cycle: I had left it behind at the badminton court.

* * *

If this is a “diary” (as I wanted it to be), to whom am I narrating all this, in a memoir-like fashion? If the cycle incident came to mind and I wanted to write it in a diary, it would not need more than four words (lost-cycle-colony-badminton) to bring it all back. Is diary writing only a means to preserve memory? Isn’t it also an exploration of memory, a journey that begins with everyday happenings and leads to distant lands, both in the past and towards possible futures?

Anne-Frank addressed each entry to Kitty. Do we all need someone “out there” to write to, or can we write to a vacuum?

When the sea came to the village

One week ago if someone had asked me to name a natural disaster that would span thousands of miles and affect a dozen countries, the only thing my mind could have come up with would’ve been a collision with a large comet. Who could have thought that such fury could be unleashed upon Mother Earth from within her bowels?

* * *

We flew out of Colombo – we were there on transit – on the morning of 26th December, a little before the killer waves struck the Sri Lankan coast.  It was not a close call – the Colombo airport  wasn’t affected – but near and dear ones were worried until they heard from us.  Later we received mails from some German friends expressing concern and enquiring about the well-being of our family back home.  The tragedy seems to have touched almost everyone, everywhere.

* * *

A good starting point for more information on the disaster : the Wikipedia entry.

* * *

On a slightly different note:

In her recent post on this topic,
Leela says: "If tragedy chose you, there was no escape."  How true.  A
few weeks back, while travelling in a train through Kerala, I watched a
succession of houses – huts, small cottages, big mansions – all in a
partially demolished state, as if a bulldozer had run through them.  It
turned out true: a little ahead along the same line, I saw a group of
workers laying a new railway track. Some days later I heard of people
in Bangalore who had been notified that their houses will have to make
way for the new Metro line. You can flee the waves by building your
cottage inland, you can buttress your walls with substances that
withstand earthquakes, but what can you do if some authorities plan to
build a highway through the very space you inhabit?