Saturday, June 20, 2015

A long and mostly pointless rant on food.

Some days back I saw a news report on a television channel that compared the vegetable prices in different parts of Kerala. The reporters purchased vegetables worth Rs.100 from a border village in Palakkad. They travelled with it to Thrissur and enquired in a wholesale shop about the cost of same amount of vegetables. It was around Rs.180. At Ernakulam, the price of Rs.100 worth of vegetables from Palakkad was Rs.280!

For some days I couldn’t help thinking about various aspects of this information. Most of the vegetables that are consumed in Kerala are cultivated in Tamil Nadu. That explains the cheap rate in border areas. The cost increases as the produce travel more distance. What may be the reason for this difference? Transport cost obviously. Just that, or is there more to it? What about the risk factor involved in transporting products of lower shelf life that may get spoiled by the time it reaches end seller? And what about the extra care to preserve them- an extra dose of pesticide or refrigeration? In that case, what about the additional risk on the health of consumers?  Is there any other social reason for the price in Ernakulam to be so high; may be the fact that it is a more developed city than others?

One solution that I could think of was reducing the time taken for transporting the produce, thereby reducing risk of spoilage. The obvious solution is to invest in infrastructure. Better road connectivity between towns can reduce shipment time. If good highways are made in which vehicles with heavy load can safely travel at high speeds, more goods can be transported in lesser time. Instead of transporting small quantity of goods in old worn out trucks, an efficient collection system can be put to place that aids in amassing huge quantity of produce and they can be shipped using improved fuel efficient carrier vehicles with refrigerated containers. Though the cost of investment in all these setup will be passed on to the end users, after a certain period of time this may prove beneficial.

On further thoughts, I felt that there can be another alternative, one which can totally eliminate or reduce considerably the need to transport vegetables. It is by local production and distribution, which was the way things were sometime back. At present, in between the farmer and buyer, there are at-least four agents. Firstly collection agents purchase goods from farmers and sell it to the distributor. The distributor dispatches it to wholesale merchants of different cities. The wholesale merchants receive them and divide it for distribution in different areas in their respective localities. Ultimately the retailers who get the load from wholesalers sell the vegetables to the consumers. This system adds on the overheads and risks of all the involved agents into the picture, thereby increasing the price of the goods substantially by the time it reaches end consumer. Inventory cost and transportation cost add on the final selling cost along with the expense of extra processing for preservation.

An alternative to the existing system is, as I mentioned before, to produce and distribute groceries locally. For that purpose primarily people has to be given motivation to cultivate products that are necessary for their consumption in their backyard or balconies or terrace. This is in-fact happening in many households already. I have seen people purchasing cauliflower and capsicum ignoring papaya and jackfruits growing abundant in their own backyard. The problem is we all need exotic food. In a recent past it was a luxury, but now it is the norm. If a mother makes papaya curry for two days, kids and husband start protesting the next day. They demand for something different and exciting daily. We eat Chinese, Italian and North Indian cuisines, but forget our healthy ancestral dishes that can be made with ingredients that grow or can be easily grown in our backyard. There are eateries that sell local dishes but they charge a premium. Locally cultivated, organic vegetables can be purchased from market but at a premium rate.

It is this situation that needs a change. Every household has to be trained to cultivate some part of their diet taking into account their space constraints. Also support has to be provided to market the excess crop left over after consumption at the local market in a cheap rate. This gives additional income to the growers. Indigenous food products and dishes have to be promoted and their health benefits explained. This motivates people to purchase them and support the local market. Processed food should be manufactured and marketed only locally so as to reduce the need of preservation. Elimination of preservatives reduces the use of chemicals and ultimately contributes to a healthy society. Cost of the produce reduces dramatically as the transporting overheads and risks are considerably reduced. As everyone is at the same time a producer and consumer, society becomes more interactive and closely knit.

But who will tie the bell on the cat?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Achcha Din Continued: Family Troubles

Read the beginning of Achcha Din with Railways.

Thus I boarded the train, pissed off after paying the exorbitant fare, into the stinking sleeper class coach. It was the end of the summer vacation and hordes of families had occupied many berths- most of them travelling till the final destination. It was evident that they had all reserved their tickets and were assigned with berth numbers. A few of us short distance travelers- if you can call 200 plus kilometers as short distance-, ones without any berth numbers but possessing perfectly valid albeit overpriced sleeper coach tickets, were looking to get ourselves accommodated in any vacant seats, leftover by the multitudes of ladies, kids and gentlemen.

It was strange. If anyone looks from outside, from the platform, they may feel that the train is almost empty. But I had a tough time finding a seat. One reason was the peculiar, unaccommodating behavior displayed by families. Once they occupy some space, they never allow an intruder. If you are familiar with sleeper coaches, you may know that six berths- two lower, two middle and two upper berths- forms kind of a territory, with two berths on the opposite acting like a door or a lid. The intended practice is that, in the day time all the six passengers are to use the lower berth for sitting. If anybody feels like having a nice siesta, they can use the upper berth. The middle berth, the hanging one that can be used as a cushion for the lower berth when it is used for sitting, is usually erected only at night, after all the passengers come to a silent mutual agreement to call it a day. 

But once a family finds its assigned berths, they put all their luggage- a tremendous load by default, on the upper berth. Then they take up the lower berth. Kids start playing their games taking up the most of the available space, periodically disturbing the elders only when any vendor passes by. At least one woman, in many cases all of them, stretches legs, and slowly assumes any of the postures of a deep slumber, occupying any left over space. Menfolk take off their shoes, unbutton partially or sometimes fully their shirts, lift their legs onto the seats and attain an impromptu yoga pose.  The middle berth in many cases is just left hanging, but sometimes it can be observed that even they are occupied, virtually negating any possibility for a passenger possessing day-time ticket to sit on a vacant spot. Ultimately, in seats that can accommodate 6 grown up passengers (8 if you consider the upper berths too), it happens that only three or four people take up the entire area.

Now if you want to get a place to sit down, you have to ask any of them to adjust. You ask them politely to move a bit and the family head jerks his head suddenly towards you, staring with disbelief. It seems as if you have asked for a plot on his family land for free. Women try slowly to move their legs, as if to make some space with much difficulty, but stops midway and continue their slumber. The kids don’t even acknowledge your presence as if you are the Hollow Man.  You are left standing there for some moments, stupidly looking at each of them and eventually making a slow retreat.

In my case, I tried to get on an upper berth finally. When the family-head, who seemed to be in a Samadhi state, jumped up and yelled that the berth was theirs, I asked him to come and sit there if it was his. That settled the matter, somehow.

Friday, May 29, 2015

An Achcha Din With Indian Railway

A few months back I had commented to someone about a marked improvement that I observed with the railway infrastructure. Stations, coaches and even railway lines were kept cleaner, considerably improving the whole experience of travelling on rails. Even the affair of consuming rail food, the quality of which stayed in the same dismal state, was less unpleasant thanks to the absence of stink.

Today, when I ventured on the platform of Ernakulam Junction station, I was overcome by nostalgic feelings from a bygone era, when welcomed with the strong smell of garbage and piss. I was travelling to Thalassery, a tough journey when you consider the intense summer heat that is again doubled by the railway coaches that are ingeniously constructed using materials which are the highest conductors of heat making you remember the images etched into the minds of public by a certain Mr. Dante. Adding to the heat  is the perplexing railway schedule that somehow manages to consistently stop the exact train in which I get in to make way for every other trains that cross us, making the actual journey time taking double than the announced.

But today when I got into the train I had a bigger reason to be pissed off. It seems the rate of sleeper coach tickets when purchased on the spot for day time journeys has been insanely increased. That means a Rs 110 sleeper coach ticket will cost me Rs 195 now! This, for a service that no one uses, because nobody in their right mind will sleep in a daytime journey for reasons that I already detailed. Its a perfect recipe for certain harakiri. Buying general class tickets is out of question as most express trains have just two general coaches- three if we consider ladies' coach, but that one is out of bounds- in both extreme ends and they are filled in light speeds. There are atleast 12 sleeper coaches, most of which are either empty on day time or filled with passengers with general tickets.

Now if I am doing an advance reservation for sleeper tickets it will be costing me much lesser even with the reservation charge added in. But this is not possible when an unplanned journey has to be made in an emergency situation. So what railway essentially want is to squeeze passengers who are out of possibilities to make them part with as much money as possible. And the services are back to the terrible and despairing state it was in before.

A more ethical way to fill raiway coffers would be to make the employees stand on the exits with daggers and guns and extort money from exiting passengers threatening them of dire consequences...

... My Achcha Din has just begun. Will continue once I get chance to recharge the cell batteries. I found a plug point on train but as expected it doesn't work.

Its here..

In A Cat's Eye by Kevin Bergeron

Willy finds Nancy, the girl he fancies, dead in her room in Hotel Morpheum one day. He too stays in the same hotel. Willy is a misfit- jobless, an ex-convict, totally lacking in social skills, living in his own world and highly volatile. He never pays his rent, but the landlady keeps him there as he is good with tools and comes handy. Police and other lodgers believe Nancy had overdosed on cocaine, but Willy is dead sure she was murdered. He knows that because her favorite statue is missing from her room. 

Willy also knows that Mr. Winkley- her one-eyed cat is the sole witness of the crime. He takes in the cat and embarks on a journey to find the killer; knowing that finding the missing statue is the key to it. The line of suspects is long and in the end of it stands Willy himself- he has the tendency to forget things that he did. He has a vision of the killer in the cat’s eye, but how will he reach to that person? And who is going to believe him?

In a Cat’s Eye is the debut novel of Kevin Bergeron, published by Authonomy, an online community for budding writers, developed by HarperCollins. It is a short novel, slightly longer than a novella. The story is narrated in first person, through the eyes of Willy. It is essentially a detective novel, though the detective in this story lacks most of the basic qualities assigned to one conventionally in the genre. 

Willy is an unreliable narrator and it is this quality that makes the novel distinguished. There is an ambiguity that surrounds his rants, which should alienate the reader after a point of time. But here it doesn’t happen. I was drawn into the story and started rooting for him in a very subtle way as it progressed.  All the other characters in the hotel are nutcases and equally unsociable. All of them seem possible murderers. This motley crew of suspects adds uncertainty and vibrancy to the plot. Only the all-knowing one-eyed cat is the sane being.  

One more aspect that I liked about the plot is the kind of unveiling effect that it has on the reader. The background of the story is provided in bits and pieces and as the narration progresses, the picture becomes clearer and clearer. It adds to the suspense.  The weak point of the novel, for me, was the lack of flesh in it- non-existence of detailing. I love descriptive novels. But considering the protagonist’s condition, it has to be excused.  To sum it up, In a Cat’s Eye is an engaging novel, that never overstay its welcome.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Baklava Club by Jason Goodwin

These days it seems I am reading only detective stories! Even the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa (about which I may blog soon) that I read recently was sort of a mystery. But I absolutely love the variety in geography, history, plots and structure that these novels displayed. The latest one that I received as an eBook from netgalley.com, on which this post is about, is no different. The Baklava Club is a novel set in 1840’s Istanbul under Ottoman rule and has its protagonist an influent eunuch named Yashim, who is quiet fluent in the intricacies of both Turk and Western culture. It is the latest in a series of historical mystery novels penned by Jason Goodwin featuring Yashim.

The Baklava Club is the name given to four Italian rebels in exile by the good natured Polish Ambassador of Turkey, Palewski. Palewski, a good friend of Yashim, is planning a meeting between a secret person and the Sultan, which he believes has the potential to regain the lost glory of Poland and change the political landscape of Europe. Along with the Italians and Polish, Istanbul sees an influx of several Europeans, at least some of them with dubious intentions. When the Ambassador is shot and his secret man is kidnapped, Yashim has to step into the quagmire. The brutal murder of a beautiful European girl complicates the matters. 

The Baklava Club is a short book and a fast read. I finished it in a single sitting. The novel moves slowly initially, very cleverly setting the scene for the central crime and once it happens, abruptly changes gears. Though each of the characters, including Yashim, seems petty, clichéd and shallow when introduced, by the end of the book surprisingly each of them makes an impression in the reader’s mind. Particularly noteworthy is the depiction of the moment describing Yashim’s personal involvement in the affair. Inclusion of it comes as a shock and is a brave decision from the author’s side. Along with providing the thrills, the novel discusses, very lightly though, the theme of being away from one’s home- the many kinds of exiles that is imposed on one, by oneself or by society. It ascertains that one can be in exile even while living in one’s own country and that kind is the most painful.