The travails of the lone diner

The weekend is a magical time that somehow makes up for the perils endured in the past five days. Tired of cooking and eating alone in my apartment though out the week, I catch up with friends over lunch or dinner. Be it ordering in a bucket of chicken nuggets and watching movies or tasting pasta ravioli at a fancy restaurant, food is best enjoyed with good company.

Despite meticulous Whatsapp messages, this weekend I was stranded in my home with no soul to talk to. Some are out of town, some still in office and some still under the spell of Hypnos. After having counted every tile on my floor and cleaning the kitchen cabinets for the millionth time, I head out for lunch alone rather than ordering takeaway and wait for ages to get the cold food to be delivered late.

Dining alone in a small, crowded restaurant can actually be quite a blessing. I always get seated immediately bypassing extended families waiting to get in. In such places nobody cares who you came with, all they want is a seat for themselves. But the ostracizing happens in fine dining restaurants.

By fine-dining, I mean the ones where you are expected to use the cutlery and any dish on the menu costs more than a week’s groceries. People dining alone at such places are considered a social pariah and do not be surprised if the waiter marks you in scarlet. If you still ask for a table despite the manager’s insistence of getting a takeaway, you will be kindly escorted to a dingy corner next to the kitchen or the wash area.

Initially while dining alone I felt awkward and pretended I was on the sets of Downtown Abbey. Every clickety-clack of steel against porcelain had to be precise or might attract pitiful stares. I kept my head down in my begging bowl and gulped down the food as soon as it came and left before anyone I knew recognised me.

It was after a few awkward experiences I started noticing people around and observed one thing. Drum rolls.

Nobody bothered to cast a glance at me. Apparently the earth revolved around some ball of gas called the sun and not me.

The only people that end up looking at other tables are disgruntled housewives, sloppy husbands or bored kids. If you find all of these characters in the same table, please refer them to a nice family counsellor.

Once while dining alone, a gentleman kept staring at the food in my table rather than minding his business; no wonder his wife was off in her own thoughts. I tried to ignore the insolent fool and continued eating. When the waiter got the bill, the nosy gentleman peered into it. Sick! My middle finger wanted to say him a hi but I withheld. After a few seconds of deep breathing, I realised pigs like to play in the muck and I did not have to get dirty. I just stared at him long enough to make him uncomfortable and look away before I waltzed out of the restaurant.

Foodgasm!

When I am dining alone my focus is on the food and not on making conversations with people around me. I relish every bite and morsel as it touches by tongue and puts my taste buds into a psychedelic trance. When I am eating alone, I am mindful of every grain that passed through my mouth. It is like listening to my favourite song on headphones and discovering new notes that I had not observed earlier.

Are you a person who likes to dine alone and what were your experiences on your gastronomic adventures?

Ordering food online sucks in India!

There has never been a better time to be a lazy foodie in India than now. With a new app launching each week promising to deliver sumptuously, mouth watering delicacies at your doorstep rubbing the smartphone each time feels like unleashing a genie with a hot pack. Despite the plethora of options, the ground reality is far from juicy!

The early pioneers of food delivery were pizza companies that offered a 30-minute hot-or-not promise, but I am yet to get a free pizza. I can understand that in a country like India, bad roads and traffic make it tough to meet the stringent delivery schedule. And also I do not want the poor delivery boys risking their lives and others on the way. To me, a reasonable waiting time would be 45 minutes (within a 3–4 km radius), given the fact Indian delicacies take a longer time to cook as compared to tossing dough into an oven. But nobody wants to respect the customer.

I have had several bad experiences, but I would like to point out to three of them that made me cringe and roll my eyes with a WTF plastered on my forehead. I have no ill-will against any of these restaurants and do not wish to malign them by my comments. I am merely stating my experience.

Dominoes

I wonder why a brand as popular as Dominoes has a pathetic online ordering system. There is a dominoes outlet about 1.5 km from my house. I ordered online and soon enough got a call from a branch that is 3 km away saying they have heavy orders and will not be able to deliver in the next 45 minutes. I explained to the person that he could re-route my order to the branch nearest to me, but he said it cannot be done. I cancelled the order and dialled into the customer care. Again routed to the branch further away from me!

Faasos

If Dominoes sent my order a bit far, Faasos wanted a gold medal for apathyand routed my order to an outlet at least 7–8 km away. This is despite me writing my address clearly down to the pin code. The worst part is they called me half an hour after preparing the food and informing they will be late to deliver. Seriously! Were they playing peek-a-boo with my order? Again I cancelled the order and hope I will get the refund back in a week.

MK Dabbawala (Mast Kalandar)

Almost every Mast Kalandar branch I have ordered food has a notorious reputation to not deliver food before I pass out in hunger. Recently they have launched the MK Dabbawala service hoping to cash in on the office crowd ordering lunch takeaways. Despite my concerns, I ordered lunch to be delivered to my office. There is an outlet in the mall adjacent to my IT park and wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to walk to my office. Guess where they routed my order? To a branch 6 km away. After explaining to the restaurant to re-route my order, I was told I would get a callback. I didn’t for an hour and fifteen minutes. Frustrated I ended up having lunch elsewhere. Then the delivery boy calls and asks where he should come. I directed him upwards to hell.

In all these scenarios, the one thing in common is a hare-brained routing algorithm. A monkey throwing darts on the map might have better accuracy.

Sometimes it’s the restaurant owners who take their sweet time to deliver. I hope they realise I have a credit card in my hand and not a begging bowl. I do not mind paying extra as long as I get quality service. Receiving groceries an hour late is acceptable because a pack of biscuits isn’t going to melt butfood needs to be delivered hot. Period.

So my suggestion to the startups and established restaurants in the food ordering and delivery business are

1. For god’s sake learn to read a map. When Ola and Uber are able to pick me up in minutes why not use my GPS location and then route to the nearest branch. All the examples I mentioned were done via the mobile app. Heck, even desktop browsers have reasonable accuracy in determining location.

2. Please do not treat your customers like beggars. You are not doing them a service, they are by visiting you. Honour the time commitment.

Whichever service solves these hassles, gets my money.

What were some of your experiences while ordering food online and are the new age food delivery services making it better or worse?

Love is in the air

No urban dweller’s day is complete without incessant blaring of horns and watching time stand still while waiting for the traffic signal to turn green. Such moments of solitude are spent cursing at the driver who cut across, checking Facebook or just zoning out from work. We are usually so self-absorbed in our own thoughts that we seldom pay attention to our surroundings. But what happens when we do?

Last week, while driving back from work I was waiting at a traffic signal. A hawker came by selling guavas. A taxi driver in front of me bought some fruits. Then he stretched out his hands and offered a fruit to an old lady sitting in a lorry adjacent to the taxi. She was probably a construction labourer headed back to her makeshift tent after a day’s gruelling labour. She took the fruit, no questions asked. Just a few creased lines on her wrinkled face. They did not speak a word and went in different ways once the signal turned green.

I was surprised by this random act of kindness/bonding two strangers shared. They were probably never going to meet or have the favour returned but what had prompted the driver to reach out to the lady. All I heard in their conversation was:

“I see you and I am with you right now”.

On the left, I saw a kid playing in the mud with unkempt hair and clothes as brown as the mud around him. His dad (I presume), who was in a trench digging the road, took a break from his job every moment to check up on his child. He would sometimes tease the kid, wink at him or just cast a cursory glance ensuring his son stuck to his muddy playpen. The kid in turn smiled at his father with all the 12 teeth he had. Love was definitely in the air and I could not but smile.

A lady walked amidst the labyrinth of vehicles with a man’s hand in town. He seemed blind from the glasses he wore and the walking stick in his hand. The women sought alms by rattling the box in her hands that jingled from all the coins in it. She did not fake a sad face or utter monologues to utter sympathy. She moved from vehicle to another with a grit that she needed to earn money to feed her husband that night.

It is easy for a person like me who has always had a roof over the head and food on the table, that people should not beg but instead work for a living. But I have no idea about her life, her situation, why an able-bodied woman not leaves her blind husband behind and seek a better life for herself.

The moment we step out of our tiny little shoes and step into the tiny little shoes of another person, a lot of things suddenly make sense. Their anger, frustration, joy, sadness and the complete medley of emotions perceivable by every human being on earth. This TED talk by Sam Richards sums up this very beautifully.

While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer,nothing is more difficult than to understand him.

The signal turned green and the bus next to me is spewing venom in my eyes and lungs, the vehicles behind me start honking and so I leave. Beauty is in the little things. There are always such beautiful acts of love all around us, it is up to us to experience them.

Is Uber taking its drivers for a ride?

Today I took a Uber ride from Indira Nagar to Whitefield in Bangalore and the traffic out on the streets on a Sunday evening gave enough time for a nice gossipy chat with the driver. Once I called the driver after booking, he started speaking to me Tamil, deducing the language I spoke from my name. Brownie points to him for that.

In India, everybody talks with everybody and we like to shove our opinions down other’s throats. The driver was happy to find a customer with whom he could converse in his mother tongue. Occasionally I do not mind a chit-chat rather than looking at the cars stuck in traffic and craning my head over the phone. Once we got talking, I heard some really inside story about Uber.

It was about the new policy rolled out by Uber to the drivers. As per the instructions, all drivers aka ‘Uber partners’ had to do three shifts mandatorily. The rough break up was:

12 AM — 6 AM => 4 trips

12 PM — 4 PM => 2 trips

6 PM onwards => 6 trips

This was a new ‘rule’ rolled out by Uber that seems to be making the drivers angry. As a business, I can understand the rationale behind the move. Making sure, there are cars on the road at all possible times ensures more customers and in turn more revenue. But what I fail to understand is how can a company ‘force’ it’s ‘independent contractors’ to work fixed timings. Is it even legally binding?

In a day, a driver is expected to complete 12 trips which should not be tough in a metro like Bangalore but the problem arises when ‘shift timings’ come into the picture. As per my understanding, the new rule expects the driver to be on the road pretty much the whole day to complete their quota.

How could a person do three shifts without compromising on their health is beyond my cognition? Will the sleep deprivation not cause rash driving and lead to more accidents?

Uber seems to be negating its own motto of “Drive when you want” and “No office, no boss” with such rules. As a customer, I definitely appreciate having more choices at dirt low prices but it comes at what cost?

The Incentive Game

There is intense competition in the taxi wars and each platform is offering various incentives to attract more drivers to its platform. In India, currently the two big players are Uber and Ola. There are frequent reports on each company cutting back on incentives over time. Uber seems to have reduced the cash incentives for each trip and the drivers are not happy about it. Uber’s Bangalore office was vandalised recently for cutting back incentives. Word on the street is they have agreed to re-instantiate the old terms. Ola seems to be offering better incentives for TaxiForSure and my driver has no qualms of switching loyalties.

If the companies want to use us, then why can’t we use them.

Transparent Rating anyone?

One other frequent complaint I hear from Uber drivers is they get blocked from using the service for 3 days if they get a bad review from a user. I appreciate Uber’s stringent actions is the reason that ensures good quality cabs. Like me, many of my friends prefer a Uber to Ola based on the assumption that an Uber car will be neat and well maintained. But how transparent are the ratings?

Best case scenario: Driver was rude, a customer gave an honest feedback and so he had to be blocked.

Worst case scenario: Customer was pissed at his own life and decided to mess the driver’s life. Customer needs to be booted out and not the other way round.

To give an example, in Bangalore we have people from different states speaking different languages. The majority population in the city are from a different state. It is not possible for a driver to know all the languages. The driver’s inability to speak a language correctly should not penalise him with a bad rating.

Also to get the ‘ban’ revoked the drivers needed to visit the office in person and speak to the concerned executives. Feels like we are back in the time of kings.

Kneel before me, you chauffeur!

If the driver is not at fault, would he be reimbursed for travelling all the way to the office? And what about the lost source of income for 3 days?

The one who owns the car makes the rules

A lot of drivers do not own the car they drive. Instead they ‘work’ for the car owner who pockets the major chunk of the profit. My driver told me that if he gets Rs.2500, then Rs.2000 goes to the owner and only Rs.500 is his to keep. While I do not know the nitty-gritty of the details and would not like to comment on who is on the right side of the fence, perhaps this a problem that Uber can solve for drivers.

In the case of such scenarios, the company could step in and set up revenue sharing agreements on a mutually beneficial manner for both parties. No other taxi aggregator seems to be doing this. It will be a great way to retain drivers.

What more can Uber teach its drivers?

I have always found Uber drivers quite friendly and well-behaved. The one who drove me today got way too comfortable with me once I started speaking in a common language.

  • He started using cuss words a lot at the other drivers and pedestrians.
  • Asking too personal questions like what was my salary. When I ignored him, he started guessing. Took a few curt response on my side to shut him down.

It is good to be friendly with customers but not necessarily get in bed with them.

I hope Uber coaches its ‘partners’ a bit more not to encroach its customer’s personal space.

My advice for a better rating

My driver told me he never understood why some people remain calm during the ride but then end up giving lower ratings. From the conversation I had with him, he has a motor mouth and needs to trim it down a notch. But there is one suggestion I offered. I told him to ask the customers what is the one thing that he could improve to make their ride more comfortable. The fact that a driver asks such a question is bound to have a feel-good feeling in the customers who might pardon him and give a better rating. I know, I would!

He brushed it aside nonchalantly. But still I gave him a piece of my mind and asked him to refrain from using cuss words just because I happen to speak the same language. I wonder if he will take it, but it was my duty to give it.

Image credit: Uber

The one word that describes you the best

In the book, “Eat, Pray, Love” the author Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles her journey through a bitter divorce and then embarking on a lifelong adventure of living in three different countries (Italy, India and Bali) in a year. This book is one of my all-time favourites and the movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts is probably one of the best re-creation of a book on celluloid.

In the book, Elizabeth is engaged in a conversation with her Italian friend, Giulio. He asks her what she thought of Rome. She says, “I told him I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I’d end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was…”

Giulio says, “Maybe you and Rome just have different words.”

“What do you mean?”

Then he went on to explain, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. For instance, New York City meant ACHIEVE.

Next Giulio asks, “What’s your word?”

This seemingly innocuous question sends not just the author but also the readers down a soul searching path. Finally Elizabeth picks the Italian word,Attraversiamo, meaning let’s cross over. It identified with what she was going through at that point of time. She was a divorced middle-aged woman going through a bitter divorce and trying to find the missing passion in her life. And this word fit the bit perfectly.

In my own journey of soul searching to find the x factor, I have been speaking with friends and poring through every memory to identify the things that make my eyes sparkle. That is when I inadvertently stumbled on my word:facilitator. I am an extrovert and draw energy from the people around me. I am quite comfortable meeting new people and sort of look forward to it. I am interested in helping people get where they want in their lives. When I see that I have had a positive impact on another person’s life, I can sleep tight that day. I solicited my friends’ opinions about me as a person and it is along similar lines. I am basically a ‘catalyst’ and take pride in that role. So now that I know the word that defines me, it gives me some clarity in defining the career that I want to be in.

So, what is your word and what was your experience when you found ‘the word’ that describes you the most?