What is more prestigious – A Fiat or Audi?

Recently two suit clad gentlemen were waiting for their respective cars in a five star hotel lobby. It was busy time and therefore the valets were taking some time to get the cars. After nodding and exchanging tentative smiles, one of them decided to strike a conversation. “hot, sultry weather and this suit don’t go hand-in-hand” he said. The other person just made a face in agreement with half attention to the phone screen in hand. Since he had done with his mails and calls he decided to continue conversation. He did not relish the idea of standing quietly in a crowded place like hotel lobby.

“What car do you drive?” he said.

“I drive a Fiat Linea. What about you?” said the first gentleman.

With a faint smile on his face the other gentleman replied “I own an Audi A8”

He expected a look of reverence, awe, envy from the first gentleman. None was forthcoming. In fact the first gentleman said “Oh you own Audi! It is very common now-a-days”

Men with cars are no different than boys with toys. Men seem to be wired to compete – like two dogs competing for attention of the bitch and ending up hurt for something not in their control. The second gentleman suddenly became serious. His pride was hurt. He decided to settle the matter and show the first gentleman his place in the social hierarchy. This is one more aspect of men. They want to fight and it is often about prestige, social standing. We acquire many possessions that show off our importance – cars being one of the big ones – a fact cleverly leveraged by car marketers.

“In India, there are only 100 Audi A8 cars” He scowled.

“In India Fiat Linea sales are lower than entry level Audi model sales. That makes Linea quite exclusive.” replied the first gentleman.

“What about the showrooms, car quality and not to mention the sleek design” said the second gentleman as if opening a new front.

“Well Fiat is Italian. Everyone knows that Italians have best sense of aesthetics and design. In fact most cars are designed in Italian design studios. German cars are afterall German – Efficient, functional design but no sex appeal” said the first gentleman calmly.

“The Audi is large, spacious and ruggedly built” said second gentleman now almost ready to explode into a hand-to-hand fight.

“How much mileage does your Audi give? My Linea gives me more than 12 km per litre.” said the first gentleman.

“Audi gives at best 7.5 km per litre” replied the second gentleman feeling guilty for the enormous carbon footprint his car was generating every day.

“Look at it this way. What do we look for in any of our toys. Great design. Exclusivity that will make others envious. High perceived value wherein we pay very little. Fiat Linea scores on all these counts. There are few Linea owners in India. The car service, showroom network is as inefficient as luxury car dealerships – few and full of spare part challenges. But the car comes at much lower price and gives better mileage too.” He signed off as he got into the car.

As he drove away he could see the Audi owner furious, speechless and impatiently waiting for his car to turn up.



The girl with red roses

Yesterday, I had to travel to town area. The Mumbai world is divided by the creek. The original part is called town and as soon as you cross the creek and move to north it is suburbs. The creek divides more than geography. The old wealth lives in town, while the

The Girl with roses

rich in the suburbs. The offices and office owners are in town and the office slaves reside in suburbs. As an office slave, I reside in suburbs at the edge of the city and the journey to town is often like Justin Timberlake movie In Time.

Yesterday, I passed the central railway station junction. In the mornings the area outside station is throbbing with activity of vegetable and flower market. The girl must have been 9-10 year old, almost my daughter’s age. She was carrying a large load of neatly wrapped red roses on her head. While I cannot describe expressions on her face, that image left a deep impression on me. I had just dropped my daughter to a nice school. It was cloudy in the morning; there was mild drizzle. And here I was sitting comfortably in air conditioned car. The blood red colored roses would find their way into a romantic occasion, but there was no romance when they were on the girl’s head. Did the girl go to school? will she ever go to school? I doubt it. Did the girl get right nutrition? I suspect, the girl barely got enough food to sate her hunger. In contrast, my daughter was obsessing over how many friends to invite to her birthday party.

For a vibrant economy and ‘good days are here’ the girl with red roses and large cars passing by represented the stark reality. One of the sad truths about market based economy is growing divide between haves and have nots. The latest report from Credit Suisse shows that the richest 1% now own 58.4% of the country’s wealth. In 2010, their share of wealth was 40.3%. Ironically many of richest 1% stay within 5 km radius from the girl carrying red roses on her head.

While I seem to be on the other side of this divide, I squirm at this reality. I have been lucky to be born in a middle-class environment that valued education and provided sound upbringing. This has helped me to be early beneficiary of the growing economy. But it does not take much time to go from ‘good days are here’ to ‘we are doomed’. Often the dug up roads take people’s sentiment to ‘we are doomed’. When that happens there is fomenting anger just below the surface. Then it doesn’t take too long for someone from the road to pick up a stone and throw at the large air conditioned cars. All it takes is one stone….

But what about the girl with red roses on her head and not in her hand?

Being on the road and not driving

I often feel our perspective on any situation is based on point from where we are and time. Let us take example – how do we react to developments on road when we are not driving? We are not driving means two conditions – being outside of a car or in a car and not driving.

Being outside the car

The other day I went out for a walk. The trigger – doing daily number of ten thousand steps. The conditions for walk were ideal – cloud free Sunday evening when Sun was about to set. I looked up to marvel at the minute-by-minute changes in sky colour – from yellowish to amber to pink to finally darkness. My sky watching was suddenly interrupted by loud honking and there I was back on the ground.

Walking on the road can mean a multitude of experience and emotions to a road warrior like me. First the theatre of war shifts. If cars can be equated to tank warfare, then walking on road is like foot soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Sometimes walk on road is overwhelming. As I settle into my stride, the signal turns green and cars of all sizes rush out to gain space. It is so sudden that at times I am stunned and standstill. That leads to more honking as I am obstructing some biker even on the edge of footpath. Sometimes the experience is humbling and sometimes I am just angry.

That day I was angry five minutes into my walk. As I started to walk on the main road, I was greeted with flags, banners and large hideous posters with all leaders’ faces stamped on them. The road over a two kilometer stretch seem to be divided among the different political parties. Then it struck me. That day was celebration of religious festival and politicians want to reemphasize their nuisance value.

In a car but not driving

Think of a time when you are into a cab NOT driving and stuck in traffic. Sometimes when this happens to me, I feel peaceful, happy, superior, lucky and in the end almost always stung with cost of peace.

Stuck in traffic and cab driver is negotiating all the road challenges makes me peaceful. There is no agitation. There is no anger at a car cutting lanes. This is because I am seated at the back, away from driving seat.

The peaceful state does not last long. Here I am looking through cool confines of air-conditioned car at ‘mango’ people braving the nature’s gifts (rains, heat). I also notice nonchalance of passing vehicles towards people on road. I can enjoy the cool air because I can afford it. I am feeling all superior!

But the mind keeps working all the time – highly active with random thoughts. The feeling of achievement, superiority is followed by sense that I am lucky. I am lucky to have resources to spend. I am lucky that I don’t have to suffer the mud splashing on my off white trousers. I am lucky that I don’t have to board a bus packed with sweaty people and worry about creases on my neatly pressed shirt.

The cab hums along. Sometimes cruising but most part crawling through the metro city maze. For every minute it waits there is a cost to be paid. Stuck in traffic, the ticking fare meter is a cruel reminder of the cost I am going to pay for the simple pleasure of not driving.

The song in my head

In Mumbai the best companion of a driver is the music system. Typically, we put the radio on. Across channels the radio jockey is busy talking…. Talking…. Talking and we are lucky to catch a new age Bollywood song in between. The songs are almost always from the latest movie release or the one that is the flavor of the month or the upcoming movie promoting on the radio channel. I have often found that the first song that I hear is the one that stays in the head through the day and often determines the mood for the day. So the question is what should be the ‘song in my head’? Is there a way I can control the song in my head?

Perhaps our ancestors were aware of this phenomenon called song in the head. Therefore, morning rituals involving chanting of mantras were prescribed for all. But we are in Mumbai – a mega metro with little time for ourselves leave alone for gods. Thus the song on the car radio is the first song I hear and that is the song in my head.

I invariably turn to mp3 player for songs. There are three reasons – first there is no interruption in the form of radio jockey talking, second I can listen to the full song and third I can always change the song if I am not in the mood.

And therein lies another dilemma – should I allow a song to sneak into my head and therefore influence my mood through the day OR I pick up a song based on my mood? The former has the elusive beauty of discovery while the latter smacks of control. I often incline towards the latter. Does it make me control freak? I don’t know. Rather it makes me slave to my mood – something I do not like.

I often wonder is it the verse that attracts us or the tune. A great creation looks seamless and we really don’t know what attracted us to the song. Being an introvert I often gravitate towards songs with moving lyrics. Often these gems are to be found in the songs of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. A haunting tune of Hemant Kumar classic ‘tum pukar lo’ gives me goose bumps. The lyricists of past were master poets who happened to write for movies. Listen to Sahir’s ‘chino arab hamara’. These were socially aware, sensitive people who managed to bring in their ideology into that commercial art called Hindi cinema.

The other driver of mood is the tune. I believe this is particularly the case for English songs – the tune is the attraction. For example, take ‘jeremy’ of Pearl Jam. It is a profound song but that dawns to us only after we have heard the song a number of times. Eddie Vedder’s unique voice and sound is what attracted us to the song in the first place.

Therein lies the challenge. What should I opt for – the sneaking song or the designed song? Let us take an example, I wake up late and am rushing to the office and have to stay alert in the journey. What should be the song? I will probably go for rock, tinge of heavy metal or Jamiroquai. Or Should I then play Springsteen’s ‘murder incorporated’ or ‘born in the USA’? Both wonderful but fairly dark songs.

I really struggle to get the right song into my head.

Travelling in Mumbai

I have been using the roads in Mumbai for last 15 years. For initial five years I use to travel in public transport but for last decade I have been using my car. What follows is perhaps a journey of those fifteen years on road.

In the beginning, I did not have lot of money and therefore public transport was the way to go. Looking back life was simple. I had to catch a bus at a bus stop nearby, stand or sit and reach destination. The only excitement was occasional haggling with the bus conductor for tendering exact fare. Not once I thought about the traffic outside or the potholes on the road or traffic signals. In a way the bus fare also covered all this mental work.

Then I bought a car. First car is always special. It was all the more special as we had leveraged maximum possible and bought a basic model of an entry-level car. After the initial euphoria and careful driving, I had brush with the reality of Mumbai roads – first road mishap. The accident and its after effects only proved one thing – it was not enough to be careful and responsible driver on the road. This approach was at best defensive if not wimpy. I needed to grow up.

I was all grown up by the time we bought the second car. It was great Indian middle-class dream. We bought a sedan. Believing that we had to make things happen i.e. actively influence what is in our control, I hassled the car dealer to deliver the car as per timelines. Also bigger car meant bigger ego and that is always a bad idea on the road. Three mishaps later, I was back to my original introspective, depressed self. Apparently the second approach also was not working. I wasn’t happy.

All this while, the road conditions were getting progressively worse. The local government corruption and apathy gifted us roads full of treacherous potholes which cost some people their lives. In a decade there was no addition of the road, but the number of cars multiplied manifold. After all I was not the only one living the great middle-class dream.

We are on to a third car now – a sedan no different from previous car. I had almost a philosophical approach when we bought the car. Gone was the great happiness or satisfaction of owning a car. This was replaced by equanimity. Life goes on and change is the only constant and new car was one of those changes.

Today I spend 2-3 hours every day on the road. Most times I am alone – a great opportunity to be quiet and by myself. Often I wonder, what I do with this me-time. I try to think about profound things like why do I exist? Am I being too opulent, splurging on fuel guzzling car and travelling alone? Most days my head is full of random thoughts like the small fish in a fish tank. They just keep making an entry and exit as fast. I reach home tired. I suspect it is the mental fatigue manifesting as physical tiredness.