DIAMOND RING

The 7 am journey commenced with the hope to reach Hyderabad in 8 hours to see my ailing dad. The drive was cosy and comfortable as we took leisurely stops on the scenic high way. The grand bridge on the majestic Krishna was an awesome spectacle, the muddy turbulent waters gushing underneath, with copious rains from the September monsoons. We stopped at the bathing Ghats adjacent to the ancient temples. So, we went some thirty meters to get a quieter place. There we saw two fisher boys were busy throwing nets in the water. I smiled at them and asked, “How’s the catch today”? He shrugged his head in dismay and said,” Not one from the last one hour since we started! “Just walk ahead about 20 meters more and throw the net next to the tiny whirlpool over there”. I pointed to the spot. He did that with mute belief and tugged the nets out after 5 minutes, what a sight to behold; full of shiny carps, about a score actually? Glinting in the sun and looking quite confused. He was thrilled and asked me if I was a fishing expert. “Nope” I replied. “It was just a gut feeling and sheer luck of prediction!! To give him a little more happiness and  motivation, I bought two kilos for my sister Padma who is an expert cook such that most of the industry chefs would fade away in front of her culinary skills. 

The next two days were blissful in dad’s company!!! His health and dementia did fail him for sure. Nevertheless, it didn’t deter him from the sweet moments of life.  He is someone who is always cheerful when awake or in “our world”. Rather, A frail bundle of super energy in pursuit of happiness. “Oh you have come back early today, drop your school bag, wash your face and feet thoroughly. Wait I shall give you cocoa milk and chocolate biscuits in a minute, but look at your dirty white PT shoes? How long I spent cleaning them up this morning to give a white shiny coating! You are getting too naughty my boy”. So no milk today! We all guffawed and he was perplexed for a second, giving these children never really learn kind of ‘learn sigh’. I remember my primary school days, when he used to draw those difficult world maps on the chart papers so well, given to us as Geography home work. I could never get the complex country contour shapes right; each map I drew would be round and sound. I had gathered a quite a lot of rounds in the form of zero marks. It was a great relief, yet with a tinge of sorrow to see him in that state, but thankful that his memory is now a clean slate, living by the minute. Just eating, sleeping and living joyfully. More or less, little boy in an exuberant state!!

Padma’s Sunday brunch treat was a royal feast! It was the Krishna river carp curry that was the center of attraction for all of us. Her father in law was overjoyed , getting into a great reminiscent mood and told us stories from his early days. He was born in a field near the Godavari River where his mom was working; that prompted his parents to name him Gangaram. That’s why the word Ganga has a strong influence on him till this day. As a result, he performs puja daily on Ganga Maa. He retired as an executive engineer in Hyderabad municipal corporation who was pioneer in those days adding great contributions to the city development.

 

It is said that all good things must come to an end!!! And so did our stay in Hyderabad with my dad. With a heavy heart, we dropped in at Padma’s home at 7am to say our goodbyes. She was up to her usual culinary tricks; an array of wonderful dishes neatly packed for the day including dinner! “Anna please stack these containers carefully into the big blue bag. I did follow her instructions carefully, placing my hands deep inside to ensure the containers are sitting snug. Our breakfast point was just after Kurnool, while lunch stop was a lazy one at Chickballapur. I selected a serene gentle swaying corn field. A sight drizzle, looked awesome on the tender young corn hobs which were effervescing with gleeful sublime joy. There was quite a sweet bon appetite confusion while opening the dishes, veggie kootus, vala thandu poriyal, pessarattus (Andhra green gram crepes), avakai kichdi, egg podimas, royyala vepudu and chicken gongoora. The taste buds were dancing and tingling, elevated with the cool and melodious tweets from a hundred different birdies, all rightfully dressed with a mirage of rainbow hued feathers.

We reached home earlier than thought, all thanks to the Coronavirus!  Nevertheless, traffic less Bangalore was giving an odd ghostly feel. A hot bath was all that was needed, suddenly; I was in for a shock as I soaped my hands with the hot water.  My diamond ring was missing!! My mind quickly raced down to all the events of the day; toilets and tea breaks, car seats et all. Then,I called up the driver to check and even ran down to the basement alighting point. I checked with Padma too.  But, No luck there at all! It was a precious twenty-five mini diamond studded elegant square ring which was getting slightly loose on my finger over the last few months due to its woven interlocking system. Must have slipped off on the way for sure!!! I kept procrastinating to remove it or twine a thread, but somehow missed doing it.

Bhuvana, our maid cum cook made some fresh soft phulkas to compliment Padma’s designer curries, which were curated for dinner. She is a warm and hardworking lady with two young children, taking care of our needs diligently. Her husband works as our building security guard. Smiling forever and going about her chores cheerfully, she enjoys a great rapport with my wife Bagi. During the current pandemic, she is such a blessing covering few outside jobs too, never gives a sigh when she is given mundane tasks.

She later scrubbed the entire home, saying that a week’s absence of cleaning made the house glow less. With her super addictive qualities imbibed from wife Bagi. Bhuvana makes sure to turn all the household items upside down even to dust them superficially, while the clothes are reversed inside out for a wash!! Many a time, I get pulled up by Madam for leaving currency notes, nuts and chocolates in my pockets. She was told to hold the cloth washing for the next day, so obediently soaked them up and left for the day. I kept thinking of the ring, more of an emotional loss rather than a financial side. Nevertheless, I slept well!

It was a bit busy day at the office, I get a call from Bagi, “ Amendi , mee ring neeli bag lo zaari unnadhi ” which means  The ring had slipped into the blue bag, Bhuvana found it while washing the bag! This was music to my ears!! Thanks to Corona, the bag was also getting a great scrub or else it would have sat in the balcony for ages!!

I got into the process of planning an incentive for Bhuvana……What a sparkling diamond girl!!

 

Venu Rao

28th  November 20.

 

Passport

I landed at the Dubai airport, setting foot on a foreign land for the very first time.
Back then, the visa had to be collected from a special desk – not exactly the simplified visa -on-arrival that we have now.

My sponsor was supposed to send the visa directly to the immigration desk. So, I walked up to the young lady to enquire. But, as luck would have it, the passport hadn’t arrived by mail on time. She checked with the New Delhi office while I waited patiently for the next two hours, anxious about my colleagues who were waiting outside at the arrival lounge. There was no way of letting them know, as mobiles were a great luxury then!

I was worried I would have to go alone, if they went away. I had gone for the Dana Beach hotel pre-opening assignment, representing my management company, RMS. The hotel was on Corniche Road at Ajman, a good hour’s drive away.  So, crossing my fingers, I hoped that General Manager Ivan and chef David would be endowed with tons of legendary Emirati patience. Finally, the visa was issued and I headed to the conveyor belt to pick up my stuff.

Missing!

Maybe it had taken a leisurely walk having got bored stiff while taking too many trips on the merry-go-round! The helpful Emirates Airlines staff took me to a huge hall with big mounds of neatly stacked luggage. Alas! All the suitcases looked like perfect clones! How would I trace mine?

They were moving the pieces to felicitate easy identification. After another hour, I found it. There it was smiling smugly, having played hide and seek for so long. I then decided that from my next trip onwards, it would certainly wear a colourfully pompous doggy collar.

Of cheerful welcomes and disappearing acts

I came out to the bright sun, squinting, searching for my pals. Sweating profusely in a thick jacket. There they were, waving at the only person walking out, pretty certain that it had to be me. The paging board displayed a lovely message – ‘Welcome Mr Rao’. Their cheerful smiles erased the long drama I had to undergo.

The chef kindly took my bags and heaved them into the dicky. Ivan offered me the front seat, while he slid into the driver’s seat. It was getting really hot, so I stepped back before getting in and removed the jacket. The front seat was cool and comfy. The AC was just right.

“So, you had some fun visa entertainment inside with those Arab beauties, eh? Am sure they didn’t want to let you go, Mr Curly Hairs. Hope they stamped your passport.” Ivan teased.

I replied. “Yes, the sponsor issued the visa in a different company name, while the pretty woman was searching for Dana Beach! Sweet confusion.”

Hearing the word passport, I remembered having shifted it to my jacket from the front shirt pocket. I touched the front pocket to be doubly sure. Not there! I then fumbled in my jacket pockets to ensure that it was there. Not there, either!

I broke into a cold sweat this time. Ivan was looking concerned, he enquired if all was well. The road ahead was a steely mirage.

Slowly I turned my head to the left side. What I saw on the curb was a heavenly sight. My passport’s leaves were fluttering in the gentle simmering breeze, pure and white in the sunlight, while the wallet was spread eagled on its two sides. A few shiny Dirhams were trying to escape from its clutches…

 

Six more shots, please!

My first trip abroad was looking quite exciting already. I got into the car once again, wondering what was in store ahead.

It was an interesting day at the Dana Beach Hotel. Mr Chris Gardner, my CEO introduced me to the dynamic team.  The owner, Sheik Rashid, Justice Minister of UAE, was very courteous to me. All strategies were discussed for the grand launch, with Ivan compiling the minute details.

Ivan sneaked up to me; wondering if he had earned a treat for the long wait at the airport. I said yes gladly, despite being so sleepy after the overnight flight. We ordered two beers at the popular Wafi Pyramids near the creek promenade, relaxing for a nice evening ahead.

“Sir, six of my friends from Golden Circle, the marketing company, would be joining us soon. You can order for them too; they are really nice chaps.” He said sweetly. I gave him a surprised and bewildered look, but agreed reluctantly. Half my trip expense budget would be wiped out in a single round.

The beer tasted flat! Anyways, I endured, hoping to have a good conversation with his friends. Ivan was singing my praises of the great job in India, listing all the resorts I had assisted in launching. It sure felt good to hear, despite the big hole that was being burnt in my pocket.

Ivan raised his glass for the bottoms-up ceremony and said, “Gentlemen, Venu is so gracious that he is going to orders us another round! Along with some exciting short eats this time as a bonus. How cool is that.  So, cheers to him.” There were yays and hoots. A volcano erupted inside me.

I didn’t explode, but calmly replied, “Ivan, great idea, but would honour your request on one condition. Promise us a great sumptuous dinner at the Shangri-La post this second round as your treat?”

There were some yeah yeahs for that proposition too from the suave South African marketing team! Ivan twitched and twirled like a limp squid, losing all his colours instantly. He was thinking deep; I could almost hear the turmoil.

Slowly, he said in a measured tone, “Look guys, let’s not waste his precious Indian money on the second round. We go to a Donor kebab joint next door on the company account and call it a day. Venu is tired, we need him afresh tomorrow.” He looked like a Himalayan sage in a meditative mode.

My boss, Chris, had a hearty laugh when I narrated this incident the next day. He commented, “I must say that Ivan is incorrigible, no wonder he takes so many smoke breaks during the meetings. Guess he must be always thinking about a drink or food.”

Thank God! My near bankruptcy had been saved by the sudden brilliant flash.

I didn’t budge from the hotel for the next whole week, lest some more sunshine surprises sprout my way like desert cacti.

 

Venu Rao

17th October 20

  

FAMOUS FIVE CAPTS

The cook out party was in full swing along with the spiritual flow.  During that time period, Manoj Mathew’s uncle had a huge bungalow off Cunningham road in the quiet by lanes.  However, if one travels to Cunningham Road in the present times, you would spot the Fortune Cosmos Hotel in place of that bungalow.  Realizing the family was away for a while, we seized the opportunity to have a ball of a time! Sandy Nayak was enjoying the tender succulent pork pieces from the famous Pandi curry, cooked expertly in a mud pot by MG Ravi. He is from Coorg and learnt the perfect recipe from his mom. He was a popular steward in our Southern Comfort coffee shop at the Taj Residency. We were the budding hoteliers, still learning the ropes, having been recruited after the Cat colleges. It was our off day; somehow we conspired and managed to take it on the same day. We four boys were roommates living at Viveknagar near post office, having rented a two-bedroom house at a princely sum of Rs 250. There was the Kashmiri handsome hunk Harish Rangroo from Memories of China restaurant, Nicky, Banquets, Manoj, Jockey Club, hero Sanjay Goel, the look alike of Ajay Devgan from coffee shop. Sandhya from Cake shop and myself under room service. All key outlets represented.

The morning was spent in leisure, the usual haunt was Brigade road, we were parading up and down the stretch with helmets in our hands like big racers. Little did people know, that we owned pidly mopeds which always struggled to start and got defeated easily by a speedy cycle! Thereafter some chilled beer at Church street Pub owned by one of the regulars at Taj, Mr Ashok Sadhwani.  Lunch was at the Kohinoor mappila restaurant known for its kuska and chicken kebabs clubbed with matthi meen fry. By four I had a brain wave, “Let’s go to our Taj cake shop boys, Sugar and Spice where everything is nice”. Harish said, “Sala, kyon Sher ke mooh Mein shir dal rahe ho, if MK see us, your day will be made”. The beer took the effect already, it emboldened us four boys adequately to shoo him away! We promptly landed at the cake shop with our Chests puffed up of course!  Sandy’s reliever Anita Fernandez was watching helplessly while we gorged on yummy pastries, raising a ruckus. “What does he think by putting us on 15-hour shift, bonded labourers? “Someone asked. Every one nodded in agreement with their mouths stuffed, making hmm/ ha sounds. As a result, mutiny and revolt plans were hatched at that specific moment. None of us noticed the warning signs from Anita, slowly a voice came from the door.

“Hey boys, good fun eh? great to see every one relaxed! How come all five caps are off on the same day? “Said Ms Jacky Bond, the assistant manager, Banquets. I instantly remembered -Spy who loved me, the famous blockbuster. We ran for life to the Kamadhenu hotel opposite the Taj with laser lights under our heels. Zip. Ordered masala dosas with extra kempu chutney in dire straits. Finishing them in a second, we lit our ciggies at the pan shop, puffing and huffing. Calculating the next day’s Mis-En-Scene (read preservation strategies).

Back to the cook out party scene, we fine-tuned our plans over some more beer. It was my turn to drop Sandy home at Malleswaram. My Avanti Garelli moped didn’t have GPS, so promptly got lost for about two hours, mind was already stressed on the impending fire crackers show the next day.

There was a furore at the morning F&B meeting, each of our outlet managers were dressed down, neatly filleted, and gently broasted. Spitting venom, my own immediate manager Aziz Athiculla gave me a ‘look’ and said. “Well super Cap Venu, your weekly offs stand cancelled for a month. When they resume, we will make sure that none of your pals will be giving you company at the cake shop. All weekly offs charted out already. German precision at work, I swallowed hard and tried to resist, but failed. The stewards were having a free show and I didn’t like it one bit. Especially from that naughty waiter Kenneth Andrews; grinning slyly. He was my ever tormentor, would purposely delay tea orders since I wouldn’t give him fat dinner trolley orders. A-ha, the spy lady did accomplish the espionage mission quite successfully! I was planning revenge- should it be dish wash chemical, perhaps steaming oil, or a blunt bent room service dinner knife? Slow torture.

Just then the big boss PKMK waded into the room service area amongst the din. I was ready to scoot once again. All the 1857 great mutinies vaporised in a flash. He smiled at me sweetly, patting my shoulder and enquired of the morning rush. “I am very happy with you, there were zero complaints past one week, keep up the nice work”. I lost my colour, knew he was mocking, but thanked him with a guilty shy head nod. He moved on few steps, turned back with a glint in his eyes; asking casually, “BTW hope you enjoyed chef Prasanna ’s yummy Choco chip pastries”.

Venu Rao

22nd  September 2020.

BRUNO

 

Dobermann pinschers are complicated characters – they are either downright cranky or annoyingly one-person dogs. My friends had warned me against getting the breed. But, when I saw the scrawny little fellow all wrapped up in a cloth, I was floored. I would have mistaken him for my month-old daughter, if it were not for the little tail sticking out. He was chocolate dark while my girl is gorgeously dusky. Two bundles of joy! How cool was that? The maid brought a milk bottle to feed him. He did not know how to suckle, so she patiently taught him. Gurgling and whimpering, the little fellow tried his best. A few days passed quickly tending to his needs.

I was shocked when I learnt that a Dobermann’s tail had to be docked! I resisted tooth and nail, but with no success as my father-in-law, Mr Nadkarni, was firm. He explained that it was in the medical interest of the dog. The dreaded day arrived. Bruno panicked and passed urine when the tail got severed – I still can’t forget those mourning noises he kept making all day, in different pitches. He was in my arms and looked pathetic, vying for all the attention in the world – a drama king in the making. I named him Bruno that day – not sure why, but for me he was the ‘brown boy’ in the rain, Tra La la..

Baby’s best friend

He grew by leaps and bounds over the next few months, proving to be quite a handful with a whole lot of tricks up his stumped tail. He would steal milk from my baby; if there wasn’t any left, he would lick her face all over. The girl would make little sounds of glee! He would curl up beside her on the divan and place his snout promptly next to her diaper, heavenly smells of midnight lilies, I wonder! Every time we tried to remove him, there would be combined sirens from the two little rascals.

In the next four months or so, he grew bigger and heavier, his mischief multiplied by a hundred times. It was a full-time job for the Mom-in-law Mrs Sumitra to keep him at bay. We finally took the services of a police dog trainer whom Bruno hated dearly. The trainer was a tough master – seeing him, Bruno would run to me pleading and trying all stunts to evade him. With no chance of escaping, he would perform all the lessons he had learnt in one go, and scoot out of our villa. He was adept at performing the hind leg act majestically – standing up on them while doing a Namaste with his paws. He always had a loveable smile plastered across his face. This turned into his biggest USP, all the visitors would bring him special goodies, in return for the exclusive Bruno welcome. He was a millionaire by all standards, with an abundance of dog bones in his kennel.

His senses were sharp. In the mid-nineties, RT Nagar was considered the outskirts, as compared to my city centre work place at Taj Residency on MG Road. I would ride my Hero Honda for 12 long kms, returning late nights often. At the PCTC army corps gate, I used to take a right turn which was about three-quarters of a km from home.  Bruno would start barking in a different manner and my folks would know that I would be arriving pretty soon. Our house also had a lot of open ground around with plenty of snakes. Bruno would smell them immediately and bark in a ferocious manner, giving us a heads up. Viper arrival, beware.

Many happy months slipped by and he turned a year-old. Big and strong, his muscles rippling. He was vying for far more attention than our girl, trying to nudge her out, asking us to carry him instead! He would snuggle besides her given a chance and push her off in a one-sided competition. The girl would raise a ruckus. We were getting worried. The decision to move him into the kennel, came from the boss. I had many sleepless nights hearing Bruno’s sad wails, as he sang in different Beethoven symphonies, and even as if in a Zubin Mehta orchestra! It was insurmountable misery.

Of barks, greets and tricks

The morning walks were, however, like a skating rink experience. Bruno was taller than me and would drag me as per his whims – I simply didn’t have enough strength to control him. All the other street or pet dogs on the P&T Quarters roads would make way for this Hitler in the making. There wouldn’t be even a single yelp from them, till he moved on with his nose up in the air.

One evening a colleague of mine from Taj, Sanjay Goel, and his wife Archana, came to visit us. As they rang the bell, we heard Bruno’s friendly bark. I had instructed him to behave and not to beg for goodies in his Namaste style. I came down from the mezzanine living room, cracking open the door so that our canine friend wouldn’t get in. Lo! He was excitedly frothing and going crazy besides them. As soon as Sanjay pushed the door wider to shake hands, I saw Bruno slip in slyly and gallop up the stairs. Seconds later, we heard a loud thud from above. He had landed full force on the divan where the baby was sleeping! Not a sound or a cry came out, it was all quiet.

I broke into a cold sweat and ran up the stairs, my heart pounding in my mouth. There he was, grinning at me with his head next to the baby’s bum while she was smiling and cooing gently, creating gurgling gibberish sounds.

German dogs are mad buggers; Bruno was an extra special specimen. He would scratch his face with his silly paws or try to bite his limbs, just to while away some time. I used to give him chirputlees (a tight finger snap on his mouth or stubby nose). He would stop for a few moments and get back to it, as soon as he made sure I was busy with something else.

One day, I was tending to the round cement fish tank at the garden while Bruno was busy chasing the frogs away. After a while, he got bored of them. He came and sat next to me, watching the gold fish. I was immersed in cleaning the four-feet tank, when I caught him biting his hind thigh. I yelled. He stopped, ran around the garden and settled down a few feet away. I resumed my deep cleaning when I heard him yelp. I turned just in time to see him in a big pool of blood! In those few minutes, he had bitten himself so hard that the artery had snapped and blood was gushing out like a fountain. I pressed my handkerchief to the wound, but to no avail. Bruno collapsed. Seeing such a big pool of blood, my head spun and I fainted.

I was awakened, God knows how many minutes later, by the gentle splash of water from a worried MIL. She was petrified to see both the heroes unconscious on the ground. I gathered myself up groggily and touched Bruno. He did not move, and was barely breathing. The three of us heaved him up into the car to the GKVK vet hospital nearby…

A lot changed that day. Memories of the unconditional love he gave us bring a big broad smile each time; even to this day. We miss his cheerful, loving antics and a full life of exuberance.

Venu Rao

7th September 2020

Tusker Trumpet

Vasundhara, Ravi and I entered the famous lush green Masinagudi forests by noon. The road ahead curved gently while the trees were passing us in slow motion letting out silver streaks of light, a hide and seek scintillating effect. They smiled at us welcomingly. All our jagged frayed city nerves were beginning to sooth down as the mesmerising scenes unfolded. The hordes of deer darting across, the peacocks dancing and prancing around completed the picture. We saw a baby elephant looking at us in confusion from the road side while its mother prodded him to behave and ignore our existence. The fresh air on our faces comforted the further thought of meeting the college class mates at our destination. There was Vanathy fondly called as Ooty Rani, Arup, the garment tycoon, Kasi, the great bike racer, an expert foreign two wheeler dealer. Last but not the least was Panneer, the Yule Briner from Pennsylvania. He’s the most successful restaurateur owning the landmark Udupi house in Philly for over two decades.

We arrived at the elegant Monarch resort owned by the famous Bollywood star Mithun Chakraborty. Vanathy, the carbon copy of yester year Tollywood actress Vanishree was at the reception dressed in a killer lace and chiffon churidar set. She flashed a million Pavala malli fragrant smile, while our bangalore beauty Vasundari did a jig, giving the famous Mysore mallige tooth sparkle. We were all blinded and I quickly put on my coolers in a swift reflex action.

Next morning, the walk at the picturesque Moyyar falls was quite an adventurous trek amongst rocky slopes. Mr Melky, the ever smiling head constable deputed by Vanathy’s husband, the Ooty additional superintendent of police. Being a local lad, he navigated us expertly through the narrow precipices. He then brought us to a vantage place with an amazing view of the falls. Majestic. If one looked down, there would be a two thousand feet free fall. Heads sure to spin. Vasundhara looked dazzled and was feeling quite elated. Face glowing. In a poetic style, she said “Listen guys, I feel like a taking a bungee jump now without any support whatsoever!” I know people would lose their senses sometimes at the breathless beauty around, but why is our lass thinking suicidal? Beats me!! Immediately, Arup and Kasi tied her to a tree nearby, securely away from the precipice. You see safety is the best policy. She was laughing but yelling, “hey crackpots, I said in jest”, we didn’t want to take any chances.

The steep Vinch at Mayor village took us down rapidly from a height of 2000 feet. It was a wooden katola kind of receptacle. We were sitting in a funny 60-degree angle, clutching at the hand rails. Paneer’s knuckles were turning white due to his tight grip. His teeth were clenching with mortal fear writ large on his smooth chiselled face. Luckily he was bald, or else we would be witnessing some hair raising spectacles, before reaching the river below. We ragged him endlessly, but not a sliver of whisper from the American Indian. The water turbines were roaring when the piped water was falling on the blades with a great gusto. We got to see some of the intricacies of this electric generation station, while our friend was clasping his ears, almost closing the eyes. To distract his attention, we led him to the quiet sub stream which was 250 metres away. There showed him some nice VAAMs (long fin eels) swimming smoothly. We were then served tender coconut water by the boy. We chatted for some more time while reminiscing our nice memories.

On our way back, we stocked up from the Tasmac for the evening gala BBQ planned. I was getting restless to take a cool plunge at the pool facing the Gorilla mountain. The other guys zipped on the resort’s cycling track, while the beauties gossiped nonstop, keeping a mindful eye on the BBQ mis-en-place by the F&B team. The nip in the air added to the excitement, I was shivering from the cold water dip. All seemed fair and smooth, very soon the fire was crackling with a zeal, lighting up all our content happy faces. Ah nice.

Cocktails were flowing, baby BBQ snacks adding a smack to the tasty tinge. Chicken chettinad roast on the grill was an innovation, with it masala dripping and sputtering over charcoals. Tasted heavenly!!  We started dancing around the camp fire imitating the local Toda dancers. Ravi performed a lungi dance. We were acting like college kids, not of 55 plus, pulling each one others legs with the bygone college incidents. Fun. Rani’s mobile rang. The beautiful face contorting with each hmm and haa. Looked a clear SOS. “Just hang in there, will reach in half an hour before the gates close, its getting dark, don’t step out of the car on any emergency”. She turned, “My friend Kirtana and her daughter are driving from Hyderabad to Ooty, their car is stuck inside the Karnataka border forest. “Can’t leave them. Enjoy all of you, will be back in a second”.  She got up straitening her designer red Theni churidar set with golden laces flowing around. Vasundhara replied, “How can we let you go alone mad woman”? Soon we all jumped into her red BMW.

Vanathy was driving, assuming command, she said, “No camera flashes, cigarette butts or whistles what so ever. We go silently, swoosh them up and return to the party”. Paneer was nodding from the front seat. The rapidly declining dusk light was playing hide and seek with the trees zipping by. The jackals were out howling, while the deer gangs were cautiously returning to their hideouts. The scene was serene. Silent whispering and breathings in the car added to the charm. They were standing beside the car!! “Get into the rear car fast, you silly guys!” thundered Ooty Rani

We were softly speaking; munching chips cautiously, so that they don’t make crackling sounds. The red BMW was like a ship, comfy and steady, cruising smoothly. The doe eyes were shining in the bright headlights, she turned them to dim mode. We drove another five kilometres, ensuring the rear car is in sight and following rules. What did we see in the middle of the road, after taking a gentle curve turn??   It was a huge tusker!  He was standing about eight feet ahead and we felt as if he decided to step on to the road as if to play a traffic police! Vanathy brought the BMW to a complete halt! We could see his tusk gleaming, as if it was polished specially for this rendezvous!

 

She murmured, “lets switch off the engine and remain silent”. Kasi Reddy said otherwise, “just keep the engine idle, he will know that this is another big animal purring. He is sure to size up the car against his own girth and decide the future course of action thereafter”. She nodded in concurrence, but mistakenly pressed the accelerator instead. BOOM!!! it made a loud sound, much to the annoyance of the tusker. As a result, his eyes roved wildly, he took three steps forward however he stopped right there to give a thought! Vanathy’s adrenaline hit tree tops, thinking of the next day’s headline- ‘Police chief’s wife and friends crushed by wild elephant’!  Paneer clenched his teeth and lurched towards the dash board hitting hard. Stay still was the uttering from the captain. We were concentrating on his eye, clearly visible in the dim light. Ten agonising seconds slid by, both the parties unmoving. Paneer had a bright idea, he took his cell phone and clicked. Flash. He gave a low trumpet and moved another 4 steps, ready to charge, trunk lifted, sizing up the red BMW again and wondering if this metallic animal is any stronger or bigger than him? Vanathy was furious, she gave a hard knock on the bald head!  a bulb appeared on his head instantly.  We didn’t know whether to cry or laugh at that moment. With Hearts in our  mouth, we waited for the grand decision!  For us it was now too late to reverse. He would be on us in a matter of seconds. I turned to check the rear car, they were about 15 feet behind, slowly yet silently backing up. Another agonising ten seconds passed. I softly mentioned the killing words to Vasun, “May be you would have been better off jumping into those Moyar falls, rather than getting crushed under a jumbo. At least you would have had a nice levitating free fall experience with the scenery below”. She pinched me hard, drawing instant blood. I had no other option but bite my tongue mutely.

The tusker’s eye was roving again, after Eons of seconds, it shut. With a loud trumpet, he took another 3-4 quick steps forward in a charge mode. We held our breath, waiting for the Corona curve to be flattened. All of a sudden, he turned to the right side stepping into the hedges! Lifted his trunk yet again and trumpeted loudly, giving a Go now look….

The party mood fell flat on returning…. while silent prayers were still reverberating!!

 

Venu Rao

20th August 2020.

PARSIMONY

Life as a room service manager those days was extremely satisfying, but pretty hectic and stressful. Imagine serving hundreds of breakfasts in the rooms between 8 and 9:30 am! We would have a little lull before the storm at 7:30 am, having sent those millions of bed teas. The Taj’s promise of serving tea in three minutes flat was the most challenging task for me. Lift pantries was an idea floated, but not much avail. Some shoe string guests would add on to the woes by asking for hot water and lime wedges, to be had with the tea bags they had brought from home!

The ‘In Room Dining’ (IRD) kids are a lucky lot, nowadays, as they have the convenience of a sumptuous coffee shop breakfast buffet, easing their ops! I was always tired, yet sharp from the previous day’s dinner sessions, which would finish at midnight most times. 

The Taj believed in VIP courtesies – a rule written on stone. Pamper them with all kinds of trollies, platters, multi decks, et all. All individual likes /dislikes had to be taken into consideration and written prominently on the notice board. 

The VIP parties in the suites delicately arranged on the candle-lit trollies was another life shortner. I had developed quite a few strands of grey curls at the ripe age of 26 years. They would end up standing like steel spikes with all the tension.

One step above was the VVIP guest, either corporate super weights or Taj bosses like Mr Ajit Kerkar. My F&B manager, Mr Mohan Kumar, would go red in the ears and cheeks when he was expected – he would literally be on the frying pan while we were hung just above the fire. His handsome face would have developed a solid jaw, stiff with steel nerves for those few lucky days. 

The VIP trollies contained well thought out assortments of imported liqueur, soft drinks, exotic fruits (mangosteen, dragon fruit and japani phal), Swiss chocolates, et all. The inspections from the boss was another game of thrones!! However, for me there was an exception to these VIP visits – Mr JRD Tata. The moment I would hear of his arrival, all my tension would automatically evaporate and I would eagerly wait to see his gentle, kind face. I was always asked to escort him into his room. 

As per standard Taj SOP, I had to explain the string of goodies lined up. He would say, “Venu, my young man, I have no interest in all this pampering, just leave a couple of warm water flasks. Yes, a very light dinner tonight. You know my tastes. I will quickly go down to say hello to your GM, N.R. Daruwala”. NRD was my most fav GM during my entire Taj stint of 12 years.

“Yes, Sir I will bring your favourite Mumbai khichdi, along with warm milk mixed with haldi (turmeric, now an all-time favourite, thanks to Corona) and honey,” I would say. I would then send a quick pager update to my boss MK and hope that he would go home, since the next day was going to be a mini Tsunami.

The scene during the morning F&B session would be one of theatrical excitement – red cheeks and ash trays filling up rapidly. “Listen boys, Mr JRD is hosting a dinner meeting for Mr Xerxes Desai at Vijaynagar hall. He is the MD of Titan watches, a Tata company. What’s more, our own Mr Ratan Tata has graciously accepted the invite.” Boss would say. 

“Venu, escort him to the Richmond suite and check the amenities personally.” He ordered. More trollies! I replied, “Sir, he is also like our JRD; doesn’t care for those fancy trollies, except some cut fresh fruits, maybe.” 

“I know that my dear room service manager, however we need to show our respect and courtesies, which you know so well,” and with that the smart man would give me the ‘you dumb head’ expression’.

The big moments for me were always those few minutes before the actual start of the event. The Tata bosses would always come early to have a chat with us boys. 

I received Mr Ratan Tata at the entrance of the Iconic Vijayangar hall, famed for its massive mahogany carved pillars. I was promoted as a personal valet for the two gentlemen for that eclectic dinner. “Venu, you are here again, we just met in my room with your famous fancy but unending trollies.” Mr Tata teased me and held my wrist. 

Looking down at my wrist, he asked. “Oh, you don’t have a watch? Don’t like wearing one eh?” He teased me again. I replied shyly, “Sir, my wife works at Titan, she is vice president Mr Amitha’s secretary who is helping us get a big discount on the upcoming moon phase watch being launched in a month.” 

He nodded and gave a don’t worry gesture. He chatted with us for some more time. Don’t ask me how and what happened, but my wife presented the watch a few days later! Inexplicable.

Dinner was served, I ensured that I was just a discrete shadow of Mr JRD. Every slight turn of his would bring me to him promptly. Dessert was announced. Arputraj, the master coffee cocktail barman made an amazing presentation in front of the guests. Applause. Mr JRD turned and I was there next to him in a flash. “Venu, don’t feel up to a heavy dessert. Can you give me something light?” It was strawberry season. 

“Sir, may I bring some fresh strawberries with roasted almond ice cream,” I asked. His face lit up in appreciation. The shining EPNS cup landed in less than three minutes. Wah Taj! He finished the ice cream quickly, with the berries were still half eaten. He asked for more ice cream. I served him just a half scoop, knowing that he is a light eater and I am responsible for his health. Gone too soon, he asked for some more cream! I served him again a half scoop. He looked up smiling and said, “Well my boy, why are you so parsimonious?” There was silence. I blinked for a moment, but replied very confidently, “Sir this is English almond ice cream, not the Parsi style!!”

There was a thunderous laugh from all the dignitaries, I didn’t know which way the lightning struck. I stood there paralysed and stiff, with enough passive strength to bite my tongue hard. One glistening tear made a secret entry. Still smiling, he said, “My boy parsimonious means being stingy and not my Parsi style.” He patted my hand reassuringly.

That one-word advice of a life time from the great man had struck a chord that very instant; well I would be a wordsmith one day…

 

Venu Rao

5th August 2020.

BIDAR KOTA VENKANNA

Short, fair and strikingly handsome, these features were enough for people to take a second glance at him while he crossed them. That’s the loving impression of my paternal Grandpa. Popularly called as Beedhar Kote Yenkanna avaru, well respected yet equally feared, for he was a man of strong action. One wrong deed, they were sure to invite his wrath with dire consequences. At the same time, people used to flock to him for help and guidance, for he was a very generous man despite his profession. Whenever someone used to beg him to reduce the instalment payments due to difficulties, he used to assess these requests cautiously. If the case was genuine, he would go to the extent of writing off the loan. He was a Money lender with a golden heart. If there was a hanky panky turn observed, then God help the naughty chap!! Skinning them would be an understatement!!

Hunting tools
Grandpa’s hobbies and gaming activities were much more vibrant and well known to all. A great hunter, famous for his sharp shooting skills. We used to wait for his return anxiously. After all , there would  be exotic meats on the dinner table, be it pheasants, wild boar or a deer. Those days there was no restriction on deer hunting. Grandma was an expert in producing dry salted meats from these. He was about fifty during my primary school days. Robust and rippling with sturdy muscles, looking like a champion wrestler in saffron dhotis and red pagris. His Grey handle bar moustache would complement the magnetic persona.

We kids used to visit during the winter holidays, Bidar was too hot in summers. He used to repair and service his hunting tools himself and wouldn’t trust anyone touching them. Hunting was his first love. The variety of arms in his hunting kit were unique and varied, be it the single barrel gun, bows /arrows, catty or traps (quite funny yet dangerous looking ones). There were some interesting fishing nets and rods. One afternoon, I saw him at his repair session and joined to watch the fun. His mind would be so focussed. He was explaining the parts of a trap used normally to catch small animals such as the restless yet furtive baby wild boars. The SOP explained in detail. It had a strange long arm and a short one on the other side with a plate in the centre. Mounted on a small pedestal. The plate would have a bit of food item as a bait. So when the victim pecks on it, the long arm would have flung rapidly, stunning the animal motionless for a minute. Hmm so that’s the working! I was thrilled to gain such exciting knowledge. Must try it out soon.

The opportunity came almost instantly, when he said adjusting his dhoti, “Wait for two minutes, am going to the rest room”. “Yes pa, please go, I will be a good boy, promise not to touch any anything”. I said obediently. The very next moment, I secured the trap, held the long arm in its place, tightened the string and lo, it was ready to strike. Now is the chance to test it quickly. I placed my chin and acted like a little pheasant trying to peck at the plate which was empty! Bang the arm came on my chin, cutting deep. The plate was filled with some good sacrificial blood. I yelled, bringing the house down. You can imagine the commotion, Grandma came running and started shouting at Grandpa, “I say you are killing my boy! That chin mark still remains, an unforgettable gift from Bidar for a life time. Each morning while shaving, it reminds me of the intelligent test.

Krishna Kaka
The usual hunting grounds were the Bidar fort and the Guru Nanak Jhira back yards which were then filled with lush green forests. The famous Narasimha temple located outside the town had abundant wild life on its gentle rolling hills. One had to wade through waist deep water in the long tunnel to gain the Darshan of the lord. Often I was carried by some elder on his shoulder, the thought of something touching my legs would be so scary.

This little story in a story goes thus, many years ago when my own dad was a kid, Grandpa went to the Narasimha forests to hunt. As the typical saying goes, he went further into the forests and got lost chasing a baby deer who was too agile for him. Giving up, he started to get his way back with little success. Thirsty and hungry under intense heat, he was searching for a good shelter. Imagine, a pahelwan (body builder) getting tired!! The situation was quite challenging. Few hours in the hot sun quickly went by, too tired to move, sat down to rest, but he fell into a sleep. He was woken up after an hour by a screaming child cry coming down from a nearby spot by. Behind the dense bushes across, gathering himself up, he went on to find out.

There was a tiny hutment, very tribal yet neatly decorated, very surprising to be right in the middle of the thick forest. The cone shape structure had a little thatch door with colourful bamboo strips. He pushed it and went inside. The child was crying hoarse, he was about three years, saying something in his language. Grandpa looked around the tiny room, there signs of few belongings though. But no one around. Coming out, he noticed a mud Chula and a tattered grass covered bathroom. He walked around a bit more to find out the whereabouts of the parents. Finally, at the edge of the thorn fence, he saw a lady’s silver ankle sticking out of the bushes on the ground. Glittering. Rushing to the spot, he saw a man besides her, lying down motionless. A large swath of foam on their mouths. Dead. He looked around further, he saw the king cobra few feet away, face smashed. The picture was clear, the parents had a bitter struggle. Heart broken, he walked back to the child.

“What’s this? You have brought a little boy instead of deer from hunt return, that too at midnight” Said my Grandma. He narrated the tragic event. We shall call him Krishna, you know he wouldn’t let go off his father’s bamboo flute when I was getting back here. He will match to our Gopal (my dad) in name and deed, raise him well, his parent’s souls will be happy in heaven”.

Krishna Kaka (uncle) was always loving and caring, dancing to my tiny whimsical and unreasonable tantrums. Pampering me to the core. His favourite spot was the Narasimha tunnel temple and the surrounding hills. He used to take me there at every occasion, first he would give me a natural spring bath. The tiny spring was nicely diverted through a man manmade cow mouth giving a mini waterfall effect. Later carrying me on the shoulders while wading through the waist deep waters. It was thrilling, I felt like a horse rider, cheap thrills. Fondly remember the day out cooking picnics thereafter, he was a great chef with game. Supplies from Grandpa of course. The whole family used to spend time tighter sans mobiles, laptops, just the glorious sun rays peeping thru dense trees, making a mesmerising memory on mind. Indelegible.

Cascade in the fort
His favourite space was the fort which was abandoned those days and all the wild boars used to roam freely. Sleep in the fort at night and patrol on the open surrounding wilds in the day, bygone royalty traits still entrenched I guess.  we reached the fort before dusk one day. All the armaments in the kit, fully loaded and ready, I could see the firm expression on his shiny face. We passed the great entrance 40-foot-high dome, a masterpiece of an architecture. The Solah kambah masjid was the next building we passed by, before reaching the huge open court yards. There were remnants of great gardening plans that one could still see amongst the ruins. The Rang Mahal (Colour palace) was adjacent where the Rani ma quarters used to be. He said, “That’s where the game hides at this hour”. He unpacked the kit, took out the rifle, hunter’s knife and a catty. He said, “Wait here, don’t do anything silly. I will be back in ten minutes even if there is no catch”. I nodded like a good boy, waiting for him to go fast, flashing an innocent sweet smile.

I looked around for my own piece of action, had a paper knife tucked inside my shirt. Taking it out gleefully, I walked to the end of the courtyard towards the high wall. I saw the trellis cascade fountain. It looked interesting. Tall and steep. Starting from the ground, it sloped upwards touching the high wall of about twenty-five feet. The two sides had a nice railing kind of a grip while the middle portion had curved lime stone inundations for the water to cascade. This feature must have been a sight then, water gently flowing and bringing joy to all. To me, it looked like a giant play slide, like the one at my convent school. Wow, I must try to go up right till the top and slide down. What fun? I started the climb nimbly holding the rails and used the chipped curves as foot holds. They were actually quite smooth due to many years of neglect and erosion from rain. The climb was getting tough, with the body in an angular form but still fun. A good ten minutes later I managed to climb about twelve feet. A gentle breeze blowing on my face, while the black curls refused to be swayed, which were like stubborn springs, too coily for comfort. I happened to look down, Oh my God, what a great height! Eyes spun. Legs began an immediate tandava Nritya (Celestial Shiva dance). My little hands started to sweat profusely and the rails turned slippery. I slid down a couple of feet, in the melee, face rubbed against the trellis notches, making some nice red designer scratches on cheeks and nose. Phew. I managed to hold tight, unmoving in a frog like positional angle. Mustered little strength to look up to the edge of the high wall, it looked like Mount Everest while the Indian Ocean down was beckoning with its quota of sharks. I better stay put till grandpa arrives, come what may. Salty tears now flushed my chubby cheeks and entered the gashed mouth. It had a funny wild taste, mixed with blood I guess. Fifteen minutes passed by, excruciatingly.  Grandpa, Grandpa, I started yelling, at which I was a champion at. Cursing that I forgot my faithful whistle, a great annoying piece for the neighbours. Neighbour’s curses never go wasted it seemed.

The reply came from below in the form of low growl. I looked down. Teeth barred, it was looking up at me in a much wicked fashion. Furry and ferocious creature. Could it be a wild dog or a fox was the confusion, but nevertheless, legs started trembling, this time aka Michael Jackson’s beat it song.  Finally, the centuries old cascade received some human salt water. Damn again, no diapers. I closed my eyes, with no sign of him; started to pray that the silly animal shouldn’t climb up. I offered my whistle to the God, promising that it’s his keep for life. My predicament was a repeat of the previous week after our fishing trip. The fish bone got stuck in my throat, couldn’t swallow or spit it out.

Bang Bang, the shots were fired. I knew my dear hunter came back. I heard a yelp and saw the fox slump. I was busy kissing his cheeks amidst genuine joy and plenty of Croc tears. He didn’t yell at me.

A half century later I visited my dear fort recently with sister and brother. It has a heritage site tag now, well preserved. The first flash that struck at the parking lot was well? You guessed it right “The cascade”.

I ran. It recognised me instantly, giving that ‘knowing’ smile !
Venu Rao
15th July 2020

 

IGNITING KITCHENS, WITH THE IGNATIUS FLAIR

The fire is the heart of the kitchen. A good kitchen consultant breathes life into to that very fire by creating an exemplary design. The difference between success and failure is the critical path instilled into the design flow, which is the soul of the kitchen.

Ignatius John has brought alive many kitchens with his innovative planning and zeal. He has established his trade mark design in all areas – be it a humongous central kitchen in an MNC or a complex new-age hotel eatery.

Ignatius is a role model for budding planners and a great peer reference for seasoned consultants. What stands him apart is the combination of skill and analytical ability. He has had an impressive career path – rising from a hands-on management trainee after IHM, to becoming an F&B manager, a corporate GM, across stints abroad, the owner of a large catering company (12,000 meals in the mid-90s) to finally becoming a remarkable kitchen designer – his passion and hi-octane profession for a quarter of a century.

He has successfully designed more than 350 kitchens and is a hot favourite, especially among big boys such as Microsoft, Wipro, Oracle, Intel, AIG hospitals, SAP and so on to ‘Ignite’ their kitchens. Twenty-five years on, the flame is still burning bright with renewed vigour.

It is difficult to fit into a few words all that Ignatius is about. However, working with him so closely for the past ten years as a partner at Peacock Group, I will try to give justice to what drives Ignatius and has made him among the top kitchen consultants in the country,

Committed to hard work: For Ignatius, all seven days are packed from 7 AM, without a single dull moment, till 8 PM. He allots each project to the time schedule as per the priority of deliverables. He emphasises on the moto of the Peacock Group, ensuring that equal attention is paid to all projects, regardless of their size. At the outset of a new project, the planning starts with clear vision and time lines.

Ignatius’ attention to detail starts from the word go. The excitement and nervousness never end and every project coming on board is treated as the very first one. He believes that each kitchen should be at least 10 % better than the last one!

Building blocks: Ignatius approaches each project as if they were building blocks: with clear vision, due diligence, space matrix grids, schematic designs and all the steps in the road map. He gathers the critical information during feasibility stage through primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

As the next step he floats a friendly, yet comprehensive, questionnaire to the client. He uses analytical and number crunching techniques to generate valuable data. Systematic workings of meal load calculations, seating capacities, dish wash cycles, CFM/Power loads or the water usage calculations give the required foundations. The knowledge accrued from these becomes the way forward strategy, bringing all stakeholders on a common page.

The space matrix block is the stepping stone, which is actually the pillar of the entire design. In the initial days, I would try to go for the jugular and plunge right into actual kitchen equipment layout without getting the basic matrix worked out. Ignatius would patiently guide me, explaining that the skeleton needs to be in place before the meat is put on. If not followed correctly, it would be like a pack of cards in a Tsunami!

A meticulous planner: Ignatius applies the same amount of dedication and in-depth planning while attending works shops as well. Armed with A3 printouts, PPTs, excel sheets, sketch pens and colourful highlighters, he would be at the workshop with a ready look on his handsome face. It’s a pleasure to see his eloquent presentation skills, making it so easy for all to understand. Nowadays, despite COVID and the virtual stage, his fluid style remains the same.

Once the appropriate approvals are in place, detailed MEP schedules, final drawings, tender documents are generated for further smooth flow of the project. Looks simple right? Well, as they say, you need a brilliant writer to convey something so lucidly! The MEP consultants love him for this hands-on approach. It’s a common saying in design language – If the BOH services are taken care of, the FOH will be heavenly.

Mr MG Kamat, MD of Dhruva Engineering Consultants (DEC) says, “When Mr Ignatius approves, the end result is guaranteed. A person who ‘listens’ is the best engineer, and his best-approach attitude makes him a perfect example.” Ignatius never leaves highly sensitive services to chance. He firmly, yet politely, insist, “Please share your final drawings post our MEP plans, we would like to check if all our requirements are met.” He ensures that all loose ends are tied up neatly, securely.

Always punctual:

Punctuality is an important word in Ignatius’ dictionary. Most of our visits to other cities are hectic day trips. If the meeting is at 10 AM in Mumbai, he would be at the site at 9 AM. His day would have started at 3:30 AM. Funnily, the local team would still be strolling in after he arrives! Looking at this frequent occurrence, I would ask Ignatius to reach the airport at 9 AM, instead of 8 AM, but he would be turn up at 7 AM! Commitment!

The day would proceed smooth and fast since he would have pre-planned the agenda meticulously. MEP queries, site marking checks, clarifications et all – without a single sign of irritation, even if the lunch break is skipped.

Memory is the key: Ignatius is a huge memory reservoir. Despite juggling multiple projects with multiple timelines and at various stages (one may be at DD stage, while the other big assignment would be at the tendering stage), he would recollect the right piece of information and pass it on, effortlessly. Each hour stacking would be judiciously managed and this is possible due to his do-it-yourself attitude and his detailed, logical method.

His equipment knowledge is amazing, he is adept at plugging the ideal piece with the right budget. This is possible due to the constant sharpening skills via research, browsing and meeting vendors in the office or at exhibitions. He would willingly allot time to hear them out even at the expense of his personal discomfort. Mr Pandurang Prabhu, MD of a reputed hood manufacturer company says, “One rare quality we see is that he continuously tries to take feedback from vendors, ensuring that the products are user friendly, for ease of operation.”

Courtesy and simplicity: Ignatius addresses everyone formally as Mr or Mrs, never by first name, even if it is a 20-year-old trainee architect/engineer. He sagely says, “Embrace the current trend, but don’t have to let off the niceties we learned in the hotel industry, addressing all our guests/clients in a formal way. It leads to good business atmosphere”.

Ignatius is always dressed smartly in full sleeves shirts; simple yet respectable. No T-shirts ever for meetings, even with the Friday dress down culture prevalent nowadays. His well-trimmed trademark French beard and a gentle smile are the constants on his face. He travels mostly by auto rickshaw, many a time by overnight busses too. Due to his easy to approach manner, he is often invited for panel discussions, industry lectures and design forums.

Playing hard- The wild side:

Not the social party kind, though. His wild side stems out of his love for nature and great passion for safaris and treks. His greatest stress buster is seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. The safaris take him to faraway exotic destinations including Masaimara, Amboselli, Serengeti etc. The day would start at 6 am, well stocked with binoculars, a simple camera and a Stetson hat. He gets his adrenalin fix from merely gazing at the trees nonstop and observing the game.

He has a jovial set of safari buddies – his besties. Mr Sekhar in the pic above (next to IJ) is a reputed kitchen equipment manufacturer. During one such evening, recently, the friends, over a sun set cocktail at Corbett, were discussing the finer aspects of safari life. The excitement was heavy due to a young tiger sighting with a kill earlier in the morning!

Ignatius was silent; deeply preoccupied, when someone joked whether he was missing his beloved auto cad. He replied, “No, I was just mentally finalising a grand kitchen design for pets and strays, as well. Not the typical preserved foods module, but fresh, hot and healthy.” Everyone laughed and someone commented, “So pal, why not for your much-loved wild animals?”

He, an expert at managing his energies, thoughts and emotions, replied calmly, “Well, I would like them to roam scot free as always, hunt and stay natural as per mother Nature’s design”.

 

Venu Rao
20th July20

 

KANTAVVA

A Tall, dusky, beautiful and a hardworking woman! That is the impression I’ve always had of  my maternal grandmother in my mind. She radiated a certain kind of positive effervescence and confidence. A bundle of energy, active to the core. There wasn’t a  dull moment in her packed day ever.  She would always be on her feet throughout the day. Kantavva as she was known to us, was an inspiration to many in the town. They considered her a  perfect example of familial bonding link, loving and assertive, yet with discreet authority. Married at a very young age, she toiled hard in the saree business. From a normal tin roof house, she went on to build a huge country bungalow with 14 rooms, fully equipped with three kitchens with a spacious prangana. Nine children were born in quick succession. She moved on quickly from the loss of two bundles of joy. My mother was the eldest of seven children and lended Avva a helping hand in tending the babies  when  she was busy with business and housework. Grandpa was more of a scholar, immersed in social or spiritual work; thus he couldn’t spare time for house hold chores. He loved reading  the great epics such as Ramayana and Mahabarata to us kids in the afternoon. On the other hand, we kids  were given small tasks by Grandma like chopping tons of raw mangoes for Avakaya thokku or peeling out the tamarind seeds from the ripe pods. Imagine the little battalion of naughty kids from seven siblings during the summer holidays.

We used to go to our  hometown  Armoor in Telangana, famous for its Siddula Gutta (Shiva temple) atop the nine rocky boulder hillocks; encircling the town. The named derived from Aru (six) and Muru (three).

Business Tycoon

Kantavva had been in the textile industry for many years and was known for her acute business  acumen. I still wonder  how she managed her household work and business so efficiently?  By eleven in the morning, she would go out for business, after having prepared lunch for the big family.

She used to heave a bulky bundle of clothes on to the shoulder.This bundle of clothes would amount thirty kilo plus pay Load. I would walk along with her from the prangana till the main door. The clacking of the Kolhapuri leather chappals and the jingle of silver “Kadialoo” (hollow ankle rings with bells) which would send out pleasing signals that Grand Ajji is going out. Her trade mark ‘Bottu’, the tilak on the forehead used to compete the rupee coin in size and shape. Perfect round like a full moon. The crisp cotton printed sarees used to add the extra touch to her charm. The ear lobes were adorned with golden ‘Ghenteelu’ studded with precious stones.  She was just forty and yet a  perfect combination of beauty plus brains.. From the main door, after getting a peck, I used to wait for the moment when she would shift the bundle on to the head after walking a distance of fifty metres. The walk and poise with such a grace would put the best ramp models to shame. Smile on the face, she used to acknowledge people who knew her so well. When she normally returned around 5,  she would be full of smiles despite toiling hard the whole day. Her pallu had an adour which I always craved for it was filled with love and affection; sprayed with sweat, kid’s saliva, Susu or leftover food crumbs etc.  She would get ready for the dinner Mise-en place. It still amazes me of the incredible strength and stamina she had, going about her duties so effortlessly.

“Venu baba, go with your grandpa to the fish market and  help him to clean the 6 kgs “ She told me one evening. “Yes Avva, sure; wow I would get my thali sized pappadam from the cart along with those fancy finger Nallis. I trotted along holding his little finger while he held his white dhoti end. After the fish purchase, he kept me on guard outside the toddy close by. After having a long swig, wiping his grey moustache of the toddy droplets, came out with a large papadam and a cotton candy.” Not a word of this to Grandma, or else the roof will come down, now eat this”. But invariably she used to catch him at the first glance of his sheepish nods and murmurs when he came close to her. Avva had a sense of intuition which I just couldn’t fathom ever. Nothing could escape her, be it my aunts  smoking slyly, eyeing the neighbour lad, or even using us as a messengers for sundry jobs.  Since there was no WhatsApp  in those  days. They had to do with a  bit of scribbles, signed off stealthily in a hurry. A real party every evening daily. The huge circle of kids at the prangana, gorging on the mounds of rice and koramatta chaaru (murrel fish curry) was a sight to behold. The laughter and screaming still ringing in my ears even after decades.

Saturday afternoons were the routine accounting sessions  in the shop room with Avva.  That’s when I got a  break from reading the hold scriptures with Tata. We were included in  various activities like stock taking, book keeping, counting cash etc.She never went to school, but I’m sure a well qualified CA and MBA would be of no match to her. Her mental cancellations were unbelievable, just at the tip of the tongue. I would be laboriously be punching the figures on the calculator. Before I would get the sum total on the screen, she would rattle out the amount. Another technic which still lingers to this day is her system of measuring cloth. The Thaan (ream of long cloth) had to be measured while stock taking. She would pull out the start point of the  roll and place against the tip of her nose and release the cloth till the end of her hand. She would mark it and say, now cut this one metre. I would have my own doubts, wait ma, I want to measure it with the steel metre rod. Oh that’s for the customers to check in case they have any apprehensions, but do give it a try. I would measure it with the wicked glee of proving her wrong; but to my dismay, the length would be always a perfect metre, neither an inch less or more.

Mumbai Meri Jaan

I saw Mumbai first with her, she used to go on business trips so often. We arrived at the grand VT station in the morning by Manmad express. It was fun to travel in the ladies’ compartment, all aunties pampering with lots of eats. The thrill of seeing the charcoal engine, sticking my face near the window was exhilarating. There were curious funny smiles seeing my face covered with black soot. We had to wait in the station for a couple of hours for some reason, may the shops would open only at 11am. I saw my Gran cat napping and took that chance of exploring the surroundings, awed with the big station. It was thrilling to see so many people at one place!! I must have been a sight, a little boy with huge black curls and a poky face. In smudged white shorts with wide eyes loitering around. He quietly caught my hand, softly threatening to stay quiet and calmly walk along with him. He showed a knife hidden in his pocket. I went jelly. Oh God, what have I got into, what will Avva think of me. I resisted, so he pinched hard, felt the blood oozing. Gosh, this kind of thing never happened! He was smiling and patting with his other hand, lest passers-by get suspicious. I held my ground, no way I was going to yield. Big boy that I was, all of 7 years. The tug of war went on for few minutes. I threatened to shout if he doesn’t let go. He gave another wicked smiley look, I screamed. “Bachao, yah aadmi mujhe mar raha hai” (He is beating me)

She scooped me into her hands like a vulture and flung on to her strong back like a Jhansi ke Rani. Turning to him, gave a resounding slap. People stopped in their tracks. He ran for his life. Leisurely she then put me down giving that ‘loving look’. Those days there were no diapers, damn.

We reached the kapda baazar, a string of huge whole sale textile shops with savvy wealthy owners, their assistants scurrying around. Amazing activity all around. Mumbai at its best, never a moment’s pause. We were received by the owner with folded hands “Nameste, Kantamma Madame, please come in and hello to your curly boy”. I was sure impressed with my Avva, business like and friendly smile. The selection and bargaining / finalisation went effortlessly for the whole day along with her fluent Hindi bargaining skills. She counted those old broad hundred rupee notes like a counting machine, performing quick mental calculations. The men struggled to keep pace with their calculators. It was a sight to see her in action. That impression and lessons learnt were a good start point even to this day. Sumptuous Marwari food for lunch. Deals done, ordering the goods to courier. We took the night train back. Eventless and blissful berth sleep hugging my Gran.

Night Robber

Fast forward fifteen years, all the grand kids got busy with the careers, her seven own children spread out further. No more summer vacations to native place. End of a golden era. It was an  empty nest for Avva. Grand pa passed away peacefully, one day while chewing sugar cane on a rocking chair after lunch. He just took a hurried hiccup and lo, next minute, a massive stroke. Gone in a flash. All alone in the big house, she had too much pride to stay with the sons and adjust to their life styles. No way for a Lioness. She took few tenants on the ground floor rooms, more for company rather than monetary benefits. One night, she heard a rustling sound around 2 am near the prangana. Her mind raced, could it an animal or an intruder? She moved to the shop room, saw it secure, lock untouched. After few minutes, the Pooja room door clicked open. There he was, with a menacing corona mask hiding there. She tiptoed up to him and held him by the scruff of his neck, shaking him violently. Caught unawares, he tried to wring out of her strong grasp and  take an attacking position against her . However, she pinned him for few more minutes trying to buy some time while calling out for help. The tenants were calling out from the prangana, trying to get her attention, that distracted her for a moment and let go off the grip. The next minute, she saw him lunging towards  her with a knife. What happened next was amazing . She caught the long blade with her hand, cried out loud, but held that position steady. Blood dripping from her hands. The thief was totally baffled at the old lady’s courage and strength. He let go and ran for his life…She stood still there like a statue with the blood smeared knife in her hand . These were some snippets of my experiences with my Bold,Beautiful and Brave Avva

 

Venu Rao

18th June 2020

NEW AGE FOOD TRENDS AND DESIGNS IN MNC CAFES AND KITCHENS

Gone are the days of the typical stainless-steel factory type bain-marie. Back then, employees were quite happy with a “canting” look and feel – rows of bulky chaffing dishes serving hot items such as sambar, sabzi, rasam, kootu, chapati, kheer etc. Traditional, yet nutritious and well balanced. But our Gen X and Y were bored, they wanted options. It is quite possible that with the lockdown, Gen Next must have got used to traditional home cooking, but the craving for options will surface once work resumes.

We have been working on smart food concepts and designs to make the café floor an interesting, innovative and lively space. We are focusing on keeping the health quotient intact, yet offering a stylish approach to beat food fatigue, which often sets in at cafes. With the current crisis, we are reinventing and tweaking our latest food designs- with an emphasis on health and safety. With these changes, we aim to dispel concerns and fear factor too.

Cafe designs are evolving at breakneck speed. From smart, copper-clad tandoors bringing in the joyous festive feel to an efficient Italian Pausa café ambience showcasing home meats and crunchy veggies. We take a look at some new designs:

Main meal counters
The neat serveries are designed with style and efficiency. The bain-marie look has been removed, instead counters are 850 mm in height, fitted with a combination of hot and cold plates. The serving bowls are colourful Le Cruesets to hold food in smaller measures of 3-4 litres; the frequent replenishments ensure freshness.
The under counters are fitted with stainless steel, temperature-controlled cabinets, holding additional food. Frequent trips to the kitchen is, thus, greatly reduced. There is a combo kitchen planned behind the servery which acts a supplement to prepare some more dishes in front of the employees.

Theatre Cooking

This is where a lot of the action takes place, bringing life to the café. Live-action stations are mostly independent and floating, with hip designs. The shape can be fancy – oval or the hexagonal, as they are the focal points of service – much like a theatre set-up.

We ensure that smart equipment such as combis, merry chefs, pasta cookers, lava stone grills, tandoors etc are plugged in to assist the chefs to dish out mouth-watering delicacies. The service side equipment is also carefully chosen, be it the induction warmers, frost tops or cold wells. These are fused into the counters to give a seamless effect.

 

Global interactive Live stations
Some of the unique cuisines are selected carefully, based on their palette and popularity. The choice of equipment is, thereafter, planned into these interactive stations. Here, fresh produce is displayed in small quantities, while the bulk of the MiseEn Place is stored in the refrigerated under-counters neatly designed below.

Here, spot cooking ensures that the ambience is lively with the help of this efficient equipment – it could be a fine pasta boiler, a fry master or simply a two-zone griddle plate. These live stations are perfect for fusion food experiments – far eastern noodles tossed with an expert hand, with Indian masala. For example, a pasta dish can be made differently say with a Thai curry, giving it a totally different flavour and look. Anecdotally, women in the technology sector are fond of fusion offerings – they maybe more experimental then men?

 

Healthy offerings
As the name suggests, our main emphasis is on healthy diet with some sensible immunity boosters – nutritious and wholesome. With Gen Z often tending to skip the main meal and selecting a healthy, lighter luncheon option, instead, you can toss a salad in front of them, well displayed in a cold well or a saladette.

Steaming cups of soup are served from the tureens placed right on the front counter. The chef expertly flings a bunch of micro herbs which he has just grabbed from the visi cooler type hydroponics urban cultivator, placed strategically behind him.
We ensure that the whole station is suitably designed within easy reach of the chef who is interacting with the guests. The support equipment is usually behind the low wall section with another chef to assist. The pieces of equipment behind are griddle plates, easy to boil induction cooktop plates, sandwich grillers etc.

 

The world in a bowl
Bowlful, soulful and stomach full. A chef can create a storm in a bowl. This concept is the latest craze – challenging, yet thrilling for the chef to punch in a whole lot of exciting ingredients. We design these concept counters, plugging waterless bain-maries with sleek GN pans. These are expertly placed on the counters, depending upon the number of dishes planned. The sub-garnishes and the few main components are spread along the line. The under counters are stain- steel cabinets, with temperature controls to aid the chefs.

The chef and the customer make their dish together – the chef suggests, while the customer nods in concurrence. When the bowl reaches the end of the counter, it is handed over to him and viola the meal is ready. The client swipes his smart card and moves away. There is no chance of touch, hence our Corona friend doesn’t get a chance to bite.

The central space of the counter is designed in a such a way that the smart equipment is laid out ergonomically. Some sleek ones like space team combis are a part of the list.
However, the main component is the chef’s smile and the creativity with his dish building technique. The client is happy with some sinfully large bowls – but then, its healthy food. The crispy, crunchy salads on top add on to the look and feel.

 

Hydration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are all aware that our bodies are made up of 70% water. But, did you know that this is the same as the amount of water present on mother Earth? The MNCs have fully understood this and hence hydrate their employees adequately.

We have also planned a well thought out hydration policy. We offer a multitude of design considerations. On the offer is some very sleek aqua hydro taps, which are fitted with hot, cold, ambient and sparkling options. These are touchless too, with sensors; Corona, no chance here again for you!

We also design an interesting hydration programme named Elixir, an array of infused waters, with popular flavours such as lemongrass, mint, exotic fruits, ciders etc. the dispensers are attractive large jars or creatively shaped fancy acrylic dispensers. Again touchless.

There is also space designed for aerated drinks, but these are generally displayed discreetly, in an under-counter fridge or left behind frosted doors of cooling cabinets. Yes, some millennials do require their daily dose of Coca Cola.

Some MNCs even bring on the Thank God it’s Friday evening feel, with beer flowing, but like the responsible Biryani concept. We have also designed the beer carts and some exciting on-spot snack counters for a Bangalore-based company. Hic hic hooray apps and google maps to the rescue, thereafter!

Smart cart cuisine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The street cart cuisine is slowly making inroads in posh cafes, serving some delectable yummies. Chaat carts, for instance, are a real hit. There are many types of carts that can be placed in select clusters of seating, catering to a particular taste option. We have the momo cart, the dosa cart, fried chicken, Mexican tortillas, and what have you. For the sweet tooth, a doughnut or Banaras jalebi one would be the ultimate heaven. These carts are custom designed by architects or simply bought out from well-established vendors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Innovative Markets

This new trend is another emerging favourite. Here, visual merchandising comes to play as products are displayed to catch the eye, with their MRP concept, in a convenience-store kind of atmosphere. Employees can just grab, scan and go. The touchless POS (point of sale systems) helps. In a newer, innovative system, each time an employee picks an item, the systems add and if he leaves it back in its place, it removes the same from his shopping cart. Finally, when he walks out, the system debits his smart card!
Some MNCs are using this market concept quite innovatively, the space is stocked with in-house delicacies such as cakes, bread, croissants, puffs, etc. These goodies are extended as takeaway services at very attractive subsidised prices. Staff is happy, and their family, happier!

Kitchen design is of paramount importance
The proof of the pudding is in eating – this old parable is never out of flavour. Needless to say, the kitchen is the heart of the F&B spectrum. The cook can’t make a great pudding if he is not given a damn good oven, right? Use of technology coupled with seamless flow of people and material is the key to successful kitchen design. Ingenuity and common sense helps.
With the current crisis, the need of the hour is to introduce precautions and safety measures within the design element: Ample spaces and synergies are the need of the hour. Right from the quarantine hold area, loading/unloading, receiving, passages, prep areas, chiller rooms, main cooking block areas, food staging etc. as these are the critical flow paths. Hygiene and safety aspects considered in Toto.

The use of smart equipment makes the difference between success and failure, we ensure that this aspect reaps benefit in the long time. Technologically advanced equipment definitely helps towards this goal, rather than just plain Jane equipment. Here are some advantages of smart equipment:

  1. Reduces power requirements as most of the smart equipment like combis, flexi chefs, Varios and boilers/kettles etc are self-steam generating and are quick performers.
  2. Pot wash problems are far fewer, as many of these are self-cleansing, thereby, saving space.
  3. The final product is always consistent and tasty, despite larger and multiple volumes. This is so since most of the equipment is programmable.
  4. Most kitchen hoods (Indian make too) are of makeup air variants, keeping the kitchens and chefs cool and composed. Here, the food, and not the chef, gets cooked!
  5. Most of the smart equipment is BMS compatible, assisting the MNCs to keep a track. Indian fire suppression makers too are now adding this facility.

The list of advantages goes with new developments springing up rapidly. Connected kitchens concept is the new next wave which is currently in an advance stage of research. Soon all the kitchen equipment will be ‘talking amongst themselves.’ Probably hatching a plan to make a new yum pudding.

Venu Rao

Peacock Hospitality

6th June 2020