The ‘Mighty’ Pen’s Journey From A Sword To A Swiss Knife

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pangot - A rainy, bumpy ride to and fro!

I have never seen an Independence Day so rainy, the clouds giving way to the deadliest bumps on the Gurgaon roads. One rain and its all over, welcome to this corporate concrete jungle that doubles up as a river bed during the monsoons.

So where do I figure in what has become a haven for all "river road rally" enthusiasts. I am all ready to leave for a camp in Pangot which is some 15 km ahead of Nanital or somewhere near Corbett. We will go figure exactly where it is once we get there (the idea is to just get lost in nothingness, u see. So where is me in "we”. Mansi who got the other 4 of the "we" ready for a trip without even confirming the place... "Ready" as in getting them to pay and book and meeting up(for the first time) to discuss the other part, that is getting there & availing the facilities we just paid for. Yeah randomness is my second name.

After the longest detour ever as the roads were jam packed with office traffic trying to carefully maneuver the many potholes that the heavy rain had left behind. We are finally together, with tales to tell about the long harrowing ride. And feeding our hungry tummies and grumpy souls with food (both expired and unexpired) from a well stacked kitchen which is extremely uncanny for a bachelor pad. This is followed by numerous attempts to get all 5 in the camera frame to capture every moment leading to the big one :)

While the others catch up with whatever sleep they can my weekend getaway has just begun. The longing to leave the city behind so strong that I am documenting every minute, for in another 45 min we will be on our way to Mountain Quail camp and my mind will be my only depository for the next 3 days. My thoughts about this village of 15 families in the Kumaon hills is suddenly disrupted with alarm bells, but rants of another "half an hour" ringing equally loud.

5:10am and here begins our road journey to Pangot. There's no looking back to this for another 2 days. Not even a strategically left wallet will make us return . Leaving behind the plains, but the clouds and the potholes don't seem to desert us. North India has become the next Cherrapunji, not the perfect season to head to the hills as we shall discover in another 6 hours(6 become 11 thanks to a half finished highway, which was initially built to ease inter-state traffic but now it is turning out to be a task to find our way around it).

In Mayawati land anything is possible! And this driver who we cant help but blame for being an adamant foolish navigator; and as fate would reveal it… tomorrow he will be our saving grace for a packet of Gold Flake, life is full of ironies ain’t it? Nothing like a ciggi on a rainy day.

Before continuing our rickety, jerky ride on NH-87, we stopped at the Giani da dhabha for paranthas and tea. It was a hollow, but filling experience. I know an oxymoron! But filling because our stomachs felt stuffed, but hollow because we had tasted better dhabha food . And while we were at it, it was a good college reunion for our lawyer friends Ajoy and Shindey. As fate would have it they bumped into their classmates from NLA, Bangalore who were headed to Camp Corbett after they were shown a "House Full" sign at Pangot. Added cookie points for my travel organization skills, I couldn’t help but self-congratulate myself.

But these accolades fell flat as we moved on. We missed the Moradabad By Pass, missed the Corbett route. With quite a few misses, and the rain and the jams on the almost non-existent highway, crankiness began to set in. The only escape being the 2 pirated Bollywood music CD's we picked up at the dhabha which were good to fill the cold silence that had started to spread.

By late afternoon after making our way through Moradabad - Rampur - Haldwani - Kathgodam the hills drew closer. For many DL/HR cars the journey would soon end at Nanital but we had other plans. Through the hustle and bustle of this Lake city we were headed to Pangot, another hour of a treacherous uphill ride with some breathtaking beauty for company. As we made our way up the cranky, grumpy feeling gave way to the holiday mood. The drizzle and the clouds made for some picturesque and eerie view of the Kumaon hills with its dense oak and rhododendron forests.

By 4 we were at our camp Mountain Quail. After parking our luggage in the nice, cosy tents we rushed for some wood smoked lunch. Spirits soon picked up and after a quick hot bath it was time to just sit and faff over tea and a couple of drinks. As night fell, the place looked almost spooky with only a few lamps on. The sound of whatever there was behind the tall grass and trees added to the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. With a back log of 48 hours of sleep, I hit the damp bed with only Piyal and a grasshopper for company. I drowsed off to the tale of a promiscuous encounter of a certain someone in the adjoining tent, who was totally unaware of how the acoustics in a "tent" like structure work. The transformation from a brick dwelling to a cloth one sure takes time!

After that night of uninterrupted sleep, I woke up to the splitter splatter of the rain. But rain or no rain I was all geared for a hiking expedition up the mountains. To my relief the dense trees kept the rain at bay. But there was no escaping the leeches that stuck to my feet by the dozen. From time to time my uphill climb was punctuated by sprinkling salt over these slimy creatures. The feeling of being in the midst of pure wilderness made up for the slippery and rough terrain. A slight movement in the bushes would make my pulse race, my movement of glory of spotting a tiger. I watched with bated breath for the wild cat to appear and then there came running a mountain goat. Back at the camp I enthralled people with exaggerated tales about my escapades an hour back.

By now we had got used to the rain, smoking our way through the wet and the chill. Just when we were past discussing Nishant's finickiness, Shindey's drunk encounter with a female back, Holder's embarrassing secrets, Piyal's polka dots and my obsessing over the leeches, the sun came out! Like a mad bunch of paparazzi we went clicking ourselves in the sun. This kodak moment lasted us only 5 seconds and then it was hello to the clouds again.

With a quick dash to Nanital in the evening and a bonfire in the night, we were nearing the end of this rendezvous with the rainy hills. The next day we picked up speed early to get ahead of the many who were headed back to Delhi after the extended weekend. This time we had our compasses tuned to the Corbett route. But our plans for a quick descent to the plains were only shortlived. A landslide en-route to Kaladungi cost us an entire hour and a half. We picked up speed only on the Corbett stretch where the road improved dramatically. With another jam near Moradabad and a detour through the farms we hit Delhi around 7, all tired and sleepy just like we began.

Maybe this just wasn't the best time to travel. Maybe we did not take the best route. Maybe the rains failed us. Maybe someone should have carried the I-pod cord. Maybe we should have chosen the cottage over the tent. Maybe we should have carried an extra umbrella or an extra pair of pajamas.

Nevertheless I am glad I went, "when" I went, "where" I went and with "whom" I went. With things that worked and even those that did not!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

It is no longer about just speaking, Brands rise to the art of listening!!

A man once walked into a McDonald’s store with the brightest smile ever in quest of the good old burger and fries. He got what he wanted, but his smile did not quite evict the same response from the McDonald staff on the other end. This when the fast food joint was running a marketing campaign that personified happiness.

It was Paul Holmes who walked into Mc Donalds that day to just not satiate his hunger but also to assess how much are Brand Promises kept. Do they cease to exist after they hit the TV screens, the outdoor hoarding or the press note issued announcing the new campaign? What does the consumer do when he feels a disconnect between what he is being promised and what he gets at the shop floor.

This 2 hour workshop by the leading US PR analyst emphasized again on the most important, but often ignored “P” of the 5 Ps of the Marketing Mix, which is its people. People drive change has never been more apt as it is in today’s time and age when all geographical and physical divides are fading and this “virtual” bridge called Web 2.0 is enabling people from diverse backgrounds to interact. This digital revolution marks the transition from one way communication to two way communication between Brands and its consumers. Paul Holmes could not stress enough on how brands, more than speaking need to excel the art of listening. He says, “Companies to a lot of extent have lost control over their reputation. It is not what you say about yourself but what other people say about you.”

True to this belief, Paul even kept the session interactive by encouraging the participants to ponder and question the evolution of Public Relations. Paul addressed the concerns of many present there about integrating digital into campaigns by asking them to halt and first assesses the brands preparedness for Conversational Marketing. Coming back to the power of the “P”, Paul said that, “The employees are the biggest advocates of a company or brand. It is they who should be first prepared to participate effectively in conversations brimming about its brands on blogs, videos and social networking sites. By asking three simple questions to the employees Paul says that a company can decide whether they are “ready” yet:

Do you understand your company values?
Do you believe the management lives by the values?
Do you think you can take decisions based on these values?

With these practical tips and anecdotes assimilated over 20 years of experience in the Public Relations domain, Paul drove the point home that in time to come transparency credibility and authenticity will become the most valuable currency. Hence the need to attract talent that is intelligent, knowledgeable and believes in dialogue rather than monologue becomes even more potent. It is this new breed of PR professionals hailing from diverse fields that will drive this change in the Marketing landscape.

And if and only if a smile is returned next time Paul Holmes walks to his “friendly” neighborhood fast food joint, will we say that all these activities have had a Real Measurement Impact.

Neemrana Fort Palace

Neemrana Fort Palace
July 2009

I have never been much of a planner, last minute huff and puff brings out the best in me. For some this might be a sour tooth but for me a way of life. My attempts to plan the shortest getaway from the city to Neemrana Fort Palace turned out to be a miserable failure. Even nature conspired against my organization skills.

It all began with “plans” to meet at 9:00am so that we could make it to the beautiful Rajasthani haveli well in time for it to shuts for visitors at 6. For those who plan to see it beyond the visiting hours must be on the other side of the haveli, inside with a room from over 888 different kinds. Nicely dressed with two rounds of breakfast we were all together by 11:00 am. Add to that another 45 minutes of discussion on whose car were we to drive on this 80 km stretch. Mine or Ashish’s, the votes were tilting towards my brand Alto which was a perfect fit for the regal place we were visiting. Bullshit!! For this crowd of 5 was getting rowdy and with my planning skills at stake we began our 3 hours drive to Alwar at 12:00 pm.

Running against time and the rains, I drove and felt completely in control of everything in life. Even at 80 km/hour it felt like breezing through thin air and then road became uneven. Some 30 kms away from our final destination and the traffic became slower and the movement almost tail to tail. And then the tail following process turned fatal. The truck in front of me passed over a boulder and my low floor clearance car could not pass. I almost died when my feet felt the boulder screeching the floor. After assessing the damage we decided to continue moving as we were almost there but took a quick U turn after the car began groaning in pain. With a quick fix and garam chai on the highway we returned to Gurgaon in the evening to head back to Neemrana the next morning in Ashish’s car. What sadistic pleasure for finally having my way irrespective of the day lost and the damage to my car.

We set off early next morning at a cruising with the Aravallis by the side much and hit Neemrana Fort Palace by noon. Through a village, the first sight of the fort with its huge doors typical of the Mughal empire was jaw dropping. Built back in 1464 AD, it is among India's oldest heritage resorts and was once the capital of the descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan III.

The rooms and the passage way is furnished with traditional Indian and colonial furniture, antiques and artifacts that gave it a rustic yet regal feel. The property is spread out to cover 25 acres/10 hectares with 10 levels that rent each room including the bathrooms with a splendid view. Leaving the humidity behind, we strolled in the palace with a pleasant breeze thanks to the numerous jharokas built into the walls of the fort. Every part, every artifact so meaningfully and aesthetically positioned. The swimming pool, the theatre (my favorite) and the open roof restaurant provided a rich and vibrant experience. We covered the entire length and breadth with staircases criss crossing the entire fort. Thanks to the meandering staircase each section of the fort provided a different view of the same part. There was the glorious sun shining on the open air theatre and a cool dingy feel in the attic. Perfect for the restless soul who hates monotony.

It was evening soon enough and our perseverance to see this majestic monument was worth the struggle of getting here. Before the gates were shut we headed back to Gurgaon with memories. With the sweet scent of rain and Paneer pakodas with chai at the highway dhabha reminded us of where we truly belong!