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24 December 2008

The night before Christmas

AS A Catholic child growing up in Manila in the seventies, magic meant three things to me: (1) my birthday, when the best gift invariably came from my eldest sister, (2) someone's wedding, where I marched as a ring or coin bearer in church and then gorged on fried chicken at the reception, and (3) Christmas Eve, the only time of the year when my siblings and I, all kids, stayed up late without getting sleepy.

Christmas Eve was always more charming than Christmas Day itself. By this time, school was over for the holidays. We had already regaled Papa's company party with a dance of endlessly repeated steps (right step, back step, arms up, arms down) choreographed by our older sisters. We had performed the same number in the annual family reunion a few days earlier, where our cousins always outdid us with loud James Last numbers. I was often too sleepy to remember what they actually did, although I remember them going home with big cash envelopes from aunts and uncles who must have loved whatever they were doing. We had already collected our colorfully-wrapped gifts from unsmiling godparents, a task completed through Mama's direct intervention. And by now we had decorated the small Christmas tree in the living room with all those gifts, with stern warnings from Mama not to open the gifts until Christmas Day itself.

Oh, that Christmas tree. We kept the same one year after year. It was a three-foot affair, made of wire cone covered in sheets of absorbent cotton. I had a lot of fun helping build it: under the cotton came the blinking Christmas lights contained in 1-inch breakable shapes, on top of it came red tinsel foil and sequin-filled balls. A bristly golden star sat on top, and it was always askew. Every night, the lights were plugged; every night, I would stare mesmerized at this blinking, glistening cotton-filled cone called Christmas tree.

On the early morning of Christmas Eve, we were roused from sleep to attend the last of nine consecutive dawn masses. I never attended the previous masses, called simbang gabi or misa de gallo, but this morning's edition would be mandatory for all of us. The rest of the day was quiet, as the older folks were doing last-minute groceries, usually at Nepa Q Mart or Queen's Supermarket. Towards the evening, we'd fuss over the brand-new shirts and jeans that we'd wear for yet another mass. With nothing but hot Milo chocolate drink to keep our tummies from growling impolitely during this late night mass, we filed into the church pews according to age. Afterwards, we trekked into the chilly night, walking home briskly to attend the most fabulous activity of all.

This was the noche buena or Christmas dinner. Those expensive, untouchable Noritake dinnerware displayed in cupboards now filled the table with the biggest servings of pancit (egg noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), estofado (pork stew), queso de bola (cheese), and, best of all, fried chicken. Mama and her sisters took turns cutting up the jamonado (smoked ham) and heaping our plates with ample slices. Even for a large extended family like ours, there was always food left on the table (and there was always food recooked for the next several days!). The house that night was filled with the aroma of boiled salabat (ginger ale) and orange peel, the music of Mitch Miller singing carols from the turntable, and reflections of lights from that cotton Christmas tree. It was always magical.

Later, when it was time for bed, my brothers and I would hang socks from the windows with hopes that we'd catch Santa Claus sneaking in. I never managed to see him: I was often the first to plunk to sleep . . . and the first to greet everyone the next morning with “Merry Christmas”.

Here’s wishing you all a “Merry Christmas” on this happy Christmas Eve of 2008!

14 December 2008

Travel to Lucknow:
A quiet place

DRIVING THROUGH Lucknow on this chilly winter weekend, I noticed that this northern city has some of the cleanest and straightest roads in India. This is my fourth visit to the capital of Uttar Pradesh, but I never really paid much attention to the roads before. That is, until now. Perhaps I’ve been too impervious to the roads of Kolkata that Lucknow suddenly offers me a complete change of scenery. (I wanted to be a bit more descriptive about Kolkata, but that would make my Bengali friends dislike me a lot!)

Two years ago, when I first visited Lucknow, the city was being positioned as “The Next Fashion Destination”. Back then, I didn’t understand this positioning since there was nothing that impressed me in Saharaganj, the city’s most modern shopping center at that time. I couldn’t grasp the personality of the catchment as well. A weekend ocular analysis around Saharaganj revealed nothing. There was little vehicular traffic and even less pedestrian movement in the shopping center. I honestly thought back then that the entire buying population was busy staying indoors on a late Saturday afternoon and hoping that the mall would come to them!

This weekend, having had the chance to move around the city, I realize that Lucknow oozes with old-world charm, not of the British colonial variety, but closer to its Muslim heritage. While traversing a wide, almost endless avenue that connected me from the airport to the city, I saw sandstone sidewalks that are actually being used by pedestrians (most city sidewalks in India are used by peddlers), tree-lined side streets, marble domed buildings with wide gardens, and small Islamic monuments dotting the road.

I realize that the gentle, laid-back character remains. In fact, it’s what makes Lucknow pretty. At Fun Republic—now the largest mall in town with several designer boutiques—footfalls were low, and they came from twenty-something youth strolling hand-in-hand. They included men holding hands, which I decided might be an Islamic social custom. I didn’t see much of an older audience, but the few senior couples I saw were tagging along what could be their grandchildren.

Dressed in unobtrusive winter wear, the crowd I saw did not look and feel cosmopolitan. Perhaps “Next Fashion Destination” refers less to their sense of clothing and more to their sense of style: the Lucknowites may lack the glitz of their fellow northerners in Delhi, but they do carry themselves with the quiet air of good breeding.

Related Stories: Official Web Site of Lucknow; The City of Nawabs

12 December 2008

People, people who kiss (and honor) people


George Bush and Barbra Streisand share an awkward kiss
Link reference: YouTube.com

WHEN KENNEDY Center announced in September that Barbra Streisand was one of this year's Kennedy Center Honorees for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts, two things came to my mind. One was, "How will she behave with Bush?" We all know that Miss Streisand, a long-time Democrat, is the entertainment world's most mercilessly vociferous critic of the George W. Bush administration. And Kennedy Center tradition dictates that the President hosts the honorees in a glitzy dinner at the White House and then graces the star-studded gala, seated in the same dais as the honorees and joining the ovation. In this case, the dinner and the gala were held last Sunday evening.

So how did Miss Streisand and President Bush survive each other on Sunday? As it turned out, there was no collision at all. At the White House, President Bush shook Miss Streisand's hand, bent over . . . and gave her a buss on the cheek! Check the Internet: it's now filled with scattered pictures of the kiss they left behind.

And there's more: during the gala, Miss Streisand and the President threw winks and air kisses at each other. Can it be that it was all so simple that night? Or has time rewritten whatever nasty thoughts they had in mind?

The singer-actress-director-writer-composer-citizen-feminist-activist has since said: "Art transcends politics.” Such graciousness! Such class! I'm impressed! Read what else she had to say about that night (from her blog):

Last weekend, I was in Washington DC to accept the Kennedy Center Honors, and I noticed that the kiss between me and the "soon to be former" President Bush created quite a stir. The Today Show even proclaimed that it was a sign of the apocalypse. The timing is ironic. After eight years of President Clinton and on the cusp of at least four years of President Obama, I get selected to receive this prestigious award . . . during the Bush Administration. I have never met George W. Bush, but for the past eight years I have been blogging about him and his administration on my web site. I have relayed my frustration at the direction he has taken our country in no uncertain terms. So it was just as surprising to me as it apparently was to the press that upon meeting President Bush and extending my hand to him, he said to me, "Aw c'mon, gimme a hug and a kiss," and then he proceeded to embrace me. I must say, I found him very warm and completely disarming . . . even though I think perhaps he was kissing me hello as I was kissing him goodbye . . .

During the White House ceremony, the President described each honorees attributes. After he listed mine, he added, "She's also been known to speak her mind," to which the audience first laughed and then applauded. I genuinely thought he was very funny and very gracious.

During the Kennedy Center Honors, President Bush gave me his signature wink (which he must have passed on to Sarah Palin) and mouthed, "We showed ‘em." I guess in some small way, he and I proved that we could agree to disagree, and, for that weekend, art transcended politics.

See? They got nothin' to be guilty of!

As for the second thought that came to my mind: "Why is she being honored only now?” In her 46-year trailblazing, record-breaking career, Barbra Streisand must have won every single performance accolade available for public consumption, possibly more than any other entertainer in her generation. It really seems bizarre that it took the Kennedy Center 31 years to recognize her achievement. But never mind: her latest bestowal further cements what everyone knows about this Diva of Divas being an indelible work in progress. Oh, and by the way, did anyone ever mention that she's also the first female director to be selected for the Kennedy Center award?

Congratulations to Barbra Streisand on her latest win . . . and to President Bush on his magnanimity!

30 November 2008

Focal point:
Devon Gundry, “Armed”


Devon Gundry, “Armed”
Link reference: Justin Baldoni on >Vimeo.

THE SIEGE in Mumbai is over. For the past two days, I've stopped reading the news and watching TV: the images and the stories are just too devastating to experience, considering how much I loved this city, the city that hosted my very first, lengthy stay in India, a city that never ceased to laugh and listen and love and live. Family and friends have filled my mobile phone, Outlook, and Facebook with messages of concern: an ironic but deeply moving way to remain physically connected at a time of spiritual disconnection.

On these rueful moments, I seek solace in the power of faith. From the sacred Bahá’í writings come these timely words:

“Armed with the power of Thy name nothing can ever hurt me, and with Thy love in my heart all the world’s afflictions can in no wise alarm me.”

—Bahá’u'lláh, “Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u'lláh”, p. 208

The musician Devon Gundry has recently translated this universal truth into a song called “Armed”. I'm sharing the video with you, wherever you are, in hopes that you'll also find strength in the power of the love of God . . . amidst “all the world's afflictions”.

27 November 2008

Terror in Mumbai

I'M SAFE in Kolkata, and so are friends and colleagues in Mumbai. The senseless prejudice surrounding the terror of the past 24 hours still shocks those who have known Mumbai as the one true cosmopolitan city of India.

This is yet another indication that the old world order is now crashing, its dross being purged. That we need to move forward with the new world order is clear, no matter how perilous the path we take to get there.

Related Stories: Explosive Times; Blasts in Mumbai

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Now playing: Janis Siegel - Sorry-Grateful {From Company}
via FoxyTunes

24 November 2008

Regional Bahá’í Conference in Kolkata: 
The morning after

THE KOLKATA Regional Bahá’í Conference ended last night in what is possibly the largest, most zealous gathering of friends ever held in this part of the world. There were over 1,500 of them, exceeding the expected figure of 800, coming from Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the entire East India. If the figures were remarkable, the goals committed by the group were even more stunning.

This morning, the morning after, I can still feel the energy of these two historic days: raw, palpable, undeniable in its love for the Bahá’í Faith and its desire for meeting the goals of the current Five Year Plan. And the people, draped in such colorful tribal costumes of the northeastern heights and swaying to grand musical instruments of this grand musical corner of India. I never knew the Indian subcontinent could be this, THIS diverse, and I'm only talking about the eastern frontier!

This weekend, we came as guests of the Universal House of Justice, finding new friends and reaffirming old ties along the way. This weekend, we all stood up for Bahá’u’lláh.

Watch this space for photos from the event, once I get to process all 764 of them!

20 November 2008

Regional Bahá’í Conference in Bangalore: 
First in India, fifth in the world

The Bangalore Regional Conference

Bahá'ís in attendance
Image source: Bahai.org

THE FIRST of three Regional Bahá'í Conferences in India kicked off in Bangalore last weekend, with over 1,500 Bahá'ís from south India and Sri Lanka in attendance. The conference is the fifth of 41 conferences being held around the world from November 2008 to March 2009. This series of events is called by the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing institution of the Bahá'í Faith, to celebrate the achievements of the international Five Year Plan (2006-2011) for the growth and development of Bahá'í communities, and to deliberate on the next actions required for the plan.

New Delhi and Kolkata will host the other two conferences this weekend. Watch this space for stories on the Kolkata event.

You can view images from the Bangalore conference on Praveen's Picasa folders.

15 November 2008

Hazy days in Delhi

Smog in Delhi

From my apartment in Gurgaon

SMOG GREETED me in Delhi this week, and it's bad. At 10:30 AM, the new expressway from the Indira Gandhi International Airport to the satellite city of Gurgaon is barely visible. This afternoon, I was sneezing the entire hour that I was at the Dilli Haat crafts market in central New Delhi. And as I type this post in the airport, the PAs are blaring delayed schedules of flight departures due to poor ramp visibilities.

It’s no surprise that today’s Hindustan Times (HT) announces the dubious honor that New Delhi has just received as one of Asia’s 13 top polluting cities. HT refers to a just-released report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that while “atmospheric brown cloud” (a layer of burning fossil fuel mixed with noxious soot, fumes, and other air pollutants) is a global phenomenon, Asia’s levels are quite higher because of its highly diversified climate. In Delhi, the air pollution comes from the lack of an efficient public transport system that curbs the increase in the number road vehicles.

By the way, Mumbai and Kolkata also figure in the UNEP list. Manila doesn't. Read the report on the UNEP site.

Related Story: Pollution fears over Delhi smog

12 November 2008

Birth of Bahá’u’lláh

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, 'Akká, Israel. Source: Media.Bahai.org

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, 'Akká, Israel.
Image source: Media.Bahai.org

BAHA'IS WORLDWIDE celebrate today an important holy day: the birth of Bahá'u'lláh. The Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith was born Mirza Husayn Ali at dawn of 12 November 1817 into one of Persia's most noble families. He descended from the Divine Messenger Zoroaster, thus fulfilling the belief that the great Redeemer of Mankind would be a pure Persian.

“This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future”
—Bahá'u'lláh
Bahá'u'lláh, which means “the glory of God” in Arabic, became a follower of the Báb's and was jailed in underground prison after the Báb's martyrdom in 1844. During His incarceration, Bahá'u'lláh received a vision of God in the form of a maiden who revealed to Him His earthly mission as successor to the progressive cycle of Divine Educators, each of whom has founded a great religion. These Messengers include Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, the Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad.

This singular event has similarities to the descent of the Holy Ghost as a dove unto the Christ, the apparition of Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad at Mount Hira, and the the enlightenment of the Buddha under the bo tree at Bodh Gaya. For Bahá'ís, it marks the advent of the Bahá'í revelation with the message it brings of the oneness of religion and the oneness of mankind.

Bahá'u'lláh's earthly remains have been laid to rest in 'Akká, Israel in a room within the grounds of a old mansion called Bahjí. It is the holiest Bahá'í place on earth.

05 November 2008

America elects its leader

Flowers on the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb

Flowers on the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb
Photographer: Edit Kalman
Image source: Bahá'í Media Bank

HE IS a black man, born of a Muslim father from East Africa and raised by Christian grandparents in the South Pacific. And today he becomes the first black president of the world's most powerful country, up there in North America.

That this is now happening—unthinkable in the earlier years of my generation—is only inevitable in light of America's spiritual destiny. This belief is evident in many talks delivered by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Son of the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, while traveling in America and Canada in 1912. In May that year, He told a gathering of Bahá'ís in Cleveland:

"This is a beautiful city; the climate is pleasant; the views are charming. All the cities of America seem to be large and beautiful, and the people appear prosperous. The American continent gives signs and evidences of very great advancement; its future is even more promising, for its influence and illumination are far-reaching, and it will lead all nations spiritually. The flag of freedom and banner of liberty have been unfurled here, but the prosperity and advancement of a city, the happiness and greatness of a country depend upon its hearing and obeying the call of God. The light of reality must shine therein and divine civilization be founded; then the radiance of the Kingdom will be diffused and heavenly influences surround. Material civilization is likened to the body, whereas divine civilization is the spirit in that body. A body not manifesting the spirit is dead; a fruitless tree is worthless. Jesus declares that there is spiritual capacity in some people, for all are not submerged in the sea of materialism. They seek the Divine Spirit; they turn to God; they long for the Kingdom. It is my hope that these revered people present may attain both material and spiritual progress. As they have advanced wonderfully in material degrees, so may they, likewise, advance in spiritual development until the body shall become refined and beautiful through the wealth of spiritual potentiality and efficiency."

Source: "The Promulgation of Universal Peace", page 104

'Abdu'l-Bahá's saw in America "powers and capacities" so unique in this world. He praised the achievements that Americans had made toward creating racial equality, working for world peace, driving women empowerment, and developing its material civilization. His vision: ". . .it will lead all nations spiritually."

To become that spiritual leader, America must itself develop its spiritual capacities. Only then can it become the true leader of nations. Today's event exposes the possibility of racial and religious equality. It shows us another view of the road, possibly rocky but ultimately navigable, to that divine destiny.

31 October 2008

Explosive times

DIWALI, THE most important national festival in India, ended this week with murderous blasts in the northeastern state of Assam. The explosions follow a series of terrorist attacks that have rocked India since 2005. This year, they are particularly unabated and more precise and intense than ever. Even more appalling is that the recent attacks have occurred in places—Ahmadabad, Delhi, Malegaon, Surat, now Assam—where ethnic conflicts exist. The perpetrators are obviously inciting sectarian violence amongst the townsfolk, whose leaders have failed to extinguish enmities. Worst, the tragedies come at these troubled financial times, when the least privileged members of society are the first to bear the bitter brunt of political instability.

What troubled times indeed. I'm reminded of what Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, wrote in 1941 in his landmark book, "The Promised Day is Come". Here he analyzes what happens with the world's refusal to accept the message of Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá'í Faith. What he writes on page 16 is disturbing, as it seems to accurately describe the world that we NOW live in.

A world convulsed by the agonies of contending systems, races and nations, entangled in the mesh of its accumulated falsities, receding farther and farther from Him Who is the sole author of its destinies, and sinking deeper and deeper into a suicidal carnage which its neglect and persecution of Him Who is its Redeemer have precipitated . . .

A world spiritually destitute, morally bankrupt, politically disrupted, socially convulsed, economically paralyzed, writhing, bleeding and breaking up beneath the avenging rod of God . . .

We are indeed living in an age which, if we would correctly appraise it, should be regarded as one which is witnessing a dual phenomenon. The first signalizes the death pangs of an order, effete and godless, that has stubbornly refused, despite the signs and portents of a century-old Revelation, to attune its processes to the precepts and ideals which that Heaven-sent Faith proffered it. The second proclaims the birth pangs of an Order, divine and redemptive, that will inevitably supplant the former, and within Whose administrative structure an embryonic civilization, incomparable and world-embracing, is imperceptibly maturing. The one is being rolled up, and is crashing in oppression, bloodshed, and ruin. The other opens up vistas of a justice, a unity, a peace, a culture, such as no age has ever seen. The former has spent its force, demonstrated its falsity and barrenness, lost irretrievably its opportunity, and is hurrying to its doom. The latter, virile and unconquerable, is plucking asunder its chains, and is vindicating its title to be the one refuge within which a sore-tried humanity, purged from its dross, can attain its destiny.

26 October 2008

Let's dance!


"Unbelievable McCain Vs. Obama Dance-Off"
Link reference: Minimovie.com

AMIDST THE ongoing fear-flaying, smear-slugging political dramatics in the US presidential campaign, this very entertaining video comes as a fun break. Minimovie.com says: "There's only one place that the election should be decided ... the dance floor! America: IT'S ON."

Let's see Obama and McCain face the music and dance!

09 October 2008

Baited on debate

“Second 2008 US Presidential Debate”
Link reference: YouTube.com

AFTER WRITING him that I was watching the second US presidential debate in Bangkok, my colleague Giri joked that I was a “pretty expensive debate viewer” for having to watch it all the way from a hotel room in Thailand. Seriously, since the debate was airing loud and clear on early morning TV, I thought I should go ahead and watch the event, as I've never observed any US presidential debate before. And that, too, at this troubling financial times in America. After all, if the U.S. of A. sneezes, sooner or later the rest of the world will get the chills. European banks and Asian markets have already reacted, plunging with all-time lows even after the Fed's theatrically bitterly-fought $700 billion bailout to the financial industry.

How will the future leader of the world's sole superpower handle the contagious flu?

24 August 2008

Travel to Gurgaon:
Pell-mell malls


“Gurgaon Shopping Centers”
Link reference: YouTube.com

SHOPPING CENTERS in most modern cities turn commercial districts into well-balanced hubs of urban community life. But not in Gurgaon, up north in the National Capital Region of India. While this bustling city is witnessing an unprecedented explosion of malls, there also seems to exist a never-ending competition for The Most Chaotic Shopping Space Award.

“In Gurgaon, window displays on a brand-infested building resemble acne on a makeup-drenched face.”Thirty months ago, when I first visited Gurgaon, massive construction began on shopping centers, office buildings, residential facilities, flyovers, and the extended Delhi Metro transit system. I remembered Manila's Ortigas Center in 1991-92, when the three lords of Philippine retail—Robinsons, Rustan's, and SM—simultaneously built what were then their largest retail spaces amidst burgeoning skyscrapers and flyovers. In today's Gurgaon, I've lost count of the number and location of malls dotting the cityscape. They multiply endlessly, grandiosely, confusingly. Car parks exist only as a footnote in property development, morphing public sidewalks and side streets into traffic-jammed parking lots. Mounds of dusty construction debris remain at the property perimeter, creating no-entry fences between adjacent malls and encouraging competitive neurosis. Giant posters on the façade overwhelm the names of the shopping centers, turning the buildings into nameless billboard Rubik’s Cubes. Let's not even talk of window displays: visual merchandisers in this city seem to have given up on designing truly compelling displays, perhaps knowing that they'll be lost anyway in the distorted cacophony of posters. In Gurgaon, window displays on a brand-infested building resemble acne on a makeup-drenched face. They profit no one.

In 2010, Delhi Metro will finally open right smack in the middle of Gurgaon's shopping complexes. Expect urban chaos to reign over pedestrians and motorists fighting for footfall and parking space supremacy. Today is the right time to form the right habits. My suggestions:

1. The city government must now look into legalizing the use of parking areas, traffic discipline in the side streets, and strategic drop-off points along the main MG Road for the commuting public.

2. Developers must seriously consider investing in car park buildings.

3. They must shun the paranoia of creating pedestrian barriers between malls, and collaborate instead with each other on creating skyways that will seamlessly bridge every mall and every Delhi Metro station to create one true, massive commercial complex.

4. Mall operators must standardize the advertising space that they sell on their buildings to ensure retail branding integrity and visual appeal.

5. Window display artists must train under me for a stratospheric fee. Just kidding. Seriously, mall operators must look at show windows more as highly differentiated investment facilities than as tediously designed showcases for the words “SALE” and “50% DISCOUNT”.

Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Manila have been effectively using such tools to manage traffic and convenience around their sprawling shopping centers. Look how modern, environment-friendly, and consumer-centrist their cityscapes are.

After all, if shopping centers are in Gurgaon to stay, they might as well be mollifying rather than be pell-mell. And if they are to remain competitive and profitable, then replace The Most Chaotic Shopping Space Award with The Shopping Space Model of India Award.

Related Stories: Gurgaon Shopping Malls; Gurgaon (".com" i.e.); Manila Calling

03 August 2008

Sighted sight: 
Lace House, Kolkata

WHY ARE there no shirt buttons in Kolkata?

Buttons galoreActually, there are—but only if you look and ask hard enough. I spent three weeks moving around Kolkata and visiting tailoring shops, dress boutiques, and the labyrinths of the sprawling Chandney Chowk bazaar. None of them carried shirt buttons. Yesterday, one of the tailors I met directed me to New Market on Lindsay Street, where I finally found buttons at the basement of the facility's new wing.

The shop is called Lace House. It does have lots of ribbons and lace on display, but it's far from looking like a house. Located across the main staircase, the shop contains one long glass cabinet and drawers on the wall that stock up on such tailoring essentials as threads, needles . . . and buttons. There's enough buttons here to make one happy, particularly if one spent three frustrating weeks searching for the right stuff.

The shopkeeper and his assistant, possibly in their early sixties, were affable. They didn't seem to mind having to open all those drawers and lay out boxes and boxes of buttons, as I labored over inspecting and getting the closest match to my shirts. It took quite time, and I ended up with the buttons I need, albeit not in the right colors that I wanted. I marveled at their patience.

And why, you ask, was I looking for these fasteners? Six of my favorite colorful shirts lost some of their equally colorful buttons. Since no tailor or dressmaker was willing or able to do the repairs for me (not even Raymond's, the boutique known all over India for its sartorial expertise), I was ready to sew them myself. I just needed the stuff. So not only could I not find shirt buttons, I could not even get someone to sew them for me. And don't even ask about matching the colors.

It's been almost a year since I moved to Kolkata, and I'm still surprised to discover what amenities the city lacks and what pleasures it can offer. For all commonplace intents, Lace House is a pleasurable discovery.

Lace House
North Basement, 102 New Market
Lindsay Street
Kolkata 700 087, India
Telephone +91 98304 58609

New Market

New Market. Lace House is at the basement of the new wing (pictured at the farthest left of the image above)

On your mark, get set . . .

Tagline of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Beautiful Beijing screensaver

Image source: Official Web site of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

IN FIVE days, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad will begin in Beijing, China. This time around, more than 10,000 athletes from 200-plus countries will participate in 302 events in 28 sports. I'm still not sure if Iraq is finally joining the lineup. I've not been able to keep track of the usual controversies around the Olympiad, since there's a bit too much of them this year, mainly in protest of China's poor human rights records. On that note, censoring Internet access for journalists does not help assuage the issues at all.

Nevertheless, watching the games, especially the opening ceremony, is reason enough to believe in the power of human achievement and of unity in diversity. This year, over a hundred indigenous dancers from Taiwan will perform on Chinese land—perhaps the first time that this much of them would do so. Catch them, along with Celine Dion, Jay Chou, and others, at the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games on 8 August, 8:08:08 p.m. China Standard Time (UTC+8). (Don't even think of peeking at those previews secretly filmed and posted on YouTube.)

And while waiting for the games to roll, why don't you check this free official screensaver from the International Olympic Committee? It offers several images showcasing Pekingese culture and includes an RSS feed of Olympic news. Funky way to get your officemates gawk at the beautiful infant pictured above, and to stay on track of the events in Beijing.

Related Story: Athens 2004: Opening Ceremony

OD'ing on OED

THIS WEEK, Mr. Nicholson Baker of the New York Times reviewed “Reading the OED,” Amon Shea's account of his one-year attempt to read all 20 volumes and 59 million consecutive words of the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr. Baker gives Mr. Shea the full thumbs-up for this feat. Oh, the things writers do for their craft.

In his review, Mr. Baker uses words that Mr. Shea discovered in OED. Because I'm generous and deeply concerned with the decline of civilized conversations in this SMS-infused generation, I must share some of these words with you.

1. The acnestis is the part of an animal’s back which is unreachable for the animal to scratch. Proper usage: “I scratch your acnestis, you scratch mine.”

2. To bespawl is to splatter with saliva. In the Philippines, we call this social phenomenon “talsik-laway,” which is one of those Tagalog words that are ever so hard to translate to English . . . until now.

3. To have deipnophobia is to fear dinner parties. Fantastic alibi for staying home and staying sane.

4. A hypergelast is a person who won’t stop laughing. Now you know what to call that cousin of yours everytime she sees you with a new hairstyle.

5. To lant is to add urine to ale to boost its taste. Are you now bespawling after realizing that you tried the exotic-sounding “lanted beer” at the bar last Friday? Ha!

6. A kankedort refers to an awkward situation. Generally occurs when your boss' wife (whom you barely know and meet for the first time) asks you about the problems of Turkey and Grease, and your reply reflects your ability to cook greaseless turkey. Having said that, I can write a thick book on all the kankedorts I've experienced. In fact, I just realized how kankedorty I actually am.

7. Obmutescence is speechlessness done willfully. Proper usage: “It's best to be obmutescent when standing or seated next to the new company president.”

8. Petrichor is that familiar loamy smell rising from the ground after a rain. What you smell after Kolkata's rains is not petrichor: it's a rickshaw driver soaked in the floods.

9. To ploiter is to work with little purpose. Proper usage: “I am ploitering because next month, my filthy rich wife will die mysteriously I shall retire.”

10. And finally, something repertitious is something found by accident. Like these words I found in the Net.

There. With these words, I hope I've helped you become less obmutescent in deipnophobic kankedorts. I'll grab and absorb the book, and I'll share its vocabulary with you.

By book I mean Mr. Shea's opus. Not the OED, you bespawling fool.

Related Story: From A to Zyxt

Now Playing: Noa, “Mishaela”

13 July 2008

iPhone calls

FINALLY, THE most manic-driven phone of the year is out. Apple's iPhone3G debuted last Friday in Apple and AT&T stores around the world (except India and the Philippines), where overnight queues have been reported. Chances are, the shiny black gizmo is sold out.

Don't expect me to queue up when iPhone3G lands in India later this year, although I may get a launch preview from being a customer of Bharti Airtel (one of iPhone's two service providers in India). As a long-time Ericssonite—my first cell phone was the chunky NH237 back in 1996—I'm not sure I can shift my loyalties easily. Moreover, despite Apple's claim that iPhone works better with work programs, I'm perfectly happy with BlackBerry's Microsoft Exchange integration through my P1i, Sony Ericsson's most powerful smartphone yet. In fact, I plan to upgrade the phone to Xperia X1, when Sony Ericsson launches it in India around the time that iPhone rings in.

Xperia will run on 3.5G cellular network, bringing the Internet faster than iPhone3G can. In fact, speed can be an iPhone downside: the 3G speed happens only if you're in one of AT&T’s 3G network areas—and there's a few of them around the world.

Let's see how iPhone3G roars in India, a steadily advancing market for mobile phone technology.

11 July 2008

Turning 43

If 45 is the middle age, then 43 is the dark age  TURNING A year older and being quiet about it is impossible within our high school batch, thanks to the very modern, very interactive, and very proactive Yahoo!Group Web site linking most of us around the globe. Expect a bang of birthday announcements immediately after someone posts a thoughtful "Happy Birthday Joey" message. Last month was monumental: the enterprising Leah Morris-dela Rosa collated the names of all June celebrants (“celebrators” in our batch lingo), and Richelle Joson-Ligot, the resident muse of poetry, song, and dance, decoded each one's name into witty birthday greetings (“Sana o-Kaye na o-Kaye Inductivo ang bertdey mo!&rdquo). Noise ensued.

In Yahoo!Groups, it doesn't really matter if the whole world makes noise about our age. Hey, we survived the age-defying adolescent years together, so what's the big bazooka about aging publicly? We all know how old we are. Besides, greeting each other is a big-heart gesture. Arim Fermin wrote, “the fact that people actually greet each other during birthdays over the e-group(s) . . . proves that the batch is a solid, friendly, and caring organization, with lots of good organisms.”

Personally, I don't mind noisy birthday celebrations. Dinner parties, SMS greetings, and singing Tagalog birthday songs in Ybanag delight me. And I don’t care if Anchie Casareo calls me “kuya” for being born a few months ahead of him. He looks younger, anyway. (He must still be using Eskinol Master for Men. I want to maim him right now.)

What gets my goat this year is that I'm much closer to being middle-aged than I've ever been before. According to Richie Rosales-Parr, middle age begins at 45—and that's two years away. I'm not sure if I'm ready to be called middle-aged, especially after living all these years of riotous singlehood. I wrote Chiqui Tolentino-Desphy this week:

Oh my, are we now middle-aged? Pero sige na nga, I'll accept the fact that I'm about to gray, my knees will shake and my lungs will scream when I climb the fourth floor of my flat building, my teeth will fall, and my buttocks will sag.

I'm not being vain. I'm moaning about health issues that come with aging, and I'm not sure I'm ready to cope with losing the agility of mind and body. I happened to be in bed surrounded by bosomy women the day I hit 43. A hospital bed, that is, trying to battle gastroenteritis with a squad of big (bosomy) Bengali nurses injecting my about-to-sag buttocks with antibiotics. Antibiotics on my birthday. What irony.

And take this: last Monday, the New York Times reported that a new research conducted by French scientists revealed that men in their forties may face serious fertility problems. It suggested that couples trying to conceive a baby when a man is over 40 years old have more difficulties than those families in which a man is younger. So much for the joys of bachelorhood. Down, boy.

Uh-uh, Four-Three, that witless figure, a number with no claim to fame beyond its resemblance to the Philippine president's height. It's a nuisance, an annoying figure that sounds like the equally annoying Punjabi money-lending scheme in the Philippines called Five-Six. And if 45 is the middle age, then 43 is the dark age.

Hmm. Say that again: I'm in the Dark Ages! ¡Qué horror! ¡Madre mia curdapia! ¡Dónde está cleofe cabel!

On that note, I look forward to the Middle Ages.

Related Stories: Turning 41 | Turning 42

09 July 2008

Pluto turns 2

Pluto at 2

Lounging around

PLUTO IS now two years old. In human years, my Persian cat is 24, making him a full-fledged adult. I took the picture above while he was indulging this morning in his two all-time favorite hobbies: lounging around and essentially doing nothing else. From a cat's point of view, once a child, always a child. Make that, once a kitten, always a kitten.

Speaking of adult cats, did you know that the jaguar is said to be the longest-lived cat on earth? And did you know that the Jaguar is now owned by India's Tata Motors?

Catty trivia for you on Pluto's birthday.

Related Sites: Pluto Comes Home, Pluto Turns 1

29 June 2008

Maren and Markus on their 25th year together

MY SISTER Maren and her husband Markus are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years of being happily married is a rich achievement, and it gives me pride and joy as a sibling.

To Maren and Markus, I wish both of you all the silver radiance in your unified hearts as you move your lives together into the next 25 years!

Focal point:
Gyles Brandreth,
“Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death”

“OSCAR WILDE and the Ring of Death” (John Murray Publishers, 2008) is the second book in Gyles Brandreth's series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as detective. It is one of the most entertaining books I have read this year, fueled by Mr Brandreth's impressive understanding of the Wilde witticism and the affairs of the turn of the century. It is almost like Mr Brandreth having romped through London at that time with Oscar Wilde himself, and then living to tell the tale.

In the book, Mr Wilde is the toast of London's high society. His “Lady Windermere's Fan” is a critical and box-office success, and his popularity is unmatched amongst the cognoscenti. One evening, at an exclusive “Sunday Supper Club” dinner with such friends as Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Robert Sherard (who also narrates the story), Wilde introduces a parlor game involving a list of people that his guests would secretly like to kill. From the next day onward, each person on the “hit list” dies mysteriously, in the very order with which his or her name showed up during the dinner. Wilde, Conan Doyle, and Sherard begin to investigate independently, especially after failing to enlist the help of Scotland Yard . . . and especially since Wilde's name itself appears on the “hit list!” Their ensuing adventures are as jolly as they are thrilling.

Mr Brandreth's characters stay with you throughout the reading of the book. I like the way that he imbues beauty in every character, even those who Oscar Wilde considers “ugly” (“He is grotesque. Speak to him, Robert. I cannot”) and who Robert Sherard abhors (“He was too charming, too intelligent, too well- and widely-read”). The sensual characters coexist with the virtuous, and they all stand out.

But it is in his profound knowledge of Oscar Wilde that Mr Brandreth shines. I am not sure of any other novelist who can match his ability to drop this much Wildesque one-liners (“It is sweet to think that one day I will serve to grow tulips”) and add-on information (“It's called parsley.” “Correctly known as ‘petroselinum’”). Mix that with terrific wit and story-telling shrewdness, and you have a fun writer and a sensational book.

I do not think that “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Fire” is necessarily part of a series that you read in order. I picked up the book from Kolkata's Starmark Bookstore with no prior knowledge of Mr Brandreth and his murder series, and I did not notice the need to read the prequel. However, I shall move on to the other books. Oscar Wilde and Gyles Brandreth are certainly worth the time.

See more about “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death”.

Sighted site:
Q10

Q10 Screenshot

Screenshot of Q10 at work on my laptop

LAST NIGHT, while surfing DailyWritingTips, I came across a new word processor called Q10. It's a freeware with a lovely minimalist layout—only the full, dark screen and the letters, the colors and font of which you can change. I kept mine at Courier to replicate an old-fashioned typewriter and changed the color to light blue (blue refreshes me). Best of all, it has the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter!

I'm now using the writing tool and getting very amused with it. As I write, I'm least bothered about other programs running in my laptop, thanks to the full-screen layout. This makes me much more focused on writing. I might even get to write more posts!

The only downside is that Q10 works only on Windows. I'm not sure if the developers are planning to roll out a version for Linux and Mac. Sorry, Macsters. (You can try WriteRoom instead.)

Try Q10 and let me know what you think. You can download the software here.

Sighted site:
Urbano, Kolkata

DEBUTING AT South City Mall in southern Kolkata is Urbano, an exciting new furniture and accessories destination. I'm impressed with their mix-and-match palette of furniture sets, soft furnishings, adornments, and lighting mostly from Spain, Turkey, and Southeast Asia. It's easily one of the most chic collections that I've seen in Kolkata.

Covering 12,000 square feet of space next to Spencer's Hyper, Urbano has the look and feel of the Met Museum Store. The ceiling is stripped of any finish, painted instead in black to lower the airspace and allow the metal halide and warm white lighting to permeate the entire store.

The adornment section covers the left half of the store and features stark-colored glazed ceramic ware, silk florals, shiny polyester shag rugs, over-sized glass jars, and gilded Orientalia on black and white gondolas. Using techniques of repetition and color grouping, the adornments display is well presented. Because I'm poor at shutting my mouth when it comes to anything pertinent to visual merchandising, I advised one of the owners to remove the massive vase display at the windows to allow an unperturbed view of the adornment section from the mall. He agreed. I gloated.

The right, and larger, half of the store features the furniture collections, tightly grouped to allow an easy navigation around the store. However, Urbano sticks to strongly defined lifestyle themes around every collection. One of the garden sets, for example, is hemmed in by a wooden fence and soft-pile grass-green carpet. In one of the most luscious living room sets in the store, a violin rests on a very low massive wooden table. (It works: I overheard one of the shoppers inquiring if the instrument is being sold.) The loose essential pieces are displayed on airspace shelves with tag lines as backdrop—a technique used extensively by Ikea and the Met Store, but working effectively in Urbano.

I'm most excited about the few lighting pieces. Halogen-lit chandeliers with silver and crystal beads drop from ceiling to floor like spiral waterfalls of iridescent, shimmering balls. An unusual piece is a plain-looking table lamp that seems to have melted, with its diagonal half cut away to rest on the table. The effect is delightful.

The price points are surprisingly competitive to other high-end furniture stores in the city. For example, a five-foot veneered bedroom cabinet with four shelves is worth less than Indian Rupees 5,000 (USD 120), and a full double-door veneered bookshelf is within the range of Indian Rupees 12,000 (USD 285). Not bad, considering the abundance of Malaysian furniture in Kolkata with the same price range.

Visit the store and indulge in a new home living experience in Kolkata.

Urbano
Lower Ground Floor, South City Mall
375 Prince Anwar Shah Road
Kolkata 700 068, India
Telephone +91 33 2422 8760
E-mail sales@urbano.in

Related site: Urbano

28 June 2008

Sighted site:
Artisana, Kolkata

TUCKED AWAY in one of southern Kolkata's inner lanes is a pleasant surprise: Artisana, a 1,000-square-foot showroom stocking some of the most exquisite Bengali crafts I've ever seen. Located on the first floor of a nondescript building off Gokhale Road, there is nothing fancy about its architecture, but never mind: the items on display far outweigh the store design. Vibrantly colored jute bags and table mats hang on rods next to equally colorful terracotta sculptures and leather coin boxes. Fabrics abound, from hand-embroidered kantha (patched cloth) sarees and bedsheets to silk stoles and linen scarves. Delicately drawn fabric scroll paintings, rolled up in a huge bowl, look like diplomas ready to be acquired. In one room, silver filigree jewelry and dokra (cast metal) wares sit side by side. I wonder how they manage to polish the metals: they all gleam!

And then there are masks. There's quite a variety displayed on the walls, mostly wooden and papier-mâché effigies of divinities used by the Chhou dancers of Purulia, West Bengal. In fact, most of the masks on sale have been used in actual festival performances, making their utilitarian value more attractive. The four-foot golden mask of the goddess Durga, displayed on a corner of the showroom, is the largest Chhou mask I've ever seen. I wanted to buy the scarlet papier-mâché mask of the fiery goddess Kali with a crown made of shola (an herbacious plant endemic to West Bengal), but it seemed too fragile to possibly stand my future sojourns.

Artisana is managed by the Crafts Council of West Bengal, a non-profit organization promoting the revival and preservation of the arts and crafts of eastern India. The showroom opened in July 2003 and is run by friendly, knowledgeable volunteers. On my visit, two senior female staffers beguiled me with their graceful Bengali manners and eloquence. They invited me to attend the upcoming Orissa Festival in their store on 4-10 July, even showing me a draft of the marketing poster. Charmed, I must attend that festival.

Artisana
13 Chowringhee Terrace, 1st Floor (off Gokhale Road)
Kolkata 700 020, India
Telephone +91 33 2223 9422
E-mail artisana_cct@yahoo.co.in

Related site: Crafts Council of West Bengal

The Bahá'í election process

THIS WEEK, “Interfaith Voices”, an Internet radio program, featured the Bahá'í election process on the basis of the recent 100th Bahá’í National Convention in Wilmette, Illinois. The program describes the feature story as: “Want to Improve Elections? Watch the Baha'is—If it seems like there ought to be a more civil way to run democratic elections, members of the Baha’i Faith say, that’s because there is. The Baha’i election process involves no campaigning, no baby-kissing, and most surprising of all—no money. This year Baha'is held their 100th National Convention in suburban Chicago, and Jennifer Brandel was there to watch the action.”

Listen to the program on Chicago Public Radio.

Related Sites: Interfaith Radio, Chicago Public Radio

23 June 2008

Why are there no umbrellas in Kolkata?

I SPENT the whole evening looking for an umbrella in the city, and I went home finding none.

I can't believe that stores in Kolkata, let alone the more cosmopolitan southern part of the city, do not stock on umbrellas. I first went to the veritable grande dame of department stores, Shoppers Stop, but they have no parasol to sell. I then visited a row of sports houses, and there are no umbrellas. I tried Samsonite: none (which makes sense: if you travel in planes, why need an umbrella?). Then the trendy casual brands around Theatre Road and Elgin Road: apparently, umbrellas are not that trendy. Then finally to Sumangal The Man's Store—yes, Virginia, they do call them these way—where the store manager met me with a quizzical stare. Perhaps it's not man enough to carry an umbrella in Kolkata, ya?

Not that I badly need one, as I still have the blue five-foot manual umbrella from my days in Mumbai. But in Kolkata, you don't need a five-foot umbrella. You need a more compact one, possibly a folding one, to avoid it from getting squished by the massive humanity of the streets. Or avoid it from squishing the massive humanity of the streets.

For a city that literally disappears under the four-month torrent of monsoon rains, not finding an umbrella is almost a crime. Don't the Kolkatans leave the house during the rains? If they do leave the house, how do they manage not getting wet? Or do they actually enjoy getting drenched? At the Tommy Hilfiger store, I asked the sales associate, "Where do you buy your umbrella?”

“I don't have one.”

“How do you leave the house during monsoon?”

“I get one from home.”

“Where did that umbrella come from?”

“From home.”

Not wanting to return to the hospital for hypertension, I decided to give up the search for the elusive umbrella. Perhaps the older bazaars downtown have some fuddy-duddy made-in-China stuff: let me check them this weekend.

That is, if it doesn't rain this weekend!

Welcome back to work

REPORTING FOR work today, I realized I actually missed the office. It's been three weeks since I was away from it—one week traveling around India, the second week crashing in the hospital, the third week recuperating with petrifying boredom at home—and the desk just beckoned. Officemates used my cabin as a meeting room while I was gone, which is perfectly fine considering how ill designed the new office is (there is only one meeting room for the whole floor). But I wouldn't have thought they used it at all: everything's in the right place.

The one thing I love about Indians is their thoughtfulness. While I was in the hospital, each of my officemates managed to reach out: a visit, a phone call, an SMS. Even two senior vice presidents found the time to either call me or send an SMS with his best wishes. It was a blast this morning to be greeted effusively in the office. Another vice president even shared a valuable tip: “Drink only from bottled water from now on, and avoid cut vegetables.”

As a Filipino living without fellow Filipinos in Kolkata, this warm welcome-back from my Indian colleagues makes the trip back to the office so much like going home.

13 June 2008

The doctor made me do it

I WAS admitted to Kolkata's Woodlands General Hospital last Tuesday after a three-day battle against flu-like symptoms: headaches, high fever, chills, loose motions, regurgitation, no appetite, no sleep, dreadful sense of weakness, and hair-pulling (me on mine). The doctor finally decided to get me admitted before I lost all body fluids and hair. Diagnosis: gastroenteritis and respiratory tract infection.

It's my first time to be ever confined, so I wasn't sure if I was prepared for the horror stories of medical tests which I received from my sisters after I broke the news. So far, they haven't been that bad, although the intravenous drips are indeed annoying. And oh, there's that truly disturbing injection which left my skin feeling like the state of the world during the fall of the Roman Empire: red and burning.

(That injection turned out to be some antibiotic that I was allergic to. Bleh.)

This morning, I was taken out of the intravenous drips, but will remain in Woodlands for at least three more days. And I'm able to eat more fully now. The fish tonight, in fact, was quite tasty. Except that it looked like beef slices . . .

06 June 2008

Three stores in four weeks


Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Kandivali, Mumbai, India

IN THE past four weeks, we did the unthinkable: open three big stores simultaneously. Not that I've never done this before (in Manila, I once opened 60 Christmas window displays in four stores in two weeks!), but three big stores with very big VM plans opening within days of each other with a very small VM team is, well, unthinkable.


Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Gurgaon, Haryana, India

Fortunately, that small VM team is the finest in India. They are the ten men and women chosen from close to 300 candidates in the past ten months, and their productivity has proven me so right in selecting them. For the three maddening stores, I gathered all ten of them together in groups and sent them across the land with a detailed battle plan. I stepped out of their way, allowing them to bond with each other, learn from each other, backbite me, and generally mangle my original VM plans for the stores. I stepped into their bliss only to audit their completed work and generally remind them that, hello, I’m still alive and still very much their boss. I didn’t really have to go that far, since I was too dazzled with their brilliant execution to even think of being bossy.

And that is how we did the unthinkable.


Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

04 June 2008

Loudmouth

SEATED LAST night at the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in New Delhi, I completed a five-hour interview marathon with short-listed candidates for my north India team. What a delight to see how four young men, born in the same generation in the same region, shared different and rather pointed perspectives to my same set of questions! What remained constant was a dutiful devotion to family: one could not relocate to another city since his wife works in New Delhi, while another was taking care of his parents.

I'm always fascinated with the way creative youth speak their minds out, and India is one of the best places to enjoy this. Loud and articulate, with pointed affectations and lilting accents, young Indian men and women always need to get their voices heard. (Read my earlier post about their loudness.) Their convictions sometimes border on being opinionated, uninitiated (it still surprises me to find gender biases) and trivial (there is always something wrong with something—or someone). Call it hollow. I call it fun!

Last night's candidates showed up on time for their respective sessions. Impressed, I was ready to mark such timeliness as a regional trait . . . until the fifth guy failed to show up. Not wanting to spoil the interview momentum, I waited at the lobby. I left after an hour, seething: he never showed up and never even bothered to call with his regrets. The headhunter heard the fiercest blast of rebuke from me later on. Talk about speaking out and getting heard.

23 May 2008

Together again

Ancheta Siblings

The Mijares-Ancheta siblings
Image source: Paul Ancheta

THREE WEEKS ago, my ten siblings and I gathered altogether in Manila for the very first time as a full group since 1982. We've been wanting to do this home reunion through so many family events (weddings, anniversaries, Papa and Mama's passing), but there was always a valid reason for one of us living overseas to miss such event. Last February, my brother Allan confirmed that he and his family were migrating to Canada in May. A flurry of e-mails and Skype conversations followed, and we all decided to come home in May . . . by hook or by crook.

And so we did. Between 28 April to 2 May, we did things together: catch up, cook meals, dine out, pray, shop, pose for posterity pictures at home, picnic at the tranquil resting place of Papa and Mama. We even visited the street in Quezon City where we grew up in the seventies, surprised at its eerie narrowness and saddened by its depressing crowdedness.

Those five days remain amongst the most memorable of our days. Now that we lead separate lives in the Philippines and overseas, we'll never know if and when this full reunion can happen again.

20 April 2008

A new office

SPRING PROVIDES the most beguiling colors and textures to my workplace. In Haifa, the Mount Carmel Terraces always transformed into floral staircases to the clear blue skies. In Mumbai, large jacaranda trees in purple majesty lined the park behind Eureka Towers. In Manila, a flame tree stood in full bloom outside the Triumph building, its scarlet blossoms matching the intensity of the red Triumph logo on the building. And now in Kolkata, the colors are so . . . black.

See, the office has moved to a heritage building just across Duncan House in the venerable but chaotic Dalhousie Square in central Kolkata. It's called Gillander House, and, like the rest of the colonial buildings in the area, it must have had the air of a prima donna during its prime. It's also possible that this is one of very few places in Dalhousie where human traffic doesn't collide with vehicular traffic.

I explained its existence to the rest of my colleagues who stayed behind in Duncan House with an e-mail on my first day in Gillander (31 March):

The building is filled with romantic character! The exteriors are beautifully dilapidating and chipping off, a lovely cobblestone pathway outside seems to have been gracefully taken off a 19th-century cemetery, and a scintillatingly curving interior staircase (dark, of course, to give it a romantic look and feel) next to a museum-relic, non-moving elevator reminds me of the charming interiors of a sophisticated movie (Alfred Hitchcock's “Vertigo”, maybe). I plan to wear Harry Potter-ish attires starting tomorrow to complete the transition.

Oh well, I might as well wear all my red, purple, and aquamarine shirts to the office. They look good against the black architectural background!

Manila calling

MetroNow headline on 14 April 2008

MetroNow headline, 14 April 2008

UNTIL THE other day, Manila seldom landed in Indian conversations about Southeast Asian cities. Most of my local friends are not even aware of the city’s close proximity to Bangkok, KL, or Singapore, three favorite Indian travel destinations. (For the record, Manila is a 3.5-hour flight from Bangkok.)

Now, however, that the Delhi newspaper MetroNow has headlined Manila on its front page, the Philippine capital city is famous . . . for call center reasons. On its 14 April 20, 2008 issue, MetroNow reported: “Filipinos take the shine out of NCR as BPO giants shift business to cheaper Southeast Asian cities.”

India’s low manpower cost has made it the world’s top business process outsourcing (BPO) destination, with targets of US$50 billion revenues by 2013 from the current US$11 billion. However, as MetroNow reported, the Philippines has an edge in telecom, infrastructure, safety and security, cross-cultural relations, the support of the government in developing the call center industry, and—most importantly to me as an often-frustrated call center customer— proficiency in English.

I’m glad that MetroNow has picked this up. It’s time Indian call centers learn how to communicate with the most understandable words in the least number of syllables in the shortest possible duration!

Manila vs Gurgaon : the heat is on
by Joel Joseph and Manish Adhikary

  • EXL expands global footprint, commences operations from Philippines Centre, April 8, 2008
  • WNS to drive BPO Services in Philippines, April 4, 2008
  • Accenture launches BPO operations in Philippines, February 4, 2008

If you’re wondering what point we are trying to drive home, let’s kill the suspense. The lines you read above are a few news headlines signaling the rise of Philippines in the outsourcing world. Manila and Cebu in Philippines are beginning to take the shine off cities like Gurgaon and Noida in India. And the livelihood of not only industry staffers but millions of Indian graduates eagerly waiting to join BPOs after college exams in June is at stake.

So, what does Manila have that Gurgaon and Noida don’t? “Lots of things—from work culture to safety and security,” says the CEO of a Gurgaon-based BPO giant.

Sanjay Mehta, managing director of Gurgaon-based Teleperformance BPO also chips in: “An Indian BPO has to deal with four things—transportation, catering (food), security and power generation—before it can sit down and get on with the real business. What’s more, BPO jobs in Manila don’t come with frills attached. The work environment, unlike in India, is similar to that of any other industry. You don’t have to spend a fortune in placating your staff and giving them additional privileges like we do in India.”

Manila also scores higher than India in infrastructure. “The city has better infrastructure with rail networks like the Metrostar Express. The companies there don’t need to waste their resources on safety and security,” says Mehta. Agrees BPO guru and Quatrro CMD Raman Roy, “From airport to roads, from water supply to education, Philippines is far ahead of India. And with the tax advantage they have thanks to their government, more companies are setting up shops there to reap higher profits,” says Raman.

Another interesting and significant area of difference is culture. The HR head of Convergys who takes care of recruitments in Manila as well as Gurgaon, Tim Huiting, narrates a story to explain the difference between Indian and Philippine agents.

“After every presentation, I show the new-hires a picture of a helmet of a popular American football team. No one in India has been able to identify it yet. But when I put the photo in front of Philippine agents, almost all of them shout—Green Bay Packers—the correct answer,” says Tim. “Philippines is more attuned to the Western style of living. They have a better understanding of the customers they talk to over the phone,” says Tim.

Another striking fact was revealed by Mehta. He said, “In Manila, you don’t generally get pickups or drops. You sleep in the office dormitory after your shift ends. Companies don’t spend too much on food and similar such facilities that are a given here.”

Speaking about the Philippines government’s role in helping the industry take off, Nasscom vice chairman and Genpact president Pramod Bhasin says, “The Filipinos are pretty excited about outsourcing. Their government has only recently sanctioned over USD100 crore (USD1 billion) for educating people to help them get a BPO job.” This is in contrast to the Indian government’s kill-the-golden-goose mission, say industry experts.

In an exclusive chat with MetroNow after joining EMRI as member of the governing board, former Nasscom president Kiran Karnik had said that the government had failed to acknowledge the headroom for growth our industry has. “The silence on extension of STPI scheme is very disappointing,” he had said.

Another important element is command over English. The English that Philippinos (sic) speak is superior to ours, which means you have to spend less to train them. BPOs in Manila don’t need to offer the traditional benefits we get working in a Gurgaon BPO like lunch, breakfast, or dinner.

So, the BPO industry in India—already under a lot of stress, what with the slowdown in the US, the depreciating dollar, talent crunch and an insensitive government—now finds itself in a tricky situation.

“It’s more serous than a tricky situation,” says another CEO, who did not wish to be named. “EXL, a big Indian BPO success story, is not eating the proverbial pie in the sky when it opens shop in Philippines. There are concrete reasons behind the move,” he says.

The trouble is many in the US believe that South East Asia is the place to be. And if the industry concerns are not addressed soon, our BLP dream can very easily turn into a nightmare.

16 April 2008

Spencer's Hyper ventilates in Baroda


Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Gujarat, India
Designed by Paul Ancheta, Vinodini Iyer, & other members of the VM team
Image source: Paul Ancheta

ONE MONTH ago today, Spencer's Hyper opened its portals to the Gujarati public in Vadodara (Baroda). It was a smashing opening, literally: by evening, over 1,000 Gujaratis outside the store were pushing and shoving each other to join 5,000 others already inside the store. On the roads, possibly as much cars jammed the traffic. Similar scenarios occurred through the next several days. To say the least, the store opening was a success.

Two levels, a larger fresh food area, a 30-foot-high atrium, a 30-foot-long show window, and a ramp way leading to the upper level fill the 55,000 square feet of trading area. Faced with a bigger display area, I adapted the look and feel of our earlier store (South City hypermarket in Kolkata) with even more baskets, barrels, crates, and ethnic terracotta vases decorating topmost gondola shelves. This VM approach matches the mindset and habits of the local Gujarati consumers, making Baroda look much more ethnic and food-focused than Kolkata.

Spencer's Hyper Vadodara is now the hottest store in the organization. Colleagues from all over India have been flying into this quaint city, inspecting the store to benchmark their own store openings. I was telling Vinodini (regional VM manager for Gujarat), that, for all the gracious welcomes that she has been giving the visitors, I should now change her title to “VM Guide”!

29 February 2008

Festival of Ayyám-i-Há

BAHÁ'ÍS ARE now celebrating the Festival of Ayyám-i-Há (“Days of Há”). These are the days between 26 February and 1 March that lead to the holy 21-day period of fasting. It is the time of the year when Bahá'ís celebrate God and His oneness with the joyfulness of gif-giving, merriment, fellowship, and hospitality. In spirit, the festival is not too different from Christmas.

Joyous Ayyám-i-Há to everyone!

28 February 2008

By the book

SO MUCH has already been written on two compelling facts about this year's Oscar awards: most nominations being dark-themed and acting awards going to non-Americans. But not much has been told about the fact that several nominations belong to adaptations of fiction books. There's “Oil” by Upton Sinclair (retitled “There Will be Blood”), “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, and “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy. Toss in Khaled Hosseini's “The Kite Runner” and Robert Ludlum's “The Bourne Ultimatum” also, although they failed to win as much nominations at the other three.

Several Best Picture winners in the past 80 years of the Academy Award history originated from short stories (Mary Orr's “All About Eve” in 1950 and FX Toole's “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004) and plays (Shakespeare's “Hamlet” in 1948 and Ebb and Kander's “Chicago” in 2002). Rarely have they come from novels. Over the last two decades, only four Best Picture winners began as fiction books: Isak Dinesen's “Out of Africa” (1985), Michael Ondaatje's “The English Patient” (1996), Thomas Harris' “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), and JR Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003). The blog “Strange Culture” lists statistics of the past ten years, noting that only 16 of 50 best picture nominees are fiction adaptations.

I don't claim to be an avid Oscar buff, but the literary stats above are reason enough for me to celebrate this year's Oscars—the year a writer's strike almost crippled the “Golden Boy”!

22 February 2008

Epitaph:
Remembering Mama

Mama in her youthMAMA PASSED away ten years ago today. What she had bequeathed to us, her eleven children, continue to bind us together to this day: her love for Bahá'u'lláh and the teachings of His Faith, a passion for laughter, and an indelible devotion to family. Even in the final, painful hours of her life, the sense of duty to her children never failed. She hung on until her youngest grandchild Zayca celebrated her first birthday in January that year. And no matter how ravaged the diabetes-ridden body was, the spirit was solid: she died gracefully, peacefully in her sleep three weeks later.

I join the rest of my family in remembering our mother, Zaida Linda Mijares Ancheta (1933-1998), on the tenth anniversary of her passing, with the following words from the Bahá'í scriptures.

O Son of Justice! Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved? and what seeker findeth rest away from his heart’s desire? To the true lover reunion is life, and separation is death. His breast is void of patience and his heart hath no peace. A myriad lives he would forsake to hasten to the abode of his beloved.
Source: Bahá'u'lláh, “The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh”

13 February 2008

Discovering sinigang in India

Sinigang

Prawn sinigang
Image source: Paul Ancheta

ONE OF the best things about Spencer's Hyper is discovering food ingredients that would have been extremely difficult to find in India. Imagine my joy of finally getting the right ingredients for sinigang, my all-time favorite Philippine recipe, after two years of living in India! I had tried Philippine dishes in two Asian restaurants in Mumbai and Bangalore, but they were too spicy for Filipino taste buds.

Sinigang requires a myriad of vegetables and meats (pork, fish, prawn, or shrimp) stewed in sour broth. In Spencer's, I found organically-grown radish, onions, tomatoes, pumpkin (to replace taro or yam which was not available), string beans, spinach (to replace kangkong), and tamarind—all staple ingredients in this much-loved dish. In the absence of pork, I used huge prawns which were ridiculously cheap at 50 rupees (50 pesos or 1 dollar) apiece.

What a delight to cook my first honest-to-goodness Filipino dish in India!

11 February 2008

India's largest Spencer's Hyper unveiled


Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Kolkata, India
Designed by Paul Ancheta, Haimanti Upadhyaya, & Nilanjon Ganguly
Image source: Paul Ancheta

FINALLY, WE opened it: the largest Spencer's hypermarket in India. After months of intense preparation, the doors of what is also Kolkata's first-ever Spencer's Hyper opened to the public at the glitzy South City Mall on 1 February 2008. It has been a blast since then, with footfalls and bill conversions exceeding anything that the company has ever done (or seen) before on a first-week run. This is easily its strongest store launch ever.

The Bengalis have not since anything like this before: 72,000 swanky square feet of electronics, appliances, music, books, apparel, home decor and commodities, sports goods, furniture, fruits, vegetables, staples, and grocery items under one tall roof. The products all come from various parts of the world, and they all scream for value for money. Buttressed by a clever marketing campaign around the tag line “Taste the World”, streams of shoppers lapped it all up. There is also the “hometown” factor: Spencer's Retail is owned by the Kolkata-based RPG Group, and opening its first hypermarket in the city is almost a homecoming event. And fellow citizens are loving them back.

For three weeks prior to the opening, I joined my team of three diligent and disciplined visual merchandisers in working the aisles, battling vendors and deadlines to create globally themed displays to match the international look and feel of the store. Initially, we thought we would not make the launch date, as the goods were not fully available until the week of store opening. Thankfully, the effervescence of the operations and merchandising teams infected us. The setups went smoothly, and they were fun.

Once during the opening day, I peered into a shopping cart queued at the cash registers. It contained a Levi's T-shirt, jars of Chinese ingredients, and an English-language cookbook on top of sundry pieces of grocery. We did it. We made the shopper “taste the world”!

Related Site: Spencer's Retail Web Site, Grocery Shopping Can be Fun!

10 February 2008

Chinese New Year

NEW YEAR festivities are now being celebrated by Chinese communities around the world. The festival—the most important in the Chinese calendar—runs for fifteen days starting 7 February 2008. This is the year of the rat; those born in the rat years are said to be leaders and conquerors.

I greeted my colleagues this weekend with an SMS message: “Gong xi fat cha! (Read as Kong hei fat choy!) May the new Chinese year of the rat be cheesy and anything but mousy for you and your loved ones. Rattily, Paul”

Some of the replies I got were not cheesy, but they were cheeky . . . and fun to read!

#1: “Chank chu. Read as Thank u.”

#2: “Same to you. Read as Same to you.”

#3: “Happy new year Jerry!”

#4: “I don't know how you would say it in Chinese but have a great year!”

#5: “Thanks and wish you the same. Cheeeeeese through the year!!”

To all of you, san nin faai lok (happy new year!)! Kung hei fat choy (Congratulations and be prosperous)!

06 February 2008

Focal point:
Marie Phillips, “Gods Behaving Badly”

Gods Behaving Badly by Michelle PhillipsI'VE NEVER laughed this hard while reading Greek mythology! In her first novel “Gods Behaving Badly”, London-bred Michelle Phillips (b.1976) brings together ten Olympian gods to exist in dingy circumstances in modern-day north London. And being gods, they also interfere with the lives of humans—in this case, a nondescript engineer in a star-crossed love affair with a meek house cleaner. With egos the size of the universe and clout the size of an atom, the immortals are forced to eke out a living and struggle to revive their ancient vainglories while getting the star-crossed lovers back in each other's arms. With hilarious results, Ms Phillips succeeds in talking about man’s mortality and blind faith without moralizing. Watch for that colorful episode about a trip to the underworld.

See more about “Gods Behaving Badly”.

03 January 2008

The madness in Kenya

I WASN'T aware of the gravity of the post-election violence in Kenya until last night, when I received a truly disturbing e-mail from a fellow Bahá'í whose family lives in the country. What he vividly describes in his letter are the horrors faced by an innocent, confused population trapped in the viciousness of political maneuvering. I am sharing the letter with you below, with hopes for your prayers for divine mercy and intervention.

Dear Friends, Family, and Associates,

I am writing to request your assistance with an extremely challenging issue... As some of you are aware my wife is from Kenya. Our family lives their now... and are in grave danger...

Within the the last 3 days there has erupted a huge campaign of violence, ethnic cleansing and tribal warfare from the alleged rigging of the presidential election leading to the re-election of Kibaki. I will not relate the details as they are all readily available on the websites I include at the bottom of this email... but the basic reality is that the country is entering a state of warfare... Marshall law has been declared by the president... a curfew... riot police are out in streets throughout the country... if you are out past curfew you are beaten or shot... looting and rioting has decimated many of the shops in the town centers... many I and my family would frequent... leaving many without basic supplies to live. The President has shut off all the radio stations... all you hear is the eerie sound of static as you scan the airwaves... The television stations are only broadcasting un-interrupted movies... no news... no announcements... Everyone in Kenya uses pre-paid calling cards for cell phones... and the president has ordered them to stop being sold... He has stopped all flow of information internally... We had to ask our mom not to call her friends and conserve what little credit she has... we now have to call regularly to check on the situation... even the phone networks have been going down... He has shut the water supply off to Nairobi City (the largest and most developed city in east africa)... There are frequent blackouts... The two major tribes representing the presidential opponents are Kikuyu and Luo. My Wife and Family are Luo. Kikuyus are attacking and killing Luos en=masse throughout the country... and Luo are killing Kikuyu around the country... within the last day... mass killings have begun... In Lou towns Kikuyus have begun killing Luos... locking Luo social clubs while people are inside and burning them down... over 50 Kikuyu women and children sought refuge in a church after their homes were burned and an angry mob of youth locked them in the church and set fire to it killing 35... those who escaped were met on the outside with the mob... beaten... and burned to death in a kitchen garden outside the church... decimation of neighborhoods, slums, and villages where supporters of either candidate are being burned to the ground... with people inside... These atrocities are reminiscent of the beginnings of the Genocide which took place in Rwanda (The next Door neighbor to Kenya)...

My Mother In Law in Kenya received word from a friend in government that Kibaki was about to be announced the winner off the election and that she should rush to the grocery store because it was about to get very bad... she sent my cousins to the store to buy what food she could afford... that night 3 local social spots where my family would regularly hang out were locked up and burnt down with people inside... Luckily my family was all at home anticipating the violence to come... They are locked in their small apartment... 2 small bedrooms in a stone apartment structure. They have a small security gate before the front door which they have padlocked shut... My brother in law... lost track of his family when their neighborhood was attacked, people killed, and burnt to the ground... he ran around searching all night and luckily he was able to locate them... they rushed to my mother in laws home... He, His Wife, and Small children had to pass through streets littered with bodies... there are now over 14 people in this tiny apartment... they only have food for a couple more days... the stores are dangerous if impossible to get to... most stores have been shut or ransacked so there is no food anyway... what food is left is being sold at very high costs... Gunshots are heard round the clock and throughout the night...

I paint this picture to give an idea of the severity of the situation... I watch and feel helpless... Many who have watched Hotel Rwanda can remember that feeling of "What did we/could we have done to prevent this..." This is a similar situation... I am not sure of the best remedy for it.. but it is apparent that something needs to be done before the violence, civil unrest and massacres extend any further... How can I sit by and watch another Rwanda or Somalia take place without so much as opening my mouth... and the fact that my family is directly involved impels me to act with determination. Things may get better on their own... maybe in a few days... a few weeks... a few months... but for each day it doesn't... lives are lost... families shattered... and we inch closer to genocide... how many times did people assume that it would probably work itself out in Rwanda or Somalia... and thereby delay their own action... inaction enabled a spark to become a flame and a flame into an inferno.

I am writing to my congress people in Los Angeles... imploring them to press the US govt. and the UN to intervene... The only way to ensure my families safety is to ensure peace in Kenya... Please take a moment to do something... write to your congress person or call them and urge them to address the issue of the unrest in Kenya with haste... Each day that passes people are dying and being ripped from their homes... only 250 people have been documented killed so far... thousands injured and over 70,000 made homeless in 3 days... This does not include those who are fleeing and are undocumented by the statistics. I mentioned hotel Rwanda.. and the vivid picture it painted which brought us all a bit of shame... now picture your family in that hotel... being left to die as other countries get their own people out... this is more than a movie... My family is at serious risk... and I am praying for their safety. Please take a moment and help be a part of bringing about peace... not only for my own families but for all of Kenya...


Related Sites: BBC.co.uk, CNN.com, Guardian.co.uk, NationMedia.com

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