Finding Vivian Maier

I spent my Saturday afternoon watching the documentary ’Finding Vivian Maier’ about the mysterious yet intriguing street photographer Vivian Maier. 

Mysterious because publicly she worked as a children’s nanny but this intensely private reclusive woman was a prolific street photographer or as she once explained to someone when asked what she did, “a kind of spy.” This ‘strange’ French-accented lady left behind over 100,000 photographs, hundreds of films of life from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s in Chicago, New York, a little village in France and of her 8 month tour around the world which took her all over S America, India, Egypt, etc. But here’s where all those adjectives begin to make sense: Almost none of her pictures had been exhibited or published during her lifetime.

Yes, everybody did see her walk around with a camera strung around her neck but almost all of her work was hidden away in storage till John Maloof, the director of the documentary, bought some negatives during an auction.

Most telling of all is the social attitude that the movie enshrines, and that you hear in the testimony of those who knew Maier in their youth. On the whole, they feel warmly disposed toward her, and all of them are pensive and polite, but none can quite believe that art, of a serious nature, was going on under their noses, and that the hired help, of all people, was responsible. They might almost be talking of a crime. The implication—and this was mid-twentieth-century America, not nineteenth-century Britain—is that Vivian Maier knew her mind, but somehow not her place. Near the start of the film, Maloof himself asks, “Why is a nanny”—he pauses for a brief laugh—“taking all these photos?” To which the only possible reply should be: Why not?

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Anthony Bourdain’s Favorite Things

"I got the piece of Moammar Gadhafi’s house when we were shooting there for Parts Unknown. We had a sort of friendly militia with us, and we bumped into a less friendly militia. Before we had to leave in a hurry, I got a nice chunk. The bronzed deer head Marco Pierre White gave me after I was hunting with him in rural England. As a young cook, I worshipped White—never in a million years did I think I’d be hanging out, drinking beer and shooting animals with him. I grew up being a huge fan of Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman, who did that piece on the wall for me. The duck press was just an extravagant, pure object of desire. When I see these used in a restaurant, I practically weep. It’s like watching Joe DiMaggio playing his last game. The metal Montagnard bracelet is from Vietnam. Indigenous people in the mountains used to make them and give them to the CIA officers and Special Forces who were there prior to the war. The thicker bracelet was given to me by an African king while I was fulfilling my Heart of Darkness fantasy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It likely goes back hundreds of years. The watch is my dad’s old Rolex. He died with it on his nightstand. He passed away before he got to see me do anything significant, but he loved me just the same. The pile of passports—all of them filled up—are a record of everywhere I’ve been. All my life I read about people doing interesting things in interesting faraway places, and I dreamed of going to those places and having those sorts of things happen to me. Underneath that is Raw Power,my desert island disc, and then the works of Michel de Montaigne—all wisdom and knowledge found here. Last, a drawing by my daughter of me and her. It’s a pretty good rendering, though a little flattering.”

—As told to Christopher Ross

Why I’ll be a Citibank customer for life

A week ago, we were robbed. I woke up on Wednesday morning to find my handbag in the garden, a set of documents, tampons and a body spray neatly stacked to its right. I initially thought I’d wandered among the plants soon after work and left my bag there - but no, I’d not do that. It rains, I’ll not risk getting my moleskine soaked. Then I thought KitKat had pulled it into the garden but she’s never shown much enthusiasm for games or tugging at things, much less my bag.


Then it struck me. Someone was or had been in the house. 

We walked downstairs to find the Macbooks missing, my brand new functional wallet missing. I wouldn’t have despaired had it been just cash that was flicked. I was dreading the thought of jumping into the thick of the circus that is applying for new debit and credit cards and other government IDs (PAN Card, Driving License). 

Axis Bank
Blocking the cards was easy enough. The reissue process was very different for the 2 LoBs: Credit Cards and Debit Cards.

While blocking the credit card, I was told I’d be sent a new one immediately. For the debit card, repeated IVR processes and calls to their Voice Agents didn’t work. At one point, I was asked to re-confirm my mobile number at the nearest ATM. 

I went in to the Axis Bank, Indiranagar branch on Thursday morning. After a silly token collecting process - where the peon mansplained how I should collect a token #facepalm - I made my way to the seating area and waited. For 45 minutes. Till the TV displaying the token numbers went black and all of us in the area blinked at each other. Gathering wits and courage, I walked up to a man - suited, tied and booted - languidly sipping chai behind his shiny desk. 

"Can you help me with the re-issue of a debit card?"

"Go, ask Harish over there" and he stuck his index finger out to point to an area that was the fire exit, 4 people squeezed into a corner and the printer. 

Walking up to these 4 people staring at their screens, I asked loudly “Who’s Harish here?” A guy stood up, confused and pointed to a lady sitting next to the suited-tied-booted man. 

"But you’re given token numbers for a reason" she twanged in her Mallu accent. 

"Yes, madam. Your TV has turned itself off, this guy directed me to Harish who directed me to you. Will you be able to help me?"

Fifteen minutes later, I was out of there not knowing when I’d get the card.

[Update on September 6, 2014] I still don’t have a card, nobody knows what happened to the request I put in at the Axis Bank Indiranagar branch.

What would have been ideal: Being able to re-issue my debit card via the internet banking site or in the worst case scenario, using the IVR. I have the Account Number, Customer ID and all other PII that would have allowed Axis Bank to authenticate and authorize me.

Again, blocking the Credit Card was easy enough but the process for re-issuing was another level of WTFery. These 2 tweets should sum up the ordeal:

Eventually I managed to convince the lady behind the counter at the HDFC Branch in Frazer Town to print out the form. Where they asked me to enter the credit card number but since I didn’t have it, I had to jump through multiple levels of authentication after which a girl at the other end read out the number to me. I duly entered this number into the paper form and dropped it in a Dropbox that mentioned nothing about dropping Credit Card forms but rather had multiple labels for cheque drop-offs. So reassuring.

Of course, I have no clue what the next steps are and what has happened to that piece of paper.

What would have been ideal: Uh, couldn’t you have saved yourself some money and paper by just allowing me to do this online or over IVR, HDFC? Why create fake employment and silly security processes that can be hacked anyway?

I logged into my Citibank account on Wednesday evening. On the dashboard, clicked on the link that said “Report Lost/Stolen Card”. Was asked if I’d like a replacement card to which I replied in the affirmative.

I received an SMS on Thursday that the previous card had been blocked. I received an SMS this morning (Friday) that the Debit Card had been shipped. I had the card in my hands this afternoon at 1 pm.


I applied for the re-issue of all 3 cards within a span of 12 hours a day ago. Today, I have already received one.

Coming up: Applying for Government IDs and the long wait for the ATM PINs sealed in paper.

Jo Maange takes feedback seriously

In the Frazer Town part of Bangalore, we have a brilliant home delivery service called Jo Maange. They have a fleet of men who deliver everything from veggies to flowers to your doorstep for a fee of Rs 40 per order. As of now, the fee is independent of the number of hops it takes to pick up the items and the rupee value of the order. Yup, no minimum order policy either! 

Then they introduced a scheme where I could make a Rs 100 one-time payment for 5 future deliveries within a period of one month. I don’t know if all of this is being subsidized for the end consumer by VC money but I’m a happy camper. Who says no to savings?

In the months of March and April, even though I paid upfront to avail the 50% off on delivery charges, the sum never got registered. Every time I called it would be a painful affair: explain to the customer care agents, they say there’s no record in their system, they asked who I paid, I don’t remember and then because I refuse to budge they relent. This happened at least 6 times and then I finally did this:


After this, I gave up on Jo Maange and didn’t place any orders in the month of May and June.

This week K has been unwell and we’ve had to pick up groceries on the fly. Jo Maange to the rescue it was. Again Customer Care brought up the 50% off on delivery charges scheme and I told them I’d sign up if they could assure me that the payment would be recorded in the system. “When the boy comes, he’ll record it in front of you.” 

Very well, I thought and waited. The “Jo Boy” came in, collected the 100 bucks, pulled out an Android phone, recorded the transaction on an App and I received an SMS confirming the offer and its validity.

They already had a SMS update system in place - the Jo Boys would send updates to Jo Maange every time they picked up an item and this update in turn would then get pushed to the customer. They could have extended this for updates on the payment against the offer as well. 

This time around it was beautifully seamless. There were probably enough complaints and loss in revenue to nudge them into building a simple app that would record the Customer ID, record if the offer was availed or not and when the transaction took place.

Show me your money! Pocket goes Premium

Now that all of my favorited tweets sit cozily in Pocket, I use Pocket a lot more than I used to about a year ago. 

This morning when I logged in, I was shown a screen that asked me to go Premium. Nice, I thought. I wonder what Premium gets me. So I clicked on the navigation menu item and boom! here’s what I got:


Not a word about WHY I should go premium or how Pocket Premium will make my reading life simpler. Nada. Just gimme your money. All $44.99 of it. 

I didn’t notice the scroll so for a few seconds I sat looking at the screen utterly befuddled - why would they ask me for my money and not show me what I’m paying for. If and only if you scroll down, do you see these features:


I’m not a heavy user of Pocket so these features at this point mean nothing to me. Forget paying for them. While I love Pocket for the easy organization - lists and grids of all the articles I want to read - it’s pleasure reading. And I’m not finicky right now about tagging or searching for a particular article.

I’d love to know how the conversions are working out on this page. If asking for money upfront is going to convert freeloaders to premium users, I’m not sure why we spend all that time and energy writing marketing copy, articulating benefits to a user vs features of a product, etcetera.

The Manganiyar Seduction

If you read about Jaisalmer, you’ll read about the licentious diwan who tormented the Kuldhara chief’s daughter and drove the Paliwals out of Jaisalmer district leaving intact houses full of gold. Here, aratikumarrao goes looking for the Paliwal legacy in a poem recited by the Manganiyars:

"Intrigued by snatches of their history that hinted at their tenacious ability to thrive within a harsh landscape, and curious to go beyond the tourist drivel of Salim Singh (the licentious diwan), I began to poke around. Where did they come from? What was their life like? And yes, why did 84 villages really up and leave? And, what was most interesting … How did they get so rich in a dreary desert?"

Late one July afternoon, when monsoon clouds eclipsed the desert sun but refused to relieve the heat, I sat in the picture window of a coffee shop waiting for a call from Mame Khan. A few weeks prior, he had traced someone who knew the Paliwal chhand.

All morning, Mame Khan and I were engaged in intense negotiation with the old Manganiyar and his nephew Babu Khan.

“You will make a movie of us,” Babu Khan rasped. I will only take notes, I said.

“You will sell the chhand,” he said. I will only take notes, I said.

“You will make a lot of money from the video,” he said. I will only take notes, I said.

“Give us 20,000 rupees for the chhand,” he said. “I will pay you for your time, but I don’t have that much”, I said.

And so it went on. Let me at least come and meet you, I said; I have come from far.

Finally, there I was, on a long straight narrow road that sliced through the hot desert in the direction of Fatehgarh. The landscape changed as my jeep raced along, as the desert swallowed the sandstone structures of Jaisalmer.

Nazi-Era Snapshots And The Banality Of Evil

I see a massacre.  
Yes, a little massacre, with what I believe is a rape. This is surely a woman with her babushka. She’s laid on this table with her legs splayed, and she’s been made a little comfortable with some straw under her head. I think everybody’s dead here: bodies, bodies, bodies. And, the Germans are done now. They’re heading to what looks like a small train station. Their backs are all turned away. “We’ve done our work and now we’re leaving.”

What might be most disturbing of all is this detail of putting the straw under the woman’s head. It looks like an attempt to make her comfortable as they raped and killed her. It seems like a recognition of her humanity.
Also, it looks like this dead man has his arm around this person here, in a protective pose.

As if he could shield them from bullets.
As I said, there’s nothing on the back of this photograph, but the story is very clearly there. I don’t think we have to read too much into it.

And yet, it’s hard not to project, isn’t it? This is not so different from the kind of war photography that we’re all familiar with…
Right, this almost could have been taken by Robert Capa.

The composition is excellent and the focus is razor sharp.
That’s right. One thing you can say about the Nazis is that they went to war with good cameras. They didn’t go with any goddamn instamatics. They went with Leicas: good cameras with good lenses. You can see the number on the train. You can see the blades of grass. You can see the dead man’s eyes.


One thing you can say about the Nazis is that they went to war with good cameras. They didn’t go with any goddamn instamatics. They went with Leicas: good cameras with good lenses. You can see the number on the train. You can see the blades of grass. You can see the dead man’s eyes.

Under The Volcano | Why don't Americans love Mexicans?



Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs”. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do. 

We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.

So, why don’t we love Mexico?

We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get pass-out drunk and sun burned on Spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.

When I lived in LA, the downtown neighbourhood I lived in was full of Hispanics. It was most parts Americans and at the same time some parts, what Americans call, “ghetto-ish.” In that so much like India: litter on the street, street food stalls, mothers and fathers and children all talking loudly, aromas from the kitchen, and an abundance of quotidian gaiety. The aged were taken care of and the young got yelled at quite regularly. The younger generation however seemed caught up in the dichotomy of being Mexican and American. ABCM, if you may. 

Which is ok so long as they preserve the art of making Carnitas. 

Breaking Bread to Baking Bread

Baked my first batch of bread that was actually edible. Woot!
The Mumbai Pav was for mopping up chicken curry that K made. The loaf of bread - I’ve eaten most of it slathered with butter and honey. Mmm. (Yes, I still don’t know how to shape the pav and loaf.)

Psst. I learnt to bake bread at Saffron Trail’s Breaking Bread Workshop

Elle Magazine - Why art thou?

I was reading Elle magazine while waiting to get a haircut today. Didn’t quite understand why the mag exists. It’s full of ads, a glorified catalogue of luxury goods with some strung together words masquerading as articles - OMG, such much waste of paper.

The one article that I managed to read was over before it even began. Four paragraphs on the play, Nirbhaya and a 2 page photo spread. There wasn’t even a tweet button. What’s worse? I also learned that glossies can’t go into the Compost Pit. “The chemicals in glossy magazines are harmful.”

Elle. Oh. Elle.

A look into the future of Foursquare, including a new app called Swarm


Local search today is like the digital version of browsing through the Yellow Pages (remember those?). We believe local search should be personalized to your tastes and informed by the people you trust. The opinions of actual experts should matter, not just strangers. An app should be able answer questions like ‘give me a great date dinner spot’ and not just ‘tell me the nearest gas station.’ We’re right now putting the final touches on this new, discovery-focused version of Foursquare. 

Even as the filter bubble envelops us a little more, it’s going to be the combination of Discovery and Context that will make this a winner. 

What I’m Lovin’ This Week - Saffron Trail’s Breaking Bread Workshop

I spent a good chunk of my last Saturday morning watching and learning from Nandita while she expertly kneaded, pulled and coaxed flour, sugar, water and yeast to come together to make pillowy soft, perfectly crusted bread in various shapes, sizes and tastes.

My maternal grandpa’s family set up one of the first bakeries in Mangalore - Pinto’s Bakery. Not one to let down the family name, I decided I’d bake bread and carry forward the legacy that had skipped 2 generations. The business of baking bread had other plans for me - it never worked. The yeast didn’t froth, I could not figure out the kneading, the dough never doubled in size. Everything that could wrong, went wrong.

Then I saw Nandita’s tweet and had an epiphany: I should just attend one of her Breaking Bread workshops. 

On the menu were five different breads that we were going to bake over the course of the four hour class. The Mumbai Laadi Pav was a bread everyone seemed to be excited about - who doesn’t love a good bhaji with some perfectly crusted pav? The pizza was to die for - the base and  the sauce were homemade and the toppings, homegrown. It cannot get anymore fresh and delicious than that. Till you meet the cinnamon rolls, the loaf of bread and foccacia, that is. 

I loved how organised everything about the workshop was - right from the email we received a day before that asked about allergies and told you what to get along (yourself, an apron and a box to take home some yummy goodies) to the manner in which the workshop itself was conducted. It was step-by-step recipes, detailed instructions about things that some would dismiss as trivial (how does one measure out 2 cups of flour?) and demystification of various processes by way of science all the way through.

Nandita is a fun teacher - patient, engaging and generous with her knowledge. Her sense of humour and the insights, tips and tricks she shares will keep you hooked. One minute she’s telling you about the Michael Pollan book she read “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” the next about “yeast, the living organism” and then you catch her grinning away as she sneaks cointreau into the cinnamon rolls. 

Nandita conducts these series of workshops in her beautiful house with an enviable garden full of veggies and herbs in Whitefield. This multi-tasking lady who I’ve known for about four years via Twitter and only met for the first time on Saturday is quite a wonder-woman (as all Moms are?). She’s got something for everyone in the Saffron Trail Kitchen this year and it would do you good to dip in, indulge and learn a little:

- Put your Saturdays and holidays to good use and sign up for her Saffron Trail workshops on everything from baking bread, eggless desserts to fun salads 

- There’s a spanking new Youtube channel where she does her awesomesauce thing and shares recipes and #kitchenhacks. (See what I meant about being generous with her knowledge?)

- If you’ve been living under a rock: There’s the Saffron Trail blog that is an exhaustive collection of recipes covering everything from bread to tambram cuisine.

Why Startups need Good Office Spaces and Etiquette

When Does Establishing a Good Startup Culture Outweigh Being Cheap? asks Mark Suster

Even if you’re winning business, in the press, raising capital and generally doing great things – over time a shitty office environment begins to wear on you. Maslow. Day-in and day-out the basic stuff matters. Comfortable chairs. Peace to get work done. Clean bathrooms. A kitchen. A reasonable commute.

And I see many companies blow this. My recommendation any time I provide a round of A or B capital is to spend properly on decent offices. Of course there’s always a balance because you don’t want extravagance. But a great office environment will yield so many intangibles that you can’t measure.

A great office helps with recruiting. It helps with productivity and output. It helps with employee retention. A great office helps with the intangibles of “well being” that are psychologically hidden in the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A good office / work environment is the foundation of establishing a strong company culture and team spirit. It’s not everything – but it helps.

It comes down to ensuring that people don’t have to sweat the small stuff - why is there no toilet paper, no hand wash, no water in the cooler, why is my chair broken, etc - so that they can focus on the task at hand. 

At my previous workplace, they had timings for the coffee machine which was located 2 floors above. Only available between 10.30 am and 11.30 am and then again between 3.30 pm and 4.30 pm. I don’t know whether they meant to do cost savings on the coffee & milk or on productive hours.

The downside was that there was no coffee when someone actually needed it. Those times when people stayed late and wanted to take a coffee break at 7. 30 pm, for example. It also took away the opportunity for people from different teams to hang out during “coffee breaks” and get to know each other. The office was spread across 4 floors and various teams had to work together for different projects but there was little camaraderie. People just didn’t know each other.

Don’t be cheap, be mindful.