Author: Tejas Nair

Tejas Nair is a freelance writer, small-time film critic, and literature student. He lives and works in Mumbai, India.

Why I Don’t Use Zomato

Opinion on Zomato

Disclaimer: This is an opinion based on my personal experience with Zomato and facts sourced from online news publications. It is, in no way, intended as a form of attack on the subject party or its reputation.

Zomato used to be my go-to app for online food delivery and I used to love it. So much that my sister and I used it almost every week (and often more than two times a week even) to order food from random “ghost kitchens” across Navi Mumbai. When we ‘got bored’ with popular delivery-only kitchens like Faasos and Behrouz Biryani (owned by a single parent Rebel Foods) along with our favorites nearby from our apartment, we experimented with new ones. Suggestions that Zomato recommended would be a better choice based on our location, ordering habits, and perhaps order history too. Such an amazing piece of food tech; I thought it was one of the best things to come out of India’s startup boom. An app that ensures I never have a bad meal, makes me a better foodie, and never lets me sleep on an empty stomach.

But then after using it for nearly three years, it kicked me in my stomach. It took some time to hit me that under all that glam – zany ads still discussed in marketing circles and various LinkedIn posts, exciting features and discounts, talks about being a unicorn startup within just five years of inception, very deep pockets, international presence and associations, and a leader in the sector – it was still a business. An entity that aspires to become fully profitable (possible paywall) someday using the same model that it used to fondle my taste buds. It took me consecutive order gaffes, a few interactions with its customer support, some web research, and a visit to a hospital to realize that it was not really servicing me. But slowly turning me into a junkie who would soon become helpless without it, and worse, grow addicted to it.

I was not going to have it. So, I permanently deleted my Zomato account in January 2019, deleted the app, and wiped all its data from my smartphone to never look back. I haven’t yet tried my hands on other headline-grabbing restaurant and food delivery aggregators like Swiggy, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda, but I’m sure there is little difference between them and Zomato much like there’s no difference between all the telecom companies in the world. I use Vodafone’s cellular network and I cannot stand it. Not because it overprices its service but because it regards me as a milking cow. Which makes me note that my issue with Zomato is part of my larger issue with corporatism, a problem that I am very well a part of, and to an extent, even have benefited from.

It is also the reason why I recently turned down a close friend’s request to join his new business. I just do not agree with the idea of a business that exists only for the purpose of profit-making. And sooner or later, in these harrowing times, every business does stand the risk of turning into one. Most young entrepreneurs incubate their startups with “good monies” in mind. Only a very few don’t make that transition and that is why you never hear about them.

Let’s not digress. Here are a few personal reasons why I don’t use Zomato anymore and perhaps never will.

One Too Many Menus

Ordering food through Zomato is easy and it hardly takes a minute to do so after you have selected the items off the menu. It’s absolutely fantastic, and the only other app that comes close to the same convenience is that of Oyo Rooms. Ola’s Android app is the worst.

Once my sister and I began experimenting with different outlets, ordering items that sounded international enough to give them a try, we started experiencing the real issue at hand. Because a lot of these “ghost kitchens” (also known as dark kitchens or cloud kitchens) – outlets that only deliver food; no seating arrangement, only online ordering – vie to get more orders every day of the week so that they can sustain in the long run, they maintain multiple versions of their food menu. One for food delivery aggregators, one to be added in the flyers that would be disseminated locally through newspapers and whatnot, and one for their own website which would eventually be used to attract customers before they can say goodbye to Zomato. The prices in all these versions are different, some tweaked to bear the extra costs that the restaurant has to spend as overhead. This approach makes sense because there has to be some incentive if your target user takes interest, registers, and buys from your own website rather than through third-party apps. The concept of multiple versions of a food menu works until it doesn’t.

Zomato prefers its restaurants to add the menu items through its backend system rather than upload screenshots of the actual menu. Although, I should add, it does allow them to upload the screenshots for users who may want to call and order. What this sometimes results in is errors in the prices as well as the menu items. There can be duplicates, erroneously inflated prices, and even mismatch in the name of the dish and the actual dish that gets wrapped and sent out with the help of law-breaking delivery boys on decrepit scooters.[1]Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)

Although Zomato, India’s largest restaurant search portal, has guidelines to ensure that menus are uploaded with proper price tags and itemization, I have experienced discrepancies in their prices several times. The eateries that do not allow ordering through the app but require you to call and order often charged me extra. Because you don’t know what the total bill will be after listing your items and because you sometimes forget to ask and because most people assigned the job of taking telephonic orders in these low-cost dark kitchens do not have basic hospitality etiquette, you sometimes wait for the order to arrive and along with it the bill with a total cost that’s nowhere near what you expected. One plate of Vegetable Pulao for 350 rupees? The menu said 220!

The aggregator may not have anything to do with such incidents, but it does play a major role when you order through the app. Take, for example, the time when I saw two instances of the same dish: Chicken Tandoori and Tandoori Chicken. A food vlogger or critic may try to distinguish between them simply because they feel it’s expected of them, but for someone like me who only knows that chicken and tandoor go and taste well together, it makes no difference. Both are the same to me, yet the price mentioned against them were not. There was a difference of over 80 rupees between the two. I ended up ordering the costlier one (one full plate) just because I thought this would actually be the first time I order Chicken Tandoori and rejoice at the quantity. I was wrong. I tried contacting the customer support but they were busy structuring a social media-worthy conversation with me. I went offline.

All of these minor issues that came between me and my food ordering journey irritated me but I still kept ordering because you crave for things that you cannot yourself make. And dining out is a massive attack to one’s anxiety meter these days.

Ease of Listing

I used to receive (and still do) so many flyers at my house sent out by new eateries in and around my location, inviting me to order food from their kitchens through one of the aggregator apps, that it became difficult to not take a look at their menus offering delectable food and exciting discounts that would put a smile on my wallet’s face. No foodie can ignore an offer that lets you enjoy four different appetizers in less than the cost of a six-month second-class suburban local railway pass from Thane to CST.

I, along with a lot of my friends and relatives, wondered how so many dark kitchens were mushrooming by the day. I have been staying in a Navi Mumbai node for more than a decade now and it is only in the past year (since mid-2017) that I have observed so many new restaurants and delivery-only entities coming up. A quick search on the Zomato website for restaurants that would deliver to my place gave me 464 different listings to choose from. That’s roughly one restaurant per 10,000 square meters of area if I include all of Kopar Khairane and parts of Ghansoli, Bonkode, Turbhe, and Vashi.[2]Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered. My apartment is just less than the tenth of that.

Zomato restaurants in Kopar Khairane
A search result showing the number of food outlets delivering to my address / © Zomato

There’s only one reason for that: ease of doing business. In other words, ease of listing online.

Had it suddenly become so easy to get certificates and licenses from the local authorities to run such outlets? What with so many of them coming up in every block and nook and corner in Kopar Khairane itself, I would believe so. Was it so easy to get an entry into the Zomato database? Well, not if you just go by what’s on the surface.

According to its website, it is easier to create a listing for a new eatery than it is to achieve a verified user profile, a possible gimmick to attest their hard work in creating an unbiased platform with genuine user-generated content (UGC). For a listing, just supply basic details like address and contact numbers, and you are ready to go. However, India Filings reports that you will need a lot more than that. Along with the eatery registration and shop act license, you will also need a Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSAI) license (the most important) and a Goods and Services Tax (GST) registration certificate. Zomato then collects and verifies these documents and the information in them before making your outlet’s listing live on the platform.[3]According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)

Recently, two more things have been added to this list of requisites: fire safety license (especially if it’s a restaurant with proper seating) and food hygiene ratings. Earlier in 2018, founder Deepinder Goyal himself penned an article titled “Responsibility” on the Zomato blog announcing their move to put up scanned copies of safety licenses on listings, where he also mentions that at the time of publishing that information was available only for a handful of restaurants. What number might that be among its over 1.2 million listings across 24 countries is a mystery to me, but Goyal seems optimistic about the “complex, deep, and systemic” problem of the increasing number of life-threatening fire hazards in restaurants (the Kamala Mills tragedy of December 2017 has been cited). Two months before that deadly incident in 2017, Zomato had also claimed that it rolled out food hygiene ratings for restaurants by tying up with third-party auditors who would provide a detailed assessment of establishments, which could then be presented as a badge on their listings.

But I have my doubts. Despite the long list of requisites and so many fancy terms and gimmicks to ensure that I never have a bad meal, never end up in a place that violates fire safety rules, and never sleep on an empty stomach, it is difficult for me to trust Zomato. Especially when Goyal again claimed to have delisted non-compliant restaurants for not furnishing the FSSAI license. My question is then: how did the listings go live in the first place?

It is in my imaginative power to connect the dots and assume that Zomato closed its eyes far too many times to let a massive wave of profit-making businesses use its model to market and sell food to unsuspecting customers like me. It knows that there are no users without merchants. Which would justify the uptick in demand and investment activity that food aggregators received from 2017 as reported by Salman S H in Livemint. The report further says that Zomato was lucky enough to get good backers as early as 2016 when it first started grappling with issues such as fake reviews, spurious listings, and listing discrepancies. To quell this and to continue showcasing its worth well to its investors, Zomato was forced to welcome the wave without a flinch. Result? Ill-aimed restaurants going hostile on their innocent, hungry audience.

Fake Reviews and Some More

It is perhaps the biggest, unsolvable menace for Zomato. It has been trying with all its might to fight fake reviews through various operations that are described and named in a way they somehow reminded me of Uber’s transgressing Greyball tool. I am referring to its Project Fairplay.

When I removed Zomato from my phone, I had a basic account with a handful of reviews, zero photographs, and some personal information in my profile. Although its concept of “foodie levels” had pushed me to post more reviews and updates so that I could become an “expert” in Kopar Khairane (especially after seeing that the expert in Vashi was a teenage kid), and eventually receive free food offers from new restaurants looking to market themselves in exchange for a clean 5-star rating, I stopped spending my time to create content for the aggregator and used it only to order meals and book tables, and in a few rare cases, pay for food online using its partner in crime, Paytm. I stopped reviewing after an online wellwisher pointed out that I was only helping Zomato get more free UGC.

Much like Google’s Local Guide and Amazon’s Vine programs, Zomato depends on its end customers to produce unique content. The incentive here is a badge on your profile that you can boast about on Instagram. Perfect for its primary target audience.

Although Zomato does not permit restaurants soliciting reviews (which it calls ‘bribery’) in return for free food and an Instagrammable experience, it does happen, rather blatantly. And the aggregator conveniently closes its eyes again. It’s a straightforward process and one that also helps Zomato register new users into its system whom it promises to never let go. (Days after deleting my account and hours after blocking Zomato from sending me promotional text messages, I still received them. To this day I see messages asking me to order through the app to get a certain discount. I like to believe Zomato still has my phone number.) Top users who have been solicited pass the “free food” message to their friends and followers and eventually the website becomes a haven of free food grabbers. While that helps it gain unique users, the side effects are life-threatening. Fake reviews, fake ratings, fake comments, leading to an overall artificial experience for the end user.

A restaurant with huge financial backing without proper operating licenses can easily get inside the Zomato database, ‘game the system’ through planted reviews, run a few ad campaigns on the app (to titillate the ‘moderator’ so that it can close eyes a couple more times), and then begin its onslaught on hungry customers.

Although it claims that it has been trying to weed out the menace of false reviews from violating customers or fake users, there hasn’t been much impact. In October 2017, Zomato’s then Chief of Staff Surobhi Das introduced the concepts of ‘blackmail’ and ‘bribery’ and also suggested a basic feature to help obliterate them. While blackmail means customers asking for a free meal in return for a positive review, bribery, as we just saw, sees the roles reversing. She continues: “These are nascent but growing problems at Zomato, and while our machines and neutrality team do a stupendous job at identifying and mitigating the menace, we decided to create a larger systemic fix for the issue.” And then ends up suggesting the fix: a “Report Abuse” button which restaurants can use to report reviews that they think are non-genuine. Four months later, then Associate Vice President of Product Marketing Tanvi Duggal followed up and wrote about the aggregator’s anti-bias and anti-spam algorithms which would help them get rid of and prevent fake reviews. If they caught a restaurant indulging in such an activity, they claimed they would put up a ‘shame banner’ on top of their listing. In the one year since I used the app since the announcement, not once did I see an instance of a shame banner. Zomato knows better than punishing its restaurants.

Zomato has been around for over a decade now and still hasn’t been able to find a proper solution for fake reviews. In its defense, I would agree that it’s an unachievable goal. As someone who has professionally handled brand reputation for different brands, I can attest to the burgeoning menace of fake reviews online. It is just a sibling of the larger menace of “fake news” that we have been dealing with lately. Amazon has tweaked its product reviews system countless times to tackle the issue in vain. There are millions of products across its regional websites that bear artificial reviews posted by genuine customers who just said yes to certain merchants getting in touch with them on private email for a modern barter deal. This is a part of an actual email I received on 2 February 2018 from an Amazon dealer selling fitness bands and Bluetooth speakers: “I would like you to help me in the promotion of my products online by posting a positive review about the products…” Even as Amazon advertises and asks local businesses to shake hands with it, fake reviews enter the system through media that’s always one step ahead of its algorithms. Notably, Zomato’s acquisition of US-based review platform and Yelp!’s competitor Urbanspoon in January 2015 did not yield results either, which is why it shut it down five months later.

For a tech-savvy Internet user who does not blindly follow and believe in everything written online, especially on such sites including the leader of the lot, Quora, detecting a fake review is easy. For example, an obvious red flag is a 100% positive review. Sometimes the tone itself can help you understand if the user is being genuine or if money exchanged hands in the back. Detecting a fake account is easier: a history of only positive reviews on a profile with the possible use of emojis?

As long as there is competition, there will be fake reviews and there’s nothing that Zomato can do about it. Such reviews deceive the end user and do not provide an original opinion about the service that is being sold. Service that goes directly into the user’s body, which is where and why things start looking grim. This malpractice is one of the primary reasons why I don’t use Zomato.

Interactions with a Careless Lot

If Zomato’s indifference in subjects important convinced me about its wickedness then a few interactions with their customer support is what made me hit the deactivate button. The incident with the support trying to play funny with me above is a real story. Because there was nothing they could do about it, they instead engaged in banter. I chose to not continue.

But I detected the peak indifference in Zomato’s overall brand when I once interacted with them to complain about a mouldy dish. Other than the fact that it takes a good 10-15 minutes to make the support personnel understand the issue, there is a serious lack of connection. Most of the responses you get from them (over the chat function) are rigid templates that sound like they were churned out by a robot. Moreover, they deliver it in a tone and language that implies that they are written in stone and there’s no way you can circumvent them. That is both a good and a bad thing.

Of course, as a business, they have to stick to their policies, but I doubt their customer support has ever resolved an issue, and if they did, resulted in satisfaction to either party. The problem is with their substandard chat program and a sheer unwillingness to be fluid. For instance, you cannot cancel an order once placed through Zomato. Even if it has just been five seconds. There’s no option to do so. The best way, therefore, is to contact customer care, engage in banter with them, and hope to get your chat screenshot featured on ScoopWhoop, and then boast about it on Instagram, because you just lost the chance of boasting about your lunch order because something just went wrong with it, didn’t it?

My Visit to the Hospital

There’s no evidence that my Typhoid diagnosis was related to my food-ordering habits through Zomato. So I will refrain from hinting at it. The consulting doctor only told me that the root cause of my ailment was ‘consumption of uncooked, undercooked, or stale food’. This was the period when I was ordering a lot of food from delivery-only outlets. I am accusing them. My point here is about the lack of food quality standards in restaurants that deliver through Zomato.

In August 2018, after it found that licences and registrations of around 40% of all restaurants listed online across various channels were not verified, FSSAI underlined its order (possible paywall) to Zomato and other food delivery apps to delist unlicensed entities. While most of them responded in the positive, suggesting that they were trying very hard for the ‘greater good’ and ‘the larger benefit of food safety in India’, they were very possibly unperturbed by the order. In its Terms and Conditions as of 5 July 2019 (updated on 31 January 2019), Zomato states that “…the liability of any violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and applicable rules and regulations made thereunder shall solely rest with the sellers/brand owners, vendors, restaurants, importers or manufacturers…” and goes on to reiterate that it won’t be liable if the food that you order is not up to your dietary requirements.

Swiggy and Foodpanda have this condition phrased slightly differently but the meaning is just the same, which excuses them from any issue or litigation that may arise from an unsuspecting user who gets diagnosed with a disease because of consumption of ‘bad food’. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to put two and two together and prove that a person got ill because he consumed so and so from a dark kitchen which he ordered through an aggregator app.) This is the reason why I assume they don’t care about restaurants checking off all the items in the health and safety list. The idea of such an enterprise is mind-boggling. Uber can confirm too.

The problem of unscrupulous food outlets delivering unhygienic food to clueless users is not novel. Such restaurants have existed before and people have ordered from them even before Zomato entered the scene in 2008. The change after the arrival of delivery apps can be described as two-fold: one, the birth of and subsequent rise in delivery-only food outlets (which were nonexistent before and which, unfortunately, have pushed many diners to death due to increasing losses and competition), and two, unpunished continuation of businesses or ‘bad actors’ who provide low-quality service.

Let’s take an example: You order from a new restaurant, and when the food arrives you are not happy with it or the service or some other aspect of it. So, you retort through the only ways available to you (rant on social media or rate the restaurant negatively or contact customer support), and then you forget about it. If the restaurant already has a good reputation – which it may have through fake ratings and reviews – your review is a black dot on a white paper, and the effect it will have on the business or its operation continuation is zero. There’s even the possibility of your review being flagged down through the use of tools facilitated by Project Fairplay. And that rant you posted on the Facebook page? Well, it does not take much time for a few lines of text to get buried when the platform you are using generates millions of such media by the hour.

There are many customers who have reported such cases, as Rajitha Menon writes in Deccan Herald. “Until a customer personally knows the place from where he or she is ordering food, one cannot trust the place,” she ends the article citing an expert on the matter. At the time of publishing, Zomato had 170 unique reviews on TrustPilot with an average overall rating of ‘bad’ (72% users gave it a negative rating against the 17% who thought it was between ‘good’ and ‘excellent’)[4]It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews. . It figures because TrustPilot allows companies to only respond to the reviews. Then again, even the Danish review platform is not immune to bogus content.

When you order from a delivery-only food outlet, you don’t see the place where the food will be prepared or the front desk from which you can grasp a good enough idea about its cleanliness standards. You only see the food menu and the images of food posted by the outlet’s employee and fellow users, some of whom may have been paid to do so. Here you are depending on two entities: the food outlet and the aggregator app, both of which exist to turn their businesses into profit, one way or the other. While the outlet not maintaining safety and health standards is a topic for discussion for some other time, the point that I wanted to focus on here is the lax attitude of Zomato. It does not help create trust.

As a counterpoint, when you visit a restaurant for lunch or dinner, the onus of ensuring that you are not walking into a death trap and that you will be served healthy and fresh food is on you. When you are ordering food online through an app, it falls on the mediator. But, as we have seen above, Zomato and other apps exist only as a medium for you to order food. It gives you plenty of options to choose from, gives you the ability to pay online, and then throws you under the bus if anything goes wrong with the food. The responsibility of ensuring you don’t end up in a hospital remains with you, rendering the existence of an aggregator useless to some extent.

Zomato has always been a business, but has only turned into an unfriendly one recently, as planned or otherwise. Unfriendly at least in my eyes. (And I recently found out also in the eyes of restaurateurs.) And I use that word carefully not because it takes its customers as hostages to raise more money, but rather because it has a direct impact on people’s eating habits, and more importantly, their health.

Conclusively, I like to believe Zomato has all the resources to fight its demons and bounce back as a people’s service, correcting what went wrong for it and aiming at doing what’s right. People in India seemed to notice when it recently disrupted the system, but if it somehow also manages to shift the gaze at the things that really matter, it will enjoy a better time serving its customers who would turn into loyalists. That is why I am not entirely dismissing the possibility of using it in the future. I can’t say when that will happen or if it ever will, especially considering there are reports about it getting nearer to its profit-making position. All I can say right now is that I do not agree with the brand in its current form. TN.

footnotes   [ + ]

1. Zomato has been in the news for a variety of wrong reasons including ridiculous work conditions for its delivery boys who have often been caught stealing from the orders they are fulfilling. (“Zomato delivery boy seen consuming food from sealed orders in a video” – ETtech, 11 December 2018)
2. Because this does not necessarily mean that the outlets are in Kopar Khairane only. The list contains ALL the outlets that are willing to deliver to my address, which is why these places were also considered.
3. According to a Medium article by The Indian Restaurateur (cited elsewhere in this editorial), Zomato also engages in surveying and addition of restaurants at its own will without the solicitation of the restaurant owners. While the listing goes live without the knowledge or approval of the owner, the owner cannot control it unless he ‘claims’ it. This has been seen as coercion by the author. (The Zomato Story – 26 March 2018)
4. It has a TrustScore of 1.5 out of 10. Foodpanda 1.1 out of 10 with 81 reviews. UberEats 0.3 out of 10 with 5200+ reviews.

The Menace of Slow Walkers

The train is scheduled to arrive at Currey Road station at 7.34 PM and leave for Thane a few seconds later. It’s 7.20 PM now and I have just left my office building in Lower Parel, all poised with shoelaces tied tight so that I can walk briskly and skillfully manoeuvre the potholes on the road and hands-free as I like to be all the time. I take a right from the exit of the building into the noisy roadside market and bam! I see the first of the type of people that is only second to the other menacing type of commuter people (the 4th person on a Mumbai local seat) you find in Mumbai: slow walkers.

I bump into several more after that first interaction, taking me more than 10 minutes (compared to the otherwise 5-minute dash during non-peak hours) to reach the station, and I end up missing the train. Of course, I can leave 5 minutes early from work if I really want to catch that 7.24 Mumbai CST-sourced train but that’s not the point of this rant. So, let’s focus on slow walkers, some of their most nefarious qualities, and why I think they are a threat to the society at large.

Slow Walkers in Mumbai City

For a long-time walker and public transit commuter like me, the existence of slow walkers is something more than a source of irritation. They are a menace to the existence and forward-movement (literally in both life and on the road) of fast walkers simply because they slow everyone around them down.

a mumbai street
How many slow walkers can you spot in this Mumbai street? / Creative Commons

A true slow walker is someone who obstructs traffic by walking at a pace lower than the average. There are several reasons why someone would be tagged a slow walker. Reasons like short legs or short strides (both usually interchangeable), simultaneous use of mobile phones or headphones (usually also making the wearer look like a nut), talking on the phone while chewing the microphone to death by bacteria, talking to another slow walker, moderate or heavy activities like munching on a burger, looking for a cell of an atom in the bag, daydreaming, and voluntary slow walking. The last one, and so it sounds, is the most annoying of all.

I haven’t gone beyond Palghar, so I don’t know what the situation is in other countries. Hence, I will talk about and for the Maximum City alone. In Mumbai, slow walkers do not realise that they are moving slowly and testing the patience of everyone currently behind them and who will be behind them in the next few seconds, not even when a fast walker overtakes them. It is pretty normal for them to take their own sweet time to wherever they are going, which makes me even madder. But that’s the case if you leave them alone and go past them without giving them the eye or a scoff.

In the case you do, you are sure to receive an invisible expletive or two, possibly in the natural cursing tongue of the city specially used for emphasis: Marathi. In Lower Parel, you may also get an English “Dude” or “Relax” or their Hindi equivalents. It’s also fascinating to see the facial expressions, a lot diverse and nuanced than those by the people who pay good money to their teachers to ace one or two as part of their Bharatanatyam course. None of them are appealing to hear, if you hear that is, because as a fast walker if you are not hitting a speed of at least 4 kilometers per hour, you are in the middle of the spectrum. And no one writes about you.

Mumbai’s slow walkers, I feel, may not be much different than those found in New York or Beijing. Of course, the congestion here is extreme and that might add to the anxiety of individuals. The only difference that I assume makes sense to point out here is that they are not just present on the streets in the forms of students, daily wage workers, beggars, beggars in a suit, Grofers delivery guys when they are on foot, government officials with the trademark black boxy side bag, and loafers to name a few but are also found higher on the vertical plane. Be it metro stations or skywalks that will break down tomorrow, cause a few casualties, and then closed down for repairs or office premises in highrises, slow walkers have marked their presence and they will pull off their same slow-walkedness with unparalleled panache and audacity. Try sprinting from your desk to the loo and you will see what I’m talking about.

A crowded Mumbai street
This is an example of what I see in front of me every day when I leave from work. / Creative Commons

According to the TomTom Traffic Index 2018 which surveyed 403 cities across 56 countries on 6 continents, Mumbai is the most crowded city with a congestion level of a startling 63%. To put that into perspective, I require an extra travel time of 63% to go from A to B in the city than it takes on an average to do it in uncongested conditions.[1]TomTom methodology: An overall congestion level of 36% means that the extra travel time is 36% more than an average trip would take during uncongested conditions. (https://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/traffic-index/about) The difference is huge if I calculate the total extra time needed for an entire year and then place it alongside other data like the number of steps, number of kilometers walked, and the money spent on my imaginary gymnasium membership.

The Quality of a Slow Walker

A slow walker on the street is like a founder of a multi-level marketing campaign. They are themselves a blemish on Earth but then conspire to create a little gang of lesser blemishes that are collectively not doing any good to the society. Do keep in mind that such campaigns target both gullible persons and intelligent persons and they manage to convert both types. A slow walker, in sheer semblance, slows down both other slow walkers as well as fast walkers. It’s the perfect analogy.

Their quality is so contagious that the moment you come in contact with them it stops being their quality and starts becoming that of the people they affect. Take, for instance, the slowness itself. You come across a dozen of slow walkers strategically placed across the path to your destination and you bump into each one of them, hindering your pace and eventually delaying your arrival at the destination. The slow-walking quality of the six people on the street has converted into the slowness of your own strides which at once were so praise-worthy you could have won an amateur sprint race.

They also add to your exasperation, not just at the thought of reaching your destination late but also at being handed a speed breaker without solicitation. It is like those Ola and Uber drivers who have their vehicles installed with speed limiters. They can’t go beyond 80 kmph and that adds to the annoyance of the drivers as well as those that they are ferrying (sometimes without the other more essential safety standards, I should add). Ask me!

Meeting a slow walker on a Mumbai road is particularly annoying because most of us fast walkers follow a pre-determined line of path like those sprinters do in a running track. We mindmap and follow this track to avoid potholes, puddles, animal dung, relatives, and many other unpleasant things. Bumping into a slow walker means changing this track abruptly, and once that happens, you have lost your planning. The road ahead becomes an open sea of bitumen and concrete and plastic without a plan or a map, making you look like a fifteenth-century sailor out on the sea hoping to become Amerigo Vespucci. Safe to say that I now add slow walkers to that list above.

The above situation worsens if you are out there during peak time. Conditions around railway stations in Mumbai are far worse and I personally hold a record of meeting 13 slow walkers one after another outside Lower Parel station as if the whole universe is trying to conspire against me despite me simply wanting to reach where I want to be and having read the book.

In Mumbai, another variation that you see is of slow walkers in groups. Those are the worst because you can’t even give them the eye for there is the risk of being manhandled. Not much difference in a group of civilized people and a group of uncivilized people in India. These are the hard times and any group of more than two people pose a risk to an individual and other groups of more than two. Such is the complementing atmosphere colored by the recent effervescence of nationalist politics in the country. If you are a woman, things will almost surely go south because then there is also the danger of someone out of that group flashing at you or executing a more unpleasant activity or engaging in a crime like it’s routine stuff.

The streets are definitely not safe and we all know that. We don’t need one more element that makes it inhabitable.

A Threat to Society

Well, I know what your first thought is. And I agree. Slow walkers are not a threat to society. They are just innocuous beings trying to come in terms with their inability to match the average speed of streetwalkers. And the blame is not on them. It’s on us. On me.

So much rant about people walking slower than you. If such a small thing can demand such a long article, then there is a lot to introspect about where my anxieties and insecurities lie. If it takes me 10+ minutes to reach from A to B instead of 5 minutes, why is it affecting me so much? Where am I going so quickly? Of course, not to summit a peak strewn with garbage. Then what is the hurry? Why so much animosity towards my fellow brethren?

I think it is time to ask ourselves why we hate slow walkers so much and then scramble for an urgent solution to put all of it to an end. Chelsea Wald at Nautilus thinks it’s got to do with our dwindling patience levels, but she does not provide a solution. So, let me try.

a man in a hurry
If I was in a hurry and had the obnoxious habit of walking on an escalator, this would be me / Creative Commons

The easiest and the best solution is to not be in a hurry. Do half the things that you have planned for the day and then take a break in the time that you had allotted for the other half. Stipulate more time for commute and do it like you would do the waking-up chore on a lazy Sunday. As far as I know, none of us wants to be in a hurry nor there is a task that needs an urgent action.

Tomorrow, leave from work at the same time as you usually do and put a relaxed gait forward. If you have been catching the 7.37 PM train, try taking the 7.47 PM train. I never thought I would say this but the only way to stop hating slow walkers is to gradually become one. Start now.

PS – The good thing about the article is that no one identifies themselves as a slow walker. So, this cannot be seen as a direct attack on them. I’m not looking forward to receiving death threats considering the over-sensitive atmosphere that has blanketed India since 2014. TN.

footnotes   [ + ]

1. TomTom methodology: An overall congestion level of 36% means that the extra travel time is 36% more than an average trip would take during uncongested conditions. (https://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/traffic-index/about)

The Time I Stole a Rotring Pencil

I have been thinking a lot about pen pencils these days, their gradual decline in sales over the past decade owing to a faster decline in people preferring to write on paper over type, and the lack of options when one goes shopping at a stationery store. “Here you go,” said the shopkeeper as he opened a flat plastic box containing several colorful pen pencils. None of them of a notable brand, so I asked him for one. He then showed me pen pencils made by Cello, Faber-Castell, and Camlin. No sight of Rotring or Staedtler and I did not dare pronounce the words for he would have taken me for a madman. I don’t blame him because no one buys pen pencils these days the way they used to ten years ago. No one other than the New York Magazine spends much time in selecting a pen these days the way they used to five years ago. And no one talks about stealing pens from their friends like they have been doing since they invented stationery. You may call me a madman for confessing the crime. But I can’t stop thinking about pen pencils and the time when I stole a distinctive yellow Rotring Tikky II mechanical pen pencil from a classmate during my diploma days sometime between 2009 and 2011.

I don’t remember the details of how it found its way into my person but I can assure you that it must have been a voluntary move. Nothing happens by chance in this world and I can guess how my love for stationery must have helped me bag that big boy when its original owner was not looking. I was focusing on the impending horror of a degree education at that time, but I clearly remember the nature of the person I stole it from. He was a good young guy nearing adolescence, the only son born to possible rich parents who could either afford to buy him a Rotring pen pencil or had wealthy friends or business partners who could buy it from the West or the home country Germany itself and gift it to their son. Either way, he didn’t take care of it much because one, it was easy for me to steal it, and two, he seemed unperturbed after it went missing. As a young, taciturn and still slightly cunning for his actions, I would keep an eye on him on the days after the crime was committed. Nothing. No signs of irritation nor did the principal or head of department come to our class to investigate about a missing pen pencil. I was safe.

Rotring Tikky II pen pencil yellow
An example of the yellow Rotring Tikky 2 pencil I stole with its trademark grip, currently not in production. They have an upgraded version of it now. / © Souq.com

I also don’t remember having used it much. Because I had this common life feature of saving the best for last and not using it lest I damage it or use it up completely, my memories with the pen pencil are short-lived. I was not much into reading either at that time, which is where I use it extensively these days in case you’re wondering why I visited the stationery store before. I have a good habit of scribbling thoughts and underlining sentences while reading, which helps me retain stuff months, years after I have read a book. So, a pen pencil is absolutely essential if you are a reader.

I don’t think I used the Rotring pen pencil any more than the time it takes for a single 0.5mm lead to finish itself either by chafing itself on paper till the last bit of graphite or through the easier, more common, and the classic, irritating way of fracturing itself by the time you have reached 60% or so of a single lead. The USP of the Rotring pencil – as compared to other local, cheaper ones that we get in India – is that when you click and release, the chuck (that holds the lead in place) does not slide back. It stays there, giving you enough lead to write with in a single press. Most popular alternatives that we have today need to be pressed a couple times before you get the perfect lead-to-nib ratio in order to write without breaking it. It was also heavier than other pencils, and even some popular pens like Lexi 5, Racer Gel, Cello Papersoft, and Cello Gripper. You felt like you were holding a piece of something royal you can’t really figure out what. Maybe that’s why Rotring is still so active in the stationery business.

What I do remember, however, is the immediate fate of the stolen pen pencil. It did not last long with me as soon after my initial excitement over its acquisition I misplaced it. I had at least four different pencils at that time and only the Rotring left me without saying a goodbye. I have not ruled out the possibility of someone having stolen it from me and neither of the possibility that that someone could be its original owner. All I know is that my fleeting experience with the pencil really got me. In a way, it really pushed me off to this utter madness about stationery that I have maintained even after starting my career in marketing.

It is how I got introduced into this unknown field of consumer products, a field higher than that of the common things you see in the shops and online stores. For every product that you buy there is a better, costlier version which if you manage to buy is going to make going back to the lighter, cheaper version very difficult. The same way I haven’t been able to make peace with all the pen pencils that I have owned since then, none of which have been a Rotring. You and I know both know the reason. TN.

Bombay and Alienation: Interview with Island City’s Ruchika Oberoi

Disclaimer: I talked to Ms. Oberoi in 2016 on phone soon after the premiere of her film Island City at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival. This was originally written for The Review Monk but never published due to last minute edits. I am publishing this today without her approval.


Island City is the dazzling debut feature by Ruchika Oberoi who has already collected accolades for writing from various major film festivals around the world.

Her anthology film consists of three stories that sample themes of alienation and vapidity in the city of Bombay (Mumbai). Oberoi’s characters are ordinary people, whose tragic narratives have been carved from her own experiences as an outsider. She came to Bombay after graduation. Island City, starring Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Amruta Subhash, which won the FEDEORA prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015, is about people trying to find hope and meaning in a life without substance. Excerpts from the interview with director Ruchika Oberoi:

Island City is about three stories – three short stories that talk, in some way or the other, about the chilling solitude of living a fast-paced life in Mumbai. What was the inspiration behind these stories?

Being a Bombay-ite and living here for so many years definitely did help. But most importantly, not being born in Bombay, and experiencing the city as an outsider really was the starting point for these stories. I have lived in so many places in India including Bihar and Darjeeling, and then I came to Bombay only after my college. At that time, a lot of things affected me, and many years later, when I began to write the script for Island City, the vivid experiences of Bombay came back to me. I wanted to write about the arrival and adherence of Western culture in the city’s work ethics – the corporate culture – which is now an integral part of the system.

Island City still
Vinay Pathak in a scene from Island City / © NFDC

Overall, my aim was to capture the tragedy of the working class – the middle class – especially where women find themselves circumscribed within the household with no scope of chasing their dreams and aspirations. I was working on these stories separately, and in the case of the third short, “Contact”, it was based on a story written by my husband. But, while the original idea was for a TV serial, I worked upon it and created a story within the working class milieu. The characters, played by Tannishtha Chatterjee and Chandan Roy Sanyal, are both working people and are trying to figure out life through romance and matrimony, respectively. Later, at some point of time, I decided to bring these stories together and furnish it as an anthology. However, these stories are not about any one thing, but about many things at once. In terms of plot, they have more to do with the city of Bombay and alienation.

The first story, “Fun Committee”, starring Vinay Pathak was inspired by an incident involving your spouse. Can you tell us more about that?

My husband was working with a bank and was not really happy with the job. He was contemplating moving on, and finally when he did, the bank asked him to join back. Although, even after joining he was not very happy with the projects. One day, after coming home from work, he was emptying his pockets when some bright-coloured coupons fell out. So, when I asked him about them, he told me that those coupons were part of his bank’s ‘fun committee’ department which distributes such freebies and vouchers to employees to keep their spirit up. I found this idea very interesting and decided to carve it into a story.

That’s how “Fun Committee” was born, which is indicative of the present corporate culture, where you have jobs that suck out all the fun from your life. Everything that you do is decided by the committee who also has the final say in your happiness quotient. A sense of black comic story is what it is.

(Note – I wrote about this company culture on my LinkedIn.)

So, do you have a favorite? From your three stories?

No. No favorites, because all three talk about diverse things that are primarily only related by the city in which they are based in. They have different tones, but similar culminations. Also, after watching the film, a lot of people came to me during festival screenings and told me that they could connect with the first story or the third one. Even in Venice, lots of people were vocal about their connections with the second story, “Ghost in the Machine”. So, it is evident that obsession with the idiot box is not local, but universal. While some could connect with the first one, some found the second one more relatable, with others finding the third short more interesting. So, basically, since the stories talk about ordinary people,
they were perceived well.

Tannishtha Chatterjee, Chandan Sanyal in Island City
Tannishtha Chatterjee and Chandan Sanyal in a scene from Island City / © NFDC

The underlying theme of the stories is slightly offbeat. For example, in “Fun Committee” we have Vinay Pathak’s character going on an impromptu fun ride organized by his employer. How did you market this to your artists and producers?

Vinay was one of the first to read the script and he instantly liked it. Similarly, the producers actually went for the quirkiness of the stories – the offbeat nature of the stories that you mention – that’s what worked for me. I didn’t have to market it in anyway. The stories are black and slightly oblique, which is the USP of the film. That was the thing that everybody liked and connected with the film as a whole.

The Hollywood Reporter compares “Fun Committee” with the Orwellian concept of Big Brother. What do you think? Is the semblance real?

Sure. George Orwell’s 1984 was there in my mind when I was crafting the story, although it is not overtly thick as the novel. When you have read these books about dystopia and the idea of Big Brother, they are always present in your subconscious. That is why you connect with these stories in the first place. That is why when my husband described the coupons he had got from his office, I could connect the dots and create what is “Fun Committee”. So, yes, definitely there are Orwellian elements in the story – as in the voice that Vinay’s character follows, in the short. The voice is totally disconnected from the activities that are happening. For a moment, we wonder if it’s really of a real person, is it really a fun committee, or is it a machine, or a program which has no idea what’s going on. What if this program goes wrong and it won’t be able to deal with it or fix it? Something of this nature is currently happening around us, wouldn’t you say?

What genre would you collectively place this anthology in? Black comedy? Tragedy? Or is it genre- neutral?

They have diverse tones. So, collectively, I would put them in the tragic-comedy genre with traces of black humor. And the final story with Tannishtha – it does have bit of a romance in it. But, for me, it is not very important to set the stories in a single tone. All of them are interesting, per se, and together they have a voice that communicates the city’s core as it currently stands.

Could Island City be based on another city in the world and still be similar?

Absolutely! I can’t say any particular city, but like I said, in Venice, the audience could relate with the second story where people sometimes forget their own life owing to their habit of TV-watching. Talking about the first story, the entire concept is about a Western culture, so it connects with a universal audience. Of course, the working class conditions will be different, but in general, the essence remains the same. Island City has played in different countries like Colombia and in the States, and the fact is that people have managed to connect with the stories.

How was it to win the FEDEORA prize at Venice?

Totally unexpected. To even get selected was a big thing for us. I personally thought it was difficult to get selected mostly because it’s not that serious a film. Although it does deal with serious issues, it is narrated in a dark humorous way. But, the selectors were unanimous in their praise for the film and they promoted it very well from their side. It was screened at a huge hall with 500 occupants, and it was jam-packed. At the end, we even received a standing ovation. Overall, it was a wonderful experience for the whole crew, and afterwards when we won the prize, we were sort of ecstatic. At the end of the day, festival selections and awards are what build credibility for you as a filmmaker and your independent films. Such treats provide hope to us that, yes, films like this are worth people’s time.

Ruchika Oberoi
Ruchika Oberoi / © Loudspeaker Media

What do you think about independent films in India? How are they perceived? Will the trend change?

As in, have people started accepting independent films which convey strong messages? I know that more and more are being made here in India, but the artists are not making much money. I think, with the digital media coming in, it has been easier than ever to get a film out there; at least the publicity part. Great films are definitely happening in India and are competing at major film festivals around the world. However, I am not sure whether the public is watching it or not. There are certain people – the youth – who are interested in watching a different kind of cinema, but I don’t know why it snaps there. The interest and content are not connecting with each other.

I also don’t know if filmmakers even recover the costs. But, we have to keep doing what we do and hope that somewhere down the line, things will change for us. The audience also does complain about a lack of quality films, but at a time, when there are films which are also easily available to watch, why don’t they give it a try? I can sense that producers are trying to bring content and relevant audiences together through digital and social media. And that’s a good thing for this part of the industry.

Last year when we talked, you told me you were trying to find a distributor for the film in India. Can you share the experience? What challenges did you face?

I was not involved much in the distribution side of things. Sure, we had NFDC with us which gave us all the support we needed. As you know, NFDC is of great help to independent cinema filmmakers, and they were sure that they were going to give it a wide release. We were happy with the press the film was getting and we wanted to get good distributors. Moreover, it was our decision to let the film travel for a year and let it make a name for itself before getting a theatrical release. So, that’s why it premiered last year (2015) in September at Venice and now 12 months later, it is releasing nationwide on September 2nd (2016). We are lucky to have NFDC and Drishyam Films supporting us.

Trailer of Island City

What was the budget of Island City like? Do you plan to do big-budget films?

The budget was pretty low, but the film was not based on a budget. The actors definitely helped by cutting down their fees; otherwise, it would not have been possible to complete the film. Plus, I cannot outline a script on a budget. It has to interest me and help in my own understanding of the medium and of myself – only then will I write it. For me, filmmaking is not really about the budget.

Do you have anything in the pipeline?

Nothing right now. I do have an idea in mind, but I think I am going to take a brief break for a couple of months, get some rest, and then get back to writing.

One last for the audience: why should people go and watch the film starting this weekend?

I think people should go and watch it just to be entertained and to dive into a series of poignant stories. No other reason at all.

Island City, directed by Ruchika Oberoi and produced by NFDC in association with Drishyam Films released September 2, 2016 across India and is available to watch on Hotstar.

Observations During My May 2019 Kerala Visit

I took the courage to apply for a week-long leave at work so that I could spend some quiet time with my family at our heirloom house in an Ernakulam town in Kerala, India. These are what I saw there between 18 May and 25 May. My photography skills are obviously weak.

cinema ticket alley in kerala
The classic cinema ticket alley riddled with graffiti at Maria single-screen theater in Muvattupuzha
Velloorkunnam temple
Entrance of Velloorkunnam temple in Muvattupuzha
Types of cinema tickets
3 types of movie tickets from – a single screen (Maria) and multiplexes (PVR, Carnival)
Merriboy icecream
A south Indian specialty – Tender coconut ice cream from Merriboy
Rains in India fall first in Kerala
Sharjah Shake
The famous Sharjah Shake of Kerala
Kalady temple stupa
The popular temple stupa of Kalady
Coconut breaking in temples
The omnipresent coconut breaking trench at every other temple across south India
Muvattupuzha village
The view from my place in Muvattupuzha

The climate was not so pleasant yet I made a few observations that seem interesting:

  • People prefer train travel primarily because they can take their entire world with them as opposed to flights despite there being a higher limit of 150 kilograms[1]In AC first class including free allowance of 70 kilograms (erail.in) that no one follows
  • Most high-end hotels/restaurants in Kerala have a VIP lounge room that can be only accessed through the backdoor. This is frequented by politicians and friends of owners
  • Hiring a cab in Kerala costs you more because most drivers include return trip expenses in the final price. This is because distances more than 30 kilometers are considered intercity travel (for example, from Cochin International Airport to Kothamangalam)
  • It is very difficult to rent a private vehicle for self-drive in Kerala without a reference. This is because of the increasing use of such vehicles to engage in terrorism and other anti-social activities
  • Sewage and bad water treatment in Ernakulam and surrounding areas is not as fine and safe as you think it is. There is a peculiar stench everywhere in the city and even around Lulu Mall, aggravated by a poor drainage system
  • Single-screen theaters usually skip the national anthem (which is a welcome move if you ask me)
  • Most temples in Kerala do not allow you to enter if you are wearing “western clothes”. Additionally, men need to be in a veshti and not wearing anything on top as part of their traditional and cultural limitations
  • Public bus travel is akin to daredevilism; but they will stop in the middle of the road if you show a hand.

Have you observed any peculiar things when in Kerala? Let’s discuss. TN.

footnotes   [ + ]

1. In AC first class including free allowance of 70 kilograms (erail.in)