A Divali Gift to yourself

Happy Divali!
This is a time for feasting, spending time with friends and family.
Its a time when all of us invest in something for our homes, get gifts for near and dear ones…
All of us buy something for ourselves… new clothes, jewellery, electronics to name just a few…

Yet we often overlook an important aspect…
Our health!
No, this is not another post about healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
I am talking about health insurance.

Being self employed has several advantages but it also means having to pay your own bills for health care.
In India, we hesitate to visit the government hospitals in case of any problems, except politicos and top babus of course.
For the rest of us, private care is the care of choice.
But it means hefty bills.
In case of an emergency most private hospitals demand a cash advance of thousands of rupees before the patient is admitted.

This can be create extremely tense moments for the caretakers and patient as well.
Having valid health insurance can help tide over such an emergency. There are several types of health insurance but in my experience, the cashless variety is the best. In case of an emergency, one has to approach the empaneled hospitals and there are no worries about paying bills. In such policies, usually the bill is settled directly by the insurer.
The patient can simply focus all energies on regaining health.

What’s more, premium paid for health insurance gives us tax breaks and successive renewals after a ‘no-claim’ period may offer a premium rebate as well!

Has this motivated you to buy a health insurance policy? Here are a few tips:
Do a thorough market survey for products by different insurance firms. For baby-boomers, some medical tests may be required before buying the policy- the cost may be covered by the insurer. Its important to know that a new policy may not cover existing medical conditions.

In case you use the services of an insurance agent, you must ask pointed questions if the policy being sold to you meets your needs. Often agents mis-sell policies or one lands up holding holding one that does not cover your requirements. Find out the procedure to be followed in case of an emergency and make sure everyone at home knows it. If any documents (or copies thereof) are to be produced in case of an emergency, keep them in a separate clearly marked envelope in an easily accessible place. Regularly check with the insurer about list of empaneled hospitals- it may change subject to company or hospital policies.

Those who do not have health insurance or did not bother to renew it, consider gifting yourself a policy this Divali.
Its worth it!

Have a healthy prosperous year ahead!

Disclaimer: I am not an insurance agent nor do I work for any insurance firm!

The talking newspaper ad…

We consumers are by now quite used to getting free samples of shampoos, tea, sugar-free sweeteners in the newspaper. Yet this morning’s edition took the cake…
I opened the paper and was caught unawares by a strange sound.
It was from a small square box that was stuck on the last page.
It was an ad for the new Volkswagen sedan- the Vento.

The black box continued to ‘talk’ till it was covered. I did not test its battery life as I had more important things to catch up with.

I am sure sales of the newspaper must have benefited in this campaign as well!! To top it all, the ad (hence the product) will remain in the spot light for some time to come- obviously continuing to advertise the product long after the newspapers are sold to the kabadiwala
If it makes to a case study the ad will get immortalised!

Read about the ad in the ET here (http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/services/advertising/Volkswagen-pushes-new-Vento-with-talking-print-advertisement/articleshow/6600104.cms)
You can also watch it on You Tube here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOw-SWlL2ZE)

Long live the consumer!


Today is Ganesh Chaturthi. The day next few days Pune city will wear a totally festive look, when swine flu, corruption in the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth games, rising prices, low rain fall, all fade in the background.

A must-prepare dish for this festival is Modak– the favourite dish of Ganesh. For the non-Maharashtrian, Modak can be crudely compared to a momo with a sweet coconut stuffing. But that’s where the comparison ends [before I get lambasted for comparing this ‘sugran‘ (marathi word for masterchef) item to a momo…]

Only the best quality rice is used to prepare the flour for the covering. Of course its available ready made but a true sugran will make it herself. The coconut stuffing can be sweetened with jaggery or sugar. The creative part is in moulding the modak so its delicate pleats are visible even after steaming. Modak is best enjoyed with a generous helping of ‘toop‘ (ghee/clarified butter).

Catering to the need of innovation, sweet shops in Pune now offer kajoo modak (cashew), amba modak (mango), khava modak, chocolate modak (may be full chocolate or with a coconut centre) just to name a few. Chitale Bandhu is the shop for these but others offer these varieties as well.

Ganapati Bappa Moraya!

Hurray for retail!

I had ditched the local bania and unreservedly surrendered to the glitzy new retail outlet near my home. The orderly display and music, apparently huge discounts were infinitely a better atmosphere to shop in than the crowded stuffy shop next door. I was an ‘exclusive’ member of as many of retail clubs as the city had to offer. This made me privy to sale previews, encashable points on future purchases etc. None of the old style stores held my attraction or loyalty any more.

As I wandered through the store on my last visit commenting on a lack of sufficient variety in breakfast cereals, I accidentally dislodged two bottles of rose syrup jutting out of the shelf. The sound of breaking glass was drowned by my pounding heartbeats! I watched in horror as the red syrupy amoeba spread fast on the pristine white floor glaring accusingly at me. Some of my fellow shoppers stared at me with pity and others with condescension. I wished a hole would open up in the ground and swallow me up!

The store staff came around to clean the mess as I jabbered incoherently about paying for the damages. Of course I had had my share of broken bottles, glasses and cups but these were in the safety of my kingdom, namely my home. This was an entirely different cup of tea! I mentally began counting notes in my purse and began to rework my shopping list for the day in order to cater for this unexpected ‘purchase’. The plastic route was unavailable since I was awaiting a renewal of my credit card.

The area having been cleaned up I hurried through the rest of my purchases and landed up at the billing counter ready to pay for my deeds! I explained my predicament to the salesperson and hoped the matter would end there. It was not to be. I saw the manager approaching with a determined look and I feared the worst. Again I slipped into explanations of the accidental breakage and my willingness to pay for the same. The manager had a tough time to get a word into our largely one-sided conversation. As I finally stopped for breath, he grabbed the chance to say his bit!
It took a minute for my splintered brain to grasp what he had said. Seeing me gulping like a fish he gently repeated there was no need to pay- they would account for the bottle as a damaged piece. As the bit of information sank in I was overcome with contrition. I had been careless and this seemed to be the perfect way of ensuring I did not perform an encore! But there was more to come. The manager was profusely apologetic for providing only eight varieties of breakfast cereals and promised me the full range in a couple of day’s time. You see he had overheard my earlier comments.
I came away from the store thoroughly bewildered. The manager’s one sentence had ensured a permanent loyal consumer at his store. I now walk around the store with my hands crossed behind my back or safely folded in front. I have no wish to test if the store’s policies are unchanged!
Some of the big outlets offer exchange programs for old clothes, newspapers or even crockery! I hear foreign retail giants too are entering our markets. I was encouraged by my NRI relatives comments that the stores compared favourably with the ones abroad.
If the retail format gives me a comfortable shopping experience, with discounts, home delivery, gifts etc, what more do I need? Retail zindabad!
Happy Shopping!
First published here on MSN Contribute.

New Kid on the Block

Puneites now have another choice for their dahi (curd) needs with Danone launching its Dahi in Pune. Now making (setting) dahi at home is something innate to every Maharashtrian household. Buying it was never an option other then when returning from a journey or due to sudden guests.
Yet come the retail revolution we are spoilt for choice. Danone’s dahi in Pune has illustrious company : dahi by Amul (Masti brand), Nestle, Britannia, Gowardhan (Go) in addition to local biggie Chitale Dairy. Of course one can buy dahi loose from the local mithai store but that is often extremely sour.

For those of you keen to know the hard money facts behind this dahi/doodh market, click here and here.

Here is a homemakers perspective on the brands mentioned above. I have not mentioned costs and they usually vary by a couple of rupees. For me the deciding factors are taste, texture and ofcourse if it can be ‘reused’ or not (to set another bowl at home..)

  • Amul Masti: neighbourhood kirana stores usually stock this brand instead of Nestle. The dahi is often sour and most importantly does not work as a starter to set your own dahi at home. Texture is good.

I was told that dahi is prepared commercially using ‘designer’ bacteria. These become inactive once the milk is set into curds hence useless as starters. This is also the reason why the dahi does not turn sour.

  • Nestle: has many options and all have ‘live’ culture. This means a spoonful of this dahi can be used to set a delicious bowl at home. All varieties including NesVita are firm in texture and almost always sweet, but not often stocked by kirana stores. It also offers a range of flavoured yoghurts that are from all accounts excellent.

Don’t know if its because of margins or distributor incentives or customer preferences…

  • Britannia: again with ‘live’ culture and usually sweet to taste. Not available freely. Texture and taste are good.
  • Go: a recent entrant but does not have a ‘live’ culture. Texture needs improvement as does taste. Freely available at kirana stores.
  • Danone: the new ‘kid’ on the block in Pune is actually an European dairy major. I am not an authority to predict its success in this market segment but I do know this dahi is a good product. It did not seem to have ‘live’ culture (I did put on my glasses to read the fine print the packaging but could not figure out!). Taste and texture were good. I have not seen many ads other than huge hoardings and posters at the point of purchase.

As for me, my vote goes to Nestle- any variant. Danone is a close second choice provided its freely available!!
Disclosures: other than hopes of my kirana stocking this brand, I have no interests in the company!!! This would save me the journey to a supermarket and parking hassles!!

Sleeper Buses

Recently we had to undertake an overnight road journey and taking a bus seemed the ideal option. A previous experience had been quite satisfactory hence making this decision was easy. That’s when a well wisher suggested taking a sleeper bus. Many years ago we travelled from Bhuj to Ahmedabad on a sleeper bus. That too was a fairly pleasant experience despite being a non A/C coach.

We went ahead and booked for a sleeper coach happy that this time it was an A/C one. The bus was on time which seemed to be a good omen. Wow, services seemed surely on an up trend now…
We got our first shock the moment we stepped into the sleeper coach. It had a central aisle and ‘coupes’ on either side with a lower and upper berth.
This was the shocking part- the allocation was two (TWO- 2) people to ONE (1) berth!!!!!

We were aghast. How was one to ‘share’ this barely 3 feet wide by six feet long space with a total stranger? The fact that the ‘berth’ had a curtain, was covered with a filthy sheet and provided with much used and unwashed blankets did nothing to ease the developing anger.

Worse, the other passengers did not seem hassled at all- may be this was because most were young couples… Our protests fell on deaf ears and we could do nothing more than sit around stewing about our misguided choice. As the bus zoomed (yes the driver seemed to be an ex-Formula one driver) over the steep ghat (steep hill) roads, there was nothing to cling on to to stay up right.
For the brief time that I did lie down, I sorely felt a need for straps similar to seat belts to hold down the sleeping form as I was tossed from side to side. Things are much worse if you get the upper berth.
For both lower and upper berths there is not much of window space- so if you thought you could spend time looking at the passing countryside- forget it.

For once I did not complain of the driver’s skills as the journey was apparently over sooner than later. The moment we got off, we changed the return journey to a regular seating bus. Being peak holiday time and short notice there was no way we could have got train reservations. For the record, the Bhuj-Ahmedabad journey was on coach with one person per berth.

For those mulling a ticket on a high tech sleeper coach, do find out what is the berth layout when you buy your tickets. Else be prepared for a ‘cozy’ ride to wherever-it-is that you are going…

As Much as You Can

While the Thali system of lunch or dinner (Maharashtrian/Gujarathi style cuisine) has been around since my childhood, a more general Indo-western style buffet is fairly common in Pune now. I am sure that must be the case in other parts of India as well.
Here is a list of some buffet’s. Most of these are in the range of around Rs 500/ per person as of now.
Seasons at Aundh offers a buffet at Flavours. This is an excellent offering the best part being for those who dont want to gorge on the full menu can opt for smaller combos of only Soup+ Starter or Soup+ Starter+Sweet – at a lower rate of course. The meal includes a soft drink/beer and coffee to end the meal. Obviously the offering may change from time to time and what I have written is what we have enjoyed. The restaurant is not very big but the decor is simple and stunning. Valet Parking available.

Barbeque Nation at Kalyani Nagar (behind Dass Showroom) and also at Balewadi. Unbeatable for its starter range that is served sizzling right at your table. The pasta, chat and seafood counter is a good change. Beverages are to be ordered (and charged) separately. The staff works tirelessly, smilingly as you try to pause between courses to give your digestive system a breather… The sweet counter offers its delicacies in small bite sized portions. An excellent idea me thinks.
My suggestion- visit for lunch so you can do full justice. The chain of restaurants is present across India, check out the one in your city and do book a table to avoid waiting outside…

FoodLink: at ICC: We have not yet visited this place but has got some good reviews. These are priced lower.

Nawab in Camp: Opposite Poona Club. North Indian Food- mainly Lucknow style.

Puran da Dhaba at Pride Hotel: Dhaba style food. The restaurant is decorated like a Dhaba (obviously no air conditioning). Mehendi is a plus but bangles (choodivala) and the astrologer will serve you at an additional charge.

All Stir Fry and Not Just Jazz By The Bay at E-Square on University Road also offer soup/salad/sandwich buffets. Different combinations (at different price points) are available. Worth a dekkho. We have not yet sampled their offerings.

In addition most hotels offer seasonal specialty themed buffets ranging from Christmas or nation specific food etc. Check the Pune dailies for whats on offer when you feel like eating till you drop.
If you know of any more such buffer spreads do let us know.
Eat As Much as You Can!!

Silicone Heaven

Being Christmas Day, I decided to investigate some stores that stocked baking items hoping to pick up some things that usually are hard to find or not available in Pune. I had some luck in that department but came across something different… Silicone
Silicone baking ware.
Yes apparently the stuff can be used to bake our cakes, muffins and so on in the oven and microwave.

Here is what I saw: the pans, tins, trays were completely flexible and were kept folded up on the shelf. That seemed to be a huge plus considering the space challenges in our kitchens. I came across this article on Kitchen Butterfly that gives you an in depth idea of what this stuff is, its pros and cons. There are several accompanying pictures so worth reading if you do plan to acquire these new age baking tins. Spatulas, pastry brushes made of silicone were also available. Cost wise the silicone bake ware was modestly costlier than the conventional stuff.

I still need to find out if using silicone to cook will harm our health in any way. And the environment. Once I get answers to these two questions, I may go in for these easy to clean, easy to store silicone bake ware.
Happy Christmas!

Khandeshi Mande

Last week Puneites were spoilt for choice on what to do on the weekend. There was something for the foodies (the Bhimthadi Jatra) and the geeks as well (the IT expo). The Bhimthadi Jatra held on the grounds of the Agriculture college was a showcase for women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs) in Maharashtra. There were over 500 stalls by women entrepreneurs and there are no prizes for guessing what most of the stalls were devoted to!
That’s right Food!!

And what a variety! Absolutely Desi (and I mean from the Marathi heartland) stuff cooked in the authentic manner right in front of you. Fish, chicken, mutton, bhakri, bhajee and more.. served piping hot by ladies who were keen to show that had what it took to run a business even if they were rarely featured in glossy business mags. The best was each took pride in what she did had a good idea of the economics involved and had good marketing skills. I guess there’s more than one place to learn business skills other than ivy league B-schools and that’s the school of Life!

But here is something that was my star of the foodie stalls. Khandeshi Mande stuffed with Puran. To the uninitiated these are huge (around 18″ diameter) puran poli that reach this size not with a rolling pin but by actually stretching it out by hand.

There were two stalls and we had to book and await our turn to get the Mande. Each was priced at Rs 35 but the process of watching the ladies make it was a delight. You may have heard of pizza makers who throw the dough up in the air while making the base. Well the process here is something similar. After stuffing puran (bengal gram cooked with sugar and ground to paste) in the dough made entirely of maida (refined flour) the artist (yes, that’s the only word for the lady making the Mande) initially rolls out a small poli. Thats when the magic starts.

She picks up the poli and begins tossing it in circles over her both her arms as it gradually stretches into a bigger circle. A few minutes and the poli is big enough to be placed on an a huge upturned kadhai (wok) that serves as the griddle. A couple of minutes cooking on either side and lo behold! The Mande is yours! Thin crisp golden with not single tear in it. Drizzle (or drench) with ghee and enjoy!!!

This fair was the fourth one to be held in Pune and hopefully will continue each year. For those who missed it, Bhimthadi Jatra may return.

Here are some photos that will give you an idea of how the Khandeshi Mande were made.

Medical Consumers

Doctors are paid for their services- very often these are astronomical fees. While the complexities of a human body are certainly governed by an unknown force (some may call it God), medical science will certainly help in a large number of cases. So its natural for a patient to expect relief from their complaints.

Yet in some cases, things go horribly wrong and instead of relief, the patient may land up with something much worse. Then there is talk of ‘suing’ the doctor, taking legal action etc.

So is medicare in India covered under consumer laws?

In Pune, Rida Shaikh succumbed to H1N1 infection. We all grieved for the loss of this young girl on the threshold of her youth. Was Jehangir Hospital at fault? Were her doctors negligent? What test did Ruby Hospital really perform (the results were returned faster than the usual time required for a H1N1 test)?

A television discussion last week dealt with this topic and here is what I understood:
A doctor cannot be sued for error of judgment or difference of opinion. In most cases, it is another team of doctors who investigate and they will always stand by their own. How does one then prove that the doctor was at fault? Read the full discussion here.

Our legal system being what it is, a case will take forever to reach a logical conclusion.

Where does that leave us? Are we not entitled to some legal protection such situations?
What are our rights, if any, as medical consumers?

Other instances of negligence/oversights/mistakes (whatever be the word play used) that may cause death or damage are certainly punished such as the recent Delhi Metro under-construction bridge collapse where Gammon India was to be issued a show-cause notice.

This argument can go on for ever and the issue would still remain unresolved. In the meanwhile, each one of us needs to focus on our health.
Take a rain check of your lifestyle..
Is your diet a healthy one?
Are you exercising regularly?
Do you practise stress-management techniques?
Do you follow basic hygiene practices?

As some one said, one should never have to require services of professionals wearing a black or white coat.
Stay well!