A social to remember

“Somewhere between lifeless secularism and mindless fundamentalism let us find enough space for faith and reason to walk together.”

So said the Fr Principal in his address on the occasion of yet another school annual social event. I am probably paraphrasing a little since I don’t remember his words verbatim, but this was approximately the essence of what he said.

I don’t know why, but I simply love these socials. It’s not that they are perfect, far from it, but there is something in the air that is infectious. Maybe this very imperfection fills my heart with gladness – a calming, grateful, gracious gladness – that at least some things won’t change in my lifetime. And of course the gorgeous school campus on a sunlit evening, after a dark thunderstorm in the afternoon, is just a sight to behold. Frickin’ Divine, almost.

The theme this year was “Be the change you want to see” (shameless self-plug – I have written about this earlier) and the stage backdrop had pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, APJ Abdul Kalam, Obama, the Dalai Lama, and somewhat surprisingly Steve Jobs (like maybe they ran out of ideas and had to quickly scramble to find someone for the sixth spot). The stage itself was well managed with smooth transitions, good lighting, and efficient set changes. The school report and prize distribution were surprisingly crisp and short, and I learned that there is some sport called Petanque and in that sport some students of our school won some prize. On the ride back home when I asked the 14yo what Petanque was, he summed it up succinctly in his standard teen know-it-all what’s-the-big-deal blaséness – “gotya” (marbles). When we were kids, the sports available were football, basketball, swimming, tennis, badminton, and table tennis, but now students were participating and winning prizes at district and zonal levels in not only these but also sports as diverse as petanque, fencing and pistol-shooting (something one would think young boys, being young boys, would welcome as legitimate excuses to play with swords and guns). And looking at the names of the winners across the school it is clear that it doesn’t just talk about diversity, it also walks it to a large extent. Being an all-boys’ school it is, somewhat excusably, hamstrung wrt gender diversity, but other than that it’s a veritable showcase for the word.

The skits and dances (as usual) were not necessarily Broadway quality but the enthusiasm, effort, passion, and heart on the part of the students, teachers, non-teaching staff, helpers and all the other behind-the-scene workers shone through like a welding arc – and they ranged from a play on Swatch Bharat with a very catchy “saaf nahi toh maaf nahi” jingle to a French play underlining the value of kindness, in which one unnamed 14yo child – ahem – played a tiny but pivotal (silent) role of a gendarme (something which he had only initially taken up in order to be allowed to officially bunk classes) with utmost conviction, and even though we’d almost forgotten to pick up the costume until the last moment this child didn’t let that distract from conveying effortlessly the life and character of a true gendarme (stand, apprehend, exit). Yes, one poster right in front of the stage was held upside down during a dance, and the boys holding it panicked a bit when made aware of this by someone from the front row of the audience, but a teacher quickly ran in from the wings and put it right (pretty much what teachers do, I suppose, in general) so all was well that ended well. Apart from a few hiccups like this, the show went fairly smoothly. And I was surprised and heartened at the number of boys who were, willing and happily, dressed up as girls – “nauvari and nath” and all, in some cases. I remember I was once offered the part of Snow White in my KG years and I had chosen instead to play one of the dwarfs because I was afraid I would be teased mercilessly for dressing up as a girl.

The highlight of the evening, though, apart from the beer and KFC dinner later at home, was the Chief Guest’s speech. I’ve noticed that some of the Fr Principals that I’ve listened to in the past few years have not necessarily the glittering gift of oratory that I had come to associate them with after having listened to the various Fr Principals of my schooldays, but this Fr Chief Guest was an exception to that general recent rule.  His speech was sparkling and conversational and contemporary and inspiring, ranging from quoting from the Upanishads to summarizing, almost entirely extempore, the theme of the evening in the letters of the word

  • C – Community, local and global
  • H – Helping Hands, Hope and Happiness (he drew from the example of the upside-down poster, and how someone came to help put it right side up, and the show went on)
  • A – Aim, or mission
  • N – Networking (in today’s connected world, who can ignore the power of this N)
  • G – God, or faith (of all religions or faiths, he clarified – whether it’s Ram or Allah or Christ or whatever other name we may know Him by, we all need a frame of reference that is larger than ourselves)
  • E – Earth or Ecology or Environment (he was frank enough to say that possibly we won’t live long enough to suffer, but our children will, and so we need to leave them a better planet)

As usual we had reached late and so didn’t find a decent chair to sit, and as a result were squatting on some wooden steps a little off-center to the stage, but despite all the discomfort of creaky and stiff legs and back, the message resonated loud and clear. Inspiring, really.

I mean, it’s not like we were going to go home and immediately start being the change, but dammit we were sure we were definitely going to think about it. At least that, yes. And even that is a win for some.

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The best education in the world

As kids growing up in the 80s, for us our parents and grandparents may have been our first teachers but I dare say that our school teachers were our first Gods. “Teacher says …” was almost gospel and “but my teacher told … ” was a regular refrain that must have driven our parents mad.

My mom was initially a bit apprehensive about sending me to a Jesuit school with a statue of the Christ on a cross hanging on the wall in every classroom, no doubt worried that they would make me drink blood or something, but my dad, having seen the school grounds and swimming pool on an earlier visit with my cousin (who went to that school a few years before me) was pretty adamant that the best school in the world was where I would also go, and if that was the price to be paid for enjoying a heavenly campus then so be it. The lush green hills with the waterfalls behind the grey stone building of the school and the huge playgrounds in front may have also influenced his decision. I on my part was not at all thrilled at having to go to this school, so far away, but then after I’d been thrown out of playschool for insisting on having my grand-mom sit in class with me (with me sitting on her lap), I guess I would not have been thrilled about any school. Luckily my mom’s fears proved totally groundless because this school turned out to be probably the most secular institution I would ever come to know way before the word became such a loaded one.

I don’t know if this is the experience of everyone who grew up in the 80s, or I was singularly lucky, but I thought my teachers in school were perfect and they did nothing to prove me wrong. There was an innocence in this belief that was to be dispelled in later years when I came to realize that teachers were also human and subject to the same petty characteristics that we almost take for granted from other professions. But in school they inspired a healthy mix of fear, respect, and awe. And if there was one teacher in particular who inspired all of this in abundance, it was our Hindi and Marathi teacher in high-school, Mr Devasthali Sir – Deva for short (that’s what we called him – not to his face, obviously!)

Deva was built like a wrestler (he was one, apparently, in his younger years), sported thick long hair combed back and a heavy beard, thick black-framed glasses, and he was always dressed in a pair of white pajamas and a sort of beige kurta. I don’t think I have seen him wear anything else in all my ten years of schooling. A few years back I had read about how the truly brilliant people (Steve Jobs or Mark Z, for example) always wear the same thing and I realize now that Deva was already there before any of them. We didn’t know it then but he was also a Sanskrit pundit and a Hindustani classical singer, player, and teacher of some repute. He had a serious face, almost scary in its intensity, and when he spoke you could see only the bottom row of teeth, but when he grinned (which was admittedly rare) you could also see the top row and his face was transformed as if by magic into something that you would normally associate with a mischievous child.

He taught us Hindi and Marathi in turn for 5 years, and it was always the same. He didn’t seem to like the textbook lessons and positively abhorred words like portion and exercises and exams. His teaching modus operandi was simple – he would come into class and start talking, about current affairs, about literature, about politics, religion, philosophy, spirituality, about history and mythology, the warriors and saints and mystics of old, about the wisdom of well-known phrases and sayings, or about whatever happened to catch his fancy at the time. He would sometimes take some word or phrase from some lesson in the book and give us his own take on it. An entirely different take, in all probability, than the one prescribed by the lesson. And we were supposed to take notes, verbatim, about all that he said. And heaven help us if he caught us slacking off or found that we hadn’t been paying attention. He used to make snap checks of random notebooks, and if he saw that the last bits of writing were not in line with his latest words, then there was hell to pay. Mostly for the entire class. We also had to write ten lines of Hindi or Marathi everyday as homework to improve our handwriting, and I remember having burnt more than usual midnight oil in frantically trying to cover up the backlog when he used to suddenly threaten to check our homework the following day. That he would often forget to carry out the threat the next day made it no less effective, because what if?

It was a nerve-wracking period every day, and I am sure there were many kids who resented and feared it. I don’t think there could have been even a single kid in those days who hadn’t felt his wrath, and hand, at one time or the other. I probably feared him but I can’t say I resented his lectures. In fact, I used to enjoy the break from the mundane textbook and looked forward eagerly to what he was going to say each day. And I do see now how the values and lessons he (almost subconsciously) gave us had nothing to do with any rote learning but everything to do with life, and these values and lessons stand us in very good stead in times of adversity to this day. There are times when I see a problem and feel daunted but somewhere there is a confidence that I can face it, fix it.

Because once you’ve been bashed-up in childhood by Devasthali Sir, nothing else in this life can really scare you any more.

The jugaad of ownership

The other day as I was walking my 5 km in the evening (ahem – fitness plug!) I saw this tiny stall selling sandwiches and fruit-juice and milkshakes. I must have seen this stall and similar kinds hundreds of times before, but that day for some reason it stayed in my memory – maybe subconsciously, in light of my recent cribbing about the hundred (and seventeen) mundane and boring things I have to do as an entrepreneur that takes away time and focus from doing what I most want to do – build a great product, make tons of money, and eventually retire to a beachfront shack in a Naxalite area (I kid about the last one, a little).

The stall was a typical makeshift one with a grimy sandwich-maker, its chrome plating all but scraped off and its electric lead wire chipped in places (wrapped with semi-sticky insulation tape to avoid electrocution), the two bare tips haphazardly shoved into a dangling socket and held in place with matchsticks, a cracked mixer-grinder kept from falling apart by a strip of black rubber tubing wound around the base, a set of fingerprinted glasses that were repeatedly being washed/rinsed in a single tub of water, and one naked overhead bulb hanging from a rope to light the stall up. And there were a few people crowded around to buy sandwiches or juice or whatever from the young man sitting behind the counter, so it was making some money at least.

Yes, it is likely that he was running the stall out of necessity, not choice, that he would have taken a secure government job if one had been available and he had been eligible for it. And I don’t want to romanticize or glorify his everyday struggle but the thing that struck me was what I now like to think of as the jugaad of ownership. I don’t mean ownership as in mixer or sandwich-maker ownership, but more like work ownership. He didn’t use a broken mixer-grinder because he liked it. He used it because he needed to make a living and there was no one to crib to about its brokenness. No matter how much he wished for a shiny new one he didn’t have the money for it and therefore he just had to bloody well fix the old one the best way he knew how, and get on with his work. Because if he didn’t, he and his family wouldn’t eat that night.

In the past eight years, there have been many times when I’ve wished that I didn’t have to do the mundane and the boring tasks – taxation, invoicing, payments, budgeting and cash-flow planning, following-up with vendors, fielding irate customer complaints, dealing with broken broadband, MSEB woes (until I got an inverter), uncooperative printer, overheating laptop, failing motherboard, leaking windows, and so so many others (as I’m writing this, I’m struggling to load the login page of the GST portal when tomorrow is the last day to file) – and each of those times, while I’ve done what was required, I have often resented having to do so. And while I’m not saying that the chap didn’t necessarily resent having to fix the mixer or that in future I will never resent my own mundane tasks (I have no way to know either), I do see how it can be made a little easier to handle if I think of it as my own work. Something I must own and do because no one else will do it for me. (Leave aside for the sake of argument outsourcing or hiring someone to do it for you. If he  – or I – could afford to do that, he wouldn’t be sitting in that small cubbyhole of a stall and I wouldn’t be writing this post.)

When I had quit my job, what had eventually pushed me over the edge to make that unknown leap had been the sight of a roadside flower-seller with her young son sitting beside her, diligently doing his homework in the fading light of evening. And what gives me continued perspective into my everyday problems is the sight of these kinds of small businesses that dot the local landscape by the millions. Ramen sustainable or cockroach startups, call them what you will, they manage to survive against all odds. And with little to no help from the government or anyone else. Because they just have no choice but to do so.

The word jugaad is used in many ways – more often than not it is used in a derogatory sense to mean finding ingenious loopholes/detours/workarounds to designed processes/rules to get some sort of unfair/undue advantage and while this use is often accurate, it can also mean (and this is how I like to think of it) –

Making the best use of available resources in order to maximize output, either out of choice or compulsion.

And whether you are a small sandwich/juice seller or a software entrepreneur, ultimately this boils down to ownership. And it need not be just of your work. It could be of your health and fitness, of your relationships, of your finances, or of any of the million and eleven other things that you wish were in your control, or at least way better than they currently are in your life. Enough and more self-help books and advice tell us to take ownership of our own destiny and I am never really sure what that means in practical terms. But I do know (or so I think) what taking ownership of work means – fixing a cracked mixer to churn out just enough juice to help you live and fight another day, until eventually you can afford that shiny new mixer and also someone to run it.

The jugaad of ownership – take that, and let your destiny take its own.

Letter to Shri AB Vajpayee on Independence Day

Yes, you read that right.  Not Shri Modi.  Shri Vajpayee.

This is a letter I had written 20+ years back as a naive idealistic mid-20-something, when the ABV government first came to power in ’96 for 13 days.

Sidebar – If this blog were buzzfeed, this post would have been titled “7 Ideas to make India a Superpower“, and if it were scoopwhoop this would have been titled – “A young boy wrote to Shri Vajpayee – You won’t believe what happened next!!!

This was of course post Mandal, Rath Yatra, Babri Masjid, Mumbai riots and the Mar 13 bomb blasts, and I cannot say that I understood everything to do with politics (any more than I can say that now), but I definitely remember that I was maha impressed with what I’d seen of ABV at least, and some of the other BJP leaders at the time seemed more articulate and sincere than some of the other parties’ leaders (Murli Manohar Joshi and Arun Jaitley come to mind, for example – also MMJ looked like one of my uncles so that may have added its own bias). I do realize now that all this could have been just a function of my middle-class MH lens.

But in one of the studio interviews, Dr Prannoy Roy asked ABV what he thought was his greatest strength and greatest weakness, and I was floored by his answer.

ABV said, and I can quote it almost word for word –

“In all my (40?) years in politics I have never hit below the belt …” trademark pause with half closed eyes, then a sudden mischievous smile and twinkle as he continued – “… call it a strength or weakness!”

So anyway, that was all for the background. I don’t remember if I actually sent this letter then but I seem to vaguely remember there was some scheme or website or something asking us to write to the PM at the time, so maybe I did send it. In any case, nothing happened as a result, as far as I know or remember, and we’re still grappling with pretty much the same issues 20 years later.

Apart from minor formatting changes and typo corrections (and removal of some personal fawning) this is largely verbatim, so here goes nothing –

  1. Forget for the time being religious differences. Let the people be of whichever religion they choose. Forget conversion, forget Hindu/Muslim/Christian/Sikh…think INDIAN. Rein in all the fundamentalist and fanatical people in the BJP or any of its associates. Look to instill pride in being Indian. We must start feeling that we are privileged to be Indians, and not cursed.

  2. Put Kashmir and all outstanding disputes with our neighbors on the back-burner for 20 years. Concentrate on building the economy. If everyone is well-fed and comfortable, they will have no reason to spew hate and venom at an imaginary enemy. Anger and violence comes out of an empty stomach.

  3. We MUST, and a big MUST, end corruption. The only way to do it is through the extensive use of Computers and IT. There is no way someone can bribe a computer. Everything must be computerized, land-records, citizen information, voter information, PDS, licensing…etc.

  4. Support small-scale industries. Look towards the domestic market, as well as the export market. The current concessions to 100% EOUs must be complemented by similar concessions (though not maybe of the same scale) to SSIs servicing the domestic market.

  5. Education. This is a must to have good governance. I am sure even after the recent disgusting behavior of the Congress and other oppn. parties (sidebar – don’t remember what this was now, but I’m sure this can be a generic enough complaint about all political parties), and the reams of criticism written in newspapers, 70% of the voters would not have realized what happened simply because they cannot read. An educated voter is an asset to a right thinking, right doing, forward moving party.

  6. Give economic aid, free education, help and reservations to people based NOT on their caste, religion or gender, but based on their economic stature. Help them to raise this, so their children have no need for these kind of aid or reservations.

  7. Last but not the least, stop short-sighted, populist schemes. Take hard decisions based on the long term benefits for most of India and Indians.

As we approach yet another Independence Day, much of the above, while continuing to be naive and idealistic, is still TBD. Mr Modi has the mandate to bring about change. Positive change. Lasting change. I really hope he doesn’t waste it for some petty short term political gains. Because the alternative will probably be even worse. If there is even actually any alternative.

So, on this Independence Day, here’s to hoping we do make all the progress we want and more, so I don’t have to rehash this blog post in 2039. Because, as everyone knows, in 2038 time as 32-bit Unix stores it will officially be over.

Happy Independence Day!

Jai Hind. Jai Maharashtra.

The startup struggle

Ever since I started my own company eight years ago I have faced this question many times in my mind – Why?

What made me give up a reasonably stress-free, high-paying job with an MNC for the uncertainty and stress of not necessarily having a paycheck at the end of the month? As I wrote at the time, there were probably three reasons I had – making a difference, making money, and enjoying what I do – not all of them all the time but at least some reasonable balanced mix of the three. I would like to believe that I’ve achieved at least some of that but the truth is, I haven’t made any difference to anyone and I’ve not really made the kind of money I would have hoped. All I can honestly say is that I’ve at least enjoyed most of the journey, except when it was stressful. And it has been stressful, make no mistake, and will continue to be I am sure.

My cousin and I started out with a pretty good idea for a product and service that could potentially revolutionize the field of marketing, but struggled to put our vision into reality. Still struggling, as a matter of fact. There were/are many reasons for that and I don’t want to get into a blame game because there’s no point to that. I mean, sure, luck or circumstances must have played a part, or the hundred tiny mundane things I am forced to do as a small business that dilute focus and mind space away from the thing I want and need to do most – build the best damn product that can serve the biggest damn market needs in the best way possible (easy to say, very hard to do). But, and hopefully I can say this without sounding like a self-flagellating martyr, I think the biggest reason for the struggle is all the mistakes we’ve made – not necessarily understanding the market or audience we were trying to build for nor the challenges of the available technologies that we were going to use, not defining all the requirements clearly enough and as a result being in a perpetual prototyping mode so the product/service was never solid enough for us to go out and sell it as the shrink-wrapped black-box offering that we wanted, and not sufficiently planning our startup journey and not executing well enough on any of the plans that we did have. In short, all the mistakes a startup can make and some that were our very own. This is not even a real startup by the silicon valley definition. More like a local small  paan shop or a scooter-repair tapri.

And yet, in the last eight years, apart from a small angel investment we accepted in the very beginning (which at some point we will repay manyfold), the business has been making enough money for itself, and for me to keep home and hearth together and the wolf from the door and still have a bit left over to indulge in the occasional beer and pizza. Notwithstanding all the mistakes listed above, we’ve managed to run successful promotion campaigns on our first bzzzzd platform for a large MNC beer company for over three years, with more than five lakh transactions on a platform built by a single pair of hands, running off exactly one virtual server in the cloud, and held together through many technical and operational challenges by a combination of chewing gum, duct tape, and sheer will power. Could I be making more money in a regular job? Of course. As my dad never tires of pointing out. Ironically, for a man who’s successfully run his own business for 30 years, he’s never been happy or supportive of my decision to do the same. But he lets me stay for free in his house so I guess that kind of compensates. And I know he means the best so I’m not complaining. Also, G has been a real brick. From not making me go to family functions to taking customer support calls late into the night, from eschewing unnecessary personal shopping to making sure the home and child doesn’t ever suffer from lack of attention, she’s done it all. I would like to say more but I won’t, otherwise she will never let me post this.

I guess my main point is, yes, the struggle is real – some of it is of our own making and some of it is beyond our control. Yes, there are times when I feel like it may be better to just go back to a regular job and paycheck. And then there are also times, like when a performance bottleneck is diagnosed and fixed and starts operating at 100x throughput, when it seems like the pot of gold is just around the corner. If only you won’t give up. While a job definitely guarantees a steady paycheck, what a startup holds out is the hope and possibility of a windfall that can never be even imagined in a job. And hope is a funny thing.

The other day I saw bits and parts of a Marathi film about the plight of (marginal) farmers and how they were so much at the mercy of the rain – damned if it doesn’t rain in time and causes the planted seed to burn under the merciless sun, and damned if it does rain too much and causes the fields to be flooded and the planted seed to rot. And whether burn or rot, the end result is still the same. No harvest. No money to feed their families. Crippling debt. And ever since I saw that film, every day I count my blessings that I’m not a marginal farmer, that my struggle is not their struggle. Not that I wasn’t doing that before, but the film kind of really drives it home. In a worst-case scenario I know I can always tighten my belt against weekend beers and occasional parties, but how are they ever going to tighten their belts any further when already their sunken stomachs are touching their spines? And it’s not their misery but their fortitude that helps me come back with a renewed sense of gratitude and determination every time there is a low.

There is one moment in the film I seem to remember vividly when the main protagonist says that he will continue to do farming (because that’s all he knows) and I think that if he (even a reel he, never mind the real ones) can say and do that despite his very real hardship and struggle, then what face do I have to turn away from mine?

That is, if mine is even worthy of being called a struggle.

Not aware, don’t care

When G went to participate in a sit-in protest against the (probably illegal) cutting of a 150 yr old tree on University road in order to make space for road-widening, she found that there were as many as 4-5 people present there. That’s how many people knew about it. Or possibly that’s how many people cared about it. Yeah. All of 4-5 people with a couple of banners sitting under yet another ancient tree that was still patiently standing in that blazing sun selflessly providing them shelter from the sun so they could protest the cutting of its next door neighbor. So much protest.

Now I can well believe that not many people knew about the protest and also that not many of them cared even if they did know. For one, so many people (myself included) are usually so busy with their own humdrum lives, trying to make a decent living, raising their (our) children to get good marks in board exams so they can get into good colleges and eventually go abroad for their masters’ or jobs, beating the insane traffic to get home in time to watch IPL etc, that activism – esp environmental activism – could be the farthest concern from many of their (our) minds. And who can blame them (us)? There is always someone else to care, so why not just let them deal with it?

Also, many times environmental activism, or anything to do with issues concerning environment, is seen as anti-development. And who doesn’t want wide, empty roads to commute on in the latest luxury automobiles? Like individual climate-control and bluetooth music and all that. Who likes being stuck in traffic for endless signals, as happens everyday on University road? Who wouldn’t want to reach home in the 15 mins that a 15 km commute should ideally take, as we hear happens in more developed countries? Who wouldn’t want more time to spend with their hobbies and passions instead of spending it endlessly in chaotic traffic cursing (under your breath of course, for fear of road rage) the next signal jumper or trying to be one yourself (unless death-wish is your hobby)? So what if a few trees are chopped down for this. Is it the authorities’ fault that the trees happen to be 150 years old or that the paperwork may not be done? After all, the trees are blocking progress and development, aren’t they? Why couldn’t the trees have simply grown in areas that didn’t need wider roads? And we all have to die one day, don’t we, even trees? Why, there are some of us who have even heard of the giant redwoods being chopped down in California, that last bastion of environmental hippie’ness. So what’s the problem if that happens in Pune, the last bastion of wisdom and common-sense?

It may seem like I’m being sarcastic or mocking but I’m not. Really. Because this seems to be so much reality for so many people. And as I said, can anyone really blame them (us)? It is so difficult to care about what happens 20 or 30 years in the future (future that you cannot even see) because of rampant tree-felling when you are breathing in carbon monoxide and other harmful pollutants by the truckload today in some humongous traffic jam that you think can easily be fixed if only the road were twice (or thrice) as wide so everyone could go twice (thrice) as fast. And if some trees have to be cut for this, so be it. You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. And big deal if the rains become more and more scarce as the years go by? You can always get tankers, or let your kids worry about that. And honestly, you could die tomorrow from a stroke or an accident or a terrorist attack or nuclear war so who cares what happens so far in the future when what you really should care about is what happens in the here and now. In the present. Osho and other great thinkers also have said the same thing, I remember reading somewhere.

Who has seen the future anyway? For all we know, we’ll just invent some chemical agent that can magically replace the oxygen in the atmosphere like trees do. Then we won’t even need trees. And we’ll build giant transparent roofs over our cities so light can come in but not heat. Then why we’ll need shade? Or maybe we’ll adapt to breathing nitrogen or carbon whateveroxide like those bacteria or something. And you know there are marine geckos in the Galapagos who have adapted within a single lifetime to shrink their bone mass and become smaller in response to diminishing food supplies, don’t you? And if these lizards with their pea-sized lizard brains can do this, why cannot we, the superior human race, do oh so much more than this?

And if at all this is going to be inevitable, why must I, today, now, leave my office and my client call and sit in the hot sun protesting something I’m not even aware about? What am I supposed to tell the client – that I’m out protesting already cut trees when I need to be fixing that code for the project that is already overdue? And is it selfish to only think about ourselves?  Isn’t that what everyone else does? Why should we be any different? Because if we don’t care about ourselves who will? And if anyone is so concerned about these trees, why can’t they just go plant 10x more trees elsewhere? We can always post appreciative write-ups or angsty rants (as the case may be) about it on social media. Or tweet about it to the PMO in the hope that they will just ban climate change. Problem solved!

I mean, how much more should we be expected to do? I mean, it’s not like our children or grandchildren will inherit a planet so denuded of resources that bloody civil wars will have to be fought over basic requirements like water or food or something…. Right? …. Right?!

What I wish I’d known at 13

When I was 13 there was no social media and no blogosphere and so obviously I couldn’t have written this at that time even if I had really known then what I now wish I had known then. But going by the dictum of better-late-than-never, and armed with about thirty years of experience, I am going to put finger to keyboard keys now and do-the-needful. I hope I don’t come across as a godawful preachy old doofus because then even slow death would be preferable to reading this. Of course, it all seems rather obvious now at 44 but hopefully there are some 13 year old know-it-alls today that may not know this already.

The first thing I wish I had known was this – homework is not that important and there’s no point stressing yourself about finishing it on a late Sunday evening after a long weekend of procrastination. At the same time, if you don’t want to face the teacher’s wrath on Monday maybe you should have thought about planning the weekend better and not watching TV for 28 hours straight. Or you should not care a damn about the punishment and take it like a human being (because saying “like  a man” may be construed as sexist today). On your deathbed you will neither remember the homework nor the punishment and certainly not the TV that you watched, unless it was the first time you watched Star Trek. That you will never forget. Still, if there’s one thing you can take from every homework-not-done episode I wish you take this – every one of your actions, without exception, has consequences. Some of these consequences may be immediate (a whack on the bum), some may be hidden, and some may come back much later to bite you in the ass, but whichever way they happen you better be prepared to take them because no one else can take them for you. Maybe your family, and in some cases your friends, will try but even they may sometimes be unable or simply unavailable. And then it will be all up to you. And the sooner you get this the better it is for your own sanity, whatever you have of it at 13.

The second thing I wish someone had told me was – older people are also human and can and certainly do make mistakes. This is clear from the mess the world is in today. Whether it is your parents or teachers, or random scientists, godmen, writers, thinkers, philosophers, sportspeople, moviestars, or in general anyone else who is supposedly intelligent, wise, important, rich, or powerful – don’t listen to everything they say and accept it as gospel. Yes, they are supposed to know better but they don’t always. Don’t also not listen to them out of some misguided sense of rebellion or freedom. It’s always good to listen to people but then to think for yourself, make your own judgement, and then trust your instincts. Unless your instincts are braindead. In which case you’re better off listening to your parents. But if you can somehow figure that out then maybe your instincts may not be so bad after all. In any case, some of your decisions or actions will invariably turn out to be idiotic and wrong. But that’s cool. Everyone makes mistakes. The trick is not to make the same ones repeatedly. There’s an infinite pool of mistakes to be made out there. Choose wisely. Do what you think is right at any given moment and if it turns out idiotic or wrong later, simply move on with a shrug and a smile, and maybe a beer or two. But only if you’re above the legal drinking age.

The third and last thing I wish someone had told me was – no matter what you do, there will always be something better you could have done or something you could have done better. You could have studied more, got better marks, gone to an IIT or IIM, found a better job, kissed (ahem) more (and/or prettier) girls, married someone better, made more money, travelled more, lived in super luxury, had more beer. Or whatever is your poison. The curse of life is that anything you do could have been done better. But it could also have been done worse and that’s the beauty of it. As long as you did your bloody best, had some amount of fun doing it, and were by and large happy (and kind to dogs), that’s good enough. And it’s perfectly ok to do nothing as well. Not always, but sometimes. You have maybe 70 years on this planet, if you’re lucky, and they just zip by so fast. Just try to live in the present and don’t worry about the future because you cannot see it or control it. And don’t worry about the past because you cannot change it.

This last bit of advice is what every spiritual guru worth their single malt will tell you, but only after extorting hefty sums from your pocket, so you may as well just read this blog. Or invent a time-machine and go back and write it yourself.

The alchemy of travel

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

– William Blake

I have quoted this twice already in the last week to try and explain why I don’t like traveling – i.e. at least in the usual sense of traveling, to do or see the usual tourist hot spots. I joke that it’s inertia and laziness because that’s easier to explain to people than the real reason, which is that I sincerely have no wish to see towers and museums and tall buildings and nightclubs and restaurants and malls and lit-up fountains and animals doing human-taught tricks and roller coasters and God alone knows what other monstrosities lurk in our modern urban landscape. Maybe if they all came and sat on my lap with a beer mug in one hand and salted peanuts in the other, I might consider tolerating them in the spirit of generosity.  However, if I have to grovel obsequiously before haughty visa agents and fight rush hour traffic to get to the airport in time and cram myself and family into seats seemingly designed for underage pygmies and pay a spare kidney and change for the privilege, then thank you but you can keep your fish. And I cannot understand people who can fly halfway across the world for the chance to eat pav-bhaji in some Indian restaurant at the base of Mt Titlis or deliberately seek out the company of other co-nationalists on managed holiday tours with just-like-home-cooked sheera for breakfast, when they can get as good pav-bhaji or sheera on every street corner of every neighborhood in every city that is also liberally populated with co-nationalists, all eager to get in your face with unsolicited advice about your unmarried daughter or failing business.

If the idea is to see and experience natural beauty, my personal opinion (and that of my grandfather’s) is that if you sit at the edge of the quarry on Vetal Tekdi at sunset you can get as much beauty as your eyes can hold at any one moment, like a saturated sponge. My grandfather used to go so far as to say that all mountains are alike, and that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, but I am willing to admit that maybe watching the sunrise throw golden light on the Kanchenjunga can be a magical experience, but you can only have it once or twice in your lifetime unless you live in Darjeeling, while you can see the sun set behind the distant blue hills around Paud every day if you want. The verdant trees in the forested area just behind the quarry after the monsoons are as green and lush as any rainforest in Belize or Costa Rica, and with considerably less number of creepy crawlies that can suck out your blood. And anyway your brain can only see so far through the foliage before the view gets obstructed by the remaining woods. Yes, the cobbled streets in the Renaissance-era villages from Hungary or Bulgaria certainly seem beautiful, but only if you live there permanently can you possibly enjoy walking along them. Otherwise what’s the difference between seeing them in movies and actually seeing them live for that half-a-day that you can spare between herded bus-rides to the other must-see destinations in Europe, like Moulin Rouge or Mt Titlis or some of the more dubious clubs in Amsterdam?

The way I see it, the world is just too big to ever see and do everything in it and there are just too many people everywhere doing all the must-do things and seeing all the must-see things, and sometimes even vice-versa, for any of that to be a really meaningful experience. For me, at least. YMMV.

I do want to travel, of course, but not to see anything or do anything. I want to travel to simply be, and that, in a sense, I can really do anywhere. As Richard Bach says, if you are thinking of something, aren’t you already there (or something like that)? Because there need not necessarily be any better than here. So wherever I travel I would always want to be a local. I would want to be that fisherman in the Adriatic sea struggling to pull in the day’s catch. Or a lesser known tribal warrior in the jungles of Brazil wondering when the next monkey will be spotted for the family pot. Or an old farmer in Spain who has fought Franco’s troops and still dimly remembers those days in sepia tones. I would want to be that drunk bum in that small bar in Cuba dreaming of a better life under Castro. I would want to be an unsung Sherpa routinely climbing to unheard-of heights in silent support of the paid-up climbers, or even a sugarcane farmer on the rich and fertile Deccan plateau enjoying his tambda rassa on cold winter nights. Or maybe an old English vet in the dales of Yorkshire before the war, or an Earl worried about his prize pig’s prospects in the next Agricultural show.

And if any of that is not possible, then I would rather just be a not-so-young middle-class boy in the middle of a bustling mini-metropolis, happy with his Tekdi and his armchair and his Sunday beer with old movie songs on the radio. Just occasionally stepping out into other worlds and other lives through the magic of books and imagination.

 

lives unlived

When I was young I often dreamed of a life of adventure, of swashbuckling battles fought and won, of enormous fortunes easily made and just as easily lost on the roll of a pair of dice, of fearlessly sailing into unknown waters on a whim, of facing raging storms with nothing but a grin and a song, of slaying metaphorical dragons to save beautiful damsels from fates worse than advance-tax, of staying just one jump ahead of death each time, and when it eventually did catch up, as it must for us all, of riding into the sunset with not a boson of regret in my bosom.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t always pan out as we imagine it would. I will freely admit that I did get an opportunity to help a damsel or two with stalled two-wheelers on the roads of Pune, but somehow kick-starting a Scooty doesn’t have the same kind of romantic glamour associated with it as the more noble occupation of dragon-slaying. There have not been too many unknown waters either unless you count as water all those ice cubes in the somewhat dubious, ahem, watering establishments we used to patronize when we had limited means, and the only swashbuckling battles I have had to fight have been with the various incomprehensible ways in which Fluids conspire to keep their Mechanics a secret from first year engineering students. I suppose the fact that I managed to pass that ghastly subject after only two or three tries could possibly be termed a miracle but that is hardly any consolation.

I understand that life is only finite and that we cannot possibly take all the paths we come across. In mathematical terms, for every path we take we end up discarding infinite other possible paths, most of them unseen. Others are seen but of necessity have to be ignored or abandoned (like my brief summer foray into cricket when I was 10 or so) both of which eventualities come with some form of regret sooner or later. And because we cannot yet see parallel multiverses with the human senses we currently possess we tend to romanticize all these untaken paths, making each one out to be some sort of super-path that if only we’d taken we could have reached where we wanted to go much faster, possibly even before we really knew where it was that we really wanted to go. For example, it’s not that I have ever actually had to choose between fixing a particularly vexing memory leak in my code and crossing swords on a junk with opium-crazed pirates in the South China sea, but I have to say that there are times when I feel like the latter would be the better choice. And yet maybe if I found myself stuck with my hands tied behind my back facing the prospect of walking the plank into shark infested waters, I would have gladly welcomed a client yelling at me for an outage in their production system instead.

So don’t get me wrong. I do love my life as it stands right now. What’s not to love? There’s a loving family, there’s beer, there are dogs, there’s the armchair in the backyard, there’s old music, there’s social media to rant and rave, there are friends to meet and distant relatives to avoid, and there is always the possibility of making a fortune, although not as easily as I would have wished. And so what if the person from my imaginary life is so drastically different from the person in my real life, because for all my imaginary swordplay the best I can do is swat mosquitoes by the dozen and even that because those electric rackets are so easy to operate.  And life is by no means over, of course (touch wood), and there is still a chance to live the lives I had imagined. But then I think that raging storms are so much easier to face from the comfort of one’s dry and cozy living room sofa than from the upper decks of a Merchantman caught in the treacherous Agulhas, and being (literally) head-hunted in the jungles of Borneo could become quite annoying as compared to the broadband service breaking down once in a while.

Yes, there are still moments when I can hear a distant drumbeat calling the tribes to war or smell the salty ocean breeze or feel the rumble of an avalanche in the high Himalayan ranges, but I am soon brought back to reality by the necessity of reconciling the expense account. And there are times that I feel an unexplained longing for roads untraveled, for places unexplored, for wonders unseen, for fates unchallenged, for lives unlived. Especially for all those lives unlived.

Until the next invoice has to be sent, that is.

This day that year

It was a cold day in May. Actually, the day was not cold so much as the space where his stomach should have been. And his feet. They were freezing. He had woken up a couple of hours before the alarm that morning and found that he just couldn’t fall back asleep, no matter how many times he chanted the Gayatri mantra. There was a crackle of nervous excitement around him and he was surprised that no one else seemed to feel it. Also fear. It bothered him to see the world still fast asleep on what was going to be such a momentous day. He pitied their ignorance, but then he supposed that they would anyway come to know sooner or later.

His mind went back to that fateful winter day when he’d seen her for the first time. It was not love at first sight by any means but he couldn’t deny that there was certainly something about her that pulled him in. It was dark in the car so that he could just about see her face and the vague outline of her white sweater. When she smiled for the first time, he remembered being suddenly a little self-conscious about his overgrown stubble and torn clothes, but that feeling did not last too long as they got talking and it seemed like they had known each other far more than the thirty or so minutes it took to reach the restaurant. It would be somewhat far-fetched to say that they immediately became the best of friends but it would also be trifling with the truth to not admit that there was certainly an instant germination of camaraderie.

From then on it had been a whirlwind journey, like being on a runaway roller-coaster. It was not so much about the ups and downs as about the breakneck speed with which events seemed to have unfolded. And now this today. The sky was still dark outside and he was not sure what to do. The entire household was still asleep, little understanding the ongoing tumult in his heart. If he could have seen the future he would possibly have been a little more reassured. But ours is not to live moments until the moments are actually lived, and he was no exception. It was not that he was scared of what would happen. He had committed and he knew his word was his bond. He had no doubt that he would go through with it, come hell or high water. He knew that even afterwards he would do the best he could but what if it was just not good enough? What if it was just not meant to be? What if there was someone else? What if … ? How … ? There were so many questions in his mind and no answers as far as he could figure. It was like he was driving through a dense fog and he had no clue about the lay of the road. No idea where it curved or dipped or where the potholes were.

He opened the door and stepped out into the garden, absently fending off the dog who came bounding up and slobbered all over him. There was a strange silence at that time of the morning that he had never noticed before, mostly because he was normally asleep at this time. It was that period just after night has finally fallen asleep but before the day awakens to a new glory. Birds were just starting to stir in their nightly perches. Some would soon venture forth to get their early worm. Worms were pushing each other out through their wormholes so they were not the first ones out. Bats were winging it home to enjoy their well earned daily repose. Somewhere on the horizon a faint lightness was beginning to show. He could imagine it being exactly like this just before the Big Bang, when there was a nothingness which contained within it everything there ever was or could be.

As he wiggled his toes in the mud, he could imagine standing at this very spot a few million years back when it was still a swamp or a desert or a mountain or something else that he couldn’t quite imagine but felt inexplicably connected with. Like time was a mirage. And everything else was real. He knew in that instant that what he was going to do was right. Had to be. Why else would it have happened the way it did? Was there not a message there surely? Some sign that everything was going to be fine? He could see himself getting in his dilapidated car and driving down by himself, wearing a ceremonial dhoti even though he was totally against standing on ceremony of any kind. He imagined himself climbing the steps to the door that would open to change his life forever. He saw himself reaching out to ring the doorbell, his hand hovering just a little longer than required. And standing there on the doorstep just before that door opened, he could imagine himself hurtling uncontrollably through the vast emptiness of space on the back of this blue planet just like a few billion others of his kind. And he imagined himself still standing at the same spot where he had always stood even after the last of mankind had been wiped off the face of this planet by their own brilliance. Give or take a few million years.

And then he smiled and went in to get ready for the big day.