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A time for everything

No doubt there is a time for every book you will encounter in your life; it is just that you don’t know it unless you come to it at the right time. Take that fellow Richard Bach, and his many dreamy little philosophical books – Jonathan Livingston Seagull, A bridge across Forever, One. And a few others. I think I came to Jonathan Livingston Seagull at just the right time. My mind, probably unable to articulate what it felt, heard an echo in the flapping of that gull’s wings. A year or two year later,  I experienced something similar with A Bridge Across Forever. True Love – that was a pursuit worth anything. Then somebody told me that I had to read Illusions, it was his best book by far. I didn’t believe him, for it didn’t seem possible to me that he could write anything better than the two I had already read. And so I didn’t read it then.

A few years later, I did come by it, and the moment I was past page five, I knew I had come to it at just the wrong time. The more I read, the more I couldn’t believe that it was the same person who wrote the books I loved. But it was, so I thought maybe I wasn’t the same person who had loved Jonathan so and who had this incredible notion of true love in his mind. So I picked up Jonathan Livingston Seagull again. I can’t say it was a total letdown, I still kind of liked it, but I just couldn’t fathom whatever made me love that book so. I didn’t think I had changed much. But even in its twentieth reprint, the book hadn’t changed either. If I was the same person I was five years before and if the book was the same book it was five years before, was it just circumstance that evoked such different reactions at different points in time? It had to be more than that for sure. I must have changed. Even if my behaviours hadn’t changed, mentally I was in a different place.

I think that is the true source of conflict. We change mentally, but we retain our old behaviors. For belonging, maybe out of fear. It has to be hard living our lives that way. Unless we are on auto-pilot, which isn’t hard to do these days, this internal conflict has to erode us, however long it takes. And so it goes.

The time for Ayn Rand never came, and now I don’t think it will ever come. Which, I think, is a good thing. I wonder what I will think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance if I were to re-read it now.


Talking tennis and politics…

My morning tennis schedule has gone for a bit of a toss of late for various reasons.  First, the borewell motor at the court broke down and it took almost a week to repair it, and just as I have begun to get into the tennis routine again, now the borewell has run dry. It’s all rather frustrating as I do look forward to a couple of sets to get my day started on an energetic note. I hope the club does decide to deepen the well or figures out an alternative.

The good Dr. Arun Padaki, who hadn’t been playing for almost a year and half (or maybe longer) had just got back to playing again too, post the new year. His resolution, I suppose! Smile It’s always fun to play with him – his game is good to watch, a throwback to the Ramesh Krishnan era, almost, and it’s nicer still to find that I seem to be more competitive playing against him. My first serve is still rather hit-and-miss, and I haven’t figured out how to up the pace on that. But the rest of my game seems to have improved somewhat over the past year. I wish I had taken up tennis more seriously when I was younger. Still, as the one hobby that I have sustained for 4-5 years now, it’s been rather satisfying and hopefully, I can keep it at for much longer.

On an unrelated note, with borewells running dry all over the place, and with our general lackadaisical attitude towards water conservation, I fear it won’t take any longer than 10-15 years or so before Vandana Shiva’s predictions on water wars become a geo-political reality. At a personal level, while I have been having some success in approaching my goals with a greater sense of purpose and energy, on a more macro note, I have become rather pessimistic about our future prospects.

I am inclined to think that as a country, in the next 15-20 years, we are going to reach a situation where we will be faced with a choice to break up in the Balkan fashion (hopefully, not as violently) or somehow knit ourselves together like the United States did two centuries ago. I fear it could well end up being the former. And then there are all the socio-economic challenges that, pig-headedly we refuse to address seriously. The scale of malnutrition, if the Naandi foundation’s report is anything to go by, is such a tragedy. Water, food, environment – who gives a damn. Instead, we fight over the definitions of caste based reservation for even something as a body like the Lokpal, which is so far removed from the original idea and intent of reservation. And everybody wants to be an OBC now – which is such a farce. And you have people like that irritating Mani Shankar Aiyer talking semantically about the “C” in OBC being Class and not Caste, and I suppose similarly so for the C in SC. Then there’s the idiocy of the idea of a Dalit Christian and a Dalit Muslim. Rather than gradually eliminate caste from the Hindu lexicon, we now start exporting it to the other religions too. And someone will be telling our two-faced news icons on a talk show “Isn’t this beautiful – does anything else better illustrate how India is a melting pot for all religions”. Clap, clap, clap. We create rifts even when there are none.

We don’t usually talk politics at the tennis court, but one early morning when I had arrived rather early to the courts, it was still dark enough that the three of us who were there could do nothing but wait by the courtside talking shop. And it so happened that Raj wanted to know my point of view on India’s prospects – I suppose he imagined I would be considerably more gung-ho, but while I am considerably more enthusiastic about our near-term economic prospects, with this sort of broader pessimism, I ended up sounding like an alarmist to him instead! He didn’t quite agree with me, needless to say.

We so sorely need a third national party with a non-divisive ideology, and a media house that can raise the standard of discourse we are subject to.

Priestly ambitions

For my daughter’s naming ceremony a few years ago, we had requested the presence of one of the priests from the Ayyappa temple, a genial fellow a little younger than me, to do the puja/homam. It is a nice ceremony though the religious element of the ceremony isn’t something I particularly care for either way. However, I am loath to impose my beliefs on the rest of the family – and so I end up accepting my parents’ wishes in such matters. Tradition perpetrates itself through traditional norms of behavior, eh. During and after the namkaran, I chatted briefly with the young priest, or truth to tell, my mother did and I listened to their conversation – my mother, like many other women of her generation, has the uncanny knack of asking the most personal of questions to people without making them feel particularly uncomfortable about the interrogation. Maybe they do feel uncomfortable, but don’t express themselves, respecting her age and her geniality.

He was a Kannada brahmin, (affiliated to the Madhva sub-sect if I recall correctly), and had moved to Bangalore just over a year before. Prior to that he had been in Mumbai, and then he added something more about his family. More than enough information I would think, but my mother wanted to know why he moved to Bangalore from Mumbai. After all south Indian Brahmin priests are probably more in demand in Mumbai than here – at the back of her mind, maybe she was thinking, was this guy really any good? No, just kidding. As it turned out, it was a rather good question to ask for his answer wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought he would say that he missed Karnataka, or life was difficult in Mumbai – too much crowds/travel etc, but all he said was that he feared for his life. He had been there during a couple of the several bomb blasts that have plagued the city, though nowhere near the vicinity of the blast itself. After a point, he had begun to feel that it was simply not worth the risk to live in such a hard city, and he just longed for an easier life for himself. Ergo, bag and baggage, he had moved back to Bangalore.

The general rough and tumble of everyday life in a city bursting at its seams are difficult enough to navigate, but it is something that becomes second nature soon enough and we only spare a thought about it during cribbing sessions over coffee and/or beer. The unshared sense of foreboding about a bomb blast, except in the immediate aftermath of the event, had been a more cancerous fear for this particular priest, gradually eating away his peace of mind. He seemed happy enough when he spoke with us, and much more at ease with a slower, gentler Bangalore, bad traffic notwithstanding.

He is still with the temple, seemingly happy in his little corner. From my short interaction with him, I imagine he is probably one of those “consistently meets expectations” sorts without ever wanting to “significantly exceed expectations” (if you know what I mean). Nevertheless, I do wonder what sort of ambition burns in him, and more pertinently, in those priests who have stronger ambitions.

  • Is it money? Used to charge Rupees Thousand for a Namkaran, but shall no longer attend to such minor functions – contact me only for expensive weddings, that sort of thing.
  • Is it visibility and growth? Enough of being the ignored priest making do with the Devi idol in the corner – need to make it to head priest. What after that?
  • Is it an entrepreneurial spirit? Should run my own temple some day with the backing of some mining baron. Sorry, ignore that bit about the mining baron.
  • Is it prestige? Should be in the panel discussion of the All-India priests association.
  • Is it scriptural knowledge? Know the Bhagavata Purana in and out, but need to figure out the Garuda Purana. Given there are so many religious texts, this path is a never ending one, and I fear someone who takes this route will become like that wonderful quizzer who knows everything but understands little. I don’t mean that in a bad way though.
  • Is it to be a seeker? I wonder how many priests think of their lives as a spiritual quest for true understanding. But I suppose that is not even expected of a priest, for in many ways that does conflict with the requirements of being a householder who needs to materially provide for his family.

It would be nice to know what burning ambitions the priests at the Ayyappa temple harbor.

Elwise Priestly

Every morning, as I cycle down the road towards the tennis courts, I pass the Ayyappa temple, the principal landmark of my neighbourhood. I can hear the morning prayers on the temple loudspeaker – on some mornings it is Suprabhatham, other days it is one or the other Ayyappa hymn. It’s a good way to begin a morning, and I often think I should get up a little earlier and reach the temple gates before it actually opens. The earliest I have been up and about is at 5:45, give or take a couple of minutes, by which time the temple is already open even if the music player hasn’t been turned on yet. I suppose 5:30 is when the gates open and the priest does whatever he does before opening the temple doors. The head priest at this temple has a somewhat imposing and distinctly un-avuncular presence, quite unlike the other four priests who take care of the lesser/subsidiary gods. Somehow I don’t imagine the head priest is the one who wakes up that early though I don’t really know. I wonder if there is some sort of hierarchy that determines who wakes up that early hour or if they just do it by turns. On the other hand, that 30-45 minute window at the break of dawn and just before is truly a godly time and it is when one is mostly easily transported spiritually – to that extent, if a priest were sufficiently devout, I would imagine he would fight for his right to do the morning’s first offerings to his God.

In today’s times, a priest’s life is probably a hard one. It is a job for the spirit, but in the administrative and religious chores of the job, there is truly little spirit involved. In the past, the priest was an integral part of the community even if that community was rather limited by caste. There is a certain reverence and empathy that comes with that intimacy, and by virtue of position and presence, he must certainly have had considerable influence in the community. Today that is hardly the case. I doubt very much that any of the priests of this temple actually stay in our neighbourhood, and certainly they have very little to say or do in anything of import that happens here. While I might be generalizing here, it certainly doesn’t help that there are very few priests who have studied the world beyond the scriptures and talk with wisdom of the more material issues of our times. What stops a priest from spending 30 minutes every day talking about environmental consciousness, cleanliness, civic sense, excessive consumption, factory farming of animals, debunking caste or whatever else have you. I don’t suppose many of us would listen to them even if they did – it is a bit of a chicken and egg problem – they have fallen off in esteem so much that we would probably think what the hell do they know anyway, who is he to preach to me? Ah, the sweet irony of that statement. Nevertheless, the temple does exist as does the priest, however irrelevant he has become beyond his role as an indulged mediator. It would be nice to know what my local priest thinks about himself and his own role in today’s scheme of things.

Little things…

It is the little things.

I am on a lane-less two lane road that is used up as three lanes and a half. There is a long line of vehicles of various shapes and forms bumper to bumper waiting in a fervid anticipation for the bumper before to move an inch or two. From the corner of his eye, the driver of the car in front of mine glimpses an auto about fifteen vehicles ahead adjust his rear tyre a fraction. He honks and as if on cue, a series of honks burst into life – staccato commands of a civilization in a perennial rush, it seems. Slowly they lapse into silence once more as the inches are taken and the wait resumes.

After I have moved about a hundred metres, I finally see the seemingly oblivious conductor of this morning’s composition. A dirt laden paint peeling lorry stands one thirds of the lane away from the missing left sidewalk, like a battered boxer who couldn’t care less for the world around him. Standing alongside, the driver smokes a cigarette, smirking at curses that hail on him from every vehicle that makes its way past him. Two disheveled men dig a ditch or are attempting to close one that has opened up, it is not clear to me if the objective is the former or the latter. They shovel grime and sewage that they promptly cast aside onto the tarred road. There it settles where no doubt it shall remain to expand the sidewalk. My driver finds a suitable curse, and I pass them by.

It is always so, therefore it is strange that I am moved enough to chronicle this everyday event. Maybe it is so because I have just returned from a visit to the land of milk and honey, neither of which taste remotely as good as their equivalents here. There I noticed cracks on roads that appeared to have opened up since my last visit. Long thin cracks on solidly tarred and paved California highways seemed like visible signs of the milk and honey beginning to curdle. I walked the roads, and there wasn’t anyone else around who appeared to walk too. What a tragedy that on a brilliant summer day with a cool breeze blowing, I could count but three others besides us who walked on the broad sidewalks past manicured lawns and solid row houses – identical may be, graceful nevertheless. I visited Costco and I saw huge women too huge to walk drive along the store aisles on little vehicles, their butts falling off the little seats in the little vehicles. The headlines rang true – obesity nation in the fitness nation, neither influenced by the existence of the other. I switch on the TV and their news channels put Arnab Goswami to shame. ESPN was worse still – LeBron this, LeBron that. To paraphrase one commentator from the San Jose Mercury news, 9 PM Thursday PST, America waited in bated breath for LeBron’s one liner – I am going to Miami, he says, and it puts to shade JFK’s greatest lines. In the office, I saw only middle aged people hard at work, backs against the walls it seemed, as senior management drove costs out of the system. Acres of beautiful campus lined with tall evergreen trees and everyone too busy to pay any attention to them. People ate at their desks, worked from home if they could, and made little conversation – be that at their desks, at the spacious cafeteria or along the long hallways. They quizzed me about the mood in my land – is it positive, are people happy, how is the economy doing? I answered as honestly as I can – I like them, almost all of them are honest, decent people who can be fun too, but our fates right now are twined like the two halves of an hour glass.

My sixty minutes of reflection are up as my car pulls into the parking lot. Decay, that notion is on my mind every now and then, the two weeks I am there. Then I land here – everything is relative, no? I will tell you this much though – no matter what, the mood of a nation is a big deal.

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On startup groups in organizations…

…Not too long ago, I used to think, startup groups in large organizations had a big advantage over pure play startups. Imagine the financial muscle, the ability to pull people from different divisions and groups together, the market clout etc etc.

The thing is, it doesn’t work quite like that. No doubt there are some advantages, but all said and done, there are enough countervailing disadvantages, which probably explains why startups often beat bigger players. Or get acquired.

1.      Funding – Any project that needs more than a nominal investment needs to be funded. Funding for infrastructure, hiring new people/experts, software licenses, whatever. A startup with some kind of VC funding has much more flexibility in this – they can buy infrastructure pretty much immediately, get people on-board quickly. For startups, these are “investments”. In a large enterprise, that’s not quite so. Unless, it’s a project that’s being seeded in the R&D arm/division, any such funding is “cost that needs to be customer-funded” – i.e. either a guinea-pig external customer, or an internal sponsor. Neither is easy – external customers aren’t going to fund you for something you don’t have, and internal sponsors themselves have cost-budget pressures, and are unlikely to invest in something that isn’t directly useful for them.  So long as a startup has reasonable seed-money, I think they have a distinct  advantage on this count.

2.      Getting the first customer – The first customer is “gold”. Well, almost. He is that proof-point that you are not just yet another alchemist. You might think startups have a big disadvantage here. Not quite. Any half decent startup typically has at least 2-3 highly networked and well-respected people in their senior management or board. If they are VC backed, the VCs bring in their contacts. So while getting that first customer is difficult, personal relationships at the highest levels make their job easier. On the other hand, in a large organization, a small group has significant disadvantages. One, since they don’t have funding, they can’t get their own field sales force. They need to get mindshare with internal stakeholders – business group heads, account managers, engagement managers yada yada. Difficult as that is, the really hard part is to get these guys to sell what you have to offer (which is mostly nothing more than a pitch and a POC). And why is that such a problem – well ‘cos you are too small to matter for a sales guy who is used to much larger deals. You don’t bring him enough value – he is measured by revenue he brings, and the revenue you bring is just too small to matter. There are other aspects as well – you may not be able to do a “free pilot”, for e.g. That probably requires you to get an approval from someone three levels above you!

3.      Agility – I guess, this is probably the most obvious. Startups don’t have to deal with internal bureaucracy – and by bureaucracy, it’s more than just people.  The processes, no matter who the person, can slow things down a fair bit. Minimal approvals to go through, no  time consuming hassles over travel arrangements. Decisions can be taken faster, and people are better connected internally.

4.      Brand Perception  – There are two aspects to brand perception, and both can be a big problem.

a.      Internal Perception – People within the company have a perception on what a company’s strengths are. For e.g., the sales guys may think that the organization’s bread and butter is selling servers and PCs. Now, if you have an idea that doesn’t sit with that perception – say, here’s some cool analytics we can do for this customer we already have, you aren’t going to get much of a hearing.

b.      External Perception – This is legacy. People look at you as being good in xyz thing. Let’s take Mircosoft – their brand perception is that of a software player – operating systems, office productivity, fair game all. But getting people to notice them for something outside what they are considered good at – a music player device, or an ERP application – much, much tougher. Pricing, of course, can tilt things significantly.

5.      Focus – A startup is almost always far more focused on its objectives. They need the customer more desperately, their existence depends on that. There really is no back-up option. Not so with startup groups in a large organization. Typically, the ideas are a consequence of work that is already being done for an internal customer or an external client. Most people within the group have their regular deliverables & clients, and innovations are a consequence of that. Taking that innovation to the next level, bring it to a wider audience is exciting to think about, plan and work on, but it’s got to be tempered with the responsibilities of managing expectations from existing stake-holders. Even if the bigger deal doesn’t pan out, not too much is going to change.

But having had my say, I must add that this is not always the case. You can get an internal sponsor, you can change perceptions, and you can make yourself reasonably agile. It’s just tougher than you think. And organizational culture can also play an important role. From what I have seen here, the culture is conducive to reduce many of these problems. Not sure if that is the case in most other places. Some places are just more bureaucratic and more lethargic than others.