Unfinished

I checked Ajay Varma’s blog on a whim today – a few days after I restarted this blog here – and found this intimate and honest post. I’m going to respond to a particular part of his post:

“It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.”

I appreciate his honesty here. I can’t say I disagree with much of his post. I can’t say life has made me more of an expert on it than him. And I quite possibly fit the definition of an atheist that he’s laid out.

None of it gives me any comfort. I understand deeply Ajay’s “envy”. And yet, I cling to it. A belief. A hope. I have nothing much else to go on.

To be gifted with the power of reasoning is as inadequate description of a human capability as it goes. We are to appreciate this imagination that deals both happiness and sadness.

It is said when Buddha was confronted with human mortality, he abandoned his worldly duties in search of enlightenment. And the answer he discovered lay in the removal of attachment, the source of desire and the suffering that came from it.

So does enlightenment lie on the path of the removal of attachment? The removal of manufactured meaning (quite possibly redundant unless there is such a thing as natural meaning)?

But where are we left without manufactured meaning? That which is and just that, which seems so inadequate.

Without the answer to this question, I am left with this:

It is ironic that Yann Martel’s ambiguity is unsettling for many on the religious right, because it gives them an out. A hint of a battlefield where there is no level playing field. But maybe I should not be so surprised. The religious right was never about a search for truth or value. It has always been about power, as with so many other human organizations. I digress.

Certainly, it is easier to create meaning than to search for the truth. But there is another way to achieve immortality and overcome mortality. And that too is an act of letting go.

When I pass, I hope that those lucky enough to outlive me or come after me resemble me in some meaningful way. When I share 99% of my DNA with everyone else, it seems ridiculous to desire some unique trait or memory of mine lives on through someone else. So I must be content that I have already left a thumbprint that will outlive me and any meaning I manufacture.

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A herd of elephants

Note: This is an article I wrote in April of 2009. Published it elsewhere, but never put it on my blog.

The arrival of the investor-friendly politician

As India began 2008, we watched Tata Motors enter its 20th month of impasse with protestors at the Singur site of its proposed Nano car plant. In the time since Tata unveiled plans to build its ground-breaking $2,000 four-passenger car out of a new factory in the town of Singur in West Bengal, few imagined the opposition that would build up. This was hardly the first time a project faced opposition in India, but the thousands of lives the Singur factory had touched ensured a protracted battle between its proponents and opponents.

Among its most vociferous supporters stood the ruling party, the Communist Party, which had gone to great lengths to attract the much coveted project. In what is one of the greatest political ironies in India, the party that had long relished being a vocal critic of corporate India, did a complete turnaround under its Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to support the Tata project.

It is unclear exactly when the balance of power shifted between the opposing sides, but once the courts got involved, events started working against the project. In an affidavit mandated by the state High Court, the West Bengal government admitted that only 30% of the land for the project had been acquired with the consent of the landowners. For the protestors who had been claiming they had been treated unfairly, that was the evidence they needed to justify their opposition.

For investors in India, the state government’s botched management of the land acquisition process reveals a couple of considerations. First, a supportive government need not represent popular support. When investing in densely populated regions or agricultural lands, investors may have to deal directly with landowners. Second, monetary compensation need not be the best way to buy land. To a farmer, land can represent an inflation-indexed livelihood and collateral – benefits which are typically excluded from the government’s buying price. Third and most importantly, it pays to reduce your fixed investments in India today more than any point in the past, particularly because there are alternatives.

Hardly four days after it announced its decision to leave West Bengal, Tata Motors revealed a deal to relocate the Nano project to Gujarat. In an otherwise noisy democracy where every politician jockeys for attention with populist sops, the reception that Modi gave Tata was noticed. It remains to be seen whether Modi’s strategy will reap dividends in the upcoming elections, but for now, his constituents and investors benefit from the Chief Minister’s ambitious drive to reinvent his image, sullied by the Gujarat riots in 2001, and his state as the place to do business in India.

A few decades ago, such an alternative would have scarcely presented itself to Tata merely because India’s socialist policies suffocated business activity comprehensively. India’s heavily protected economy was mediocre all around, irrespective of which part of India you were talking about. Back then, the very idea of bureaucrats competing for investments was laughable. Today, it is conceivable.

Evidence of competition

Inter-state competition is not new to India; one of the best examples of economic competition occurred three centuries ago in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region. A significant portion of the trade between India and Central Asia travelled through the princely states of Jaipur and Bikaner in those days. The farsighted rulers of Shekhawati lowered transit taxes to divert caravans from their rivals. As Shekhawati grew in importance as a trading route, traders migrated to the region and invested their fortunes there. Today, the region is home to beautiful traditional villas evoking memories of a rich past.

As of the last election in 2004, India sported some 6 national and 47 state parties, each promulgating its own social and economic agenda. Some on the far left, some to the center and some to the right. The scale here is relative, because India’s political and economic language has socialist moorings, and will continue to do so for some time. But within what the U.S. would consider to be a largely socialist vocabulary, there is plenty of scope for differences. And these differences have only grown as the central government has devolved more and more powers to the state and local governments.

Source: Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion

The disparity between the states becomes clearer with a comparison of their track records with attracting investments. In fiscal 2008, Chhattisgarh catapulted to the top of the league table based on investment proposals filed with the government. In 2001, after years of consensus-building and political campaigning, Chhattisgarh, formerly part of Madhya Pradesh, was given the status of an independent state. So Chhattisgarh gives us a rare opportunity to observe what devolving powers can achieve. From 1999 to 2000, Madhya Pradesh, including Chhattisgarh, attracted Rs. 115 billion in investment proposals. From 2002 to 2003, Chhattisgarh attracted Rs. 242 billion solely by itself. During the same period, its former parent state lagged behind at Rs. 25 billion. While only one indicator of progress, Chhattisgarh’s success with attracting investments as a state lends more support to the notion that it was underserved as part of a larger state.

There is more evidence that state governments are getting more aggressive about attracting investors. A ranking of the states by investments announced during the fourth quarters of 2008 and 2007 shows that while the states at the bottom are consistently poor performers, the states at the top are less consistent. Of the five poorest performers in 2007, four continue to lag behind their peers in 2008, whereas only Maharashtra and Orissa have retained their position in the top five. So, once you get past the laggards, there are plenty of movers and shakers, reflected in the progress made by Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Bihar. The picture that emerges from this data is that of an increasingly competitive economy where governance is becoming an important differentiator.

Within chaos, diversity

Analysts often contrast the speed of economic reforms between “de-centralized” India and “hyper-centralized” China. Such simplifications ignore important exceptions in the political systems of both countries. For India, the lack of a heavily centralized government also leaves space for a variety of freedoms at the state level. True, the country still has much to do before it can claim to be a truly localized democracy, but even as it is today, India’s federal structure gives scope for different kinds of consensus to play out in the country.

For decades, my home state, Kerala, has seen a massive migration of its labor force to the Middle East and other parts of India. The flip side of having a fully literate society is that as peoples’ skills increase, their expectations will increase and they will seek higher paying jobs. But as Kerala’s history of militant trade unions and communist leanings has turned away many potential manufacturing investments, many Keralites have voted against their state’s economic choices by leaving for more fertile grounds. This scenario is playing out in other states in India where governments and civil societies are pursuing different socio-economic tradeoffs. As this happens, the cliché of India as a lumbering elephant will look increasingly outdated. If anything, India will begin to resemble more a herd of elephants, some sprinting, some stumbling and others idling.

The Growth Myth

Take an organization, A, that grows exponentially every day and compare it to an organization, B, that grows a factor of 100 slower. All else unknown, which would you rather invest in?

I’m guessing most people would answer A. Growth is good. More growth is great. It resembles validation. It demonstrates network effects. All things that are great in our brave new networked world.

Would you change your answer if I picked up a microsope and showed you A is a newly emerging avian flu virus and B is an amoeba colony with a million-year old genome?

There’s something about our modern world that exacerbates growth and hits. That something skews the music world towards one-time hits and sustained rockstars at the expense of everyone else.

In the question I posed earlier, I supposed that “all else [was] unknown”, which is the case for many investors looking into a business. How often do you have enough information? But all else unknown isn’t the same as all else equal. The less you know about a business, the riskier its profile relative to you. How much do “monthly active users” and “twitter retweets” and “facebook shares” tell you? Bumblebees are active even till the point they die from colony collapse disorder. Earthworms are boringly slow, but they will predictably churn vast quantities of garbage into useful earth.

I’m not claiming that steady, predictable businesses are better than fast-growing businesses. That doesn’t make sense. Bumblebees are at least as useful as earthworms. What I am saying is that growth is a side-effect of something that either works or is broken. Which is not saying much about growth.

I’ve seen a decent business undervalued because it didn’t demonstrate the growth pace set by the new kid on the block. But while the latter was out chasing “millenials”, the former had built an affluent subscriber base set in its ways. It lent the company that acquired it, a foundation to build a growth strategy. Why? Because of churn or the lack of it.

I’ve seen another business throw money at its salespeople to pick up customers. In the sales business, you should “always be closing” and ignoring the “bad leads”. But what happens when you apply that to a subscription business? All else unknown, “closing” can still leave you with plenty of bad leads. In other words, you never end up closing.  A subscription business demands an entirely new cradle to grave sales process. Why? Because of the probability of churn.

How many people in your business understand churn? I suspect many people like to claim they understand churn, but fewer take the effort to dig deeper. There’s a reason why my team looks closely at second bill month churn to evaluate a business. It tells you a lot of the quality of its sales process and customer acquisition strategy. But data on cohort-based churn is hard to come by. You can triangulate to it in other ways. But directly measured data is sparse.

In case you think this doesn’t apply to your transaction-based business, I want to highlight one fact about churn: it is the inverse of brand loyalty and need fulfillment. Adopting a transaction-based model doesn’t inoculate you from the fact that a customer can walk away from you forever or close to forever. So if you aren’t thinking about time till second sale when evaluating a business, then think again. The exception to this rule are businesses that focus on single lifetime transactions (how often are you going to buy a house?).

In brain science textbooks, there are diagrams of how the brain is neatly divided between the hypocampus (characterized as the primitive) and the cerebellum (characterized as the decision-making) because these parts of the brain evolved in different ways in different organisms. To our knowledge, our cerebellums are, as a proportion of total brain mass, the biggest in the animal kingdom. But in our brave new world, it is taking a back seat.

Facebook is getting a bad rep these days because teens are avoiding it. If new sign-ups are a leading indicator of growth, then pundits are worried that Facebook may be heading towards a decline. But I suspect the story isn’t so simple. Social media companies may be like other companies that sell products – they target audiences based on their age profile. They may also be like companies that fade and die on the backs of a community. It depends on the degree to which the social network is a product independent of its network. Does that sound confusing? I suspect Facebook knows itself better than its investors. And that may explain the Whatsapp acquisition.

I hate using personal anecdotes to extrapolate broader conclusions. So I’m going to prefix the following thoughts with the warning that I don’t know that which I am talking about.

Between a world without Facebook but with Whatsapp and a world without Whatsapp but with Facebook, I prefer to be in the former. Why? Because my interactions on Whatsapp are more personal. Because Whatsapp straddles that fine line between a social network and a messaging platform without seeming to sacrifice something significant for it. Because Whatsapp was built for the mobile platform. Because, counter-intuitively the fact that Whatsapp images are stored on my phone’s limited memory, forces me to set a high bar on my interactions. Ok, that last one was a bit of a stretch. But I hope you get my gist.

So I hope Facebook dug deep into Whatsapp’s engagement metrics and retention rates and saw something valuable there. The promise of a sustained customer base. The promise of low churn.

Growth is an easy by-product in our increasingly-networked world. Don’t fall into the growth trap. Dig deeper.

Mumbai

I’ve never had a great history with traveling to Mumbai. This time doesn’t seem to be different. I’m sitting at a friend’s place in Byculla, relatively isolated from the incidents of yesterday and today, but tense nevertheless.

The standoff has not progressed much. The army and NSG still surround the Trident and Oberoi. We’re getting conflicting reports on Taj. 24/7 media is beginning to wear on me; I can’t pull my eyes away and yet, the repeating images and obnoxious reporters are straining my nerves.

Worried about the long-term repurcussions. We are a soft nation. One of the liabilities of being an open society. But, we could do better with our security measures. And yet, we cannot do much about the underlying problems. Surrounded as we are by basketcases, we neither want to take on the cauldron of problems that is Pakistan nor can we ignore it.

I believe this won’t be like the last times. Many more Indians are vested in Mumbai than in the past. Yet, I can’t help feeling we are culturally flawed as well. We are too complacent. Too exhausted. Too weared down by something.

I was in the Atrium mall in Worli the other day. The guards asked me to open my bag; I opened the central pocket and the guard waved me inside. Never mind the metal detector had gone off. Never mind my bag had more than one pocket.

Sab chalega has traded places with kuche nahi chalega. When are we going to learn?

why obama won…

“At a moment of obvious peril, America decided to place its fate in the hands of a man who had been born to an idealistic white teenage mother and the charismatic African grad student who abandoned them — a man who grew up without money, talked his way into good schools, worked his way up through the pitiless world of Chicago politics to the U.S. Senate and now the White House in a stunningly short period. That achievement, compared with those of the Bushes or the Kennedys or the Roosevelts or the Adamses or any of the other American princes who were born into power or bred to it, represents such a radical departure from the norm that it finally brings meaning to the promise taught from kindergarten: “Anyone can grow up to be President.” Time Magazine

There is some unearthly talent there. And we’re unlikely to see something so historic in the U.S. in our lifetime again.

Not our brothers and sisters

I rarely find good news in these challenging times, but had to pull this quote out of the Washington Post’s piece on the Jaipur blasts:

“Hindus and Muslims have lived in such close quarters in Jaipur,” said Narendra Sharma, 52, a government servant who lives next to the Hanuman Hindu temple, where one of the blasts occurred. “We have to remember that it’s a terrorist issue. It’s not our brothers and sisters.”

India exists today because of the wisdom of millions of overlooked Narendra Sharmas… The common Indian, if there is such a thing, is under-rated. We just have to give him back his voice.

Like a Bollywood movie

While reading Marrying across Somalia’s caste lines over at BBC, I was drawing comparisons between the forbidden love of this couple and inter-caste marriages in India. But the lady at the heart of this story surprised me further with this additional tidbit:

“Finally, he was mine and I was his. Sometimes life is indeed like a Bollywood movie,” she said, smiling.

I visited my local Indian grocery store in Philly and unearthed this interesting fact about Bollywood movies. More than a third of the renters are from Africa! Among their favorites, Disco Dancer.

While we berate and moan the lack of attention to detail, histrionic acting and formulaic song and dance routines that form the staple in our film industry, Bollywood movies have a considerable following in parts of Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not coincidentally, these also happen to be some of the poorest places in the world. In the end, no amount of investment or diplomats have been able to achieve that kind of empathy. Quality aside, there is something to be said for spinning dreams and creating hope for the deprived.

Sanmanassullavarkku Samadanam

This is a reprint of my article at the Save Kerala blog – http://savekerala.blogspot.com

Latha looked at her watch. She was going to be late to work. Gritting her teeth at the thought of another long night at the office, she grabbed her iPod and stuffed it into her bag. As she ran out, Latha grabbed the tiffin box located strategically on the dining table and yelled in the kitchen’s direction,

“Amma…njaan erangunu.” (Mother, I’m leaving)
Pat came her mother’s advice, “Poyitte varette paraaa, molle.” (Say you’ll return after leaving)

At the bus stand, Latha did not have to wait for long. A SAFE bus rolled in, its engine purring to a halt. The driver extended its wheelchair lift to let out a disabled lady and her companion granddaughter. The rest of the passengers petered out of the bus before Latha stepped into its cool interior. This particular bus was operated by Safe and Friendly Environment Lines, the brainchild of Abdul Majeeb, a recently returned Kerala expat. Latha had read all about him in a splashy feature story in “Dusky” – a hugely successful periodical in Kerala.

Six years ago, Majeeb had traveled to Masdar to embark on a venture manufacturing luxury boats and yachts for the city’s wealthy businessmen and had amassed significant wealth for himself in the process. Yet, as he traveled between Kerala and Masdar, he was continually reminded of the world of difference between his place of birth and place of work. And nothing irked him more than the harassment women received in urban Kerala. At times, he suspected that beneath a largely literate society, lay a seething, frustrated, unemployed body of men who had nothing better to do than harass women on the streets and in every imaginable public place. Majeeb got so obsessed with the problem that whenever he met a fellow Keralite, he steered the conversation in this direction. Yet everyone, men and women, friends and family alike, just shrugged their shoulders and walked away. Then last year, the problem hit home when his sister was pinched and groped on a private bus. Shortly after that incident, he bought her a can of mace and then isolated himself in his office to apply his entrepreneurial instincts to the problem.

For decades, private and public bus lines were unable to provide safe and secure means of transportation for women and children. Surveys revealed the shocking extent of women who had some experience fending off physical advances while traveling. The numbers were lower, but still disturbingly bad for children, primarily because child molestation went largely unreported. It was a problem that left women and children scarred, and in many cases, families reluctant to let their vulnerable members venture outside for work. On the rare occasions that a woman or child complained, retribution was often swift, but the reaction too little too late. Years of building boats and arranging security for celebrity clients at his yacht exhibitions had given Majeeb considerable experience in the tourism and security industries. In his mind, the problems presented by public travel in Kerala were no different. And that is why Majeeb introduced a private protection bus service catering to men, women and children.

Ten kilometers from Latha’s bus stand, Majeeb sat in his office with his legs stretched on his desk, a liberty he took on Fridays when the week winded down to a crawl. Flipping the pages of his investment book, he ran through the calculations for his proposed fleet expansion. SAFE had created a tidy profit for him within two years of its launch; now he was going to expand beyond Kochi into Kozhikode and Kollam. Yet, he knew making his figures public to attract investors, was also going to open the gates to copy-cats once competing bus lines learnt just how well he was doing. But then, Majeeb was no stranger to competition. He thrived on devising innovative services and products to differentiate his business.

Majeeb reminisced about his neighbors in Kerala ridiculing him (not to his face, because that would have been impolite) when he told them about his new bus service and his ticket prices which were twice the prevailing rate. Indians, let alone Malayalees, are driven by cost, they said. Charge twice as much, get twice as less passengers, they warned him. Majeeb shrugged his shoulders just as they had shrugged theirs. If there was anything he had learnt about business, it was that you never learn without trying. So he went ahead with his plans to recruit bus “marshals” – able plainclothesmen who accompanied his buses.

In the first month after the inauguration of the bus service, Majeeb did worry. Attendance was poor, and his advertisements attracted just a trickle of passengers, mostly businessmen. Then as word of mouth spread about Majeeb’s guard service, he started seeing more housewives and working women among the passengers. Pretty soon, the inaugural bus were running at full capacity and bringing in enough money for Majeeb to justify buying a second, a third, a fourth and even a fifth bus.

In the beginning, there was a security guard on every ride. As expectations rose, he dispersed the guards among his buses. With his higher ticket prices, he was able to add more buses to the same routes and restrict the amount of passengers on each ride. Majeeb had long ago reasoned that the shortest distance from point A to point B in Kerala was not just a straight line. It was a line with bells and whistles. He was not interested in selling a commodity. He was not selling space. He was selling a service. He was selling comfort of a watchful pair of eyes. Not the kind of eyes that women were seeking to avoid. But the protective kind his meticulously-selected and screened guards offered.

Yet, Majeeb took pains to draw the fine line between regulating and liberating interaction between strangers. He had no desire to run a police state aboard his buses. He wanted men and women to converse and act decently towards each other. He didn’t want to segregate the two sexes as some clerics and priests in his home town would have liked. Was he in the business of teaching decency? No, he believed such behaviours could not be forced, just internalized.

And what of the criticism leveled at him by a major daily that his rates were beyond the ordinary person’s reach? He wrote an emphatic letter to the editor quoting first hand evidence that his bus was actually more affordable. Despite his relatively expensive bus fare, many of SAFE’s passengers were switching from more expensive means of transportation including two-wheelers. In the cases of women who were confined to their homes, the opportunity cost was much higher. Majeeb’s most cherished possession was a letter from a young lady named Latha, who had written to his office to express her appreciation for his bus lines. Latha was frequently called upon to work for long hours at her office. As such instances grew more frequent, her parents despaired and called upon the daughter to quit. Latha knew she could not heed their warning, which while well-meaning, ignored the hard facts of their circumstances. Her father was confined to the bed after a paralyzing stroke; between his medicines and her mother’s care, she was the sole breadwinner in the family. Any other job would force them to live from hand to mouth. It was in the midst of this crisis, Latha wrote to Majeeb, that SAFE “rolled into her life”.

Majeeb liked to think that SAFE was a social experiment, but he knew that it was a business like any other. It existed to satisfy an unresolved need like any other successful firm. Only time could tell what long-term changes his entrepreneurial abilities could shape. For now though, he would be happy just to provide law and order in the void that was Kerala’s traveling experience.

A knock on the door pierced Majeeb’s thoughts and he sat up. His assistant came into his office and said, “It’s Minister Balakrishnan.”
Majeeb raised his brow, “what does he want?”
“Something about booking a bus for his son’s wedding in June.” After some hesitation, she said, “Oh and Bhaskaran is on the other line.”
Majeeb asked, “Bhaskaran who?”
“Union Bhaskaran…the one who’s in the papers about getting you to sign an agreement for your security staff.”

Majeeb took in a deep breath and weighed which call was worse.

Post-script:

Sexual harassment is a widespread problem in Kerala. Volumes have been written here and elsewhere on the hellish experiences women face while they travel and work in our state. According to the 2007 Kerala Economic Review report released last month, atrocities against women have increased three-fold over the past 15 years. 2,078 cases were recorded against women in 1992. In 2006, this figure had risen to 9,110 cases. Despite greater public awareness, little has been achieved as tangible results. Successive governments have failed to provide us with better law enforcement agencies. But blaming the government for everything from the lack of standards in our civic life to our economic problems is becoming more and more a convenient cop-out.

Latha’s experience and Majeeb’s story need not be relegated to the dusty confines of Indian science-fiction. These are very practical applications of existing business models. A little private initiative and lots of common sense can resolve many of Kerala’s modern social and economic problems without resorting to charitable or publicly-funded institutions including governments. We have all seen how the latter have fared. I’ll let Milton Friedman explain the power of open markets more eloquently, “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system.”

Note: All characters in this article are fictitious. Any similarities that these characters may have to any person living or dead are unintentional.

Stillbirth

If my mother is Maharashtrian,
my father is Bihari,
my mother is Muslim,
my father is Christian,
my office is in Mumbai,
my wife and kids are in Delhi,
my mother tongue is Hindi,
my fluency is in Marathi,
my mother is an SC/ST,
my father is casteless,
Can you tell me
which half must be circumsized,
which half must be baptized,
which half may live in this city without fear,
which half must return to penury,
which half must apply for reservation,
which half must resent the other half?
I have only one mind, one body, one soul,
but
tear me apart for I belong
to a hundred places, identities and castes.
Or let me live as an Indian.