Monday, October 31, 2016

To be, or not to be

The way heroes are made and modified has always been a topic of interest to me. On other blog posts here and elsewhere ( is one example), I've rambled on and on about the topic, and the root for many of these thoughts is 'The Invasion that never was', which I was given to read at an age where I still was impressionable :) An entire invasion was apparently fictionalized, and our history thoroughly distorted (though there are others who think the invasion really happened and was reported accurately) within a single generation! Think about it - our entire history, the biggest source of our pride, was distorted by a bunch of over-educated fools who found it fair game.
The same applies for our heroes too. Whether we worship them or vilify them seems entirely dependent on our narrative. Afterall, the image we put up for a hero is what causes future generations to idolize / demonize him / her. The post mentioned earlier was written in 2012. It's been 4 years, and with age, I should've grown wiser. However, I've only grown cynical, and I guess that's often a synonym and an acceptable alternative to appearing wise! We have now had a right wing government in power for over two years, and a whole new bunch of heroes have come into vogue. While that isn't much of a problem (except for those preparing for quizzes and UPSC examinations!), the real problem is that heroes we've grown up idolizing have become like he who must not be named!
Most of India has grown up in an environment where Congress has been presented as the savior, and the people who brought about India's independence and identity. Along the way, some folk from that party split and formed a different wing, And another, and another. Our civilization has always judged us on the basis of our history, and so they changed their history by bringing in people who weren't a major part of it till then. Dead people, remember. We keep bringing in people who are no longer alive, and use their history (or distort it) to help create and protect the image we'd like to portray to the world.
After a right wing absolute majority govt was formed at the center in 2014, icons who we were made to idolize were gently (and sometimes roughly) pushed to the side. Gandhiji's image started taking hit after hit. And it built and built till today I would get skewered if I made a simple statement like 'Father of the Nation' on my social media profile. Lesser known heroes suddenly came into vogue. Nehru became a proper villain. The cause for all our troubles. Think about it - his legacy has hit rock bottom  50 years after his death! And is plummeting further.
Chinese whispers isn't just a party game. It is true, and affects the psyches of entire generations! A normal chap from a rural village who is still in college, tweets obscenities on long dead leaders because it is in vogue, and gets him to be popular!
Going back further, Tipu Sultan was portrayed as a hero of the country, and that image was bolstered further by the eponymous TV series. For the last few years, however, that image has been thrown under a battle tank. Right wing Kannadigas have come out in force with facets of Tipu's life which weren't mainstream till then, and it is a fact that most young folk of that region today hate Tipu and if given a choice, would destroy his palaces.
In Andhra, there is a different kind of a malady. Of caste. Sri Krishna Devaraya was treasured as the guardian of culture, language, and heritage for the Deccan. Then a caste took over his persona to bolster their own image, and all the others started finding ways to destroy their newfound fame as descendants of that great king. The result is a broth of half-truths and absolute lies, which, as time goes along, will get embedded in word-of-mouth, and become the basis for impressing the next generations.
In this process, we make heroes out of people who are ill-suited to it. History is replete with examples of folk who destroyed entire generations because they were incapable of handling that responsibility. Every day, our media monster makes new heroes in order to keep feeding the frenzy. Malala became a hero for doing something which wasn't common in Pakistan. Several others opposed the regime, but it was she who became the poster girl and got a Nobel for it. We made her an icon, added a chapter about her in our children's books, and put her up on a 'Great women of the world' poster. Then she came out last month in support of Pakistan during the Kashmir unrest, and the entire nation went up in outrage against her and called her a fool! We want those chapters removed rightaway.
We are quick to worship, and quicker to loathe!
Human Beings are a weird species. We seldom live in the present. Either we are caught up in the past, or worried about the future. Most actions that we do, we do either to continue a legacy, or to protect our coming days. Creating an image is like building a brand. In order to do that, we pick up stuff from the past, and weave it into a narration which we hope will carry us into the future. In order to do that, if we have to distort actions (and their results), or even to throw long dead people under the juggernaut, we don't hesitate to do so. A hero (or a villain) is remembered only till his image serves some benefit to the living people. Characters from the past are dug up and polished whenever the present needs them. 
All through our childhood, 31st October was Indira Gandhi's death anniversary. At school, hardly anyone knew it was also Vallabhbhai Patel's birthday. That was how it was back then.
And today, Narendra Modi tweets about Sardar Patel's birthday first, and then pays tribute to Indira Gandhi on her death anniversary. With a gap of one minute between them. That minute's more than enough!

There is a game conducted in training sessions where participants are allowed to pick up any of the objects in the room and use them to achieve the objectives set by the trainers. We use anything from the past to further us in the present. Our next generations will do exactly that. Our history will always be fluid and flexible, because the history in the books is not the history that people remember. Facts will be overwritten by fiction. Rumors will become legends. Our entire lives' works will get cast by the roadside as time goes along and there is no longer any need for the image we nourished. Needs change, and history is made to adapt to those needs.

Great is the man who lives a life without caring for what the future generations will think about him.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hudhud - A year later

The Indian subcontinent is hit by dozens of note-worthy cyclones each year.
The world is hit by thousands of natural phenomenon which are termed to be of 'disaster proportions'. 
Most of these strike in areas of limited or nil inhabitation or dissipate in the oceans that make up 70% of Earth, and remain only as a matter of academic interest to scientists. A few of them do damage worthy of being discussed by the world. Each time a populated city is struck, our world turns grisly. Thousands are killed, property worth Billions is destroyed. The human spirit often prevails and life comes back to normal in a few weeks or months. Once in a while it takes years. A really bad natural disaster may spell doom for the region, and in cases like Pompeii which was destroyed to an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, civilization in that region is wiped out.

Last year on this day, HudHud visited Vizag. An 'Extremely severe cyclonic storm' hit a highly populated city for the first time this side of the world. We lived through it, and are richer for the experience. Yes, it was terrifying. Yes, windows were shattered at home, our office sustained much damage. The city we love so much became a rubble. Comforts like running water and electricity took a few days to restore. Drinking water became difficult to find, climbing up the stairs a dozen times a day pushed us out of our comfort zones. Schools were closed for two weeks. Monumental loss of property happened. Some folk living next to the sea lost everything. It was inconvenient to provide medical assistance because of the conditions of the roads. Communication was non-existent, and relatives and well-wishers outside of the region were more worried about us than we ourselves as they did not know our situation. 

Thankfully, there wasn't any loss of life. A couple of stray incidents and freak accidents apart, Vizagites were all alive. Thank you, mother nature.

I began writing this post 11 months ago. It has been in the drafts folder of my blog ever since. But somehow, it never got published. And I'm glad for it. Much has been spoken about the way the government has swung into action, about the different agencies which selflessly contributed their time, resources, energy into clearing our city and getting people back onto their feet. When we're grateful, it isn't for the present, but also for the future. One year from that date, we remain grateful. Thank you, Odisha disaster rescue teams. You were the shining beacon among nature's carnage. The way you came in on your yellow and orange jeeps with your own equipment, and even your own water and food, was a lesson for the country to emulate. Self-contained disaster rescue units are a Godsend for those stranded. Thank you, employees from all the departments all over the state who drove in on ordinary RTC buses and made camp near Naval Coastal Battery. We saw you cooking your own food in less than desirable conditions on the streets, and sleeping on city bus bench seats and on the pavements. We are grateful. Thank you, Army, Navy, Air Force. You work behind the scenes eternally. The real contribution you've done will never be covered by the media, but you go on. Thank you, Govt machinery and ministers, led by our dynamic CM. You camped at the collector's office till things got as close to normal as they could in the conditions. Much praise has been heaped on Mr. Chandra Babu Naidu, and he deserves it all and more. The sirens of his protocol car could be heard late into the night, every night. Citizens of the city slept just fine. We cooked and ate timely and fresh meals. Power and water came back real soon, and we did fine. But these people worked tirelessly. They slept little, and stayed away from their homes for days and weeks. NGOs, various corporates, religious organizations, impromptu teams of youngsters, thousands of you all came in by your own transportation, did your bit, and left without waiting for your 15 minutes of fame. Thank you. 

Yes, work slowed down after the initial hurdles were surmounted. What should have taken a week took a month after the initial burst of rescue operations. Even today there is much damage that is visible which hasn't been repaired. We have lost our beautiful beach to the cyclone, and it may never go back to how it was earlier. Plantations were taken up on a war footing, and many of the plants have withered away, leaving empty eyesore rusting contraptions that the plant-guards have now become. People profited from the disaster stooping lower than any human being should. But then, this post is not to rant about what could have. It is to feel thankful for what has.

We are guests in nature's realm. The world runs on its own rhythm and dances to its own beat. Each generation of people come aboard thinking they want to change the world and leave their footprint on it. The strongest footprints are washed away in an instant, and the world just shrugs off all change - unless it likes it and makes it its own. I'm of the firm opinion that we are not powerful enough to actually impact our environment in the long run. Together we are billions of people doing incredible damage to our world, but one shrug and it'll all go back to however nature intends for it to be. Hundreds of known civilizations have perished in these shrugs of nature, and thousands more will. Then one day nature (or call it God) will decide that it wants a fresh slate to redraw, and will wipe everything off. Dinosaurs ate up more than they should have, and have become fossils to warn future generations. We haven't learnt from it. A few thousand years hence, a human fossil will be seen with awe by whichever species is around at that time. Or we may just become pieces of nothingness floating in space. What we call disasters are but little specks on the canvas of time. But in that speck are our entire lives! Everything we have managed to accumulate and hoard away, all the layers of society we have so carefully created and maintained, our very lives are a minute part on that speck. Like the tiny people living on pollen on Horton Hears a Who. One sneeze and we're gone. These sneezes fling us back to where we belong. They tell us that there are much more powerful forces at play. Large trees which survived in the Andhra University campus for hundreds of years were uprooted and many of us shed real tears looking at them. But what about the millions of trees which we uprooted and built our homes on? Where has all the wood we're surrounded with at home come from? Newspapers sensationalize and put up headlines like 'Nature's fury' and stuff. But all the trees uprooted by HudHud are cut down in a day in a logging forest in the Amazon! We cried about roads being washed away. We dig up a hundred HudHud's worth of earth under the guise of mining and exploration every week! Crocodile tears we shed! Blaming God for a disaster is foolishness. Poor man. We destroy a thousand times more than all the disasters around the world in a year, and we go back and crib on him :).

The real takeaway, the real magic, is the human spirit. That is what allows us to go on with our lives till the day we're gone. That is what we pass on to our next generation. Not those pieces of stationery we fondly call as currency. Not the gold, not the land. What worth would we put on giving a bottle of water to a family the day after HudHud? How would we attribute value to a squad of people from a neighbouring state who came of their own accord and got to work of their own initiative and showed our people the way without expecting anything in return? Where can we find the thanks for the hundreds who left their problems at home and came following their bosses' orders, and worked tirelessly day and night without being even able to call back home and enquire about their wellbeing? We can't. Deep down inside, we are all awesome people. We enjoy tranquillity and harmony in our surroundings, and will strive for its upkeep. The sad thing is that it takes 'Nature's Fury' to bring out the best of us. We have made our world an attention-seeker's paradise, and the cacophony of media channels searching to make instant heroes out of ordinary people have destroyed our normalcy. A donation of a cycle to a child of poor parents becomes a newspiece. A dozen people stand behind a stage and the child and his parents receive the tricycle, with a backdrop of a 'charitable organization' and under the spotlight of cameras. Thousands of selfless acts much grander than this are performed every day across our world. Neither is the doer interested in fame, nor does he remember the act later.  That is true humanity. And that is how nature intended for us to live - together; in harmony, and lending each other a hand. At Vizag, we have been fortunate to witness innumerable acts of love from strangers who came in to our fallen city and set it right again. We salute you all. We are no longer strangers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

For a seat at the plaza

One of the wisest pieces of advice I've ever been given is to converse to elderly people once in a while. That doesn't mean telling them what to do or shouting at them, but also to listen :) While its easier said than done, with our inflated sense of self-worth, and our make-believe busy lives, once in a while, a day does come along wherein a simple conversation with a man from an earlier generation stops us in our tracks and adjusts our compass' orientation in the right direction.

This is one such conversation.

A well-heeled gentleman and lady came home for dinner recently.

After a long and illustrious career, the man retired at a senior position in the central government, and by then, three of their children were settled in the USA. Like thousands of parents, the couple spent six months in the US and six months in India for a few years. Then as age caught up, they simply decided to stay back in the USA to avoid this shuttling around. They got Green cards, and have been quasi-citizens for close to a decade now. Once a few years, they come to India in the guise of a family function, and then head back.

We were conversing about the different cities he lives in the US - as his children live on opposite coasts owing to their professions. Like most parents do, they travel from one city to the other, spending a few months at each place - depending on the weather, and on family obligations like births and sicknesses. One son lives in California, and the man mentioned he prefers to stay there. I thought it was for the climate, and said so. His answer couldn't be more different! He simply said he prefers California because there is a Plaza near their son's home there, and that plaza has a bench he could sit on and talk to others.

A very well read man, a man considered as a genius in his family. He got an Engineering seat decades ago, joined a steel plant in its initial days, and grew with it into a position of senior management. Planned his childrens' educations immaculately, planned his finances well in advance, sent all three of them abroad, funded their studies, and got them settled there. The man has tremendous respect on both sides of his family, and has helped scores of others with their education and careers. While in active service, he helped dozens of deserving folks get steady jobs, and is considered a mentor by many. Folks from his family made a beeline for him when in need. You get the picture - there are people like him in all of our families. Pillars of the society we inhabit, and their number is on the speed dial of many phones.

This is a successful life - it has ticked all the items on the 'success' checklist. And then to top it off, he applied for and got a Green Card for himself and his wife so that they could stay on the USA. A dream for thousands of parents who've pursued that path and failed. 

And he prefers to stay on in California not because of the climate, or because of the affection of his grand children, but because there is a plaza with a bench within walking distance from home.

Simple stuff

What have we made of our world? We've filled it with concrete, with monuments to our own personal successes, and we constantly outdo the other in a never ending game of one-upmanship. In the process, we've left no space for us to enjoy the 'success' that we have created for ourselves! Such a simple thing - a bench in a plaza where people who're not burdened by time can sit, breathe, converse, and contemplate! A whole life - a very successful one at that - today wonders if the bench will be free to sit on when he gets there. All that knowledge, experience, and wisdom acquired over decades of education, career, and overcoming everything that life's thrown at them, lies dormant, seeking expression.

This blog post is not to come up with a conclusion or to lecture our living style. It is just a hit from Thor's mighty hammer so we sit up and realize that we're not going to be at this age forever. Things won't always happen the way they're happening now. All that recognition we run after, the objects we lust for, they will all lose their sheen. We should achieve all of those for sure; not for the sake of the objects, but to feel good that we've finished another item on our to-do list. But the to-do list needs to take in fewer items. And one day it has to be empty. That day is what I'm looking forward to.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Long Live the Film Writer!

Note - This post is about Films; specifically Telugu films. You may or may not appreciate it fully if you're not a film buff patronizing our incredible movie industry :)

In Internet Marketing, we tell ourselves every single day that Content is King.

Our Film industry has forgotten that Golden rule. And sadly, we are the generation saddled with this mediocrity.

Last year, the Telugu film industry produced 253 films according to Wikipedia, and even the most die-hard Telugu film fan would be hard-pressed to name over 50 of them if there were a quick contest.

The Writer, who should be real star of the film making fraternity, has been relegated to the sidelines, to just follow orders and copy-paste stuff based on pressure from The Hero's Image and The Director's Ego. Since they're paid a pittance (side actors and bit-comedians often make much more than what a writer would for a movie here), survival is the name of the game. And its a fact that you can't pursue your passion on an empty stomach!

Last year, while watching the Oscars, it was thrilling to see the Oscar for best Original Screenplay (which is what they call the Best Writer's award nowadays) recipient getting a standing ovation from the entire auditorium! And that award was given away last. After the actors, musicians, and other technicians. A true honour, no? The final, and most important award should go to the most important department. Hollywood has realized that.

When will get to see such respect to our film writers? Poor chaps. They sit in Krishna Nagar tea stalls fine tuning their characters, and no one even knows them! They run around the film studios, giving passionate hearings to anyone who can make the story take form, and when it does, the film is nowhere close to the actual story that has been written! There are writers who have extraordinary stories, who've told it to dozens of producers!

Two TV series I've watched with great interest recently are Breaking Bad and Prison Break. Got the full versions and watched them like crazy - four and five episodes a day. Yes, the performances are awesome, the background music is terrific, and the direction is tight. But what stands out is the writing. Pure Genius! The series' creators screenplays were so awesome, it became a true delight to watch. A character that appeared in a bit role in an episode suddenly becomes central to the plot much later on, and when we see that character on screen again, the whole past story comes flooding back. What appeared like skulduggery in one episode takes on a whole new light when explained much later. Splendid writing.

Here's another example (and a Spoiler Alert in case you haven't watched this series yet). True Detective, an HBO original series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, made its debut on TV last year. The 8 part series, to sum up in a sentence, is the journey of two detectives who attempt to crack a satanic murder mystery, retire from the force without having cracked the case, and then join up together again a few years later to solve the mystery. Now, if you watch CID on TV (how can you miss it - its everywhere, and has been so for a dozen years now!), you'll realize that a plot line like what I just mentioned is solved every single day by the redoubtable ACP Pradhyuman and the door-kicking Daya. They solve these mysteries with their hands tied behind their backs, and blindfolded.

There must have been a thousand books written on such a premise of a story, and a hundred movies made on a similar story line. So what sets True Detective apart?

The writing.

Through interspersed screenplay weaving back and forth in time, and through a unique concept of bringing out the story in an oblique manner, the writers make a brilliant job of building the simple story to its climax. Look back at the names of the two stars. Each is a superstar - and bringing them together onto the small screen is a serious risk - that too with a regular storyline. But what gives True Detective a rating of 9.3 on IMDB is the way its woven together.

And talking about writing, how can we not mention Game of Thrones? No better example to showcase the brilliance of a writer and the true power of majestic, unbridled writing! Imagine the faith the production house must have on the script in order to spend upwards of $6 Million per episode! You've read it right. It costs over $6 Million to shoot an episode of Game of Thrones. That's about ₹38 crores, which is more than what most films would cost to make here! One could make 5 movies here with that budget! And Game of Thrones is a purely made-for-TV production, with a running time of 50 mins. Writers rock! A small character in Season 1 suddenly becomes central to the plot in Season 2. Characters who we hated last season, makes us root for them this year, and we pray that George Martin doesn't kill them off suddenly, like he revels in doing!

George R R Martin blackmailing us!

When done right, a writer should be able to do delight the audience. Enthral them in his characters' complexities, get them to flow with his story. I'm quite convinced that a good writer can take a simple one line story and weave it into a blockbuster. There are superstar writers like James Patterson, who have made careers out of that ability. Since we're speaking about story adapted for cinema here, I don't even think there needs to be a solid story. A simple concept is enough - as the screen time isn't enough to bring out all the complexities in the characters. With a book, you're using only one sense of your audience - visual, and have to engage him fully, competing with the other senses around him for his attention. But in a film, you have access to both vision and sound. The environment is in your control, they can't run away for the duration of the presentation (unless the movie really really is shabby). In theory, that isn't too difficult to do. But what's sad is that our folks manage it with great aplomb, and in increasing frequency!

Till a few years ago, atleast we had a story. Yes, there's a Hero, a Heroine, a love story, a Villain, and some Comedy in between. But they were woven together with a string of a story. Sadly, that's seldom needed today. All we need are a star's dates, a particular pairing, a producer with deep pockets (who is easily found if the star is favourable with the audience at that point of time), and everything else can be done in post-production. The film can be completed without even having a music director in place. A song or two are shot abroad after the film is complete and shown to financial backers, based on how much money they can mop up from satellite rights. If the movie sells, there is a better music director. Else, it's a freebie from a recording studio. If the movie gets support of a biggie in the industry, there's a marketing agency that's roped in to spend ₹₹₹ on branding the film. Else, it's a single theatre release (if even that is possible). The story doesn't even come into play! Its all a gimmick - package it well, and hope it will sell!!

A movie called Vinavayya Ramayya released yesterday. The team roped in Rasool Ellore as cinematographer and Anup Rubens composed the music. Brahmanandam, Prakash Raj, good supporting cast. And here's the story - A village boy falls in love with the headman's daughter, who is already engaged to be married. How he convinces her father (Prakash Raj, naturally) and wins over the girl forms the story. How many hundreds of movies will be made on this storyline?? Prakash Raj himself must have played the exact same character in about 50 films. New record? Brahmanandam must have shot for a couple of days so that they can put him on the poster and sell a few more tickets. He must've done that for what, 500 movies so far? The exact same storyline must have been narrated to producers thousands of times in various forms? But yet, films continue to get made! This movie, with such a technical team must have cost a minimum of 10 crores. Such a waste of money.

Yes, there is a feeling that experimentation is risky in our industry. But a film with a storyline like above is even riskier! Not only will it bomb at the box office, but it'll kill several careers along the way, and make a pauper out of the producer! Why the hell do people keep making the same stuff over and over again? First half shot abroad. Hero's parents reminisce about their estranged family back in India, who they fell out with over some misgivings in the past. Hero decides to settle the dispute. Leaves his girlfriend in that country and comes to India to discover that his maternal uncle has a daughter here. A few fights, some comedy, and a couple of songs later, all's well, and yet another 'blockbuster' is ready to strangle its viewers!! How many stories will you keep making with these storylines, Tollywood???

Ram Gopal Varma, who today criticises everyone and everything on Twitter, was a true maverick once upon a time! Shiva, Kshana Kshanam, Govinda Govinda, Gaayam, Anaganaga Oka Roju, Antham, Money Money, Gulabi, what movies! True game changers in the Telugu film industry. And then the guy just lost it. Under the guise of creativity, he churns out absolute crap, and promotes it like each of these pieces of eccentricity will change the face of the film industry! But the fact remains that once upon a time, the story and its writer were truly the king! Telugu Audience in the 90s were treated to some incredible storytelling, through RGV's films and many more. Really good tales, told with a flair.

But then the star was born. And our industry has been going downhill ever since. When the star became bigger than the story, films became bhajan programs. Each movie, depending on its star, had to pay its respects to the family the star comes from. And had to appeal to a certain segment of the audience, failing which the film will bomb. Its a no-brainer, really. Why does one have to make a movie within these rigid frameworks to appeal only to a certain section of the audience, and depend on them alone for the movie's success? Why not tell a story on its own merit? If it is told well, the audience will respect it. Every single time. But when a single actor's remuneration is more than 50% of the film's entire budget, and when the promotions cost 5 crores and the writer is paid 5 lakhs, what creativity are we talking about?? What inspiration do writers have to do justice to a story?

The audience isn't the same like it was earlier. Till a few years ago, whatever nonsense got made, was watched because our folks are passionate about their movies. Whether good or bad, films got their basic collections. But with multiplexes coming in, a family outing to watch a movie now costs over ₹1000. Tickets, Snacks, and Parking. Movies that garner a negative word of mouth aren't going to be watched. Period! Rather than watch trash, people can watch intelligently made TV series and satiate their grey matter! The risks are becoming larger for producers and production houses, and it is high time the writer's worth is realized. Without a strong story, there's nothing! A Drishyam gets made in four languages - all with top stars, only because the story is worth it. The books - Schindlers List, and Saving Private Ryan are deeper than the movies they inspired. Anyone who likes to read would enjoy the books more than they do the movies. That is how it is supposed to be. The writing has to always be more incredible than the movie it inspires. Movies have to take wing from the written word.  Not without one. Books from Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi get optioned immediately because of the clarity of their characters. A Bahubali gets made with a budget of 200 crores because of the faith the production house has on the writing ability of Rajamouli and his team. And a hundred ghost writers pore over forgotten English novels looking for plot lines and character quirks, hoping to use them in their next story. The fact remains that nothing can take the place of a well written story. The sooner our industry realizes this, the quicker audiences will come back to the theatres. Hope they don't stretch it till its too late.

Long Live the Film Writer.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

My Religion and I

Let us start with the part that says 'I'. Because that is how God intended for us to be. I have been here forever. Religion came much much later.

I have my intellect. This intellect takes decisions based on how it has been trained. And these decisions form my personality. This personality becomes 'Me', and everything that is 'Mine' is formed through it.

While the original I is the same for each of us, there are manifestations of it which we live our lives through. Sadguru Sivananda Murthy garu says "I pick up a bit of Prakruthi with me each morning when I step into this world, so that I can function here". He is a master, so he can choose to pick up and drop the many impositions this world creates on us. Ordinary folks like us live lives viewing ourselves and the world through these images that we believe to be the truth, and die thus.

This post isn't about Vedanta; though one may call anything that takes us closer to the truth to be Vedanta. It is about the I and its interaction with religion (or atleast religion as we know it today).

I'm no Psychologist. But anyone who observes human nature can break up the different people we see into personality silos. There are those of us who are teachers. Not teachers as a profession, but those who love to take a thought, dissect it, contemplate on it, and explain it in easier terms. That is what a teacher does. There are the followers. Followers don't analyze. They put all their belief in who they consider as a leader, and then onwards, the leaders' words become their guide. There are the doers. The karma yogis. For them, the purpose of coming onto Earth is to act. They are perennially in action, and it is through these people that the work of the world gets done. There are the radicals. Radicals who question everything irrespective of whether it is required of them or not, and they seldom believe in anything. New philosophies are expounded by the radicals, and it keeps adding to the thought stream of the world. There are the witnesses. Folks who are quite comfortable with their place in the world, and have no desire to disturb the harmony the world possesses in its natural state. They live their lives in peace. 

We come into this world possessing seeds of these personality types. There certainly must be more types, but for the purposes of this blogpost, the ones mentioned above should suffice. Depending on the circumstances and the society we're born into, the seed germinates and manifests into an image that we consider as our personality. This is the answer to 'Tell me about yourself', and our work (or lack of it) gets done through that personality. 

In early times, people were categorized as Hunter-Gatherers, Foragers, Soldiers, and Lazy Bums. Wherever they were born in the world, thanks to their genetic disposition, they became the same thing. A Hunter in Africa and a Hunter in Australia had the same characteristics, and that is how they spread across the world in their nomadic lives, taking their personas along with them and doing the same job in different locations. Just because they were born in different environs, they hunted either Bison or Kangaroos.

As civilization happened, we grew comfortable in our environment, and with it, we created for ourselves a sense of security. This sense of security gave birth to intellectuals, who decided to improve the civilization by creating a system that could be followed by the upcoming generations, and they laid rules for living. This set of rules is what became religion, and has become the bane of our world. Different civilizations wrote down their own rules for living, and different religions were born, based on the location where it was created. Religions spread with people travelling all over, and took on various forms as they mixed with the religions of that particular place, thus forming new sub-sets and whole new creations.

But I came first, and then came religion. 

Religion, as millennia flew past, became rigid, with people wanting to make it perfect; and became an obstruction for our personality to blossom. But again, that is matter for another blog post. In this post, I'll stick to the premise we've established so far. There are different kinds of people, and that happened before religion was ever invented. People existed without 'religion' for tens of thousands of years. The personalities just adapted to the religions as they were created. Now, whether a teacher was born into a Hindu family or a Muslim family, he would do the same thing! He would read the scriptures of his religion, contemplate on them, come out with his own version of the rules, and share it with others around him. The followers would follow the rules unquestioningly - irrespective of whether they are Christian Commandments, or Jewish ones. The doer, who revels in action, would perform the acts mentioned by his religion, joyfully. And the Witness, irrespective of the religion into which he was born, would simply witness.

If a man who possessed tremendous passion were born into a family that follows radical Islam, he could become a Jihadi. If he were to be born into a radical Hindu family, he probably would climb atop Babri masjid and destroy it. The expression is the same. It is just the framework and the color they each sport that is different. There is no question that if the exact same man were to be born into another religion possessing a different set of radical ideas, he would get drawn to them and use it to express himself. Just the birth and the environment are different. The ideas are the same, as seeds came with the birth. They just take form and flourish in their surroundings. If Shankara were born in Jerusalem, he would have become Jesus. Our scriptures have been saying the same thing ever since they've been written - that it is all the same. We're just pursuing the thought from a more worldly plane through this blog post. Noah from Mesopotamia, and Manu from India, both built great boats, gathered species, and sailed till the great flood subsided. They would have made great friends! Sharing stories of how each built his boat, what wood they used, and how they each herded the animals, collected the plants, and made do till the waters receded. They could've been brothers, with the similarities in their personalities. Except that they were born into different regions, and different times, and hence became different people, doing the same tasks. The waters split for Moses, and they also did for Vasudeva. They probably did so for other people from other regions too. 

As time went along, religion started influencing us more and more. I was born into a Hindu family and chose to be a Hindu. If I would've been born Amish, I would probably be living out my life in interior America, without speaking to anyone and without any worldly comforts (except that they call these 'comforts' as impediments on the path to God). Being born isn't usually in my control. So from where does the concept of 'My Religion best' arise?

Over time, 'I' became 'Me', because of various factors, including religion. And that is where the degradation began. The day my religion became more important than I, I ceased to exist. The personality I carry, juxtaposed onto a set of radical ideas that my religion threw up, became a monster and ate me whole. They destroyed the teacher and made him a preacher. They destroyed the follower and made him a Sevak. They destroyed the doer and made him a Jihadi. And then the 'I' died. Except that I doesn't die; so lets call it 'I' went dormant. Dormant till this image of myself as a crusader for my religion fades out. Dormant till I discover that I am more than my religion. That my religion is just an expression for me to find the purpose of my life (or to find God - they're the same). Dormant till I realize that the symbolism in my religion was created by a person like me, and is not meant for me to get caught up in. Dormant till I realize that Noah and Manu are the same; that the man speaking on Bhakti TV and the man on God TV are the same. 

Dormant till I realize that I came first, and that religion came much much later.

PS - The title of this post was originally 'I and My Religion', But as I wrote it out, I realized that we've sadly changed our order of priority thus.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

The House of Silk - Book Review

One of the greatest regrets I've had as a fan of the detective genre is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote too few books. While others may argue that his books took immense plotting and were quite complex, the fact remains that his entire body of work of the Sherlock Holmes series can be completed in a week - and that's a real tragedy!

Like most kids who liked to read in that decade, I finished the abridged version when I was in school. Then I took up the complete works while in college. After that, it has been individual re-reads whenever the urge came up, but the regret has remained. How awesome would it have been if there would have been a hundred titles of Sherlock Holmes mysteries!! While both Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie have over 80 books each, Sir Doyle only has a couple dozen.

So when GoodReads announced that the series was being revived by the estate of Sir Arthur Doyle via a completely new Whodunnit written by Anthony Horowitz, it immediately went onto my To-Read list there.

It isn't easy for an estate to capitalise on the original author's name by bringing aboard a co-author. Often, it undermines the entire series and while it may spin money for the immediate future, it kills the brand value big time! Sidney Sheldon, one of the world's most celebrated fiction authors passed away a few years ago, and almost immediately a co-author Tilly Bagshawe was brought on board. The first book came out really quick, and as any fan would do - especially in the angst of losing a favourite author, I brought home a copy. They killed it. Completely. And not in the positive sense of the term that's being used by the young nowadays. They killed it with a hatchet. Chopped it into pieces and destroyed all the good feel I had about the estate continuing the legacy of that great master of fiction. Sheldon was a master of the different elements comprising a novel, and the new author trivialised it! And I'm not going to read another Sheldon book that comes with a co-author. Ever. To make up for the horribleness of the new book, I re-read the entire Sheldon series and sympathised with the great man. 
James Patterson has made it a factory; he probably writes a couple of storylines and spreads it around to his co-authors, who do the donkey work and the books come out like absolute clockwork! The guy has churned out 140 books in his writing career - of which 120 came in the last 15 years. That's 8 books a year! Beat that. Yes, many of his recent books have been utter trash, just being written out of contractual obligations with publishers. But the fact remains that he's killed any love folks may have for books that came out with co-authors! Making money, yes. Tons of it. But there no longer is any urge left to pick up a new title from James Patterson when its announced. The initial books were real potboilers - Alex Cross, Harry Bosch, really good characters were built. And then squandered with half cooked storylines and horrible writing.

So yes, The House of Silk, for me, came with its share of apprehensiveness, especially because the writer himself has mostly written youth fiction before.

But he totally killed it! In the right way this time around :)

It is mighty difficult to leave aside one's writing style and become someone else - that too, a stalwart like Sir Doyle. So what Horowitz did is lend a little shadow of himself to the master, and the result has bettered the tone of the narrator - Dr Watson. 

The original Sherlock Holmes novels were all crisp, to the point, and seldom had any divergences from the main plot. They chugged along straight and non-stop like a train carrying an army regiment. House of Silk, however, changes that a bit; and it reads superbly well for that change. Dr Watson introduces the book to us, writing many years after Sherlock has passed (passed after his resurrection and all; passed for real). He reminiscences of the mysteries that haven't been told by him, and picks this out as one of the best, which he couldn't tell earlier because the story was too notorious for that time! And lo - there is an instant connect the reader has with the gap in the books. Genius! 
And Horowitz gets Watson to tell us of feedback that he's received from people over the years, wanting him to explore in better detail the characters and the locations in which the mysteries are set. He agrees to do that from this book on, and behold - Horowitz's writing style is juxtaposed on the ramrod narration style of Sir Doyle, without appearing jarring :) Superb, really.

So what this does is to make the book read longer than the usual mysteries of Holmes. Characters are better formed, descriptions are more eloquent, there are more turns in the plot than usual, and the plot begins on one continent and ends on another - which is rare in the old Holmes books. At the end of the book, the author tells us about how this book came about, and he mentions that the publisher came straight and gave him a mission of writing a book that runs to some 300 pages. So kudos to the publishers for having a clear vision in mind too!

But the way Holmes goes about his work is unchanged. His unbelievable powers of observation are brought to the fore subtly, much like in all of his earlier books, and there is a sense of familiarity which the reader is presented with. The mystery has a lot of depth, and all the characteristics of a Sherlock Holmes novel - An Estate, Skeletons in the Closet, Poisons, Sudden deaths, English Gentry, The Baker Street Irregulars, and several Red Herrings. After the immense popularity of the TV Series, Horowitz added in a few scenes for Mycroft Holmes (who only appeared in Four Sherlock novels), and they come up real well. But the real star is the guest appearance of Prof Moriarty in a strange twist in the tale, setting up a premise for a second novel!

Go Read! I'm off to read Moriarty :)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Other People's Money! The E-Commerce Conundrum.

Two newspieces caught my attention.

First this -

and then this

What is common to both these stories is the presence of a common denominator - called Venture Capital. (or to use Robert Kiyosaki's term, Other People's Money).

There has been a lot of talk in the last few months about the E-Commerce bubble in India, and when (not if) it would burst. And not just in India. All over the world, crazy valuations have been driving economists (and prudes) insane. I genuinely do not understand how Flipkart could have a valuation of $11 Billion!! That's about ₹70000 crores. Anyone who's seen the way the E-commerce industry works, will know that they're working on a cut throat pricing model, and seldom do they have opportunities to make money after all the overheads that the business model entails. So when (if ever) will they break even, and when will they actually turn a profit for their investors? All those 'angels' who have put in millions of dollars into the 'burgeoning Indian market'?? 

The truth is  - probably never. With this on-paper valuation, the company will keep raising additional capital and giving out extra shares to its investors, and the paper value will keep being bought and sold at a premium / discount for the duration of the business's existence.

It is kind of like debt being sold and bought by banks to play with their NPA figures. Mallya's debts are a curse to several banks, but all they do is keep shifting it from balance sheet to balance sheet. For otherwise they'll actually have a P&L that's ridiculously in the Red and shareholders will slaughter them in the markets. 

One may argue that the entire stock market and the concept of forward earnings is based on hope of future profits that the company they're investing in may generate. A trading price of 14x to 18x is quite normal. Meaning company shares are valued at 14 to 18 times (or more or less depending on its brand value and market scenario at that particular moment) their earnings per share. As an example, Tata Steel has a current market capitalization of ₹31904 crores. The last traded price of TataSteel was ₹328.5. Its Earnings per share last results day was ₹66.3 (Earnings per share is simply put, total revenue divided by total number of shares available in the market). So 328.5/66.3 = 4.95. 
TataSteel is valued at just 4.95 times of its current earnings, which makes it quite cheap when compared to the market standard.

Lets go abroad and look at Apple; the world's most valuable company currently. Apple has a market cap of $750.55 Billion (or ₹4803520 Crores!!!) with a share price of $130.28. Last quarter's earnings per share were $8.05. So that makes Apple valued at 16.19 times - which is quite normal for technology companies. At one stage, Microsoft was valued at over 100 times - with hope that it would do miracles in the future, and it did. Companies like AutoDesk and Adobe are currently valued at 130-140 times their valuations based on the projects they have in their pipelines. Since stock markets are nothing more than a gamble based on hope (with a bit of knowledge thrown in), that's how its always been and will continue to be so.

Lets now revert to where we started.

Flipkart (just using that as an example since its the most visible brand in our E-commerce scenario) did a turnover of ₹2846 crores in FY14. And according to publicly available information, the company is currently losing over ₹2 for every ₹1 being spent on their portal. I couldn't find 2015 results, but here are 2014's.

And they surely know that they're not going to turn a profit anytime soon. None of them are. To keep the juggernaut rolling, they'll need to keep pumping in extra money quarter after quarter. And the juggernaut will become so big that just to keep it rolling will take up incredible resources. And all the time, nimble, smaller, specialty stores will keep chipping away at their market share. Yes, India has been blessed with an abundance of consumers and the pie will keep growing larger. But turning a profit in our crazy market isn't easy - as Big Bazaar, Reliance Fresh, Spencers, More, and others have been finding out year after year. 

Flipkart and Amazon are the visible giants. There are hundreds of smaller ones that open shop each month, and hundreds more that close shop. Some of the lucky ones make a good pitch and sell themselves off to a larger corporation with large investor pockets, and they take that money and retire. 

Refer to the Tweets on top of this article, FreeCharge was bought for an unbelievable valuation of ₹2800 crores. Not because they were doing roaring business (they aren't), but because expansion is the only way to survive in a market this competitive. Companies keep acquiring other firms either within their realm or providing services that are complementary to their own. Firms with a decent brand presence are wooed all the time. 2800 Crores for Freecharge?? Insane. Really!! And the second Tweet - GigaOm expanded, brought in money, and kept repeating the cycle till it swallowed itself! (Note - While GigaOm isn't an e-com company, the valuations across the board in the Tech industry are similar. So using it as an example is justified :) )

A friend of mine has an online flower and gift store. It does hardly any business. Has been so for a while now. But at a recent investor meet, the chap was offered an investment of ₹1.5 to 2 Crores, to expand the business. Call me old school, but I don't see why!! Hundreds of businesses are being offered crores to pump into floundering businesses - most of which won't see the light of a profitable balance sheet ever. All in the hope of striking Gold! Yahoo struck Gold with Alibaba. What they bought at a pittance has now become the cynosure of all business eyes across the world, and the founder Jack Ma has got a belly ache from laughing all the way to his bank(s). Yahoo is sitting on an incredible pile of money too - based on current valuations of the company after it got into the stock markets. But not everyone's Yahoo. And not every local business is AliBaba!! Valuations are driven entirely by the picture the company manages to draw in its investor presentations, but anyone with common sense can see that its all virtual - hope entirely! If Tata Steel has to shut shop, there are real assets that they have - land, factories, machinery, a brand, its distributor network, past dues, which will account for some of the investment to be recovered. If an e-com company folds, there's Poof! So many instances of throwing good money after bad!!

In the early 2000s, Silicon Valley startups were offered insane prices by rich fools. Some of them cashed out early. But most got stuck and when the bubble burst, millions of investors went bankrupt. And yet we're doing it all over again. Crazy terms like 'brand value', intangibles' and 'forward guidances' will be bantered over jazzy presentations in business rooms of large hotels. Fund managers of angel investing companies will be treated like royalty. Deals will be struck, and the bubble will keep growing bigger.

It isn't wrong to build castles in the air. Like someone said, that is where castles should be. But then we also need to work towards a foundation that'll hold the castle there. In this classic case of Other People's money, the castles are becoming larger, the shine is all glossy, but small investors will get slaughtered. Atleast that's how its appearing as of now. And I pray I'm proven wrong.