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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

We've gone bonkers

This post is being written out of anger and frustration. If you don't like what's being said, feel free to stop reading and close the window. Don't come back with your two cents please.

A few days ago, a chap called Zeeshan applied in a diamond trading company, and he got rejected because the company did not want a 'Muslim Candidate'. The guy shared screenshots of the rejection mail and as I'm sure he expected it to, it went viral. Our media, which is eternally starved for newspieces that espouse the victim card went with their OB vans to the guy and took endless interviews, making the issue a headline event which hasn't yet completed its 15 minutes of fame.

So here is point 1 - The candidate hasn't been rejected because he is a Muslim, like our idiots have made it appear like. They simply said they hire only Non-Muslim candidates, and therein lies a world of difference. 

The firm the chap applied in is a private organization, and they aren't defined by our sick reservation protocols (yet). Yes, the grounds for rejection is quite sad in today's world. But by the term 'private' they reserve the right to do whatever they want! It isn't against the law to say that they will employ only people of a certain religion in their firm. Its their wish! We don't like it, nothing we can do about it. If we don't like the philosophy, the best we can do is to stop buying their products - like certain 'intellectuals' do when they come across Tirupur garments, Sivakasi fireworks, Bangladeshi hoisery, and Chinese electronics. Whether it makes a difference to that firm or not is none of our business.

The Hindu (which is the most misnamed publication on planet Earth), carried an article here - This publication, and the dozens of nonsense news channels we have been cursed with, have gone flying to take the 'opinion' of the fresher who got this unlucky letter, and made him an instant celebrity. The guy is now telling companies how to recruit and how to reject candidates based on his 'experience'. To a company which was in the news for giving hundreds of their employees flats and cars as bonuses, and has unheard-of employee loyalty. Ok, we don't like a policy they have. So apply somewhere else! There are millions of companies in the world. And while they may not give flats and foreign trips as annual bonuses, they have equal recruitment policies! 

This article isn't just to outrage about a company who couldn't hire a more diplomatic HR recruiter, or about a kid freshly out of college, who's enjoying his time in the media glare. It is about the way we encourage folks in our society to play the victim card.

Being a victim is very much in vogue. Being a Woman, Being a Man, Being Rich, Being Poor, Being Educated, Being Uneducated, Being from Urban India, Being from Rural India, Being Strong, Being Weak, Being Young, Being Old, there are a thousand combinations that, depending on the circumstances, allow us to flash our cards and play victim. And our society loves them all! Cinema reveres them, NGOs live off them, Politicians feed off them, and TV thrives on them. Subtly, we've all been trained to directly jump to the victim card - irrespective of whether we are helpless or not. Even superstars with the best lawyers money can buy had to play victim - in spite of having committed a crime that the whole world has known for decades. Shame on us.

Push people into a corner, and they rebel. Women used Section 498A so liberally, that they've taken the teeth off the act now. Caste card has been played so often, that we've made the next generation either caste-fanatics, or as atheists. No middle ground. A generation is watching us. They are observant. They notice everything - well beyond their age. And what they're seeing is that playing victim will get them what they want. So that is what they'll do! Ordinary folks have learnt to communicate in a language that makes strengths out of irrelevant qualities. They've learnt to wear a mask of being a David and the whole world comes to their rescue to slay the Goliath.

All, while this projected Goliath was just going about his life like he as always been. It is these folks that are made to be Goliaths that are actually paying our taxes and taking care of the world. Those who have fallen prey to the victim image are parasites and they just leech off the goodness of the world. There is already precious little of it left. Suck that away and we are doomed. An abyss of misery awaits us.

Zeeshan will get a job, no doubt. The poor HR who wrote that reply has probably already been fired. The jewelry firm will get booed for a while, and then be cheered when they announce even larger Diwali bonuses this year. They will all still go on with their lives. But we have given in to low tendencies yet again - from both sides of this issue, and have made our world slightly worse for ourselves.

Friday, February 06, 2015

A (not so) Simple Solution for AccheDin

A government always has the best interest of its people at heart - deep down inside. I said 'Government', not the people in it. By the time these interests come up for transformation into action by the people, various emotions creep in - greed, fear, ego, hate, prejudice - and the result is almost always a failed state. Whether it is the mighty United States of World-Lecturing, or the Islamic State of self goals, the journey from an idea to the result is what we have a problem with.

For this article, allow me to pick one angle to it - implementation transparency, and see why we can't do better with it. This article is just me running amok with my idealism.

India, being a promise-driven voting society, has always been kind to whoever makes the most ludicrous promises. Our beloved Krantikari has already promised enough to cost the exchequer the entire budget of a few small countries, if he's elected. While I pray the people of Delhi are smarter than that, its just that - a prayer. As a welfare state, we have millions of projects running simultaneously across the country, with trillions of rupees being spent each year. Money that you and I have paid as taxes - directly and indirectly. From the whim of a Chief Minister who wants to change the entire state secretariat because he feels the Vastu isn't right, to MNREGA wherein the government pays ₹174 per day and only half of that is actually paid to the peasant who does the actual labouring (the rest is openly fleeced by the middlemen), its all funded by us.

Right to Information has been around for a while now, and has lost its sheen in spite of some real warriors who've made it their life's purpose and are really making a difference. One such 'warrior' has become Krantikari, but that's just my hate of that man talking. Armed with a ₹10 application, people can choose to wait for months just to find out the status of a project that they have indirectly funded, and based on the promise of which they have voted a government to power. Funny, no?

Lets digress a bit. 
Like most of India, I love shopping online. The convenience and the choice, coupled with the fact that there is free delivery and I don't need to search for parking spots at Spencers, makes me a fan. I can't cease to be amazed at the economics which allow a giant like Amazon to deliver a product priced at under ₹100 for free - that too via BlueDart - and still manage to eke out a profit! And what's even more fascinating is the fact that we can track the status of the shipment on the mobile app, and see exactly where the product is. It is quite like that program on National Geographic on the Mumbai local trains, where the controller's room has an entire wall of LEDs showing the exact position of every train in transit at any given point of time. It is tremendously empowering! I feel like I'm powering the global economy and participating in something awesome - all through my ₹100 Cash on Delivery order :)
Here's a screenshot of an order that came home a couple of days ago.

Amazon delivery

Continuing my amazement is the fact that they often deliver in under 48 hours. Sometimes even under 24 hours. This particular screenshot is for a mobile phone holder for a car wind shield, and cost ₹140. Since this was sold by a third party, I don't think Amazon made more than ₹10-20 on it, and I'm quite sure the seller himself wouldn't have made much more than that either. Since BlueDart was delivering it at something like ₹20-30 in that kind of a turnaround, I don't see them making too much money of it either. It is all a game of volume, and that is a topic for another article.

Now, tracking like this has two purposes. While it serves the customer to know where his shipment is, and aids in customer delight, there is also the company's benefit of being able to keep track of all those millions of packages in transit, and use the same platform to solve customer queries. True genius is in creating a platform that works with both the front end and back end user, with different interfaces. Our e-commerce sites have got that down quite successfully.

According to Wikipedia, the total E-Commerce business in India in 2013 was $2.3 Billion. (Read Here). That's about ₹13800 crores. Since the running costs are incredibly high for an e-commerce business in India, lets take a profit margin of 10% for now. That's a cumulative profit of ₹1380 crores for all those sites. Out of this, probably ₹1000 crores would go to the big 4 or 5, and the rest divided among all the small ones. So each site - even the biggest ones - made only a few hundred crores at best. I'm not an economist, and this number could be incredibly skewed, but it'll serve the purpose of what i'm leading to in the next part of this post.


Lets now apply this learning to our government.
The Hyderabad Metro has a plan outlay of about ₹14000 crores.  The outlay for NREGA for this year is ₹34000 crores. And there are millions of projects running, and millions more - from Panchayat level to Central government level, that are in the approval pipeline. The total Budget Spend for 2014-15 was forecast at ₹17,94,892 crores. Yup. That's more zeroes that we can visualize! For every department that is involved in this spend (and there are thousands of departments), there is a capital spend outlay in order to spend this money efficiently. Afterall, that is the whole purpose of an elected democracy - to spend our money as best as they can, ideally for the good of the country. 

Here's the question then. Why do I have to file a ₹10 RTI in order to know how my money is being spent, and how efficiently the works based on my money are being done? During the budget, there were several ₹100 crore trials that were announced towards new spends. Wouldn't I want to know how well they are being spent - if at all? For that, why should I have to go through another process from another department and an information commissioner? When I order a product from Amazon or Flipkart, I don't have to pay them extra money and file an application to check the status of product / service delivery, no? Even if the company is losing money on the order, they still give me realtime access to the delivery mechanism. Why should it be different for a government which is Of the People, By the People, and For the People?

When a builder wants to construct an apartment, it is a rule that he should display up front a board with all the salient details about the construction. The number of dwellings, the nature of the construction, the application number, money paid to the government towards utilities, name and contact of the builder, and the approving authority. That board is supposed to be in place through the duration of the project so that anyone can see what's being done. We don't file an application with the builder and pay him ₹10, then wait for a few months to get this information. What's funny is that when the government assigns a project to a private vendor, they expect all this information to be prominently and accurately displayed for their benefit. When a private vendor (or a citizen) pays the government for a project, we need to keep running behind them to check the progress. Why this Kolaveri Di?

This article isn't just to outrage. There's a solution, and that's why the e-commerce reference. When a company that is barely breaking even can invest in technology that truly empowers both the front end and the back end user, why can't the government that has an entire department in the form of NIC, have technology in place that will make this entire process streamlined? Yes, as soon as they are asked about it, they'll say it won't work in rural areas where bulk of the work is being done. But then, that's not right! SKS Micro and several other Micro financing organizations are doing a stellar job of rural financing using Bio metric and mobile devices. ITC is changing the way farmers go about their business through their E-Choupal kiosks in the most rural places in India! And then there are independent innovators who have been using technology in the most amazing ways possible. Don't keep them relegated to a column in the Science page of newspapers and to an award once in a while. Bring them to the mainstream. They're located rurally and can help in getting the root level processes set. 

Much like the screenshot above, if there is a software in place wherein every update is automatically converted into a visually appealing interface, no need of an RTI system, no need of files to move back and forth between government departments, no need of millions of hours wasted in transit, complete transparency, and true empowerment of the taxpayer. If the government is serious about weeding out corruption, can there be a better way than this? Technology is already playing an awesome role in simplifying and streamlining processes even at the government level. Our guys are no longer befuddled when it comes to using computers. Broadband proliferation, even at rural level, has reached a decent level to kickstart something like this. Anyway NREGA and DBT are being done online. Every one of those can be integrated into a master platform. We have the world's computer programming being done in Bangalore and at Hyderabad. Technocrats like Nandan Nilekani have already been roped in by the earlier government. Yup, we're still confused about Aadhaar, but a start has been made! Give them the challenge, they will rise up to it for sure! Proud Indians like Anand Mahindra and Sunil Mittal will more than gladly put their organization's resources in the job and get the challenge solved.

Here's an example. The central government has promised an IIM at Visakhapatnam. The promise was done a few months ago, land was identified by the state, acquired, and the foundation stone was laid by our central HRD minister last month. So the roadmap already has four checkpoints done. The next step is to finalize the contract and begin construction. If we had an interface where that were visible, every citizen is empowered to check and make sure work goes along like it should. Yes, there will be trouble for the government, as they aren't used to a time-bound style of work. But with Modi Sarkaar, that is the change that citizens expect! That's why they voted them to power. And when they have access to information at a glance - on their computers and mobile devices, every citizen is a policeman! Feedback will pour in by itself - which is anyway needed by the government since there are too many factors at play. There will be problems in implementation, but that can be handled. Anything that needs change will have problems :) I can write a ton of material about this, but I'm sure anyone thinking on something like this will come up with their own interpretation anyway.

Is our government capable of ushering in change at such a massive level? If yes, it genuinely is AccheDin!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Better Grey than Garishness

This article will be best understood by those who have an interest in trading and follow the markets. It isn't entirely a financial article, but the examples used are all from the stock markets.
And be warned - this is a long, rambling post. But there's a benefit - by reading this and quoting what you've read, you can appear mighty 'insightful' among your friends ;)

We inhabit a strange world. A world where we talk about absolutes and extremities, but in reality, a world which is firmly grey. In fact, we don't want to leave the grey. If we come close to the extremes, we worry. The world goes jittery, and all kinds of 'breakthrough ideas' will be contrived!

Lets start this article from a financial standpoint and then go abstract as we often do on this blog :)

The economies of the world are firmly in the grip of intense volatility, driven by the incredible fall of Crude oil prices. For the uninitiated, no, it isn't only Mr Modi's government that's bringing down our Petrol prices. He's being aided by OPEC and something called Shale Oil, and Crude oil prices have fallen from $105 to under $50 in the span of months, throwing the world's markets into a situation they've never been in. The last time oil was this cheap was way back in 2009, and that was a whole different set of circumstances.

When Oil prices were at their zenith last year (over $110), we cribbed about the price of Petrol hitting ₹80 and of the cascading effect crude prices were having on everything we consumed - vegetables, milk, transport services. Inflation was through the roof. Lets consider that as one extreme, for the sake of this article..

Now, its at the other end. No one would have expected these oil prices to fall this drastically. All the experts who come on TV and write for newspapers have been busy revising their targets downward and finding reasons to justify the fall. They've all done it a dozen times already, and the end isn't yet in sight. Since this post isn't by an 'expert' and since it isn't to talk about the reasons behind this fall, lets not delve into that. But rather, the $50 level was last breached in 2009, and many may remember that that was the year of the stock market bloodbath the world over. 2008 and 2009 were horrible years for investors. Companies fell like dominoes, and had to be propped up by government with money they did not have! We're still suffering the after effects of that virtuoso!

Grey areas are what we're interested in here, and to drive home the point, here are two screenshots -

The first one is the chart of BPCL over the last six months. The price was at a steady ₹550-570, and suddenly it started moving up after August when the oil slide became significant. In November, you'll notice the price at its all time high of ₹760. That was when oil came to under $70.
Now, if you read your news, you'll know that oil is nowhere close to $70. Its under $50, and that is what makes this chart mighty interesting. As crude dipped below $70, strangely, the price of BPCL started falling again. This is the same with all oil marketing companies. If you're wondering about why I'm mentioning oil marketing companies here, they are the biggest beneficiaries of cheap oil. India's subsidy burden this year is expected to come down by over ₹70000 Crores because of this rout in global oil prices. Much of that will be routed through oil marketing companies like BPCL and HPCL, and that is why the price of their shares shouldv'e gone through the roof.

This second chart is the price of Crude Oil during the same period. The $70 mark, if you observe, was breached around the same time BPCL hit its lifetime high of ₹760+. And as oil kept falling, the share prices fell too.

Now on to the explanation part. And this is mighty interesting :)

As a net oil importer, the price of crude, by far, is the largest component of of our subsidy burden. And since we're a welfare state (truly), our GDP is wholly influenced by the amount of subsidy that's being paid from money that the government doesn't have! Petrol, Diesel, Fertilizer, LPG, all are linked to the price of incoming crude oil, and that is why we're about to save over ₹70000 crore this year. Theoretically, since we're a net importer, the lower oil prices fall, the better it should be for our economy as we'll save that much money - which can be used elsewhere, or atleast can fill in a bit of our fiscal deficit. Its a dream come true for economists. But only on paper.
In reality, as an integral part of a global economy, we can't afford to have oil prices falling too low either - in this example, under $70. Here's why.

The World's economy is ruled by oil. Inflation is directly linked to the price of crude. As oil moves upwards and downwards, it plays with the global economies. So when the countries which make up OPEC aren't making even their production cost (yup - they're losing money on every single barrel of oil produced at these prices), they have a very real possibility of going bust. Now who has investments in these oil production facilities? Right. The biggies. The very same companies who're controlling the world oil market - and through it, the world economy. Next question. Who's making investments in India and other emerging markets via FIIs and FDIs? Bingo. The very same biggies who have to park their wealth some place and grow it further. This isn't some conspiracy like my earlier post on Thrive. This is real, and since our economy is interlinked with the world's economies, we can't afford to let that happen!

So what do we do? As soon as there is a feeling that we're coming close to an extremity, there is an immediate corrective action. In this case, as soon as oil fell to those levels, the world's economy teetered. Markets which were flying along suddenly crashed, and currencies tumbled. Euro has gone down to its lowest ever value against the dollar. And the result? For the last 3 days, global markets have gone up again, and oil has stabilized at around the $50 mark - up by a few dollars. 'Experts' have come out in full force predicting the rise of oil again, and there is a very real possibility that OPEC will announce a cut in their production levels at their next meeting. That should result in the oil prices going up further, and all's well with the world!

I'm not a master at the markets. There may be errors in my analysis above, but that's just opinion, and not to be published in a text book!

This is but one example. The funny thing about our economies, is that we can't let it grow too much or fall too much. Look at inflation, for example. If inflation reaches to crazy levels, we predict Armageddon. If it falls too much, there are new terms thrown into the mix - called 'deflation', and that's dangerous for the world markets too! Interest rates reaching 12 and 13% isn't good for the markets, and neither should they reach 1 and 2%. There are world markets which have almost zero % savings interests, and we're at the other end of the spectrum. India has credit card interests of upto 48% and the USA has the same credit card interest from the same banks at crazy prices like 1.8%!! Since these banks hedge - meaning they balance out the high interest rates we have with the low ones in those countries, they manage to profit. The world is all one big revolving door, and we can neither let it spin too fast or too slow. Both will throw the markets out of their carefully maintained balance.

In simple terms, we can't grow at someone else's expense any longer. That is precisely what happened in our world till the industrial revolution started two centuries ago. Since then, it has been in the interest of the manufacturer to ensure that the buyer has enough money to buy from him. And if he doesn't have the money, the manufacturer himself finds ways to fund that buyer indirectly, and then get back that money by selling to him. Visualize that? That's a simple, one dimensional example. Our economy of today is enmeshed with everyone else's, and the greyer we are, the more comfortable we are with each other! A tilt either way, and we lose sleep! We just want the markets to move a bit here and a bit there so that the traders can make a profit, and then come back to its balance. That, strangely, is the truth of our markets. Currencies, Commodities, we want them all to be cyclical. The shallower the cycle, the happier we are.

Now, this post isn't just about financial markets. The same example can be used on any field to similar results. Since this oil rout and its after effects happened this week, I've used it as an analogy. The same principle is true in our lives too. We are firmly entrenched in the greys of the world and each time there is a sight of either black or white from the extremes, we get worried. We can't allow ourselves to get either too left wing or too right wing. The checks and balances in the world instantly rise up or calm down depending on which was the axis tilts. And we shun the ones who are deep on either side as 'extremists'. When our kids play games continuously on the phone, we tell them to go read a book. If they start reading a book at all times, we give them a game and say play it for a while. We have reasons and justifications that we use to substantiate our decisions, but the truth is that we don't want to be too much of anything. As Humans, we've been trained to straddle the line, be somewhere in the middle. In one of the shades of grey. That's where we all are, some in a deeper grey than the rest, some lighter.

No wonder finding true freedom while living as a part of society is quite out of the question!

Friday, January 02, 2015

The Kettle calls the Tandoor Black!

If the superstition that whatever we do on the first day of the New Year will continue through the rest of the 365 days is true, then I guess I'm in for a whole year of dissension and outrage :(
There's an article I found on Forbes, by a 'noted' economist Tim Worstall, and you can take a couple of minutes to read it first.

To sum up that article, the writer's point of view is that even if India grows on to become the world's Third Largest economy as studies predict - over the next decade, it should be considered a failure, as the standard of life in India will be much lower than that of several countries which are way behind  us on that list.

Pray tell me, Mr Worstall (and everyone else who agree with him), what do you mean by 'Standard of Life'?

If having three cars in a remote controlled internally accessible garage, kids studying in prep schools, Golf club memberships, and a well-stocked wine cellar are what you mean by a great standard of life, then I just pity you!

Lets leave Mr Worstall for a while. There is a deluge of material from the West (and sadly, from our own inbred 'intellectuals'), about how India can't really be a world power unless they are this or that. But the fact is that we've always been a key power in the world. We just don't stand on the rooftops and scream out our lungs. Neither do we ever run branding campaigns or plant carefully orchestrated newspieces to keep ourselves in the right light for the world to perceive. We've always been an inwardly focussed people, and I mean it in the most divine way possible. The true magic of India has been our people and our comfort level with being ourselves. Not man-made objects, not false pretences, and not a cultivated image. It is what has attracted the leading civilisations of each time to come and set up shop here in India. And it is a fact that they've all gone back enriched.

When a critic talks about a Standard of Life, they usually mean it externally. What we've lost vision of, over years of studying 'Advanced Economics' and plotting 'Demand-Supply' graphs for everything, is that my life is firmly mine! I don't need to showcase it to the world, and while it is easier said than done, comparison is not a fundamental duty! Our scriptures teach us only that one thing - that it is the 'I' that matters, and not the 'me' I showcase to the world. Everything is unlocked if I realize that one thing, no?

Coming back to Mr Worstall and his league of over-qualified gentlemen, how will the world learn that the stat that matters isn't that of the biggest ecomony? When will it learn that when people have absolute freedom (that's a deep term, think about it - and there's a blogpost coming up on that shortly), that is when a nation or the society can truly reach its potential. Being the largest economy doesn't count for nuts if its people can't walk on the street without worrying about their safety. If a parent goes paranoid if his child doesn't check in every hour, we're not an advanced society. We're in deep shit!

Sadly, we're halfway there too. Dysfunctional Utopia is what they call it, and we're picking it up big time! Yes, every society has to struggle with it themselves and find their own balance, but if someone who's farther removed from reality comes out and points fingers at us, we shouldn't take it lying idle! How much ever 'development' comes our way, I have great hope that deep inside, people still have that grain of happiness. The deeper down we push it, the more generations it'll take to discover it back again. Its gone deep enough already, and I believe this generation will catch it on its way up. So Mr Worstall, whether we are the world's Third largest, The largest, or the most inconsequential economy, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that we, as a people, are renowned to have a really high quality of life (and no - don't get into objects possessed again). As long as we are able to retain and build upon that, we're incredibly successful. It could be on a scale that's different from yours, but its my scale, and its what counts!

May this New Year bring about a renewed sense of pride in ourselves. When we find ourselves interesting, we'll delve in and try to become friends with that guy inside. That is the first step to a truly awesome standard of life - its the only thing that matters.

PS - Mr Worstall was magnanimous enough to respond to my criticism on Twitter, and though we didn't agree with each other, it was still great of him to have that conversation. Next time, I'll write a post about why his country Portugal's economy is absolutely of no consequence to Indians ;)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Surely you must be joking, Mr Thapar!

The Hindu newspaper of this morning carried an opinion piece from Karan Thapar, titled 'The Two Faces of Mr Modi', and it appears that the piece is much more than just the author picking a bone against our Prime Minister. It is the angst he carries against the Indian ethos in general, and it a wonderful explanation of the reason why the term 'Lutyens' is so hated by most sane people.

I have picked up the post from The Hindu and pasted it below, and for clarity's sake, I've broken up the post after each paragraph with my comments. In this Op-Ed, Karan chooses to critique a speech that Modi made recently at the inauguration of the Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Center, at Mumbai. You can watch the speech here if you'd like, before reading the Blogpost.

Read on. The Italicized part is from Karan Thapar, and the regular font is mine.

(Op-Ed originally published at

What do we expect of our prime ministers? This is not a rhetorical question and you’ll soon see why. We expect integrity, commitment, dedication, administrative expertise and, hopefully, a fair modicum of intelligence. But is that all? 
As important as all the other qualities, we also expect rationality. We may not always agree with what our prime ministers say or are committed to do but we assume that their thoughts and actions are rational, well-considered and credible. In other words, even if their decisions turn out to be wrong — and that often happens — they won’t offend against common sense. 
Upto here is sheer baloney. Under the guise of an introduction, Karan just lays it thick. And for the record, when you say 'Integrity, Commitment, Dedication, Administrative expertise, Intelligence, and Rationality', you are describing Modi! These qualities are the primary reasons the nation chose him with such a resounding verdict - in spite of all your efforts. And Common Sense is precisely what got Modi to where he is today. You fail at the first paragraph itself, sir.
It is here that I have a bone to pick with Narendra Modi. Speaking at the inauguration of the Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre last Saturday, he said: “Mahabharat ka kehna hai ki Karn maa ki godh se paida nahi hua tha. Iska matlab yeh hai ki us samaye genetic science mojud tha … Hum Ganeshji ki puja kiya karte hain, koi to plastic surgeon hoga us zamane main, jisne manushye ke sharir par haathi ka sar rakh kar ke plastic surgery ka prarambh kiya hoga.” [It is said in the Mahabharata that Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means in the times in which the epic was written genetic science was very much present. We all worship Lord Ganesha; for sure there must have been some plastic surgeon at that time, to fit an elephant’s head on the body of a human being.] 
There has been a lot of picking from the Media about Modi going to inaugurate the hospital, about the PMO handle live-tweeting the Ambanis' speeches, etc. Honestly, I couldn't care less. I'm proud of the fact that the man has atleast gone to open one of India's most advanced centers of health, rather than yet another memorial to a dynasty that has done more harm than good. Ok. Lets get on with it. Has your 'education' spoilt your Indianness so much? I'm not talking about blind belief or about superstition. Even the most rational scientist cannot but accept the facts that the Rig Veda is older than any other science treatise written in the world, and there have been enough theses about it already from people much more qualified in science than you are and I am. Religion aside, most stories in our mythology serve to reinforce a deeper concept. So yes, if Modi chooses to pick Ganesha as a successful example of plastic surgery, he certainly has a right to do so! The same goes for the Karna story also. But examples aside, do you genuinely not believe that India has successful scientists (rishis) who have proven pretty much the same stuff thousands of years ago? So Akshar Dham at Delhi, which is one of our country's top tourist destinations, is what? You think they spent crores to showcase all our ancient achievements in that beautiful boat ride just to tell us the kids a bedtime story? Pity on you, sir.
No doubt many Hindus share Mr. Modi’s assumption that in prehistoric mythological times India had mastered genetic science and plastic surgery. As individuals they are free to believe what they want. But for the Prime Minister of India to proclaim this belief as fact — and that too at the inauguration of a hospital — is something else. 
Only 'many Hindus' share that assumption? Do you want me to give you examples of non-Hindus who openly credited our ancient texts for their discoveries and said that they just re-discovered something which was actually discovered centuries ago? A certain Mr Edison, if you please? Or you think Mueller was Hindu? But again, like your 'Mr Modi' said a few months ago, Hinduism is nothing but a way of life. So these people were actually Hindus if you'd like to call them that so they fit into your rhetoric.
Why? This is because it’s not rational to use mythology as the basis for claiming scientific achievements. First, there’s no proof other than the assumption the myth is true and that’s an unwarranted assumption. Second, how do you account for the fact the scientific knowledge and achievements you are boasting of have been lost, if not also long forgotten, and there is no trace of any records to substantiate they ever occurred? 
Get a life, man! Mythology is the basis for most things in our culture - if you have the patience and the wherewithal to research with an open mind. Most things in our universe don't have a proof. No absolute proof exists for the creation of our universe itself! Just because you've been given 20 inches in a newspaper that has been misnamed, you don't go around saying whatever you want. 'No trace of any records'? Really?? Ever heard of a certain Dr Subramaniam Swamy? Or Francois Gautier? Dr N Gopalakrishnan? I can name a hundred people who have been fighting this fight - for your and my sakes, and for our children. But you'll probably just call me a Right winger if I refer to them, and I don't mind! Clear proof that parts of our history were erased and replaced is available, and you choose to ignore it, and then call it a lie? Do you have any idea of the number of people you're influencing with your nonsense? No wonder it'll take a hundred more years for a thought change to come about. 
Even worse, Mr. Modi’s views echo those of Dinanath Batra. His books are now part of the curriculum in 42,000 schools across Gujarat and carry messages from Mr. Modi when he was Chief Minister. They claim stem cell research was known in the days of Kunti and the Kauravas, television was invented at the time of the Mahabharata and the motor car existed in the Vedic period. Few would deny this is nonsense. Why wouldn’t you say the same for the claim India mastered genetic science and plastic surgery in prehistoric times?
You really think stem cell was discovered a few decades ago, Karan? No one else had the intellectual capacity to figure out what humans were made of before this? Really? The world accepts that Airplane models were successfully deployed during the Rig Veda period. Is a Car really that difficult to accept? Ok. Lets not accept it. But what gives you the right to refute it? Would you rather we study twenty chapters of Mughal History as 'Indian History'? I have nothing against 'Akbar defeated Hemu in the first battle of Panipat 1526', but we have a history much before that. Sadly, you choose to call it 'mythology'. The Greeks and Romans are immensely proud of their 'mythology' and their culture even today treasures that. We pose at the Pyramid of Giza, celebrating Egyptian mythology. But back on our shores, we act snobby. Seriously, I pity you, sir.
I have two further points. First, Mr. Modi wants to build smart cities, stresses the need for education and is proud of the successful mission to Mars. He believes in digital India, wants to import bullet trains and ‘Make in India’ state-of-the-art defence weaponry. These are 21st century ambitions. How does all of that sit alongside this belief in unverified mythology? Are they not contradictory? 
Second, Greek mythology has centaurs and minotaurs; the Persians have the griffin; the British the unicorn; and fairy tales have mermaids and werewolves. Mr. Modi’s position would also lead us to believe these creatures actually existed. But does anyone believe they did? Surely only in our dreams? Or only whilst we were children? 
The beauty of India is that we have always been co-existing. Our culture, in a single word, can be called as 'accommodative'. We adapt, accommodate, and co-exist with all the changes around us, and that is why Indians are so respected the world over. You certainly have taken advantage of that respect several times in the past, haven't you? When you travel abroad as a 'celebrated journalist from India'? When the chairman of ISRO, who is certainly more 'educated', 'intelligent', and 'scientific' than you, can go to Tirupati before the launch of a Rocket to pray for its success, does it undermine his achievements? Make him lesser of an intellectual, in your opinion? Dr Kalam, probably our most loved president ever, plays the Veena and hears Carnatic classical. Does hearing Bach or Beethoven make someone more cultured than him?
Mr Modi doesn't have a 'position' about Minotaurs and Werewolves. His biggest problem and 'position' is about wolves in the society who use anything they can find to further their own carefully cultivated image in the so called 'intelligentsia'. He mentions Ganesha and Karna, and you go and dig up Minotaurs, Centaurs, Griffins, Unicorns! Is this what journalism is about in today's world? 
Ultimately, my problem with the Prime Minister’s comment goes a step further, but it could be the most critical of all. Under Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution it’s the fundamental duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper. I can’t see how the Prime Minister is doing that by blatantly claiming medical advances on the basis of unverified myths. His views clearly and undeniably contradict this constitutional requirement. In fact, if he thinks about it I feel confident Mr. Modi would not disagree! 
These are troubling doubts and for the Prime Minister to be the cause of them is even more worrying. Finally, I’m dismayed this issue has not got greater attention in the media. Nor, to my astonishment, has any Indian scientist refuted the Prime Minister’s claims. Their silence is perplexing. The silence of the media is deeply disturbing. It feels as though it’s been deliberately blanked out by everyone.
Look at the words you choose to use - troubling, worrying, dismayed, astonishment, perplexing, disturbing, deliberate. All of these in the span of four sentences. Do I need to say more on the level of frustration you have built up within yourself about a man the nation has chosen as its leader with pride? So many adjectives to describe a private speech? I am immensely proud of the fact that my Prime Minister chooses to refer to our epics and mythology to pick up examples relating to the topic he speaks about. I am so glad we haven't elected a perpetual kid who doesn't know the state in which he's speaking, can't answer two straight questions, runs away abroad every other week, treats elders with utter disregard, and has an immensely false sense of entitlement. If Modi says Ganesha's elephant head is an example of Plastic Surgery, I have the intellect to smile about it and clap wholeheartedly for Modi's wit. You, sir, choose to fill a tome with nonsense, while the real issue is not about Plastic Surgery or Stem Cell treatment in the ancient ages, but the fear that you will be rendered inconsequential if you don't keep spouting up like a geyser of liberalism once every other week. You and your tribe have set the nation back by decades, with all your doctored 'news' over the years. Shame on you for it.
In closing, just one question, Mr Thapar. Why don't you dare ask questions about a certain practice of veiling women and packing them in black like they're a sack of  unspeakable? Why don't you have the guts to ask organizations that openly proclaim that humans can be saved only if they subscribe to a certain God? Have you never watched those videos before? Why don't you question it when a certain sub-sect announces that there are virgins waiting in a certain 'heaven' if one goes and KILLS innocent children? Nah - that'll set you up as a right winger and you can't afford that. In your neglect, if a few hundred more people convert into that path and end up killing thousands more, so be it. Your image is safe. Correct?
Like you chose Mr Modi's simple speech to vent your insecurity of being forgotten, I choose your article as an example of what's wrong with our Media. People like @mediacrooks have been fighting this battle for long. But is isn't enough! They get drowned in the noise you manage to generate.
If I choose to believe that Karna was indeed born out of Genetics, it is my choice. And that doesn't make me any less intelligent than I already am. Atleast I have a belief that I'm comfortable with! Unlike you, I don't fret about the past. My interest lies in the future, and more importantly, in the present. I will teach my kids how to choose between right and wrong, and to sift through the nonsense, and Ganesha willing, they will develop their own intellect and form their own opinions once they grow up. That is the real  Scientific Temper, mentioned in your Article 51 A (h), which our constitution wants its citizens to develop. Not the 'temper' you're advocating.