Dec 14, 2013

About Brand Value

Lately, I've been involved in a lot of shopping. That's made me think hard about brands and brand value. In this piece, I write down my thoughts and opinions on the subject, based on my own experiences as a marketer as well as a customer. People have written entire books on the subject, so this may be a long post!

Like all good consultants, I've come up with my own framework to analyze brand value. And in keeping with marketing tradition, I use 4 P's

The word 'brand' derives from the Old Norse "brandr" meaning "to burn". Originally, a brand was just a mark used to denote who the product was made by. It translated into an origin, and associations of quality and specific attributes. This remains true even today - a bar of soap branded Dove contains moisturiser, is gentle on the skin and is made by Unilever.

These associations are built over time, and are based on the characteristics of the product and its performance. These, in turn, can usually be attributed to materials used & specifications, and knowledge & skill of the producer. This is always true of both goods and services to various degrees. A good TV uses high quality components to deliver good picture & sound quality, and you need designers with good understanding of user needs and available technology to deliver a product that has popular features, and good manufacturing processes to ensure it works well for many years. I buy certain brands of shirts because I know they use high-quality cotton, don't fade after a few washes and retain the stiffness & shape of the collars, cuffs etc. because they use high grade materials. Restaurants are a service business, but even in this case you need good, fresh meat/produce and skilled chefs, friendly waiters etc. to succeed. 

Any compromise or gap in materials/specs and/or producer knowledge/skills directly affects product performance and eventually brand reputation. Marketers sometimes lose sight of this and focus all their energies on building brand image, running campaigns, communication etc. - and don't pay enough attention to the product itself. This is a recipe for failure in the long run.

As an example, I had considered the Asus 'Transformer' line when I was buying my first tablet, and again recently when I was looking to upgrade. On both occasions, their products had great specs - processor, RAM, screen resolution etc. - and offered a few unique features at a very competitive price, which was enough to get into the consideration set. However, both times, I read several buyers complaints about defective units, dead pixels, light 'bleed' at the edges of the screen. Clearly, their manufacturing process isn't as reliable as Apple's or Samsung's, and their quality control is also weak. No matter what the marketer does now, I'm not buying. They need to fix the product quality first.

Another example I'll quote is Energy Drinks. I love and admire the brand Red Bull. But when I'm in the UK, Relentless is available to me. With its 50% juice composition, it just tastes far, far better than Red Bull - and is healthier too. No matter how many F1 championships Sebastian Vettel and Adrian Newey win, I will drink Relentless because it tastes much better. The superior product wins.

In this day and age, we have greater production capacity than demand for most products. Consumers are spoilt for choice, and they demand - justifiably - a good end-to-end experience all the way from seeking information about a product (websites etc.), to buying it, using it and getting it repaired when something breaks down, and disposing of it when the time comes. Apple's products succeed because the whole experience is a pleasure at every stage.

When you think about resellers like Croma or, the product you're buying is the same (an appliance or an air ticket) but you prefer buying it through these stores/sites because it is an enjoyable experience. Needless to say, brands that aren't present where you prefer to shop risk losing out on a potential sale. I book my movie tickets through a 3rd party website which offers me discounts. The same with travel. Cinemas or hotels or airlines that aren't listed on my preferred website mostly lose my business, regardless of what else they've done right.

Marketers must realize their job doesn't end with creation of demand and shipping volumes out the door. They must engage with the customer at every stage of the brand's life. They must have web-sites or catalogues where customers can get information about their products when they're evaluating purchase decisions. The product must be available on the shelf (or site). Using the product must be a good experience. I want to be wowed by performance, durability, features I didn't previously know about, and by prompt service whenever I have a problem. has almost displaced as my favorite travel booking service by sending discount coupons for airport transfers when I book a flight through them. And Google are masters of the 'pleasant surprise' with things like Google Now. On the other hand, I am unlikely to buy Sennheiser products again because a set of earphones I had broke a few days after the one-year warranty ran out, and I didn't find their customer service very helpful. I will avoid such experiences in future, and those brands have negative associations in my mind now.

We also must recognize the importance of shared experiences these days. People have always talked about products they've owned with a few others, but now social media have taken this to another level. In my earlier example of Asus Transformer, I made a decision based on reviews posted on by people I have no direct link with. For almost every significant purchase decision these days, I check the web for customer reviews first. I see how many people have bought the product, what is the average score, the proportion of unhappy buyers and read the 'most helpful' (based on other readers' votes) reviews - both positive and negative. Buyers can be very well-informed these days, and if you don't keep them happy, they will hurt your brand and your business. Conversely, happy customers will sway others towards you. Brand loyalty (experience) is no longer the holy grail, you want to achieve brand advocacy (pleasure).

I believe pricing must be rational and fair to everyone involved - the buyer, the business owner/investor, and all their employees.

You must have heard the adage - quality comes at a price. As I mentioned earlier, a good product requires good ingredients and skills to produce. Good distribution and service networks, committed staff etc. that provide the pleasure also cost the provider money.

A product's price must be such that it covers the costs incurred to produce, distribute and service it, and the employees committed to producing good quality, innovation, customer satisfaction etc. must be able to pay their bills and lead happy lives. In the West, a lot of people don't buy cheap items produced in sweatshops by exploiting poor workers in less developed countries - and I agree with this. Finally, business isn't charity - the investors/shareholders are in it for profit, and they deserve good returns on their investment if they're helping you meet a need. If I'm happy with a product, I should be willing to pay the fair price.

This is one of the reasons why I don't generally support duplicates/knock-offs. If P&G spent money on research to come up with the optimal formula for detergents, and a retail chain copies the formula and sells a similar 'private label' product at a 20% discount, I wouldn't buy it. It's not fair, and if P&G stops investing in R&D, we will not get better products in future. The same logic holds for premiums charged by talented designers for clothes etc.

However, the producer must try and achieve efficiency for their costs, and not waste any of the money they get from their buyers. I don't generally buy products from Indian PSUs because I know most of their employees don't work as hard as their counterparts in the private sector, and tax-payers money is wasted to subsidize both the employees and the customers. It is not fair to expect the buyer or the government to pay the price for your inefficiency. You must get a grip on your cost structure.

Also, some brands command premiums that are just plain ridiculous, and they do this to maximize earnings for a few wealthy investors. Sometimes, these decisions are driven by greed, and sometimes by conceit and an over-developed sense of their worth. E.g., I recently saw a leather belt in a Gucci store that carried a price tag of Rs. 29,000 ($450). I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that I carefully counted the zeros again because I wasn't sure I had read it right the first time. Now, I can get a similar belt in the adjacent Louis Phillipe store for about 1/10th the price. Whatever Gucci is doing - maybe they're using higher-quality leather, investing more in design (although this was just a strip of leather with a plain buckle, so I don't really see the value-add, but maybe there was something there a more discerning eye would see), maybe they're providing a better store experience, some prestige (more on this below) - it can be worth some premium, but this is crazy. The fact that some people have the disposable income to pay such an amount for the product, and the amount adds a bit more to the obnoxious wealth of a talented designer - for me just drives home the realization that we live in a world that is far from fair and where a lot of things just don't make any sense.

Thankfully, in most cases, pricing needs to make sense. In a south-east Asian country, we've seen a brand of cola drop from near-monopolistic leadership to a distant 3rd position in terms of market share in less than a decade. People still love the brand, but in times when the economy is tight, they drink others that they feel offer much better value for their money.

Pricing can also lose you a lot of business. When I bought my last TV, I had planned to buy Samsung. I expected the price to be a bit lower than a comparable Sony, but was surprised to find it ~25% higher. Sure, Samsung had introduced voice and gesture based controls and a few other gimmicky features - but in my mind, the Sony was better value for money and I bought that. I will keep this in mind when I'm considering a Samsung product in future and not just assume they're reasonably priced.

In short, the marketer should consider the alternatives available to the buyer and their prices. So should the buyers!

One of the trickiest cases is Pharma. While I agree that they must be compensated for their R&D expenses for inventing break-though drugs and avoid buying generics, the duration for which they try to hold on to patents, the tricks they use to block competition, and the way they try and squeeze dying patients for every penny they're worth and sometimes more - appears to cross the line and smack of greed. I feel this subject needs needs more critical discussion to arrive at a solution that's fair to everyone.

There is no getting away from the fact that the brands you are seen with reflect on you, and people make judgments based on that. As a Punjabi, I understand this all too well!

A lot of the time such associations can be positive. I have my wedding coming up soon, and I'd like to buy Tanishq products after seeing their two recent ads - one where they show a dusky bride re-marrying, and one where they support LGBT rights. In these cases, it's not just about the products - the brand is helping me express something I believe in, and I'm willing to pay a premium for that.

There is some prestige associated with most premium products that usually stems from a tradition of high quality, good service, innovation or uniqueness - among other things. People are proud to own Apple products these days, because they represent innovation and the very top of the pyramid in terms of elegant design and user-friendly interfaces. Others can't necessarily achieve this by matching their products or pricing, and this enhances Apple's brand value. Creators/managers of brands must keep this in mind.

While low price is a good strategy when you're dealing in a commodity or aiming for volume leadership, keep in mind that it limits your profitability and also your future profit growth potential. Even if Micromax launched a smartphone tomorrow that matched a Samsung Galaxy in every way at a lower price, a lot of people still may not buy it because the brand is considered cheap, associated with lower-grade components, imitation of other's innovative features and its prestige value is negative in this category.

On the other hand, I'm sure the buyer of the Gucci belt feels some pride about owning a Gucci product, and I'm sure Gucci is reaping the benefits of the prestige associated with their brand. However, I feel the price premium in this case crosses the line from prestige into obnoxious vanity, which can hurt a brand in the eyes of many potential customers.

A case in point would be imported goods with high customs duties, such as cars and perfumes in India. If you want to spend good money of Davidoff perfumes because you just love their unique scent, I think that's fine. However, keep in mind that a bottle typically costs ~Rs 2,000 if purchased overseas or Duty-free at the airport. The appropriate prestige value is already factored in. Now, if you buy it in a mall for Rs 4,000 - the extra money doesn't go to Davidoff, but to the government which will waste most of it on hare-brained and inefficient schemes and line the pockets of some corrupt leaders. Sure, such a purchase allows you to show off your high disposable income - which may be your objective - but I would not include that in my definition of prestige. The world would be a better place without this phenomenon.

In an ideal world, there would be free trade and I'd have the choice to buy a good German car at the same price the Germans can. While the price would be somewhat premium compared to domestic brands, it would be justified by product superiority, pleasure of use and prestige derived from the brand's history. But paying high customs duties today is only a means of displaying wealth in an obnoxious manner.

Prestige is an important component of brand value, and it must be a priority for the brand manager, but it is co-created by the users/customers. So, in this case, I feel the responsibility for keeping things rational and keeping the producers in line lies with us. We need to be sensible about how much of our disposable income is spent on brand prestige versus perhaps more important things.

An example
When anyone I know asks me for suggestions for electronics/appliances, the budget is finite and no one has the time to do much research, I recommend they buy the best Samsung product available within their budget.
Product: Will be close to best-in-class, or just a notch below. Good enough for most people.
Pricing: They're not too expensive, and you're unlikely to easily get something much better at the same/lower price.
Pleasure: I've NEVER had a problem with a Samsung product, and I've used a few. LG matches them on product/price usually, but I've had problems once or twice with the units I got.
Prestige: While it won't be a source of great pride, it's certainly not an embarrassment. And I feel they have a better reputation than LG or others in the same price bracket.
I would consider this a success for brand Samsung.

One can look at brand value in two ways, and I think they're inter-linked. To the buyer, it is what they'd be willing to pay to meet a need and derive certain benefits. To the producer, it is a measure of what they can charge customers for their products/services and grow a profitable business. For things to work well for both sides in the long run, the two must be in balance. The above framework should help both brand managers and users to think about brand value in a structured manner and achieve such a balance.

I haven't tried too hard to isolate these dimensions or define everything formally because these 4Ps are inextricably linked with each other. Product quality & performance affect reputation, which in turn affects price, provides prestige and pleasure. Conversely, pleasure, pricing and brand prestige must be kept in mind while designing products. Also, not all brands have the same goals - some aim at economy for the masses, while others try to be premium and differentiated to please the discerning - so there is no 'ideal' position on any P, and every brand could have its own sweet spot within its category. One must think of brand value in a holistic manner. Hopefully, the above discussion and examples help.

Do feel free to chime in with your thoughts. I'd love to discuss various brands and adapt the framework as necessary.

Request: Do not quote/copy any of the above ideas or content without reference to this post.

Aug 3, 2013

A Life worth living. Part Tr3s.

Lately, I've seen a lot of my friends share articles about work-life balance and the 'busy trap'. Everyone seems to agree that we're all too busy these days, and it isn't quite right. Most articles are written by people who devoted most of their younger years to work, and came to regret it later and now extol the importance of work-life balance. They tend to swing to the other extreme, and don't offer too many suggestions on how one should fix the issue. I'll attempt to do that here.

This post might appear a bit preachy, and I offer two arguments to defend that:
1. Most of this is things I've learnt by reading recognized experts, whose ideas appealed to me and many others too.
2. I have a better work-life balance than most and - more importantly - I'm happy with it. That's not something a lot of people can honestly say these days.

Most of us have heard the story about how Sir Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and discovered gravity, and how this led to the birth of modern physics. But what was he doing at that moment? Enjoying a leisurely afternoon cuppa of tea in an orchard with a friend.

Penicillin is regarded as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine. You may have read that it was discovered by accident - Sir Alexander Fleming had left an open petri-dish unattended for a while and a mould had grown on it. Why was it unattended for a while? He'd been away on vacation with family for a couple of weeks.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar claims that the Sudarshan Kriya was revealed to him while he was observing 10 days of silent introspection alongside the Bhadra river. He's built the whole Art of Living empire around it.

NN Taleb, in his book Black Swan, contends that history moves forward in irregular leaps through serendipitous discoveries made by maverick thinkers, not the endless labours of busy suits and lab coats.

If you want to come up with the next big idea or great discovery, and leave your mark on history, you're much more likely to do so in times of idle introspection. That's when you find moments of inspiration and have epiphanies. Make time, and give life a chance to positively surprise you!

Most people will counter that they just have to much to do. Their work and other things they have to do just fill up all their days. Stephen Covey, in 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' tells us to always begin with an end in mind. Think about who you want to become and where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years time. Define your main goals and figure out what will make you truly happy. Sort out your priorities. Then evaluate all the things you're doing today. Which ones are taking you in the desired direction, and which ones are simply drains on your time and energy? Identify the latter, start cutting your losses, and making more time for things that will matter in the long run.

It also helps to apply the 80/20 principle and the law of diminishing returns. Most people can accomplish most of their important targets with a few hours' work. Then there are activities that also deserve a good amount of time. Finally, there's the things that take up a lot of time and energy, but the pay-off simply isn't worth it. Find ways to cut these out.

The same applies to goal-setting. It's good to have ambitious targets at work that challenge you and provide you a considerable sense of achievement and pride, but one must be realistic and identify the point of diminishing returns. Hitting 50% of your target is usually a walk in the park. Exceeding it by a bit takes considerable time and effort. Trying to exceed it by more than 20% will usually sap the joy out of your life and badly affect all other aspects of it.

Covey also suggests a grid - with urgency as one axis and importance as the other. Most of us tend to deal with the urgent on a priority basis and it gives us a buzz. We tend to defer the things that are important but not so urgent. He was talking mainly about building professional capabilities in this quadrant, but the concept applies equally well to life in general.

To me, it is important to read about a variety of subjects and articulate my own thoughts on this blog. It is also important to read/watch something intelligent and witty everyday because it keeps me mentally sharp. These things make me happy and help me become better-informed and more versatile - which also greatly helps my productivity & success at work, and makes me better company. Everyone needs to find things like these to unwind, recharge and grow, and make time for them. We've all heard the saying 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' early in our lives, but seem to have forgotten it along the way.

I'm going to talk a bit about relationships here - because they are very important and tend to be affected most directly and seriously by our time-allocation choices. We're designed to be social and our joy increases when we have special people in our lives to share them with. We also need support systems when things get tough. But meaningful relationships need time investment and nurture.

I don't have siblings and have been living on my own for almost 15 years now. I depend on a few close friends as my support system. Right now, one of them is going through a painful divorce, another one is evaluating investments offers for his business, and a third is coping with a new life in the USA. I'm happy to be there for them at these times, and they're there for me when I need them. You can't achieve this by scheduling them into the 3rd Saturday of every month, for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I don't have a family yet, but I'm sure being a good partner or parent works the same way.

Urgency, on the other hand, is often artificial and created by ourselves by either trying to do too much, or having our purpose & priorities messed up. I lived that kind of life for a few years. My day started with paranoia about discovering a bomb in the inbox (an error in recently submitted analysis, or an unhappy client), followed by about 12 hours in the office, and ending with anxiety about the next day. There was always more to be done, fires to be fought and something to be frustrated with. It affected my lifestyle and started taking a toll on my health and general well-being. I took some time off and decided to draw some lines in the sand, and am much happier today.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of my peers already having trouble keeping their lives straight. Some have had serious health issues and surgeries, some have had their marriages break down, and some others have just become jaded and cynical pale shadows of their former selves. We're just one decade out of college, and have about 3 more to go, and responsibilities are only going to increase both at work and at home. It's way too early for people to start burning out.

Being busy is an unhealthy addiction. It gives you a buzz and makes you feel wanted and purposeful, but in most cases that is due to blinkered vision. Just think back 5 years. Most of what kept you busy then probably appeared crucial, but will likely seem almost trivial now. The same will probably be true when you look back 5 years from now.

Think about the managers you've had. Some must be busy bodies, always on their toes, always buzzing and usually quite successful. People respect them and admire their energy, but most wouldn't want to be them. On the other hand, there are the leaders who always have a calm demeanour, never get ruffled, are equally successful or more, and always leave the office in time to spend quality time with their families or pursuing other interests. These are the guys who really inspire others and get farther in life. Which one would you rather be?

We are designed to appreciate outcomes and rewards obtained by others, not their efforts. In college and at work, the hard-workers were pejoratively labelled 'fighters' and the lazy versatile geniuses were labelled 'studs'. It's because the latter found ways to achieve good results more efficiently - with lesser time and effort, and had time for a greater variety of activities and all-round development. Most people can do that by using some of the principles outlined earlier.

I feel American culture is partly to blame for the current state of affairs. Americans make their jobs their lives, and tend to equate what they do with who they are - and seem to be missing the bigger picture. We Asians are worse because we have it upside-down. Our cultures tend to measure and reward effort as much or more than outcomes. It's even a central tenet of Hindu philosophy! I personally admire European and Australian societies because of the emphasis on culture and sport respectively, and I feel that's a more holistic perspective.

Another negative effect of always being busy is people have little time to think. I work in the analytics industry and we bill our clients based on man-hours utilized for each project, so there is a perverse incentive to always try to do more. But our real job is not to present clients with more and more information, but to help them make better decisions. Whenever I'm involved in a project, I urge the team to try and find out what decisions our analyses will inform, and try and streamline the output to help our clients make better decisions. There is no point providing more information than needed, or analysis results that are confusing or inconclusive. We should always try and do less but do it right. And then go home, play video games, chat with friends or enjoy a cold beer. I'm sure the situation and challenges are similar in most professions. People are doing too much, but a lot of it is a waste of time. They need to do less, think more and make time to live happier lives.

This brings me to the subject of smartphones and instant email. Sure, the IT revolution has made our lives better in many ways, but most of these are outside of work and related to our personal/social lives. I'm not sure businesses in general have become much more successful or better at decision-making with the advent of instant messaging. It has made all of us a lot busier, but not much richer intellectually or epistemologically (Ha, really wanted to use that big word!)

Personally, I was thrilled when I got my first company-paid Blackberry device. It was a status symbol of sorts, and I felt I had arrived. But I soon realized it was an instrument of corporate slavery. The emails followed me wherever I went all the time, immediate responses were expected, and it wasn't such a good thing at all. I still use such devices, but I don't let them control my life any more. I only check email a few times outside the office, and I ask myself 'Do I have to answer this right now, or can it wait till tomorrow morning?' Usually, the answer is that it can wait, and I put the device down and return to the TV. Life is much better this way.

Jul 28, 2013

The Chivalry Paradox

A friend recently shared a joke on Facebook about a woman who complained about her boss not treating her with the same respect he shows the guys, and went on to tell him how she'd rejected a matrimonial prospect because he wasn't taller than her. The irony of the double standards was lost on her.

That post has prompted me to write this. As society is evolving, the gender divide and rules governing behaviour seem to be evolving constantly and it's especially tough on us guys to keep up. I call this the chivalry paradox, and I'll quote a couple of examples here.

When you're out for a meal with a girl, how should one deal with the bill? Traditionally, the guy's supposed to pay. A lot of women expect this and would label you a total cheap-ass if you suggested anything else! But then, there's the equality brigade who see no reason for you to pick up their tab, and are offended by any such suggestions.

Then there are handshakes. Some women offer you their hand like you're a nineteenth century knight about to kiss it. If you don't read it right, you'll probably seem like an uncivilized ape crushing a feather. Others, especially those in serious careers, offer a firm handshake. If you go light, they'll think you're a sissy. The impression is made in the first instant and by the time you adjust your grip, it's already too late.

The bigger problem is that there is no fail-safe approach. You can't decide 'this is what I'll always do - some will like it and others won't mind'. Whichever route you take could land you in trouble and you could find yourself at the receiving end of a diatribe.

Personally, I've decided to always pay the bill when I meet someone for the first time. If we meet again, the assumption is we're friends and then we ought to go Dutch. Handshakes? I still have no answer. I just try and avoid them altogether!

So, here's the take-away for women. Please understand that the lines are blurry and all over the place. We're still trying to figure things out. If we make a mistake, it's generally an honest one - so please don't get mad and launch into a tirade. Just call it out, and if you think it's necessary, explain to us what we did wrong. We'll try not to repeat it.

For guys, I'm going to offer the same advice I always do when my friends - for some unfathomable reason - decide to share their problems with me. 'Just grow a pair and deal with it, da!'

Jul 23, 2013

Yesterday & tomorrow...

When I was in school, life seemed tough. Getting up every morning, standing in murderous heat or cold fog for an hour during the assembly, attending hours of classes and preparing for exams for many years in succession. I was promised - just work hard now to get into an IIT and everything will be good. My future would be secure, college is more fun than school etc.

College was no joyride. The peer group was extremely competitive, courses rigorous and every exam was like writing JEE again. There were still hours of mind-numbing classes and labs - every longer than school, actually - and living conditions in the hostels were spartan. The promise then was - just get into a good PG course, or get a job - and you'll reap the benefits of the IIT tag.

IIM was crazier. The schedule was hectic as hell and getting good results was no easier. If anything, there was added pressure of placements and expectations. Just get a day one job during placements, and you will rule the world - was the promise.

The first job sucked. Unlike college, you couldn't bunk at all nor make mistakes. I felt like a small insignificant cog in the wheel whose presence didn't really make much of a difference either way - but I had to be there every day, 9 hours a day, fighting some issue or the other. And life in Bhopal wasn't exciting at all for a young bachelor. I thought let me just switch to a profession I can be passionate about, and make an impact - and I'll get a sense of satisfaction and purpose. Also, moving to a more 'happening' city will make life fun again.

While I liked the new job, it was cruel. Waking up every day worried about a new bomb in the inbox (a recent mistake being caught), working thanklessly from 10am-10pm and yet not getting everything done perfectly, and returning home every night with a sullen face was hardly what I'd always dreamt of. The weekends presented their own questions - what to do, where to go, who can get us in (most places we wanted to visit only allowed couple on weekends, and we were 3 single guys sharing an apartment). Let me just struggle through these first few years, build my reputation and find good company - and all will be well, I thought.

A few years down the line, I'm well-settled in my job but the challenges are even bigger now. To successfully achieve the results I want, I have to depend on other people and factors that aren't all in my control and it's a long game that'll span across many years. I had great friends but most of them have moved out of Bangalore now and/or are married, so it feels rather lonely. Let me just find a good life partner and move into my new home (will be built by year-end) and things will get better, is what I'm telling myself now.

Does it ever really get easier and better? Do we ever feel like we're on top of everything, or does the promise of a happier future remain forever elusive?

The thing that makes it worse is nostalgia. Now when I think back to school days, all I remember is lots of friends, 2 hours of cricket/tennis/swimming every evening, discussing crushes with friends, and my parents taking care of all the big issues like household finances. When I think of college, I remember the bike rides for fried chicken in the city, watching the Shawshank Redemption in my room, night-outs on the hostel roof discussing the concept of 'God' with my best friends, and my first girlfriend. PG memories are all about enjoying every hour of sleep managed at weird times & locations, creating the success that was Manfest, nailing some presentation/assignment and feeling like a genius, all the kebab-paratha, late night AOE games and being happy with placements. When I think back to my early bachelor days, all I remember is the appreciation received after a big achievement at work, TT at home, the wild weekend parties, the trips to Goa, Singapore etc., witnessing some dear friends' love stories bloom into happy family lives, the lone-wolf British summer holiday and all the fun I had.

Nearly everyone I know misses the glorious days when they were younger and wish they could re-live those.

Is that how we're programmed? To romanticize the past memories, and hope for a better future, but remain forever frustrated with the present? Pretty lousy design, innit? The gurus always say 'Live in the present moment'. There are a few moments when one experiences bliss, not missing the past nor worrying about the future - but those are so, so rare. The present moment almost always seems to suck!

Is it just me, or does everyone relate to this? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below...

Jul 16, 2013

She's always in there...

The General's daughter answers every phone call with a polite and formal 'Hello, good evening'. Every time, she wishes it's the boy who takes her on a journey into another world...

The college rebel often shows people the middle finger. She looks longingly at the slides and swings every time she drives past her old school...

The advertising intern works 12-hour weekdays and 8-hour Saturdays while preparing for her MBA. She tells her student boyfriend it's a company phone and calls are free, so he doesn't feel guilty about the bills burning through her entire salary...

The young doctor studies for her MD in the day and works through crazy night shifts at the hospital. One midnight, she makes it a point to call her sister's boyfriend to tell him 'Sing to her! Dance with her! Make her feel special on her birthday'...

The dentist is the eldest of three siblings and an epitome of obedience and responsibility. She rounds up all her girlfriends at the Bangkok Suvarnabhoomi airport for a picture of all their shoes to start a new college tradition...

The legal professional stoically takes notes during heated meetings between lawyers and tax evaders. She asks a stranger to scribble her name in the sand in Malayalam so she can pose with it on her beach holiday...

The customer support associate uses the chat handle 'attitudez las page'. She wants him to hold her close at the concert, and show the grope-prone crowd she 'belongs' to him...

The software engineer lambastes a bunch of boys teasing her about looking 'chinki'. She secretly flew down from London to spend a special weekend in Goa with him...

The former software professional is reading for her Master's degree in cold, cold Canada. She misses the day she got lost in a nearby railway yard and all the elders freaked out...

The senior manager who intimidates most at a software behemoth. She jumps and claps and screams 'I won! I won! I won!' when her favorite young German wins his first Formula One world championship...

The blogger rips apart hypocritical men who appreciate successful women at work but don't want to marry someone who might challenge them. She later confesses that all she's dreamt of since childhood was a big, memorable wedding with scores of relatives dancing with joy...

The creative freelancer's spirit cannot be contained within corporate walls. She feels deeply hurt when someone questions the proud institution daddy devoted his life to...

The superstar banker is known to be a grammar Nazi and was nicknamed Hitler by her juniors on a college fest committee. She listens to romantic Punjabi songs from Yash Raj movies and fantasizes about her own Mirza sweeping her off her feet someday...

Every woman is special. Beneath even the toughest of exteriors, there's always a love-able little girl hidden in there somewhere, for someone to find.

Jul 15, 2013

The Leap of Faith

(Credit: Central idea inspired by this article)

A short while back, I wrote about the spark early in a relationship, and how I thought it was not nearly as important as people usually believe. I did not mean to suggest that its presence is always misleading, or its absence completely immaterial. I just meant that one should give things time to become clearer and only then can they be sure whether or not something is meant to be.

The reverse problem is people waiting forever to be 'sure' and never quite getting there. In relationships, as in many other things in life, one can never be 100% sure they're making the right decision about the future because it is - and always will be - the great unknown. Getting to know another person is a life-long process and it can't be completed before you make a commitment. That's actually a good thing, because it leaves you a lot to look forward to later. But at some point, you just have to trust you know enough about the other person, and take a leap of faith!

While in college, I was in a great relationship with an extraordinary girl that lasted many years. When I graduated and had to leave for another city, we had known each other long enough and well enough to be as sure as was possible - that if we decided to be together, things would work out well. Unfortunately, we were both very young and just couldn't take that leap and commit to a future together. Things fizzled out, we moved on and grew up to become very different people. Today, I hope I will have a better future than I could have had, but the odds appear long.

After finishing B-School, I didn't like the first job I got. The company was great (both reputation and reality), the money was very good and I did fairly well, even achieving some records, but it was a manufacturing operations role which I just didn't enjoy and wanted to do something else. I resigned after ~10 months, without another job offer in hand. I was offered several tempting options by my manager who was desperate to retain me, and I wasn't having much luck with my first few job applications elsewhere. But I stuck to my decision, and took a leap of faith. Nearly 3 painful months later, I landed a job with a start-up in Bangalore and everything worked out brilliantly after that. I loved my new job, new company, new city, new life - everything!

It doesn't always work out, otherwise it'd be a walk in the park and not a leap. I recently took another one and ended up bruising my knees. That's a story for another time. But even when things don't work out, you just have to pick yourself up and motor on.

The simple truth is - if you want to achieve something great, you will at some point have to take some risks. Playing safe, having backup plans etc. can provide you security, but will also lull you into mediocrity and irrelevance.

To land on one's feet and not in the abyss, one must know the difference between irresponsible, mindless punts and well-informed, calculated risks. Faith must never be blind. This is the secret of successful businessmen like Richard Branson. They take many risks and not all of them pay off. What they ensure is that the potential downside of any risky venture is limited. When they fail, you don't really notice it because the loss is small. When they succeed, it makes the headlines. The mistake most unsuccessful gamblers make is getting carried away with the potential size of the bonanza, but not covering their backs for the scenario when things go wrong.

When you're standing at the edge of the cliff, you must be able to see where you want to land. You must have good reason to believe you can cross the chasm, preferably from your own history. When in doubt, it's often helpful to seek the opinion of a good friend who knows you well because it's easier for them to be objective in their assessment.

But there will come a point at which no more information will be available. You could be reasonably confident but not certain, and you'll find yourself standing at the edge with a choice. You could stand there forever and let life pass you by. Or you could turn away, and always keep wondering about what might have been. The best thing to do is to just jump and pray...

Jul 9, 2013

Questioning our medical education setup

Last year, Satyamev Jayate devoted an episode to the issue of generic drugs and doctors being motivated by commissions and profits to mislead their patients at times. Through acquaintances and Facebook etc., most of us would have heard tales of hospitals trying to rip people off by making patients undergo unnecessary tests and treatments. I've felt, for a while, that the root cause of these problems is something else.

Think about this. A typical engineer finishes college by the age of 22 and starts earning decently. S/he doesn't usually have a large loan to pay off. Adding on a masters degree is relatively easy and tends to add very significantly to their career prospects and earning potential. By age 30, most engineer-MBAs have a comfortable lifestyle and are able to afford a car and are on the verge of buying a house.

Doctors, on the other hand, generally don't finish their MBBS course before 23. Add a year of internship and preparation for MD entrance exams. 2 more years of MD, and then typically another year or two of further study or residency. Doctors are a few years older when they start their first jobs which typically pay peanuts. By the time they start earning a good amount, they're generally close to the age of 30. Unlike the engineer-MBAs, they don't already have big savings, instead they have huge loans to pay back.

Also, the medical education system in India is ridiculously corrupt. There are few 'merit' seats available. The majority of students have to make 'donations' to get in, and the amounts payable for more popular courses (specialties) are extortionate. This is true at every stage - bachelors, masters, fellowship, and sometimes even for getting passing grades, especially for final year courses.

By their early 30s, most doctors - who started with good intentions and a desire to do good and help others - give in to the temptation of dirty money. If you were earning less than your peers from school, and had already borne an additional cost of ~50 lakhs to reach this point - wouldn't you be tempted to compromise some of your values? Most people's conscience carries a price-tag, and it's usually lower.

What created this sorry situation in the first place? A simple mismatch between demand and supply. When I attended school in the 90s, the number of engineering and medical aspirants was roughly equal. I doubt if the scale has tilted too far since then. Last year, India produced 1.5 million engineers and 300,000 MBAs - that is more than USA and China combined in each case. Doctors? 33,000. That's about fifty engineers to each doctor. The number of seats available in medical colleges is several orders of magnitude lower than other streams, and with this kind of scarcity, corruption creeping into the system was quite inevitable.

There are also some other unfortunate consequences of this, which it isn't politically correct to mention, but I will do so here. Many failed MBBS aspirants now end up joining BDS, BHMS, BAMS or other such courses. I guess this helps them meet their own aspirations of becoming 'doctors', but judging by their employment trends, I'm not sure this serves a much bigger purpose for anyone.

Also, now that nearly half the medical college seats are reserved for 'quota' students, and many of the others are purchased by students with the most resourceful parents and not necessarily the most merit, the quality of the output is dubious. I, for one, avoid doctors with anything less than a solid reputation built over more than a decade. Most people don't have this luxury, and by lowering standards in medical education, their lives are being put at risk.

What makes this all the more appalling is that we need many more and better doctors, especially for primary care. We have the second (not for much longer) largest population in the world, and many national health indicators are among the worst in the world. The government's budgetary allocation for healthcare is also among the lowest in the world in percentage terms. They just don't seem to care. The situation desperately calls for more medical colleges to be set up and the whole system being cleansed and re-vitalized. I can't imagine voters being unhappy about the government setting up more teaching hospitals and/or medical colleges, so I don't understand why it isn't happening.

If the government can't handle this, they should encourage the private sector to do so. Why can't the kind of incentives that were offered to IT companies and BPOs be offered to private teaching hospitals now? Why can't PPP models be explored like they are for other kinds of infrastructure? Shouldn't this be a higher priority than messing around with the IIT JEE exam pattern every few years?

Caveats: This post makes several generalizations and no reader should take it personally. Also, I'm no policy expert and this is my opinion, based on common knowledge and common-sense rather than thorough research - please bear that in mind when you comment. If you agree that some of the issues and questions raised are valid, please share it forward because we need to push for things to change.

Jul 1, 2013

Tough. 6.

Really? Another test? Now?

Ok. I've faced many longer, tougher ordeals. Personal, professional, academic, romantic... and I have prevailed every single time.

Bring it on.

May 29, 2013

A screwed up safari

Our bus reached the destination just after noon. We were greeted by a banner that said 'Welcome CCSAC - 1997', which was short for Central Command Summer Adventure Camp. This 'camp' was an annual affair, spanning two weeks during the summer holidays when all schools were typically closed. It was attended by children of Army officers serving in the Central Command, in the 12-18 age group. It was generally organized in some hilly cantonment in the state of Uttarakhand. This year, the chosen location was Lansdowne. One of the few major tourist attractions near Lansdowne was the Jim Corbett National Park - Tiger Reserve, where we had all gone for a day trip - about 100 kids in 4 buses.

Lunch had been served upon our arrival. While it was officially described as 'Veg biryani', it was just some low-grade rice with a bit of spice and yellow dal granules. It didn't taste great, but we were hungry and had no choice. Some kids spread the rumor that the Agra gang had mixed jamalghota (strong laxative) in the biryani while it was being prepared, and everyone who ate it would be sick soon.

The 100-odd kids in the camp were mainly divided into 4 'gangs' - Delhi, Agra, Bareilly and Lucknow (us) - and the rivalry was intense. Major pranks were commonplace, but generally limited to the hostels. Most kids didn't have the guts to try anything funny around the soldiers. Adulterating the food would have required someone to enter the cook-house and mess with the food while the soldiers were around. Not very likely, but nothing was considered impossible after the Joshi brothers had been caught trying a prank with inflated condoms in the warden's office last year. The warden was a mid-ranking Officer with no sense of humor, and if someone could be stupid enough to try that prank - anything was possible.

Anyhow, the Agra kids weren't eating, choosing to feed the rumor instead. We asked Mogambo if he knew what was really going on. Mogambo got his nick-name as a result of his tonsured head, resemblance to Amrish Puri, and being part of the small-and-unpopular Agra gang. The only reason he was friendly with us was that he had a massive crush on AD's sister MD, who was also at the camp. He thought being friendly with AD and the Lucknow gang might help him get close to her, and he was eventually proven right. Anyway, the point was - Mogambo was part of the Agra gang, had inside info to share with us, and we could trust him. He assured us the food was fine, and the prank was limited to just a strong rumor.

All this talk of jamalghota in the food meant that lunch got prolonged to a whole hour. By the time it was done, it started raining. In those parts, the rain was usually heavy and went on for a while - so it was unlikely we'd be able to get around much. We also had to cross 3 rivers/streams on our way back, and there was a good chance of those getting flooded and becoming hard for the buses to cross, so it was decided that we'd head back immediately.

Obviously, we were disappointed. We were expecting to go on safaris and see tigers etc., but our trip had been reduced to long, painful bus rides on hilly roads, with only a bad lunch in between. We tried to compensate by playing games and generally being loud and riotous in the buses - oblivious of the ordeal that awaited us.

We crossed the first stream with ease, but at the second crossing, the last bus got stuck in the water. The girls and little kids were helped out, and then some of the older guys tried to push the bus out. Most of us had crushes on some of the girls in the camp, and the atmosphere at the camp had always been competitive - so everyone wanted to make an impression, showing off our strength, smarts or both.

Each of the four city gangs took turns trying to get the bus out, but none could make it budge. Then we struck up alliances, and finally everyone got together in an effort to push it out. By this time, we also had one of the one-tons trying to pull the bus out with a rope attached to the front grille. All our efforts yielded no result and we finally decided to pile everyone into the remaining 3 buses and move on. But we'd wasted more than an hour fooling around, and all this while it had continued raining, with the streams getting deeper and the current stronger.

When we got to the final river crossing, the first bus waded into the water and got hopelessly stuck. By now the water was waist-high (chest-high for some of the younger kids) and the current was dangerously fast. It was also getting dark. The time for fun and games was over. The soldiers accompanying us gave us instructions in serious tones. The buses had no chance of getting through that stream, and we were going to have to cross it on foot, forming a human chain for safety.

At the head of the chain would be two soldiers. Behind them, all the kids had to move in formation - holding the forearms of one person in front, and one behind. We had to have 'senior (15+) boys' in every alternate position, with the junior boys and girls in between. We were to move very slowly, one step at a time, and coordinate our movements. The soldiers suggested we move with our own friends, so we were comfortable and communicating effectively. They reminded us that we were in real danger here, and should take the whole process very seriously.

AD and I being senior boys and friends, decided to move with each other. MD would be between us, and Mogambo behind me. We went in. At first, it wasn't too bad - the water was only knee high. But with every step, the next one became more treacherous. The floor of the stream was smooth and slippery, and it was difficult to get firm footholds. As we approached the middle, the water was nearly chest-high and putting tremendous pressure on us. At one point, we couldn't move for a while. Every time we tried to, we felt like we'd be washed away. But we kept moving steadily, and were only about six feet from the shore with AD having reached the anchor soldiers.

Then, suddenly, my foot slipped off the slimy base it was on, and I lost balance. As I got dragged by the current, I instinctively let go off MD's arm to ensure she didn't get dragged in with me. Mogambo and I tried to hold on for a bit, but the current was too strong. He fell, but was held by the others behind him. I got washed away.

My mind went blank. It felt like I was in a free fall of sorts, the strong current dragging me with great force against my will, and there was nothing I could do. The moment felt surreal. I'd started swimming just a year or two after I started walking, and while I wasn't an expert or athlete, I could swim reasonably well. I was sure I could swim to save my life, if it ever came to that, and this was a bad time to realize I'd been wrong.

I flailed with both arms and legs to just try and get hold of something, or re-orient myself into a swimming posture - and regain control. After all, the water was just about 4 feet deep, and I was only 6 feet from the edge. If only I could regain control, I'd be able to get to safety. But the stream was like the proverbial unstoppable force, and I was just drifting away really really fast. My heart sank. If I kept drifting, I'd end up in deeper water and probably drown. Even if that didn't happen, I'd find myself alone and lost in a tiger reserve at night. There was no way I'd survive. I felt completely helpless and couldn't believe what was happening.

Then, suddenly, two guys grabbed me from the side and dragged me ashore - Ravi, one of the oldest senior boys who was preparing for the NDA, and a soldier. In a matter of seconds, I'd drifted about 50 meters. I still don't know how they'd managed to catch up with me, because that current seemed faster than anyone could run, but I was thankful to be alive!

After that little scare, we resumed our journey. There were one or two one-tons carrying supplies that had managed to cross the streams early in the evening, and were now waiting for us. The girls were loaded into these and sent on their way. The boys - drenched and exhausted - were going to have to walk about 10 km to a rest house on the boundary, as staying in the jungle wasn't safe.

Normally, a 10km walk isn't too big a problem. When you're physically and mentally exhausted, it becomes one. Add total darkness, unfriendly terrain and  dangerous wildlife - and it becomes an absolute nightmare. The threats we faced included man-eating tigers, elephants, black bears and pythons, along with sundry other canines and reptiles.

We were told to walk in triple-file, with the tallest, well-built senior boys on the inner file (jungle side), the youngest ones in the middle, and the rest of us on the outer file. The logic - if any animals attacked us, they'd probably try a hit-and-run, capturing someone from periphery/corner, rather than getting into the middle of the pack. They were also more likely to come from the 'jungle' side, which was basically down the slope that we were walking across. We were also given plates and spoons and told to make plenty of noise. This was supposed to scare the animals away, although some of us feared it might just end up drawing attention to ourselves.

Every now and then we heard disconcerting noises - mainly howling canines or rustling bushes suggesting animal movement nearby - that kept reminding us of the lurking danger. Ravi was holding a khukri and making jokes about sodomizing any animal that dared to come near him. A few others joined him, and the distraction proved quite effective.

After walking for what felt like an eternity, we reached a gate. A few hundred meters away was the rest house. We entered and most of us just collapsed on the floor. A few guys found some blankets and just threw them around the others to provide some comfort. I'd never slept on a hard floor like this before, but it felt like a bed of roses that night. The next morning, we were driven back to the camp in army trucks.

We knew the situation was serious when we saw the CO, who was a Brigadier, along with several other officers in the reception party. Prior to that, we had been managed only by officers up to the Major rank. Having all these seniors was a big deal. We found that word had gotten out the previous evening that a hundred kids had been lost in the forest in bad weather, and naturally our parents freaked out en masse. They had been calling the organizers all night to enquire about us, and many of them had lost their tempers. As a result, our boot camp suddenly turned tourist resort. All the exercises planned for the last two days had been cancelled, and we were told to just chill and party - which we gladly did!

Most of my peers would remember that day in the forest as one of the toughest they had, but few would remember it in such vivid detail. I do, because I came closest to becoming a casualty when I slipped in the stream and drifted in that current. I have never felt so helpless in my whole life, nor feared for my life the way I did in that minute.

Nowadays, my friends often ask me to join them in adventure sports and risky activities. While I often participate, I don't get nearly as excited as they do. For all the 'rush', things like rafting and bungee jumping don't instil the same 'real' fear. It is sorta 'simulated' danger - because you are doing it voluntarily, know exactly what you're getting into, and you know the risks, the do's and the dont's. You know that people don't generally get hurt doing this, and you typically have the safety net of an instructor or a lifeguard who will rescue you if you get into real trouble. It's fun, but it's nothing compared to actually getting lost in the wild.

May 25, 2013

Desi beat

If you grew up in the sort of cities I did, or attended colleges or workplaces like mine - very likely if you're reading this blog - there are good chances you have a lot of friends who love English music of one or more genres.

Now, if you're like me, you don't really get it and don't really care, but probably had to pretend to enjoy listening to it at some time or the other. You couldn't openly admit to your ignorance of - and indifference to - most English music, because you feared being labelled uncool, or a 'country bugger'. (I'm deliberately using the umbrella term 'English music' as I'm equally indifferent to Rock, Country, R&B, Rap etc. In fact, I don't even care about the differences between them). If you relate to any of this, this post is for you! :)

Over the past few months, I've tried to understand why I'm so indifferent to English music. The question intrigued me because I like listening to music (the desi kind), and I live on English (mostly American) movies & TV series, so why the combination of English & music didn't work was something I didn't understand. Here are some of the conclusions I've reached after thinking things through:

1. I don't get the accent most of the time. 'Accent' is the phonetic prominence given to a particular syllable in a word, or to a particular word within a sentence. It takes time and effort to tune one's ear to a particular accent, and only then can one understand what is being said. The accents in song are not the same as those in speech, and need to be learnt separately. But I simply wasn't motivated to learn these, because I just didn't care what any of these people had to say:

Exhibit A: These are the kind of folks I've generally stayed away from, since I was a kid, for my own safety, and to keep my lunch money.

Exhibit B: He probably still believes that women and black people shouldn't have the right to vote, among other things.

Exhibit C: He calls himself 'Snoop Dogg'. While he could possibly have a 3-digit IQ, I'm sure he doesn't know what the differential of a sine function is.

Exhibit D: This useless bloody 'entitled' generation. They DESERVE to lose all their jobs to us in Asia.

2. In some cases, I was motivated enough to try and understand someone's accent.

Exhibit E: She's close to my favourite F1 driver and seems to be making some important points ;)

However, when I did unravel what they were on about, it broke my heart. Most of the songs were about hot women in sucky relationships with douche-bags who didn't value them. It felt all wrong, but I couldn't do anything about it, so decided to turn my attention away.

Then I came across this lot:

I figured she was whining about her relationships. While she sounded sensible and all, I just couldn't relate. In our country, young men and women don't date a lot. They DO expect to hear the words 'I love you' fairly early, and it's not a big deal. They don't start living together before, and generally even after exchanging those words. Relationships are expected to culminate in marriage most of the time, especially if you ever stay together or spend a lot of time alone with each other indoors. As a result, we don't generally get into deep-yet-non-committal relationships & get our hearts broken too often. I'm not saying the western culture is better or worse - it's just very different. The culture divide means I'm unable to appreciate most of the things they sing about.

This 'culture divide' isn't limited to songs about relationships. Pink Floyd may have been great, but the notion "We don't need no education" has absolutely no place in India today.

When it comes to movies & TV, the culture divide isn't as much of a problem. For one, they generally tend to pick up simpler, more universal themes. Secondly, many series are set in workplaces, which are starting to look and feel similar across the world now. Finally, humor, mystery and action are easy to appreciate in any context. That's usually not the case with drama.

3. Sometimes people tell me 'never mind the words, just appreciate the music'. That just doesn't work. In the real world, it is all about 'the story'. That's what people emotionally connect to, and you need the connection for something to succeed. To appreciate music, I NEED to know what a song is about and what the singer's saying. Otherwise, it's just guitar/drums/synth work without any context, and that's not going to strike any chords!

So, to summarize:
1. I don't understand the singers' accents most of the time, and I absolutely do not care to learn them because I don't think it's going to enrich my life
2. When I do understand lyrics, I usually can't relate, probably as a consequence of the culture divide
3. Without an emotional connect with the lyrics, it's just meaningless sounds

All that said, we definitely need music in our lives. I think we've got enough good stuff at home. Sure, the 80s and 90s were a dark age, with only stale formulaic filmi music produced in India, but things have changed so much in the last decade or so. Now we have guys like AR Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar producing some really good, contemporary music for the movies. Then we have people like Amit Trivedi and Sneha Khanwalkar who - through movie scores as well as independent channels like MTV Coke Studio - are innovating with blends of indigenous folk songs and western instruments and technique, with brilliant results!

I do occasionally listen to and like Western music as well, but I feel no desire to make it a bigger part of my life. If someone thinks that's 'uncool', that's their problem.

I have two other peeves that I want to mention here.

1. A lot of people - especially those from South India - seem to snobbishly avoid desi music. When asked about it, they say they it's because they don't fully understand the language. How come the language barrier doesn't stop you from going nuts over 'Gangnam style', then?

2. In December, many people had a problem with the kind of songs Yo Yo Honey Singh sings, and called for him to be banned. They claimed these songs were corrupting people's minds and turning them into rapists.

Well, please pull your heads out of your asses and see daylight. Honey Singh is a rap artist. Talking trash is his job description and no one takes his words seriously. I mean, if people were really taking life lessons and learning their philosophy from someone like Yo Yo Honey Singh, the problem would be way more fundamental and banning the singer wouldn't help. And I'd be looking for a way out of the country. In truth, Yo Yo is no more responsible for our social problems than Eminem is for the economic crisis in the west.

And how come the same people don't have a problem with Eminem or Akon? Just a few years back, everyone was grooving to 'Smack That' and 'I wanna fuck you'. People even attended his concerts in India. Now the same people want to ban Honey Singh?! Why the double standards? Why does the westerner have 'artistic license' but not the desi? Think about it.

May 17, 2013

About the 'Spark'

She held up a pack of Wai Wai chicken noodles with her left hand, and glanced at him. "Is this what you want?" She didn't need to actually say the words. He was waiting outside the shop. He blinked and nodded to indicate 'yes'. She made a V-sign with her right. "Two packs?" Blink and nod again. She turned to the cashier and paid for the noodles.

He was unwell and she'd taken the day off work to come and take care of him. It was a very ordinary, everyday kind of moment, but as he stood there watching her - he suddenly felt overwhelmed.  "This is true love." When two people understand each other, genuinely care and are grateful to have each other every moment of every ordinary day - then any one of them can become memorable!

It hadn't happened overnight. It had taken them three full years to get here. When they first met, the silences were awkward. Now they'd become comfortable and knowing. Along the way, they'd had many special moments. The first time they held hands, their first kiss, their first trip to a romantic destination. When he gave her roses and chocolates for Valentine's day. When she gave him a nice new cellphone on his birthday...

But it isn't really all about the gifts and the gimmicks, the songs and the speeches. Even in the greatest relationships, the special moments are few and far between, and life happens in the long gaps between them. That's when you can have the misunderstandings, the differences of opinions, incompatible choices, the power plays, the bickering, the indifference to other person's needs, wants or desires - that's when most relationships fizzle out, and that's why most people feel unhappy or unfulfilled.

A happy, successful couple cares and communicates. They understand each other  well - but getting there takes plenty of time and toil, which they invest. They could take each other for granted, but they don't. They cherish what they have, and they nurture it.

Sadly, most people expect their dream partner to drop from the heavens into their laps, and for everything to be magical from the first instant. The world would have you believe it's all about finding a special moment or feeling when you first meet. "When you meet the right person, you just know", "Something stirred deep inside", "We just clicked"... and so on. Most romantic tales are about love at first sight.

Well, in truth, that's a load of bullshit. That 'spark' people talk about is a mostly a myth, and highly over-rated. Sample these:

"I used to wonder why he's on my bus. I knew he worked in a different shift (hours). I thought he was weird. He asked me out to a movie, but I refused. This happened a couple of times before I finally agreed."

"This guy used to sit outside my college gate with a bunch of rascals who used to tease all the girls going by. One day I lost it, and went and blasted all of them. Next day, he came to apologize."

"There was simply no chemistry!! We sat there, three feet apart, looking out to the sea - with nothing to say. In my diary, I wrote this will take months to get anywhere, if it ever does."

"There was nothing particularly special that stood out. We just couldn't think of any good reason not to get married."

That's what four different women I know had to say about how their very-happy-and-successful long-term relationships began (guys generally don't discuss such stuff). Conversely, I've known a few couples that started with big flashy sparks, but the happiness in their relationships was as ephemeral as those sparks.

So, here's the moral of the story: the only place where you really need a spark in life is inside an internal combustion engine. If you seriously want a great relationship, get serious about the relationship itself and work for it.

Mar 4, 2013

Fretting over the FinMin's brain-farts

I recently bought a house, and as is usual in such situations, the loan has seriously cut my disposable income. So I was hoping for some help from PC when he presented the Union Budget last week, and was even encouraged when I heard something was being offered for new home loan borrowers. When I heard the details of what he was offering, though, I was very disappointed. Let's dig into why.

The FM has announced an additional exemption of Rs 1 lakh for home loans under Rs 25L, if it is the first time the borrower is availing such a loan, and if the property value does not exceed 40L. Now, if you live in Bangalore, NCR, Chandigarh or any major city - you'd know that's not enough to buy a decent 1,000-ft 2bhk flat in areas that are commercially developed AT ALL (or even safe). So, middle & upper income families in big cities cannot benefit from this.

Some argue in defense of this - they say the govt is only helping those who really need it. But I don't agree because this is a classic example of govt. attempting wealth re-distribution, which is a fundamentally flawed idea that has never worked well anywhere in the world. It doesn't work because it is unfair and unnatural - it demotivates those who produce wealth, and those who receive the benefits neither appreciate their worth, nor have any incentive to work harder.

Now, I'm all in favor of higher tax rates for the rich and govt. support for the poor, but that support should be provided in terms of infrastructure, employment, education, healthcare etc. Those are basic needs. Home ownership is not. That becomes wealth redistribution.

Closer examination of the proposal reveals its true nature - it's an election freebie thrown at a vote-bank, and made to sound bigger than it really is. Let me explain.

1. Most people stretch their budgets when buying a home. It's the sensible thing to do. So we can assume that anyone taking a 25L loan can't really afford a bigger loan (in other words, a better house).

2. Banks typically give loans based on household income. Some rules of thumb - EMI in thousands is numerically almost equal to loan amount in lakhs. Banks assume that you can set aside 50-60% of your monthly gross salary for EMIs. So, a 25L loan means the borrower has an income up to 6lpa (with assumption 1).

3. If only one member of the family is earning, they can still avail deductions of at least 4.5L on their income (2L basic + 1L 80c + 1.5L for int. on home loans already available to all). If they avail exemptions for any allowances (HRA, LTA, food, conveyance etc.) or other exemptions like medical insurance premium, donations to charity etc., this figure (deductions) goes up. If two members are earning, this figure goes up much further. The point is, if your household income is less than 5L, you already pay no tax and will gain nothing. Even if it is higher, but you've planned your taxes well, you'll still gain nothing.

This means the new tax proposal really only benefits some households with incomes in the 5-6 lpa range. At 5 lpa, you can just save a few rupees. Beyond 6lpa, you'll probably take a bigger loan and not qualify. Within this narrow range, you can save up to Rs 9,700 per year, or ~808 per month, if you take a loan for 25L on April 1. Note that this is an upper limit. The majority of beneficiaries would save less than this.

I don't think the benefit is very size-able for the target income group, but I could be wrong about that. Even if it is, why is the govt. being so selective in offering it, and with so many strings attached? I feel the govt. simply doesn't have the funds to be magnanimous, which I can understand. But this looks like a charade aimed at an electoral constituency that is becoming increasingly alienated from the current govt. These people protest about corruption, about scams, about women's safety and many of them admire regional leaders like Modi. So the govt. throws a little carrot at them. Typical Congress politics, and I hate it.

While on the subject of home loans and taxes, I have a few more bones to pick.

Tax exemption on interest paid on home loans is capped at Rs 1.5L. This means if you are paying a rent exceeding Rs 15k a month and using up all your 80C exemptions, your tax liability will almost certainly go up if you buy a similar house and start living in it. This is because you will no longer be able to claim tax exemption for HRA. Nearly all governments globally claim their policy is to encourage home ownership, but our current income tax regime acts as a barrier.

You can legitimately work around this by registering the property in your parents' name(s) and paying them rent, as long as they aren't living in the same house. This will allow you to claim HRA and also your part of the interest paid on the home loan. Moreover, if your parents are also repaying a part of the loan on the house, the interest they repay is fully tax exempt with no limit (I think) and the rental income is also tax exempt if it is lower than their EMI. So between both parties, you can save a lot.

The above arrangement is perfectly legal, although in my opinion it is unnecessarily convoluted. Worse is that it encourages bogus transactions. People pay inflated rents to their parents to evade tax, and then take the money back in cash form. It becomes black money. A lot of people may not want to do this, but the cost of being completely honest is unreasonably high.

Things would be so much simpler if the limits on home loan repayment were relaxed or abolished. Not only would this obviate the need for complex or bogus contracts, under-valuation of sales, over-statement of rents etc., the tax benefits will significantly accelerate demand for properly-accounted home loans among the upper-middle class, which is way better than having the market operate with a lot of black money. The govt is also nearly certain to gain with higher tax collections.

Now, while I'm no expert on policy or the country's financials, I'm fairly sure the scenario I've described above would be a win-win for all. Why doesn't the govt. just do this, then? I suspect the real reason is that our political establishment and decision-makers are themselves the biggest stakeholders in the property black market!

Jan 31, 2013

Mam-Ban ki $#%#

Gimme some credit. I could go to jail for writing this. But since I live in Bangalore and not in Bengal, I'll take my chances!

Disclaimers: I am NOT a Maoist. I am NOT CPM cadre. I'm just an ordinary individual, NOT aligned to any political body of any sort. I'm NOT being paid to malign anyone. I'm just pissed.

It's 13th May, 2011. Friday night. I'm chilling in my flat, vodka in hand. Around 8pm, my bong friend walks in - all happy and enthu - and wants to celebrate Mam-Ban's victory in the West Bengal assembly polls. I greet her enthusiasm with dull skepticism, and ask her why she considers that good news. She says something about change, the end of a dark era of Left misrule, and generally communicates optimism. I retort with cliches about 'jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire' and how every change isn't necessarily good, no matter how terrible the past has been.

I quote the Joker (from The Dark Knight) to her: "You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just... *do* things." I share with her my apprehensions about Mam-Ban's mindless methods & motives in the past, and fears about her not doing well, now that she was no longer the 'hunter'. A couple of years later, I feel all my fears have not just been realized, but surpassed.

To be fair to my bong friends, it was an easy mistake to make. They were seriously frustrated with CPM rule, and surely change was needed. If I didn't know better, even I would've punted on Mam-Ban. Though I never really liked her, I didn't consider her any worse than most other politicians in India. Sure, she could be a bit of a nuisance - loud, unpredictable and inconsistent in her decision-making, switching back-and-forth between various alliances - but most of that is par for the course in Indian politics. One could have given her the benefit of any doubt.

But for me, the doubt vanished in 2008. At the time, Parliament was voting on the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. It was a serious issue, and the numbers were quite even on both sides, creating great uncertainty. Mam-Ban was the only member of Lok Sabha from her party, and decided to abstain.

Now, here is how democracy is supposed to work. People elect representatives. Those elected are, in turn, supposed to represent the opinions and best interests of the electorate in parliament. That's their job. In this case, Mam-Ban simply decided not to do it.

The nuclear deal was either good for the people of Bengal, or it wasn't. The survival of the central govt was either in people's interest, or it wasn't. Either way, the MP is supposed to take a stand and vote! Not voting implies that your constituency has no stake, no interest and no opinion on the issue - but that wasn't the case here. In fact, if there is one thing a Bengali always has, it is an opinion!

So what was Mam-Ban's explanation for not doing her job? "The party did not want to be seen as supporting either the UPA govt, or the BJP-Left opposition."

Let's take a moment and think about this. The 'party' offered NO OPINION on the issue at hand - the nuclear deal. If that wasn't serious enough, the 'party' didn't care whether the central govt survived or fell. To them - it wasn't about the issues or the country or its interests. All they cared about was their own petty political rivalries. And yes, from the Left (CPM) to the Center (UPA) to the Right (NDA) - EVERYONE was a rival. This, to me, represented everything that was wrong with Indian politics. It's not about issues and ideologies at all, but about a few 'leaders' and their own ambitions.

If you look at Mam-Ban's history, it's always been about personal rivalries and opposing something. She started with the INC, against the ruling Left. Then she went against the INC to form her own party. Then she joined the govt at the center for some time, but her attention and actions were always focused on winning Bengal. And while at the center, she resigned from alliances and cabinet positions with both the NDA and the UPA on various occasions.

Basically, her politics has never been for any good. It's always been against whoever was in her path. Her actions and policies have been ill-conceived, destructive, reckless and self-centered. Railway finances and safety. Singur. Nandigram. NONE of these suggested that putting her in power would be a good idea.

While I didn't share any of my friend's optimism, I did hope the change in her situation might produce in change in her disposition. I mean, she could no longer raise hell every time she saw a real or potential problem - it was now her responsibility to solve it. She could not blame her opponents for all ills - they were no longer in power, she was. While her record as rail minister wasn't encouraging, one hoped for a better turn.

Alas, no miracles happened here. She's gone on to make a complete fool of herself and failed to make the transition from hunter to leader. Just watch this incredible display of ignorance, incompetence and idiocity.

The thought that someone like this is affecting major decisions about national policy, and is in charge of the administration of a state, should scare the crap out of any intelligent citizen. Her abilities in governance or administration are practically non-existent, and since she has a fairly long record with no major achievements in those areas, I don't think anyone would seriously debate that. Her policies, agenda and rhetoric are so full of SHITE, any good college student could debunk them with a few hours' effort. So let's get back to her politics.

Blaming the then govt. for economic problems might have worked when farmers were worried about losing their land. But now, every time any bad news emerges from Bengal - and it's happening increasingly often - she accuses the media of mendacity and exaggeration, and claims it's all a conspiracy to malign her govt. As usual, the issues are ignored - and the discussion becomes one about Mam-Ban vs. all her opponents, real or imaginary . The narrative is wearing really thin.

What's even worse - instead of feeling secure in the position she's achieved, she's becoming paranoid, delusional and more dangerous with dictatorial tendencies. The video of her walking out of an interview with CNN-IBN is already legendary. Most of you would know about the arrest of a cartoonist last year. But the worrying thing is - incidents like this are becoming so routine that they barely even make it to the news these days. After all, if Dinesh Trivedi could get swatted like a mosquito, what hope does an ordinary person even have? Death of democracy, anyone?

Unlike most of my posts, I'm not offering any ideas about the right way forward or any possible solutions. This was always meant to be a rant against someone who I consider to be the worst and most dangerous political leader in India. I just hope people don't vote for her, or anyone like here, ever again. Whatever produces leaders like this - it needs to change. Fast.

Jan 28, 2013

The ugly, the good and the bad ...

Felt like writing this on Republic day.

First, the ugly.

The gang-rape, mutilation and murder of the girl in Delhi last month. It was a barbaric act, and its perverse nature is impossible to rationalize. It's good that the guilty have been brought to book. But I don't want the death penalty for them. That'd be the easy way out. Since I don't believe in the afterlife, heaven/hell etc., I'd like to see them suffer long and hard in this life and serve as an example to others. Hopefully - someday - they may realize their folly and feel genuine remorse for it.

But, with all due respect, this post isn't really about this specific incident or the people involved. A lot has already been written about that, and I have nothing new to add. I'm going to focus on the public reaction that followed, and what I think of it.

The chauvinistic, misogynistic and regressive statements made by the likes of Asaram Bapu, Abhijeet Mukherjee etc. was more of the ugly, as are the shocking stories of rapes of women of all ages from 2 to 90, by all kinds of beasts -  including family at times - that continue to appear in the papers everyday. It's all too depressing for me to elaborate here, but a quick google search can bring you up to speed.

It wasn't all bad news, tho.

The good.

When I was a kid, India was very different. Society was characterized by ignorance (an incident like this would not have got nearly as much publicity), apathy (the infamous 'chalta hai' attitude, 'mujhe kya farak padhta hai'), cynicism ('nothing is ever going to change here') and helplessness ('aam aadmi kya kar sakta hai', 'sab mile hue hain', 'mere ek vote se kya farak padhega'). When you heard about incidents like this, you just accepted them as part of life, and the only hope for a better life was emigration.

Things have changed for the better. One girl gets raped in Delhi, and thousands of people react all over the country. They weep for her and pray for her. They protest at India gate all day, bearing the cold weather, lathi-charge and water cannons - but they don't stand down. They demand action from the government and expect things to change. And they get results. This was unimaginable two decades back, and portends well for our future!

I still hear a few cynical voices saying this is a very limited phenomenon and has little significance. 'The affluent, educated few living in metros can all agree about what's right and wrong, but the masses neither hear nor care for all their arguments - so what is even the point'? It sounds like a valid question, but it presumes that we have no influence over the masses - which is untrue. Now, a large number of rural households in this country have TV, and access to these discussions. They listen to the panelists on the prime-time news program, they have some respect for the views of those who are better educated and better informed than themselves - and they do get influenced.

Last year, I had a resident caretaker-cum-cook in my house. He used to watch every single episode of Satyamev Jayate. One Sunday morning, as I ate my breakfast watching some random cricket, he politely suggested that I change the channel, and I had to tell him that SJ's first season was over. This was a poor, 50-yr-old man from a small village in Odisha - and he cared about social issues like female foeticide, child molestation, honor killings et al - and he listened to every word spoken on the program with even greater interest than myself. So don't tell me 'those people' don't care or can't be influenced.

Of course, this doesn't mean everything is going to change overnight - but we certainly are moving in the right direction. Slowly, but steadily.

The bad

I did have mixed feelings about many of the protests, though. People were marching, yelling 'We want... death penalty'! While I respect their intentions, it's another case of mixed-up priorities. Whether the penalty should be death or prison isn't the real point - there are much more basic issues at play here. Let's take a few steps back:

1. Many rapists don't even get convicted by courts, using money and/or power to subvert the whole legal process. We need to weed out corruption here.
2. Even if the prosecution was sincere, it is often weak. The police simply lacks investigative and forensic skills, and cases drag on farcically for years. The whole  system needs to be strengthened.
3. The majority of rapes are not even reported. Victims don't come forward, fearing social stigma, facing staggering apathy and often even the blame! This requires a change in attitude.

While these are more basic and important issues than what the penalty should be, that's still not the real point. This discussion should not be about justice for victims, but about preventing the crime in the first place.

I believe there are two root causes for so much rape in our country: lack of respect for women, and disregard for law and order. Though it is important, I'm not going to talk about the first, because I don't really understand the phenomenon, and it disgusts me. I will talk about the second, tho.

While the government is responsible for enforcing law & order, being a civilized, law-abiding citizen is a personal choice. Such a person would - by definition - never commit rape (or any other crime). On the other hand, no govt. can effectively control 1.2 billion people if they don't choose to behave themselves. While most people would nod in agreement, they don't seem to realize that they're also part of the problem. I will give two examples.

First, the issue of black money. I've heard many middle class people complain a lot about the amount of black money that corrupt politicians etc. have parked overseas, and how they've robbed this country of development. But somehow it's ok for the same people to make inflated HRA claims and submit false medical/travel/phone expense reports to reduce their own tax liability. We feel it's ok to buy things using cash, without proper bills/docs, if that brings down the total transaction cost. We either don't realize that we are a part of the 'black' economy, or we don't care. We complain about the problem, and criticize the govt for not solving it, while simultaneously contributing to the problem. Sheer hypocrisy.

The second example is our behavior on roads. Of course, we complain about how bad the traffic is, and how reckless other people are - but it's ok for us to skip red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road, the wrong way up a one-way, drive after a couple of drinks, not wear helmets/seat-belts and talk on our phones while driving whenever we want to. We seem to feel we don't need to obey the laws/rules, but we want everyone else to. Does that even sound like it would work?

This general disregard for law & order culminates in heinous crimes like the Delhi gang-rape. I'm not trying to equate your forged rent receipt to that crime, but one of the major underlying issues is the same in both cases. Being a civilized, law-abiding citizen is not a matter of convenience - you must be one everywhere and at all times. The moment this becomes a matter of personal discretion, all hell breaks loose. You think it's ok to save a few thousand rupees by forging rent receipts. The minister thinks the same way about receiving a few hundred crores under the table to grant a contract. You think it's ok to drive after a couple of beers. Ram Singh & his group were driving that bus drunk, originally looking just to steal money for more alcohol. Once you start negotiating right vs. wrong and individuals start deciding for themselves, who decides where to draw the line and on what basis?

This is where the social contract and the law of the land come in. It defines the lines between right and wrong, and one must never cross those lines. This is a matter of principle and not magnitude. Today, all of us make concessions for ourselves, blame others for all problems and expect the govt to find all the solutions. That is the 'bad'.