Going BatShit Crazy

18 Mar


So it’s apocalypse now. Almost. Financial markets have tumbled, Airlines and the travel industry are going bankrupt, toilet paper, sanitisers and masks have run out on shop aisles, and grocery stores are seeing huge lines in the U.S. This of course as only a secondary fallout to the massive scale of the human tragedy – hundreds of thousands infected, nearly ten thousand dead, and many many overworked and fatigued heathcare workers.

But a few interesting things that the CoronaVirus turned inside out:

Yesterday’s super unicorn Uber is now taboo – in today’s world of social distancing, any behaviour that involves sharing resources, is forbidden. So, no co-working/ no co living/ no airbnb. 

IMG_0660.jpgFrom Trump rooting for the wall separating the U.S. and Mexico, Mexico is now shutting its borders to the U.S. All of history, the underdeveloped/ underdogs African countries are now moving to restrict visitors from Europe and the world. 

Equity analysts are becoming epidemiologists just like their becoming super specialist psephologists just prior to Elections (this despite the 2003 JPMorgan wildly unvalidated predictions about the SARS epidemic)  

Ibuprofen is no longer a good medicine – there are studies to show a correlation between higher seriousness of disease pathways in Italy and treatment with Ibuprofen. 

Even Terrorists are curbing travel and terror plans – “The Isis terrorist group is steering clear of Europe because of the coronavirus. Having previously urged its supporters to attack European cities, the group is now advising members to “stay away from the land of the epidemic” in case they become infected,” The Times of London reports.

Ice cream is bad for you, hot water is good!  KFC has pulled out a “fingerlickin’ good” chicken campaign based on people licking their fingers while eating on hygiene grounds.

Many companies are pivoting to meet the business demands – LVMH is using its perfume and cosmetics factories to manufacture free hand sanitisers, restaurants and food companies are now doing “to-go” packets, and free food distribution. 


Haircuts are being managed with long sticks, and many folks will now follow me on #embracingtheirgreys (there are memes floating around on the real hair colour of people now being revealed)

Interestingly, there was this large fear on technology probably making a lot of jobs redundant due to automation – except for “human touch point” ones like the creative arts, nursing, sports etc. Now, those are the industries facing the biggest threats – Broadway shut down, so did Disney, the IPL got postponed, the WTA tour got cancelled, so did football, basketball, F1 fixtures, the French Open, and maybe even the Olympics – all “experiences” are grinding to a halt.

There is a lesson here of the David vs. Goliath variety – we were chasing BIG – bigger TV screens, bigger houses, economies of scale – and then, the entire human race has been brought to its knees by a micro-organism, the size of like a 100 nano microns! (thats 0.000000001 cm!!)

With divorce rates in China on the rise thanks to stay at home mandates, Welcome to Love in the time of Corona – with the possible future generation of coronials and quaranteens. 


Armchair Stories, and making them Real

5 Mar


The scene in most households nowadays is probably similar – TV on full blast with stories on coronavirus spread; or elections; or riots; or climate change ; or failing economies – most are macro issues – and most can serve as debate topics for hours on end. Ours has pretty much the same thing – with, depending on how much media you have consumed, how opinionated you are; and how you lean, you hold sway (or not) in the family debate.


Armchair stories all! We are all self proclaimed experts on many topics – I self confessedly am an armchair expert on tennis – I can advise Serena, Fed or Rafa where the next ball should be lobbed or dropped or smashed (as opposed to most of my countrymen who can bat and ball with the best of them from the safety of their sofas) ; and of course my blog is active manifestation of my armchair expertise on all things tech/ entrepreneurial/ management-ish. I am also the BEST parenting expert – to other people! The other day when a friend called lamenting her 12 year old’s goth phase, complete with dress/ music/ horror movie sense, I gave her long and sound advice. But, come 3.30 pm, when one child comes out from school all hot, bothered and grumpy; or 9 pm, and the other child’s “ma” message appears on whatsap, phusss……all my gyan fizzles out of me. 

Whatsap specially is a huge playing ground for armchair expertise – the number of treatise on any current topic (or historical for the matter), is just too large to even wade through on an ordinary day. But even otherwise, one is surrounded by cerebral gyan – even right at the moment I am hiding in one nook of my room furiously typing this out to get away from a family member spouting virology and politics. I know a person who actually writes reviews and other online content on things that he hasn’t even experienced – so a book review by reading the summary (similar to child attempting English literature exam after reading spark notes); a review of Patal Bhuvaneshwar mandir based on the description of relatives; and so on.

In this day and age therefore, I am very very impressed and inspired by my friend Srikanth Narasimhan. Srikanth was an investment banker (a profession he adopted after passing out of my alma mater IIM Bangalore). He happens to have been the banker who helped sell our company, chosen after many interviews with other candidates across geographies, for his sound “elder brotherly” advice. Srikanth has now given up investment banking to start a new political party! Yes, you heard it right! He had been an active member of his apartment building’s RWA – but over the years felt the need and drive to take a more active part in changing the many things that are wrong with Bangalore – solid waste management and sanitation, infrastructure, health, education. And his theory was, that this can only be done via an active participation in governance.

Hence, the Bengaluru Navanirmana Party. BNP is a party that is of the citizens of Bengaluru, for the citizens of Bengaluru, and by the citizens of Bengaluru. This is a party created from scratch, with no political affiliations – a bit like what the AAP should have been, but was not! The party is aiming to contest the 2020 BBMP elections from all wards – it has volunteers and members from across Bangalore – activists/ lawyers/ business people/ corporate employees/ educators/ NGO folks, common man, basically a whole gamut. The core group, which is the Governing Council and the Executive Council plus Functional Heads, is a really senior, dedicated and passionate lot – most have already been working at various individual and collective levels to better the plights of their immediate surroundings, sometimes even wider. This despite other full time commitments in many cases. (As Srikanth had said to me, the BNP team is what makes the party – they are all committedly working on the ground). The idea is to focus local/ Bangalore only issues but do it from the inside. The party already has some 20 odd corporator candidates identified and ready, has been enrolling members steadily, and just last weekend held a rally to gain momentum. 


BNP Rally For Bengaluru

One of the party’s manifestos focuses the situation of the Pourakarmikas. The laudable India wide mandate of Swachcha Bharat that the PM laid down a while ago cannot be achieved if the sanitation workers’ plight is pathetic. Similarly, another one tackles the issues that apartment dwellers (a large percentage) in Bangalore face. 

When Srikanth first told us about the party, he had apparently not even broken the news to his wife. I assume she was fairly supportive, and since then, the party has seen much positive action. I am, as I told Srikanth, very very impressed – I think he puts all of us armchair commentators on governance to shame. It is very very easy to sit in cushy living rooms and argue about what should and should not be done – but to put your money where your mouth is, brave indeed! 

After all, If not we, then who. If not now, then when! Power to Srikanth! Down with Armchair experts! (PS: If in Bangalore, enrol into the party)

Bouncers, Googlies and Swinging From the Fences

3 Mar


I REALLY like Bill Gates. I mean, REALLY REALLY like him. (I don’t much like his PCs, though I’m definitely the generation that uses MSOffice far more than Google docs which my daughters use). But I really like him.

I like that he started Microsoft when he was 20. That he was the richest guy in the world for many years. That he quit when ahead and started philanthropy actively. That he doesn’t plan to leave his wealth to his kids. That he has really middle class values as a parent. That he plays these cute games for Match for Africa fund raisers with Roger Federer, who is another guy I REALLY like. That the ceiling of his large home library is engraved with a quotation from The Great Gatsby. Oh, and that his house has the Judy Garland red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, and the costumes from the Sound of Music. And a trampoline room. And is called Xanadu. 

I like that when he was a kid, “he preferred to stay in his room where he would shout “I’m thinking” when his mother asked what he was doing”. That when automating his school’s class-scheduling system, Gates modified the code so that he was placed in classes with “a disproportionate number of interesting girls”. That his algorithm for pancake sorting held the record as the fastest version for over 30 years. That he chose a pre-law major but took mathematics and graduate level computer science courses at Harvard, but dropped out after 2 years. That he is colour blind.

All this despite his combative personal style, and his controversial Anti trust actions.

But I like MOST the work that he and Melinda are doing with the Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable foundation.

Their recent annual letter has seen much accolade, and also generated much criticism. But for me, there were a few interesting lessons to take away. 

A) The Smartness of Pivot : The startup eco system will tell you that success almost warrants frequent pivots from the original idea – in a marketplace that is changing every second, the original idea you began with may need several mods, and sometimes complete turnarounds before it sees acceptance. Bill and Melinda seem to exemplify this in their letter – they have changed their strategy in education in the U.S. , from granting scholarships to a few very bright people to funding larger areas – the entire public school system in the U.S., therefore. “Our goal is to help make a huge difference for all U.S. students, so we’ve pivoted most of our work from scholarships to areas that can have more impact for more students”

Similarly, in HIV treatment, the focus from daily preventive vaginal gel , that would be effective if adherence was sound, but is not; to a longer lasting treatment – where compliance is easier, and therefore efficacy is higher. “We’re looking for new treatments that can be taken less frequently, as much as a year apart”

This also leads me to the next lesson:

B) The Power of Admitting Failure/ Saying sorry:  “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

I read some criticism on this year’s letter, some of it directed at the fact that so much of what the Gates did apparently hasn’t worked. Honestly, a) it’s their (ok, and some other folks like Warren Buffet’s) money primarily. And b) actually, at least they are being upfront and admitting failure – which for celebrities like them, must be a big deal. I think partly, this failure is almost mandatory in the model the Gates are following – hence the “swinging for the fences” analogy. By definition, one will either hit home run, or strike out! But also, somewhere within it, the Gates have defined the slot that their foundation and other philanthropic organisations need to occupy. “At its best, philanthropy takes risks that governments can’t and corporations won’t. Governments need to focus most of their resources on scaling proven solutions. Businesses have fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders. But foundations like ours have the freedom to test out ideas that might not otherwise get tried, some of which may lead to breakthroughs”. 

This then leads to the “why” of the slower success in Education that the Gates have seen. And that is, that

C) Education is the basic welfare activity, but maybe the toughest to execute:

I recently also watched a ted talk by Atishi Marlena (apparently after Marx and Lenin), a member of the Parliamentary Affairs committee for AAP, a Rhodes Scholar, and one of the key people behind the Education Reforms that Government School in Delhi have seen. It’s impressive to say the least (and a must watch if you haven’t yet), (After all, FLOTUS Melania attended a Happiness Class in Delhi and is continuing to tweet about her Indian experience! ). But a striking fact is the one about dignity to the public school classroom – and that being the backbone to any reform. 

The Gates’ letter says the same thing. “In 2001, … Deborah Meier …Her book The Power of Their Ideas helped me understand why public schools are not only an important equalizer but the engine of a thriving democracy. A democracy requires equal participation from everyone, she writes. That means when our public schools fail to prepare students to fully participate in public life, they fail our country, too.”

I think the biggest pity in India is that the basics of Health, Education, Infrastructure and Utilities like Electricity, Water, Roads, Transport and above all Safety that the government should be guaranteeing is not happening, and hence philanthropy is stepping in where the government needs to.

The Gates go on to explain why their educational reforms have had lukewarm success. And it is largely because of the issue of:

D) Localisation: “Businesses that scale and those that don’t scale… It became clear to us that scaling in education doesn’t mean getting the same solution out to everyone. Our work needed to be tailored to the specific needs of teachers and students in the places we were trying to reach. We’ve shifted our primary focus in K-12 to locally driven solutions identified by networks of schools. Our hope is that these Networks for School Improvement will increase the number of Black, Latinx, and low-income students who graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary opportunities.”

This is an essential lessons that global/ multinational companies learn/ need to learn. One apparently that Microsoft hasn’t learnt that well in its gaming business. But, many others have – the most reputed being Nestle (goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk and loquat, gouge used as ingredients in China; matcha flavour KitKat in Japan); McDonald’s (Paneer Wrap; Veg only restaurants in India); Coke (Coke friends campaign having been customised to suit the needs of the local markets). But also Netflix, who showed rapid expansion in international markets due largely to their local language sub titles, dubbed version content, and originals. They’ve even localized the app navigation and UI for different countries. 

The Gates Foundation realised that they needed local solutions grounded in reality to meet the challenges of education. It wasn’t all the fault of a single global approach though. Education is tricky. As they say – “But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issue, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t. In global health, we know that if children receive the measles vaccine, they will be protected against the disease, which means they’re more likely to survive. But there’s no consensus on cause and effect in education. Are charter schools good or bad? Should the school day be shorter or longer? Is this lesson plan for fractions better than that one? Educators haven’t been able to answer those questions with enough certainty to establish clear best practices. It’s also hard to isolate any single intervention and say it made all the difference. Getting a child through high school requires at least 13 years of instruction enabled by hundreds of teachers, administrators, and local, state, and national policymakers. The process is so cumulative that changing the ultimate outcome requires intervention at many different stages.”

E) Last Mile – Is the proverbial holy grail. This is where many companies fail. And many others make the cut as successes. Flipkart made such inroads into the Indian market, due largely to its logistics that was able to reach customers, aided by its revolutionary COD policy. In sharp contrast, most government welfare schemes do not benefit the real beneficiaries, ending instead in the coffers of the infamous middlemen. (The Direct Benefit Transfer schemes by the government were actually policy measures to eliminate middlemen and have technology enabled last mile benefits, but the efficacy still has gaps). The Gates Foundation is no different. “Today, 86 percent of children around the world receive basic immunizations. …But reaching the last 14 percent is going to be much harder than reaching the first 86 percent. The children in this group are some of the most marginalized children in the world….Frustratingly, some live just a few hundred meters from a health facility but are invisible to the health system”

This is a real lesson for any business – the focus to the last mile has to be out of context and Pareto – otherwise the balance efforts go waste. 

F) The Benefit of collaboration – I only last week wrote this piece on cooptition, which is kind of what the Gates are rooting for also. They are very bullish on Gavi – the vaccine alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, DREAMS, The Global Polio Eradication Fund amongst others. “We worked with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and UNICEF to create Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi brings together governments and other organizations to raise funds to buy vaccines and support low-income countries as they deliver them to children……Rather than focus on one-size-fits-all solutions, our foundation wants to create opportunities for schools to learn from each other. What worked at North-Grand won’t work everywhere. That’s why it’s important that other schools in other networks share their success stories, too”

G) Accident of birth – These are dark times across the world as we see increasing levels of intolerance and homophobia. People are fighting, even killing on grounds of religion, caste, colour, sex, behaviour, attitude, and sometimes for no reason at all. In these times, it is really important to remember that if it were not for an accident of birth, you could very well be the person you are hating on! As Melinda said, “I met a woman who asked me to take her newborn home with me because she couldn’t imagine how she could afford to take care of him. I met sex workers in Thailand who helped me understand that if I had been born in their place, I, too, would do whatever it took to feed my family”. This fact was brought home to me quite powerfully the other day when my mother in law’s caregiver, a Koran reading, namaz offering muslim girl, last Friday requested me to take her to a Sai Baba mandir and then a hanuman mandir – she said that when she first ran away from home to Bombay, she prayed at these temples and was able to keep herself safe and well fed. So much for different Gods! I saw a really powerful visual today that in fact my mum had put on Facebook that underscores this really well. 


H) Strategy vs. Execution – Bill and Melinda made the clear distinction between the 2 –  “To be clear, the risks we take are different from the ones the true heroes of global progress take all the time: the health workers who brave war zones to get vaccines to children who need them, the teachers who sign up to work in the most challenging schools, the women in the world’s poorest places who stand up against cultural norms and traditions designed to keep them down. What they do requires personal sacrifices we never have to make—and we try to honor them by supporting innovations that might one day make their lives easier”. Given their influence and wealth, and given many even large problems require local or micro solutions, this is an optimal route. I think for us in everyday lives, and certainly in professional ones, we have to differentiate between doing vs. managing and decide where is time best spent. Narayan Murthy once said, we Indians are very poor at execution. 

Some other quotes that struck me as relevant from the letter were:

– “Disease is both a symptom and a cause of inequality, while public education is a driver of equality”

– “When more women have a voice in the rooms where decisions are made, more of those decisions will benefit all of us…. that our economies are built on the back of women’s unpaid labor”

– “Tackling climate change is going to demand historic levels of global cooperation, unprecedented amounts of innovation in nearly every sector of the economy, widespread deployment of today’s clean-energy solutions like solar and wind, and a concerted effort to work with the people who are most vulnerable to a warmer world”. By the way, my daughter along with her friends and what looked like pretty much the whole of Bristol recently attended Greta’s Climate strike. Here are some pictures – its heartening to see what a single girl started due to the power of her belief. 


Climate March Bristol

So, power to the Gates Foundation. May their fence swingers result in hitting all balls out of the park. I must also confess that I read their older annual letters for the first time – and actually, they haven’t been saying anything startlingly different – its a narrative thats been ongoing in different forms but is therefore at least consistent.

I have to end with a photo of my husband with Bono. This was at the Global Fund conference last year, where Bill Gates also participated obviously. He says it was a selfie taking opportunity choice between Gates and Bono – he chose the latter much to my daughters’ delight, and my despair. (To be fair, his logic was that I can meet Gates again but Bono maybe never)


Co-optition, The Quest for Access, or, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

27 Feb

Narayana Heart Centre at M S Ramaiah Memorial Hospital

We moved houses a few months ago, and I needed to go to a completely new hospital for a check up. Imagine my surprise (and relief actually), when I saw the Cardiac Care department at M S Ramaiah, a large, old and reputed Hospital and Medical College, run by – Narayana Hrudayalaya, also a large, reputed and old Cardiac Care Hospital started by the eminent Dr. Devi Shetty! Now, this was a hospital I was very familiar with. It was hugely reassuring to get my check ups done there – and even see the familiar blue saree for the customer service folks – almost like being home. 

It set me thinking about the world now collaborating in newer ways, even with erstwhile competitors, in a bid to win access to customers. (I saw later that the Oncology centre at Ramaiah was run by HCG, a cancer specialist).

Narayana itself, from being headquartered almost outside of Bangalore in a large “health city’, has of late started smaller branch centres all over at least south and south east Bangalore. And now, this shop in shop in Ramaiah!

So this is smart business, right, exemplifying a few business imperatives:

A) Core competency specialisation 

B) Outsourcing of non core work to other experts

C) Competition changing to Co-optition (or, everything being fair in love, war and business)

And right then, I saw pop up on my screen, an ad for a sale at Nykaa, an online turned clicks and mortar retailer of beauty and personal care products (a retailer that my teenage daughter had first told me about some 4-5 years ago as her friends were all buying discounted toiletries and make up from there), of products by Fable Street, another online retailer that sells very attractive work wear clothes and accessories (this one run by an IIM alumna). 

It kind of messed with my brain for a bit (I mean, I understand cross usage of channel, but direct competitors using each other as channels?), till I reasoned that this was the true value of the market place model that Amazon had pioneered. (An article I read recently put the figure of third party sales from Amazon at 58% of total revenue). This is Amazon’s stated intent of “helping independent retailers meet the needs of Amazon customers around the globe”. I think Amazon really made the transition from an e-tailer to a channel provider to a technology company very very smoothly and logically.

So what scenarios work best for this co-optition, or collaboration amongst competitors:

A) Multi party Industry nature collaborations

This is normally for Big Problems – setting standards/ fighting common causes like climate change/ defence and security/ energy/ epidemics/ education/ poverty. 

For example, at the recent NRF 2020, one of the biggest panels featured executives from Target, Chipotle, and Best Buy who discussed the power of cyber security industry collaboration. 

Similarly, Facebook, Amazon, Google and more met with WHO recently to figure out how to stop misinformation on the dreaded Coronavirus. 

Or, in 2013/14 post the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, consortiums were formed between Walmart, H&M, Zara, Nike, Adidas to ensure safety and better working conditions for their workers 

Open source was probably the earliest version of this co-optition – where varying competing organisations would come together for development. 

IOT is a great area nowadays which needs to see, and is slowly seeing, collaboration between competitors to develop platforms and utilities for seamless customer experiences. Recently, Google, Apple and Amazon, probably the most acrimonious competitors amongst tech giants, unveiled a smart home collaboration, Connected Home over IP. This is inviting device manufacturers, silicon providers and developers across the smart home industry to join and develop new connectivity standards. 

Another area is self drive cars – the trio of Ford, GM and Toyota has formed what they are calling the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium

Ofcourse, when competitors work together, data security/ patent protection become critical areas, and most companies work well on solving for those. In case of any leaks, these collaborations dissolve.

B) Collaboration between select parties to develop new technologies/ products; to address client needs, or to fight a common competitor: 

Probably the most celebrated example of co-opetition success is the 2004 Sony-Samsung JV to develop and produce LCD panels for flat-screen TVs.  “Bravia” and “Bordeaux” came out of this collaboration, more than doubling the combined market share of these two companies.

In 2012, Harvard University and MIT formed EDX, a non-profit organisation that provides free online courses, each investing $US30 million. By end 2019, there were about 20 million students that it had served. 

In 2017, a consortium of automakers including Ford, Toyota and Suzuki, planned to develop standards for in-vehicle car telematics as an alternative to Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay. 

In 2016, Facebook, Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft came together to create a historic partnership on AI. Apple, Google, Facebook, participated in a twitter data sharing project in 2019.  Google supported Mozilla (Firefox web-browser), a rival to Google Chrome, in order to limit the expanding influence of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple Safari. At Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event in Aug 2019, the company announced four partnerships – of which Microsoft was one, to bundle its Android apps on the Note 10.

Even in the B2B world of tech services that I was briefly a part of, one has seen big competitors work together to win a large contract. TCS in 2018 was in talks with Wipro and Infosys to market its automation software Ignio, though nothing really fructified as Wipro ran the AI platform Holmes and Infosys its Nia.

In tech industries, the need for co-opetition is felt more due to the pace of evolution of technology, shorter life-cycle and high R&D costs. The cost of introducing new technology can be prohibitive for one company. Another perspective could be that these partnerships are short-term co-branding and marketing opportunities.

Pharma sees a lot of these in a bid to discover and trial new cures – In 2014, Pfizer and Merck collaborated on a study evaluating a novel Anti Cancer regimen. More recently, in 2019, Pfizer and Merck KGaA, joined BioXcel Therapeutics in its clinical collaboration with Nektar Therapeutics, creating a partnership to assess a triple combination therapy in pancreatic cancer. And then in 2020, Genome & Company entered into a clinical trial collaboration and supply agreement with Merck KGaA, and Pfizer to evaluate the safety, tolerability, biological and clinical activities of some combination therapies, in multiple cancer indications.

The risks of collaborating with rivals might seem huge but a study by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute found that co-optition, when it lasted from three to five years, had more than a 50% chance of mutually reducing company costs.

But co-optition is not really new – There have been enough examples in History, as well as in ancient legends, mythology and fiction of strategic collaboration between enemies to defeat a rival enemy.

In India, the Rajputs occasionally united against foreign invaders – once under Bappa Rawal, then under Shakti Kumar of Mewar and Jaypal Tomar roughly in the 11th/ 12th century. Once the foreign invasions stopped, the Rajputs fought each other.  Then, the rajputs under Rana Sanga managed to defend their confederation against Sultanates of Malwa, Gujarat and also Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi.

Some historians think that Rana Sanga also invited Babur to fight against Ibrahim Lodhi, plotting that he himself would move over to Delhi after both warring sides were weakened. As it happened, Babur was very strong, he defeated Rana Sanga, and started the Mughal Dynasty. 

Globally, while the US and the Soviet Union had not exactly been friends in the times before the WWII, it was their collaboration as allies that had a large part in defeating Nazi Germany. 

Hagrid Looking at the Giant Colony

Hagrid Looking at the Giant Colony

Pic Credit

Recent popular fiction e.g. Harry Potter, saw both the Dark Lord’s side and the Order of the Phoenix wanting to ally with the giants to defeat the other side (this despite a fair degree of mistreatment accorded to the giants ordinarily by both sides). Ultimately, the Giants joined the Death Eaters. In the famous Game Of Thrones, Starks, Arryns and Targaryens allied with a few key House of Lannister members like Tyrion and Jamie and fought against the White Walkers, the army of dead in the battle of Winterfell.

Why go so far – Indian Politics sees a lot of co-optition – in 2018, the Karnataka state assembly elections saw a farcical situation when the party with the majority (BJP) first claimed the right to form the government, but then had to resign as its two competitors (The Congress which actually had the least votes, and the JD(S)) formed a post poll alliance and staked claim – it is another matter that the government didn’t last very long.

Apparently, in the NASCAR world, co-optition means one racer helping another by working together to go faster until the last lap, before they start competing against each other.

In teen patti/ cards, one has side shows with a competitor in a group to ensure the larger enemy gets slain.


Side Show in Teen Patti

 As the iconic Godfather line said, “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”

C) Cost Optimization/ Capacity Sharing 

Don’t even get me started about this – the hardware guys want to make software and vice versa, the gaming guys are making voice assistants and so on and so forth. And competitors supply parts and components to direct competitors while their finished goods are fighting for share of wallet! It’s all over the place, and hugely incestuous! 

Apple and Samsung for heaven’s sake! While Samsung’s Galaxy and Apple’s iPhone are arch rivals, Samsung at the same time continues to be one of Apple’s main suppliers of screens.

Microsoft and Intel were “married” to each other for ever it seemed (their Wintel alliance) till the advent of mobile technologies created a split. 

The Star Alliance network of competing airlines, which included Air New Zealand, Thai, United, Air China, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, to name a few, was established to save on logistics, marketing and ticketing costs . But we travellers benefitted also as can share loyalty points :).

Peugeot Citroen and Toyota used to have an arrangement to share components for their city cars to the extent that critics said it was one car with three names.

And then there is branding/ white labelling in retail, and actually tech services. Essentially everybody plays happy families in order to lower the burden of capital intensive businesses.


Happy Families / Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

D) Arising from a partner eco system  

Then there are the companies who are building entire eco systems – Salesforce was one of the earliest. Now there is Amazon Web Services. And the participants in these eco systems are competitors but benefit from the network. I mentor an AWS / cloud computing consulting services startup called Rapyder – they do good work, have a solid client base, and are growing excitingly. Obviously helped on by AWS. Don’t yet exploit the advantage of co-optition – but could very soon. 

In the social impact sector, there are platforms like Lets Do Some Good run by my ex business partner. Her concept when she started was to weed out the inefficiencies of “random acts of kindness” (e.g., too much funding and CSR efforts going to a school close to many corporates, and none going to one a little distance away), and give small NGOs and ISR folks the ability to synergise their efforts. Cooperatives and marketplaces are other such instances – Social Alpha, as an example, has incubated a farmer cooperative called Farmveda, that has enabled better market access and profits directly to a network of farmers in the South of India. Similarly, a market place called Habba, run by RangDe, that enables artisans to sell and reap the benefits of their crafts. Many countries do this, e.g New Zealand enables its wine growers export their products  – all constituents can be viewed as competitors, but in the cooperative model, they leverage a common entity to come together for “the greater good” and enjoy the benefits. 

(As an aside, while the greater good, also known as win -win is a really praiseworthy ambition, it can have very dark results as we know – after all, Hitler convinced a vast population that homophobia of various kinds was for the greater good. In recent times, a good metaphor for Hitler has been Grindelwald of the Fantastic Beasts/ Harry Potter franchise. Anyway, this is a deviation…)

Grindelwald giving the Greater Good speech

Grindelwald giving the Greater Good Speech

E) Access to a whole new world

This is the pure commercial/ channel play, cross sell to allow mutual benefit, ensuring ubiquity of a familiar brand. The online world made this possible – when instead of customers needing to go destination shopping (including for medical services – a la me going to Narayana), they expected manufacturers and service providers to come to them. The battle for access became fiercer – with players realising the benefit of selective partnerships to ensure visibility across forums – the power of decision then lay in the customer’s hand, influenced less by “location”, and more by other factors – it really became survival of the fittest.

Vimeo, a competitor to youtube one would have thought, allowed publishing of its videos to youtube (as well as others like Facebook/ Linkedin etc) via its “publish to social” feature  – this maybe underlines Vimeo’s shift from a video content making company to one that is making tools for content makers and publishers.

Microsoft offers Xbox games via Xbox live – on Nintendo Switch – its a partnership that is mutually beneficial, though there are claims that it may be ending soon. (It started with Minecraft, and post that, despite ongoing “exclusives” for each platform, the gaming companies started collaborating for better access. Sony has less incentive for this partnership, but there is certainly cross play gaming going on).

SAP used to run Oracle database  and  Microsoft Office is available on Apple computers (Macs and iPads). Similarly, Apple and Amazon combine for Kindle – Apple has a kindle app for iPads, which one would think is counter intuitive. But this is because Apple needs content for its devices, while Amazon needs people to buy more and more (e) books. In this case, it is because the strategic imperatives are different for the competitors for the collaboration.  

Samsung and Apple have tied up for TV services, an area where both have been slow to grow.  

This cooptition also helps small scale companies scale up by pooling resources too (a bit like the cooperative model, but not wider/ multiparty). It’s a rising tide, that raises all boats. 

Overall, there is a time, place and reason for competition, and then one for collaboration – and increasingly, as we are seeing, the same two people can be competitors or collaborators. The world is becoming one large happy family – the Upanishads called it Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. 

As Abraham Lincoln said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”, and (not to be outdone), Sigmund Freud said “an intimate friend and a hated enemy have always been indispensable to my emotional life…not infrequently…friend and enemy have coincided in the same person”

And as my daughter would say, Ma, duh! Frenemies! 


A Five Star Experience

15 Feb

The Zomato delivery guy who came with the biryani order the other day, asked for a 5 star rating. As did the Uber driver, the Bigbasket guy, the restaurant we had gone to eat at, and even the salon lady who trimmed my hair. I feel really bad about this, but I am unable to ever comply. If I am very happy, a 4 seems adequate. If the guy has specifically asked me for a 5 star, then I generally do not review. Maybe its the ex-marketer in me. Maybe I am just hard to please, or perverse. Or maybe, a 5 star experience needs to be truly about going above expectation to be deserving of the rating. 

One of my New Year ideas this year was to have a set of “me – focussed” goals – travel every two months; read an informative article every day; do the 10K steps average daily; write a post once a month; watch a live concert or a play every month. Many of these look unlikely now, but I did manage one outstation travel in January – a visit to the Tadoba Andhari Reserve. I have to say, for sheer customer delight and a five star rating, this was it. 

The Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge was where we stayed. The resort itself is lovely – the rooms have gorgeous wooden four poster beds; the bathrooms are like mini villas all by themselves complete with wooden framed mirrors, wooden treasure chests for new and used towels, almirahs, and even outdoors showers – I could spend a whole day just inside the bathroom with a book and some bubbles. The patios of the rooms overlook the Maasal lake – the rooms themselves are large. The reception is very picturesque. The dining hall has an outside deck, and an upstairs gazebo – both overlooking the lake. A lovely relaxing pool area with the cutest Jaipuri print covered khatiyas to relax. The decor all throughout the resort was great – with paw print mosaics on the floor, paintings and murals adorning the walls and jungle themed nick nicks strewn about. And the library! Utterly Butterly scrumptious! Just what one would dream of when one thought of cigar smoke filled cozy wood shelved libraries :). 


This was nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. What made this experience a five star one was the service we received – from the detailed and friendly conversations pre-trip; to the details we got regarding pick up, weather, food preferences and allergies, things to pack and not, to the warm reception we received on arrival; the attention to little things to make a comfortable stay; and the really service oriented staff. Whether it was the mildly spicy peanut masala that pro-actively accompanied our evening drinks on the patio, or the cute little notes giving the weather forecast on the beds everyday, or the teddy bear shaped home made chocolates in the rooms, or the yummy home baked cookies and cake that accompanied every safari, the great breakfast we got along with masala chai; the loo break stops; you name what one could possibly ask for, it was there without asking! The food was awesome.

Of course, the experience at the resort was closely linked to the safari experience – and here, the resort was superlative – their vehicles, with broad seats and roof covers had other tourists asking us enviously about the comfort we were experiencing; the naturalist team was knowledgeable, experienced and friendly. For us, the icing on the cake was a nearly 30-40 mins of close range spotting of a tigress in the wild; following closely on the heels of a leopard (my very first ever cat sighting) and a sloth bear, apart from the other forest animals and birds. Only after we managed this at the fag end of the last of our 3 safaris, the organiser Arjun heaved a sigh of relief – one could see the increasing nervousness on the entire staff’s faces as safari after safari had proved unrewarding. Then he revealed to us how he and his brother Akshay, the boss of the resort, plan for every guest to sight tigers – how they are up late nights plotting strategies of where to take the jeeps for those who haven’t managed to spot some. Akshay and his wife Ramya are responsible for everything at the resort (they have been there since the very beginning – so the vision was theirs, the set up is theirs, and the day to day execution is theirs too). These two and Arjun, give immense personal attention to each and every little thing there, and that is probably why the resort is what it is.

As I was writing this, my husband was trying to reactivate a Tata Sky connection on one of our TVs. When the automatic thingie failed, he dialled the helpline number with many inwardly muttered curses (this is how we all approach any call centre conversation I guess). After a 3 minute interval, during which I saw him running haplessly from one room to another, he came to me with this huge grin on his face. And said – BEST callcentre experience ever! This girl is amazing! Not only has she solved my problem, but my call got dropped midway and she called me back. Plus she gave me a number to call if I have any problem! I will give her a very good review – and proceeded to type something out furiously (still with that huge grin). *****


So, what makes for customer delight and a 5 star experience? 

A) Going above and beyond expectation – Timely, Clean, Courteous, Aesthetic, Hygenic, etc are all normal and reasonable expectations – these don’t really make one rave. What does, is, Unique (outdoor bathroom with lush decorations), Quirky (animal figurines everywhere), breathtaking (deck against lake background), Detail Orientation – basically a wow factor.

B) Satisfying Unarticulated Needs – The evening peanuts arranged pro actively on the patio, with glasses and ice were a nice touch. So were the blankets and hot water bottles in the early morning safari vehicles. Also the beanbag for my friend’s camera/ tripod. Oh, and the wet towel wipes to clean the dust off our grimy faces and hands on return from the safari! These are things we didn’t even know we needed or wanted.

C) Swiftness of response/ problem solving – When we were planning our trip, we had considered another resort also. That one also came highly recommended. Unfortunately, they took really long to revert with quotations etc. The Bamboo Forest Guys on the other hand responded super quick. Similarly, the call centre lady today was quick and to the point, and not only solved the problem, anticipated future ones and gave trouble shooting options. 

D) Investing in Customer Success – It seemed that the Bamboo Forest’s whole eco system was geared towards our singular goal – to sight a tiger. Everyone from the jeep driver, to the naturalists, to Arjun, Akshay and Ramya, to the guards at the gate – would all wish us luck when we left, and look very sad when we returned disappointed. The joy on the entire team’s face when we finally sighted Maya the Tigress, was as high maybe as our own happiness. 


PC – Yeshwanti

E) Personal Touch – The family told their own stories, introduced us to their father, listened to ours, and were generally just like long lost friends. One would say this is de-riguer for the hospitality industry, but the 5 star experience takes it a notch further 

F) Surprise Element – Right at the end of our stay, Akshay and Ramya’s son, a cute little 5 year old, handed us a lovely gift – a box with the famous Gond paintings of the region. This was totally unexpected, and a really nice gesture. 

G) Outstanding Signature Element – I recently ate this “cloud pudding” at a restaurant – it was basically a tender coconut panacotta I’m guessing. Was OUT OF THIS WORLD yummy. I had two! I gave this restaurant a 5 star rating, despite the long wait that I had had to get into the place on a Friday afternoon. The rest of the food was good, but didn’t necessarily deserve the 5. But that cloud pudding…..I have no words to describe it! Still drooling. 

All in all, if you want to sight tigers, go to Tadoba / the Bamboo Safari Lodge. It is totally worth it!

Oh btw, I just checked MY Uber rating. 4.65!!$#@%&*


The Circle of Life – Some insights from a Hospital Stay

14 Feb

So, Ija, my 89 year old mother in law had a stroke (right cerebral infarct with left cerebral bleed) last week. After 10 days spent at the hospital, we brought her home yesterday – she has been lying unresponsive in bed since last Monday morning. Obviously, this was a period of worry and frustration for us, but also of observation and reflection. A few thoughts emerged:

A) Old Was Truly Gold – It’s a truism, but the age old mantras of Clean air, Organic food and Simple living really worked. This is preaching to the converted largely, but the fact remains that urban upper middle class living nowadays is the pits. My in laws lived in a small hilly border town called Pithoragarh most of their lives. Like most hill folk of that time, they ate simple, locally grown vegetarian food supplemented with lots of dairy twice a day; woke up at 4 am and slept at 8pm, walked everywhere; didn’t overwork and didn’t party. Result – ija at nearly 90 was walking, talking, eating, bathing independently till Sunday evening – she held sway over,  in fact terrorised a household comprised of sons, daughters in law, grandchildren, household help and guests. Even now, when she has been bedridden for nearly two weeks, her vitals are strong and working perfectly fine. This, despite having had two strokes some 15 years ago, losing speech as a result, and then recovering from it to regale us with many tales of her brain haemorrhage and other illnesses.

B) It REALLY is all about the people – A Hospital, just like, but even more than other service oriented institutions like schools and banks, is run by the people – it is not just the doctors, who of course are very important, but the rest of the staff. Nurses (and that entire eco system) are probably even more important than doctors. So are the ward staff, the cleaning staff, the security, the ambulance staff, the food deliverers, the Physio therapists, the admin, the cash and billing staff, the counsellors, the dieticians – the entire jing bang. Ramaiah Memorial Hospital was an example of an institution where we met excellence all around. Every single interaction with the staff, from the security guard outside the ICU, who went out of his way to check status of arrival of stretcher for MRI, and gave us numbers of key people to call; to the physiotherapist girls who not only exercised ija’s stiff neck and limbs, but also took care to give me, my sister in law and the new caregiver girl we hired, clear, lucid and reasonable instructions for her care post hospital; to the catering guy who made sure and delivered food we wanted as and when we wanted; to ambulance folks who called several numbers to ensure they were ready and waiting when ija was ready to be taken home – these micro “moments of truth” were what led to delight in customer interaction. Infact, on a previous visit to the same hospital with ija, the guard outside the dental hospital had been extremely helpful – when my husband offered him a tip, he flat refused – saying this is my duty sir. This is unprecedented in India, where most things do not work without a bribe or a bakhshish! All of this brings home the importance of training and investing in the second and third in commands in an organisation. That is the only way to make sure a system is sustainable. Leadership is very important, but so is the workforce. For example, in Ivy League colleges, the undergrad classes are really taught by TAs – but that is possible only because they admit the best/ the cream of the students. Similarly, MS Ramaiah has integrated its supply chain backwards – they have nursing training college, also medical college – so their hiring pipeline is always full (a lesson many schools and other organisations can learn).  

C) But Process is King – The thing is, people with the best intention in the world, cannot make a scale institution work unless there are rock solid processes – that is the reason why large multinational corporates funded economies like India, which then entered new phases of development because of their process expertise. Ramaiah has not only the people to make even a hospital stay almost pleasurable (and certainly reassuring), its processes are also world class. They have a clear role definitions with accountability, but also supervisors with different spans of control for  every job. This includes the staff who cleans and dusts every room – the cleaning supervisor actually slid open the windows to ija’s palliative care room, swept a finger on the sill in classical housewife style, and showed the smear of dust on his glove with this “a-ha” glint on his eyes to the hapless dusting guy. (Ija would have been proud)! The ambulance folks (driver/ stretcher bears) – had a supervisor too, who apparently makes sure that every ambulance experience is seamless – according to him, they fire from 10 -15 staff every day on grounds of incompetence. Of course, they also pay top salary. There are floating staff that take care of redundancy – the head of the Palliative Care Unit was absent for a couple days, but she had a second in command, and then another lady who generally adds as PR dogsbody, but acted like a great customer touch point in her absence. 

D) “Sung” Heroes – The Medical profession is often reviled and sometimes blessed, but it really needs supreme appreciation – How difficult is it to tell patient after patient, and caregiver after caregiver, that there is no hope! How difficult is it to go on performing a job again and again, and saving lives, despite the odds of lives getting lost in the process. I just bought this book This is Going to Hurt, an account of a doctor, who gave it up because of sad incidents. Doctors have this incredibly hard entrance exam, then they study for many many years, and then intern for many many hard hours, and then do this very very very very hard job. They have all my respect, and long may their tribe last. Despite much evidence to the contrary, and of course many malpractices, for a good doctor, medicine needs to be more a vocation than a profession/ means of income.

E) Murphy’s law is real – This insight was the result of a conversation I had with a deeply philosophical security guard outside the Palliative Care Unit. Hailing from Hyderabad, he told me he had experience of patient care at the ICU, but he had quit that department when the SARS outbreak happened. He told me triumphantly that it was now the Coronavirus that was reaching epidemic proportions, and wasn’t it a good thing he had shifted to the Palliative Care! Having explained to me the benefits of an air bed over a water bed, and the correct setting for maximum patient comfort for both, he waxed eloquent on the dollops of ghee that people of the older times would eat – that being the reason why they grew so robust. He vented about the chicken available nowadays, which were being given injections to grow from scrawny beings to 3 kg fat hens; and the mushrooms which were being manufactured in machines – and said, no wonder there are illnesses aplenty. After a longish conversation about many life and death theories, he told me that I should pray to Allah that I never be brought to the hospital in a stretcher or a wheelchair. On my saying yes, that’s what everyone hopes for, but no one has control over, he nodded sagely and said – that is correct, madam! Later, when I was going home, I met him in the elevator and asked he me – “oota aita” (have you eaten).  When I asked him if he had, he told me, “duniya ka asool hai ki jab kuch nahi chahiye tou duniya poochti hai, aur jab bhookh lagti hai, tou koi nahi poochta.” A very Murphy Law-ish statement from the mouth of a security guard. 

F) Ancillary services – A while ago, I watched an interesting movie called Tumhari Sulu – was a refreshing take on a middle class ambitious housewife who first, by an interesting spate of circumstances, tried being a sexy chatline host much to her family’s horror, and then, after a series of unfortunate incidents, began a catering service , supplying amongst others the radio channel she was working at. Similarly, a Hospital spawns a whole host of ancillary services. Medical supplies rental, nursing attendant supply, catering service….the whole Nursing Homecare industry is one that we saw closely. Essentially, in a world where people have the ability to pay, the gaps for services are so many – and still so difficult to fill. The global geriatric services market is estimated to be at about 900 billionish USD according to a report by GMI. As per Cyber Media Research’s analysis, in 2016, the home healthcare industry in India stood at $3.20 billion and is expected to grow to $6.21 billion by 2020. By 2050, the elderly population is likely to increase by three times to reach around 300 million, accounting for 20% of the country’s total population. There are many providers – Bangalore based Portea being a big professionally run one. But clearly many smaller ones are jumping in. After all, body shopping is something we do well. The Homecare service seems to see margins of 50% and upwards, relying on caregivers from Bengal, Odisha and Kerala, Karnataka – these are barely trained, needy girls (and I assume boys) on whom you leave the daily care of your loved ones.


G) Melanin’s Rule – Skin colour is really an obsession with us Indians (and of course across the world). The very very sweet well meaning nurses looking after ija would repeatedly say – “she is a white beauty”. I felt like quoting MLK back at them all the time “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Its another matter that the white beauty comment would have made ija very happy – she has often told me about the skin whitening afghan snow cream she used daily for skincare. I am so so happy about the recent penalty proposed on skin colour related ads. And the fact that my daughters’ generation at least is actively rejecting these racist norms. 


H) The Flip Side of Influence – We Indians are so used to battling the odds to turn them into our favour in all circumstances, that we look for “Influence” always. So it happened to my husband and me when we first admitted Ija to the ICU. Feeling very lost, and unable to quite gauge accurately the true state of affairs because of our inexperience, we of course asked around if anyone had any “contacts” at the hospital. A bunch of folks responded. We were satisfied. But, the whole thing escalated – some one asked someone else and then someone else, and the matter reached the top folks at the hospital. In no time, we were called by the ICU staff and asked why we were unhappy with the service at the hospital, why we had complained, did we not get the counselling, etc etc. Caught completely by surprise, and embarrassed to the hilt, we spent many minutes clarifying that this was Chinese Whispers at work – and they were just the victims of well meaning helpers! Anyway, we got away with filling some feedback forms, but learnt a valuable lesson on not overusing resources at the wrong time. 

I) Self Worth vs. Humility – While sitting in Ija’s room, I was typing out a response to an urgent, important email. A young intern came in to return ija’s discharge summary paper which she had borrowed. When I asked her to place it in the file please, she said – no, I can’t do it. Im very busy. I guess I looked shocked – as she then said, we have many patients to see, and we can’t do these things. I guess she was right (my point had merely been – since you are placing it on top anyway, just open the file and place it aside) – but it reinforced an important point to me. This is about confidence in self/ or a heightened sense of one’s value – it is trait that I totally lack (I have been told several times by several diverse people the I have no ego – its not something that I am ashamed of, but neither is it something that I would necessarily teach my kids). My husband (and his brother, a senior doctor) – have it in spades. They are always about making something grand/ the big picture/ inflation/ larger than life… what have you. It stands them in good stead – my husband refuses to sign a deal with anyone unless it meats the bare threshold of valuation he has set for the company. My brother in law starts most conversations with strangers saying – do you know who I am – I was Senior Officer in so-and-so etc etc. My in laws had immense pride in being Bhatt from Bishadh, an uchcha koti brahmin; my mother has immense pride in her daughter’s accomplishments. My ex business partner smoke screened our capabilities to clients very often – saying we know/ have done much more than we actually had. Clever business? Yes, totally! Marketing? Maybe. Respect Generation guarantor? Sometimes. Good, bad, or ugly? Can’t really say. This also amplifies real or imagined slights (how did I not get a large room/ how dare the CEO not come and meet me)…but for sure, it is better than to be on the flip side of the coin. The number of conversations I have had with my daughter who is in college far away, in the wee hours of the night, to allay fears of – I have no friends/ I am not likeable/ I am dumb, is not funny. Just messes with her head, and ensures that the therapy/ mental health medicine industry is thriving. I am guessing a good state of being is confidence in self based on actual traits, behaviours and achievements; yet enough humility to acknowledge other people’s traits, behaviours and achievements. Tough balance!


J) Minimalism and Focus – This is the era of decluttering – many a preacher is giving gyan on mindfulness, on simplicity, on getting down to the basics. Celebrities are getting huge views and followerships on recycled clothing. Home schooling a big thing. Single home ownership/ single car ownership/ sharing rooms is being taught as a big lessons. No air travel/ dry shopping free months/ vintage shops are trending globally. My husband’s firm Social Alpha incubates a company called Bare necessities, which works on zero waste processes. All this, apart from urban brouhaha, is really good for the environment and just generally plain old common sense. But, somehow, the real value of paring down one’s life to the bare necessities comes when you have a loved one in hospital – all needs become wants – and all wants become don’t wants. You realise the bs about relationships is not bs. You rue the phone call you didn’t make, or the fight you did have, with parents and other friends and family. You say – God, I’ll feed a 100 children; or I’ll give up Rajnigandha, if you make my m-i-l well again. All external trappings evaporate in the face of adversity – my friend who lost her husband very young says this well – one life to live – may as well be true to what you really really want to do and what is important to you. 

K) New Normal – As we now slowly get used to a bed ridden mum, we have to adjust to our new normal. At each stage, one has changes, and one adjusts. When ija first came to live with us, we made minor modifications in life style – gave up eating meat; our evening outings together as a family stopped… When my daughter went to college, a room became vacant, uninterrupted sleep became a thing of the past and the voice data usage shot through the skies. So did stress and heart medication. Now when ija is semi comatose, we have a new full time member of our household (her attendant), her room smells like a hospital, bed sores and secretion cleaning have become frequent search terms, and the mixie is being overused. This, after all, is life! As I was telling a friend who lost her dad recently, and then is nursing her mother through a stroke (thankfully mashi is recovering) while we were grieving about the loss of another friend’s mother suddenly just as she was rehabilitating her father in law, we are now at that stage of life. In our late teens, we were all only about college admissions and exams, in our twenties we were all job hunting and then partying; then it was promotions/ marriage/ home ownership/ parenthood/ their schooling/ empty nesting – and now ofcourse as our parents are all becoming geriatrics, we are seeing their illness and, eventually their end. This is, truly, the circle of life

Bahut Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki : Of Multi-Culturalism, and the Dying Arts

12 Feb

Warsi Brothers ConcertDid you know: Every two weeks, a language dies! 

Last week, I watched a concert by the Warsi Brothers, one of India’s leading exponents of the Qawwali, of the “Qawwal Bachchey of Delhi” Gharana. This group from Hyderabad consists of brothers Nazeer Ahmed Khan Warsi and Naseer Ahmed Khan Warsi and their team, called the “Humnava”. Nazeer and Naseer’s father was Zaheer Ahmed Khan Warsi, who’s  father, Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi, was a Padmashri recipient. Muhammed Siddique Khan, an ancestor of the Warsi brothers, was a singer first in the Mughal durbar and then in the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The tradition of Qawwali has been running in their family for over 900 years. 

While those familiar with Bollywood may know the filmi versions, true Qawwali, as it originated, was more a spiritual rendition at what was called a Mehfil-e-Sama, sung at Sufi shrines. Amir Khusro, the Sufi musician, poet and scholar is popularly supposed to be the creator of this music form. Some well known Qawwali singers have been Aziz Mian, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Sabri Brothers. Pakistan’s Fareed Ayyaz & Abu Muhammad, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Badar Maindad, Rizwan & Moazzam Duo, and Bahauddin Qutbuddin are some other well known names.

A typical Qawwali evening begins with the opening song, or the “Qual” – which is also the derivative for the word Qawwali – it means “saying’ or utterance of the Prophet. One could also have the “Hamd”, a song in praise of the Allah. A Na’at, Arabic for ‘description’, is a song in praise of Muhammad, and traditionally follows the opening Hamd. A Manqabat (which means characteristics) is a song in praise of either Imam Ali or one of the Sufi saints. Manaqib, in praise of Ali are sung at both Sunni and Shi’a gatherings. If one is sung, it will follow right after the Na’at. Then there are ghazals (songs about love, or about the joy of drinking, but metaphorically expressing divine love); a Kafi (Punjabi,Sindhi or Seraiki songs); or a Munajaat (a form of prayer at night, often in Persian). The closing song is normally a ‘Rang” , which is normally a celebration of Khusro’s spiritual relationship with his teacher and mentor, Nizamuddin Auliya. At a Shi’a gathering, one could have a Marsiya , a lamentation for a dead person. 

 A typical Qawwali has a long, improvised introduction for the main song; then the song by the main singers – with each maybe improvising stanzas; joined by the team with a typical rhythmic clapping; build up to the crescendo, and then an abrupt end, bringing listeners to a state of almost hypnotic religious ecstasy. It can be 15-30 mins long, the longest Qawwali on record being “Hashr Ke Roz Yeh Poochchunga” by Aziz Mian Qawwal at nearly 2 hours long. Performances (or the Sama) have been known to last as long as three days – the performers repeating a phrase or verse again and again, to induce passion and a trance like state – sometimes even dying in ecstasy. 

I did all this research post the concert I attended – and it struck me how truly multicultural, multilingual and, may I say even secular this music form is! 

Qawwali has been written in Persian, Punjabi, Hindi, Awadhi, Braj, Seraiki, Sindhi, Gujarati, or a mixture of all of these; with some recent Urdu and Arabic additions. It is basically integration of the Persian – South Asian art forms. The music forms could be ghazal, hymn or khayal based on raags and tals of Hindustani Classical music. It is practised by Hindus, Jews, Christians as well as Muslims. It used to be traditionally male (audience as well as singers) but has changed now, with the Nooran sisters being noted exponents of the art form. It celebrates love for God as embodied in worldly love, as also love for spirits. The text may be narrative or didactic. But it could also have political undertones – the chishti were religious and political critics, and emphasised social justice issues and the message of peace and harmony. Qawwali spread throughout the world – Fiji/ Nigeria/ Israel/ US/ UK. There have been some fusion attempts as well (apart from Bollywood-isation); e.g. by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Peter Gabriel on the Last Temptation of Christ; Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Veder working with qawwals; MIDIval Pundits in India; DJ Cheb-i-Sabbah, an Algerian descent Jew working with Qawwali in San Francisco. 

A Qawwali Humnava has one or two lead vocalists, one or two supporting vocalists; the hand clapping qawwals; a harmonium player who could even be, and very often is, the main artist ; and one or two percussionists playing the tabla and the dholki. For the Warsi brothers, the supporting vocalists are their sons Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi and Sameer Ahmed Khan Warsi, and that is where I had a couple of unfortunate thoughts, that made me write this post down. a) On Dynasty. This is a thought I will explore in the next post. But, b) I realised that the Qawwali, like many other cultural artefacts, may soon be history. Which then led me to think about and explore some other things that are vanishing.

The Qawwali unfortunately is slowly seeing fewer and fewer exponents practising it. Even the current crop of musicians says that, apart from the religious mini concerts at Dargahs on specific days of the week, their live performances have trickled down. Events in India are now increasingly looking at Bollywood based music or DJs, and thus the Qawwali is getting lost in pop and fusion remixes. Some qawwals earn an income by the nazranas they make at the Dargahs. Most resist the idea of their children following in the profession as it is not remunerative. There is some institutional support – The Sufi Kathak Foundation started seminars on Qawwali – in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. It wanted to launch a Web Interface to the concept of a Museum to digitally archive the Qawwali.  In October 2018, Shivaji University, Kolhapur organised a national Inter University Qawwali competition. But, for every one such example, there are others where it gets left out. The West Bengal Govt launched a project under which it gives honorariums to folk artistes and singers, but the Qawwali was excluded.

 This made me think about other cultural traditions that we are losing due to one reason or the other. Languages and dialects popped immediately to mind, not least because my native language is actually a vulnerable dialect called Kumaoni. 

Pahad: A periodical that keeps the traditions of Kumaon - Garhwal alive

Kumaoni is 1 of the 325 recognised languages in India, spoken by over 2 million people of the Kumaon region of the state of Uttarkhand. The origin of the word ‘Kumaoni’ can be traced back to the region around Champawat in the district of Pithoragarh (my husband’s family is from Pithoragarh, a spectacularly beautiful valley) which was formerly known as ‘Kumu’ with the dialect being called ‘Kumaiyya’. This word is also inspired by Kurmanchal which refers to the legendary incarnation of Lord Vishnu known as ‘Kurma’. The root source of Kumaoni language can be traced back to Suraseni Prakrit. According to UNESCO’s atlas of the world’s language, Kumaoni language is in the vulnerable/ officially unsafe category. I have to shamefully confess that I am probably a big culprit, along with others of my elk, for the decline of my dialect – I am what my husband calls an NRK – Non Resident Kumaoni. My parents, despite spending all my life in Delhi, are very steeped in the traditions of the hills, and my in laws of course spent a large portion of their lives there. But, while I understand the language and can even manage to speak a smattering of it, the chosen language of communication with our kids at home is largely English, with Hindi coming a distant second. My kids only know the “scolding” words in Kumaoni which my mum uses to yell at them! And this is how languages die…

Probably the biggest reason for many peripheral languages vanishing is the need to standardise and communicate globally – this is definitely true of China, and to some extent of India (the reason I am saying to some extent is that we have failed in our attempts to create the single official Indian language, unlike China, which HAS managed it with Mandarin) . It is true also that, wherever the English language has gone in the last 200 years, it has managed to wipe out the local language. In addition, very often, people voluntarily adopt a standardised/ foreign language to blend better with others/ or to hide their origins and identity that they are ashamed of, or for fear of persecution.

 42 languages or dialects in India are considered to be endangered and are believed to be heading towards extinction as only a few thousand people speak them. 197 languages in India are either vulnerable, endangered or extinct. A study, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, conducted by the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre in 2012 said that India has 780 languages, and probably another 100. The survey concluded that 220 Indian languages have disappeared in the last 50 years, and that another 150 could vanish in the next half century as speakers die and their children fail to learn their ancestral tongues. Some of the extinct languages are Ahom, Andro, Rangkas, Sengmai, Tolcha — all spoken in the Himalayan belt. Every state has about four or five languages that are critically close to extinction: Mehali in Maharashtra, Sidi in Gujarat, Majhi in Sikkim (four people in one valley), Dimasa in Assam, Saura and Kui in Orissa; Aiton in Assam; Zakhring in Arunachal; Yakha, Koda and Kharia Thar in Bengal; Vishavan and Thachanadan in Kerala; Sunam in Himachal Pradesh; Ralte in Mizoram; Phudagi in Maharashtra, and quite a few in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For example, Onge is spoken only by 96 people and Shompen by about 200; Chaimal in Tripura, is today spoken by just four or five people. Many of the Bhil tribal languages are either extinct or endangered. Some 81 Indian languages — including Manipuri, Bodo, Garhwali, Ladakhi, Mizo, Sherpa and Spiti may not be extinct, but are still in the “vulnerable” category and need organised effort to undergo revival. There are many causes and effects for this – it could be that the culture got marginalised and then the language disappeared, or vice versa. In India, states got created on linguistic lines – so a very large language which didn’t have a state would stop growing. A few thriving languages are Byari in Karnataka, Bhojpuri in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Khasi in Meghalaya, Mizo in Mizoram, Kutchhi in Gujarat, Mewati in Rajasthan.

Not only in India, globally also, languages are dying. There are about 7000 living languages in the world – 330 have > 1 mil speakers, 51 have only one speaker each. In history, very large languages also vanish sometimes – Latin, (ancient) Greek,  Sanskrit are all examples of almost ubiquitous languages that became irrelevant for various reasons, and then extinct. Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90% of them are predicted to disappear by the next century. Of thousands of indigenous languages spoken today, four in 10 are in danger of disappearing, experts have said. 

In China also many dialects are getting lost. China has 5 main dialectical groups; 8 primary spoken dialects; 200 dialects subgroups. But, in a bid to gain standardisation and global acceptance, the younger folks are speaking Mandarin.  According to the United Nations, nearly 100 Chinese dialects, many of them spoken by China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities, are in danger of dying out. In Malaysia also the Chinese dialects of Hainanese, Guangxi and Sanjiang are facing the threat of extinction

Elsewhere in the world, for a 600 year old native language of the highlands of Slovenia – Gottscheerisch – only a few thousand speakers are remaining. Ainu is an example of a rare indigenous language in Japan that is an “isolate,” that is, it bears no relation to any other known language – and therefore it will die faster than others which share a root language. 

In some cases, interesting revivals have been seen. Hebrew was extinct from the fourth century BC to the 1800s, and Catalan only bloomed during a government transition in the 1970s. In 2001, more than 40 years after the last native speaker died, the language of Oklahoma’s Miami tribe started being learned by students at Miami University in Ohio

So the question really is: a) what should be done to preserve/ revive these languages, and actually, b) is there any merit even in preserving them. 

Depending on the region, there are certainly efforts to conserve these old languages – but, barring a few, most seem to be pursued by trusts/ individuals, or at the academic level – none really by concerted efforts by government bodies. As someone said, “the question, though, is whether some experts studying a dead language in certain universities can bring life to a dying language. The government’s effort to set up language departments is a good step in documenting and preserving the Indian languages. But steps have to be taken for revitalisation of language through community participation, education and giving economic and social benefits (Turin, also the director of the World Oral Literature Project, as told to The Telegraph over the phone from Cambridge).

Some illustrative examples of individuals and organisations working on this area are: 

Chong Keat Aun, 40, who spent 20 years collecting and archiving Malaysia based Chinese dialects; Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, who is working on a dictionary to preserve her heritage; Bogre Udell, cofounder of Wikitongues, which films people having a conversation in dying languages. He, along with his college mate Frederico Andrade, in 2014, launched an ambitious project to make the first public archive of every language in the world. They’ve already documented more than 350 languages, which they are tracking online, and plan to hit 1,000 in the coming years. Some 500 languages could slip through their grasp in the next five years, they estimate. The People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) was established in 2010 in Vadodara. G.N. Devy’s project is a personal effort, conducted by over 3000 volunteers under the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre. 2019 was the International Year of Indigenous Languages. National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project supported the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in their effort to build Talking Dictionaries comprised of definitions, audio files, and images. Someone looking to learn Tuvan, a Turkic language spoken in Siberia, can download the app to their phone.

The Union Indian government, too, has its own programme to preserve dying languages. In 1969, it established the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) in Mysuru. In mid-2013, the institute, which is under the ministry of human resource development, was given the task under the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL). The actual documentation work started in late 2014. Similarly, at the state levels, in a step to promote and protect regional languages on December 2019, the Government introduced Official Kumaoni Books for Classes 1-5 students of Kumaon division Schools. In China, efforts are underway in Shanghai, as well as in Jiangsu and five other provinces, to create databases as part of a project under the Ministry of Education to research dialects and cultural practices nationwide.

But while language gets a lot of attention, there are so many other art forms and traditions that are dying, both in India and globally. 

Music: Folk Music, like wedding songs sung in the north of India; Tappa (Punjabi songs sung by camel drivers); Thumri (semi classical form of hindustani music); Lori (lullaby); aboriginal singing and instruments;  Mohan Bansi from Tripura ….

Dance: Chauu fm Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal, during Chaitra Parva, celebrating the Ramayana and Mahabharat ; Sattriya from Assam and NE ; Kalbelia by the snake charmers of Rajasthan; Gotipua – single boys praising Lord Krishna and Jagannath from Odisha; Charkula dance from Braj, like the Gopis ; Gaur Maria dance of MP to hunt the Gaur ; Ghode Modini of Goa, celebrating the victories of the Maratha Ranes over the Portuguese via a horse tied at the waist, Kummi Dance from Tamil Nadu, performed by women while clapping rhythmically during Pongal; Phag dance performed by farmers during the harvest season ; Cheraw Dance which is the bamboo dance from Mizoram performed for the safe passage of the soul of a mother who died at childbirth ; Saila dance, stick dance performed by boys in Chattisgarh ; Dhanagari Gaja performed by shepherds and cowherds of Maharashtra in honour of the God Biruba; Rouf from Jammu and Kashmir performed on joyous occasions and festivals ; Sammi , the Punjabi women’s dance ; Dollu Kunitha which we watch every Karnataka Rajyotsava day in our colony – with the sound of drums accompanying the puja of Beereshwara ….

Craft: Glass engraving; Stone carving as in the Hoysala mandirs; String puppetry Craft of Kendrapara, Odisha (also called Sakhi Kandhei – a rare exponent being Fakir Singh of Palakana village); Handloom weaving;  Bastar and Dhokra Art of Chattisgarh ; Bamboo Art of Assam ; Lambani Tribal Art ; Chikan work of Lucknow ; Kantha of Bengal, Phulkari of Punjab, Toda of the Nilgiris; Khaisamala / Parbamala from Tripura with beads from Myanmar…. 

Art: Chamba Rumal Paintings; Madhubani/ Mithila paintings of Bihar and Nepal ; Rangoli designs like Aipan from Kumaon; Rogan Painting of Nirona (only 6 people/ 2 families practise it now), Kutch (Gafoor Daud Khatri is a famous Rogan painter); Thanjavur Painting of Tamil Nadu; Paitkar Painting of Jharkhand ; Wildlife painting of Ranthambore ; Kalamkari of AP – could be the Srikalahasti or Machilipatnam style; Manjusha Paintings of Bihula Bishari in Bihar; Santhal Paintings – made by Jadu Patua or magic painters in Bihar ; Phad paintings of Rajasthan ; Saora and Mural painting from Odisha ; Pattachitra from Odisha ; Osakothi from Odisha ; Kheba from Sikkim ; Samchi Patar Puthi (palm leaf manuscript) from Assam….

All this, despite an interrelation and co-existence of arts with society in India : Kumhars (potters) are called Pandits (same as scholars); Madhubani painting craftsmen are compared with the Gods; Vishnu sahastranam, a chanting of Lord Vishnu’s names, has many that refer to him as artist ; one of Allah’s hundred names is Musawwer or artist ; the word Kala itself means “art” but also divine attributes.   

Internationally also, examples abound – Japanese Netsuke carving ; Britain’s crafting of traditional wooden beer barrels (One master Cooper left); manufacture of denim (one denim maker left); one clog maker and two scissor makers left; Oak swill baskets (Owen Jones); Cantonese Opera; Japanese Butoh – an intense, almost transitory experience ; Khmer dance from Cambodia; Sundee dance from Taiwan – these and many more are slowly petering out. 

In sports, too, many ancient and medieval sports have disappeared. Kabaddi in north India, kho-kho, Kushti (Indian mud wrestling), Vallamkali (snake boat race in kerela), Jallikattu (men against bulls in Tamil Nadu) , Mallakhamb (gymnastic/ athletic feats while hanging fm a vertical pole or rope); Camel racing in Pushkar; Kalarippayattu – martial arts in Kerala ; Gilli danda , like a mini slim cricket or baseball, are traditional Indian sports, some seeing revival via international sports fests like the Asian Games, others slowly dying out.

Globally, there have been pictures of ancient sports : like of girls painted in white, gripping horns of bulls while a boy painted in red is sitting atop bull in the Palace of Knossos found in Heraklion – from the Minoan culture of Ancient Greece. The “satanic” ball game of Ollamaliztli, from the Aztec culture, which ended with bloody sacrifice of one of the players on the temple’s altar. Cherokee stickball, another traditional sport associated with religious ritual, is still played, but it has been transformed and packaged as a tourist attraction. Lacrosse descends from the Eastern version of stickball. Kemari, a medieval Japanese football game, is now only performed on a few temple grounds as an annual festival.

On the other hand, Japan’s Sumo is a splendid example of a sport that did not vanish with its cultural context. The sport first began to modernise, and then the Sumo Association consciously embarked on a process of “retraditionalization”. In its origins, Sumo was probably a secular sport, practiced at the imperial court as a form of political representation. Today, changes like the ritual purification of the ring in accordance with Shinto custom, the referee’s garb similar to that of a Shinto priest, the roof above the sumo ring conforming to the architectural style of the sacred Shinto shrine at Ise, have revitalised Sumo.

Of course , not all dying traditions and cultural things should be lamented – there are many outdated, some even evil traditions that are thankfully extinct. In India, Jogati cult, Basavi cult, Garuda tradition, Puberty rituals, Marriage rituals, Widowhood rituals etc. are now no longer seen, and thankfully so. These are obviously rituals that have succumbed to the theory of evolution and of natural selection. It could be argued that maybe the arts, crafts and languages that are naturally vanishing can be similarly let go. But, at least for my generation, that HAS seen evidence of some of these orginal languages, traditions, and most importantly art and music forms, it can only be sad that one can not reasonably hope to be treated to the senses with these for a long time; and even sadder that our children will never be….truly, bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki…

To end this piece, here is a heartwarming story about an old gentleman buying off his town’s newspaper to save it from shutting down. Enjoy.