Monday, 22 April 2013


Coal eyes. Black, unruly hair. Glowing red cheeks. I almost bundled over the child in one of D-Mart's grocery aisles. Not over four feet tall, the little boy scampered back to his parents, perhaps scared that I'd try to run him over again. Laughing at his antics, I continued to the next aisle searching for the perfect soap.

Fiddling around with three-for-the-price-of-two packs, I was moving a few racks to my right when the kid appeared again at the corner of the aisle. His mother bent down to match his height and whispered some instructions in his left ear. She seemed to point at the dental-care shelves as she said something in a hurry before returning to her husband.

The child was rooted to the spot for a moment, eyes wide, in the big scary supermarket. Then, gathering some courage, he walked up to the toothpaste rack and looked up at it carefully. I smiled at the kid and tried to identify which paste he was looking at. It wasn't clear; so I let him be and returned to searching for my soap.

I picked out a few things I thought I needed, and a few more things which I knew I didn't. And then, I turned to look at the kid again. He still stood there, only looking at a different toothpaste now. He then walked around to the other side of the shelf, as if looking at things from a different angle would help him. By now, I saw frustration getting to him and I decided to help him.

"What do you want?" I asked.
"Toothpaste," he said quietly. Simple enough.
"Colgate, Pepsodent, Close-up or Sensodyne?"

He didn't respond. He looked scared. I had just uttered some meaningless words.
"Okay, I'll make it simple for you. What do you use at home - do you know what it looks like?"
"No," he said. "It looks red. And it looks blue and green." He was confused. And now, he was confusing me.

"Does it taste sweet? Or sour? Or cold?" I asked, prodding patiently.
"How does it matter?" he asked. I was trying to get him toothpaste. And he was asking me existential questions.
"Dammit kid, do you want cooling crystals in your paste?" I said losing my temper.

I quickly corrected myself realizing that he was nearly in tears. "Don't cry," I said. "Just tell me if you want salt in your toothpaste."
He turned away from me as tears came to his eyes. He ran to his mom rubbing his face. I exited the aisle quietly before they came back.

"Choice. Humbug."

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Cricket, You Beauty!

I think Cricket is a highly underrated sport across the world. Come to think of it - it's spectacular really, eerie even, how closely Test Cricket reflects real-life! Victories and losses in life aren't decided by stand-alone moments. And usually, we know the outcome of events even before they actually conspire, which is the greatest criticism people have about cricket. "It's not dramatic enough," they say.

But neither is real life. You normally know what is in store for you - either victory or defeat, but you still have to play the game. You may need five runs in as many overs, but you don't say you're work is done and walk away. You still have to play and get those runs. Similarly, when things seem hopeless, as they did to the Delhi Daredevils a few minutes ago, you still have to play. You can feel the match going away from you, but you play with hope. You pray for magic, but magic in cricket isn't a sudden thing. Even magic is gradual.

No other sport can show you the depth of despair as well as cricket can. Neither can any other sport produce such gritty turn-arounds. But most importantly, no other sport gives you a second innings.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Creating Value

For any company to run, you need two kinds of people - Men-of-action and Men-of-the-mind. In other words, you need those who do and those who plan. People who can do both - constantly, effectively and modestly - are difficult to find  don't exist.

There are people who start off implementing their thoughts energetically, but like a Coke bottle, their effervescence dies out after the first few moments - there is no constancy. Most people think of themselves as both good thinkers and great doers, but sadly they are effective at only one of these, at best. And finally, there is the small issue of 'modesty' - a word which seems misplaced in the context - which usually proves to be the biggest stumbling block for people. Human beings and their insatiable egos yearn to 'rise' continuously in the eyes of others. Somehow, this prevents people from doing the things they did themselves a few years back - not because they no longer have the time to do them, but because they think it is 'below' them.

Think of the last time you asked a subordinate to prepare a presentation for you, or better still, think of the last time you asked the office-clerk to bring you coffee from the machine which is ten feet away. Surely, you have the time for that little walk down the aisle? You can jog if you want to save time, but certainly, you can do it yourself. But you don't. Not because you can't, but because you think you have graduated out of that stage in life when you had to get your own coffee.

If all this was only a matter of coffee, I wouldn't waste any time on it. But sadly, the coffee example is just that - an example. Our lives are replete with thousands of such incidents that we choose to overlook them completely. In fact, we have integrated ourselves so beautifully into the system that most of the value we 'create' during our entire lives are during the initial years of our careers. Most human beings in this world  start off as Men-of-action, and then make constant choices and career decisions which transform them into Men-of-the-mind. We all want to stop doing things so that we can start to plan on doing things.

You look at any career path and it gives you the same result: the formative years are hard when value is being created in the world, at the grass-root level: the postman delivers posts, the mechanic fixes the radiator, the software engineer creates actual code and the farmer grows wheat. As years go by, people gain experience; they grow older and wiser. Soon, the middle-aged postmaster is responsible for assigning young postmen to different circles, the chief-mechanic conjectures as to what problems radiators normally face, the manager of the software firm is busy streamlining the process of recruitment in the company and farmer lies back as his sons toil in the sun.

What is common in all these cases is that your net productivity as the years go by is declining. You will make more money and you will earn more respect, but your usefulness in absolute terms hasn't really increased, has it? Of course, the world needs planners to prevent absolute chaos from setting in, but these planners are not creators of value. They merely manipulate value which is produced.

And that is the absolute truth: everyone's ultimate goal is to move as far away from the creation stage as possible, to a point from where you can abstractly manipulate value. Highly respected professions such as Law serve to uphold a certain system which is there only to support other systems, which in turn produce actual goods and services. Politicians discuss policy and make legislation which enable other industries to perform. And then there is the vast and convoluted world of Finance, where people redefine the meaning of 'manipulation' on an everyday basis. These are people who sell concepts such as futures and options, rather than tangible real-world objects. How much money can I make from the fall of that share? How much can be gained from A acquiring B? How to I boost returns for this given estimate of risk?

These systems and professions have distanced themselves from the actual world of value, and have housed themselves in their own comfortable cocoon on the roof of the penthouse. No wonder then that almost 10% of the World's Billionaires derived significant portions of their incomes from hedge funds!

It's funny, but it's true. The farther you are from the job of actually creating something directly useful to the people around you, the richer and more powerful you are. And today, you don't even have to work your way to those positions. Education offers a lazier route for those who think the path is too tough. Education catapults you to one of those high places from where you can use great words and plan greater actions.

You end up with a larger phone-bill. But who complains about that? The company foots the bill, doesn't it?