Friday, September 22, 2017

Dear Pradyuman

We know you now keep vigil from up above. We know you have had to take matters in your own hands, going by the sorry state of affairs down below. Things seem to be falling in place only because you are now in charge of your own case. With the CBI now in the picture, we hope justice is on its way. But the larger truth continues to haunt us.

As a nation of rogues across spheres - polity, education, medicine, health care, judiciary, police, business, art, leisure, media, sport, science, technology, religion and spirituality included - and of helpless bystanders like me who can do nothing more than pay condolences, we have collectively failed you. All our progress since independence - strides in outer space, laughable IT superpower claims, rich heritage & culture ball talk have come to naught. Please forgive us. And please forgive our talk show specialists (especially school principals, educationists, columnists and tinsel town celebrities) for their politically correct media bytes, dramatic posturing and even pseudo poetry.

We were introduced to you only after your demise but it didn't take long to realize that you are special, just like your name Pradyumna, arguably the only Sanskrit word with all three letters joint (जोडाक्षर) Please give us the strength to come to terms with the fact that you are no longer with us.

Dear Bloomberg Businessweek

On September 8, India woke up to one of its worst tragedies in recent times when seven year old Pradyman Thakur was found brutally murdered in the toilet of his school Ryan International in Gurugram. I feel Bloomberg Businessweek should do an in-depth story on this national disaster as also on the money-minting business of Education in India. No wonder, several fraudsters thrive on their nation-wide school and college chains, largely helped by scheming minds, political clout as also unsuspecting (read unmindful) parents who take the 'international' tag at way more than face value.

Your Indian coverage is extremely sketchy anyway (compared to your China bytes) and some of the reports on India's IT challenges in the Trump era and demonetization were pretty mediocre. The best Bloomberg piece on India was Ben Crair's report titled "Maniac Killers of the Bangalore IT Department." It would be great if Ben covers the Ryan episode as well.

Little Pradyuman awaits justice, what if posthumously. Falling standards of journalism, particularly in India, have made us highly cynical about our expectations from the media. Bloomberg is one sweet exception. Your reportage goes way beyond business matters and seems to trigger actionable insights, unlike many Indian publications and even a few reputed global names. A Bloomberg story could go a long way in making the world aware of Pradyuman's tragedy which is, and should be, ours in the same breath.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Catalyst of Artistic Activism

An alumnus of the legendary Sir J J School of Art, Ramnath Tharwal's credentials are rooted in commercial art but his calling in life was the collaborative art form of fine art we call Theatre. Born to working class parents, Tharwal grew up in a modest Girgaum Chawl room, sharing the scanty space with his parents and six siblings. His father ran a Paan shop at the street corner while his mother served tiffins to the neighborhood. The young Ramnath had no option but to fund his JJ education himself, working part-time as a design artist cum newspaper boy. And yet amidst the hectic schedule, he found time to play an ever-obliging backstage Man Friday at the iconic Chabildas Theatre in Mumbai's Dadar area.

It was here that he observed the masters in action from close quarters. His sincerity and devotion - in running errands, designing sets or playing marginal parts - paid rich dividends in the form of accidental opportunities to work with the very best in business, God sent for someone making a backdoor entry into the world of dramatics. Imagine working with Dr. Sriram Lagoo in his production of Anouilh's Antigone or being part of Pt. Satyadev Dubey's epoch-making Aur Tota bola based on Chandrashekhara Kambara’s Jokumaraswamy in your probationary years. These would be monumental breaks even for trained graduates of the field, and hence underline Tharwal's raw propensity that the said mavericks were quick to spot.

In a whirlwind career of 44 years, Tharwal has rubbed shoulders with numerous stalwarts across renowned theatre groups like Roopvedh, Aavishkar Chandrashala, Unmesh and Abhivyakti including Dr. Lagoo, Vijay Tendulkar, Pt. Dubey, Hemu Adhikari, Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande, Achyut Vazhe, Rekha Sabnis, Shantaram Pawar, Damu kenkre and Sudha karmarkar. Impressed by his calligraphy skills, director Govind Nihalani entrusted the publicity design of his seminal film Aakrosh to Tharwal who did a great job in reproducing the film's hard-hitting theme of human angst on paper.

Post his tryst with experimental theatre, he joined Bal Bhavan, the well-known government-run Performing Arts Centre as drama instructor. He incepted the pioneering ‘Interschool Play Reading Competition’ which went on to become one of Bal Bhavan's most prized offerings. Bal Bhavan also introduced him to Pratibha, a colleague and friend for life who later became his wife. After spending a decade at Bal Bhavan, he moved to the world of children’s theatre in Hindi & Marathi and set up his own group Kalaghar in the year 1984. Four days later, Ramnath and Pratibha entered into wedlock and the husband-wife duo steered the brainchild Kalaghar with fresh resolve.

As the creative head, Tharwal wrote, produced and directed innovative plays on contemporary issues even in deprived areas of Nagpada, Kamathipura, Neighbour house & Vakola Pipeline Municipal School of Mumbai. These plays raised public awareness on staple social issues like hygiene, cleanliness, disease prevention and literacy in an idiom that street urchins could easily identify with. He also published a children's magazine named 'Dishyaav Dishyaav' for several years till a time came when Marathi lost its place of pride even in Maharashtrian homes which got kids apologetic about their regional roots. This trend deeply pained Tharwal but he had to bow down to demand-supply diktats, when the magazine copies were regularly 'returned' and had to be sold to old paper marts for peanuts.

But his herculean effort continued to fetch him accolades from one and all, as also more coveted opportunities. None other than the celebrated actor-director Shashi Kapoor asked him to be part of Prithvi's Summertime Workshops. Thus began a 17-year association with Prithvi till Kapoor's daughter Sanjana parted ways to form her own group Junoon. But Tharwal knows no full stops. Even today, he independently trains students of age groups from 4 years to 60 years.

His personality development workshops employ theatre as a medium of intervention and thus don't cater to acting aspirants alone. Anyone keen to get better at expression in day to day interactions is part of the target audience. His ex-students include noted actress Vidya Balan besides a host of Marathi artistes who later became popular film & TV stars. Tharwal has conducted acting and personality development workshops across Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat besides one in Chicago. Now in his late sixties, a doting father to his software professional son who's settled abroad with his family, Ramnath Tharwal is still bursting with potential film scripts at the seams.

He regularly produces short films based on his ideas pertaining to issues of universal significance, some of which have been uploaded to his Youtube channel. Clearly, his activism is several notches above his creative abilities as actor, director and script writer. His style and substance may leave much to be desired but his sincerity is unquestionable, so is his never-say-die spirit and child-like enthusiasm. But to me, his most crucial contribution is his unconditional resolve and uncanny ability to employ his own learning towards the larger cause of Children's Theatre. Precisely why he should be recognized as a maverick in his own right, not merely as a pupil of stalwarts or a mentor of stars.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Fed onward, Feb onwards

Courtesy: My thought piece published in IIFL Wealth Market Xpress

With Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s four-year term formally ending in Feb 2018, speculation is rife over her prospective successor. The bigger question, however, is whether Trump’s ultimate choice would help the Fed reinforce its credibility as the world’s premier central bank.

Sudhir Raikar

Ever since President Trump named Gary Cohn, his chief economic advisor and former Goldman Sachs luminary, as one of the likely candidates for the Fed top post, observers and experts are theoretically listing out pros and cons of having Cohn at the helm of the country’s central banking system. Though Trump’s short list comprises a few other contenders, including Yellen for a possible reappointment given his new-found respect for being a ‘historically low-interest person’, the name of Cohn is in furious circulation. In striking contrast, recent reports that he’s leaving the White House, miffed with Trump over the press conference following the Charlottesville violence, are also doing the rounds. The White House has rubbished the prophecies as being baseless and untrue, stating that Cohn remains staunchly focused on his job as the NEC director.

Whether Cohn stays at the White House or not, whether he takes charge of the Fed or not, his life story reads like a silver screen blockbuster plot. A dyslexic of humble beginnings, he sold window frames and aluminium sidings on weekdays while steering an undying passion for financial markets on weekends. A chance conversation with a commodity exchange trader en route a cab ride to the airport opened the prospect of making it big in the uncharted territories of Options Trading. Cohn knew nothing about Options till that point but cleared the litmus test in convincing fashion, courtesy Lawrence G. McMillan's "Options as a Strategic Investment".

He never looked back ever since. Thanks to his razor-sharp intellect and never say die spirit, he rose from strength to strength in strikingly offbeat fashion and went on to become president and COO of the legendary Goldman Sachs, sans the default passport of an Ivy League background. If he does make it to the Fed, this would be without the customary Ph. D in economics. In many ways, Cohn would be an alien at the Fed office, much like Trump is at the White House, as both bring their distinct brands of corporate bluntness to the governance table. Opinion is largely divided on his Fed appositeness though.

His backers find him tailored for the role, a compulsive doer who would usher in the much-needed trading floor aggression to the Fed’s conference room, known for its stoic consensus-driven contemplation seeped in economic conjectures. He has already left his indelible mark at the White House. Entrusted with the task of reforming the US tax code and reimagining US infra priorities, he’s known to speak his mind, and his fearless candour is diametrically opposed to the measured White House diplomacy. His fierce pro-global stand on trade restrictions or even the failed attempt to dissuade Trump against withdrawing from the Paris Agreement bear ample testimony. It seems highly unlikely that he would become Trump’s man or even a ‘Goldman’ in deciding the course of the nation's economy as the Fed chief.

And then there are others who find him wholly unqualified for the emblematic Fed cause. They argue he would push the need for a weak currency as a silver bullet stimulant for economic growth and necessarily look at every policy from the slender viewpoint of financial markets, which would likely make the supposedly apolitical Fed an unmindful bailout machine all over again. Cohn, in his Goldman Sachs avatar, had condemned the Fed for confusing the markets, injecting liquidity into the system on one end and advising banks to be wary of lending on the other. Having said that, what he would do as the Fed Chief is another story.
The nation-wide deliberation on the new Fed chief – going by the coveted opinion polls and surveys – seems knowingly or unknowingly centred on politics and personalities. It should instead be focused on likely market outcomes: what would the differing perspectives of different probables mean for the Fed? Would they help make the institution more relevant to the US (and the world) or would they leave it even more obscure over time?

For long, the Fed has, or for that matter most central banks across the globe have, upheld rather theoretical notions about the largely imagined ‘desired’ economic effects of low interest rates, quantitative easing programmes and bond roll-offs. If financial markets have been stable for quite some time now, how much of it can be attributed to Fed’s reading of inflation and full employment, no one can tell with certainty. And this is not to take away anything from the Fed’s regulatory and supervisory credibility. Going forward, the Fed’s challenges would only get more complex, especially in the light of growing geo-political tensions across the globe as also looming fear of economic downturns, purely going by the law of averages. Sound advice on what the Fed should be doing is abundant even within the Fed community. Ask Neil Kashkari, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President about the virtues of waiting for discernible signs of wage and price pressures before opting for rate hikes or his predecessor Narayana Kocherlakota who firmly believes monetary policymakers need to rely less on set rules and more on discretion to ensure better outcomes.

Given the Fed’s hardcoded fixation with unemployment rates, it will take someone persuasively pragmatic to steer the monetary policy in a way that doesn’t overreact to the fears of rising inflation levels or the risk of evolving asset bubbles. Whether that someone would be Cohn or Yellen, or for that matter former Fed guv Kevin Warsh, Columbia professor Glenn Hubbard or Stanford academician John Taylor, why and how should it matter?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

IT-specific Corporate Role Plays

Check if you are new to role plays.

Urged by some of my client corporates and 'value chain' stakeholders, I am sharing three typical situations I have specifically created for the software specific role plays. I suggest you try out these enactments at your organization - trust me, the value adds are immense: you'll get concrete inputs to help you chalk out highly effective developmental plans for your programmers, architects & project managers as also understand the human aspects of software development which are more deep-rooted than what most think.

Try these enactments at your place if you feel you can easily manage to set up a small team of role players from within your organization to play the different characters. This would work best for a start-up which is in the process of expanding its team. The language of the role play scripts has consciously been kept simple for faster and easier comprehension.

In case you need help, drop a line to (response is usually instant but kindly allow a lead time of one day if and when I am traveling on projects)

Situation one: Save the Project

The Terminator

You are an independent IT auditor working as a consultant for the Indian subsidiary of No Compromise Inc - a reputed MNC headquartered in the US. You have been specially flown down from the US as the India team head is not happy with the feel and functionality of one product website designed and developed by EverGreen Developers, a midsized firm based in Mumbai. There are a lot of issues with the new-look site. The pages take a long time to load, and there are too many broken links. One of the testers has found that there are issues with the site on Safari and Opera and the design is not optimized either. Navigation is not consistent from page to page. The company has almost decided to shift to another vendor but you wish to give EverGreen one last chance of defending their case and have therefore called their topmost marketing guy to your office. You have been asked to chair the meeting – you have no knowledge of how the site was designed and developed – so the challenge for you is to ask pointed questions about the entire solution environment (platforms, languages, databases, tools, utilities, design and development methods, delivery schedules etc) and finally make a recommendation whether the company should continue with EverGreen or dump them.

The Negotiator

You are the marketing head of EverGreen Developers, a mid-sized Mumbai-based web development company. You have deep technical knowledge of all systems, processes and solutions that your organization provides. No Compromise Inc is one of your biggest customers and you simply can’t afford to lose this MNC client. Your development team has messed up on quite a few deliveries and the No Compromise guys, upset with the output, have called for an emergency meeting. You have no idea of what went wrong but the CEO of your company wants you to go on the firm’s behalf to handle this crisis situation. You don’t have time to get a brief from the development team as you have to now rush for the emergency meeting. Your boss is confident that you will be successful in making the No Compromise guys restore their faith in your company. Your challenge is how you accomplish the mission in the given time and constraints.

Situation two: Hire amidst Fire

Cautious Commander

You are the team leader in a small IT firm called Sunrise Software. Lately, your firm has won many web development projects and you want to recruit more PHP developers in your team. You have called one fresher candidate today but want to make sure the candidate is really strong in PHP. Recently, you had recruited one irresponsible guy for the position who made a mess of a couple of deliveries. You had recruited him following a chat of ten minutes. You had to sack him and your boss was hugely upset with your irresponsible behavior. Now, you don’t want to take any chances and wish to thoroughly test this candidate’s knowledge on PHP and software fundamentals. The challenge is how best you can take the interview to make the right decision. The candidate is waiting for you in the lobby of your office.

Starry-eyed Soldier

You have recently cleared your computer engineering and now actively seeking a job with some reputed IT firm. You have been called by the technical head of a small firm called Sunrise Software for a PHP developer position. You feel you are quite strong in PHP and hence have decided to attend the interview. Your challenge is to clear the interview and seal the job. You have been told to remain seated in the lobby where the team leader of the web development group at Sunrise Software would meet you shortly.

Situation three: Judgement day

Supreme Court Judge

You are the project manager in a web development firm called Alpha Code. You are a very strict guy who can’t tolerate indiscipline. You hate people who don’t believe in making commitments. Today you are evaluating the performance of a programmer guy in one of the teams managed by you. His immediate boss has told you that he’s very irresponsible and unreliable. Lately, he’s been coming late to office and on a few occasions, he was found absent when he was needed most. You have asked one senior colleague from the programmer’s team to join you in the appraisal to ensure that your decision is not biased. By the way, this colleague is a good friend of the programmer and was his senior at college. You have heard from many people that the programmer guy (whom you are about to assess) is very innovative and full of ideas worth implementation but his immediate boss doesn’t think so. He has given a rather negative feedback about this guy. Today, you are going to judge it for yourself. The challenge is to do justice to your role as a project manager of a crucial team within the company.

High Court Judge

You are a team leader in a web development company called Alpha Code and you report to the project manager. You have to been asked to attend an appraisal session - along with your project manager – of a team member whom you know very well from college (you were his senior) and you both are very good friends. This guy is a very bright chap but careless and irresponsible lately. Therefore his image at office is that of an unreliable guy although his approach to work is very innovative. You have often told him about the need to become more disciplined but he doesn’t seem interested. This is primarily because his boss always cuts him short and doesn’t let him speak his mind. Many of his ideas are not even heard. As a result, he has become very moody bordering o rude. Lately, he has consistently reported late to office and his absenteeism is also pretty high. Today, you have been asked to give your frank opinion about him. The challenge is to make an honest, fair observation in the best interests of the organization.

The Accused

You are a senior developer in a company called Alpha Code. You are extremely interested in emerging technologies and wish to learn as many languages as possible. You also have deep interest in different programming techniques like Lean, Agile and XP. But you don’t like it when you have to work on tight deadlines. Your boss feels you are very laid back and you both often have heated arguments on day to day basis. This year, your performance has not been all that great and you have missed out on quite a few deadlines. You have also been reporting late to office these days and have missed office on some crucial occasions. But in many earlier projects, you had made a few valid points about better ways of planning, designing and delivering but you were not able to convince your boss about it. And every time you speak, he doesn’t even listen to what you say. You now believe you are a victim of office politics. Hence you have become even more careless and rude lately.

Today is a good chance to explain your side of the story. If you don’t do that today, your performance rating will suffer and you may not get a good salary hike or any performance bonus. Worse, you may be branded as a non-performer. So the challenge today is to justify your case – that you are a good programmer and can make a great contribution to the team if given the right opportunity.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What and Why of Mutual Funds

Learn the What and Why of Mutual Funds
Free of jargon or arithmetic
Welcome to the Investment Farm

With this harvest,
You will find it easier to
move on to the
The How of Mutual Funds
So let’s begin…

Imagine a large plantation company
Bumper Harvest Ltd.
Let’s call it BUMPER.

And compare it with a Mutual Fund
Super Mutual Fund
Let’s call it SUPER.

Now BUMPER has an interesting business model
It allows people to become farmers
Without having to work on the fields
As they may not have the time or
Knowledge to take on professional farming
Cool, ain’t it?

SUPER also has an
Awesome business model
It pools in money
From different people who wish to
Invest in the stock market
But may not have adequate time,
Funds or knowledge
To venture out on their own
Is it any less Cool? Surely not!

BUMPER sells plots to its investors
And does farming on their behalf
For a fee of course

SUPER sells units to its investors
And does investing on their behalf
Again, for a fee

BUMPER has a farm manager
Employing best-of-breed farming techniques
Taking care of end-to-end farming,
Highs and lows of weather,
Nitty gritty of the soil

SUPER has a fund manager
Handling the end-to-end intricacies of investment
Studying the highs and lows of economy,
Intricacies of the market
Based on thorough research &
Established principles and practices of investing

The BUMPER team takes care of everything –
From Land procurement, Ploughing, Weeding
To Seeding, Watering, Pest Control
Fertilizing and Harvesting

The SUPER team handles everything –
Fundamental and technical analysis
Studying published data on stocks,
Interaction with company managements,
And corporate site visits.

Both BUMPER and SUPER help investors
Save on costs big time

In BUMPER’s case,
Expenditure on Farm equipment, fertilizers,
Irrigation systems and like
Is shared between investors
Individually, this cost burden would have proved astronomical

In SUPER’s case,
The mega corpus built by
Pooling money from several investors,
Ensures that crucial cost components like
Research, office infrastructure and overheads are
Shared between investors
And thanks to large fund transactions
Happening on a day-to-day basis,
SUPER avails of mandatory services
Like banking and broking at very subsidized rates.

BUMPER offers investors a wide choice of
Various plantation schemes
Depending on the
Kind of farm yield one is looking for

SUPER offers investors a wide choice of
Various investment schemes
Depending on the
Kind of market returns one is looking for

In both cases, the investor has to decide:
How much risk is He/she willing to bear?
How long does he/she wish to let the
Money stay invested?

So, if the investor is looking for a
Regular and steady income with
Limited growth in his capital invested,

BUMPER gives you options of short term crops
Like Paddy, Green Veggies, Cereals and Millets

While SUPER offers fixed income schemes for
Investment in Debt securities like government bonds,
Corporate bonds, debentures and commercial paper.

If investors are looking for healthy capital growth
Over medium to long term
And don’t mind short-term ups and downs

BUMPER offers many options like
Like Sugarcane, Banana, Bamboo
For the medium term
And Papaya, Mango, Coconut or Teak
For the long term

While SUPER offers medium to
Long term growth plans
In equity shares of companies
From different sectors like
Manufacturing, Service & Technology

If one wishes to make the best of both worlds,
There are balanced schemes that provide
Both growth and income in different proportions

For this, BUMPER provides hybrid farming options
Short-term and long term crops
Even fodder crops for animal feed
All grown on the same plot

Mutual Funds also offer balanced schemes
With different permutations and combinations
Of debt and equity instruments in one scheme

What’s more!
Both BUMPER and SUPER offer
Special schemes too

If BUMPER has Horticultural plantations and
Innovative investment options like
Poultry and dairy farms

SUPER offers diverse alternative options
Like Gold Funds, Fund of Funds and International Funds

But the best results invariably happen when investors
Strike a blend between short term and long term

Having invested in different crops
However small the plots may be
BUMPER investors can make steady gains as
On the whole, the yield is maximized
To the extent possible
In the given soil and weather conditions
Similarly, For SUPER investors,
The investment amount,
However small it may be,
When invested in a range of securities
Across different sectors

Ensures that one is not exposed
To the risks of a single sector
While profiting from the gains
Of as many possible
In the given economic and market conditions

Both BUMPER and SUPER help you
Build a smart portfolio
Of investments in different avenues
If you had heard of diversification
Only as a Buzz word before – now you know what it means!

So, let’s recap the similarities
Between BUMPER and SUPER

For BUMPER investors, the objective is to
Maximize farm produce and minimize risk
Based on BUMPER’s
Expertise in best-of-breed farming

For SUPER investors, the objective is to
Maximize returns and minimize risk
Through investments
In different avenues
Backed by SUPER’s
Expertise in investments

And now, let’s talk about two facts
Exclusive to SUPER

ONE: Your SUPER investment
Is subject to market risk but is
100 per cent transparent and safe
Because it is
Governed by the
Securities & Exchange Board of India,
Legally bound to follow
Stipulated Rules and
Disclose financial statements and
Fund performance details

And TWO:

Stocks represent the extent of equity ownership in a company
Units represent the extent of ownership in a Mutual Fund like SUPER

When SUPER invests in a stock, a SUPER INVESTOR
Doesn’t own that stock,
He/she own units of SUPER which has
Invested in that stock.

The Long and Short of it

The fruits of a long term strategy in the context of equity investments are obvious – for all to see - and yet why do scores of investors stay oblivious? The reason can be traced to a paralytic and pervasive fear of entering the markets. And the psyche is the same regardless of the state of the bourses or the status of the investor.

When a bull phase is on, investors shudder at the very thought of an imminent correction. Conversely in a bear phase, they feel that the correction will be devoid of resurrection, and would only worsen by the day. Both thoughts unfortunately trigger the inaction inertia effect. Worse, they impair the faculty for counterfactual thinking that otherwise lends scope for corrective action.

Investors should contemplate market entry in the context of their long term life goals as expressed in financial terms as also the opportunity cost of shying away from the markets. Markets have a marked tendency to be notoriously volatile in the short term and there’s no predictable relationship between returns of previous or successive time frames. Only the long term lends meaning and substance to your investment valuations.

So one can’t really base one's investing judgment based on a quarter’s or year’s market momentum or the lack of it. What one can do is to manage the manageable – which is to forget about timing the market and accept short-term unpredictability as an integral part of the long-term value prop. Postponing one’s investment decision into the deep black hole of the future, merely on the pretext of an uncertain future, is an open invitation to a bleak future.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

On Dementia

There’s not an ounce of doubt about the crucial role of technology in providing a wide range of utilitarian health care solutions. In the context of dementia, more specifically Alzheimer’s, we now have a plethora of fit-for-purpose solutions to help our elderly cope with the emergent challenges of this largely progressive disorder - from assistive calendars, touch lamps, voice prompts to medication aids, remote monitoring systems and tracking devices to brain boosting apps and wireless brain implants. But this copious supply-side push, knowingly and unknowingly, has kept the process above the purpose.

Ahead of ground-breaking research, we need a common sense approach focused on care – more palliative than curative – to help patients restore their dignity, not just function. As much for a happy today as for a better tomorrow. This tight rope walk can’t be traversed at the cognitive level.

Life is inherently meaningless. The onus is on us to find and attach meaning to it. Since the medical curriculum is not designed to address the patient’s psychological needs, practitioners tend to suppress emotion in the focal attention to the scientific treatment. This is a cardinal error. When the patient weeps inconsolably, the whole emphasis should be to trace the root cause, not merely to administer a perfunctory dose guaranteeing a provisional calm.

We need to create purposeful awareness among relatives and care givers of dementia patients, to help them:

1. Raise the right questions rather than seek tailor-made answers,

2. Explode myriad myths and misconceptions surrounding the disease and last but not the least,

3. Break the shackles of cerebral communication to strike a chord with the patient.

This selfless effort is certainly not the proverbial magic pill, but it’s undoubtedly critical to put the rigmarole of medication in perspective.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Don't let public transit make Chicago a Go or No Go

A wild Garlic named Chicagoua grew here in abundance once, which is believed to have given the windy city its legendary name. Probably the same onion genus species left its pungent taste in the form of Chicago's pathetic public transit system, easily one of the worst among world's premier cities. What a Greek tragedy for a metropolis of phenomenal skyscrapers and iconic museums, thriving on the banks of the soul-stirring Lake Michigan.

Mention the acronym CTA and most commoners would sweat profusely, cursing the mass transit operator of mass disruption and massive distress. Our sojourn here, during a whirlwind Midwestern tour, proved a nightmarish trailer of their day to day plight.

Fed up of the frequent bus bunching horrors, we preferred long walks to practically every destination. And the much-publicized Ventra card is everything a card should not be. To escape the torture of single-ride tickets priced higher than normal, scanner problems, rush hour traffic, rude staff and non-existent refunds, we shifted base from the bustling downtown Airbnb accommodation to a deserted Mount Prospect Hampton Inn. We found METRA trains and PACE buses more convenient and comfortable. Now, Mount prospect may not be the ideal base camp for someone like me who needed to be downtown every single day, and also given the lack of quality Indian restaurants in the region. Yet, the Metra did a fairly good to and fro job for us. Trains were almost on time, every time, and never overcrowded. We even enjoyed seated naps on occasions and the conductors were invariably friendly, so was the ticket counter staff at Mount Prospect station. Even the RTA PACE buses were our faithful wheeled friends for quick visits to Des Plains or Arlington Heights. The experience with the 606 (Rosemont CTA station to Mount Prospect) was not great though. And the connectivity is a big issue. A car ride from Mount Prospect to Naperville takes 45 minutes while the train would cover the same distance (read displacement) in two hours (Mount Prospect - OTC - Union Station - Naperville Station) Why can't they ply cost-effective buses for these routes? Beats us. Areas like Lemont Road in Homer Glen seem more remote than they actually are, thanks to the pathetic public transport options. Ditto for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation at Oak Park.

Given that Chicago holds a definitive edge over other US cities, thanks largely to its spiritual connect with Swami Vivekananda, the city authorities must strive to make life easier for commuters and tourists alike. We appeal to the Mayor of Chicago: please don't allow the public transit system reduce Chicago to a Go or No Go decision. We hope the Illinois budget deficit is not the root cause of Chicago's transport woes. We also hope Trump's federal spending cuts won't pose a new hurdle, given that much of what ails the system has little to do with money. It merits a mindset change which money cannot buy.

Notwithstanding its transport woes, we absolutely love Chicago downtown and suburbs. Hope things change for the better in 2018 during our next sojourn...I hope Chicago rises to the occasion for the sake of its awe-inspiring landmarks:

Like the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fullerton hall where Swami Vivekananda delivered his historic 'Sisters and brothers of America'...

Like the architectural wonder Millennium Park, and the Anish Kapoor-created Bean besides the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Crown Fountain, and the Lurie Garden. (The Bean could do with some cleaning and wiping given the countless pairs of hands that dirty it on a daily basis)

Like its bustling Mag Mile, which rose like a Phoenix after the great fire of 1871, or the assortment of stores, retail chains, restaurants, commercial complexes and hotels in the vicinity...

Like the Sky Deck and its incredible history - its transition from Sears Tower to Wills Tower and the awesomely bundled tube design that greets wind and gravity with equal solidity...

Like the Oriental Museum with its Middle East antiquities, Mesopotamian exhibits and the Suq shop...

Like the Smart Museum of Art, brainchild of brother David & Alfred Smart, housing the Medicine Buddha, La Sainte Face, Cha Cha Couple and Burning House...

Like the Ed Paschke Art Centre and Memorial Way narrating the wonderful life and judiciously blended Howard Street Studio display. Borrowing Paschke's words for our plea: "Love it or hate it but don't be indifferent to it.”

Monday, June 26, 2017

Interesting memoir, Moving Au Revoir

Sudhir Raikar, IIFL | Mumbai | August 11, 2016 16:43 IST

With his no holds barred memoir, former RBI Governor Dr. Duvvuri Subbarao has inadvertently unleashed a new literary genre, a thriller of a primer. Sudhir Raikar takes a closer look at the style and substance of his enduring work which ex-ICICI Bank chief KV Kamath aptly calls ‘unputdowntable’.

Media is abuzz with citing, interpreting and analyzing the seemingly contentious issues of 'Who Moved My Interest Rate?' conveniently ignoring the delightfully enduring aspects of the incisive memoir. Hardly a surprise that, given the typical fourth estate obsession with theatrical story-telling, thriving on sensationalism that, more often than not, is bereft of sense.

But the undeniable fact is, Dr. Subbarao’s tell-all book is an endearing primer for posterity that unfolds a rainbow of his emotions - while at the helm of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in what was a terrifyingly tumultuous tenure – including fear, anxiety, hope, surprise, shock, delight, contentment, lament and predicament. He provides the context to each conflict he faced which in turn tells us more about the man’s stoic character and his resolute mission – beginning with the 2008 global meltdown and his struggle to shield India from the unforeseen tremors of an intertwined financial world (but with little say to emerging market economies) and ending with the nasty rupee fall of 2013 which raised lethal questions on the lack of forex build up in the relatively happy years. Interspersed in between was the chronic fight against the government’s hardcoded stance on the age-old Growth vs. Price Stability debate where Dr. Subbarao was implicitly expected to toe the line, more so given his long, eventful stint on the ‘other side’.

Dr. Subbarao’s sincere account, among other things, brings to light the pathos of the Governor’s job where acknowledgment of short-term pay offs is ephemeral while the unforgiving evaluation of long-term consequences in the light of hindsight experience seems eternal.

The innovation that Dr. Subbarao has steered towards making the RBI federal in thought and action – free of hierarchies and confirmation biases – is a case study for both public and private sector players. Wish we had many more CEOs with Dr. Subbarao’s vision and values. The quality of corporate sector governance is as big a problem as are cyclical ups and downs and external shocks. And there's a lot to learn from the prudence and precision of Subbarao’s outreach programs towards making our social development initiatives fit for purpose.

Dr. Subbarao’s effort to free each concept of its intimidating jargon - more so for the novice reader - is evident across all chapters, which makes this book a treasure trove for students of economics and finance in particular. Every illumination has been made in simple language with a discerning desire to reach out to the common people who don’t have the time, inclination or intellect to decipher inflation numbers and interest rates – whether of the measure of financial integration, double-edged sword of globalization, supply-side triggers of inflation, perils of working with flawed data, myth of inflation targeting being opposed to growth, RBI’s unflinching transparency on government’s fiscal stance, the typical central bank quandary in striking a balance between the demands of the privileged, vocal industry fraternity and the mute voice of the common people yearning for lowering of prices, intricacies of monetary policy transmission and ensuing liquidity management through instruments like Open Market Operations, RBI’s lesser known roles and responsibilities including its social development agenda, domestic issues behind the currency slide beyond the taper tantrum trigger, challenge of exchange rate management and the attached Do something vs. Do nothing dilemma, tenets of financial inclusion or modus operandi of NBFCs.

Even readers who feel they have little to do with economics and finance will find the revelation absorbing, one that will evoke a powerful imagery of things you don’t expect from a mainstream book by a bureaucrat – capturing vivid details of the structure and layout of the Governor’s office and the timeless charm of his British-brand BHNS-maintained residential bungalow with ‘its wafting fresh air, cacophony of birds and heavy bunches of jackfruit’. Don’t miss his incisive interpretation of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist observation ‘Man is condemned to be free’ in the context of the question on what he would have done differently as the governor of the Reserve Bank.

In wonderful contrast to his profundity on philosophical issues is the ex-governor’s passion for adventure and recreation which is evident from the umpteen references throughout the 300-odd pages – whether his interest in 24-carat Bollywood products like Chennai Express and offbeat Prithvi Theatre plays, craving for Tardeo Maharashtrian eateries or penchant for inquisitive history tours around South Mumbai in ardent appreciation of the city’s emblematic blend of diverse architectural styles. And his wit, a recurring highlight of his insightful account, is superlative to say the least. Of course, it’s best read than cited.

The engaging anecdotes in the course of his pan-India journeys for outreach programs and financial inclusion initiatives are truly inspiring. Wish our branded activists take a cue from Dr. Subbarao’s freewheeling, ventilated approach to financial literacy. Thanks to the arid, bureaucratic mechanisms of conventional NGO bodies, proletariat activists and CSR practitioners across the globe, social responsibility, knowingly and unknowingly, has come to harbour several blatant assumptions about the larger cause of end-beneficiaries (often generically slotted as ‘target groups’ or ‘deprived’ communities) Conveniently overlooked in the process is the plain fact that their deprivation is only circumstantial and in no way indicative of the instinctive and intellectual capacities inherent within the community. Contrary to popular perception, the supply-side forces, in the mad rush to emancipate the downtrodden, are themselves found deprived when it comes to even reading the minds of the audience, leave alone identifying its needs. In peddling their jargon-heavy black and white prescriptions on financial prudence and general well being, they are knowingly and unknowingly oblivious of the expressions of playful amusement and suppressed yawns that the so-called ‘deprived’ reserve for the seemingly ‘privileged’ - - stemming more from doubt than disbelief.

As for those from the journalistic tribe who wished Dr. Subbarao was more alpha male during his tenure, he has shown the virtues of a public beta release in the form of his book that now allows anyone to download his thought process. How many governors would attempt such introspection for open dissection which also talks of what he felt he could have done differently – like the need to adjust the stated policy on foreign exchange and make it more specific with respect to defining and managing volatility and building self-insurance?

Dr. Subbarao’s submission of the ‘twinges of guilt at the thought of millions of Mumbai slum dwellers under leaky roofs for whom the rain meant the loss of daily earning, and hungry children’ is particularly moving, given that he candidly shares his helplessness rather than choosing to overlook the obvious in line with the implicit demands of his official stature, for such predicaments, protocol says, are deemed too poetic for certified comfort.

Given Dr. Subbarao’s conviction in sharing his no holds barred account, the real tribute to his effort won’t merely be the book’s critical acclaim; but some quality introspection by the powers-that-be as to how could the Government-Central Bank relationship be made more cohesive and solution-centric without diluting the sovereign fabric of the latter that we are all proud of.

Central bankers across the globe, we have seen time and again, are compelled to facilitate government access to near-free debt under the guise of fiscal spends. This ends up building a toxic cocoon for government debt issuance in the name of achieving growth targets. The haphazard lending that follows, eventually leads to systemic chaos in the form of rampant bank failures and consequent turmoil in bond and equity markets.

A healthy synergy between the Central Bank and the government should lead to more credible and sustainable solutions to various problems that stand in the way of India’s economic development. Prime among them is the NPA issue. It’s common knowledge that dealing with doubtful and distressed assets has always been the Achilles Heel of the banking sector. Barring a few players known for their stringent lending norms, most bankers try and downplay the whole issue through the usual philosophical sermon: That NPAs are an integral part of banking given the criticality of broad-based operations to profitability which exposes banks to all kinds of unavoidable factors like economic downturns and political upheavals. So, they claim, even the safest of loans can be rendered unproductive…

High time we stop hiding behind these lame excuses and collectively address some tough questions that make NPAs more elusive than what meets the eye. There’s no doubt that more RBI enactments would follow in the time to come. But unless we turn our attention to the fundamental questions surrounding NPAs, every RBI intervention will always seem more palliative than curative.

Hope the new wave ushers in an environment of proactive prudence that penalizes banks and auditors for suspect motives that serve as a green house for NPAs. This way, banks, ARCs and their regulators would be left to deal only with the genuine cases of NPAs. For the Indian banking sector, that would a big leap forward.

It’s high time we also demystified the glorious economic abbreviations that fuel a debate among practising economists and fiscal experts and yet mean little or nothing to the common man. Rather than board ceremonial flights of imagined realities consequent to the published data, our experts would do well to demand a governmental initiative to simplify the data for better public comprehension. Needless to say, caring for this precision and validation is the collective responsibility of the government and the private sector.

As Dr. Subbarao astutely reflected during his inaugural address at the July 2011 Statistics Day Conference: “The decisions that we in the Reserve Bank make have a profound impact on the macro economy, and errors can be costly. Our policy judgement should therefore be based not only on state of the art skills in data analysis and interpretation but also on an intellectual value system of ruthlessly honest validation and peer review.”

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Celebral void on Marathi celluloid

There have been many a debate - staged and otherwise - on what "ails" the Marathi entertainment industry of today. In fact, such arguments are in themselves a mega industry, and a rewarding pastime for the few enterprising among Marathi minds.

In recent times, we have seen offbeat Marathi films surfacing with unfailing regularity but variety, as we have often seen, does not necessarily promise quality. Worse, intoxicated by their disproportionate success, some of the directors and lead players of such films have become demi gods. And ironically, the flood of "offers" leaves them with little time to explore sensitive themes, busy as they are settling for sensitized themes.

No wonder, despite a strikingly rich and insightful literature, Marathi cinema is still stuck with family sob stories and mindless comedies. This is indeed a collective failure - of film makers, writers, actors, viewers and of course the oh-so-powerful critics. While most of the Marathi film makers operate in a "compromise" mode to desperately design a hit film, our viewers are happy with only such relief that allows them the luxury of switched-off minds. On the other hand, our actors have a single-minded aspiration of making it big in Bollywood - after all, a half-scene with Shahrukh Khan makes one a global icon zillion times faster than a Marathi film that could at best fetch an award at a film fest.

The less said about the critics, the better. While the mechanical star system of the regional press - print and electronic included - is largely shallow and disgustingly objective, the "English" scribes covering Marathi entertainment are an elite community - overtly thrilled with their brazen authority and thoroughly convinced of their intellectual superiority. Now that leaves no room whatsoever for something called responsibility. No wonder, they have no qualms in resorting to plagiarism and borrowed wisdom, however subtle and camouflaged it turns out to be. In the sole excitement to showcase their intelligence, they invariably miss the film's soul. There's hardly any respect for the maker's perspective in the blatant endorsement of their perception.

And the theory of relativity in their heads is simplistic, not simple - the more sarcastic and bitter the condemnation gets, the more learned the critic becomes (read appears). Interestingly, when the same critics turn filmmakers, they merrily chew the same gums that they once loathed with such disdain. Yet, such is the mighty aura that aspiring film makers try to win their approvals, ahead of engaging viewers.

There's no acknowledgment whatsoever, from filmmakers and critics alike, of the pressing need to raise the bar in as many aspects as possible - whether choice of scripts, methods of acting or directorial styles. Like every other field, this industry badly needs the participation of thinking individuals across disciplines. If not co-creation, collaboration is easily feasible if the industry wakes up to it. For a vulnerable industry where the availability of funds defines the framework of creativity, nothing can be more heartening. Only if the industry opens up to the spirit of open source..

Talk of timeless creations and one thinks of directors like Raja Paranjpe, actors like Chandrakant Gokhale, writers like G D Madgulkar and music maestros like Sudhir Phadke. Not that their films were free of pet patterns and cliches, but their unquestionable sincerity, way ahead of brilliance, in furthering the cause of good cinema is still a coveted benchmark... only if we care to look back.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Right Season, Wright Reason

Recalling a dated piece that has enough to keep it relevant in the wake of the Kohli-Kumble controversy...

John Wright’s Indian Summers may not be a pithy commentary on the technicalities of the game but has enough substance to remind the stakeholders of Indian cricket to revisit the age-old system that runs it, as early as they possibly can.

Indian Summers by John Wright

Sudhir Raikar recalls a forgotten gem in the wake of the Indian team’s disgrace in the recently concluded English tour. John Wright’s Indian Summers may not be a pithy commentary on the technicalities of the game but has enough substance to remind the stakeholders of Indian cricket to revisit the age-old system that runs it, as early as they possibly can.

Lurking in the dark recesses of our cricketing tradition are many glaring loopholes engineered and nourished by unseen architects that Wright hints at but never pin points. Call it grace or indecision, but Wright’s shielded words sure ring true for most of us despite the fact that they were largely dismissed by the fourth estate. The Indian media, as also many of the ex-players and managers, picked up all the potentially sensational elements in lashing out at this loner Kiwi while ignoring the sheer beauty of his verse and the apparent sincerity of his purpose. Of course, this ruthless attack should come as no surprise, given the ever-growing power of vested interests and the ever-falling standards of journalism in India.

John tells an engaging life story, right from the days when he called it quits as a player to suffer a short-lived accident with the corporate world. (“My job at Fletcher Challenge, then NZ’s largest building supplies company, was a crash course in everyday reality”)

The coaching stint at Kent paved the way for the prized job and the subject matter of the book - the Coach of the Indian cricket team. Cricketing legend Colin Cowdrey’s dying advice to Wright before the latter left for Indian shores indeed proved prophetic - a nip of whisky in the evenings to keep the bugs away and a SOS call to Raj Singh Dungarpur when in trouble. Only that Wright seems to have replaced whiskey with beer. There was of course no substitute for Dungarpur, as he found out throughout his India stint.

Wright seems to have been a lone crusader to inculcate a sense of professionalism among the players. Not that he failed completely but the players who were fed on a staple diet of tea or biscuits at net practice or taped fingers while fielding would have proved tough nuts to crack. And more than the playing eleven, his real detractors ran the very establishment, whether as tour managers, team selectors, board presidents or governing committee members. His most studied observation is on the selection process where he brings to light several startling practices that run deep in the name of process and convention. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with India’s team selection, but we never knew the culprits could be so brazen in peddling their vested interests.

Certain things are clear and explicit - like Wright’s fluent chemistry with physio Andrew Leipus, his soft corner for players like Kaif and Laxman (although the latter was allegedly axed at his behest for the World Cup), his professional interaction with Jagmohan Dalmiya, his genuine respect for Dravid, his awe for Tendulkar, his trust on Ravi Shastri as an advisor and of course - his love-hate relationship with Sourav Ganguly. (The media only found the last bit worthy of discussion)

He gives an amusing account of the advertising and sponsorship market that’s ever chasing players with star status. In the process, he makes some great observations - Like having to watch Ganguly struggling to ape John Travolta or Rahul Dravid in an uncharacteristic black matrix-style outfit or the fact that Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble never became billboard heroes despite their success, thanks to their less glamorous image, compared to their counterparts. Tendukar’s engaging smile, of course, sends sponsors laughing all the way to the bank. Wright is honest to reveal a secret desire to pose in a TV ad himself but the offer that came his way was a show stopper - “advertising an ointment for old-age aliments at one-tenth of the going rate.”

Though of a poetic disposition, the verse he cites in the book is nothing special. He also does not come as a guy who would really put his foot down despite the repeated claims of “blowing my top”. He rather comes across as a soft guy who would make proactive adjustments to stay put. But more important, Wright is never harsh or prejudiced in pointing out the systemic flaws. “Many a times, things just fell in place, often without you understanding how and why.” His self-deprecating stance is worthy of both adulation and emulation.

The most striking part of his narrative, however, is his accurate sketch of the phenomenon called India - the blended fabric of culture and cricket in a deprived nation that unanimously regards the game as a religion, and the only one that binds people together. (“Indian cricket lovers are never in a state of emotional equilibrium - it’s either ecstasy or despair for them”)

Wright also peeps into the lives of ordinary Indians - like Pintu, the masseur, who supports a family of eight on a salary of Rs 8500/- per month, Prasanna Raman, the enthusiastic software engineer who later became the technical head of National Cricket Academy or the nameless cabbie from Bangalore who religiously handed back the tip of Rs 120/- to Wright as it had not been explicitly labelled as a tip during their first encounter.

Wright throws good light on the mockery that rules the Indian cricketing system - ripe with selection hazards, zonal mandates, blatant favouritism, ruthless axing, bureaucratic hang ups, administrative nuisance, advertising diktats, and rags to riches stories, evils of heady success or the miseries of forgotten heroes. The nuisance for Wright came from all quarters. “A guy with the biggest diamond ear-stud once came wandering into the viewing area as if it was his private box”. This was India’s biggest beer baron, no marks for guessing who we are talking about. Wright invariably found playground boundaries shortened and ‘roped’ to ensure a healthy shower of fours and sixes that rakes in the moolah for the value chain of advertisers, sponsors and broadcasters.

John Wright is a poet at heart. His humour, his idiom and his melancholy all prove arresting and above all, the ring of pathos in his tales and anecdotes is soul-stirring. Yes, he may not have been the best coach in the annals of the game (or a truly great player either) and his knowledge of technicalities could fall short of the Gary Kirsten benchmark, but his hold over the psychological aspects of the game is undoubtedly striking. More often than not, cricket coaching as we have seen it, is about boosting minds, not pushing bodies. The book lingers in memory but more as a fabulous book on India and its cricketing fanatics - a neat summary in the league of Mark Tully’s ‘No Full Stops in India’. If not the bigwigs at BCCI, the beleaguered Indian team led by M S Dhoni will find a handy guide in this book to reinstate conviction and commitment and get back to their winning ways.

Dear Pradyuman

We know you now keep vigil from up above. We know you have had to take matters in your own hands, going by the sorry state of affairs down ...