Saturday, October 29, 2016

Poignant post cards from Port Blair

This was a walk down memory lane - a personal tribute to my dad's pioneering six-month deputation in 1978 as part of a Government of India Goodwill Expedition to the Sentinel Islands.

Port Blair has witnessed a sea change over the years, literally and otherwise. The good old Ross Island saved it from fatal destruction but it remains an unfortunate witness to Port Blair's social and cultural disintegration that pervades the place end to end. Talk to the local folks and a silent debate ensues over son of the soil claims - between the Tamilians and the Bengalis. It's more of a passive war of words but very unsettling all the same. Not that the rest - Keralites, Punjabis, Andhraites, Maharashtrians, Biharis or Marwaris are peace loving - but being the minority, they prefer to keep mum, probably cursing the ruling class in the vicinity of their homes, over bread and beer. Unlike other places in India, there's hardly a riot here but that doesn't mean the populace believes in solidarity. People run riot of a different virtual kind in this union territory.

But the biggest nuisance value to the Island is from mindless tourists. The Terrorism of Tourism is multi-faceted: whether in the form of the highly toxic and contagious "selfie" mania (taking selfies with Veer Savarkar is their favorite pastime), pathetic littering on historic spots, endless shopping sprees on busy streets or heinous hogging (both food and limelight) in all modes of public transport. It continues unabated only because tourism ensures a steady revenue stream.

Another disturbing sight is the surreal real estate in the Island town - wonder what sadistic pleasure the developers (read damagers) have derived by erecting the choicest of pathetic structures - probably they wished to pay tribute to the ancient ruins through their modern interpretations.

I tried to draw solace - finding my way through the Aberdeen bazaar which my mom frequented for groceries, the Central Bus Stand where me and my sister enjoyed the sheer thrill of countless "Milk Pepsis", the campus of our school - the Kendriya Vidyalaya, the site of the now-defunct Wimco factory where we had our night strolls, and the old building of the Anthropological Survey of India where my dad worked in a small cell reserved for the Archaeological Survey of India. Hard as I tried, I could not find the cottage that was once my home. I searched in vain across Delanipur and Haddo but no structure or even the inroads matched the picture in my mind's eye. I ended my pensive search in the convenient conclusion that since the entire Island was once my home, why care about one locality?

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Book review
The Wealth Wallahs
Shreyasi Singh
Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt. Ltd

Sudhir Raikar, Content Architect, IIFL | Mumbai | October 13, 2016, 14:28 IST


The Wealth Wallahs is more than a delightful peek into the world of wealth. Author Shreyasi Singh’s measured insights can’t merely be attributed to her editorial stint with the Indian edition of the US magazine Inc which gave her a ring side view of India’s new-age entrepreneurial evolution. Her conviction stems more from a visible penchant for detached probe, consciously avoiding the lure of convenient conclusion which, especially in the case of literature of the given genre, tends to escape public scrutiny.

Against the enchanting backdrop of a bagful of ‘tryst with wealth’ tales - whether incidental or accidental - of some of the happening first-generation entrepreneurs and professionals - she presents a near-360 degree account of IIFL Wealth, the trailblazing firm which has transformed the wealth management space with its prudent takes and proactive tweaks.

Singh’s ‘unspooling’ of the IIFL Wealth phenomenon is splendidly universal, an objective commentary on the post-2008 progression led by India’s entrepreneurial zing, also a torchlight on the cosseted territory of wealth that was steeped in secrecy for long. In what’s a profound scrutiny of the first-generation wealth dynamic, citing seminal work of specialists and surveyors for germane reinforcement, Singh underlines the changing psyche of the oven-fresh wealth creators and the consequent shift in the strategies of avant-garde wealth managers, as also the cause and effect of the socio-cultural attitudes of a vast majority, watching the wealthy from the sidelines.

It was IIFL Wealth’s astute focus on first-generation money, Singh tells us, that helped it reap rich dividends contrary to what the majority believed when they set up shop. On one end was the aftermath of the global slowdown that posed serious questions on the value prop of a novice wealth management player, on the other was a thriving environment where umpteen funding rounds were making millionaires zillion times faster than ever before and, where for the first time, working professionals became well-heeled purely from employment. By virtue of its offbeat focal point as much as its core competence made sharper from the synergies with its parent group, IIFL Wealth mirrored the success of its clients and scripted a revolution of sorts for the whole industry.

Singh has unleashed a wealth of aspects linked with wealth:

Like how many of India’s first-generation rich are yet uncomfortable talking about their affluence, perhaps guided by fear of inviting undue attention in a heavily lopsided society, and even fatal consequences as many events have proved...

Like how the manner in which wealth is made, particularly in specific sectors like real estate, still influences public perception – differing vastly across geographies and demographics - that in turn affects the behaviour of those in its possession...

Like how the venture capital and private equity-backed wealth phenomenon has changed the face of entrepreneurship in India, making it more democratic and ‘beyond the clutch of a small group of business families and industrial houses’...

Like how most of the first generation rich swear by refreshingly new definitions of wealth rooted in purpose and prudence ( and even philanthropy), not power and propensities...

Singh neatly sums up how the first generation rich have changed the rules of the game for wealth management (thriving on calculated risks and a yearning for capital growth, not merely its protection) before unfolding the inspiring story of IIFL Wealth. Her chronicle of the maverick wealth management firm is matter of fact, a welcome departure from the typical media narratives that are either reduced to replicas of corporate brochures, too rosy for comfort, or made to sound unduly caustic only to project ‘deep insights’ through a premeditated stance of dismissal and negation.

Singh dissects the IIFL Wealth DNA beginning with the fascinating bios of the three founding musketeers and a brief on the owner of the holding company, himself a self-made entrepreneur who built a financial powerhouse on the sheer strength of his non-conformism. The firm’s vision and mission, values and beliefs, style and substance, camaraderie and conviction, strategies and tactics, trials and triumphs, twists and turns, learning and improvisation – she touches every aspect by reciting endearing anecdotes that tell us more about the stellar character of the firm and recounting milestone developments that scripted its success and competitive edge.

Above all, Shreyasi Singh is an awesome story teller, judiciously linking the end of each chapter to the beginning of the next with the authority of a bestselling author. That’s precisely why this is not just a book for the wealthy or the managers of their wealth. As Singh puts it succinctly, it is useful reading for anyone interested in a fast-evolving, aspirational country, more so when wealth decisions are influenced as much by personal circumstances as by workplace realities.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Moving from Green cards to Trump cards

Recalling a dated piece on the request of a few readers. Dr. Rajan is back to Chicago but I would like to believe, just like them, he still belongs to India

The RBI governor’s metaphorical caveats are more significant for the man on the street than his transient rate announcements for the men on the Street. Wish the inexorable banker conveys them in the language of the street.

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan speaks with genuine concern for the common man but the only problem with his impeccable communication is that it is not inherently inclusive unlike his plans for India. In sharp contrast, enlightening a westerner on India’s unique problems is a cake walk for him. Consider this quip that hits bull’s eye "If you are an outsider looking at India, learn to filter out both the irrational exuberance and the excessive pessimism. We're subject to both. You will become manic-depressive if you follow our moods".

But back home, when he says India is an “island of relative calm in an ocean of turmoil”, only the cream of the crop, including professors and aficionados of the English language, gets the message right. All his forewarnings necessarily travel in a limited sphere where they are comprehended but hardly conceded, for obvious reasons of course. Most corporates, not just market men, don’t wish to look beyond the rate arithmetic, which has the effect of downplaying Rajan’s prudent observations including the need to make low inflation a collective responsibility of the RBI, government and the industry. Worse, tangents are thrown back in good measure to sideline his truisms. A case in point was his appeal to real estate developers to push demand through price cuts and thereby erode the mountain of unsold inventories. The weight of this argument called for an acknowledgment from all sections including banks but all they did was to make a strong case for teaser loans. Nothing to take away from the NPA-proof nature and demand-generating prowess of teaser loans as endorsed by a leading bank but Rajan’s dressing-down on inflated real estate pricing called for a more healthier admission, certainly not a myopic snap alleging his poor comprehension of the product.

Rajan’s occasional slippages add to his woes. Lashing out at banks in explosive outbursts is not always a good idea, ditto for stream-of-consciousness annotations on the economy that spur the media to raise doubts on his perceived equation with the government, especially when the RBI has been found wanting in few crucial areas. Among other things, it has done little to curate its economic data in order to make more credible policy pronouncements. We all know the myriad challenges in collection, collation, computation and curation of economic data which are the basis for a variety of key economic and business decisions – from formulating policies and monitoring prices to fixing escalation clauses and computing dearness allowances. The move to make foreign borrowings cheaper than internal debt has unknowingly made corporate leverage a road rage of sorts. And notwithstanding the governor’s pertinent observations on the thorny issue of NPA, every RBI intervention yet seems more palliative than curative. Thanks to the ambiguity that surrounds it, the governor’s stance, even to the neutral observer, appears a hazy blend of severity and dispensation.

No wonder, most of his incisive comments don’t get the circulation they deserve, leave alone approval. If the RBI wishes to earn the public’s trust, as Rajan has time and again reiterated, then acting against future inflationary threats is not enough, more so in an environment replete with vested interests who are vying to trace his fault lines. The essence and credence of his intervention need to be articulated for the common public at large. Like how RBI has credibly spearheaded the financial literacy initiative, it needs to demystify the Guv’s prolific speeches and media briefs in the language of the common man. Agreed, the Guv is not meant to win Facebook likes, but he needs to be heard, if not liked, by those millions with no access to Facebook.

They need to know about his track record, as also his tenacity to defy criticism and yet learn from it, in a language they understand. They need to know in commensurate detail about how banking access is being eased through business correspondents, payment banks, and point-of-sales machines, how lending is being facilitated for farmers, self help groups, and small businesses, how credit information bureaus, collateral registries, and debt recovery tribunals are being upgraded, how repayment discipline, like business ethics and commitment to hard work and quality, is crucial for economic growth, how easy access to credit comes with strict penalties in the event of defaults, how the RBI has developed a Charter of Consumer Rights following public consultation, how Bank boards have been urged to adopt right-protection frameworks, how RBI is mulling over institutionalizing best practices while strengthening field visits to check frauds and other functional deviations. It’s only then will they comprehend the quintessence of his inflation-fixation as also the credibility of his track record - how he assumed office when inflation was furiously moving up and the rupee was abysmally going down, how he and his prolific team got inflation down to record lows, how they boosted forex reserves, how they are gradually transforming the banking sector. It’s only then that they will grasp the meaning of “vocal borrowers and silent savers” better than what most economists and media columnists have.

Hindi and other languages are more than a bridge between the banker and the customer; they can be a conduit between RBI and the common public. Rajan has already delivered on his promise to make a Hindi speech, now he needs to make his office more accessible to the common man. And that does not mean he should shun Keats and embrace Premchand, for in a nation of people who are not known for their reading habits – whether city-bred or pastoral - neither of the greats would help make an impression.

Putting up website documents in Hindi is just one step towards this inclusive mission. Making the RBI website even more user-friendly would be a crucial stride. May be a few Master Documents, updated on a real time basis, can help lay users know the gamut of RBI’s inflation agenda and development initiatives at a glance. Maybe the RBI can organize innovative online and offline public awareness campaigns to convey the moot points of its agenda. The only communication that currently reaches the common man is about him, not by him, that too in bits and pieces of black and white where he’s either sketched as a Rockstar with superhuman skills or an elitist operator with little regard for the real India. He’s neither of the two, yet his absurd admirers and derisive detractors are ever keen to script his ignominy whenever he’s perceived to be disproving his allegiance to either of the two identities thrust upon him.

May be the Guv could take a cue from our PM whose simple-yet-sharp acronyms like ‘3Ds: Democracy, Demography and Demand’ ensure an instant connect with classes and masses alike and whose unique style of messaging inspires common people to respond to appeals like Jan Dhan Yojna and willful subsidy surrenders. If Rajan selectively adopts this approach to reach out, no politician would dare to make an issue of his Green card, for he would no longer need to prove his citizenship in his staple allegorical vein. The nation will do the needful on his behalf in plain vanilla terms. The language of the people might then become his trump card. There’s no activism more powerful than the one that springs from the grassroots.

Friday, October 07, 2016

US and us

For most Indians, a vacation to the United States of America is still an incredibly monumental feat. Of course, there are exceptions - folks who stay the same 'before and after' - but they only prove the rule at best.

Once 'back', the majority turn into a different species altogether. Their social status (measured primarily in terms of LinkedIn contacts, FB friends and Twitter followers) soars sky-high, with 'deprived' natives offering glowing tributes in the form of overtly appreciative glances every time the 'chosen ones' step out of their homes. Given an obliging audience willing to proclaim them experts on Indo-US relations without the slightest reservation, their US-stamped sermons become a routine fixture in the community.

They tell you, with carefully rehearsed, animated gestures and a discernibly put-on US accent (they are no longer shocked, they are 'shaaaacked') how our people lack civic sense (Why should this obvious realization only dawn post the US visit is a mystery more terrifying than the Riemann hypothesis), how we are a spoilt lot, what's the inside story on the US presidential elections, why Hillary should fear Trump, how Obama would spend his retirement years, what would be Apple's next strategy, how Irrfan managed to bag the prized Inferno role and so on and so forth. And the best part is the mandatory preface prefixed to every conversation: "While I was there"

Most interestingly, even within the privileged lot with the 'US-returned' tag, there's not a semblance of solidarity. In fact, the rat race here is brutally intense - it's about being the first among equals. So if they learn you were there before them, they have a tough time coming to terms with the disturbing fact.

It's incredible how they don't pick up any of the traits that make America a one-of-a-kind microcosm of heterogeneity: holistic approach, congenial environment, freedom of expression, social equality, culture of innovation, emphasis on experiential learning and seamless academia-industry interaction. Instead, they fall for or are impressed by all that Uncle Sam is infamous for - demonic consumerism, dangerous diets,rampant tablet popping, nauseatingly patronizing attitude towards the 'developing' tribe (impose sanctions, provide aid, have fun), culture rooted in quick disposal of everything, technology abuse, superficial and superfluous exchange of pleasantries, the Mayonnaise-smeared liberalism diarrhea...

The US-educated (or employed) Indian software pros (the label of 'pro' is magnanimously generic) suffer from a different set of fundamental deformities. Once back, they claim to have ready-to-deploy offerings - based on their home-spun versions of object oriented thinking - to solve just about anything in life. OOPS in their case, is the exclamation to describe the blunders that follow, not the awesome programming paradigm.

A host of globe-trotting "onsite" folks are faking work, day in and day out, on their smart phones, tablets, excel sheets and word documents even as the bulk of the inarticulate programming tribe back home goes through the grind, inevitably falling prey to Machiavellian tactics and the bell curve nonsense at the workplace. (God save the world from those scary Quality folks who pester you with a bagful of templates without having the slightest idea of the essence of Six Sigma and ISO)

The US tag earns the blessed ones the coveted positions of project managers and lot of spare time for US-style splurging and living beyond their means, strictly by choice. Peep inside most code labs and you’ll find the same old hierarchies of power distances, ruthless ambition and narcissism at play, where a handful of smart and wily operators merrily rule over a veritable but vulnerable majority. Who’s going to reduce the besmirching carbon footprints of the IT industry that pollute the social fabric in elusive ways – where hyped on-site-off-site-offshore models don’t necessarily mean better working conditions, where key performance appraisals are invariably unscientific, where egos are sky-high and tempers fly high, thanks to the variety and vanity of designations: the perfunctory coder is keen to call himself a developer, the developer genuinely believes he’s an architect and the architect is thoroughly convinced he’s God’s gift to mankind,a true-blue American in body, soul and spirit.

Given our faith in information technology, laced with fairy-tale beliefs, we reserve the loudest applause for the 'programmed' nomads traveling from coast to coast in the US of A but conveniently ignore the non-conformists who seed green-house IT ventures in their hometowns and choose to hone talent from within the grassroots. Clearly, the pompous vacation abroad is more important than the purposeful vocation at home.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Beyond 'Puri on Uri'

Any attempt to analyze actor Om Puri's pathetic remarks on the Uri attacks is futile. This haggard, senile tail-ender is clearly batting for the Sultan of Box Office and the Johar of tinsel town, gang lords who supposedly make or break film careers in different ways, depending on your equation with them. Such is their might that even a hopelessly hostile crackpot called Anurag kashyap has a velvety soft corner for at least one of them. Even our grand old Shyam babu Benegal who is lucky to relish the benefit of doubt - of being Mumbai's Satyajit Ray - circuitously pledges allegiance to the Bollywood circus despite having run out of his pale Zubeidas and stale Sajjanpurs for good. Then why blame Sushant Singh Rajput who has chosen to bat for Fawad Khan. He has a long way to go and offending Johar's Dil is hence not only Mushkil, it's Namumkin.

Bollywood has repeatedly lived up to its name that it so desperately wants rechristened only for namesake...for it's a mediocre factory largely producing substandard products and employing a perfunctory workforce, essentially a mutual admiration society which unanimously maintains 'safe distance' when it comes to all matters - including issues of national interest - that threaten to disrupt the jamboree of its umpteen productions and promotions. Differences of opinion within the fraternity are allowed, in fact welcome, but strictly on larger issues like film release & distribution or the crore-club claims.

In the Puri bashing, let's not forget many fence-sitting 'artistes' who want us to spare, nay worship, their mart in the name of art. Their silence is more toxic than Puri's blabber.

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 th...