An Untamed Beast :: The Global Conglomerate

The HBO featurette, “Too Big To Fail” traces the path taken by the high and mighty of Wall Street and the US Financial system in the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse and the subsequent ‘nationalisation’ of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In its opening credits a clip of former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan saying that regulation for regulations’ sake would destroy the financial markets sets the tone for somber viewing.

Greenspan, along with US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt saw to it that risky financial derivative products and swaps were de-regulated and – according to some – laid the foundations for what was to be the great financial crisis of 2008.

While he may have had his critics; that the dismantling of the regulatory structures that Reagan started has resulted in some startling instances of corporate malfeasance and fraud is undeniable. From WorldCom & Enron and recently to Goldman Sachs and the AIG bailout point to a startling trend in High Street bailing out Wall Street. It is against this backdrop that the articles make for such interesting reading.

The Economist article “The Company that ruled the waves” is an interesting read because it talks about what will happen in the future; by analyzing what has happened in the past. The monolithic East India Company was the first truly global multinational organisation. It paved the way – in its own way – for much of what we take for granted in management practice.

Promotion on the basis of merit, frugality, and a dedicated management cadre – trained specifically for their jobs – are ideas that the conglomerates of today have just started to wake up to 150 years after they were espoused by the Company.

Offshoring – cotton grown in India and spun in Lancashire; a grouse of the early Swarajists – was a company innovation. As was its system of building ports and warehouses to conduct businesses where it went – a precursor to FDI today. Even in India, much of its profits were channeled into infrastructure that, although built for the British, nonetheless did aid in the integration of India in to a single country much later on.

It also was a trading organisation that created markets for tea, silk, spices and aided in a balance of payments surplus for Britain. It influenced policy decisions and lobbied. Its ability to work around troublesome rulers in India and bribe or lobby its way out of regulation in England, is perhaps the foremost proponents of the school of thought currently practiced by the likes of Nira Radia today.

The article is perhaps a bit gushing in its praise for an organisation that according to the British themselves was “bloodthirsty and inhumane”. However, to the authors credit he does succinctly put across the point that the reason for its success was its dual nature – merchants ran the show and the government backed it up. It correctly sums up many salient pros and cons of such an organisation – and more importantly the ploys used by it and its detractors to ultimately put it to rest. It paints a deft picture of a much maligned organisation – and tries to ask questions about why such organisations are coming back in fashion today. It is thought provoking and engenders some debate as to the future and viability of large public limited corporations.

This is also a theme mirrored in the another Economist article “The Endangered Public Company”. It talks about how listed public organisations – the greatest inventions of the 20th Century – no longer are thought of as the great money-making machines that they once were. The article lists the three main reasons for this; over-regulation, the demand for super-transparency and most importantly the rise in alternative ways of financing and organisational structuring.

While the article does tend to over simplify a hugely complicated issue, it does get its main premise right. The public limited corporation is gone. In its place private equity-led and sometimes government backed megaliths now bestride the earth like colossi.

The fault lies, not with our stars, but with ourselves”.

Over the last decade as globalization and privatisation have become catch-phrases to do business by, the world seems to have moved away from selling and on to profiteering. The article points out that owners and managers seldom have goals that are aligned. A far worse situation is that policy-makers and managers agree even less. Soaring corporate profits are a sure indication that there is a lack of competition in the industry. Competition leads to lean organisations and slimmer profits. While politicians want competition – which is good for the people and gets them the votes; managers root for monopolies and look for ways to get them past legislation. A knee-jerk reaction to this sneakiness usually is the sort of over-burdensome legislation that Greenspan was talking about.  To get around that legislation – which sometimes work against the company – the great public limited company is now threatened.

Another aspect of this standoff is the widening right between the rich and poor. Since the 1980s the tax rate for the richest Americans has reduced by 60%, while the cost of living has gone up. Unrestricted speculation and risky investments only make a bad situation worse.

A leaked CitiGroup memo [shown in the Michael Moore documentary “Capitalism: A love story”] warns that despite the US being a plutocracy – the “other 99%” still have one vote each. Each passing day brings uncertainty. Since all major investments are near-permanent; with rising uncertainty – the value of waiting for more information increases; and thus stops investments and growth. Hence the great IPOs of the past will probably not see an equal in future. Even Facebook wasn’t good enough.

The hard but sure way to get out of this mess would be fiscal reform and a monetary union. But the EU – which has tried it already – is an example of how a good thing may be spoilt. A monetary union without fiscal policy uniformity – if not hegemony – is useless. Globalisation too has not borne the fruit promised. It certainly did not make equitable wealth distribution a reality.

In the end Adam Smith’s invisible hand has failed. Collectivism would see us back to the days to Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. That too didn’t work. The state-owned organisations where government funds become productive in private hands and private equity is more responsibly used under state supervision seem to be the way out. But that will start a troublesome debate on what the modern world has come to.

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Pax Americana : Who inherited the American Dream?

Written in July 2014, just before the US presidential polls. Romney(R) vs Obama(D)

Alexis de Toocquevile wrote, in “Democracy in America” that the country’s

“…greatness lies, not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults”.

While that may have been true for the decades gone by; those looking to the current US Presidential race for signs of leadership and redressal, would be sorely disappointed.

In an article A Big Beast to Tackle (The Economist, Jul 28th 2012), the correspondent bemoans this very fact; that the US elections of late have usually boiled down to a single issue. While the issue, no doubt, is complicated and cumbersome – to say the least – that an entire Presidential election should revolve around it alone is, in the opinion of this writer, perhaps a case of over simplification.

Given that most US election campaign are a continuous feedback loop of kneejerk reactions to other kneejerk reactions, the correspondent does a good job of linearising the chain of events and presenting entire economic beliefs of the opposing camps in succinct, sentence-length quotes. However the data at the centre of this issue belies an uncomfortable truth. Government spending in recent years has been due to the foreign wars the US is fighting and the social welfare support that it has had to shell out – both due to the retiring babyboomers and the Hank Paulson lead nationalisation of mortgage lenders. Private investment spending too is lagging behind the 1980s standards. The newly-elevated Paul Ryan – the Tea Party candidate for Vice President-ship – advocates for a leaner government; but as a conservative will not cut military and security spending. That means welfare, regulatory and development expenditures will face a cap. That is perhaps not something the population at large may want to countenance.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Barack Obama will find it harder and harder to pursue an expansionary monetary policy with the “looming fiscal cliff”. The increasing in regulatory oversight – needed, the Democrats assure us, because de-regulation is seen as the primary cause of the 2009 financial crisis – is also seen as a growing burden for America’s now disappearing middle-income families.

The article is well-researched and even better presented; with each opposing view point getting an even-handed chance to be heard. While the matter certainly is debated to the fullest length possible, there doesn’t seem to be a viable endgame in sight; or better yet, a workable solution. If the US economy has to recover, the correspondent argues, somewhere a balance will have to be made. The Republicans will have to live with a marginally higher tax-rate while the Democrats will have to swallow a cut in welfare expenditure. This then, may yet help the economy; but as the correspondent writing No Miracle Cure (The Economist, Aug 11th 2012) argues, that may be too little too late.

While annualised growth in the quarter, did see a slight jump in numbers; and more people did get hired, the fact still is that this recession and recovery is vexing economists. By all accounts comparisons, the economy grew much after previous downturns. As with all matters political – Ronald Regan is being made the benchmark. While a hesitant Obama argues that whatever little has been achieved, is due to his policies; Romney claims the administration’s short-sightedness is hampering a full boom. As always, studies and reports are being pulled out of hats to show any number of factors and causes – that both parties may claim to be in support of their claim.

But forgotten amidst the din of name-calling is the fact that the 1980s saw both a slew of big name bankruptcies and a deluge of government spending; game changers in economic policy. While Regan outspent Gorbachev in military hardware, the Volker-led Fed slashed interest rates to provide cheap capital and kick-start a recovery. Neither of these two options seem viable now – not the least because the Fed’s rates are near zero already. While the article does make a cogent point about why this recession has not seen a postrecession boom, it fails to drive it point home; replying more on on-the-surface data than an in-depth qualitative analysis. It also fails to show a policy-led solution. Both these articles then, are well-meaning but, fall short of providing meat.

While this may be because both are political pieces and use the election as a backdrop – they nonetheless do not propose anything; shopping just at collating the issues at hand.

“Gentlemen, we have run out of money, it’s time to start thinking” – Sir Ernest Rutherford

Since the 1980s – heydays of Reganomics – much of US economic policy has favoured short-term profits over long term investment. That has generally led to dismantling of the regulatory frameworks and the explosion of the financial services industry – the sole job of which is to aid and abet the speculation in complex financial products.

As if that were not enough; the top tax rate for all Americans was cut to about 23%. This exempted people from paying tax on capital gains, interest and dividend. Everywhere you looked people were diverting money from the safety of bank checking accounts to the financial markets. Financial intermediaries, eager to cash in, lent a helping hand; and very soon tens, even hundreds of millions of hard-earned savings were being channelled into speculative ventures – that had little or no interface with the real economy – the one with goods, services, assets and liabilities. Large corporations, which had analysts’ expectations to beat and ever increasing profits to post, soon realised that the cost of capital was increasing – as money was being sent to the financial markets – and that availability was falling as people used savings to buy derivates rather that dinnerware.

While much of this shift from real to financial economy was engineered – and to great perfection – another, perhaps intended, consequence was that all this speculation has made the domestic US economy heavily dependent on the Forex markets. This was done in two ways. Firstly, as domestic consumer spending came down, corporations made less profits and employed less people. To maintain profitability, they moved much of their operations abroad, to less expensive – read emerging – economies. This meant that all capital moving across borders would have to go through the foreign exchange market.

Also as more and more speculation was allowed, international denomination of derivatives and other products became the norm. Here too the foreign exchange market played its part – channelling the excess money to places it deemed worthy, by tweaking the demand and supply of particular currencies. Another consequence, though perhaps not as immediately apparent, was the indebtedness of the US government. As tax cuts pushed down the administration’s revenue collections, heavy wars and a somewhat unnecessary war footing (first the cold war and now the war on terror) and the welfare payments meant that outflows increased. This gap was financed using bonds – also denominated in US Dollars, but sold in all bourses worldwide.

Here too was the invisible hand of the forex markets. Emerging economies – where high quality goods and services may be procured for a fraction of the cost of developed nations – are equally under the same strain. Corporations looking to outsource manufacturing and development come with the condition that de-regulation and a freely denominated currency is a must for investment. The hapless and often poor and populous countries can do little but comply. Here, it may be interesting to note that all of the nations today deemed as “emerging” were not so long ago colonies of the very same nations called “developed”.

Many have posited that political independence was given on paper only while turning the “captive markets” (apologies for the unintended language) into shared markets. The USA, by the looks of things should be sitting pretty, but that is not true either. The rise of the financial sector has led to the rise of service jobs. Corporations, looking to squeeze another drop of bottom-line figures have sent all the jobs to low cost countries.

All this has led to a drop in the number of manufacturing jobs in the USA. Most middle income households over the last 30 years drew the salaries from manufacturing. The loss of that competitive advantage has left people with reduced salaries and the economy with fewer jobs. This is a double whammy. Not only does this leave the consumers with less spending power; but more crucially essential linkages in the business-to-business chain – the backbone of any strong economy – get broken.

Technological advances and innovation, both of which lead to higher capital expenditure, have been lost from the American lexicon. Without constant capital expenditure, no society maintains the conspicuous consumerism that had come to define the “American Dream” in the decades after 1980s. As, the gap between government revenue and expenditure widens, in the same way the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, leaving the “squeezed middle” to bear the brunt of taxation. Unfortunately, this means that a great deal of policy debate has to do with who should pay how much tax and if taxation should be progressive – that is based on the person’s ability to pay them.

While that is a good way to bring about social equality (and raise revenue) it nonetheless has taken the debate off base. Tax policy debate should be more about how to raise tax revenue effectively and cheaply. Then only should the debate go on to who pays how much. Conservatives (in the US at least) are so called because they want to conserve the Constitution. In speeches and across campaigns they have often mentioned the founding fathers of the nation – though never which exact founding father. If it was Alexander Hamilton – the first US Secretary of the Treasury – then he would probably be horrified at the situation. Hamilton was a proponent of what can only be described as a “national industrial policy”. That means higher taxes of industry and tighter controls. The Republican Party’s idea of low taxes, no regulation and small welfare spending would be anathema to Hamilton. The Democratic Party too has its problems. It wants to raise taxes, increase welfare spending, but corporate lobbyists dog it’s every move. And while the Walter Mittys derive solace from the EU’s troubles, the fact is that populist, not common sense rules the roost.

In the final analysis, the USA is still the dream of every graduate of every business school in the emerging world. It is still the destination of every person fleeing persecution or poverty from every corner of the globe.

Robert Kennedy once said,

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows. But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can”

No words before or since have captured the idea of America – The Free World better. However, much of that is being washed away by nit-picking on welfare. Mark Twain once said that an ounce of History is worth a pound of logic. It is a pity then that economists don’t study history and historians don’t study economists (and politicians study nothing but ballot papers and gallup polls).

The Story Of India – Rediscovered: The Foreword

India’s 1st “census” of sorts was compiled during the tenure of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II back in the late 1700s and was more in the nature of a complicated head count than anything else. Historians have long been at loggerheads about the nature of this effort that, to say the least, was unexpected from the person who, symbolically at least, gave away our independence.

While some historians say that the idea wasn’t really his, but belonged to a more farsighted courtier; the nationalist school of history has claimed that it was a more Company Sahib-led initiative to see what wealth lay to be taken. Although both schools have a great deal of evidence to support their respective claims, they are united on the issue of caste having not been an issue at those times; in other words no one made such a big hue and cry over it.

Now in 2011, 230 odd years down the line, the Govt. of India has agreed to include Caste in the census. That they have pushed Indian society back a good 100 years is not in doubt; neither is that fact that they’re bowing down to parties that have made caste their primary ladder to power; the important question is how do we get out of this almighty rut.

Nehru, the founder of modern India and its 1st family, not to mention its 1st PM was not only an atheist but a socialist to boot; that means he neither believed in God, nor the baseless and superfluous distinctions between men. He, doubtless, would have strongly disapproved of the doings of his party, just as he strongly disapproved of Gandhi’s acceptance of “reserved constituencies” for social and religious minorities back in 1935. The problem, then, was that Ambedkar, leader of the dalits, and Jinnah of the (then nascent) Muslim League were far more astute thinkers and negotiators than they were thought to be (by Nehru who was more of an idealist than anything else). Also they were neither impressed nor bowled over by Gandhi’s charm offensives and PR gambits; and since on both occasions Gandhi (who was never a formal member of the Congress Party) carried on these negotiations alone, disaster was bound to ensue.

The past, as they say, is history; and the world has certainly moved on since then. In 2007, for the 1st time in human history, more people around the world will live in cities than in the country side. India, as always, will be an exception to this; but even here the country side has changed. The India that Gandhi said lived in its villages is long gone, yet why does caste still play such a major role in people’s lives today and can the people do something to stop this relentless march to divisive policies.

One answer is to look to the urban middle class. Some say that when the urban, educated middle class makes up 50%-65% of the population, the politicians will have to change their rhetoric to suit these new aspirations, but that is still generation away at best. Even a progressive western education might not be enough to ward off the evils that befell our forefathers. The recent spate of caste-based honor killings in UP, Bihar and Haryana (where such things have become disturbingly common) show that even the most broad-minded of parents can be shockingly conservative (read boorish) when it comes to their daughters’ future.

The answer is to look back to India’s past, for clues to its future. The past must be re-examined in the cold light of reason and enlightenment. We must clearly examine every choice made and reflect on the roads not taken to properly gauge the course ahead.

There was once a concept called India, an idea that lived in its people; that idea must be found, its story unearthed and its message rediscovered.

The Story of India – Rediscovered : Beginnings

Some years ago, a well dressed gentleman walked into an up-market departmental store in the Belgravia suburb of London. Once he had found what he was looking for he walked up to the counter and stood in line at the cashiers’. When it was his time to pay up he took out his wallet and with the pound-notes out fell a picture of an Indian Hindu deity. The person standing right behind our protagonist, himself an Indian, saw the picture and immediately warmed to the latter.
Our protagonist, the well dressed man was immediately asked if he was a Punjabi. He was not. He was then asked if he was a Gujrati. He was not. He was then told (firmly) that he then must be from UP. Our friend still replied that he was not. The gentleman asking all these questions, by now very hot under the collar, asked quite abrasively (thinking it was some kind of joke) “so what the hell kind of bloody Indian are you?”

This simple event, describes in a microcosm the socio-cultural & linguistic divide that is prevalent in India. The two Indias divided by the Vindhiya Mountains, have existed separately for nearly 2000 years and were only brought together by the much (and not always rightly) maligned British; and this fact somehow, never has been accepted by the historians of the nationalistic school.

The nationalist school of history, fashioned by the Congress in the early 1900s, was founded to give India some sort of cohesive identity. An identity that had eluded it for all of the 10,000 years of its civilisation. If the country had to be united in its desire to rid itself of foreign rule, then it must have some idea of its own identity and heritage. There must be a valid reason to want to get rid of the invader and the simplest reason was that they were foreign and thus oppressive and somehow seeking to obliterate Indian culture and society.
The problem facing the high-priests of this school was that there was no such identity to be found. India as we know it today, has only existed since the 1930s when the British (somewhat arbitrarily) drew the borders of this country out of the areas that it ruled over. Never before has such a landmass been ruled over by one single entity or polity. So who was to decide who was a foreigner and who was Indian? What were the Indian cultures & values that the British were trying to erase and more importantly why would one want to be called an Indian?

Ironically it was the British who gave us the help we needed. When they carved out a large political entity out of their South Asian dominions, they accidentally gave us not only a nation but also our identities. All those who were born inside that area were Indians. Simple. Off course the problems with that were that the borders drawn were completely arbitrary and later on (in 1962) would be the cause of numerous problems. The other big problem was that there was a lot of recorded history to contest this one-nation theory.

In about 2000 BC, the nomads of central Asia came down through the Hindu Kush mountains and settled in the lush Indus plains. These were the Aryans. Tall & fair, with high cheekbones and long noses, they were at a complete contrast to the original inhabitants of the Indus plains. These were short and dark people who worshiped numerous Gods, mostly of the natural world. Dravidians.
The Dravidian culture and society was far more civilised and socialised and sophisticated that the Aryan nomads’.
The displaced Dravidians went back down south to their homeland and built the stunning temple complexes (in Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh & Kerela) that haven’t seen an equal in the North yet. Their language also evolved separately and Tamil , today is the world’s oldest continually spoken classical language. Far older and certainly far more perfectly (sophisticated) structured than Sanskrit – the (so called) mother of all Indian languages.

Not only the language, but also the sociological structure and even the religion was far removed from that of the Aryan North. While the Aryan’s had a simplistic Triumvir of Gods, the South had a complex structure of a multi-layered divine society. The caste system, a plague upon India – even as recently as 2010 – is a Aryan thing.

A Eulogy for a Simple Man: My Grandfather, my friend

Written on 22-Feb-2012

He was my grandfather. He is no more. It is not easy to put into words, all that I have known, felt or thought about him. It is not easy, especially when he’s gone, to think long and hard about all that he did and all that he stood for – 92 years’ worth of thought, action, belief, love, kindness, generosity and support. He was all of these; and much more. And he has left us poorer. It is not easy to be all these things. It is not easy to write about such a man.

He was born in a dusty corner of Bengal, in 1919, when the modern world was being born – out of the embers of the Great War. With 7 younger siblings to guide and shepherd and an uncertain world to navigate, he surely had his share of burdens and demons. Cometh the hour; cometh the man.

My grandfather was a self-effacing man, a trait he probably picked up from his father. By his own admission, he was dismal at studies, though that never stopped him from demanding the highest academic standards from both my father and me. He used to say that there is no substitute for hard work and perseverance. And work hard he did; as indeed he needed to. There were younger siblings that needed to be put through school; sisters to marry off and parents to support. Although he had support from his elder brothers, their stories were cruelly curtailed, far short of their prime. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

My grandfather lived through an earthquake, a famine, a world war, a revolution for independence, another famine and finally a partition – with the riots that followed. A little later, as a parent and a husband, he coped with the Emergency, the Naxals and the sharp downward spiral of Calcutta and Bengal. It was not a stellar existence by all accounts. Certainly there were people around him that were more famous, richer; there were mouths to feed, backs to clothe, bills to pay, responsibilities to shoulder and standards to maintain – in some of the most difficult times that India has faced in the last few centuries. My grandfather did all this and more with a smile on his face, good cheer in his heart, faith in his maker and an unshakeable belief of never deviating from the straight and narrow path of honesty and personal integrity.

My earliest memory of him was the sight of him bending over the teapot at tea time in the evening, pouring boiling water with tender loving care of a father, or the pained meticulousness of an eye surgeon. He would stir the tea, mix the sugar and pour the milk, all commonplace acts; but he’d make it look like the most exquisite strokes of a master-painter or sculptor. The spoon would be tapped a precise three times on the rim of the cup and then set down next to the cup, on the saucer and offered. It was simple, clean, uncluttered somehow pristine and pure. It was as if every cup was different, every drink somehow tailored to the person drinking it. I have never felt the same thrill and anticipation at any other proffer of edible material ever.

This pained meticulousness was evident in every aspect of his life, especially his clothes. There was never a crease out of place and most were sharp enough to cut butter with. His clothes were simple, but also somehow always contemporary and stylish. His preference for things that endured was never more apparent than in his choice of timelessly elegant attire. He was, in a very Kiplingesque way, the pukka sahib of the old Raj. Resplendent, at ease and disarming; a kind word here and a gentle nudge of support there – the very essence of the enlightened, educated and liberal Bengali that made both the Empire and India what it was.

What especially brought us closer in the heady days of my pre-teenage adolescence were the stories about “Bantha”. This dog of unknown origin and lineage belonged to a friend of his from the Army. And for hour after hour during weekends and summer holidays I would be found perched on his knee listening to the latest escapade of this dog and his staunch ally, the family parrot. There were dangers from assorted milkmen, cats, religious zealots and all sorts and hues of people. I do not remember a single story, but I remember feeling somehow safe. Somehow, life was better because of Bantha.

Elsewhere in these chronicles, I had mentioned what my grandfather felt about his father, and that perhaps, in some small way will mirror what we felt about him. In the end what it all adds up to is love; not love as it is described in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. His (my grandfather’s) awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, he could not help but profit from it.

He was my grandfather; he was many things to many people. He lived his life in quiet happiness. He did not aim for the stars. He was content to be happy, with a little, to share that little with the people that he loved. Happiness, he once told me, was a choice that one needs to make. Dadu made that choice, every day; for himself and others around him. There will not be streets named after him, nor will there be monuments and statues dedicated to him. He will have to be content to be remembered by a few people – with great affection – as a good and decent man, who loved life and the people around him, who gave as freely as he received, who sacrificed a little of his future, so that others may have a far better one; and every once in a while be sought for advise, order and guidance about life and other acts of God that impede our time on this little rock.

It is not easy to be such a man; it is even less easy to write about him. But we will remember him, for who he was, what he stood for, what he taught us and what he leaves us with. It is a far greater calling, than he had in life – to be the light for those still here, from beyond the veil.

AN ODE: To a new old-friend, to good friends & to the beginning of the rest of our lives

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

~  Henry V (Henry V, Shakespeare William)

I’m at a loss for words. No, I really am.

A recently deceased former school English teacher once told me that the surest sign of proficiency in any language is not in being able to express a simple thought in big words; but in being able to distill the essence and feeling of deep thoughts in to simple words. If that’s so, then today I know that my English is not as good as I’d thought it to be. That’s because I cannot find the words to express myself.

I’ve never been a morning person. As a matter of fact I’m just slightly less allergic to early mornings than I am to religion, math and hard work. But even so, at a little after five-twenty in the morning this twenty sixth of March I’m up. I’ve been here before. All through-out the first year, I was always staggering to bed at such times; after a long and festive night. But today, for the first time, I stop to look. I’ve never seen the campus like this. The bright yellow-orange ball of fire rising above the new academic block and the mists clearing. The silhouettes of the trees gradually becoming sharper and then the warmth of the morning sun chasing all melancholy away.

There is relief, happiness; and a huge sense of achievement – but all of that is tinged with a certain sadness. Like a light sprinkling of rain on a hot summer’s day; it doesn’t do much for the heat, but you know it was there. Or a bitter espresso, lightly dusted with sweet chocolate. There, but just.

It’s as if you’ve just climbed up the difficult face of a mountain; as you make it into the sunshine, out above the tree-line, you realize that you’re standing in a moment of utter perfection – you’ve done something. But, with that also comes the realization that it’s over. Somehow the journey down won’t be that good. You leave a little something of yourself on that mountain. I’ve left a little something of myself on campus.

It slowly creeps up on you that feeling. Just when you’ve nothing at hand to do, or you’re taking a break. It doesn’t overwhelm you, it doesn’t burden you. It just stays there – like a cat. It doesn’t make to re-examine at things – it just lets you know it’s there.

Perhaps then, it’s like a break up. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind – graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. Perhaps it’s the blazing hot little pains you feel when you realized that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last – and yet will remain with you for life.

What I will miss the most about this place, is a combination of three things; a carefree walk around the campus, taken after dinner, with friends and spent mostly talking about nothing in particular and everything in general.

Even if I were to find any two of the above, I know that I shall never be able to get all three. There will never be such people, who will be so unconcerned about success, status, money and vices & prejudices; that will just be happy in each others’ company. There will also never be the carefree atmosphere that, even with assignments and tests, allows people the security and freedom to spend moments not worrying about the next day, the next meal or the next job. Most importantly, there will never be another campus. Quiet, clean and entirely our own. Never.

And so I leave, still not able to put the words to my feelings. There are people that I’ve met, people with whom I’ve laughed; people that have inspired me and made me a better person. There are people that I’ve met everyday, people that I walked to class with, people that I walked aback with. There are people that have helped me; people that have become as familiar to my daily routine as the sun is in the eastern sky.

And, they’re all far far away

POST SCRIPT:-

I started writing this in the morning. It’s been more than 24 hours and I’ve yet not managed to write what I wanted to. Perhaps that’s because words are cheap. Feelings need not always require words, there are too many words to describe feelings.

The sounds of people playing Holi downstairs distracts me; this is my first Holi at home in ages – perhaps the first in half a decade. They are making merry, shouting all sorts of things; the young and the not-so-young all taking part in the melee.

And all I can think of is what will people be doing on campus. All I think of is when will I meet them again? What will happen to us? Who will remember us when we’re gone? Who will tell our stories?

A Little Something About Our Education System

This was written as a speech to be deliered to the staff and students of an imaginary graduate business school on their convocation, by an alumnus. 

Thank you Director, for those kind words of welcome; had anyone told either of us, when you taught me all those years ago that one day you would say – or be forced to say – all these nice things about me, that too in public; I daresay I would have asked him to bugger off. So would you, but maybe a little more politely.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and lastly distinguished members of the faculty, please don’t let the platitudes fool you, I was and remain the foremost blot on the face of this institution –which is why I was hugely surprised and not a little shell shocked to have been ambushed by the invitation to be the keynote speaker at this convocation.

I do not propose to detain you for any longer than I have to. Not that long ago I sat in those very same chairs watching all sorts of posturing idiots pontificate from this pulpit and although suitably nauseated by the hypocrisy of this situation, I remember how it felt.

So, let me first begin with an apology for being the reason for your being dragged here. I have a theory that the “powers that be” in this place have their annual pay reduced if a student is found to be happy and contented with his life here. That’s why you don’t get proper holidays and the class timings are fixed with their comfort at the fore. If you believe that you are paying for a service, then surely it should be your convenience that’s the primary factor indecision making right? Obviously not.

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk to you about something that’s probably never addressed in a formal way in – what we call; for lack of a better word – our educational system. Happiness. When was the last time someone told you, or taught you to be happy? Just happy, no frills attached; no conditions. Nothing.

It’s not actually their fault. They are teaching the same hackneyed stuff that they were taught and this cycle can be traced back to time-immemorial. Please understand that almost none of what you learn in classrooms  here and elsewhere will ever be of any use to you. Ever.

On the contrary, what you will need is usually taught to you in the corridors and roof-tops of the hostels here. And that is how to deal with people, their prejudices and emotions. How to help someone, without expecting anything in return; what you learn there is what will enable you to network, conspire and wriggle your way to wherever you are destined to be.

But I digress. I was talking about happiness.You see, you are judged, and even you will ultimately judge yourself by the platitudes of others. That in turn depends on the number of shiny objects that adorn your living room. In order to buy those shiny objects you’ll have to sell your soul to the highest bidder and that’s why you have come here. To be bought and sold, by the dozen. I don’t blame you. I did it too. And not a day goes by that I don’t regret it.

All our lives we’ve run races. In school,college, universities and even in B-schools, we run against one another. At the end of the day, when we can’t run anymore, we realise that in the course of the race, we’ve done little else; and worse, lost those things that we were most proud of in ourselves.

We have nothing to show for our efforts.Sure, we may have the penthouse apartments and the large cars and the huge flat-screens; but do we have what we truly want? Do we have friends? Do we have contentment, or do we live with regret; like I do?

So, if happiness won’t come from being rich and having a large house and a German sports saloon; where does it come from? Simply put, it comes from within. It comes from wanting to be happy. It’s harder than it sounds, I assure you. Its not easy being content with little; being OK with someone else’s success. Society may call you unambitious. It probably will call you a lot worse.

But remember, they don’t teach you anything worthwhile in class. They don’t teach you how to love someone, how to tell someone you love them, how to tell someone you don’t love them, how to deal with losing, how to deal with dying, how to deal with a friend’s success, how to comfort someone, how to be awed by something, how to treasure something, how to laugh with someone, how to do something meaningful in life, how to express yourself, how to define your goals,how to make friends, how to stand up for something, how to believe; they teach you nothing of value.

They just tell you that you need to maximize shareholder value.

My parting words, my friends, is that don’t me; or a standardized version of what people believe you should be. Be happy. That’s all folks!!

Goodnight

The Voyager & Blind Willie Johnson: Some Thoughts At Midnight

In September of 2013, the Voyager-I spacecraft left the solar system. It was the first time that an object dreamt, created and operated by a species as new and as infirm as the humans had gone beyond the far reaches of the sun that had sustained the very life form that built it.

On that spacecraft were greetings in 55 languages, pictures showing life on Earth and 27 songs that were ‘representative of humanity’. One of those songs was “Dark was the Night, Cold wass the Ground” written in 1927 by the black jazz musician, blind Willie Johnson.

He was so called, because his mother had thrown rye in his eyes, after she was beaten by his father for allegedly being with another man. Willie died in penury, after contracting malaria, shortly after his house burnt down.

When in 1977 Carl Sagan and the Mars Voyager Team chose his song, it was part of the US Library of Congress’ selection of songs that were deemed to be ‘culturally significant’; Sagan wroteof the song that “…since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight”.

It is significant then, that amongst the 1st sounds of the earth that a wandering extra-terrestrial may hear would be the music of a segregated, blind man, who never found peace happiness or joy in his life.

In the same month as the Voyager-I was making history, another queer circularity of life was making itself apparent. As the UK remembered Winston Churchill – arguably Great Britain’s finest and most remembered Prime Minister, a guest was signing the memorial book at No 10 Downing Street. Churchill in the late 1880s was responsible for the setting up of ‘internment camps” for African tribes’ men. These camps were not so dissimilar to the concentration camps of the Nazis. In one of these camps, there lived an African tribal elder. After a year in captivity, he was released. It was surely a twist of faith that the great-grandson of that tribesman was – the man signing the guest book that day in September 2013 – the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama.

These two instances, if anything, don’t call for either lessons or judgment. They simply are to be remembered, for they represent the opposites of the human condition. The loneliness of despair and the potential of human endeavor.

Robert Francis Kennedy, speaking to the black students of South Africa, on their day of Affirmation in June 1966 said,:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows.”

“But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

It is perhaps this duality – that led Tagore to write, ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. In the battle between – what Shakespeare calls nurture and nature – while we struggle and fall to our baser instincts; our hopes, dreams and aspirations push us to pick ourselves up and keep climbing. Out from the dark forests, into the sunlight slopes. The battle will not be won in our life time. It may even not be won in the lifetime of the human species on this earth – but that should not stop us from fighting.

As Brad Pitt’s character in the film Troy said, “In a thousand years from now even the dust from our bones will have disappeared; what will people remember?” Let people remember that we fought. Not with each other, but with ourselves. Being human is not about empathy and sympathy, it’s about choosing to live our lives by something. As Kennedy said, ‘we can perhaps remember…….

If not, then as the Script sing, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything!”