Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The rules of the game.

The school head boy should be dating the school head girl..the topper guy should be with the topper gal and so on went the unwritten rule in my school for generations. Although dating as defined in the modified Kerala edition of the Oxford dictionary had certain restricted meaning than what the general audience would come to think. Stolen moments of private conversations behind the library, walks to home from tuition classes and if you were all right with being called risqué a brief holding of hands under the desk during physics lecture pretty much constituted the idea of malluland high school dating of the 90s.

Then again the gulf returned kids, the boors as the culture custodians would call them, pushed the limits with the occasional exchanges of err Toblerone bars and glass-tubed pencils which never seemed to run out of pointy nibs. Ahh the audacity. We the boys of the local breed (aborigines in their eyes) were crude male forms with a strange affliction which caused tongue paralysis in the vicinity of the sacred feminine. We liked to think that it was the pencils and the toblerones that made the gulf returnees a rage among the girls. Well you see both sides had fair arguments.

One such ‘assimilated but still an NRK’ knight in shining Nikes (Bata and Carona shoes were what the rest of us wore..and those weren’t exactly shiny) was the head boy of our school, the topper of the class and my best friend. He was smart and handsome and to top it off wore glasses which had strings which hung behind his neck. (For a brief period sometime in the nineties those rimmed glasses with strings became a fashion rage in my school and every boy worth his salt developed sudden bouts of myopia. Despite my valiant claims that I couldn’t read beyond the second line in the ophthalmologists alphabet chart my doctor, the quack hmmmph refused to believe that I needed glasses. I even tried reading ‘C’ as ‘X’ and ‘E’ as ‘W’). In short my friend let’s call him Paris (from the Greek Epic of course) had everything going for him save for a queen by the side. And when our lady Helen was appointed the school’s head girl our Gulf returned Paris (you see the irony?? I don’t) had all the bells ringing inside. Tall, fair and medusa-esque eyes (really, the boys found it really tough to see her in the eyes. God knows why) Helen was right out of Homer’s epic.

My match making ailment was at its unabated peak despite several Grecian tragedies and it was still decades later that I learned the valuable lesson of not poking my nose in another couples affairs.

Me: Dude, Helen brushed aside her hair from her face when she was talking to you after the Assembly today. Swear, that means she’s interested in you.
Paris: Huh, really??
Me: Yea I read it in the Reader’s Digest article on body language and cryptic signaling
Paris: Let me do an analysis in my Commodore 64. That should give some conclusive results
Commodore 64 was the computer that my friend Paris had got from Dubai last year. Whenever we had an disagreement on anything he would throw in the argument that his Commodore 64 said so. And since we didn’t even know what a computer was at that time we would just have to fold in to him. For example one such argument was whether Hitman or Hulk Hogan was the best in WWF (oh remember those days when it was WWF and not WWE??). I said Hitman but apparently the Commodore had told Paris that it was Hogan and that was the end of the argument. How could I even question what a ‘Computer’ said?
Days passed with several such apparent cryptic signals being sent out by Helen in the general direction of Paris which only I could see initially. But soon enough Paris was starting to see them as well.
Me: You know man I think it’s high time that you ask her once and for all if she likes you or not.
Paris: Hmm…I think so too. You know yesterday while she was standing in the bus stop her left foot was pointed in my direction. That is an indisputable sign isn’t it.
Me: Of course, I’m sure your Commode will agree
Paris: Dude its Commodore not Commode.
Me: Err,,right for all I care both are good for just one purpose.
Paris was well and truly bitten by the love bug by first term was getting over. All that was left was to summon up the courage and walk up to the lady herself and ask for the fair maiden’s hand. But then again it was a mere formality right? It was tradition that was on his side. You know the head boy and the head girl and so on.
Me: What the hell are you waiting for. You don’t want to wait till the term is over. By the time we come back after the holidays the whole momentum would be gone.
Paris: It’s not about momentum my friend it’s about the moment. The right time my friend, the moment is all that matters. As the greek poet Pontius Pilate said Give me the right moment and I would change time.
Now I was really convinced that he had lost his marbles well and truly.
The term exams were fast approaching and time was running out. It would be the holidays soon and two weeks in adolescent time is equivalent to a decade. Paris and I used to study together for the exams at his place. On the night before the dreaded maths test we sat in front of his Commodore 64 and typed out a detailed love letter. Now that I think back it wasn’t a confession of love but more an argumentative thesis on why Helen should accept his proposal. At a time when two hundred word essays seemed bigger challenges than swimming across the English Channel our collective brains churned out a five page letter of love in neat calligraphy written using red, blue, yellow and green Faber Castell sketch pens (of course from Dubai).
On the last day of the exams, Paris in his smartest uniform shirts and trousers and shine black Nikes trailed Helen at a distance waiting for the right moment. The right moment came an hour before the last exam in the afternoon when he spotted her all by herself sitting under the mango tree beside the school ground going through her tuition notes when our man approached her like a cheetah prowling up behind an unwary deer.
He stood beside her and with a clearing of his throat said a well rehearsed nonchalant ‘hello’.
Paris: Hello. Did you study?
Helen: (with a quizzical look on her face. Obviously it’s the day of the exam who wouldn’t study) No not at all. You?
The rest of the conversation was lost to me as the mercurial wind changed direction away from my vantage point. But I could easily make out what they were saying thanks to the Reader’s Digest’s article on lip reading. The conversation went thus.
Paris: Iraq was really cold yesterday.
Helen: Haha Mrs. Mathew’s dog had three kittens yesterday.
Paris: Oh really? Mr. Mathew must have some hand in it.
Helen: Yea yea Shakespeare had arthritis
Paris: Are you sure? Iraq is in Africa no?
Then I saw our man Paris slowly put his hand inside his trouser pocket and fish out a pack of chiclets (His stock of Toblerone had just ran out) and held it out to her.
Again quizzical look.
I thought she wasn’t going to take it from him but success she takes the pack from his hands with a smile.
Seeing his moment arrive Paris takes out the letter from his shirt pocket and gave it to Helen.
Quizzical look change to puzzled one. But she takes the letter from his hand and starts reading it. Expression changes again. Reader’s digest didn’t say anything about that particular body language. I’m confused. Midway through the letter she pauses to open the chiclets pack and pop the gum in her mouth.
After what seemed an enternity she is done with the last page as well. Again no expression.
She then folded the letter very deftely and made it in the shape of a paper plane and then took out a pen from her pencil box and scribbled something on the side of the plane. Smiles at Paris, gave the plane to him and walked away.
Paris looked down on the plane in his hand and had a confused look in his face. Oh yea..that’s exactly like the illustration in Reader’s Digest. I went running to him to know what she had written on the plane. It read – “The plane that crashed without taking off”.
Hmm..Dude, Chiclets just doesn’t do what a Toblerone does.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Entreprenuership as we do it!!

A few months back when I was visiting a friend in IIT Bombay he was getting eloquent about his plans to start a company, list it in the stock market, liquidate it and make a killing in the process. He was twenty at that time. I remember the time when I was twenty I was still trying to figure out why was it that I had taken it up as my life’s ambition to get into CET for Engineering, and having done that trying to figure out what next. Entrepreneurship was probably the farthest thing in my mind. The friend of mine was a marwadi whose family had business interests throughout the country. At twenty he was already making more money from his part time ventures than I did then after an engineering degree and an M.B.A. What struck me was that while children in Kerala are guided towards engineering colleges, these guys were guided towards ways and means to make a better living. Or in other words our destination was a means to a still farther destination.

For them education was a certain social necessity rather than an end in itself. In Kerala we were told to think of nothing beyond getting this degree. Things apparently would fall in place by itself after that. Risk taking was and still is not a forte for the mallu populace. This becomes very obvious if we look at the number of companies owned by malayalis which are listed in the National/Bombay Stock exchange.

When you travel through Surat or Ahmedabad you are met with large hoarding which exhort people to start their own businesses. The government has come out with several schemes for starting small and medium businesses. Frankly it’s not just the Gujarat government that has such schemes, but the central government as well as various state governments have schemes. In Gods own country they just contributes to the crores that go into undisbursed funds and gets lapsed every year.

Growing up in Trivandrum I was exposed to a population which was in many ways homogenous in their financial stature. Trivandrum is not a business town. The average family had at least one stream of revenue attached to the state or central government. And hence more or less every family was the same. Those families which had two earning members perhaps a little better off. The elite in the city were the doctors or gulf returnees. I remember a time when I traveled 8 kms (which at that time meant from one end of the city to the other end) to see a Mercedes S class. And this wasn’t long back mind you; circa 2002 I would say. It was only after I was plucked out of the social cocoon of malluland that I realized that Pillai doctor wasn’t after all the richest man in the world.

And the scene wasn’t that different in other parts of the state. But true Cochin was one of the first places in India to get Mercedes and BMW showrooms but that’s more down to the fact that mallus like to show off to the farthest extend that their means allow them to. Hence practically everybody who owned anything about 10 acres of rubber plantation a few years back (when the price of rubber was at a record high) was in a position to buy a Mercedes, and I guess most of them did. To make a case in point Narayana Murthy with his millions still rode a Fiat to his office at that time, Azim Premji still flies economy class while I remember the limousine which plied the roads of Trivandrum (How on earth did it ever get through Uloor junction god alone knows). No kidding, twenty foot limousine in Trivandrum. Well mallus let’s just say like to have their gold chains without the shirts on while the marwadi would rather sleep in his banyan on a mattress stuffed with five hundred rupee notes.

If you switch on the vernacular channels you get a fair idea of the business scene of the state by looking at the ads. I would say that 80% of the ads that you see in Malayalam channels are either related to property or to Jewellery (and recently ayurvedic creams and oils which cure everything from arthritis to zits) . And these are I guess the richest groups in the state. The nouveau-riche constituted by the property developers and the traditionally rich jewellery owners. Both these groups have inherent ties to the western shores of the Arabian sea. The few exceptions from this that we have heard for long are I guess the V Guard and the Manorama families. And the hoardings that line the national highway 47 are of jewellery stores, marble and granite shops, hawai chappals, banks or parallel colleges. And maybe we are infact taking a page out of the marwadi tales of success. The money lending business is starting to thrive (no doubt with the strings behind it pulled from the same Arabian shores) like never before with all those NBFCs sprouting up at every junction.

For decades we have been told that wealth is bad. Anybody who dared to create money for himself was assumed to have done so by crook rather than legal means. Wealth it was said wasn’t a social asset. It was for the individual and hence frowned upon.

Over the years mindsets have changed but mentalities haven’t. You can’t just switch over from a mentality that nurtured conservation and mediocrity to competitiveness and business pragmatism.

The mindset has been shaped by several factors not just political. Cultural factors played its role. How many mallu films of the sixties and seventies had themes of factory lockouts, evil rich man turning poor and so on (ahh these were the happy endings of the times). The financial climate had a hand. I’ve heard several times that to be a borrower is a worse sin that probably adultery. And frankly the foundation of any business is borrowed capital in whatever forms.

For decades to come, mallu parents will encourage their children to take up engineering without caring to see 1) if that is where the child’s interests lie or 2) if that’s exactly going to guarantee a safe future for the child; For decades to come mallus will measure success in life in acres of rubber (Things might change faster than that if the ASEAN FTA is implemented as it is); For decades to come mallus will think that an IIT is something slightly different from the ITI that the neighbor’s kid Shankaran went to get his diploma (Somebody once told me of a story when an erstwhile Kerala CM declined an offer from the Central Government to set up an IIT in Kerala saying that we have more than enough ITIs and ITCs in the state to fulfill the need for technical education).

I hope someday the state would stop giving its excuse about the lack of land as a reason for lack of significant enterprise and wake up to the reality that it’s the lack of will that’s the sole impediment. In fact I’m surprised when somebody defined the factors of production (land, labour and capital) they forgot to take into account the primary factor which is “human will”. Well economists never liked anything that can’t be quantified right. How the hell do you measure the power of human will.

But if you broaden your approach and look at it carefully the question is not just about entrepreneurship. It’s about wealth creation and that too over a period of time spanning at least two or three generations or in other words ‘sustained wealth creation’. And the failure is not really just a mallu phenomenon. There’s an inherent problem with the traditional family owned businesses that seems to be the default organization of Indian businesses. The problem of transition. The big family names that you heared in the eighties have gave way to new ones. And this is going to continue. The current crisis in THE HINDU group is a case in point. I feel it’s got something to do with our history where wealth alone is power. Narayana Murthy’s quote that the greatest power about wealth is in giving it away. Any takers?? ()