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Friday, April 8, 2016


The scariest thing about growing up is realising that your family are just normal human beings. They are flawed. They seem more and more imperfect, the older you get. And yet they love you unconditionally and in that moment you remember what family means.

My Dadima was a storyteller. She wanted nothing more than an audience and I humoured her. I suppose it’s true for many of the elderly but boy did she have stories. Of all my four grandparents, she was the most talkative. She would spend all afternoon reading her books and her newspaper and all evening explaining the ways of the world to me. I lived with her for a few months when I first moved to Bombay in 2012. She was in fine form. The saddest thing about the cancer than eventually took her way was that it silenced her. There are few tragedies more heart-breaking than a storyteller silenced. She lost the ability to speak and my world lost a familiar voice. Let us not deify her – I don’t think she would have wanted that. She was not perfect. If I may be so bold, I want to tell a few stories of my own.

She grew up in a different time. She was 11 when India gained independence from the British Empire. She really really didn’t like the British. She didn’t much care for white people in general, from what I could gather – they were all out to get her. She was a deeply proud Indian and I think she carried the pain of colonial oppression with her. She was proud of being Indian. But she was prouder still of her Hindu identity and I think that that identity freed her from the tendrils of modern history. She could lose herself in the greatness of the ancient scriptures, cosy in the knowledge that it pre-dated these blood-thirsty Europeans by thousands of years. She danced between Hindu philosophy and myth in a way that mesmerized us as children, laying on the sofa-bed in our Bandra house and watching the purple night sky saunter heavily on outside. The night sky from that Bandra house – her home for the better part of 50 years – was lit so beautifully by our imaginations. It was a worthy canvas and I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for that giant window in the living room that let the night sky roll in every evening. She would never miss a chance to explain to us how this God built this and that Goddess said that and every story would end with some mere mortal understanding his inescapable finiteness and “falling at the feet of Lord ______”. If the guy didn’t fall at the God’s feet, it wasn’t the end of the story. I couldn’t separate the myth from the metaphor and I dismissed them all as fairy tales. I’m not going to say I’ve had a change of heart now. I’m simply saying that as a storyteller, she enchanted us with the majesty of Indian mythology – as only a grandmother can. We didn’t ask questions or fall asleep. We just gave her an audience.

Dadima always reminded us spoilt, foreign-educated kids who we were and where we came from. She would make it a point to sit us down and tell us about the village she came from and how she raised my dad after moving to the city. She came from romantic poverty – at least that’s how she made it seem. Life in the village was crossing rivers to get to school and drying tamarind in the summer. The childhood she told me about, was about seeking and striving for an education. She and her two siblings would study by kerosene lantern. Listening to her talk about the value of an education was more humbling than inspiring. To get out of the village, you had to study and learn to read and write and learn to love languages and learn to love learning. She told me how much she loved learning English (without loving the English) and how empowered she felt with it by her side. She told me how when she went for a job interview (at the bank where she would eventually spend her career at in Mumba), she carried an Oscar Wilde book. She didn’t even understand all of it, but the bank manager was impressed by her ambition. She told me about the bank manager, a Parsi gentleman, who was an eminent womanizer and whose charm crashed hopelessly against the folds of her sari. She would remember these kinds of things. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a candidate carrying an Oscar Wilde book to an interview, even today? Maybe some things never change. She showed me what it is to love the English language. She showed me its power and its beauty. She loved languages and spoke so many, so effortlessly. It is one of my deepest insecurities that I cannot speak an Indian language anywhere near as well as she spoke about 6 of them. “Once you learn one of the four South-Indian languages, you can learn them all.” She found comfort in Kannada poetry. She eulogized about a Kannada poet and teacher she had in high school. She loved the nuns who taught at her convent school, despite being Christians. She’d give out rationed bursts of begrudging love from time to time.

She was clear about the way things were and they were as she understood them. She would say things like, “I was never beautiful, but I worked hard.” What a thing to say! I was never beautiful? She was always apologising for herself like that. Here was a mother who woke up at 5am to cook food for the family's breakfasts and lunches before taking the train to work, working a full day, managing the children in the evening and making dinner by the time my granddad got home. These days she apologises for other things.

“Sorry, I didn’t make any non-vegetarian food.”

At the cancer ward (after her successful surgery) when she was weak and unable to move, she saw me looking at her with sadness and said, “Sorry you have to see me like this.” She found the time to apologise to bystanders for having cancer.

She loved singing and music and chanting her bhajjans and putting coconut oil in our hair on Sunday mornings. She would make us her trademark yellow dosas and chai using utensils given to her as wedding presents 50 years ago. She was someone who didn’t throw away the plastic cutlery that comes with home-delivered Chinese food. She would wash and reuse them. “Why should we throw them? We can use them.” And they will sit, unused, for another 50 years.

I’m glad she remained sharp of mind until the end. When I was leaving Bombay in January, she asked me to sit next to her on the bed and kissed me and said “I love you”. She would sing to us in Konkani about love all through our childhoods but she had never said those three words. I knew then that she was ready. She had checked out of the hotel. When her voice began failing, maybe she thought her story was told. I wish I had recorded her stories when she was alive. I told her to write them down but I don’t think she told stories to document them. I think she told them because she loved doing it. She loved holding an audience as I hope I’ve held you. So here’s to her, the storyteller never silenced.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

Every day at work for the last three years, while I ate my lunch, I would watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. He’s what I want to be: a bridge between laughter and reflection, between awareness and action, between the wisdom of adulthood and youth’s naïve optimism. And yet because Jon Stewart holds America to such high standards (standards America should perhaps hold itself to more often), his brand of parody emphasises America’s shortcomings. Watching Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and other comedians has jaundiced my view of this great country.

I’ve been in America for exactly a month and my friends always ask me “so how is Yale?”

Yale is everything you’d imagine: unequivocally, unapologetically Ivy League. It is grand: the gym looks like a cathedral and the resources available are staggering. Do you want to bring in a guest speaker to augment with group work? Here’s $1,000. Do you want to spend the summer in Ukraine working on energy policy? Here’s a blank cheque. But that’s not what captivates me about this place. On 55 Hillhouse Avenue (that Hemingway and Dickens called the ‘most beautiful street in America’) sit a group of young people who fill me with more inspiration than all the regal courtyards we walk through every day. They are my classmates at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the best thing about Yale (and my life right now) is that I get to sit with them.

They are the America Jon Stewart forgot. They are 30 men and women from around the world who have good in their hearts and steel in their veins. I am hesitant to say “we” because I am still figuring out my place within this tribe. My biggest goal and erstwhile challenge is to shut up. Shut up and listen. What I love about my class – and particularly the Americans who anchor it – is their will to go out into the world and improve things. It is something that as a journalist, you come to admire – as a writer I am at best an advocate, at worst an armchair activist. But my classmates left Ohio and New Jersey and Texas with that same naïve optimism (that Jon ought to recapture) and built things.

My classmates are the America you don’t see in the news: the America that wants to be an international force because it feels it has a duty to ameliorate. An America self-aware and confident enough in its virtues that it ventures back into Iraq and Afghanistan and Benin and Rwanda simply because it feels it has the capability to amend. They are army officers supremely cognizant of their misadventures and fearless enough to go back and fix things; fearless enough not to give up. They are the Peace Corps volunteers who build schools and hospitals and help young atheists become more tolerant of the religious. “Libya? I’ll go there. Kosovo? I’ll go there. You can stay in London and go to warehouse parties or continue working for your dad’s company in Bombay. Enjoy your weekend trip to Bangkok. I’m going to South Africa to work on an anti-AIDS project.”

The Americans I’ve met here have a profound, unerring will to learn about and improve the world. From my own limited experience, Europeans seem happy with enjoying their lives and finding the beauty in things (nothing wrong with that) while Asians want to secure prosperity for their families, their clans and their countries (in that order). But the Americans here, the ones that Jon pays scant credence to, are going to venture forth and do their best, armed with bags of money and hearts of gold. The international students in my class are no less impressive or loveable. The Russian, who has inserted himself into the lion’s star-spangled den, finds his proud nation repeatedly critiqued by the world’s most august historians and responds with a measured candour we should all aspire to. The Chinese approaches problems (and opinions) with the understated sincerity that has driven his economy’s logical resurgence.

You know when you see horrible news on TV? When you forfeit hope? These people stop you in your tracks. They will not stand for it. It is really quite incredible.

Everyone brings something unique to the table. You see someone struggling through economics lecture in the morning. But in the afternoon, he’s knee deep in Hannah Arendt while you’re still figuring out what “The Banality of Evil” actually means. It is sobering and intoxicating at the same time: we’ve all begun this journey together and we have no idea who or where we’ll be two years from now.

I’ve found myself changing too. Yale is a petri dish for studying one’s plunge into mediocrity. This is where learning to shut up comes in handy. As a result, I’ve had to push myself and challenge myself more than ever before; I naively thought that getting into grad school would be the toughest part (working full time while also studying for GREs and putting together solid applications) and then things would get easier. But grad school is harder. It’s a relentless avalanche of duties and here’s the problem: They are duties to yourself. If you slack, you lose. Not your parent, not your employer. The undergraduate zeal for finding the path of least resistance is quickly disappearing. Procrastination is the last vestibule of a crumbling empire. There are days when you do calculus for five hours and then come home to an hour of German homework and two hours of marking undergraduates’ homework. I find solace, on evenings of mental maelstrom, in America’s single greatest export bar none: Miles Davis. An hour of jazz and I’m ready to go again. Between Miles and Jon, I’m good.

Yale is a bigger catalyst for self-improvement than any “90-day weight loss program” or stupidly titled paperback. Every junction pushes you to dig deeper and find something within yourself you didn’t know you had. I wrote a book review the other day that, I think, is some of my best writing. Why? I had spent a week reading the most compelling memoir I’ve come across: William J Shirer’s “Nightmare Years”. For me, reading a 600 page novel used to be a once-a-year event; my first month at Yale requires that I fill my mind with the words of genii every week. 600 pages worth. I can feel myself getting smarter, I just hope I don’t try to act smarter too.

Today I attended a classical music recital out of my own volition – something I’d never have done a few years (or months) ago.

As the pipes of the grand organ tower above you in Woolsey Hall, you suddenly understand the immortal power of a symphony orchestra. The double basses rumble in the deep, like clouds of war gathering ominously in the horizon, tempered only by the playful violins chirping feminine messages of defiant happiness. And when the brass section bellows into earshot, you feel the energy in the room suddenly pick up. It’s a gravity that wasn’t there before – a gravity that only live music can emote out of thin air. It’s the ultimate team sport. It is raw, ethereal compulsion, summoned at the fingertips of musicians who have mastered their craft. Yale had opened my mind to experiencing the beauty of this sonic drama. I was happy I went. The tickets were free (because of course they were free) but I had overcome the inertia that had stymied my intellectual curiosity in the past. In one month, Yale has changed me.

If I were to leave you with one message it would be this: try to find your tribe. My parents, in the last ten years, seem to have found theirs and they are happier for it. I think I have found a community where I can just shut up and absorb the ideas that optimism and rigour churn out. I hope you are, at whatever level, able to find yours. I hope you’re able to find a group of people who have similar ideas about finding (and creating) and happiness. It is like being part of a team. It is comforting and motivating in equal measure: you know your peers will keep you honest and vault you to creativity when need be.

Look at me: the temerity to lecture Jon Stewart on America! Take a plunge into naïveté with me and you may also find a better version of yourself. “How is Yale?” Yale is good man, Yale is good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Not yet a Buddhist

About two years ago, I wrote a silly blog about why I didn’t have a girlfriend and why I probably never would. It was an essay in self-pity because I’ve dated two wonderful girls since. But it got me thinking: I realize that I was linking my own happiness to my external environment. First, I was linking my happiness to another person (being a relationship is something I craved). And secondly, to a lesser extent, I was linking my happiness to the fact that I was living in India. Clearly, I would never be happy as long as I was in India, because for some reason I wouldn’t be able to find a companion there. Oh how the tables have turned. Now I feel dissatisfied for exactly the opposite reasons: I will soon have to end a relationship because I will be moving to the USA for university. It has left me with one lesson: I need to learn to be happy with myself.

How do you reach a state where you are happy with yourself, your life and what you have? I’ve always sought to steer clear of abstract topics like ‘happiness’. But I now realize that I’ve spent a large chunk of my life looking forward to the next stage of my life - looking forward to the next chunk of my education/career. Growing up, I was used to moving countries every few years, whether it was because of my dad’s job or my own studies. At first, the major turmoil came from leaving friends. When I left the UK to move back to India after I finished my undergraduate studies, I lamented being on a different continent to my best friends in Europe. The loneliness culminated in that infamously silly blog. But shortly after writing that piece, I dated P for a year and all was well in the world. I was suddenly happy with living in India. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking about living in India or leaving India. I was just happy. By the time we broke up, I was in the throes of US college admissions and I was focused on the future. Again. I also applied for a three month summer fellowship in Germany, further reducing my time in India. I was going to get over the break-up by conveniently leaving the country. I was focused on pulling an Assange.

Then I met M and magically, life was great again. The future was irrelevant. The thought of leaving India loomed, but I was too busy living each day to worry. Weeks turned into months and we got closer and closer. When I left for Germany, we agreed that we would end things on a positive note and “see what happens” in the future. There was no point doing long-distance because, well, what was the end game? I would soon be leaving for good anyway and we are both way too young to be planning life around other people. I think it must have been a week into my German sojourn when we both realized that we didn’t really want to see other people and we have been de-facto long distancing ever since. My initial thought was to do an Assange; in fact I’ve pulled a Snowden. I’m abroad and I did the right thing but I’m not as happy as I should be. The thesis was that I would have an unmitigated blast in Germany but while I’ve had a great time, I’m missing the person I want to share it all with. I will be with M for a month when I’m back in India (inshallah) and then we will go our separate ways for the next few years at least.

It’s got me thinking: I am fairly certain that my future will involve as much geographical change as my past. I used to be scared of leaving friends. While it was hard, I made new friends, stayed increasingly in touch with old ones and this summer in Germany, I will have reunited with many of those I didn’t think I’d see any time soon. It’s been three years, but our meetings have been wonderful and memorable. I think I’m over missing my friends. But now I have to reconcile with missing my girlfriend and I’m not quite sure how to do it. She keeps telling me that I will meet amazing people at Yale and I know that’s true. But at the moment, that is meagre consolation because it points to something deeper I need to deal with. I need to learn to be happy with my life as it stands and not as I want it to be. And hey, it’s not like that has been mankind’s eternal struggle or anything.

While I love companionship, I guess I will have to reach a point where I am having such a good time or doing such meaningful work that I have different pillars to prop up my contentment. Perhaps it is healthiest for us, the confused space-mammal, to not need to be dependent on our environment or our company to be happy. Am I sounding abstract? Sorry. I think you should be able to go to a gig with friends and party the night away without thinking of ending it with someone else. I think you should be able to wake up on a Saturday morning in Mumbai or Munich and have a great day regardless of who you will meet. Now, all this is easier said than done. Especially when you know there is someone (a friend, family member or partner) who totally gets you – someone who acts as a catalyst to turn a good experience into a great one, just by being around.

What is the answer? Yoga? Meditation? Steak? Are they distractions from the human contact you crave or are they the ends in and of themselves? If I’m missing my friends, family or girlfriend, I try to work out, watch a movie, make new friends, eat great food, etc… but when you go to bed at night, there’s nothing left to distract you. Apparently Buddhists, at their spiritual healthiest, can live without want and flit about life without the burden of craving. I am not a Buddhist. I am a journalist.

I hope that someday I look back at this silly blog with the same pity for myself as I do towards the other silly blog.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kit’s Dubstep Playlist

I realised reading some of my earlier writing that 2013 was a bad year. A lot of my blogs from 2013 were dark. Darker than the person most of you know me as. I was feeling immense loneliness in a new city and within my home. I often like to use music as mirror to reflect; when I’m feeling happy or ready to party I put on my House music playlist, when I want to psyche myself up I put on my rock and so on. But I had no “sad” music. Or even any “introspective” music. That’s when I discovered a long-forgotten playlist: my friend Kit’s dubstep playlist, which he had picked for me with such precision.

Kit is one of my best friends from university and he loves his music. His iTunes is the most meticulous database this side of the NSA. He particularly loves his thoughtful, soulful dubstep. It is the kind of music you play when you want to think long and hard about something. Good dubstep doesn’t force you to listen and it doesn’t flit around in the background either. Instead it’s sort of takes your deepest thoughts and amplifies them and gives clarity to your emotions, which otherwise would have been blunt and primitive. Good dubstep helps you reflect. Kit is someone who thinks about things a lot (more than, perhaps, he talks about them) and maybe that’s why the music resonates so much with him. Before Kit, my exposure to dubstep was horrific stuff from Skrillex and his ilk; pure cacophony.

But I found myself in a rickshaw on a sweltering Mumbai morning, a year after having left the Birmingham house Kit and I shared, listening to that same dubstep. And it felt so apt. It allowed me to delve into my heart and step outside my body and look at myself and my surroundings. You know when you’re listening to music in a moving train and you feel like you’re in a movie? Well this was that. Except this music was powerful and yet so modern. As far as reflective music goes, I love opera. But that can get quite dramatic. Sometimes, you just want clever drums and humbling melodies as you ride the train to work to figure out if today is going to be a good or a bad day; you have the power to choose.

I didn’t like every song on the playlist. But as I listened, I fell in love with more and more. And for different reasons. Soon I started finding parts of Bombay that I loved: early mornings train rides towards Churchgate, for those 12 seconds between Marine Lines and Charni Road, where the vista opens out and you can see the greens of the cricket clubs and the blues of the ocean behind it. And there was music for that calm too. You hurtle along through the brown and grey of the Western Line but for those 12 seconds, every passenger in the compartment escapes and becomes one of those boys playing carefree cricket by the sea. Then the wall starts again and you’re swallowed back into the brown-grey whirlpool. But if you time your music with that sliver of freedom, those 12 seconds last for the entire day.

Some songs are night songs. Some music is just better heard when the sky is dim and the city lights are growling silently at each other. Every evening from our old office in Matunga, I would take the train towards Elphinstone Road to my gym. It used to be largely empty since commuters were heading in the opposite direction. Again, I had the freedom of the open compartment door to muse. The oblivious sparkling glass skyscrapers look truly beautiful from the train. You slink past their ankles, unnoticed. They actually make me proud of my city. Most of Lower Parel lives beneath the flyovers that criss-cross it. Every now and then you emerge into a skyscape dominated by the IndiaBulls Centres and their smaller luminous cousins. With Kit’s dubstep to insulate me from the noise of the train, you are able to appreciate their boldness. They’re so big, but they belong to you too.

By the end of 2013, I had found a really great group of friends. The 4 of us used to cruise around town looking for new places to eat. We even took a road-trip to a music festival in Pune. Now Kit’s dubstep has become an elixir of excitement. It was upbeat. There was no reason to feel downbeat – or at least, none that struck me at the time. The music was groovy and in the car we each felt the sense of anticipation grow as we got nearer the festival venue. The synth and the vocals flirted playfully with each other as if to remind you of the romance in the night ahead. It need not be the romance that requires a significant girl - just the romance that opens your eyes to the privilege of spending an evening with friends and the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s the romance of youth. It’s the romance of the weekend and adventure. It’s the romance of possibly, maybe, hopefully, finding actual romance.

Now I listen to Kit’s dubstep more to remember than to reflect. I listen to it on sunny Saturday mornings when I want to remember good times or lonely Sunday nights when I want to feel alone. Am I overplaying the impact of music? I don’t think so. Those of us who love music, I’m sure, feel emotion to similar degrees brought on by songs or artists or genres that speak to a certain time in our lives. Kit’s dubstep was one of the many things that got me through 2013. It hummed in and out of my life when I needed to escape. Kit is the kind of guy who will go on holiday alone and have an absolute ball. He’s not a loner but I think he has understood how cool it is to hang out by yourself and take the world in as you want it. Sometimes being alone with yourself is wonderful.

You’re amazing – do you know that? You and yourself have the same taste in food, music and almost everything else. You have a bank of memories that you don’t need to explain to anyone else. You can just sit somewhere and let them swirl around in your head and smile and cry and swoon. I love Kit’s dubstep because it reminds me of the power of and happiness in self-reflection. You can put your earphones in and get on a train and think about things and you don’t need anyone else to have a great time. You don’t need to be ashamed of it. In fact, you need to be fully aware if you really want to take the plunge into your own sea of emotions and recollections. If you’re in a dark spot (or year), look to your friends and family for help. But don’t forget you have a great bubbling sea of ideas and love within you. You just need the right playlist to breathe down there.

So thank you Kit, for the dubstep. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Finding Your Gift

My dad once told me that the point of school is to find your gift. It should nurture different parts of your personality so that by the time you graduate, you’ve figured out what your ‘comparative advantage’ is. Your high school diploma should be able to broadly tell you what were you born to do. But that’s not really what happens. You end up studying things you think you’ll be good at, rather than what you’re naturally good at. I think that’s why we get so taken aback when we see someone with raw ‘talent’ do their thing on stage or on the field or on TV. They do something so naturally, so instinctively, that it feels unfair.
Let me tell you about a few instances when I’ve found myself insanely jealous of people with God-given talent.

During my first year of university in England, I signed up to few different extra-curricular clubs. One was table-tennis. I always enjoyed playing table tennis at school, though I was never trained like my Dad was when he was younger. This may come as a shock to Americans but that table you use to play beer-pong was actually invented for a truly wonderful sport. It’s all about agility and footwork and supple wrists but most of all, it’s about out-thinking your opponent. You can’t ‘see’ the spin on the ball, you have to trust your instincts and back yourself to counter the spin with your own English. The table tennis club used to meet every Tuesday in a dingy room in our dingy sports complex. There was no real leader or coach or trainer, just an apathetic grad student who used to roll the tables out, set up the nets and put a racquet in each person’s hand. For the princely sum of £10 you could play for 2 hours a week, every week for the entire year.
The tables were lined up side by side and everyone would play a random opponent in a best of 11 point shoot-out. 2 serves per change-over. It was pretty amateur. I mean, I saw proper Chinese players and they looked at the set-up in disbelief. The Chinese were born to play table tennis. They were short and stocky with bulging thighs and darting eyes. If you won your game, you would move to the table to your right. If you lost, you would go to the table on your left. So the crème-de-la-crème would reach the final tables and the flunkies would sling mud at each other down the other side. The Chinese lads had been trained. They were destroying hapless British kids who had come there for a laugh and comfortably beating Indian players like me. In about 20 minutes, they had made the final tables their own.
And that’s when Laughing Buddha walked in. He was late. Obviously. He was from the Far-East but didn’t look Mainland Chinese. He was a rotund fellow with tanned, almost orange skin and floppy hair. He always had a massive grin on his face. He would settle for a serve like sumo wrestlers settle down before they push into each other: he would stomp one leg down, put his weight on it and then stop down the other. Was this guy lost? It wasn’t sumo club. But then I saw the grin change to a placid smile. Balls were flying across the net with verve and zip and elegance. His elbows were far too malleable. The racquet was an extension of his chubby palm. He was hitting the ball with far more grace than any of the Chinese maestros. In a flash, his shoulders would swoop into position below the table to whip a top spin up and over the net and past a hapless opponent. He was the antithesis of the Chinese protons that bounced and darted around the table with machine-like ferocity. He was just enjoying his Tuesday. By the time he reached the final tables, some of us had stopped to watch the matches that would soon take place. His content face gave way to a hearty, friendly chuckle in between points. He didn’t say a word. Maybe that’s what made him to mesmerising. While the Chinese boys plotted and schemed over tricky service and return strategies, Laughing Buddha just stood and delivered. Sometimes when he played a backhand, he didn’t even look at the table. He just knew that the ball would be arriving at coordinate (X,Y) at such and such time and the rest was down to his muscle memory. He absolutely destroyed team China and he didn’t seem to care. He held the top table for a few games before he got bored and left. How could someone so fat be so fast? It was like watching Kung-Fu Panda. Watching him was a privilege.

Sometimes when you see professional athletes compete against each other, it’s not as much fun because either they are both almost at the same level or one is far, far too good for the other guy and you feel bad for the underdog. But sometimes you see true talent triumph over someone who is very, very good. It’s not a good vs evil thing. It’s just special to see human beings do what they were born to.

In final year of university, I was in the cricket club. Every Thursday would be nets practise. The first-team players would train together in one net while we also-rans took the other. You’d think that with sports, you can tell just by looking at someone, whether they can be any good or not. If you see someone with a huge belly and a laboured gait and or skinny calves and pale skin, it’s usually easy to tell that they are going to suck at football. I’ve seen it a bunch of times. It’s no different with cricket. It’s not just about shapes and sizes. It’s about how someone carries themselves. You can tell that someone is physically sharp in a few seconds of seeing them walk. That’s why it was so surprising to see a skinny, uncoordinated 1st year kid walk into the first-team net that day at cricket training. He had Ginger hair, glasses and freckles and he walked like his legs were tied together. I called him Little Mermaid. The first-team was made up mostly of final year students. But this chap ambled over and began padding up as another batsman faced the music.

While he was getting ready, the tall, strapping, handsome, rock-star fast bowler of the team was already in action. Rumours had travelled to us in the adjacent net that he could bowl at 85mph – which was seriously fast for our level of competition. The bowler sprinted in and bowled ferocious bouncers, aimed at the head of the batsman. The batsman was the first-team opener so you could tell he was good. He had a solid defence and was able to get the ball away on the off-side. But the bowler was also brilliant and would target the batsman’s pads, sensing his weak spot. The contest between bat and ball was even and fascinating. After about 15 minutes, the bowler fired in a vicious ball that rattled the batsman’s stumps. He was out. It was now Little Mermaid’s turn and he bobbled out to the other end of the pitch. The fast bowler popped his collar up, like some bizarre male gesture of dominance. I almost felt bad for the poor little ginger 1st year as the fast bowler began his run up. I’ll never forget what happened next.

Little Mermaid’s shoulders suddenly opened out. His feet were gliding into position. His head was perfectly still. You know how penguins move so ridiculously on land but so effortlessly under water? He crashed the fast bowler’s ball back past his head. He creamed the ball high into the wall behind the bowler. He was only a small guy probably a foot shorter than the bowler and probably 10kg lighter. But what a sound that ball made off the bat. The bat in his hand gave him the confidence to be as tall and strong as he dreamed. Even the coach smirked. There are certain unwritten rules in cricket. You don’t hit the strapping fast bowler for a huge shot unless you have some kind of death wish. The bowler was livid at the audacity of this kid. He charged in harder than ever, only to see Little Mermaid calmly move to one side and defend the ball harmlessly into the ground, killing all the pace and tenacity the delivery once had. Watching a classy batsman pacify a bullish bowler is one of life’s great joys. And once the batsman’s stint in the nets was over, I saw him amble back to the changing room with the timid uncertainty of a kid on the first day of school. I bet he wishes he could fight all his life’s battles with a pair of gloves and wooden cricket bat.

I love seeing people, especially people close to me, doing what they’re good at. I have so many friends here who were always creative types in school but didn’t do that well academically. And now they’re creative types in real life. All that’s changed is the male ones have beards and the female ones are dating guys with beards. What is it with graphic designers and beards? I wonder if people in my own family will ever turn their hobbies into careers.

I don’t know if your family/culture does this, but after our extended family sits down together for a big meal, we inevitably break out into a talent show. Everyone has to sing or play a musical instrument or tell stories. You have to perform something. Maybe that’s how you repay the cook? In my family, my cousins always sing. And my God, they are amazing. Listening to a good singer always gives me Goosebumps. Watching a musician perform is great. But there’s something about a captivating voice that just reaches down your throat and clasps tight your heart. If I could have any talent, I would love to sing like my cousins can. To just be able to clear your throat, close your eyes and sway an entire room is not something to be taken lightly. The world simply needs more of it.

When it comes to my turn to perform, I usually do my mimicry and tell my jokes. And people laugh. But I can’t do my stand-up set every time I see my family, because, well how many times can you hear the same accents? But I know that I my talent is mimicking accents and mannerisms and I can do it better than most. If I’m being honest, I can do it better than anyone I’ve met. I know some great mimics, especially in England. But they don’t really know ‘what’ to say - only ‘how’ to say it. My family and friends always want me to get on stage and do more stand-up and for some reason I’m reluctant. I know that I can wow an audience of strangers – I’ve done open-mike nights and I tend to perform at every dinner party and family function. But I don’t know if I want to hone my talent into a career. I’ve seen what it takes to be a comic and it’s not easy. I also don’t know if it’s as meaningful as other careers. I’m currently applying to Masters programs in International Relations because I want to be a diplomat some day. Maybe I can tie the two together: maybe I can be the diplomat that makes foreign leaders laugh? Maybe that’s what International Relations is crying out for.

But now I sound like one of my college essays. People say I’m a good writer, but I don’t know if I’m a talented writer. I don’t know if I’m a Laughing Buddha or a Little Mermaid. And I haven’t done comedy long or seriously enough to know if I’m as natural as I ‘feel’.

What I really wanted to say is that I hope I get to see you ‘performing your talent’ somewhere, someday. It could be at work, it could be at a party or it could something you did that went unnoticed, that I’ll only realise in the middle of the night 20 years later. I hope you’re aware that you have a gift, even if you haven’t found it yet. There’s something (probably many things!) you can do better than me. Better than your friends. Better than everyone. Find it and do it. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Day I Was Awesome

I had an idea that I'd like your help for:

All of us go through some dark times - it could be a tough week or a day where everything seems to go against you. I know that very often, I forget how 'good' I can be. In times when I only see my own failures, I forget my biggest successes. I wonder if it's the same with you? I want to remind myself of the day(s) I rocked. Self-deprecating humour is all well and good, but I've found it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of brilliant we can be. I would love to hear your stories. I found writing this deeply therapeutic. If you want to share it with me or anyone else, that's fine, but you can keep it to yourself too if you like. So I'll get the ball rolling: It was Year 8 and for one day, in my gigantic, scary high school in Hong Kong, I was THE man.

My time in Hong Kong was difficult. I went from the most sheltered, posh London prep school, to the big bad world of an international high school. I went from a boy's school of blazers and ties to the tumult of a co-education. On my first day at Island school in Hong Kong, I turned up with my shirt tucked in, my trousers fastened about my navel and my hair in a neat side parting. I could not have been any lamer if I'd tried. I had to walk to school on my own, buy my own lunch and make my own friends in a choatic Asian metropolis. Two years of bullying and pre-pubescent insecurity meant I changed from a naive, sincere Indian kid into a weary, Western teenager. It wasn't all bad. People made fun of my clothes and my innocence and thus I began to understand what it meant to be 'cool' - whatever that means at age 12.  But it did mean I started to be mean to the few kids who were even lower down the food chain than me. I realised that being smart in a school dominated by white kids meant being a nerd. Suddenly, being a class-topper wasn't necessarily a good thing. My brains were really all I had going for me, and one sweet day, I wow all 1,200 peopled in one fell swoop.

It was the Junior Quiz of 2003 (?). Three students from each house (one from Year 7-9) made up the six teams. I was in Fleming. I can't remember how I was picked. The Year 7 kid was another Indian guy who could only really spell well. The Year 9 girl was a sweet English girl who was more interested in the boys from the watching audience. The entire school - even the impossibly tall Year 13s - was watching. Most were sniggering away. I remember on that morning, some of the cool expat kids in my class had paid a smart Chinese classmate to do their homework. It was that kind of place.

The quiz began and we were doing OK. The Year 9 girl was a bit of a ditz who wasn't confident in herself. She'd always get me and Year 7 kid to answer the group questions. I expected more from a Year 9. The Year 7 kid wasn't even that good a speller. Some 'team'. I remember an early question on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. This was a day everything went right - when they come along, you have to grab them and savour them. The answer to the question was Brutus, but the Year 9 didn't know. How could she? It's not like she'd bloody studied it in Year 8?  I remember instinctively mouthing the answer silently towards the audience. I didn't look at her. Come on, brown eyed Sally. I hadn't made a noise. She wasn't even facing me. But somehow, she mumbled "Brutus?" and we were through to the next round. It was one of those days.

There were only two houses left in the final round - the buzzer round. Us, on red Fleming desk and, somewhat fittingly, Einstein, on their purple desk. Einstein had two brown guys AND a brown girl. This was going to be tough. The first to 15 points would win and we were languishing behind with 7 points to Einstein's 14. They had been cleaning up with the pop culture and music questions. What did I know about music? I remember once after school, the one cool Indian kid once asked me, almost out of pity, "So what bands do you listen to?" My reply, when I think about it now, was shocking. "I'm not really into music," I murmured sheepishly. I loved music, but I didn't have taste of my own. My two years in Hong Kong made me grow up very fast.

Suddenly, I got my geography questions and awoke from the lull. BOOM. The Danube. BOOM. Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was like a movie scene - in a movie for hopeless nerdy losers. We were up to 10 points. Einstein were getting nervous. I was in the zone. I didn't wait to ask my team-mates. I wasn't even thinking any more. The quiz master almost began addressing the questions to me. The audience was cheering - for ME! Fatty four-eyes was eating these for breakfast. I leaned forward as far as I could, waiting to gobble up the next question. It was 14 all. Einstein were there for the taking. I had gotten 7 in a row.

I will never forget the last question.

"Which movie wo-"
"The Lord of the Rings!"

The quiz master paused for a second, surprised at my answer, almost egging me on to finish. I think he wanted me to win. I've never been a 'winner'. I don't like to compete. I like to be friends. So gay, I know.

For a split second, I doubted myself. I hadn't even heard the full question. I just knew that that was the only big film news. It had to be it.

"The Return of the King?"

The quiz master, a old Englishman with short grey hair and a grey beard, said with a smile on his face, "The question was: which movie won 11 Oscars at the most recent Academy Awards? And Fleming, you're right! You win!"

Who was this Fleming guy? Ian? Stephen? I didn't care. I had won it, in front of the whole school. It was all me. For a split second, people actually knew me. Some may have even liked me. Fleming house cheered for a bit, before everyone eargerly left the auditorium to get to the tuck-shop in time for the 11am dim-sum that finishes so quickly. The best thing about Island School was the food at the tuck-shop. And it was wasted on these teenagers, these Philistines. I got a few handshakes and congratulations on my way out off the stage. I remember our history teacher, a really cool English guy (history teachers CAN be cool), named Nick or Nigel or something came up to me and said I was oustanding. He looked me in the eye and said it. He really meant it.

The crowd dispersed quickly. For 1,199 people at Island School, there were far more important things that day than the Junior Quiz. I doubt a single person remembers that quiz or that day. But I'll never forget it. I had won. That morning, I was the best guy in the building. I was awesome.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to Get Journalists to Listen: A Guide for the Public Relations Industry

Let me start by addressing my fellow journalists:

My colleagues always ask me why I’m so polite to people on the phone. Whether it’s someone cold calling from a bank trying to sell me a credit card or, more often than not at a business magazine, a PR person pitching their company, I try not to be an asshole. This surprises the people who sit near me. I say sir or ma’am. I speak in a soft voice. I try to be helpful even when I’m busy. Maybe it’s because I’m still new to all this. Being polite costs NOTHING. It’s really the least you can do. The person calling you is just doing their job. As someone in the media, it’s your job to listen. One should always be skeptical, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to talk down to a young lady who is just doing her job. You are the tenth person she is calling today – please don’t think you’re special. If you are rude, you will blend into stereotype of the dismissive journalist who has better things to do (ie. Watching stuff on Youtube). If you’re nice, she will remember you. She will not bother you if you explain why you’re not interested in the piece. Who knows, you may just make a friend that could help you out down the line. Being polite will earn you a genuine thank you. What could be better than that?

Now to the men and women of Public Relations.

Please first understand that most journalists, especially business journalists, have a rather large chip on their shoulder. They meet and write about fabulously successful people and think they’re better than you because they know something about oil subsidies and ‘innovation’. The truth is, you probably work less and get paid more than the journalist who is shouting down the other end of the call or making disparaging remarks about you behind your back. Journalists are not paid very well, so acting like they are smart and influential is what makes them feel powerful. Humour them. If the vast majority of journalists were actually as smart as the millionaires and rock stars they write about, they probably wouldn’t be journalists.

Still, journalists and PR people need each other and if we work together, we can give readers a fair deal. Not every article need be a Tehelka sting operation. At the same time, there’s nothing more boring to a reader than a puff piece. There’s a middle ground, where if an idea is presented properly by a PR agency, a journalist can pick out an interesting narrative and tell a story that sparks a debate or sheds light on some good work being done. The reader gets some new insight, the agency gets paid, the company gets publicity, the journalist gets some free drinks at an event and everyone’s happy.

Here’s how you get the journalist to listen to your pitch.

Read the magazine! Read the last three issues of the publication you’re calling. Try to figure out what their angle is. Do they carry press releases? No? Then why send them press releases and ask them to publish them? That’s your job! Have they ever published a story about a tie-up? No one cares that a company has partnered with another to host a conference on industrial design innovation. What we care about are results. Tangible outcomes are more interesting than the potential for something to happen. Readers don’t have time to go through what your client is planning on doing. Unless you’re Google and you’re tying up with the US government, it’s not really a story.

Most of the answers to your questions are inside the magazine. For God’s sake, don’t call and ask who the editor of the magazine is! It’s on page 2, along with his photo and email ID. Am I seriously going to tell you my designation over the phone? Would you mind telling me yours while we’re at it? All our designations are on page 3. Do you want to speak to someone in the Delhi office? Why not look for the contact number on page 4? Do you want to know who covers specific beats? Why not have a quick look at the names on the by-lines? There’s a lot of information in a magazine if you take an hour to go through it carefully.

Don’t make claims in your pitch that you can’t back up. “ is one of the biggest ecommerce platforms in India!” Really? Bigger than the Indian Railways? Wow. How come we’ve never heard of you before? What does that even mean? A good journalist will have some tough follow up questions, an irritated one will really let you have it. Don’t come back with “the company doesn’t share revenue/market share data”. Whether its business journalism or some other form of journalism, no good writer is going to get inspired without some hard evidence.

My suggestion - for whatever it’s worth - is for PR agencies to focus on specific sectors and really be in touch with what’s happening in their clients’ space. No journalist is going to write a story that’s already been done in a rival publication less than a year ago. What you can do instead is explain to the journalist that there is another angle that hasn’t been covered. This requires you to be somewhat of an expert yourself – and I see nothing wrong with this. I am not necessarily going to write about a restaurant chain that has opened a new joint in Mumbai. It’s already been reviewed by every food critic in town. I may however be interested in a larger trend, of which the restaurant is a part. Is it the 3rd recent non vegetarian place to open in a previously conservative vegetarian neighbourhood? Is it the first gourmet take on a traditional cuisine? Has the chef given up a big gig elsewhere to fulfill his dream here? Why? Has the chain failed elsewhere – why do the owners think it will succeed this time round? I can’t guarantee I’d do a story, but I’d certainly want to meet the folks. Ask yourself: how would this story be relevant to readers of an international magazine? Or is it actually more in line with what a daily city newspaper would do? If so, why are we wasting each other’s time?

If the journalist hasn’t responded to your email, there’s probably a reason why. I don’t like getting calls from people when I’m in the middle of writing. I always like to be ready for a call, so I can be prepared and be focused on the issue I’m dealing with. If I haven’t responded to your email about a Danish lumberjack who is launching a new line of innerwear in India, do you think I’m interested in doing a story? Surely I would have called you? I understand that you need to follow up – but you can do that with a personalised email.

“Hi Shravan, didn’t hear from you about the Anders the Danish underwear hunk – I take it you won’t be interested in meeting him and testing out his snug-fit boxers? Do let me know. Thanks.”

I would definitely answer this with “Hi _____. Unfortunately I’m not available be able to meet him. Regards.” And then you'd have your closure. 

The best PR people I’ve met really know their space, not just their clients. They will send you an event invite because they’ve read your previous work. They know what you’re interested in. All our writing is on the web anyway. Just as I do my homework before I go to meet someone, so a PR person should do their homework before they call a journalist. Don’t send out a list of your clients. No one is going to go through it. A journalist already has a pretty good idea of what he’s comfortable writing about and of who he’d like to meet. I love sports – Google my name and it becomes pretty obvious. I’m always happy to meet people doing interesting work around sports. A new story has to be something I know about, in a space I have covered before, but it can’t be an idea I’ve already written about. There are a million people running sports academies. I’m not going to write about yours unless you tell me it’s different/better/interesting and I can see it for myself.

One thing which annoys me is when you get an email pitch about someone which already includes tentative talking points. Mr _____ would be happy talking about a, b and c. Fine. But why then would you email me asking me to send questions of my own? You have invited me. I just want to meet the guy and figure out what he’s doing. One of the funniest meetings I’ve had was with a mid level manager at an international bank with a small India office. I suffered the aforementioned talking points/questions irritation and sent my questions in anyway. The PR people came late. I say people because for some reason there were two of them. When they finally arrived to escort me inside the office, there was another Corp Comm person there. So five people crammed into the manager’s tiny office and only two of us talked for 45 minutes. It was quite surreal – even worse than when a PR person silently listens in on a conference call and you only realise she was there all along at the end when she says bye.

The best PR person I’ve worked with was in the music industry. She had read my stories. She sent me a polite SMS asking when we could chat. She pitched her story in such a way that I really felt bad having to say no to her. I really couldn’t attend the event because I had a prior engagement. But I sent her message to a colleague and he went. You have no idea how many event invites we get – we could spend our entire week at hotels and conference centres, eating bad banquet food and trading pre-printed name-tags. My office is at Matunga. I am probably not going to come for a 4pm event at Andheri East that has nothing to do with what I cover. It’s just a waste of time to even send me the email. It will get deleted in less than 5 seconds and that’s the harsh reality.

“Hey Shravan, I read your piece on ______. I’m handling PR for someone who is doing similar work with a different twist, but has been hugely successful nonetheless. Their details are attached, if you’re interested. They haven’t really been written about recently. Let me know if you’d like to meet over a coffee next week.”

Now that’s something I’d listen to.