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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.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why I Love Football

They needed just one more goal. This couldn't be happening. This was impossible. We - WE - were up 4-0 at half time and yet here we were about to succumb to one of the most embarrassing, humiliating come-backs of all time. Newcastle needed just one more goal to make it 4-4 with only a few minutes to play. Our boys were tired, they were dejected and they didn't know who to turn amidst the deafening roar of the Newcastle home support.
And then it came. The inevitable goal. 4-4 and I stormed out of the room and looked out our balcony into a night that offered no consolation. My parents were chuckling. They really don't 'get' it. So today I will explain it to them and to you and to whoever is reading. Those low points, those heart-breaking, morale sapping moments of sheer sadness where there is no solace to be found anywhere - I will live with those. The moments of absolute panic when the five measly pixels that make up your internet stream freeze for a split second as Theo Walcott is raining down on their goal - I will live with those. The hours after another defeat at the hands of Man Utd, when it seems everyone wants to talk about football and everywhere you look, you are reminded of the failure - I will live with those. Because for all those moments, there are ones right on the other end of the spectrum. My parents do not understand why I love football and why I love Arsenal. I will explain.
One night a few years ago I fell in love.
It was cold. It was rainy. It was dark. It was England.

And yet the energy that surged through the frigid air was charged with excitement and anticipation. Small streams of people in reds and whites and blues and blacks merged into a mighty river of middle aged men. It was my first time in Liverpool and my first away game. Edd and I walked quietly with other nervous Arsenal and Everton fans. It was a league game relatively early on in the season, exactly the kind of occasion that Arsenal are known for slipping up on.

It was a good 10 minutes from the pub to the stadium and by the time we got there, hunger clawed at my inside. The dirty burger is a greasy patty served with burnt onions on soggy bread with some 4 month old ketchup and probably at STD but my God it was divine. I can still taste it now. I shovelled it down my mouth in seconds and we followed the other Arsenal fans, who had by now pulled their shirts over their jackets to show their colours, to the away block. We queued outside the turnstile discussing who should start up front. The songs had begun. I think a freezing night in a decrepit tin-can stadium is just about the only place a man is allowed to sing his heart out without any inhibitions. And how we sang. The narrow white corridors and flights of stairs that led to our section provided great acoustics as we marched up. I had been to five games - I knew all the songs by now.

Words cannot do justice how it feels to walk out into a floodlit stadium. There is just no sight like it. It's a feeling that draws us sports fans to our temples every weekend. You emerge into this cauldron and it never gets old. You have been couped up inside the claustrophobic bowels of the stadium for the best part for 10 minutes, absolutely itching to get out into the middle and when the glorious green of the grass hits you, well, you are never ready for it. Each time I see a football pitch inside an arena, it feels like taking your first breath after a long dive in water. It's that all encompassing euphoria that is topped by only one thing - a goal.

Unfortunately for us, the goal came for Everton. A corner was swung in and Tim Cahill planted a header into the back of the net. Cue an explosion from all three sides. The home fans exploded. Flailing limbs burst forth from the previously seated Blue's fans. Such contrast in emotions - you had to have been there to truly know it. Silence and stillness from the 2,000 of us and raw release from the other 30,000. We stood, arms folded, watching the curious mixture of happiness and aggression bellow forth from the Evertonians, like a quiet peninsula. The red eye of a blue storm.

The rain fell harder still. The wind, almost as if it sensed our disappointment, quickened its pace. Time was ticking away. We were playing badly and there was no escaping it. Passes got stuck in the water-logged grass, which was by now more sticky and slick. Tackles flew in - as is always the case in England, the good ones were greeted with cheers and the poor ones with groans. Time was ticking away. We deserved to lose this game. But we did not.

Alex Song fed Abou Diaby who up until then, had played worse than a cardboard cut-out of himself. He cracked a long pass that fizzed through the drizzle at the same height for about 30 yards till it met Robin van Persie's chest. We took a collective breath. One entity inhaled in anticipation. One unit, one being tensed its leg muscles as it lent forward and watched with bated breath.

"G'on Robin" came the cry from around me. The Evertonians now covered their eyes. His touch was perfect - he controlled the powerful pass with the finesse of a dancer. In one fluid motion all the pace and venom was taken off the ball and it bounced harmlessly in front of him. It bounced ready to be smashed into the back of the net. My grip on the shoulder of the man next to me tightened as Robin pulled back and fired away a shot with just over a minute to play.

For a moment reality was suspended and all that mattered in the universe was the ball and Tim Howard in their goal. The angle was tight but the ball just kept going. You can tell as a fan at the stadium, which shots are heading for the soft white net. Bang. 1-1.

It was euphoria like I'd never experienced. Better than sex. Better than anything conceivable. It was our turn to explode. We had no idea what was happening. Arms, legs, beers and bags sailed into the sky and the mosh-pit around us. You hold onto the guy next to you for dear life as you jump and scream and let out all the tension of the last 90 minutes. There is nothing in this world that comes close to the delirium of the last minute goal. It is the reason we love football. It is the reason we wake up in the morning and it is the reason we dreamed the night before. Absolute, glorious pandemonium. Unrelenting anarchy that takes over ever fibre in your body.

That overpowering joy of that moment is what I remember. It is seared into my memory and into my outlook on life and football. For every last minute goal against, there is a last minute goal for. And for me, the joy outweighs the disappointment. There is a reason I say “we” when talking about my beloved Arsenal. There is a reason I skip appointments to sit in front of a screen. There is a reason that Saturday is sacred. Through the cold, rainy English night, songs of happiness and glory and brotherhood ring out forever.

I would not trade it for world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In Another Life

There is balance in my life, as in all things, even when I can't see it. It's not all bad - it never is. No matter how angry or full of hatred I come home in the evening, my grandparents - the shining light in my life - are always there to greet me with big smiles, like they're seeing me after years. I cannot stay worked up. If I hang on to the anxieties of the day, it rubs off on them and that is something I will not allow.

My Nani is the most amazing person. With bad knees and long trail of life-threatening diseases behind her, she makes me 4 meals a day. I'm not kidding. She makes me breakfast: cheese dosa / bacon and egg sandwich / maggi noodles and of course cereal every morning. Then as I shower and get ready for work, she packs me a lunch and an apple for tea. As steady as the north star, the highlight of my day is usually the incredible dinner that's waiting for me. She pains over what I like and don't like. "I don't you don't like this vegetable, so I've made some of this for you instead". I am not worthy.

In another life she would have been a CEO of a company, I just know it. She knows every little thing that is happening in the house. She wakes up the earliest and sleeps last. "Fun" for her is arranging and rearranging our cupboards. Like a CEO puts the health of the company over their own, my Nani puts the well-being of our home - her domain - first and foremost. She will always, always forsake the last piece of fish for someone else. She'll take more vegetables and only go for the meat when everyone else is done. I try and help lay and clear the table but some nights I forget and she does it herself, silently. Like the tide. Living alone at university has taught me how much effort it takes to make food and clear it up afterwards and like the tides comes in and goes out, she will prepare and clear dinner whether we there to help or not. For us, it's an afterthought, for her it's routine. 

I saw my Nani's passport the other day. She was born in 1941. I wonder how different her life would be if she had been born in 1981. Working for Forbes, I think I've understood a little about what being an entrepreneur is and I have no doubt in my mind that my Nani has the entrepreneurial bug. She never wastes any time. An empty afternoon is filled with stitching something, cooking something, creating something. It's dawned on me that my Nani is a creator of wealth. If something is broken she will fix it. If clothes are ill-fitting she will alter them on her trusted 1960's German sewing machine that's still going strong, trying to keep up with her. In Bangalore she would organise children's birthday parties. She can not sit still. If she was born today she would have founded a company and run it with the same focus she runs our house. Maybe in another life.

I am so happy that my grandparents live with me. We have seen each other often throughout our lives but we've never lived together. My granddad has this amazing ability to wake up each day and expect the best from the world. "He is a good man with a good heart" he says, about a young bank clerk who has helped him change some minute semantics on his pension. He's a naval man and so he expects efficiency and order from the world. Ha! Nevertheless, no matter how much worry fills him through the day, he wakes up an optimist. That's something I admire about Commodore Patnaik. 

He came into my room the other day, tears in his eyes. It was the day after his birthday and I'd just gotten home from a week in Vietnam. He handed me a envelope of money. I said "Nana, I should be giving you a gift!"

More tears. He said, "You are my gift". What do you say to that? His trembling words knocked me off my feet like an uppercut.

While he, perhaps, still sees me as a boy, I think my Nani views me differently now. I am a "working man" as both she and my other grandmum - my father's mother - point out every time they see me. I think they see my dad. Even though I earn a pittance, I am a different commodity. I am a long-term debt fund that they need to keep nurturing because when I come to fruition I will take care of them all. Or something like that. 

Some things are just more important to my grandparents' generation - things we take for granted. A job or profession is sacred. One's health is of absolute, utmost importance: there is genuine concern if I have a cold. Doctors, therefore, are God. Communication is magic: it is essential to get someone's phone number and writing it down and double check it. They love to write things down in their book. When do we write stuff? On our phones? I love my grandparents' hand writing. I still look back at the hand-written letter they used to send us when we were in Singapore in the 90s. They are more eloquent in cursive. 

My grandparents are my anchor. They keep me from drifting away just as they keep me from drowning. They remind me that I don't have it bad. They remind me how blessed I am. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Remembering Mhavu

I remember my sister asking innocently, "Dad, has Mhavu ever gotten angry?"

I don't really know how to deal with death, especially the passing of a loved one. Do you talk to other people about it? How can you? Do you internalise it? Is that healthy? Is that even polite? I haven't found the answers to these questions. So I do what I always do when I'm unsure of something: I write about it. Recently my grandaunt, fondly called Mhavu, passed away.

I do not remember a time when she was angry, upset or anything other than utterly, gracefully content. When I remember Mhavu, I smile.

I'll always remember her as the calm in the Gulwadi household - a home I truly love. It's a home filled with noise and bustle and manic activity in which Mhavu was always the calm breeze. I can't help but think that in the midst of countless people careening back and forth through the living room, she kept things balanced - on an even keel. Ever since I remember, her movements were quiet, elegant and measured. Like a ballet dancer, she would glide silently to wherever tranquility was needed and sure enough, it would follow close behind.

I don't remember her being as talkative as her sister, my grandmother. But she was a great listener and I suspect that in a house of vivacious, out-going, young-at-heart adults, that was exactly what was needed. She called all us grandchildren, "Munna", in her soft voice. She was so starkly different to our generation, that watched midnight football matches and went out partying even later. There was constant maelstrom of young men and women video-conferencing each other night and day about where to go and who to pick up and she would absorb it all without blinking.

But maybe that's just how she was when I was around. I can't say I knew her as well as I'd have liked. My grandmother told me about how beautiful she was in her youth. She told me how long her hair used to be and how envious everyone was. Mhavu's was a beautiful soul. I hope my grandmother will tell me more stories about her.

I think that's what our elders really want us to do. They want us to listen. I've had the privilege of all four of my grandparents' company all my life. I want to listen to all my elders as much as I can so that when the time comes, I can smile at their memories too.

Rest in peace.