Who am I?

My photo
I am not religious, but I don't mind calling myself spiritual. Religion, I believe, has, over the millennia, been used as a prop to perpetrate a lot of human suffering. Faith is what matters. I don't believe in the definition of God as a creator. According to me, my God resides within me. Some call it conscience, some call it the sub-conscious, some call it the soul. I don't mind calling it God. So by definition I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but by essence, I may as well be. My God does not reside in a temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. It is right here, within me.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Kiva.org - Making a Change

I wrote this paper as a part of the curriculum for Rural Marketing on the topic 'A Marketing Model functioning outside India, impacting the bottom of the pyramid'.


Introduction

Kiva Microfunds (commonly known as Kiva.org) is an organization which allows people to lend money via the Internet to microfinance institutions, which in turn lend the money to small businesses and students. It basically funds the working capital needs of the entrepreneurs in villages, who either have their own shop, want to start up their own business, aim to increase the scale of their business or just want the money to educate themselves. 

It is a non-profit organization, which has its headquarters in San Francisco. It is supported by loans and donations from its users and through partnerships with businesses and other institutions.  

Administering Loans

Kiva primarily functions by interfacing with the lenders on its online presence called Kiva.org. With a mission to “connect people through lending to alleviate poverty”, and leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25. Kiva does not keep a cut of the loan. Nor does it charge an interest rate to these microfinance institutions.  

Kiva works with microfinance institutions on five continents to provide loans to people without access to traditional banking systems. These MFIs are called “Field Partners”, and they are the ones who administer loans in the field. Kiva relies on a world-wide network of 450 volunteers who work with the Field Partners, edit and translate borrower stories, and ensure the smooth operation of countless other Kiva programs.
  
The people behind Kiva include volunteers, Kiva Fellows, Field Partners and the board, and a team of employees (shown above) and contractors. The Kiva headquarters are located in San Francisco, California.

Funding

Most of what Kiva lends is primarily funded through the support of lenders making optional donations. Funds are also raised through grants, corporate sponsors and foundations. 

History – Kiva through the years

Kiva was started by Matt Flannery with his wife Jessica, in 2005. In its first year, the site featured a spinach farmer in Cambodia, a hot dog stand man in Nicaragua, a carpenter in Gaza, a bee keeper in Ghana, and a fish seller in Uganda. Behind each of these businesses lay a story. These stories are at the heart of Kiva’s goal and strategy: the human connections Kiva claims to build between lenders and borrowers have brought new lenders to the microfinance movement, and fostered in them a new awareness and connection to the people who briefly use their money. By telling stories, Kiva allows MFIs that lack access to capital markets to efficiently raise money and serve more clients.

Matt Flannery claims to have been primarily influenced by Dr. Mohammed Yunus – Nobel Peace Prize 2006 laureate, and founder of the Grameen Bank. By sticking to their idea of “Sponsor a Business”, Matt Flannery wanted to focus on progress rather than on poverty. During the early days when he did his research, he found out that there had always been a historical tension between the donor/lender desire to “know where my money goes” and the recipient organization’s need for efficiency.

Another challenge that Kiva faced early on was the question of whether it was better to be seen as a charity or as a business. This was a challenge of perception. Flannery noticed that people seemed to think in these big categories, and breaking existing mental models proved harder than it seemed.

Also, commercialization of microfinance institutions was another trend to be watched. If microfinance was going to have a significant impact on world poverty, the argument went, then MFIs needed to be integrated into the global economy and tap into the capital markets. But an online survey showed that 50% of the potential users of Kiva would not lend on the site if Kiva adopted the for-profit model. Rather than compete in the commercial investment fund game, Flannery wanted to get individuals who had never even heard of microfinance into the mix.    

Legal Hurdles at the Outset

In the US, there are a number of regulatory bodies that pay attention when you offer investment products to the public. Such bodies protect investors from losing their money on scams. Most notable among these is the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC maintains a definition for what is and what is not a security. If the SEC says that you are issuing securities, they require that such securities meet a long list of requirements. One of those was that the businesses being invested into comply with US accounting standards. This was not always true for a goat herder and a fish seller in rural Uganda.

Another issue was that Kiva wanted to center around loans, not donations. They preferred to call their users lenders, not donors, as Kiva would actually return their money, possibly with interest. Thirdly, under the US Patriot Act, there was high scrutiny around flow of funds to other countries. Since the initial MFIs that Kiva wanted to focus on were in Africa and Asia, there was uncertainty regarding such scrutiny. 

Making a Beginning

The first task that Kiva owners faced was to define exactly what, in terms of investing, were they trying to do. There were a few high level goals that they were trying to focus on:
  • Allow internet users to make small loans to specific micro-borrowers around the world, possibly with interest.
  • Connect a network of MFIs to the Kiva platforms and have them post the loan applications of their borrowers to the site.
  • Create financial connection between lender and borrower whereby the lender assumes the default risk.
  • Create loans between people, not necessarily organizations, where Kiva acts as a platform and MFIs act as distributors.
Considering the role of SEC and the problems it might have created had the loans had an interest attached with them, they would have been considered securities being offered online. Thus, Kiva owners, after a year and a half of debating, exploring and researching, decided to launch Kiva.org without the interest rates on the site.

The domain name “Kiva” was initially being held by a squatter. Flannery bought it from the squatter for $600, and till date, considers these $600 the best money he has ever spent. The beta version of Kiva.org was launched with seven borrowers profiles online. All of them were funded over the weekend, where the managed to raise $3500 in a few days. Matt and Jessica were blown away! This was better than they had expected. 

How Different From Microfinance Institutions?

Kiva claims that the following two reasons are instrumental in differentiating it from the standard microfinance investment model:
  • Kiva has a risk-tolerant source of funds: Individual internet users lending small amounts at a time have a greater appetite for risk than commercial institutions or wealthy individuals using microfinance.
  •  Kiva uses the internet as a reputation-building mechanism: Through Kiva, MFIs keep a track record for borrowing and paying back in real time. Users can monitor the performance of each MFI and the borrowers associated with it. Thus, Kiva claims to give organizations the ability to prove themselves through performance in a similar fashion to how Ebay allowed lesser known individuals and businesses to become major e-commerce players through credibility scores

Camping Grounds

Kiva initially began by having tie-ups with around twenty MFI partners in a few months of its inception. But soon the owners realized that by limiting themselves to Africa, they would artificially reduce their potential partner base by 90%. While many such institutions exist in Africa, the majority are elsewhere. In fact, in 2007, Africa represented only 10.4% of microfinance worldwide; the areas of greatest concentration lie in Southeast Asia and Central and South America. Two factors have led to this situation:
  • Africa has a low population density. Microfinance has scaled best in places where crowds of people live in close quarters. Dense populations bring down the transaction costs. The lower the transaction costs, the lower the interest rates. Higher interest rates are less appealing to the poor and thus inhibit growth.
  • Microfinance does not have a very long history in Africa – it is relatively new. The first great movements of institutionalized microfinance occurred in Bolivia and Bangladesh and spread from those regions.

Kiva’s Revenue Model

Kiva divides its financials into two separate buckets – loan volume and revenue.

Loan volume refers to the capital that the lenders send to the entrepreneurs on the site: $25 at a time. One hundred per cent of this money is channelled to Kiva’s partners and then distributed to the entrepreneurs. Neither Kiva, nor its partners, as their agreements dictate, take any money out of the money stream to the entrepreneurs.

Revenue is capital that flows to the organization itself to fund their own operations – rent, servers, salaries and other expenses. They calculate the project revenue as a factor of loan volume. Today, Kiva has two streams of revenue – “optional lender fees” and float.

Optional Lender Fees are essentially small donations that Kiva’s users make during check-out on the website after making a loan. Typically, 7 out of 10 users choose to donate 10% on top of their loan to Kiva. For instance, making a loan of $100, the typical user chooses to pay $10 on top of the loan, bringing the total to $110. These small donations are tax deductible and Kiva doesn’t pay taxes on any profits made from them.

Float refers to the revenue from the interest accruing in one’s bank account. In 2007, float was a small revenue source that accounted for 1-2% of Kiva’s loan volume, but today it has grown to become a greater contributor to revenue streams.

Kiva’s Product Philosophy

People are central. The first thing one notices are faces. Money and organizations are secondary, people are primary.
Lending is connecting. At Kiva.org, money is all about information exchange. In a sense, money is a type of information. Lending to someone else creates an ongoing communication between two individuals that is more binding than a donation.
Things are always changing. Every time you load Kiva.org, it should be different. Every minute, loans are being purchased and repaid, and stories are being told about the borrowers. This can lead to a dynamic where philanthropy can actually become addictive.
Emphasize Progress over Poverty. Business is a universal language that can appeal to people of almost every background. This can lead to partnerships rather than benefactor relationships. We appeal to people’s interests, not their compassion.
Create a Data-Rich Experience. Whenever it is possible to collect data from the field, collect it. Over time, Kiva will display as much information about its partners, lenders and borrowers as possible and let the users decide where money flows.    

Statistics

I end this report by shedding some light on the achievements of Kiva represented in the form of numbers, though I would like to admit that the impact that Kiva has had goes way beyond mere numbers. As on 27th December, 2011 (Kiva updates these statistics every night on its website), the following were the numbers that stamp the element of success all over Kiva:

Total volume of all loans made through Kiva
$270,656,900
Number of Kiva users
1,053,184
Number of Kiva users who have funded a loan
661,323
Number of countries represented by Kiva lenders
217
Number of entrepreneurs that have received a loan through Kiva
356,106
% of Kiva loans made to women entrepreneurs
80.53%
Number of Kiva field partners (MFIs Kiva partners with)
147
Number of countries Kiva field partners are located in
61
Current repayment rate (all partners)
98.92%
Average loan size
$385.48
Average total amount loaned per Kiva lender
$257.58
Average number of loans per Kiva lender
7.82

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Not Just Another Brick in the Wall


I’m in a business school. Within the four walls of this “launching pad”, so to say, solutions and explanations are being hammered into our benign minds, ready to give a “fresh beginning” to our careers. (One very oft expressed assumption, not entirely inaccurately though, is that most of the students who have a work experience prior to coming to the b-school just wanted to change the sectors that they were working in). We are finally getting to make head from tail of the jargon that the newspapers like The Economic Times are full of. (The dull orange colour of the newspaper is ubiquitous; it is to be seen everywhere in this campus – the mess, the classrooms, the library, and sometimes even the poorly lit corners, perfect for the couples, can be found with the dull orange lying in a corner). But still, after so much of an effort, it is strange how perfect understanding of some topic always seems one step away – the closer you come, the further away it flits. Having subjects like Macroeconomics for the semester helps, but you never find enough time to do stuff. I like playing guitar, writing, listening to music, reading lots of books, but never find “enough” time to pursue each of them. The word “enough” is by its very nature illusory, especially in the context of a b-school. 

One good thing about a b-school is that you find all varieties of people here. I would say to the extent that it is a perfect representative sample of human beings – not financially or taking their educational background into picture of course – but by their very nature. You will find the “loner”, who is into his books all the time and not giving two figs about team work, collaboration, leadership, and all such ideas that they keep talking about. You will find the “screamer”, one who is hyper-active almost all the time, who dares to shout his lungs out at 3:30 am in the morning in the halls of the hostel. You will find the “ideal”, the student everyone wants to be, who is academically strong, perceptively astute, street smart and one who earns good name for whichever institution he is associated with. You have the “irate”, the one who cribs about everything from the mess food to the dirt under his bed, from someone’s way of walking to the unfairness of the whole system. You have the “balanced”, the one who everyone can bank upon in times of distress, and who never gets angry, not even while driving (can you believe that?!). And believe you me, at the end of the day it is such people who give you a perspective about life and it is they who make the whole business school experience something to cherish. And contrary to what Roger Waters said in 1979, when it all ends, you won’t be just another brick in the wall.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Can Change the World!

Recently, in our Consumer Behaviour lecture, we were shown a video on the projector. It was one of those videos that fill you with passion and pride in being a part of this great nation, that makes you want to stand up against this system, that makes you want to bring about the great change that today India is in a desperate need for. Even our highly admired Professor admitted that this was one of the most inspiring videos he had ever seen. As the 3-minute clip came to an end, the high spirits and the energy in the room were palpable. It felt as if everyone who would walk out of that room at the end of the class would change the face of this country by “standing up against the system”. But what did it come down to? Zilch. Nada. Half an hour later when the lecture ended, we left the room yawning, thinking about that soft bed that awaited us in our rooms for the beautiful post lunch siesta, all the patriotism and self-actualization transiently achieved by that one moment, lost in the streets of the mundane.
         
We all like to believe that our one act of spiritedness can change the world, one act of selflessness will end all unfairness. But it is not so. One, and for most of the times the only change we can bring about is a change in ourselves. Not a drastic one, which is near impossible. But a gradual change in our attitudes and perceptions that can make this world a better place. I can sense clich├ęs galore, but I have an example to explain my point.
          
In our b-school campus, there is a canteen which is frequented by one and all at different times of the day, depending upon how busy the schedule is for that day or more importantly, what is on the menu in the mess. There have been occasions when we do not have much time between lectures and we have to get in the queue outside the canteen cash counter to order something. This queue tends to get long, depending on the time of the day. If it’s the lunch hour, one can expect to wait in the queue for a good 5 minutes for his turn. Now I’ve noticed instances where everyone flocks the one who has reached close to the cash counter, for ordering everyone’s food. It is a common thought that paying him the money and asking him to give your order as well would save time and energy involved in standing in the queue. I feel nothing but pure repulsion at such a behavior. Why do not people realize that it is unethical and grossly wrong to do so? If someone is standing in the queue behind that person, is he a moron to wait for his turn and not jump the gun like a bunch of smart-asses like you do? Is he plain stupid to follow the order, to respect others’ exigencies and constraints? No. Let me tell you that he is way wiser than you. You – The next time you jump the line and ask some “friend” of yours to order for you as well, look into the eyes of the next person in the line, and look at the anger at the system that is reflected there, at the gross unfairness of it all. It is HE who is trying to maintain an order. And it is YOU, who gives him all the incentive to break the rules and create the chaos that the system is today – so that you can crib about it later!
          
Such a thing happened with me recently, when I was bombarded with requests while I was close to the counter. Three “friends” found me standing there and all their friendliness arose to give me their orders. Then some more. I ordered for five people apart from my own order. And as I turned, my own roommate, who had joined the queue behind me, was there standing silently without my knowledge. He had not felt the need to give me his order, though I could not be closer to anyone than my own roommate. And when he joined me in the queue, there were at least 9 people ahead of me. That made him the 11th in the queue – a good 8 minutes approximately. And he was scheduled for the same lecture that all of us had to attend. But he knew what small things matter.
          
I was a part of a similar queue the next day, when everyone started bombarding the people standing in front of us. The guy standing next to me appeared flustered, “Why are we standing in the queue? Let’s also give our orders to those in front of us!” That enraged me to such an extent that I almost shouted at him. Why is this bandwagon effect so strong? Is it peer pressure? Is it the fear of being different and being laughed upon? Or do we just look for a shortcut? If it is any of these – and I strongly fear it’s the last one – we are in for a big trouble.
          
It is this “chalta-hai” attitude that is destroying our identity as a nation. Go to any part of the world, and such small things are taken for granted. They are a part of life. Try jumping or pushing your way through a queue in, say, Hong Kong, and you will be stared down by one and all, leaving you ashamed of your own self. Everyone drives in their own lane in every western country, while road traffic in India is akin to a rat race. Things like “courtesy”, “respect” and “manners” hold a lot of value there, while in India they have become nothing more than mere jargons used by old men in white suits. We think these things do not matter a lot. But this is where the real change begins – with our own selves. Not littering and keeping our environment clean, not wasting any food by taking only small fillings in our plates, not just making sure we don’t leave any water tap open, but closing any tap that we find overflowing, anywhere at any time of the day, vacating our seats for elderly people while travelling in buses, addressing females with respect – these are just a few of the things where we can start by bringing about a change. But alas, we do not realize their importance. We only like to soothe our inflated egos by bursts of passionate nationalism and fervour for changing this world – bursts which have a very short life span and which die with a whimper. We should understand that rather than going gung-ho over something impracticable, it would be much better for us and for the ones around us if we start by standing at our rightful places in the queue. Can we make this small promise to ourselves? Let us spread this humble word to whoever we know – and it would then be interesting to watch what happens when the next time there is a long queue outside the canteen! For once, let us make peer pressure work in a positive way. Cheers!  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Demo(n)crazzy - The Ills, Thrills and Chills


The inception of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement was an epochal event which will go down in the annals of Indian history as one that reformed the face of modern India. It has created a sense of panic among the ministers who were used to basking in the comfortable sun of power. Now that comfort is eroding and that sun is slowly turning cold. A certain fear has been stirred in the conscience of the corrupt. But above all, it has brought people from all lifestyles together against a simmering cause which has had a sizable impact on their lives since ever. It was the common platform against this anger, not so much the love for Anna Hazare, which has made it a successful movement. But some uncomfortable questions need to be asked.

In the 2G scam, A. Raja was implicated, along with some top honchos of the telecom operators that were alleged to be involved. They, along with Kanimozhi, are still behind bars. But the problem is that thus far the CBI has not been able to come up with sizable evidence to prosecute them. Yes, the power of collective anger of the middle class says that they must be involved. But what good do we know? There is a lot that goes on behind closed doors and who committed what crime and with what intentions is something that is always very hard to verify. But the Congress had to act to save its face. This expedited action has led to an undesirable fallout. Policymaking has never been the problem, but implementation has been the bane of Indian polity. This peculiar position has been made worse by the Anna Hazare movement. Implementation of reforms by the government has come to a standstill, which is having a very negative effect on the growth stimulus that the government is supposed to provide to the ever slowing industry growth. Policymakers widely agree on the opinion that the soaring inflation can be given only a breather by the monetary policy of the RBI, and only quick implementation of long term reforms can bring down prices. High interest rates are in turn slowing down the growth, which can further be bolstered only by reforms. But babus sitting the cushy offices are no more comfortable signing blindly on the files passed on from above. In fact, they believe the safest thing to do is to let the file eat the dust. Why be involved and sign on a seemingly harmless piece of paper which may turn out to be a scam tomorrow and come back to haunt them? And that is what exactly is happening. The wheels of the Executive are stuck in the morass of procrastination.  

But then this is the downside of a democracy, that behind a freedom of expression, there could be an abuser, behind a Right to Information enquiry, there could a defamer, behind a rape accusation, there could be an avenger, and behind a safeguarding power conferred to the armed forces, there could easily be a human-rights violation. A well-functioning government should know how best to balance these opposing forces, but the eternal dilly-dallying by our present rulers on important issues has worsened the problem. Congress could make a beginning by taking care of the reform implementation, now! Being too late on that front can prove disastrous for the Indian economy, notwithstanding its strong fundamentals in the face of the impending Euro zone debt default.        

Monday, August 22, 2011

Forgiveness

Remember you always will, people who have hurt you

the wound, inflicted by that someone's indifference, will always bleed

there are times you felt angry, there are times you felt betrayed

but none compares with the peace you felt the day you forgave



Matt 5:24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Clutter

Clutter on the bed, on the table, in my wardrobe and in my mind is how my current situation can be best described. The drive of excitement spurs me to labour on, but the lack of relaxant is making me jumpy, moody and irritable. I need a break! But before all that, I would describe the current situation to you. My roommate is having a bath, and I am waiting for him, so that we can proceed to dinner because my stomach is starting to make strange sounds now. I am reading Marketing Management by Philip Kotler, the de-facto bible of marketing. I feel excited when I think of myself in a marketing role, but I would like to admit – when I first tried to read Kotler, it was as if an invisible force had warped my mind and my thinking power had all but evaporated! I could not understand what the guy was trying to say! I flipped through the pages. The whole book seemed full of jargons from a different world. And if this, I thought, is supposed to be the most basic book for Marketing being taught to us in the first semester itself, how on earth will I ever cope with the terrible things to come? It was only eventually that I eased into this frame of mind which defines rush as mundane, 5-hours-of-sleep-a-night as lucky, and (mostly) inedible mess food as a non-entity, something we’ve stopped thinking about, which does not give us a pain in the arse (no literal meaning intended) any more, as there is a larger scheme of things to worry about. Talking of mess-food, may be this is a conspiracy by the college authorities to inundate us with regular assignments/tests/presentations, so much that we fail to notice the unpalatable food. Or maybe the whole university is involved. Or maybe, just MAY BE, I’m going insane!
          Well, that could be some food for thought. I get up from my bed, stretch myself into a yawn so wild that everything starts to look blurry with the water clouding my eyes, shake myself back to senses, and look out of the window. Not much can be made out, but the lights in the hostel rooms of the building across, reflected as shimmering sparkles in the water puddles across the length of the area between, tell me that it’s raining buckets. We had five tests, two case studies and one submission this week. Still, one more test remains. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come in these 7 weeks. Not that I have learned a lot – I have serious reservations about that! But I’m learning the essence of hard work. And I’m learning to be sincere towards myself. Not to mention, I have met some wonderful people. And yes, there is also that one professor who I revere, and am always in awe of. Though I might end up securing a very poor grade in his subject, looking at the way I’m going. But that’s a separate issue altogether. Presently, my room-mate is almost ready and I look around for my umbrella. I’m surprised to find myself wondering what could be there for dinner.    

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Morning Walk

          When the morning air strikes that perfect balance between chill and warmth, it almost smells sweet. And it was this sweet smell that diffused my nostrils this morning when I went for a walk in the nascent summers of Shimla – the summers that usually have a very short life span, but while they last, they are something to be cherished. The first thing I felt was a pinch of regret for showing haughtiness when Mom asked me to take Dad’s morning-walk-stick along. It’s actually less of a stick and more of a baton, and it is to keep the monkeys and the stray dogs away – the creatures that are at liberty to loiter in the Shimla streets that are almost deserted from dusk till dawn. The sight that made me feel the regret was a group of 3 monkeys – not a large group this one, from what one might expect of Shimla – a dumpy one sitting lazily on a shorter tree growing on the slope whose top almost paralleled the height of the road, another one swinging from the cable line that went above and across the road and a third one – the mightiest – walking on the railing, making its way menacingly towards me in a measured, determined step. I hesitated, but remembered the timeless adage which said that never mind the monkeys and it’s a high probability that they won’t mind you (notice I said “high-probability”. It’s because there have been a few strange, gruesome cases, when things go wrong, that you don’t want to hear about!). So I went past them, pretending not to look at them (in fact, I’m sure I created some kind of record for looking the most sideways while keeping your head straight!). And true to the saying, the monkey also minded its own business and walked past me. The last glimpse I could catch of our ancestors, before I turned the corner, suggested one of them busy eating into the money plant that our neighbours had so assiduously taken care of for so long – all in vain.
          As I approached the main road, which is steeply elevated, I begin to think of my childhood days – all the times when I passed by the same shops that I was passing right now, how we, as kids, always hated having to fasten the top button of our uniform shirts, eclipsed by our tie knots, which were in turn, usually made by our respective mothers and the golden principle was that the knots were not to be muddled with for eternity. I thought of how, by the time the school ended, the shirt top buttons would be unfastened, the sleeves roughly folded up to our elbows; how we used to buy the 50 paisa “chuski”, out of the daily pocket money of 13 rupees – 10 as an emergency requirement (which lasted about a week), 2 rupees for the bus fare and 1 rupee for big babol/boomer/center fresh/chuski.
          I also thought of all the times we had observed the holy ritual of visiting the Mall on a Saturday evening, not to shop (though The Mall is basically a promenade, more like a shopper’s paradise), but to just roam, just to look at all the pretty people of the opposite sex and find solace in the confirmation that they were wasting their time in the same precious way. This all formed an indelible part of how I grew up. Now I would be going for an MBA and life would be very different. It would zoom by before a blink of an eye. I know I would long for this slowness in life characterized by a life in Shimla – the lazy mix of sunlight with the chilly air, the azure of the sky which seemed to bestow upon the town a sense of plenitude, the deodars, which seem to be conspiring in huddles, all of this and more add to the lethargic beauty that Shimla epitomizes. Deep in thought, I realized that I had almost reached back home. And for a change, I cannot see any monkeys to welcome me back. Is this change a start of something new? I wonder.       

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Punch called Panchgani


In the past two days, I had more fun than I expected, I screamed way more than my throat allowed, I clapped more than my hands could take, and I cried more than I had done in the past many months combined – and I have no shame in admitting that. Be it the beautiful songs sung by the Asia Plateau volunteers, or Panchgani’s wondrous veil of green, Morrie’s lessons, or Rajmohan Gandhi’s mesmerising stature and the distinct aroma of respect for him that was pervasive in the auditorium, be it the natural goodness of the human spirit that emanated from the volunteer wash-up and serving work that all were eager to be a part of, or the commanding camaraderie that was obvious all around in the batch – everywhere, there was something to reflect upon. In the end we were asked what we took back from this place. Each one of the 209 souls sitting there knew deep in their hearts what was that something. It was something very personal for many of us and I suspect that is why not many people shared it, but the indelible memories that we took away from this trip was a cherry on the cake of warmth and togetherness which all of us got to share. 
                As for me, I discussed with my new room-mates what this unexpected set-up of rooms had done to break the habit – the habit of getting settled down into our comfort zones, of the fact that if you pass a guy one day in the corridor and exchange just a casual ‘hi’, and you do the same for the next two days, then on the fourth day you won’t go out of your way to strike up a conversation. You would feel more comfortable saying just that ‘hi’. So this churning of partners made me get to know this wonderful guy who thinks a lot like me, and who lives in my corridor and was in my section as well. I had not passed more than a ‘hi’ to him up till now. I broke the habit. And God, it felt good! And I am sure each one of us broke our habits in some way or the other.
                The most cathartic session for me was the one on ‘Relationships’ which made a lot of brave souls open up their most personal thoughts to everyone. Like it was said, the power of sharing had a domino effect, and soon everyone was sharing their past and their present, their regrets and their realizations, and the effect it had on everyone was astounding! Like Abdul bhai summed it up, “Have you ever seen a guy crying?” I felt most of them shed atleast a tear. And I did my bit :)
                I can proudly say SIBM 2011-13 batch has a healthy mix of very talented people who put up a series of impromptu performances, which could any day best a highly planned one. For me, I got a book signed by Gandhiji’s grandson, who wished me well, and I could not have asked for more. But everything said and done, Bhale Sir stole the limelight. His ‘fun’ side was exposed to us, the chances of which happening in campus were close to zilch. I hope his ‘fun’ performance rubs off on his no-nonsense attitude which he carries around in campus. 
                And for now, back to the life in a b-school. Or shall I say, welcome to the life in a b-school?
                Cheers!

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Hong Kong Files: On Racism

It definitely took us by surprise but we did experience our fair share of racism. Why I call it fair, you would soon know. But for now I will enlighten you on where, how, when. We had to live through it mostly while using the metro, or the MTR as they called it there. On the platform, when there would be multiple queues of people waiting to board an oncoming train, the queue in which we were present would be conspicuously empty. If my friend and I were standing at the beginning of a queue, even though the other queues would be teeming with people, we would be the only ones in our queue. And it happened more than once. 

Also, if we were fortunate enough to get seats on the metro when it happened to be relatively empty, the seats close to us were the last ones to be occupied. Many times people would prefer to stand than sit next to us. It was very obvious and not some flight of our fancy. You would say that I am exaggerating. The Chinese people have to reason to act like that. But then if racism were governed by logic and reason, it would not be so pervasive, so omni-present. And they do have enough reason to act like that after all, what with the Indians there staring like crazy, and jumping lines, pushing and shoving intentionally; well what one reaps is what one sows. It’s not like we Indians are very courteous to the Chinese populace in India. Or for that matter to any person who is not a citizen of India. Or from our other neighbouring country. Or a south Indian in north India. Or a north Indian in south India. Look around and it’s present everywhere. It’s an inherent part of humanity. And that’s the sad part.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Hong Kong Files: On Civic Sense

We Indians pride ourselves in being a product of a rich historical and cultural heritage. I’m not sure if that is the reason but there is also a pervasive holier-than-thou, sanctimonious haughtiness about us that sets us apart from others. It is this sense of being better than others that, I fear, could be India’s nemesis. 

I recently spent a week in Hong Kong, which not only conditioned me therapeutically, but, to my surprise, also introduced me to a perspective which is very hard to grasp, being in my motherland. For example, the cars all drove at a very high speed. No, it was not the smooth-as-butter roads, nor was it the super-fast super-costly sedans, though one can’t deny their presence. We were travelling by a taxi on that day for the first time when we saw a huge double-decker bus approaching at around 70kmph (which also happened to be the speed of our taxi) on the road that merged with our road, but the lane in which the bus was travelling happened to be the one right next to ours. It is a normal reflex for us to slow down at such a junction. But to our utter surprise, the driver of the taxi drove confidently, without so much as turning his head ever so slightly, and merged in the bigger road with the huge bus right next to our taxi. It was then that we realized that here everyone did the same, no one slowed down at junctions; in fact no one had to slow down, because it was assumed that the other person won’t attempt to change the lane and would keep cruising, undisturbed, unconcerned, disciplined, in their own respective lane. It was this sense of faith in the other, this sense of civic sense which made me wonder how different this is from India where everyone is in a rush to reach somewhere; where on highways, overtaking from right, left or centre – everything goes. 

A similar experience we had at all the queues we waited in – there was no intention of anyone of jumping the line, and everyone waited for their turn, be it at ticket counters, smaller lifts, metro (MTR) stations or the queues for immigration at the Hong Kong airport. Every officer was unruffled and there did not seem to be any sense of urgency, neither among the officers, nor among the people in the queue, and at the same time no dilly-dallying was perceptible either. The work moved on efficiently. We noticed a stark contrast to this as soon as we set foot at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at New Delhi. At the immigration queue, a female with a kid in tow – more like in fetters, the way the poor kid was being dominated – was right behind me. There were fewer queues, their places determined by the security demarcations, indicating where to go, and greater number of counters. Thus inevitably, each line forked into more number of lines as it approached the counters. On seeing that the “other line”, actually one formed out of the one we were in, seemed shorter, the female right behind us “reminded” us that we were, and had always been, a part of that other shorter line, and that we should move ahead to stand behind those couple of people in front, bypassing at least 4 to 5 people who were legitimately ahead of us. I politely informed her that the seemingly small line was a product of our line itself and that it would be wrong to leapfrog so many people ahead of us. After a mere 8-10 seconds of deep thought, se came up with – “Excuse me, if u don’t want to join that line, let us do so”, and she and her kid passed us by and, to their relief, found themselves only third from the counter. Not to mention that later the same female lost her boarding pass and made me and my friend the last ones to get cleared off from immigration despite the fact that we had initially chosen the smallest queue that there was. So much for saving time! And also a crude reminder that we were back!

There should not be anything debasing in admitting that we, as a people, lack the basic civic sense that governs a society and makes it function efficiently. Although, trying one’s hand at “foreign things” like not honking and still trying to make people not walk in the middle of the road in front of your car, trying to maintain your place at an imaginary queue at the cricket match ticket counters or even stadiums just before a match, or playing the role of a good citizen when in such similar situations, could be demoralizing or even suicidal if one is alone in the endeavour. I do not know how this change could be engendered on such a large scale, but one thing I know – if we do not inculcate this sense of being sociable and mannered in all our routines, we will always remain far behind the “foreign” nations.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Hidden Hype of Hypocrisy

Recently, I could not help but come to terms with a realization that made me shudder with contempt for my own species. Though it also made me peep into myself and realize a characteristic of my nature - one which is a subset of the universal nature of all of homo sapiens. The realization I talk of has made it clear to me that every human being is tinged - or inundated, as could be the case - with a deep rooted and outwardly imperceptible predilection towards hypocrisy. I do not, for the record, keep myself out of this superset. And the proof of this is omnipresent, if we care for a good hard look around. If we define hypocrisy as "an expression of agreement that is not supported by real conviction", then are we to believe that whenever we say one thing while having in mind the other, we are not embodying the odious essence of this very word? No, a judicious fellow like yourself would reply, we are not to believe that. In fact, if we indulge in this kind of lip service, we are truly being the paragon of hypocrisy, you would add. But wait, let me complete what I have to say. How many times does it happen with each one of us when we truly want one thing, or are following a certain train of thought, but end up saying something quite different - due to varied reasons like fear of appearing impudent or brusque in manners, not feeling close enough to our company at that moment to spell out what we truly feel or out of respect for our elders lest they be appalled and hurt by our extreme outspokenness? If we do it for the sake of smooth functioning of the society, you would say, then its raison d'etre is acceptable enough and it would not be bracketed under hypocrisy. But who are we to decide whether the reason for putting up an appearance by a certain person is good/bad without compromising our sense of objectivity? Should we be audacious enough to believe that we won't bring our prejudices into play if we appoint ourselves as the decider of the good reasons versus bad reasons when there are examples galore in the whole of history to prove that right/wrong is wholly subjective?

So my question is - is it not hypocrisy when we put up a false face, for any good/bad reason whatsoever, and say something, which is quite distinct from what we actually had been thinking? If we were to stick to the semantics, this is exactly what hypocrisy is defined as. Why, even great writers have withheld the publication of their autobiographies until after their demise for fear that the outspokenness of it would hurt and injure the people who were close to them and who inevitably found an honest mention is the journals. (Mark Twain is a case in point here, who had left instructions to release his 5,000 unexpurgated pages of memoirs a 100 years after his death. The 1st part of the trilogy hit the stores in November 2010. A widely believed reason for him keeping his personal life under wraps for so long is that the time lag prevented him from having to worry about offending friends). And there are many others who dilute the harsh mention of relatives and close friends. Surely, this action of propriety should not be classified as hypocrisy. Thus one has to definitely draw a line. But then again, won't drawing a line be tantamount to bringing the subjective into play? Won't your line be different from my line?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Fish Called Self



What is the purpose of philanthropy? To help out the poor and the marginalized, you would say. But why does one indulge in philanthropy? No doubt but to provide help to others. Is it a selfless act? Does one not benefit even if a bit from this act? And if one would admit the possibility of such a benefit, isn’t the premise of this act being a completely selfless one completely decimated?

I believe that every action that one takes, every move that one makes, has ultimately a selfish rationale behind it, deep down as it may be. The very act of philanthropy that we talk about, does one not derive a sense of self-worth after helping someone out? Deep down, does one not subconsciously want every one to know about that act? I would not, you would say. Alright, assuming one does not tell anybody about that act of philanthropy, but even a word of thanks or a blessing from the person we helped would create a sense of self-worth, a sense of happiness that one derives when one knows that he/she is doing the “right” thing. Is the very act of deriving that pleasure not enough to safely admit that the ultimate motive might have been this intangible benefit for our own selves?

Let us consider another form of feeling which is poetically defined as a completely selfless act – Love. Loving someone ought to be completely selfless. The sacrifices that one makes, especially the ones that our significant other is not aware of, can they be any more selfless, you would argue? But no. Look closer. Don’t we feel happy loving someone? Isn’t there a pleasure derived when we hand someone the reins of the carriage of our life? In fact, there can be no act more selfish than the very act of loving someone with all our heart. And that need not be a bad thing. In fact, evolution has told us that being selfish, acting on our interests is the best thing that we can do for us, as well as for the society around us. According to the powerful statement by Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. And how true it is! The world goes round because everyone acts in their own interests. I would almost go as far as to say that there can be no act which does not have a flavor of selfishness attached to it.

But I used the word “almost” as one has to admit the possibility of a completely selfless act. An act of philanthropy in which we do not let the thought of our act linger on longer than it should. An act of love which does not make us feel worthier of ourselves, or which does not make us feel “good” about ourselves. Do such acts sound sweeter? I would not like to go into that debate right now, but, admitting the possibility of such an event, how sustainable such a selfless act would be, how pleasurable it would be, or how beautiful it would seem, can again be questioned.