Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kolkata's Future

Kolkata invariably features in my tours to India. Not just because it is home, but I am a Kolkata enthusiast - I love the city and its people, and believe in its future. I am, of course, working towards expanding our network there - I remain convinced that any education business in India should have a Kolkata presence.

Of course, I face this question often - if I believe in Kolkata so much, why don't I go and stay there? The answer I give is similar to many other compatriots living abroad - lack of work opportunity has made me travel. Undoubtedly, Kolkata has little industry and too few jobs - Rajiv Gandhi famously said it was a dying city - but most importantly, it is yet to wake up to Globalization and take the opportunity.

There are people who would jump at the last comment. There has been much ado about the re-industrialization of West Bengal in the recent times. It is undeniable that the world-record making $2500 car, the Tata Nano, is to be produced in the outskirts of the city. There were an unprecedented series of new projects in the pipeline, the housing sector boomed, real estate prices have shot up three-fold in a space of two years, and the service industry flourished. Much credit is due to the current Chief Minister, Budhdhadev Bhattacharyya, who, despite leading a communist administration which is ruling the State for last 30 years, could bring in new thinking and openness to foreign investment. The fear of industrialists that West Bengal/ Kolkata will mean militant trade unions and a unenthused government has finally been dispelled.

However, as I would find out, Mr. Bhattacharyya got certain things wrong, which led me to doubt whether he will fall short of his own promise. I was looking to find a 50 to 100 Square Meter space for ourselves in the new business district of Kolkata - the Sector 5 of Salt Lake City - which promises to be the hub for Information Technology in the city. My idea was to build a small e-learning team, which can then work on various projects we are getting. However, I have been told in no uncertain terms that there is no 'small' space available in Sector 5, and the minimum I can get is 400 Square Meter!

After this disappointing start, I also looked at various incentives that the government offers for IT sector, and I could see the problem - there is actually very little for start-ups, though the government is fairly generous on big investors.

I would identify this as the big problem for Kolkata's future. Globalization - for an industrially backward place like Kolkata - should lead the way to developing indigenous competence and competitiveness. But it is indeed plain for everyone to see that the government of West Bengal, which is primarily responsible for the state's economic strategy, does not get it - they are focused on bringing change in terms of offering sweet deals to big name industrialists and foreign capital. One need not be protectionist, but at this stage, the government must labour to develop indigenous competitiveness, more garage industrialists.

This option is surely unglamourous, and it is unlikely to give the Chief Minister the prime time minutes he desires. However, coming after a long period when his party's government effectively stifled all entrepreneurial efforts of people from Bengal, such bias towards foreign and big name capital, and more importantly, against the entrepreneurs of the state, will only destroy the long term economic prospect of the state. This is not a neo-protectionist urging - it isn't an either/or. The government must invite foreign capital, which will create jobs, train local people and create facilities. But at the same time, the government must have a structured programme to assist and encourage local enterprise - incubation facilities, venture funds, training for entrepreneurs, small industry advice service etc - if it has to balance the growth and create longer-term prosperity. I go back with a strong suspicion that Mr. Bhattacharyya, being a showtime politician, does not really get it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Irrelevant Photograph

The last time, I was passionately involved was 19th of March 2006. With my camera, I hastened to add! That was the last time I was trying to photograph a deadwood tree in the background of a neighbourhood church - somehow it told me a story that I was trying to capture.

It was telling me about the futility and barrenness of life. The church stood tall in a sort of eternal uprightness. I knew that church was closed a few weeks back for financial scandal of some sort, but its structure hardly betrayed the shame. The sky was clear and a tinge greenish, providing the perfect background to the eternal church and a dead tree, embedding the irony that there was little hope for this closed church while the dead tree waited for its spring!

But then I gave up taking photos on the 20th morning. I lost my mother that morning. Since then, I was pre-occupied with life. With goings-on. I tried to take the cameras out of the shelf and shoot, but it seemed that objects stopped talking to me. Irretrievably. Completely. The world has become a deadwood, betraying no hints, spilling out no whisper.

In that silence, I lived. I scratched out days on diary, spending time to spend time. I did not give up living, but I was waiting - I don't know what for.

Two years hence, to the day, suddenly the same deadwood tree near the neighbourhood church spoke to me - as if time froze since my last photo and started again just now - and I stopped by to gasp and gather the moment.

The church has reopened since. I did not notice the tree intently for a while to know whether it has now irreversably died. I suspect the sky was a bit more blue now, a little less green. The roads were busier, and there were a couple busy cuddling each other in the church garden who thought I am trying to photograph them.

But the story that tree told me now is so different. It told me about momentlessness. It told me that nothing is lost in the universe ever. The equations and the particulars do not matter, perspectives don't matter too - a story looks different but essentially remains the same whenever we care to look.

I did not take the photo. It made no sense.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Inevitability of Almost Everything

I am in a rather foul mood. Well, yes, disappointed is the word. Not angry, anger isn't something I am good at. Sad - a bit perhaps - but sadness is tragic, and I am not feeling tragic at this time. It is the sheer overwhelmedness, frustration of living statically, and inability to dream that's getting me. I must admit - this is only cyclical and I get these feelings often, though I don't know when this is going to go away.

Easter is anyway a depressing time. A holiday in the middle of nothing - and I had to work and travel most of it anyway. It is an early Easter too - Easter was this early last time in 1913 and won't be till 2160. The weather god blessed London with some snowflakes too - but while I was gearing up for the possibility of an white easter and lecturing someone on Climate Change, the snow melted. March mid-day in London was too much for this, I suppose.

The annoying thing is that I am travelling again next week. In fact, next week sounds distant and comfortable, but it is actually next Wednesday. Just a few days, and then I shall go zigzag again - in cramped airline seats and uncomfortable airport lounges - across India and Bangladesh. I know I wanted this life - but I guess I got older now, and wiser too.

The other thing is this nagging worry about the recession that seems to be around the corner. Well, it seems to be coming, but not there yet. The feds are cutting Interest rates, that's possibly the only thing the post-Friedman era economists have learnt, and now come down to 2.25%. With inflation rearing its head, they are against the wall, literally. There are two major bank rescues in last six months - Northern Rock in Britain, and Bear Sterns in the States - and everything seems to be on the edge, a bit. To top this, British banks are now talking to the Bank of England to guarantee savers' deposits / to guarantee to rescue them if they are caught in mortgage trouble. That does not do anyone's confidence any good!

However, depression of this kind is a good thing, some times. It allows me to lose my sense of euphoria and be more realistic with my life. Regain the sense of perspective and refocus on my priorities a bit. Sit down with coffee, and ask myself where I am going. The travel suddenly appears to be an wonderful opportunity to rethink and rejig - irritable seatmates notwithstanding - and time in India, a god-sent window to reassess what I am doing and how to go forward. I don't need to think about recession, I had to tell myself, because I can do little about it. It is good to know that there is a possibility, and a quick rethink of my personal and work strategy to suit the new realities will not do anyone any harm. Never mind the weather!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What Sticks

A very interesting discussion about stickiness of ideas is uner way. Malcolm Gladwell started this recently in his Tipping Point - he argued that some ideas stick as the people who propogate them are more socially connected than others, and they can spread an idea faster, further.

This is indeed the holy grail of Word of Mouth marketing - finding influencers, who can start a trend. Indeed, Keller Edward has also written a book on them - The Influentials.

However, there is a contrarian view too, and read more about this on Fast Company, in this brilliant article 'Is Tipping Point Toast' - http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/122/is-the-tipping-point-toast.html

To summarise, what Duncan Watts is stating here some ideas stick whereas others don't has less to do with people who propagate them, and more to do with society's preparedness to accept the idea. 'No army in the world can stop an idea whose time has come' - as Victor Hugo famously observed.

So, we always knew that, what's the fuss about? The point is that if Duncan Watts is to be believed, then it takes the wind out of Word of Mouth marketers' sail, because all trends become highly random, as they appear in the first place. So, marketing dollars will leave the glamourous fashion / trend creation budget and go back to old fashioned market research. Makes sense, isn't it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Good to be home

Finally, I am back in London. Another 10 days - in India, Sri Lanka, and Dubai - done. How I wanted to live this life when I was young? How much I wished, during those interminable train journeys I had to take from Calcutta to Bhawani Patna [in the famine-torn parts of Orissa, where I had the uneviable task of selling Computer Training], that, by some magic, I shall move from country to country? That was another time, but.

Do I sound smug, as if I have arrived. I am wrong, then. I am just a salesman, and will remain so. I travel with none of the pomp of a civil servant, with obiliging tax-payers paying for my first class. Unlike my colleagues in big-name corporates, I travel in cramped economy classes, with irritable seat mates and to uninviting airport lounges, always reminded of the constraints of the start-up business that I help to run. I allow myself no jetlag, anxiously check my hotel bills and carefully choose public taxis over hotel limousine, wherever possible. How aptly a colleague commented - those who say travel is glorious, never travelled!

Besides, I miss England. Not its government, which is as erratic and as full of themselves as one could bear. But, after all these four years, I have now come to love most of other things, even weather. England is my home. At least, for the moment. I know the streets and churches, I know which shop sells the best vegetable and where I can get the latest movie DVDs. It's habit - mother of comfort! How beautiful it is to walk on the streets, pick up a newspaper, pop into a supermarket and wait for a train. Almost makes me sing 'Home Sweet Home' when my train from Gatwick run past South Croydon, to another bigger station, where I must change the service.

I know what I am thinking. When I was performing the last rites of my mother, the sloka read - janani janmobhoomishcho sargadapi gariyashi [Mother and Motherland are more desirable than the paradise]. I almost thought - I would never meet my mother again, but I have my motherland - India - to which I shall give all my love, all my life. So, why think England as my home? Yes, indeed, because I got used to it. That's why I felt so relieved, getting back in Gatwick, from Calcutta! While I see the irony, I don't see a conflict, though. I would eventually leave England some day, all the trappings, all the comforts of Home, to go back to Calcutta. To do work! Our idea of paradise may be all about homely comfort, but life is to be lived for something better, isn't it?

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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