Thursday, June 20, 2019

Cycling in Minneapolis

 I cycled almost every day between 10 and 20 kms during my stay in Minneapolis from 22 May to 16 June. I found it as the most enjoyable and leisurely way of sightseeing while getting some exercise as a bonus.

I was inspired by Becky, my daughter in law and son Raja both of whom who go to office by cycle and take their children in the bike trailer and tagalong. They do it on many days even in the harsh winter when the temperature is many degrees below freezing point. Thanks to the daily cycling, both Raja and Becky are fit and do not need to go to gym. While the five year old Divya enjoys pedaling in the TagAlong, the 30-month old Leela prefers to go to sleep in the Burley trailer listening to audio stories from iPhone. Becky's parents, in their seventies, also cycle every day besides going on cycling tours to other parts of US and Europe.

Becky is not only an enthusiastic cyclist but also a passionate activist promoter of cycling and use of public transport to reduce use of cars and pollution. She works with NGOs in these fields.

                                                      Becky taking Divya in Tag-along 

                                     Raja taking the two kids to daycare in Burley trailer

Minneapolis, ranked as one of the best biking cities in USA, proactively promotes cycling as a healthy, low-cost, safe and environment-friendly way of travel. The city has 130 miles of on-street and 100 miles of off-street bikeways. There are free public facilities for pumping air and minor repair tools in cycling routes. The city runs and efficient and user-friendly bike-share program called as Nice Ride which has a fleet of 1600 cycles and 170 stations. There are special maps and Apps for cycling.

There are several hundred miles of cycle trails beyond the city going through scenic interior areas of the state.  The buses and trains have special places to take the cycles along.

The state, city and county authorities collaborate with NGOs in planning, maintenance and innovation of the cycling facilities and use.

Traffic rules and regulations are in place to ensure the safety and efficiency of the cycling system. A new culture of cycling has evolved. Car drivers respect cyclists and give way to them. The cyclists offer the same courtesy to pedestrians. When you hear the shout "on your left" one needs to give way to the faster cyclist behind who wants to overtake.

Thousands of Minnesotans commute to work in cycles with special and stylish bike wear and change into office dress after reaching the place of work. 

There are five different interesting routes for cycling:

- on both sides of the Mississippi River and crisscrossing through the various bridges with different architectures.

- around the many lakes. A popular circuit is the 12-mile loop connecting the Cedar lake, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet.  Each of the lake has a perimeter ranging from 1.7 to 3.2 miles. 

-Midtown Greenway, a dedicated cycle path through the city for 6 miles. It is a kind of cycle highway with one lane to go and another to come. 

-cycle trails, going out of the city through scenic routes. A popular one is the Grand Round Scenic Byway which covers 55 miles around the city.

- on the streets and roads of the city, where large space is marked prominently for exclusive use of cyclists. In some streets, which are designated as bike boulevards, the cycles have  priority over vehicles.

More information:

                                         riding along the river near the office of Raja

                                           Riding on the historic stone arch bridge

stone arch bridge

riding in a park

                                            Midtown Greenway with divided lanes

the view of standup paddling and boating in the Lake of the Isles which has a 4 km cycling path around

                                                view of downtown from the lake

The only problem is that one has to lock the cycle carefully every time one parks it. Cycle theft is common, even from garages in the houses.  

After the Minneapolis experience, I have bought a cycle and use it in my village (Alangudi Mahajanam, 35 km from Trichy and 350 km from Chennai) during my visits. Of course, there are no bike routes there. I ride through tractor roads between the rice and sugarcane fields behind my house.

I would love to cycle in Gurgaon where I live. My golf course, metro station and shopping malls are within cyclable distances. But the roads are dangerous and dusty, although a few enthusiasts do it bravely. The good news is that there is growing realization among the Gurgaon youth about the value and pleasure of cycling. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Gandhian journey with Guha

It was indeed an epic journey reading the three long books on Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha. 
1 Gandhi before India
2 Gandhi: the years that changed the world and
3 India after Gandhi: the history of the world’s largest democracy

Guha gives a fresh perspective on Gandhi with his objective and scholarly approach. He keeps the readers spellbound with his stories, anecdotes, comments and conclusions with his distinct style of narration. 

In these three books Guha gives a comprehensive account of Gandhi’s life: how he evolved with circumstances; the books and people who influenced him; how he became the Mahatma; his politics and spiritualism; and how he used his pioneering methods of satyagraha, civil disobedience and fasting to achieve outcomes. Guha gives the contexts of Gandhi’s actions with details of how his admirers encouraged him and how his critics tried to pull him down.

Gandhi united Indians from different languages, religions, castes, ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups and directed their energy to freedom movement, abolition of untouchability, social reforms and communal harmony.He was the first one to make such remarkable contribution to India’s unity in diversity.

Despite not being a charismatic orator, he inspired people with his many thousands of speeches. He spoke to all kinds of audience ranging from peasants, workers, professionals, intellectuals, political parties, religious gatherings and conferences. His speeches stopped communal violence,  saved many lives and drove people to social reform and personal purification.

Gandhi was a prolific writer. He wrote thousands of articles, letters, pamphlets and petitions to governments. Besides responding on or explaining policy issues, he took the trouble to write in detail, when people asked for help in personal matters about love, marriage and religion.

Gandhi felt perfectly at home in his austere ashrams, in the houses of village peasants, in the British jails, the mansions of rich industrialists and in the Buckingham Palace. Tatas, Birlas and Bajajs donated money and extended support to Gandhi’s ashrams, campaigns and movements.

He is perhaps the only leader who walked the maximum miles across India meeting people, addressing meetings, resolving problems, preaching social reforms and religious harmony. He walked and fasted even in his old age when the doctors advised him against overstraining.  He walked in the hot summers and through all kinds of terrains.

He went on fasting and self sacrifice to persuade governments to stop undesirable legislations and communities to stop conflicts.

He experimented with food, nutrition, nature cure and celibacy. He went overboard in the practice and preaching of abstinence from sex by trying to enforce this even with young people including his own sons.

Gandhi was attacked viciously by Jinnah and Ambedkar who considered themselves as rivals. Gandhi responded to their criticism with reasoning and arguments, while showing respect and courtesy to them. The Communists had called him as an imperial stooge and one Andhra communist leader went all the way to Gandhi’s place of birth to spit on a Gandhi memorial.

Gandhi’s life was an open book. He admitted his weaknesses, changed his course several times when he realised the need and accepted the advice of others on many things. It was Rajaji who stopped Gandhi (in his sixties) from his pursuit of spiritual marriage to the Bengali beauty Sarala Devi. Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy, Gokhale and some others who had enlightened him.

Conservative Hindu Sanatanists tried to kill him with a bomb in Pune but fortunately his car got delayed and the bomb fell on the wrong car . They showed black flags protesting against his campaign to abolish untouchability and opening of temples to the Dalits. Eventually it was another fanatic Hindu Godse, who assassinated him with the grouse that Gandhi was too generous to the Muslims. 

In contrast, the British rulers treated him with due respect and courtesy even while acknowledging that he was the biggest danger to their Indian empire. While convicting Gandhi, a British judge openly expressed his personal anguish about his legal burden of having to punish a great man. A British government circular in the forties had asked the civil servants to start referring to him as Mahatma. While there were a few racist detractors such as Churchil, overall, the British showed remarkable tolerance and reverence to him. Thank God India was not a Portuguese, Spanish or French Colony. They would have killed Gandhi long before..

At the same time, Gandhi had never called the British as enemies. He showed respect and friendship to the British and he just wanted them to be true to their own principle of freedom which India deserved.He showed such respect to all his other opponents and opposing ideas.

Gandhi was responsible for inspiring and nurturing thousands of value based political leaders and followers. Under his inspiration, thousands of Indians gave up their jobs and sacrificed their lives for the nation. There were many foreigners who devoted their lives looking after him, supporting his causes and participated in his many experiments with life. He set an example with his actions and sacrifices. He never asked anyone to do what he would not do. The leaders who imbibed this spirit laid the foundation for the free India. 

My admiration for Gandhi has increased after reading these books.  I have also become a fan of Guha, who has portrayed, analysed and interpreted Gandhi with objectiveness and clarity based on his original research.

Guha’s books on Gandhi deserve to be made mandatory reading in schools and colleges as well as in management schools and civil service curriculum. Obviously some beliefs, teachings and practices of Gandhi do not fit in today’s world. But the success of Gandhi in uniting Indians and achieving freedom and social reforms will certainly ignite and inspire the minds and hearts of young Indians.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Carnatic music flowing into Cauvery river in Thiruvaiyaru Aradhana

I attended the 172nd edition of Thyagaraja Aradhana (tribute) music festival which honoursthe legendary Carnatic music composerevery year on his death anniversary.  Thyagaraja composed most of his music while living in Thiruvaiyaru where he died in 1846. The Festival is held in the premises of his samadhi (memorial) on the banks of the Cauvery river. This is perhaps the oldest classical music festival in India.

This is the Thyagaraja image in Kolam in front of a house in Thiruvaiyaru

A total of 242 concerts were held in the period 21-25 January. Typically the new musicians are given 10 or 15 minutes while the established ones including Jesudas get 20 minutes to perform. The concerts start at 9 am and go non-stop till 11 pm without any break. They are organised with Swiss punctuality without waste of any time. There are  two stages. When one concert is about to finish, the next group sits on the other stage waiting to start. Nadhaswaram performances are the second most predominant, after vocal concerts. 

The musicians consider it a privilege to perform in the Aradhana and come here paying themselves for their travel and accomodation. They do not get any performance fees either. Some of them come regularly every year.Those learning Carnatic music worship Thyagaraja as a saint and perform pujas at his temple.

                                                            The temple
The vocalists sing mostly in Telugu and a few songsin Sanskrit, since the Thyagaraja, a Telugu Brahmin from Thiruvarur composed in his mother tongue and the mother of the mother tongue SanskritSri Ramais the much repeated refrain in most of the songs. Thyagaraja was a devotee of Rama.
The music festival culminates with Pancharathna singing on the last day which was on 25 January this year. It was an amazing experience to see thousands of people (professionals as well as audience) singing together in chorus the Pancharathna (five gems) Kritis ( musical compositions) composed by Thyagaraja. The organisers had distributed copies of the Telugu and Sanskrit (four in Telugu and one in Sanskrit) song lyrics in Tamil script for the audience. This event is telecast live in Doordharshan Tamil channel every year. 

There are no tickets for the concerts which are open to the public. The hall becomes full and overflowing outside for the Pancharathna event and when celebrities come to sing. This year the celebrity singer was Jesudas from Kerala. The music can be heard not only inside the hall but also in the streets of the town which are fitted with loud speakers.
There was a time, when women were not allowed to sing at the festival.The credit for opening women’s participation goes to Bangalore Nagarathnamma. She was a Carnatic singer, cultural activist and scholar in the early twentieth century in Karnataka. After becoming an ardent devotee of Thyagaraja she came to Thiruvaiyaru where she settled down in 1920. She built a temple over  Thyagaraja samadhi and contributed to the tradition of the Aradhana. Her samadhi is next to Thyagaraja’s.
It was not easy for her. She hailed from the  devadasi (courtesan) community, which was looked down. She was the first president of the Association of the Devadasis of Madras Presidency. She was the "first female artist to pay income tax" in Madras province in those days.
The President of the Aradhana committee is Rangasamy Moopanar, a rich landlord from Kabisthalam, near Thiruvaiyaru. Karuppiah (GK) Moopanar, his elder brother and Congress stalwart was the President for 36 years till his death in 2002. His son GK Vasan is the chairman of the Board of Trustees. The Moopanar family has been well known as patrons of culture. 
Thiruvaiyaru is a quiet small town with a population of around 20,000. It does not have proper restaurants or hotels to accommodate the artistes and festival visitors, who stay in Thanjavur, 12 km away. Thiruvaiyaru is known as the land of five rivers (Iyaru means five rivers) namely Cauvery, Vennar, Vettar, Vadavar, and Kudamurutti rivers. The deity in the famous temple in the town is Aiyarappan /Panchandeeswarar which mean Lord of five rivers.

There is belief that those who die in Thiruvaiyaru, considered as the sacred equivalent of Benares, will go to heaven. Some old people come to stay in the Chattirams (charity accommodation) at their terminal stage waiting to die there. Sixteenth day Ceremonies as well as anniversary rites for the dead are done on the bank of the Cauvery river in the town. There are over fifty Brahmin families which live on the income of performing the rites for the dead. 
The venue of the annual music festival is the samadhi of the saint which is on the bank of the Cauvery river. The audience sit on the floor which is just pure river sand and enjoy the breeze coming over the Cauvery waters. 

The music hall is open-air with shamiana cloth cover on top. It feels as though the music flows into the river. The music- filled water has made the Cauvery delta region fertile, as evident from the lush green fields of rice, coconut, sugar cane, betel leaf and bananas. 

The historical prosperity of the region around Thirvaiyaru had given more time for the people of the region to pursue music, dance and other forms of arts and culture. Thygaraja and the other two famous composers (Trinity of Carnatic Music) Shyama Shastri and Muthusamy Dikshidar were born in Thiruvarur, another town in the same delta region, seventy km away from Thiruvaiyaru. Many of the Carnatic musicians come from the Cauvery delta region. Proud of this lineage, artistes use the name of the place as their first name such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Papanasam Ramani, Thanjavur Raju, Kumbakonam Aravind, Mayavaram Pandian, Ayyanpetteai Haridoss and Thruvaiyaru Murugan. 

The region of Thiruvaiyaru and Thiruvarur was part of the Chola dynasty of Thanjavur which had patronised arts and culture and built historic temples. The Chola dynasty has a distinct place in Indian history. Cholas were the only Indian rulers who ventured outside India conquering overseas territories and colonising parts of South East Asia. Alas.. History has its own way of humbling the proud. After the decline of Cholas in the 15th century, Thanjavur came under the Telugu speaking Governors appointed by Vijayanagara empire. In 1675 the Marathas took over Thanjavur and ruled till they lost to the British in the ninteenth century. There is still a Maratha dynasty prince living in the Thanjavur palace surrounded by a small Marathi community. The Maratha kings promoted Sanskrit and before them the Nayaks patronised Telugu language. So this explains the Telugu and Sanskrit compositions of Thyagaraja who did not bother to use Tamil in his music although he had lived in the heart of Tamilnadu. 
Poor me.. despite the fact that my village is close to Thiruvaiyaru,I did not understand a word of the songs of my neighbour Thyagaraja which were only in Telugu and Sanskrit...Moopanar, the President of the Board of the Thyagaraj Aradhana Trust do not understand either..One of those (among many others) cultural contradictions in Tamil society. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Confusion of a Tamil in Gurgaon

I was in Chennai when Karunanidhi died and had reached Delhi on the day of Vajpayee’s death. 

There were many things common between Karunanidhi and Vajpayee. Both were charismatic and visionary political leaders, legendary orators and literary celebrities. 

The reactions to the deaths of the two leaders, who had so much in common, were dramatically different. Oops..correction. There was drama in Chennai but no drama in Delhi.

In Delhi, I was able to get taxi and do my shopping of essential items. I even went to the Gym today. We cancelled our bridge tournament in Gymkhana Club as a mark of respect to the departed leader. Public holiday has been declared but there is no undue inconvenience to the public in terms of transport or other essential activities. 

But in Chennai, the post-death scene was dramatic and disruptive. Immediately, the shops, restaurants and even roadside tea stalls were closed. Buses, taxis and even autos were taken off the roads. Travellers had difficulty in reaching airports and train stations. I could not buy any gift or fruits or sweets for my family and neighbours. I was prepared for fasting as my way of mourning. But fortunately the restaurant in my hotel (Hotel Design inside the Phoenix mall) was open. In the TV, they were showing people shouting, screaming and weeping loudly. Some wanted/hoped/called for the restoration of life to the Kalaignar. There were fears and rumours about possible violence and damage to public properties such as buses. Fortunately, there were only a few minor incidents. No self-immolations either this time..

Of course, this is not the first time such reaction was witnessed in Tamilnadu. It was even more dramatic when Jayalalitha, MGR and Annadurai died. In all these cases too, the death was not sudden but expected following prolonged illness. Hero worship, even after death of the hero, is taken to the stratospheric level in Tamilnadu. It seems to be a unique Tamil tradition/culture/politics/mindset.

I was born and brought up in the heart of Tamilnadu, irrigated by Cauvery waters in Thanjavur and Tiruchy. I had studied in Tamil medium schools and enjoyed Tamil literature. My dream in college was to become a Tamil poet. Even now the songs of old movies such Paasa Malar and Paava Mannippu lift me out of Gurgaon and fly me back to walk in the sands of Kollidam river and around the ponds where I had heard them for the first time over village Panchayat board radio loud speakers.

My formative years were shaped, influenced and inspired by the Dravidian movement and its great leaders and writers like Karunanidhi. My Tamil pride made me throw stones on railway stations (symbol of Hindi- imposing Central government) during the anti-Hindi agitation. I failed couple of times in the Hindi exam conducted in Mussorie academy. The Hindi teacher saw I was hopeless. Out of sheer pity, I think she helped me pass with some extra marks of sympathy. Even now I end up paying double to the autowallas since I get confused between pachaas and pachees. I am the most valued customer and sought after sucker in Gurgaon.

When I was in the restaurant of Design Hotel, Chennai on the night of 7 August, there was a couple from North India in the next table. They were puzzled and curious by what was happening. They asked the waiters what did the death have to do with denial of essential service for the living. The waiters had no answer or explanation. They shook their heads this way and that way, confusing the North Indian guests even more, as I did to my UPSC interviewers in Delhi.

My Brasilian friends from Copacabana asked my why the Tamils celebrate death instead of life by making Marina beach as a cemetery and reducing the beach space for the celebration of life by the living ones.

I have no answers or explanation to the North Indian couple or to my Brasilian amigos… 

Confusion of a Tamil in Gurgaon?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Silence of the Cicadas

The novel "Silence of the Cicadas" by M Ramesh is a delightful romance thriller. The reader is treated to a delicious feast of romance and love between the adorable archaeologist Anand and the pretty and smart Priya, the main protagonists. It is a kind of Tamil love with its own rules of restraint, respect for traditions and avoidance of public display of affection. Lots of words and little action. 
But when the lovers meet in England, they discard all their Tamil scruples and constraints and dive direct and deep into uninhibited action-packed love. The artificial Adyar gates are thrown open to the free and natural flow of the canals of Yorkshire. The theoretical Tamil Kaadhal finds its carnal consummation in the free and open Dalby forests and lakes. No more words, no longer dialogues. It is pure action and full satisfaction. 

The most enjoyable parts of the book are the suggestive, sensual and teasing dialogues between the lovers during their encounters. But since Priya has a brilliant brain behind her beautiful face, the conversations are filled with vivacious wit, spirited repartees and creative ripostes. The lovers try to outwit each other playfully with words, ideas and descriptions. Here are some samples: 
-Kiran Mazumdar's biotech company makes 'Auntie-biotics' 
-Anand, knew only 'carbon dating' before meeting Priya
-He cannot hold anything from Priya because he is an ATM- Automatic Tell-her Machine
- He will write a novel "A tale of two titties"
The story is filled with plenty of suspense and surprise as well as unexpected twists and turns. The action jumps from the damp basement library of the Nawab's palace in Chennai to the picturesque and placid English countryside, from the historic Vellore fort  to Adyar estuary, from the British Deputy High Commission to the mysterious deep well with the skeleton of British officers dead in the Vellore mutiny and from ONGC's offshore drilling vessel to Amman temples.
The story ends in a dramatic way but I wish the denouement was different. Priya could have recognized the tree and her former lover and in that shocking and ecstatic moment Anand could have died. 
Author Ramesh has gone beyond romance and thrills. He has packed the novel with lot of interesting information on archaeology, history, philosophy, offshore-oil drilling, helicopters, monasteries, abattoirs, snakes, criminal underworld, cigars, diamonds, vegetarian cuisine, Nawabi traditions and English characters. He has given lots of fascinating details of archaeology through the main character Anand who describes himself humorously as 'India's own Indiana Jones'. 
Besides the unforgettable protagonists, there are some memorable characters in the novel:
-the pious and noble-spirited Nawab Zulfiqar who embodies the best of Islamic culture
-Tariq Imran, the debauched and criminal son of the Nawab, who enjoys drinking fresh-blood. He locks up his father in the true Mughal tradition to inherit the property.
- Anbu,the corrupt and crooked constable, who makes money on the side with off-duty dirty work for Imran
-'Paambu' Murugan, the contract killer who uses snakes to kill his targets
-Professor  Ganges Rao, addicted to Camacho Triple cigars, wine and women even in his eighties. 
-Miss Bunting, the classic English lady who speaks fluent Tamil, admires the old Indian child marriage system and thinks Thyagaraja is a better music composer than Mozart.
With foreign readers in mind, the author has gone into explanations of the history of Chennai, Tamil culture and especially the Tamil Brahmin version, Hindu religion, South Indian cuisine, 'permit rooms' in Tamilnadu hotels and Indian English. At the same same time, he has sprinkled lots of typical Tamil words of endearment and expressions of anger and frustration to give authentic local flavor.  He has made a clever connection between Samayapuram and Yorkshire. Miss 'Mary'lene in Yorkshire gets her name after the visit of her mother Susan Winch to the 'Mari'amman temple in Samayapuram. He has made the patriotic Indian archaeologist debate with the imperial British diplomat on the subject of kohinoor diamonds and contrasted the typical Tamil overstatement with the British understatement. 
This is the first novel of Ramesh, who has been working with the " Business Line" news paper published by " The Hindu" group of Chennai. When Ramesh told me that he had written a novel, I thought it might be based on his professional experience of reporting about the Chennai business groups. It has been a struggle for him to get any 'stories' or 'breaking news' from the conservative and pubilicty-shy family-controlled business groups of Chettiars and Srinivasans. Even if he got one, it would be another challenge for him to make it sensational given the orthodox and conventional tradition of The Hindu Group. Caught between the boring people on both the ends of his profession, Ramesh seemed to have found an outlet for his writing through the novel.
Hold on.. There is Latin America too in the novel, pleasing my nostalgic heart.  When Anand and Priya meet in a hotel room in England, they freak out with the Latin American spirit of " Celebra la Vida" (celebrate life), celebrating from second to second, giving out everything and holding back nothing. This is thanks to the author's visit to Brazil and listening to my Latin America lectures !!. I hope he takes his protagonists to Latin America in his next novel.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Elon Musk, the daring techpreneur

The book "Elon Musk: How the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our future" by Ashlee Vance gives  the story of  Musk, the audacious entrepreneur who has dared to disrupt the business of making rockets and cars. Vance has described the journey of Musk in a easily readable, lively and enjoyable way. He has been objective in his portrayal, having talked to his detractors as well as admirers. His narrative is authentic thanks to his personal access to Musk and his colleagues, friends and family. The book brings out vividly Musk's passion, vision, drive and undauntable spirit. Musk is a rare combination of a nerd, businessman, leader and visionary. 

Space shuttles and Cars were the exclusive domain of big governments and companies who could afford billions of dollars and take risks. But Musk had started the two businesses like a Silicon Valley start-up and scaled them up with his ingenious and innovative ways. He had gambled his own money (all of the 200 million dollars he had got from the sale of Paypal) in these risky ventures, playing for all or nothing. Several times, he went through dangerous phases of losing everything and failing. He was the butt of jokes and called as crazy by many. When his rockets went up in flames and when he did not know how he was going to pay the salary of his employees, he rose to the occasions and managed to come out on top with a cool head and pragmatic approach.  When the third launch of Falcon vehicle failed, Musk addressed his employees, saying, " I will never give up and I mean never.if you stick with me, we will win." This was one of those defining moments of Musk's unique leadership and indomitable spirit. 

The best line of the author, is " Musk is more hands on than Hugh Hefner". Ha..ha..ha.. Musk insisted that any expenditure above 10,000 dollars should have his approval, even when the company was spending millions of dollars a day. When an engineer wanted to buy a special equipment called as actuator for 120,000 dollars, Musk told him to find a way to make it himself for just 5000 dollars. The engineer had no alternative but to innovate. He made it for 3900 dollars after nine months of hard work. While the behemoth ULA (United Launch Alliance), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin charged the US government 380 million dollars per space flight, SpaceX could do it for just 90 million. 

Musk has demolished the myth that outsourcing is the best way to cut costs. While ULA depends on Russian engines, SpaceX equipments are all-American. SpaceX runs mostly with its own software, hardware, new materials, technologies and processes developed in-house by Musk's relentless drive for innovation and cutting costs. Musk has proven to the American manufacturers that it is possible to cut cost of production without going to China or Mexico. 

The way Musk has built and run the two companies is not like a CEO but like a General. Musk is a tough task master who drives his employees crazy with impossible deadlines and fires them fiercely when they don't deliver and meet his very high expectations. Musk's evolution as a tyrannical and dreaded boss stands in total contrast to his school days when he was the the victim of violent bullying by others. 

The success of Musk should be credited to a large extent to the pool of exceptionally talented and committed people who worked for him. He himself interviewed and selected the first thousand of the SpaceX employees. It was Dolly Singh, head of the talent search, who managed to find many of the experts to fit the exacting standards of Musk. On her experience of working with Musk, she says, " The challenge is that he is a machine and the rest of us are not. So if you work for Musk, you have to accept the discomfort. But in that discomfort is the kind of growth you cannot get anywhere else and worth every ounce of blood and sweat". She wrote a blurb in SpaceX job posting," SpaceX is like Special Forces, we take on missions that others have deemed impossible."

One of the distinguishing part of Musk's personality is his fondness for reading and learning. Even as a child he used to ' vacuuming books into his brain'. Except for his extensive reading and skills with video games, Musk did not show any promising signs of exceptional talents or leadership during his school and college days. As an entrepreneur, he learnt from the scientists and engineers by constantly questioning and interacting with them on their domain expertise. When he started the space venture, he read so many text books and research papers on the subject, becoming a formidable rocket expert himself. 

Consumed completely by his passions, Musk has given a poor second place to family life and has gone through three divorces. He also comes out somewhat heartless by his lack of loyalty and empathy for his employees and colleagues, similar to Steve Jobs. Musk has used others, hiring and firing them at will, without consideration for their personal circumstances, even when he shows larger empathy for the mankind. 

Musk is not sitting content with his wealth of billions of dollars and achievements. In any case, his quest is not just for money. He continues to be a techno utopian dreamer with lots of new ideas such as taking people to Mars and making human life multiplanetary. His Tesla electric cars and the Solar City help the world to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and make energy use and generation more sustainable. These will empower the mankind ( literally) by helping us to produce our own solar power from our rooftops and charge our electric cars and make the world cleaner and better.

Musk has become the latest poster boy for the techpreneurs who want to change the world. Even Larry Page, the co-founder of Google finds Musk to be an inspiring example and has invested in Musk's ventures. Musk has become the latest addition to the pantheon of my tech heroes: Bill Gates, Google Guys, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. My life has been revolutionized and enriched  by the Microsoft products, iPhone, iPad ( in which I read books bought from Kindle), Mac laptop, google search and social media. I am looking forward to more excitement in the future with Musk's electric cars and solar panels and other products he and other techpreneurs might come up with. I feel that the biographies of the techpreneur heroes should be made as text books in schools to ignite young minds. I have undergone tremendous transformation ever since I read the book of Bill Gates, "The Road Ahead " in 1995.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The TCS Story.. and beyond - Book by Ramadorai

This is part autobiography, part company history and part the story of India itself since Ramadorai and TCS had played a pioneering role in paving the way for India's reincarnation as an IT powerhouse.

Ramadorai narrates his personal life and growth candidly with his charateristic humility and down to earth self-effacing manner. Born in a  Tamil Brahmin bureaucrat family, he imbibes the traditional virtues such as simplicity, discipline, hard working habit, obedience of seniors and commitment to work and the institution. He goes to US for higher studies after which he gets a job there. But he comes back to India to join the newly formed computer company of Tata in 1972 as Assistant Systems Programmer and Analyst. He marries a girl chosen by his family from the same Brahmin community. He is posted as the first resident TCS manager with the challenging job of getting contracts from American companies who had no idea of TCS or Indian software capability in those days. Even the Tata president in US, Mr Naval Mody discouraged  him strongly saying that there was no way to set up a business in the US for an Indian company like TCS. Ramadorai learnt the skill of sales and marketing quickly moving beyond his technical competence. While modest in personal life, Ramadorai was audacious in taking business risks and trying new ventures. Every contract was an unprecedented learning experience and there was no previous models for him to follow. Most of the journey was in untrodden path. He and TCS paved the way, as the Spanish poem says

Caminante, no hay camino
se hace camino, al andar

oh traveller, there is no way here
you make the way as you walk

What was the origin of the Indian software industry? Ramadorai says that it was born, not by any grand design but by an accident of history. When the Indian government allowed TCS to import a mainframe computer, they put a condition that the company should export and earn twice the dollar cost of the machine in five years since India was short of foreign exchange those days. TCS went to US to earn dollars by offering software services. The rest is history.

Ramadorai started work under Kohli, a typical Indian boss known for his strictness and authoritarian style of dealing with subordinates. While describing Kohli as his mentor, Ramadorai chose a different model of leadership. He became a team leader listening and delegating to others, encouraging colleagues to express themselves and taking decisions by consensus. His successful work and leadership qualities took him to the corner office as CEO from 1996 to 2009. He made TCS as the number one IT company of India and a respected global player. He planned properly and transparently for his succession by identifying and mentoring Chandrasekaran to take over from him in an orderly manner. This is a practical illustration of what TCS says in its logo "Experience Certainty"

The story of TCS is equally exciting. It was started as a data processing unit and later became subcontractor and service provider to the American and British computer companes. TCS had tough time in India during the " Licence Raj" and had tougher time convincing their American clients that an Indian company could do IT work at that time when the country had only a few computers imported despite the stringent customs and foreign exchange restrictions. Whatever TCS did in its evolution was path-breaking and they had played a critical role in establishing the credentials of Indian talents and companies globally. Even more remarkable is the fact that they pulled off the IT success within the value system and tradition of Tatas. As Tata employees, they played by the book and did everything properly and correctly. TCS is an example of building a global company in an Indian way with young Indians hungry to learn and succeed with little resources but lot of ambition and creativity.

The story of TCS is also the story of the New India in a way. Today India is perceived and admired by the world as a formidable IT powerhouse. TCS can claim credit for laying the foundation for this new paradigm and image of India. The success of TCS opened the doors for other Indian IT companies   and inspired  thousands of young Indians to have a new dream, new life, new confidence and self esteem.

When Indian companies were shy about entering Latin America on the ground that distance and languages were barriers, TCS succeeded in the region by turning the two so-called barriers into advantages. TCS has created a new 12x12 business model in which their Latin American staff work for 12 hours in the same time zone of US and pass on the work to Indians for the remaining 12 hours. Besides in English, TCS gets work done in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German, making use of the European ancestry of most Latin Americans. Ramadorai says, " We saw Latin America as a testing ground for our strategy in the emerging markets". Today, TCS employs over 8000 Latin Americans in nine Latin American countries and is targetting ten percent of its global revenue from the region. The success of TCS has opened the doors two dozen other Indian IT companies to enter Latin America.

With his firm belief in " Technology as the enabler of development" Ramadorai advocates that technology  could be used smartly and cost-efficiently to solve many problems of India. He has a vision for India and has clear ideas to deal with issues such as health care and education. It is good that the Government of India has taken advantage of his expertise and has made him as Advisor to the Prime Minister on the National Skills Development Council, with the rank of a cabinet minister.

The story of Ramdorai is an inspiration to the new Indian IT Generation. It teaches them that they do not have to imitate or go overboard to change their accent while dealing with the western clients. While Ramadorai did astounding work for TCS taking risks and pulling off audacious feats, he has remained true to his personal nature as a simple person with firm attachment to family, friends and Indian traditional values. He admits, "I was extremely shy and that shyness has stayed with me. But I have become better at hiding it, over the years." He used to do brainstorming with his colleagues over coffee or lunch during weekends at his residence making his colleagues feel at home and bonding with them. He says,"Sharing information (with speed) with colleagues became an obsession with me". This makes him distinct among many other CEOS who keep information with themselves due to their personal insecurity and to make themselves indispensable.

Ramadorai has been an inspiration to me too. He says, " I like to answer every mail I get within twenty four hours". He acknowledges that he learnt this discipline of prompt response from Nani Palkhiwala. Ramadorai is in my mailing list of hundreds of people to whom I circulate copies of my articles and blog postings on Latin America regularly as BCC. Invariably, he is the first one to respond immediately or within 24 hours, saying, " Thanks and regards". Sometimes he will make comments on the contents or ask me for further information. He should be receiving thousands of mails every day. But still he has time to read and respond to my stories on Latin America which are of peripheral interest to him.  He is so well organised and disciplined and has time for everything and everyone.  His time for replies to emails is in the morning by 5 am.

Photo: Ramadorai speaking at the inaguration of the new TCS office in Buenos Aires on 15 September 2009

Photo: Meeting with Argentine President Christina Fernandez

The moral of the story of TCS and Ramadorai for the promising young IT generation of India:

- IT does not have to mean just individual success such as those of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.  The story of Ramadorai and TCS is an alternative example of institutional success. Ramadorai succeeded within the framework of TCS which evolved in the tradition and value system of the Tatas.

- Ramadorai changed and transformed TCS and Indian image but this success has not changed his life style, core values and essential Indianness. He has the best combination of what India offers in spirit and what the West offers in business professionalism.

And there is one for the CEOs too. Ramadorai ends the book with his own quote, " A CEO should be judged not just by what he built but more importantly by what he leaves behind for his successors to build upon".