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Met Lakshmi Rebecca of “Chai With Lakshmi” fame

Ten months ago, Lakshmi Rebecca emailed me about her online talk show Chai with Lakshmi. I acknowledged her email and gave my standard reply of how this is a personal blog and I don’t do product reviews of any kind. At the same time, I forwarded the website to my wife who started reading the stories and videos and slowly hooked me in as well.

Now, my wife and myself are fans of Lakshmi.

Dinner with Lakshmi Rebecca

We were lucky that Lakshmi took time out to have dinner with us

Lakshmi, the person, is inspiring. Her writeup on 5 Things that Shaped my Life is a contrast to her real-life persona. You would have never guessed that this person has been through many difficulties, including divorce, this is the kind of event that I’ve personally seen people become shattered and lose touch with life. But Lakshmi is a fighter and she wants to be very much in touch with life. More about Lakshmi in her latest diary entry When Dreams have no Boundaries.

Lakshmi’s online show is inspiring. Right from a mechanic who is an Indian international cycling racer to the Indian taxi-driver who is a MotoGP racer to the glamorous Indian Golfer Miss Nicollet to Paralympians to Lake Warriors to  5 issues plaguing Indian couples to the quarter-life crisis to home-grown vegetables. These are stories of real people and real advice. Compare this to the mindless TV channels that I have gotten away from.

Lakshmi’s latest campaign called Inclusive India is inspiring. From how a family is contributing back to their native village Mittur in Kolar, Karnataka to how a radiologist is diagnosing thousands of rural patients per month via telemedicine to how two doctors have created 120 playgrounds in government schools for children to play to a man who is out to bridge the digital divide by helping rural weavers create patterns on the computer to a sports-management professional who teaches character building through sports for youngsters in prisons to introducing art to children.  These are the stories that we should be hearing about, stories of hope and a positive difference. These are the people I aspire to be like. My wife and I humbly made a small contribution of Rs. 2500 through their Wishberry crowdfunding campaign. We want to hear more such positive stories.

Thank you Lakshmi. May your tribe increase!

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Recently the Obama re-election campaign employed similar population-wide behavioral analytics to micro-target voters to ensure his re-election. There is no reason why we in India must not look to technology to devise ingenious methods for near real time data collection and population-wide analytics of social performance. This will not only help micro-target and localise welfare Interventions by local Governments (as opposed to centralised schemes) but it will also shift the focus away from agenda-driven politicking based on lagging indicators and towards a debate on actionable interventions that can make a difference here and now.

I love this idea in this article in Niti Central on how we can leverage technology for social welfare.

The bit about Obama’s re-election campaign is best read about in this article called The nerds go marching in, although I still haven’t been able to find specifics about the tools that they built.

P.S. Also see Wikipedia article on Microtargeting.

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Investing in the Tamenglong-Haflong Road

Today, I invested a small contribution of Rs. 5000 for the Tamenglong-Haflong Road a.k.a. The Great Indian Road.

What’s so great about it? Because it connects Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, and because it is crowd-funded by Indians all over. The Government of India has always ignored the North-Eastern region of India, so a road funded by Indians and NRIs is being created now.

I first came to know about this initiative by a random tweet pointing to this Times of India article talking about a Naga IAS officer Armstrong Pame building a 100km road without government help. Later, I read about his life story leading up to achieving the venerated position of an IAS officer.

I was surprised to read that funds were being raised via Facebook. I had a “Is this genuine?” question in my head, so I joined the “Tamenglong-Haflong Road Construction” Facebook group to learn more about it.

Stories about support and progress were pouring in the group which was really heartening to see great things being achieved by social media in the midst of all the anti-internet freedom and anti-citizen activities by the government of the day. For example, just today, Jeremiah Pame gave an update in the Facebook group that a Mr. Thomas Riamei, from a village called Saramram has given his bulldozer free for use of the construction of the road till completion, and a few days ago, Taranbir Singh, an IIT-graduate NRI based in New York donated 1.5 lakh rupees to the cause.

Having seen all these developments, I made a small contribution today to the cause and am looking forward to the day that this road becomes a reality and we never have to read such stories again:

Last December, then Union home minister P Chidambaram visited Manipur and asked what happened to the road.

The state government declared that it would be ‘done soon’, but nothing moved on the ground. Then in June-July this year, there was an outbreak of tropical diseases like typhoid and malaria. It takes two days for anyone in the village to make it to the nearest hospital on foot in the absence of a motorable road. Hundreds of patients had to be carried on makeshift bamboo stretchers, but very few made it to the town alive.

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Book review: Thoughts from Jaya, a retelling of Mahabharata

The world around me is very unsettling. First, we have the incompetence of the governments of the day, and then the startling realities highlighted by Satyamev Jayate show, even if it is not the whole truth, and so on. And these strange behavior of man to hurt and not help starts from his kindred and extends to the society around him/her. Very depressing.

Coincidentally, I chanced upon Devdutt Pattanaik‘s book Jaya : An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata in a Crossword outlet. I couldn’t stop reading it, so I bought it, and continued reading at home. And I was thoroughly engrossed by it.

What is not incredible is the number of stories, characters or the breadth of it. What is incredible is that it seems that every situation that I can come across or have heard of could be generalized into one of the situations already talked about in the stories of the Mahabharata and you can relate to it!

The most important lesson reinforced was that life is meaningless (there is no grand plan), our greatest challenge is leading a “normal life with values” and to be human to each other. Think about that for a minute. Think about how it applies to every minor situation in every minute in the office and at home or on a bigger scale at the level of states and nations. If only we could be a little more human towards each other and lead a “normal” pleasant life. Why is it that we are all screwed up in so many little ways? Whether it is lack of trust or lack of intimacy or lack of friends or lack of self-confidence or lack of support or lack of pleasantries or lack of humanity… so on.

While I did not find the answer to it in the Mahabharata, I did come to the stark realization that this has been the way for generations and has been so since the age of the Mahabharata. So I should take heart in it and figure out what are the age-old approaches to overcoming this hassled life.

Coincidentally, this has been part of my initiative to “read older”, I’m trying to cut down on reading “newer tweets” and instead read “older books” and “older papers”, etc. So far, it’s been working out well, but that is a perpetual battle of focus. There is far more wisdom and far more to learn in older stuff than the newer stuff which tends to be mostly regurgitations.

Many of my realizations or understandings in the book came about because of the ‘interpretations’ by Devdutt after each story. Those interpretations put the stories in context – there is the usual intended “moral of the story”, but there is also cultural, political and religious explanations and sometimes simply how stories were changed to possibly cover up or make a story suitable for hearing by subsequent generations.

1 Descendants

For example, it is believed that man and woman are reborn as their grandchildren or any of their descendants – this probably explains the female foeticide issue on why men want boys and not girls, and that tendency has gone to an extreme in the last couple of generations. On the same note, it probably explains why rearing children is considered such an important part of life for our previous generations even though the current generation (including me) consider it as just another phase of life. In fact, in one of the stories, Bhishma is considered to have sinned because he decided to not get married because of his step-mother’s wishes that there be no other heirs to the kingdom! So many beliefs and fervour can be attributed to a simple age-old concept which has been twisted and extended by generations.

2 Dharma

When Subramaniam Swamy says “we are fighters.For fighters for dharma there is always hope.” after the recent Presidential election, he is probably referring to is this quote by Krishna regarding Dharma:

Humans alone of all living creatures can reject the law of the jungle and create a code of conduct based on empathy and directed at discovering the meaning of life. This is dharma.

To live in dharma is to live without fear. To live in dharma is to act in love. To live in dharma is to have others as a reference point, not oneself.

Function therefore in this war not like that insecure dog that barks to dominate and whines when dominated, but like that secure cow, that provides milk freely and follows the music of the divine.

Do you fight this war to break the stranglehold of jungle law in human society, Arjuna? If not, you do not practise karma yoga.

As an aside, you also get to know why the cow is considered sacred.

In another instance, I have started to differentiate when a person is in anger and says things that I should not pay attention to whereas when they are genuinely upset with something I did or didn’t do:

Dhritarashtra expresses it by crushing the iron effigy of Bhima while Gandhari expresses it by burning Yudhistira’s toe with a glance.

Once expressed, rage dissipates and reason returns.

One is advised in many parts of India to eat sugar when agry, just like Gandhari did, so as not to end up cursing the Pandavas.

3 Trust

This relates to the point of the importance of trust:

The reason for telling these stories was to calm the angry brothers and to tell them that sometimes things are not what they seem. Arjuna should not assume that words spoken during stressful situations were real. His brother was just angry and did not mean to insult him or his bow. One should have faith in one’s friends and family and not let one harsh word break the bond of trust.

4 Attachment

One has to forgo attachments to fight for dharma:

The Pandavas have to fight father (Bhishma), teacher (Drona), brother (Karna) and uncle (Shalya) to defeat the Kauravas. They have to break free from all attachments that bind them.

I’m not sure I really understand this, but I think it suggests that we should fight for dharma, even against our own. Just like how Indians fought against Indian soldiers who were serving the British. And how there will soon be another fight by IAC against the government, even if the IAC itself is becoming disillusioned.

5 Outgrowing the beast within

The real difference between Pandavas and Kauravas is:

It is simplistic to imagine that the Pandavas are good and the Kauravas are bad and so Krishna sides with the former.

Pandavas are willing to change; they want to outgrow the beast within them.

The process of change is difficult – the Pandavas have to suffer exile, kill loved ones and lose their children, in the process of gaining wisdom.

The Kauravas cling to their kingdom like dogs clinging to a bone. They refuse to change. Hence, they die without learning anything.

Krishna is the teacher. But the onus of learning rests with the students.

6 Destruction and Living

Yudhistira is so upset about the destruction and loss of life during the war that he is unwilling to be crowned king and he is given a lesson the point of life:

The eldest Pandava had lost all interest in kingship. “I am a murderer,” he cried. “My hands are soaked with the blood of my family. When I sit on a pile of corpses, how can I drink the cup of success? What is the point of it all?”

Vidura spoke solemnly to his nephew, “Everybody dies – some suddenly, some slowly, some painfully, some peacefully. No one can escape death. The point is to make the most of life – enjoy it, celebrate it, learn from it, make sense of it, share it with fellow human beings – so that when death finally comes, it will not be such a terrible thing.”

A Charvaka, one who does not believe in the existence of anything spiritual or metaphysical, shouted from the city square, “Yes, Yudhishtira, life has no point at all. So enjoy every moment for there is no tomorrow, no life after death, no soul, no fate, no bondage, no liberation, no God. Be a king if it makes you happy; don’t be a king if it does not. Pleasure alone is the purpose of life.”

None of this pacified Yudhishtira. He paced the palace corridors all day and lay awake on his bed at night, haunted by the wail of widows and orphans. No one understood his pain. “Perhaps I must become a hermit. Find serenity in the forest.”

(Remember that forest is also a metaphor for the darkness and the wilderness of the mind. Conquering the forest and being at peace there means enlightening the mind.)

It was then that Krishna spoke, “Yes, Yudhishtira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them?” Yudhishtira did not know what to say. Krishna continued, “A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning. Choose kingship, Yudhishtira not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.”

“Why me?” asked Yudhishtira.

“Who better than you? You, who gambled away your kingdom, can empathize with the imperfections of man. You, who silently suffered thirteen years of exile, know the power of repentance and forgiveness. You, who saw Duryodhana reject every offer of peace, know the power of the ego and the horror of adharma. You, who had to lie to kill your own teacher, know the complexities of dharma. Only you, son of Kunti, have the power to establish a world where the head is balanced with the heart, wealth with wisdom, and discipline with compassion. Come, Yudhishtira, with your brothers by your side, be Vishnu on earth.”

Yudhishtira needed no more persuasion. He realized what it meant to be king. He agreed to wear the crown.

In the presence of all elders, he was made to sit on the ancient seat reserved for the leader of the Kuru clan. Milk was poured on him and water. He was given first a conch-shell trumpet, then a lotus flower, then a mace and finally the royal bow.

The priests said “Like Vishnu, blow the trumpet and make sure the world knows your law. Reward those who follow it with the lotus of prosperity and discipline those who don’t with a swing of your mace. And always stay balanced – neither too tight nor too loose – like the bow.”

Interpretation: The coronation ceremony in ancient times paralleled the ceremony in which a stone statue was transformed into a deity in temples. The ceremony was aimed to bring about a shift in consciousness. Just as it enabled a stone to become divine and solve the problems of devotees, it enabled an ordinary man to think like God – more about his subjects and less about himself.

Interpretation: Dharma is not about winning. It is about empathy and growth. Yudhishtira knows the pain of losing a child. He can empathize with his enemy rather than gloat on their defeat. In empathy, there is wisdom.

On a similar note, Bhisma, on his deathbed, tells Yudhishtira:

Bhisma told Yudhishtira, “Life is like a river. You can struggle to change its course but ultimately it will go its own way. Bathe in it, drink it, be refreshed by it, share it with everyone, but never fight it, never be swept away by its flow, and never get attached to it. Observe it. Learn from it.”

On the note of us over-reaching what is given to us by Mother Earth and of course the greed, corruption and scams, there is this story:

Bhishma told Yudhishtira about human society. Humans, unlike animals, were blessed with imagination.

They could foresee the future, and take actions to secure it. Often attempts to secure the future leads to hoarding; need gave way to greed. With greed came exploitation.

King Vena plundered the earth to such a degree that the earth, tired of being so abused, ran away in the form of a cow.

The sages then had Vena killed. Vena’s son, Prithu, pursued the earth-cow crying. “If you don’t feed them, my subjects will die.”

The earth-cow retorted angrily, “Your subjects squeeze my udders until they are sore. They break my back with their ambition.”

Prithu then promised that he would establish a code of conduct based on empathy, rather than exploitation, which would ensure the survival of humanity.

“This code of conduct will be called dharma,” said Prithu.

By this code, the earth became a cow while kings became the earth’s cowherds ensuring there was always enough milk for humans as well as cow’s calves.

7 Four parts of life

The dharma-shastras divide life into four parts.

The first, brahmacharya, prepares one for the world.

The second, grihastha, is the time to enjoy the pleasures and powers of the world.

The third, vanaprastha, is the time to retire from the world passing on all wealth to the children and all knowledge to the grandchildren.

The fourth, sanyasa, is the time to renounce all things worldly.

The characters in the Mahabharata from Pratipa to Dhritarashtra retire from society and renounce the world after completing their worldly duties.

Thus only the young are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the earth, while the old contemplate on it.

This lesson should be imbibed by political leaders.

8 Wisdom is always a work in progress

Despite learning from Krishna the value of outgrowing the beast within man, the Pandavas cling to their grudges after the war, like dogs clinging to bones.

No lesson is permanent.

Wisdom thus is always work in progress.

Interestingly, the Mahabharata lays a greater emphasis on karma than on the “blessings” of God:

Krishna’s family does not escape Gandhari’s curse.

Thus even God surrenders to the law of karma.

By making man the master of his own destiny and the creator of his own desires, God makes man ultimately responsible for the life he leads and the choices he makes.

God does not interfere with fate; he simply helps man cope with it.

9 Life is an endless turmoil

Emphasis mine:

Arjuna decided to take the few survivors (of Dwaraka) with him to Hastina-puri.

But the misfortunes continued. On the way, they were attacked by barbarians who abducted many of the women and children. Arjuna raised his Gandiva and tried to protect them but was outnumbered.

The great Gandiva which could destroy hundreds of warriors with a single arrow now seemed powerless. Arjuna realized that he was no more the archer he used to be. His purpose on earth and that of Gandiva had been served.

Overwhelmed by his helplessness before the rising tide of fate, humbled before the raging storm of circumstances, Arjuna fell to his knees and began to cry uncontrollably.

When the tears dried up, it dawned on him that Gandhari’s curse, which had destroyed Dwaraka and its people, had its roots in the war at Kuru-kshetra.

And the war would not have happened if they had simply restrained themselves and not wagered their kingdom in a game of dice.

/Arjuna realized, that in a way, he was responsible for the fall of Dwaraka. This was the great web of karma that connects all creatures in a single fabric. He begged for forgiveness for his part in the sorrows of all mankind./

/In response, the clouds began to rumble and in a flash of lightning, Arjuna saw a vision: a gurgling, happy child sucking its butter-smeared big toe as it lay on a Banyan leaf cradled by the deadly waves that were destroying Dwaraka./

In the midst of destruction, this was a symbol of renewal and hope.

/Arjuna finally understood the message given to him by God. Life would continue, with joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies rising and falling like the waves of the sea./

It was up to him to respond wisely, enjoy simple pleasures unshaken by the inevitable endless turmoil of the world.

He took the surviving Yadavas and gave them a home in Mathura, where in due course, Vajranabhi, son of Aniruddha, grandson of Pradyumna, great grandson of Krishna, would rise as a great king.

10 Kauravas in Swarga and Pandavas in hell

As soon as Yudhishtira stepped into heaven, he saw the hundred Kauravas, Duryodhana and Dusshasana included, standing beside the Devas looking radiant and blissful. They too spread out their arms to welcome Yudhishtira.

Yudhishtira recoiled in disgust. “How did these warmongers reach Amravati?” he asked angrily.

The Devas replied, “They were killed on the holy land of Kuru-kshetra. That has purified them of all misdeeds and earned them the right to enter Amravati. Surely, if heaven is good enough for your dog, it is good enough for your cousins.”

The explanation did not satisfy Yudhishtira. “And my brothers? And my wife? What about them? Where are they? Are they here too?” he asked.

“They are not here,” replied the Devas placidly, refusing to pay any attention to Yudhishtira’s rising rage.

“In another place,” said the Devas, taking no notice of Yudhishtira’s impatience.

“Take me to them,” said Yudhishtira, determined to get to the bottom of this.

“Certainly,” said the Devas who led Yudhishtira out of Swarga, down from the sky, along the slopes of Mandara, through a crevice deep under the earth to a realm that was dark and gloomy and miserable.

There, Yudhishtira heard cries of pain and suffering. It was everything Amravati was not.

He realized it was Naraka, the realm of misery.

“My brothers are here?” cried Yudhishtira in disbelief.

In response, he heard the moans of his brothers, including Karna. “Yes, we are here,” they said in unison.

Bhima, Yudhishtira knew, was paying for his gluttony. Arjuna for his envy, Nakula for his insensitivity, Sahadeva for his smugness and Draupadi for her partiality.

But Karna? Why him? Had his elder brother not suffered enough in life?

“Karna promised Kunti to spare four of her five sons despite knowing that Duryodhana relied on him to kill all five Pandavas.

He is paying for breaking his friend’s trust,” clarified the Devas rather matter-of-factly.

Yudhishtira felt everyone’s pain and started to weep.

“Shall we go back to Amravati now?” asked the Devas.

“No, no. Please don’t go,” Yudhishtira heard his brothers cry. “Your presence comforts us.”

“Well? Shall we leave?” asked the Devas impatiently.

“Please stay,” Yudhishtira heard Draupadi plead. She sounded so lost and tired and anxious and afraid.

Yudhishtira could not bring himself to move. Tears welled up in his eyes. How could he return to Swarga and leave his family here?

He took a decision. “No. I will not leave Naraka. I will stay here with my wife and my brothers. I will suffer with them. I refuse to enter Amravati without them.”

The Devas laughed. Rising up in the air, glowing like fire flies, they said, “Oh, but we thought you had renounced everything?”

“What do you mean?” asked Yudhishtira, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Did you not renounce all worldly ties when you entered Swarga? Wherefrom then, comes this attachment? You are as attached as to your hatred as a dog is attached to its master.”

Yudhishtira argued, “How can Amravati open its gates to the Kauravas, those murderers, and not to my family which has always followed the path of righteous conduct? Even Krishna fought against the Kauravas!”

“Do you feel we are taking sides, Yudhishtira?” asked the Devas.

“Yes,” snapped Yudhishtira, looking at the dark misery all around him. Surely, his family who had established dharma on earth did not deserve this. This was so unfair.

“You have given up your kingdom and your clothes, son of Dharma, but not your hatred. You killed the Kauravas in Kuru-kshetra and ruled their kingdom for thirty-six years! Still you have not forgiven them. You, who turned your back on your brothers on your way to Amravati, recalled them the instant you saw the Kauravas in heaven. This display of love is nothing but a reaction, retaliation. You cling to your anger, Yudhishtira. You still distinguish between friend and foe. You refuse to let go and move on. How then do you hope to truly attain heaven?”

Suddenly, a vision unfolded before Yudhishtira. The Virat-swarup of Krishna. “Behold within God,” a voice boomed, “all that exists. Everything. Everyone. Draupadi and Gandhari. The Pandavas and the Kauravas. All possibilities. The killers and the killed.”

At that moment, Yudhishtira realized he was not the great man who he thought he was. He had not really overcome his prejudices. Only when there is undiluted compassion for everyone, even our worst enemies, is ego truly conquered. Realization humbled Yudhishtira. He fell to the ground and began to weep.

Led by the Devas, Yudhishtira then took a dip in the Ganga and rose enlightened, purified and refreshed and truly liberated, with the sincere desire to forgive and accept the Kauravas. There was no more hatred. No more ‘them’ and ‘us’. No more ‘better’ and ‘worse’. There was only love. Everyone was one.

“Jaya!” shouted Indra. “Jaya!” shouted the Devas. “Jaya!” shouted the Rishis. For Yudhishtira had won the ultimate victory, victory over himself. No he would ascend to a heaven higher than Swarga. Now he would ascend to Vaikuntha, the abode of God.

Interpretation: The epic ends not with the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas but with Yudhishtira’s triumph over himself. This is the spiritual victory or Jaya. This is the ultimate aim of the great epic.

Interpretation: Unlike Biblical traditions, Hindus have more than one heaven. There is Swarga and Vaikuntha. Swarga is the paradise of Indra where all desires are fulfilled. Vaikuntha is God’s heaven where one is free of all desires.

11 Janamejaya asks where is the victory

‘Why then do you call this tale “Jaya”? There is no real victory.’

‘There are two kinds of victory this world,’ said the storyteller-sage Vaisampayana. ‘Vijaya and Jaya’.

Vijaya is material victory, where there is a loser.

Jaya is spiritual victory, where there are no losers.

In Kuru-kshetra there was Vijaya but not Jaya.

But when Yudhishtira overcame his rage and forgave the Kauravas unconditionally, there was Jaya.

This is the true ending of my tale, hence the title.’

‘What was the insight that eluded my forefathers?’ asked Janamejaya.

‘That conflict comes from rage, rage comes from fear, and fear comes from lack of faith.

That lack of faith which corrupted the Kauravas continued to lurk in the minds of the Pandavas.

It had to be purged.’

The image of Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, singing the song of wisdom before the war, flashed through Janamejaya’s mind.

‘If you have faith in me, and in the karmic balance sheet of merit and demerit, then you will have no insecurity,’ he heard Krishna say.

The lotus of wisdom bloomed in Janamejaya’s mind. ‘I too have no faith,’ he admitted.

‘That is why I am angry with the serpents and frightened of them.

That is why I delude myself with arguments of justice and vengeance.

You are right, Astika, this snake sacrifice of mine is not dharma.’

Astika smiled, and Vaisampayana bowed his head in satisfaction: the king had finally inherited the wisdom of his forefathers.

An expression of peace descended up on Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, the grandson of Abhimanyu, the great grandson of Arjuna.

He finally took his decision.

‘Shanti,’ he said.

‘Shanti,’ he said again.

‘Shanti,’ he repeated a third time.

Shanti, peace.

This was the king’s call to end the Sarpa Sattra.

Astika burst into tears.

Janamejaya had overpowered his fear and abandoned his rage.

No more serpents would be killed.

‘Shanti, shanti, shanti,’ he had said.

Not peace in the outer world.

That could not happen as long as man felt insecure.

This was a cry for inner peace.

Let us all have faith.

Let us all be at peace – with ourselves, our worlds, and all the rest there is.

Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Interpretation: The Mahabharata is not as much concerned with the war as it is with the root of conflict. Conflict is the result of greed exhibited by Duryodhana, and outrage exhibited by Yudhishtira. Both greed and outrage stem from insecurity; insecurity is the result of a poor understanding of, and a lack of faith in, one’s true nature and the the true nature of the world around us. The Veda says that as long as we do not accept life for what it is, as long as we try to control and change things, there will always be conflict. Conflict ends when we realize that beyond tangible material reality, there is intangible spiritual reality.

Interpretation: A Bengali folktale informs us that Janamejaya asked Vyasa why he was not able to convince his ancestors from not going to war. Vyasa replied that excited people never listen to such logic.

Interpretation: All Hindu rituals end with the chant ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti’ because the quest for peace is the ultimate goal of all existence. The peace is not external but internal. It is not about making the world a peaceful place; it is about us being at peace with the world.

12 The Idea called Dharma

The fear of death makes animals fight for their survival. Might becomes right as only the fit survive. With strength and cunning territories are established and pecking orders enforced. Thus, the law of the jungle comes into being. Animals have no choice but to subscribe to it. Humans, however, can choose to accept, exploit or reject this law.

Thanks to our larger brain, we can imagine and create a world where we can look beyond ourselves, include others, and make everyone feel wanted and safe. We can, if we wish to, establish a society where the mighty care for the meek, and where resources ar emade available to help even the unfit thrive. This is dharma.

Unfortunately, imagination can also amplify fear, and make us so territorial that we withhold resources, exploit the weak and eat even when well-fed. This is adharma. If dharma enables us to outgrow the beast in us, then adharma makes us worse than animals. If dharma takes us towards divinity, then adharma fuels the demonic.

The Kauravas are stubbornly territorial before the war. The Pandavas struggle to be generous after the war. Adharma is thus an eternal temptation, while dharma is an endless work in progress that validates our humanity.

13 Ultimate aim of spiritual practice

Vyasa says all creatures kill themselves eventually because of merits lost and demerits earned.

By logic therefore, one who earns no demerit cannot die.

Such a person can potentially rise up to paradise without dying.

In other words, he becomes immortal.

That is the ultimate aim of all spiritual practice.

That is the aim of Yudhishtira.

14 Narendra Modi quotes Vivekananda

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.” – Swami Vivekananda, From Raja Yoga

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Inspired by companies incubated at RTBI, IIT Madras

I am here at IITM, Chennai to help out NextDrop in some technology discussions, and have been blown away by the kinds of companies incubated at the Rural Technology Business Incubation facility (RTBI).

IITM Research Park

RTBI portfolio

For example, consider Stellapps which is developing an automated cow milking system!

To get a taste of what I’m talking about, definitely watch this talk at Google by Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala (the good stuff starts at 17 min 13 sec):

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Leaving Infibeam

Today is my last day at Infibeam.

I’m going to miss working in this environment because I learned a lot about ecommerce and online buying in India. For example, I was surprised to know how much sales go up during Diwali (in hindsight, not so surprising, of course) and was surprised at the amount of online buying that happens from Tier II cities. Then there was the learning on the huge amount of logistics that happens – the part where the customer visits the website and clicks on the Buy button is just 1% of the total stuff that happens behind-the-scenes.

I am also thankful to Ajay and Infibeam for getting me into the Rails wagon, I’m finally starting to see the light. Learning a new language and framework from scratch to delivering a full ecommerce platform in 4–5 months was a fascinating experience. And soon, anyone can set up their own online store on top of Infibeam’s infrastructure.

Infibeam has done many things right, has many things to improve, and rumors say they may face many challenges in the future. All in all, that’s a good thing. Infibeam launched at the right time and is helping to grow ecommerce in India, and it will continue to do so.

But alas, it’s time for me to move on. I can haz plans.


Listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy

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Statistics to wow non-techies about digital future

A common question I get from non-techies is “Is ecommerce for real? Do people really buy online?”

My line of argument is that the future is digital, and hence buying
online is a natural consequence of that.

However, just saying that was not convincing enough. So I gathered some
statistics as proof and to wow them:

Closer to home:

Then there always is the trump card of how ubiquitous online ticketing has become…

As you can see, digital is happening in India and with RBI
reporting that 35% of transactions (and 88% of the total amount) were
electronic

and Cash on Delivery slowly
happening
,
how far will ecommerce
be
behind?

How would you convince someone that the future is digital and that ecommerce will be big in India?

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The real reasons why Indian startups struggle to hire

The last article on difficulty of hiring for startups in India generated a lot of discussion (also see the HackerStreet.India discussion about this article). I was surprised to see so much response within 24 hours. I guess it shows how much of a pain point it actually is:

Ramjee says: “Bang on, This problem is very severe.”

Gowri says: “oh you could not have hit the nail on the head better!! We are a small, serious high technology company and find it really hard to get good people. First many don’t want to talk to no-brand-name companies. Even when we get to make offers, we end up losing so many because TCS or Wipro or IBM or Accenture gave them 20k more for a maintenance project where they will end up modifying 50 lines of code every 3 months. I feel like crying for them!”

Abhaya says: “Next time we meet, remind me to buy you a drink. I sometimes wish all the people in Startup ecosystem will stop exhorting people to start their own companies and instead join one of the several hundred around as a first step!”

Abdul Qabiz says: “We have been working hard, for last two years, to build a small team, with not much success. Also, hiring is relatively harder for startups in third-tier cities because good ones move to metros.”

These comments are actually the best part of writing a blog – getting to hear from other people knowledgeable on the subject and who are actually in the trenches. The various thoughts added by the community was so good that I thought it was best to summarize it in a new post for my own cognition:

Startups are not promising, yet

We all agree that hiring is an issue. But why is it so? I think the best articulation on the subject was by Manu J (summarized here, please read the original comment for his full thoughts):

  1. Stock options have made money for people in Silicon Valley startups. What about in India? “How many makemytrip employees made it big? How many rediff employees?”

  2. “Startups do nothing to differentiate themselves from the big corps. If you are offering just a market salary why would a good engineer work with you rather than a big corp which offers that and more?”

  3. “Uninspiring work. Not to knock on any startups but some time back facebook clones were all the rage. Now it is groupon clones.”

  4. “Lack of technical leadership: Lot of US startups and techies actively participate in the tech community. They usually have a tech blog where they write about scaling challenges, best practices, new products tested out etc. I have learned a lot from these type of posts. I have never found an indian startup which has a good tech blog. (Couple of indian startups do have people in them who are well known and contributed back for ex: you ) but as a company I’ve never seen an indian startup which contributes back to the tech community”

Regarding Point No. 2, Syamant adds:

“Perhaps you should consider non traditional working models as well as talent from outside bangalore who could work remotely. Also consider people who are experienced and have opted to not work fixed hours.”

And Anirudh adds:

“If someone’s good at what they do, they are most likely selling their skills to the highest bidder – namely google, microsoft, amazon, etc. The ones who are trying to work independently (like me) do it because of many reasons – one of them is that you get utmost power, control and authority. Working for a small startup offers neither.”

Regarding Point No. 4, Harish Mallipeddi adds:

“Great technical work & leadership – do not build yet another PHP/MySQL site. Is at least one of the founders, technically well accomplished and smart? If you built Google News and you quit Google to work on your next big idea, then I’m sure that would instill a lot of confidence about you in the minds of potential hires. But if you are completely unaccomplished yourself, then it’s going to be a hard sell”

As far as I know, Manu hits the nail here on the real problems – startups need to do a way better job of making the job look attractive on the strengths of a startup (technical leadership, technical growth, long-term pay-offs, flexibility of timings) rather than trying to compete with big companies on the strengths of big companies (salary, facilities, etc.)

Even things like liberal work-from-home options or double the number of leaves of a regular job can make startups more attractive, like Harish Mallipeddi said:

“Different work space/work culture – you could try renting some cheap office space near a beach in Goa. I’ve worked for Yahoo and I’ve seen Google’s offices – they all have swanky office spaces with free cafeterias. You cannot compete with them by renting out a third-grade office space in crowded Bangalore. Try something different. If you look at all the Valley startups, they don’t just sell you a job – they sell you a work lifestyle – ‘come work for us; this is the kind of work culture we have’ is always their pitch.”

Good Founders are rare, most are stingy

Pranay says:

I am an early career engineer, and I have seen many of my friends leave startup jobs to get into well-established company. Mostly because the startups seldom live up to the exciting work culture image they generally promise. Also, many of the founders are very stingy in terms of giving away equity. The general view is that, its not fun to be in a startup, unless you are the founders/co-founders.

Anirudh says:

“In India, developers are generally treated like crap. I’ve got tons of offers from ‘business’ guys who have a stupid idea and a little spare cash. They don’t understand technology – and more importantly – it’s limitations. Anyone with a little field experience will automatically be wary of such people.”

Maybe the situation could be different if the founders mentor the employees, as Ayush Jain puts it:

People who do join startups are mostly the ones who are interested in entrepreneurship or starting up themselves. These people do it for the ownership, respect and the appreciation of being entrepreneurs. The biggest mistake founders do is to treat them like employees. Consider talking to people you wish to hire about stock options as they join, or give them some reason to feel proud as an entrepreneur. This would also add to their ownership of the work they do and you would see a visible difference in their attitude towards work. But most entrepreneurs find it difficult to share the ownership of the company with them and thats why they find themselves struggling.”

As “Have to be anonymous” says:

“The founders of the startups are in the attitude of “giving life and supporting a family” for a few people than “taking help from a techie” mindset. Even if they know an employee is not a beggar who has joined his company to help him succeed in a venture, the employer’s behavior seldom reflects they have acknowledged this fact. This could be seen right from giving appointment orders till making the employee cry for relieving letters. And it would be funny to note the same employer read about “brands”. Would they know customers are of two types, internal and external?

“Yes, I was working in startups, and have now finally decided settle down for the “big fish nets”. I am now one of the so called tier 1 company employees. Afterall, if the current project is over, the company would actively search in full swing to depute me on another project. I wont get a pink slip as fast as I would get in a “get-the-job-done-and-go-home” startups.”

Good Startup Hires are Rare

As Rams says:

“There are not that many startup-type techies out there. That’s the simple truth. I am going through my 3rd startup and the reality couldn’t be starker. No, they are not hiding under a rock.”

As Upasana says:

“I am going to have to disagree with several people – Ayush, Ashish (Pocha), etc. above stating founders are stingy. I know at least a dozen including myself willing to give away 10-20% equity + decent monthly cash for a solid hacker. From architects in Yahoo and Amazon, to 1-person IT consulting guys to 3-4 years experienced guys in IT Services company to guys working in a 6 year old American startup’s Indian devcenter – tried them all. You know what? They just cant take the risk! So I dont think badgering Founders for not being open to dole out equity is a good enough reason.

“We got some early employees using a fair equation where some wanted more monthly cash + low equity, others wanted low cash + high equity. The decision was left to them on which package they wanted. We found that one of the guys after working 2-3 months and finding out the real revenue/margin numbers himself wanted to reduce his salary for a higher equity.

“I think smart hackers should know their self worth and also the worth of what they are building. If what they are making is exciting and hard for them may be its worth a pay cut for 2 years with a possible equity upside potential? After all last few months are showing indications of a bright M&A future.”

Ecosystem

Let’s face it – our ecosystem and family mindsets are not ready yet, we know this one and I think these are the “growing pains” of any startup culture. As Gowri puts it:

“These people talk nicely about wanting challenging jobs and new technology and all that, but get lured by ‘social status’ of branded companies and few thousands more.

“I even had one guy who left our company because his future father-in-law did not like that he didn’t work for one the ‘large’ companies!

“One guy resigned because he could not get a good bank loan since the banks were looking for branded or large company employees.”

Geek Out

When I had mentioned that I wish there was a ‘geeks grooming culture’, then the irreverent Pramode C E pointed out that that was exactly his latest venture – and he seems to have had great results in just a month since he started:

I began my new venture of mentoring B.Tech completed students on August 25. The ideas was to take in motivated students, build up their FOSS skills by making them write code/solve problems full-time, and try to use whatever contacts I have with friends and former students in the FOSS community/industry to get them placed with companies who need capable programmers.

Learn more about this on the IC Software website.

The lack of skilled people is an open secret. As Rohit says:

“At a general level, what we see is a clear lack of skills fulfilling each role, be it engg, sales, marketing etc.

“For eg: when we look for an engg. to write features, we only seem to get folks who know to write code. Customer acquisition strategies which many speak about are mostly traditional and nothing innovative. Forget about finding folks who help us scale, there are probably handful of them in India who are already picked up Yahoos and the Googles or now Facebook.”

Let’s hope that Kiran Jonnalagadda and HasGeek can indeed bring these skilled people together and breed a culture of such skills.

Hiring Strategies

Regarding, good hiring strategies for startups, Sameer Guglani has written extensively on this subject on his blog – Hiring method that works, What to look for in startup interviews? and Early employees – Salary & Equity.

Bottom Line

Startups need to pitch why they are better than big companies, it is the same whether it is about the product or about hiring!

As Saurabh Narula puts it:

“As you point out in your statement, hiring for a startup is a lot different than hiring for big companies – attacking the different problem with same mindset often misleads people in the hiring process.”

This has been an enlightening discussion for me, thanks to all of those whom I’ve quoted here (and many whom I’ve not quoted for reasons of length of this article) for their thoughts on this subject :-)

Update: More great insights by Manu J in the comments.

Update 2: See Ravi Mohan’s take on the same.

Update 3: See Stalk Ninja, a unique initiative to whet good students and get them involved with startups.

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Why is no one talking about the difficulty of hiring for startups in India?

We’ve all heard about how startups are key to the future economy of India and we’ve heard about how hiring should be a top priority for any companythen why is it that hiring is NOT a majorly discussed issue in startup events in India?

I ask this question because, in fact, it is HARD for startups in Bangalore to hire. The problem is of two extremes: The good folks you would want to hire either become entrepreneurs themselves (full of challenges) OR work for big money in big companies (may not have challenges, but feeds their social status). There seems to be no middle ground where people want to enjoy the work which is full of challenges and also have the stability of a salary and the promise of stocks.

Hiring has become almost impossible for startups – right from IIMB-incubated startups which have full of challenges and exposure to companies like Infibeam which does crores in revenue per year and pays market price salaries.

Where to find such good people?

  • What happens to all those people who started startups via iAccelerator and Morpheus Ventures and did not succeed? Do they go into consulting or join a regular job?
  • What happens to all the college students who talk enthusiastically about joining startups? What percentage of those students switch to chasing the money because of peer pressure? I’m told majority of students don’t end up joining a startup when they have a higher salary offer from a big company.
  • Who are the kinds of people who go to events like DoctypeHTML5? Are they part of startups or are they part of big companies?

I really wish Pluggd.in would setup an anonymous/discreet matchmaking service between “startup-mindset coders” (the scarcity) with good startups (which seems to be in abundance these days, the irony!), i.e. focus on finding good people first, and then promote the available startup jobs.

Maybe the need of the hour for our startup ecosystem is hiring-for-startup events (“get people to get things done”) rather than startup events consisting of motivational speeches (“listen to high-level talk about how to get things done”).

Sometimes I think that what is missing in Bangalore (and in India, in general) is a hackerspace culture and a geeks grooming culture. Let’s hope HasGeek has something up their sleeves…

This is just a thought running in my head which I’m expressing it here – I’ve heard the “Why can’t I hire good people for my startup?” question so often in the past few months, almost on a daily basis these days, that I really needed to get this out of my head and type it out!

On the other hand, if you think hiring for startups in Bangalore is not really an issue, please do advise, many people I know would be interested to know how to go about it :)

P.S. I’m writing this while I’m listening to sessions at the NASSCOM Product Conclave and can’t help but wonder if all the topics discussed here are even possible without having the right people with you in your venture, after all, the founders can’t do everything by themselves :-)

Note: This article was a result of a discussion with Ram of Metaome, a IIMB-incubated startup. They’re looking for good folks to join them, if you’re interested.

Update: Indus has a different take on this.

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How to get funding from Government of India

I will be speaking in a panel at the HeadStart Conference, Hyderabad today regarding what is the funding that was granted by the Govt. of India to my ex-startup, and how you can apply.

Headstart Panel

I converted the content I had prepared into for-web-only slides for your perusal: