Family enterprise startups

Recently, Ambiga Dhiraj, co-founder of MuSigma, was appointed CEO of the company, replacing her other co-founder (and husband) Dhiraj Rajaram. There was a lot of chatter about the “first woman CEO of Indian unicorn”.

I didn’t see it that way. The way, I saw it, MuSigma was like a family enterprise, and so it was no big deal that one of the woman founders had become CEO. A couple of tweets went out:

People didn’t take my tweets too kindly. One guy quickly pointed out that she had had a pivotal role in building the company, and so she was more like Hillary Clinton than like Rabri Devi.

Another guy (a MuSigma employee) said that she’s gotten there on merit and not on account of her relationship.

While it might be the case that she got there on her own merit (I don’t know her at all, so can’t comment), the fact that she’s become CEO of a company she founded with her husband means that people will judge her on her relationships rather than purely on merit.

I wonder if this is a good reason to not start a company with a close relative.

On another note, I’d think twice (or maybe three times) before working for a company whose top management is closely related to each other – it will create a kind of glass ceiling and also a highly correlated top management meaning others will find it that much harder to create impact.

More on religion

According to the Hindu calendar today is three years since my mother passed away. If I were religious, or if I were to bow to pressures from religious relatives, I would have performed a “shraadhha/tithi” today. Instead, I’m home, leading a rather normal life. In spite of it being a Sunday today, I’m actually working (I coordinate schedules with my wife, and for some reason she chose to take off this Friday and go to work on Sunday, so I followed). I’ve eaten breakfast and a very normal lunch.

Every year, twice a year (it’s remarkable that my parents’ death anniversaries have a phase difference of about six months), I begin to get requests from relatives – mostly uncles and aunts but also from the wife – that I need to “do my religious duties” and perform the shraadhhas. The last few occasions, I complied. However, as I’ve explained in this post, I’ve gotten disgusted with the general quality of priests around and decided that it’s not worth my while to enrich that community just because someone tells me it might help my parents attain salvation in their afterlives.

Since I flatly refused to do the shraadhha this time, the last few weeks have had more than their fair share of religious discussions compared to earlier. I’ve been asked how I know that priests mis-pronounce. When I say that my limited knowledge of Sanskrit is enough to identify the mispronunciations, they suggest that I try different priests. I then talk about the number of different priests I’ve encountered over various Shraadhhas over the last few years, and about how not one has really said the mantras well (except for the family priest who conducts weddings, etc. but shraadhhas are too small-time for him).

Then comes the clinching argument from my relatives – that even otherwise irreligious people like my father did their ancestors’ shraaddhas without fail. And it is at that time that I start questioning the whole purpose of the Shraadhha and trying to ascribe a believable reason for it. I argue that if the intention is to remember the deceased, I don’t need one day a year to do that since my parents come in my dreams practically every other day. The intention might have been to get all the descendants of the deceased together, but then I’m the only descendant of my parents and I’m “together with myself” all the time.

Then they try and convince me to perform what I can classify as “lesser evils” – such as giving raw rice and vegetables to a priest. I’ve done that once before and considered it to be such an unpleasant experience that I don’t want to do it again. And then I question how it will help. And the argument goes on.

So for today, finally I submitted that I’ll put food out for the crows before I eat, since in the Sanatana Dharma crows are supposed to represent your ancestors. After much haggling, this seemed like an acceptable compromise.

Later in the evening yesterday, my wife and I had a long conversation about what it is to be a Brahmin and why Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian.

Sometimes, when I don’t think enough I think it is ok to admit to the whims and fancies of other people just so that I don’t piss them off. But then when I do think about it, I find it ridiculous that saying a certain set of songs with certain pronunciation and intonation will have some bearing on my life. I find it incredible that feeding some random so-called Brahmins will help provide peace to my deceased parents.

Growing up with an ultra-religious mother and an atheist father, I never really “got” religion, I must say. In fact, the first time when I thought about religion was when I read about parts of America not believing in evolution (this was some 4 years back) – it was incredible that some people were so deluded that they didn’t accept something so fundamental. It was around the same time that I read The God Delusion (not a great book I must say – could’ve been written in < 20 pages), and the beliefs of the devout, as it described, shocked me.

It was around this time that I realized that some (nay, most) people actually take it seriously that if you pray for something it increases your chances of getting it. It shocked me to believe that some people believe that chanting a certain set of songs (mantras are just that, in Vedic language) will improve your life without any other effort on your part. It shocked me that people actually believe in afterlife and rebirth. By this time, my father had passed away, and this wasn’t a topic about which I could have a rational discussion with my mother, so I let it be.

Some temples (of various religions) make me feel calm and peaceful, and I love visiting them. There are temples which look so good I think they need to be preserved, and I make reasonably generous offerings there. There are festivals that I consider fun, and I celebrate them enthusiastically. We had a fairly large doll display at home this Navaratri. We burst fireworks and ate lots of sweets this Diwali. Last year we hosted a Christmas party. With some friends, I raided the kebap stalls in Fraser Town during Ramzan. We set up a little mandap at home for Ganesh Chaturthi, and displayed my collection of Ganesh idols.

But the concept of before-lives and after-lives and rebirth? That of prayers sans effort making a difference? That you need to feed some so-called Brahmins who can’t recite mantras for nuts just so that your parents attain peace in the afterlife? I find it all absolutely ridiculous.

I didn’t put food out for crows – I find no reason to believe that my mother has transformed into one of them, and that that particular crow will come looking for food today. I haven’t worn back my sacred thread as promised yesterday. I think my cook had put onion and garlic in my lunch today. And life goes on..

The Bangalore Advantage

Last night, Pinky and I had this long conversation discussing aunts and uncles and why certain aunts and uncles were “cooler” or “more modern” compared to other aunts or uncles. I put forward my theory that in every family there is one particular generation with a large generation gap, and while in families like mine or Pinky’s this large gap occurred at our generation, these “cooler” aunts’ and uncles’ families had the large gap one generation earlier. Of course, this didn’t go far in explaining why the gap was so large in that generation in the first place.

Then Pinky came up with this hypothesis backed by data that was hard to refute, and the rest of the conversation simply went in both of us trying to confirm the hypotheses. Most of these “cool” aunts and uncles, Pinky pointed out, had spent most of their growing up years in Bangalore, and this set them apart from the more traditional relatives, who spent at least a part of their teens outside the city. The correlation was impeccable, and in an effort to avoid the oldest mistake in statistics, we sought to identify reasons that might explain this difference.

While some of the more “traditional” relatives had grown up in villages, we discovered that a large number of them had actually gone to high school/college in rather large but second-tier towns of Karnataka (this includes Mysore). So the rural-urban angle was out. Of course Bangalore was so much larger than these other towns so size alone might have been enough to account for the difference, but the rather large gap in worldviews between those that grew up in Bangalore, and those that grew up in Mysore (which, then, wasn’t so much smaller), and the rather small gap between the Mysoreans and those that grew up in small towns (like Shimoga or Bhadravati) meant that this big-city hypothesis was unfounded.

We then started talking about the kind of advantages that Bangalore (specifically) offered over other towns of Karnataka, and the real reason was soon staring us in the face. Compared to any other town in Karnataka (then, and now), Bangalore was significantly more cosmopolitan. I’ve spoken on this blog before about Bangalore having been two cities (I’ve put the LJ link rather than the NED link so that you can enjoy the comments) but the important thing was that after independence and the Britishers’ flight, the two cities got combined into one big heterogeneous city.

Relatives growing up in Mysore or Shimoga typically went to college with people from large similar backgrounds. Everyone there spoke Kannada, and the dominance of Brahmins in those towns was so overwhelming that these relatives could get through their college lives hanging out solely with other people from largely similar family backgrounds. This meant there was no new “cultural education” that college offered, and the same world views that had been prevalent in these peoples’ homes while they were growing up persisted.

It was rather different for people who grew up in Bangalore. Firstly, people from East Bangalore didn’t speak Kannada (at least, not particularly fluently), which meant English was the lingua franca. More importantly, there was greater religious, casteist and cultural diversity in the classroom, which made it so much more likely for people to interact and make friends with classmates from backgrounds rather different from one’s own. Back in those days of extreme cultural conservatism, this simple exposure to other cultures was invaluable in changing one’s world view and making one more liberal.

It is in the teens that one’s cultural norms are shaped, and exposure to different cultures at that age is critical to formation of one’s world-view. In our generation, this difference has probably played out in the kind of schools one goes to. However, the distinction in conservatism (based on school/college/ area) isn’t so stark as to come up with a unified theory like the one we’ve come up here. Sticking on to the previous generation, what other reasons can you think of that makes certain aunts and uncles “cooler” than others?

Non competitive hobbies

During my riding trip two months back, I was wondering why I enjoyed riding so much more than any of the other “hobbies” that I have indulged in over the last twenty years or so. It was tough for me to think about any other hobby that had given me as much pleasure in the early days as riding did, and no other hobby seems or seemed as sustainable as this one. As I rode, and daydreamed while I rode, I thought about what it was about riding that gave me the kind of unbridled joy that any of my other hobbies had failed to provide. The reason, I figured, was that it was not competitive (no I don’t intend to be a motorcycle racer, ever).

Looking back at the hobbies that I’ve had since childhood – be it playing chess or playing the violin or even writing, they have all been competitive hobbies. As soon as I got reasonably good at chess, I started playing competitively, and soon the pressures of tournament play got to me, I lost my love for the game and stopped playing. Violin was a little better off in the sense that for a reasonably long time I only played for myself (apart from the occasions when I had to entertain random visiting relatives). But then, I was asked to take up an examination, and then enter inter-school music contests, and I find it no surprise that I quit my lessons six months after my examinations. I must mention that I’m on the road to committing the same mistake again, in my second stint at violin learning. As things stand now, I’m scheduled to appear for the ABRSM Grade Three examination this October, but I have my reasons for that and don’t think the process of appearing for the exam will kill my love for music.

Writing remained a passion, and a hobby which I think I was rather good at, until the time I started thinking about monetization. The minute I started thinking about wanting to write for money, I lost the love for it, which might explain the deceleration in activity on this site over the last three years or so. I had lost yet another hobby to the competitive forces.

The thing with competition is that it puts pressure on you. You have to being to hold yourself to a standard other than your own, and that means you will have to do certain things irrespective of whether you think it makes sense to do that. Soon, your hobby ends up as a slave to your competition, and it is unlikely you’ll be able to sustain interest after that. You can say that the moment a hobby becomes competitive, it ceases to be a hobby and becomes “work”.

The reason I’m bullish about motorcycling at this moment is that I don’t see a means for it to become competitive. Since I don’t intend to race, and don’t care about whether others have ridden more than me or whatever, I’ll be mostly riding for myself. Yes, when I planned my Rajasthan tour, I did think of monetizing it by writing about it for the media, but that I think was more a function of wanting to monetize my writing than my riding. In the event, i didn’t get a mandate to write, and that in no way affected my enthusiasm for the ride. Rather I felt freer that I could enjoy the ride rather than thinking about what I would write about it.

As I go along, I hope to pick up one or two more such non-competitive hobbies. Of course I intend to make motorcycling a “major” hobby. As it is, I love traveling, doing it my own way and going off the beaten path. And I love the feeling as i accelerate, with the wind penetrating the air vents of my riding jacket and my thighs grabbing the petrol tank. Now if only I can convince Pinky to also take this up as a hobby..

A Comparative Study of Marwari and Kannadiga Brahmin Weddings

On Saturday I was at a Marwari wedding. Actually it was a Marwari Hindu marrying a Gujarati Jain (it was arranged scissors, if you’re curious about that), but the ceremony took place according to Hindu rites. As Gandhi and Khushboo were getting married, I was reminded of my own wedding a little over a year back, and I started mentally comparing the two ceremonies. Here I attempt to put those mental notes “on paper”.

I must mention upfront that I have only one data point (this particular wedding) for Marwari weddings. Also, while the wedding ceremony was still on, I was invited for lunch (in a curious twist, bride’s relatives and friends ate out of a buffet while the groom’s relatives and friends were served a multi-course meal on a silver platter. The food for both was the same, though). So I do not have the complete picture, though the lunch was in the same hall so I managed to observe some stuff as I ate. Also, since the groom in this case was Jain, there is a possibility of some Jain rituals having crept in to the ceremony, so my one data point may not actually be representative. For the Kannadiga Brahmin wedding, I use my own wedding as a data point (again not necessarily accurate, since the wife is technically Gult).

The general impression about North Indian weddings is that they are “action packed”, and a lot of fun. There is known to be much singing and dancing, while South Indian Brahmin weddings are generally solemn religious affairs. There was a fair share of fun at the Gandhi-Khushboo wedding. The previous evening there was a Sangeet where relatives of the bride and groom put up dance performances, which was followed by a general free-for-all dance party, and even a Garba session (and also a Marwari Karaoke session). The cars that were transporting us to the wedding stopped 100m away from the venue, where the groom ascended a mare and there was a brass band and we all danced around to the actual venue. I didn’t attend the reception but I’m sure that had its fun components, too.

However, I noticed that when it came to the ceremony itself, my wedding was much more action-packed and “fun” than this wedding. Yes, at my wedding, the rituals took much longer (started at 11am and ended at 5pm, while here it lasted two hours), but at no point of time was either me or the wife just sitting there doing nothing, which was the case for large sections of this wedding. Most of the time when I looked at the stage, the bride and groom were solemnly sitting in their seats (they had a low bench to sit on, unlike us who sat cross-legged on a low wooden board) doing nothing, as the priests chanted mantras into the microphone. On the other hand, we were constantly doing something. There were “fun” elements like throwing rice on each other’s heads, bargaining for an elephant, getting surrounded by a rope that was spun around by relatives around us, tying the thaaLi, the “Challenge Gopalakrishna moment”, etc.

This is a recent inclusion in both ceremonies, I think, but both weddings involved a phase where the bride and groom are lifted by their respective relatives and friends as they try to get the upper hand (literally) in the muhurtham. In my wedding, the muhurtham involved throwing cumin seeds and jaggery on each other’s heads. Legend is that whoever throws first has the upper hand in the marriage. Here, it was the bride trying to garland the groom and he trying to escape it. At my wedding, the large crowd meant that at that critical moment I was unable to locate my big friends, and had to get lifted by two or three relatives. I resorted to jumping to gain the upper hand (Priyanka had a bunch of big cousins ready to hoist her). It was the opposite story at Gandhi’s wedding. The groom’s party was small, and his brother had told us to be ready to lift him, so we used our “matki phod” skills to good effect to hoist him high.

In both ceremonies, it was the bride’s maternal uncle who performed the “kanyaadaanam” (literally “donation of the virgin”) and brought the bride for the muhurtham. Tradition has it that the uncle should carry the niece, and Khushboo arrived that way. Priyanka’s maternal uncle has a bad back so he simply escorted her to the stage. Then, in both ceremonies, there is the “installation” of bride and groom as Lakshmi and Narayana, and their supposedly divine status for the duration of the wedding. The groom’s shalya (upper cloth) is knotted with the bride’s sari, though since Gandhi was wearing a sherwani, he wore a sash over it for this purpose. Our installation as Lakshmi and Narayana had a fun element as the priest described us as (for example) “Venkataramana Shastri’s great-grandson, Suryanarayana Rao’s grandson, Shashidhar’s son Karthik” which was similar to the refrain in Challenge Gopalakrishna where Gopalakrishna’s father addresses him as “Justice Gopalakrishna’s greatgandson … ” (watch from 7:55 in this video).

The other major point of difference I noticed was in the revolution around the fire after throwing puffed rice in it (it’s a common ceremony in both). At my wedding, I led the way around the fire, but here it was the bride who led the way. I wonder what accounts for this difference, or if it is a minor thing that was missed by the priests.

Overall, I had a fantastic two days in Indore, getting pampered and having sweets thrust into my mouth, catching up with old friends and overall having loads of fun. And not to mention, getting fodder for this double-length blog post.

Religious functions and late lunches

I remember being invited for a distant relative’s housewarming ceremony a few years back. The invitation card proudly stated “lunch: 12:30 pm”. I had a quiz to attend later that afternoon, at 3 pm, I think. Knowing there was enough slack for me to go to the function, thulp lunch and then go to the quiz, I went. At 12:15 (I have this habit of turning up at functions fifteen minutes prior to food; that way I don’t get bored, and people won’t think I’ve “just come for lunch”). Some ceremonies were going on. 1:15. Ceremonies continue to go on, no sign of lunch. 1:45, I realize there’s no slack at all, and want to leave without eating. Relatives get offended. Finally I went to the cooks, thulped some sweets and went off to the quiz.

Almost ten years back. My thread ceremony (upanayanam/brahmopadesham/munji). The priest arrives at the hall at eight o’clock, a full thirty minutes late. “My colleagues are coming at 12:30”, explains my father, “and we should serve lunch by that time. I don’t care what shortcuts you use but make sure we can serve lunch then”. Maybe munji rituals aren’t that compressable after all. Come 12:30, there were still quite a few procedures to go. Lunch was served while the ceremony continued to go on.

Religious functions are notorious for serving lunch late, and the religious purpose of the function is often used as an excuse to do so. I fully support religious freedom, and fully appreciate people’s choice to perform whatever ceremonies that they want. Keeping guests waiting while you do that and delaying their lunch, however, I think is gross disrespect for the guests’ time. And the sad thing is that religion is usually given as an excuse for this disrespect of time.

When you bring religion into a debate, it sometimes becomes tough to pursue a rational debate. In religious functions, if you were to make even the smallest noises about the timing of lunch, you are accused of being inconsiderate, an ingrate, and for having come there only for the food (I don’t know if the last mentioned is actually a crime). It is disrespectful to leave from such functions unless you’ve eaten, and so you are trapped into cancelling other appointments, and staying on until they actually decide to take pity and serve lunch.

I’ve brought up this topic in family forums a few times, and each time I’ve been chided for making such a big issue of something trivial. I don’t, however, understand how lunch is a trivial issue. And how disrespect for people’s time is a trivial issue. I have decided that the next time I attend one such religious function, where there is potential for the hosts to waste guests’ time by serving food inordinately late, I’ll take along a framed printout of Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem. And tell them that all their prayers and respect to god will have no effect unless they also respect their fellow men.

The Ticket

My grandfather claims to have invented this concept, though there is some evidence that it belongs to much older vintage. The “ticket” in question here is short for “ticket to heaven”. It refers to the practice of visiting ailing relatives and friends who you know are not going to last too long. However, you believe that they would want to see you once before they die, and then believe that they may not die unless you go visit them. So, you decide to put them out of their misery, and go “give them the ticket”, or in other words, you play God by giving them permission to die.

That’s all there is to this. It’s quite a simple concept. Unfortunately, it lacks wider appeal, hence this appeal to you to increase its appeal. Be careful, though, sometimes if you say “I’m going to give XXX a ticket”, there is a good chance that people might think it’s insulting, or disrespectful, or that you’re being too arrogant. But yes, otherwise, I think the ticket is a rocking concept.

PS: I’m beginning to see some sketches of a movie script in here. If you want to further develop it, contact me.