Fools on the Hill

6th August 2010

We had returned to Leh that afternoon after spending the previous day at Nubra valley, some hundred and fifty kilometres to the north of Leh. On the way back to Leh, we had been informed by the driver of a car passing the other way that there had been a cloudburst in Leh and hundreds of people had died. There were hardly any armymen at Khardung-La; on the way to Nubra the previous day, the place had been teeming with armymen and tourists.

Everything in Leh was closed; we were told everyone had gone to help out with rescue operations. Thankfully we found we had a booking at a hotel and checked in and quickly booked a ticket on the first flight the following morning. The evening was spent playing cards and watching news on some horrible Hindi channels (the hotel didn’t have any English channels). I was on the terrace, talking to Pinky over the phone. And I saw people in the street walking down towards a nearby hill.

Soon there were more people. And even more. All of them carrying some sort of luggage, like they were running away from something. Soon the street was filled with people running towards the hill. It was as if the whole town was running towards the hill. I went in and informed the others, who checked up with the hotel staff who instructed us too to proceed to the hill.

A couple of hours earlier we had found out that our hotel building had been built of mud, like all other buildings in Leh. Leh is earthquake-prone but it hardly rains there so mud houses are the norm. Given the floods of the previous night we had already been apprehensive about spending the night at the hotel. And now when we heard stories that some canal had burst and the street where our hotel was would get flooded we panicked. Picking up our bare essential belongings (basically the “hand luggage”) we followed the town down the road and up the hill, and settled in a reasonably comfortable place there.

I must have spent some three hours on the hill. Some friends spent double the time there, apprehensive of getting back to the hotel. While I was there I got conflicting news. Some people were saying that the floods had not hit our part of Leh. Others said it was only a matter of time and the entire area would be flooded with water. At times we worried if we were high enough on the hill, at other times we contemplated descending. It was crazy.

While on the hill, frantically trying to calm myself down, I thought this was just like the global financial crisis of 2008. The problem in 2008 after Lehman crashed was that nobody trusted anybody any more (coincidence: Lehman’s ticker on NYSE was “LEH”). So if I don’t trust you I don’t trade with you. The lack of trustworthy sources of information meant that nobody knew which financial institutions were in what state of health. So everyone just assumed the worst and refused to trade. It was only after the government (some sort of credible player, essentially) stepped in (TARP, discount window, etc.) that people began trusting each other and the markets calmed down presently.

It was similar on the hill. There were no credible sources of info. Nobody knew what was happening, and given the extreme risks involved (in the worst case we could haveĀ  been washed away, either by the rain on the hill (there wasn’t any when I was up there) or by floods on the street). People would go up the hill, and down the hill. Looking at them, others would try glean information (I decided it was safe enough to descend when most of the hill emptied; wisdom of crowds fundaes). But then there was distortion throughout the system. It was like all of us were playing one big game of Chinese Whispers.

It must be mentioned here that following the previous night’s cloudburst and floods there was a sense of panic all over town (just like there was in the financial markets back in 2008) so it was easy to spread rumours. The only way to have controlled damage was to have some credible sources (like say some armymen in uniform) to come and let us know what was happening. But then there were parts of town significantly worse affected compared to us so there was no help coming our way. And we continued to panic. And play chinese whispers.

The three hours I spent on the hill are probably the scariest of my life. Even now, thinking about that gives me the jitters. I’m happy I’m here, sitting at home at my ancient teak-wood desk in front of my laptop, telling you the story.

PS: the title of this post derives its name from a Beatles song of a similar name and has no other connotations

Why Kannadigas are Inherently Lazy

There is something about the weather in Bangalore. There is something about the weather in Bangalore that perks you up. There is something about the weather in Bangalore that most of the time you really want to do something, to be active, to go out, walk around, lead an active life and all such. The first few days I spent in Bangalore after my return from Gurgaon in June I spent literally jumping around. The weather was so uplifting. It filled me with so much enthu for everything in life!

So I was wondering why people usually classify Kannadigas as being inherently lazy. As one of the professors in my JEE coaching factory used to say “naavu Kannadigarige aambode mosaranna koTTbiTTre khushhyaagiddbiDtivi” (if someone gives us Kannadigas dal vada and curd rice, we’ll live happily forever, and we will forget about working hard). Basically implying that we are inherently not too ambitious, and that we are generally laidback about stuff.

Thinking about it, I was wondering if the wonderful climate of South Interior Karnataka has to do with this (people from North Karnataka and the coast are supposed to be fairly hardworking, and are not known for their laidbackness unlike us Old Mysore people). I wonder if this laidbackness is because our wonderful weather has spoilt us. Spoilt us to an extent that we don’t really need to normally fight against the odds.

So I was thinking about Gurgaon, the other place where I’ve recently lived in. Gurgaon has horrible climate. Maybe a total of one month in the year can be desccribed as “pleasant”. Most of the time it’s either too hot or too cold. Temperatures are extreme. When it rains the whole place floods up. If people in Gurgaon are happy it is in spite of the weather and because of it. And therein lies the reason why people from there are traditionally more hardworking than us people from Old Mysore.

Blessed with such wonderful climate, we don’t really need to fight the odds. If today is too hot, we can put off the job for another day when we’re sure it’ll be cooler. If it rains too much today, we know that it’s likely to be dry tomorrow and can thus postpone it. Essentially we don’t need to put too much fight. When the weather is good, we are all jumpy and enthu and do our work. Which allows us to wait and sit when the weather is bad.

The man in Gurgaon, or in Chennai, or even in Raichur, however, can’t afford that. The likelihood of him having a good day weatherwise sometime in the near future is so thin that there exists just no point for him to postpone his work thinking he’ll do it when he feels better. This means that he is culturally (rather, climatically) conditioned to work against the odds. To do stuff even when he doesn’t want to do it. To essentially put more fight. And so he avoids that “inherently lazy” tag which people like us have unfortunately got.

I’m reminded of the second case that we did in our Corporate Strategy course at IIMB, from which the main learning was that sometimes your biggest strengths can turn out to be your biggest weaknesses.

nODi swami, naaviruvudu heege.