Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to The World – Tom Rath

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From a personal standpoint, the release of every Tom Rath book is not merely an event, but a veritable cause for celebration. If you find this statement to be an exercise in gross exaggeration, then I would sincerely exhort the skeptic in you to read his bestseller, “Eat, Move, Sleep.” You can thank me once you become a convert to the Rath Philosophy! Humour aside, Mr. Rath’s books constitute a blend of wisdom juxtaposed with implementation. If practicality is the mother of his ideas, enriching outcomes make for the father.

Mr. Rath’s latest work, “Life’s Great Question: Discover How You Contribute to The World” is no exception to the rule. The Rath imprimatur permeates the pages of what arguably must be the smallest book that the author has penned till date. While the message conveyed is neither novel nor ingenious, the path laid down for the reader to follow is downright utilitarian. However, lest the reader be confused, the word Utilitarian is not to be used in the context of what or how Jeremy Bentham espoused it to be. The utility as proposed in this book does not target the maximization of happiness for many at the expense of a few.

At the heart of the book lies the notion of adding value to society in such a way that the value thus added provides something that others need. As Mr. Rath holds forth, “scientists have determined that we human beings are innately other-directed, which they refer to as being “prosocial.” According to top researchers who reviewed hundreds of studies on this subject, the defining features of a meaningful life are “connecting and contributing to something beyond the self.”

Using empirical and qualitative research finding, Mr. Rath proposes that “all teams need to do three very basic things: Create, Operate, and Relate. If a team is lacking in any one of these three major functions, it is almost impossible for the group to be effective, let alone thrive.”

Mr. Rath devotes the bulk of his book in dwelling about what he terms are twelve primary contributions. The following is a symbolic illustration of the twelve contributions:

12 contributions

Mr. Rath introduces his readers to each of the dozen contributions with a brief and perfunctory introduction that alludes to the most quintessential attributes of the contribution in function. This outline is immediately succeeded by two sections titled, ‘Contributing to Teams’ and ‘Contributing to Other’s Lives’, and ‘The Energy to Be Your Best’ respectively. It is in these two sections that one can experience the vintage Tom Rath touch. Shades of “Eat, Move and Sleep” keep darting in and out both unobtrusively and conspicuously depending upon the relevance of the topic being dealt with. However, the repeated emphasis on movement, dietary habits and repose is a telling acknowledgment of the tenets which the author himself swears by.

For example, in the contribution of “Connecting: under the heading, ‘Contributing to Other’s Lives’, Mr. Rath explains, “one of the challenges of being very active socially is that it involves a lot of dining out in groups. Find ways to get ahead of the endless temptations of bad choices by eating something healthy before you go to an event or setting rules for yourself about what to avoid.”

Yet another illustration of the “Eat, Move, Sleep” influence may be found in the “Energizing” contribution: “Today, make a list of the most common foods and meals that almost all experts agree are net positive for health and energy — foods like green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, and so on. Help others simplify and synthesize all the disparate information out there so eating well is that much easier for them. If you are better than most at juggling several tasks at once, try applying this to infusing movement into your workday — for example, find ways to talk or type while you are standing or walking. It’s likely that your focus on serving other people in your community sometimes comes at a personal cost. Are you taking care of yourself to the degree you should? Understand that the people you hope to serve need you to take care of your own physical health first so they can count on you in a time of need.”

The book also lends access to an online resource portal called “Contribify.” “The Contribify inventory is a series of questions that asks you to prioritize activities and situations that describe you or appeal to you most. This app will then show you the top three areas where you have the most potential for contribution.” The portal allows the reader to build a profile upon entering a unique access code that can be found at the back of every physical copy of the book. The inventory takes the reader through a series of open and close-ended questions. The portal also under a section titled, ‘Most Influential Life ExperienceS (“MILES”) encourages the reader to go back and identify a few of the most formative experiences of her lifetime. “What are the events, moments, or periods of time that most positively influenced who you are today?”

As Mr. Rath illustrates, researchers Amy Wrzesniewski, Justin Berg, and Jane Dutton, during the course of their studies spanning more than a decade and involving people who have successfully made their current jobs into much more meaningful and enjoyable careers, concluded that it is possible to turn the job you have into the job you want. It is this very objective which Mr. Rath strives to instill in his readers in general and the populace in particular. This he proposes to achieve by taking recourse to the twelve contributions which ought to be uncompromising in adherence and indelible in their execution.

While “Life’s Great Question” might not be viewed as a book that advocates principles that are neither radical nor lateral (as in out of the box – in Edward de Bono speak), it certainly possesses quality that can prove to be transformational.

Typical Tom Rath!

From Cowrie to Crypto: Blockchain and the Future of Money by TCA Sharad Raghavan

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The Asia Blockchain Summit that was held in July 2019 saw an interesting sequence of events that was played out between two equally, if not more, interesting protagonists. At the venue in Taiwan, Professor Nouriel Roubini, the economist popularly known as “Dr. Doom” for, among other things, predicting the Financial Recession of 2007, took on Arthur Hayes, the chief executive of the BitMex exchange on the pros and cons of Bitcoins. Mr. Roubini likened Bitcoin to a “cesspool”.  But Mr. Hayes had the last laugh. Being the controller of the rights to the footage of their debate, Mr. Hayes blocked the release of a video to the event. This move made Mr. Roubini apoplectic and in a post on Twitter, Prof Roubini claimed he “destroyed” Mr. Hayes in the debate and also called him a “coward” for not making it available.

This vociferous and somewhat peculiar exchange provides monument to the chasm that divides the views nursed by various parties on the future of cryptocurrencies. Esoteric, complex and almost ephemeral, the world of cryptocurrencies has birthed what can rightfully be termed a vertical divide. On one side of the chasm stand sworn pessimists such as Mr. Roubini, while facing them from across the divide are rational optimists rooting for a legalized promulgation in cryptocurrencies.

In his book “From Cowrie to Crypto: Blockchain and the Future of Money”, author and journalist, T C A Sharad Raghavan attempts to set the record straight in so far as cryptocurrencies and Bitcoins are concerned. Proceeding to provide an illuminating and easily comprehensible overview of the nature of Bitcoins, the author dwells on the advantages and disadvantages innate in their usage, before providing a critical overview of various legislative pronouncements across the world regarding the treatment of Bitcoins. Here’s encapsulating the book in the form of a few key takeaways:

  • ‘Block chains’ refer to immutable networks that function based on the consensus of its participants;
  • In order to understand the concept of a block chain in depth, it is essential to grasp the notion of a Distributed Ledger System (“DLS”). In a DLS, multiple copies of a central ledger are maintained across the network by a number of individual entities. These entities are called nodes. Each of these individual copies are simultaneously updated each time a new ‘block’ is added to the ‘chain’ of transactions. This chain is immutable—which means once a transaction is recorded, that record cannot be altered or deleted;
  • The process by which new units of Cryptocurrencies are created is known as ‘mining’. This process requires a huge amount of powerful computer hardware and a resilient software;
  • The most obvious and apparent advantages conferred by Block chains are according to the author in the realm of Smart contracts. A smart contract employs block chain to digitally verify and facilitate the terms of a contract. To quote the author, “for example, in a supply chain, a smart contract can help in automatically executing functions—such as the deployment of a shipment—once a payment is made. Smart contracts remove the need for buyers and sellers to chase each other for the goods or the payment. These block chain-based contracts can be set up in any manner, and don’t require a central agency to back them up.”
  • Raghavan also informs the reader about the formidable use of block chains to effect payments. Payments Blockchain experts have repeatedly said that the block chain has a near-perfect use-case scenario for the payments infrastructure, especially for cross-border payments. “First of all, a block chain-based system removes the need for paper-based documentation. All identities, transactions, and histories are stored on the relevant block chain, along with the linked bank accounts. While conventional banking systems don’t have a seamless process to trace a transaction from source to destination when multiple countries are involved, the block chain does away with this problem. Every node on the block chain is not only aware in real time of what is happening on the chain, but also has a constantly updated history of all the transactions on the network. Thus, the adoption of block chain technology can render cross-border payments instant, transparent, and cheaper by reducing the need for intermediaries.”
  • The father of Bitcoins is somebody known as Satoshi Nakamoto. At the time of this writing no one even knows whether Nakamoto is an individual or a collective entity;
  • The genesis behind bitcoins takes one back to 31 October 2008 and a link to a paper titled ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’ on a cryptography mailing list;
  • Nakamoto released the Bitcoin software in January 2009. There were lots of intrepid efforts to unearth the identity behind the founder of Bitcoin. As Mr. Raghavan educates his readers, “the New Yorker narrowed its search to two people, one of whom is an Irish computer science student named Michael Clear who had been ‘hired by Allied Irish Banks to improve its currency-trading software, and [who] coauthored an academic paper on peer-to-peer technology’. Michael Clear denied being the creator of Bitcoin, but also, infuriatingly, said that he would not reveal it even if he was. The second ‘suspect’ was a Finnish professor named Vili Lehdonvirta. Professor Lehdonvirta has gone on record saying that he has no knowledge of cryptography and that his knowledge of computer programing is rudimentary, at best.”
  • India, is one of the more conservative nations when it comes to accepting cryptocurrencies. In fact, the Reserve Bank of India has banned all banks and financial institutions from providing services to any entity dealing with cryptocurrencies. However, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI)while filing an appeal with the Apex Court against this decision argued that “the RBI had admitted, in a reply under the country’s Right to Information (RTI) law, that it had not conducted any study or formed any committee to look into cryptocurrencies before laying down its prohibition on the banks. In a move that should give some hope to the cryptocurrency industry, the Supreme Court asked the IAMAI to prepare a report and cite instances and judgements from other countries which have regulated cryptocurrencies instead of banning them. There is ample material from around the world on cryptocurrency regulation and the IAMAI should have no trouble showing how the industry can best be regulated”;
  • But the Indian Government’s skepticism stems from facts such as possibility of the cryptocurrencies being used for illegal purposes, diverted to finance terror activities and money laundering schemes and the probability of the entire chain getting hacked. Another concern is the embedded volatility characterising Bitcoins. in December 2017 Bitcoin was valued at around $20,000 per coin, which subsequently crashed to $3,800;
  • While countries such as Japan and South Korea have chosen to adopt a more ‘benevolent’ view towards cryptocurrencies, nations such as India have abhorred them with disdain. But the stringent position of countries like India is also depicting a change;
  • India’s government think-tank, “Niti Aayog, is in the process of setting up the country’s largest block chain network called IndiaChain, as a means to reduce frauds, speed up the enforcement of contracts, and increase the transparency of transactions. The government reportedly wants to use the block chain to digitalise land records, supply-chain management, identity management, the distribution of government benefits, the digitisation of educational certificates, power distribution, and cross-border finance.”

While we are a long way off from wholeheartedly adopting Bitcoins and cryptocurrencies as legally recognized tender, it is only a matter of time before its utility really makes policy mavens sit up and take note. Meanwhile authors such as Mr. Raghavan are doing an indelible service in educating laymen about both the potentials and pitfalls associated with this virtual currency.

The Leapfroggers: An Insider’s Account of ISRO – by Ved Prakash Sandlas

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The name Ved Prakash Sandlas may not ring a bell. This is a real travesty for the name of this man should be celebrated in every household. A pioneering scientist, Mr. Sandlas was one of the first fifty engineers who joined ISRO. Some of the laudable feathers in the cap of this distinguished luminary include heading the SLV-3 launch mission as Project Director, functioning as Distinguished Scientist and Chief Controller R&D from 1996 to 2005 and also founding the Amity Institute of Aerospace Engineering.

In a breathtakingly wonderful book, titled “The Leapfroggers”, that evokes nostalgia and instills pride in the heart of every Indian, Mr. Sandlass fondly recollects his formative years with India’s redoubtable space research organization ISRO. The title of the book is in itself a paean to the lambent vision and incandescent brilliance of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the doyen of space and technology in India. The philosophy of leapfrogging as encapsulated by Dr. Sarabhai and longingly recalled by Mr. Sandlas, goes beyond incremental progress and cautious gains. To quote the colossus himself, ‘To us, there is no ambiguity of purpose … we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, and the courage to leapfrog to state-of-the-art engineering and technology pursuits rather than [make] step-by-step scientific developments … Indeed, this is the only way in which I can see the country leapfrogging into a position where it can hope to meet more developed nations on equal terms.’

“Leapfroggers” highlights the endeavours of an eclectic bunch of people, divided by myriad backgrounds but fiercely united by a single and uncompromising purpose. This unique set of people found free reign under a roof that encouraged dissent, tolerated deliberations and established a hotbed of debates. But at the end of the day, when the dust settled, whatever consensus was reached was advocated unequivocally by everyone. “Most ISRO people were highly individualistic, experts in their own fields, very possessive of their specializations, very argumentative in technical discussions, and sometimes very stubborn. But, somehow, they were excellent team members in group activities. There were occasions when they would fight tooth and nail, for several hours, even through the night, and, after the final decision, come out clean with identical views.”

Mr. Sandlas harbours special affection and respect for one of the most spectacular leap froggers of all time. Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. According to Mr. Sandlas, “Kalam was an iconic symbol of what SLV-3 was, of its significance and culture; he was a master leapfrogger, demonstrated by his subsequent growth in DRDO, and his becoming the Dr. A.P.J, the master leap frogger. Once, a journalist predicted that ISRO had decided to name future Satellite Launch Vehicles with the initials of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: ASLV, PSLV and JSLV (J changing to G to match equivalency in Hindi and other Indian languages).”

Hailing from humble origins – Mr. Sandlas father was displaced from Lahore during the heinous Partition days – Mr. Sandlas, distinguished himself by passing out of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. On Friday, the 27th of October 1967. He reported at TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station), near Trivandrum. Being a North Indian, Mr. Sandlas is rendered speechless and left mesmerized by some practices that are unique to the inhabitants of ‘God’s Own Country.’ “It was most surprising to learn about nokku kooli (payment for looking), which entitled union activists to claim charges for loading/unloading materials even if it was done by machines or special/skilled labourers. There was a story floating around the Palayam fish market: A truck driver unloaded goats by opening the rear flap-door and letting goats climb down on their own. A person was standing there counting 1, 2, 3 … up to 42 and he demanded Rs 42 as unloading charges! Of course, the driver pulled out a dagger and abused him. ‘Come, let me teach you, I will unload you from this earth.”

ISRO, as Mr. Sandlas informs us during his early tenure was filled with intellectual giants who had abhorred cushy jobs abroad to enable India get a foothold in the sphere of Space Research. This was largely due to the clarion call of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who encouraged Indian scientists working abroad to join ISRO. Mr. Sandlas made his preliminary mark at TERLS by providing a radio link between Thumba and Tokyo for the X-ray astronomy experiments of Japanese scientists. The experiments were conducted during April 1968, to ascertain the most appropriate time for rocket launching, synchronizing with simultaneous observations of the sky using radio telescope in Tokyo.

ISRO was established on 15 August 1969, superseding the erstwhile INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research), Since, at that time, most ISRO establishments were in south India, it was jokingly called ‘Idli Sambar Rasam Organization’. The democratic and meritocratic set up in ISRO furthered an atmosphere that was paradoxically congenial as well as a cauldron of roiling opinions. As Mr. Sandlas illustrates “Project Review Meetings (“PRM) represented a free-for-all fighting ground. The usual gladiator/combat list comprised Madhavan Nair vs Mr. Sandlas himself, Dr Srinivasan vs Mr. Dev, and some leg-pulling between Majeed and Madhavan Nair. “There was a saying (joke) floating around VSSC that if Sandlas and Madhavan Nair could agree on some issue on their own, even God could not change their decision. Once, we fought and abused each other so much that Kalam was disgusted enough to walk out of the PRM, leaving Dr Srinivasan behind to sort out matters…”

Mr. Sandlas had the enviable experience of engaging with foreign collaborations in the sphere of technology transfer during ISRO’s nascent years. During one such collaboration visits to France, M. Sandlas and the team were taken to visit Wane Kreek on the Surinam border. In a roadside shack, the team ordered vegetarian lunch of rice and baked beans in tomato sauce. Imagine their horror when they witnessed pork balls floating in the gravy— ‘added to enhance the flavour’— “with advice that they may be left behind uneaten and with the assurance: ‘the rest of the dish is pure vegetarian.”

The book has some inspiring and rousing examples of taking adversity head on, bucking the trends and coming up trumps. For example, after the SLV-3-E-01 disaster Prof. Dhawan in a press conference, declared: ‘We have stumbled a little, but not fallen flat on our face.’ As Mr. Sandlas vigorously reminds his readers, The SLV-3-E-02 was successfully launched on 18 July 1980 at 080345 hours, satisfactorily injecting 35kg Rohini Satellite, RS-1 into a near-Earth orbit after 10 minutes. This demonstrated the real strength of ISRO, its people, and our indigenous science and technology. The event signified India’s entry into the exclusive space club of nations with satellite launch vehicle capability; the other five countries were Soviet Union (Sputnik-I launch by Sputnik-PS on 4 October 1957), United States (Explorer-I launch by Juno-1 on 31 January 1958), France (Asterix launch by Diamant A on 26 November, 1965), Japan (Osumi launch by Lambda 4S on 11 February 1970) and China (Dongfanghong-I launch by Chang Zheng-1 on 24 April 1970). A day earlier, the press had speculated about India becoming a space and missile power; equating the SLV-3 with many such capabilities and options.

The book abounds with a plethora of examples similar to the one mentioned in the preceding paragraph. More than everything else, it makes us sit up, recognise, and salute a real hero whose accomplishments have resulted in putting India on the very forefront and frontier of space technology and research.

After a lambent career that saw Mr. Sandlas bag awards such as DRDO’s ‘Scientist of the Year’; FIE Foundation National Award (1998) for Science & Technology, and IIT Kharagpur Distinguished Alumnus Award, Mr. Sandlas breathed his last on the 6th of July, 2017.

It is to the indefatigable spirit of selfless intellectuals such as Mr. Sandlas that a billion and more of us owe an eternal debt of gratitude.

Intelligent Fanatics of India – Rohith Potti & Pooja Bhula

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Allow your mind to linger over this example of what can only be described as an existential crisis for a few seconds:

A formidable conglomerate having painstakingly established a reputation, finds itself teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Its two flagship companies – once the crown jewels within the group – have more or less tumbled over the cliff. With a debt burden in excess of Rs.1500 crore (US$400 million) to be serviced, and with more than 25% of equity owned by the banks, the group is all but finished. What do you reckon would have been the outcome for the group?

A decade and a half – and what seems to be a veritable miracle later – the group is suddenly worth a whopping $900 million. The chemical businesses, constituting the flagship businesses rubs shoulders while also competing, with some of the largest players in the world. Oh, and incidentally, the Group is debt free boasting returns on capital sustainably above 20%.

So what exactly led to the Mafatlal Group, first plummeting to the depths of despair, before subsequently bouncing back with incredible resilience, under the stewardship of Hrishikesh Mafatlal?

Yet another scenario to nudge the grey cells of the reader:

A business group, established in 1928 as an indenting agency procuring and distributing foreign-made goods diversifies into various products ranging from pressure cookers to condoms. But four and a half decades later, the group finds itself in a precarious position. Staring at a debt pile of Rs.10 crore (US$ 1.5 million), the owner of the group is left holding a dilemma of Darwinian proportions in his hands.

Today, the flagship business has sales of more than Rs. 1400 crore ($200 million) and a market cap of about Rs. 7,700 cr ($1.1 billion).

What transformational strategies did the brilliant Operations Research Graduate from Cornell University, Mr. T.T.Jagannathan, had to adopt to resuscitate the TTK Group, thereby pulling it back from the jaws of death before making it a household name?

In their hard hitting, lively and superbly structured book, “Intelligent Fanatics of India”, authors Rohith Potti and Pooja Bhula, with the aid of judiciously handpicked real life examples, dwell deep into the mindset and ethos of leaders who when faced with adversity, decide to plunge headlong with strategies and tactics, which, in the normal scheme of things, may only be described as counter-intuitive. The opening two words of the title owe their attribution to the brilliant Charlie Munger. The vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway refers to leaders who go on to not only dominate their chosen fields, but in the process, create an enduring legacy, as  Intelligent Fanatics. It greatly helps that Mr. Munger himself is a pioneering Intelligent Fanatic. In the exalted company of Warren Buffett, Mr. Munger has taken Berkshire Hathaway to stratospheric heights! In their book, Mr. Potti and Ms. Bhula showcase seven such Intelligent Fanatics who have altered the landscape of the very businesses that they happen to be engaged in, in India.

The authors set the stage by providing a context to the construct of ‘Intelligent Fanatics.’ Drawing greatly from the postulations of not just Charlie Munger, but acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari and essayist, scholar, statistician, and former option trader and risk analyst, Nicholas Nassim Taleb as well, the authors argue that the one singularly distinctive attribute that has led to the ascendancy of humans over all other living species is the exceptionally distinguishing feature of culture. Quoting Munger. In a talk given to Capital Group executives, Charlie Munger made the same observation: “The three best operating companies I’m aware of are Costco, Kiewit, and Glenair. There is nothing remarkable about the product or field for any of these three. But there is something remarkable about the culture of all three.”

As the authors illustrate, it was a burning desire to coalesce the ideologies of philanthropy with the philosophy of business, that led Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, a.k.a “Dr. V”, to conceptualize and incorporate, what arguably has to be the most unique ophthalmic service facility in the world. 50 million patients and 5.5 million surgeries later, Aravind Hospital, in addition to standing at the apogee of altruism is also deriving a healthy rate of monetary return. The ‘unbusiness’ model of discharging business – a paradox that epitomizes cross purposes has made Aravind what it is today. Dr. V’s remorseless desire to obliterate ‘needless blindness’ made Aravind a ‘Market Driving firm’ as against the run-of-the-mill ‘Market Driven’ firm. An upending of received wisdom transformed Aravind from a player into a pathbreaker. Paraphrasing the authors, “In a paper titled “From Market Driven to Market Driving,” Nirmalya Kumar, Lisa Scheer, and Philip Kotler talk about stupendous successes enjoyed by market-driving firms. In contrast to incremental innovation as practiced by market-driven firms such as Unilever, Procter and Gamble, and the like, market-driving firms create a “discontinuous leap in the value proposition,” which is supported by the implementation of a unique, hard-to replicate business system.”

The audacity to not just take adversity on but to best it by treating it as an opportunity is what makes these Intelligent Fanatics what they are. As Nassim Taleb expostulates in his best seller antifragile, a bit of tinkering leads to outcomes where, while the downside is capped, the upside comes with an unlimited potential. This is the same audacity that made Anita Dongre launch her luxury Indian label, Anita Dongre Indian Soul, employing traditional weaves and silks from master weavers across India. Her gamble reaped rich dividends when Kate Middleton, during a visit to India in the summer of 2016, wore Dongre’s Gulrukh design, selected and then tweaked by her personal assistant-turned-stylist, Natasha Archer.

It was the same irreverent attitude that has ensured that Raghunandan Kamat’s ‘Naturals’ brand of ice creams finds itself in a niche category. Boasting a client patronage that is almost relentless, Naturals, over a period of time has created more than one hundred flavors and, at any given time, their parlors stock twenty-one flavors, 65% of which are fruit based. Naturals is one of the few ice cream brands in the world to offer that many fruit flavors. At the time of writing, the franchisees of Naturals’s enjoy the highest revenues in the parlor segment compared to competitors, including international giants like Baskin-Robbins and Haagen-Dazs.

Intelligent Fanatics have a single minded focus and dedication that accords primacy to customers and employees alike. Telling examples of such a well-entrenched beliefs are provided by the authors while referring to the Horatio Alger like stories of John Gomes of Furtado India and Kochouseph Chittilapilly, the doyen of V-Guard, Wonderla Holidays and Veegaland Developers. Mr. Chittilapilly took altruism to a wholly different level when he donated one of his kidneys – against the advice of both family and doctors – to a total stranger, a truck driver. Mr. Chittilapilly was in his sixties when he undertook this astonishing decision!

“Intelligent Fanatics of India” is a rousing, riveting and racy book that inspires and awes in equal measure. It is an indispensable addition to every meaningful book shelf.

Telecom Man: Leading from the front in India’s Digital Revolution – Brijendra Syngal & Sandipan Deb

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In a memoir that is part educational and part explosive, Brijendra Syngal, the former Chairman and Managing Director of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), pulls no punches in laying out bare not only the evolution of the telecom sector in India, but also the rot that permeates the inner corridors of Government and the echelon of bureaucracy. Mr. Syngal, popularly referred to as the ‘Father of Internet & Data Services in India’, has penned what can rightfully be termed a ‘no holds barred’ memoir. “Telecom Man” is a book that while making some people squeal with unbridled delight, would send some others squirming and scurrying for cover. But most importantly it reveals the trajectory that the path towards revolutionizing an industry, painstakingly traversed.

Displaced by partition when he was just seven years old, Mr. Syngal punched beyond his weight to graduate from the hallowed portals of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur in the year 1961. As Mr. Syngal himself points out, only seven students, (including Mr. Syngal himself), mustered the courage to take up electronics engineering as a discipline. After a brief tenure with the electronics conglomerate Philips, Mr. Syngal joined the Department of Telecommunications, a lumbering public sector behemoth. He distinguished himself by setting up receptor stations and microwave towers in isolated regions raging from the scorching sands of the Thar desert, snake-infested jungles of Assam and the snowy treacherous heights of Kashmir. But it was at VSNL that Mr. Syngal found his métier.

Goaded by Sam Pitroda, and bolstered by a spirit of patriotism, Mr. Syngal resigned from a cushy job with INMARSAT and arrived in India to face a welter of intransigence and cacophony of babel at the corridors of India’s leading provider of telecommunication services. Soon after assuming charge, Mr. Syngal set out three priorities for VSNL: the 18,190-kilometre South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe-2 (SEA-ME-WE2) undersea cable that would be laid from Singapore via India (if we participated) through the Middle East up to the UK, through three continents, international subscriber dialing, and the needs of the Indian software industry.

Under Mr. Syngal’ s stewardship, Under Mr. Syngal’ s leadership, VSNL ‘s gross revenues rose a mind boggling 215 percent from $515 million to $1.6 billion. The entity’s market capitalisation climbed stratospheric heights reaching 355 percent, from $0.9 billion to $4.1 billion, while profits ascended 666 percent, and gross revenue per employee 204 percent. VSNL also floated what was at that time the biggest Global Depository Receipts (GDR) issue out of India and the third largest out of Asia (Excluding Japan). However, as Mr. Syngal himself pithily illustrates, it was not all hunky dory for him. He was shunted out of VSNL in an acrimonious fashion by the NDA Government which suspected him of ‘being on the take.’ This was largely triggered by a stash of cash found in the house of Pandit Sukh Ram, who at the time of such a discovery was the Telecom Minister having succeeded Rajesh Pilot.

The two most interesting chapters in the book are the ones dealing with the initial GDR bid by VSNL which ultimately turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and the colossal scam that was the 2G Spectrum allocation fiasco orchestrated by a brazenly corrupt and unashamed coalition Government. The GDR launched in 1994 was, according to Mr. Syngal scuppered by some vested interests, which included Pandit Sukh Ram himself. Ordering Mr. Syngal to appoint a particular banking organization to oversee the GDR issue, Sukh Ram turns incendiary upon hearing that Mr. Syngal was following well-established protocols to appoint underwriters and bankers to manage the issue. In the author’s own words, “While the selection process was going on, I got a call from Sukh Ram. ‘What is this beauty parade you are running?’ were his irate words, I remember clearly. He ordered me to award the contract to one particular American investment bank. I had already heard from the grapevine was that this investment bank may have come to some ‘arrangement’ with him, most probably a certain sum to be paid per share issued. The three top guns in the firm involved in the VSNL GDR bid were all Indians.”

But the most engrossing and controversial chapter in the book is reserved for what has gone down in the annals of Indian business and politics as one of the most infamous, if not the most infamous scams in the history of global telecom. Boasting its own moniker, the “2G Scam”, shook the very foundations of faith reposed by the citizens of India in its politician. When the dust ultimately settled, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)pegged the losses arising out of irregularities in the allocation of Second Generation spectrum, at a dizzying 1.76 lakh crores. Mr. Syngal, who at the time of the scam was employed in a consultative capacity by Dua Consulting, opines that the genesis behind the scam lies in what he terms, “Coalition Dharma”, a quagmire that is the outcome of a loose set of parties possessing different ideologies but cobbled together with the sole intention of being in power. A Raja, the then telecom minister representing DMK, and who spent some time in jail before being acquitted, blatantly over ruled the directives stemming from even the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on judiciously allocating the finite natural resource that is spectrum instead of shoddily distributing the same on a first come first served basis.

While the book makes for a racy and riveting read, the only blotch, if it can be termed that, is a constant blowing of one’s own trumpet in an uncomfortably conspicuous manner. While there is no denying the achievements and efforts of Mr. Syngal in transforming a once lethargic Public Sector Undertaking into a cutting edge corporation to be reckoned with and even revered, more discretion could have been employed in extolling his own virtues. Certain passages in the book that are more self-paeans than factoids, take the shine out of the book to some extent. For example, consider these lines, where Mr. Syngal describes a botched attempt by Beni Verma, a Minister to shunt him out of his job: “I started using my contacts and encircled him. I had good friends in the Left. I went to Gurudas Dasgupta, MP from the Communist Party of India. In Uttar Pradesh, I knew legendary hockey player K.D. Singh Babu’s family, who were close to Mulayam Singh Yadav, to whose party Verma belonged. Then I got hold of Satish Chandran, who was principal private secretary to Deve Gowda. Pressure was created from all sides on Beni Verma, such that he could not sack B.K. Syngal. One day, the ladies from K.D. Singh’s household went to Beni Verma’s home at eight in the morning. Now, Beni Verma did not wake up before eleven. He was woken up and informed that these women had come. He emerged, clutching his dhoti, all flustered. The ladies told him, ‘Please do not meddle with Syngal saab’s case, otherwise we’ll see you in the city square of Lucknow.’ ‘No,’ stammered Verma, thoroughly confused. ‘It’s under consideration (vicharadhin hai). No decision has been taken yet.’”

Despite passages of the ilk of the ones mentioned above, “Telecom Man” makes for some stirring read. All those who are blithely under the impression that the telecommunications industry in India begins and ends with Sam Pitroda – with Pitroda himself blissfully basking in such undeserving limelight – have to necessarily read this book to understand and appreciate the endeavor of a man, known in political circles as “The Bulldozer” who in his inimitable, irascible and irreverent manner, brought about a paradigm transformation to the fortunes of telecommunications in India.

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness – Susannah Cahalan

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For a sprightly and vibrant New York Post reporter, purgatory began with two innocuous looking dots running down a purplish vein in her left arm. Paranoia about bed bugs, extermination agency visits and a frenzied bout of maniacal cleaning later, Susannah Cahalan realises that bug bites was not her real concern. Assailed by self-doubt at work, which results in a fumbling fiasco of an interview with John Walsh, the host of “America’s Most Wanted”, Cahalan starts exhibiting behavior veering towards the psychotic. Rifling through the emails and closet of her boyfriend she begins ascribing ulterior motives to his accumulation of memorabilia, courtesy his exes. As a precursor to the maddening seizures that would subsequently go onto rack her, Ms. Cahalan experiences a piercing migraine-like pain lancing through her brain, accompanied by a tingling in her left hand, which ultimately goes numb.

MRIs, and neurological diagnoses reveal nothing significant or impaired until Ms. Cahalan experiences full blown seizures. She undertakes a journey, lasting a month – both physically and mentally – to hell and back, during the course of which she experiences a tryst with a slew of experts, a cocktail of assorted drugs and potential lapses in prognosis that might have left the twenty-four-year-old not only in the throes of a permanent state of debilitation, but also, in all probability, killed her.

It takes the ingenuity of a Neurologist; the intrepid researching proclivities of yet another, rounded off by a dogged perseverance exhibited by an unrelentingly optimistic support system constituting family and friends to bring back Ms. Cahalan from the brink of hopelessness. Eager to absorb in its most intimate detail, the primary cause of her agonizing experience, Ms. Cahalan, – piecing together video footage recorded by the hospital, interviews given to her by the doctors who treated her, journals maintained by her estranged parents who used the written medium to communicate with one another, and conversations with her dutifully stoic boyfriend – reconstructs in marvelous detail her experiences in a gut-wrenching, heart rending, yet life-affirming book titled, “Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness.”

With this endeavor, Ms. Cahalan does yeoman service to the world of medicine. The condition that besieged her was an extremely rare auto-immune disorder going by the convoluted name of anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis. This is a disease occurring when antibodies produced by the body’s own immune system attack NMDA receptors in the brain. NMDA receptors are proteins that control electrical impulses in the brain. Their functions are critical for judgement, perception of reality, human interaction, the formation and retrieval of memory, and the control of unconscious activities (such as breathing, swallowing, etc.), also known as autonomic functions. The ignorance prevalent towards both the identification, evaluation and treatment of this condition is starkly illustrated by Ms. Cahalan in her book: “In the spring of 2009, I was the 217th person ever to be diagnosed with Just a year later, that figure had doubled. Now the number is in the thousands. Yet Dr. Bailey, considered one of the best neurologists in the country, had never heard of it. When we live in a time when the rate of misdiagnoses in the United States has shown no improvement since the 1930s, the lesson here is that it’s important to always get a second opinion.”

After being prescribed an eclectic concoction of anti-psychotic, anti-depressing and anti-seizure drugs, Ms. Cahalan receives a proclamation of Schizoaffective Psychoses from a battery of doctors working on her ‘case.’ It takes the intervention and intuition of a Syrian born neurologist Dr Souhel Najjar, – who also has the peculiar habit of tugging away at his mustache – to attribute a name to Ms. Cahalan’s condition, as against taking refuge in idiopathic surmises and conjectures. At the core and crux of Dr. Najjar’s diagnosis, lay hidden, an elementary and fundamental test popularly known as ‘The Clock Test.’

The clock test found a mention in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only in 1987, a full three plus decades post its conception, and since then has been employed to diagnose problem areas of the brain in Alzheimer’s, stroke, and dementia patients. A patient is told to draw a clock and fill in all the numbers, 1 through 12 on a blank piece of paper.  Ms. Cahalan’s clock had numbers drawn on only the right side. Because of contralateral functioning of the brain, meaning that the right hemisphere is responsible for the left field of vision and vice versa, Ms. Cahalan’s clock with numbers all over the right hand side revealed that the right hemisphere—responsible for seeing the left side of that clock —was compromised.

Ms. Cahalan confesses in no uncertain terms in her book about the hand of fortune that combined with her fortitude to facilitate what ultimately turned out to be a happy ending. Dr. Josep Dalmau, a neurologist and researcher had performed cutting edge research in the domain of auto immune diseases and his efforts resulted in the identification of receptor-seeking autoimmune diseases that occur in the brain, making the anti-NMDA-receptor variety still rare but not unique. “These discoveries finally will give names to diseases vaguely referred to as “encephalitis of an unknown origin,” or “psychosis not otherwise specified,” or not given any designation at all.”

Yet another factor aiding Ms. Cahalan as she courageously waged her battle against her unseen enemy was the assured existence of a safety net, both in the form of financial security and a support system in the form of family and friends. While banking on the human element for support might be available for many sufferers, not every sufferer can boast the luxury of adequate monetary resources to help them tide over such an insidious, but completely treatable ailment. “It had cost $1 million to treat me, a number that boggles the mind. Luckily, at the time I was a full-time employee at the Post, and my insurance covered most of the exorbitant price tag” admits Ms. Cahalan.

Adding to the fact is the daunting prospect of facilitating the appropriate screening procedure for all affected. Quoting professor of psychology, Philip Harvey, Ms. Cahalan writes, “How practical would this screening be?” asks professor of psychology Philip Harvey. “Lumbar punctures for everyone? That’s an impossibility.” As Ms. Cahalan informs and educates us in a painstakingly lucid fashion, mental illness suffers from an unfortunate combination of well-entrenched beliefs, stereotypes and received wisdom. An organ as complicated as the brain cannot be treated for any inhibiting conditions by taking recourse to accepted wisdom and set precedents, even though both attributes may provide the foundational scope for further investigations.

It is imperative that more attention be bestowed to understanding the nuances underlying these types of auto immune disorders, especially considering the number of children who are being diagnosed as suffering from it. In the poignant words of Ms. Cahalan, In the late 1980s, French Canadian pediatric neurologist Dr. Guillaume Sébire noticed an unusual pattern among six children he treated from 1982 to 1990. They all had movement disorders, including involuntary tics or excessive restlessness, cognitive impairments, seizures, normal CT scans, and negative blood work results. The children were diagnosed with “encephalitis of an unknown origin” (or what was colloquially known as the Sébire syndrome), a disease that lasted on average ten months. Four of the six children made what could be called a full recovery. His hazy description of the disease persisted for another two decades. An earlier paper, written in 1981 by Robert Delong and colleagues, described “acquired reversible autistic syndrome” in children. The disease presented like autism, but two of the three children studied (a five-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy) recovered fully, while an eleven-year-old girl continued to endure severe memory and cognitive deficits, unable to remember three words provided to her after only a few minutes had elapsed. Now, studies show that roughly 40 percent of patients diagnosed with this disease are children (and this percentage is growing), but children present the disease differently from adults: afflicted children exhibit behaviors such as temper tantrums, mutism, hypersexuality, and violence.”

Voices of reason like that of Ms. Cahalan would go a long way in ameliorating to a great extent the pernicious impact of condition such as auto immune encephalitis, thereby supplementing the tireless efforts of doctors such as Dr. Najjar and Dr. Dalmau. Ms. Cahalan also is at the forefront of a new nonprofit foundation called the Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance, having founded the same to conduct research and spreading awareness. An effort which no doubt would result in ennobling many a life which otherwise runs the risk of being plunged in despondency with nary a hope for redemption and relief.

The Winning Sixer: Leadership Lessons to Master – W V Raman


Woorkeri Venkat Raman was a former opening batsman who represented India at the highest levels of international cricket. A lazy elegance embodied his approach at the crease. The southpaw, now the coach of the Indian Women’s National Cricket team, brings to bear the same languid approach that characterized his batting to the realm of writing. In a book titled, “The Winning Sixer: Leadership Lessons to Master”, Mr. Raman dwells on the quintessential facets that symbolizes a leader as he/she goes about performing feats which otherwise elude the most of majority.

Employing a narrative style that is engaging and easy on the eye – an art for which he was renowned when executing his role as a master craftsman with a willow in hand – Mr. Raman resorts to providing examples of stellar leaders in the domains of both sports and non-sporting spheres such as business, in combination with easy to remember principles grouped under a single alphabet. Lest the reader become apprehensive, Mr. Raman neither takes refuge in a deluge of incomprehensible ‘isms’ – as is unfortunately the fashion these days – nor tries to obfuscate the main purpose in a maze of verbiage.

Mr. Raman chooses his examples with care and clarity. Punctuating somber and serious instances with incidents that have humour embedded within, Mr. Raman ensures that the reader’s attention span remains rooted. A classic example is one that involves the West Indian legend and arguably the world’s greatest all-rounder Sir Garfield Sobers. To quote Mr. Raman, ‘Sir Garfield (Gary) Sobers, the former West Indies captain, made a declaration to prevent a Test match petering out into a boring draw. West Indies lost that Test and Sir Gary was severely criticized. When he reached the next venue, he was asked at immigration, “Have you anything to declare, Gary?” He replied with a wry smile, “Not after the last one, my friend”. Even for someone as revered as Sir Gary, there is no escape if a calculated risk backfires in sports.’

Mr. Raman attempts to instill various tenets of leadership in a manner fundamental and lingering. He dishes out wisdom in ‘batches’. Hence we have the ‘5 Cs’ (credibility, clarity, connect, control and conviction), rubbing shoulders with the ‘5Ts’ (Truth, Time, Tango, Thrift and Theatrics). Each element is then related to a real life incident involving the travails, tribulations and triumphs of famous personalities. For example, in describing the seemingly peculiar element of ‘Tango’, Mr. Raman holds forth: ‘Successful leaders are alert about their listening-to-talking ratio. They realize the importance of getting as much information as possible from others, which greatly helps in their decision-making. In fact, I have heard business leaders state that the one who listens the most is the best communicator.’ There must be reasonably equal participation in a conversation, with the listening ratio higher than the talking ratio. Tango encapsulates these two important aspects. Equal participation and yet achieving a higher ratio of listening to talking is the hallmark of Stephen Sackur, who anchors HARDtalk on BBC TV.’

Similarly, the indefatigable spirit brought to their game by Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble get a special mention in the book. Mr. Raman, most importantly conveys to the reader a fact which is mostly experienced only by a sportsman/woman and the angst relating to which remains largely underappreciated, if not downright unappreciated. A sportsman, beset with a serious injury and attempting to make a comeback faces a future that appears to be not only unpredictable, but insurmountable as well. The mindset of the affected persona as he/she attempts to get his/her professional career back on the rails, is illustrated in a deeply poignant manner by the author. Resorting to the heart warming and commendable examples set by Laxmipathy Balaji, a former India pacer and Pullela Gopichand, former All England Open Badminton Championships winner and the much lauded coach of India’s most famous badminton champions of the likes of Saina Nehwal and P.V.Sindhu, Mr. Raman demonstrates how both sportsmen refused to accept injury as a cul-de-sac in their career, before battling all odds to triumph over adversity.

Similarly, the sacrifices and phlegmatic decisions made by Sania Mirza to focus more on doubles thereby letting go of her aspirations to make her mark as a singles player of prominence is described by Mr. Raman in a very lucid and articulate manner. Mr. Raman also exhibits his undisguised admiration for Richard Branson, the maverick entrepreneur par excellence and Frederick Forsyth, the master story teller of the action genre. Talking about Richard Branson’s and his ‘out of the box’ Edward De Bono like exploits, Mr. Raman elucidates: “It is also interesting that he is advocating employment for felons/ex-offenders who have finished their prison sentences. The rationale is that if they are not given jobs, they might be forced to go back to committing crimes, which is an absolutely different way of seeing things.’

Two other sporting personas who make frequent appearances in the book on account of their leadership skills are Kapil Dev, former World Cup winning cricket captain of India and one of the world’s greatest ever all-rounders, and Jeev Milkha Singh, the son of legendary Olympian athlete Milkha Singh, and an Indian professional golfer who became the first player from India to join the European Tour in 1998. Jeev Milkha Singh has won four events on the European Tour, becoming the most successful Indian on tour.

But the one story that warms the very cockle of the reader’s heart is the one involving Vasudevan Baskaran, who skippered the Indian hockey squad that bagged the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. In describing ‘Giving’, one of the ‘5Gs’ which Mr. Raman whips up, he states: …” Around that time, by sheer chance, he was asked to take over as the coach of the Indian junior hockey squad. But, given the volatile situation prevailing within the hockey fraternity then, he was not sure if the time was right, and therefore, he asked for time to think over the offer… He was not sure if he himself was updated enough as a coach, because hockey had undergone some changes in format since the time he had last played the sport. Then one evening, as he was walking past a small piece of land, he saw a young boy wielding a hockey stick in a limited space. Seeing that child, a lot of emotions ran through Baskaran and he made the decision to take up the offer, but only after completing a coaching course. The important point to note is the high sense of responsibility champions have while giving.”

“The Winning Sixer” is interspersed with incidents and illustrations that both inspire and facilitates introspection. More than everything, it also provides confidence to the reader that leadership need not be a trait restricted to a chosen or privileged few.