“Drink the coffee before it goes cold.” With these words of warning, the waitress at Café Funiculi Funicula, Kazu Tokita sends her customer on a tryst with the past, in Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s powerfully emotional and introspective novel. An impeccably crafted work, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is a paean to love, fortitude, courage and guilt. The novel concept of time travel is just a peripheral accoutrement to the primary objective of human sentiment and demonstrativeness.
Kei and Nagare Tokita are owners of an ordinary, unassuming and non-decrepit basement café. Small in size and smaller in glitz and razzmatazz, Funiculi Funicula is famous for an Urban Legend attached to it. It is a Café that permits time-travel. However, a set of seemingly ridiculous rules prevent the Café from being flocked to by intrepid and eager customers wanting to either go back or surge forward in time. The quintuple set of problematic rules go something like this:
The time traveler, cannot meet people who haven’t visited the café;
The present cannot be changed irrespective of what the time traveler does after going back in time;
The time traveler must occupy a particular seat that takes him or her into the past or future;
The time traveler cannot move from the seat that he is she is perched on throughout the duration of the time travel;
There is a time limit attached to the time travel itself. The time traveler should drink up a cup of coffee placed before him/her before it goes cold; and
The bizarre and Byzantine concoction of the rules are made even more exasperating by an added imposition. Time traveling is restricted to just one escapade per person. In other words, once you have elected to travel back in time, you cannot utilize yet another opportunity to do the same. But even these regressive rules are no match for a heart that is lachrymose and a mind that is restless in perpetuity. Mankind, as a breed is always looking to unwind deeds of the past with a view to making the future tolerable. There is a perpetual cycle of recrimination, repentance, remorse, regret and revision. Every act cries out for a closure. Hence Kei and Nagare have no choice but to entertain and accommodate beseeching pleas for salvation.
Whether it be the plight of the dizzyingly beautiful Fumiko Kiyokawa who is torn apart after her boyfriend goes away to the United States to achieve his personal aspiration of working for a gaming company, or the owner of a snack bar, Yaeko Hirai who wants to atone for the unspeakable outcome caused to her sibling by her deliberate neglect, the ‘time-travel seat’ at Café Funiculi Funicula is a beacon of potential hope and solace.
Once in a way, there comes a book reading which you are transported into a state of stillness and contemplation. A part of such contemplation would also be a nagging regret that someone beat you to the idea. Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s book is one of them. Personally, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold”, has been the best book that I have read this year. It looks highly unlikely that I would have a change of either opinion or heart within the next remaining month and a few days when the year finally ends. It would be remiss not to mention the simply lambent translation from the original to English by Geoffrey Trousselot.
Annie Duke played poker. She was damn good at it. So good that she holds a World Series of Poker Golf bracelet from 2004. So good that her lifetime earnings from poker exceeded a whopping $4 million. She has also, not surprisingly written a number of instructional books for poker players. Annie Duke, before turning professional was also awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study cognitive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She brings both the facets of poker and psychology to bear in her latest book, “How to decide”. As the title confesses, the book contains numerous checklists, practice exercises and toolkits to aid and abet the reader to make decisions in a logical, rational and practical manner.
At the heart of Ms. Duke’s book, lies the concept of the 3 ‘P’s – Preferences, Payoffs and Probabilities. Every preference is unique to the one engaged in making the decision. In order to ensure that the decision is made in a scientific and implementable manner, the decision maker needs to comprehend her goals and values, which will inform her preferences for various outcomes. Payoffs succeed preferences. Potential payoffs look at how outcomes impact advancements in either attaining the goal or straying from the objective. Every decision that is made has both payoffs as well as risks – upsides and downsides. Upsides and downsides may be both tangible as well as intangible. The key aspect to be considered prior to evaluating payoffs is to ascertain whether the potential advantages/upside is greater than the corresponding risk/downside. The final P in the troika is Probabilities. This involves defining the probability of the likely occurrence of each outcome.
Ms. Duke also urges her readers to employ the “Happiness Test” to assist them in their process of implementing decisions and instituting the attendant mechanisms. “Ask yourself if the outcome of your decision, good or bad, will likely have a significant effect on your happiness in a year. If the answer is no, the decision passes the test, which means you can speed up. Repeat for a month and a week. The shorter the time period for which your answer is “no, it won’t much affect my happiness,” the more you can trade off accuracy in favor of saving time.”
Ms. Duke also warns her readers about getting stuck in the quagmire of what she terms “resulting.” When we get muddled between the quality of decisions and the quality of outcomes, incorrectly trying to find a connection between the two, we risk repeating decision errors that, thanks to luck, preceded a good outcome. We may also avoid repeating good decisions that, because of luck, didn’t work out.
The most interesting chapters in the book are the ones dealing with what Ms. Duke terms “analysis paralysis.” In vogue even before the time of Aesop and his Fables, popularized by Voltaire when he immortally stated “perfect is the enemy of the good” and formally given the phrase by Igor Ansoff in his book, “Corporate Strategy: An Analytic Approach to Business Policy for Growth and Expansion”, “analysis paralysis” refers to spending a lot of time on inconsequential matters. “The time the average person spends deciding what to eat, watch, and wear adds up to 250 to 275 hours per year. That’s a lot of time spent on decisions that intuitively feel like they are inconsequential.” With a view to assist her readers in making decisions in a prompt and timely fashion especially where the potential positive payoffs outweigh its potential negative counterpart, Ms. Duke provides the following flow chart:
The term “freeroll” in the chart refers to situation where there is an asymmetry between the upside and downside because the potential losses are insignificant.
“Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing” is a situation where one has multiple options that are close in potential payoffs. These options are sheep in wolf’s clothing decisions. Close calls for high-impact decisions tend to induce analysis paralysis, but the indecision is, in itself, a signal that you can go fast.
Another innovative solution offered by Ms. Duke is the one relating to “Premortem” analysis. Unlike a postmortem analysis whereby facts leading to the success or failure are dissected post the actual occurrence of the outcome, premortem analysis involves identifying the goal one is trying to achieve or a specific decision one is considering. The steps in a pre-mortem analysis according to Ms. Duke involves:
Figuring out a reasonable time period for achieving the goal or for the decision to play out;
Imagining it’s the day after that period of time and the decision maker didn’t achieve the goal, or the decision worked out poorly. Looking back from that imagined point in the future, the decision maker has to list up to five reasons why she failed due to her own decisions and actions or those of her team;
The decision maker has to list up to five reasons why she failed due to things outside her control.
If the decision maker is going about this as a team exercise, she can have each member do the above steps independently, prior to a group discussion of reasons.
The same process may be undertaken even assuming the decision maker manages to achieve the goal. Such a positive analysis is termed “Backcasting” instead of a pre-mortem exercise.
Even though the concepts propounded, and the philosophy espoused by Ms. Duke in her book might be old wine in a new bottle, the container makes all the difference. It is not a mere repackaging exercise or an endeavour that reinvents the wheel. It is more of a reimagining process that goads on the readers to institute paradigm shifts in the way they act, think, speak, plan, react and most importantly decide.
Trenchant, witty, flowery and lucid, the commentary on Mundakopanishad by one of the most venerated spiritual personalities in India, is an absolute pleasure to read. Whether laying into pompous ‘learned’ men for their half baked knowledge on the Upanishads, or dissecting the meaning simpliciter underlying seemingly incoherent sounding verses, Swami Chinmayananda is in vintage form. No punches are pulled back as all inhibitions are shed. As the Guru informs his readers at the very beginning of his book, the word “Muṇḍaka” literally means ‘Shaving of the head’. Hence this Upanishad from a literal interpretation means the “Shaving Upaniṣad”, or the ‘Upaniṣad of the Tonsured’. Both terms are metaphorical in their import. ‘Shaving Upaniṣad’ – “because its contents remove the superimposed veil of ignorance obscuring the Ᾱtman through direct and penetrating exposition of the higher knowledge like a razor removes the hair from the head”; and ’Upaniṣad of the Tonsured’ because “it is primarily intended for sannyāsins to help them in their quest for the attainment of the eternal and the imperishable Brahman.”
Arguably, the most poetic amongst all the Upanishads, the Mundakopanishad with its 64 Mantras, urges the Seeker to look inwards and realise the Inner Self that permeates and pervades the entire existence. This particular aspect of Self realization has been liberally adopted and quoted by various philosophies, both Eastern and Western. For example, as Swami Chinmayananda illustrates, “The praṇava is the bow, the Ᾱtman is the arrow and the Brahman is said to be its mark (goal). It should be hit by one, who is self-collected and that which hits becomes, like the arrow, one with the mark meaning Brahman.” This concept finds mention in Best-selling author Paolo Coelho in his latest work, coincidentally termed, “The Archer”.
The quintessence of the Mundakopanishad is captured in an arresting picture. Two birds bound to each other in close friendship are perched on a tree. While one of the birds is busy consuming the fruits of the tree with great relish, the other seems to be in a state of detached equanimity just looking at its compatriot. The tree in this example represents the body. The bird busying itself with the material pleasures accorded by the tree is the ‘Jivatma’ (individual soul), that has an inextricable identification with the body and mind. Such an identification makes the Jivatma both the ‘karta’ (doer) and the ‘Bhokta’ (enjoyer). The observing bird on the other hand, represents the ‘Paramatma’ (the Supreme Self). The Supreme Self remains uninfluenced and untainted by any material pleasures and possessions and remains a still tranquil witness.
The Mundakopanishad also dwells on the pristine ‘Guru-Shishya’ (teacher-student/Master-disciple) relationship. However, as Swami Chinmayananda bemoans, this valuable currency seems to be totally devalued in the modern world. “Now-a-days, not only that we rarely get the chance to meet a true Master but even when we meet him, we know not how to approach him. Men of Realisation are like flutes, by themselves they cannot sing; the music is to be brought out of them by our blowing. To go to a Master and to sit in silent adoration is also a true satsaṅga; but this method is available only between a Master and a very highly advanced seeker. Ordinarily, we must pelt the master with all our doubts – absurd, stupid, imaginary, deep and superficial. Only when we start asking questions can he get a glimpse of our personality and only when he knows us can he open his mouth and serve each of us on the path divine. In the Upaniṣads we find that disciples approached the Guru, and each asked a very pertinent and deep question of pregnant import and endless message.”
The Mundakopanishad seems to be offering paradoxical solutions to the path to salvation. Whilst in some verses, it waxes eloquent on the need and necessity for rituals galore, in succeeding verses it seems to contradict itself by holding forth on the futilities of being entangled, enmeshed and embroiled in the rigmarole of rituals. However, as Swami Chinmayananda clarifies, there certainly is a method behind the madness. The performance of and engaging in rituals that otherwise seem mundane lays the edifice or the groundwork for the transformation of the Seeker into a determined and remorseless pursuer of the Truth. A fertile bed is sown by the rituals from which sprouts forth the seeds of unwavering intellect and concentration. Once this stage is reached, the adherence to rituals is abhorred and the intellect starts preparing itself to realise the Brahman or the Ultimate Reality. The reality, which is described in a verse that represents, according to the author, the very apogee of Sanskrit language:
“That which is invisible, ungraspable, unoriginated and attribute less, that which has neither eyes not ears nor hands nor legs – that is Eternal, full of manifestations, all-pervading, subtlest of the subtle – that imperishable Being is what the wise perceive as the source of all creation.”
The Mundakopanishad also uses the troika of a spider’s web, the sprouting of a plant and the growth of hair in a man’s body to poetically elucidate the merging of the individual with the Self. A spider spins its web out of itself and once the purpose is accomplished the web it withdrawn back into the spider, from whence it was created. “The material of the web becomes the very substance of the spider. In short, the web is nothing but a modified form of the spider itself. Similarly, the supreme Reality Itself is the lock, stock and barrel of this atrocious looking mechanism of saṁsāra!” Similarly, lest any motive be ascribed to the creation of the Universe and mankind to anyone, the Upanishad urges the seeker to study the function of the earth in producing and nourishing various plants and trees. There exists absolutely no motive whatsoever for the earth to engage in such a deed. Similarly, the world too comes out of the Real. Finally, as effortless and spontaneous is the growth of hair in the life of a human being, so is the expression by the finite, of the vitality in the Reality.
The book also offers a glimpse of the laconic wit of Swami Chinmayananda. The story of a respected rotary club member who boasted about a Bhagavad Gita chanting initiative that was taking place uninterrupted for a period of twenty five years at his house induces peals of laughter. The man confesses to Swami Chinmayananda that neither he nor any member of his family know a single verse from the Gita even after more than two decades of chanting. Swami Chinmayananda’ s conundrum is resolved when the man reveals that for a payment of seven rupees a month, a Brahmin visits his house every day and proceeds with the Gita chanting all by himself! As the learned Guru writes, “I could have been stuck down by a feather.”
This is one book that is worth reading, and re reading!
Imagine a metaphorical blender. Drop a dollop of Heraclitus and his wisdom into it. Toss in the findings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as captured in his seminal book, “Flow”. If two is company, then aim for a crowd. Into the blender go Richard Bach and “Illusions”. To make the concoction eclectic, throw in a mob next. Charles Duhigg on Habits, The Bhagavad Gita on responsibility, the Upanishads on the way of life and whatever management, leadership, self help and spiritual work that comes to mind. Do not hold back. Be as generous and liberal as possible, but without compromising the capability and capacity of the blender. Put on the plug. Watch the churn for a few minutes. Turn off the plug, and pour out the contents of the blender. Voila! You have a “Bow and Arrow” Smoothie. This, in short, is Paolo Coelho’s latest feel-good fable “The Archer.”
“The Archer” is a pot-luck of cobbled wisdom, collected ideas and collated thinking. Tetsuya is a carpenter plying his wares in a non-decrepit manner. A stranger, who also happens to be an accomplished archer arrives in the city in search of Tetsuya. Upon getting the relevant directions from a curious boy, the duo make their way to Tetsuya’s workplace. The archer, paying his respects to Tetsuya, requests the latter for an opportunity to demonstrate the former’s prowess as an archer. Subsequent to obtaining Tetsuya’s accord, the archer proceeds to shoot an arrow through a cherry forty meters away. Tetsuya then picks up his own old and worn bow and leads both the archer the by now singularly curious young boy to a large crevice between two rocks that allows a gushing river. The two opposing banks of which are connected only by a precariously fraying bridge. Nonchalantly walking to the middle of the bridge, Tetsuya draws his bow and pierces a peach twenty meters away and requests the archer to emulate him. The archer distracted by the terrifying depths below the rickety bridge misses his target.
What follows is an exposition of wisdom concisely addressing various aspects of life from aspirations to attachment, from equanimity to the power of positive thinking, and the futility of haste against the virtue of patience. This wisdom is imparted using the metaphor of an archer, his bow, the fletched arrows, the position and posture adopted before shooting, the target itself and the agony of missing. Borrowed precepts and entrenched awareness permeate every page of this extremely short book. While for the unsuspecting – whose definition of “alchemist” represents a transformation artist who changes basic substances (such as metals) into other substances – the book might serve as a handy companion and a nudge to initiate incremental changes in thought and deed, for Coelho fans who deem The Alchemist” as their go-to talismanic book, “The Archer” would be a disappointment hitting them like a ton of bricks.
Testsuya is no Donald William Shimoda. However, to give credit to Testsuya’ s creator, neither does he profess to be one. Doling out mellow doses of wisdom, Testsuya chooses the tried and tested over the innovative and ingenious. However, the fact that he attempts to do this in plain speak without couching his words in indecipherable metaphysical jargon is one optimistic point scored in favour of Coelho. The book could have been a collection of thoughts or an adage a day bookmark.
“Join with all those who experiment, take risks, fall, get hurt, and then take more risks. Stay away from those who affirm truths, who criticize those who do not think like them, people who have never once taken a step unless they were sure they would be respected for doing so, and who prefer certainties to doubts.”
“There are two types of shot. The first is the shot made with great precision, but without any soul. In this case, although the archer may have a great mastery of technique, he has concentrated solely on the target, and because of this he has not evolved, he has become stale, he has not managed to grow, and, one day, he will abandon the way of the bow because he finds that everything has become mere routine. The second type of shot is the one made with the soul. When the intention of the archer is transformed into the flight of the arrow, his hand opens at the right moment, the sound of the string makes the birds sing, and the gesture of shooting something over a distance provokes—paradoxically enough—a return to and an encounter with oneself.”
However, the redeeming feature of the book lies in its illustrations. Pictures of an archer in equipoise, the curious student and the teacher adorn its pages. Christoph Niemann, an author, artist and animator who regularly features on the covers of illustrious publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, lends his magical contribution to “The Archer.” These illustrations induce a nod of admiration in the reader.
Perhaps if “The Archer” was intended to be a picture book of a feel good fable, it might have accomplished its purpose.
What unites an integrated marketing platform company, a sex toy retailer, an apparel store, a national provider of health services, a product design studio, and a leading enterprise video communications company that offers cloud platforms for audio and video conferencing events? Brand and content strategy consultant, and author Margot Bloomstein, in her upcoming book, “Trustworthy”, reveals how a few companies, rising beyond the tried and tested amalgam of growth and profits have made a difference not just to their reputation, but also to the very marketplace in which they operate and compete. In a world where stories of obfuscation of trust and dereliction of duties regularly adorn the front pages, Ms. Bloomstein’s book lends a ray of hope and informs its readers that the only way to run a company need not, and is not either the Volkswagen ‘defeat device way’ or the Wirecard ‘accounting scandal way’. Businesses can be managed the ‘Mailchimp way’ , or the ‘Zoom way’ or even the ‘Lovehoney way.’
The companies profiled by Ms. Bloomstein in her work, unflinchingly and uncompromisingly adhere to the tenets of what she terms as the three “Vs” – Voice, Volume, and Vulnerability. Each of these elements enable a company to be courageous, transparent and engaging in interactions with their customers. Voice “refers to the distinct personality that manifests visually and verbally in everything your brand does.” Volume in its simplest sense, as Ms. Bloomstein informs her readers, refers to “how much you communicate, in both length and level of detail.” Vulnerability means owning up to ones mistakes, embracing criticism, accepting feedback and continuously striving to improve both the brand and the product.
When Antsy Lab’s iconic product, Fidget Cube’s delivery was delayed on account of an unprecedented order volume and shipping/logistical hurdles, the McLachlan Brothers kept their customers informed about the details of not only the potential shipping dates but also elaborate details of the glitches and obstacles plaguing Antsy Labs, and which led to a delay in the release date of the much awaited Fidget Cube. This level of transparency and degree of honesty, although while rankling a few disgruntled customers, also elevated the status of Antsy Lab as a trustworthy and reliable partner from the perspective of a majority of their backers and customers.
The FBI in an attempt to engage various stakeholders with a view to enhance security and curb crime, has undertaken a revolutionary overhaul of their content and design. The manner in which they communicate has undergone a paradigm change where jargons are abhorred, and an element of simplicity introduced. Thus as Ms. Bloomstein elucidates, SrS and NIBrs have made way for Summary Reporting System and National Incident-Based Reporting System. Similar is how the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom has pared its content from a humongous 75,000 pages to just around 3,000. The NHS has also radically altered the manner in which engagements are undertaken with the patients. Doing away with ‘nominalizations’ (“process of making a noun from a verb or adjective to describe a process or concept), the focus is on transparency and simplicity:
“Nominalization: The test results are an indication of an infection
Verb-driven phrase: The test results indicate you are infected.”
NHS also takes care of granular details such as even the typography to be used. The NHS homed in on “Frutiger”, the typeface used by most of the public transport and infrastructure services providers such as JFK International Airport, Amsterdam Airport, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, and Warsaw’s Zarzad Transportu Miejskiego transport authority.
Whilst at times it pays to keep things simple and uncomplicated, there are segments of the customer populace where the devil does not lie in the details. A comprehensive and elaborate information network that embeds a two way communication channel between the company and the customer may be a sacrosanct requirement. America’s Test Kitchen provides monument to this aspect. “The average recipe developed by America’s Test Kitchen goes through 30 tests and eight test cooks who represent different specialties, preferences and areas of expertise. Equipment recommendations endure the same rigour.” America’s Test Kitchen targets neither the nouveau rich nor the consumers of Michelin Chef delights. Novice cooks, skilled home chefs, amateur and professional bakers are their customers. Hence the instructions for a recipe and the cooking process itself is illustrated in exhaustive step-by-step details in their publications. However, on online digital platforms such as say Instagram, length makes way for discerning abstraction. Resorting to “a more action-oriented style of photography to bring viewers into the process and behind the scenes – notes, spills and all. As Jack Bishop, chief creative office in the company explains, “no one wants a 30-minute story on making a croissant on Instagram. But if we are testing coolers and sawing them in half? That’s perfect for Instagram. It’s fun for that platform. We work to create the right content for every platform.”
A similar strategy is also followed by Crutchfield, a North American retailer specializing in a wide range of electronics, including mobile audio and video equipment for the automobile. Their extensive collection of product information, a maniacal attention to even the most granular details and an enviable catalogue akin to Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalogue” in content and quality, perfectly positions them to not just enable a customer buy a product but also to make a perfectly, informed and well thought out decision. As Ms. Bloomstein articulates, Crutchfield aligns its customer strategy in such a manner that it dovetails with the requirements of the expert and the rustic alike. While a seasoned customer is not drowned in a whirlpool of information, the uninitiated enjoys a whole range of helpful guiding aides such as buying guides, category introductions, product reviews, and personal trip log-style posts.
Ms. Bloomstein’s book is a timely and welcoming endeavour highlighting the exemplary measures which select businesses adopt in order to carve out a reputational niche in a competitive and globalized market. It is also an inspiring lesson for new start ups and emerging businesses to emulate. For winning the wallets and hearts of a customer, cheating is not a prerequisite. Possessing the right intentions and a customer centric bent whilst driven by an innate philosophy of core values and ethics might just be the right recipe. If you do not trust Ms. Bloomstein, you better ask America’s Test Kitchen!
A cross between a change agent and a psychiatrist, acclaimed marketing Guru and best-selling author Seth Godin’s latest work, “The Practice” is a small book of powerful affirmations. Mr. Godin urges his aspiring readers to abandon the outcome of their passionate calling and instead develop an unrelenting focus on the practice/process. “There’s a practice available to each of us—the practice of embracing the process of creation in service of better. The practice is not the means to the output, the practice is the output, because the practice is all we can control.” Doing so would make the practioner a ‘creative’. The creative, by shipping her work to the wider world has the opportunity to make a difference and thereby effect incremental positive changes. ‘Shipping’ here refers to the dissemination of the work by a painter, writer etc to the general populace.
Mr. Godin exhorts the artist to just trust her process, go about her work with generosity and purpose, and, to accept both positive and negative outcomes with a measure of equanimity. The unmissable elements of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” may be detected in this lofty philosophy. It is not just Kipling whose seems to inspire Mr. Godin and his outlook. “The Practice” resonates with the teachings of the immortal Indian epic, Bhagavadgita, as the wisdom propounded by it permeates the pages of the book. Urging the individual to be agnostic about the outcome of her activities, and instead bestow the highest degree of concentration and respect on and to the process forms the bedrock of the Bhagavad Gita philosophy. Mr. Godin seems to wholeheartedly agree: “That’s because working in anticipation of what we’ll get in return takes us out of the world of self-trust and back into the never-ending search for reassurance and the perfect outcome. We believe that we need a guarantee, and that the only way to get that guarantee is with external feedback and results. It draws our eye to the mirror instead of the work.”
Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven, a Baroness and a formidable Dadaist, was a woman way ahead of her times. Revolutionizing the world of performing arts and lending a new dimension to painting, she was fanatical ‘practioner.’ Her relentless focus was on her art and practice and she cared a jot for ether recognition or reward. When she once procured a ceramic urinal at an industrial supply house, her friend Marcel Duchamp entered it into an art exhibit. This not only upended the domain of art but also signaled the beginning of an insidious trait on the part of Duchamp. As the art world began making progress or a transition from handmade works to the machine produced, Duchamp, exploited a benevolent opportunity magnanimously accorded to him by usurping credit for many a work of Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven. To the extent, that the world now recognises Duchamp as a pioneering figure, whereas Elsa Freytag remains a personality in obscurity. But as Mr. Godin rightly points out, it was a choice made by her. A choice to “live a life in art, to explore the penumbra, the spots just outside of the existing wisdom.”
The practice of an art has to be a perpetual, permanent and a perennial virtuous cycle. This is because the ultimate aim of practice is just that, more practice. An irreverent approach towards the outcome, not in a manner of arrogance or an irascible outlook, fuels an artist’s ability to keep going in the face of adversity. This is simply because she does not treat her results as adverse any more so than she judges her practice as absolutely necessary. As James Carse the author writes in his incredibly complicated but seminal work, “Infinite Games”, the objective of the play is only to remain in the play. The game has no end and there emerge neither winners not losers. “The infinite game is a catch in the backyard with your four-year-old son. You’re not trying to win catch; you’re simply playing catch. The most important parts of our lives are games that we can’t imagine winning. The process is infinite, if we trust it to be. We don’t do this work hoping that we will win, and the game will be over.”
How does one build up such a virtuous and uncompromising habit? How does one vigorously keep up the habit and yet not dilute her efforts? Mr. Godin offers his readers a few “tricks” in this regard: “Build streaks. Do the work every single day. Blog daily. Write daily. Ship daily. Show up daily. Find your streak and maintain it. Talk about your streaks to keep honest. Seek the smallest viable audience. Make it for someone, not everyone. Avoid shortcuts. Seek the most direct path instead. Find and embrace genre. Seek out desirable difficulty. Don’t talk about your dreams with people who want to protect you from heartache.”
For all those who are perturbed by criticism in general and vicious criticism in particular, and because of which shy away from sharing or shipping their work, Mr. Godin offers some invaluable advice and instills hope. Worst of all, criticism reminds us of the outcomes, not the process. He warns us not to reduce or dilute our commitment to the practice on account of an unkind remark or vitriolic comment. In the digital era that we find ourselves in, a proliferation of social media outlets ensures not only accessibility and voice, but also an avenue for venting out trenchant views and unpolished diatribes. However, most of the criticism “shared in the internet age is useless, or worse, harmful. It’s useless because it often personalizes the criticism to be about the creator, not the work. And it’s useless because most critics are unskilled and ungenerous.”
Mr. Godin also emphatically states that received wisdom pertaining to ‘states’ of impediment such as ‘suffering from a writer’s block’; ‘deserted by the muse’; etc are convenient myths and excuses that require busting. The lack of output is a direct effect of a shortage of practice. These are also tried and tested methodologies to hide ourselves from the vehemence of the critics. This is precisely what makes us sacrifice our identity at the altar of stereotype. We choose to discard our own voice and instead opt to make the noise of the herd. “Everyone has a voice in their head, and every one of those voices is different. Our experiences and dreams and fears are unique, and we shape the discourse by allowing those ideas to be shared. It might not work. But only you have your distinct voice, and hoarding it is toxic. Of course, you’re allowed to sound like you. Everyone else is taken.”
Seth Godin is the author of 19 best seller works and the owner of one of the most popular blogs in the world. “The Practice” in more ways than one might be the most unique and impactful of books that he has authored – ‘yet’!
Volume 4 of the six part series covers Chapters 7 to 12 of the Bhagavad Gita and extolls the attributes of devotion. However, as Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha eruditely educates his readers, devotion cannot be equated to the mundane rigmarole of engaging in a never ending cycle of rituals. The devotion as referred to here by Krishna is one that needs to be cultivated, rather than performed. Such a cultivation will crystallise an awakening of the true self which in turn will rend asunder the contradictory and contrasting pull and push of all the ‘dvandvas’ (opposites). For such a devotion to be Conceptualised, the Seeker needs to take refuge in a Teacher. Only a complete surrender by the Student to his Preceptor will set the latter on the path to salvation.
Verse No.34 of the 4th Chapter conveys the aforementioned message in a resounding, reverberating and remarkable fashion:
(“To know That, go to a Knower – the Seer of Truth; prostrate before him, inquire from him with humility, and serve him fondly with all attention. The Knowers of Truth will then instruct that supreme Knowledge to you.”)
This is where the book provides its readers with an arresting reassurance. Lest an unsuspecting human be intimidated under the gullible notion that the privilege of access to an all Knowing Teacher is the sole preserve of mythical characters of the likes of Arjuna, the author proclaims with great emphasis, “fret not!” All Seekers need not be Arjuna and most importantly, all Knowledge does not vest and rest within the confines of the Divine. Realised souls are aplenty and for every Krishna there exists in perfect complementarity a Vasistha, Angiras, Uddalaka, Yajnavalkya, Valmiki and Vysadeva. The bastion of Hindu Dharma has had a storied pedigree of colossal figures who have prised out the secrets of the Soul in a manner accessible and admirable. From Adi Sankara to Swami Vivekananda, these titans have instilled the fervor of curiosity and ignited the fire of intellectual upliftment within the hearts and minds of scores of people.
The incandescent aspect of practicality that is expounded by the Bhagavad Gita is explained in a scintillating manner by Swami Bhoomananda in this volume. The scriptures acknowledge that not every human being possesses the requisite wherewithal to become a Seeker. The attribute of equanimity like devotion needs to be cultivated and nurtured. There are four types of individuals on Earth. The first category consists of the ‘afflicted’. Only when misery comes calling and misfortune assails this breed, will their attention be cast towards the Supreme. Yet Providence neither discards not disparages this class.
The second category is made up of ‘jignasus’ (enquirers). Classic examples of personalities inhabiting this group include Arjuna and Uddhava. An inveterate bent of curiosity and piques interest drives these souls towards equipping themselves with the necessary intelligence that spurs them towards realizing the Self.
The third category is the domain of ‘artharthis’ (seekers of specific worldly gains). “When the heart is set on a certain objective or gain, and to win it, one seeks the Lord’s favour and blessing, he is called an ‘artharthi. ’
Finally, as the reader would have guessed by now, the fourth and most embellished category encompasses the Knowers. Referred to as ‘jnanis’ (wise ones), the Knower is an embodiment of detachment and the epitome of equanimity. He is neither tormented by desire nor tortured by grief. He does not crave for any material possessions. He is aware of the permeating presence of the Lord everywhere. His thinking does not veer away from the framework of concentration upon the Divine. As a consequence, he is freed from all distractions and disruptions. His Knowledge makes him one with the Supreme.
The intelligence and wisdom that is the prerequisite for elevating oneself to the highest echelons of spirituality, is an absolute fondness for the Lord. The mind needs to think the entire materialistic world as Godly. Man should constantly engage in the pursuit of ‘jnana yagna’ (penance of wisdom). In this exercise, the Seeker has to relentlessly engage both his mind and intelligence. “He thinks and wonders, he enquires and investigates, more and more, about the wondrous work of creation – how the whole phenomena subsists on a changeless Substratum, how that Substratum holds the full power and potential to evolve, sustain, and also to dissolve all expressions in a cyclic order.”
The book also dwells in a very interesting manner on the ‘visvarupa darsan’ (Omni Form) accorded by Krishna to an initially rapturous but later, a stupefied Arjuna. Still clouded by a hint of delusion, Arjuna even after being the recipient of an extraordinary imparting of life’s quintessential lessons, pleads with Krishna to reveal to his parched mind, the honour of his magisterial omni form. Ever willing to accommodate the requests of his eager disciple and an enthusiastic devotee, the Master reveals his imperial form to Arjuna. Although initially filled with an unbridled enthusiasm, Arjuna’s joy soon transforms into undiluted fear. For the towering, immeasurable, unfathomable, indescribable presence before him is a very monument to the force of destruction. The entire cosmos, the vast Kaurava army arrayed in front of Arjuna in the righteous battleground of Kurukshetra, all are swept away like being sucked into a whirlpool towards annihilation into the Lord’s being. Arjuna’s composure is retrieved only the Lord reverts to his benevolent, passive Self. This is a way of Krishna clarifying to Arjuna that irrespective of the ensuing eighteen day Mahabharata war, the cycle of birth and death is a continuous and eternal process. If not by the sharp and pointed arrows of Arjuna, the venerable Drona and Bheeshma would shed their mortal coils due to the uncompromising passage of time.
Volume 4 continues with the stirring exposition on the song of life alluded to by the previous three volumes. However, this book merits more than a single reading considering the nature of the subject it covers and the lessons it communicates.
A firsthand account of some of the principles, ethics and values that have catapulted the behemoth that is the TATA Group into a ‘humanitarian’ conglomerate, Arun Maira’s “The Learning Factory” is an anecdotal account that reveals the aspirations, ambitions and attitudes of two colossal figures, who strode across India’s industrial and engineering landscape. The duo’s passion and purpose made the word zealous read feeble. The efforts of J.R.D. Tata and Sumant Moolgaokar not just succeeded in making the House of Tatas a household name, but also ignited a spark that spurred an entire nation to achieve heights hitherto unimagined.
However, Mr. Maira’s book leaves the reader a tad bit unsatisfied when the covers come down on it. The structure of the book itself takes the form of a scatter graph. Instances and incidents are repeated across Chapters, thereby frustrating the reader. For example, an account of how Mr. Maira and his collection of cheap trinkets (souvenirs from Singapore) were allowed to pass through Customs Duty, after a senior authority accepted him for his word, regarding the amount spent on them, just because he was from the Tata Group of companies, gets an elongated, and avoidable mention in more than one Chapter. As does the stellar efforts expended by Mr. Moolgaokar in transforming a barren landscape allocated to the Tatas in Pune for their factory, into a dense ecological foliage, whose confines was deemed safe even by a leopard which choose to birth its cub under safe cover of such greenery. This particular episode has also been mentioned by another Tata veteran, Syamal Gupta in his book, “Quintessentially Tatas”.
The book is more a revelation of Mr. Maira’s own experience with some of the chieftains acknowledged to be titans of the Tata Group, rather than a legacy of the Group itself. The narrative stops in the year 1989. Readers will remember that India’s economic fortunes and reputation as a nation to be reckoned with took off like a whirlwind following the liberalization efforts initiated in 1991 and thereafter. Hence there is a total absence of contemporaneous analysis and dissection of the ‘Tata way of life.’ Hence controversial aspects such as the imbroglio surrounding the Cyrus Mistry saga, and the easing away of entrenched personalities such as Russi Mody from the management, are conspicuously absent. Instead what the reader is treated to are instances of successful turned around strategies such as the Tatab joint venture with a Malaysian local entity and the Tata-Daimler-Benz collaboration which resulted ultimately in trucks being manufactured within India of the same quality and precision that hitherto represented the sole preserve of the German company.
Mr. Maira pays unabashed and unashamed homage to the late Sumit Moolgaokar. This book in fact is more a testimony to the greatness of Moolgaokar than an overview of the Tata Group and its ethos. Not that this leaves reason for anyone to complain. Mr. Moolgaokar is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever visionaries that this country has had the privilege to grace, and his endeavours will remain immortalized in the lexicon of Indian industrial ingenuity and innovation. As Mr. Maira holds forth, Mr. Moolgaokar is, without any debate, acknowledged as the brain behind Tata Motors, formerly known as the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) and of which he was the Chief Executive; he also donned the mantle of the Vice Chairman of Tata Steel. An indefatigable entrepreneurial spirt made Mr. Moolgaokar conceptualise from scratch a factory at Pune that manufactured trucks, vans, coaches, buses military vehicles, passenger cars, sports cars and construction equipment. Mr. Moolgaokar termed this plant, “The Learning Factory”, since an absence of talent as well as restrictions on import of equipment during a draconian exchange control regime ensured that all precision equipment to be used in the manufacture of the automobiles themselves, had to be manufactured within the factory. Mr. Moolgaokar, as Mr. Maira illustrates, succeeded beyond even the skeptic’s wildest imagination. The Pune factory was described as the second Taj Mahal by former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and played host to innumerable foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Mr. Moolgaokar wanted his factories to resemble ‘German hospitals’ in terms of hygiene and cleanliness.
Mr. Moolgaokar’s appetite for achieving the impossible and capacity for overcoming the insurmountable came to the fore in a resplendent and lambent fashion when the Government of India threw open the doors for foreign automobile manufacturers to manufacture and produce Light Commercial Vehicles (“LCVs”) in India. Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Mazda, took up the offer of the Government with undiminished glee. These were the companies that had made quite a dent in the fortunes of General Motors when they entered and penetrated the US market. This was in spite of General Motors spending hordes of money in a counteractive strategy titled “Project Saturn.” The Tata Group led by Mr. Moolgaokar set up their own “Project Jupiter.” “It provided inspiration for the symbiotic cooperation amongst all departments which was essential to make Project Jupiter successful. Project Jupiter was successful. A new, Indian-designed and produced LCV, the Tata 407, was ready for sales within eighteen months. Soon, thousands were running across the country. TELCO’S market share of LCVs reached 70 per cent, squeezing all the Japanese into only 30 per cent of the market share. In fact, within a few years, three of the Japanese companies closed their production in India. Only one survived the onslaught of the 407.”
“The Learning Factory” also recounts some exemplary instances of unbelievable altruism displayed by the Tata Group. J.R.D. Tata and Sumant Moolgaokar, standing shoulder to shoulder on a platform of the Munich railway station in 1946 accepted the board of Kraus Maffei’s offer to train Indian engineers in Jamshedpur after the war, in return for homes in Jamshedpur for Kraus Maffei’s engineers and their families, whose lives had been shattered by the devastation of Germany by the Allied Forces. The German company after a few years was shell shocked to receive a letter from the Tatas requesting for a bill in consideration for the technical services rendered by the German engineers.
“The Learning Factory” contains a few more examples of the nature as alluded above. It also provides the reader the lessons imparted to Mr. Maira throughout his twenty five year association with the Tata Group by his leaders. Although making for a pleasant and feel good read, there is this intuitive feeling that the book has left out more than it has contained.
The last Chapter of the ‘Sukla Yajur-veda Samhita’, the Isavasya Upanishad, is composed of just eighteen stanzas. However, this beguilingly short epic is also one of the most profound of its ilk. The essence embedded, and philosophy expounded, by this Upanishad would easily accommodate innumerable text and reference books. Written in metrical form by the torch bearer of Hindu Dharma, Sri Adi Sankara, the Isavasya Upanishad, for the rustic and the unassuming might sound, and read, at both first glance and hearing, like an incredulous amalgam of contrasting preaching. The mercurial and brilliant Swami Chinmayananda, dissects the profundities of this magnificent work, with a flawless finesse that makes it extremely accommodating for the layman, in his book, “Isavasya Upanishad.” As the Swami himself reveals, “the very theme of this Upanishad is how to realise the identity of the all-pervading Truth, that is, to know the Self within and Brahman without, which means to ‘see’ the Truth in the outer world of plurality, through the disturbing phenomenal world. It seems an attempt to harmoniously reconcile the immortal and eternal controversy between the path of Knowledge and the path of Action.” This attempt to reconcile karma yoga with jnana yoga forms the very bulwark of the Isavasya Upanishad.
There is an uncanny similarity to the tenets propounded by the Isavasya Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita. Unable to grasp the disequilibria of the Plurality of the world, a distraught Arjuna, is on the verge of abdicating his responsibilities as a warrior price after getting terribly unsettled by the sight of the Kaurava forces arrayed against him. The very thought of piercing the visages of his preceptor, grandfather and cousins with unsparingly sharp arrows assails the innermost recesses of his mind and heart. It takes the clarion call of Krishna to enlighten Arjuna about the path of work, which is as meritorious, if not more, than the path of renunciation. The Upanishads have placed an immense value on the dignity of labour. The path to be traversed by the Karma Yogi is accorded unabashed and unbridled respect and reverence. Hence the uneducated and ill-informed myth that the sole path to salvation and self-realization is the path of renunciation stands dismantled, dismembered and disproved. Abiding by one’s own roles and responsibilities is in itself a sincere penance.
As Swami Chinmayananda informs his readers, for an experience to be consummated in life, there needs to be a conflation of three factors – ‘the experiencer, the experienced, and a set relationship that is to be maintained between the experiencer and the experienced called experiencing.’ The indomitable seers and enlightened ones of the Hindu Dharma, in all their works recognised the sovereignty of the ‘experiencer’ over the ‘experienced’ and the ‘experiencing.’
Man, in the general sense of physiognomy is one undivided personality. However, the flesh and blood visage masks an invisible clash of personalities battling within to gain ascendancy over one another. The physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual personalities create a confusing clamour with each tugging in different directions enmeshed in their own priorities. These four states possess their own values, ruminate over their own thoughts, desires, and always are engaged in a tussle to unshackle or unfetter themselves in trying to gravitate to a greater pedestal of freedom, peace and joy. “But, if there be a technique by which we can train, discipline and integrate all these wild and madly revolting personalities in us together into one unit, certainly, we can thereafter order much more freedom and happiness for ourselves in the outer world. These techniques are together termed as ‘religion’ by the great seers. What this technique is and how to accomplish it is the main burden of the Upaniṣads, the sacred books of the Hindus. What is the constitution and nature of man and how he should view himself and the world outside; – in short how he should act as the right ‘experiencer’ correctly ‘experiencing’ the true objects to be ‘experienced’ is the secret core of all Upaniṣads.”
The very first stanza of the Isavasya Upanishad encapsulates the entire conundrum of duality and also shatters the entrenched dogmas associated with such a conundrum.
Aum! That is infinite, and this(universe) is infinite.
The infinite proceeds from the infinite.
(Then) taking the infinitude of the infinite (universe),
It remains as the infinite alone.
Aum! Peace! Peace! Peace!
This seemingly complex stanza is simplified in a marvelous manner by Swami Chinmayananda with a singularly unique analogy of a ‘ghost in the post’. A weary traveler seeking refuge in a post views a ghost on the post. This visual presentation that encounters the traveler transcends a mere apparition, and possesses a form that although terrifying in nature and intent is perfect in so far as physiology is concerned. However, upon closer examination, to the mighty relief of the traveler or the perceiver, the ghost fades into oblivion and what remains is just the ordinary post. “The ghost was not where the post was not; the ghost was exactly where the post was. In short, the ghost rose from the post, remained in the post borrowing its reality from the post, and merged back in the end into the post.”
Usually when a cause triggers an effect the cause itself undergoes a material or significant transformation. For example, a seed ceases to be one when it sprouts into a plant, a lump of clay loses its identity once it is formed into a pot etc. However, the Infinite does not undergo an iota of transformation even when the finite arises from it. The Upanishad negates the proposition of diminishing of the Infinite when it proclaims, “when this is taken out of that Whole, what remains is again the Whole.”
Swami Chinmayananda also explains that the Upanishads categorise the transformation of man from the base and ignorant one to the Enlightened One through three different stages. “The animal-man stage is the dull insensitive stage of least awareness, and they constitute the slaves, the underdogs, the sensuous and the unprincipled atheists. To them, religion and spiritual practices are meaningless since they are no better in their level of awareness in them than the cow in their backyard. Some of them evolve into the next higher stage of a greater awareness, the man-man stage. These constitute the religious and the true seekers. Our śāstras call this type of men as the adhikārīs, meaning ‘the fit ones’ for spiritual life”. The super-man or the God-man stage is when man ends being a superficial sheath of bones and tissues and becomes the very embodiment of the Self.
“Isavasya Upanishad: God in and as Everything” is a dazzling work by one of the greatest exponents of Vedanta in contemporary times.
Adeline was named after a soap which her mother had stumbled across in a fancy shop. Adeline Lilac soap, for the uninitiated. Nora Ivie’s eccentricities did not however stop at naming her offspring after a substance used for the purposes of washing. Traipsing with a multitude of her ‘boyfriends’ in a tavern, in exchange for trinkets and money, when her husband was near death, meant that its was Nora’s soul and conscience that needed some serious cleansing. And when poor Adeline’s father dies, she is rendered literally incapable of speaking. The local church finds Nora an enviable job in a godforsaken island, forty miles north of Boston, at the tip of Cape Ann. The Ford, Fuller and Ballard families are the only inhabitants populating the island. The men in the families are tasked with the manning of two lighthouses on the island. Tasked with cooking and housekeeping for the three families, Nora strikes up a raging affair with the third and youngest lighthouse maintenance man, Rowan Ballard. Will Julia, his wife and young Adeline extricate themselves from the clutch of their respective maniacal relations?
Alice Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author has come up with a short story that is gob smacking in its impact and lively in its progress. The story of Adeline and Julia is a paradoxical journey of tumult and triumph.