As I prepare to send this dispatch to my editors for their perusal, it is that time of the year when I usually firm up on resolutions for the year that lies ahead. But this once, I won’t. Because as I write this in a room at my ancestral home in Fort Kochi, where I arrived last night, my head lies between the past and the future.
It all started last night when I landed at the airport here. Because my name is a foreign-sounding one, the taxi driver was expecting to see a white man. The poor chap, I suspect, was utterly inconsolable at having to drive another “Indian”. Some awkward moments of silence later, he broke it.
“Punjabi?” he asked.
“No,” I said, trying to put on a faux British accent.
“Hindiwala?” he asked in an accent only Malayalis are capable of.
“Nere noki vandi odika da (look straight ahead and drive the bloody taxi),” I told him in the firmest Malayali tone I could put on.
It took the man a few moments to recover, providing me with a sort of perverted pleasure; and then the silence broke as the both of us burst laughing.
“Malayali?” he asked rhetorically.
“Kolayali! (murderer),” I retorted.
India is a very egalitarian place. Much like in north India where everybody who lives south of the Vindhyas is a Madrasi, in south India anyone who lives north of Bengaluru city is either a Punjabi or a Hindiwala.
The walls broke down and the both of us got down to matters of state, from what Prime Minister Narendra Modi ought to be doing and why Americans always screw up. An hour-long taxi drive later and I was home.
But is it home any longer? I don’t know what to call the place anymore.
I’m not here on vacation. But to add to the walls a picture of my dad who died two months ago. The images on the wall show grandpa, whom I have never seen because he died young, a fun granny I used to smuggle whiskey for when I was much younger, and dad’s older brothers—the serious oldest one whom I was petrified of (but I’m told had a wicked sense of humour) and the second one everyone thought of as a quirky man, but I always looked up to and maintained was much misunderstood.
Ironically, as I write this, it was to this day over a decade ago that my wife gifted me our first child. I didn’t ask anybody, my wife included, what we ought to call her. The moment I set my eyes on her, I knew she is Nayantara. The star of my eye.
Nayantara’s original intent was to travel with me. But she has changed her mind since. Because she wants to spend her birthday with friends. It only feels like yesterday when I held her for the first time and cried because I never imagined anything could be more beautiful than her. I think I cried when she walked for the first time. How can I break her heart now and insist she be with me if she wants to be with her best friends?
A little while from now, my favourite uncles will come along. One is my dad’s cousin—the two of them were as close as blood brothers. And the other is his brother-in-law. Both pragmatic men of the world. I share interesting bonds and conversations with them.
And when dad’s cousin comes by, the both of us will step out at some point to talk. Man to man. Like we always do.
In these politically correct times, I know this is a politically incorrect thing to say. But for as long as I can remember, every once a while, he would tell me: “Son, it’s tough to be a man.” I have often wondered what that could possibly mean.
“I had read something many years ago, that no matter how old we are, each of us is a child till our father is alive. So, I guess now you are finally grown-up.” I didn’t get the full import of that when my friend Gourav Jeswal wrote it to me in a warm note after dad died.
Between my dad’s past, the pragmatism of these men that surround me, the place I am in and the day I write this on that has the future stamped all over it, it is inevitable then that I be in a strange place.
And I cannot help but spend a while and introspect before I step out to the beachfront to celebrate all of dad’s youth. And while there, share with Nayantara, at least in my head, all of what has stayed with me as the year closes.
Lesson #1: W.A.I.T.
I didn’t know this as an acronym. But in exchanging notes with a friend who is an executive coach, he told me the biggest challenges he faces is dealing with people in leadership roles. That’s when he tells himself W.A.I.T. An acronym to remind himself, “Why Am I Talking?”
The person at the other end has made up his mind. Engaging in a conversation with him is futile. The only voice he can hear is his. As much as it is tempting to give back as it gets, W.A.I.T.
I experienced this first-hand earlier this year when in conversation with a “poster-child” of “resurgent India”. He knew the questions, he had the answers.
At some point, I figured, my trying to interject or argue was pointless. I waited until his 90-odd-minute monologue ended. I didn’t ask a question or offer any prompts. When done, he started to fidget. He had run out of things to say. I stayed put like stone.
It finally got to the point where the man pretty much lost it and asked me to ask him something. I told him I have nothing to ask, no opinion to offer, nothing to argue about. He asked me if a story would emerge out of the conversation. I smiled and said I didn’t know.
We then looked at each other a little while longer. The silence became unbearable for him, it seemed, and he started talking again. He went on to tell me things about the industry and his firm he ought not to have told me about. I don’t know if he regrets it now. But it was one of the finest lessons I learnt during the year. W.A.I.T.
But silence is a difficult lover. She tries, tests and twists every bone until you scream for mercy, howls and concedes ground. She then sits back, gloats and urges you to continue wooing her until she submits and you can claim her as your own. I have got a long way to go.
Lesson #2: Be nice, be frugal
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Old lesson. But one worth reminiscing over every once a while. It came back to mind a little earlier today while going over Paul Graham’s old notes: “You grow big by being nice, but can you stay big by being mean? You get away with it till the underlying conditions change, and then all your victims escape,” he says.
“So ‘Don’t be evil’ may be the most valuable thing Paul Buchheit made for Google, because it may turn out to be an elixir of corporate youth. I’m sure they find it constraining, but think how valuable it will be if it saves them from lapsing into the fatal laziness that afflicted Microsoft and IBM... The curious thing is, this elixir is freely available to any other company. Anyone can adopt ‘don’t be evil’. The catch is that people will hold you to it,” he adds.
Here again, I can speak with the benefit of hindsight. I made the mistake of being generous with money and time as opposed to being nice and kind. The difference is a subtle one.
Generosity is for the moneyed. I could afford to be generous when I had the resources at my disposal. I thought I was being nice. But when I took a call to become an entrepreneur, resources must be hunted down and deployed both prudently and frugally. You never know when the waters get choppy.
But it’s easy for people to mistake your generosity for you being nice. Take generosity out and for whatever reason, everybody assumes you aren’t a nice person any more.
Lao Tzu summed this it up when he wrote: “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”
Lesson #3: There is pleasure in labour
One of the reasons I quit working and started labouring over everything I do is because I figured there is more joy in labour. Maria Popova pointed to the difference between the both on her curated blog and introduced me to a book called The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which I am now reading.
“Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus—these are work.”
“Labour, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify... Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms—these are labours.”
“Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labour can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labour. Beyond that, labour has its own schedule.”
“There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labour. When the worth of labour is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.”
And right now, I am labouring over this piece. I’m dead tired, but in the flow and in the zone.
Lesson #4: I can’t have it all
There is only so much I can do. There comes a time in everyone’s life when you got to admit and acknowledge, “I can’t handle it. Help me.”
I don’t understand why is it so difficult. If somebody has figured an elegant way to do something, I might as well go learn from them. Interest and time permitting, I will build upon it.
Where I am right now, as much as I want to, I don’t have the bandwidth to learn Python, a language I wish I was introduced to earlier.
Once upon a time, I used to be the go-to person for all things tech. I cannot keep up with it anymore. I would much rather learn from those who are investing their lives and energies into it.
The things most important to me are Founding Fuel and staying in touch with those close to me. All else must wait. This is a piece of advice I received from a very prominent man whom many Indians hold in high esteem, me included. In trying to build the entity he inherited into what it is now, he had to give up on a few things.
The list included his children. He struck them off his list of priorities and thought he would make time for them later. But they are grown up now, don’t need him any more, and resent the call he took. They have no fond memories of him and nothing he does to catch their attention gets them. In hindsight, he told me, it was a bad call.
Lesson #5: Everybody has an opinion
Do I hold on to my car or not? I wrote about my dilemma in an earlier instalment where I summed it up under the Fifth Basic Law of Human Stupidity. I don’t intend to dwell on it any further. But do I need an opinion? Most certainly I do. And how do I form one?
Watch popular television shows and read loud opinions. But this goes against all of what I have argued until now—to get off most social media like Facebook not just to protect privacy, because I thought it makes me dumb.
Two dead people put things in perspective.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote: “By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.” So, with bated breath, I look forward to the comeback of the loudest television anchor who is judge, jury and executioner.
And why should I listen to their opinion? Because I need to know and am in a hurry to know. As Steve Jobs put it: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Lesson #6: This is your life
I got myself a copy of The Holstee Manifesto and stare at it every day for a few minutes. On Nayantara’s birthday, I want to tell her, “Go out there, baby girl. This is your life. Do what you love. Live your dream. There is only so long your dada can be around to watch over you.”
Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
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