Want to Fix Nehru’s Mistakes? Try These Three Suggestions.

Hey there! Do you think Nehru is responsible for all of India’s problems? I have good news for you. You can’t be proved wrong. After all, he was the first prime minister of independent India, a position he held until his death. So yes – most of our problems can be traced back to him in one way or the other. (For the same reason, most of the good things can be traced back to him too, but let’s forget about that for a moment. And let’s also forget that hindsight is 20/20.)

So, what now? Do you want to fix it? Great! But even if Nehru is in some way responsible for Rahul Gandhi’s existence, eliminating Rahul Gandhi from politics is not going to solve any of the real issues. Instead, how about we do the following to fix Nehru’s mistakes?

Repeal Sedition Law

Nehru strongly spoke against the law. It is a reprehensible relic of the colonial era. I don’t know why he did not repeal it. Independent India should have treated its citizen with more respect than the law does. But hey! What stops us from doing it? Let’s fix the mistake and repeal it.

Make it Easy to do Business

License Raj cannot be explained away with our colonial past, right? It is Nehru’s legacy. But even after almost three decades of liberalization, doing business in Indian is incredibly difficult. Why don’t we simplify our laws and make it meaningful as well as easy for businesses to follow them?

Stop Trying to Impose One Language on the Country

I have an explanation for this, but Nehru and his ilk seemed to believe that one language is necessary to keep the country together and it resulted in some unsavory Hindi imposition. Why continue that today? With technology at our service, why shouldn’t the government be focussed on taking governance to the people in whatever language they understand, not just scheduled languages, but everything else to0? Let’s do it. Let’s not resort to language imposition. Let’s instead serve people in their language. Whatever it is.

But I understand. This is too much work. So, let’s get back to bashing Nehru for Rahul Gandhi instead.

Sexual harassment? No, let’s talk about sexual predators.

[Note: The language in the article below assumes victim and victimizer as a woman and a man respectively. That just reflects the majority of the scenarios I have seen. It doesn’t mean that the situation can’t exist with gender roles reversed, or even between people of the same sex.]

For all our Vishakha guidelines and progressive judicial stands and outrage at the normalization of sexual harassment, whenever a case pops up, the discourse gets muddled up with the same old issue. Who do you trust in the classic he-said-she-said scenario? Even when there are “electronic proofs”, there is always a question of context, consent, and that ultimate conundrum – was it harmless flirting or was it sexual harassment?

For this post, let’s step back from the issue of individual incidents. Let’s talk about a certain kind of person instead. And quite unabashedly, I label this person as a sexual predator.

I don’t know if I can define it in completely unambiguous and objective terms – a definition you can put down in a law and be sure that it will serve you right every time – but I know a sexual predator when I ‘see’ one. What is different about a sexual predator? It is the predictable consistency of his behavior.  You will know one too when you come across them. But if you are young, inexperienced, uncertain or in awe of the person, you may choose not to know it. Or you may not feel confident enough in your knowledge. You may question yourself, rather than that person. And you may go on pretending that nothing is wrong.

Have you known someone who casts his net wide? Whose default mode of interaction with someone of opposite sex (sometimes restricted to a ‘type’ they have) is flirting or behaving more intimately than their level of acquaintance justifies? Who makes women uncomfortable and leaves them wondering if something is wrong with that person or if their discomfort is the result of they themselves being too puritan, uncool and stuffy. For whom women’s sexual liberation means freedom for themselves to make any interaction with the opposite sex sexual in nature – subtle or otherwise? And who, if they were not slapped by the woman right then and there, claim that there was consent for whatever they said or did, and howsoever they behaved?

Don’t let your answer be affected by the fact that the person may be extremely successful, even legendary, nor by him being a nice and helpful person, not even by him being an avowed and fierce feminist. It is mighty difficult to believe that a person can be all of these and still be a sexual predator. So please keep these observations aside for a moment and think if the answer to any of the questions I asked in the previous paragraph is true? If it is, then you perhaps know a sexual predator, even if everything else about him is nice, inspiring and grand.

I know at least two such people. I have known them to be sexual predators since almost my first interaction with them. But I didn’t consciously acknowledge it until I was old and experienced enough to digest the idea. And until I got some external verification. One of them has a type (young women), the other is quite flexible.  They happen to be the kind of people I want to professionally keep in touch with, even if there isn’t something I need from them at the moment. They are successful, approachable, immensely articulate, well-connected, well-moneyed, and always eager to help. Both old enough to be my father too. The reason I mention age is that it is a factor that makes young people instinctively want to trust them. But they are sexual predators.

How can they be so? Especially when they have so much to lose? Successful people always have more to lose, right? I wonder as much as you do.

And I wonder if there is a point in fighting them? Not just because of the hopeless social discourse such a fight brings about. But also because of how they react to it. How confidently defensive they get. It doesn’t look like they would improve if you fight them.

I also wonder if we should give them a benefit of doubt. I am almost ready to concede that they themselves are victims. That sexual predation is not as much of a choice as we may think. That it isn’t as much about the power equation as we tend to ascribe it to, especially in the context of sexual harassment at workplace. That it is something pathological. That they have a problem in their brains because of which either 1) they genuinely “do not know what they are doing”. That is, they honestly believe that in a sexually liberated society they are not crossing a line, even when they take advantage of the weaker or vulnerable position of the other person, or 2) they know what they are doing, but their urges are so strong that they can’t control it.

Yes – I am ready to concede that they are victims. Or rather patients. Dangerous kinds of patients, though. Because they are a threat to other people.

So, let’s do this. Let’s not try to treat them like criminals. Let’s not try to analyze each individual incident to see if there is technically a power-equation or professional relationship that makes their behavior wrong and for which they can be convicted. Let’s not public-shame them. Instead, let’s start sending them references of good psychiatrists. Like you would do for someone suffering from depression. Or of behavior therapists. Like you would do for someone who has an uncontrollable, violent temper. If you are someone close enough to them, don’t let yourself be fooled by their well-articulated defenses on why they are not ill and don’t need help. Do the right thing and get them help. And till they get it, keep them out of the situations where their illness can show its ugly symptoms. Just like people with pedophilic tendencies should not be put in a situation where children have a reason to interact with them, people with sexual-predatory tendencies should not be put in a situation where others have a reason to interact with them.

The rest of us, let’s send them get-well-soon cards. And flowers, if they are not beyond your budget.

Four Things Our PM Could Learn From Entrepreneurs

four-jason-blackeyeSince I’m tired of the articles that want entrepreneurs to learn X things from Y, here is one that goes the other way round. Four things our PM could learn from entrepreneurs.

  1. Ideas are cheap: It is the execution that matters. Every rookie entrepreneur zealously guarding his idea is told that by the community. Even if you have to go stealth, you do it for the execution’s sake, not at the cost of the execution.
  2. Don’t go at it alone: Have at least one partner, ideally with complementary skills, ideally someone who can challenge you. Don’t start with a bloated team, but take help of specialists for specific skills.
  3. Draw up a (business) plan: Even if you don’t want to raise money. It helps in clarifying your own thought and plan better for circumstances that are inherently risky.
  4. Know when to quit: Persistence is good, but so is knowing when to quit. Know when to gracefully exit instead of continuing to pour money and effort into an idea that is not going to work.

Decision-making

At Pothi.com we allow authors to publish their books in print. Among other things, they can choose from one of the many page sizes available for their book. The books are printed-on-demand; so we keep the PDFs in our system and print them as and when the orders come.

Now suppose one day I figure that there are too many page sizes on offer and I should discontinue one of the sizes. I pick up a size that is not very good for book production from cost as well as aesthetic point of view and decide that we should withdraw the size.

Shall I go ahead and withdraw it? No. I am more likely to look at some data and ask some questions. For example how many and what percentage of books do we receive in this size? How much money do books of this size make us? Can I expect to motivate authors using this size to use some other more suitable size? Can there be people preparing their books in this size right now and will they be disappointed when they come to upload it on my site later?

Then I will go ahead and talk to a developer in the company. They might tell me that if we want to withdraw the size it will disappear from all the books, including the existing ones. That would be problematic because the PDF files in our system are prepared for that size. I will ask them if it is possible to keep the existing books at the same size for the time being and disable the option only for new books. They might then say that it is definitely possible, but it will take some time to make the code changes. How much time, I will ask. Say, one month, they may reply. Mentally I will keep two months in hand for the task, although I will not tell them that they have two months to do it. Else they will take four months.

Then I may go to my author support person and ask their opinion. They might tell me that this size is the default on people’s word processors. Hence we get books in this size more often than we should. When I talk to them a little more, I might discover that people using this size may not be very savvy on technology and design front.

So I will talk to my designer to figure out if books of this size can be automatically scaled to some other nearest size without making them look weird.

I might also ask my author support person to talk to some of these authors and figure out what  it would take for them to voluntarily shift to a different, more suitable size.

Since I am planning to withdraw a size, and not introduce a new one, I don’t expect a problem from the production. But I will discuss it with them anyway. And I might find that they have some paper and packaging material purchased specifically to support this size. So if I withdraw it immediately, that inventory may go waste or may not be efficiently utilized.

After knowing all this, I can take a decision on whether to withdraw the size, and if so when, and how to prepare the affected authors for this.

I am talking about one decision about one small aspect of a rather small business.

What should be done if someone were planning to withdraw notes carrying 86% of total currency value from a country of 1.25 billion people?

Even if you were taking the decision alone and you didn’t know that ATMs need calibration for new notes, and you couldn’t think that housewives may have substantial savings from white money which they may not want to disclose, and you couldn’t divine that limited cash access will create problems in weddings and for farmers, you would ask at least one fundamental question. Do we have enough currency printed to replace the ones in circulation currently?

How on earth was that question not asked?

What was he smoking?

Transcript of my talk at shakTII

Good morning everyone.

I am going to cheat a bit. It is an Entrepreneur Talk. But I am not going to talk about entrepreneurship. I am going to talk about women, which thankfully is not at odds with the theme of this event.

I grew up in small towns of Bihar, never staying in a joint family, technically, but living a life where the circle of extended family and relatives was quite close-knit.  There were usual family spats once in a while, but overall the family members looked out for each other.  They provided board to a young man, a son of a second cousin, who had come to their town for studies or for the first job, and they kept their eyes and ears open to find out how their nieces could get married well within the budget their parents had. The better off ones would also take up the responsibility for more kanyadaan ceremonies than the number of daughters they had given birth to so that the lesser off relatives were relieved of the responsibility of paying for the mandatory gold gift of kanyadaan.

These people didn’t hate their daughters. They kept having daughters until they had at least one son, but they mostly didn’t indulge in female foeticide. Daughters’ weddings would bring entire extended family together. Quite in the style of Rajshri productions’ movies, even though the homes were usually less glamorous than those in the films. At every family function one would be reminded how only daughters can bring real joy in these functions and how everything would be so dull without the daughters.

They were not even indifferent to their daughters. They wanted to raise them right, just like they wanted to raise their sons right.  So… they wanted their sons to study Science and daughters to study Home Science. They wanted their sons to be smart and their daughters to be gentle.

Cut to present day!

There was a discussion going on among some of the IIT alumni, many of them senior, accomplished people, about this event meant for woman professionals. The possible names and taglines were being discussed. A very senior, soft-spoken, well-meaning IITian suggested and strongly defended a particular tagline, because it was humble and sober. I reminded him that the idea of the event was empowerment of women. Why should the tagline be humble and sober? The tagline should portray strength, confidence, shouldn’t it? I was told that humility along with confidence goes a long way. So then I did a quick poll on my facebook account asking my mostly men friends from IITs how often they have wanted their event names and taglines be convey humility and soberness. You can guess the result. The person suggesting the humble and sober tagline didn’t mean any harm. It was, in fact, he who had originally proposed the idea of this event.

Any Harry Potter Fans here?

Do you remember the wise Dumbledore?

dumbledorefriendsenemyquote

It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.

Most of the women sitting here would not have faced the obvious, brutish discrimination. They wouldn’t have been underfed so that men of the family could have their bellies full, they would not have had to give up their studies so that their brothers could study, they would have gone to the best schools, in fact. They wouldn’t have been neglected or beaten up by their families or husbands. They wouldn’t have any villains in their lives.

And yet! Yet, you feel the need to have a separate event for professional women. Despite there being no villain in their lives, they feel like they are falling behind, they are not achieving their potential, they are compromising.

Why?

Because impediments do not always come in the form of a villain with evil laughter ready to slay you at the first chance.

Impediments come in the form of well-meaning people.

Impediment comes in the form of that loving, proud father of an IIT girl, who told her that she should go for a Ph. D. after B. Tech. Why? Not because it was suitable for her temperament or aptitude, but because academia is a better place for women to be in. After all they have to shoulder family responsibilities later. Corporate life will make it difficult to handle.

This is a true story.

Do men not have families?

Impediment comes in the form of those nice friends, not only men, but women too, who post pseudo-empowering messages on facebook like “Women weren’t created to do everything a man can do. Women were created to do everything a man can’t do.”

Ummm, excuse me? Apart from getting pregnant and giving birth, what is that? Oh wait! Taking care of the family, kids, cooking, cleaning, washing, is it? Men can’t do it? Right! That’s why women should run homes, and men should run the world.

Hope you see the problem. Sorry! Messages of those kind do not empower or inspire women. They just try to make them happy and satisfied with wherever they are. So that the world can maintain its status quo and not ask uncomfortable questions.

Impediment comes in the form of their “natural” urge to be caregivers, which is “respected” and “encouraged” by everyone around them?

What is this natural urge? Look around yourself. Even with the constant social conditioning trying to make them otherwise, don’t you come across women who don’t feel maternal urges and men who are great with kids, babies included. If there wasn’t this incessant social conditioning about what you are supposed to feel, what would the situation look like? My guess? Not the opposite, but very different.

Impediment comes in the form of the “myth” of “choice”. Who am I to question if a woman chooses to put her kids and family above her career? I am no one to interfere with what she does. But I have a right to wonder if the choice is real for most people. Was the choice between whether the father will stay at home or the mother? Unlikely. The choice was between whether nobody will stay at home versus whether the mother will stay at home. When only one person has a choice, that is not much of a choice.

Impediment comes in the form of outraged question “Are you saying making money is the only worthwhile use of people’s time? Aren’t family and home as important? What will you do with all the money if your family is not happy?” Good question. So long as it is not directed solely at women.

Impediment comes in the form of internalized assumptions about your role.  It comes in the form a women working to empower other women starting her case with “We are women. We have to take care of our families before everything else.”

It comes in the form of harmless jokes that imply men can’t cook and women can’t read maps or that women irrationally have upper hand in the relationships.

Impediment comes in the form of the argument that if there are women who support practices that work against women’s professional advances, there cannot be anything wrong with those practices. No. Just because a woman perpetuates it, a discriminatory practice doesn’t become right.

Impediment comes in the form of all the people you love and who love you, including your family, husband and kids.

What do women need today? More maternity leave? Or more paternity leave? Do they need more time to take care of kids? Or do they need their partners to share the responsibility? Do they need to be deified and installed in well-decorated temples? Or do they need to be treated like real persons who may have the similar career aspirations and similar love for their families as men.

I might already have ruffled some feathers here. Still I will end with a blasphemy. I can forgive Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol for Dilwale. I cannot forgive them for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. The movie that made lots of money while promoting and elevating the patriarchal custom of Karwa Chauth by giving it a romantic twist. There is nothing romantic about it.

I know that I have only raised questions and not given answers. But that’s all I intended to do. There aren’t any quick answers. There are no 5 steps to liberation. We have a tough fight. With people who matter the most to us.

That’s all. Thank you. I am not sure what questions I can answer. But if there are any, please feel free to shoot.