The man who wrote Ramanujan

Biographers aren’t supposed to have histories. They illuminate the lives of people they write about, much like translators making sense in world assemblies where world leaders hold forth in different tongues. Staying silently in the shadows, not hogging the limelight.

So when Robert Kanigel, the biographer of ‘The man who knew infinity’ stepped up to the lectern in Chennai, it was as if the shadow had moved to center stage. A century after Ramanujan was born in 1887, Kanigel made his own journey to Chennai to research Ramanujan’s life. He described the sense of bewilderment he felt having walked out of the railway station and being surrounded by a group of aggressive auto rickshaw drivers. The one he finally chose led him to an auto where a passenger was already in the seat. Kanigel, a naturally shy man, found his tongue loosened by the trip and the strange experience of the unfamiliar. He babbled to his co-passenger about arriving in India to research a book on Ramanujan and the trips he planned to make to places he could not even pronounce. It turned out that the passenger was the grandson of Vishwanatha Iyer –  who was instrumental in getting Ramanujan a job at the Port Trust! The statistical possibility of such an event happening would be so low as to be impossible. And Kanigel, an avowed sceptic admitted that there was more to it than he could explain

This set the tone for a trip through Ramanujan’s early life in India where he got a much closer look, thanks to the happenstance at the station. When the book was published in 1991, it went on to become a bestseller, and translations in German, Spanish and Greek followed. But the Tamil translation, into Ramanujan’s native tongue is still in progress. There was a flurry of questions at the end of the oration where the small but vocal audience asked Kanigel questions like ‘Was Ramanujan a sad man at the time of his death?” And Kanigel’s response was that he did not think that Ramanujan was a particularly introspective man. Even through his last days, he did as much work as his health would permit. He drew out the ‘Everyman’ trait of his genius where he spoke of Ramanujan’s hunger to be recognised among his peers, even to be considered a notch above them. In expanding on whether Hardy, the person who discovered the depth of his work was a good friend, he emphasised that Hardy’s role as a taskmaster may have actually helped in getting Ramanujan to work harder rather than the warm glow of friendship.

But this was a night of coincidences. This talk was the prelude to the 125th anniversary of the mathematical wizard. Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister of India had declared 2012 as the National Mathematical Year and Dec 22nd, Ramanujan’s birthday as National Mathematics Day. But the strangest coincidence of all was that the venue, Lady Andal auditorium was directly opposite the house – ‘Gometra’ where Ramanujan breathed his last in Chennai at the age of 32. In a way, the circle of life was complete. It was as if the man who knew infinity had managed to start exactly at the point where his life ended.


Doing good isn’t easy

Today is Christmas, a day where we are supposed to access our ‘giving’ side. It’s a little scary, considering the way in which our ‘giving’ and ‘taking’ sides are so lopsided! But such conjectures aside, in a conversation a few days ago with a restaurant entrepreneur, the difficulty of being good in the conventional sense was driven home with some telling lessons.

When he started his operations a couple of years ago, he had no previous experience. So apart from finding the right people, deciding on the menu and the prices, he had to learn literally by trial and error, since he could not pay for professional help – being a lean start-up. The idea was to keep costs as low as possible and work the rest from the day to day hiccups and insights that every customer brought in.

One significant learning was in managing the amount of food to be cooked every day – and there were days on which they went completely wrong. They thought that old age homes would be more than happy to take the extras. Sure they were and he sent the food off only to be assailed by complaints that the food was bad and causing problems for the inmates. On investigation, they found that the old age home was getting food from about seven-eight sources and all the food would be mixed up. So, it became really difficult to say which restaurant food was the culprit.

So, it was decided that orphanages could be an alternative. Sure enough, orphanages were grateful for the food and then, the complaints began again. This time, they found that the orphanage did not have storage facilities and they were unable to handle a load of food on certain days. The children were being served food that had not been properly preserved and obviously, it had gone bad.

A little desperate, they decided that the slum close by would be more than happy to get food for free. It worked, for a few days and then, as the restaurant got better at managing inventory, there were days on which they had nothing to give away. This brought about a completely unexpected turn of events. Belligerent slum dwellers lined up late in the night and demanded to be fed – turning what was an act of kindness into a privilege they took for granted!

Fed up, they began to give the leftovers to the neighbourhood stray dogs and this proved to be the only viable solution. As the restaurant owner sagely explained – “Dogs do not complain, and ever since, we’ve had no problems. Food is not wasted anymore” Well, animal activists would probably not be too happy!

We are quick to judge people by their actions – assuming that they have not considered options. Since I don’t run a restaurant, I would have suggested the exact alternatives they tried and believed it would solve the problem. We have a set of quick fixes in our mind based on our reading or on conventions – and that is what we operate with. The ground realities are completely different. As an aside, have you seen the scorn with which beggars now look at one and 2 rupee coins?


Piracy as a marketing tool

Have you noticed that a flop product or a flop movie is never in the pirate’s stockpile? The bootlegger selling a pirated DVD is the best indicator of authentic market demand. He immediately discards what doesn’t sell – bootlegging what people buy, not what companies arrange to be placed on the shelves. True markets are reflected in small street carts, not in brightly-lit and neatly arranged product aisles. Go through the torrent lists of The Pirate Bay and you’ll get a clear picture of which software products and movies are downloaded the most. Walk the streets and burrow into the small shops to see what products are pirated. The smaller the operation, the less the room for error – pirates have to keep a close watch on how the market moves to survive. They walk on the wrong side of the law, so there’s no way they’ll get protection when they are caught. They are real barometers of mass market taste and current demand.- because they are finely tuned to what the majority is willing to pay for. No one wants to imitate a failure, so pirates and counterfeiters only make copies of what has market value.

Let me be blasphemous here – the pirate’s price is actually the fair price for the product. It may not make sense to manufacturers or turn in a profit at all – but it is the perfect indicator of demand with all the fluff in between neatly sliced off.- not the inflated projections that are displayed in PowerPoint presentations. It’s sad that pirates are on the outer fringes of the market and are rarely surveyed to estimate actual market size or acceptable price points. A few years ago, Moser Baer, a company manufacturing compact discs created a sensation when they began to retail ‘genuine’ or legal DVDs and CDs at a price that competed with the street pirate price. Moser Baer acquired rights of music and movies right across the spectrum in all Indian languages. They did not bother to check if it was on a pirate list. Today, the business is just chugging along – but if the price was the only reason for piracy, they should have been a billion dollar company. They probably have some very expensive stocks of low-priced duds!

Microsoft, Adobe, and Corel have pirates to thank for the speed at which their markets expanded and grew. Their legal teams have a lot of work figuring out how to get people to pay for the products, but they had to pay nothing for adoption – which is a great way to lock in consumers. Apple bolted their operating system but they got the magic 99 cent price to make people pay for everything from music to software to games – which is what most pirates charge their customers!

There’s very clear evidence that piracy increases market size. Unfortunately, there is no distribution system that taps into this very perceptive network. And incumbent market leaders use copyright law all the time to protect their turf. Maybe our demand estimation models need a quick upgrade instead of the scorn with which we view this underbelly


The Mosquito Bat

In the evenings in India, at-home ‘tennis’ players begin their daily routine. They unplug what looks like a tennis racquet from the socket and get ready to wage war on a flying swarm – mosquitoes. They aren’t playing the latest version of Kinect or Wii. The bats are real, the mosquitoes are real and the battle continues late into the night. At the end of it, there are dark patches on the racquet, where a thousand mosquitoes have met their match.

The techniques have been perfected over time. Experienced players don’t wildly swish the bat in the air like beginners do – scattering the mosquitoes and not killing a single one. It’s almost like a Tai-chi movement, gently arcing and placing the bat skilfully in the way to get them trapped. Without too much movement, one has to angle the bat into corners where mosquitoes lurk – under tables and beds, waiting for naked feet and hands. Mosquitoes fly into the charged wires and there is a deeply satisfying ( if you are human) or deeply unsatisfying ( for mosquitoes) sizzle where they are set alight and burned to a crisp.

The smell of burning mosquitoes hangs acridly in the air, like the smell of smoke after the firecrackers during Diwali – and its even more unpleasant. But it’s short-lived and what’s more, it seems to work. So, unlike the old days, where people used to fan themselves, apply creams, burn coils or the husk of the areca nuts to keep the mosquitoes from biting, this is an alternative that works just as well. So, walk into any household with senior citizens and you’re quite likely to see these mosquito bats plugged into sockets, waiting for their masters to engage in the evenings.

It’s time for the daily game. TV remote in one hand and the mosquito bat in the other, there is grim resolve. And the first salvo is often fired by the mosquitoes who manage to croon seductively in the ear that the game is on. This provokes an instant reaction, with players standing up and slashing at any particle in the air in the hope of swatting the impertinent intruders. But when this fails to achieve results, they change tactics and go where the mosquitoes hide. And the first strike is when they flame and disappear in a small puff of smoke. There are no Federers or Nadals in the making but look into the future and it is possible that a rash of tennis elbows will need treatment with doctors wondering how their patients acquired this condition at such an advanced age. And the explanation that they were playing with mosquitoes is unlikely to amuse the doctor.

The Mosquito bat is just one more in a long line of products aimed attacking the menace. There is modern Odomos Natural, a cream with a perfume that is loathed by mosquitoes. Then there are the smoky coils and that burn slowly and leave a circular trail of ash in the morning along with clogged noses. If you’re allergic to that, may be incense sticks are an option to explore. And the mats and gels that mosquitoes merrily prance around and attack just when the effect wears off. Like the Tom and Jerry episodes, the battle rages on.


India’s Rail Booking Whiz Kids

While the world’s travel portals have grown enormously over the past decade, an Indian one has been very successful for railway passengers to book tickets online. IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) with an unwieldy URL – has gone on to become a major success. This year, it will have revenues of over $ 2 billion. That’s over Rs.10,000 crores of business transacted. According to Alexa statistics, it is ranked 21st in India and 424 worldwide. I guess a lot of Indians abroad are booking their tickets for rail travel in India online as well.

Log in to the site and it isn’t high on gloss, but extremely functional. Having booked tickets for years on it, I have seen the improvements and modifications. Every single bit of information required for booking – the number of tickets available for the next week or month, the cost, the route, etc., are all on a single screen compared to the time you had to click through and come back each time. I’m not sure that people unfamiliar with India and its cities will be able to find their way through the system, but Indians do not have a problem since the number of tickets being booked every day is close to 300,000. That’s 3.6 million tickets every month. And IRCTC has an appeal on its home page asking passengers not to print out their tickets but to simply show the ticket checker the text message or the email as a confirmation – along with your photographic proof of identity, of course! The bureaucracy is hard to escape in India

It’s just as difficult to escape the hackers. IRCTC has a number of travel agents who have special online access and the system was compromised by them for the Tatkal (or the emergency travel) quota, where tickets could be booked 48 hours in advance. The booking would open at 8 a.m. and just about 5 minutes later, not a single seat would be available for anyone. All gone. So, the system has been completely revamped with access now restricted to passengers and agents at the offline booking counters, with not more than 4 tickets per person, even with proof of identity. Sadly, it means that travelers who have the least time will have to brave the queues and scramble to be the first in line when the counters open for any chance of getting a ticket.

But the employees who built and maintain this system do not have cover stories devoted to them in glossy technology magazines. They put together one of the most efficient systems on the planet in terms of database efficiency, adaptability and scale and their labour are barely acknowledged, let alone celebrated. When a top official Mr. Sanjay Agarwal, was asked about their recruitment policies at a conference and how they managed to retain their people, he said that a large portion came from India’s least known engineering colleges. The students were not articulate or polished and simply grateful to have a steady job after graduation. The majority earns around Rs 25,000 per month and they know they can earn a lot more outside – but they stay because they love the challenges and the problems the job brings.


Traffic Light dodgers

Are you one of those people who tries to sneak past a traffic light just as it’s turning from green to amber? Or would you snake through all the side roads, just to avoid one? People reveal more of themselves on the road than they would in ordinary conversation – without saying a single word

There’s the guy drumming impatiently on the steering wheel – as if the traffic is the only thing standing between him and global success.There’s a Buddha who is at complete peace with himself – waiting patiently for the lights to change.There’s the honker – even behind a whole line of cars he honks the moment the lights turn green, to make the cars in front move faster. They don’t and it only adds to the cacophony.Somehow, Indian drivers have a real liking for their horns and the louder they sound, the more they like it. There’s no such thing as quiet traffic in India – it’s as if a school brass band starts up at every signal – the band that has yet to learn a single note.

The auto rickshaws are a species all by themselves. They are the cockroaches of the road, darting into every little gap and getting into position for a launch just as soon as the lights change. For them, and for most other road users, amber is the signal to accelerate, not slow down. Autos are quite happy to race down the opposite side of one-way streets, take ‘u’ turns where none are permitted and lounge under ‘No Parking’ signs. For them traffic lights are a nuisance, coming in the way of their freedom on the road.

Buses are the other menace. They stop in the middle of the road, a full lane away from the bus stop, backing up all traffic behind them and forcing passengers to dart across and climb in. Not even an auto can squeeze through the gap between the bus and the road divider. Somehow, all drivers have a huge ego issue with anyone overtaking them. Bus drivers are bullies, leaning into their rubber horns to scatter the two-wheeler riders and cars in front of them to make way. The occasional brave soul who stands his ground at the traffic light, will have a first-hand near death experience, as the massive vehicle stops just centimetres behind him and honks to clear the way.

Indian roads are not for the faint-hearted. They have their own codes and the only way to survive is to be in the thick of things. Like the suburban trains in Mumbai, learning to use them is an art that goes far beyond the conventions of civic road sense and decorum. Drivers maintain eye contact and align their behaviour in split seconds to avoid running into one another. The polite road user, like the pedestrian who waits on the sidewalk, learns that patience is not a virtue that pays off. A clip of ‘normal’ road traffic in India has over a million views and no Indian would ever be surprised by the chaos. It’s not the right behaviour or the desirable one but something that road users have adapted and learned to live with.


Finally, an Indian Rockstar

The movie was eminently watchable. Ranbir Kapoor smouldered as the tormented rock icon searching for the love that could not be. Discovering that material success and a huge fan following did not necessarily mean that everything you desired was within your reach.

But what struck home was that this rockstar was not dressed in Western clothes. Rock-on, another attempt to chronicle the travails of an Indian rock group, released a couple of years ago. The lead characters were dressed in the uniform of rock – the rebellious tees and torn denim. They were simply aping the West, much like the tracks in the film.

There is no real Rock ‘n’ Roll culture in India. It’s a small set of dedicated groups that make the effort and then disband since it’s hard to get crowds, make money or sell records. There have been a few like Parikrama and Indian Ocean, but when they bring out the acid metal and the rolling drums, most people just cup their ears. One band that is trying a different route is Avial (in Malayalam, it means a dish prepared from a mish-mash of several vegetables in a coconut milk and yogurt base) – which goes for the rock genre with lyrics in chaste Malayalam. It is a fringe success, but going mainstream will always be a tough slog.

Rock is tolerated only when it happens far out of the city and for most young people rock concerts are more about ‘trips’ other than the music. True Indian classical music – Carnatic or Hindustani does not resonate with a majority of the young. So what we have is film music with so many regional and classical influences, it’s hard to pin down and confine to a particular genre.

Against this background, creating a distinctive look would have been a huge ask. AR Rahman’s music works wonders as he weaves in Indian influences into the rock ballads or the strident ‘Sada Haq’, which has been brilliantly picturised. It throbs with kinetic energy but having a guy play these tunes in western clothes would have been a letdown.

Aki Narula and Manish Malhotra – the dress designers of Rockstar combine Middle Eastern influences with the big brass buttons and lapels of the Indian wedding bandmasters. The harem pants, the embroidered coats and the long hair combine to give Janardhan aka Jordan a look that feels right. If you wanted to know what an Indian rockstar would look like, it fits the bill. The costume evolution of the character, from college wannabe to a troubled success traverses the route through the Kashmiri Kaftan and the intermediate jeans and embroidered coat to the finale where he just rips into the crowds and the music.

Nargis Fakri, the heroine has a similar evolution, but her performance never matches the manic intensity that Ranbir brings to his role – so she stays in the realm of the well-designed clothes horse – which is a pity, since the role had enough dramatic depth and if she had got it right, it would have been an amazing launch. But you have to give her marks for trying and failing. Anyway, companies are now rolling out the endorsement deals.


Why did ‘Kolaveri’ go viral?

In a few days, the laid back rendition of nonsensical lyrics set to an easy to remember tune has grabbed eyeballs, been parodiedmashed and stormed the entire country. A lot of people are singing it without knowing why it stays in the mind. One of the most perceptive things the producers did before the release was to put in the lyrics as sub-titles making it an easy sing along to follow. That meant that the song gained familiarity even if the accent was unfamiliar – in fact , lyrical flourishes like ‘moon-u’ and ‘distance- la’ added crucial bits of novelty and allowed comprehension. The way these words are pronounced is very Tamilian – and it gives the song a unique identity.

The singer – actor Dhanush has just scored the biggest hit of his life and he made it on his terms, singing a ‘Tanglish’ (mixture of Tamil and English) song that resonated far beyond the local market. It just reinforces something that I have always believed in – that the more local a song, a flavour, an attitude is, the more global it becomes when the other factors are right.

The problem arises when clients want virals like this one. Here, there was an agenda – the promotion of the film. But when a product plug has to be put in, people catch on in a flash. We’ve become extremely good at separating honest content from advertising gloss. There’s a very thin line that divides the two. No one wants to send an obvious product promotion – no matter how good the production values are to friends. People share what they genuinely believe their friends will like and enjoy. In a sense, they are putting their taste in music, emotions or drama on the line and they expect to get favourable reactions and comments.

The companies promoting virals will tell you that certain attributes are given.

  • It has to be a light-hearted approach. Nothing that looks like a college lecture has ever gone viral
  • Kids are a big draw
  • Death defying stunts and magic tricks work
  • Embarrassment,. especially people looking stupid or dorky or both works as well
  • Animals, especially cats and dogs doing repetitive stuff gets attention.
  • Rebellious behaviour, especially against big authoritarian figures gets applause in terms of eyeballs
  • Irreverence and self-deprecation are other triggers that get passed around
  • Celebs doing mundane things gets attention – but then its not the endorsement ads that get shared

Now try putting in a product proposition and matching a client brief into creating a viral and we see the problem. Unless a product benefit is part of the viral, why should the client spend money? The only ones that have managed this well enough are Samsung or Evian. Just take a look at the so-called virals on You Tube and the number of views. Pepsi’s ‘Refresh‘ campaign apparently did very little for the sales of the product – but Coke’s Open Happiness did better, probably bacause there was no camouflage. Pepsi tried to be associated with a social cause. Coke made no effort of hide the fact that this was simply a sales promotion activity.

If there’s a lesson, it’s this. Pretense does not get shared, reality does. People don’t like sales messages masquerading as honest fun.


Hotels like homes

For a long time, it was just another advertising line – a hotel that makes you feel completely at home. It was used so often ( and still is) in advertising campaigns, no one ever pauses to ponder what it means. Do you feel as comfortable in the plush hotel room as the sagging TV couch at home? Does it tickle your ego when the stranger at the reception calls you by name only because she has the history of your visits to the hotel and you are a returning ‘valuable customer’? Do you turn cartwheels in the corridor just because you are ecstatic to be back? Or wait with bated breath for the waiter presenting a reheated dish and cracking a smile as wide as the tip he expects you to cough up? Do you like waking up groggily in the morning with an antiseptic voice on the phone saying ‘Good Morning Sir, this is your wake up call’ as opposed to your wife prodding you in the ribs and shaking you awake?

Apart from the fact that you pay an insane amount of money every day for all the privileges, hotel rooms across the world are painfully similar. A bed, some invisible art, a TV on the wall, a couple of bottles of water, a fridge with overpriced liquor, snacks and chocolate bars, a toilet and shower with little knick knacks like a comb, a toothbrush, shampoo, soap and soft towels if you are lucky, a desk with hotel stationery, a stratospherically priced room service menu and a ‘hotel smell’ – a combination of air-conditioning, food, perfume and cleaning chemicals. It hits you the moment you enter hotel lobbies and even the timed spraying of distinctive air fresheners does not mask the inevitable cloud that returns. The buffet is another point where the spread is lavish, but by the end of day three, you would be perfectly happy to have a simple ‘dal chawal’ at home instead of all the exotic stuff in the gleaming stainless steel serving vessels.

And yet, the quest to provide the home away from home continues. Apparently, hotels in the US have been jumping in to fill the gaps left in airline services, since they perceive quite correctly, that if people cut back on travel they cut back on hotel stays as well. So, they are now doing everything from special lounges for their repeat customers to getting them good seats on airlines, apart from taking care of baggage hassles.

They are lending them sneakers and workout apparel, to reduce the bulk that people carry on trips. They pack sandwiches so that guests do not have to endure airline food. And they are storing entire wardrobes for regular guests so that they can walk in with a minimal amount of baggage and slip into fresh clothes on arrival.

It beats the cost of maintaining vacation homes at various locations. But these are high-end travelers who are used to getting more anyway. Don’t expect this in a growing market economy where the number of rooms available is a lot less than the demand. It’s only when the shoes bite and the occupancy rates fall that the generosity will begin to show.


The Masala Dosa Index

The Big Mac index is the easy way to understand complicated economics. Since Big Macs are available in several countries, they offer an easy way to measure what the local currency buys in global terms – rather than comparing currencies alone and arriving at answers. In the latest one – July 2011 for example, $4.07 buys you the Big Mac in the USA and the equivalent Maharaja Mac is just $1.89 in India. In purchasing power parity that means a dollar buys Rs. 23 worth of goods and not the Rs. 50 suggested by the official exchange rate.

The Big Mac index does a great job of helping us understand comparative value by standardisation. But can we have an Indian perspective because the number of Indians who eat a Big Mac is still minuscule? It’s time to take a fat bun sandwich with a slice of minced and fried meat in the middle and let an Indian favourite stand tall alongside and be counted.

It’s slimmer, tastier, and healthier. It has a crisp exterior wrapped around a wholesome combination of melt in the mouth potatoes and onions, delicately spiced. It’s one of the few things South and North Indians agree is delectable, apart from South Indian heroines. Its the comfort food that can begin your day or wrap it up. Don’t be fooled by its outward appearance as a thin pancake. The Western version is bland, limp and needs oodles of syrup to be palatable. The Masala Dosa does double duty as a baton and you can tear off thin crusts, dip them in several versions of chutney, from coconut to garlic to tomato and savour every little spicy morsel. Best of all, it cannot be eaten with a fork and spoon. You have to use your hands.

Its origins are ancient. The earliest reference to the Dosai from whence the Masala Dosa sprung is in the sixth century AD. It was a phenomenon when the Big Mac was yet to be invented. And the world would be far better off eating Masala Dosas by the dozen. It should become India’s most prolific export, apart from the armies of programming professionals. May be we can send some of our best Udipi cooks to create the magic. Imagine street corners in the Big Apple with sweaty cooks liberally spreading the batter and a whole lot of New Yorkers lining up for a taste of Indian paradise. It could beat the queues for the Ipad or pod hands down.

So here’s the thing. We need to get the Masala Dosa Index going. Starting from Indians in far-flung corners of the globe chipping in and letting us know what the Masala Dosa costs locally. How much is one in Helsinki versus the one in Myladuthurai, for instance? We’re trying to see the price variation of the Masala Dosa across India and the world in comparable restaurants. Our goal is to see what a Masala Dosa costs in a Saravana Bhavan type of middle-class restaurant in the world and across India. We all know that companies price products differently in different markets. We’re trying to find out by how much using the Masala Dosa as a benchmark!