Underrated fiction

by Sidin Vadukut in

COWEN: For fiction, what would be the country or region — now, what’s a country, what’s a region is even up for grabs — that is really underappreciated relative to what it has done? If you say, “Oh, classic Russian fiction,” even if people haven’t read it, people know there’s a lot there. You probably wouldn’t pick that. What’s the counterintuitive pick for most underrated region or country for wonderful fiction?
ORTHOFER: Underrated, I would absolutely think the regional language and literature of India. I think surprisingly, even though, perhaps, English is the main literary language of India and a great deal is locally translated, even there much of the vernacular literature still isn’t available in English.
What one can see of it and also in part hear about it — we’re missing an awful lot. There is a literary culture there, especially, for example, in Bengali, but we’ve had that since Tagore. One of the remarkable things is Tagore won his Nobel prize over a hundred years ago, and there are still novels by him which haven’t been translated into English. He is really a very good novelist.
It’s truly worthwhile, and this goes for many regions. The southern region of Kerala where they write in Malayalam — there’s remarkable literary production there, and we just see so little of it. Also, what is available, because a fair amount is — it tends to be underappreciated, especially in America and the United Kingdom. It hasn’t really reached these shores.

More here. The whole collection of Conversations are great and are also available in podcast form for on-the-go listening.

Business is hard. Explain with a memorised essay. (7 marks)

by Sidin Vadukut in

For some reason(s) that is not entirely clear to me I am often approached by people working on start-ups for help and assistance. I think it is because:

  1. Perhaps they think I can help them get mileage or visibility in mainstream or on social media.
  2. Perhaps they think that my own personal and professional experiences enable me, in some way, to assist or educate them on starting up, taking risks, self-promotion and so on.
  3. Or perhaps their start-ups are associated with media, publishing, history, Raveena Tandon or any of the other topics in which I have slightly more experience and insight than the average person on the street.

I am always, always happy to help. Indeed I am tremendously in awe of start-up entrpreneurs. With each passing year since my graduation from business school I have developed a greater and greater appreciation of the sheer challenge involved in setting up, running, and making successes of businesses. It is very, very hard. And I don’t really think I have the bottle to do anything like that.

Typing for hours everyday and then getting ravaged in book reviews is the most risk I want to take, thank you very much.

Some people think that quitting a job to, say, run a cafe or a mobile gaming company is in some way similar to the act of chucking a career in management consulting to become a writer cum columnist cum social media timewaster. 

There are some, slim similarities in terms of estimating risks, networking with people and institutions, being self-critical, promoting one-self, learning to be self-reliant, inculcating a thickness of skin, handling family, and so on…

But, once you go in deeper into the process of succeeding and failing, being an entrepreneur is entirely different from being a freelance writer or an author or journalist. Let me oversimply by saying that most entrepreneurs have to deal with ultimate business upsides and downsides that are vastly greater, in both directions, to those enjoyed by people like me. Bad journalists and authors, in other words, can make a decent living. I don’t think bad entrpreneurs can.

Having said that there is one piece of advice I give EVERY entrepreneur who every appoaches. Even if they don’t ask me for insights at the ‘business model’ level, I still butt in and give this piece of wisdom anyway.

And I was reminded of that wisdom when I read a piece on the QZ India website titled: “How my startup lost Rs15 lakh and shut down before its first anniversary.”

Pardeep Goyal writes:

I thought I would make millions of dollars through my startup, but I failed miserably.

I had read amazing stories of startups like Flipkart and Zomato, but nobody told me that 90% of new companies fail within two years of taking their initial steps.

I failed in my first year.

It is a great piece and well worth reading.

That piece of advice I always give, that essential wisdom, is also the first of the lessons that Goyal took away from his experience: Know your customer before building your product.

The point should be clear by now. We built our product based on the assumptions and feature lists of our competitors. We should have talked to our customers before building our product.

We should have convinced two to three schools of different sizes to test our product. In exchange, we should have provided a lifetime free product and support for early-adopter schools. I should have validated my product before leaving my job.

On the face of it, this is entirely basic stuff. Why would you start making a product or designing a service before you’ve spoken to your customers? Shouldn’t phoning up a potential customer or client be the first ‘start-uppy’ thing you do after buying turtleneck sweaters and blue jeans?

And yet at least 85% of the budding entrepreneurs I speak to, perhaps even more, don’t seem to do this till they are well into the entrepreneurial process. By which point this dialogue can be very, very upsetting and unsettling.

Let me draw a parallel with something budding writers and columnists do when pitching stories. Or, to be more accurate, what they don’t do: read the publication they are pitching for.

Again at least 85% of everyone who talks to me about writing for Mint, Mint Lounge, Mint On Sunday, Cricinfo, Scroll etc. don’t spend much time on reading these publications before pitching. They have no idea what they publish, the kind of topics they cover, and the kind of columnists they commission.

This was one of the first lessons I was taught when I transitioned from blogger to writing-for-a-living-er.

It has important implications for entrepreneurs as well. Please try to talk to potential customers. Even if you’re unwilling to reveal your secret plan, figure out if the problem you’re trying to solve actually exists in the real world. And if it does, figure out if there are people who are willing to part with money for solutions.

Let me give you an example of a conversation I had with someone some years ago. This budding entrepreneur wanted to set up a company to help kids in Mumbai indulge in more sports and games and get more exercise. His solution was led by the internet and social networking, and he had spent some months on it. I thought it made sense on paper/powerpoint. 

Also he had spoken to both kids and schools and they all seemed enthusiastic. 

“What about parents?” I asked. (This was not some kind of business bolt of lightning. But something I had come across often in the Mint newspaper. Parents are, generally, decision-makers when it comes to most kids' products and services.)

“Parents?” he said looking at me with furrowed brow as if he had been downloaded whole from the internet on his date of birth instead of having been reluctantly presented to the world by a very, very annoyed woman.

“Yeah man. They will have to pay for your services no?”


“You really need to speak to the parents in Mumbai man. You need to talk to the people who are going to pay you.”

As we sat in that Costa Coffee I saw a cavalcade of emotions pass across his face. Most of them troubled. In the six months he had worked on the project he hadn’t spoken to any parents.

I wished him well. And I did this sincerely. But I haven’t heard from him or his company since. (Again, there is no schadenfreude here. I assure you.)

Why does this happen so often? Why do so many people forget to ask these basic questions or engage with the consumers as an exploratory measure?

There is one theory I have. I think it has to do with the way problem-solving is taught in schools and colleges, and generally framed in popular culture. (I don’t say ‘Indian’ schools or colleges, because the problem seems universal.) 

I think there is excessive focus on problem-solving instead of problem-identification. And this bias, if you will, is magnified by examination and evaluation driven systems. Take the IIM system. I think it is safe to say that the most open-ended problem-identification and problem-solution experience most IIM grads go through is that group discussion round during the admissions process.

Once they make it through, they are faced with an avalanche of tests and exams that, usually, extend very little latitude for the identification of problems. (In my experience there was some latitide, but little incentive to unpack a problem in this way.)

At the risk of stretching a parallel to breaking point, I want to say that journalists also face this problem. Journalists too often assume the existence of a problem, then assume the social/political need for a response to this problem, and then go to great lengths to analyze and write about the desperate need for that solution. This has the terrible impact of making every issue sound like a life-and-death struggle.

RBI rate-cuts, international trade MOUs, egovernance, and especially digital solutions of any kind—each of these are often portrayed as being the only thing standing between chaos and Utopia. And yet time and time again we find that there are other problems and other life-and-death struggles actually standing between us and a Keralotopian nation.

All this is reinforced by the media’s inexhuastible appetite for moments of crisis and, dare I say, solutionism.

But back to entrepreneurs. Yeah. So if you’re planning to start-up anything please talk to your consumers first. Just have a free-wheeling conversation about issues and problems and solutions and purchase decisions.

It may be useful. Also, if you’re planning to ask me for help, it will help shave off the first five minutes of our Skype call.

Best of luck to all start-up types. Feel free to ping. Happy to help

The Social Utility Of Outrage

by Sidin Vadukut in

"Yet almost none of these outrages have ended in any kind of meaningful political mobilization. We are no closer to understanding how to make our cities, leave alone our villages, safer for women. Farmer suicides, meanwhile, remain the appendix of the Indian political body. We have no idea what to do with it and we all just hope it will go away one day with minimal displeasure. Most of all, we are still no closer to co-opting anyone within the democratic political establishment to pursue these causes with party-agnostic sincerity or trend-resistant persistence."

More here in this essay for Mint On Sunday. You should read Mint On Sunday. It is quite good.

p.s. Planning to do this more. And in general blog a little more. I miss it very much. Used to be fun.

I Miss Sachin

by Sidin Vadukut in

So the other day, after a typically pulsating match at the Cricket World Cup that I completely forgot about in the time it took me to get up from the sofa and go make a cup of tea, Sky Sports played a short, shallow but enjoyable documentary on the life of Sachin Tendulkar. As I watched the grainy film clips and stock shots of Mumbai and the waxing and waning of Sachin's hair over the years, I felt a little tear well up in the corner of an eye..

What I am saying is this: I miss Sachin.

I miss waking up on the morning of a cricket match and thinking, before anything else, "Oh baby Jesus please take care of him today and make him score a lot and don't even think of making him walk back to the pavilion with his head hanging..." Only after this did I move on to other thoughts such as: "Also it would be ideal if my parents have not been killed in their beds by an axe-murderer."

Of course I never wanted to be in a position where I had to choose between my parents and Sachin. But if push came to shove I may have gone with the best cover-driver in the room. 

I miss going to school, on the school bus, mentally preparing myself for a Sachin failure. This is true. I would actually make a list of convincing reasons for why Sachin failed in a match EVEN BEFORE THE MATCH HAD EVEN TAKEN PLACE. We all did. Admit it. Not because we had to fend off Sachin haters. (This was before Sachin-hate had been invented in West Bengal.) But so that we had something to cling on to when he wafted outside off-stump or mistimed a...

Sorry. I cannot even imagine such terrible things. The Sachin in the real world may have retired. The Sachin of my head and heart has not.

I miss sitting on a train or on a bus and thinking: What if there is an alien invasion and earth is nearly destroyed and the aliens agree to let us be if we can beat them in a cricket match... and then we need twelve runs in the last over and Sachin is at the striker's end, and the first two balls are dot balls and then he adjusts his family-guard and looks up in the sky and then... drums violins...

Who will save the earth today in such a situation? Kohli? Nonsense. He doesn't have the focus. Dhoni? Dhoni is almost certainly an alien spy in disguise. Our only hope is that Sachin will come out of retirement and... 

Goosebumps everywhere.

I miss watching the toilet-end of an India-Australia match--when the Aussies need three runs, with five wickets and four overs in hand--and desperately, desperately wanting Sachin to be given the ball. I mean... what is the worst that will happen? He will bounce up to the crease in that jovial, benign way of his and deliver a cocktail of deception. Maybe he will get a wicket. Maybe he will not. Maybe he will slow them down. Maybe he will not. But at least you could go back to class the next day and have soul-soothing conversation.

"But anyway... at least Sachin tried."
"Yeah. That is there. It was nice to see him bowl."
"He should bowl more often. So nice to see."
"Oh he wants to. Ganguly doesn't let him."

I miss listening, mouth gaping, to old-timers from Mumbai talking about the time they saw him bat when he was in school. "Oh he was just something else..." they would say sitting back on the sofa, eyes glazed over, recalling some sunny day in Mumbai's past, the palms swaying, the crows kawing, the trains rumbling, the buses honking, the boy late-cutting.

I miss reading yet another profile in yet another issue of Sportstar or Mathrubhumi Sports Masika or Outlook and comparing our ages and thinking: "What the hell am I doing with my life? No really."

"What the hell are we doing with our lives?" we would murmur inside the TV room at REC Trichy as we watched Sachin during that tournament in Sharjah. "I have to forge an Electrical Engineering Lab report tomorrow," somebody would quip. And we would all laugh laughs of sadness and regret.

I miss, later on in his career, arguing simultaneously that while he was the best batsman in the world beyond any doubt, he was by no means the batsman in India.

Why not give the others a chance? But why? He is not clicking. So? Just because he is not clicking you will drop him? And replace him with some one-Ranji wonder from Chandigarh? Mad or what? You are mad. YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT CRICKET! Shut up man have you even lifted a bat in your life?

And this would go on till I found someone else to argue with instead of myself.

I miss hating Lara. Fool. Upstart. Selfish little... I still hate Lara.

I miss seeing Sachin take wickets or catches and then celebrate. Sometimes you could see, for the briefest nanosecond, a flash of aggression and the wrath of retribution. But then his middle-class upbringing would intervene and this flash would vanish and Sachin would be all fist pump and woo hoo.

So the point I am making is this: I miss Sachin. 

Anyway. Hope we win the World Cup.



Notes From A Brief Journey - Part 1

by Sidin Vadukut in

(Two days before leaving for two week-long holiday to India.)

Sister on WhatsApp: "Sidin chettan! How are things going?"
SV: "Things are pretty hectic. Desperately tryi..."
Sister: "Yeah all that is ok. Don't forget to bring a lot of Milka chocolate when you come ok?"
SV: "But let me fini..."
Sister: "YAY. Okie bye."

(One day before leaving for two week-long holiday to India.)

Sister on etc. etc.: "So how is your packing coming along? Hope everything is ready for India baby!"
SV: "Yes. So far so good. We are somewhat concerned about how the bab..."
Sister: "Good to know. Don't forget the Milka chocolates. MILKA. Under any circumstances Milka is compulsory. Don't bring Galaxy instead. I hate Galaxy. I only like Milka. All my friends are waiting for Milka."

(Hours before boarding the flight from Heathrow to Dubai.)

Sister-zilla: "Any updates on the Milka?"
SV: "I amputated my arm by mistake with the toaster."
Sister: "Excellent. See you soon. Don't forget the Milka chocolates. If there is sale in London then buy more and more Milka."

(Halfway from Heathrow to Dubai. Perhaps over Istanbul.)

Missus: "Where is that Milka we bought from duty-free?"

(Ten minutes later.)


(Nary a millisecond after landing in Dubai for 2.5 hour layover.)

Missus wiping large chocolate stains off her clothes: "I think we should buy more Milka for your sister..."
SV: "Goddamit I think my next book is going to be about Milka. Bloody nonsense. Fed up."

(Hours later in Kochi as we line up at passport checking counters.)

Missus: "Look at that advertisement on the TV screen behind the counters."


Two photos from Dubai Duty Free.

From left to right: Kerala Sheikh, Kerala Lake.

The Economy Class meal on board the Emirates flight from Heathrow to Dubai is one of the finest, if not the finest, meals I've ever eaten on a plane. Nonetheless the Kapoor-Vadukuts were feeling a tad peckish after landing in Dubai, and after due consideration we decided to partake of the excellent offerings of the McDonalds outlet inside the airport.

Oh McArabia Chicken! I have missed you verily.

There's more than one way to enjoy our chicken. And you'll like it like this! Two grilled chicken patties with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and garlic sauce lovingly folded in Arabic bread.

Not  just normally folded, my friends. But lovingly folded in Arabic bread. Shudder.

Whilst we settled into the food court, one of the cleaning staff ambled along and began to coo at Whataybaby. 

Staff chap: "How old is she?"
SV: "Nine months!"
Staff: "Awww! I have one back home who is a little older."

And then he went away, just as he had come along, like an enigma wrapped in a puzzle ensconced inside a private cleaning company's uniform.

So I told the missus about this funny thing that happened to me many years ago. This happened way back in the late 80s when we used to live in the small building on Abu Dhabi's Old Airport Road near St. Joseph's Church. One day the guy who runs the Malayali hotel downstairs knocked on the door. Or perhaps he rung the bell. I don't recall. My dad went through alternating bell-knocker phases. 

"Salaamalaikum Sunny chetta. Is your eldest son at home?" hotel uncle asked dad.

Turns out that it was hotel uncle's son's birthday. So naturally hotel uncle was planning to leverage core competency and throw a birthday party in the family section of his hotel. There was only one problem. His son was back home in Kerala. I don't recall if his son ever visited the gulf at all. I sincerely doubt it though. I don't think the hotel made very much money at all. Keeping family in the gulf has never been cheap. At least not for us brown folk.

So he decided to have a real birthday party with a fake birthday boy who approximately as old and chubby as his boy back home.

Later that evening, for the first and last time in my life, I stood in for someone else's birthday party. I wore a good set of clothes, polished shoes and posed for photos and cut a cake, and awkwardly waited for a large crowd of hotel workers and other bachelor Malayali NRI types to sing a song to some other boy. Obviously my brother tagged along and insisted on helping me cut the cake.

I used to have a photograph of that somewhat strange birthday party somewhere.

"That is so sweet Sidin," the missus said. And you know what? It actually was. It was also a little sad. All those towers and parks and gardens and shopping malls are built on foundations of lonely lives all crushed together into soul-concrete.

But still! I made hotel uncle happy! Yay.

And then, with moist, thoughtful eyes, we boarded our flight to Kochi.

SV to Passport Checking Officer at Kochi Airport in order to appear jovial: "Hello. Good morning. Enthaanu visheshangal?"
SV after noticing that officer's badge says Gupta: "Oh. Sorry sir. I assumed..."
Guptaji: "Arrey kuch nahi sir. I can understand if you speak Malayalam slowly. After some time you learn these things. And madam..."
(A few moments of silence.)
Guptaji: "Aap Delhi se ho?"
(Miscellaneous North Indian utterings and pleasantries ensue. These people are so tribal I tell you.)
Guptaji: "Aur is Malayali ko kahaan se pakda? Ha ha ha ha ha ha."
Missus: "Ha ha ha ha ha."
Whataybaby: "My father is a Malayali???? LIES LIES SO MANY LIES!"

Finally! Home! Thrissur! Oasis Housing Complex! Numerous bottles of Slice in the fridge! 

You know what they say in Kerala?

They say "Home is where the elephant temple festival ornament hangs on the wall."

My dad suffers from an acute case of "NRI Return Symbolism Ornamentation Syndrome". Also known as Kathakalimaskitis.

My dad suffers from an acute case of "NRI Return Symbolism Ornamentation Syndrome". Also known as Kathakalimaskitis.

Oho! Already this blog post is spinning out of word control. Also I have some other things to do that actually involve income. So why don't we catch up on the rest of my trip in the second part of Notes From A Brief Journey?

I will leave you with this lip-smacking culinary item from local Thrissur restaurant.

Also... who is Manchu?

Also... who is Manchu?

Actually their food would prove to be most excellent. But rest all in next blog post.

Cheerio chaps.