Saturday, May 24, 2014

India in a champagne bottle

This article was first published in DNA online on Friday 9 May 2014 a few days before the results of the Indian general elections were announced on Friday 16 May 2014...

Just a few more days remain before counting commences on May 16 for the 2014 Indian general elections. It has been, by most accounts, a divisive, personality-driven campaign that was mostly bereft of any convincing agenda. What agenda was there lasted a few days before divisiveness and personalities took centre-stage. And all of this came at the end of a decade of some progress, substantial growth and also a discontent that is now difficult to ignore. It has been a decade of lost opportunities, too, perhaps. I strongly believe it is time for a change; perhaps not a change of government as much as a change to the way we do things in India. This change is necessary so that we may realise the immense potential we have as a nation. A country that was poised to overtake all expectations of growth and development has stuttered and faltered like an unsure, immature and irresponsible adolescent on his first date.

One of our failures in the recent past has been a lack of vision at the very top: a vision that enables us to use the significant resources – that have been generated through impressive economic growth – to invest substantially in our rapidly declining social and physical infrastructure. And that is what development must be about. As Chapal Mehra writes in his piece in The Hindu ("What development? For whom?" The Hindu, May 6 2014), “Development in its simplest sense should be the ability of all Indians to realise their true potential without fear or obstacles. Development should address the lack of capabilities, knowledge, financial resources, and opportunity to step out of poverty and deprivation without fear. Development then is as much a process of providing services as of removing obstacles and giving freedom from all sorts of discrimination, exclusion, insufficient opportunities and fear of identity.” 

Growth does not automatically guarantee human development. And that is the change we must seek, so we may invest our significant resources in eradicating fear and building human capital. Despite all the remarkable progress and the possibilities, India has, in the words of Amartya Sen, “fallen behind many countries, including Bangladesh, in terms of quality of life.” We haven’t understood – leave alone invested enough in – education, healthcare and infrastructure to the extent we ought to have.

At a time when we ought to have invested in a future, we instead had India in a champagne bottle.

Yes, I know the stunning figures we could quote as a counter to that view. We have the largest, functioning, pluralistic democracy in the world. We have the largest army, a proliferation of mobile phones and a news readership that is the envy of the free press in much of the world. Even though our growth rate has slipped, many nations around the world would be happy to have such a growth rate as a distant aspiration. We have a middle class that is growing with each passing year. This middle class has greater ambitions for a better tomorrow, an aspiration that makes it work harder and longer, earn more and spend more on everything our parents would never even dream of owning.

We consume news like there is no tomorrow. While newspaper readership is shrinking in much of the developed world, most newspapers in India are doing extremely well and circulation figures are up. The Times of India, Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Malayala Manorama are among the top 12 newspapers in the world by circulation, and probably the only four in that group with subscription growth rates that are on the increase. We consume and read news while we wait in queue for our turn to be served in road-side restaurants, while waiting for our hair to be cut. Our auto-drivers and juice vendors read newspapers. We consume our news in English, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and all the other languages. Many homes will have a subscription to more than one newspaper, some in different languages as well. We have more all-news TV channels than any other nation in the world.

Our relationship with telephony is charming and absorbing all at once. The journey has been quite stunning for a country that, some 25 years ago, used to ask ordinary middle-class consumers to stand in queue for over a year before a landline telephone connection could be established in their homes. The under-privileged had no hope of getting such connectivity. India effectively leapfrogged an entire generation of technology and went from no connectivity to mobile connectivity. It started with PCO booths that sprung up on almost every street corner, from which we could make local, STD and ISD phone calls. As a people, we got used to talking. Today, we have more mobile phone users in India than anywhere else on the planet. Phone sales are growing at an incredible rate of 15 million mobile phones a month. In other words, there are as many new mobile phones sold in India every month as there are people in The Netherlands. There are some 900 million mobile phone subscribers in India –almost three times the population of the US.

As a result of all of this, there is, today, a real democratisation of information. Everyone in India is connected and is able to consume, use and distribute information in what is an amazing transformation that has taken place in our lifetime.

The information revolution has been undeniable and something we must be proud of. Now hold this up against the backdrop of a government scandal that accelerated this growth, which was as contemptible in its magnitude as it was abominable in its brazenness. Think what might have been if we had achieved this revolution without the stigma of a despicable scam. Is this ‘transaction cost’ – a necessary euphemism for scams perhaps – the cost of progress? Is this the cross we must bear so that we may unravel the story of a modern India, a story of lost opportunities and high ‘transaction costs’? Or is it the story of a champagne bottle?

It is undeniable though that, because of this information revolution, everyone is potentially empowered, from the point of view of participation in the democratic process, from the point of view of participation in informed critical argument and also from the point of view of social and commercial connectivity. Yet, in spite of all of this, most of us get our information through secondary sources. We must lay the blame at the doorstep of under-investment in education.


India has always been a story of education and the pursuit of knowledge that enables and drives social betterment. And that story must not change in India’s narrative, for it is only through informed critical argument that we will be able to banish fear and unleash the potential that exists. Without that, the democratic dividend that we often flaunt is quite meaningless. Only 23% of our children are enrolled in tertiary education – Algeria is at 31%, Albania at 55%, Mongolia at 61%, Chile at 74%, and Slovenia at 86%, just by way of comparison.

We must improve access to and quality of education and also develop skills through vocational training programmes. We aren’t doing enough in these areas. We, instead, have an entire population in a champagne bottle.

Modern India’s story must be one of development. We cannot have the information revolution sit side by side with an undereducated rural mass and malnourished children. As Chapal Mehra says, “The most basic indices of human development for the most vulnerable — being healthy, well-nourished, literate, and having equal opportunity without fear — are dependent on strong local governments, unbiased law enforcement and clean and effective public systems which work without prejudice.” 

Of all countries in the world, India has the maximum number of children suffering from malnutrition. We could attribute this to the lack of national wealth in pre-1990 India. India was poor and though it grated, the fact that malnourished children existed did not grate as much then as it does now. But since 1991, India has seen a 50% increase in GDP, and given this, our failure to address malnutrition is a travesty. Modern India must be more than concrete, connectivity, cinema, cuisine and cricket. We must address the champagne bottle.


I am convinced our progress depends substantially on knowledge creation and innovation, through science and technology, and through our ability to include traditional knowledge in our science and industrial innovation. My belief, also, is that we do this excellently in India. Examples exist of the way we have incorporated traditional, indigenous knowledge in fields such as botany in Ayurvedic medicine.

I am also convinced that India’s future prosperity as a nation will be driven by our ability to generate ideas that convert knowledge into impactful outcomes for public good and commercial success. Innovation is a critical driver not only for increased productivity and commercial success, but also for social causes and for achieving inclusive growth. We do this well, because we are, as a people creative in our approach to either coping with – or solving – the significant challenges facing society; jugaad is part of our everyday vocabulary. And it is through this that we are blessed with a native and innate creativity, one of the key ingredients to innovation. If only the ecosystem around us enabled us to tap into this potential – the story of the champagne bottle – we can achieve the kind of frugal innovation that we have achieved, through science and technology, in our space program.

In the science and technology space, we have been able to develop a space research program that is truly world class. We design satellites, build these and launch them masterfully not only for India but also for the rest of the world. And that is not merely because we are good at it, but because we can achieve impactful outcomes at a fraction of the cost that others require. When India recently launched the Mangalyaan space mission to Mars, what was remarkable – and this is a story that is well-known – was that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) achieved the launch at a total cost of US$75 million. In other words, India launched a space mission to Mars at a quarter of the money it took to make the Hollywood film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. A few days after India launched its Mars probe, NASA launched Maven, its own Mars mission at a total cost of nearly eight times the Mangalyaan mission. We know how to innovate frugally. We also know how to operate, succeed, deliver and thrive in spite of what Dr Ramesh Mashelkar calls “technology denial regimes”, which have assisted our innovations in several sectors including nuclear technology, supercomputing and perhaps even the pharma sector.

So clearly, if we put our mind to it and if we are guided by a national challenge and a goal, just as we have, in other fields, we can build, achieve and sustain a development program that is inclusive and equitable.


India is an idea sustained and nurtured by a pluralism that enables us to tolerate and celebrate differences. Indeed it is this difference that makes us who we are, and gives us the ability to co-exist and yet, thrive. It gives us the ability to be accepting of any contrary idea, because we just do not need to agree on anything at all; my idea is as good as yours, we can agree to disagree on just about anything. However, this compelling story of pluralism is woefully incomplete if we do not agree on the fundamental principles of equality and justice. We live in an unequal India of haves and have-nots where ‘giving’ had to be legislated through a CSR bill. We live in an India where women are not entirely safe. We live in an India where a prime ministerial candidate might get elected to power on the promise of ensuring all houses have a toilet (houses that, I might add, may have a colour TV and a mobile phone).

To everyone who says we have good growth story, I say it is not enough. Yes, we do have growth rate of at least 6%. But why is it not 13%? We have the potential to get there, a potential that is stymied by those that are entrusted with charting our progress.

Today’s India is, to me a champagne bottle. This is a well-worn metaphor, but one that is applicable to the India I embrace, a land of immense opportunity, pluralism and vibrancy. Provided, that is, the cork in the champagne bottle is released, thereby allowing the bubbles to thrive, breathe and contribute.

- Mohan (@mohank)

The author is a cricket tragic, a keen trekker and a mathematician. He tweets at @mohank, and blogs at and

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Email etiquette: On responding to emails and meeting requests

This article was first published in DNA online on Friday 31 January 2014.

When I moved back to India about four years ago, I often got worked up about the fact that not many people responded to an email or a meeting request appropriately. In Australia, where I lived and worked for much of my professional life, responses to email meeting requests were almost always immediate. It might be just a “Yep, you’re on, mate”, or even a “You’ve got to be kidding. No way I’m going to make it to a 7am meeting. Get stuffed”
But I would get a response. 
I wasn’t quite used to the silence and darkness in email communication I observed on a regular basis in India. I wasn’t quite used to following up an email communiqué with at least two or three more emails, in which the energy in the subject being discussed or the urgency of the meeting request progressively increased with every email.
I would get some responses, of course, which were lukewarm, at best. Some of the typical ones were “Aah yes. That time should be ok” or “Yes ok. That time could be ok”. I was never sure what these actually meant. Did the inclusion of the non-committal “would” or “could” mean the meeting was on, or not?
It took me a while to figure out that the presence of would/should/could in response to a meeting request often meant that the person was keeping his/her options open, either for a potential future cancellation, or on the possibility that they might secure better meeting prospects and bail out on me. This made life quite complex for a neurotically fixated, madly organised and fastidiously structured person like me. 
Of course, this was more my problem than theirs. But that is also a significant problem and a striking dysfunctionality in the business (and in the non-professional) landscape here in India – far too many people worry only about their own issues and problems, and seldom put themselves in the shoes of the person they have an implicit obligation towards.
Soon, however, I got used to the lack of responses. I had to ensure each meeting request was sent to the recipient at least three or four times – a debilitating and sapping process of deliberate e-harassment that I detested – before I secured a response. I hated being the harasser, but I was left with no choice. Often, this meant meetings were fixed only at the last moment before an inter-city business trip commenced. And this often meant I had to live with concomitant sub-optimal travel logistics. 
The cost of an airline ticket for such a trip, planned and executed at the very last minute, would be much higher than a trip that I had begun planning three weeks earlier. These last minute arrangements and changes meant that I would often crisscross the locations of my meetings in a highly inefficient manner. Essentially, the transaction costs became much higher than they needed to be; sometimes as much as 20% higher. I am reasonably confident that the transaction cost escalation applies to everyone else in industry as well. So imagine the time and cost savings that could accrue if all of us responded with alacrity to emails and meeting requests. 
Of course, all of this applies as much to personal engagements as it does in the professional space. RSVPs on invites, for instance, are often seen as just a bunch of alphabets that very few people seem to care about. We seldom feel the need to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who depend on us.
But now I have become quite used to this e-silence. It still pains me and disgusts me, but I am now more accepting of this as a way of life. I also got used to this new way of harassing people for meetings within about four months of arriving in Mumbai. And then, about a month later, I was floored by a somewhat unique response to a request: “I think that in all probability that date-time is highly likely to be possibly ok!” Now, I can buy one option on a future cancellation, but there are at least four hedges in that particular form of extreme dithering!
This sort of behaviour is not restricted to meeting requests alone. Many emails tend to go into black holes. We don’t see the need to respond to all emails efficiently and systematically, and this can hurt us in the long run. Of course, we are all, no doubt, constantly deluged by an incessant tsunami of emails. However, we do have an obligation to respond to genuine emails or delegate that task to someone else, even if it is just a holding response. If not, perhaps it gives cause to reflect on our roles, our purpose and on whether we should be occupying the positions we do. 
Responding to professional correspondence – and emails are a very important form of professional correspondence today – is a professional obligation for people in any position in any organisation. It is part of professional hygiene and basic business etiquette that everyone should have; be it CEOs, managers, government officers, clerks or security personnel. Often, an email is responded to simply because the recipient has been badgered by the sender. This is just horribly inefficient. And not responding to emails is not a sign that a person is busy or ultra-important, but actually that they are disorganised and unprofessional.
This is particularly so in the world of research and education, which I inhabit. 
In an article in Current Science, Sharma, A., Malhotra, A. and Sharma, P. (Current Science, 2012, Vol 102, pages 9–10) make the case that Indian students seek internship and higher study opportunities overseas because their emails and other correspondence get responded to promptly and professionally. They conclude that this behaviour possibly hampers our collective progress in science. 
In a long letter to Current Science (Current Science, Vol. 102, No. 10, 25 May 2012), Shubha Tole from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), agrees with the points in the aforementioned article and argues that “students who receive replies to their queries feel encouraged about science, even if the reply is not positive.” 
While our primary role as academics might be to do research or to teach – or in the case of a senior manager in a business enterprise, to run the company effectively – our role in today’s complex world is also to protect and enhance the brand of the organisations we work in. Part of that brand comes from how responsive we are to people who reach out to us.
Tole argues that one possible, albeit cynical reason for our reluctance to reply to emails probably stems from a fear of committing to anything in writing. She says, “If one replies to an e-mail, one can be held accountable for what one says – it is better to express misgivings or agreements verbally. So not replying to e-mails becomes but a symptom of a broader problem that makes our system operate in an unprofessional manner.” A simple response to that point is that if the person cannot do whatever the job requires them to do – that is, to be responsive and accountable – they do have a choice: they can vacate the position and hand over the responsibilities to someone who wants (and is able to do) just that.
Yet another behaviour that amuses me is that of executive or personal assistants. If they do not have the authority to organise their boss’ meetings, I think they become nothing more than gatekeepers. Their capabilities and role as a diary manager is somewhat wasted. Often, I get a “let me talk to the boss and get back to you” response to a meeting request that is gated through the EA. As a boss, if your EA does not know your priorities and does not have the delegation to accept meetings for you, I believe you are stuffed even before you start.
If an email is not a spam, we have to realise and accept that we have an obligation to respond to it, and that by not responding to it, (a) we send a direct message to the sender that they are not important to us and we have deliberately chosen to ignore them, or (b) we are utterly disorganised and unprofessional. 
Now that smart phones and ubiquitous connectivity have pervaded all aspects of our professional lives, we make these choices every time we ignore an email or a meeting request. 
In saying that, I do of course, realise that some emails (and meeting requests) will be more important than others. So, while a delayed response is acceptable, ignoring the communiqué is not. Even if it is a ‘holding response’ it is our obligation to do just that: Respond.
-- Mohan (@mohank)

The idea of a 'back home'

This article was first published in DNA online on Thursday 23 January 2014.

It was the end of a long flight back to Mumbai from Melbourne last year. I was tired and itching to get back to the comfort of my own bed after having been on the road for the best part of the preceding month. The stewards were preparing for landing, and one of them who was going around collecting headsets smiled at me and remarked, “Nice to be back home, I’m sure.”
The question set me off-kilter. I didn’t know what or how to reply. I smiled sheepishly and waveringly, as though the steward had just asked me to explain the principles of general relativity.
I lived in Melbourne for 17 years before moving to Mumbai in 2009 for professional reasons. When the steward asked me that question, I wasn’t sure what “back home” meant anymore.
The irony is that in all my years in Melbourne, I would always refer to India as “back home”. I would talk almost longingly about the vibrancy, the anarchy, the energy and the chaos of life “back home”. I would weave in phrases about life “back home” in many normal conversations. So much so, that my Australian colleagues and friends would often ask if I intended to head “back home” to India some day in the future. “Back home” had become an integral part of my normal lexicon.
The clear empirical evidence there pointed to a reduction that, somehow, my memories, my senses and sensory experiences, directly or indirectly, considered that home wasn’t where I currently was. 
And mine is probably not an isolated experience. It is possibly a diasporic phenomenon.
We move our locations (either across countries or within a country) for a variety of reasons of course, not least because of better – or different – career opportunities, better living standards, safety and (in some extreme cases) fear of persecution.
And when we move, along with our skills, capabilities, expertise and aspirations, we also take with us memories: memories of our childhood; of school or college; of cricket matches we may have played or watched; of football teams we may have supported; of our parents and the values they imparted; of arguments we may have had; of friendships, partnerships and relationships; of movies we watched; of pranks we may have pulled. And more. We also carry with us the values that make us who we are. Most of these are imprinted in us through the early stages of life, when we soak up everything that is around us from our parents, relatives, friends and role models.
In a beautifully written article, The West Indian Front Room: Reflections on a Diasporic Phenomenon, Michael McMillan writes, 
“The front room was a contradictory space, where the efficacy of the display was sometimes more important than the authenticity of the objects, such as artificial flowers, plastic pineapple ice buckets, floral patterned carpet and wallpaper that never matched, and pictures of the scantily clad “Tina” next to The Last Supper. The dressing and maintenance of the front room reveals a form of “impression management,” as in the flexible presentation of self that brings up issues of “good grooming” among people of African descent. It was very much my mother’s room, and as a second-generation, black British person from an aspirant working-class family of Vincentian parentage, I have ambivalent memories of it. I must confess that growing up I was embarrassed about the front room’s aesthetics, as it seemed in “bad taste,” or had no taste at all; in other words, it was “kitsch”—a pejorative social code for working-class culture.”
And I could relate to that completely as I set up home in Melbourne. It was as if around me, I had objects that both validated and reinforced my own memories of “back home”. Moreover, I continually saw objects such as these in almost every home I visited, and these provided more reinforcement of these memories and values. It was hard to escape, or perhaps I did not want to escape them. I was comfortable with the notion of “back home”.
There were other significant behaviours and anchors too that played to the collective memory of “back home”. Though I was constantly striving to integrate – socially, culturally and politically – into the nation I had embraced as my current “home”, I was constantly and acutely aware of my origins; not only by my ‘front room’ but also by the clothes I wore, the way I spoke and the values I held.
Meanwhile, value systems were undergoing a quiet metamorphosis in India – if it is even possible to identify, leave alone quantify something as complex as an average set of values that characterise a society or system. But I held on to the values that I knew and cherished.
I would read the Sydney Morning Herald and The Hindu everyday. I attended and organised Indian classical music concerts, ate Indian food, attended Dandiya nights during Navratri, played cards during Diwali and got together with Indian friends regularly. And when we got together, we would speak in Tamil or Hindi or Telugu or Gujarati. I attended (and helped friends organise) Indian weddings and (sadly) cremations just the way these are conducted “back home”. I would regularly call family and friends “back home”. And I would occasionally send remittances “back home” and helped contribute to India being the country which receives most remittances from diaspora. Our homes became, in Michael McMillan’s words, a “museum of archived memories”. The objects in it become metaphors that constantly reminded us of our memories and values.
So, it was somewhat natural that for many like me, India was “back home” for much of the duration of our stay overseas. During holiday trips “back home” from Australia or the US or Great Britain, we may have despaired at (or criticised) the lack of progress or inadequate resources or lack of hygiene or inadequate facilities as we energetically shopped for more objects for our front rooms.
And then there are those, like me, who chose to return to India to work, after having lived and worked overseas for many years. We may have returned for a variety of reasons: professional, personal, or both. The longer we "returnees” lived overseas, the more difficult it is for us to reintegrate into the home of our origin. The readjustment is not only to a different pace of life but also to a community identity that is shaped by values very different to the ones locked away in our collective memories.
My reintegration was certainly very difficult. But, as I write here, my wife and I wanted to undergo the “returnee” experience mainly for ourselves. It was a decision that was self-imposed, selfish and self-focused. We returned because we wanted to, unlike Sumedh Mungee, whose article inspired my blog post linked above.
As a returnee, I needed to quickly re-emerge from the value time-warp I was in and readjust to a society and a culture that had changed quite dramatically. This was exceedingly difficult for me considering I – like many other returnees – had gained and absorbed an Australian identity even without actually realising it.
I was acutely aware of the common perception that returnees come with an attitude baggage that includes a seemingly never ending series of patronising attitudes. As a returnee, I did feel a sense of cultural alienation but was acutely aware that I did not want to be a passenger, an observer or, even worse, a tourist. This was “back home”, for heaven’s sake!
Without my noticing it however, over the last four years that I have lived in India, I must have realised that “back home” wasn’t really India anymore. Indeed, without my realising it, I hadn’t used the term “home” as often as I had, while I lived in Melbourne. The concept of “back home” itself had become quite alien to me. Certainly India did not resonate anymore as “back home”.
I realised this because the steward’s question completely shook me. After what seemed like an eternity, I answered awkwardly, “No, actually. I’m travelling from home to the city I currently work in.”
I was initially shocked at my own answer. But on reflection, I started to come to terms with that immediate and seemingly knee-jerk assertion.
It isn’t as though I have suddenly developed a sense of dislike for India. It is not as if I have given up on the concept of India or my love for the country. It is not as if I had discovered a new sense of detachment from India and her people. I love my life here in India as much as I did earlier, in my memories of India as a young lad. It is just that, to me, the “back home” question speaks more of the images that get associated with the roots of who and what I am today. For me, home is less about the place where my family resides or one strongly associated with my memories as a child. Nor is it just about the soil of the place I was born in.
Today, home is more about the place I am happiest, where I am most at ease, where I am least awkward, where my friends live, where I can run in peace, where I can laugh at or crack a silly joke without being judged, where I feel the air I breathe travel through my body, where I feel an unstoppable and relentless surge of energy inside me, where I sense and witness a clarity of thought, where I see maximal alignment of my own values with the values of the community I am a part of, where I want to (and feel that I can) contribute and make an impact to the society around me, where I can be who I want to be...
In that sense, home to me had become the place where my mind, body, intellect and soul are in sync with the earth, the environment, the community and the contexts around me. It had become the place where I fashioned for myself a sense of my own, unique identity. I had unwittingly allowed for the possibility that my home might even change with time and that, a few years from now, I might refer to New York or Toronto, say, as “back home”.
It is said that it is only when we step out of our existential comfort zones that we can see with clarity all that is important to us. This is particularly relevant in our world today where it is said that, for a variety of reasons – political, social and economic – over 250 million people live in a country other than the country of their birth, and over 700 million people migrate to a different “home” within their own country (read here).
My stint in India has allowed me to see more clearly that this concept of “back home” is mildly irrelevant in today’s world and that I had used it many a time without thinking about it clearly enough.
As the steward moved away from me, headset in hand, I drew her attention again and said, “No scratch that. I am travelling from what is currently “back home” to the place I currently work. Of course, this could all change next year.”
-- Mohan (@mohank)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mumbai Marathon: People's support makes runners feel like heroes

This article was first published in DNA online on Monday 20 January 2014.

Mumbai Marathon 2014 runners on the Worli Sea Link on January 19. - Swapnil Sakhare/DNA

After having run a few marathons and half marathons around the world, I am quite convinced the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) is one of the best events for the amateur runner. 

The SCMM is an annual event, usually held on the third Sunday in January. And it is the one day in the year when I actually applaud Mumbai’s otherwise stifling, suffocating crowds. On all other days, the throng can be intense, consuming and stressful. Everyone pushes and prods you, and appears to just want to get ahead of everyone else. 

However, every Mumbai Marathon I run – yesterday was my fourth – I look forward to running in the city even more, because the same crowds that jostle you every day, line the streets to cheer and encourage you to complete. For one day, the people of Mumbai make the runners feel like heroes. 

People, men and women, young and old, stand in a chain of humanity along the pavements from the end of the Worli Sea Link all the way to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST station). They applaud and yell encouragement which, I am convinced, sends enough adrenaline rushing through the runners to spur them on for at least the next two kilometres of their run. The feeling that rushes through you as you hear the support is like a drug. 

Unlike last year, I had trained well for my run on Sunday, January 19, 2014. In a weak moment in January last year, I had decided that I would run twelve half marathons in the following year; this was my 12th for the year, so I was well prepared.

The main cry from the sidelines until last year, “Run Mumbai Run”, was replaced this year by “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag”. Even the announcers exhorted the participating Milkhas to run harder and faster to the finish line. Many spectators even yelled “Ganpati Bappa Moriya”. The chants of “keep running, there’s not far to go” provided a constant tonic to my exhausted feet; they not only add to the atmosphere, but also relieve the pain of running. Though, I did wonder if “fire on the mountain, run, run, run!” was an entirely appropriate chant!

The entire course was littered with advertisements for products and services. Many runners wore T-Shirts advertising the company they worked for or the charity they were running for, others had tags with the same information pinned to their T-shirts. But the most wonderful message I saw was by a young lad. Except for two words patterned on the back of his head, he had tonsured the rest. His message simply read “donate blood”. I hugged him as I ran past and resolved to book myself in for a blood donation this week.

I spotted a wizened, wispy-grey-haired old gentleman seated in a plastic chair by the side of the road near Jaslok Hospital, the toughest segment of an otherwise easy course. He was probably about 80 years old and, as he applauded enthusiastically and continually, his family members handed out biscuits, lollies, orange peels and water to runners. A metre away, another family had set up a relief-station. They sprayed the weary calves and hamstrings of runners who wanted relief from pain. When I ran past, there were at least 15 discarded relief spray cans around them. Another family had set up an ice-pack station and applied ice cubes wrapped in plastic sachets to the calves of distressed runners. 

I was also constantly inspired by the runners around me. Somewhere close to the finish line, I saw a visually impaired young boy being led on his run by a helper. The sheer joy writ on the face of the boy made me simultaneously cheer and tear up. 

The banner holders, chanters, helpers and runners make the SCMM a truly amazing and wonderful run. 

The Mumbai Marathon is wonderfully organised, but there are a few things the runners and organisers need to look into.

Many runners just dropped their water bottles – or worse, their orange peels and lollies – on the road at their feet immediately after taking a few sips or finishing their drink or biting into their orange peel. This is just poor etiquette, in my view. First, you shouldn’t litter. Second, dropping juice, water and peels will make the road slippery, and the water bottles will act as needless obstacles for the runners, especially the elite runners who run at top speeds. It is best if the litter and half (or completely) empty bottles are dropped into bins or flung to one side of the road.

The SCMM has plenty of water stations, which is certainly a huge positive. The last thing you want as a distance runner is to worry about the non-availability of water. In the Mumbai Marathon, you can be confident you will never be too far from a water station while running. However, it should not be too hard to mark each water station clearly with a banner that makes it easily recognisable from at least 100m away. A blue dot that sticks out on a standee (say) 3m high will mark the station quite clearly and distinctly. Depending on which side of the road the banner is, runners who need the water can line up on that side of the road as they approach the station. The last thing you want is runners cutting across your path from one side of the road to the other the moment they realise they may be about to cross a water station.

Also, as an increasing number of people run the SCMM each year, the finishing area gets more and more chaotic. This year, apart from the fact that mobile reception was incredibly poor (though marginally better than last year), the distribution of medals and refreshment packs for runners took too long. I waited nearly half an hour to collect my race completion medal and, frankly, I had half a mind to just give up and go home. It would be great to see better organisation and crowd dispersion management controls at the finish line. 

Like last year, this year too, I ran for a worthy cause: Vidya. They do some committed and wonderful work, and provide access to education to the underprivileged. My aim was to raise at least ₹1 lakh for them, and though I have more than achieved that aim (thank you to everyone who contributed), I am sure Vidya wouldn’t mind receiving more for the work they do.

But, for me, the Mumbai Marathon is about the people of Mumbai who line up the pavements from Worli to CST. These men, women and children have no reason to be out early on a cool January Sunday morning to enthusiastically encourage runners. But they are there, and I have never seen such heartfelt participation anywhere as I have in Mumbai. This, in my view, is what makes the SCMM one of the very best races in the world.

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The mountains are calling and I must go...

This article was first published in DNA Online on 30 December 2013.

In 1873, John Muir, the famous Scots-born American explorer, botanist, naturalist and author, wrote a letter to his sister, Sarah Muir Galloway, just after returning from his longest and hardest trip to the mountains. He had been away for five weeks, exploring the mountains and glaciers around the Yosemite Valley, and talks about his next trip to Kings River and Lake Tahoe. 

He signs off in a display of deep yearning: “The mountains are calling and I must go...”

Mountains had everything Muir wanted: solace, wildernesses, challenges and the ability to understand nature. Even today, they mean different things to different people. For some, they represent the ability to escape from the mundane, for others they are a pilgrimage. 

Mountains, to me, represent immense beauty, resilience and strength. For a few days a year, they also allow me to exist in an environment where I am not a slave to time. Time is instead a great expanse in which I can walk, talk, climb, read, sleep, cook, gather wood for a fire, sing or listen to music. My sense of time undergoes a significant alteration when I am in the mountains. A day’s trek of eight hours may often seem like an eternity. On other days, I may have walked for 10 hours straight but felt as if I’ve been walking for barely two.  The Himalayas are an escape from my time-bound and transactional life, and I embrace this escape every year.

On my first trip to the Garhwal Himalayas, I struggled a bit and thought it might be my last trek. But I underestimated the lure of the mountains. Ruskin Bond writes in his poem Living with Mountains in A Bond with the Mountains: “Once you have lived with mountains, under the benedictory pines and deodars, near stars and a brighter moon... You will return, you will come back to touch the trees and grass, and climb once more the windswept mountain pass.”

Why: The motivations

There are times on every expedition when I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I here?” On my recent trek to Changabang through the Bagini Glacier, there was a particularly steep climb up to Kala Khal, the last pass we crossed on our 12-day trip. As I trudged up this tough mountain, I asked myself that same question.

It is easy to glibly repeat what George Mallory said after climbing the Everest, “Because it is there”. But this answer somehow misses the point, for Antarctica is also ‘there’, and I don’t feel the overwhelming compulsion to visit annually. The Himalayas, on the other hand, draw me every year. 

On a trek, especially at altitudes above 4000m, every day can be a struggle. Many times, my friends and I are exhausted and somewhat irritable. On most days above 4000m, we suffer headaches (and sometimes, nausea too) from the high altitudes and oxygen scarcity. Some climbers and trekkers have to take Diamox, a pill to combat acute mountain sickness (AMS). I have not had to use it yet, but I am acutely sleep deprived at heights over 3500m. On most trek nights, I am on a two-hour sleep cycle, with an hour in between to toss and turn, listen to music and somehow will myself to sleep again. (I carry a solar charger to recharge my iPod and our camera batteries.) There is no water to wash or shower with on a regular basis. A bowl of hot water is all you get every morning. 

Here are a few specific 

Yet, the lure of the Himalayas is immense. The views, the pure air, the quiet, the solitude, the ability to introspect, and the ability to exist in a different sense of time and space have made a trek to the Himalayas an annual necessity. I experience a heightened sense of accomplishment and freedom in the mountains. On most treks, even as we complete one climb, we are already planning the next, one which is invariably higher and more difficult. 

While on a climb, as I contemplate that ‘why’ question, I am essentially addressing an internal conflict: where my irrational fears war with my intellect; where awareness of my capability and weaknesses clashes with misplaced overconfidence; where my ego confronts my conscience, which tells me climbing is not about conquering. It is here that I learn most about myself. 

You can train for a climb, acquire all the physical strength you need, but in the mountains, mere physical strength isn’t enough. Sometimes, just the intellectual strength, drive, passion and motivation isn’t enough either. It’s all about striking a harmonious balance. I cannot be arrogant or self-obsessed enough to think that the climb is just about broadening my understanding of myself. And it is certainly not about conquering peaks. 

My friend and Garhwal mountain guide Raju said to me many years ago, “We Garhwali folk do not conquer mountains. To us, the mountain is a Goddess. We take her permission to use her for our own benefit.” He added unpretentiously, “I have never ever conquered any mountain.” 

Now, Raju is someone who radiates fitness and good health and, in over 30 years of trekking and climbing, has climbed many difficult peaks in the Himalayas. He went on to explain that this was why Garhwali guides would never place a flag at the peak of the mountains they climb. A flag at the peak would suggest that the expedition had ‘conquered’ the mountain. “We always place the flag a few metres short of the peak. If we think we have conquered the mountain, our Goddess has a way of teaching us unpleasant lessons on the way back.” 

This message resonated with my own sense of respect for the mountains, although I could never have articulated my thoughts as beautifully as Raju did. I feel each step on the mountain is an act of devotion and submission. I suspect that this, more than anything else, enables me to endure much more than what my modest physical abilities would otherwise allow me. 

And here is a post on 

The American Alpine Association answers the ‘why’ question quite simply: 
“It takes us to places of incredible beauty, and it challenges us to find untapped reserves of strength and resourcefulness. It’s also just plain fun, if you don’t mind putting out a little effort. For some of us it will be our life’s work; for others it’s a deliberate detour on the way to bigger things.  But it’s a passion that comes naturally to all of us.”

How: The preparation

You have to train to climb mountains and the training is not easy, especially if you want to attempt heights greater than 4000m (about 13,200ft). You have to train physically as well as mentally. You also have to learn to appreciate the risks and dangers, and how to mitigate them. 

Tough pre-trek training always pays off when you are in a particularly difficult position on a climb. You need to know that you have successfully tackled it before and can do so again. You train so that in testing situations in the mountains, your rational intellect can immediately co-exist with the mind, which perceives dangers. That is when the preparation, the daily conditioning, the acclimatization, the experience and the risk awareness come together harmoniously. Fear is replaced by a fabulous sense of calm focus, abundant lucidity and drive. 

My training has been severely compromised – in terms of intensity – in Mumbai, where it is very difficult to find either open spaces or training playgrounds (essentially, easily accessible trekking tracks). I alternate between interval training on a treadmill and stair climbs for 3-4 months prior to a trek. On some weekends I also undertake treks to nearby hills around Mumbai. 

This preparation is crucial. You just cannot attempt a serious trek without the preparation. You have to feel the pain. You have to sweat, run out of breath, feel like you’re about to collapse.

When I begin training before a trek, I try to climb up 25 flights of stairs, starting at four repetitions, and doing as many as 10 repetitions as I get accustomed to the routine. The more you train, the faster, quicker and easier it gets. Often, boredom kicks in. But you just persist because you just have to. On some days, I run up and down 6 flights of stairs to weave in interval training into my stair climb too.

Earlier, when I trained early in the mornings, the cleaners, the newspaper boy or milkman – the only other people I see using the stairs at 5am – would look at me, all covered in sweat, and wonder why I was doing this. I’d often feel silly, smile sheepishly and keep plugging away. I do it because I know that if I hadn’t put in the preparation or if I hadn’t practiced pressure breathing (or forced hyperventilation) I wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – completed the treks and climbs I have undertaken. So every day during my preparation, I will myself to do better or climb more than the previous day’s stair climb. 

If the preparation is wrong, I believe almost everything is compromised and we end up with a thoroughly sub-optimal outcome. I’m a big believer in a sharp focus on daily hygiene factors and if this is accomplished, the outcomes just take care of themselves. 

By the end of my preparation for the recent Changabang trek, I had worked myself into doing eight repetitions of 25 floors reasonably easily – sometimes with weights around my ankles or with a backpack filled with weights. The idea is to simulate the conditions and stresses induced in the mountains. Of course, it is impossible to simulate the cold, thin air. Mumbai does have a high-altitude training centre called Pilates Altitude, started by John Gloster, a former fitness coach of the Indian cricket team, and his partner. Though I haven’t used it yet, I have heard it is a wonderful resource. So far, though, the stairs have worked just fine for me.

I believe preparation and hard work are key to most things in life. This is doubly true when it comes to the mountains, where almost everything is difficult. The weather is the only facet of a climb not in our control. In the months preceding a climb, you need to prepare such that the weather is the only variable and all other aspects are completely under our control.

What: The lessons

The main lesson the mountains have taught me is of the importance of preparation, commitment and balance on a trek. 

Mountain climbs have taught me to not be overconfident. In spite of that, on the recent Changabang trek, an overconfident stride on a boulder resulted in a slip. The resulting cartilage damage to my wrist that has still not healed completely some 12 weeks after the conclusion of that trek.

What worries me more, though, is the lack of confidence that constantly arises in the mountains. Doubts plague you constantly: Will I be able to tackle this ridge? Are the boulders too loose? What if I fall down this crevasse? Is it too steep? Will the scree or loose sand send me crashing down the slope? What if I stop breathing? Why is my heart beating so crazily? Why is the pain in my heel not going away? Why can’t I sleep?

In the silence of the mountain, you can sometimes hear your doubts as they replay in your mind. You cannot let them get you down. You have to learn to convince yourself that your training and your preparation will get you through; that you have done all the hard work; that the only unknown is the weather.

You have to respect the surroundings and constantly strive for a balance between overconfidence and lack of confidence. The latter produces excuses and what is referred to as ‘anticipatory regret’. It is necessary to make more and more of the unknowns known through focus and hard work during preparation. This learning can be carried across to your professional life too, in the workplace and the projects, groups or teams that you lead.

The mountains force you to introspect, and banish your demons and irrational fears. Over time, as we battle through our days in tough and sometimes unpleasant city lives, the mirror that we need to hold to take a deep look at ourselves loses its shine. We are often unable to see who we transform into. In the mountains, when you encounter a particularly tricky ridge or a glacier crossing or a climb, when you are out there on your own, completely vulnerable, you have no choice but to dig deep within and find who you are and what you are made of.  

Sir Edmund Hillary got it right. He said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

These treks have also taught me the values of commitment and persistence, and instilled in me a willingness to work hard. I might hate the laboriousness of daily preparation, but I must do it for two reasons. First, I do it for my own satisfaction. There is nothing worse than a trek you are badly prepared for. It turns into a dreadful experience very quickly. I prepare well because the journey must be enjoyable, and without the preparation, the mountains expose you completely. 

I also put in the hard-yards, for otherwise I would drag down the entire team that treks with me. There is a larger sense of purpose to the battery of training. It is as much about you as it is about the rest of the team, to whom you have a responsibility. The preparation makes the journey pleasant and enjoyable – not only for me, but for everyone else. And that is a significant lesson from the treks I have undertaken. We do not exist as islands; the work we do impacts others too. If we do not prepare well for the work we need to do, it not only affects our work (or enjoyment) but others’ too. Commitment and persistence are vitally important.

As Nik Wallenda, adventure seeker and tightrope walker, said of preparation: “Being on a tightrope is living, rest is waiting.” 

At one point on the recent trek, I slipped, fell and injured myself slightly. We were at a high altitude, so I was totally winded by the fall. Our guide was a bit ahead of me. He rushed back, looked at me and held out his hand. He indicated that he could hold me, assist me and, if needed, drag me up the rest of the way up the peak. Perhaps I saw a lack of belief in his face; perhaps my ego kicked in. I built resolve. I told myself I could do it, I would do it. I instinctively trusted my preparation – and myself. I thanked the guide and said I wanted to complete the climb unassisted. I did. A bit of confidence and self-belief – and occasionally a bit of pride and ego too – does not go awry. Of course, as long you strike a balance.

I realise this may sound clichéd, but on treks and climbs, it really is about the journey and not the destination. The previous year, for a variety of reasons, I could not reach the peak of the Stok Kangri mountain. I decided to abandon the climb some 300m short of the peak. I have absolutely no regrets over that decision. I had thoroughly enjoyed the climb until that point. On every trek, I need to enjoy the journey, and especially the preparation. If I do that, the destination (or the outcome) takes care of itself. 

But the most important lesson is that the Himalayas can elevate the soul even when it tears you up from the inside, emotionally, physically, psychologically, physiologically and mentally.

Just go. And if you do, like John Muir, you too will say, “The mountains are calling and I must go...”

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Bagini Glacier and Changabang: Trek Details

In October 2013 I trekked to Bagini Glacier, Changabang base, Kala Khal and Kanari Khal.

I wrote a few blogposts about it:

Here, I provide basic details of the trek we undertook.

We traveled to Joshimath by car from Haridwar after reaching Haridwar by train from Delhi. From Joshimath, our Changabang trek commenced.

On the first day (day-1) we trekked from Joshimath to Gorson, via Auli and returned to Joshimath. This was just to get used to the high altitudes and was part of our acclimatization. I would recommend a day like this prior to commencing any arduous trek.

On the second day of our trek (the first day of our Changabang trek) we set off quite early, by car, from Joshimath to Jumma village. From there, our actual journey began. The trek from Jumma Village to Bagini Base Camp and Changabang Base Camp takes you through the villages of Ruing (at 2800m, the first night) and Donagiri (3700m, second night) and follows the steep, crystal clear, cold and spectacular Dhauli Ganga River for much of the trek. 

To reach Ruing (day-2), you trek through woods of tall oak trees, a pleasant trek despite the occasional narrowness of the track. It is a reasonably easy despite a few narrow ledges and a few steep climbs. The path is quite well marked out. 

The trek towards Donagiri Village from Ruing (day-3) is through the really picturesque and wonderful Chancha valley which is filled with crustal-clear streams and tall trees although, by the time you reach Donagiri village, the tall trees have already disappeared. This too is an enjoyable trek. Although the overall gain during the day is nearly 1000m, almost every steep climb is followed by a comfortable, level walk for a bit which provides a natural recovery. At the start, we thought that this would be the toughest day of trekking because of the overall gain in elevation, but it proved to be one of the most enjoyable and was a somewhat easy day of trekking for the whole group.

Our camp was some 2 kilometres away from the Donagiri village. It was quite late by the time we got to the Donagiri village. So we weren't able to admire the natural beauty around us. But we woke up to the spectacular sight of snow-capped mountains all around us. We could see Haathi-Ghoda, Dronagiri, Hardeval, Monal and many other peaks from our camp

View of Haathi-Ghoda mountains from Dronagiri camp [Photo Credit: Prasshanth]
Beyond the Dronagiri camp, after a short walk on a lovely meadow (from which you get spectacular views of the Dronagiri and Hathi-Ghoda mountains), the walk is almost entirely along the Bagini River and atop boulders. This is also a relatively easy day but can be quite fatigue-inducing because of the relentlessness of the traversal atop boulders.

The trek from Donagiri village to the Bagini Base Camp (day-4) is almost entirely along a relentless and extremely wide moraine meadow. It is pretty in some parts, but mostly quite tiring as the moraine rolls on for ever. Walking atop boulders is not a pleasant experience and you need to do it unremittingly and seemingly interminably. 

The climb from Bagini Base camp to the foothills of the Changabang mountain (day-5) was the most spectacular trek/climb I have ever undertaken. From the Bagini Base camp, we walked along a snow-ridge for what seemed like an eternity until Changabang suddenly revealed itself. The sight itself is worth the hardship of the trek. Some people cross a glacier to reach the Changabang Advanced Base Camp, but we decided to return. You could either return to the Bagini Base Camp and spend an additional night there or continue on towards Toli. We carried on to Toli Camp which is a further 3-hour (mostly downhill) trek from Bagini Base Camp. A lovely, clear and cold stream runs alongside the Toli camp, where had our first decent wash of the trek. 

After the first day of our trek, we had no access to mobile phone signals. There were no text messages, no email notices, and no phone calls. We walked, talked, introspected, laughed and argued. At nights, those of us who could, sang a bit although when oxygen is in short supply, I sing worse than I normally do. On a few nights -- particularly at lower altitudes where we could find an adequate supply of branches -- we stood by a fire and warmed ourselves up. There is nothing much to do other than talk, think, introspect, sing songs, play cards or read.

The next day (day-6), we walked up to Kanari Khal (Kanari Pass) and down to Raj Kharak. Before I set out on this trek I had miscalculated the degree of difficulty involved on this day in particular and on this trek, in general. I thought it would be less arduous than the Stok Kangri trek I had undertaken earlier. The last three days of this trek made this one a much tougher trek although we were at lower altitudes. We gained only 400m (from 3800m to 4200m) on our trek to Kanari Khal, but the climb was incredibly steep and quite difficult in parts. From the pass we descended to the Raj Kharak meadows to camp there. We encountered a network of lovely streams and had the enviable luxury of a second wash in two days. It was quite useful for we were about to embark on a tough climb to Kala Khal the next day.

Again, the climb to Kala Khal (day-7) was only a gain of 500m from the base of Raj Kharak to the pass. But this was a hard climb in which some parts were extremely slippery, and others were physically and mentally exhausting. We could not climb this mountain face directly; we had to criss-cross our way to the top. It was hard work. At one point in time I slipped. Our main guide, another Mohan, came rushing to me and asked if I needed assistance. But I wanted to do it on my own and so, I politely refused. He immediately realised and asked if my ego would be hurt if I accepted his help. I agreed. To me, I had done the preparation. I could do this on my own without being dragged or supported to the top.

So we criss-crossed our way slowly. Or, as one of our guides said constantly, "First you need to go on the zig and then you need to turn and go on the zag." For much of this climb my left ear (on the zig) or right ear (on the zag) was no more than two feet away from the face of the mountain. I had to hold on to the tall grass that grew on the mountain face for support. I slipped a few times, but the grass supported me and held me back as I made my way up. Slowly. These tall grass are wonderfully strong and even though I tried hard, I could not remove even a single blade of grass. 

Eventually, we got to the lovely Kala Khal at 4500m. The pass was as beautiful as we were told it would be. We could survey everything around us for several hundred kilometres. We saw the range of mountains that marked the India-China border (near the Nithi village). We could also see army camps at Mallari and Bhojgiri down below us and that is where we were headed for  our last camp.

We had a bit of drama at our camp in Bhojgiri. After being interrupted by army jawans early in the night, we had a good night's rest. We then proceeded to Mallari (day-8) where our trek ended. We traveled by car back to Joshimath.

This is a trek that I would highly recommend. We traveled with the Grand Himalayan Adventures company, a group that I would recommend very highly.

--Mohan (@mohank)