Illustration: Shyam G Menon

What am I?

The question fascinates us no end.

I had a phase as an outdoor educator.

In that period, I was introduced to a method used by experiential educators in leadership and team building sessions. My memory is a little foggy around the edges but I think it involved using personality and temperament – as stated by participants and corrected by fellow participants where required – to assign people to four quadrants showing distinct leadership styles. These four quadrants (we would create them on the ground using trekking poles or ropes) were deemed essential for a good team. Initially the exercise engaged for it answered the question of what I am, like a case of self-discovery. Oh…so this is what I am – there was enough in that nascent discovery, however questionable, to ruminate and reflect upon. Then problems with self-image set in.

I debuted in a quadrant meant for those who value human relations. That felt good, except – what I wished to be was something else. I wanted to be a doer. The rules of the exercise were pretty clear. A quadrant, diagonal from where you were placed would be toughest to transition to. The doer lot was diagonal to where I was. Adjacent quadrants were easier accessed. Given the model accepts that you tend to change with time, in several subsequent instances of exercise repeated, I found myself in the adjacent quadrants – some showed me up as an information gatherer and analyst of data; a few other instances showed me as a motivator.  Not once was I a doer. Damn!

To an extent the analysis was correct. The most powerful sport I ever engaged in was rock climbing. As lead climber, placing protection and opening the route, I was weak. As follower, I was good. Climbing doesn’t lie. I found myself enduring the notion – repeated for my benefit by friends – that I was adventurous only because I knew others better than me. The description denied me ownership of initiative shown. Even a hitchhiker owns his / her journey. Why deny me mine? We never spare an occasion to rub into someone that he / she achieved because they were lucky followers.  On the other hand, during the several instances when I was travelling alone or the decade I have been freelance journalist surviving on tight budget, I was a quiet doer, executing things as needed. It never landed me in anyone’s doer quadrant. Who thinks of writing and freelancing as challenge or doing?

Quadrant for membership is an easy way to address life’s pressing question: what am I? The experiential education method I was familiar with is but one of many such approaches to temporarily categorize people. Books have been written and movies made on the premise that everybody belongs to some category. And almost always the quadrant of the action hero – the doer – is a coveted spot to be in. He gets all the pretty girls. In due course, I accepted the fact that life didn’t find me a doer. Accepting it allowed me to move on. Sometimes the categorization business was fun. Once on a hike that I worked as a junior instructor, our students – all fans of the Harry Potter universe – deliberated on what maybe my house at Hogwarts. I was touched. Not because they gave me a house in the Harry Potter universe but because somebody bothered to think about me that deeply and for that long. Thank you.

J.K. Rowling isn’t the only author who dabbled in the politics of categories. The search for a category pervades all walks of existence now. One of the factors that made this tendency widespread is the rise of technology and organization; the latter triggered the ascent of management science. The combination – technology and management science – unleashed the regime of everything as measurable. Most job applications are precise, well defined exercises. If there are multiple responsibilities involved, then each is segregated and shown as a percentage of the whole. An enrollment process is designed to find the best fit for an opportunity. That automatically births the notion of right mental type and category. I am uncomfortable with such certainty in the meeting grounds of technology and management science. Not for me, this use of us as emotionally dead building blocks. I am sure that in their own discreet way, organizations later seek to retain talent by allowing people to move across functional capacities. However if you want to know yourself by confronting that which you are genuinely not good at, you may need to give up employer-organization.

There is only so much any employer will be willing to lose. So you quit and go solo. Solo keeps risk and loss restricted to you. My hunch is – soloing while difficult, will amaze you by what it reveals. Personally, I think we have the potential for all those quadrants wired in us. We deliver as circumstances require. In a lifetime we journey through different circumstances. The question to pose would be: are we journeying enough to realize our potential for all the quadrants; or houses and factions as the world of fiction elects to call them? And if you can pass through all those separating walls, what are you? If that’s what you are and you are still dubbed loser, what does it say of world declining room for you?

That’s why the Divergent series engaged. Written by Veronica Roth, the trilogy was made into three movies; the last one of the series Allegiant, released in March 2016. I haven’t read the books; I saw the films. There have been many movies that leverage the interplay of what we are and what we are expected to be. The Divergent series caught my eye immediately because its premise of a dystopian citizenry assigned factions to belong to, instantly reminded me of my experiences with that experiential educators’ model to teach leadership. More important, it helped me assuage my grudges against that method by creating the idea of divergent as category, a rebel category. I am not a fan however of the purity-impurity angle built into the story with the divergent protagonist positioned as most evolved. I tap into the idea of divergent as relief from the need to be a fixed somebody.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)         


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.

I had waited long to hear this.

I thought of a similar moment earlier at the peak of my research and subsequent confusion over what bicycle to buy. That was expenditure heavy to shoulder on freelancer’s income. Unable to throw money around as the consumerist market expects, I had worked on understanding bicycle models and component specifications to find the bicycle model suited for my needs, at my price point. Problem was – my price point was too low for the specs I sought. Suddenly a slightly old bicycle model of right dimension and specs, at price tad discounted given its age and outmoded wheel size, materialized. It was perfect fit for freelance journalist lacking a fortune to spare. A source of considerable enjoyment since, it is now parked six feet away from my work table.

The dust on that purchase had hardly settled when the government threatened my comfort zone with all out drive to go digital. I use an old Nokia feature phone. What it can do is all I need. It also suited my interface with universe, which is quite tactile. Back in 2002, it was nice seeing Tom Cruise swishing his hands this way and that as he shuffled data on virtual screen in Minority Report. I didn’t ask to live it. I also have difficulty viewing large sections of geography on small screen. Where am I? – is a more important curiosity for me than destination guaranteed. We don’t mind small screen for maps because we value destination guaranteed with pointer showing you the way. Besides, your typical smartphone keeps beeping with messages from this app and that. I don’t like it. I have zero appetite for some of the messages floating around, particularly the troll type. Further, once I started going on expeditions, I grew accustomed to switching off phone and being out of contact. The digital epidemic however meant more angles than the above, affected. Unlike the phone of old, now our money, bank transactions, passwords – all have dovetailed into the smartphone. The world around me was being prompted to transact its business in a certain way and if I hung on to my old phone, I risked getting deleted from existence. The epidemic triggered hunt for a smartphone.

In both bicycles and smartphones, trends appear similar although it is particularly entertaining in the case of phones given that simple argument – if you spend for a bicycle as much as you spend on a smartphone; at least you gift yourself an active lifestyle.  Needless to say, one of the most hilarious sights I witnessed recently was a fellow commuter on a Mumbai local train taking selfies with his tongue sticking out. It amused to think that moments like this get official patronage through policy favoring smartphone while the bicycle battles daily with growing traffic hell bend on denying it space. Don’t these trends speak something about us? Anyway, the nature of market evolution I noticed from my search was somewhat like this:

First you take an innovation that has at heart a relevant and clear proposition. None can dispute the clarity in what a bicycle or a phone means.  A bicycle takes you from place to place at modest pace with zero pollution and physical exercise included. Motorized transport beat the bicycle in terms of speed. But in days of present lost to smog and sedentary life, the bicycle has been reborn absolutely futuristic. To think that it was introduced in the late nineteenth century and its relevance remains strong – now that is a product. A phone helps you talk over long distances. Do you need one? The answer is yes. But that isn’t good enough from a manufacturer’s point of view. So in the second stage of evolution by manufacturers and market, you dismantle given product into its several constituent parts and start tinkering with the parts, such that you are developing capabilities in apparent isolation. This is a departure from the unquestionable relevance of a product at debut stage. In the second stage, either industry players are many or more players are seeking to muscle in. In both cases fresh raison d’etre needs to be manufactured. The plain vanilla cellphone, which catered to clear, fundamental needs, gets touch screen, camera and apps (none of which are the sort we died for lacking) and becomes a smartphone. During marathons you hear technology’s automated voice speaking with robotic love: congratulations, you have completed a kilometer; the time taken was….Or, there is the selfie generation, which has grown so big and omnipresent that of the smartphone’s two cameras, the one facing user is gaining more megapixels than the one facing world.

The third stage is the strangest stage, when the focus is no more on overall product relevance but marketing gimmicks promoting the technological advances in specific components used, quite often at the expense of larger harmony among components. It is the Popeye stage, when brain and body live in the shadow of outsize bicep. In my search for smartphone, I came off wondering why someone is selling an imbalanced product. A typical review: this smartphone does this, this and this. But the cost of having all these functions is – it heats up and may not run that long on a single charge. When was the last time a decade ago, that your phone claimed to be smarter than you and died every day for want of power? Equally confusing are the product reviews. Online retailers in their effort to empower customers with information, host plenty of reviews, many of which seem rants or half baked analysis. Not to mention, there is nothing in the identity of reviewers to prove that they are really customers and not paid PR by brand or competitors out to put a spanner in the spokes of a brand. Given this, my hunch is brick and mortar will return for those valuing tangible product before buying. But it won’t be as the regular brick and mortar of old. Its new avatar could be in line with trends articulated at the end of this article.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Meanwhile, business is brokered by how you look at a problem. The above mentioned lacuna of inadequate power opened up room for phones with massive batteries. Not all massive batteries are sold to you with quick charging devices alongside. If you want your own private power station that takes a lifetime to charge, you pay a certain price; if you want the same with quick-charge, you pay a bit more. And no matter how huge your battery, few of these phones with ever increasing apps and expectations riding on them, match a good old feature phone in terms of reliability. The old phones were rugged; they survived in rain and cold. They used all the power they had for two primary functions – talk and text. The new ones are comparatively fragile and born of proximity to power sources. You can make up for absence of power source nearby by carrying a variety of portable power sources and charging devices, all of which merely add to the stuff you truck around. With required gadgetry stashed on self and backpack, you could call yourself a smartphone-commando, a smartphone-marine or member of the elite squad of communications-special forces. Point is – this third stage is all about confusing the customer and milking him. Do you want to make a phone call or do you want to look like a commando?

A good instance of third stage in the bicycle market, in my opinion, was the confusion over wheel sizes in MTBs – 26 inches, 27.5 and 29. It had nothing to do with the happiness you found, cycling. Cyclists had managed to reach most places on the planet. The 27.5 and 29 were not going to reach you some place humanity hadn’t. Yet you paid for industry’s eccentricity because industry was desperate for a reason to energize its business. A case of overlapping domains in cycling and communications technology would be using smartphone for navigation, weather forecasts etc. Yes they are absolutely relevant. They work. But setting out on a ride only if you have all this is a bit like retracing the footsteps of Marco Polo or Fa Hien and knowing all along that they ventured out despite not having any such technology in their times. With capital backing technology, there is no great wave seeking to restore the adventure in adventure. Instead, there are isolated moves afoot. For example, the upcoming 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which is a race to circumnavigate the world solo and nonstop in a sail boat, has banned all kinds of modern electronic gadgetry aboard participants’ boats. They want you back at technology levels matching the year of the first GGR – 1968.

Not surprisingly, the fourth stage is clarity rediscovered and restored. I greet it with as much hope and affection as Ice Age’s sabre toothed-squirrel does his prized acorn. It celebrates relevance, aptness and perfect fit. Sounds like fundamental rights. Isn’t this what buying a product always meant? Transpose this to the idea of democracy. If a democracy deemed fundamental rights luxury you would be quick to say it got things wrong. What would you then say of a market where relevance is luxury or matter of circuitous rediscovery? Overall therefore the simple description for this evolution by market is: wild goose chase. There is a saying that you can either touch your nose from front or you can take your hand behind your head and try touching the nose from behind. Smartphone’s discovery of simplicity harked of the latter. How else would you birth bloatware, sell a tonne of it and then acknowledge it as dispensable?

My friend Prashant owns a couple of smartphones including the sort that currently dominates sales in India: 3GB & 32 GB, 16 MP & 4 MP, quad core Snapdragon at 1.3 GHz and 3000 mAh battery. Prashant likes to climb and cycle. He is into yoga. Recently I found the old Nokia smartphone with Windows operating system back on his table. “ How come?’’ I asked. “ If I can live without all these apps, this much of phone is enough for me,’’ he said bluntly. I know he was saying it prematurely for there are facilities from the smartphone’s recent past he has got used to and which need a different phone to run. But he had a point. If I go by specs from six years ago archived by Wikipedia, the old phone should have 512 MB RAM-16 GB internal storage, 1.4 GHz single core processor, 1450 mAh battery, 8 MP rear camera and no front camera for selfies. Between this phone and returning to this phone, were a couple of other phones owned and got tired of. One discussion Prashant and I often have is whether money can be the answer for everything. If you look at the market, it would seem – you fix the problems you are facing at a given state of life by being capable of affording a better one. But we moved from sophisticated phone to more sophisticated phone and after screwing up the phone market with a plethora of transient twists in technology, we are gifted a simple, uncluttered phone. It harks more of starting line than finish.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well to Latha and me: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.


There is one thing though: simple phone doesn’t come cheap yet.

You still have to pay the premium for industry’s return to simplicity after many intervening phases of delusion by technological opiates. Like that ` carefully worn careless look’ from the pages of fashion glossies, this is ` simplicity redefined’ and expensive. The same will shape brick and mortar’s return too. Prices there are already not as low as prices quoted online. They have a valid reason – you are getting to touch and feel a product before buying it. It is an argument that wasn’t there earlier. A precious part of the data our brain uses to decide – the sense of touch – has got monetized. That’s one of the legacies of wild goose chase – all aspects of our existence get monetized. Meanwhile big data has been compared to what oil was in the twentieth century. Shareholders and equity markets must have liked that. By the same yardstick, I would assume parallels between the legacy of oil and the evolving legacy of big data. The new legacy will unfold even closer to our physiological and psychological make up for when I look around I find the smartphone’s impact on human behavior to be profound. Through smog and climate change – both legacies of the oil age – the smartphone’s fans stay glued to the mesmerizing device. This time, whatever smog and storms are due, will be in the human head. No wonder gurus and babas have a roaring business teaching us how to install delete buttons in the brain.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

There is a new rain in town.

You have to walk, run or cycle to feel it.

Actually it is a rain that has been around for long.

What is new is its ferocity.

Unlike climate change which bewilders with its unsteady, erratic nature of incidence, this one has been systematically growing. We do nothing to merit the rain of nature and its life force. Yet we receive it every year, like God sent; sometimes more, sometimes less. In contrast, the new rain has thrived under our active patronage.

I like a morning run or a round of cycling. The number of runners and cyclists has gradually grown over the years. However, what has increased more visibly is traffic. It is a barreling flow. There was a time not long ago when the roads I frequent early morning were relatively quiet. Service roads (a narrow road parallel to an existing big one) featured almost no traffic. The air was clean. Now that is gone. Traffic starts building up from 7 AM. Traffic rules are also broken that early. Engine powered-mobility has scant respect for self-powered-mobility. Might is right. Runners and cyclists on the road have to be careful. Its raining vehicles.

There was a time in my days as employed journalist, when I wrote on the automobile industry. I wasn’t one finding vehicles sexy or magnetic. I wrote on the industry; I did so for a decade. At that time, the automobile industry with its basket of ancillary manufacturers and dependent service providers was the world’s biggest. I have since lost a lot of my fascination. I outgrew it. Further, when I got into running and cycling and had my taste of what it is like to be at ground level sensing a tonne of metal hurtling by, I saw myself looking at automobiles differently.

Like many other industrial sectors, the automobile industry was encouraged with investment sops. I haven’t seen similar encouragement offered in India for the active, healthy lifestyle. Let me be clear: the idea of healthy lifestyle is not to be confused with support for the medical care / hospital industry.  Like the auto industry, this industry too feeds off our purse. I am talking of communities enjoying adequate open space, green environment and easily accessed facilities for sport.

I haven’t seen one city, municipality, district or state that declares itself keen on supporting a physically active, healthy lifestyle for its citizens. States and districts bought into literacy; they have missions to ensure cleanliness. They haven’t bought as well into what constitutes an interesting life. Its like a crisis of the imagination. We put up a hospital with maternity ward quicker than we would anything to make the life that follows birth, interesting. Isn’t that contradictory? We don’t design our environment to be sufficiently engaging. We don’t plan our cities and living spaces for it. Many housing societies have space for a swimming pool. Just that nobody wants a swimming pool when that space can be used for parking. Even then, quarrels erupt over parking slots usurped because the number of vehicles is going up. So it isn’t just new rain. There is the flooding too.

The Indian approach is – money is king. In its durbar, sedentary imagination dominates. That imagination percolates down to everything. Its terrible as theme for life. Merely accumulating money never made anyone happy. Often when I find myself muscled out by vehicle on road, I wonder: does the driver hate me because I am living the life I like? You know what? – I suspect that is the case; especially in cities. Strange as it may seem the few instances I received room as cyclist, were in the hills and mountains. His loaded truck laboring up a steep slope, driver, upon seeing cyclist powering self and baggage on same road with no engine for help, would give a wave. Or a passing car driver would stick his hand out and show a thumbs-up.

On hopes of such moments visiting us somewhere, back in the city, we weather the new rain of an old order.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)