Emotion is Contagious

In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels.

Daniel Goleman, in his groundbreaking bestseller – Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, challenged our notion of what it means to be smart.

The emotional center of the brain, Goleman argues, being more primitive, is involved in every thought and in every decision. It is that chamber which flickers into life when you see a movie that moves you, or read a book that inspires you, or listen to music that makes you want to cry. Being enormously powerful, it has the ability to override all rational thinking.

Most of us have had moments when strong emotions like anger had clouded judgment; when anxiety caused distress; when deep grief led to total paralysis. Look into your own life. Your inability to quit smoking even when you have solid reasoning that it is lethal. Your inability to let go of someone who is not meant to be. Your inability to resist getting drawn towards people like AK, for his words touch your heart more than your mind. Little emotions become captain of your lives and you obey them without realizing it.

So intellect, as it appears, comes down to your ability to strike a chord between reason and emotion.

But it is easier said than done. Especially harder for those few who are more emotionally driven. Those who feel deeply. For they seem to be more at risk of getting hurt or swayed away.

So I ask myself: Instead of getting destroyed by these crippling and overwhelming feelings, how can we use them as means to achieve our goals?

The answer is emotional intelligence. Rather than the triumph of heart over head, it is the unique intersection of both. It refers to how we manage ourselves and our relationships, how self-aware we are, how motivated we feel, how we manage distressing feelings, how emphatic we are and how well we tune with others.

The greatest leaders have all used emotional intelligence to achieve their ends. When Martin Luther King presented his dream, he chose language that would stir the hearts of his audience. Hitler spent years analyzing the emotional effects of his body language – the hand gestures and other movements to be a powerful speaker. Most of the world’s tipping points- starting from the birth of nations, the beginning of revolutions, the rise and fall of stock exchanges to the act of falling in love with someone – have not so much to do with logic as emotions.

Moreover, emotions are contagious. Negative emotions more so than positive ones. We are wired to mimic others moods, facial expressions and behavior to reach an emotional agreement. If someone smiles at us, we automatically smile back. If a friend is grieving, we too become sad. The incredible thing is that this reciprocity of emotions is not just limited to individual level; it can be harnessed and magnified into formidable forces. Hitler understood this only too well. That he was a monster can hardly be questioned; the fact that he possessed a kind of mad genius and a keen understanding of how the masses think is equally unquestionable.

In modern world too, emotional tides flow high. The world might look like an immovable, implacable place. Well, it isn’t. With the slightest push- in just the right place – it can be tipped. First, you identify and understand your own emotions, then you learn how to control it – you don’t let it trickle away; you damn it, you develop it, let your mind get drowned in it; and just at the right moment, you unleash it – the tidal wave which spreads the seeds of change – of creation, of innovation and of transformation.

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In a primitive sense, we are not so much as creatures of logic as creatures of emotions. By touching emotion, you get the best people to work for you, best clients to inspire you, the best partners and the most loyal of the customers. According to Goleman, in a study of skills that distinguish star performers in every field from entry level jobs to executive positions, the single most important factor was not IQ, advanced degrees, or technical expertise; it was EQ.

Logic is of significant yet finite use. Even to reason effectively, you need emotion. You need to feel the subject you are reasoning for.

To know what you want, you have to have feelings. Stronger your feelings, stronger is the intent.

And stronger the intent, greater the propensity to discover, change and achieve.

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Intersection of the Arts and Technology

Steve Jobs final slide during the unveiling of iPad 2 in 2011 emphasized the theme of his life: A sign showing the corner of Technology Street and Liberal Arts Street.

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it is technology married with the humanities that yields us the results that make our hearts sing,” Jobs declared

His goal, he long maintained, was to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities.

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And as I approach the end of Jobs biography, I realize how true his words were when he said:

“The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies computers became a way for people to express their creativity. Great artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor.”

Just seeking to develop a tool to address a need is not enough. The crucial framing of issues by connecting unrelated nuggets of information is essential for innovation. And that is what humanities teach. You learn how to contemplate and frame questions differently. Creative and metaphorical thinking intensifies the analytic process and you get to see and appreciate the protean perspectives of different individuals and groups under new light. After all, seeing things in a new way is what drives innovation.

Moreover, it’s not only about art vis-à-vis science. Rising above this age old dichotomy, we realize that though every discipline, be it research, technology, medicine, marketing, advertising, movie or philosophy have their own ways of dealing with problems, but often the best ideas to make great products come from cutting across disciplinary boundaries.

Continuing with the example of Apple, it is easy to see how it uses the killer combination of hardware, software and services to create great user experience. That too without being the best in any particular technical area. Rivals miss the point when they stress individual features in their products and how they can beat Apple on memory or pixels or battery life. For, more than the individual elements, it’s the overall package that makes the impact. And Apple excels in this very act of putting together a combination of product, software and service such that the combination is more profound than the parts.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert comics, famously shares the same mantra. In his own words:

“It’s unlikely that any average student can develop a world-class skill in one particular area. But it’s easy to learn how to do several different things fairly well. I succeeded as a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world. The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.”

It is in our nature to classify and put in boxes the things which we encounter every day; as we crave for “order” in our minds to get a false sense of empowerment at being able to systematize the chaos around us. Our higher education is the perfect example where students are supposed to specialize in certain fields, while being totally unaware of the opportunities and answers which they can find in others. Best education occurs when students embrace the idea of well-rounded intellectual development taking a good mix of humanities, physical and social science courses.

History confirms that many significant advances in art, business, technology and science have come from cross-fertilization of ideas. Mendel was a philosopher and meteorologist before he founded the science of genetics. Arithmetic and geometry were separate before Descartes, there was no analytic geometry. So were the sciences of electricity and magnetism before Oersted, Faraday and others created the field of electromagnetism. So were astronomy and physics before Kepler borrowed from each to create modern astronomy.  The list could go on. The bottom-line being that you never know when and how nuggets of knowledge cutting across disciplines can combine together to transform our future.

Quoting Da Vinci: “To develop a complete mind, study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

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Not Frightened to be Creative

Having recently watched Ken Robinson’s talk on creativity, I learnt a small story about a little girl busy doodling in the class.

“What are you drawing?” the teacher asked her.

“God” she said casually.

“But nobody knows what God looks like.” the teacher said.

“They will, in a minute.” the girl replied.

This simple story shows the incredible power of a child’s imagination. She has the ability to question, inquire and produce original ideas. The reason behind her originality is that the kid is not frightened to be wrong.

We all are born creative. The desire to create is what lies at the core of human soul. But as we grow up, we become afraid of being wrong. We live in a society which stigmatizes mistakes and failures. So we tend to play safe. However, the safe crowded path might actually be dangerous. Lethal, in fact. Since we kill what exists at the core of our being – our own creative selves; even as we wear a facade to flow with the “trend”. As Picasso had said, “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up”. 

Out of all the factors, it is our present education system which chiefly ensures that we grow out of creativity. Their main role seems to produce degree-possessing mechanized individuals capable of doing jobs where they can give and take orders. Though there is nothing wrong in doing a job just to earn money so as to support one’s family, but the problem arises when we start deceiving ourselves into believing that we don’t have the freedom to choose otherwise. It would be mauvaise foi (bad faith) according to Sartre.

Bad faith occurs when we lie to ourselves. The greatest lie we tell ourselves, dare I quote Paulo Coelho, is that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. We all indulge in this kind of bad faith one time or the other; in most cases, by sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to recognize the multitude of other choices that are available to us; believing that we are at the “mercy of our circumstances”.

So creativity, in our present social context, boils down to how authentic we are. The more authentic we are, the more freedom we acknowledge, the more creativity we unleash and more epic our journey will be. Moreover, it is really hard to lie to oneself if we listen to both our heads and our hearts. The truth is not always fun; most of the times it’s highly painful. But being honest with ourselves is the only way to create, empower, inspire and innovate the greatness that the world so desperately needs.

It’s a misconception that creativity is a talent or a gift that only a few have. Creativity is not a talent; rather it is a way of operating. It is the power to connect seemingly what is unconnected. As Steve Jobs had said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” A creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, planets, medicine, literature, horticulture etc. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen immediately, or few months later, or few years down the road.

However, we will face a lot of creative roadblocks as we become adults: there are rules about what’s allowed and what isn’t, how we are supposed to behave and not behave. Though the rules serve their purposes, one should not be afraid to responsibly break them at times. It’s vital that we maintain the wonder that our younger selves had and not lose the true instinct of what is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

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An Agenda for the Nation

Indian democracy has become much more chaotic in these past few days. High voltage drama is unfolding with politicians playing fast and loose with whatever they have in their kitty. Be it words, curses, pepper sprays, knives or resignations. It is understandable, given the big showdown is just a few months away. Every arrow in the quiver is used to woo the voters: freebies, anti-corruption pitch, new statehood, minority rights, majority appeasement and what not. And this daily ruckus leads to our greater disenchantment with politics.

Will our politics forever be like this?

Will our leaders always use cheap tricks and short-term promises to assume power at the cost of economic freedom and development that this nation so urgently needs? Are we so parochial that fist-fighting, hurling mikes and spraying pepper in the parliament is the present reality of our “vibrant” democracy rather than setting up definite long-term agenda for the country?

Slowly, the once hopeful citizen starts to believe that India is too vast and varied with too many voices. And that it’s nearly impossible to come up with a general agreement over almost anything.

But is it as complex as it may seem prima facie?

Are our problems as irreducible as the volume of our media or the hyperbole of our politicians?

The answer, I think, can be best answered by one of the greatest minds in India: Narayana Murthy. Poverty, if we look deeper, is the root cause of all evils. And the only solution, he says, to the problem of poverty is to create more jobs with good disposable incomes. Such a solution requires entrepreneurs who convert ideas into job and wealth. It is not the responsibility of the government to create jobs. However, it is the responsibility of the governments to create a fair, transparent, speedy and incentivized environment for these entrepreneurs to succeed. We already have too many people employed in very low wages in the agricultural sector. Hence, we have to create more jobs in manufacturing and service sectors. Thus, we need more and more entrepreneurs. And at the same time we need more engineers, scientists, bureaucrats and politicians who have a mindset to encourage entrepreneurship.

This is the only way and should be our only agenda. Take any developed democracy and you will find that their success is more due to individual initiatives than on any state driven policies. The system may change with better policies but society changes with better values. It is too easy to blame our rowdy politicians or corrupt bureaucrats but hard to take responsibility for our own reality. After all, reality is something we actively create. We have become a nation that is good in rhetoric but poor in action. We have to realize that our legacy will be written not in our words but in our actions. It will be written by the rising entrepreneurs of this nation who recognizes the problems, seek solutions, evolve profit-making ideas and work hard to implement them.

But for that to happen, Murthy says, we need excellence in our choice of work. Why is that India does not boast of any product of international class and recognition? Simply because we don’t pay enough attention to excellence be it business, sports or arts. Murthy urges us to seek excellence in whatever we pursue irrespective of how small or big the job is. And it can be achieved only by relentless training and constant self-improvement.

However, excellence can prosper only in an environment where it is recognized and rewarded. So what is holding us back in creating such environment?

Chetan Bhagat points at our schools and colleges. Here, he says, a part of Indians’ unique psyche namely servility develops.

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Our education system hammers out our individual voices and kills our natural creativity; turning us into servile, course-material slaves. No subject teaches us imagination, creativity or innovation. Curricula is designed for no debate kind of teaching. Millions hate what they are made to study but they do it anyway, putting tremendous faith in the content, believing that maybe in future it might be of some use. But the world is changing fast. Has our course-content been updated accordingly? Who are those who make the content? Are they capable enough to impart our youth the skills to develop their own unique talents that can create and innovate? Or are they just preparing us to mug up and get grades?

It is the frightening servility in us which stops us from asking questions. We have to break the cycle so that we don’t pass on the trait to the next generation. It’s time we question the status quo; think creatively and try to create an environment which rewards excellence and entrepreneurship. It’s time we shed all the rhetoric and focus on the basics.

Not everything needs to be complex. For most successful ideas are ludicrously simple.

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What is Wrong with Us?

Why can’t we trust each other?

Why is there so much of factionalism in India?

Recently a young tribal woman was gang-raped on the orders of a Khap panchayat in Bengal. An Arunachali boy was allegedly beaten to death in Delhi last week. A few months back UP saw the worst violence in the form of Hindu-Muslim riots. Manufacturing has become stagnant; bureaucracy, as always, is sluggish; growth is slumping and inflation is high. On top of everything, scams and scandals of unimaginable magnitude have rocked the moral foundation of the country in the last couple of years.

But above all these burgeoning evils of rapes, crime, corruption, greed and incompetence; something that has eternally been pervasive in India is poor team-work. Dissension and disloyalty has always affected national competitiveness. And this theme of poor teamwork runs throughout Indian history.

Take the battle of Plassey in 1757 for example. It was the tipping point of Indian history. Bengal led by young nawab Siraj-ud-Dowlah came in conflict with the ambitions of Robert Clive and the East India Company. However, nawab’s own commander and banker betrayed him and shook hands with the British. The British won the most decisive battle in India and changed its history.

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But what is the cause of our divisiveness? Is it our diversity? Is it the caste system?

Sudhir Kakar, the author of The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, says that it begins with the Indian bride, who is not fully accepted in her husband’s home until she produces a male child. She is so grateful when a son is born that she indulges him to excess. As the boy grows up, he remains close to the mother and distant from the father. The end result is that the boy grows up narcissistic and has a weak ego and a weak sense of the self, one that needs the support of authority figures. He needs appreciative, older, hierarchical figures, even late in professional life. His relationships tend to be vertical and “control oriented”, and he is not good at forming horizontal, cooperative relationships with his peers. This translates into poor teamwork. In an organizational setting, such a person tends to behave in an egotistical manner. Either he wants to control people below him or be controlled by those above. In contrast, a good team player is self-confident and forms easy and healthy relationships based on equality.

I don’t know how valid this hypothesis is. But more I look around me, the more I believe that this “control-oriented mindset” of either being domineering or submissive is the most fundamental cause of most evils of our society. It’s all about pushing narrow personal agendas than bothering about collective good. Ones at the bottom shy away from taking real responsibility as they believe they are “victims of circumstances” while the “babus” at the top don’t flinch to loot the nation as they see their gains as “fruits of hard-work”.

India is neither an individualistic society like the US nor a collectivist society like Japan. The US is long regarded as the “land of opportunities”. If you are willing to work hard, you can make it in America regardless of which class, race, region or religion you come from. While here in India, the command mentality of the bureaucracy stifles the entrepreneur and the farmer. You won’t even get the license to start your venture until and unless you have the right “contacts” or “influence”.

Japanese on the other hand are collectivist in their approach. In 1854, after suffering a humiliating defeat by the West, they recognized that their ancient civilization is too flimsy to defend them against superior Western technology. Instead of holding on to their past, they humbly went to school during the Meiji Period and vigorously started acquiring modern learning and skills. Soon they became so good that they eventually beat the West at its own game. But if you look at India, you see that social life revolves around the family or caste. It does not encompass the whole community. Perhaps this is why our streets are dirty while our homes are spotlessly clean.

We rarely evoke patriotic collectivism (except in cricket but that doesn’t serve real purpose) nor do we celebrate individual responsibility for most of us feel like being “victims of circumstances”. (E.g. us IITians: “since the system here is corrupt, we are helpless but to settle overseas”)

So if not individualistic or collectivist, what are we?

We are, I am forced to believe, an “egoistic” society – one that has a weak sense of its own self. If the girl exposes a bit too much, well then someone has to teach her (or at best rape her). If someone spells slur at my race or religion, I need to hit back with double the venom. Better start a riot. Since my friend is evading taxes; why shouldn’t I?

Though this line of thought might seem cynical, there’s no denying the fact that changes need to be made right in our family dynamics. Soon they will manifest in our society and economy. As our economy expands and becomes more integrated with the global economy, there will be greater competition. When companies fight for survival, there is less luxury for egotistical behavior. As with increasing competition, cohesion should increase. Moreover more women are working, so there is less time to overindulge the male child; so perhaps there is hope that the Indian male will grow up with a healthier ego and as a better team player.

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Sometimes to hold on, You have to let go

I wish I can control things the way I want.

It’s like I am a small kid going to the top of the hill with a kite. I know how to unwrap the kite, how to make the loop and how to pull the strings. But the kite doesn’t fly without the wind. It’s always a mixture of control and abandonment. The sublime art of holding on and letting go.

Some say life is all about what you make out of it. While others say it is all up to fate – one which is woven into your soul. I think it’s somewhere in between.

I can try my best but still might not succeed. I can try and fight to gain control but only to an extent. It is easier to control the little things like shaping the paper to make the kite, choosing the colors to brighten it and attaching a sturdy string to hold it. But when it comes to larger and more meaningful things, like drawing a heart in the sky, a lot depends on the wind.

Then comes the moment I fear the most. A swift gale and the string escapes my hold. And I watch helplessly as my kite slowly drifts away. I wish I could do something. Maybe I did the right things wrong. Maybe I pushed it way too far to pull it back.

My heart is filled. All I can taste is this moment. Sisyphus could have found a nice companion in me. For now I too am conscious – aware of the absurdity of my fate.

But I am still looking up. I don’t give up even if the skies get rough.

The kite didn’t break; and it didn’t burn.

I just have to start all over again.

And there is lot to learn.

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Reason behind the Partition

“A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason”.

The year was 1937.

The Muslim League, campaigning on liberal communal lines, had lost heavily. It secured less than five percent of the total Muslim votes, losing to the congress even in those places where Muslims were in majority.

Jinnah, the towering leader of Muslim League is faced with what we can call as the “chasm in the being”. His bag of communal demands was empty; most of them have already been accepted. It wasn’t a hidden fact that Jinnah wanted to be treated as an equal to Nehru and felt insecure that his party was being treated as a secondary, communal organization while Congress claimed to be the sole nationalist organization representing all Indians. He had to decide: either to continue with his liberal communal politics which seemed to have exhausted its potentialities or to abandon communal politics altogether. Both would mean an end to his political career or at best a mediocre one.

However Jinnah found another option. One of extreme communalism. One based on fear and hatred. One based on cries of Islam in danger. And he put behind all the force and brilliance of his personality to drive home the theme that the Congress wants not only independence from British but also complete annihilation of Islam in India to establish a Hindu raj. The once “Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” now wanted nothing less than a separate state of Pakistan to “save” Islam.

Ten years. For ten years this poison of fear and hatred brewed. What followed next was the carnage of the partition riots: hundreds of thousands were killed; innumerable women raped and abducted and millions had to move across hastily constructed frontiers to start their lives from scratch. It is ironic that more blood was shed fighting ourselves than fighting the colonisers.

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Once Pakistan was formed, Jinnah hoped to go back to liberal communalism or even secularism. In his Presidential address he stressed upon equal rights for all citizens irrespective of one’s individual choice of religion. But it was too late. He soon died of illness. The monster that he spawned not only divided India but would eventually eat up his own concept of Pakistan.

Prime Minister Nehru stated upon Jinnah’s death: “How shall we judge him? I have been very angry with him often during the past years. But now there is no bitterness in my thought of him, only a great sadness for all that has been … he succeeded in his quest and gained his objective, but at what a cost and with what a difference from what he had imagined.”

Following the line of thought, I am forced to question the inevitability of partition. I wonder if it was an outcome of personality clashes between flawed individuals. Individuals whose personal ambitions changed the course of history.

Its indeed true that ideologies do have consequences.

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Understanding the Economics of Upcoming Election

Politics has become a hot topic now as the LS election draws closer. Even more so after the historical rise of Kejriwal’s AAP in Delhi. Hope is in the air even as the whole dynamics of the political game is changing. And the people, particularly the youth, seem to be more politically aware. But is it sufficient? Isn’t it crucial that as responsible citizens, we go beyond the politics and understand the economics of the upcoming election? Media presents it like a fight between personalities. We waste too much time brooding over their idiosyncrasies forgetting that election is not about individuals but parties and policies they espouse. So isn’t it vital that we make this election our own and look into the real issues that concern you and me?

Presently, we all agree that inflation is the biggest issue. How can a daily wage earner be expected to support his family and ensure two meals a day when the price of onion – a staple food is Rs.100 per kilo? See the Delhi election results for example. More than the corruption and crime, it was the price rise of basic goods that made people disenchanted with the old lady.

They say, the cost of growth is inflation. There is always this trade-off between the two. Government has long maintained that if we were to go on the path of growth and development, inflation is the price we should be willing to pay. As we have seen, with greater liberalisation India has become more vulnerable to the effects of changes to international prices. While the growth was slow in the earlier regime of regulation and intervention, the subsequent era of deregulation and liberalisation led to both high growth as well as high inflation.

But things ceased to remain so easy. In November this year, retail price inflation was at its highest while the lead indicators of industrial growth showed a decline. What we face now is called as ‘stagflation’ – when economy is facing the twin evils: slow growth as well as high inflation. In normal times, a period of slow growth would also effectively mean low inflation as decrease in demand keeps the prices in check. So to spur growth, government can resort to two types of policy measures: fiscal and monetary. In fiscal measures (by Finance Ministry), we can have something like increased state spending to boost demand; while monetary measures (by RBI) might involve lowering the interest rates or infusing liquidity to drive investment and consumption. Either way the aim is to create a growth inducing economic environment without bothering too much about inflation.

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But now since the priority is to reduce the widening fiscal deficit at all costs and that also without raising the taxes, the Finance Ministry does two things:

1. Reducing subsidies in petroleum or fertilizers which hikes the prices (inflation)

2. Cutting down expenditures (slow growth).

Presently government has already reached its targeted fiscal deficit for this financial year. So it is not in a position to budget even planned expenditures. With the Finance Ministry paralysed, only monetary policy is available to further the macroeconomic policies.

So here the RBI finds itself in a dilemma. Should it create cheap and easy money regime to expand credit and support debt-financed investment so as to push the GDP and restore the glory days of high growth ? Or should it restrict credit or debt-financed spending so as to curtail inflation which is blowing away whatever little remains of UPA’s electoral prospect?

This is the impasse both the incumbent and the impending government would find itself in where it has to make a choice; choice between furthering the pro-growth monetary policies and thereby appeasing those with big pockets who can fund entire elections; or to take regressive measures to bring relief to the poor whose votes can make a huge difference.

And this very choice will be largely reflected as we cast our votes this May. The question won’t be about communalism or no communalism, decisive leader or weak leader, inward or outward looking foreign policy; it would be about which course the nation should take: pro-growth or inclusive growth. It will be about whether we march ahead hoping that the people behind us are following; or we stop back at times to pull those who fall. But regardless of what we choose, it’s important we stick to the course chosen instead of falling in the quagmire of dilemma. The truth is we can’t tread both the paths. And trying to do so will only doom us forever in the economic and political gridlock we see today. What India needs is an unequivocal voice whereby we and our leaders throw off the hypocrisy of appeasing all and instead take the bolder path. Only time can prove if it is the right one. It’s risky, yes; but not forming a clear choice is even riskier.

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As 2013 comes to an End

Life goes in circles – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. First, there is birth. Then comes a period of growth and sustenance. And finally, there is destruction. I think, this year, India has seen all three. And quite curiously, I found my internal journey too mirroring that circle – something which till now I had never really believed.

The year started off with the Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. Held after 12 years, it pulled 100 million people this year. Probably the largest human gathering on a single day was seen on its biggest bathing day. Sheer faith had brought together these believers from across the world.

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In June, the same faith was put to test. India witnessed the worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. A multi-day cloudburst on Uttarakhand caused devastating floods and landslides. More than 5000 were estimated dead. Most of them were pilgrims visiting the “Land of Gods”. The impact runs deeper than just the destruction of homes, lives and livelihoods; it remains imprinted in the memory of the child who had seen his parents being washed away before his eyes.

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But this destructive wrath of nature was answered by the indomitable spirit of the nation. Help poured in from all quarters in the form of food, clothes and shelter mobilized by students and activists alike. In the biggest rescue operation the world has ever seen, the Army, Navy and the Air-force deployed more than ten thousand soldiers including the largest fleet of aircrafts, helicopters and naval divers. More than 2000 sorties, airlifting 18000 people, were flown and a lakh pilgrims in total were evacuated.

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Mumbai’s lifeline unyielding even in the face of heavy rain:

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The trails weren’t over yet. In October, came Phailin – one of the strongest cyclones ever to make landfall in India. In 1999, a similar super cyclone had hit India and killed a staggering 20,000 people. However, this time we were better prepared powered by an array of remote sensing satellites which allowed for accurate forecast and preparedness. India launched its biggest evacuation in 23 years with more than 5 lakh people moved up from the coastline to safer places. Casualties were barely a handful.

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Talking about loss, there is no other figure who would be missed the most than Sachin. In a nation where cricket is the religion, he was the God. His 24 years of legendary career came to an end after he retired, playing his 200th and final test match this November. India has to now do without the greatest cricketer of all time.

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But 2013 wasn’t only about loss and destruction. It was also about hope and change. New faces have emerged. No one expected a diminutive social activist to form his own party and fight for change and ultimately dethrone a 15 year incumbency at the national capital. More importantly, he attested the belief that the voice of a common man is not lost in this chaotic democracy of today; and that even in the midst of this cynicism and fear we live in, change is possible if we are willing to fight.

India also saw NaMo wave taking people in frenzy. Despite the ghosts of Godhra still haunting, there is no denying the fact that he has gone from strength to strength – rebuilding a formidable image in-spite of the glowing scars and controversies; running into his incredible 4th consecutive term as CM of Gujarat, and now being the BJP led NDA’s prime-ministerial candidate for the upcoming 2014 elections.

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India hosted F1 Grand Prix at the Budh International Circuit for the third time in October. Below we see F1 driver Sebastian Vettel doing a burnout to celebrate his win. For an economy now recognized as one of the world’s three most strongly emergent, alongside China and Brazil, Formula One racing here in India represents both an affirmation of the country’s present position and a statement of intent.

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Lastly, the India’s bravest endeavor this year would be ‘Mangalyaan’ – India’s first Mars mission through which it attempts to become only the fourth state to reach the Red Planet after the US, the USSR and Europe.

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2013 has been a momentous year. We have lost a lot; and we have learnt a lot. And in the process we strived to be stronger, smarter and better. And as the centenary year of Tagore’s Nobel Prize win in 1913 draws to a close, we remember his eternal words:

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.

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Two Tales of Failure

It was the December of 1993. Her marriage had failed. She was jobless with an one year old daughter. On the final night together, her husband dragged her out of the house at five in the morning and slapped her hard. With nothing but three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase, she left for Scotland where she signed up for welfare benefits. This was the period when she got clinically depressed and even thought of suicide. She had neither money nor hope and life couldn’t seem harsher.

Today her fortune is estimated to be more than $1 billion. Her books have sold more than 400 million copies in 200 countries making them the best-selling book series in history. She has single-handedly done more for world literacy than anyone else on the planet. The series of films that followed has become the highest-grossing film series in history. As of now the entire Harry Potter brand is estimated at $9.6 billion.

This is the ‘rags to riches’ life story of J.K Rowling; a story that confirms the belief that in the lives of a few blessed souls, sometimes reality is much more fantastical than fiction. But instead of seeing her story as a tale of success, she sees it as a tale of failures. In June 2008, she gave a speech at Harvard. She spoke of lessons learned from her own discoveries – of personal failure ‘on an epic scale,’ – and quoted Plutarch, saying, ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’  Below are quotes from that speech:

‘Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’

‘Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.’

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However, if someone asks for a story more appalling than Rowling but equally inspiring, it must be that of Oprah’s.

She was born into poverty to a teenage single mother. Her initial education started in her grandmother’s kitchen since her maid mother couldn’t afford her a formal education. They were so poor that she often wore dresses made of potato sacks, for which the local children made fun of her. She was raped at age nine. Ran away from home at 13. Became pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy. Being in and out of several tumultuous relationships made her a drug abuser by early 20s.

But none of these could stop her to become one of the most powerful entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry – and the planet’s first African-American billionaire.Today with net worth of $2.9 billion, she is the richest African-American and one of the most lucrative brands in the world. According to some assessments, she is the most influential woman in the world. So powerful is her influence that her support to Obama got him a million more votes in a narrowly contested 2008 presidential election. Known as the queen of daytime television, she is now the queen of cable having her own channel, her own productions and broadway shows, all of which make her earn more than $225 million a year.

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What is her secret? She reiterates the words of Martin Luther king that everyone has the power for greatness—not for fame but greatness, because greatness is determined by service. What’s important is that you shift your focus from success to service. Success will naturally follow when instead of worrying about success we think of being significant.

This is the video of Oprah interviewing J.K. Rowling.

Needless to say, it’s illuminating to hear the two legends converse. I found these two bits of the interview particularly insightful. One when asked to describe her lessons following the failure of her first marriage, Rowling replied: “I am proud that it taught me that I had a strong survival instinct”. The second one is when she is asked about happiness, she references Dumbledore’s words to Harry: ‘The happiest man alive would be able to look into the mirror and see himself exactly as he is.’

And as I try to understand them better, I realize that the parallel theme that runs through their lives is that of love. Rowling tells us through Harry the depth and power of a mother’s love towards her child and that at the end, love conquers all. Nothing escapes the pull of true love. Similar is the case with Oprah. Her genuine empathy for people made her connect emotionally and intellectually with millions. If not for the love and compassion she had for so many, she couldn’t be what she is today.

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