Thursday, December 27, 2007

A journey within - I

I haven't been updating this blog that often. And the reason isn't work pressures or blog-fatigue. There are enough interesting things to write about - from the new Flying machine ad (isn't it a decade too late to be inspired by The Matrix?) to the Indian School of Business (Yes, I came, I saw and I am impressed!)

All that and more in due time. But as the year draws to a close and reams of newsprint are devoted to 'best of 2007 lists', I find myself in a more reflective mood. This year, for me, has been a journey... but an inward one.

And although I rarely get personal on this blog I feel the need to share this experience. So many of us, outwardly qualified, content and cruising through life are actually restless and raging inside. For no apparent reason.

Some say this is the scourge of modern life. That may well be the truth. But there are deeper and more eternal truths which I, a born skeptic, stumbled upon. And if it happened to me, it could happen to you too.

So bear with me, as I deviate into unusual territory. This is a 5 part series. If you choose to follow it, keep an open and inquiring mind. Let the journey begin..

A journey within - I
It is a mildly chilly March morning. I am at the German cafe in Rishikesh, a quaint little place which serves fantastic fluffy brown bread and coffee. And offers a great view of the Lakshman Jhula bridge.

I am the only Indian at the cafe. This is white-man-seeking-salvation haven. Elderly English ladies, youngish European lads. Most are sipping honey lemon water and discussing their progress on the path of yoga. They've been here months - some even years - and long after it was truly fashionable to be a hippie.

My mind says they're escapists - floating through life on the strength of a favourable exchange rate. But my heart feels otherwise. They could just as well be lying on a beach in Goa sipping tequilas. But they're here, on some kind of quest.

Clean as it is, there are flies buzzing around the place. Some make a landing on the honey-and-lemon-sippers legs. No one reacts. It's like this is a most natural and beautiful thing. Human beings, flies - they co exist in peace and harmony. I can't help but wonder: Are flies in Rishikesh different from flies elsewhere in the world?

Or is it just that these people are so much at peace - with themselves, and the world - that the fly ceases to bother?

And keeping with the metaphor of the fly, is it possible to be so much at peace with yourself that these 'flies' - the many irritants buzzing around in our day to day life - cease to bother??

The answer, I have discovered is 'yes'. Unlikely as it sounds at first, this is possible. And we don't need to be in Rishikesh to achieve this state (although it's certainly a very beautiful place and I would not mind spending a few months conducting lemon, honey and fly experiments @ the German Cafe in particular).

In fact, to the majority of Indians the idea of leaving home, family, job and all worldly commitments to someday achieve 'enlightenment' is laughable. Which is why an entire generation of spiritual teachers have taken it upon themsleves to create programs that fit into our world. And happen at our doorstep.

From Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to Swami Sukhbodananda, we have a wide variety of 3-5 day 'courses' designed to make us introspect, and to learn some simple techniques of meditation. The program you choose to take up generally depends on who you encounter that persuades you to 'give it a try'.

And so it was that I joined the 'Art of Living' basic course close to 5 years ago. Did it change my life? Well... it could have. I went into the course a complete non-believer and came out thinking, "haan isme kuch hai". The main takeaway from Art of Living is the 'sudarshan kriya' - a breathing technique which allows you to get into a meditative state.

The first time I did the sudarashan kriya I felt hot and feverish. Like something yuck was being released from inside me. Apparently this happens to many people.

Besides sudarshan kriya, the 'Art of Living' (aka AOL) is full of mini sermons, exercises and platitudes. But, it works. That bit reminded me of ERI (Exploring Roles and Identities) which we went through as second year students at IIMA. Taking time out of your daily routine to introspect and connect with your fellow human beings is always a cathartic experience.

The trouble is, it does not take long to get swept away by the torrent of day to day life once again. Of course, you are supposed to keep doing the kriya - and for a while I did. Then one morning you wake up late and skip, ditto the next day. And poof! You fall out of the habit and gradually forget usme koi faayda bhi tha.

The good people @ Art of Living will contact you from time to time and say,"Come for a refresher course (free of cost)... Come for satsang." But somehow I never did. So I can say the 'Art of Living' failed me... but the truth is that I failed 'Art of Living'.

The trouble is, a part of me just did not believe that this breathing in and out, shallow breaths, fast breaths, ujaya breaths etc can really make a difference.

Exactly 4 years after AOL I joined Isha Yoga. The truth is I had no idea what 'Isha Yoga' was. I was going through some inner turmoil and during this period I happened to see a poster for Isha Yoga stuck on a tree near my house. The introductory session was at 6 pm, not far away. It was 5minutes to six and for reasons I cannot fathom I rushed there.

I thought they would be teaching some yoga poses and possibly, that would be good for stress relief. Turns out Isha Yoga is very similar to Art of Living. Much of the course is talking, introspecting, fables, exercises. And of course they teach you a breathing technique called 'Shambhavi Mahamudra'.

Although in action it is different from sudarshan kriya, the ultimate result is the same. By focussing on one's breath through a precise sequence of events, you are able to rid your mind of all its chatter. And that, is a state of pure bliss.

Isha Yoga worked wonders for me. This does not mean it is 'better' than Art of Living. It is a little different in that it is more intense (they actually ask you to do 'homework' each day!). The Isha yoga 'Inner Engineering' program involves greater number of hours, and also explains some of the science behind what still sounded like spiritual mumbo-jumbo to the skeptic in me.

Lastly, they actually put up a projector and screen bits of discourses by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the force behind Isha Yoga and a rather charismatic personality.

However the real difference lay not in the courses, but in the person who took experienced them at two different times. Perhaps AOL was a preparation - it opened my mind to possibilities but I did not have the commitment to follow through and make it happen.

I entered Isha Yoga also without any expectations of radical or dramatic changes. And I continued to be a skeptic. But half way through the person who could not sit still in one position for more than 5 minutes began to experience physical and mental calm.

After the 'initiation', the yuck feeling which I first became conscious of during Art of Living, left me permanently. I can't describe how or what happened. All I knew was if doing this shambhavi maha mudra every morning can keep me at peace, I am going to do it.

And so I completed the 21 days of the Isha Yoga kriya. And I continue to practice it at least 5 times a week. I can feel a real difference. My mind is free of nnecessary thoughts and worries. And I don't get that easily irritated by flies - real or metaphorical.

You can choose any of these paths - or some other. The important thing, however, is to figure out what works for you and then commit yourself to doing the daily pranayam or 'kriya'. If it does not work for you, the reasons are within.

You could be closed and skeptical, or just plain lazy. Life chal rahi hai, your 15 minutes of extra sleep each morning are more important.

But it will happen, in time, if you need it and want it badly enough. So keep an open mind, keep exploring. Keep swatting those flies... Until one day, you decide, "That's enough!"

Note: I have the highest regard for Sri Sri and the Art of Living program. Please treat this as a deeply personal observation and not a declaration that 'Isha Yoga is superior'. You are welcome to share your own experience here, but let's not get into debating and defending :)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Welcome to Club JAM

A decade before the term 'UGC' came into currency, JAM magazine had done just that -powered itself on user generated content. In its very first issue in August 1995, JAM had instituted the concept of student reporters and writers (also known as JBCs or JAM Bureau Chiefs).

These young people - their thoughts, ideas and energy form the core of the JAM spirit. Guided and mentored by the editorial team, we've seen a few generations of young people pass through our portals (a 'generation' in youth terms is roughly 3 years :) And so many of them left their unique imprint on the minds and hearts of our readers.

Over the years, the volume of contributions and contributors has grown. And the cycle of news has changed. JAM remains a fortnightly print magazine but a lot happens every day, every hour and we have struggled for some time with how to let the energy and content of the JAM junta flow online smoothly.

We did not wish to be a me-too of an orkut or facebook. At the same time we want to empower the JAM community to network. To express themselves dynamically and in real time on a JAM-centric online creative platform.

After much thought, trial and error we have launched Club JAM ( This is a space where jammers that has all the cool stuff you see on any social network but it's also a space for creative expression in all forms. Articles, photos, videos, discussions, forums - and much more to come.

The site is currently in beta and has 400 + members since its launch on Dec 1 2007. On Jan 1 we will migrate the 35,000 existing members of to Club JAM as well. The best of Club JAM will be published in JAM - the print magazine as well.

I invite you to come, experience and participate in this online experiment. Especially the many, many of you who write to me everyday expressing an interest in 'writing for JAM'. I am no longer the 'gatekeeper' - the power is in your hands.

Hope to see on Club JAM. Join the party :)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

MBA ki amar kahani

The MBA is more than a degree – it’s the last refuge of the studious, the seeker and the scoundrel. A tongue in cheek look at why the MBA is here to stay.

(written late one night under the influence of Maggi noodles - which kept me alive in my MBA days)

Mere paas gaadi hai, bangla hai, daulat hai, shohrat hai… tumhare paas kya hai?
Abhi toh kuch nahin… par main MBA ki taiyyari kar raha hoon!

Two hundred and thirty thousand young men and women with stars in their eyes and hope in their hearts gave the CAT – or the Common Admission Test – for entry to the IIMs and assorted other MBA institutes in the year 2007. And there will be more next year. Because the MBA is no longer a degree, it’s a declaration.

What you declare depends on where you do the MBA from. There’s first and foremost the guys (and a few – way too few - gals) who get into the ‘best’ institutions. And they enter the program with the “King of the World” declaration.

Hello fatcats from London, Paris and New York. I‘ve just cleared the most difficult exam in the world to get here… Come get me!

As urban legend has it, an IIM degree is the gateway to a life of cash, caviar and oops! I’m vegetarian, could I have more cash instead, please? The trouble is not everyone can get into an IIM (and not everyone who does gets the caviar!) but as they say, “Aim for the sky and you’ll fall on a jumbo jet… circling Mumbai airport.”

So we have a host of young people joining business schools which are waiting to land at “We have arrived” airport. And theirs is a “Smell the coffee” declaration.

”Look at us – we’re no less than those IIM grads. Heck, we work harder and smarter, just give us a chance to prove it.”

Lehman. McKinsey – are you listening? Evidently, not yet but this bunch is snapping up a whole lot of plum posts which the IIM types see as prunes. And the aroma of that coffee - it’s getting stronger.

Now the next lot also aimed for the sky but ended up on the terrace of an under construction building. Plenty of those, these days, by guys who’ve just had terrific IPOs. Everything’s swanky here – good to look at, feels great to be here. Of course, we all agree it’s overpriced but do we have a choice?

Na huh. Need house, will buy. Need employee, will employ. Retail, banking, insurance, IT, BPOs – these sectors need hands and legs with a moderate amount of brains to match. And not in the dozens but hundreds. Thousands, actually.

So they swoop down on the ‘Jhumritalaiyya’ variety of MBA colleges and recruit large numbers. Yes, if nothing else these graduates ‘look like MBAs’. They carry laptops, wear formals, carry pink papers under the elbow and generally look self important. Just the kind of firepower needed to subdue the hapless consumer into signing on for ULIPs, NFOs and other acronyms which easily roll off the MBA tongue. Assuring him a generous slice of your ‘better tomorrow’.

Last but not the least come the ‘MBA as timepass’ variety. Of course, all education can be said to be a form of timepass – but who’s actually awake to notice? Nevertheless the MBA program now attracts the unlikeliest of species. For example, girls who have no ambition or intention of climbing the corporate ladder. Or running a business.

These are girls who simply wish to get married.

The catch is that “acche ladke padhi likhi ladki chahte hain”. And these days, Home Science does not qualify. As more and more boys from bijness families take up the MBA – at Indian institute for people with money (with sham entrance exam) or Australian business school for people with money (with sham entrance exam but dollar pricing), the girls are following suit.

As doctor once married doctor, MBA now marries MBA. A quick scan of the Sunday matrimonials reveals how the once revered MA has fallen out of favour. It’s now about MBA and LPA (lakhs per annum). Working for a year or two after graduation is encouraged. How many will continue building their careers after marriage depends on DRA (Dulhe Raja’s Attitude).

Phir bhi, progress hi to hai. Once upon a time thousands of young people struggled for a few hundred seats in the administrative service. The majority eked out a life after the dream faded away. Now thousands struggle for a few hundred seats in the most prestigious bschools. But the rest have a chance to start somewhere – even if at the bottom of a rickety ladder.

With hard work and a bit of luck, all these MBAs will climb upwards. They will grow the economy, and grow with it as well. “Do we need to pay 22 year olds 25,000 a month just because they can now use Powerpoint,” is a question the Older Generation often ponders. The answer is, not really.

But in a world where no one has the time or the energy to sift through hundreds of carbon copied, error-ridden-despite-being-spellchecked resumes, we’d rather take our chances with the ‘MBA”.

The MBA is a necessity because our education system is in shambles. Young minds go through conveyor belt colleges and come out unchallenged, underconfident and not even used to the idea of ‘working hard’.

In India, business school is the ultimate ‘finishing school’ – it finishes up the work 15-16 years of previous education was supposed to. MBA courses are all modelled along ‘boot camp’. Projects, presentations, surprise tests, case studies, all night study sessions – this is the stuff of the average student’s worst nightmare. But ultimately, the badge every MBA proudly wears.

And for this alone, HR managers will tolerate the jargon, the attitude, the insouciance of the ‘is this what I did an MBA for’ MBA.

Speaking of finishing school, the MBA – from the student point of view – is crossing the final finish line of education. There’s nothing more you can do beyond this to ‘better your prospects’. Escape from a boring job into something glamorous (or at least better paid!). The MBA is like “Incredible India” advertisements. The brochure can sometimes be more attractive than the actual sights.

And yet, you crave that experience. Happily, it no longer matters how old or young, smart or dumb, rich or poor you are. There is an ‘MBA’ for everyone. 1 year executive programs, 2 year distance learning MBAs, 3 year part time course. Qualifications which would earlier fall under the uncool sounding ‘vocational’ now attract tons of students by renaming themselves as ‘MBAs’.

So you have MBA (Retail), MBA (Insurance), MBA (Telemarketing). The last one is a figment of my imagination but I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a course in the market very soon…

In the ultimate analysis, ‘MBA’ is whatever you make it to be. Or whatever you make of it. The MBA is here to stay, until another degree which captures the imagination of our people comes along. That could take a while.

And hey, we just might subvert it and convert it. “Let them eat cake… and let us all do MBAs.” Amen.

Heh he heh
In the hit movie ‘Partner’ Govinda plays an ‘IIM Ahmedabad graduate’. Now many IIM grads are nerds who have no idea how to woo a girl. But a salary of Rs 30,000 a month at age 30? Tauba tauba.

Surprising the IIM types did not take out a morcha to the scriptwriter’s house, sue the producer for maligning the fair name of IIM A, and start an e-petition imploring the all television anchors who need a ‘Question of the Day’ to take notice. Guess they were too busy with placements…

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The wonder of Ellora

This is a panoramic view of the Kailasa temple at Ellora. To take this picture you have to climb up a pagdandi and huff and puff your way up - not many visitors do. But the effort is worth it.

And all I could think, from up there, was wow! Which ancient genuises whittled down an entire mountain to create this... and how?? Much is said and written about the pyramids and the Taj Mahal. Those are amazing feats in engineering and architecture but at the end of the day they were built bottom up.

Which is difficult but not impossible.

How do you humble a mountain into submission with a mere hammer and chisel? Even if you have several hundred years at your disposal?? "Shayad unke paas chemicals thhe... to loosen the stone," was the explanation from one local. Phir bhi.

And all said and done, we've heard of Ajanta-Ellora but they just haven't got the hype they deserve. The Kailasa temple is a 'world heritage site' but how many of us living in Mumbai have visited it? Or plan to, in the near future? I for one experienced it for the very first time a couple of days ago. And not because I had planned a trip as a tourist.

Kuch aur kaam se gaye thhe - khaali time mila so sightseeing par nikal gaye. And I simply couldn't believe my ignorance. I mean I vaguely knew Ajanta mein paintings hain, but had little clue about Ellora. Maybe we read it in our history textbooks but I had long forgotten the details.

Despite it being December - peak season for tourism - there were not that many visitors. Among foreigners, mainly Japanese, all with guides and taking the tour in the most systematic way possible.

The Indians generally wandered from one cave to the next (there are 34 in all - Buddhist, Hindu and Jain). None of them had guides (the standard rate being a steep Rs 450 as against an entry ticket of Rs 10). And of course, the ASI or government or whoever is responsible has not bothered to even put up signs outside the caves, explaining their significance. "Ek number (first cave) par board laga hai... uske baad pata nahin, baaki chhod diya," shrugged one of the 'caretakers'.

These are the guys who take care to switch on a flashlight and point out sculptures to foreign tourists so they can take snapshots with fancy cameras, flash et al. Which is explicitly prohibited!

The one thing I must commend ASI or whoever is in charge for is the fact that the caves are very clean. No garbage lying around, no paan stains, no urine ki smell. I guess we Indians are pious but certainly vigilance also plays a role.

Speaking of Indian tourists sights like this one really pained me. This guy was typical of the bhartiya sightseeing party. The kind who go from cave to cave amusing themselves with how much 'echo' they could generate. There was a huge bunch of schoolkids also doing the same thing but you can forgive the bachchas. The glee of bunking school for 'picnic' is something we've all experienced. Although I am sure if someone took the trouble of bringing history alive for those kids, they would be most receptive.

Then again, it's the overall chalta hai attitude we have towards our own culture. And I am no one to point fingers. Just that I was overawed, not just by the sight but the energy that vibrates at this place. The ancient wisdom that went into its creation. And the devotion to a divine power which made it possible

I will be back one of these days (there was no time to visit Ajanta!) and I hope you guys put this on your must-see list as well. Wonder if National Geographic or Discovery have made a documentary feature on Ajanta-Ellora... would love to see it.

And finally, no piece about the attractions in and around Aurangabad would be complete without a mention of the 'non-attraction' - 'Bibi ka Maqbara' also known as the poor man's Taj Mahal. Built by Prince Azam Shah, son of Emperor Aurangzeb, in the late 17th century as a loving tribute to his mother.

It has none of the grandeur or the romance of the Taj. It's a soulless, bonsai version of the original - a futile and boring me-too!

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