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Grit + Gumption = Glory. What Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can teach us about lasting success.

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Fedal-2

Roger Federer’s recent win at the Australian Open reminded me of the almost-certainly apocryphal tale of Robert the Bruce and the spider, that most of us have heard as kids. Don’t remember the story? The legend goes thus – Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, was apparently once holed up in a cave where he observed a spider trying to bridge the gap between one part of the roof and another. In vain the spider tried to weave a connection between the two surfaces. Once and then twice the spider tried…and failed. And then, on the third attempt, it succeeded – and in the process inspired King Robert to pay no heed to his prior defeats and roundly thrash the English in future battles. It isn’t clear if Roger Federer has heard of this story or what his views on arachnid inspiration are. Being Swiss, he seems more William Tell than Robert the Bruce. But with his recent exploits at the Australian Open, he certainly lived up to the adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”.

Yes, I’m a rabid Roger Federer fan and hence it’s no surprise that I’m back writing yet another article extolling his virtues. But in my defense, these observations don’t stem from Roger’s exploits alone – they include learnings from Rafa’s super-human efforts to stay relevant as well. While they may have proven their mettle and uncanny ability to endure, on the tennis court, their methods are worthy of application in any realm of life. After enjoying fabulous careers (and ruining those of several others like Andy Roddick) for the better part of the 2000s, both have been written off many times in the past few years. Several self-proclaimed pundits have tut-tutted sympathetically that the best days of these amazing athletes is surely behind them and hence, they should be on their way to retirement and should patiently await a call from the Tennis Hall of Fame. And yet, in a brazen display of ignorance of the script, both these men ended up in the finals for one more installment of their rivalry. What’s the secret behind their enduring success?

Grit + Gumption = Glory

Yes…they’re insanely hard-working, talented beyond description, intelligent, etc. I don’t want to peddle these fairly obvious facets of their personalities as having contributed to their lasting success. Of course, these qualities have helped. But these are baseline characteristics that ALL top tennis players must possess. These do not distinguish Roger or Rafa from the rest of the madding crowd. They do not explain why these two gents have been around for so long and between them have won so much – while the rest of the field has been left licking their wounds. In my opinion, observing their methods and learning from their journeys holds great promise for all of us in our career and life journeys as well. Like Roger and Rafa, there are others in many realms of life who have enjoyed similarly lasting success. What makes them so tough? What makes them so different? What makes them so lastingly successful?

They feel boundless joy in their calling.

joy-9They exude an almost-inexplicable sense of joy in what they do and in life in general. Despite the hard work, the long hours, the defeats and setbacks – both Roger and Rafa (as evinced by their various interactions with fans and the media) display true passion and love for their sport. They seem to find themselves deeply on court and there is nothing else they’d rather be doing. One cannot attempt to gain mastery (an ingredient for repeatable success) at any pursuit without truly loving the pursuit independent of the rewards it may bring. Without this, you cannot and will not be able to justify to yourself (let alone to others whose support you will undoubtedly need) that the effort is worth it. If sportsmen are in it for just the medals or trophies, there will come a time when the effort simply doesn’t justify the short-lived elation of winning tournaments. The same goes for one’s career. Money, promotions, titles and other outward manifestations of success cannot serve as sustainable motivation to consistently put in the hard yards needed to achieve one’s fullest potential. What the French call joie de vivre, is an essential ingredient for lasting success at work and play!

They work hard at retaining control of their life’s narrative.

Grit.jpgTo quote H. W. Longfellow, “Into each life some rain must fall”. And fall it will. Please nod in acquiescence if there have been times in your life where you’ve felt that the narrative arc of your own story is out of your control. I know I have. In all folks who have managed to achieve enduring greatness, I see that they simply don’t seem to ever feel anything is out of their control. While naysayers may have waxed eloquent about why Roger or Rafa can never win again, these two gents have always behaved as though they have everything under control and they KNOW that they can work things out – no matter how uphill that climb may seem. Achieving lasting and repeatable success is not about never feeling that things are out of your control. It is about being able to wrest mental control back to a state where you truly believe you’re in the driver’s seat and nobody in the world can drive your own life better than you can and that only you have control over all the elements that can make that life meaningful and great. If you don’t achieve this, there will always be the odd incident here or there, the occasional crushing defeat, the unforeseen injury, the disappointment of being passed over for an opportunity or promotion, which causes you to give up and resort to hopelessness, despair and whining.

They seem immune to boredom.

boredEver tried doing something that’s really really REALLY hard every single day (even on holidays) come rain or shine for years and years on end? No – I haven’t. But I’m willing to wager that every single player worth his/her salt in the ATP/WTA top-100 has, since early childhood no less! IMHO, where the truly great distinguish themselves from the merely great is how intense their focus is when their body and mind is screaming at them to please stop and take a day off. Sure, it is but human to feel bored occasionally no matter how passionate one is, or how glorious the promised land that one is persevering towards is, in the mind’s eye. I am sure even the best of the best tend to feel bored – the likes of Roger and Rafa included. So, what is the downside of once in a while going through the motions while feeling bored? Quite simply, when one succumbs to boredom and loses focus, learning gets compromised. Excelling at something needs an attitude of learning – constantly observing what works, what doesn’t, etc. even during practice. The baseline hard work needed to even stay competitive will force all top players to continue practicing or focusing on their physical fitness even when their mind is protesting the routine. While merely going through the motions may avoid the guilt of skipping it altogether, the loss of focus in giving into boredom will compromise the quality of these sessions. A certain cultivated immunity to boredom is essential to playing to peak potential. Learning should NEVER stop. Learning is a compound-interest bearing instrument – every single day counts!

They are audaciously optimistic about their future.

optimismThey are optimistic in the extreme – almost audaciously so! Even in the darkest of times, both Roger and Rafa can be seen dejected, but quietly positive that they can and WILL overcome failure and win again. Maybe it is an optimism born of true self-awareness. Self-awareness of their hard-earned mastery of their craft which gives rise to true belief that their skill and hard-work can overcome all obstacles. But… can this be attributed to mere rational thought? Having been doled defeats ad nauseam in the form of a looping top-spin forehand to a (relatively) weak single-handed backhand, would it really be possible for Federer to feel no self-doubt at all? Having seen his knee and wrist and various other joints give way time and time again, would Rafa have had no flickering of self-doubt about his body’s fragility in the long run? I don’t think so. Self-doubt is an endearingly human quality that none of us should shun or treat as weakness. It keeps the best among us grounded and provides a much-needed antidote to an inflated ego. However, the ability to overcome bouts of self-doubt with reflection that leads to a razor-sharp focus on what needs doing and what needs ignoring, makes these individuals super-human. This simplification of self-doubt into progress-oriented action is a trick that only optimistic people can accomplish. They never rue their circumstances or blame their lot on factors out of their control. While the rest may wallow in dark thoughts, optimistic people choose to NOT live their life as though they are powerless in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and try to do the best they can, to win again. Audacious optimism born of an abundance of enterprise and initiative, is never a bad thing!

Want to be like Roger or Rafa? Take a generous helping of determination and hard work. Throw in a soupçon of gumption with audacious optimism and common sense. Top off with loads of grit by eschewing boredom and truly believing that you and you alone, are the mistress/master of your destiny.

 Grit + Gumption = Glory!

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It’s a tough job having a hire purpose in life.

September 15, 2011 4 comments

“Sheesh!”, I hear you exclaim. “What’s with the pathetic pun in the title?”, I hear you ask… (rather droll, don’t you think?). If you’ve managed to overlook that and are getting ready to dive in, I’d like to warn you that this isn’t one of those Deepak Chopra-like articles that dishes out banality in bucketfuls and peddles pious platitudes in plenty. This is really much much worse. I do not have Mr. Chopra’s rhetorical flair, nor his astounding gift for nuanced nonsense. I rely however on the unintentional (I assume) comic genius of Bangalore’s best and brightest, as they attempt to persuade me that I should hire them.

It has been well over a year since I left the comfortable confines of a large German software giant to try my luck at running an organization from a small house that should officially be declared unfit for human habitation – but works just fine for software engineers. Mine was a sheltered life until then. I hadn’t dealt with the multitude of mundane yet maddening struggles that comprise a day in the life of someone trying to setup and operate an offshore development center in Bangalore. Well… 18 months into herding cats for a living, I seem to be holding my own…for the most part. Actually, running an outfit in Bangalore is really pretty much all fun and games… but more fun in some aspects than you can even begin to imagine. Some of the best laughs of my life have come from interviewing the teeming masses of people I need to closely examine, to grow a team 6-fold.

The setup is usually the same…there’s the obligatory “phone screen” courtship, followed by the always entertaining “f2f” engagement, the “offer letter” pre-nup dance and culminating in the employee standing us up at the altar by almost always not showing up on the first day of work after signing the pre-nup. Phone interviews unerringly start with me speaking in an unnecessarily grave and ponderously deep voice to lend gravitas to the solemn occasion and sound appropriately middle-aged and sufficiently weighed down with responsibility. Following this, with very little provocation from me, the candidate speaks exceedingly highly of himself or herself, with glowing accounts of entirely fictitious (or borrowed) achievements at their current workplace and me oohing and aaahing at the opportune moments to express affected admiration. Life is good in these initial few minutes. I’m limbering up for the sucker-punch… the candidate is on a roll extolling many of his or her imaginary virtues. The sun is shining gloriously… and then I unfortunately feel compelled to strike the jarring note by asking them to do some thinking. At which point, what seemed to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, sputters to a halt entirely.

My first taste of the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of me in growing our little brood from six to thirty-six came when I was putting the finishing touches on what looked like the successful hiring of someone I’ll call “Bachelor #1”. Beaming benevolently at B1, I told him I looked forward to him joining. He beamed back competitively and said he looked forward to it as well. And then, suddenly, with the melancholic air of a man who has realized that unto each life some rain must often fall, B1 told me he can’t join me. I continued to beam (I like to have the last beam) and asked him why he was inserting the negative note in this happy scene. “I want to get married”, he replied, blushing like an excited beetroot and quickly averted his gaze to conduct a close examination of the (somewhat dusty) floor. This seemed like a puzzling non sequitur to me… neither here nor there. Jumping onto the nearest conclusion that happened to be passing by, my beaming took on an avuncular and sympathetic air as I graciously conceded that even the best of us makes colossal mistakes in life and that as a married man myself, I would be out of a job if I imposed an “only-singles-can-work-here” policy at work. While cautioning him against unnecessary rashness, I reassured him that I would still like to have him as an employee even if he did get married. I had apparently missed the point by a mile and B1 set me right quickly. Given the down-market chic, non-shiny digs we were in… and given that our company was not called “Infosys”, B1 did not fancy his chances of finding a prospective father-in-law rash enough to give him his daughter’s hand in marriage. I prefer to not go into the difficulties I’ve had in convincing my management to invest in a new office (or court acquisition by Infosys – whichever is simpler, I’m flexible like that) for the simple reason that our employees need to get married. We’ll save that sitcom for another day.

After this bracing episode, things have only gotten better. I’ve dealt with situations that seem to get funnier by the day. Next up on deck to have me in splits was Mr. Respectful – a very obsequious and somewhat timid young man. Having done himself credit in the written test I had administered to test his mettle, he waxed eloquent about how it would be a privilege for him to work in our organization. Considering that he had never heard about my company till he walked in for his interview that afternoon, I was impressed at this instant admiration for us. We bantered amiably for a few minutes and he took my leave promising to send me the signed offer letter after he took his grand-dad’s blessings. Touching… this expression of Gen-Y affection for the aged relative. Given that it was a Friday evening, I expected to hear back from him only on Monday or later. He called me from his native village outside Bangalore on Saturday. After the customary pleasantries (in the west this usually takes the form of small talk about the weather… in India it is always the all important question “have you had lunch?”), Mr. Respectful breathlessly asked in a hopeful voice… “Guru, do you speak Telugu?”. I’m usually unflappable in the face of bizarre questions… but this was a bit much. I reeled. “Cough… gulp… what?”, I managed to splutter. He repeated his question and I answered that I could manage a few sentences in the language (like – “have you had lunch?”), but that I didn’t see where this was going. He abruptly said “Great! I’ll hand the phone to my grand-dad. He isn’t OK with me working for anybody other than Infosys and I think you can convince him!”. Whoa! I really wanted to hire the guy, but not that desperately! Bye-Bye…

In the course of my adventures, I’ve met potential employees of all hues. Some are laconic to a fault. Like one gentleman who when confronted with the statement from me over email that he had not shown up for a previously scheduled f2f interview, merely responded with a short and sweet “Ya” (yeah). I guess the fault was mine… I didn’t frame it as a question, but as a statement. I got my just desserts. And another was when I (in my usual ponderously deep voice) had this back and forth with one guy

Me: “From your resume, I can see you work at XYZ Software Solutions”
He: “Ya”
Me: “Great! What do you do for XYZ Software Solutions?” (as you can see I’m slowly learning to ask, not just state)
He (with the patient air of someone dealing with a retard): “I *work* at XYZ Software Solutions”

And then there are those who are extremely inventive in the way they try to explain technical concepts. The following back and forth, with a gentleman from a neighboring state, maybe a bit technical for those fortunate enough to have not dealt with software for a living, but I’m wagering you’ll understand the fundamental underpinnings of Object Oriented Programming Systems (fondly known as OOPS to the Indian cognoscenti – or “woops” to some as I found out) after you read this.

Me: “Under the assumption that I don’t know a damn thing about OO Programming, convince me about the need for polymorphism.”
He: “Do you at least know superclass-subclass?”
Me: “No” (and I quickly add , lest he starts to think he’s interviewing for a job with someone who is utterly ignorant) “Just assume I don’t… ”.
He: “Tchah…” (with disappointment writ large in the tone)
He: “If you don’t even know that, I must explain things from the beginning…”
Me: “Yes, that’s always a good place to start”
He: “We have *woops* concepts in Java. Super class is like the father. Subclass is like the child”
Me: “Awesome…*woops*!!”
He: “You will inherit property and money from your father.”
Me (thinking sadly to myself): “Sighhh… that’s not really true for everybody, y’know…”
He: “The same way in *woops*, subclass also inherits property from the superclass”
He: “In real life inheritance is good. In programming also it is the same way. That’s why we need polymorphism”
Me: “Woops!!”

Since most of my interviews are technical, I have loads of other anecdotes that are sure to regale those of you who understand enough about Java programming to appreciate the unintentional humor behind some of the answers I’ve got. I’ll not bore the general populace with this.

I’m beginning to realize that the super-hot job market in Bangalore engenders a sense of invincibility in the people most in demand – the worker bees in the 3-7 yr experience bracket. How else would you explain the brash honesty and devil-may-care nonchalance displayed by a Mr. Sleepy in the episode below? I called Sleepy at a previously scheduled slot at 10 AM that my recruiter had setup. After letting the phone ring for an eternity, Sleepy deigned to answer the phone

S (sounding groggy): “Hullohhh?”
Me (in a non-deep, chirpy, top-O-the-mornin-to-ya voice): “Blah blah blah… calling for our phone interview”
S: “I slept really late last night and am sleepy… can you call back at 2 PM?”
Me: Speechless
S: <click>

However, with these episodes getting increasingly humorous. a sneaky suspicion is beginning to dawn on me…I think these guys are having some fun at my expense rather than the other way round. Here’s one for the ages from a week ago that really makes me think the joke is firmly and entirely on me… I called a chap we will refer to as Mr. Outdoors who worked at XYZ Consulting.. He asked me to call him back in 5 minutes because he was not in “a comfortable position to talk”… I caught him in flagrante delicto, I guess…
I called him back and asked him about his work at XYZ Consulting… he gave me the usual BS…

And then came the sucker punch – from him to me….

Me: “Looks like you have worked for XYZ for just 9 months, what’s making you look outside XYZ?”
Mr. O: “Are you are asking me why I am looking outside XYZ?”
Me: “Absolutely wonderful how you like to get instant feedback on your understanding of the question. Yes… that’s exactly what I want to know.”
Mr. O (in a conspiratorial stage whisper): “Actually, I am on the rooftop cafeteria of the XYZ building for this phone interview and it is an open cafeteria and I am near the edge… that’s why I am looking outside XYZ.”
Me: (after two minutes of silent struggle trying to not guffaw…tears rolling down my cheek) “That explains everything… thanks!”

Over the course of these months of mirth and merriment, I have unfortunately managed to hire many excellent folks (albeit lacking the comic talents of the above mentioned beauties). Unfortunate because, with each new hire who actually comes on board, the future for the reliable comic relief afforded by the hiring process looks bleak. I guess I will now have to look elsewhere for my daily dose of helpless laughter. Wish me luck!!

Categories: Hiring, Musings

Into each life tons of rain must fall

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment

I know, I know… I know what you’re thinking. The dude stopped writing about tennis the minute Roger stopped winning. Fair enough. I accept the accusation.  How about I make amends for this by writing about tennis after what I consider to be Roger’s worst loss? For the record, I didn’t watch the match. I am glad I didn’t. Watching Roger these days is a combination of marveling at his virtuosity and cursing his idiocy, within seconds of each other. Did my heart a world of good to not watch the match. From all accounts of it on the numerous tennis websites I peruse, I might not have lived to pen this tale, had I been rash enough to watch.

What motivates me to write is not Roger’s loss. Far from it. It is no secret that I am miserably unhappy when he loses to anybody but Rafa. If there is one person on the planet who deserves to beat Roger, it is Rafa – not because he is a more skilled proponent of the game – no, he isn’t – and I say this on the authority of wielding a not-half-bad racquet myself.  He deserves to beat Roger because a more tenacious, bulldog-like, well-muscled, hardworking, constant-wedgie-inducing-shorts-wearing warrior of a SOB I am yet to see. I admire this more than I’ll admire God-given-practice-honed talent any day (not the ill-fitting-shorts – I’ll give that a miss). I am motivated to write about tennis today because of a text message I was woken up by at 4:24 AM on Sunday morning. From a friend who said “Was worth losing sleep today – to see FED losing!”. Got me thinking, it did. Also got me riled to the point of partaking from the same well of insomnia that my friend seemed to have sipped from – albeit with markedly less enthusiasm about the sleep-deprivation being worth it.  Got me thinking about why a talent like Federer’s inspires dumbstruck love in the masses – and *virulent* hatred in a few others. Why is it that the spectacle of someone who plays tennis with such beauty, precision and effortlessness (I say this on authority of being someone who labors mightily for every point I’ve ever played) can induce such disgust in some? Is it the same in other sports? Did the Khans of squash contend with similar animosity while they spent the better part of a decade kicking everybody’s butt on the parquet? Does Sachin Tendulkar, God that he undoubtedly is, contend with mere mortals spitting in contempt at his achievements? Maybe such is the case and the reason I don’t know is because I don’t follow any other sport with a hundredth of the passion I follow tennis with.

In pursuance of my ill-advised research into the complex workings of the human mind that make it possible to hate a phenomenon like Rog, I asked the gent who sent the insomnia-inducing sms why he hated Roger thus. He responded to say, “As talented as Fed is – I always thought he got a free run – surrounded by players who had the skill but not the balls to think he is beatable – until Nadal came along and now there are more who think they can beat Fed. In my books someone like Sampras is way ahead of Fed.”. I will discount this as wing-nut-speak right away. The stats belie this fatuous argument. *Nobody* can possibly get to 23 consecutive grand-slam semi finals and 22 grand slam finals and win 16 of them purely because the skilled “men” on the other side of the net were riddled with testicular deficiencies. That Fed continued to win everywhere else in spite of getting his rear kicked by Nadal at the French, weakens the argument further. To say that these fine athletes, who practice day in and day out to be the very best at their chosen trade, lost simply because they were scared that they couldn’t win against the scary monster of a Federer on the other side of the net, is grotesquely nonsensical at best. As for Sampras – before Roger came on the scene, I was a die-hard devotee of Pete. Far be it from me to say anything against him. To me, he will always be the best grass court player ever. Roger on his best day would have had to be seriously inspired to beat Pete at Wimbledon. But that being said,  Pete just couldn’t cut the mustard on clay while Roger, to his credit has been second best to only the best clay-courter of all time.

I guess the truth is that greatness invokes a visceral response – adoring or otherwise. The reasons are immaterial and in some cases may be laughably bereft of logic, as most emotional reactions are.  To the person on the opposite side of the fence, me waxing eloquent and singing hosannas about Roger’s virtuosity might come across as the illogical rambling of a deranged fan. The fact that a Roger or a Tendulkar or a certain philandering golfer has sometimes-rabid detractors is circumstantial evidence of their individual greatness.  Before the Rafa die-hards protest at his exclusion from the list – fear not, I count myself a fan too. I have seen Rafa detractors who insist that Del Potro is the true blue champ. And I know Del Potro haters who can’t fathom why everybody doesn’t love Andy Roddick or David Nalbandian as the Chosen One. But… I digress. I really shouldn’t be bringing up the names of these supposedly anatomically unblessed scaredy-cats.

Back to the beautiful game. In missing Djoker vs Federer, I guess I missed an inflection point in the world of tennis. We are most certainly witnessing the beginning of sunset in a champion’s life. The old must give way to the new and into each life tons of rain must fall.   I truly believe that Roger will win a grandslam or two – he definitely has enough skill for that. Anybody who watched him play at this year’s open can’t believe that he is over the hill for good. But he is not the Roger of old. I don’t see him ever challenging for the #1 spot, if Nadal’s knees remain healthy. His timing is a tad off, the spirit isn’t as willing and the flesh is definitely weak (compared to the nipping younger 20-somethings who now take bite sized chunks off his heels). He still finds himself in the right spot effortlessly most of the time. But when he gets there, it isn’t the slam-dunk ripping winner along the sidelines any more. More often than I’d like, it’s a ball ricocheting off the frame into the tramlines or beyond. 66 unforced errors  in a match is so un-Roger-like that it is scarcely believable. All credit to Djokovic though – saving two matchpoints with magical shots, suggests that he is finally coming of age. It is the manner in which Fed seems to have lost, that suggests a turning point. A point where those of us who are no longer in our early twenties like Djoker or Rafa, empathize with the trauma and the travails of an older genius succumbing and coming to terms with life’s inevitabilities.  All I hope is that following the time-tested formula of old, he doesn’t retire into the sunset way before his time when he wins his next grandslam. He surely has a few more years of beautiful tennis left in him. I want to watch him play – even if it is a wondrous experience mixed with the emotions of a cat navigating a hot tin roof. Tennis is greater than the man and this is not the time to whine about the fading of a champ. New and  better ones will emerge. Djokovic seems to have transformed into a force this year and maybe Murray will give some hope to the perennially whining Brits next year. Rafa will continue to amaze and the others will only get better and better, in large part because of the high bar that Roger has set.

Sure… tennis is just a game and we should all watch/play it for a couple of hours and put it out of our heads.  But then, how is it possible for the experience to not linger when you witness something done to perfection? Wouldn’t the strains of a musical concert where musicians outdo themselves just as likely to continue to chime in the inner recesses of your mind or between pursed lips? The wing-nuts may disagree, but I as a player will aver that Roger’s game at its peak was painfully beautiful. Beautiful because of the perfection of form, mechanics, timing and tactics that made him invincible to all but one left-hander armed with the perfect kryptonite of shots. Painful because all perfection is fragile and ephemeral and we all knew there had to come a time when the rain fell during the sunset, to mix metaphors liberally. Some of us looked forward to it rubbing our hands in glee. And others like me biting their nails while praying for postponement of the inevitable. Unless Djoker produces some sublime, yet pugnacious tennis on Monday, it is the day when Rafa begins his true reign as an all-slam winner. I wager that his reign isn’t likely to be as long or as painfully elegant as Roger’s was. But if ever there was a guy capable of intimidating skilled men across the net into emasculation, Rafa is the one. Long live the King.

Rafa… one request…please buy some better fitting shorts that don’t constantly ride up your butt. And yes, please eat Djoker for lunch on Monday.

Categories: Musings, Tennis

The incredible lightness of being…

April 14, 2009 19 comments

If you find idolatry, hero-worship, fawning praise, unquestioning loyalty and other manifestations of the feudal spirit cloying in the extreme, you’d better give this post the old heave-ho. For others (I know who you are), let the orgy of head nodding and other, more enthusiastic forms of agreement begin, for I am about to pen a rather longish ode to that God among authors – PG Wodehouse.

  I must confess, compared to the adulation that I reserve for Wodehouse, I merely tolerate the other authors that I profess to like. After a childhood spent gorging on Enid Blyton, following the time-tested formula of many Indian kids before me, I had graduated to Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators and (heaven forbid) a Nancy Drew or two (OK, many more – I admit it!). I had fruitfully whiled away many a summer reading these books at a frenetic pace, competing with friends to see who landed on top of the end-of-summer count for the number of books read. In my pre-teen years, I spent many afternoons following the exploits of Perry Mason – more as a graduation ritual from Hardy Boys than anything else. (I also vaguely remember being subliminally dissatisfied by the lack of sexual chemistry between Perry Mason and Della Street – but this is not an issue I will delve into now :-)). Into this comfortable, but ennui-laden void in my literary development landed Wodehouse.

 I still remember the seminal moment in my life and the circumstances that lead to my picking up a Wodehouse novel, with startling clarity. Having run out of Perry Masons on my friend’s bookshelf and not bold enough to take more than the customary wistful peek at the beguiling and impossibly buxom beauties that adorned the covers of her father’s collection of James Hadley Chase novels, I resigned myself to the seemingly dull pleasures of a little white book with an orange sleeve with a little penguin on it – with the title “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”.  The rest, as they say they say, is history.  The book affected me in the manner of a bunker-busting bomb relieving the tedious monotony of contemplating the Almighty in an underground cave.  One is thankful for the break in the routine and to the new world that has opened up, but a nagging feeling that it has caused more than the doctor-recommended dose of disruption in the status quo, persists. Reading the book set off a singular obsession with getting my hands on every PGW book ever written – a happy obsession that continues to this day. To say that I began to exist on a higher plane from that day onwards would beggar belief amongst all but the most hardened of Wodehouse fanatics – but it is true! Freed from the pedestrian and prosaic dimensions of space and time by his unimaginably deft use of the language, life seemed to branch out into a fuller, gentler and lighter universe once I discovered Wodehouse. Summers (and all other months of the year) were spent in chortling, wheezing laughter thanks to this incredible lightness of being… a Wodehouse fanatic.

 If Jeeves and Wooster had been Wodehouse’s solitary contribution to literature, his place in the pantheon of literary greats would have been assured. Had he but written of Blandings castle and its menagerie of miscellaneous misfits and nothing else, he would have been hailed as the greatest comic writer ever. It is our singular good fortune that Sir PGW gave us all these and a whole lot more. As a writer he was prolific, ending up with a tally of over 100 books in a long life extremely well lived. He started writing at the end of the 19th century and continued until his death on Valentine ‘s Day 1975 at the age of 93. It is rumored that he passed away with the manuscript to his unfinished work “Sunset at Blandings”, in his lap.

 In addition to the leading lights mentioned above, he also introduced notables such as Psmith, Ukeridge and Mulliner into our lives – not to mention a collection of delightful schoolboy stories (with which he incidentally started his writing career) and a small treasure trove of golfing anecdotes. The world of Wodehouse is one of domineering, disapproving and sometimes diabolical aunts, larger than life butlers and valets, young girls who veer between Nietzsche-reading tough-uns to vacuous airheads, young men who are preoccupied with pinching policemen’s helmets and twinkle-eyed septuagenarian uncles who possess unblemished boyish charm. Evidence of the author inhabiting an alternate universe, one might conclude. But this conclusion would have to be drawn outside the context of (God, *please* send the right adjectives my way) the extraordinary miracle of Wodehouse’s prose, a prose that renders any analysis akin to taking a spade to a soufflé, a prose that makes even the prospect of criticism (or praise) moot, powerless and asinine – like this post, some might say!

 Wodehouse lived a large part of his life in the US, but his readership in the US must sadly number in the low thousands today. Many in the US are no doubt acquainted with the “Jeeves and Wooster” series that PBS ran for several years – with Bertie being played by the inimitable Hugh Laurie and Jeeves, somewhat less satisfactorily in my opinion, by Stephen Fry. While Wodehouse’s books leap to life thanks to the plot and characters, it is his use of the language that really hits the spot. I loved the Jeeves and Wooster series on TV, but exchanges from Wodehouse work better on a page than on a screen. The actors, competent as they were, could convey the narrative of the stories and some of them even hit the nail on the head when it came to portraying the characters, but it is the act of reading that gives life to Wodehouse – through laughter mutually created from the commas placed just so, from the stilted Englishness in every “Sir”, “What”, “Pip-Pip” and “Toodle-oo”, and of course, the dozen or so exquisite hyperbolic similes (“she turned red, like a tomato struggling for self expression”) and hypallagees (“I lit a rather pleased cigarette”) littered around each page. One has to be fair to the actors – none of them can ever be as good as the ones faithful readers of Wodehouse carry around in their heads. Wodehouse in a book affords the reader the luxury of time to savor the delicious sentence and its nuances. However, on TV, the sentence whizzes past, like an attractive member of the opposite sex glimpsed while driving on one of the boulevards near Miami Beach. You try desperately to hold on to the image, maybe even steal a glance at the rear-view mirror, but it is too late and you risk missing the next dazzling beauty coming along if you dwell too long on what you just glimpsed.

 Here’s an example that illustrates the fact that his prose works best when read:

“Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” said Wilfred.

“ffinch-ffarrowmere,” corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

Or this, about the British aristocracy’s predisposition with their first-born sons:

“Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.”

 And one of my favorites, from Ring for Jeeves, that might illustrate the point about the sentence whizzing by too quickly:

 “It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.”

 Wodehouse works better as a book on tape, but again, you need someone with the right accent and more importantly a love for Wodehouse, to make the situational comedy work well when being read. I recommend getting your hands on those narrated by Jonathan Cecil, sold by Chivers Audio. I’d give any of the other readers a miss.

 To those of you sufficiently tantalized by the prospect of picking up a Wodehouse, I would suggest starting off with a “Blandings” story.  Blandings Castle is the epitome of all that is right with an old English country manor. It is, to borrow the tag line from Kerala’s tourist pitch – “God’s own country”. The cast of characters that dive in and out of the Blandings stories is too numerous to outline and I fear I will not be able to do justice in any case, should I be rash enough to attempt it. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. In fact, you might start with Wodehouse as I did – with “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”. And having sipped from the well of Wodehousian literature, you could turn your attention to “Right Ho, Jeeves” as an introduction to the genius of Jeeves and which, according to the cognoscenti contains the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language – in an anecdote running into a few pages, where a gent by the name Gussie Fink-Nottle distributes prizes at a village school. As you read more of Wodehouse’s works, you will soon realize that Wodehouse’s skill lies in the fact that he can tell the same handful of basic stories over and over and over again – and, yes, many of his characters are almost interchangeable – while making the journey uncontrollably funny and undeniably interesting, every time. In fact, Wodehouse acknowledges this interchangeability of his characters in a tart preface to “Summer Lightning”, where he writes:

 “A certain critic-for such men, I regret to say, do exist-made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names’. He has probably now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled this man by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy”

 And speaking of prefaces, I daresay this authorial dedication (from a collection of golf stories called “Heart of a goof”) must rank among the best ever written:

“To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”

 I can just go on and on, but – yes, you can shake that look of horror off your face – I won’t.

 My literary consumption these days (and I suspect a vast majority of yours’) consists of the doom and gloom peddled by schadenfreude-filled  journalists dissecting the follies of Wall Street. This new age of sobriety that we now live in, characterized as it is by the antithesis of irrational exuberance, is sorely in need of a pick-me-up. A yarn by Wodehouse is a perfect tonic, a panacea, for these troubled times.

 I will close this out with a small collection of my favorite lines from various works of Wodehouse. Small because I do not have the elephantine memory I’d need, if I wanted to remember all the lines I’ve loved. 

 “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

“The woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.”

“She snorted violently, like one of those gas explosions that slay six.”

“He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!'”

“‘Yes, sir,’ said Jeeves in a low, cold voice, as if he had been bitten in the leg by a personal friend.”

“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”

“Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror.”

“Nature, when planning this sterling fellow, shoved in a lot more lower jaw than was absolutely necessary and made the eyes a bit too keen and piercing for one who was neither an Empire builder nor a traffic policeman.”

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoi’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

If some lines from Wodehouse have afflicted you with uncontrollable laughter, or even a mild chuckle or two, please do share them through a comment or two in response to this post.

Museum Musings

April 6, 2009 3 comments
Very Guggenheim-ish, I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If one were crazy enough to write a book titled “Weekends in Walldorf”, it would have precious little in it. The place, quaint little rural hamlet though it is, singularly lacks sex appeal – dull as a doorknob, one might say if one is in an uncharitable mood. I am definitely in said uncharitable mood. I can see why SAP has chosen this particular corner of the German boonies to setup shop – coming into work sure beats sitting around with *nothing* to do.
Surely you exaggerate, I hear you say. OK – a little. Walldorf does have a nice IKEA – if that sort of thing floats your boat. With wheels at my disposal and the great autobahn beckoning, I decided to stand on the bored shoulders of those who had visited Walldorf before me and head south to Stuttgart for the day. Tolerably well stocked with Muesli after the morning meal, I put my leaden foot on the accelerator and headed down the pike, with a view to checking out what the vaunted Mercedes-Benz museum was all about.

I had budgeted about 4 hours to take in the sights and boy was I optimistic. The museum was FANTASTIC. Starting from the post-modern structure that the museum is housed in, to the way the exhibits, automobile history, world history and the prevailing zeitgeist at each point are woven together into a big picture – the museum didn’t disappoint one bit. The museum is laid out in seven (or was it eight?) floors with the viewing starting on the uppermost floor. There on, each floor deals with roughly a decade’s worth of development of the automobile (specifically, those from the stable of Daimler-Benz).  Each floor focuses exclusively on the cars of the age, giving broad details such as mechanical advancements that were seen, the social milieu of the time that shaped (and was shaped by) the cars, etc. The distance between one floor and another is bridged physically by a ramp. The time-periods that the floors represent are bridged by a montage of photographs and other exhibits that provide a birdseye-view of history (e.g. WWII) and how the auto industry was affected by the events. An audio-tour of the museum is facilitated by a device slightly bigger than a BlackBerry that one can activate on demand when one is near an exhibit relevant to the audio tour.

I spent a wonderfully instructive afternoon learning all there is to know about the Mercedes-Benz collection. I learnt the correct story of one piece of misinformation I had received as a kid and had actively propagated ever since. The theory that the car was named after Carl Benz’s daughter. Not true, it turns out. It was named after the daughter of Emil Jellinek, who was one of Daimler’s best car dealers and a speed fiend, who pressed Daimler into building faster and faster cars – culminating in one that was named after his daughter and swept the podium at the annual race in Nice, catapulting the car to the brand we so admire today. Ironically, Mercedes (the girl) never learned how to drive. Incidentally, the name means “grace” in Spanish. Brand mojo doesn’t get better than this. Pre-ordained to  succeed, methinks.

At 8 euro, the place pays for the price of admission within a few minutes. Two thumbs up!

Public transport vehicle from Buenos AiresQuaint British double-decker

Categories: Musings Tags: , ,

Feet of clay

February 9, 2009 4 comments

If you aren’t into tennis 24×7 like I am, then this post can safely be ignored.

During the past month or so, a large portion of my consciousness has been consumed by the recently concluded Australian Open. The results are out, the man’s once inexorable march towards assuming the mantle of permanent greatness has been stopped yet again and his tears have been the subject of much derision and have been seen as the final nail in the somewhat self-made coffin of emasculation.

A friend of mine, after seeing my public statements of mourning on Facebook, pointed me to an old article in the New York Times on the unstoppable march of Federer. The article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=1&_r=5&ref=playmagazine

Truth be told, I wish I had read this in 2006 – not today. With whatever remained of Federer’s aura of invincibility firmly and undeniably dissolved in that bucket of tears he wept on Sunday, the article’s idolatry of Federer’s prowess comes across as a bit dated and hollow. I have had several “Federer Moments” during the past years. As an avid tennis player and an even more avid fan, there are few matches of Federer’s that I haven’t watched. His game still leaves me breathless and amazed. For sheer shot-making genius, his ability is unparalleled. That his game is poetry cannot be denied. However, during the recent years, I have had “Nadal moments” in equal measure. The man astounds me with his ability and athleticism, to seemingly convert a surefire winner from the opponent into a winner of his own, to put one extra ball back, to break the will of the hardiest of opponents. Strange as it may seem, I am a big fan of both players. I have to profess greater admiration for Nadal’s work ethic, the strength of his psyche and his sheer will to win. As far as mental strength goes, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone stronger – period. The stats show this facet – the man, it seems, simply cannot be broken. The GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) debates will rage endlessly (and pointlessly) on. For now, I am willing to shed a quiet tear or two (while Roger weeps) that my idol has feet of – *irony alert* – CLAY against one and only one player and enjoy the unbelievable quality to which the two have elevated the game. I cannot grudge Nadal his victories, the way he has adapted his game to all surfaces and how hard he works and how gracious and humble he is as a champion leads me to conclude that he is also definitely one of the greats of all time.

That said, poetry his game is not. I hope poetry trumps practical a few more times. I’m rooting for Roger “Tears” Federer all the way at Wimbledon – that grass needs watering, win or lose.

Going over the hill to push up the daisies

January 27, 2009 8 comments

A word of advice to those of you contemplating a move back to India: if you’re on the “wrong” side of 30, you should be prepared to be reminded of your advanced years – over and over and over.

 

In September 2007, while my wife Deepa and I planned my family’s move back to India with a certain amount of trepidation and angst that usually accompanies any foray into the unknown, I foresaw a variety of issues I would have to contend with. One that completely escaped me was the “age” issue. While not a whippersnapper, at 34 I was fairly certain my best days were yet to come and that the proverbial foot wasn’t in its anointed position in the grave, yet . I guess someone forgot to hand me the script before I moved back.

 

I once read somewhere that roughly 70% of the Indian population was under 30 according to the last census and educated projections thereafter. My first day at work in Bangalore indicated that if my colleagues’ ages were anything to go by, this was a gross underestimation.  Youthful exuberance (and a collective collegiate hangover) was all around – in the form of boisterous birthday parties for colleagues (where perfectly good cake was thrust into the unfortunate victim’s face – a practice peculiar to India, I guess?), in the rambunctious bonhomie that was so much a part of lunch every day and of course, in the numerous courtship/flirting sessions I frequently observed in progress in coffee corners 🙂.

 

My many friends (and this list includes my wife  :-)) will likely break their necks nodding in vociferous agreement – when it comes to being exceedingly dense, I’m a natural. Owing to the fortunate happenstance of my manager being on vacation the week I started work in Bangalore, I flew in under the radar, so to speak. I spent a week trying to make friends of my new (and very young) colleagues. Aware of, and wishing to avoid the reputation for snobbery that returning Indians have rightfully acquired, I insinuated myself into their lunch gatherings and birthday celebrations in order to fit in with the esprit de corps – and doing a damn good job of it too, I thought. As time has gone by, the scales have been ripped off my eyes. In hindsight, I can see that what the script called for, was for me to play the elder statesman, whilst looking indulgently avuncular from a distance. My younger colleagues have spared little effort in illuminating the reality of my dotage. In one instance, one of the younger girls in the group, after having read the introductory email from my manager welcoming me into the group, and trying to justify the rashness of his decision to hire me, by pointing to my long tenure in the industry – exclaimed “I had no idea you were sooooo old!!”. Daft as I was, I simpered modestly, sucked in my stomach, puffed out my chest, squared my shoulders and interpreted this to mean I looked amazingly young. Alas, I now know that she was expressing some measure of disbelief and a greater measure of disdain at the fact that a senior citizen like myself could have so brazenly joined the festivities clearly meant for a younger crowd. Another sobering instance of ageism came to light during a recent lunch with my colleagues, when someone remarked on the fact that I follow a distinctly un-South-Indian diet by not eating any rice. I should have hotly denied this all too-true observation – instead, I sat on a gastronomic high horse and extolled the virtues of eschewing simple carbs. One of the pretty young things around the table understood my drift all too well when she nodded appreciatively and chimed in: “At your age… you really have to be careful”. At your age… – OUCH! Cut to the quick by her brutal honesty – and in no small measure because she was very pretty – I asked her just how old she thought I was, to deserve the “at your age” put-down. “Well, you must be at least 30”, she ventured – trying to soften the blow through some good old-fashioned flattery, no doubt. I guess 30 looks very far away when you’re just out of college and all of 21.

 

As the weeks at work have turned into months, I’ve received many other similar rejoinders at not acting my age. The most recent one was when one of the young ‘uns expressed surprise at my enthusiasm for Facebook and said – “Wow, I thought Facebook was more of a youth thing…”. Hey! – I am “youth”… or youth-ish at least… sigh… what’s the use. Sorry Facebook – through my hosannas, I’ve single-handedly ensured that a lot of potential users are now turned off – they aren’t going to use something that a lot of us geezers are singing praises about.

 

So, forget all you’ve heard about 40 being the new 20  or any other such combination of descending numbers. 30 is still the old 60 here in Bangalore and you’d do well to remember it.

Categories: Musings Tags: ,