Apoorva in Amsterdam

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My time at Joka

The months of April and May in the year 1997 were very tough for me. I was in the final year of college, and seemed to be struggling with everything. My final exams, rather predictably, were going badly. The residence (hostel) was practically empty as we Maths students were the only ones left on campus. There was hardly any water, and almost no food left. (Ok that sounds worse than it was!) Day temperatures were in the late forties – making the scheduled power cuts unbearable. But what was really killing me was that despite having ‘calls’ from all the IIM’s and XLRI, I hadn’t been selected for any of these to do an MBA. It was deeply distressing. If it hadn’t been for Vipul Malhan’s hospitality (my friend and our Eco HOD’s son – he was very generous with letting us eat and sleep in the comfort of a cooler in his house), and encouraging words from the likes of Saurabh Das (my friend and former roommate), I would have been a complete wreck.

Then one morning – a couple of days after my last exam – my Dad called to say that I had been selected for an MBA at IIM Calcutta. Apparently there was a waiting list and that I was on it. And that the waiting list had moved to a point where they offered me admission! I went numb. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I called Amrita who was more relieved than anything. Then I ran into Amit Wilson – our Principal’s son who was studying at IIM Bangalore at the time. He told me that getting into an IIM was relatively easy – it was surviving once you’re in that’s really tough. He then laughed and said that he’d back me to survive IIMC – they didn’t have compulsory attendance there!

Two weeks later I found myself in IIMC (or Joka – because that’s the name of the village in which it’s situated) where it didn’t stop raining for the first few weeks. The Rajasthani in me was genuinely uncomfortable! Add to that the misery that a course called ‘Financial Accounting’ was heaping in my direction, and I was ready to break. Anyway – I somehow survived the first term, and quickly moderated my academic target to being somewhere close to the median of the class.

I recognized three themes that dominated the landscape at Joka.
– RG
– CG
– Placements

RG was short for Relative Grading. Like most other b-schools, instead of being awarded absolute scores in each subject, we were ranked on a normal distribution, with the mean normally corresponding to a B+ or a B. This was interpreted by us students as: for someone to do well, someone has to do badly. Deliberate behavior which maximized one’s own chances while jeopardizing those of others was – for ease – referred to as RG. In my two years, I did come across a few examples of shameless RG. But for every jerk engaging in RG, there was a good samaritan who’d leave the entire term’s class notes at the photocopy shop for all others in the batch to benefit from. (You know who you are, take a bow!).

CG was short for CGPA – Cumulative Grade Point Average. A CG of more than 7 (on a scale of 9) made you a stud. If you were between 6 and 7, you were thought of as vulnerable, charming, and human. Anything below 6 would make you an easy target for unsolicited advice on how to redeem yourself, and somehow find a purpose in life. By term 3, we were wearing our CG’s on our forehead.

Placements. Make no mistake – for almost everyone – this was the ultimate purpose. All the hardship and toil was for these four days where you had a shot at landing a job in your target salary range, and for the more discerning ones, in the industry and function of your choice. Chebychev’s inequality, the McDonald’s case in Consumer Behavior, and LIFO/FIFO meant nothing in the end. It was about the short lists, the interviews, the GD’s. ‘Dream’ jobs. And OOPS (Out Of Placement Services – meaning you had a job!).

And what did I learn at Joka? Let me start with some regrets.

I wish I had attended more classes. I thought I was very cool that I cracked the system and graduated from IIMC without having attended too many classes. I now realize that the joke was on me. I wish I had attended Prof Munshi’s Sociology classes. At least I would’ve had a frame of reference for the world I was about to step out into. I wish I had attended some Money and Capital Markets classes – even if the prof taught them using really old transparent slides on projectors! Many years into work as a consultant, upon a client’s suggestion, I started reading Fabuzzi and Modigliani to brush up on financial markets and instruments. I actually loved it! I wish I had attended more classes in Marketing of Services – since that’s what (by and large) I have been doing for over 13 years now!

I also regret not investing in getting to know more people on campus. My life was pretty much my ‘wing’. And while they were sweet to me in general, surely they got bored of my company at times! (Responses in the inbox please, not here!). There’s a couple of folks from campus that I follow, and interact with, on Twitter. They are really interesting, and we have many interests in common. It would have been fun knowing them on campus. Also with professors – and there were some that were indeed approachable – I didn’t really make an effort to interact and learn. That makes me sad at times.

But there were some priceless things that I learnt as well.

I enjoyed being part of a community that was more diverse (though not in terms of gender) than what I had experienced at school and college (where most students were from the north of India).

I enjoyed being ‘me’. In college, I always felt pressure to be ‘someone’. And quite often this ‘someone’ was not who I was. At Joka, I felt like I could be myself most of the time. Firstly because I didn’t feel the pressure to be anyone else. Secondly nobody gave a damn anyway, and there was hardly any room for pretense.

Theatre! I was part of the annual production ‘Ten Little Indians’ in the first year. We practiced for more than 2 months! More than the play itself, I enjoyed the voice exercises, the team-building and trust-building games, and the jokes! The whole experience was very satisfying 🙂

Ok, I learnt a few things on the academic side as well. I really enjoyed the courses in Behavioral Sciences, and learnt a lot from them. The course on ‘Management of Self’ taught by Prof Leena Chaterjee was amazing. My individual project on the movie ‘Rangeela’ was an awesome learning experience. Consumer Behavior was well-taught and meaningful. And my paper on ‘Romance in the workplace’ as part of HR in R&D organizations was great fun to write.

Above all, I made some friends. Aditya Gupta and I have remained in touch – most recently through Whatsapp! His sense of humor is intact. I met Anhul and his wife Mayuri (only one I know who can give Aditya’s sense of humor some competition) in Singapore a few years back. Saumitra Sehgal (Saumi) was in Amsterdam a few weeks back, and we picked up the conversation from exactly where we left it 13 years back!

I am on holiday right now and all these thoughts came to my mind as I was trying to sleep off last night. I thought I’d write them down. And share them.


Sad and Soulful

I have been fond of music for as long as I remember. And – right from the start – I was attracted to what most people would call soulful numbers. Sad songs.

Growing up, my cousins would be perplexed by my preference for the second song on side B of the audio cassette, rather than the more peppy numbers. For Music Society functions in college, I was more likely to sing a slow, romantic number than a Kishore Kumar chartbuster. And at Joka they named me ‘Rajinder’ (after Rajendra ‘Jubilee’ Kumar who made it big in Bollywood by singing – on screen – some of the saddest songs ever written) for my taste in music.

Perhaps it was the introvert in me who related more to such songs. Maybe it was an escape from all the ‘noise’ around me. Or maybe I was just a sad person 🙂

I have been thinking about my fascination for sad songs again – particularly those from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I realize that it’s the poetry that I find most appealing. It’s the words that pull at me, and make me their own.

For me there are broadly three clusters of such songs. One that describes or professes a philosophy of life. The second that uses the emotions of a character in the movie to narrate something that is fairly universal. And the third type is the one that just breaks your heart because of the way in which the pain is described.

Some examples of songs in the first cluster would be:

–          Kisi Ki Muskurahaton (Anari, Shailendra)

–          Kasmein Wade Pyar Wafa (Upkar, Indivar)

–          Zindagi Ke Safar Mein (Aap Ki Kasam, Anand Bakshi)

–          Wahaan Kaun Hai Tera (Guide, Shailendra)

–          Ek Pyar Ka Naghma Hai (Shor, Santosh Anand)

Here the lyricist was afforded (within the context of the movie of course) a free license to express themselves. A deep, universal, and timeless philosophy is conveyed in a simple and elegant manner. The characters on screen that sing these songs are essentially messengers. If these songs were published outside of Bollywood’s umbrella as Hindi / Urdu poetry, they would have probably won Sahitya Academy awards.

In the second type of songs, the on-screen character carries the philosophical (and often painful) message on their own shoulder. The lyrics, at least to begin with, relate to specific themes within the movie, but invariably (and often very beautifully) veer into the same philosophical domain of the first type of songs. Some examples would be:

–          Kabhi Khud Pe (Hum Dono, Sahir)

–          Main Zindagi Ka Saath (Hum Dono, Sahir)

–          Mera Jeevan Kora Kagaz (Kora Kagaz, MG Hashmat)

–          Dukh aur Sukh Ke Raste – the ‘sad’ version of Abhi Na Jao (Hum Dono again [!!!], Sahir [on a rampage!])

–          Kuch to Log Kahenge (Amar Prem, Anand Bakshi)

And finally the heart-breaker. Some examples:

–          Doli Mein Bithaai Ke Kahaar (Amar Prem, Anand Bakshi)

–          Jo Humney Dastaan (Woh Kaun Thi, RMA Khan)

–          Ye Kya Jagah Hai Doston (Umraojaan, Shahryar)

–          Duniya Kare Sawaal / Kya Jawaab Dein (Bahu Begum, Sahir)

–          Tootey Huey Khwaabon Ne (Madhumati, Shailendra)

Of course – in all these categories of songs – the music directors and the singers played their part. Of course they did! But I call out the lyricists, the poets, because they are the least celebrated group from that time.

So. What are your favorite “sad and soulful’ songs in these categories? Or otherwise? Do you, perhaps, have another category?

Let me know 🙂

(Originally written in June 2012 as a Facebook ‘Note’)

Back to Reading Books Part 2

I wrote a few weeks back that I am reading books again.

Since then, all my reading (with the exception of a few chapters of The Spirit to Serve by JW Marriott Jr) has been about the Holocaust. What started as curiosity after reading The Diary of Anne Frank has now become an intense quest.

I first read The Footsteps of Anne Frank by Ernst Schnabel – a gift from Amrita. The book is about what happens to Anne after she and her family are discovered by the Nazis. But Schnabel also talks about the times – the circumstances surrounding Jews during WWII and the reactions after the war (the book was written in the late fifties). He interviews people that knew Anne, including those that kept her family in hiding. His tone is melancholy and his narrative direct. At one point, after quoting a stomach-wrenching fact, he states haplessly, “These things were done in our times, in our midst.”

Next was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl – a Jewish Auschwitz survivor. Frankl does not talk much about the horrors of the concentration camp (even though whatever he does state cannot be described through known adjectives!). As a psychiatrist, he focusses on finding meaning in extreme adversity. His contention is that we can’t avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it and move forward. His own story is a tremendous example of that.

Then was Night by Elie Wiesel. Also a survivor of Auschwitz and the aptly named Death Marches at the very end of the war, Wiesel describes it the way he experienced it as a teenager. His is an insight into the darkest, most horrific side of human nature. There are pages in the book which I read twice, thrice just to make sure I had understood what was written correctly! His description of his relationship with God during this period is also heart-wrenching:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

“Where He is? This is where – hanging from this gallows.”

This was followed by Hitler’s Willing Executioners – Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Written by Daniel Goldhagen this is a deep, academic work which states that the Holocaust engaged the energy and enthusiasm of thousands of ordinary Germans – not just Nazi party members / SS men. Goldhagen states that ordinary Germans killed Jews not because they were forced to but because they wanted to. And he devotes over 600 pages to prove his point. The book was path-breaking at the time of its release because it was the first serious work to propose this line of thinking. Since then many works have tried to demonstrate that virulent anti-semitism was widespread throughout Europe in those days and was by no means limited to Nazi officials. Goldhagen makes his book persuasive by offering lots of primary and secondary research. The 630-page book has 132 pages of notes!

And then followed The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn. An absolutely unbelievable story of a Jewish girl who, after ‘serving’ in two factories/farms for the Germans, assumes a Christian identity during the war! A Nazi party member falls in love with her, doesn’t turn her in on discovering that she’s a Jew (!!), and marries her. The book is about Edith completely changing as a person, living in constant fear of being found out, and then eventually finding herself again.

Having read these books I realize that the Jews that survived the Holocaust needed an unending supply of conviction and a series of good fortune. Having just one of those two was not enough.

Reading these books has informed me about a chapter of history (is it really history – it wasn’t so long back that it happened!) that I knew little about. I am not sure but, thanks to these books, I think I know just a little bit more about the world we live in. 

(Originally written in December 2010 as a Facebook ‘Note’)

Enjoying Hindi poetry again

I have said before that the short story is my favorite form of literature. This is still true – and is likely to stay that way. But with Amrita doing her Master’s in English Literature (with Ekphrastic poetry as one of her electives), there’s lots of poetry-talk at home these days. With Amrita spontaneously quoting Natalie Handal and Adrienne Rich, and making me listen to original renditions by TS Eliot, my interest in poetry (which I had – among several other things – completely lost over the years) has been reinvigorated.

My interest – particularly in Hindi poems – had started quite early. My mom taught Hindi Literature to college students and introduced me to several great Hindi poems when I was a child. I would recite these poems in Elocution contests – sometimes only half understanding their meaning! The CBSE Hindi course in class 9 and 10 also had some good poems.

So, net net, I was quite excited when I stumbled upon this website last Friday:


It turned about to be a treasure trove of classic Hindi poetry! I found some real gems that I thought I would share:

1. Andheri Raat Mein (Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan)


Best known as Amitabh Bachchan’s dad and then for Madhushala and Agnipath, Dr. Bachchan also wrote a lot about how difficult times are always temporary and there is always a new dawn. What makes this poem special for me is the twist towards the end. All along you think that the poem is about defiance and resilience. Then in the last verse you realize that it’s a love poem!

2. Veeron Ka Kaisa Ho Vasant (Subhadra Kumari Chauhan)


An ode to our soldiers written during the freedom movement. As relevant and appealing today as it was back then! I get goose bumps when I read it.

3. Sakhi Woh Mujhse Kahkey Jaatey (Rashtrakavi Maithili Sharan Gupt)


Written by the poet to try and draw a picture of Yashodhara’s agony when Prince Siddharth (later Gautam Buddha) leaves on his journey to seek Truth without telling her. My mom quotes lines from the poem when my dad is out of the house for long and she doesn’t know where he is!

4. Pushp Ki Abhilasha (Pandit Makhanlal Chaturvedi)


In 12 short lines, Panditji describes (using a flower as his medium) his love for the nation and its soldiers! Sometimes brevity can be so powerful!

5. Do Anubhutian (Atal Bihari Vajpayee)


I like Vajpayeeji! He speaks well (albeit with long pauses!) but he can also write pretty well. Do Anubhutian is actually two different short poems – one describing despair and the other optimism. As you read the poems, you can hear him reciting them!

More later 🙂

(Originally written in October 2010 as a Facebook ‘Note’)

Back to Reading Books

I have read very little in the last 16 years. Since leaving school (1994), it was just the odd PG Wodehouse, a random O Henry short story and sometimes business literature (of which I could only ever finish Good to Great).

2010 has been different in that I have started reading books again. And I am so excited that I want to share my experience with everyone!

In this note, I want to talk about three books that have a common thread. I have read two and I am about to finish reading the third. Its difficult to articulate what the common thread is – perhaps you shall be able to describe it after reading my impressions of the three books.

The first book is ‘Comedy in a minor key’ by Hans Keilson. The novella was first published in German in 1947 but was translated into English only this year. The book was reviewed by The New York Time/IHT in the summer and that’s how I (and, if the American Book Center in Amsterdam is to be believed, hundreds others) became interested in it. In short, its a part-comic, part-poignant take on lives of ordinary people during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. I simply LOVED the book. The big take-away for me was that while we can all empathize with people in a difficult situation, we only truly understand their difficulty when we have to experience that situation ourselves. I would highly recommend this easy-to-read gem.

Having lived in Amsterdam for four years, I was a bit embarrassed of never having read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. ‘Comedy in a minor key’ was the final push I needed to read it. What can I say? The book is powerful and depressing at the same time. For me, the diary is a lot about human relationships and human frailties, and there are not as many references to the war or the plight of Jews under the Nazis as I had expected. That, and the book’s abrupt end, made me sad because Anne had no idea of the horrors that awaited her in Westerbork, Auschwitz and Belsen. This book made me think and be grateful for the life I lead.

The third is a book that Amrita lent me after I shared with her my impressions about the other two books. Its called ‘The Jewish Problem’ by Louis Golding (himself a Jew). Strange title, I first thought. I realized once I started reading the book that the title referred to the problem that the Jews have faced down the ages rather than to the suggestion that the Jews were a problem! In fact, at one point, the author does suggest an alternate title for the book – The Gentile Problem. The book is a concise history of how and why the Jews have been ostracized and persecuted throughout time. The author tries to explain every Jewish stereotype and rationally addresses all myths associated with the Jews. Good going so far. But why am I talking about the book if I haven’t finished reading it? Here’s why. As I glanced through the chapter on ‘The Nazi Horror’ I realized that while there’s a long list of various atrocities, there’s absolutely no mention of the Holocaust. I thought that was very strange! I then checked the publication date. November 1938! I am still in shock. What would this book read like if it was written six years later!?! I’ll start reading the book again after I have recovered!

(Originally written in October 2010 as a Facebook ‘Note’)