Short Story: Anniversary

“Ladies and Gentlemen, May I have your attention please?” announced Jaspal Rana from the stage.

“This occasion deserves special cheers. Everyone please raise a toast to welcome Mr and Mrs. Malvinder Singh.”

Indeed the occasion was special. Everyone had gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the wedding of Jaspal’s best buddy of fifty years Malvinder and his sister Gurvinder Kaur.

There was a loud cheer from the guests after Jaspal’s announcement. The guest list included Mr Malvinder Singh’s close business acquaintances over the past many years, relatives and family members, and last but not the least, their two sons and daughters-in-law, daughter and son-in-law, and seven grand children, and even a great-grandson.

As the 76-year-old Malvinder Singh walked up to the stage, the cheer and clapping increased into a crescendo. Everyone stood up as he was joined by his 71-year-old ‘bride’ Gurvinder on stage. Amidst the clapping, Malvinder Singh started speaking.

“Thank you all today for joining us in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our wedding. It has been a very enjoyable journey. And in all these years, so many things have changed. Business has changed, India has changed. Culture and Way of Life has changed. Our surroundings have changed.”

Taking a pause, he looked at his wife and friend on stage. “What has not changed is Love. What has not changed is Friendship.”

The guests broke into a huge applause, as everyone gave a standing ovation to the old couple. Malvinder Singh and his wife were overwhelmed by the occasion. With a few tears in his eyes, he continued, “My heartfelt gratitude to all of you, many of whom have been with us in this journey. And our love to the joys of our life – our children and grandchildren. May peace and happiness be with you. God bless you all.”

With that, the old couple walked off stage slowly, helped by their eldest grandson. Before walking behind them, Jaspal Rana, who at a sprightly 75 years, still had lots of energy, took the mike and announced, “Let the party begin.”

After that, the music blared, the dancing started, the food and drinks flowed. Jaspal who had made all the arrangements for this occasion asked the event managers to take over, and joined his friend and sister at the dinner table.

Born in what was now the Pakistani Punjab, Malvinder Singh had moved to Amritsar (and later Delhi) just after partition, and had built a successful business over the past five decades. Jaspal and Malvinder had met in college and during that time had grown to be close friends. After Malvinder had fallen for Jaspal’s sister, with their parents having expired early, Jaspal was instrumental in getting his sister and Malvinder married. Post the marriage, their personal friendship had got converted into a strong relation. Since they moved to Amritsar in the aftermath of the partition, they had also become business partners. Their personalities complemented each other well, and they had built their business together through ups and downs. The fifty years had been as much about Malvinder and Jaspal’s friendship as about Malvinder and Gurvinder’s marriage.

“Get me my whiskey” Jaspal told the waiter, as they settled at their table.

Then turning to Malvinder, he said “Nice speech. So – fifty years?”

Malvinder, already a bit overwhelmed, said “Yeah – I got a bit emotional.”

“You have always been the sentimental type” Jaspal poked Malvinder.

“Well maybe. But today I think I got a bit more sentimental.”

“No, no. You have always been like this.” And then turning to his sister, Jaspal asked, “He has always been like this – isn’t it?”

With a smile on her face, Gurvinder said “Yes. He cried when each of our children were born. And he had tears even when our grand children were born.”

Holding his wife’s hand, Malvinder smiled. “Yeah – that’s right.”

“See – I told you” Jaspal pulled Malvinder’s leg again. They were both in their seventies. In fact all three of them. But they still had the spark and the camaraderie of their youthful days on.

For the next 2-3 hours, Jaspal and Malvinder sat at their dining table, having small chunks of chicken and large pegs of whiskey. Gurvinder watched on and helped herself to some food from time to time. She was accustomed to this routine for the past fifty years.

All through the evening, guests kept visiting them presenting their table with anniversary gifts. The old couple kept thanking every guest, and asked them if they had dinner and a good time. Every time some one from the guests came, they would touch the old couple’s feet. One by one, the guests finished their dinner and started leaving. Eventually, the old couple’s children and their families also started having their dinner.

All through the evening, Mr and Mrs Malvinder and Jaspal kept going back to some old memory that they had shared over the past five decades. Sometimes it was about some family event, others were about something to do with their children, few others were about something related to their business. Fifty years is a long time, and there were more than enough memories to fill an evening of conversation. And as memories filled the evening, the whiskey pegs filled the glasses.

By the time most of the guests had gone, Malvinder and Jaspal were several pegs down. And Gurvinder started doing what she had been doing on such evenings for so many years. She started asking her husband and her brother to stop. But like other occasions in the past, she knew that this was not going to work. Not when it had not worked so far. But this time, the occasion was special and she sensed that both her husband and her brother were way past their normal limits.

“I have a confession to make” suddenly Jaspal announced. People make confessions when they are drunk.

“So are you getting married?” asked an equally drunk Malvinder with a twinkle in his eye to Jaspal. “Have you finally found the woman of your dreams?” poked Malvinder. Jaspal had never married and Malvinder never knew why. Beyond an age, he had stopped asking him.

“Arre no. I had found her long time back” Jaspal mused. “But this confession is not about me, it is about you” he continued.

“About me? Did you mess up something in the business?” asked Malvinder unable to think what it could be. Though he was not in a state where he could think anyway.

“Arre no – it is about your marriage. And your wife. And a surprise!” Jaspal said in a jolly tone.

Gurvinder looked up when she heard that. Malvinder was already eager. They had reached a stage where there were no more surprises. It was their fiftieth anniversary, and surprises were things of the past. Nevertheless, Malvinder asked his friend “So what’s the surprise?”

Jaspal peered at his friend and gazed at his sister in drunken stupor, and announced “Arre yaar, you married the wrong woman!”

Gurvinder frowned at her brother on hearing that. She was the only one who was sober and she wasn’t quite sure what her drunk brother was saying to her drunk husband.

Jaspal stood up and started staring closely at his sister. “Arre – this is Parminder, not Gurvinder. You got it all wrong.”

Gurvinder got up from her chair to calm down her brother. She asked him to sit down. He was already quite unstable, unable to stand straight. But he continued blabbering.

“And I was the one. I, your best friend. I messed up your life” Jaspal said, and started crying. He walked towards Malvinder and putting his head on his shoulders, he continued crying. Malvinder, equally drunk, was surprised at this sudden emotional outburst from his normally stoic friend, and tried to console him.

Every drunken man feels that he is not drunk and the other one is. Malvinder who had heard Jaspal call his wife Parminder was convinced that Jaspal was drunk and needed his consolation. Holding his head, he said “No my dear friend. You made my life.”

Gurvinder, who by now was quite alarmed pinched her brother and asked him to sit down. She whispered in his ear “Sit down. What are you saying?”

At the same time, she also pinched her husband and asked him to sit down too. “Both of you are drunk. You are not young anymore. Now let’s go home” she ordered. And she asked their driver to get their car.

On hearing that, Malvinder told Jaspal “Jassie – your sister is telling us to pack up.”

And Jaspal obediently said, “Yes, we should listen to Parminder, sorry Gurvinder.” He kept his finger on his lips, and both of them started walking towards the car.

The next day, both of them got up with their customary hangover headache. And Gurvinder realised soon that both of them did not remember anything about last night’s conversation.

But Gurvinder – no Parminder – remembered everything. And she also remembered things that were embedded in the depths of her heart for the past fifty years. On her fiftieth wedding anniversary, she had managed to stop her brother from spilling surprises to her husband. She had prevented the spilling of secrets. A secret that only she and her brother knew.

That she was not the Gurvinder that her husband had originally loved. But she was Parminder – her identical twin sister.

That Gurvinder Kaur had been killed by rioters in the post partition mayhem a few days before the wedding day. A few days before Malvinder was to arrive for the wedding. And that Jaspal, his best friend, had convinced and coerced Parminder to become Gurvinder to save his friend from shock. And to set right all their lives. And that among the partition riot victims that day was also the girl who Jaspal was supposed to marry. And that this was supposed to be Jaspal’s surprise for his friend Malvinder. Best friends getting married together to the loves of their lives.

But fate had willed otherwise. And given a surprise to everyone.

Short Story: Verification

On a Sunday afternoon, Balaji, an engineer by profession, was having coffee with his wife at home when the telephone rang.

“I am calling from the Hulimavu police station. Can I talk to Balaji?”

“Yes this is Balaji speaking.”

“Sir, you have to come to the police station for address verification for your passport. Can you come in the next thirty minutes?”

Balaji had applied for a passport a year back when his office required him to travel. He had also got it then, and had also traveled abroad six months back. So he wondered what this verification was about. But he decided against making any inquiries on the phone around that. “Better safe than sorry with the police” he thought.

“Yes sir. I can come. Should I bring any documents?” he asked obediently.

“Yes. Bring your passport and address proof for last six months.”

“Address proof?”

“Bank Statement or electricity bill.”

“Ok Sir. I will be there.”

And the line got disconnected. Balaji told his wife that he needed to go to the police station for verification.

“Why one year after you got your passport?” she enquired.

“I don’t know. I will go and check.”

He collected the passport and documents from his cabinet, quickly changed his clothes and got into his car. It was only a 10 minute drive from his home to the police station. He parked his car some distance away and walked towards the police station.

The police station was housed in a decrepit building which had two floors. There was a board outside which had a list of various departments and their heads and contact information. Another board listed the various crimes that had occurred in the area in the past six months. There was a police van in its premises where a couple of constables were chatting.

Balaji asked one of them “Address verification?”

They pointed to an office on the first floor. He walked up to the first floor.

“Where should I go for address verification?” he asked an orderly sitting outside the office. He pointed inside.

Balaji walked in and asked the officer sitting inside. “Sir, someone called me to come for address verification.”

“Who called you?” the officer asked sternly.

“Sir, I don’t know his name. He said he was calling from Hulimavu police station.”

The officer did not say anything after that. He continued with his work and put his head back into the file he was reading.

Balaji waited, thinking that he was probably working on his request. When nothing happened for a while, he asked again. “Sir, my address verification.”

“Wait” came the reply.

The police station looked like a busy place. There was constant movement of officers, constables and probably, criminals, thought Balaji. There were people looking into files for something, sitting on chairs and working on tables piled with what seemed like hundreds of files. There were old computers on some tables attached to noisy rickety printers and wires hanging from broken switchboards. In all this mess, Balaji wondered how work got done at all.

“Sir, when did you get the call?” asked a person who had just walked in to the office.

“Around thirty minutes back.”

“Last year’s case?”

“Yes”

The person, who Balaji thought was another officer, looked at some list in a register at the far end of the table.

“Name?”

“Balaji Rao.”

The officer seemed to have found the name.

“Sir, you should have come 11 months back. Your papers are pending. We were going to send a negative report about you. Then you would have got into a problem with the passport office” he explained.

Apologetically, Balaji said “Sir I did not know I was supposed to come. No one called me.”

“Ok – sit inside. I will come.” The officer pointed to a cabin inside where Balaji went and sat. For thirty minutes or so after that, nobody came.

Finally, the same officer came back with a file and what looked like a form. He explained to Balaji that this was the verification form based on which the police station is supposed to send a report to the passport office.

“One negative report from us and your passport would be withdrawn.”

Balaji profusely apologised again for not coming earlier though he wondered how he could have come if no one called him. But he kept his thoughts to himself.

He dutifully answered the questions from the form that the officer asked him one by one, and handed over the documents he had got.

“Sign here” the officer said from time to time, and Balaji obediently followed the instructions.

After an elaborate procedure that lasted for around forty-five minutes, the officer filed the form and the documents.

“Go to the ground floor. Verification section.” the officer said, gave him the file and walked out.

Balaji went there and waited. He asked the constable seated there what will happen next. “Sir will come” he explained. He took the file from Balaji and kept it on the table inside.

Balaji’s observation of the busy activities in the police station took over again. Balaji waited and eagerly kept looking for the officer to return. No one came.

After around thirty minutes, an orderly walked in. Balaji who addressed everyone as Sir by now, asked him “Sir my verification?”

“Name?” he asked.

“Balaji Rao.”

The orderly checked the files kept on the table. “Your file is ready” he announced.

With a sly smile, he came a bit closer to Balaji, and whispered “Keep two hundred rupee notes in the file. Courier charges.”

Balaji did not question it and quietly removed the two currency notes from his wallet and placed them in the file.

The orderly walked off somewhere. After five minutes, the officer arrived. Flashing a smile at Balaji, he picked up his file from the table and checked it again.

“Yes, Mr Balaji. Your file is complete. We will send the positive report to the passport office tomorrow.”

“Thank you Sir” said Balaji.

The officer then went on to explain how the country needed responsible citizens like Balaji and how most people don’t turn up for the verification and get into bigger trouble later with both the police and passport office later due to their own carelessness. The officer complimented Balaji on his proactive approach, and explained how he had avoided all that trouble now. He further volunteered to help Balaji if and when required in the future.

“Your verification work is done. You can go home now” he finally said. Both of them thanked each other again and Balaji then walked towards his car.

As he got in, his mobile phone rang. It was his wife who seemed worried that he was in the police station for so long, and asked him what took him so long. Balaji confidently reassured her. “My verification job is done. I am coming home.”

Short Story: Help

On a normal working day, Rajat Gupta, who worked as a marketing manager with a large private company, would be in some corporate meeting at this time in the afternoon. But today was a relatively light day. So he was sitting at his desk staring at the laptop screen, pretending to be busy, but actually reading some news from a website. His cubicle was always in order. It had photographs of his family, a coffee cup and some papers related to his work. He looked at them and thought life was good.

His colleague, Kiran, dropped in at Rajat’s desk.

“I need a small help from you. Are you free for a few minutes?”

Rajat looked up from his laptop.

“Yes. sure – what do you need?”

“Well, there is a friend of mine who has got an offer from Microsystems Corporation. He wanted to chat with you as you have worked there earlier.”

“Oh Sure. Give me his number. I will call him.”

“No – he has come over to the office. His name is Gautam and he is sitting in that meeting room in there.” Kiran pointed to the glass room on the other side of the corridor.

“If you could drop in and have a quick chat, that would be great.”

“Yeah sure. Will go right away” said Rajat.

“Thanks. And by the way, just let me know when you are done.”

“Will do” said Rajat and started walking towards the meeting room.

They generally used this room for meeting visitors like interviewing candidates or presentations from vendors. The room had a large table with six chairs. It was in the corner of the office floor, so it had only one proper wall and on three sides, it had walls of glass. Two of the glass walls were facing outside and one of the glass walls faced inside. The one facing inside had a glass door. Rajat pulled that door and entered the room.

“Hi. Are you Gautam?” he asked.

Gautam was standing facing the external facing glass wall which had a view of the road below. He was probably looking at the traffic below. He had his back to Rajat as he entered.

On hearing Rajat, Gautam turned around.

“Yes I am Gautam.”

“Ok great. I am Rajat. Kiran told me about you.” He thrust his hand forward for a hand shake.

“Oh – is it?” Gautam said, turning a bit pale, and did not shake hands with Rajat.

A bit surprised, a bit peeved, Rajat pulled a chair and asked Gautam to take a seat.

“Thanks” he said and sat down.

“Yeah – Kiran told me that you got an offer from Microsystems Corporation and needed some inside info before deciding to join them.”

“Yes – that’s right. I am currently working with NetSolve Corporation and was wondering if it would be a good move. How long did you work with Microsystems?

“Well I worked there for around 4 years. It is a nice place overall. I think..”

“Did you know anyone in marketing?” Gautam cut Rajat abruptly before he had completed.

“Yes I worked closely with Mr Roy.”

Gautam flashed into a smile on hearing that. Rajat also noticed that Gautam was staring at the window and at the table from time to time, as if trying to remember something. He was not quite sure why. Just as he was going to ask, Gautam continued.

“Wow. That’s amazing. I will be reporting to Mr Roy. How is he to work with?”

“Well, he is a decent guy. Quite good to work with.”

Rajat noticed that Gautam started staring at the ceiling now. Right in the middle of a conversation, he would start turning his attention to other objects in the room. The window, the table, the ceiling. Rajat was getting a bit distracted by that. And also starting to lose a bit of his patience. He was the one who was helping. He expected a bit of attention when someone has come to ask for job advice. Instinctively, he felt like stopping. But this was Kiran’s friend. So he continued.

“Mr Roy will give you all the freedom to operate independently. Generally, he will spell out his expectations upfront, but leave it to you beyond that.”

Rajat felt a bit thirsty and got up to get some water. The bottle was at the other end of the table. He walked to the other side.

Gautam continued asking his questions. “Great. That’s good news. And how is Microsystems overall as a company?”

Rajat picked up the bottle of water and took a gulp.

“Is it a good place to work in general. Does it offer good growth?”

“One sec.” Rajat said and walked back to his chair. “Do you want some water?”

“No thank you.”

There was a moment’s silence as Rajat had another gulp of water. Gautam was staring at him,  and was lost in thought. He was waiting for the answers.

“Overall it is a nice place to work. They will let you decide your working time and offer you flexibility in your work location. Growth may be a bit slow. You know how it is in such large companies.”

“Yeah, that’s true” agreed Gautam flashing into a smile again.

“So when are you joining them?” asked Rajat. He was now getting ready to close out the conversation. He was hoping that Gautam had no further questions. In any case, his constant fiddling and lack of attention was putting Rajat off. He thought that he was done with whatever help he could provide.

“They expect me to join next week. But I will be taking a month or so.”

“Alright then. Hope my inputs helped and wish you all the best.” Rajat was getting ready to finish. “I need to get into another meeting now.”

Rajat did not have any such meeting, but he got up from the chair and prepared to leave.

Gautam got up too and with a smile, he thanked Rajat. Gautam put his hand forward for a handshake. Rajat shook his hand and left.

He walked down the corridor and went back to his desk. He checked his laptop to see if he had got any email. There was nothing new. So he went back to the news that he was reading before this funny meeting with this funny guy.

Seeing Rajat at his desk, Kiran dropped by.

“So how was it?”

“Well, it was fine. I gave him all the inputs on Microsystems he needed.”

“Ok great. Thanks man for your help.”

For a moment, Kiran thought of stepping out, but then stopped.

“By the way, how did you find him?”

Rajat looked at Kiran not quite sure what to say. For a moment, he thought maybe he should tell Kiran that he found the guy odd and that his behaviour offended him. But then, he decided against it.

“Well, the guy seemed ok. How do you know him?”

“Hmm..He is my batch-mate from B-school. I know him for 10 years now. So did you find anything odd?” Kiran probed.

Rajat felt maybe he should tell Kiran now that he was insisting.

“Yeah, I found him a bit odd. He seemed a bit fidgety and low on attention span.”

“Hmm..that’s the reason I asked you.” Kiran went into some kind of thought after saying that. He briefly paused and finally started speaking.

“I forgot to tell you before you went in that Gautam is blind.”

Rajat looked up to Kiran from his desk. Rajat felt a bit stunned on hearing that.

“He slowly lost his vision due to an illness over the past 5 years and now he is 90% blind. He does not wear sunglasses or carry a stick or tell anyone. And his eyes look perfectly fine. But he can only make out that you are there but nothing more than that.”

Rajat did not quite know what to say. His mind went back to the meeting room and the sequence of events during his conversation with Gautam. Kiran patted Rajat on his back getting him out of his thought.

“I will just be back. I need to walk him downstairs to his car. And by the way, thanks a lot for your help.”

Rajat sat down on his chair and stared back into his laptop screen. He tried to read the news but could not concentrate.

Angry Young Country

While the world and capital markets lament the slowing growth of China, it is easy to forget that – in the last 37 years – maybe from 1979-80 or so – China grew consistently at a rate of growth that got jobs for a significant proportion of their young labour force and pulled many families out of abject poverty. China is still not a developed country – and one can argue about the freedom of expression and all that. But one can’t argue with the fact that when you have well over a billion people, it is inevitable, and there may still be a lot to do. Nevertheless, the quality of life of their people has vastly changed.

The reasons for this transformation have been largely political and economic, driven by the large desire for a better life by the people themselves.

It has been the world’s hope that India is moving in that direction. The basis for that has been that the youth of this country – whether urban or rural, whether north or south Indian, whether Hindu, Muslim or whatever – is desperate for a better life. The hypothesis being that they no longer tolerate corrupt, slow movement, and that they have a desire for accountability. The youth of this country was apparently angry. This was a ‘angry young country’ that threw out a non-performing government lock, stock and barrel in 2014, and brought in place a leader whom they thought will deliver the goods.

What a waste that this ‘angry young country’ is now getting angry about none of those things like development, governance, inflation, jobs, corruption, and losing their head over useless things like caste, religion, intolerance, secularism, freedom of expression and nationalism!

With a desperate opposition, whose salaries and careers more or less depend on the youth thinking of themselves not as Indian, but as Yadav or a Muslim or a Dalit or a whatever, and even the party in government reminding them that they are nationalist Hindus or whatever, we seem to have lost our ability to get angry on the things that matter.

Why, of all things, should a youth get angry about secularism vs. nationalism and all these things? Wouldn’t it be better for the youngster to get angry with these political leaders if he is not a getting a decent job beyond agriculture to make a decent living?

Why, of all things, should a youth get angry about who their V-C or Dean is, and whether or not the flag is hoisted in his campus? Wouldn’t it be better if he asks these Deans and the ones who appoint them how he can start a company for his idea easily and get financed for it?

Why, of all things, should a youth get angry about issues like caste oppression and cuddle up to opposition leaders on campus? Wouldn’t it be better for him to tell those leaders to spend more time in parliament to get things done rather than on campus?

Why, of all things, should a youth get angry if the government doesn’t given him reservation? Wouldn’t it be better for him to ask the government where are the roads, power and railway stations that were promised in the name of development?

Why, of all things, should a youth get angry about this intolerance and cultural stuff? Wouldn’t it better if he gets a bit intolerant of the performance of the government and the opposition benches in parliament?

It is amusing, to say the best, and frustrating, to say the worst, to note that this ‘angry young country’ is getting angry for all these useless things leading to noise.

It is happening because it is easy to provoke – both for the opposition and the government. Politicians around the world are the same – they want only votes. If they can get the votes and get to power, and get away with doing nothing, they would be happy.

Some want to get votes in the name of caste, religion, secularism and tolerance; some want to grab votes in the name of nationalism, hindutva and development. Some others want them in the name of socialism and ideology. Eventually these are all good to provoke for votes and easy to escape from when in power. And the media is a happy partner in that – they get paid when there is noise – the more the better, whatever the issue.

What is tougher to be accountable for is real performance that matters.

If this angry young country starts getting angry with the political class – both with the government and the opposition and all others and at all levels – on the things that really matter and that they can’t escape from, by asking them both what they have done on those counts relentlessly, without these distractions – we have some hope of seeing transformation in this country over the next generation.

Else we keep doing this secular, intolerance, nationalist ideological nonsense. We keep getting angry over the wrong things and keep staying happy over the right things. And that would be quite a wasted opportunity.

A Few Stray Thoughts (all my own work)

And for a Saturday, a few stray thoughts and a few general observations and a few points of view (all my own work):

Like the past week has been great. After my book got published, there have been a number of new visitors and new followers to this blog. All I want to say is Thank You.

Like though the book got published (and it means I have something to sell), this blog is still a personal, non-commercial site with no business model, and will hopefully stay that way – primarily keeping the interests of individual investor in mind, as I have already mentioned here. The book is just a way to get the message of this blog across for individual investors, and costs money because the printing costs money. You can still read most of the important stuff free at this site if you are willing to spend time, but are free to buy the book if you like it.

Like I thought maybe I should write more frequently now, which is right. But then also thought that there is no point in creating more noise. The idea of this blog is to simplify investing and honestly there is not much to say every day or every week – so what does one write everyday, if not add to the noise? Maybe it means something in between.

Like though nothing happens every week or month for long-term investing, the markets do something everyday. Like last year they were excited about Modi, this year they are circumspect about Modi. Maybe next year, they will get depressed about Modi. Like last year they were worried about the Fed raising interest rates, and this year they seem worried about the Fed leaving it too late. Maybe next year they will worry about by how much the Fed will increase rates. Every day they find new things to get excited or worried about I guess.

Like anything is possible in politics. One election you fight someone and become CM, and the next election, you partner the same opponent and become CM. One election you won due to arithmetic, the next you say you lost due to arithmetic. Every election for every politician is a new one I guess.

Like I wonder why nobody is returning any awards anymore. Maybe the country got more tolerant in the last few days, or maybe they ran out of awards to return.

Like everyone except his hosts seem to have a problem with the PM’s trips abroad. Maybe we should be happy that at least people are inviting him – maybe they see some value in meeting the PM.

Like things under Modi’s NDA may or may not have changed a whole lot based on who you ask, but I dread the country going back to Sonia’s Congress. Or even worse, Lalu’s coalition.

Like watching TV and reading newspapers has become so suspicious nowadays. You never know who is getting paid to say what and with what agenda, and I don’t like that.

And this final point of view:

Like they don’t make humorists like Busybee anymore – we only have journalists shouting nowadays. And that this post is not a copy, but a tribute.

As You Sow, So Shall You Reap

Invest in businesses as if you are investing in farmland.

Look at the earning capability of the asset and how that will increase consistently over time, and hold it for decades.

This, or something to that effect, is what Warren Buffett said in his latest shareholder letter – drawing parallels with his own investment in farmland over 30 years back and how it has grown without his knowing anything about farming. Except that he knew that earnings yields were decent and crop prices grew over years, he had a son who knew a thing or two about corn and soybean farming, and he made no attempts to sell it for 30 years.

And hence, he says – evaluate businesses as if you are buying farmland.

Nice advice – with a big underlying assumption. That buying farmland to do farming is a great business.

Given the current state of agriculture in India, it doesn’t take much to conclude that it doesn’t pay to be a farmer in India. Buying farmland to do farming is not a great business as of now in India.

It may not be strictly because farming as such is a non-profitable business fundamentally. But it is more because – in its current form and state – if one makes a simple evaluation of farming as a profession, it is virtually impossible to make a serious living out of it. Specially for someone who has any aspiration of a good life.

To begin with – Firstly, is the capacity of the asset itself. Most owners of farmland don’t own the 400 acres that Buffett bought in 1986. It is more like half an acre to two acres, perhaps a bit more if you are a bit better off. Whatever capital investments  are needed to get output from such a small piece of land are more or less fixed and will likely not be affordable. It is like starting a textile factory with one machine producing 50 shirts. So whatever you do in such small land, it is not going to be great sizable output.

Second, farming is capital-intensive. The farmer needs to invest first and then wait. At least 75% of his expenses like seeds, fertilizers, water are recurring for every crop. He needs money to even start expecting any output.

Thirdly, whether the crop will actually come out safe and sound is largely dependent on the rain gods. Well – not just whether rains happen in general – but in most cases, the rains need to be in the right quantity (not too less or not too much) and at the right time (when the crop needs it – not in April when he is waiting for it in July). He doesn’t have an easy ‘insurance’ against these vagaries.

Finally, last but not the least, if and when the output comes, he has little control over the selling price. Part of it is because of the vagaries of food demand and supply, but a significant part is due to affordability and reach issues.

He must sell his produce within a short period of time else it will perish as he can’t afford storage or further processing. He has no access to markets that will give him the best price, and no ability to afford things like transport even if he has access. To this desperate situation, add the multiple layers of middlemen distributors, and he ends up being at the receiving end of all price negotiations. In short, the selling price of his output is not in his control – very often ending up lower than his wildest expectation.

So those are the realities of the business of farming – in India. Some of them are fixable, many of them are not trivial problems to solve.

Now add to that, the complexities and costs of financing farming – both operating costs and capital costs – and you have a lethal combination of a capital intensive, not-so-profitable, highly unpredictable business financed regularly at high interest rates. In short, a high risk venture financed by high cost capital with direct personal liability.

Is it any surprise that the ‘farming entrepreneur’ (I would call it that – rather than the farmer) is facing such desperate times – year after year?

Which farming entrepreneur can seriously make a living out of just farming? I heard that survey after survey says hardly 1 in 5 farmers are dependent only on farming. Perhaps less than 20% of farmers want their children to do it. Perhaps the land can be used for another purpose, if it is available.

It is quite clear that they have evaluated the facts and are fending for themselves. People, by and large, are logical when thinking individually for themselves.

Well – that’s the logic part. And that’s where the analysis of farming as a business ends.

The problem is when emotion gets mixed with it. And human beings, by and large, aren’t driven by logic, specially in groups. They are driven by emotion.

And it is the job of politicians to provoke it and use it to their advantage.

No one loves farming – but everyone wants to love the farmer. Because the farmer votes. That’s the logic.

The rush to love the farmer without fixing his farming problem is currently on. Every political party, in its own way, is part of that rush. And if you can find a twisted way of linking it to some legislation or rich vs poor debate, even better. I am not hopeful that will change. And I will never be able to figure out who is right and who is wrong.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a wonderful piece on logic.

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

The truth is – in this mad rush to love the farmer, I can’t figure out who is right, who is mad and who is telling lies. But I can figure out that unless some of the things change, I don’t want my son to be a farmer in India.

And I am sure, most farmers would figure that out too. The problem is – if not a farmer, then what? Well – that is again not a trivial problem with easy answers. But at least it is a question that deserves to be asked.

Therefore, make no mistake – the farmer is not a fool. If he uses his logic and demands solutions to his real problems, he will ask the right questions and get the right answers. If he doesn’t, well – he will not – all he will get is emotional rants that lead nowhere.

But I am hopeful that the farmer will use his logic dispassionately – for his own good. After all – who knows it better? As you sow, so shall you reap.

Correlation + Analytics – Causation = Confusion

What causes ‘something’ and what action to take to either prevent or make that ‘something’ happen has been the curious question that has led to major scientific discoveries and philosophical theories. But these are based on painstaking research in a closed environment and a focused approach for years.

In recent years, the promise to solve this has hit the business world. The promise being that what causes something is hidden in the data (so much of it!), and analyzing that big data will give the solution. Simple idea, but not as simple as it sounds.

Establishing causation in a business environment with multiple, ever-changing factors and now, increasing data sizes is not a trivial problem. And filtering it down to action where ‘do this and this will happen’ is probably tougher than scientific ’cause and effect’ discoveries. Probably because a sure-shot causation does not exist in the business world.

Very often, the clients ask – ‘so what should I do? what action should I take?’ And my answers have been kind of similar, and probably frustrating. ‘Well there are multiple factors, and what action to take depends a lot on what you want to do and where you want to go.’

A bit like the Cat in Alice in Wonderland.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where —’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat

The fixation with ‘data-driven decision-making’ has led to the notion that causal factors for anything can simply be derived based on a few things happening together, and that somehow if one finds something in the data happening together and some kind of model to stitch them, it will be the magic bullet to drive action.

The truth is that what causes something is rarely as simple as that. Observing what happens together is easier, but establishing one leads to another is not.

The belief catching up is that one should track all kinds of data in huge volumes, and derive connections using powerful machines and databases and implement real-time. The presumption being that all the humongous information and processing will reveal correlations and insights so strong that causation or logic is not relevant.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Even ‘Smoking causes Lung Cancer’ is not a sure thing. All smokers will not get lung cancer and all non-smokers will not escape it, so how can one say sure-shot causality exists? So much so that for even something that is so universally accepted, most accomplished researchers now speak in probabilities like ‘Smoking is one of the risk factors linked to Lung Cancer’.

In complex production environments where most things can be measured, factors that are scientifically tuned and tracked and known and follow a fixed pattern, it is still tough to say with complete confidence and certainty what exact combination causes a defect or failure.

In more qualitative and customer-centric functions like marketing, it is even tougher to be exact about the factors that cause an increase in sales or better response from customers or higher customer satisfaction or whatever. So it is tougher to link it down to a clear mix of specific causative factors.

In stock markets, technical analysis is entirely based on looking for signals in patterns that repeat themselves. No one has yet found a 100% cause effect that works every time. Besides, even for followers of technical analysis, it is not clear which is the cause and which is the effect. Whenever it works, does it work because everyone follows it, or does everyone follow it because it works?

In most business situations, there is no such thing as a sure-shot correlation – so the question of a sure-shot cause-effect is even farther. Anyone who confidently demonstrates cause and effect, and that too with multiple factors, either doesn’t understand it or is in the business of being confident, not right.

That is not to say correlations are useless. Often they could be used as standalone signals – but that is all they are.

Hence, statisticians come up with the language of correlations, factors and probabilities. And because nobody understands them, every one thinks what they are saying is causation and surety. That is the start of problems.

‘What do you mean so much probability? What is this statistically significant model? What exactly should I do?’ is the question. Or even better ‘We wanted to get actionable insights!’ Or even better ‘We gave you all the data we had!’

Data, correlations and statistical models – without any causation or business logic are like a solution looking for a problem to solve. An insight looking for justification rather than a hypothesis looking for validation. A recipe for disaster even in the best of situations.

As it is, analytics gives you no sure-shot answers and talks in probabilities – even in the best of situations. But in this scenario, the only sure-shot thing that one will end up in is confusion. Even if you don’t want to get there.

Like Alice in Wonderland.

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’
Alice didn’t think that proved it at all; however, she went on ‘And how do you know that you’re mad?’
‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.
‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’

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