An idiom for the past

Rediscovered this little treasure on my bookshelf, where it had been lying forgotten for years. This book of English idioms belonged to my maternal grandfather, who passed away in the mid-1950s, when my mother was only seven years old. He was a prisoner of war during World War 2, subsisting largely on rice husk and fish bones. The ill effects of incarceration in a Hong Kong jail eventually claimed him after he returned to Mumbai.

My mother had preserved the book and passed it on to me when I started working.

The writing – remarkably well preserved – is that of my grandfather. As you can see on the top left corner, the book cost two rupees and seven annas – not cheap in those days. The date of purchase – written on the top right corner in a combination of regular and Roman numerals – is July 25, 1948.

His neat, beautiful handwriting was passed on to my mother but sadly not to me.

My grandfather’s tale is a tragic, haunting and inspiring saga that deserves a book of its own. It’s too much to try and squeeze into a blog. Maybe, some day, I’ll write it. It’s been a dream to visit the jail site in Hong Kong – it was probably Stanley Internment Camp –  where he was kept.

Rediscovering this book made my day. I’m so thankful I’m fastidious about caring for the books I own. Now to pass this on to Sadiyah – my teenage daughter – in the condition it is in now.

FGM: It’s time for men to speak up

This blog was first published on the website of Sahiyo, an organisation battling against the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), also known as female genital mutilation (FGM).

Picture this if you can without your heart racing in horror and eyes welling up. A girl, let’s say she’s seven years old, is dressed up by her mother and told she’s being taken for a walk and an ice cream. She clings to her mother’s arm in glee and follows her, secure and happy. She is led to a house in the neighbourhood where her mother undresses her and holds her down. A strange woman removes a razor blade and in a single, heart-stopping motion slices off the child’s clitoral hood.

The pain will ebb, the flowing blood will stanch but the scars will remain for life. A child has been maimed and her trust broken.

I hail from the Dawoodi Bohra community where female genital cutting (FGC) is prevalent but the thought of subjecting my little girl to it never once entered my mind. She is the joy of my life, she gives it meaning. There was no way I could do that to her.

Among the many ugly manifestations of patriarchy, I believe FGC is perhaps the most horrific. We see everywhere how society feels the need to control every aspect of a woman’s life – from whether she can live after she is born and whether she can get an education to whom she can marry and when. This attitude often extends to controlling her sexuality – through FGC.

FGC is one of the most serious human rights issues before us today. It is an ongoing practice rarely talked about even by those who have undergone it, and it is not part of the public consciousness. Like marital rape and abuse, it exists around us but is rarely thought about.

According to Unicef data, there are at least 200 million girls and women across 30 countries have been cut. If they were to form a country, it would be the sixth most populous in the world. We are looking at an alarming crime against humanity that needs our urgent attention.

FGC is illegal in many countries – a United Nations resolution against it was signed by 194 countries in 2012 – but its abandonment will require more than a law.

Since the root of the problem is patriarchy, a social system in which males are all-powerful and wield great authority over women, men must become an integral part of the solution. FGC is perpetrated on women but I believe it’s done to satisfy the male craving for control of female sexuality. Indeed, societies in which FGC is practised tend to be dominated by men.

It’s time for men to speak out against this harmful practice. It’s their duty, and their collective voice will matter. If they wish to, they can make a difference. Men need to stand up and be counted – primarily as fathers of girls in danger.

This will help men too. Secure, happier women are necessary for stronger, fulfilling relationships and a progressive society.

Here are a few steps that can be taken immediately by individuals and governments:

  • Pass a law – a stringent one – that criminalises FGC in India. The movement against this practice is gaining momentum and it’s time for the government to act.
  • Start a nationwide awareness and education initiative – targeting men especially – that underscores FGC’s psychological impact as well as the danger to societal health.
  • Make awareness about FGC a part of sex education in schools.

As the father of a young girl, even the thought of FGC creates a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. That such cruelty can be wreaked on anyone, let alone a child that has no clue of what is happening to her, breaks my heart.

As a father, your primary instinct is to protect your daughter and help her grow. You can’t do that by mutilating her body and shattering her trust.

I was most connected with myself when I was at the bottom: Andre Agassi

What makes Andre Agassi a champion? And what can we learn from his life? He spoke eloquently about his highs and lows during his visit to Mumbai on January 18, 2017

harsha-bhogle-and-agassiThe conversation between Harsha Bhogle (left) and Andre Agassi was fascinating.
Picture: Ashraf Engineer

The leanness is gone, there’s a distinct paunch and he readily concedes he was never as good as his wife on a tennis court. But Andre Agassi is more of a champion today than he ever was in his playing days. Why? Because his honesty is more brutal than his return of serve or the two-handed missiles he fired at his opponents from across the court.

We saw it first in his autobiography ‘Open’ and it burns as bright. And in it is a glimpse of what makes for a champion.

Victory on the court, Agassi pointed out at a Q&A session with commentator and columnist Harsha Bhogle yesterday, isn’t what closes the circle on life or career. Forced into tennis – which he hated – by a fiercely driven father, Agassi felt “winning would be the road to peace”. Sadly, it only pulled him deeper into the morass of despair.

Languishing at 141 in the world rankings in 1997, the golden boy of tennis decided to quit being what everyone else wanted him to be. It was only when he shook off the expectations, when he found himself at the bottom, “that I was more connected with myself than I ever was before”. All he knew, he said, was that “I could be better tomorrow than I was yesterday”.

What Agassi was telling the who’s who of India Inc at the rebranding of India Value Fund Advisors (IVFA) to ‘True North’ was that success doesn’t come in a blaze of glory; it is a peak scaled one step at a time. With that epiphany, Agassi made the biggest one-year leap into the top 10 in the history of tennis rankings, reaching No 6 in 1998. The next year was his most successful ever, with triumphs at the French and US opens and a runners up salver at Wimbledon. He finished the year at No 1 at age 29. He was briefly No 1 in 2003 too, the oldest player (33 years, 13 days) to achieve the ranking.

But Agassi is quick to point out, a twinkle bright in his eye, that Steffi Graf, his wife, was the player to watch. He thinks he’s got the better deal there too – “If she leaves me, I get half of her titles.”

Beneath the humour there is fierce belief in his way of life. “Success and failure are illusions. How you do what you do makes all the difference,” he asserts. It’s a philosophy he’s passed on to his children – a son who plays baseball and a daughter who is passionate about hip-hop dance. “We don’t choose what they do, but we expect them to live up to a standard in what they pursue as well as life in general.”

Bhogle was right when he said of Andre Agassi: “He used to be tennis player, but he’s a full-time philosopher now.” At the back of the room, another champion nods imperceptibly. After all, he lived these values too. His name is Rahul Dravid.

dravid-and-agassiA meeting of icons: I would have loved to hear what Rahul Dravid (left) told Agassi.
Picture: Ashraf Engineer


This column first appeared in Mid Day on January 19, 2017

Father’s Day letter to my daughter: Ek, do… you’re a teen!

Congratulations, you are now officially a teenager! I guess that explains your obsession with boy bands and ripped young movie stars.

I willed the months leading up to your 13th birthday to pass in slow motion. I wanted to hang on to every moment as you left childhood behind. Stirred into my pride in watching you blossom into a vibrant young woman with a mind of her own was a tinge of sweet regret. I always felt you grew up too fast. I guess all parents are torn between wanting to slow time and wishing the years go by faster.

I wonder if you feel a similar pull, wanting one day to be a child with a simple life and the next day a mature, young adult demanding to be counted.

You’ll have your own experiences as a parent, and you too will ask the questions I asked myself as you entered every new life stage. Have I taught her everything she needs to know? Have I done enough to make her happy? Does she feel she can tell me anything? Have I reacted right every time she’s told me something uncomfortable and is she confident I’ll do so every time?

I’m grappling with another thing: how long will I remain the only man in your life? I’m used to being the one you lean on, the one you turn to for help or when you need a ear. How long before a crush turns into a romance? Will you still confide in me the way you always have?

As you can see, I’m struggling a little.

But I’m also reminded of how you came into my life, a force of nature that transformed everything around me. I realised even then how strong a daughter can be. (It was evident from how you fought your way through a difficult birth. I’ve written about that before, so I won’t again.)

I see that strength and maturity in the decisions you make and the concern you show for the world. It’s strength of character that makes you go out of your way to help those less privileged than you; I’ll never forget how you saved money all through last year and then gave it to an orphanage. It was maturity that made you switch to a bucket for bathing months before anyone else in the family did because you feel strongly about conserving water.

I could cite such instances all day.

As you stride decisively towards adulthood, here’s what I want for you: you go after what you want, not what others want from you. I want you to live the potential of this strength and goodness that seems to radiate out of every pore. I want this desire to make every cell of yours tingle.

You’re a carrier of dreams – but only yours. Not mine, not the family’s, not anyone else’s. I want you to go on a journey of discovery, one that excites and agonises you in equal parts, one that ultimately leads you to the greatest discovery you can ever make – yourself.

As you go on that journey, I promise you a few things.

  • For too long I have doled out freedom in manageable – for me, not you – doses. This must change. You need space to grow, make mistakes and learn, and I promise to get out of the way as much as possible. More importantly, I will never dismiss what you think or want to do. I will assume you’ve thought things through, and will keep an open mind when it comes to your decisions.
  • I will respect your choices and deal with my fears (with a little help from you, I hope). I will respect your opinions even when I disagree with them.
  • Love. Undying. It will remain with you, not necessarily visible but always felt.

Last year, I wrote: “You’ll never regret investing large amounts of it in a person you truly care for.” You’ve been my greatest investment; I don’t regret a moment of these past 13 years.

I have never said this before, but I experienced a revelation atop a mountain in Kabul in 2011. As the furious wind and the winter temperature of -150 C numbed my face, I looked across the expanse of crooked, craggy hills, pink sand, buildings perforated by bullets and rocket shells, and homes made of mud and straw. Kabul was in tatters. Yet, it was only down, not out. People still lived, fell in love, built lives together, had children and found happiness – even in war.

It struck me that everything fades away. Except the spirit.

May yours be as indomitable.

PS: I love you.

What Shah Rukh Khan, YRF and ‘Jabra Fan’ can teach brands about localisation

Watched the non-Hindi versions of ‘Jabra Fan’ yet? The title song of the Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) starrer ‘Fan’ released in eight languages other than Hindi, a marketing tactic never tried before in India.

Fan1Yash Raj Films and SRK have always been film marketing thought leaders and this innovation at once celebrates and capitalises on India’s diversity. SRK – whose appeal cuts across age, demography and geography – is the common thread, emphasising the oneness within the diversity.

The campaign – the non-Hindi versions are in Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil and Odia – has garnered millions of views on YouTube and thousands of conversations on social platforms. Fans in places as distant as Malaysia have made videos of themselves dancing to the song and there’s even an Arabic version of it!

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 12.32.24 pm

The campaign is primal – it connects with people in the language they think in. It recognises that India is large and diverse, better approached by marketers as a subcontinent rather than a homogenous nation. It reminds brands of the importance of localisation.

Brands are getting it

Globally, brands are recognising that they can create value by engaging audiences in local languages. By going local, you can create relevant content and authentic engagement.

The evidence has been with us for a while. A 2012 Facebook (FB) IQ report said local FB brand pages grow twice as fast as global ones and have 50% higher engagement. Underscoring this was a Nieman Journalism Lab experiment that showed that geo-targeted posts registered six times more engagement than others.

Localisation makes audiences more open to sharing information and to marketing messages. A report by AdNear said that 53% of consumers are happy to share their locations on mobile devices for relevant content, while Nielsen said 26% of social media users are fine with ads based on their profiles. What’s more, 60% of consumers stop engaging with multiple brands due to poor targeting.

In fact, expensive campaigns sometimes result in obscure – even offensive – messages. Brands would do well to invest in local cultural insights that deliver better brand value at lower cost.

Not doing this can be costly. Kraft didn’t do its due diligence while promoting Mondelez, its food company, in Russia. The name translated as ‘oral sex’ in Russian!

Think, then act

The best global brands don’t charge into foreign markets; they invest time and money in understanding local culture. See how McDonald’s Indian-ised its menu to include aloo tikki burgers and chicken Maharaja Macs. In New Zealand, it offers you a Kiwi burger.

California State University found that “74% of multinational enterprises believe it is most important to achieve increased revenues from global operations”. The Globalisation and Localisation Association said that 56.2% of consumers think obtaining information in their own language is more important than price.

So, what can brands do to ensure successful localisation?

  • Strong local roots: Intra-company linkages between HQ and local teams can make or break the campaign. Robust communication will matter. What works in one market may not work in another and sometimes even a single country or region may be too heterogeneous for a uniform approach.

    LG Electronics understood this. When they entered the South Pacific market, they discovered that Australians were more self-deprecating, which led to the slogan ‘Life’s Good’. In New Zealand, where the citizens have a more sunny outlook, LG altered the slogan to ‘Life’s Great’. It’s an example of how you can nuance your outreach while staying true to your brand values.

    Life's Good

  • Humanise: While customer-facing assets certainly need adapting, they are often aligned to universal insights. For instance, IKEA’s mission is to “create a better everyday life for people”. IKEA sees its core task as solving human needs, which is fulfilled via local sensitivity.


  • Realign and learn: Coca-Cola improved global-local marketing alignment by facilitating faster internal communication. When sales soared in Australia after a campaign that let customers send friends a Coke with their name on the label, the company quickly launched the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign in 30 other countries.

Share A Coke

As the global middle class grows from 2 billion to 5 billion by 2030, mindshare and positioning will get even more important. Want audiences to be your ‘jabra’ fan? Make sure your brand balances local, multi-platform relevance with global consistency of vision and values.

Gender inclusion makes business sense

Pitchfork Partners, which I’m part of, recently partnered with ‘Break The Ceiling Touch The Sky’ – a success and leadership summit for women in corporations. While the day-long event touched upon various issues – from how women are changing the face of business to making men the champions of gender equality – the best argument for gender inclusion came from Al Rajwani, MD and CEO of P&G India. “It’s not just the right thing to do, it also makes business sense,” he said.

In fact, the business case has been apparent for a while. Several studies show that corporations with more than two women board members deliver better returns on equity than those who don’t.

Companies with women in leadership positions consistently do better. Nasscom pointed to an ‘Economic Times’ study several years ago that Indian firms headed by women had a compounded annual growth rate of 35% compared with 21% registered by the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE)-30. Their profits grew by 56% over five years compared to the BSE-30 firms’ 27%.

Despite the evidence, India lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to corporate leadership roles held by women.

According to a Grant Thornton survey last year, India ranked third lowest in the world in proportion (15%) of business leadership roles held by women. Japan at 8% and Germany at 14% were the only countries that fared worse.

The global average was 22%, unfortunately down from 24% in 2014. Almost a third of businesses, the survey said, had no senior women leaders.

Most businesses, it would seem, are apathetic to the sentiment expressed by Parag Pande, MD, HR, Accenture in India, Sri lanka and Bangladesh, at the summit: “You will be wiped off the map if you ignore the female talent pool.”

Here’s why the panelists said gender inclusion and equality should matter to companies.

  1. It makes business sense: Women account for 60% of college graduates but only 3% of leaders worldwide. As we’ve seen above, businesses that have strong female representation in their leadership do better – and corporate heads understand this. The PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) 18th Annual Global CEO Survey reported that 85% of CEOs whose companies have an inclusiveness strategy said it improved their bottomline. “You get what you measure,” said Rajwani at the summit. “Track how many women are joining your company, how many stay, and make interventions for inclusion.”

    Many CEOs are now crafting diversity statements and making sure their companies and the world at large know of them. Among them is Intel’s Brian Krzanic who, at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show, unveiled the ‘Diversity in Technology’ initiative. Intel’s programme includes new hiring and retention goals and a $300 million budget to build a pipeline of female and underrepresented talent.

  1. Gender inclusiveness impacts talent management: According to PwC research, 86% of female and 74% of male millennials consider employers’ diversity, equality and inclusion policies when deciding whether to work for them. Equality is good for the economy too. In India, gender equality could result in a GDP boost of 27%. In fact, women make a massive difference but it often goes unacknowledged. As Suresh Narayanan, CMD, Nestle India, said: “Women should believe they start from a position of strength. Their contributions are enormous.”

Here’s what a corporation’s typical inclusivity evolution would look like.

As Rajwani said: “Gender diversity and inclusion is a journey. Get started.”


The cricket store that’s a shrine to the game

When I was a schoolboy, Dhobi Talao in South Mumbai seemed like Ali Baba’s cave. I would gaze longingly at the cricket bats in the shop windows of the city’s sports goods hub, drawn there by my love for the game and the ache brought on by my lack of talent. The world seemed to fade away as I stood there mesmerised by the beautiful, shiny bats, among them then-rare foreign brands such as Gunn & Moore and Slazenger.

India had just won the World Cup for the first time and it was common for conversations in school to centre on the kits of our cricketing heroes. Brands such as Sanspareils Greenlands (better known as ‘SG’) and SS Sunridges (often shortened to ‘SS’) were becoming popular and any child with a foreign bat, such as a Gray-Nicolls, was automatically the centre of attention.

I remember walking into the stores just to take in the smell – a mix of leather and perhaps the oils used to season bats and hockey sticks. The shelves were lined with helmets, balls, caps, sweatbands, wicket-keeping gloves. I would find excuses to linger, trying on sweatbands that I didn’t need or have the money for.

Today, a range of brands has flooded these stores, which in turn have tried their best to become hip. What hasn’t changed, however, is their basic nature – they remain mere retail outlets. All you can do is buy stuff there; there’s nothing to compel students or budding sportspersons to spend time in them, nothing to educate them about their sport or offer a glimpse into its history. There’s no memorabilia or reading material to engage you.

Simply put, these stores are now boring; there’s no compelling reason to visit one when you can buy most of what you need online.

That’s why I was delighted when on a recent visit to Pune I chanced upon the Sunny’s Sports Boutique – The Legends’ Cricket Store, aptly located on the corner of Professor DB Deodhar Road near Prabhat Road. (Deodhar was the ‘Grand Old Man of Indian Cricket’, one of very few to have played the game both before World War 1 and after World War 2.)

I had never heard of the store before, though I’ve lived in Pune in the past. I simply happened to spot the signboard during a post-lunch stroll and walked in because I had nothing better to do.

The treasures the store held hooked me – there were original signed team sheets, bats autographed by legendary line-ups, vintage books, paintings, plaques and all sorts of souvenirs. It wasn’t a store, but a shrine to cricket, a labour of love.

I wasn’t surprised that it was run by former cricketers – Jairaj ‘Raju’ Mehta, who played for Baroda (1977-81); and Shubhangi Kulkarni, who played for India (1976-1991) and is an Arjuna Award winner. So respected is this former India captain that there’s a gate named after her at Pune’s Nehru Stadium. That’s why I was secretly pleased that Kulkarni shares her birthday with me.

Mehta and Kulkarni turned out to be human encyclopaedias of cricket. They rattled off facts about old games, and had astute observations about current and past players. They were also articulate and incisive about the modern game.

What I found most endearing is that they didn’t care if I didn’t buy anything; they were simply happy to share their knowledge. I landed up spending the better part of an hour with them.

I never got around to asking them how business was, but from the store’s condition it seemed like it was doing well. I’m not surprised; with Mehta and Kulkarni there, and all the treasures adorning the walls, why would any player go anywhere else? It struck me also that a budding cricketer would benefit by spending time with them.

Like with bookstores, I see brick-and-mortar sports retailers being impacted by online stores. They need to find a way to engage their audience; it’s no longer only about good location and products.

Stores such as Sunny’s, I believe, are the way forward. They draw you in, make you want to know more about the game, to have conversations about it, find people whose minds you can tap, watch recordings of old games, read up on them…

I hope sports goods stores – especially those in Mumbai – take a cue from Mehta and Kulkarni. If they do, you can be sure I’ll spend a lot of time in them with my 12-year-old daughter, who too is sports-inclined and thankfully possessed of talent that I could only dream of as a child. Who knows, maybe we’ll even spend some time with Mehta and Kulkarni.

* Click on the pictures to read the captions.