Facing death at the crossroads

Its quite normal to hear people say that they don’t fear death. That death is a natural process in the cycle called life and that we need to learn to deal with it, the way we deal with everything else. I say that too. I might never complete this post. Before I click on ‘Submit’, something extra-ordinary could happen in the blink of an eye that it would only take seconds for me to come to a grinding halt. There is nothing like being prepared for death to come. I hear people saying that too. Maybe its about facing adversities one after another, which creates a sense of closure in you that you learn to embrace it. Okay. Embracing death was going a bit too far, but more like accepting that one day it will engulf you and make you cease.

My great grandmother (amma‘s grandmother, ammama‘s mom) died a month ago. She was 97 (I still think she was 98 and that she celebrated her 95th twice, but anyways!). She was an exceptional human being. In the sense that, she had none of what could be commonly called as the reasons for death. All her vital parameters were perfect, perfect vision (until not-so-long-ago she used to read the newspaper without her glasses. Later on, she lost interest in reading when the vision on her right eye started on a gradual decline. Nothing good to read was another factor too, possibly!), black hair (at 97, she had more black hair than my dad), impeccable memory (good enough to know the names of the children of her grand-kids, the in laws of her grand-kids). She only had a minor issue with her hearing, for which she was using a hearing aid.

What struck me the most was the fact that she was clearly aware of her dying moments. Its common to hear people dying. The most common next question would be to know how the particular person died, was he/she conscious and such related queries. I was not with her during her last moments, but from what I heard (and assuming this was no melodramatic attempt at getting sympathy. Yes, families these days do these and much more. Qualifies for another post, some other time), there were tears in her eyes. She was struggling for breath for the last 10-15 minutes and for a conscious person, is quite an obvious sign that you may not make it to the other side from here on. Hearing this to grave detail actually got me thinking as to what were the possible things she could have been thinking of! Was she thinking about her children/  (great) grandchildren? Was she thinking on the things she hadn’t accomplished in her 97 years (wouldn’t be much, but still is a very valid thought coming in)? Was she flooded by memories of the life gone by? That last one, is an obvious first choice when I wonder as to the reasons behind those tears. She has been an exceptional pillar of strength – seen her own kids die tragic deaths (she had 11 kids, only 7 are alive at the moment), seen the wars, spent a lot of years in Ceylon separated from her children for reasons which were the trend during then amongst others. And despite all this, at that vital moment, tears sure did trickle down. And within minutes, she had left us all.

It actually seems scary and intimidating, to be aware of your dying moments. Now sample this: Recently, Hugo Chavez expired. The world needs no introduction to him, yet for the sake of this post, will profile him in brief. He was one of the most fearless, revolutionary human beings I have come across and I have been simply awed by the kind of things he had accomplished in his motherland. He stood up the forces of the world, fought for what he thought was right and stood firm by it. Most people wouldn’t be determined to his standards. He even showed a brave face to the world when he had been diagnosed with cancer. For the last decade and a half, he has been the messiah for Venezuela (who are still finding it extremely difficult to come to terms with his demise. A bit like how North Korea after the Kim-Jong-Il era). He has spoken openly about death staring on his face and as to how fearless he was, about it. Yet when the final moment of reckoning came by, all the much spoken about timidness and bravery had melted down. ” I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die..” were his last words. It wouldn’t be too hard to guess what were the reasons for his supposed statement, at his death bed. It is nevertheless an eye-opener as to how much people value life, despite not openly acknowledging it.

And now I wonder how people with suicidal tendencies tend to cross the line and finally make it happen!? Intriguing.

On the minority Indian – excerpts from Rome and Riyadh

I like to travel. By now, this is stale news. I don’t do museums and basilica’s so much as I do not relate so much to them. I try the food and being a foodie, there never needs to be a second invitation as far as that is concerned. Even for someone of my build, I take pleasure in walking around a new city instead of relying heavily on public transit. Ofcourse the temptation of using the public transit is very high thanks to the kind of work I do, but always remains minimal enough to make a judgement on the prevailing transport system and the (in)adequacies of the same. As much as walking around a new city is the best way to explore it, observing the immigrant communities and their ways of life in a new city, give a fair indication of how things work there. My short stints in Rome and later in Riyadh (on transit) were eye opening in that respect.

First things first, Rome could well be the next best thing to heaven. The city has a charm regardless of most of the ruins that make it up as of now. It is certainly a traveller’s delight in every respect – The Vatican, history, arts and culture, piazza’s and the ruins, the food, the gelati – all in all, a brilliant package of the old and new. Being the administrative powerhouse of Italy, Rome has tried its best to preserve the heritage that once made a civilization thrive along the city – outwards into Eastern Europe all the way into the Middle East and North Africa, which is a heart-warming sight. And ofcourse, Indians are aplenty in Rome. 5 minutes by foot and you inevitably bump into one. They are everywhere – on the subway (both the corridors and the trains), the sidewalks, running little shops, kebab places and ofcourse, traditional Indian places spread judiciously across the city.

Disturbingly though, many of these minority Indians are on the sidewalks selling one thing or the other, in every nook and cranny of the city – ranging from imitation goods to fancy items along the sidewalk. You might wonder why just Indians. Well, its not just them – there are Pakistani’s, Bangaldeshi’s, Sri Lankan’s as well – all in unison and in the effort of making a living. I wonder how they survive solely on these. Not having any bit of a steady income and considering how expensive the city of Rome is, it doesn’t make their predicament any bit easier. I might not have been surprised seeing this trend in Lisbon or Sofia, two of the cheapest and most affordable European capitals of the modern day. But fact remains that the sidewalks and the subway corridors in Lisbon are infested by the blacks – probably due to the close proximity to Africa and also due to the relation with the former colonies. Certainly the stance of the Vatican to safeguard the interests of those who come seeking protection also should be playing a role in this mass exodus. But seeing the economic climate of Italy and most of Europe, it is just about alarming.

I infact happened to meet a Malayali guy (they are just about everywhere!! ) who works as part of the nursing staff in one of the hospitals in Rome. He was telling me how difficult life had become, over the past 2 years. He started working at EUR 9/ hour, but was soon forced to cut down his wages to EUR 6/ hour in order to keep his job because there were many takers for the same position, even at this rate. And this decline, at a time when the inflation has kept taking the upside trend is surely not meant to help. The only way he manages to keep the boat from sinking (in his own words) is to work night shifts since they pay you more. Those have impacts on the long term as well. But everyone has a story at home to quote in their defense of such punishing schedules. The average minority Indian’s story goes on similar lines – whether he is in Europe, Asia or America.

Riyadh was pretty much similar as well, if not worse. I did not get to explore the city like Rome as I was on transit, but the time spent at the airport and on the flight to Chennai was good enough to gauge the situation. The boarding gate clearly resembling the open flood gates for prisoners who were out on parole. Many of those bore relieved looks, some were sporting wry half smiles, others were clearly trying to hide signs of fatigue (I was initially wondering all the whys ans the hows and later realized) from what most likely were punishing schedules again. It all got worse when the B777 I was in, had its cabins so full that the flight attendants had forced some of the hand baggage to be kept on the under belly because that was only half full, apparently.  For people who were going home after 2-3 years, this was supposed to be very unusual. Most often what we see are the big suitcases laden with goodies, stacked up one over the other in a taxi, home bound. Movies, ofcourse. But then, the reality of it was such.

My co-passenger was someone who hailed from Tindivanam dist, south of Chennai. He did not know his date of birth (even the passport acknowledged that), in his 50s and going home after 7 years. 7 years!!! I don’t even know how that feels. Misery got compounded when I was asked to fill his immigration form (he only knew Tamil). He was a very warm person, so I obviously obliged. I filled 22 more of these forms during the course of the flight. The lure to make a quick buck was taking many people out of the country. Most of the people back home in India are unawares of the kinds of jobs these guys are doing. They won’t be, so long as there is some trickling in of the funds and its a natural thing. But where they really building up stone castles or just as far as those with sand?? It looked more the latter to me.

Master Degree, check!

Successful defense of the Master Degree Dissertation (Thesis Report) happened last week. Although it got a bit debated on the nuances, still made for a grand stand finish. There is a huge sigh of relief right now. and its a good feeling. But then, you are not so much into relishing the relief that apprehension starts once again. Thoughts of the next step grab the attention of the voices from within. And that ofcourse doesn’t get any help or a move – on when you have a lot of people showing a whole lot of concern (untimely, unnecessary and often with ill motives) on what is going to be the next step. Anyways, some things that I think I have learnt deserve to be penned down here.

  • Everyone has his/her way of working through the research work. No hard and fast rules, some slow starters, some lift off and then subside. All the same towards the end. 
  • Spoon feeding never made you a good academic or researcher. Being constantly told what to do is not something anyone should be proud even if that comes in the way of “guidance”. Your work, your rules.
  • Extensive literature review always helps in building a strong case. A lean literature review is always like a sand castle. Just a matter of today or tomorrow.
  • Know your capabilities well and only then commit to anything on the abstract. Big words such as micro-simulation, econometric modelling etc should be backed up by your abilities (unless you pride in being a quick learner and get it done).
  • Confusion is always a good thing to have. Being confused tells me you have been thinking.
  • You have to fail once or twice to win. You have never won it hands down, unless you have failed and then won over your failure.
  • Be on time and stick to your limits. Your superiors may not agree to listen to this, but you do your bit. A 20 minute presentation can be of 19 minutes, but not 21 minutes. Again, these rules may not hold for your superior, but never mind.
  • Lastly, have a life while you are at the thick of things as well. Occasional breaks during the midweek, football weekends (if you are me, ofcourse), time spent with people whose company you enjoy should never be compromised over work. After all, there is more to life and more often than not, all these may not matter in 20 years if you are alone and depressed.

Next on the agenda is to complete the official formalities, take a break from everything, go on a holiday (Rome for me) and then back home to be with family. And then go on a holiday again for some much needed peace and calm, sort your life and get back on the grind.

The Tendulkar Opus

y day today started by waking up very late and was soon engrossed by the mob violence at India Gate and the Super Sunday that followed that when I heard Sachin had retired from ODIs, I was starting to take it in a much more easier way than I had thought, I would.

Maybe it was the fact that there were more disturbing events happening in the country, maybe it was his indifferent form and the constant calls of retirement (including mine) to avoid what happened to Kapil Dev – somehow it all seemed way too easy to be believable.

And after sundown, I was sitting down calmly, reading through the dozens of eulogies that have already cropped up on the master and I realize, I am not going to see him bleed blue any more. Not even once more, for the series against Pakistan. I am sure many of my friends had booked their tickets in the intention of seeing the master and they would all be gutted by now. We have just seen the last of Sachin Tendulkar in a Team India blue jersey. No, it doesn’t sink in so easily.

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This was supposed to be a colossal event. There was supposed to be a statement saying that the Pakistan series would be his last and wherever he went, cricket fans were supposed to get one final chance, one final glimpse of the little master in action. Cricketing greats would have flown in to see him, one last time from across the world. “The Don” himself, would have risen from his grave and grabbed the nearest TV screen. One last time. Even the BCCI were supposed to make money out of this event as well – raising ticket prices and asking for tax exemptions for the Pakistan series. Because in India, people would give their own life to see the man take the field. Only in India would the railways stop to see him get his 100 and then continue their journey. Only in India would life come to a standstill and would keep the citizens stand in front of a little TV screen in bated breath, gaping, their mouths wide open, in anticipation of a Tendulkar special. Only in India would then people carry on with their lives, shutting off their TV screens in anguish when he got out (despite 9 more wickets remaining), because he has always been the synonym of hope for them. He had that golden chance to arrest a billion hearts, all over, once again, one last time.

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Instead, there were no such grandstand finishes, no standing ovations, no commemorative speeches or felicitations – just a small press conference where everything was revealed to a shell shocked cricketing fraternity. In his own words –

“I have decided to retire from the One Day format of the game. I feel blessed to have fulfilled the dream of being part of a World Cup winning Indian team. The preparatory process to defend the World Cup in 2015 should begin early and in right earnest. I would like to wish the team all the very best for the future. I am eternally grateful to all my well wishers for their unconditional support and love over the years.”

I am sure many of the cricket fans in the country have given up on the game today. Many believe that One-day cricket will always be synonymous with him and it would be almost impossible to see Team India without Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. I do not agree to the last statement personally, although I am still of the opinion that my passion to the game has surely gone down a few notches today. It started being on the decline when Gilly (Adam Gilchrist) hung up his boots. That was followed by dada (Sourav Ganguly). Warney (Shane Warne) and the Prince (Brian Lara) had already decided enough was enough 2 years ago and they had moved out. Murali (Muttaiah Muralitharan) followed up soon and then recently did Jammy (Rahul Dravid) and Punter (Ricky Ponting). I grew up watching them. I adored the game for what it is today, watching them and keeping them as my cricketing role models. Who could possibly impact me more than any of them? MS Dhoni? Alastair Cook? Dale Steyn? Though all these names have been remarkable in their own right, none like those mentioned apriory.

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Like most successful business models from across the world, the journey of Sachin Tendulkar – from being one among the 1000s playing the game to being the epitome of perfection in the game hasn’t been anything like bread-and-butter. Its been a constant re-invention process – identifying the chinks in the armour and doing away with them by bringing on newer innovations. All successful people and businesses have constantly been involved in a learn-unlearn-relearn process and he has not been left behind there as well. Another important word I would like to emphasize is customization. In cricketing terms, acclimatizing to the alien conditions and managing to give out the most desired results. There is no continent where he hasn’t scored a century, no opposition against whom he doesn’t have a world record. And thus, seeing his exploits in his domain, people in India call him GOD. For it is felt that only god could be the epitome of such colossal awesomeness.

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What I and most of India would miss the most with this retirement would be the ability of a man to single handedly influence the decisions of a billion strong cricket – obsessed audience. To lift the spirits up with one glorious cover drive or the trademark straight-past-the-bowler drive. To electrify any cricket stadium and television screen with the traditional Tendulkar style, bat-in-one-hand-helmet-in-the-other reverence to his father and god (his usual pose once he reaches a landmark). To shut up a sledging bowler and make him regret for sledging the master – not by sledging back at him but by dispatching the next ball out of the stadium.  To have that re-assuring presence of a man, short in stature, yet with a massive heart, whose presence in the middle has a calming influence on most number of people alike. India breathes well, when Sachin is playing well.

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The day is not far when we shall forever lose him to retirement. The day is not far when he will, through another press conference decide to tell the world by way of his soft spoken demeanour that enough is enough and he feels the need to leave the stage forever. My only wish is that he decides to take it upon himself to bow out rather than giving the onus onto the selection committee and the captain to decide on his fate. Champions like him and all those names mentioned above have taken it upon themselves to decide their fate and it would be a shame, if it happened otherwise.

Ask me who was the best cricketer to have ever graced the planet was and I will point you to this man. Ask me where you want to keep a cricketing yardstick for defining greatness, and I will mention this man’s name, show you his records and tell you to wake me up when somebody breaches them. Because for me, there is Tendulkar…then there is daylight…and then there is the rest.

Kingfisher Airlines : A dream that never really flew

The inevitable has finally happened. With the DGCA cancelling the flying license of the beleaguered airline from Bangalore, it effectively puts the lid on a chapter which has led to the biggest aviation crisis in India ever [No, I am not forgetting the Air India debacle, but this one especially could have been saved unlike the story of the “maharaja”.]

This might sound cliched, but I only hold Vijay Mallya to be responsible for where his airline is, today. That said, we all know its not the last we are seeing of him, but certainly the last we will be seeing of his airline. Optimists can say that there will finally emerge a buyer for KFA and that we can see it flying again, but this time both the pessimist and the realist would have firmly put the lid on the future of the Fly Kingfisher brand. All those planes grounded in Mumbai shall remain so, for a considerable amount of time, from what it looks like. One might wonder how the airline reached rock bottom in a matter of 3 years. I have a few answers to it, not all ofcourse, but definitely a few teething questions which are always worth having a look at. The comparison of the business models of Kingfisher Airlines and IndiGO, which is supposedly the world’s fastest growing airline (true story! ) gives a very interesting perspective on the whole story.

Kingfisher Airlines : The debacle

Kingfisher started as a full service carrier in 2005, offering single class configuration on all flights. Not a year later they were back tinkering that model and going on the lines of airlines such as Emirates or Singapore Airlines, offering five star travel facilities for its users. Facilities included live in – flight entertainment, virtually the first time ever in the asian subcontinent for all flights. It was an instant hit with the business travellers’ segment who were already disappointed with the monopoly of Jet Airways and Sahara back then. Quite obviously that the airline suffered losses in its first year of operation due to its nascency.

Year 2006 saw Kingfisher getting into serious talks at the prospect of acquiring Air Deccan. Air Deccan, the premier low cost airline in the country at that time had started getting slippery and Capt Gopinath, in my opinion, was the most street smart man on earth to have thought of bailing out, seizing the opportunity at just the right moment. I say this because Air Deccan worked on a business model which was virtually opposing the KFA model. Gopinath’s Deccan was built around a single fleet,  no frills, cost minimized approach which made flying accessible for the first time to every economic class of people in the country. I remember how my grandmother’s sister flew for the first time in her life, thanks to Deccan.

And Mallya was serious about acquiring this airline, which any expert in aviation would have advised against. Anyway, he went with his gut feel and acquired the airline in 2007. The main idea surely was to gain more market power with the increased fleet strength of 70 odd jets in the sky. But that opened up three segments for Mallya: Kingfisher First (Business Class), Kingfisher Premium (Economy Class) and Kingfisher Red, the new low cost entrant from the residues of Air Deccan. 2008 and 2009 were by far, the best years for KFA despite the merger with Deccan. He had a lion’s share in the aviation market and Mallya quite rightly brandished that feeling of power in his hands. Awards and accolades did come in his way and all looked promising for a while.

Three different business models with none being sound had already had chaos written all over it. Mallya was the only one who denied anything of this sort. Year 2010 saw his fleet strength go down and the re-emergence of Jet airways at the top. What was also significant was this little airline called IndiGO. IndiGO had an outstanding passenger throughput exceeding 90% on all flights and had the best on – time flight record. Addition of international routes did not do much of a favour to KFA and it continued to rapidly decline market share wise. 2011 was the first year when they seriously started reporting cash flow issues and simply attributed that problem to the rising fuel costs. I agree, rising fuel costs was an issue, but certainly not the only one. Had it been the only one, other airlines should have suffered equally as well. Airlines like the Jet Airways and IndiGO had continued to flourish in comparison with KFA. And that was due to the age of the fleet. IndiGO, for example has an average fleet age of around 2.4 years, SpiceJet has around 3 and I am sure none of us want to even think of Air India. The older the fleet, the more the fuel, the more the cost. Simple logic.

And so, the pilots left, flights and payments got delayed and the way downhill was almost inevitable now for Kingfisher. Curtailment of schedules, ensuing strikes by employees over the non payment of compensations has brought the airline to a grinding halt.

Business Model Analysis -Kingfisher

  1. If there is one aspect at which we could pinpoint the demise of KFA to apart from Dr. Mallya, it would be the failure of the company to read the business models carefully before they went into acquisition. The KFA model was a blind adaptation of the internationally successful airline business models and lacked any localization to the region it was operating on. I mean, why would an airline acquire a low cost company which made money on flying to airports such as Rajahmundry, Gulbarga, Trichy Vijayawada & Coimbatore and then put those flights to compete with the regular Delhi – Mumbai, Bangalore – Delhi routes?  It was astounding, the confidence of KFA on the low cost brand that it blew away all the Air Deccan strategies and created a few themselves, which misfired.
  2. Another most common flaw that is easily pointed out is the fleet mix and the dream of buying jets at a nascent stage rather than leasing them. This was effectively the reason to shut down Paramount Airways, if we remember. And more than that, successful carriers which fly low cost have always adopted a single fleet composition. All the leading low cost carriers in the world like Southwest (B737), Easyjet and Ryanair (A319/320) have all gone in with this diktat and it works. Because, single fleet reduces the costs involved in training of personnel and also on the maintenance aspects. KFA was too young to take more than 5 different types of Airbus’ and work without incurring huge losses. A good deal of it would have been negated with a sound business model and marketing strategy, but KFA sadly had none of it.
  3. The lack of technical expertise on the airline affairs. It won’t be surprising knowing the nature of Dr. Mallya that KFA had only two CEO’s in total for all the airline departments and Mallya insisted on running the airline most of the time. This might sound very familiar to that when Air India is run by a politician, and assisted by bureaucrats instead of a group of aviation experts, as is the practice with other airlines. Mallya might be gifted in many ways, but surely not gifted enough to manage an airline since he lacks the formal training in doing so.

Business Model Analysis – IndiGO

  1. IndiGO had a business model which was clearly a no – nonsense one at it. Single class configuration, no frills, quick turnaorund times (25-30 minutes in Indian airports is like magic), They leased flights instead of buying them and vowed to add one flight every four to six weeks. Possessing a very quirky advertising and marketing campaign, IndiGO quickly got onto the top ranks by possessing a record for the biggest percentage of on time flight records. This can only be attributed to the rapid turnarounds observed, which is one of the signs of a sound business model.
  2. They had a CEO on board as early as 18 months before they commenced operations. Not just that, they did not believe in exploding to life with a big bang as Kingfisher did. They were rather skeptical of slipping down and thus took baby steps into the aviation industry in India. Acquiring jets was not their  forte and instead they decided to lease them in the beginning, for leasing was a far more cost effective solution.Working this way up to the top has ensured a very firm base from where IndiGO can command and exert exceptional control over its strategies and the overall aviation scenario in India. And this has precisely got it into the position of the leading airline in the country, the fastest growing airline in the world in the world and quite obviously, the only airline in India to register profits.
  3. The gawkiness in getting deals done the way they want deserves a special mention because they have managed to do just exactly that. With 220 orders for the A 320 family lined up [one of the biggest deals ever], they managed to strike one of the best deals in aviation history with Airbus, as part of their expansion programs started in 2010, four years since their inception into the flying business. Whereas Kingfisher managed to reduce its fleets by 4 years because they had bought all of it and were experiencing mounting losses already.

Thus, quite clearly the demise of Kingfisher had everything to do with a flawed business model and the inability of it to live upto the needs and wants of the growing and increasingly ever-so-complicating global airline sector.