Nowhere on earth is there a higher population density than on the 8:20am Virar-Churchgate local. The per square inch pressure experienced in the second class compartment is higher than found in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean. The locals – as the Mumbai suburban trains are popularly known – collectively carry a population equal to that of Switzerland. Daily. It is no wonder then that the locals are known as the lifeline of Mumbai. In the morning, people get in, fresh and healthy like red blooded tomatoes. In the evening they drag themselves back peeling off on the way like wilted cabbages. Like arteries of a living organism, they transport people to and fro tirelessly. And any rupture in this circulatory system can put the city in a medical emergency. No wonder why citizens go berserk any time there is a major deviation from the norm, be it in terms of train timings or in the fares.

Although travelling by local trains may be the fastest way to commute, it is not the most comfortable way to do so. This is because like everything else in Mumbai, there is a severe mismatch in the supply and the demand. Each train is filled with hundreds of passengers more than it was designed for. This means that each local train is a highly pressurised container where the slightest physical or verbal infraction can cause a sudden outburst of rage among the passengers. Fights are frequent, arguments even more common. Inspired by the capacity of a Mumbai local, Walmart and Big Bazaar have conducted secret studies on local trains to understand and replicate how so many people can be packed in such a small space. This, they say, would result in huge savings in warehouse spaces.

In a Mumbai local, people hold on to whatever they can – greasy handle bars, broken seats, or even other passengers, to keep themselves from toppling like dominoes with every lurch of the train. It is a Herculean task to survive that forty-five or so minutes to their station. Once their destination arrives, the ordeal ends and out they flow with other passengers on to the streets. But for those forty five minutes, the train is their home, a dense cloud of people, their conversations and their bodily excretions – sweat and farts mostly. The daily commute of Mumbaikars is the real Mumbai Marathon, in which millions participate every day, covering distances much more than forty kilometres, in the hope of reaching that ever elusive finish line.

The Mumbai middle class truly grows up with the local train. The day you can recite all the stations in the correct order from one end of the line to the other is when you have achieved puberty. It is said that you stay a virgin until you have travelled in one of the local trains. In a second class compartment. In rush hour. Many families still consider this as part of the initiation rituals for children. There are different levels to be cleared, failing which the child may even be exiled from the family. The levels vary in difficulty, starting with the easiest level, which is travelling without a ticket. And the most difficult. Getting on to a Churchgate-Virar local from Dadar and then get down at Borivali. Many people undertake months of rigorous training to complete this task.

In fact there is a viable business opportunity in Mumbai for classes which teach newbies the art of travelling in the Mumbai locals. Who knows maybe one day, some of the IIT-JEE coaching classes or the flight-attendant training academies may introduce this as one of their courses.

Western, Central or Harbour

The Mumbai suburban train network is spread across three routes. The first one is called the Western Line. It runs from Churchgate in the south to Dahanu Road to the north.[However people need to change trains at Virar.] The second line is the Central Line which runs from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (a sister station to Churchgate) and branches off in three directions ending in three stations – Kalyan, Kasara and Khopoli. The Harbour Line starts from CST as well but doesn’t really go anywhere. If and when the trains do run on this line, they do so with utmost laziness and without a care in the world.

“Where the hell are the seats?” -First time traveller on the Mumbai locals

The local train is around 9 to 12 coaches long. A few of the coaches are reserved for women while the rest are split for the general public into First Class and Second Class compartments. With a frequency of every few minutes, trains make multiple trips daily carrying lakhs of passengers from their homes and back.

At this point, if you’re new to Mumbai, you might be a little excited in starting to think what could possibly be so difficult in travelling in a Mumbai local? After all, getting a First Class ticket is always an option, right? Wrong. First, the only difference between a First Class and a Second Class compartment is how likely it is that you will be able to glance at the seats. Not sit on them, mind you, glance at them. Think of the last pilgrimage you took where you stood in a long snaking queue, getting pushed ahead every now and then. The success of your pilgrimage depended solely on one factor, whether you were able to get a good look at the deity. Similar is the story on the Mumbai local. In the densely packed crowd of a typical compartment, people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to touch the seats, let alone sit on them.

Of course in the First Class compartment, you may get a chance to sit for the last few seconds or so before the train pulls in to the last stop. And some commuters, indeed, do not let go of even this brief opportunity at comfort, considering the expensive ticket which they have paid for. It is an altogether different story in the Second Class compartment. The Second Class has been so crowded with people throughout the day and night that no one has been able to see a seat in the last 4-5 years. Rumours are that the Railways has just removed all of the seats in the second class compartments, and no one has even noticed it.

People are so relieved at being able to get on to a local train that all other things are forgotten. Travelling in a local train reminds me of the sage advice of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Just do your duty. Do not think of the consequences.” I’m not sure if he had the Mumbai local in mind but it fits quite nicely with the situation. Your duty as a commuter is to push, shove and do just about everything to get yourself on the train. Everything else is secondary. For those who do have had the beautiful experience of travelling in a Mumbai local, let me take you through a typical journey in a Mumbai local. For the sake of continuity, imagine yourself getting down from that bus in the previous chapter. As soon as you get down, you weave through crowds towards the ticket counter. The queue for a Mumbai local is almost as long as the journey itself. At peak hours, it snakes out of the actual ticket room, onto the street and back to the ticket room. Mumbai – a city where people queue up even for a ticket to hell. For the next few minutes of your life, you patiently wait in the queue guarding your position and preventing people from trying to cut the queue. You see a lot of those, people trying to cut through the queue. The first excuse is always that they did not realise that there was a long queue. Sometimes it is a made-up emergency. But it is not that easy to break the queue in Mumbai. The rest of the passengers already standing in the queue, with their pitchforks, ensure that order is maintained at least before getting into the train.

But there is yet another group of people who will brazenly ignore the queue, walk up to the ticket window, and thrust their hands directly into the small opening, demanding for a ticket. These are not relatives of politicians or other VIPs. These are the demi-gods of the Mumbai locals, the first-class passengers. Although women do not have a separate queue for tickets, first class passengers do. It is easy to identify these passengers from far away, from their chubby fingers filled with gold rings. Treat them with deference, and if you can find some space, bow down before them. They have earned their right to pay more to travel in the same amount of chaos.

The snake dance

If you are new to Mumbai, sometimes you will see people standing in the queue for tickets doing some kid of a strange snake dance. This is not some esoteric Hindu ritual to get tickets faster but simply that time of the day when the clerk at the ticket counter leaves for lunch. At the exact moment when a “Closed” sign comes up at one counter, another ticket counter opens. And what you’re seeing is the whole queue shifting to this counter. At this brief moment of chaos, you have a chance of improving your position in the queue. But you have to be quick. The disintegration of the queue from one ticket window and its magical reappearance in front of the other window is almost instantaneous. If you’re not quick, you’ll find yourself starting from the back of the queue again.

As a result, by the time you get a ticket you are already late. You’ll have to catch the fast train again. So you grab the ticket and run up the footbridge towards the platforms where the fast trains stop. After a few minutes of waiting, you spot a train turning around a bend and creaking slowly into the station. People are hanging out of the doors from both sides of the train. Roughly, the Railways recommend as many people hang out of the train as there are within the train. This maintains the balance in the train and enables it to run with maximum efficiency. As the train nears the station, you slowly warm up and loosen your muscles, rotate your neck slowly and channel both Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali into your body. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You keep repeating the mantra to yourself. Although you don’t have that precious mouth-guard to protect your teeth, that piece of gum you have been chewing for the past few hours will do nicely.

Can I get on now?

Getting aboard a Mumbai local is an art so ancient that Zen Masters have written about it in many books. One of the most famous Zen teachers in recent times said

Smile, breathe and go slowly –Thich Nhat Hanh.

But I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh ever had to get on a Mumbai local. Smiling is definitely not useful while trying to get on to a local train. Showing your teeth is not only a sign of aggression among apes and other mammals, it is also risky. An accidental knock on your exposed teeth from one of your fellow passengers will quickly turn your mouth into a bloody mess. There is only one thing worse than not being able to get on to a local train, and that is not being able to get on a local train with a broken tooth. All the more painful. So, gentle is not what you want to be doing on the platform. Instead you need to be someone like Bruce Lee.

Empty your mind; be formless, shapeless – like water. –Bruce Lee.

Yes, that is more like it. Bruce Lee hit the nail on the head with that quote. In order to successfully get on to a Mumbai local, you have to acquire the precise properties of water. You must be able to twist your body out of shape; you must be able to flow around people and other solid objects and settle down in gaps or crevices in between them.

Keep in mind that as soon as the train stops, there will be an army of people rushing towards you. Imagine King Leonidas facing the mighty Persian Army without his loyal band of 300 soldiers. Imagine Neo having to fight an army of Agent Smiths just after his parents reveal that he is not the Chosen One. It is like Saving Private Ryan, it is like… well you get the point. But don’t lose hope. The next section gives a detailed step by step instruction for becoming a master of local train travel.

As the first wave of alighting passengers surrounds you, grab the door handle with one hand while hanging on to your bag, purse or child (you brought your child along?!) with the other. Curve the toes of your feet upwards in case you’re wearing chappals to make sure that they stay under your feet. In case you lose any one of your chappals in the melee, I would advise you to kick off the other one as well. You are better off bare-feet than hobbling on a single chappal throughout your entire journey.

Hold on to the handle as strong as possible. As soon as the first wave recedes, start to push any passengers in front of you so that they start moving inside. By this time, the train would have stopped moving, and it would be easier to get on. Do not worry about the subsequent wave of passengers trying to get down. They may complain and crib but there is no space for the lazy and the slow on the Mumbai local. Assuming that you do manage to get inside the compartment, find a comfortable space and try to maximise this as much as possible. Comfortable is just a relative term here, and how much space you are able to capture depends on the time of the day and the route you are travelling on. The world record for the longest travel using the smallest space possible was held by a government employee who used to travel daily on the Thane-CST local. Last heard, he was planning to undergo surgery to separate his limbs which were fused together from years of travelling in congested spaces.

All of this may sound very scary but it is easy provided you keep your focus on the goal. And that goal is to put as much distance as possible between the door and yourself. Under any circumstance, do not turn or look back at the door. The unwritten rule of travelling in Mumbai locals is that the person faces the direction in which he wants to go. In case you turn around, people standing by the door will assume that you want to get off and will enthusiastically help you in getting down, whether that was your original plan or not.

So let’s assume that you get enough space to stand inside the compartment. Unless you are travelling after midnight or unless you are a former Youth Icon trying to mingle with the common man, you won’t immediately find a place to sit in the Mumbai local. But here are a few tips to improve your chances of getting near a seat. First, the ground rule. The number of people who can fit on a row of seat is flexible. Although the seats were built to comfortably seat three people, you can always fit in a few more. This secret is known to all people regularly travelling on local trains and a simple flick of the hand pointed in the general direction of the seat can magically create space where there was none before.

Here’s a bonus tip for you. In case you have already bagged a seat and another commuter asks you to make some space. In such instances, you do not have to actually move. Just pretend to slide to one side but instead just wiggle your butt in place a couple of times. This technique always works. You sacrifice nothing but a few inches, and the other person will happily fit in whatever space you make for him.
If there are already four or more people sitting in a row, you will not immediately get a seat. But you can improve your chances of getting a seat the next time someone gets up. There are two ways of doing this. One is by standing in the centre aisle, facing either side. This will make you the de facto bouncer for that block of seats. The only thing missing is the red velvet rope separating the haves from the have-nots. Any person wanting to enter or leave that block will have to take your permission before moving in or out. As soon as someone gets up, you can slide in between the rows and occupy that seat. The second way to maximise your chances of getting a seat is to position yourself between the rows of seats itself facing either row. So as one half of the people stare at your crotch, the other half face your butt. If the thought of staring at your butt for the next half-hour doesn’t cause one of the passengers to get up, the sudden smell of mooli paratha in the air will definitely claim a few victims.

The fastest gun in the west

Mumbai locals come in two varieties – the slow and the fast. If the slow ones look crowded, the fast ones literally overflow with people. The reasons why fast trains are more crowded is because they apparently stop at fewer stations and take you to your destination faster. According to my calculations, this difference is on average 7.9 minutes. Thus the mad rush for the fast local. But taking a fast train does not always guarantee that you will reach your destination faster. This strategy can, at times, work against you. This is because fast trains have an annoying habit of halting for long durations between stations. No one has been able to find out the exact reason why they do so. But just like you have to be patient with cows standing in the middle of the road, you have to be patient with these fast locals. The fast trains halt for not more than fifteen minutes. Compared to road-side traffic jams which can add hours to your commute, fifteen minutes doesn’t sound too bad. But when you’re squeezed on all sides by sweaty passengers, each minute can seem like an eternity.

The people having the best seats in the local train are ironically the ones who travel on the foot-board. This is where you don’t have to ‘adjust’ to share your precious space. Nor do you have to deal with the fans facing the wrong way or simply not working. There is a constant cool breeze refreshing you as the train ploughs through station after station. Although a very dangerous practice, thousands of passengers continue to travel this way, often supported by only one hand. A sudden push or shove can cause people to lose your balance which can prove very dangerous for not only them but their co-passengers as well.

However when you are stuck in a situation mentioned earlier, the people on the foot-board get the best ring-side view of the situation. As people within the train keep on grumbling, you on the foot-board don’t have any such problems. There is still a light breeze which keeps you from breaking into a pool of sweat. In the meanwhile, slow trains amble past and you have to deal with vulgar gestures from the people hanging out of those trains. You pretend to look at your watch as the passengers in the slow train show you the middle finger. But the civilised human being that you are, you refrain from responding in kind. Every few seconds, people keep shuffling and asking each other about the reason for the delay, as if they have a hotline to the control room. But secretly, everyone is pleased. This unexpected delay means that they can spend that much time less in the office listening to their hyperventilating boss.

In Mumbai, you can always blame the delay on the traffic or the trains. Be it a meeting or a date, an interview or a wedding. Be it film stars or politicians. Be it friends or relatives. Everyone in Mumbai uses this get-out-of-jail-free card. And there is only one reaction possible to this. The other person can only shake their head in agreement because they would be guilty of using the same excuse at some point in time.

Battle hymns to the God

During the long arduous journey in a Mumbai local and especially during such unscheduled stops in the middle of two stations, there is one group which can instantly raise everyone’s spirits. I’m talking about the bhajan mandali groups. Yes, Mumbai has a brilliant, free of cost service for listening to devotional songs while you commute. What better than spending an hour or so in an atmosphere of devotion and purity. Leave your iPods at home, mute your mobile phones, and sit back and enjoy the soothing tones of these enthusiastic singers. In terms of sheer practicality and reach, the bhajan mandalis are more widespread than the Ramdevs and the Nirmal Babas in spreading Hindu faith among the common-folk.

It is not clear how this concept started. Maybe a group of people got tired of reading newspapers daily, or listening to stock market tips. Maybe they got bored of playing cards. But whatever the reason, they are not firmly entrenched in the psyche of the local train commuter.
These bhajan mandali groups bring their own musical instruments, which thankfully consists of mostly small cymbals. But I’m sure as their popularity increases, they would not be averse to introducing additional instruments like harmoniums, drums, and trumpets in their repertoire. Who knows one day college students may also introduce a drum set, complete with electric guitars. The main function of the bhajan mandalis is to regale fellow passengers with their music. Self trained in the classical gharanas, they tirelessly keep the mood of the passengers upbeat with their soulful renditions of famous bhajans of whichever deity they are associated with. With the Hindu pantheon consisting of million of gods, theirs is an extremely long playlist.

But lately, these groups have come under the scanner due to complaints from fellow passengers. Railway officials have started to crack down on such groups in undercover raids. In spite of the danger of such raids, these bhajan mandalis continue to spread the message of Hindu culture. Rather than cracking down on such group, I would only wish that their representation grows day by day in number. Not only that, I also urge brothers and sisters from all the other religions to join in to spread their respective culture and religion as well. I mean, who wouldn’t love qawwalis and carols in local trains? If this doesn’t bring Mumbai together, I don’t know what will.

So, after what seems like an hour or two, the train suddenly lurches forward. There are audible sighs of relief. It was nothing but the collective will of the passengers which caused the train to resume its journey. You look out the window as the train gathers speed. Within a couple of stations, you would be almost back on schedule. Slowly but surely, the fast trains catch up with the slow trains which had gone past a few minutes ago.

When two local trains run neck to neck, it is a moment of great suspense and tension. It is like one of those standoff in a cowboy movie. Who will win this battle? Will your train go ahead or the other? As you spot those guys in the slow train who had earlier given you the middle finger, you realise that this is the moment you were waiting for. You stare at the offender while he glares back. This is when it gets intense. Everything is a matter of luck and chance. Right now, both the trains are running head to head and it is not clear which train will win. Warily you look at him without making any move. You slowly channel Clint Eastwood and start to squint at him. You feel your train slowly inch forward as it picks up speed. Apparently the fast train has been given the green signal. This is the right time to make your move. This is the right time to show him who’s the boss. Your hand slowly reaches down, and you grab your crotch and thrust it in the air menacingly towards the person in the other train. By now the other train has slowed down considerably. Knowing that he has been defeated fair and square, the guy on the other train starts looking elsewhere. You mouth your favourite dialogue from that old Clint Eastwood movie, “Hasta la vista baby” and smile smugly. Now you’re left in peace to pursue the rest of your daily activities in the train, which are mainly ogling at the passengers in the ladies compartment and picking your nose (not necessarily together).

With each subsequent station, the train starts getting less crowded with more people getting off the train than what get on. Slowly, the bhajan mandalis run out of bhajans, the stock market punters run out of tips, and the college students run out of gossip. As the train cruises through the last few stations, the remaining people in the train spend the rest of the journey mostly in silence. It is almost as if they rue the ending of the raucous yet unavoidable journey which is part of their everyday lives. Even before the train stops at the last station, the train empties almost instantly. People head in different directions while the Mumbai local stands in silence for a few minutes, as if catching a breath or two. It cannot rest for long though. The electronic notice boards have updated to show the new destination of the train. The new drivers arrive and check their instrument panels. As the timer ticks down, people come running from all directions so as to not miss the fast train. Welcome to Mumbai, where people spend years of their lives trying to save a few precious seconds.

* * *

This was a free chapter from my book, The Immigrant’s Guide to Surviving Mumbai. If you liked the chapter, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the book. Do share this with the people you think will enjoy the book. Thanks for reading.

We Indians are an entitled bunch. Everything that goes on in the country,  be it in closed circles, has to be publicly disseminated, failing which we will protest, ridicule, pull down others, and in general be cynical jerks.

Why isn’t RAW doing anything about Dawood now that it is proved that he is in Pakistan. Yes sirs, kindly stand by while Ajit Doval emails you the entire dossier the intelligence agencies have collected on Dawood.

Why isn’t the Police calling up Peter Mukherjea in the Sheena murder case?   Why aren’t they brought face to face? Yes, kindly be patient as Rakesh Maria whatsapps you the latest investigation updates on WhatsApp.

What an idiot Jim Rogers is? When did he ever invest in India? Typical of Jim Rogers to forget to tweet to the whole country before pressing the Buy button.

If only people who understand that they are entitled to nothing what investigation agencies, and other private individuals do or do not do.

Want to question what the government to is doing? Fair enough. You have the rti act for that. In all other matters, you are entitled to diddly squat.

Restart

Mihir S Sharma

I picked up this book at Crossword after reading the rather provocative subtitle – “The Last Chance For the Indian Economy”. The author is a well-known columnist and an active participant on twitter. Although I don’t subscribe to the same political views as him, this book is on a different topic (mostly). On flipping a few pages, I found the premise interesting and decided to dive in for a read. restart book review

The crux of the book is how the Indian economy, after many false starts, hasn’t yet made significant progress on becoming a world power. The book starts with introducing the much-hallowed reforms started by Dr Manmohan Singh in 1991, and how they are considered a watershed moment for the country on its path to a better future. The author argues how these “successful” reforms were actually made less effective by the half-hearted attempts of the politicians who had a chance to actually change the direction of the country towards a brighter future. But with the politicians themselves not completely convinced of the reforms, they failed to make the impact that India needed at the time.

A few of the chapters also takes on a important yet neglected topic – to leave well enough alone. Today people often complain about what is wrong with the country. But such arguments often end with heavy sighs and a resigned acceptance of the good things that have happened till now. Unless the apathy of most Indians towards demanding the best from the government is reduced, the common man is doomed to suffer while the rich 1% (and their political allies) keep off skimming the cream from the top. The examples of how, allegedly, sibling rivalry has held up important infrastructure projects in the city of Mumbai are incredulous. But not impossible.

According to the author, the country also made a risky move by not improving the manufacturing infrastructure and directly jumping to the service industry. Although both banking and Information Technology have made rapid strides over the last couple of decades, the manufacturing industry still suffers in most parts of the country.

The book goes on to explain the spread of that notorious epidemic consuming true innovation in the country – jugaad. What was once a mental model worth Harvard case-studies has stifled real innovation. Where entrepreneurs should demand their government to remove the barriers to business, jugaad has resulted in entrepreneurs making their own way within the box itself. Within the same barriers and bureaucratic nightmares.

The author, as a closing salvo, presents the way India can yet get out of the mess that her politicians have forced her into.

Restart is eminently readable. What is good is that it doesn’t go into a dry monologue filled only with numbers. I’ve read books about India that have made me snore after only few pages. Thankfully, this is not such a book. It is a breezy read for someone familiar with basic economics, or even for someone without that background.

The content of the book is varied and covers a lot of ground, in terms of geography and time. I particularly found interesting the chapter on Mumbai and its chequered history from being a potential world-class cosmopolitan city to a den of petty politicians and crooks.

The only thing I could find fault with was the tone of writing. The book is generously peppered with sarcasm. But just like a good dish can be ruined by an excess spattering of salt, sometimes the sarcasm goes overboard. For example, just how many instances of “no sirreee” in consecutive pages can you smile at? As a result of such repetition, the author often sounds condescending towards the government and its leaders, both past and present. There are two things that the author seems to forget with his excessive use of sarcasm – one, that hindsight is always 20-20, and second, that India politicians are also subjects to human foibles, just like anywhere else.

Another example of a minor flaw in the structure is how the author has a habit of interrupting, sometimes too often, his sentences which affects, to a great extent, the flow and continuity of sentences. Once a while it does break the monotony. But when you find yourself going back again and again to understand what the never-ending sentence is about to say, it becomes formulaic. Again, this should have been the responsibility of the editor.

But these minor quibbles aside, Restart is a very interesting book about India and a must read for entrepreneurs, businesspersons and others alike, who wish to understand why India is in the state that it is, and how it came to be. Who knows, if enough people make an effort, there’s still a last chance for India.

The recent fracas on a report over a family being heckled for not standing up when the Indian National Anthem was being played has brought a rarely known fact out in the open. That it is not legally enforceable for people to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. It is only when someone tries to intentionally disrupt the playing of the anthem can legal action be taken. This rarely known law has split open twitter on yet another debate with people taking sides on expected lines. On top of that, the article mentions the religion of the family which was heckled. And that meant it was open season on social media.

My personal opinion is that even if one is not legally obliged to stand up during the anthem, it is still basic courtesy and the duty of every citizen to respect the symbols of the country that you live in. The National Anthem and the country’s other emblems are not representative of any religion or class. They were chosen for the country, and thus for every citizen of the country. Consequently, it is the duty of an individual to respect and uphold the values that they stand for. That’s all about that. What comes to my mind is a little bit of nostalgia, and how I learnt to stand during the anthem.

Yes, I stand for the National Anthem, and I stand rock still. The origins for this go way back in school thanks to our strict principal, who was also an ex-Army man. The Lt. Col. was jovial on all matters and forgave all kinds of mischief (After all, children are children). But the only time he was “intolerant” was during the playing of the National Anthem. As in most schools, the anthem played in our school’s assembly daily along with the usual prayers, news etc. For most part of the assembly, he watched with indifference as students yawned, scratched their ears, picked their noses, or generally behaved like uninterested chaps. But whenever the anthem was played, we could see his eyes furiously scanning the endless rows of fidgety students standing on the huge school ground. He never moved a muscle until the last strains of “Jaya he” faded into silence. And then all hell broke loose.

In his robust army voice, he called out the students one by one to step aside for everyone to see. These were the students who, for whatever reason, were unable to stand still for 56 seconds or so. Then, I was surprised that in a school of around 1500 students, he managed to remember everyone’s name. But today I understand he didn’t have to memorize everyone’s name. Only the ones he expected would create trouble.

So, while the rest of the assembly dispersed, furtively glancing at these unfortunate creatures who had been singled out, the victims themselves simply awaited their punishment. It varied often. Sometimes the Lt. Col. made them stand under the hot sun for hours, as the students sweated profusely and missed one class after the other. I wonder if they even treated the latter as punishment. Sometimes he would send all such students home along with notices to their parents.

But whatever his methods, the Lt. Colonel instilled a very good habit in all of us – respecting the country. The end result of this? On one particularly wet August morning, I remember us students standing on the ground on an outline of India when rain broke out suddenly and drenched each and every student. But no one moved a muscle. The whole school stood in attention, and so did the Lt. Col. on the stage, his uniform completely wet and the water dripping from the brim of his hat. But at that moment, he would have felt himself back in the army, and prided himself on transforming this raggedy bunch of uncouth students into disciplined young men and women of tomorrow.

Yes, patriotism is not simply standing up for less than a minute while watching a movie. It has to be something more than that. But for many of us, who treat it as a minor inconvenience of having to put aside the delicious popcorn and to stare at the national flag, it can certainly start from this small gesture. Don’t sing if you don’t know the words, or if you don’t want to. But stand up. Show that you’re part of something more than just a group of 1.5 billion individuals, going about their daily lives mindlessly, bound only by geographical proximity. This country deserves that much respect from you.

In the recently concluded WWDC 2015, Apple introduced a brand new subscription based music service across many countries. Apple Music started on the 30th of June and has already received rave reviews from many quarters.

Compared to the likes of Pandora, Spotify and others, Apple was a late entrant in streaming music. Even the fact that Apple decided to enter subscription based music is surprising, considering that Steve Jobs was totally against such a model. Instead, Apple offered downloadable music through the iTunes platform, and later started iTunes radio. But as times changed, and with the spread of broadband networks across the world, people were more receptive to subscribing to media databases online than to buy them à la carte. Spotify and Netflix are just two examples of this changing trend.

Apple has traditionally resisted following popular trends. In the era of Steve Jobs, Apple was definitely a bit close-ended in terms of adopting feedback from outside. But over the years, Apple has become much more flexible. And that is a very good thing. This New Apple, as I would refer to it, has brought in many good changes which can give it a wider appeal, especially in developing countries.

In terms of features, Apple Music is similar to other subscription music streaming services. No ads, downloadable music, curated playlists. I have still not had a chance to review the app and its interface. But what I want to talk about here is something unique in terms of the subscription pricing itself.

Apple has done is to keep difference subscription prices worldwide. In the US, the individual subscription plan comes at a price of $9.99 per month, whereas in other countries, it is much cheaper. In India, the corresponding plan comes at Rs120 per month (which is effectively around $2). This is a dirt cheap option for most people, even without the lack of good alternatives for English music. Of course, varied pricing across countries is common. A part of it is due to fluctuating currency rates as well. But this is something much more than that. This is an aggressive move by Apple to push itself into countries where pricing is a delicate subject.

And this is where the new Apple shines. The old Apple would have probably kept the same (or similar) pricing for various countries, regardless of the market saturation and purchasing power. Even in India, only recently has Apple accepted the fact that price is one of the most important factors for us to consider one product over another. And that applies just as much to a pair of shoes as it does to a Mercedes Benz. Apple has reduced the prices of their smartphones in order to make them more palatable to the nitpicking value-conscious Indian consumer. Sadly, this insight was ignored by Blackberry worldwide, and look at where it stands now.

Now I’m not particularly an Apple fanboy. I thrive on the Android ecosystem, and still maintain that Android provides a more flexible platform for power users. But what Apple has done with its music streaming (and to a certain extent, with its reduced phone prices) is to open up themselves to the Indian consumer. And by that I don’t mean just the rich or the privileged, but the burgeoning middle class who will dictate the spending trends of the country in the next decade. And by understanding the psyche of the crowds, Apple can find itself court-side seats in the whole game.

Apple is also planning to introduce its music service even to Android, an exciting step that would probably have been blasphemous during Steve Job’s tenure as the captain.

What is even more exciting is that both these events have the potential to set the trend for other streaming media subscription based services. Netflix is already planning to open shop in India. It will only be a matter of time before Spotify, Google Music and others do the same. And if the price points are something similar to what Apple has set, there are going to be definitely some “Achhe Din”  for the connected Indians.

 

Update: Apple has also introduced lower priced app tiers for people in countries like India. Just an example, the premium version of Camscanner is priced at Rs 10. This is brilliant and can definitely increase appstore purchases by consumers in India.

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, the Mumbai auto and taxi drivers were again on a strike protesting the increasing popularity of fleet taxis in the city. It is audacious in the first place that these unions demand a regulation in a market where they don’t want to provide the basic levels of service, yet protest against fuel price hikes and the rise of such competition. A union leader had this to say during the strike, “They will eat into our core business if they continue offering point-to-point pick up and drop.”

But the union leaders need not worry about such competition. This is because the core business of autos and taxis in Mumbai is no longer providing public transportation services. It is teaching negotiation skills.

Recently I read this article about why Warren Buffett succeeded in what he does best – investing in the best of companies. The factors which were listed in that article can be used to predict the level of success (assuming the absence of extraneous factors such as luck, chance opportunities etc.) which an individual can get in any field.

From that list, I filtered out four rules which are needed to succeed in any new venture which you have started out or are planning to. Below are these four rules and a brief description of each.

1) Ability – The first rule of success states that you need to have the ability or an aptitude for that thing. For example, being able to analyze financial statements and accounts of a company requires you to have a knowledge of the various ratios and parameters which make a good investment good. Or, if you’re planning to be an entrepreneur, you should have the aptitude of networking and being able to be calm in the face of uncertainty, for years, if need be. The ability or the aptitude for a certain thing is the foundation on which future results can be built. A person who faints at the mere site of blood cannot hope to become a cardiac surgeon.

Buffett has mentioned the importance of thissin his famous “circle of competence” quote. Both Buffett and Munger stick to their circle of competence while selecting their areas of investing. An individual should likewise analyze the areas he or she is good at and stick to those.

2) Interest – Being passionate about the subject is another criteria for defining success in any area. Unless you put your heart and soul into any task, it is ridiculous to expect a comparable amount of output from it. Doing things half-heartedly will not only result in a lot of leakage of effort, but also will result in you fizzling out before too long.

3) Willingness to Learn – As you gain expertise in a subject, it may be very tempting to feel a sense of perfection creeping into your mind. Aiming for perfection is good, but it is also prudent to keep a learning attitude, no matter how long you have spent in a particular field. Be it a simple task such as changing a light bulb, or a multi-layered complex project like building a bridge, there always could be a better, more efficient way of doing it. It is being open to criticism, learning from own and others’ mistakes, and generally keeping your antennae in an open frequency to absorb better ideas which keep floating in from the people you meet.

4) Belief – I would like to define this fourth rule as broadly as possible. This is because different people have different methods of following this. Some people call it faith, or hope. Some call it self-esteem or confidence. Some may even refer to this as patience and persistence. And I would go far to say that this is also where the ‘luck factor’ comes into play. Assuming you have jumped into a new venture, and have rigorously followed the first three rules. But thanks to the way the world generally is, and particularly to Murphy’s Law, things may not work out the way you want, or at the pace that you desire. This is when the fourth rule, Belief, becomes important. This is when you would need to ‘pray’ for all the luck you desire. This is when you sit back and say to yourself, that “I believe in myself and in this venture”. This is when you batten down the hatches. Belief is what will get you through the thunderstorm. And when the skies clear, you can go back to starting to follow the first rules again.

Starting out a new venture can be a very difficult and stressful task. You may come out winning on the other side or be battered and bruised beyond recognition. But you can be sure that the experience will change you for the better. The knowledge and the experience that you gain from it will no doubt help you immensely in the future – either while growing your current venture, or while starting out in your next. Following these four rules will ensure that it is more often the former.

Once every few years, a movie comes which re-defines the sci-fi genre. Years ago, the Matrix trilogies did that. Inception was another movie which pushed the imagination and the idea of a future where the mind itself could be controlled by others.

Recently, I saw a movie Ex Machina which explores yet another frontier in technology – artificial intelligence. Is it really possible to build an artificially intelligent robot which has consciousness? Ex Machina is a movie which asks this question along with other relevant questions in today’s world. Hollywood has explored the theme of robotics and artificial intelligence. But many of them have glossed over the philosophy and have turned into mindless sci-fi action flicks. Ex Machina brings a fresh approach to this, as it depicts the current progress in the field of artificial intelligence (at least in private research) and online privacy, or the lack thereof.

Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, is a genius at coding and has built the world’s most popular search engine. At a secret research facility, he has also built an artificially intelligent robot. He organizes a contest to invite the winner to conduct a Turing Test on his creation. For those out of the loop, a Turing Test was devised by Alan Turing to judge whether a computer can be called artificially intelligent. Read more about the Turing Test here, and a good if not great movie on Alan Turing himself).

From the first scene that he features in, Nathan looks distant, cold and calculating. IMHO, this is probably how the biggest software moguls today would behave, at least when they are out of the public eye. Think the founders of Google and Facebook. Curiously, the company which Nathan runs is named Blue Book.

The winner of the contest, Caleb, is an employee in Nathan’s company. Once Caleb is flies down to the secret research facility, he is introduced to Ava, the robot which Nathan has created. Alicia Vikander is mesmerizing as Ava, the curious yet intelligent AI robot who tries her best to learn more about Caleb and the situation she is in. The interactions between Caleb and Ava, and between Nathan and Caleb, form the majority of the movie.

Although I won’t reveal the entire plot of the movie, below could be some spoilers on what the movie is about. Read it at your own risk.

Ex Machina touches various aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence which are relevant in the future. There are a few points which I would found particularly interesting.

1) The topic of sexuality in robotics – There is a point in the movie where Caleb questions Nathan on the importance of an AI needing a gender. Why can’t the AI simply be a gray box? Nathan counters the question by asking why would one gray box want to interact with another gray box? Thus the concept of form, gender, and body language is as important as the actual brain of the AI. It provides the motivation for one AI to interact with another. But the answer is much simpler. One of the most wide uses of artificial intelligence would be in interactions with humans, and not with each other. For humans to be comfortable with AI robots, they need to have a form which they can relate to. This may, or may not, cause them to put down their guard. But in order to encourage a smooth and natural communication, all the senses will have to be developed, rather than having a screen on a dull gray box. No doubt, the sex/porn industry is one of the areas where artificial intelligence will find much use. And Nathan hints at this as well in the movie, when he mentions that, Ava, is indeed equipped with sensors at the “right” places to ensure that she too enjoys sex. But even out of the sex/porn industry, the presence of a human form, complete with gender and skin preferences would be required for humans to feel comfortable with AI robots.

2) Can robots kill? This is one of the most controversial concepts in the field of robotics. Can artificially intelligent beings kill? Or rather, should they be allowed to? Here the words “artificially intelligent” is very important. This is what differentiates machines from robots. This concept was made quite popular by Isaac Asimov through his Laws of Robotics. Of course whether a particular robot has the laws of robotics ingrained in it is decided by its creator. This is where things can start getting scary, and precisely why scientists such as Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are worried about the rapid growth of what AI can and cannot do.

This problem is compounded if we generalize the phrase, “Can robots kill?” to the more believable, “Can robots act against humans?” Granted that in the future, your household robot may not pick up the kitchen knife and stab you in the back while you sleep, but can it act against the general interest of you and your family, if programmed by its creators? The question, “What if Skynet becomes self-aware?” should be on our minds as we progress through more frontiers in AI technology.

3) Is your data really yours? This point is also touched upon in the movie. Nathan, being the head of the world’s most popular search engine, mentions nonchalantly how he has hacked each and every cell phone in the world to build a database of face gestures, speech patterns, etc. which he used to program his AI. He mentions that a lot of phone manufacturers did the same through their hardware as well. If you think that this far-fetched, think again. Even today, hundreds of websites track each and every move of yours on the internet. And some of the most notorious sites are the popular search engines and the social networks of the world. According to some reports, they can do so even when you’re logged out of your account. Searches, Photos, Likes, Check-Ins, Interests, Favorites, etc. can be used to build a personal preference profile which is currently used to target relevant ads to individuals. But the same information can be used for much more nefarious purposes.

This “leak” of data is even more rampant on mobile devices, where apps can read your identity, list others apps running on your devices, and monitor your browsing preferences with little to no control in your hands. Although it is easier to restrict such tracking on the computer, it is much more difficult to restrict what gets tracked through a hand-held device, such as a mobile or a tablet.

From what is available in the public domain (or commercially), one can surmise that artificial intelligence still needs to go a long way before it can achieve what is shown in the movie. Companies, in private, are already clearing the next hurdle with regard to technology and artificial intelligence. For now, we probably need not worry about what AI can and cannot do. But coupled with the kind of data which is being captured today, the AI of tomorrow will already have a lot of information about how you will react to situations in daily life (and in emergencies). So imagine, you know nothing about the AI, while the AI knows everything about you. That would, as Ava says, be one dimensional. And that is not how friendship is created.

In closing, the famous Oppenheimer quote is quite apt as far as AI is concerned. After all, artificial intelligence is no less damaging than the atomic bomb if it falls in the wrong hands. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”