PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

“You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.”

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The wisdom of Guru Gobind Singh

There is a lot to be said about the Sikh motto of ‘Guru Granth Panth‘. Guru here means the spiritual leader, Granth generally means scriptures, and Panth denotes the following or the community.

The ‘Sacred Sword’ by Hindol Sengupta, a fictionalised account of Guru Gobind Singh’s life, beautifully shows us how this motto came about. On how it became the Holy Trinity of the Sikhs. It also shows Guru Gobind Rai as the tall leader he was.

Throughout history, we have seen spiritual leaders proclaim their divine power over their strength and status in the society. Not Guru Gobind Singh. So here’s a story:

He told his bard one day, ‘I have been thinking… what is the meaning of the gaddi of the Guru?’ 

‘Surely the guru is the leader, the father of his people?’, said the bard. 

‘But should that figure be decided only by birth? What is birth but fate?’, asked Gobind. 

‘There is the wheel of karma, and birth follows that wheel. One is born according to fate and must live by that destiny,’ replied the bard.

‘You are born where you are born, bard, but your destiny you decide together with God,’ smiled the guru. 

‘Why, though, are you thinking of this?’, the bard asked.

This is when Guru Gobind Rai recounts briefly their history, which is riddled with stories of the descendants of the very first guru; of sons and brothers – of men – whose hearts were filled with hate and jealousy for one of their own, which moved them to murder and join hands with the common enemy. All for this gaddi.

The bard, who had now heard it all, offers, ‘But the guru rules by divinity, not just by birth, I have heard. It is the deed that defines the guru.’ 

Addressing the bard directly, ‘Ram Rai Meherban, there have been many conspirators for the name of the guru. The list, I am afraid, will only grow. Not everyone understands the difference between birth and deed,’ said Gobind Rai.

So there, the bard asks, “What are you planning to do?”

‘Guru Granth Panth – this, I believe, is the holy trinity of the Sikhs,’ said the guru.

‘But what about your sons?,’ asked the bard.

‘What about them?

Isn’t the gaddi theirs – belongs to one of the them, that is? Surely one of them is worthy?’

‘And why should their worth – or his worth – only be determined by their inheritance? Guru Arjun gave us the Adi Granth. I am adding to it all the wisdom Guru Tegh Bahadur left for us. The Granth will be the new Guru,’ he said. 

‘The masands would hate it. They would rebel,’ said the bard. ‘They believe they have the power over life, death, God…’

‘And tax,’ Gobind Rai completed the sentence. 

At this point, I imagined the great guru smiling, even in this fiction.

The guru continues, “The masands have divided us into smaller and smaller parts. Each of them wants his share; many of them openly extort money from the poor farmers; they contribute little to the spread of Sikhism and its financial and military power, but they take away a lot.’ 

‘Will you be able to reform them?’ asked the bard. 

‘Who is thinking of reform?’ smiled the guru. 

And rightly enough, he did what was the least imaginable thing then: he put the masands out of business. He banished the power structure. Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, appointed the Granth as their Guru, and declared that there would be no guru after him. He encouraged his people to unite under Sikhism and follow and support the Khalsa.

History says that Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa, which means ‘pure’, in 1699. The Khalsa comprises fully initiated devout Sikhs. Men in the Khalsa were to be known as Singh and women as Kaur. The initiated Khalsa has a behavioral code and a dress code to uphold; the behavioral code includes the duty to protect the innocent from any form of religious persecution.

This is a huge lesson in innovative leadership. Guru Gobind Singh deeply analysed the issues ailing his community. He acted to solve them without fear or favour. He did not have a power-hungry, myopic vision. He ensured the sustenance of his ideas through creation of worthy institutions such as the Khalsa. He energised his people by making them feel a part of these reforms. Most of all, he sought to unite people under a common, lofty goal. These are major issues that would take a lifetime to correct. But, with innovative ideas, Guru Gobind Singh managed to tie up all loose ends with one idea: Guru Granth Panth. In a very short time.

This is something that we, even in our world full of research scientists, policy makers, and a willing bureaucracy, advanced technology, cannot always do.

How many such leaders do we see in our society today? 

 

Hit Refresh: Questions for a CEO

This is where Satya Nadella delves into why issues of ‘culture’, ‘ideas’, and ’empathy’ are so important to him as CEO of Microsoft.

He says: Well, my father was a civil servant with Marxist leanings and my mother a Sanskrit scholar. While there is much I learned from my father, including intellectual curiosity and a love of history, I was always my mother’s son. She cared deeply about my being happy, confident, and living in the moment without regrets.

And then he goes on to describe her as someone who worked hard both at home and in the college classroom where she taught the ancient language, literature, and philosophy of India. And she created a home full of joy.

That description tugs at my heartstrings as I think it applies in general to a lot of Indian mothers. I wouldn’t even have to go as far as mothers, actually. Even my dear Ajji who comes on her daily housekeeping job at my place brings with her little caring endearments: ‘I come in late on your off-day so you can sleep in late but you’ve already made breakfast! Go rest a little’.

So that’s Indian moms.

Satya Nadella, he’s a mama’s boy, this one, but in the most positive way possible. Sample this:

One time, my father hung a poster of Karl Marx in my bedroom; in response, my mother hung one of Lakshmi, the Indian goddess of plenitude and contentment. Their contrasting messages were clear: my father wanted intellectual ambition for me, while my mother wanted me to be happy versus captive to any dogma.

Nadella’s mother must have been amazing for he has described Goddess Lakshmi not as the goddess of wealth – which is how she is most commonly and quite ineptly described in India – but that of plenitude and contentment. That’s such an inspiring reading of his own culture, no wonder resulting from his closeness to his mother.

The thought being that a man’s hunger for wealth is limitless but it is contentment and a sense of plenitude that makes one truly wealthy, free to direct its use for constructive goals.

It takes a deep understanding of humanity and culture to see this difference and it is inspiring to see this MS CEO making this his top priority.

.       .       .

Nadella has more to say about his mother and how her philosophy of life inspired his choices as a student and as a professional that would be great for anyone even today:

“She always believed in doing your thing, and at your own pace. Pace comes when you do your thing. So long as you enjoy it, do it mindfully and well, and have an honest purpose behind it. life won’t fail you. That has stood me in good stead all my life.” 

 

 

 

Hit Refresh: On Corporate Culture

The First chapter of Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh starts with the one challenge that Nadella made his top priority on being appointed Microsoft CEO in Feb, 2014. And the issue comes very close to the very basics of human nature.

In his own words, Nadella describes the difficult times that Microsoft was going through: Microsoft authored the PC Revolution, and our success – rivaled perhaps only by IBM in a previous generation – is legendary. But after years of outdistancing all of our competitors, something was changing – and not for the better. Innovation was being replaced by bureaucracy. Teamwork was being replaced by internal politics. We were falling behind. 

So when I was named Microsoft’s third CEO in Feb 2014, I told employees that renewing our company’s culture would be my highest priority.

.       .       .

Nadella started with his Senior Leadership Team (SLT), with some of world’s topmost engineers, researchers, managers, and marketers on it, at a meeting. He got psychologist Michael Gervais to take charge, who then went on to ask the SLT if they were interested in having an extraordinary experience. To which, the entire SLT nodded yes. Then he asked for a volunteer to stand up. And in response, no one did. Until Amy Hood, the CFO finally did so.

She was given a simple challenge – to recite the alphabet, interspersing every letter with a number – A1B2C3 and so forth.

But Dr. Gervais was curious: Why wouldn’t everyone jump up? Wasn’t this a high-performing group? Didn’t everyone just say they wanted to do something extraordinary?

As Nadella says: The answers were hard to pull out, even though they were just beneath the surface. Fear: of being ridiculed; of failing; of not looking like the smartest person in the room. And arrogance: I am too important for these games. “What a stupid question,” we had grown used to hearing. 

Isn’t this an amazing observation? These were some of the smartest people on the planet and had pretty much the same issues as us lesser mortals.

I think anyone and everyone can see a lesson in this.

So when Nadella presents his thoughts on work culture, it makes a sharp point: How do we connect our work persona with our life persona? 

Which takes me to this big question that is the work/life balance. Isn’t our work a part of our lives? If life draws on strength and pride from our work, shouldn’t work draw on sense of purpose and a certain joy from life? And it does so, already. I think we are confused in not seeing this.

Life cannot become a race and work cannot become a to-do list. Sure, you can and may have rules about not receiving emails on weekends and so on, but really,  life and work merge. They must. Otherwise we have reduced people to zombies.

Nadella puts it so well here: I told them we spend far too much time at work for it not to have deep meaning. 

 

 

Why ‘Hit Refresh’: Bill Gates’ Foreword

‘Hit Refresh’ by Satya Nadella is my book of the week and Bill Gates’ foreword is great for its simplicity. It is also crisp, refreshing, and straightforward.

It is Gates who puts the title of Satya Nadella’s book in perspective, with:

“It was no surprise to me that once Satya became Microsoft’s CEO, he immediately put his mark on the company. As the title of this book implies, he didn’t completely break with the past – when you hit refresh on your browser, some of what’s on the page stays the same. But under Satya’s leadership, Microsoft has been able to transition away from a purely Windows-centric approach.” 

Summing up his foreword: “And he (Satya) offfers his own fascinating personal story, more literary quotations than you might expect, and even a few lessons from his beloved game of cricket”

You know what he’s talking about when you later come across Satya Nadella quoting these beautiful words by Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian poet known for his ‘mystical’ writing: “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” He explains, ‘Speaking to us from another century, Rilke is saying that what lies ahead is very much within us, determined by the course each of us takes today.’ That course, those decisions, is what I’ve set out to describe.’ 

This is very much the CEO of Microsoft, one of the world’s leading tech giants talking. 

Gates also has a few words on what Satya Nadella has set in motion at Microsoft as its CEO: He (Satya) is part of a constant conversation, reaching out to customers, top researchers, and executives. And, most crucially, he is making big bets on a few key technologies, like artificial intelligence and cloud computing, where Microsoft will differentiate itself. 

It is a smart approach not just for Microsoft, but for any company that wants to succeed in the digital age. 

Well, my personal favourite by Rilke is this, and may also resonate with all these companies and business organisations with regard to the forward march towards a digital age:

Let Life Happen To You

What should I say about your tendency to doubt your struggle or to harmonize your inner and outer life? my wish is ever strong that you find patience within you and enough simplicity to have faith. May you gain more and more trust in what is challenging, and confidence in the solitude you bear. Let life happen to you. Believe me: Life is in the right in any case.  

And then this, since today is Dusshehra, a day that celebrates success, this one is amazing too:

In the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone. And many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled for one human being to successfully advise or help another. 

Sacred Sword: Guru Tegh Bahadur

‘Sacred Sword’ is an historical fiction about the life of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru.

The book begins with the death of Guru Gobind Singh’s father, Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh, who was called to Delhi by the then Emperor Aurangzeb under some pretext, taken into captivity, tortured for weeks trying to force him to convert to Islam. When the Guru refused to budge, Aurangzeb had him beheaded in public on November 11, 1675. That was after the Guru was made to watch the deaths of his two followers who had accompanied him to Delhi and also refused to convert. Bhai Mati Das was sawn into pieces and Bhai Dayal Das was thrown into a cauldron of boiling water.

The scene, as described in the ‘Sacred Sword’ is chilling. Here is a moving passage:

Seeing them die, his most beloved men, was supposed to break the guru, make him cry out in submission. But Guru Tegh Bahadur had told the Mughal Court, “You are trying to change the fragrance of the earth of this land. My body will not submit, for my soul does not. What god wants a man broken in order to supplicate to Him?

Reflection: Why did we need to “break” ourselves in order to gain His (and why His and not Her?) favour – why couldn’t we simply dissolve ourselves into the sea of humanity and self-acceptance and why that wasn’t enough? Why weren’t more people asking this question? 

Why do I like this book so much? – Because it speaks to me of people of such integrity that is hard, in fact, impossible to imagine.

Why do we fight?

Reproducing here a beautiful excerpt from ‘Sacred Sword, The Legend of Guru Gobind Singh’, by Hindol Sengupta.

This is a 10 year old Gobind Rai, revered as the Guru of the Sikhs, conversing with his teacher: 

“But tell me Gobind – why do we fight?”

“To keep our freedom and our pride, to honour the martyrs and avenge their blood,” replied Gobind. 

“Forgiveness, Nanak taught, is infinitely more powerful than any weapon. So why do we still fight?,” the teacher persisted. 

“Blood must be paid for – with blood.”

“Bloodshed only begets more bloodshed. There is no end to it. There is no courage in endless, mindless killing. But still we must fight, Gobind. Fight we must.”

“Why?”

“Because we realise that no matter what we do, our enemy wants to destroy us. There is no reason which he will listen to, no negotiation that he seeks. He does not want settlement, nor does he want our friendship. He does not seek our hand of reconciliation; he seeks only our head. What does one do, then?”

“This is a different battle, then,” said Gobind

“A dharmayuddha, a battle for faith and justice, for survival, a battle you must fight for there is no choice – this, Gobind, is a righteous war. This is war that has been thrust upon you. This is war where the enemy is merciless and seeks annihilation of our race. Nothing will convince him to let us live, let us be free. And what are we if we are not free?

“We are not human.” 

 

Now the question:

What are the things that make us ‘not human’ in today’s day and age? What fights MUST we fight today in order to remain ‘human’? 

Life lessons from literature – Murakami

Reading ‘Men Without Women’ by Haruki Murakami, generally described as a cult novelist.

The first Murakami book I’ve picked up since his 1Q84, which, to me felt like a betrayal. After years and years of adoring Murakami’s writing, reading a book that ended with “and the little people said Ho, Ho, Ho!” left me gasping.

With Men Without Women, we’re back in familiar territory. Wondering what makes his writing tick with so many people in such a strong, mysterious way.

Well, here’s something to take back:

About life, when you know you take a few mis-steps and no matter how hard you try, you can never go back to things being EXACTLY AS THEY WERE. You want it. Everyone else involved wants it as badly as life itself. But, there’s always that little knot, little crack, little pain somewhere throbbing with a memory that says ‘I got hurt here once’.

So here’s a passage from ‘Men Without Women’ that describes it beautifully: 

“It wasn’t easy,” Kafuku said. “It made me think things I would prefer to have ignored. Remember things I would rather have forgotten. But I was acting. That is my profession, after all.”

“Becoming somebody different,” Misaki said.

“That’s right.”

“And then going back to who you are.”

“That’s right,” Kafuku said. “Whether you want to or not. But the place you return to is always slightly different from the place you left. That’s the rule. It can never be exactly the same.”

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

The story of a spiritually barren Francois. But, not just. His story is set in what MH sees as near future France: the 2022 national elections are fast approaching. The change in political climate is so rapid that the society’s intellectuals completely miss the key milestones of the transformation this election unleashes.

That a part of this struggle might actually have played out in the latest French elections #2017 is a testimony to MH’s prescience… but more of a good reading of what’s going on in Europe. In ‘Submission’, 2022 elections have two favourites facing off – Marine Le Pen of the Front National and Muhammed Ben Abbes of the nascent Muslim fraternity.

So far, two things in the current reality of the French society concur with the what the story says: The impact of the minorities on the ‘French way of life’, and French votes moving from Left and Left-of-centre to Centre-left (Macron, maybe?) and far-Right, which Le Pen represents.

That Michel Houellebecq has chosen Francois, a professor and an intellectual hit by mid-life crisis as the voice of a rapidly changing French society already says a lot. France, just like Francois, is living an excruciatingly confused reality.

Apparently, Francois’ most important work has been his dissertation on the works of a 19th-century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, which he defended in 2007, to get him his professorial job. Completion of his studies at the university gave way to the typically French existential crisis: ‘I would have to see about entering the workforce.’ And, typically so, he explains, “the prospect left me cold.”

Francois is least prepared for a career as a prof of literature, a career he has analysed with these words: the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time.

As with academics, so with personal life. String of girlfriends, nights spent at one’s place or the other’s, and then within a year it is over, usually before the start of a new academic year. A lot of these women happened to be his students, especially now that he was no longer young. The book has the required French staples – the use of sex to define dark longings for a “connection”, the expected laundry list of ‘ennui’-causing acts but those which are also a staple because well, without it, how to keep going?

And then, the elections are just three weeks away. Although, Francois’ comments on democracy are interesting: “Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm.”

Francois sees but unsees the signs of change enveloping his reality. The election is crowded with Marine Le Pen, the socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood. She loses. The other two come up with power sharing agreement, with Muslim Brotherhood having the upper hand.

That’s when things change drastically, for both France and Francois. In a way that was previously only talked about by Marine Le Pen and her coterie.

Francois ponders how women in the Western societies had it rough: Hidden all day in impenetrable black burkas, rich Saudi women transformed themselves by night into birds of paradise with their corsets, their see-through bras, their G-strings with multicoloured lace and rhinestones. They were exactly the opposite of Western women, who spent their days dressed up and looking sexy to maintain their social status, then collapsed in exhaustion once they got home, abandoning all hope of seduction in favour of clothes that were loose and shapeless. If Francois seems to be making women and their sexuality a cornerstone of his understanding and comment of social landscape while being a liberal intellectual, this is certainly not a coincidence.

Finally, it happened. Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots meant the transformation of Francois’ university into an Islamic-style institution, as the society itself started responding to the new political landscape appropriately. Francois loses his job. His Jewish on-again off-again girlfriend leaves for Israel for good. Francois hits the road to trace his literary hero Huysmans’ journey, alone and lonely. A few restless months here and there and Francois finds himself being courted by his peers back at the college who have completely modified their lifestyle to suit the demands of their current masters, finding that they were actually flourishing like never before.

Women in workforce had been replaced by men. So, more jobs around made men happy. Those who wanted power, converted. Francois was alarmed to see his former colleagues and seniors who had more than one wives, some of whom were half their age. They had breathtaking houses, money, and of course this.

If you are anything like me, you’ll find the biggest surprise the author deals us is to see Francois tempted.

Read Submission for a scathing comment on the present state of liberal thought and priorities.

 

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson

Mark Manson is a superstar in the blogiverse.

The only thing that previously kept me away from picking up this book was his use of the F-word in the title – for hasn’t someone said that the use of swear words means you have run out of good arguments? I’ve always made a scattered use of swear words myself due to what I have called time and again ‘circumstances’ but have generally felt bad about it later because of my belief in what I just quoted. This actually became my feedback loop from hell. What’s a feedback loop from hell? Read the book.

So, as in this case, what do you do when an argument starts only with the F-word? You read on. Because, this book isn’t just immensely readable, it’s something I’d recommend to everyone except my worst enemies (in case they exist) – or maybe not, for I hope they learn to stop giving a fuck about me. Maybe this is getting to be too much. Yeah, maybe 🙂

Oh, and by the way, a lot of people call it a self-help book. Traditionally, the usual culprits under this section would be stuff like ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘The Secret’ and the ‘Who Will Cry When You Die’ and the ‘Monk who Sold His Ferrari’ and the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ – which was more of a tome than a book really, and the ‘Chicken Soup For The Soul’ Series. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck is so anti-self help it is the one book that might get you to stop giving a fuck about self-help books altogether. I, for one, certainly stopped giving a fuck about putting the F-word in black & white, even if it is just for this one blog post.

How is it anti-self help? Sample this: “But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice – all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time – is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasises them for you.” 

This book is like that much-needed no-nonsense chat you get from someone who has your interests at heart, who walks into your home in the middle of afternoon to say, “look buddy, I think you should know this”. And he cuts through the fat and calls a spade a spade, which is you. It’s honest and unpretentious and somehow, just what you need.

Some of my fav passages:

Everyone and their TV commercial wants you to believe that the key to a good life is a nicer job, or a more rugged car, or a prettier girlfriend, or a hot tub with an inflatable pool for the kids. The world is constantly telling you that the path to a better life is more, more, more, – buy more, own more, make more, fuck more, be more. 

And,

The key to a good life is not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.