Daily Archives: June 9, 2011

An Interview with Arjun Shekhar

Hi everyone. Here is the interview with Arjun Shekhar I had the opportunity to conduct via mail. You can also read my review of “A Flawed God” here as well

1. Why the topic of Corporate Politics and The Share Market?

I feel that the Share Market is shrouded in a mist and though it affects everybody viscerally, people know nothing about it. I wanted to demystify the fog, let people know how the share market affects them directly and why they should know about it. As I said to another interviewer, the audience I had in my mind was my mom. She is an enlightened housewife who is wedded to an ex-government servant and has no clue about the corporate world whatsoever. But what she understands is Ownership – something she has displayed beautifully in keeping our home together and happy. So when I take this theme as the central topic for my novel rather than corporate shenanigans, I immediately connect to her and other such audiences. She was in for a surprise when she read my book – she found ownership also happens to be the primal force in the corporate sector and the share market exemplifies this. The shareholders are the first among equals of all the stakeholders and thus call the shots in strategic and financial decision making in a firm. So the theme of the book is ownership and the share market is only a stage to bring this out.

I suspect it is ownership that makes everything flow – it moves the world (the King of Bhutan took ownership to deliver democracy to the people) or the lack of it makes the world rot (as in when we don’t take ownership of common spaces).

2. The titled, “A Flawed God” says much and yet doesn’t. How did the title come to you and why?

Slowly and inexorably, the world is getting corporatized. Its coming now to India but many countries in the west are more or less run like and by corporations. In India too its becoming obvious that corporates are getting increasingly involved in our lives, if not taking them over entirely. At the individual level the coporates decide how we live, what choices we make, what we consume, and thus what values we hold, what motivates us and who we relate to. At the societal level, corporates increasingly determine macro economic policies, media policy and programming, environmental health, and even cultural mores. Politicians, bearaucrats, educators, dev sector activists, bollywood folks, sports fraternity and even the religious fraternity are genuflecting to the new high priests. And whose the new God on the block? The Share Market of course which is the temple of all corporate activity and intrigue.

Now to take up the second part: why do i call this God flawed? On two counts. First, it has created a breed of owners who have no ownership. Shareholders are mostly punters, or to be more politically correct, investors who will never set foot in the company they own. Like absentee landlords, they are interested in returns from the land and not in nurturing it. Now if that isn’t a flawed algorithm what is. They also have limited liability which means they can make the company bankrupt, pollute the environment, mess up the lives of many and face no consequences for it personally. Imagine that – you do what you want but no one can harm you as an individual. Sounds draconian to me and against the natural principles bequeathed to the human race by evolution.

Second flaw is that, as you know price is a key signal, which is supposed to give the buyer and the seller clear signals for action but in the case of the share market the way price is fixed itself is a joke. The prices go up and down like a yo yo on the flimsiest of triggers. Only a tenuous link with the company’s performance exists. The macro intangibles and internal intangibles of a company shroud the price determination in this market. For outsiders, mostly decisions to buy or sell are a gamble and for the insiders – I won’t go into that, there’s too much already been said about insider trading scams.

3. A lot of people can almost relate to Sancho’s character. Why do you think that is happening? Did you write the book
with that intent?

Sancho is a kind of anti hero and I suppose I created a character like him because there are more of us anti heroes around. Actually if you take a systemic viewpoint, there are too many elements in a system to allow any one person to emerge as a super hero in reality who can impact and control every element. That’s why super heroes only happen in stories and folklore. After they pass on they are turned into legends. In his own lifetime Gandhi was at most a legend in progress.

Some people have asked whether Sancho is autobiographical. My reply has been that since he is a character constructed in my head, he would naturally have been born out of the experiences I store in my head and so there are autobiographical elements to him. But at the same time I also identify with Pause his lover, since she too was born of the same soil.

4. Arjun the reader…

I am a voracious reader of course but also being involved in many real world ventures, I end up having a wish list longer than my read list at times, like many others I presume. I took to fiction early in my college life and in those days devoured everything by Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka, Doestovsky, Marquez. Now i have taken an added liking to Canadian authors like Alice Monroe, Robertson Davies. Of the Indian subcontinent authors i love Amitava Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Ahmed. Non fiction has been an acquired love that came late. Books in that genre that have affected me have been about linguistics and the co-evolution of language and the brain – authors like Terence Deacon, Frijtof Capra, Russel Martin etc.. Finally, I must mention that my highest brow reading providing me with the greatest insights has been Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix, and my daughter’s essays.

Regrettably my read list doesn’t include too many non english writers (except Kabir and Pash who i have read avidly) but for that I blame the context I grew up in. I have been trying to correct the imbalance of late…

5. Arjun the writer…

To be honest, it would be a stretch to call me a writer. I am more of a collector of moments – in fact, like other people collect photographs of their children – I have two diaries full of anecdotes of my 10 year old daughter Saanjh. Writing a book just happened to me. It seemed the best way to reflect and gain insights into my experiences in the corporate sector after i had withdrawn from it somewhat.

6. A Flawed God almost seems idyllic in its approach and content. Do you think we will ever get there from a corporate perspective and its workings?

Stories, I believe, are supposed to be idyllic. The flaws lie in the experience. The real world is messy and words have been given to us to sort it out in our heads in an idyllic way and so be able to cope with the seeming chaos out there. Now the thing with the corporate juggernaut is that it seems to be telling us that there is only one way. I don’t believe in single narratives, that’s why I decided to write about an alternative reality that doesn’t stretch the imagination too much and can easily be believed that it could be true. I wanted to offer an alternative. I wanted to remind the juggernaut of its origins. I wanted to make the juggernaut aware of itself. I wanted the juggernaut to reflect. And once it begins to reflect, it will not remain the juggernaut it is today.

But will we ever get there? To be honest, I discovered later that Charles Handy, the famous thinker and corporate guru, had already uttered my moderately heretical hypothesis way back in 1990. Let me quote from his book Beyond Uncertainty.

1. Profits are a necessary but not sufficient condition of success…
2. Owner with limited liability will never be owners, so don’t expect too much from them…
3. Owning people is wrong. Companies are collections of people these days, they are communities not property.
4. The law does not recognize this, it should.

Did anything change by his utterances? Well no, but look what has happened to the West. Reports about the decay are serious and anybody who is not listening to them are being ostriches – something like when we all believed the Marlboro man was the epitome of manhood and puffed away without a care till he died of lung cancer in the late 90’s. Of course, so many don’t quit but that’s because now they are addicted. In a similar way the world is full of addicts of the corporate way of life. Even so its becoming clear that this way has taken its toll on society when you look at it holistically. Just like smoking does to us. On the face of it we still look healthy…right uptill the time we take to the bed irrevocably.

I’m sorry for these dire warnings and people will blame me for spoiling the party. But i’m kind of addicted to reality myself and I report what I see as real. Yet my book is a happy book – the alternative is clearly spelt out – it isn’t just about berating the corporate sector, it’s about reform in it.

I feel if we instill ownership into the employees for the organization and its outputs, into citizens for common spaces, and into government for the people then the party will really start. From a regime of limited liability, I hope we move to a regime of full viability of the community.

7. Arjun’s next venture…

I presume you refer to a writing venture here. Well, I want to clarify that i am not a professional writer and never will be. Though, I won’t deny that I the hat fits as of now and I am enjoying wearing it. What I would prefer to do is let my experiences tease out words from me. So maybe my writing/ interpreting life will be sporadic, interspersed with bouts of living. But since I came to writing books late, meanwhile i had already accumulated enough experiences to tease out two more full length novels. While going through the long rigamarole of getting A Flawed God published, I wrote them down. So in a sense A Flawed God is really practise for the next one – End of Story. This one is set in the electronic media world. I use their own device – the story – to “expose” the real world of these word merchants that are shaping our consciousness these days. Instead of representing reality to us, i find their words are manufacturing our experiences…of course the messaging and the ‘exposing’ is merely a subtle sub text. The story is a racy, humorous, even more suspenseful thriller than A Flawed God.

8. I was fascinated by Pause Daniels’ character and the role she played in the book. Did you sketch the character from someone you know in real-life?

There is a colleague and friend from my early days in the corporate sector who was my muse for this character and I have told him so. Yes, it was a man. In fact, he was the first to read an early draft of this book and encouraged me to get it published. He was…is, a super high performer and a beautiful human being rolled into one. A super hero you might ask? I wouldn’t say so and Vinod Kala himself would laugh at the idea. I would just call him a sincere person who takes ownership of spaces like i have never seen anyone do before or since.

9. How did writing happen to you?

I think I answered that before. As humans we all hoard stuff, we are the ultimate magpies storing away for a rainy day. People collect money, fame, power, stamps and photos. I gather moments. I felt that capturing an experience with all its context is not possible in a camera. I was forced to take up the pen by the collector in me.

Ah I forgot, another inspiration was Pravah, an NGO i founded with my wife and a friend, since 1993, that builds social responsibility and leadership in young people. It was actually, those early funding proposals that brought out the writer in me. While on the topic of Pravah let me come back to your earlier question about my next venture. Another book being cooked up by a small group of authors within Pravah is called Ocean in a Drop, a kind of proposal to society to change the lens with which they have been viewing young people. Most likely, Sage will be publishing it and it should be out by early next year.