2016 New Year’s Resolution (singular on purpose)

I’m no stranger to making New Years resolutions (or blogging about them). My track record with keeping these resolutions has probably been better than average, quite possibly because my resolutions tend to be fairly realistic and achievable. They’ve also been fairly predictable – eat less junk food, workout more, spend less time on Facebook / on planes / on the blackberry, etc. 

This year, I’m making just one resolution – to be more mindful. 

I realize that this business of mindfulness is the flavor of the season. There are plenty of articles, TED talks, books, etc on the subject and I’ve read/watched many of these with skeptical curiosity. My first concerted effort with the subject was a few weeks ago at a wellness retreat in Koh Samui. Interspersed with healthy eating, yoga, Pilates, cardio and weight training were daily sessions on meditation. These were fairly basic – focusing on your breath / clearing your mind / observing the thoughts that come and in our of your head when you try and sit still for 20 minutes – that sort of thing. I found these sessions to be the most challenging part of the day but found myself unexpectedly refreshed and recharged at the end of each session. By then time I left the retreat, I found myself more mentally relaxed and in control of myself. For example, I was able to resist the urge to constantly check my email (which, if you know me, is no small feat). I spent the weekend after the retreat playing polo in Bangkok – the game was just as fast as the previous weekend, but it felt slower in my head – and rather than blindly chasing the ball, I felt that I was much better at anticipating the next move and playing ‘smart’ – which makes a huge difference to the value you can add to your team. 

In 2016, I want to spend a lot more of my time being absolutely present in the moment. In a world where we are constantly being distracted, most of us (including me) are seldom fully focused on what we’re doing at any given time. This year, I want to genuinely taste everything I eat and drink – fully experience the smell, the texture, the taste, feel it go down my throat. I want to pay absolute attention to what people are telling me, properly take in the sights and smells of all the many exotic places to which I will travel, etc, etc. 

The fact is that there is only so much time in the day and an infinite number of things that I want to do. I want to spend more time with my family, I want to do more exercise, I want to be a better polo player, I want to be a better rock climber, I want to spend more time with friends, I want to meet new people, I want to write more – and the list goes on and on. I’ve deleted Facebook from my phone and I’ve stopped watching TV entirely so there are very few things left I can actually cut out of my life with the exception of work and sleep – But the fact is that I also want to be professionally successful – and this means that the scope to reduce the amount of time I spend at work is limited. I also want to remain healthy – so I probably can’t meaningfully reduce the hours I sleep. Given I cannot create new time, my only option is to make the most of the time that I already have. I think that training myself to be more mindful could help with this. 

I realize it’s impossible to do this all the time – it’s not how adult humans are wired. But it is how children behave. When kids cry, even about something that seems trivial – they act like their world is coming to an end. When they are playing with another child, they don’t think about the fact that they might have been fighting just a minute ago or that that they may be fighting again in a minute. Laughing or crying – they are entirely in the present. I cannot go back to being like that – and I probably don’t want to either. But I certainly think I want to be more present in the moment than I am at the moment. I definitely want to spend 20 minutes a day being absolutely still and clearing my mind. 

If the subject is interesting to you, I recommend reading ‘The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere’ by Pico Iyer. If you have the time to really immerse yourself, I’d suggest a week at Kamalaya in Koh Samui. 
One way or another, I hope you find yourself more present in the moment in 2016. Happy new year!
  

Why we do what we do

I forgot to bring any reading material today’s flight and I’ve seen everything worth watching on cathay’s inflight programming. Given a lack of other options, I was forced to spend the last few hours thinking – and could not help but seriously wonder – why am I on this plane, heading away from the comforts of home, family and friends to a foreign land?

The factual answer is – to play polo. But the real question is – why? When you sit back and think about it, we’re a bunch of grown men (and sometimes a woman or two) chasing after a little white ball at high speed on an animal that would probably much rather be left alone to graze. It’s dangerous, expensive, time consuming, and like all contact sports, physically harsh. From a strictly logical perspective, doing this makes no sense. Polo is not the only utterly daft pastime. I have a large number of friends who make sacrifices to prepare for, and travel vast distances to compete in marathons and triathlons, or do other ridiculous things like climb mountains. Why do we bother? No one I know will actually win a marathon or be the first to climb any particular mountain – so it’s clearly not for fame or glory.

Most significant things we do are the result of logical decision making, influenced in no small part by circumstances and things that are outside our control. When I think about my decision to go to college, work in finance, move to different countries, make any particular investment, etc, I can easily recollect the reasons why I made those choices, even if some of they didn’t pan out perfectly in the end. Even when I think of indulgences like travel or the purchase of luxury goods, there is some logical reason – to see a new place, taste different food, to own something rare, nice looking, or meticulously made. If I look back at my history with this sport, I grew up in a house filled with trophies that my father had won in his younger days and it just seemed like the natural thing to do when I was old enough (perhaps it helped that was not particularly good at anything else at that stage of my life). I stopped riding when I left the country for university – but got back in the saddle within days of returning to the country in 2009.

What is inexplicable is not why I started playing as a kid, but rather, why I am still doing it? I live in a country where I am at least 3 hours flying from the nearest accessible polo fields, I am in serious pain every time I play (which suggest I am physically not cut out for it), when you had up the costs of flights, hotels and pony rental, I am probably spending way more than I should on an idle pastime, and most critically, I’m not particularly good at it – most people who have played actively for over 4 years are playing much better than me (which at the very least suggests that I am severely un-talented).

Undoubtedly, I genuinely love playing polo – there are few things in life that are as exhilarating as playing a fast chukka. But the question is, is it worth it? When I ask people who do other seemingly irrational things (climbing mountains, running full marathons, driving race cars, etc) at great cost and risk, they always reply positively with confidence. But when I probe further, very few could convince me that they have thought it through fully. Perhaps this is a good thing – a life lived logically is probably a ridiculously dull life. For now, I’m going to continue to be (quoting my favourite movie) “a silly boy on a horse with a stick”

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And it just got real…..

Bombay was meant to be a punishment posting – one of those moves a professional sometimes needs to make to fast track their career while acknowledging that a personal price needs to be paid. I was certain that after completing the obligatory 2 years, I’d rush back to London, which I was convinced was the greatest city in the world and the only one where I would be truly at home. I was wrong. Bombay turned out to be such a wonderful experience that it has been really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I must now leave.

I’m going to miss my life here. Some of this is down to just plain luck and a bit of it was intelligent planning. One way or the other, my life here is charmed. People complain about the traffic here but if all the key elements of your life (work, school, stables, club, friends) are confined within a 5km radius, you really don’t see much traffic. Others complain about the lack of open spaces – I can spend mornings at the race course, evenings at the Willingdon and my kids have 2 parks within walking distance of the house – my Bombay has no shortage of open space and greenery. People say that there is a shortage of schools here – my daughter went to a wonderful play school and now goes to a great primary school. People complain that staff here can be unreliable – my employees are amazing individuals. People say housing is cramped and overpriced – I would not use either of those words to describe my apartment. And that’s only the half of it. We got lucky in so many other ways – we reconnected with old friends and made great new ones, I started playing polo again after a gap of 17 years, and Preeti and I are both as fit as we’ve ever been – I dropped 4 inches off my waistline within 6 months of arriving here and Preeti ran a half marathon earlier this year.

But despite everything, its the right time to go. India is still a relatively small market in my line of business and my career aspirations are best served in a global financial center for the next few years. Taxes are punitively high when you think about how little we get in return for them. But most importantly, there is still a large part of the planet that I have yet to explore, so many cities that I still want to live in. I thought Madras was home till I discovered London. Then it was London till Bombay showed me a quality of life that London never could. Using the same logic, there must be other amazing cities out there waiting to be lived in and properly discovered. Hong Kong is the next destination but 3 years from now, we could easily be moving to Sydney, New York, Dubai or some other great city. Transitions always come with their challenges but I think that they are ultimately worth the effort.

Lots of people have warned me that the nomadic lifestyle is all well and good until the kids grow a little older. They warn that continuously moving will leave my kids confused about their identity and lacking a place they can call ‘home’. All reasonable points but I’m not sure I agree. I spent my childhood in the same city and went to the same school for 14 years. But I am not sure I consider Madras my home any longer – I’m definitely more ‘at home’ in Bombay, London or New York. And while I made some lifelong friendships at school, I’ve got other equally good friends that I shared cities with for a much shorter period. I know of kids who spent their entire childhood moving around who grew up to be amazing people. I also know people who grown up with plenty of stability but ended up being really messed up adults. We all have notions of what the ideal childhood is but I am yet to see conclusive evidence that points in either direction. For the moment, I’m convinced that its in the best interest of my children that Preeti and I are happy with our lives and wake up each morning looking forward to the day ahead of us. The move to Hong Kong is a step in that direction. Wish me luck.

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Would you read a book about my secret life?

A friend and I were recently discussing Gulliver, the Economists’s travel when we agreed that the author of the blog was likely to be ‘someone like us’. He thought about this comment for a second and it dawned on him that I just might be Gulliver! Initially I found the suspicion greatly amusing (not to mention flattering) and it took me a good few minutes to convincing him that I was, in fact, not Gulliver. It certainly would not hurt my reputation if that rumor was widely spread (and believed). This conversation stuck with in my mind for a few days – if it is perfectly reasonable to believe that I was secretly authoring the Economist’s travel blog, I could not help but wonder what else I could get away doing without my closest friends knowing.

I spent my first years as a frequent traveller to Pakistan, Yemen, as well as almost every other country in the Middle East. My job gave me access to senior government officials, prominent businessmen and other corridors of power in all these countries. More importantly, it gave me access to extensive information on the power, oil & gas, and other critical infrastructure in each of these countries. While most of my investment banking peer group were busy working long hours and partying hard at the trendiest nightclubs on the planet, I was begging consulates for hard-to-get visas, building relationships in hostile and often uncomfortable environments, and in two cases, nearly getting blown up when terrorists decided to destroy the hotels where I was staying. To an outsider, does that sound like something a banker does? Or does it sound like the job description of someone in MI6 or the CIA? As it happens, I am, in-fact, a legitimate project financier but my life could easily be a cover for a more exciting profession.

Rather than send my CV to MI6 for a job in covert ops (pointless given that cover will be blown the moment I publish this), I’m thinking that this might be good material for a book. I’ve been looking for something to write about for some time and I’ve been told that writing about something familiar is the best way to start. No one in their right mind is going to read a book about my actual life, which would be fairly dull. This book would be based on actual places that I’ve visited at particular times and events that took place at that time (bombings in Pakistan, the Arab spring, the revolution in Yemen, etc) but based on my fictitious job as a secret agent. I haven’t figured out all the details of the story but this is the broad idea.

Would you read this book?

Remembering Oakdale and yearning for youth (and stupidity)

On this day 16 years ago, I arrived in a small town called Oakdale with 2 suitcases of clothing and roughly $900 in cash. Each year, on this day, I think back to that event in an unsuccessful attempt to find the same level of confidence that allowed me to travel to the other side of the planet with no plan, no money, no health insurance but still manage to sleep each night believing that everything was going to be ok. As it happens, things worked out brilliantly – I convinced my college to up my partial scholarship to a full one, I convinced the computer lab supervisor that I was deserving of a job despite never having used MS Windows before and most importantly, I convinced myself that it made sense to stay caffeinated enough to maintain a 4.0 GPA despite working 40 hours a week. I lived with guys on parole and didn’t pay their bills, in houses that got flooded every time there was heavy rain, and even in a tiny studio that had no refrigerator (perishables were buried in the snow outside the door) – while I can acknowledge that there were days that it got me down, I always felt like such a lucky guy to have the opportunity to be there.

When I think back to that experience, I cannot help but wonder how I changed so much in just over a decade? I have much more than I could have possibly imagined back then but I cannot help but feel that this seems to have reduced my confidence . Today, I would not have the guts to leave town without cash, multiple credit and ATM cards, confirmed hotel reservations and return tickets. If this attitude is the result of the wisdom that comes with age, I really just want to be young (and stupid) again.

What’s wrong with an American education?

A few days ago, I was at dinner with a group that included a bunch of kids who were just in the process of finishing high school. I came to 2 conclusions by the end of the conversation: (i) I am getting older than I like to admit, and (ii) kids these days are quite different from when we were of that age. Not much I can do about (i) so I’ll continue to be regular at the gym and keep buying brightly colored clothes to hide the fact for as long as possible. However (ii) was more interesting and I wanted to share my observations.

Two things worth pointing out at the outset, that may have some influence on my observations – (i) these kids were from Delhi, which is culturally much further from Chennai than the Indian map could indicate, and (ii) these kids are obviously from a significantly wealthier circumstances than most of my peer group. Now most of us have been given to expect that rich kids from Delhi have a predisposition for driving drunk through the city in large German cars indiscriminately killing cops or shooting models in bars. These kids didn’t fit that profile at all – they seemed to be balanced, well behaved and mature individuals. They had better taste in clothes than we did and certainly seemed more world wise. More impressive was that they also seemed like very hard working and focused individuals, proven by their excellence at academics or sport.

What I found most fascinating was their complete lack of interest in studying in America. Almost everyone in my high school class aspired to study in the US – most made it there for their undergraduate studies and those who didn’t went across later for their post-graduate work. The biggest deterrent to studying abroad at that time was the prohibitive cost but it seemed quite obvious that these kids would have no trouble with this. Despite this, most of them wanted to go to college in India, at least for their undergraduate studies. More probing indicated that some were considering going to the UK and if pushed might be prepared to consider Australia – but none of them had taken the SAT or had any aspiration whatsoever to even consider going to America. They indicated reasons such as physical distance from India, visa problems, perceptions of increasing Xenophobia, cost, 4 years vs 3 years, number of non-core classes required and a few others. Hardly convincing given Australia is not much closer, the UK is not much cheaper and at that age, whats an extra year and why would someone not want to find an excuse to study art history or philosophy? The clear feeling that I got was that the sheen has been rubbed off from the ‘idea’ of an American education. These things are heavily peer-group driven – it is highly unlikely I would have aspired to study in the US had my entire class not acted like it was the obvious thing to do. If kids generally these days are not aspiring to study in America, it will quickly have a snowball effect on the number of applications from India. The statistics right now suggest that the post 9/11 drop in applications has been reversed – but a change in attitude takes some time to translate to a change in numbers.

These must be many factors contributing to this change. These must surely include (i) treatment of foreigners post 9/11, (ii) our own perception of the education (and subsequent jobs) available at home, and (iii) more open parenting attitude (i.e. no motivation to get away from strict parents). If this trend is isolated to the group that I met or limited to Delhi kids from wealthy families, it is probably irrelevant – however, if it is (or turns into) a broader phenomenon, it could have some quite serious implications for the US. For decades, America has seriously benefited from the fact that intelligent and hard working kids from across the globe went there to study (and often stay back and work). If these kids now start staying home or going elsewhere, the implications could be quite serious, on the economy as well as the spread of the ‘American way’ that is inevitably brought back by those returning after their studies or a few years of work.

No longer the dream?

Art – the 2nd best reason to travel

The American undergraduate system requires every student to take a reasonable number of classes covering topics such as drama, history, philosophy and art that had no connection to one’s major but would hopefully contribute in making one a more rounded personality. My academic adviser suggested Professor Mary Abel’s art history class, as it was being offered only to ‘scholars’ i.e. students who were at the college on academic scholarships, which implied a greater likelihood of being surrounded by intelligent and hardworking individuals. It was purely luck – had I started college in any other semester, the scholars class may have been drama or music and I would have probably taken that class rather than art history.

The art history class was interesting but my real love affair with art galleries began on our first field trip – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, better known simply as the ‘Met’ (for movie buffs, this is where Pierce Brosnan stole the Monet in the Thomas Crown Affair). Over the course of the semester, I found myself trekking up to Manhattan each weekend to spend time at this outstanding museum – initially, obsessed with their exceptional Egyptian collection, then the impressionist wing but slowly discovering many of the other wings on this enormous building. Indeed, it is so large that till date, I cannot claim to have seen the entire permanent collection with the patience that it deserves. I was lucky that I went to college in New York – Manhattan has an exceptional number of amazing museums all within easy reach and all affordable to visit, even for a broke undergraduate student.

While the Met was the place where I first discovered my love for museums, my favorite art museum in New York is the Frick Collection, bordering Central Park. The Frick Collection is housed in the building that was previously the residence of Henry Clay Frick, a steel industrialist who spent the later years of his life accumulating an exquisite collection from the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Goya and several others. While the collection itself is exquisite, I mainly visit because of the building – despite being in Manhattan, once you step inside, the hustle and bustle seems hundreds of miles away and one is overcome with a feeling of Nirvana whilst within its walls. I often sit around the courtyard reading a book or doing something else just to soak in the atmosphere. Other great collections in Manhattan include the Guggenheim where you take an elevator to the top and walk down the spiral downward sloping exhibition spaces till you are back on the ground floor, and the Museum of Modern Art (“MoMa”) which houses epic modern art pieces like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Edvard’s Munch’s ‘The Scream’, Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ and countless others.

When I moved to London in 2003, I started to check out its galleries within weeks of moving there – my first apartment was conveniently only walking distance from the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington. Over the course of time, I discovered many others – far too many to visit unless you live in London but the one that stands out in the Tate Modern, that is housed in what was previously a power generation plant on the bank of the Thames. The Tate Modern’s permanent collection is less-than-dazzling but there is always some special exhibition underway and these are normally fantastic. Like most other London art galleries, the Tate Modern does not charge any entry fees, although the special exhibitions normally require the purchase of a ticket.

One of the first holidays I took after I moved to Europe was to Paris, where my first stop was the Louvre, which is enormous like the Met and houses a collection that is no less impressive. The highlight, for most visitors is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which is irritating as the crowd around this work is large and one is unlikely to get much quality time to look at this masterpiece, which is quite likely the most recognizable art work of all time. A less famous but fascinating gallery in Paris in the Espace Dali in Montmartre, a few steps away from the Sacre Coeur Basilica. This permanent collection contains over 300 works of Salvador Dalí, the father of surrealism. For those who are fans of impressionism and post-impressionism, I highly recommend the Musée d’Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine, in the building that was formerly a Beaux-Arts railway station and now houses the largest collection in the world by the likes of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin and Van Gogh. A slightly smaller collection of works by a similar group of artists is housed at the Musée de l’Orangerie, on the other side of the Seine. The collection is not comparable to the Musée d’Orsay but what I love most about this gallery are the ovals rooms, specially designed by Monet to display a collection of paintings of water lilies from his garden, known as the Nymphéas.

During an unfortunate period of my life when I was required to live in the depressing industrial city of Birmingham, I kept my sanity by establishing a weekend residence in Switzerland. The gallery I visited most frequently was the Fondation Beyeler, on the border of Switzerland and Germany near the city of Basel. While the gallery boasts works from Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh to Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Francis Bacon, my favorite collections here are the Mark Rothko paintings and the Alberto Giacommeti stick figures. More recently, I discovered the Kunsthaus in Zurich, which is larger than the Fondation Beyeler and has a more impressive collection.

For someone who has had the opportunity to repeatedly visit the finest galleries in the world, it takes a lot for something to impress me, let alone blow me away. The work that did it for me was Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To truly enjoy and appreciate this masterpiece, you should not see it amongst the vast number of tourists who line up outside the Vatican City each to see it. You need to be there alone, or with only a few others in the chapel so that you are comfortable enough to lie down on the floor and stare upwards, your gaze unobstructed and your other sense undisturbed by human beings. Getting a private viewing requires a vast amount of influence, but if you are determined enough to make it happen, you’ll find a way. Take it from someone who has been there and done that, it’ll be worth the effort.

Originally published in Frappe

The Musée d'Orsay was formerly a railway station