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Wordsmith Weekend : La Rochefoucauld – Our Contemporary

Background and Introducing our philosopher

La Rochefoucauld was a French philosopher and writer of utmost brilliance of the 17th century. His philosophical fame rests on a 65 page slim book called Maxims and its relevance is increasing in each century. He is our contemporary for two reasons, first he was one of the greatest observers of human condition and in the age of social media, his genius of brevity and catching attention in first 3-4 seconds in a conversation in a Parisian salon full of vain and distracted people has tremendous significance. Our philosopher had a very eventful life filled with libel, imprisonment, poverty, ill-health and romantic disappointments but unlike most, he transformed all of these as a fuel for the propulsion of his spirit. He is part of the essential French spirit.

Social Media Genius in Paris Salon

A Parisian salon of his time can be considered the distracting and attention hungry world of social media today. Senses fight for attention and before one starts to read first few words of a post (listening to a conversation), a bewitchingly seductive video pops up or in his days, an apple tart as snacks. The fundamental problem then is how to deliver your message ? Unlike many philosophers, Rochefoucauld considered presentation and delivery of the message as important as the message itself. This is a great act of kindness – a compassion which can be felt only by those who are trying to deliver any significant message to the vain, self-obsessed, attention-seeking and distracted souls.

Methods in the Maxims

The goal, the most important goal of a communicator is to catch the attention of the listener / reader in first 3-4 seconds and then get his approval to go in a form of suspended judgment and then slowly at the end deliver the sting or the essential message. He foresaw Twitter’s 140 character limitation three hundred years back. His genius lies in mixing everyday life and its vanities, prose, literature, wisdom, philosophy in a whole package and then delivering in a form and mode that sharpened his craft. Instead of complaining the idiocies and imbecilities of common people as many philosophers and thinkers have done, he has used this as a springboard to create an Art form in itself.

I. We all have strength enough to bear the misfortune of others.

II. There are some people who would have never fallen in love if they had not heard that there was such a thing

III. He who refuses praise for the first time wants to hear it offered the second time.

IV. Lovers never get tired of talking with each other, possibly because they talk about themselves and nothing else.

V. To say that one never flirts is in itself a form of flirtation.

VI. The only person we think normal are those whom we don’t know very well.

Influence

He lies everywhere in French prose, thinking and culture. The first book my French teacher gave me to read was Maxims with this brilliant and useful advice : here is the essence of French spirit in its most concentrated spirit form.

Wordsmith Returns : Why is Rembrandt our Contemporary ?

What it means to be Our Contemporary ?

Rembrandt is one of those few artists who have permeated other areas, other concerns and other dilemmas in addition to being one of the Masters of the specific craft, i.e. painting. After five hundred years, his works continue to remain relevant to our own times. Why ?

I think it is because of the Man and not because of the Artist. There have been many Masters of Painting, many are Rembrandt’s contemporaries but they do not command such inter-disciplinary influence. For example, I have no formal training in painting nor I have any natural talent in this area. But the more I read about his works and his life, thanks to some very sensitive commentators, I find a man who like many of his self-portraits are living persons.

A brief bio of Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s career spanned a period of Holland’s age of great prosperity. He understood the need of the elites and nouveu rich to have their portraits made (which were previously only the domain of princes and kings) and Rembrandt used his skills and craft to bring out a lifelike representation. You just do not see how a person looks like but you feel as if you are meeting him or her. Elites and aristocrats of his time loved this and he was a very sought after artist with attendant fame, fortune, wealth and following. In his later years however, he was seized by an insatiable urge to bring out the essence of the character and that made him lost patronage, fame and wealth. In his later years, when his greatest works were done, he was lonely, poor but accompanied by something what in Hindu Scripture is called swadrahma. (one’s essential mission)

Society and Individual

The relationship between one’s society and an individual is as old as Man because Man is a social animal. The more gifted an individual is, the more he / she is sensitive to this relationship. A dynamic society in some of its episodes, where wealth is created at a rapid pace with attendant wealth disparity, an individual tends to think that without wealth, power and prestige, one may become prisoner of the society. Thus in all ages,some personalities of humble origins strive and either they challenge the elites and replace them or they are opted by the elites and become part of it. The former is a kind of revolution and the latter is evolution. This process changes the society as well as the individual. Rembrandt’s life as an artist is significant for the direction of the change of the individual, i.e. the artist.

Rembrandt’s relation with his society

  1. Rembrandt, at the start of his career used the skills and craft to catch the attention of the elites and social influencers and became very successful.
  2. However, when he pushed the envelope, as he did in The Night Watch, his patrons found themselves effaced by something the Artist conceived. Or in other words, they wanted the artist to fulfill their psychological desire through his craft but the Artist fulfilled his own desire at their expense. This was a rebellion more dangerous than an actual rebellion.
  3. From the above defined prisoner of society, one comes to the top and then encounters another subtle form of imprisonment – to be a well-oiled machine producing impeccable works but not reflecting his inner essence. Rembrandt was much ahead of his age in terms of temperament in his later years, he valued individual expression above everything and concentrated on something physically and spiritually most individualistic : one’s own face.

Concluding words

Rembrandt’s later works – especially his self-portraits are neither glorification of poverty or celebration of kitsch – he was an aristocrat and he spent a fortune in collecting collectibles from all over the world. His self-portraits are a form of meditation with eyes open – self examination where he transcends society and its relationship. A new form where an individual, in a secular sense, renounces the world and concentrates wholly one something one can call one’s own : his own body.

Without the context of Rembrandt’s past, his self-portraits do not carry the Force of Beauty. It is something like an old Emperor or like the Old Sailor of Hemingway or King Lear – who is now looking back and front through the only thing we have, the present moment, the face in front and the mirror that reflects both light and shade.

Dr. Philo’s Casebook : Ego & Emotion versus Interest

Background

A very very talented young man of Bengali origin, aged around 25, bachelor, solvent, single son, based in Calcutta, was much affected by family mishaps and misadventures. All these had roots at his personal life and family history. He felt into a miserable state – medical diagnosis had taken the short-cut of prescribing chemical stabilizers and up-lifters which could do more harm than good while central nervous system is chemically altered due to long term exposure. He had isolated himself, became socially inactive and behavioural pattern changed. Relatives and friends talked of very malefic planetary arrangements in the horoscope to long forgotten love failures. Some more courageous ones even suggested occult / black magic attacks. Nothing could be told for sure.

Diagnosis

  1. A deep and dark emotional cloud has shadowed the light of intelligence.
  2. With intelligence dimmer, ego and emotion have taken charge and because of less exposure to brutalities of life, having lived a life of relative comfort and security with not much of economic worries, he has been thinking : “I slept, I dreamt and thought that Life is Beauty.
  3. Being a bachelor and with no dependents, he had the luxury of self-pity, emotional tantrums and massaging the emotional hard-on. This provides a strange kind of pleasure not unknown to man.
  4. His isolation and social inactivity was a lower state in all aspects and was not connected with any Higher Purpose.

Prescription

  1. In my first interview, I had asked him to consider being a married man with wife and children and then imagine whether he would have the luxury of being in this state for so long ? Who will earn the money to feed the infant ? Could he be such a coward and weak man to be in this state ?
  2. He was putting ego and emotion before his self-interest. He could afford this because he was having no Higher Purpose, even the most basic Higher Purpose – to sacrifice one’s pleasure and freedom for one’s children.
  3. Every family is or will be more or less dysfunctional. Every man / woman has bad memories.

Conclusion

A very reliable way to find a leader material is to have a test as how one puts one’s emotion/interest via-a-vis his interest and whether this interest is having any relationship with any Higher Purpose.

A first class man or woman will always put his/her interest before his/her emotion. In a negotiation, this is the key.

Men / women of inferior quality will always put ego/emotion in front of their interest. They find a grand ego satisfaction while their interest – short and long, lower and higher, are thwarted.

A signature of a superior man/woman is his/her ability to always keep his/her interest before his/her ego / emotion.

A superior person’s ego/ emotion outburst is very very costly and sometimes catastrophic. When Chanakya (Kautilya) was insulted by the Nanda king, his emotional outburst made the whole Nanda dynasty to disappear and the Gupta Empire to emerge in History.

An inferior man’s ego/emotion outburst is cheap simply because his/her outburst matters little. Not being connected with any Higher Purpose.

Portrait of Dr. Philo

Dr. Philo’s Portrait by Arindam

Dr. Philo on “Dr. Philo”

“Everybody wants to have a “good and happy life” and this singular objective has infinite variations. It was Ancient Greeks who systematized this “search for happiness.”. After generations of search, debate and exploration, a conclusion was reached – happiness is inseparable with wisdom. “Philo” in Greek means “happiness” and wisdom is “Sophia”. Together – this is Philosophia. In many Indian Traditions, man and woman are considered complementary part of a complete whole. Every “Philo” is searching for his eternal consort “Sophia” and together they demonstrate – “How to be happy ?” So the better question is : How to be wise ?” I, Dr. Philo is a part and a humble servant of that very ancient tradition. I am no specialist or rather against specialism of any kind. If I have a specialism, this is omniscience – not by me but because of the Tradition I represent, serve and continue. ”

Artist : Mr. Arindam

Creative Management : Mani Fakir (মণি ফকির)

Wordsmith Observation : The New Entrepreneur Class of Bengal

The New Class

The last decade witnessed the growth of a new class in Bengal and I witnessed the inception, growth and evolution of this class. A friend of mine, a freelancer, very critical of this new class, told me, while quoting a urban limerick of Calcutta ( untranslatable and essential is critical remark on entrepreneurship):

“যার নাই পুঁজি-পাটা / সে যায় বেলেঘাটা।”

“যার নাই কোন যন্তুর / সে হয় আন্ত্রপ্রনর।”

This new class, apart from everything should be interesting to historians of Bengal who can examine this class to find how this new class has been developing from the ashes of a class-struggle ridden society – at least for a society where class and struggle both are embedded in the psyche as a mental construct.

A Sub-class of the new Entrepreneurial Class – “Glory Hunter Class

A close friend of mine – a self-made business owner asked me to examine this sub-class and I find the following symptoms of this sub-class of entrepreneur class :

  1. This is a Lifestyle statement and nothing much to do with business, entrepreneurship or enterprise. Generally, their shelter, food and sustenance are ensured, either by parents or by husband /wives or by government pensions.
  2. The motivation of entering this new class is to have some alibi to go out of the house, spend time, have some socialization and through all of this, some kind of assignations and revenue accrued, so be it.
  3. All of them claim to be offered (note the word “offered”) great contracts and Purchase Orders and leads but none have any motivation to build a company / legal entity with all regulations but satisfied to be operating as a sole trader. Their is no match – they talk of crores but state that GST-IN is too cumbersome a process and they are not very interested.
  4. I masqueraded as a client to one of them and it is always “me, me, I, I, I….” and very little of “client” ; one quickly comes to the conclusion that this is not business but a means to generate “glory” and spread it. The virtual world makes it spread easily. I have asked 25 such class people to submit an one page proposal of the work for a RFP I was going to send but no reply ! Observation – Experiment – Theory.
  5. Finally, the overall model is this (I borrow from my friend, once again and paraphrase) : “... to have a semblance of a business that enables one to attend meetings, conferences, trade shows with no direct pressure on sustenance. To have the ego of being an “entrepreneur” and looking to get perks of being so which is liberal lectures, feel-good-motivational posts, not very much interested in the client requirements, capital tax, regulatory compliance and all other works that a business owner needs to do. And the last one is to earn glory.

The same friend summed up the whole class as per their modus operendi by an idiom of Bengali – poetry is the most compressed code (Bengali parents who are enrolling their children to Coding – endorsed by CEOs, Bollywood actors and Celebrities etc may note that their native language has created greatest of codes through her experience and literature and if their children can master the code inside the everyday software they use, the other lower class computer software will be much easier to master- ) :

“ধরি মাছ না ছুঁই পানি।”

Dr. Philo Returns : Starting a business in one’s hometown

Dr. Philo Returns

[Dr. Philo has returned to write the blog after attending to 2500+ Bengali love letters, courtesy – Bengali Love Letter Olympic, with his permanent consort Mr. Sophia, just after Autumn Equinox – Wordsmith]

Starting a business in one’s hometown (in Bengal)

“A prophet is seldom respected in his homeland and never recognized in his hometown of his/her true worth.” 

I. This is assumed that the person who is starting the business in his / her hometown was away from the native place for a considerable amount of time and was active in other places, possibly in a city, or even in a mega-city.

II. The motivation of starting a business in one’s own native town / town of birth / town of attaining youth may be mixed : rational, emotional, circumstantial, romantic or other unknown or unknowable reasons.

III. It is also assumed that the person either has a name there, or is a faint memory or almost a complete stranger – returning after a long time.

Presentation of the Business Owner

I. He can present himself as “আমি তোমাদেরই লোক” – I am just one of you. High Native association.

II. He can present himself as : “আমি তোমাদেরই মতো, কিন্তু আমি পুরোপুরি তোমাদের মত নই।” – I have many commonalities with you but I am different too, in fundamental way.

III. He can also present himself as : “আমি তোমাদেরই লোক নই। আমার একটি উদ্দেশ্য আছে আর সেটিই আমার প্রথম পরিচয়।” – I am not one of you. I have a mission and my first allegiance is to that Mission.

All of them have different “reactions” to business depending on the locale, nature of business and the specific hometown. In the context of Bengal, if history is of any guide, holding Option I as presentation has a very very slim chance of success.

Advisories 

I. Do not burn your boat. Like a Colonist, always keep other, farther destination and contact alive. Under no circumstances, the locale should have any idea that you are now “trapped” in the small town, just as they are. Small towns in contemporary Bengal, except a few honourable exceptions need very specialized adaptations. Doing business in a place needs double adaptation skills.

II. Create your own work-ethic and value system. Like a colonist, create your own work-ethic and value system and reward those who respect and punish those who do not respect. Polarize. Reward. Punish. Divide et Imperio.

III. Create an inner circle by granting “citizenship to your sovereign mental land”. Those  who are worthy – who will be very few – build your inner network with them. For the rest, be fair and decent  but create a distance. In short, you will be loved less but you are not starting a business to gather love from people.

IV. Create a Local Commander. From the worthy inner circle, promote someone as Commander / Leader and then vanish from the scene, after business has developed to a critical level. This will allow you to test the mettle of the commander and also to detect any conspiracy against the business and/or you. Nothing tests worth and intention of men better than providing them with power. In Bengali culture, power is seldom handled in a sane manner.

V. Deliver world class product and be vocal about it. Even in the age of always connection and network and so on, there is a “small-town syndrome” and this is is : we do not get world class stuff. Deliver this to them and tell about this and charge for this. They must be told that they are getting what you would have delivered in a metropolis. You are not cutting corners simply because they have no yardstick to measure.

Best of Luck ! Via Con Dios ! শুভ যাত্রা !

Wordsmith Star : A Food Rating Project

What it is ?

Wordsmith Star is a food rating system for food of Calcutta / Bengal. Food will be rated as per the below criteria

Product quality
Freshness
Deliciousness
Presentation
Visual aspects 
Local ingredients 
Authenticity of the food
Ambiance of the eatery (street food included)
Personality of the chef reflected in the food or uniqueness
Service / Price Point 

How many Stars ?

  • One Star : Decent and deserves a re-visit
  • Two Star : Excellent and not to be missed
  • Three Star : Heritage Class and to be visited /eaten at least once in a Lifetime

Process of Rating

  • We shall invite entries from food businesses. Entries will include photos and description of their 3 best dishes
  • We may also take up an establishment suo moto if we find this deserves to be rated
  • Our Food Inspectors (qualified chefs, food bloggers)  will visit incognito and like a paying customer and will send us a report and will not know anything else.  They will be under a NDA not to disclose their identity as Food Inspectors. Any disclosure means immediate disqualification.
  • The business will receive a plaque of being a Wordsmith Star establishment
  • The Business will be featured in our English journal Freespace and Bengali journal লাবণ্য

Who can apply :

In general, any food to customer business and includes Fine Dining Restaurants, Cafe, Patisserie, Restaurant, Footpath / Street food, Caterers, Freelance food sellers.

Wordsmith Casebook : Translation Services, London – Family Business Nightmare

Background

Running a translation services in a city like London is one of the most exciting, fulfilling yet formidable experiences – both business wise and personal engagement wise. The business grew naturally out of a lifelong work of husband-wife team whose core business was import-export in the eighties. I came in contact with the business in 2006, while in London and then the relationship – both business and personal blossomed. This business was our first bank ( I shall write a separate post as how your client can be your bank ) and we remember this with gratitude and humility. The business no longer exists and it is a cautionary tale from which we call can learn.

First Investigative Measures and De-briefing

  1. Quite often, people who build something, do not appreciate the depth and scale of their achievements. Their services were : honest, solid, fair, simple core values and consistent. From tremendous discipline came consistency and this strength of character of the people driving you cannot copy or replicate. Mr. H and his wife treated their clients and suppliers with deep respect. I have been a guest at their home office in Greenwich for many times.
  2. Their children did not understand the value of what was built at home – an honest, legitimate, money-making machine at home that did not need anything except love, devotion, discipline and basic skills (reading, writing and counting) to run and grow. I was amazed to see, how in the sunset days of their lives, how devoted the couple was to each other. I remember their joy when I used to bring rasagullas of Calcutta to their home and how genuinely thankful they were for these simple offerings of love.
  3. Sometime during 2014, Mr. H had a heart attack. I visited him in the familiar London home built by a lifetime of honest work. He was weak and I felt a deep sadness, as if someone like a father figure was not well.
  4. I had asked his children and their wives over a family dinner the great potential, the great asset they had at their home – they simply needed to continue and I pledged all my support on behalf of Team Wordsmith. None took any interest. They simply had no imagination.

Update

In the same year when I visited London for a Conference in Oxford, Mr. H asked me to meet him. He was weaker but dignified and respectful as usual. Over a coffee, he had gifted me something which is priceless and I pray that I should be worthy of this trust of a dying man. He introduced me to his existing clients with a grand letter of recommendation. It was too awesome to say even “thank you.”. I sat there by his bedside, overlooking a darkening English sky, an old commander is leaving and entrusting something to me, a younger man which does not die and that something is continuity. Mr. H, departed in 2016, also taught me something indirectly – the true inheritance of a self-made man should be disconnected from the legal inheritance in bloodlines.

Thank you, old commander, Mr. H – I shall remember your greatness till my dying day and I hope when I am about to leave, I shall also find and have the good judgement to pass the invisible baton to someone, dictated only by the worthiness of the recipient and not by how much his/her DNA matches with mine.

The Family Business series closes, temporarily with this personal story.

Wordsmith Casebook : Nursing Home, Cochin – Family Business Nightmare

Background and Timeline (1996 -2001)

I met Dr. J in Cochin while Internet just came in India, around 1996. He was one of the reputed doctors of the city, very friendly, very component and he liked his job. I had visited to his house to check his dial-up Internet account (at that time, there was no Wi-Fi, no cable, no broadband ) and it used to cost INR 15,000 per month (or 500 hours of usage) – monopoly pricing and I was working in that Government monopoly. It was almost lunchtime and Dr. J did not let me leave without lunch. We had discovered that we both shared two things in common – love of fish curries and work of Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, the great Malayalam writer. Dr. J, unlike many doctors loved his job more than money and many of his colleagues remarked that he could have earned a fortune had he started the nursing home business. Around 1998, when his son became a doctor (MBBS), I came to know that Dr. J had started a nursing home business. During the Onam of 1999, I was invited in his house for a traditional celebration lunch of 16 courses (my colleague Mohan asked me to do a fast the previous day !) and there I discovered a very different Dr. J. He was talking of money, of debt, of the daily headaches of running a business, regulatory compliance and instead of a jovial, happy go lucky and simple pleasure loving man, I discovered a typical small business owner with a list of problems touching water-logging of streets to Import policies of the Government.

First Investigative Measures and De-Briefing

  1. Dr. J made a change from a successful professional of a domain to a service industry small business owner in one of the most-regulated industries, i.e. healthcare. His motivation, the rumour goes, was to create a career for his young doctor son, which in turn was from his wife, who was not satisfied with doctors only but wanted doctor-entrepreneurs. This itself indicated that he was forced into it and his heart was not into it.
  2. His patients, at the start became the customers of the nursing home but instead of Dr. J’s personalized services, they got a low-class, inefficient business services. Many did not like it and did not return. His son had only a certificate but not living experience and he considered the degree as a license to start a nursing home. His daughter, who was married and resided in Germany was vehemently opposed in mortgaging the family home to secure loan for the business. The family was not united and it was tearing up Dr. J.
  3. The Nursing home did not do well. The young son was more focused on a vanity drive (a doctor-owner of nursing home) and customers felt it. He adopted systems and processes of large hospital chains and this did not work. People instinctively dislike counterfeit and imitation and even if they are dazzled for the moment, this cannot go on for a long run. Debt mounted, cutting corners started, many old patients discovered that their disease was becoming the bedrock of a young doctor to build his fortune, and fast.
  4. I advised Dr. J to leave this business – he should do what he liked most – healing people – not dealing with systems, processes, tax, regulation, authorities etc. He should make arrangements for his son to be owner and make elaborate family peace with his daughter and son in law taken in confidence. He should go back to his old days and tell everyone. This may eventually need a father-son break up but the alternative is a slow death through gangrene of relationship. He might talk with chain hospitals or diagnostic clinics to take over the facility and run that.
  5. In 2001, I was again invited for Onam feast (my last Onam in Malabar as a resident) and I found the old Dr. J. He made arrangements for his living and chamber in a self-contained area of the premise, the other half was the nursing home run by his son, a much smaller version of the original and a vacant plot was surrounded by walls and I was told that this was his daughter’s share.

Afterthought

Dr. J made certain decisions and the situation did not go worse. But he was not alone in this misplaced decision. Many top professionals believe that they would make a successful business owner in the domain where they are top professional. Many top film actors became bankrupt while becoming a producer. Many cricket players lost their place in the side after a stint of captaincy. Many freelancers – top in their game, lost both while they wanted to become business owners. And many happy men and women brought with astronomical prices – headache, trouble and devastation, while trying to own businesses, pumped up by “Great Idea” or “The next level” or “Be your own boss.”

Wordsmith Casebook : Family Business Nightmare – Co-working Space, Seattle

Background

I have very fond memories of this city – Seattle in the United States although I found New York to be the place where I felt something coursing in my veins that I cannot express. In the summer of 2016, in a long visit – almost seven weeks – partly business, partly pleasure and partly family visits, I planned to meet some freelance translators of the city in one of the co-working spaces and I became their client and then the relationship continued later, online. I was welcomed because freelancers are one of the largest client categories in co-working spaces.  The business was managed by a couple, husband was a Product Manager of an IT company and wife was an architect who had been working in a city architectural firm. In spite of all great thought and effort that had gone into the business, the seats – both of work space, of meeting / conference rooms / cafeteria displayed more furniture than people. Competition in this area was cutthroat and being a service industry, it needed some special skills to retain existing clients and grow. and I had found that 12 local freelancers who attended because of our invitation did not show much interest to be paying clients. The couple were in considerable debt and the business was not returning as they had expected, after some sixteen months.

First Investigative Measures

I met them twice in Seattle and later the conversation shifted online when I returned back to Calcutta.

  • The business conception was psycho-logical and in a way, romantic escape for both, to walk the road of “be your own boss” after a considerable time of working in established large companies. They looked and understood business through those tinted glasses.
  • The design of the space was more to the liking of the architect co-owner and not after checking with prospects. So, it was a statement on the part of the architect (and co-owner) and product development thinking and training of the husband did not help in understanding the ruthless undercurrents of a service industry with more of retail customers. A classic case of hubris and ignorance in  understanding one’s market and one’s customers.
  • The whole set-up smelled and spoke loudly of the taste, preference, eccentricities, idea, creative impulses of the owners. For example, the lady was fond of cats and there were too many pictures of cats in the walls. I had asked them that did they ever think that some customers of them may not like cats as much they do or a possibility – may hate cats. Will they like to be here ?
  • For most of their lives (both were in late forties), they understood business from a particular perspective. Their idea of cost, salaries to staff, operational cost, cost of capital, personal expenses were not water-tight as they should be – business finance and personal finance mixed. They thought, at least in their subconscious this as a hobby rather than a business.

Latest Report

The money ran out by the end of winter, i.e. within next six months. Fortunately, a more successful competitor was expanding and they were interested to take the lease and they got out of the business, although they suffered quite a loss. Even though their dream was over but at least they had escaped a worse nightmare. Although the business venture ended in a loss, that strengthened their bonding and both became more self-realized and wise in understanding that starting and running a small business is neither a hobby nor some dream fulfillment device but a fully consuming task.