The Field Narrows at Roland Garros

Actually playing tennis made me look beyond being a pure fanboy (vamos Rafa!) and appreciate the game and its talents a bit more. So for someone who loves following tennis, the closest French Open in over a decade might be upon us. Rafa’s bastion was breached last year with Djokovic striking the decisive blow but Wawrinka grabbing the trophy by turning up in his career-best avatar.

An improving Murray and Nadal with a slight dip in Djokovic’s clay season has made this year’s edition very interesting. Let us look at the contenders now that there is no outright favourite anymore.

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Djokovic: The safe bet

A betting man shouldn’t look beyond Djokovic. He was stopped only because Wawrinka played the best tennis of his life last year. He has raked up a crazy number of points and there is day-light in terms of ranking points between him and the second-ranked Murray. Djokovic won in Madrid and rescued lost causes repeatedly at Rome to showcase his mental strength and extremely strong gameplay. His shots are flat and fast and give little time to the opponent at decisive moments.

Detractors might point to his defeat by the unfancied Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo and his relative subdued performance at Rome where most players pushed him hard with Murray triumphing in the final. His dropshots to end points prematurely were picked off easily by Rafa at Rome. He does look a little less invincible than before and this means the other have a chance. It is a slim one though as Djokovic is harder to beat over 5 sets than over 3.

If it was general tiredness causing a lower performance in Rome then the 10-day break should help him get back to prime fitness. But the pressure will be immense given the French Open has been a jinx for him over the last 2 years and the only Grand Slam missing from his trophy cabinet.

Murray: Will the real Slim Andy please stand up?

Murray, who has never really found his feet on clay despite formative years in Barcelona, is now the top clay-court player (ever so slightly) over the last one year when it comes to win-loss records. He pushed Djokovic to 3 sets at Madrid and beat him at Rome.

His improved clay-court performance is at a level now where it is hard to predict who will win over 5 sets, Djokovic or Murray. His second serve is much improved and his court movement and backhands are giving him an advantage. His mental strength has improved. All this means Murray probably has the best chance of pulling off what Stan the Man did last year.

I think his biggest enemies are his back issues and mental strength against the strongest opponents and he will be hoping they keep away at Roland Garros.

Rafa: Much improved, but more is needed.

Nadal ranks #2 if you look at win-loss records in clay over 52 weeks. This is deceptive because Nadal has more losses but balanced that by playing more tournaments. During this clay season he did defeat Murray, Nishikori and Wawrinka apart from tricky upstarts like Fognini, Kyrgios and Thiem who’ve beaten him over the last one year. He managed to win Monte Carlo but came up a bit short against Murray and Djokovic at Madrid and Rome.

The improvements are noticeable. Deeper and stronger forehands, better serving and solid backhands along with his usual quick court movement and defensive skills give him some chance. The confidence is back, more or less. He has been frank about his mental struggles so I would believe him when he says he is feeling much better now.

He still needs to do better in the close moments against the top players as he was a break up in both sets against Djokovic and still lost in straight sets. He stopped hitting the deeper shots at important moments and tried to play safe. It may work against most but not against the top 2. He also seems to fear the Djokovic cross-court backhand a little too much and avoids going cross-court with his forehand against him. He finds it more comfortable pushing at the beginning of a set and taking early breaks but he needs to find a way to stay competitive at the end.

Nadal is also someone who can take time to come up to full speed and a ranking of 5 meant he might run into Djokovic in the Quarters like last year. But Federer dropping out means he can breathe a bit easy although Fognini, Thiem and Tsonga may all test him first.

The others

Wawrinka has had a poor run of form and is unlikely to defend his title. But as I write this he is up a set against Cilic in the final at the Geneva Open. If Stan the Man decides to put on a show he might still make it all the way.

Nishikori is consistently good but not good enough to win top-level tournaments. He did win clay titles at Barcelona twice in 2014 and 2015 but the Masters and Grand Slams are a different cup of tea.

The best challenge from the next generation comes from Nick Kyrgios, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem who are now beating top 10 players fairly often. Krygios has a pretty good rate of defeating Top 10 players but is too erratic to be consistent over 7 rounds. David Goffin handed 2 bagels to Tomas Berdych recently and has a decent record against top 10 players. Thiem always seems in the cusp of a breakthrough season.

The draw at Roland Garros puts Nadal and Djokovic in the same half while Wawrinka needs to get past Murray to get a shot to defend his title. The overall quality of play may not reach the greatest heights because the only top player who seems to be in career-best mode is Murray. But this does mean we can expect some exhausting rallies and tight matches as everyone races to try and deny Djokovic the Career Grand Slam!


Financial Literacy: Or a Guide to Escape “Millennial-style Poverty”

Buzzfeed did what they are good at and used some random anecdotes and created click-baiting content around millennials and “urban poverty” that has generated lot of outrage. This post is not yet another sarcastic take on that. If you set aside the extreme examples used by Buzzfeed and just look around, you will find that financial literacy is a rare commodity. The outrage against Buzzfeed for simply pointing this out seems a bit rich.

I am no less guilty. It was not until I was almost 30 that I probably looked at this as a serious thing in my life. Putting your money to work is powerful. It can help you retire early, sleep peacefully, resist financial shocks, create jobs and even change society. Raghuram Rajan spoke recently about money and what it enables:

“In a free market, all it takes to buy what you want is money. You do not need a pedigree, a great family history, the right table manners, or the right fashionable clothing or looks… It is because money has no odour, because it is the great equaliser, that so many people across history have been able to acquire resources and invested them to make the world we live in.”

Many of the top jobs in the world are all related to efficient capital allocation. Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway are a prime example. Google co-founders’ new structure with Alphabet/Google is to enable them to allocate capital more effectively. Cyrus Mistry with the Tata Group has top Managers for every group company while his main focus is strategy and capital allocation. Actually every CEO/Board is supposed to have this as a primary task. If they cannot do better than their shareholders in managing capital then it is in the shareholders’ interest that the company pay dividends with all their profits.

So companies invest in new projects or products in search of wealth creation and financial security. Are these not the same primary reasons why individuals work their whole life? So take charge and be the CEO of your finances. The first step is getting your finances from the red to the black. So you must save.

How much should you save?

It depends on one’s earnings on one side and goals, responsibilities, lifestyle etc. on the other. Do you want to do an MBA? Raise a family? Couple of holidays a year? Build a corpus for a startup? Repay loans? Make a list! Build a career that helps you grow earnings over time. Have a lifestyle that doesn’t break your bank account while indulging yourself.

Improving your lifestyle with increasing salary is fine but try to expand your margin (percentage of savings) while doing so. Don’t grow costs as fast as income. When calculating costs include large one-time expenses like a phone, furniture, a car or a wedding.

Consider this. Let us say your income grows at 10% a year but costs at 5% with an initial savings %age of only 12% of income. You will find that annual income doubles in 8.5 years; costs only in 15 years and absolute savings double in 3 years! I know this seems unrealistic but even a 1% difference in the growth rates gives your long term savings a good boost due to the compounding effect. Conversely, if costs grow faster than income even slightly then you will be bankrupt in a few years. Work out the numbers. In the below charts, the axis on the left represents income and expenses and the other axis shows the %age of savings.

Psychologically, saving is basically about discipline. Build it.

Is it enough just to save? 

The simple answer is no. Money loses value with time. Even if you don’t lock it up in your safe at home, savings typically lie around in savings accounts or fixed term deposits that pay you some interest. This interest rate even if it seems high does not beat inflation (or not significantly enough). Raghuram Rajan explained this with his dosanomics but anyone who buys milk or eats at restaurants would know this. In a low inflation environment it is possible to squeeze out a bit more from these avenues but inflation is a cyclical beast. You cannot trust Governments to have policies that control inflation very effectively.

The second beast you need to fight is taxation. Let us say you saved 100,000 rupees and invested somewhere and earned 10% (10,000 rupees) on it. Depending on the type of investment you may have to pay taxes on the interest earned. This reduces your effective return to 7% if you are in the highest tax slab!

So your tax-adjusted return has to beat inflation over the long run if you want to create wealth.

How do you do this? 

Invest. In India, for all our faults we have fairly well-regulated banking and financial markets. Yes, there are crony capitalists who run down banks and corrupt promoters who loot companies but we are still better off in this regard than even China where bad debts are mounting and the stock and real estate markets have reached crazy bubble situations. If you don’t know enough about stocks then invest in a simple diversified mutual fund. Mutual funds invest in both stocks as well as bonds. In my opinion corporate bonds are no more safer than the stocks so you might as well stick to equity.

Most people cannot pick stocks that beat the market in the long run? Why? Because the market is simply the superset of all people and random factors play a significant role. There are bound to be a number of people who do worse than the market. Also, investment returns are highly variable because of the huge differences in risk appetite and staying power between investors. Even fund managers are not immune to this. You are also not immune to this. So if you don’t know how to do this, stick to equity mutual funds.

To learn more about investing directly in stocks, read up. Building skills like the ability to understand balance sheets, income statements, cash flow accounts and annual reports all come in handy. Every public company is supposed to publish these on their website. But there are some services that compile and share details that you need: Screener and Craytheon (subscription required) are examples of financial data providers in India. There are equity research reports you can get your hands on here: Morning Star India (login required). If you want to know about all the pitfalls of stock and bond markets, read the age-old book by Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor. The author is Warren Buffet’s guru and started teaching investing right around the time of the Great Depression.

But aren’t stocks risky? 

Psychologically, investing in stocks is about patience and keeping faith in your judgment even if there is panic around you. Have you heard about the relative who bought a stock after he saw in the news that it grew by 40% and then saw it tank? Have you heard about a friend who panicked and sold shares at a 20% loss because the markets were in a seemingly bottomless downtrend? Let us borrow the Mr. Market allegory that Benjamin Graham created and show why this is poor judgement.

Mr. Market comes to you every day at a fixed time and either offers to sell you a kilo of onions or buy the same from you. He sets the offer price each day but you have the freedom to accept or reject the transaction. Let us assume that the supply and quality of onions are steady and that over the last year the cost of growing and transporting onions to markets was 20 rupees a kilo and you know all this. If he comes to you and offers to sell onions at 40 rupees today, will you buy it? What about at 10 rupees? What if he offers to buy your onions at 10? Will you sell them? What about at 50 rupees? The decisions seem quite obvious! Assuming the quality is the same, you buy when prices are low and sell when they are high.

Yet, in the stock markets the behaviour is completely opposite. Note that companies declare results only every 3 months. Minor news does come up every now and then but that doesn’t justify the daily price changes of the markets. The markets are volatile (different from risky!) because of various factors like staying power and leverage of the participants.

In the onion example, what if you had borrowed money and purchased onions at 20 rupees. You have to return the loan in 2 days. Mr. Market was offering 25 a week ago, 19 yesterday and only 17 today. Will you sell now or wait? Don’t borrow to invest! That way you can improve staying power. You should be the one who buys the onions at 17 rupees from this guy who is forced to sell!

The other factor that influences staying power is using the stock market to make a quick buck in a short time for an upcoming expense. If you need to pay the down-payment on a house in 6 months, don’t invest your currently saved corpus in stocks. When the market falls, you will sell at a loss.

All this assumes that fundamentally the stock is good, so do your analysis. As opposed to market volatility,  risk comes from the fundamentals of the business and industry of the company. Stocks don’t offer a guaranteed return and any business has its risks. Diversifying is one option to mitigate against risk if you don’t get too much time to do research. But studying companies and the market conditions well is a better option based on my personal experience.

The key questions are: Is this business doing well? Is it available for less than what it is worth? Is the management team qualified and ethical? What is their track record? Do they have loans under control? How are they doing when compared to competition? Yes, it’s a lot of work. You will have to sacrifice a couple of weekends every now and then to do this right! If you cannot do this, then invest in mutual funds.

Buying more without panicking when the markets are down lowers your acquisition costs and can boost future returns. You can take advantage of volatility while being cognizant of business performance and challenges. If you invest 10,000 rupees a month when the stock trades at 100 you get 100 shares. When the stock trades at 50 you get 200 shares for the same amount. Your average cost is not 75 but 67! When the price gets back to 100 you make a cool 50% return.

So market irrationality can increase a sensible person’s returns!

The best market for someone who is going to invest every month for a long time is actually a prolonged slump when stocks are cheap and an eventual rise. But stocks are cyclical beasts just like inflation. Disciplined regular investing still beats trying to guess when the market will be low.

I said earlier that fund managers are not immune to irrational behaviour. Why? If you can enter and exit funds at any time and a fund is composed of irrational investors then people redeem when markets fall and buy when it is high. The fund manager has no option but to follow this inflow and outflow of money. Exit loads are used to control this behaviour but I doubt they are effective. Funds are still better than speculation or bank deposits. Some funds also control entry/exit with some rules.

The other reason why stocks make sense is that we don’t have any taxes on long-term capital gains on stocks in India (at least for now). Plus “long-term” for stocks is just 1 year compared to real estate which is 3 years.

What about real estate?

Buy a house if you want the psychological comfort of your own home or to retire in when you are not earning any more. But remember that it may not be good enough as a pure investment. Everyone knows people who multiplied their money in real estate. But it is not for everyone. Property titles and guarding them is a risk. Luck and location play a large role. Built-up property depreciates no different than a car some times. Plus if you move for work you need to manage tenants remotely.

Home loans to buy property makes it an even more doubtful investment as the tax-adjusted return needs to now beat your tax-adjusted loan interest. Transaction costs are high especially if you need brokers to manage it.

Long-term capital gains taxes are also applicable beyond 3 years. A lot of real estate transactions also happen in black in India to avoid registration fees and taxes or simply to hide ill-gotten money. So be careful!

What about trading?

My belief is that you should not speculate unless you can afford to gamble. Every day-trader boasts in public only about the wins. No one wants to admit how they washed all their money down the toilet betting daily in the markets. Plus there are some trading strategies (using certain types of futures and options) that have limited upside consistently which look like regular income but unlimited downside when rare events happen that can wipe out a whole lifetime of upsides. Be doubly careful!

When an online broker offers you a loan to trade, be very skeptical! If money could be made by trading this way, they would be trading with their money and not lending it to you. You would be better off investing your savings and spending your work day building your career thereby increasing your future savings!

If you made great money while trading, congratulations! You don’t know how lucky you are. The rest of us need to find other ways.

What if markets fall and fall hard like the recent recession? 

If you have staying power of a few years and don’t need the money immediately you can weather the storm. You can do this if you have protected yourself against shocks (see below) especially if you haven’t got fired. If you still have your job, you can buy stocks at a hugely cheaper rate to lower your costs and gain when the rise happens. You can also sell when markets are irrationally high because usually this means a hard landing is coming up. Markets usually bubble up when there is cheap credit in the market. Why would someone pay 40 rupees for something worth 20 rupees? May be because they saw it rising and were offered a loan to participate in the boom. When this free money dries up there is a hard landing as there is a race to sell and recoup money. So normally hard landings are preceded by booms.

In the onion example, you can sell your entire stock when you are being offered 40 for something that is worth 20. You do this either because you want to book gains (if your job security is low) or don’t have staying power when the hard landing comes. If not, stay put!

What about my own business?

Sure. If you are passionate and know your stuff, go for it. You are the job creators Rajan spoke about!

Think of it as investing in your one single company instead of investing in many others. I don’t have any personal experience here so I wouldn’t claim to know anything about this. From what I have seen and heard though, keep tight financial control and monitor your company performance the same way you would judge a stock you are evaluating. Don’t rely on your accountant to understand your company’s performance and money-making (or burn-rate!) model. Build adequate protection against personal financial shocks.

How do you deal with unpredictable financial shocks?

Keep some liquid cash in savings or deposit accounts. “How much?” depends on your needs. If you are an employable bachelor who has no dependents may be a couple of months salary might do. With a family you might need more. With loans, even more.

Also if you have a large expense coming in a few months (say a wedding), it is probably not a good idea to park money in stocks to pay for this because your staying power is low if the market drops. Try to plan well in advance (18 months or more) or alternately park the money in more liquid assets with guaranteed returns.

Get insured! Insurance is a way of protecting you and your family from shocks that you cannot afford. Get life insurance and disability benefits to more than cover your loans and the needs of your dependents. Get medical insurance for dependents or work at a company that covers this. Insurance is cheaper earlier in life. So do this sooner rather than later.

Insurance is not like another expense. It is basically downside protection for your investments against an improbable negative event. If you need 1,000,000 rupees for a medical emergency, it can wipe out several years worth of savings.

Insurance is not an investment either! ULIPs and other fancy products neither give you enough insurance coverage nor enough investment returns. Also insurance companies are not necessarily good money managers. Buy term insurance so that you pay only for the risk and not to inflate the insurers bottom-line.

Can it all still fall apart financially?

Statistically in a planet of 7 billion people, there are going to be some who did everything right and then got screwed anyway. So invest in yourself and your family: health, skills and relationships. A gym subscription, learning how to code or cook, teaching life skills to your kids early are all intangible investments that can be invaluable during hard times. A come-back will be made. 

Umberto Eco: A Tribute

Umberto Eco is one of the authors whom I really admire although it has been several years since I read his books. Popular culture knows him as the one whose Foucault’s Pendulum foreshadowed medieval conspiracy theory fiction such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He is also known as the author of The Name of the Rose which is a detective story set in medieval times and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery.

He was an expert in the medieval history of Europe and a Professor of the mysteriously named field of Semiotics. No one else has done more to popularize this field and its use in interpreting historical findings. His knowledge of these two areas were ingrained in his thinking as a philosopher and his writing.

Semiotics refers to the study of signs, their interpretation and use in communication, and their link to language. Since these are a lot of heavy words, let me give you an example that we can all relate to. I had a twitter account under a different name. When I created this blog, I wanted a matching twitter account (no, I don’t really use it!) but “@nilambar” wasn’t available. I was under the invisible time pressure we all feel when creating a username on online signup forms. So in my panic I was searching the screen and my room for some clue.

Here is a screenshot of the top right section on twitter:


This + “nilambar” = “quillambar“! I know the end result is extremely cheesy but let me explain how my brain worked: Green post button with feather logo -> a feather is used to make a quill which is used for writing -> rhymes with nil -> bingo!

After observing the icon, this whole cognitive process took less than a second. This is a simple example that shows how a sign (feather) combined with context (writing), produced an idea (quill) that produced a word (something related to writing + the rhyming?). There are probably interesting neuro-biological aspects to this as well but we will stick to the subject here. Semiotics is basically a formal study of such processes from the perspective of history, language and communication. Eco wrote definitive textbooks in his main field of Semiotics.

He also wrote more accessible essays where he deployed these skills. After a visit to the US, he wrote essays published as Travels in Hyper-reality that explore the reasons for America’s fixation with living life larger or in recreating reality (replicas of the Oval Office or installations in Disneyland) based on his observations.

He was an expert on the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe. He could connect historic development right from the crusades and the inquisition to modern times. But I don’t think Eco wrote a popular or academic book that purely covered history unlike for example, William Dalrymple’s research on Afghanistan or the Mughal times in India. Instead he liked to combine a lot of historical fact with handcrafted fiction and his most well-known novels do exactly that.

As a widely read person, he felt every book referred to many others consciously or not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks about the massive library of Eco in his book, The Black Swan, and calls it the “anti-library” of which I wrote here. Taleb also calls him encyclopedic.

He wrote a set of essays, On Literature, that demonstrates his wide range of reading. One of themes was that Literature reinvents itself with the sensibilities of every passing age. The other theme was on the nature of writing. The last essay here, “How I write” has some immortal lines on the last page:

“There is only one thing you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list… One writes only for a reader… Whoever says he writes for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.

Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader.”

He combines knowledge of semiotics, history and literature into his fiction as demonstrated in The Name of the Rose:

  • The name of the book is not explained in the book and has no connection to the story. Later in a postscript he said that he chose this, “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”
  • The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is a play on William of Occam (known for the Occam’s Razor principle) and Sherlock Holmes
  • Jorge Luis Borges, who was the inspiration for many of the “magic realism” writers in South America like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a favourite of Eco. The main antagonist in this book is inspired by him. Borges wrote about a labyrinthine Library of Babel, in a short story. Eco sets a lot of the action in his book in a similarly modeled library.
  • The inquisition and fixations of the dark ages play a big role in this book. There is a theme of searching for heresies and punishing new ideas; destruction of books and scrolls that may contain knowledge that contradicts theology.

He also wrote commentary about the now. A set of essays titled Inventing the Enemy starts out with an idea that if one doesn’t have an enemy then one must invent it. He shows that even to have an identity (as a person or a group) that has some self-worth means we must invent an “other”; something foreign and repulsive – an enemy. It shows when you look around in today’s connected world. You can have enemies who you never see or speak to, provoke, draw reactions and deliver counter-reactions, and thereby establish and celebrate your identity as opposed to the “other”.

Eco left us earlier this year and will be sorely missed but his entire body of work says that what he wrote will endure and reinvent itself. May he rest in peace.

Hero Worship

I could summarize this post pretty well with just this one name: Lance Armstrong. But please allow me to indulge you further. Most of us have our sporting heroes. Many summers ago I was asked to stay put at home for a month due to a health issue and this coincided with the Tour de France. This was the first time I watched the physically grueling cycling tour that had 21 stages each up to 200 km spread across a month. Just completing this would require almost superhuman effort. Lance, the cancer survivor, was pulling away from the others easily and it was natural to idolize him. He could do no wrong! We all know how that ended.

Not all sports careers end in dishonour like this but ups and downs are part of the story. People watching Sachin bat in his last two years yearned for the Sachin of old. Federer hasn’t won a Grand Slam in years now but even in his glorious peak he struggled at the French. Obviously one of the “downs” comes at the end of one’s career unless like Sangakkara one retires at one’s best. But no one is completely infallible and failings are exposed at various stages. In fact, failings show what it takes to reach, perform and stay at that level – years and years of training with extreme physical and mental conditioning combined with a good dose of luck.

Even knowing all this, rational people still expect their sporting heroes to be infallible and are hugely disappointed with their failures. Sports is not the only place where it is common. Vijay Mallya was the toast of the town in the mid-2000s for his flamboyant lifestyle to the same guys who are panning him now. Everyone aspired to live like that! Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa and Arvind Kejriwal are all recent politico-social examples in India who are the subject of hero worship by some or other group of people.

What is hero worship? The folks at Merriam-Webster define it as “foolish or excessive admiration of someone”. Let’s try and understand this further. Why is “foolish” more or less equated with “excessive” admiration. There is some mathematics at work here – “Regression”. Regression always needs a context: regress (or return) to what? In the mathematical sense, the complete definition is “regression to the mean“.

The mean represents an expected or average or natural state. When something very positive happens you are above the mean and conversely you can go below. The concept of regression says that you need to return toward the mean in any random process such as life. Daniel Kahnemann in his book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – gave an example of pilots who were scored during their training sessions. The pilots who got extremely high scores in one session and were lauded for that almost always performed more poorly in the next session. There was a lot of analysis to see what was going on – were the praises leading to nervousness next time, were they overconfident? But in the end it was down to the concept of regression. Each pilot simply regresses toward their own long term mean score.

What does this have to do with hero worship? Normally when someone gets famous or infamous in the media they are either on a sharp uptrend or downtrend from their mean. Usually the ones on an uptrend are eulogized and turned into heroes. So we observe someone at their very best (well above their mean probably) and turn them into our hero. What Social Media does very well is make this trend viral so that more and more people do this and now you have a critical mass of people who think this person is a hero. People also judge that if the person could do X very well (which is what brought them hero status), they will also do Y very well. We know from sports that this is unlikely but we still believe this when it comes to business, religious or political leaders! When regression happens this excessive admiration looks foolish!

Here are some examples:

  • Lord Ram is praised as the embodiment of ideal human behaviour due to his obedience to his father’s promise and his rescue of his wife. Regression happened when he exiled his pregnant wife. Which woman would accept this today? Note that it is very likely that the Uttara Kanda that details this episode was a later addition to the Ramayana but my point is that the people who worship him consider this Kanda as canonical.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the unquestioned leader of the BJP and is highly motivated to lead the country. Among the positives we hear how bureaucrats are more accountable and interest groups are kept at arms length to avoid “big corruption”. More pro-activeness in foreign relations and removal of obstacles in infrastructure projects can be seen. Does this mean he is infallible? Nepal getting closer to China due to India’s blockade; promotion of regressive ideas at the Indian Science Congress; rooting for “Make in India” while cutting research funding; and his general silence when it comes to contentious issues involving marginalized sections of society are all signs that he is fallible in some areas.
  • Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal won an election on a platform of ending corruption and focusing on public services. He has delivered in several areas. But his unchallenged majority means he diluted his own Lokpal Bill proposal and expelled alternate voices from his party. Regression at work again.
  • Spiritual leader Mr. Ravi Shankar of Art of Living who is known as a philanthropist talking about how they only “leveled” the Yamuna floodplain and didn’t cut any trees betraying a clear lack of understanding of river habitats. I wrote more about this here. Modi and Kejriwal first permitting and then attending this doesn’t do them any credit either.

What should we read from all of this? All these are examples of people just being people with all their good and bad. Even from each of our personal experiences we know each of us have our own pluses and minuses. But knowing all this does not convince hero worshippers to take a step back! Hero worshippers tend to justify each action of their hero whether good or bad.

Does this somewhat blind worship make any difference to the heroes? A degree of hero worship is necessary to get people to vote you into power especially when a large part of the voting population does not see how good policy can help them. After a while the heroes (for example, Indira Gandhi) start believing in their own infallibility and this results in disaster. Such heroes fail to see the need for surrounding themselves with people who complement their own skills and instead rely on sycophants. The BJP currently praising the great “Modifier” and imposition of President’s Rule without due process in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand show increasing signs of such behaviour.

People are some times capable of great things but at other times are fallible. Our heroes are also normal people who just got famous during their high point. They can inspire us to do great things as well as wrong things. They can lead a country into war or destroy the economy with wrong policies. When there is mass hero worship we allow ourselves to be led down this path while all along we say this is for the best. Erdogan in Turkey is proving to be a good current example of how a popular leader can transform into an autocrat.

An individual can benefit from good role-models (from Merriam-Webster: “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others”). We can look at someone and say he is a good role model as a father and I will learn parenting from him. This person might be not so great at their work as a financial advisor and can be criticized for that. We can look at a political leader and say this person builds consensus well and I will learn that from her. But when she enters into a deal with a conflict of interest I can critique her. One need not worry about justifying actions of their role models! A strong person can withstand some criticism and may be even improve themselves.

Having role models allows us to derive inspiration from certain roles or actions of another person while leaving space to critique their other actions. This keeps things realistic and our political or other leaders grounded. It avoids false overconfidence in our leaders in matters they are not strong on and encourages them to augment their own weaknesses by building a team around them. For example, Modi can benefit from better Ministers in the Health and HRD departments.

Even criticizing reasonably good policy is good for the country because it encourages policy makers to communicate why the policy was created and how it will benefit us. A robust policy can survive criticism and can become even stronger.

We all like a bit of hero worship because a heroic narrative inspires us and motivates us. But we should probably restrict it to the sports arenas where it can do less harm!

















Fatherhood: The Beginning

Recently I became a new father when my wife and I were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. Although she was full term she came a few weeks before her due date. What we thought was a routine hospital visit quickly escalated and a few hours later we were holding her in our hands.

The doctor let me watch the Caesarian section and our baby came out looking like an alien covered in white fluid! She cried immediately. I remember clapping soundlessly and showing a thumbs-up to my wife. They cleaned her up and took her away for a couple of hours for some care.

I was waiting alone while my wife was being stitched up. I made a few calls and then more waiting. Soon I was sitting beside my wife while they monitored her and 2 hours after the event we went back to our room. Our baby joined us in a few minutes!


After about 3 hours of playing with her (which mostly meant looking at her or carrying her while she blissfully slept), I realized I hadn’t eaten the whole day and stepped out. As I opened my mouth my jaw started hurting. That’s when I came to know that smiling for too long can hurt!

Is this is a good use of your time?

I decided to raise this question putting at risk my meagre readership! Your decision to read this probably comes at the cost of some of your “free time”. When we are working, our employers structure our time so we don’t need to worry about managing it. This typically takes 30-70 hours a week depending on the type of work you do. Sleeping and daily ablutions probably take up another 70 hours a week. This gives you 28-68 hours of “free time” that you need to plan for.

On average humans are very poor at utilizing their time:

  • If our time at work was used effectively, better productivity in a meritocracy would lead to better rewards. This means a focus on creating processes and practices that avoid day-to-day firefighting instead of living in the crisis. However, this doesn’t happen. So fear and panic about our jobs or deadlines become the main motivators to accomplish anything at work.
  • The less said about how we use our free time the better. We might want to do X or learn Y or spend time with Z but we usually end up watching cat videos and scrolling through our social media timelines most of the time.

There are some who are completely fine with this or don’t see this as a problem. This post is not for them. This post is for those who want to do more or better but are unable to. Procrastination is the term normally used for this. A task is already defined either by the person or their employer or others. The task is ignored until the last moment. When the deadline is close, it is worked on and somehow completed but not with very good results. Tim Urban who writes at is now a world famous procrastinator who wrote extensively about this specific issue.

Let us use the Eisenhower Matrix to understand this better. You divide everything you do into 4 quadrants based on urgency and importance:


  • You have to do Quadrant 1 items. This is the work crisis or home crisis that cries for immediate attention. This some times needs high CPU usage but adrenaline will help you navigate this.
  • Quadrant 2 is where all the great achievements lie. This needs sustained high CPU usage and there will be no adrenaline to push you. Even most bosses will not push you to do these types of tasks unless you are at a higher level of management.
  • Quadrant 3 can be loosely labeled as “Somebody Else’s Problem” that you have made your own. You can delegate these to the right people and save your time but more often than not you don’t.
  • Binge watching a bad soap opera is a good example of Quadrant 4. All the time we spend entertaining ourselves could also be counted here. It is very hard to spend zero time here because even a hard working brain needs some rest. But mostly we overstay in this quadrant.

Why is living in Quadrant 2 so hard? I had posted about a book; Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann; that talks about how the mind works. The mind is easily distracted even when making important or complex decisions. Basically it likes to keep CPU usage low. Staying in Quadrant 2 requires a couple of high CPU usage activities:

  • Deciding what to do: planning, setting objectives or outcomes
  • Doing it effectively: execution

In a workplace, “Deciding what to do” is a leadership responsibility. “Doing it effectively” is a joint responsibility of all employees including leaders. For your personal time, you are responsible for both. Being consistently good at this is hard. You can read Tim Urban’s perspective here. He says you can make it easier on yourself by setting challenging goals in fields that come more naturally to you and easily motivate you. You can also publicize some of these goals in your circles so that you now feel some invisible pressure to deliver. You can literally set a fire by quitting what you do today because panic is a big motivator.

But most of all, you succeed by having the mental discipline to stay in Quadrant 2. This means that first we must plan and set objectives and then for the bulk of the time focus on the moment and execute. We all know that if we actually are focused for the bulk of an 8-hour work day, we will achieve great things. But we don’t!

Are there tools that help you with “focusing”? Interestingly, there is one powerful tool which is over 2500 years old. The new age form of this is called Mindfulness. Buddhist tradition ascribes this to the Buddha and says that this is what helped him concentrate and focus on the problem he was analyzing (the nature of human suffering). Academics still debate whether Buddha’s core teaching was this mental method as a way to analyze complex problems or the canonical doctrine of The Four Noble Truths. We don’t know for sure because the Buddhist chronicles were written down only a few centuries after Buddha died. As an Indian I can feel proud that India was the origin for both physical training practices like yoga and mental training practices like mindfulness! The sad part is that both of these are considerably less popular in India compared to the West.


What is mindfulness? It means intentionally focusing on your present experiences without distractions. This is basically what we need to live in Quadrant 2! The good thing is just like you can build muscles by physical training, you can build your concentration skills by mental training. You can start with the traditional practice called anapanasati which literally means mindfulness of breathing and then escalates into more and more advanced steps to train your mind to focus.

Does it really work? There has been a lot of scientific research into mindfulness. Research has shown that it actually modifies the brain by shrinking primitive impulse centres like the amygdala and enhancing and better connecting the parts that control attention and concentration. It therefore makes us less of a slave to stress and even to pain. Knowledge industry leaders have already taken notice and Google has a Head of Mindfulness.

You can try this at home using a simple starter video like the one below:

I’ve not gone beyond 10 minutes and I always get distracted. But if you stick with it for at least 8 weeks, you will see results. Trainer-led sessions will obviously help to begin with. There are more advanced steps you can try as you become an expert.

Managing time effectively is critical to achieving stuff in life (if you are into such things). When we consider super-achievers like Einstein (when working as a patent clerk and publishing Nobel winning papers) or Elon Musk (disrupting 3 different industries by age 40) or that guy who became a VP at your office at 35; after accounting for genetics and pure luck what remains that probably explains their success is their relentless discipline in living in Quadrant 2.

P.S: Before I sign off, I need to get back to the title of my post! Is this a good use of your time? If you think not, I can still live with it because you will probably thank me later! Those of you who think otherwise, thank you for your time…



Degrading the Environment, Indian Style

In my first post on this blog, I tipped my hat to The Ugly Indian. Let’s face it. India is ugly and it’s because of us, the people. Dirtying takes almost zero effort and a cleanup takes a few orders of magnitude more effort. Think about your room. It probably takes a minute to mess it up and an hour to clean it. As a tax-payer, I disagree when people dirty everything and ask the Government to clean up. Tax payer money should be invested in processes like sewerage lines and treatment plants etc. With the right processes it should not be necessary to use tax-payer money to clean lakes and rivers if people took some real responsibility. An unapproved layout next to a lake, dumping sewage in storm water drains, refusing to segregate garbage and similar crimes are the real problem. Let us see how disaggregate (micro-level) behaviour and thinking adds up and affects us at an aggregate (large-scale) level.

Here is one of the most sacred parts of the Bhoganandeeswara temple (near the Nandi Hills), which is over a thousand years old, on the day after the Maha Shivaratri festival. Plastic is floating around in the tank. I did not take any other pictures of the temple grounds that day because it was disgusting to see garbage everywhere. This was the least ugly place if you discount the sanctum sanctorum! An employee of the temple had just started the cleanup which would have probably taken several days.


Here is a picture of how it looks otherwise:


There’s even some wildlife here:


I know I am generalizing but an average Indian just doesn’t care about the environment and our actions show this. It looks like the same attitude seeps into our panels and authorities who assess environmental impact of large-scale projects because after all they are people drawn from the same pool. But they have the capacity to do large-scale damage that costs lives.

Here is an example. This is a satellite photo of Chennai Airport in 2000. The airport is pretty much in the flood plains of the Adyar river and the smaller runway is almost touching the river.


In 2015, this is how the airport looks like. The smaller runway has been expanded and extended over the river! It is practically a dam because going by the typical Indian construction standards there would probably be debris under the bridge!


In case you think the river flow is low and cannot do damage, see the below picture which is more zoomed out compared to before. You can see the huge Chembarambakkam lake (upstream and on the left of the picture) from where excess water was released and drowned Chennai Airport (downstream and on the right) along with a lot of low-lying areas last year. Obstructions like this on the Adyar river and its floodplains amplified the flood damage immensely and cost several lives.

Lake and Airport

A similar lack of logic was used to approve the World Cultural Festival (organized by Mr. Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation) to destroy the Yamuna flood plains which are already under attack in Delhi. The event is being organized in one of the widest areas of flood-plains within the city limits. People who can influence the public need to be more responsible and informed before they speak on any topic and this article quoting Mr. Ravi Shankar shows why. There simple references here and here that you can go through to understand why floodplains are important and should not be encroached.  His statements betray a lack of understanding of this.

There is another side that says Mr. Ravi Shankar has the best of intentions and has a track record of cleaning rivers. I have not verified this. But whatever the case may be, the floodplains should be left as is. Even if Art of Living conducts this with zero impact to the environment, it sets a bad precedent. What if a super-rich guy wants to do a mega-wedding here tomorrow? Why not a rock concert?

I am sure a better place can be found for the event. Why not conduct it in a stadium and telecast it on TV? 3.5 million footfalls in 3 days in one place is a safety and security nightmare anyway!

The latest developments cannot be seen on the satellite images but you can observe how the flood plains are eaten away and streams are blocked over the last decade or so.

Yamuna floodplains 2004:


The same in 2015, before the additional developments to host the event, show how the urbanization is catching up: new bridges, roads, construction on the western bank, old streams are now clogged or blocked and so on. I have approximately labeled the affected zone with a red rectangle based on what I read in news reports.


The floodplains in the eastern bank next to the Mayur Vihar metro station where the World Cultural Festival is organized is about 450 hectares in area. The western bank is about 200+ hectares. From news reports, we hear that 50-60 hectares have been leveled and debris has been dumped and a pontoon bridge has been built across the river for this. Although this is 10% of the area, it will affect the larger ecosystem. Delhiites may be able to point out which areas on this picture are actually affected now. Please comment below if you know.

Floodplains are naturally marshy, have grassy vegetation and open gravelly/sandy surfaces to to absorb excess flow when required. Aquifers are also recharged with this type of geology. Planting trees in such areas doesn’t make sense because they are naturally not part of the floodplain ecosystem. Not so long ago, during the 2013 North India floods the Yamuna had completely engulfed its floodplains in Delhi.

Since there are no free images, here is a screenshot of this from The Hindu:


We are taught in Universities to plan for 100-year floods. Now the memory doesn’t even extend 2 years! The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been given some teeth to deal with all these macro problems and I hope these are not of the milk teeth variety.

Another area where we see major issues closer to my home is solid waste management. A space-constrained India that organizes events on floodplains doesn’t have the places to dump garbage. This picture below shows Mandur evolving from a sleepy farming village in the outskirts to being the favourite garbage dump for Bangalore. The images are from 2005 and 2014 respectively. Note that this is now one of many such landfills.


Food waste, plastic and metals are not items that should end up in a landfill but they do. The villagers here are sick of this “deal with the devil” and now want out. The real problem is that waste segregation by people is not universal and processes to take this segregated waste are not robust enough. The latter is BBMP‘s responsibility but the former is all about the people: you and me. A court decision cannot solve this unless people become more responsible.

This is what happens to segregated waste:

  • Wet waste is all the food waste and this can be composted at home or at larger composting plants. The output is manure and can be used for organic vegetable gardens at home.
  • The dry waste is mostly paper, plastics, metals etc. and these can be recycled at automated plants. Recycling plants sometimes pay people money for this waste!
  • Sanitary waste goes to a landfill

Today, most houses in Bangalore mix and send all of the above straight to the landfill therefore multiplying by several times what each one can handle. It is immensely hard to separate the mixed waste into components for composting or recycling. There are also process failures from the BBMP because in some areas people segregate the waste but it mixed when collected.

There are, of course, some encouraging signs. I’ve seen experiments at our apartment that kids can be taught and are also good at enforcing their parents to be more sensitive. It helps if every house has one person with an environmental OCD. Be that person! The segregation initiative in our apartment building works pretty well and the ladies and kids go door to door to explain this to new folks who join the community. If we did segregation properly we wouldn’t have the Mandur problem. Only sanitary and hazardous waste would go to landfills. As I write this, I also hear that plastic is to be banned in Karnataka and I sincerely hope it is implemented. We need to ensure those who depend on the plastics for their livelihood have viable alternatives and that people are sensitized and trained. Otherwise this is a token initiative that will be destined to fail.

I am not starting a blame game here or pointing a finger at one group. I am equally culpable when I order takeout food and send plastic containers to the landfill. Is there a better way? This thinking is needed at every level, whether individuals or Governments. Japan needs to think about better design to prevent radiation leaks at nuclear plants built on a tsunami-prone coast or the US about oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. The purpose of this post is to encourage us to question what we do today and do better next time.

I was discussing this post with a friend who pointed out that George Carlin once said:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

This is not about Planet Earth which, given time, can probably evolve intelligent life that eats plastic. This is about the survival and well-being of the species that call this planet their home today.

My Experiments with Tennis

Recently I had a crisis of the kind that come up only when your age reaches decadal round numbers. I graded myself on a number of parameters and came up short on several. Career-wise I was fine with what I was doing but everywhere else there was an issue. I hadn’t played a sport or done any physical activity seriously for the latter half of my life. A few games of cricket every couple of years don’t count! I had somewhat kept up with my reading but writing was a zero. This meant I had to do something so I started with yoga and this blog. Yoga, primarily because I didn’t need to find company and it would be good for my back as I have a lower back issue.

This went on for a couple of months and I was doing fine. Yoga was good for me but something was missing until a friend persuaded me to join him for tennis. Over the last few years quite a few tennis places have sprung up in the area where I live in Bangalore. This place – True Bounce Tennis Academy (TBTA) – sounds all structured and rigid but was quite informal. The coaches there were mostly young chaps and knew how to deal with corporate types like me with a good dose of humour to motivate us! They had to be more patient with us than with kids who might end up making a career of this. A few months prior to this, I had gone to enquire at a different place where the dealings were quite different: pay us X for 20 classes; we teach you stuff and test you at the end; if you pass you get to play a person of appropriate level. Makes logical sense but sounded too cold and intimidating to me to go there. I more or less did the same at TBTA! But it was a fun process.


On day 1, I was down on my haunches in 15 minutes of drills. I couldn’t run any more. This is how the drills work. The coach sets up his position at one point and feeds you balls by hand or racket. You run to the ball, hit it, run to the back of the queue, wait your turn, repeat ad infinitum! With queues of 3-5 people there was no break. When he ran out of balls it felt like heaven. They knew this so the coaches and ballboys sometimes decided they wouldn’t let the basket go empty! After a couple of months I could do 45 minutes of drills. The drills help with fitness, movement and building skill with strokes. It also builds muscle memory. You then get into practice sessions where you hit with a partner or coach. The serve has to be practiced separately. Everything is harder than it looks when you watch the Nadals and Djokers fight it out!

The game was addictive and for several months, work and tennis were all I did. No blogging, no yoga. A confession: I am a huge fan of Rafael Nadal. I believe he won the 2014 French Open final against Djokovic solely because I sat in a certain spot for the longest time before emptying my tank! So running around a clay-court was awesome for me. But having played for a year, I would say my hero-worship has reduced. Getting beaten 6-0 by the coaches here who themselves would get beaten 6-0 by a top-300 player who don’t stand a chance against the Top 30 or Top 10 is humbling. Imagine the Top 4 (yes I know Nadal is out of it now!) in such an environment. We just have to enjoy the show put over the last few years by all these greats. This doesn’t mean I’ve switched camps but at least I swear less now!


Tennis is quite hard on the body. You need to be able to sprint quickly, do turns at a moment’s notice, switch wrist and elbow actions with each stroke, strength and action on the upper body to impart both power and spin to the ball, head movements during serves and strokes and maintain all this for a couple of hours to play 3 sets. The funny thing in tennis is it takes more strength to hit a slightly slower shot with topspin than a speedy shot with no spin.

Forehand bio-mechanics is demonstrated in this cool sounding Swedish video:

If you are gifted with awesomely fluid bio-mechanics (read Roger Federer) there is nothing like it. Experts recommend that serious players train as much as they play. Interval training for stamina, lifting and rowing exercises for upper body strength, and movement exercises are all essential apart from the usual warm-up which is the only thing I did! If you have a choice, a clay-court is better for your body than the concrete hard-courts.

It finally caught up with me physically. My lower back was the weak spot but somehow it held up fine. My fitness improved. I had knee niggles at the beginning that got sorted out as I played more. I paid careful attention to my grip so that my wrists were fine (my friend got wrist injuries so this is important). I used to get niggles in my neck area and I wasn’t sure how to strengthen it so I didn’t bother. Some parts of the body strengthen by just playing more but others need specific exercises or routines. Recently I sprained the muscle going from the neck to the shoulder and this caused the whole upper back to get locked up. A month of waiting to get better and building some strength. An enforced break, hence the blogging!

Back to School on The Road to Ladakh

This was a trip I made in 2012 in August (monsoon season in India) with my wife and 2 of our friends. This post has been a long time coming. Geography textbooks in India are pretty boring but I was one of the few people in the class who enjoyed it. For me the Ladakh trip was a way to discover practically what all this meant – mountain pass, watershed, rainfall on windward and leeward sides, glaciers, collision of crust plates and what not. So what follows is a geographical travelogue.

First the route. You can fly to Leh but it takes all the learning out of it. We took the road from Manali to Leh which passes through 4 of some of the worlds highest mountain passes. Some quick facts:

  • Distance: 490 Km
  • Average elevation said to be 4000m (for comparison the highest peak on the alps is 4810m)
  • Highest point is the last mountain pass, Tanglang La: 5328m
  • You can do this in a continuous 18-hour drive but most people on motor vehicles do it over 2 days (some 3 days). Cyclists do it over 10 days
  • We halted for the night near Keylong (and not Sarchu) and it will be clear from the below picture that this is because of the altitude. Likelihood of getting AMS at Sarchu while spending the night is very high and the only help is the army.

We normally see maps to know the route but this is a unique road. The altitude profile tells us more than what a map can. Here is the altitude profile from Himalaya Bike (check that page out): hbyb-120manali-leh20overview20profile

Each peak on this graph is a mountain-pass. Here is what a pass looks in a geography text-book and it is described as a saddle point in topology (math and geography included!)


You have a mountain range with peaks that you need to cross and you pick a point (typically lowest and most accessible point on the range and build a road through. It is hard to photograph a mountain pass in all its glory unless you have a helicopter at your disposal. The below picture shows Khardung La (highest motorable pass?) pulled from Google Earth. You should be able to see the road snaking through; first climbing from the bottom right (Leh side) and the climbing down to the Nubra valley after the saddle point where the souvenir shop is located. I promise real pictures will follow.

Khardungla Pass

One more geography funda before we move on. Usually when there are mountains they stop rain-bearing clouds. The side that faces the clouds is called the windward side and gets more rain. The other side is called the leeward side and is drier. When you are on the road you start on the windward side and progressively cross 4 mountain ranges and it gets drier and drier. This is why Ladakh is called a cold desert. This concept will also be explained over the next few pictures.

Note: The relevant text comes before the photos.

Here is how the windward side looks like (Solang valley near Manali just before the climb to Rohtang). The Solang Valley is lush green and the clouds cover the high peaks and the pass during the monsoon. The river is the Beas river which is part of the Indus watershed.


Now we start climbing towards the Rohtang pass and this is how it looks like! Really scary and not a surprise when you hear about landslides in the Himalayas every year. The road is almost flowing because of a continuous  drizzle (you are in the clouds!) and visibility is very low because the clouds have been held up by the peaks. The road is so fluid that many times you steer left to head straight! If you drop over the side it is a cool 2000m drop. It would take 20 secs to reach the bottom (ignoring air resistance) and you would be traveling at 197 m/s when you hit it.


Here is what it looks like just before the saddle point (Rohtang pass). It is still cloudy. You can see the saddle point a couple of curves away. Amazing work by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) who provide high quality roads at almost 4000m altitude. These roads need laying every year if not more often. These roads are better than the roads in Bangalore!


Now just after you cross the saddle-point the clouds have decreased and the air is clearer! You have reached the leeward side of the Rohtang. It is still a bit green here but nothing compared to Solang valley.


Looking back at the saddle point:


The other side of Rohtang is the Chenab river valley (also part of the Indus watershed). You can see the road winding down to the valley and the river snaking along as well. This is clearly less green compared to Solang.


The road splits here – the branch on the left goes to Ladakh and the right goes to the Spiti valley which is an extremely remote desert valley as well. This is a pull from Google Earth. The bottom left image is the road winding down from Rohtang and it splits at Gramphu. The main stream is the Chenab.


Tea-stop near the Chenab crossing. The dogs have to adapt as well!


Chenab river crossing:


We go along the river after the crossing. This image is just to give you a feel of how to read the altitude profile. So every peak on this profile is a mountain pass (on a mountain range where actual peaks are much higher than this) and every valley is normally a river crossing. The mountain ranges are basically perpendicular to your screen at each mountain pass.


An example of how a glacier becomes a stream that feeds a river (see the waterfall near the centre) in the first picture. This stream joins the Chenab and ultimately reaches the sea through the Indus river. A closer view in the second.



The Chenab is actually a shortening of Chandrabhaga. The stream we just crossed is the “Chandra”. We soon reach a “sangam” where Chandra and Bhaga meet and we head upstream along the Bhaga river to reach our night stop near Keylong. I only have a bad picture of this when we cross the Bhaga stream on a bridge. At the deadend, the merged river turns right and the Chandra steam comes from the left of the deadend. Also note the sedimentary layers on the mountain (centre-right) tilted about 30 degrees from the horizontal. We shall come back to this at the end.


Mountain ponies are the default local transport for remote settlements and villages.


The Bhaga stream and the view near our tent for the night at Jispa.


We start soon after towards the 5000nder mountain passes with the first one being Baralacha La. Keep an eye on progressive changes in the landscape.

This is near an area is called Zing Zing Bar!


We still see some clouds and snow on mountain tops but overall much drier than near Rohtang (even leeward side of Rohtang)


This is the Baralacha La. It is a more plain rather than an abrupt saddle point.


Near Killingsarai


The other option for the night halt at Sarchu.


Views after Baralacha La. The canyon at the lower end is above the Tsarap river which becomes the Zanskar river and joins the Indus. We rafted on this river after reaching Ladakh near the confluence with Indus. This river passes through the extremely remote Zanskar region.


We reach Lachulung La. Too tired to really walk out and take any pictures. The altitude had me in bad shape!


It truly feels like a desert now. This is beyond Lachulung La just before we enter the More Plains which is a high altitude (4800m plateau). It is about 40km long and 2-3km wide. You could land a plane easily here. Not sure if oxygen levels would be a problem though. Trade routes crisscross this and you can see mules carrying loads (next 3 photos). This is an area where 15-day trek routes pass through as well if you are interested.


We climb again to the last and the highest mountain pass before the Ladakh valley – Tanglang La.


Ladakh valley as we climb down! We miss the beauty of the high road but start loving the oxygen!




We go along a small stream that meets the Indus. Ladakh is basically a valley of the Indus river.


The Ladakh  (Indus) Valley. The band of green follows the river.IMG_7760

Another specimen!


The road to Leh comes to a close. But we did trips to Pangong and Khardung La along with the rafting I talked about.

Confluence of the Zanskar (from top Left meeting the Indus from bottom left.


We rafted on this! One person from our group fell in and was rescued. We were told it would take 24 hours for us to reach Pakistan if we weren’t rescued. Survival is difficult because this is a glacier-fed river and the temperature would be in the single digits. We had to wear full body suits. Plus the rocks and the risk of drowning make it impossible. Another raft completely overturned and we were doing rescues for 30% of the route! The surface freezes in winter and in olden days there was no road. So the people in Zanskar trekked on the ice to get supplies. The trek is now a dangerous tourist attraction!


Another view of the Zanskar and Indus confluence where we finished our rafting trip.


Climbing up the Chang La pass to go to Pangong. This is the Indus valley.


This is after Chang La and is the Shyok valley. This river meets the Nubra river that comes from the Siachen glacier.




Yak transport!


Climb to Khardung La which is on the Ladakh range. What you see below is the Ladakh (Indus) valley. The mountain range you see beyond the valley (set of peaks from middle to the left) is the Zanskar range.


Man vs. mountain!


This is a view of the Nubra valley north of Khardung La and the peaks in the distance are the Karakoram range. The Nubra is fed by the Siachen glacier on the Karakoram range. The Karakoram range is glaciated in about 28-50% of its area. This is unheard of outside the polar regions. The other parts of the high Himalayas are only around 10-15% glaciated. Siachen is truly scary. The temperature is like the north or south poles but even worse are the oxygen levels which are really really low. We met a soldier at Pangong who told us about it.

There are trade routes to the right and to the left of the peaks that you see that connect to Yarkand and onward to China.


The same view from Google Earth! You can see the road winding down into the Nubra valley and all the peaks we see in the photo. This is why its awesome. This allows you to identify peaks and places very easily from photographs.


All the rivers we crossed are part of the Indus watershed and reach the Arabian sea near Sindh. A watershed is basically a topological shape that ensures that ultimately all streams in this area become a single stream and join the sea. Sometimes the stream(s) divide again before reaching the sea in a delta region like the Sunderbans. You can think of it like a deformed wash basin where all the water poured in has only one exit. The Ganga watershed is adjacent to the Indus Watershed. Earthquakes (or even erosion) can deform or modify a watershed. It is speculated that earthquakes are the reason for the Yamuna to take a turn and join the Ganga watershed. Apparently, earlier it used to feed into the Rajasthan area via the Ghaggar river. The Thar desert was likely created by the shifting of these rivers away.

A quick note on how the Himalayas were formed. This is what happened (Source).


So at some point there was a narrow sea between the Indian and Eurasian plate that became narrower and narrower till the Himalayas were created. This sea was called the Tethys. Fossils of sea animals have been found in the Himalayas.

Checkout this picture: You can see the sedimentary layers which were once horizontal are now completely vertical on the left side and about 45 degrees on the right of this picture. Imagine the kind of forces needed to throw this much rock and make it land this way! It is a geological process that took many million years. These layers contain the fossil evidence that I mentioned.


The Himalayas are still being formed. They are geologically young. This picture shows how rugged it is. Every winter, snow and ice will create avalanches that keep reshaping this land while the movement of the Indian plate northwards keeps making the Himalayas higher. You can also refer to the “Man vs. Mountain” picture from earlier.


Finally a map because a travelogue isn’t complete without one 🙂


A salute to the BSF, Army and BRO for helping us cope with this difficult landscape!

Here are some BRO road signs that help you retain morale through the high altitude terrain:

  • If you drink whisky, your drive will be risky
  • Better to be Mister Late rather than Late Mister
  • Be gentle on my curves
  • Life is short, don’t make it shorter

and so on















Countries, Borders and Regime Changes

Control over limited natural resources and trade routes along with the associated ego boosts have ensured that map-making is a near permanent occupation. The current nationalism debate in India reminded me of reading Return of a King by William Dalrymple (a thoughtful birthday gift from my dear friends!). This is a history of the first Anglo-Afghan war which raises interesting points on the accidents that create a country; whether it can sustain itself as one and what compromises are needed. So let us use the Afghan example to understand these points.

Living in India, the best way to think about Afghanistan is like a buffer zone which prevented continuous migration but every now and then “pumped” people through down the high mountain passes. Many stayed back in the Indian Subcontinent and helped create the amalgamation of humanity we see today and some plundered and managed to return home. The plunderers were normally based in today’s Afghanistan or a few in Uzbekistan. Why is this a “pump”? Now and then people were pushed into Afghanistan due to various reasons (war or famine in their homeland or a sense of adventure or a disinherited prince with an army etc.). Afghanistan by design cannot support a large population (especially a surge) due to its aridity and difficult terrain. So whenever an unsustainable number of people accumulated in Afghanistan they had 2 choices – go back home or ride through the passes to the comparatively awesome Indian subcontinent.

We first take a quick look at the map (source):


It does look Victorian like the side profile of a lady wearing a fancy hat with a feather to boot! The feather marked in blue, otherwise known as the Wakhan Corridor is a “geographic cul-de-sac” (quoting Wikipedia) created by the forces that made modern-day Afghanistan. We will come back to this later.

Another look at wider view with more topographic and political details (source).


When you look at the map the country doesn’t make any geographic sense:

  • The Hindu Kush mountains cover a good part of the middle of the country cutting the country into several pieces that don’t connect logically.
  • The many rivers that start in the mountains of Afghanistan, flow in half a dozen different directions with most not reaching the sea: The Swat river empties east into the Indus but some like the Helmand, Harut and Harirud end in the Sistan basin Iran/Afghanistan and others like Murghab and Amu in Turkmenistan.
  • The region south of Kandahar is a logical continuum of Balochistan which is now part of Pakistan and is a sandy desert called guess what – Registan
  • The region east of the road from Kandahar to Ghazni is a sort of dry desert between the Hindu Kush and the FATA highlands in the Af-Pak border beyond which lies Quetta
  • There is a small valley (Jalalabad) between the Hindu Kush and Safed Koh ranges. The Khyber pass is on the Safed Koh range on the road from Jalalabad to Peshawar (in the plains beyond the Safed Koh in Pakistan)
  • Surrounding the Hindu Kush are a short expanse of plains or plateau before you hit the Uzbek, Turkmen or Iranian border. Given the superiority you have when occupying the highlands you can radiate a bit of control over the surrounding plains/plateaus but you cannot occupy an Iran or Uzbekistan! Conversely an Iran or Uzbekistan cannot radiate control into the Hindu Kush mountains. In other words, a geographic stalemate.
  • When they tell you that you could reach the Indian Subcontinent in historic times by climbing either the Khyber or the Bolan pass it is only a half truth.
  • To go from Kabul to Jalalabad (the modern highway is still dangerous) you have to first cross the Khord Kabul pass, the Tezin pass and the Jagdalak pass. Then and only then you may cross the Khyber to reach the Subcontinent proper (Peshawar).
  • The Bolan route is no easier. From Kandahar you cross the Khojak pass through to Quetta after which you may attempt the Bolan pass. If you decide to avoid all the mountain passes then you just trek through the registan!
  • Winter is extremely cold and summer fairly hot along with frequent earthquakes on the Hindu Kush. The elements truly hate you here!
  • To control a mountain pass you need to have strong supply lines. If party A controls Peshawar and party B controls Jalalabad then the Khyber is truly no man’s land in between. This is today’s situation. In historic times Peshawar has been controlled by the Afghans but it was difficult to maintain supply lines from across the Khyber and this was not sustainable always. There are some smaller mountains between Islamabad and Peshawar but this is not an insurmountable difficulty in modern times.
  • Quetta lies between 2 passes and has changed hands historically several times between rulers of Kandahar and of the subcontinent.
  • It is extremely challenging for an attacker from beyond Afghanistan to reach the Subcontinent because reaching Kabul itself from Bukhara or Samarkand means crossing another two or three mountain passes!
  • The Hindu Kush and the Registan are key in truly defining an “Indian Subcontinent” because without these it would be a free pass for all!
  • Therefore, a short trip from one city in Afghanistan to another means crossing a couple of high mountain passes or passing through deserts etc. etc. In historic times this mean every valley and mountain pass had its own tribe whose easiest economic activity was to terrorize any caravans that made the mistake of passing through. To make a trip across these roads you had to pay a “treacherous geography tax“. If you didn’t pay up a horde would ride up on horses and slaughter an already tired caravan. These tribes have made money this way since very ancient times (think pre-silk road) and they still do
  • However, no one tribe could take over the country because of all the above geographic challenges. An uneasy equilibrium was maintained. Tribes had reputations to maintain with huge egos. If one tribe defeated another and took control of a pass or valley, no one forgot. There was always a fight-back even if it came two generations later. They just fought each other until an external force (like the British) appeared and they united momentarily against them. Even the Taliban had to fight the Northern Alliance (ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and others) during its rule.
  • Ranjit Singh of Punjab (undivided) is kind of responsible for the disturbance in the equilibrium when he conquered Peshawar (Khyber Pakhtunwa) and the FATA. The British (and later Pakistan) inherited this. It is hard to say where the equilibrium is but these areas are definitely within the influence of the Pakhtun/Afghani tribes and therefore a big problem for present-day Pakistan. The Durand Line cutting through Pakhtun areas was defined after this disturbance in the equilibrium by a momentarily more powerful British. Afghanistan never really recognized this line, signatures be damned! The Durand Line intrudes a bit too much into the mountains that are not very amenable to control by subcontinental powers.

In light of the above, creating a country here with a strong central power just doesn’t make common sense. So when you read reports of Warlord A (probably Uzbek) controlling Mazar-i-Sharif or Warlord B (probably a tribal from near Quetta) controlling Kandahar, don’t be surprised anymore. Central powers have always had to give local tribes and group broad autonomy to survive even for brief periods and therein lies a possible solution to this problem. Anglo-Afghan wars (there have been four of them since the 1830s), typically start because someone behind a British (or American) desk did not understand these ground realities. The script then follows: dislodge the regime in a matter of days, install a puppet ruler, put soldiers on the ground, struggle to keep supply lines going, take casualties from insurgents, retreat. And repeat! Dalrymple just replaces a handful of names in the first Anglo-Afghan War history and voila you have the current Afghan situation already documented. 

The British tried controlling Afghanistan (grossly overestimating that the Russians could overcome the above geographic challenges and reach India!) and had to retreat with heavy losses. Time and again the central power (Taliban is the latest) in Afghanistan was easily removed but were able to prevent any stability by savaging supply lines passing through difficult deserts and mountain passes and continue an insurgency.

As promised we will also tackle the question of the Wakhan Corridor raised earlier. This is an extreme rugged and high altitude landscape even for Afghanistan but it was on the main trade route from Badakhshan (northern Afghanistan) to Yarkand in the Pamirs and China beyond. This was one of the routes of the Silk Road and ancient celebrities like Marco Polo are said to have crossed this. The northern border was defined as the edge of the Russian empire (as it is along the Pamir river) in an Anglo-Russian Treaty and the southern border was defined by the Durand line. China lies beyond this corridor and now refuses to open it for trade. So the Wakhan Corridor was just to ensure that no part of Russian territory touched British India.

Is there a solution?

  • Unite the historic tribes either by drawing a new line or by making the line irrelevant. This means Peshawar comes under some question and so do the northern regions in Pakistan like Swat. Pakistan will obviously disagree but it might help their security. Even Balochistan will need some rethink on similar lines to improve the current situation.
  • Define smaller geographic units using geography and ethnicity and not lines drawn on maps by bureaucrats sitting in their offices. Provide heavy regional autonomy with only foreign affairs and military (not police) centrally controlled. Try to include the Pakhtun territories currently part of Pakistan in this framework and make nationality irrelevant?
  • Have a Presidency that rotates between tribes but with elected executives to run the Government?
  • Tax trade routes (old formula) and devolve most of it to the tribes (officially regions). Even current tribal borders sometimes are not at equilibrium! This needs to be addressed.

Is this a general problem?

  • Yes, Iraq is an example where borders were drawn by artists in Europe and small ethnic groups were split 2 or 3 ways. Equilibrium will be restored and until then we will see fake equilibriums (Saddam) or real chaos (now).
  • Sudan already split
  • The Balkans after the break of the Austro-Hungarian empire
  • In all of these places regime changes don’t help because of the underlying weird borders.
  • A geographically well-defined country can sustain itself for long periods. Island countries truly demonstrate this! But rivers and mountains that naturally separate ethnic groups should be given primacy over temporary disturbances when defining borders in a civilized world. In this sense, the Indian Subcontinent is a fairly well-defined geographic unit. If only …
  • Then again does a truly civilized world need borders? The answer is no. But not all countries, ethnic and religious groups are ready for such a world for it would demand compromise and compassion from all. Something we sorely lack in these times.


I might have got stuff wrong here because I don’t do this for a living. I read Dalrymple’s book about an year ago and have also read up extensively on articles and write-ups on the Afghan situation. I don’t have any direct experience though so don’t quote as original research please!