Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Going to '17: Stranger Nowhere In The World

As one must, I look out to 2017 for a new start. The time is appropriate to think what this should look like, on the morning of the first working day of 2017.

2016 was a strange year. I spent the year grounded, in a kind of suspended animation thinking about the next big thing, but doing it. Seen more graciously, this was a long recovery, from the burn-out of my earlier attempt but also from the two years of being on the road. It was not meant to be a year of reset, but rather of going back to drawing board, rethinking the assumptions and reworking how I start again.

I did not want to be grounded for a full year surely, but as is always the case with such things, I had a lot of false starts in 2016. False starts are very much part of my life and I am rarely discouraged by them: In fact, I take those as badges of honour, as proof that I went outside my comfort zones. Those, failures and disappointments, are symptoms of me living.

But, a sober eye could also see them as symptoms of over-reach, marks of a dreamer, and perhaps of the very opposite of what I intend - the symptoms that I am dreaming more than doing. And, while I do not obsess over failures, they are perhaps a good starting point on the New Year's first working day, on a sunny and yet freezing morning here in London.

So I start looking at 2017 with the acceptance that some of my plans are perhaps too ambitious, Utopian even. And, indeed, while I still hold the view that a life's goals should be in essence unachievable, as one should always live forward, moving towards something, the plans for the years and months that we live should be more practical. And, while I spent time in 2016 working towards a world-changing project that I eventually complete, I am perhaps no further forward by dreaming the big dream. Focusing on practical steps, on the other hand, and doing bits at a time, would have actually moved me forward, as long as I did not lose sight of what I eventually want to do.

What then I really want to do? I have come to realise that my interest and strength lies in doing International Work, but I am not fully aligned with how International Work is really done. The structure of International Business work is arranged at two levels, depending on one's nationality and culture: If someone is from a developed country, and preferably white, it is seen as a matter of attitude; on the other hand, for a person like me, Indian by origin and education, it is seen as a matter of knowledge.

I write this not with resentment, but rather as a discovery. It is a mental model that has deep roots, and even if the world becomes flat, it is assumed to be flat in a certain way - top down! So, the idea of international is one of an ecosystem of enclaves, with a slightly different peculiarity in each, but all striving towards a higher, Metropolitan, culture. The structure of International Work, even in most progressive of the businesses and sectors, is arranged around this idea - the cosmopolitan Westerner being guided by the knowledgeable native! And, indeed, this serves both sides, as exoticism sells.

Now, naive as it may sound, I have only discovered this recently. As I reflect on it, I realise there are two, and only two, ways of being successful in the kind of work I aim to do. The first is to claim to be an India specialist, as many people do. It is an attractive proposition - India is a large, complex and growing country - and I can legitimately claim to 'know' it. The other, more circuitous, route is to try changing my appearance, accent and cultural references, putting on more business jargon in my language and adapting to some fashion hitherto alien to me.

The point is, of course, that these strategies run against everything I believe in. Living in England for many years, I have questioned, and indeed discarded, many of the habits, assumptions and ideas I grew up with; but I have never thought of not trying to be an Indian. I know people who have, either by trying to adopt an accent, lifestyle, TV shows and music that will make them different, or by transmuting themselves into a business automaton, wherein their everyday language has become a derivative of business lingo, obscuring not just their origins but the whole person. I am, instead, embarking on, as was my original intention, a journey of learning and seeing the world, which is, and has always been, a quest for authenticity rather than its opposite.

This also means that I am questioning the insecurity and the exclusivity that my Indian upbringing gave me. Rather than setting up the stall and to guide the world through the exotic reaches of Indian market, my whole intellectual commitment is squarely against such exoticism. This, at its grain, is a struggle against the world view that I just mentioned - that there is a unity of knowledge and ideas, The West, working among various exotic enclaves, the World - and I am indeed no guide, therefore.

So, I am looking to invent a third option: To attempt to become a 'Stranger nowhere in the world', a true cosmopolitan in an intellectual sense. And, to achieve this, I want to do something which may sound breathtakingly boring for those who travel the world and amuse themselves by discovering the intricate differences between Hotel Lobbies and by learning the tricks to get upgraded in the flights. My plan is to commit myself to learning about a country - yes, just one - deeply and thoroughly. This is indeed my own personal resistance to the idea of superficiality of usual international work, but at the same time, this is very much one of those enlightenment ideas - that by attempting to learn something from the outside, it would change me from the inside! Whichever country I choose, I want to learn its history, culture and its people, ways of doing things and of looking at the world, just as I did when I came to England (indeed, I claim to have done this once already, but there is a special significance of approaching a culture shrouded in the unfamiliarity of language).

This, then, is what I do in 2017, and indeed beyond. My work in China already gives me a good starting point, and I am very inclined to start there. But Russia fascinates me - a country which I wanted to go to and live in when I was very young - and my familiarity with Russian literature and its history is still better than my knowledge of China. Also, I am tempted by Italian, as my recent deep dive in Italian History encouraged me to do.  And, finally, my highest cultural aspiration is to learn Persian, which, with my Bengali upbringing, I came to regard as a language of beautiful poetry and literature. My task today is therefore just complex enough - to choose one between a few options, all equally interesting - and because easy things are boring, I am feeling happy already.

 



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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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