In a Forest, A Deer

I recently picked up a copy of Ambai’s “In a Forest, A deer” translated into English from the Tamizh, “Kaattil Oru Maan”. I had read a few of these stories in Tamizh earlier, but this time, I found the entire collection in English. (On an aside, ever notice how hard it is to buy our own languages in the big bookstores? I also searched online but could not find a really professional site stocking sufficient Tamizh literature – maybe there is a business opportunity here!)

Ambai is a writer whom I’ve read little before, but loved whatever little I had the opportunity to read. In a Forest, A Deer doesn’t disappoint either. It appeals to me all the more as a Tamizh woman who can identify with some of the crises of identity that her characters go through. The feminist aspect of her literature particularly appeals to me. For those of us who love our culture but find aspects of it infuriating. Dressing up, for example. Traditionally, South Indian men too sported a pottu (bindi) and North Indian men perhaps a Tilak. Clothing too was traditional dhoti or kurta pyjama. With time however, Indian men have discarded these symbols of Indianness, while many of us women continue to wear Indian clothes, although with large Western additions to our wardrobes.

The challenge ofcourse is that we have now become the flag carriers of Indian culture, which is why someone like Shashi Tharoor has the gall to “ask” (dictate?) women to wear saris, while he himself goes in for a shirt and trousers. I love Indian clothes, and I wouldn’t want to abandon them. But. The pressure to be a ‘Bharatiya Nari’ , to wear a bindi (which is a constant family request, if you live in the South, and are married), to wear a thali and ‘ensure’ the husband’s long life (questions of one’s own long life go unanswered), this constant pressure is often wearying.

Ambai’s characters are in a sense asking these questions all the time. In one of my favorite stories in the collection, “Forest”, Chenthiru undertakes a journey to a remote village in a forest, disillusioned with a family business that refuses to allow her a significant role, and determined to search for her own answers. This behaviour is perplexing to everyone, including her husband, Tirumalai. The desire of a woman to journey on her own, is inexplicable, it has no roots in history.

It was most appropriate for a woman to be a rishi-pattini, spouse of a sage, journeying along with her husband. If she did go there on her own, it could only be as the seductive Menaka, putting an end to a sage’s meditation. For a woman, a forest is a place where she cannot find her way…

The story is rich in its allusion to mythology. As Chenthiru makes her own way ahead, a parallel story is being written, where the myth of the Ramayana is being transformed, as the unjustly banished Sita writes her own story.

Sita looked up. The sage Valmiki was standing in front of her.

“What are you writing, Amma?”
She stood up and bowed to him. “A life story,” she said, “Sita’s Ayanam”.
“Isn’t the Ramayana that I wrote sufficient?” he asked.
“No. In the ages to come, there will be many Ramayanas. Many Ramas. Many Sitas.”

This movement between two ages, between life and myth makes the story more layered and enjoyable. Ambai uses such techniques in many of the stories to keep the reader engrossed. There is also the sense of an ongoing struggle, not always very overt, but reminding one of the battles on even today.

In the story, “Wrestling”, classical singer Shenbagam gives up her career, while her husband Shanmugam enjoyes the limelight. No one is presented as a demon, but the sense of loss is tremendous. One participant has lost, another’s will has led to the loss, and the resultant guilt, quietly held resentment and striving for an outlet, make for an interesting wrestling of wills. The match is not yet over.

“Unpublished Manuscript” is perhaps one of the few stories, where the struggle is open, violent even. Senthaamarai discovers her mother’s old manuscript bringing to life the father she has never known, as it turns out, an alcoholic poet given to verbal and physical violence. I liked this story both for the way Ambai has depicted the closeness of the single mother and daughter, and for the story-in-story form.

When she finished reading it that first time, and her mother returned home, she hugged her tightly. When Amma went to sleep that night, she went up to her and kissed her forehead. Amma woke up. Looking directly into her eyes, Amma asked, “Have you read it?” She laid her head against her mother’s chest.

Not all the stories are as dramatic. Some are just ordinary people, crossing the norms of ordinary behaviour. A woman who wants the single seat behind the bus driver, usually occupied by men. Not to make a statement, it is just more comfortable to have a seat to yourself on a crowded bus! Women who ask why, if Lakshmi is so powerful, she doesn’t take over Vishnu’s place, instead of sitting at his feet. Women who decide that the garbage collection work should be shared by everyone. These ordinary women who are the heroines of Ambai’s stories, are at once familiar and extraordinary. Their familiarity lies in their ordinary lives and problems, the sort of thing that could be faced by anyone travelling on a Mumbai local. But every now and then, the extraordinary peeps in, as they cross the lines of the normal, giving one the assurance that yes, truly, there is space for our own stories to grow.

USP ? What’s that?

If you are from the branding , marketing or related industries, surely you remember being fed up to the brim with the concept of USP, the idea that every brand must single-mindedly push a single unique position, for it to rise above the clutter of ideas and media, and capture that elusive space in the customer’s mind. Well. That space still remains tough to reach, but media space is no longer as scarce. Infact, now media is everywhere, including blogs that reach dedicated audiences, building-specific touchscreens that cater perhaps to a particular industry type working there, and ofcourse, the most customised of all, the personalised advertising targeted to individuals based on their search preferences and so on.

With this fundamental change in the medium, can advertising itself remain unchanged? Read this excellent paper by Mohammed Iqbal, a planner at O&M Advertising. It argues convincingly for the death of the USP, and the proliferation of multiple messages that can be “chosen” by audiences. Its lucidly written, and most relevant, considering how consumers are more and more becoming involved in the messages that they choose to receive and pay attention to, moving away from the linear sender – receiver theories. The paper is based on the “long-tail” theory that has received attention for some time now. The difference is that long tail usually stressed on the availability of multiple products thanks to easing out of bottlenecks in distribution channels (think online purchases of little known albums/other niche products which a store would never stock). Here the theory is applied to the concept of messages that a brand can own/send. Go read….its 20 pages of time well spent!

Flatterer Brands

Alcohol advertising is one of those peculiar things in India where the product is legal, but the advertising is not. Common sense dictates that manufacturers cannot make a product and then just hope for it to sell by some magic formula; Surrogate advertising is therefore very much the norm, to which the government sort of turns a blind eye.

Now one of the things about alcohol advertising is that many brands position themselves as “flatterers”, i.e. not so much you drink this and become wise/adventurous/refined/cultured/dashing/attractive etc but you drink this because you are wise/adventurous/refined/cultured/dashing/attractive etc. Now this role of flattery is something that has to be done subtly – everyone wants to feel good, but no one wants to feel that they are “being made” to feel good.

I’ve been noticing this advertising for Royal Challenge ‘Soda’ for sometime now, that talks about Napoleon Bonaparte, ‘Winner of hearts and armies’, and then goes on to say, “In you he lives”. Overkill Alert! There is a big difference between having my glass of whisky and feeling honoured to be in the league of fine gentlemen, versus directly taking on the mantle of Napoleon Bonaparte.. My guess is, a Royal Challenge drinker, however accomplished (s)he may be, will feel slightly weird on seeing this ad – its very slightly patronising in the way it builds you up into something impossible…after all, some of the best fantasies are those which have atleast the slightest possibility of coming true!

I am my Business

An acquaintance asked me for some help today regarding a speech on entrepreneurship that he was preparing, particularly regarding the trials of scaling up a business. Now, the fact remains that neither he nor I are actually owners of our own businesses yet, but having worked in start-up firms before, one of the first things that occurred to me was, how difficult it is for many entrepreneurs to move a business beyond themselves.

Scaling up a business could face many obstacles, such as lack of sufficient funding, information to enter new markets, poor working capital, or even lack of credibility that a small firm may face when approaching new customers and markets. But sometimes, the difficulties are not material, they are psychological. A business may grow from 1 to 100 employees and still essentially be dictated by the original single person. Now this is not a good thing, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it effectively ties down what the company can do to the capabilities of this single person. However outstanding he/she may be, any business of a significant size needs multiple skills, which can never all be available with one person. The reason for this resting of all responsibility in the single person, is that the owner feels insecure at the thought of “my” business being controlled or even helped along by other people. There is a reluctance to delegate any important decision-making. This is ofcourse not unique to entrepreneurs. Many managers do it too, unwilling to trust subordinates with any significant decisions.

Companies find it difficult enough to function in such an atmosphere, but for an entrepreneur-led firm, it can mean the difference between survival and death. At a practical level, customers may have doubts on the continuity of the firm, if all power is tied up with the owner alone. What happens in the case of any unforeseen event like an accident? Employees start viewing the company solely as a training ground for better opportunities elsewhere, since they know that they are unlikely to grow beyond a point anyways. So even if the entrepreneur decides that (s)he is not interested in scaling up, but remaining a small player in the market, maintaining routine business gradually becomes more difficult.

It is essential therefore for anyone wishing to grow (either in size, or in other ways, such as personal growth by freeing up your time), to be able to learn to delegate. Easier said than done, probably due to the need for control that seems inherent in so many of us! Pam at Escape from Cubicle Nation, one of my favorite bloggers, has written reams on this issue of trying to maintain control over everything, and ending up a wreck in the process. One of her good pieces on this subject is here…

Branding the Basic

I’m back! After a long holiday and one more week of absence due to not having computer access, it feels good to be back! Absence from the blog world sometimes feels almost like being banished to a remote outpost of civilization, that’s how addictive it can become.

I thought I would start off with some thoughts on one of the first hoardings I noticed on my return to India. Dropping into Chennai, I found many hoardings plastered with well known character actor Prakash Raj’s face, promoting a new product called ‘Krd Rys’. Now, as a native Tamilian myself, I’ve been the butt of many a curd rice jeer, but there is no denying that the plain and simple curd rice is nevertheless a favourite in the state. Garnished with some roasted dal, mustard seeds, chillies and some coriander, it can even take on a modest gourmet avatar. But, a branded curd rice!

Thats still a concept tough for me to appreciate. It looks as if such a product would mainly be for out-of-home consumption, say eating in at work. But, most South Indians get all the curd rice they want, at home. Would we order something like this for lunch as well? Or, even if we wanted to, its such a simple dish that its easily available at the smallest of hotels that serve “meals”. Younger audiences such as school and college-goers, I somehow can’t see them picking up such an unglamorous meal, even if it comes with a fancy sms-ed up name. And Housewives? Are you kidding! Rs. 10 is cheap , but spending that on basic curd rice which is so easily available at home…

I don’t know if the product is being aimed at the city’s non-local population. Chennai is increasingly acquiring a non-native population, but again, these are mostly North Indians, and curd rice is unlikely to be a popular choice with them. I am also wondering what sort of storage the product requires. If it requires a cold chain (without which curd could very likely turn sour), then it may be sold mainly in supermarkets/large stores – not the sort of place one picks up a quick meal from usually. Ofcourse Hatsun Foods, which owns the brand, could use its Arun Ice cream facilities, but the mind boggles at the thought of an indulgence product like ice cream and the humble curd rice at the foot ladder being sold together…

A Hindu Businessline article on the launch says, “Details of the investment have not been disclosed but the thinking behind the launch of the product is evident.” Not so, methinks. Perhaps readers could share their thoughts and enlighten me?