Looking Back, Looking Forward

Published December 28-31, 2020


The Year That Was

2020 has changed us and the world around in many different ways. Few could have imagined the impact of the pandemic on how we live, work, shop and entertain. It is a year that will always be a defining chapter in our lives. Whether we have got Covid-19 or not, the coronavirus has left its mark deep within all of us. Each of us will take away very different memories and learnings from 2020. Even though the transition from December 31 to January is just a day, the change of year tends to bring hope – and in this case the promise of both herd immunity and vaccines.

I spent much of January 2020 travelling. A visit to the US with a side-trip to Guatemala for the Antigua Forum. I love travelling. Little did I know then that it would be my last international trip for a very long time. I woke up to the possible impact of the virus in late February when a friend sent an email about the possible death and destruction that was likely to come because of the coming spread of the coronavirus. In March, I started tracking the virus closely. By mid-March, I had realised that some harsh measures were likely in India also – though I had underestimated the severity of the lockdown that the government finally imposed.

I was not fully prepared for working from home. My office desk and cabin full of books was where I felt most comfortable. And suddenly, that was all taken away. I did not even get time to bring my office desktop home, and so was stuck using my laptop for work for the next few weeks. We had not set up WiFi to cover the entire house, so the hotspot was how I connected to the Internet. I was quite unprepared for work from home.

Things improved once the lockdown was eased – I got my office desktop and chair home, bought a better table from Ikea, improved WiFi coverage at home. And by late June, I had also got back many books from the office.  The distant months of April and May are just specks in my memory now. I have to strain hard to recollect how those days went by.

The past pandemic months have been quite productive in terms of new ideas. I wrote about the April-September period recently. With each day identical to the previous one – wake up, get to desk, work, back to sleep – and no variation in terms of going out or meeting people in person, it has been actually possible to perhaps get more done than I could have imagined at the start of the year. Then, I had an idea called Velvet Rope Marketing that I was exploring. Over the rest of the year, many different tracks have started – how to rethink marketing and customer loyalty, what we need to do fast-track Netcore’s growth for the future, a new short-form email idea in the form of MyToday, imagining what an Indian Revolution that creates political and economic transformation could look like, starting Prashnam, doing two weekly web shows in hippoBrain and MartechBrain. Amidst all that the best thing has been that I have rediscovered writing. The old habit of posting something new on my blog each morning has made me much more mentally active than I otherwise would have been.


Father and Son

As I look back, perhaps the biggest change in the past year has been the change in the relationship with my son, Abhishek. He is 15 and in the tenth grade. Through the years, the maximum time we got together was typically on the summer vacations. Now, thrown together for hours on end, we bonded in a very different way. It started with our daily walks in April and May. We both needed to get some exercise, so we charted a path around the neighbourhood each evening. (Now, we just walk around in our compound.)

Abhishek and I started talking much more even during the day. He got to know my world of business much more. His ever-present curiosity led to question after question, which I patiently answered – something that has remained unchanged since he was a kid. And as he understood more, the conversations become richer – he would provide a different perspective and interesting inputs on what I was doing. Somewhere, the father-son relationship evolved to a more equal and balanced one.

For me, I found someone I could talk a lot to – in person. Zoom creates a bit of distance in conversations. However well one knows the other person, the lack of presence increases the distance even as the screen brings the other closer. Along with Bhavana and my parents, Abhishek was the only other person whose physical presence was a constant. In a way, he was new – we knew each other as father and son. But he knew very little of my world. That is what we started sharing as the months started going by.

Abhishek was born to Bhavana and me after 12 years of marriage. I was 38 years then. (See: The Making of Abhishek.) The IndiaWorld days, the early Netcore years, my political work with Niti Digital, Free A Billion and Nayi Disha – all were fiction for him. And in our conversations through the past months, I brought some of them alive for him – the ups and downs, the stories, the many failures, the few successes. I also spoke about my dreams for the future. He listens, questions, separates for me the possible and the wishful. He has become my biggest critic – and sounding board.

Relationships evolve a day at a time – and then suddenly, something beautiful emerges. Almost like the world of nature around us. One keeps watering and then a plant or tree is there for us to behold. With children, it is something like that. Many times, we fail to recognise the person within them and see them just as kids or mini-clones of our imagined selves. When I look back, the transformation in the relationship with my own son has perhaps been the greatest gift of the time home in 2020. He has made me better. And I hope I too have done the same for him.


What I Miss

There are many things I miss. Top of the list is international travel. For the past two-and-a-half decades, the long flights have been my source of new ideas, deep reflections and big decisions. Being up in the air, without any of the earthly distractions makes one meditative and contemplative – hours can be spent on pushing the mind to probe deeper on a theme which is so hard to do with a live screen and interrupting people. Ever since I discovered business class travel for the long-haul flights in 1999 (thanks to the cheap round-the-world airfares that were common then), travel became something I started looking forward to. It will probably still be a year before the romance of the 15-hour non-stop comes back in my life.

One reason I used to travel a lot was to attend conferences – and I miss that a lot. While online has replaced the offline, for me it was about the setting. Being physically present and mentally undistracted, my complete focus was on the knowledge being imparted. In those moments, the speaker’s words melded with my own thinking to create new ideas for the future. Even though one can attend and listen to many more people now from the comforts of home, it is just not the same.

The other thing I miss is meeting friends in person. As we grow older, we develop our own small circle. The monthly lunch, the fortnightly group gathering, the periodic late night chat – all have been curtailed. The occasional phone call or a Zoom session does not make up for the proximity that sharing the same space brings. In that sense, while I have spoken to many more people than I otherwise would have met, these conversations do not lead to the same connection that a face-to-face meeting does. I hope this will resume soon.

We had a monthly review for Netcore recently. 16 of us discuss the past, present and future. We had all met last as a group at an offsite in late February. A week ago, some of us came together in our office conference room and a few others joined via Zoom. Over the past few months, I had become a much more silent participant – reduced to a small window on a large screen. Just being in the room with everyone made me so much more active and alive – I was less hesitant in making interventions or even interrupting. I was not distracted or bored as I sat through the four hours of discussion. This is what needs to come back – the jiu-jitsu of ideas flowing from people across the table.

Choosing to become a prisoner in one’s own home limits our experiences. We learn when we put ourselves in different situations. The drive to and from work, unexpected encounter with a long lost friend at an airport, the short weekend visit to meet relatives in Pune or Surat, the customer visits – all will probably have to wait for some more time. This is what the pandemic has taken away from us – and hopefully, we will cherish these moments much more when we get them back.

So, as I look ahead to 2021, it is with the optimism that we will treasure our relationships with people even more – in our personal lives and at work. Each of us has gone through difficult times in the past year. Some have even lost a loved one. What I hope we remember are what changed us for the better, the things we learnt, the new bonds we forged. Our experiences and past shape us – what we have to take away from 2020 are the happier moments even as we have had to live through some sad ones.


The Year To Come

Tomorrow heralds a new year. We have been trained to think in collections of 365 days. 2020 is over, 2021 is here. And we start each new year with hope, optimism and even some resolutions. The fear of the virus is still ever-present for some – we don’t know if we have the antibodies, we don’t know what will happen if we are infected by Covid-19, we don’t know when we will get the vaccine, we don’t know what other long-term effects may be there.

But life has always been about unknowns. Whether in business or in life, the future is yet to happen and therefore unknowable. We can speak of broad trends but we cannot say for certain what will happen. The best we can do is to make the most of the time that we are alive and in good health.

For me, 2021 is about increasing the odds of success for many of the ideas that I have started on. There are many different tracks that I am working on and I hope I can make at least some of them work. My life has been about many experiments and ideas with a lot of failures. But that is what I like – new ideas which can hopefully bring about some change for the better. The entrepreneur in me keeps thinking and trying.

The post-Covid world will be different – 2020 will be seen as a defining year. Even as many trends accelerated (especially those around digital and tech), there will be a lasting impact on each of us on the way we work and socialise. Will I travel less since everyone I need to meet is but a Zoom call away? Do I really need to make a full-day visit just for that one meeting? Even when I could go to the office, will I prefer to spend some days just working from the comfort of home? Will I want to attend conferences in person when everything is just a click away? Which habits will persist and which will need to get altered? What does “return to normal” even mean?

Even as I look at our fortunate selves, there are hundreds of millions whose lives were torn asunder not as much by the virus but by the harshest of lockdowns imposed by the Indian political leaders. It will take a long time for any normalcy to return – for the kid whose school is not online, for the family who migrated back, for the professional who lost a job because the fat was cut, for small businesses who could not go online. But the human spirit has been and will be resilient. We have to each make our way across the obstacles. It is the hero’s journey for each of us.

Wish you all a very Happy New Year.