About Karthik Nagarajan

Cryptographer turned researcher turned marketer. Global warmer. Rats' ass giver. Rachel Weiszer. Screen writer. Filter Coffeeist. That guy who uses the word 'branded' before content.

The deafening silence of words

“Pujara square cut that ball, jumping into the air….the point fielder took the pace off it, but the ball will still reach the boundary. Pujara moves to 74 with that” – the commentator thundered into the microphone with these details, like he was reporting from the front lines of the Normandy Beach on June 6th, 1944. One can argue that the analogy is apt, because Pujara’s insurgency against the second new ball was a crucial battle for India to win and it could turn the tide of the overall war. The real problem though was that Sunny was ‘reporting’. Those 30 words added zero value to the audience who has already witnessed everything he said on HD Television. They might have as well watched it on mute.

For the untrained eye, the 540 balls bowled in a day of Test cricket could be mind numbingly uneventful. A bowler walks tens of yards to his mark, then runs in really fast and bowls one outside the off stump, only for the batsman to leave it alone, so the keeper could collect it and throw it back to the bowler, who will do this all over again.

Except, the bowler is not just running in. Every muscle motion in his action has been carefully chiseled at the confluence of science, art and the human spirit. It has been designed meticulously to add every fractional kmph possible on the ball, stopping just short of permanent damage to the bowler’s body.

He is not hurling just another spherical object. The cricket ball is the most romantic of sports accessories. The symphony that the leather can create with air, ground, saliva and sweat is the stuff that can inspire poetry.

So, when the batsman is leaving it outside his off stump, it is not lack of action. In the .45 seconds he had to make this decision of negotiating the object traveling towards him at 148 KMPH, he has factored in the trajectory of the ball, whether the shinier side is, which way the seam is positioned and hence which way the ball will swing. He has also analysed where it is likely to pitch, what the bounce in that area is and whether it has cracks. Subconsciously,  he has matched all this data with the location coordinates of his off stump and whether any of the aforementioned potentially compromises it’s well being. And then comes the “percentage”. If he could rock back on his right foot and caress the ball into the 12 odd meters between the gentlemen standing at point and covers, could he have enough time to run 22 yards? Probably. But then, the man at cover has a reputation and this ball is likely to travel towards his left, which is his ‘right’ side. Is one run worth the risk of losing his wicket at this stage of the game? NO. And that is when he lets it go past him.

.45 seconds can be a very long time.

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That is just one of the 540 battles that happen in a day. And all great battles need to be immortalised by great literature. That precisely is the role commentary plays in test cricket – it augments mere reality into high drama. No, I am not talking about the iconic moments – Richie Benaud on the underarm or Tony Greig on the desert storm. Those must be easy I assume for the orator. It is between those moments that you need an artist in the commentary box. To  paint the mental tension around a puff of dust, put a defence in context, spread-eagle the anatomy of a cover drive, notice a grip, a crack, create legends out of men, women and their exploits, smell a rain cloud, searche for irony in statistics, make you laugh, set the stage for a decision, notice wrists, make you cry…

But alas, what we have had on show in Indian commentary lately, has just been reportage. Stating the obvious, hyperbolic reverence of heroes and having stock lines to describe situations. There is rigour and dedication in it probably, but certainly no art. No wit. And as a result, it tragically takes away from the TV watching experience rather than add to it. I know that Murali Vijay stepping out to Lyon in the last over before lunch was a ‘lapse of concentration’. I know that ‘a wicket here could turn things around’. I know that ‘keeping the scoreboard ticking is important’ or that ‘it was a well directed short ball’. What I am craving to know is the story and the emotion behind them. The nuance of the incident.

Commentary is a relief to a game like music is for the movies. They both have to compliment each other. If Morricone or Ilayaraja had just played sad or happy music corresponding to the footage, those films would have lacked magic. Lacked the spell. I yearn for Ian Chappel’s insight or Bumble’s wit or Dada’s genius or Cozier’s trivia. Mostly, I think I just miss Harsha. Sorely.

Here is an example of what commentary can be:

As I type this line, I just heard “This is an important innings by Pujara. A big first innings lead for Australia would not have been good news” and some one else concurred “Yes, India getting a sense that something will happen in this game now”. Then went on to add “there is every reason to believe India might even take a lead now” (we are 16 runs behind at lunch with 4 wickets to go). Another just cracked a joke I believe, but I can’t remember what it was. Must have been a ‘brain fade’.

Pro tip: If you want something on audio that remotely matches the intensity in Pujara’s eyes today, may I recommend muting your TV and playing this instead:

 

Mondays with Vardah

I have always been a coastal kid. Which means, my mind processes the words ‘cyclone’ or ‘hurricane’, just like it does ‘heavy rain’ or ‘hot summer’ or ‘world peace’ – sub consciously. The howling of the wind through the shut windows and doors that others find ominous, is something a coastal mind (or a Mumbai high rise mind, if you please) adapts to over time and I am a seasoned campaigner. The Madras cyclones of the 90s and the ones I experienced later off the Galveston coast, have made me more realistic in my worries. I remember a time at the peak of Hurricane Katrina, when a friend sitting in my third floor Houston apartment was worried our windows were going to fly in. I was terrified too. We did not have enough chips to last the night.

But that Monday was different.

There is something extremely spiritual about storms. Amidst all the disaster and general chaos, there seems to be the biggest evidence of ‘a plan’. An order. And for a non-believer like me, that can be overwhelming. Which is why, like all great spiritual experiences, I choose to enjoy storms with a dash of music. Over the years and after many iterations, I had found my ideal OST – Bocelli’s Romanza. In the calmness of his opening, in the crescendo and in the mystique of the composition itself, Bocelli intends to explore the deepest corners of love in one’s heart. But strangely (or perhaps predictably), I have always found only a cyclone in it.

Every time a fierce depression sets in on the Madras coast, every time people avoid the Marina, I have found myself taking my Santro to the beach road, just to experience this song with the storm. Or may be to experience the storm with this song.

But the Santro remained parked that Monday.

10:36 AM:

It all started with the cane blinds. Dad usually ties the ones in the long balcony to the iron grills behind them during heavy winds, so they don’t fly wildly and break the window glass panes. Dad is not just good at this. He is extra-ordinary. Once he is done, they stay in place and no rain or wind can seep through them. None had, in over a decade. But on Monday, the wind scored early and it was evident even at 11 AM, who was gonna win this game. One by one, the blinds were unchained and their unharmonious, unsynchronized patter against the walls were beginning to sound ominous.

The thing about coconut trees:

Trees lie often. Almost always, actually. Peak summer is often misrepresented as being bearable, thanks to the Mylapore roadside giants. The obscenely green parks in South Delhi (almost) give you the impression that something is terribly wrong with the scales by which pollution is measured. Almost all kinds of oaks lie about wind speed. You could be in the middle of an umbrella breaking gust, but these guys will be unmoved, like Deve Gowda at a trance party. But coconut trees are always honest. I grew up with five of them in my backyard and they always let me know if there was a party up there. Even a mild storm will result in a thud on the soil – a few fruits here, a branch there and some times the whole damn tree. So that morning, I looked to them first from my terrace and they were telling me a wild tale. With a tragic ending.

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The radio games:

A lot has changed in Chennai over three decades. But one technology has transcended time. All India Radio continues to be the only source of news during natural disasters. When I was a child, cyclones meant the family sitting around a kerosene lamp, playing a never ending card game, with food magically reappearing on plates and listening to the radio – not for entertainment, but to hear a specific combination of words ‘cyclone – land fall – Vishakapattnam’. Vizag has long been our trusted friend when it comes to taking the ‘fall’ – both literally and figuratively. We have diverted more cyclones there than SBI has funds in failing airlines.

But that day, it was only a land fall. No Vizag.

It is 2:30 now and the voice on the radio is asking people to not venture outside. It is warning against mistaking brief lulls for the passing of the storm. I can hear a baleful thud against our three storey apartment building. Is that the mighty rain tree near our gate? I cant be sure. I am not venturing out to take any more pictures. Not so much out of fear as it is out of a sense of foreboding. Dad and mom seem to sense something as well. The cards are not out and neither are the snacks. Laptops and phones are breathing their last until further infusion of life. This cyclone is different. It sounds and feels different.

Death toll:

Sometimes we sense bad news before it is broken to us. It is like you are going to the hospital to visit an ailing relative and you know even on your way that it will not end well. Thats precisely how I felt when I was walking down the dark stairs an hour later. There had now been more than half an hour of silence and it was deafening. I could smell death as I emerged outside and true enough, the mighty one at the gate was dead, in what seemed a bloody killing.

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I made my way on to the street. It was one of those moments that I probably will remember even a few decades from now. I could not see a road. There were things all over it. My brain was telling me that those were trees, but I was in denial. I could smell a forest. Or was it the stench of death? Death of the original inhabitants of the land I was standing on. A tribe that had been around eons before I set foot there. There were human beings emerging from the wooden rubble. It was like a brief respite from relentless bombing. Everyone was trying to make sense of the present.

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I could see buildings I had never seen before, even though I have lived in these streets for many years. The entire street had been stripped naked and I could not watch it. I could not process it. The former chief minister’s daughter, who we knew as a polite neighbour was out. She was not talking much. Her eyes seemed in denial as well. Now that the Neem in their front yard had fallen, I noticed for the first time that their house had a balcony. I trekked further. Most roads were un-passable, even for pedestrians.

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Destruction makes for great conversation starters. I realized one of the guys next door was a jazz drummer. There were talks about worse destruction elsewhere in the city. There was also a fear looming. Vardah had two eyes (or depressions). Only one had passed. The other will make landfall in a couple of hours. It was a break. The enemy was merely refuelling. I went back upstairs. The night passed. Nobody spoke much. I looked outside in the middle of the night. The moon looked more like a watch tower flashlight. I remember a NASA press release a couple of days back saying tonight the moon was gonna be 30% brighter. I wondered if anybody in Chennai would notice it.

Tuesday morning.

I couldn’t tell if more trees had fallen overnight. We were still naked. The 70 year old who delivers milk packets in our colony was about her business. I asked her why. “the truck had delivered all these packets. Imagine how much milk will be wasted if I don’t deliver!”. I didn’t have a come back. I walked past her.

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Probably the only one who stood his ground against a hostile 145 KMPH and batted through the night was the banyan. I made a mental note to refer to him as Sachin, in the years to come.

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People are up and about in the city and even electricity came back a day later. It will take a week for the streets to be cleared and even after 3 weeks we wouldn’t have any wifi. But on my way to the airport the next morning, I felt a sense of gloom. 13000 trees had fallen that Monday and every park in the town had been decimated. A large part of why home was beautiful had been erased. It will be another two decades for us to grow them back like they used to be. May be I will live to see it. As I glanced at the picture of my street in my phone, I couldn’t believe this was clicked just a few weeks back. I couldn’t understand why we were getting on with life like nothing happened.

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A life long disagreement. A lump. A void

I cant remember the last time I had a lump in my throat when a politician died. I do today. I surprise myself because I have never voted for the person, hated her brand of leadership and rarely agreed with her for the most part of her career. But her career also panned my entire adult life and I realize today that the battles we fought together and against – me as a citizen and she as my representative, have defined a large part of my life. A part that ended today. So it is difficult to differentiate the personal from the political, when it comes to emotions on this day.

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The Misfit

I felt for her as a ten year old boy watching the live telecast of MGR’s funeral, when she was man-handled out of the gun carriage carrying his body. Amidst hardened coterie men, she was an odd one out in that picture. I couldn’t help thinking that she somehow just did not fit in. If you had told me that day that the same cadre will fall on her feet willingly and worship her only a decade later, I would have been very happy with the World’s justice mechanism.

I had to take 25 C to my school and every time it crossed church park, there will invariably be someone whispering “that is Jayalalitha’s school”. I was proud of her. There is no country man outside my state who had / has a Chief Minister who topped the state in the Matriculation exams. She just seemed to never fit in! Years later, I would Love to show off her interview with Simi Garewal (1999) to my friends from elsewhere. I even bought a collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham, because she mentioned it as her favourite book in that interview.

I did not root for her in the first election that ensued. It was also the first that I actively followed in my life – a time when the term “Amma” referred to someone else in TN politics. An election that fascinated me as a boy because at barber shops and family functions – my biggest source of political discourse at the time, it was pitched as the battle of the wife Vs the lover. And marriages have always won in this part of the World. As she would point out in an interview many years later, almost all of the female leaders in Asia have been related by blood or marriage to a male leader. Though on this occasion, both lost.

The walking tragedy

What happened in the TN assembly in 1989 shocked me even as a boy. Probably the first of many incidents that would disillusion dravidian politics as a concept for me.

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When I read about her in those years, her loneliness drew me to her. The child who lived away from family, the girl who was forced into an acting career she did not like, the man who took her entire youth as hostage, a lover and a political successor who was just left to fend for herself…her melancholy was not just sad. It was mythical, somehow. And magnetic.

The Hatred

I protested against her and got lathi charged during the 1996 elections. That campaign involved morphing of her images onto photos of goddesses and religious icons. It had outraged all of Loyola College at the time for some strange reason and we walked down Sterling road in protest. In that phase of my life, my political views were being shaped more by anger than by inspiration. And those were not her finest years. That made it easier.

My Mom spent her entire career in the state government and when their union strike in the late 90s was met with an unprecedented iron fist, my anger against her found a new high. I was still too young to fathom the concept of decisive governance. But that notwithstanding, she was at that point more a despot more than a democratic leader.

I hated her for the hours I spent at traffic signals on my bike, under a scorching sun, so that her never ending entourage could cross. They usually stopped traffic about 30 mts before it crossed a spot.

It was around this time that the corruption allegations surfaced as well. But the TN polity has always been comfortably numb with the concept of corruption. The hero worship which is the base of politics in this state, almost justifies it to a certain extent. But nothing justified THAT wedding!   The obscenity of wealth on showcase during that week was probably what alienated her forever in the minds of families like mine.

The resurrection. Of sorts.

In 2001 when she won, I was heartbroken. But something had changed. There was a pronounced objectivity in her actions and even a cynic like me started to believe in her intent. It was as though she suddenly realized that time was short. Most importantly, she started fitting in. Or may be we just reconciled to her norm. Either way, my views also matured from the personal to the objective. It was becoming less about the entourage and more about the economy. We profited from the real estate boom around the IT highway, but I could also see a vision of some sort taking shape. What happened from an industrial perspective in that term was unprecedented for the state. It is also the reason why I later found humour in the so called Gujarat story, which was a much lesser product (on most indices) compared to Jaya’s, except it was marketed better.

I admired her when she banned religious conversions in the state in 2002. I cannot think of a more decisive and rational move at the confluence of religion and politics, made by an Indian leader.

I admired her for being the ONLY politician in the south to have a consistent view on Sri Lanka throughout (pro Eelam but anti LTTE). This, while I disagreed with her vehemently on the subject.

I always felt secure with her representing my state’s interests with the central government. Whether it was Kaveri or GST – no one could mess with her. No one did, until the end.

I am not a fan of welfare politics but I could see that behind the megalomania of self branding across the canteen, pharmacy, salt and water, there was an agenda. I don’t buy into that agenda but I respected the plan. I have eaten at Amma canteen and the food was great! It is an administrative gold standard that she was able to maintain the food and the premises at such high levels of quality, even after many years. In a country of ‘great ideas’ and ‘bad executions’, she was miles ahead as an administrator.

In many ways, that is the real void she has left behind. We have so few of such managers left.

Her legacy. My lump.

I hate her brand of leadership. I loathe her for creating a party and a government with no second line. Not even a spine. I find it insulting to the intelligence of the entire state. But that is also the tragedy of Jayalalitha. This is evidently not her chosen career. But one she stuck on because of her bullheadedness – one that she handcrafted for survival. In many ironical ways, hers is the antithesis of a tamil cinema script – A leading lady, a hero who is also her villain and an ending where she has her revenge but somehow still manages to eke out a tragedy.

I hated how she treated my city’s icons. She converted a 450 Cr structure meant for the legislative assembly into a hospital and was threatening to shut down my favourite city library as well. Why? because she could. Because they were created by her rival. I hate her for making my city’s street corners into filthy wine shops.

I hated her party men for what they did during the Chennai floods when hundreds of relief volunteers were forced to stamp her stickers on supplies. I hate her for never speaking about it.

I am scared by the leadership void she has created in my state. I fear for the future of my city. But as I see her last procession to the burial ground, it is a strange love that rises up to my throat. Because I know that person. I know her story. We were in this together. I know her mistakes but I also know her injuries. I know what she had to endure. All I want to do is to hug that 15 year old girl from church park, before she was pushed into the tumultuous world of fame that will eventually consume her and tell her that it will be all be OK. We will all be OK.

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BOM.

So the other day, I was walking from my home in Mylapore towards the beach. It was early in the morning – a time when Chennai is always at its glorious best , untouched by the stress of the day ahead. Never one to disappoint with its beauty, ugliness or irony, it offered me multiple stories, which like any other day, I recorded on my social stream. There was the beach that caught a bad case of Ganesh:

The Cooum in all her glory:

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And then this restaurant that caught my attention, for various reasons.

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Now, thats where it all began. But we will get to that in a bit.

Why did I share it? I liked the irony and the juxtaposition.

Was that a judgement on the establishment? Hardly. It had the same motive as this other tweet, where I enjoyed an effort to rhyme:

Was it a commentary on my language affiliations? No. I love my mother tongue but I write in 4 languages and I paid money to learn three of them. I am in love with words and I wish I could learn more.

Was I propagating regionalism? Nope. I have not lived in my home town for close to 2 decades and I am in love with the city that I call home now.

So it was just a tweet like any of the other 7705 I had typed earlier. But I guess this one unfortunately struck a chord. And good number of you Retweeted it. More unfortunately, it started getting misinterpreted. Not just the original tweet, but others’ sarcasm as well. Like this one:

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Now, I deal with social media for a living and I am familiar with negativity having a higher velocity than its counterpart but this got a bit out of hand. WAY out of hand. And I am as much guilty as anybody else for having caused it (even though I have the right to express myself). While I am not sure why this particular tweet caught everybody’s fancy (I wish my Ganesh beach tweet had met even half this enthusiasm!), it did eventually become a problem and hence needed to be removed.

The people behind this establishment have put in a lot of heart into creating this place and I am sure they have wonderful plans to market it. One look at their Zomato page tells you so much about the love that has gone into building this place. An unintended tweet has caused them a lot of pain and made them feel unwelcome. How about we change that? How about we do the reverse of what a MOB does? Can we help rebuild a bit of what we might have destroyed? If you are in Chennai, why dont you visit this restaurant, enjoy their hospitality and let the world know by tweeting with #Supportnotdiscourage ? Hell, I know Mylapore can use a good Parantha 🙂

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Whose Canvas is it anyway?

(as appeared in Brand Equity on March 1st, 2016)

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self” – Igor Stravinsky.

And as one of the most impactful creators ever, Stravinsky will know.

An area of relevance for this quote is the world of mobile advertising. The constraints of the platform have often challenged us to come up with creative solutions. There is a reason why many of us don’t remember great mobile ads, the way we do TV commercials or digital videos. How many water cooler conversations have we had about that brilliant banner? But unlike Stravinsky, we have not been able to free ourselves. Our efforts so far have been lacking in imagination.

Facebook has now attempted to solve this problem with ‘Canvas’ – a mobile ad format that is meant to empower marketers and unchain innovation. Is this the right solution though? A few things come to mind:
The story telling chasm:

In display advertising in general and mobile advertising in particular, this has rarely been crossed successfully. However with Canvas, marketers will probably have the best opportunity up until now to create a mobile experience that the user will remember. A great example of that is what brands like Wendy’s and ASUS have already been able to achieve on this.

However we need to remember that since Canvas is post-click, it is really a solution in the advertiser’s time and not the platform’s time. Shouldn’t brands be able to tell better stories to users before they engage with the ad (and in the process increase the probability of the same)?

The user side of the story:

All great mobile experiences have one starting point – putting the user at ease. With slow loading sites and the need to leave an app environment for a browser, the mobile ad experience on Facebook has remained choppy. By having the endpoints of these ads preloaded so they appear almost instantly when a user clicks on the ad link in the news feed, FB seems to have solved this problem. And by leveraging design elements that users are familiar with – like browsing photos, Canvas will probably be the most intuitive ad format on this platform yet.

However this comes at a cost to the brand – It will not be able to create a unified ad experience across platforms. The post click world will be so different on Facebook when compared to YouTube, for the same campaign. Why should a brand relinquish consistency? Also, is this Facebook’s problem to solve? Is it taking up a task that should ideally be done by an industry standard?

The status quo:

Canvas might not necessarily cost more for planners and more importantly, it can be created without much fuss on the self-serve tool. Brands can drag around images, videos and GIFs to ‘storify’ their message. In that sense, it seems like a win for all at the moment – Facebook wins because users are spending more time; marketers win because there is more engagement with the ad and most importantly, users win because advertising got a bit more interesting. But a closer scrutiny will reveal that Facebook probably wins much more than the others.

At the end of the day, Canvas mandates brands to relinquish more campaign control to Facebook. This is OK from a Facebook POV because it wants brands to think of their platform as a universe in itself. However, I am not sure brands are on the same page yet. What is in it for them? If you think about it, for years now brands have been spending monies endlessly in driving traffic to Facebook brand pages – a traffic that has largely remained within the confines of that platform.

How can Facebook change this perception? Data could be a starting point. Historically, Facebook has not been the most forthcoming when it comes to sharing data or insights (related to consumer behavior) with brand custodians. Could that change with Canvas? Could that be leverage for Facebook to get brands to travel with them further? Possibly. If not, we might probably fall short of a few brushes on this canvas.