Pinned Post - Flipkart vs Amazon Series

Flipkart and Focus 4 - Beware the Whispering Death

The fourth part of my series on Flipkart and its apparent loss of Focus and its battle with Amazon appeared in DNA on April 20th, 2015 . ...

Jul 31, 2010

Job Hopping To The Top

"Managing Yourself: Job-Hopping to the Top and Other Career Fallacies", by Monika Hamori; from the July–August 2010 issue of HBR.

 Job hopping does not lead to any faster career growth than staying put at the same company. So says this article. Not happy news for job sites. Not happy news for headhunters. Not happy news for employees. Not happy news either for the recruitment departments within companies either. Good news however for organizations looking for stability and for managers.
My analysis of the career histories of 1,001 chief executive officers who lead the largest corporations in Europe and the U.S. reveals that CEOs have worked, on average, for just three employers during their careers.
...I also analyzed the job changes of 14,000  non-CEO executives to compare the outcomes of their inside and outside moves. Again, inside moves  produced a considerably higher percentage and faster pace of promotions.
It seems that both executive search firms and search consultants are also likely to evaluate candidates more positively and more likely to shortlist those candidates who have worked for longer at firms. Anecdotally also, this should be borne out by a simple observation of the people who have stayed at a company and of those who have left over the years.

The second fallacy busted is that "A Move Should Be a Move Up". Not true.
... large promotions (that is, considerable jumps in both title and employer size) were relatively uncommon— less than 5%.
It’s easy to be distracted by a better title, a bigger pool of direct reports, or other trappings, so when making a switch, always consider what the next move might be and to what extent the current move will help or hinder your ability to achieve longer-term goals.
Brands matter. Brand value matter.
Those who leave for lesser-known or less highly regarded companies often gain in terms of title or position. In other words, they cash in on the brand value of their former employer. On the flip side, those who transfer to organizations with stronger reputations seem more willing to take a step down in position—to pay a price to acquire some brand value.

More fallacies are examined.


Other articles by the author on

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jul 29, 2010

Power Play

From the July-August 2010 issue of HBR, comes this column by management professor Jeffrey Pfeffer - "Power Play".

The article is written by Prof Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and well-known collaborator with Prof Bob Sutton. It is about acquiring power  to get things done in an organization. Especially in environments as characterized by the case of Laura Esserman, who managed to increase the speed with which cancer patients were treated as well as the size of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California at San Francisco, where she became its director in 1997 (Chip and Dan Heath also write about this in their book, "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard").
In sum, Esserman was in a position  similar to that of anyone who has tried to shepherd a cross-functional project, such as a new information system or product offering, through a large organization: She had lots of responsibility but virtually no line authority to compel anyone to do anything.
The words "power" and "politics" go together. Neither is seen in a very laudatory light.
As the organizational behavior expert Jo Silvester writes, politics is generally regarded as the “dark side” of workplace behavior. ... A perception that politics predominates in a workplace tends to decrease job satisfaction, morale, and commitment and increase intentions to quit.
Yet, being politically savvy can pay rich dividends. Unfortunately for some.
But empirical research shows just as clearly that being politically savvy and seeking power pay off.
You can be interested in being liked at the workplace. You can focus on your work and actually get things done - achievements. Or you can focus on accumulating power. Bingo!!! That's what will evidently make you successful. So this begs the question - if these skills are important, why don't people develop them? Saying it is distasteful may silence your inner moral compass' voice, but this moral high ground not going to win you any points within your organization.
So what can one do to accumulate and exercise power meaningfully?
The article lists such strategies as being in a position to hand out resources (the managers who will hoard information, or act as bottlenecks to organizational resources), being proactive, making progress on multiple fronts, shaping behavior through rewards (and punishments) - or using the carrot and stick approach - or even the Godfather strategy - "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia".

A very crucial suggestion is "Don’t draw unnecessary fire". It calls on the ability to keep sight of the bigger picture, and to not get distracted by issues that are not relevant to the end. The ability to focus. The point of the small battles one has to fight is not the battle itself.
People who effectively wield influence make it clear that you will get rewards if you help them and problems if you don’t.

Barriers to exercising power.
1. The Belief That the World's A Just Place - believing the "just-world" hypothesis can harm you in at least two ways.
He argued that people want to think the world is predictable and comprehensible and therefore potentially controllable. Once they happily persuade themselves of that, they embrace the corollary: If they do a good job and behave appropriately, things will take care of themselves.
First, it limits their willingness to learn from all situations and all people, even those they don’t like or respect. Second, it anesthetizes them to the need to proactively build a power-base.
2. Leadership Literature. Academics can often inflict more harm than good.
The teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptions about following your inner compass, being truthful, letting your feelings show, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in bullying or abusive ways—in short, prescriptions that reflect how people wish those in positions of power behaved. 
3. Your Delicate Self-Esteem
So anxious are people to preserve their self-esteem, and therefore so eager to protect themselves from the psychological damage that failure can inflict on their egos, that people will often deliberately kneecap themselves. A phenomenon known as "self-handicapping" comes into play - where people intentionally diminish their performance, thereby producing an explanation for failure - "I didn't study hard enough; otherwise I could have done a lot better." or "This is great, considering I hardly put in any effort into the exam." Nice.

A very timely, useful, and what I would call bold article. Makes me want to go and read more of what Prof Pfeffer has written.


Wikipedia describes "self-handicapping" thus:
Self-handicapping is described as an action or choice which prevents a person from being responsible for failure.[1] It was first theorized by Edward E. Jones and Steven Berglas[2], according to whom self-handicaps are obstacles created, or claimed, by the individual in anticipation of failing performance.[3] Self-handicapping behaviour allows individuals to externalise failures but internalise success; accepting credit for achievements, but allowing excuses for failings. Self-handicapping can be seen as a method of preserving self-esteem but it can also be used for self-enhancement. People may self-handicap to manage the impressions of others, or of themselves (though studies have been unable to test the latter)[citation needed].

An example of an individual self-handicapping is the student with an impending important exam who spends the night before at an all-night party rather than studying. The student fears failing their exam and appearing incapable. In partying the night before their exam the student has engaged in self-defeating behaviour and increased the likelihood of poor exam performance. However, in the event of failure, the student can offer fatigue and a hangover, rather than lack of ability, as plausible explanations. Furthermore, should the student receive positive feedback about their exam, their achievement is enhanced by the fact that they succeeded, despite the handicap.

Researchers on self-handicapping have distinguished between claimed self-handicaps, in which the individual merely states that an obstacle to performance exists, and behavioral handicaps, in which the individual actually creates obstacles to performance.[4] Examples of behavioural handicaps include alcohol consumption,[5] the selection of unattainable goals,[6] or lack of practice [7]. Examples of claimed self-handicaps include declarations that one is very anxious [8] or that one is experiencing various physical and psychological symptoms.[9][8]
 The Wikipedia page cites an external link, Mind - Some Protect the Ego by Working on Their Excuses Early -, where it emerges that it's best if you don't do the whineing, but get an apologist on your behalf. Interesting.
But the tactic doesn’t fool many people. In a recent study, James C. McElroy of Iowa State University and J. Michael Crant of Notre Dame had 246 adults evaluate the behavior of characters in several workplace anecdotes. The participants’ impressions of a character began to sour after the second time the person cited a handicap.
“What happens here is that if you do it often, observers attribute your performance to you, but begin to view it as part of your disposition, i.e., you’re a whiner,” Dr. McElroy wrote in an e-mail message. “But you can avoid this happening if someone else does the handicapping for you, and surprisingly enough, even if they do it often.”

Just-World Phenomenon
Per the Wikipedia entry:
The just-world phenomenon, also called the just-world theory, just-world fallacy, just-world effect, or just-world hypothesis, refers to the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is just so strongly that when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but often at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault.
To put it in plainer words - "the world ain't fair. Get over it."

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jul 25, 2010

Wall Street And Innovation

From the July-August 2010 issue of HBR, Wall Street Is No Friend to Radical Innovation, by Julia Kirby.
She finds that analysts tend to speak glowingly about innovations from major players that extend old technology, while downplaying the initiatives those firms have under way to capitalize on the next wave of technology.
One example is Kodak's innovations in the field of filmless cameras, as early as 1991, and its attempts to get the word out on this innovative technology. Guess what? Between 1991 and 2001, there were more than two thousand mentions (2,821 to be precise) of Kodak film-based hybrid products, while only 158 mentions of Kodak digital products in the same period. Go figure.

As has been written several times, obsessing over quarterly financial results can very often lead management to lose sight of the larger picture and the long-term vision that the company needs to have. After a time even the myopic focus on short-term results stops yielding results.
Chris Trimble, who writes and teaches about strategic innovation at Tuck, concurs. “I’ve had CEOs tell me that ignoring Wall Street is the only way to do the right thing for the company’s long-term future. They choose to invest in innovation, take the short-term punishment (in the form of a declining stock price), and hope that  the punishment is not so severe that they lose their job.”
What is also true is that you can manage what you can measure. Incremental improvements to existing product lines often produces results, measurable results, in the short-term. This is measurable. Manageable. And therefore rewarded. And encouraged. Long-term radical, disruptive innovations are by their very definition anything but sure successes. Even with a good idea to begin with, executing successfully requires often enough a different mindset than the one that provided the genesis for the disruptive innovation in the first place. An innovative idea is like a fertile piece of land. Successful execution is the crop that is sold in the market.

And a chasm exists between people who are good at finding that piece of fertile land and those that are good at cultivating that piece of fertile land.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jul 24, 2010

The early bird does get the worm

Fascinating though very short article in the July-August 2010 issue of HBR, "Defend Your Research: The Early Bird Really Does Get the Worm"

Christoph Randler, a professor of biology at the University of Education in Heidelberg,Germany, conducted a survey of university students and concluded that "people whose performance peaks in the morning are better positioned for career success, because they’re more proactive than  people who are at their best in the evening."

Whoa!!! Hang on, hold your horses, wait up, just-a-minute!!! What are you saying here? Anyone who works late is screwed? Is having to work late, because of calls with people halfway across the world, a crime in itself, that sentences your career to mediocrity?
Maybe not.
Professor Randler tries to be balanced, by stating that evening people have positive traits like a better sense of humour (check), smarter (oh yes, a big check!), and are more outgoing (don't think so), it is the morning person who is better positioned for business success.
Morning people also anticipate problems and try to minimize them, my survey showed. They’re proactive. A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.

It is not clear how much a person's circadian clock is genetic, and how much of it can be changed. Or if eveningness is really something that can be changed only with great difficulty, then why not try and work with this trait? Why do companies insist that employees be in office at 8AM or 9AM or 10AM? Deeply ingrained cultural beliefs for one. Lack of awareness of such differences between people for another.
But if current findings hold and eveningness is determined to be an inherent characteristic, I hope that organizations will look for ways to bring out the best from their night owls.
Interesting and intriguing, but also an idea that needs much more research and application of theory. Look forward to more research to come out of academia.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Powerlessness Corrupts

 From the July-August 2010 issue of HBR, comes this column by management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter - "Powerlessness Corrupts".

She posits that in organizations where middle managers are not empowered, they can often act as the stumbling blocks in a company's efforts to execute on some grand vision.
While strategy is cerebral, springing from a few minds as a tidy plan, the messier task of execution requires everyone’s coordinated actions.

However, I believe she gets it wrong when she writes
When companies slash midlevel positions, they often increase the burden on the remaining people without increasing their efficacy and influence— a combination likely to arouse risk-averse rigidity.
Risk-averseness may be one cause of rigidity. I believe the same can occur in quite contrasting circumstances. When there is over-employment, over-staffing at an organization, where middle managers have proliferated without enough responsibilities, the urge to block progress or ideas simply to keep some other group from progressing can be very high. When every group is busy with its own tasks, working with and as a team to make progress on their tasks, the group often has neither the time nor the inclination to put up roadblocks to ideas.
However, I also found this to be very true:
Scarcity feeds resentment. The less there is to go around, the more infighting there is over the crumbs.
Isn't this something that Bob Sutton has described very eloquently in his bestseller, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't?
Powerlessness burgeons in blame cultures. In an insurance company, a top officer known informally for a “big attitude without big accomplishments” dressed people down in public for not working hard enough. Feeling that their efforts didn’t matter, professionals withdrew into their cubicles and found excuses to miss meetings.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jul 19, 2010

The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right review

Typically brilliant, gripping writing. Articulates forcefully the stunning efficacy of checklist as a means of reducing preventable errors, everywhere. Drags a bit in the middle though. But succeeds overall.

The book talks about the increasing complexity that is becoming the norm in most professions. Where complex operations are involved, from surgeries to flying an airplane to building a 1000 feet skyscraper, the knowledge needed to perform these tasks successfully exists. But it is the sheer complexity and the number of tasks that have to be performed that leads to failures. Failures because among all the hundreds of tasks that have to be performed by the dozens of people, one single task gets overlooked. The key lies in the ability to divvy up the tasks between the specialists, and then be able to monitor and track these individual tasks as they relate to the whole. Project plans are the norm in building projects. They are less often followed in the medical profession. For two reasons. The first is that medicine is a complex as well as a complicated profession. Not only are the steps required to accomplish a procedure many and difficult in themselves, but they can vary from patient to patient. The second is that in medicine, when you err, a patient may fall ill, or not recover in time, or at worst, die. In the case of airplanes, hundreds of passengers will most certainly die if complex procedures are not done right. In buildings, if the construction has not followed all applicable rules and guidelines, thousands could die.

There are quite a few stereotypical myths that are demolished. Specifically, three of them. The first is of the surgeon as the solo artist who sweeps into an operating theater and with a wave of his magical hands puts things right. Not quite true. The second is of the master-builder who knows everything about constructing a building, from the plumbing to the wiring to the ventilation to the architectural blueprint... The third is that of airline pilots who know not only how to fly an airplane but also what to do when something goes wrong, or when one of several light in cockpit starts blinking.

The start of the book is riveting. The writing grabs you and you can't stop turning the pages. The introduction being off with a fellow doctor describing a case about a stab wound victim with a wound that was deeper than anything they expected.
There are a thousand ways that things can go wrong when you've got a patient with a stab wound. But everyone involved got almost every step right - the head-to-toe examination, the careful tracking of the patient's blood pressure and pulse and rate of breathing, the monitoring of his consciousness, the fluids run in by IV, the call to the blood bank to have blood ready, the placement of a urinary catheter to make sure his urine was running clear, everything. Except no one remembered to ask the patient or the emergency medical technicians what the weapon was.
"Your mind doesn't think of a bayonet in San Francisci," John could only say.
Turns out the man had been at a costume party, and the person who stabbed him after an altercation had been dressed as a soldier - with a bayonet.

The ninth edition of the World Health Organization's international classification of diseases has grown to distinguish more than thirteen thousand different diseases, syndromes, and types of injury - more than thirteen thousand different ways, in other words, that the body can fail. And, for nearly all of them, science has given us things we can do to help. If we cannot cure the disease, then we can usually reduce the harm and misery it causes. But for each condition the steps are different and they are almost never simple. Clinicians now have at their disposal some six thousand drugs and four thousand medical and surgical procedures, each with different requirements, risks, and considerations. It is a lot to get right. [page 19]
To take a specific example, when we think about an ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at a hospital, we somehow conjure up this vision of a person lying in a bed, with needles and tubes running from him/her to a set of monitors, and all. But above all, the vision we have is one of quietitude and solitude. It's just as if the very act of keeping the person in the ICU and running these tubes into him is all that is needed to stabilize and cure the person. We have movies to thank for this vision. But what about reality? Is it really that serene?
Fifteen years ago, Israeli scientists published a study in which engineers observed patient care in ICUs for twenty-four-hour stretches. They found that the average patient required 178 individual actions per day, ranging from administering a drug to suctioning the lungs, and every one of them posed risks. Remarkably, the nurses and doctors were observed to make an error in just 1 percent of these actions - but that still amounted to an average of two errors a day with every patient.
There are dangers simply in lying unconscious in bed for a few days. Muscles atrophy. Bones lose mass. Pressure ulcers form. Veins begin to clot. You have to stretch and exercise patients' flaccid limbs daily to avoid contractures; you have to give subcutaneous injections of daily thinners at least twice a day, turn patients in bed every few hours, bathe them and change their sheets without knocking over out a tube or a line, brush their teeth twice a day to avoid pneumonia from bacterial buildup in their mouths. Add a ventilator, dialysis, and the care of open wounds, and the difficulties only accumulate. [page 24]
The solution lies in having checklists.
In the Keystons Initiative's first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated $175 million in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives. The successes have been sustained for several years now - all because of a stupid little checklist. [page 44]
One criticism that I would level is that while checklists can certainly help improve coordination and reduce avoidable errors, what is not covered at all is the fact that sometimes cultural mores can hinder and hamper error correcting behavior. For example, it has been well documented that in a tragic airline crash, the co-pilot did not warn the pilot strongly enough that the plane's altitude was higher than it should be - it was simply not done for a junior pilot to be seen correcting his senior pilot. The warning uttered by the junior pilot was more by way of a gentle and deferential question. A checklist would not have helped here. The same goes for a hospital setting too. In some cultures it may be ok for a nurse to correct a surgeon in an operation theater, but in several others this will simply not happen.

The book does drag somewhat during the middle. But then picks up again. This is the author's first full-length book. His earlier two books, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, and Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance were essays on a related topic compiled into a book. Writing a full length book on a single topic is more challenging. Dr Gawande succeeds, mostly.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jul 18, 2010

Upside of Irrationality

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home 

A personal celebration, inquisition, investigation, and critique of the myth of the "rational person". Not a whole lot of new ground covered though. Well written, breezy style, easy-to-read, with lots of experiments the author conducted described in detail.

By itself the book is good. Recommended for sure. But if you have read other books in this area, behavioral economics, like Stumbling on Happiness (my review) or Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (my review), then at least some of the material will read familiar. Especially the parts about expectations and adaptation, which is covered at length and in a lot more depth in Stumbling on Happiness (my review).

The organization of the book is also a bit different. It is divided very clearly into two parts, and is also more personal than other such books.
The underlying premise of the book is that while we, humans, should be rational, and make decisions that are in our best interests, we often do not.
"From a rational perspective, we should only make decisions that are in our best interests." 
But we don't. Surprise! The title is a bit misleading, but given the incredible success of Dan Ariely's first book, Predictably Irrational, it would have been irrational for him not to reuse part of the title for his second book!

The very first irrationality described, so to say, is the fact that more pay does not necessarily translate into better performance, or even better motivation. Thankfully, the financial crisis of 2008 proved that more money does not translate into better results. Quite the opposite in many cases.
"But beyond that point, motivational pressures can be so high that it actually distracts an individual from concentrating on and carrying out a task - an undesirable outcome for anyone." The irony of these findings is illustrated quite unsurprisingly, when the author presented his findings to a select group of MIT alumni, "They all nodded their heads in agreement with the theory that high bonuses might backfire - until I suggested that the same psychological effects might also apply to the people in the room. They were clearly offended by the suggestion." .... "... Upton Sinclair once noted, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'" [page 38 of the ARC]

Another finding that is contrary to rational thinking is one of "contrafreeloading" - contrary to expectations, people do not want to always maximize their reward whilst expending a minimum amount of work. Borne out in several experiments, people do value the rewards if they perceive they have expended at least some effort into it.
As a corollary, "... sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy. If you're a manager who really wants to demotivate your employees, destroy their work in front of their eyes. Or, if you want to be a little subtler about it, just ignore them and their efforts." [page 76 of the Advance Reviewer's Copy]. Ouch!!! How many times, at how many places have we seen it, experienced it, and possibly even inflicted this form of motivational destruction onto others?

It stands to reason therefore, that beauty lies not in the eyes of the beholder as much as it lies in the eyes of its creator. "The Ikea Effect" chapter covers this irrationality.
These results showed us that the creators had a substantial bias when evaluating their own hard work. [page 94] ... When the effort is unfruitful, affection for one's work plummets. (This is also why playing hard to get is often a successful strategy in the game of love. If you put an obstacle in the way of someone you like and they keep on working on it, you're bound to make the person value you even more. On the other hand, if you drive that person to extremes and persist in rejecting them, don't count on staying "just friends.") [page 105]
The Laws of Labor and Love, or the 'four principles of human endeavor', are:
  • The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object.
  • Greater labor leads to greater love.
  • Our overvaluation of things we make runs so deep that we assume that others share our biased perspective.
  • When we cannot complete something into which we have put greater effort, we don't feel so attached to it.
Or what about revenge? Surely there is nothing so irrational, and emotionally destructive as revenge, is there? Well, it turns out, Ariely posits "that the threat of revenge - even at great personal expense - can serve as an effective reinforcement mechanism that supports social cooperation and order. ... I do suspect that, overall, the threat of vengeance can have a certain efficacy."
Don't believe me? Or the author? What about PET? Positron Emission Tomography.
The results showed increased activity in the striatum, which is a part of the brain associated with the way we experience reward. In other words, according to the PET scan, it looked as though the decision to punish others was related to a feeling of pleasure. ... All this suggests that punishment, betrayal, even when it costs us something, has biological underpinnings. [page 126]
It seems that at the moment we feel the desire for revenge, we don't care whom we punish - we only want to see someone pay, regardless of whether they are the agent of the principal. [page 146]

And so on... This book is not likely to become a classic or an instant hit, but offers enough nuggets of insight that you may want to bookmark several pages and return to them every now and then to remind yourself that man is, after all, not a rational animal.

Dan Ariely Wikipedia pageDan Ariely's web site
HarperCollins's book page

Page numbers, where mentioned, are from the uncorrected proof provided by Amazon Vine.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Jul 17, 2010

Brushing Up The Years - RK Laxman

Brushing Up the Years: A Cartoonist's History of India, 1947 to the Present Review

A drive through India's political landscape over the past 60 years, as seen and drawn by RK Laxman, possibly India's most famous cartoonist. The selection, at over 300 cartoons is good, but still cannot do justice to Laxman's genius, and some notable cartoons are conspicuous by their absence.

RK Laxman's satire is never malicious, yet always succeeds in conveying the point across. Looking at the cartoons, you also get some insight into Laxman's political views themselves. Despite his wicked jabs at the establishment, Laxman remained more or less a Congress supporter, looking askance at the efforts by opposition parties to stitch together a united coalition against the Congress' rule. He continually viewed the communists, or the Left, as an anachronism, and a party caught in a time warp, opposed to modernization and economic liberalization. His cartoons stood steadfastly against religious communalism, and has been harsh towards the likes of LK Advani, the BJP leader, or towards Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena supremo, and who ironically, is a cartoonist himself, and had worked with Laxman in the 1940s!

With economic liberalization coming in, one cartoon shows Mahatma Gandhi walking down Mahatma Gandhi Road, surrounded by logos and banners emblazoned with such brands as "Mac Donalds", "Coca Cola", "Pepsi", "Kellog's", "Arrow", "Woolworth", and more.
On the liberation movements in Goa and Pondicherry - the colonial powers are depicted as simians rampaging in a house, with whom Nehru is pleading to vacate the house (India), explaining that while the entire world was a colonial jungle once, the world has now changed. This is followed by an equally trenchant, yet 'silent' cartoon - not containing a single word - where Nehru is seen dropping a dead rat into a dustbin; the rat being the Portugese, who were evicted from Goa in 1961 by the Indian military forces. The punchline, so to say, is seen as the horrified expression on the faces of several people in suits, supposedly representing colonial sympathizers.

The common man is also India's own superman. A cartoon from 1969 shows the common man as the answers to the Indian space program's search for a person as someone who "... can survive without water, food, light, air, shelter!"
The Common Man

Several cartoons are devoted to the period during the Emergency (1975-1977), and then of the Janata Party rule.
Indira Gandhi is carrying a placard that says, "I toppled Janata govt." Raj Narain is seen remarking to Charan Singh in the background, "That's a lie! Everybody knows we worked for two years and brought it down."

--- The extent to which the political class had become alienated from the history and ethos of India's independence is reflected in a cartoon around the time the movie Gandhi was released. A politician is seen coming out of a screening of Gandhi, remarking, "Very moving. I understand it is a true life story."

Pages 101 onwards have several cartoons from 1984 and 1985, covering such topics as Indira Gandhi's assassination and Rajiv Gandhi's ascension to prime minister-ship. The tone of Laxman's cartoons on Rajiv Gandhi reflects the popular sentiment and overwhelmingly sympathetic attitudes of the people towards Rajiv Gandhi - seen at the time as a honest politician trying to clean up the system.

Laxman's pocket cartoons, "You Said It", start to make their appearance from page 166. These are generally more general in nature, and rarely feature any political personality, even though they do cover topics and personalities of the day.
One of the most poignant and saddest cartoons in the collection is on page 120. A woman labourer is carrying a load of construction material on her head, while carrying a toddler in her lap at the same time, who is also carrying a similar sized load over her hears. The mother is admonishing the child, "Learn to balance it properly, silly girl! Remember, soon you will have to start working." Seen in the background is a banner proclaiming the celebration of International Women's Day.

With over 500 million telephone connections in India today, this cartoon is a reminder of the absolute mess that the Indian telephony monopoly was, run as it was by the Indian government. A person manning a desk replies to a person, "Yes of course it works. It worked on May 4th, June 21st, and again on the second of this month."

Laxman had evidently not anticipated the emergence of the vile and never-ending mega 'saas-bahu' teleserials of the past decade when he drew this cartoon in the 1980s. A father is telling the mother, "Don't get angry with him - he wants to know what happened in the earlier parts because the poor fellow was not born when the serial started!" The serial in question is the religious epic Ramayana, which was shown for a little less than two years on television. Contrast this with some of the teletrash that has been going on for years and years...

  • One of the most famous cartoons, that Laxman drew in 1990, is one that shows VP Singh, the then Prime Minister, in progressively diminishing sizes, but with the size of his cap remaining the same - a reflection of VP Singh's Mandal card, that (re)introduced the monster of caste-based politics and reservations into the social fabric of India.
  • Cartoons at the beginning of the 1990s feature Narsimha Rao, and his (in)famous indecisiveness.
  • VP Singh makes his appearance on page 109, as the finance minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet.
  • The infamous Bofors scandal makes it debut on page 130.
  • Arun Shourie, India's finest journalist and possibly her most efficient minister, makes a lone appearance on page 270, on a cartoon on the rapid pace of disinvestment under the NDA government.

The Tunnel of Time
Servants of India
Best of Laxman: The Common Man Balances His Budget
Best of Laxman: The Common Man Watches Cricket
Laugh with Laxman: v.2 (Vol 2)
Best of Laxman: The Common Man Goes to the Village
Collected Writing
The Common Man Casts His Vote
Indian Cartoonists: Bal Thackeray, O. V. Vijayan, K. Shankar Pillai, R. K. Laxman, Mario Miranda, Abu Abraham, Kutty, Usman Irumpuzhi, Toms
A Dose of Laughter

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.