Modern Ganeshas

Om Ganeshaaya Namaha

There is this theory I have heard – just that I have forgotten the source – that Ganesha was not originally part of the Hindu pantheon, but was a local god who was coopted into the fold later on. In fact, the same is said of his “brothers” Karthikeya and Ayyappa, and it is interesting that all these cooptions happened as sons of Shiva.

Back to Ganesha, the story goes that he is “vighneshwara” not because he removes obstacles (“vighnas”) but because he is the “obstacle god” (direct translation of vighneshwara). The full funda is – the locals who had Ganesha as their god allowed him to become part of the Hindu pantheon (and thus themselves becoming Hindus) under the express condition that he be worshipped in advance of any of the other gods in the Hindu pantheon.

Now, as even most non-practising Hindus will know, pretty much every Hindu ritual starts with a worship of Ganesha. It doesn’t matter which other god you are trying to worship, you always start with a prayer to Ganesha (unless, of course, if you are a radical Vaishnavite – in which case, Ganesha, as a son of Shiva, is taboo).

The polite explanation of this is “Ganesha is such a great god, and a remover of obstacles, you better worship him first so that the rest of your worship goes without obstacles”.

The more realist (and impolite, and controversial) explanation (again I’ve forgotten the source) is that if you started a worship without worshipping Ganesha at first, the locals who had “contributed” him to the pantheon would get pissed off and ransack your worship. And so the Ganesha worship at the beginning of every worship (and invocation ceremony) originally started as a form of blackmail, and then became part of culture. Eventually, it became lip service to Ganesha.

Earlier this year, I was watching the Australian Open. The finals ended, and it was time for the prizes. And at the beginning of the prize distribution, the announcer (Todd Woodbridge) said (paraphrasing) “we begin with a worship to the native peoples of Australia on whose lands we now stand”. It was similar to some episode of Masterchef Australia 2-3 years  back, which again started with the same “invocation”.

OK I actually found the video of Woodbridge from this year:


In this particular case, what has happened is that Australia has (finally) learnt about racism, and is now going overboard to identify all forms of overt or covert racism, past and present. The modern Ganesha-worshippers are the people whose job it is to point out every instance of overt or covert racism. If you don’t worship this Ganesha (talking about the “native peoples whose lands we stand upon”), the Ganesha-worshippers will come for you and maybe disturb the rest of your worship.

Ultimately, like the original Ganesha worship, this has turned into lip service.

“Modern Ganeshas” are not restricted to Australia. I just read this hilarious tweet (new Twitter rules means I have to copy paste here):

Have been on college tours in the Northeast. Every admissions officer and student volunteer starts with (1) a declaration of their pronouns, and (2) an acknowledgement of the stolen native lands their college is placed upon.

This is similar modern Ganesha worship, but practiced in the US. Lip service paid so that the “modern Ganesha worshippers” don’t come and disturb your worship.

When Colin Kaepernick knelt down during the playing of the (US) national anthem, he made a powerful statement. But then, when people started randomly taking the knee at the beginning of events (especially immediately after George Floyd’s murder), it turned into “modern Ganesha worship” (lip service so that the worthies don’t get offended).

And no political “wing” or party has a monopoly on modern Ganesha worship. In some places, ceremonies routinely start with praise being conferred on some “dear leader”. Literal Ganesha worship can also help in modern times, since that still has its guardians. You can include recitals of (whichever nation’s) national anthems, or readings from the constitution into this list.

The less memetically fit of these worships will fade away (or burn out, in case of a change in government). The more memetically fit of these worships will remain, but over a period of time turn into Ganesha worship – a token done out of habit and practice rather than due to fear of any contemporary reprisal.

Ganesha Workflow

I have a problem with productivity. It’s because I follow what I call the “Ganesha Workflow”.

Basically there are times when I “get into flow”, and at those times I ideally want to just keep going, working ad infinitum, until I get really tired and lose focus. The problem, however, is that it is not so easy to “get into flow”. And this makes it really hard for me to plan life and schedule my day.

So where does Ganesha come into this? I realise that my workflow is similar to the story of how Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata.

As the story goes, Vyasa was looking for a scribe to write down the Mahabharata, which he knew was going to be a super-long epic. And he came across Ganesha, who agreed to write it all down under one condition – that if Vyasa ever stopped dictating, Ganesha would put his pen down and the rest of the epic would remain unwritten.

So Ganesha Workflow is basically the workflow where as long as you are going, you go strong, but the moment you have an interruption, it is really hard to pick up again. Putting it another way, when you are in Ganesha Workflow, context switches are really expensive.

This means the standard corporate process of drawing up a calendar and earmarking times of day for certain tasks doesn’t really work. One workaround I have made to accommodate my Ganesha Workflow is that I have “meeting days” – days that are filled with meetings and when I don’t do any other work. On other days I actively avoid meetings so that my workflow is not disturbed.

While this works a fair bit, I’m still not satisfied with how well I’m able to organise my work life. For one, having a small child means that the earlier process of hitting “Ganesha mode” at home doesn’t work any more – it’s impossible to prevent context switches on the child’s account. The other thing is that there is a lot more to coordinate with the wife in terms of daily household activities, which means things on the calendar every day. And those will provide an interruption whether I like it or not.

I’m wondering what else I can do to accommodate my “Ganesha working style” into “normal work and family life”. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

Ganesha, wine and vodka

I know the wife has been intending to blog about this for a while now, but in this big bad blogosphere, intent counts for nothing, and given that she hasn’t written so far, I should go ahead and write this blog post. The basic funda is that Ganesha idols in “traditional” Indian culture, wine in European culture and smirnoff plain vodka in “modren” (sic) Indian culture are all similar.

So two days back I got invited to a “bring your own liquor” party. Now, there were other attendees who mentioned they were bringing stuff that I knew I was interested in drinking, like Desmondji Agave and Amrut Two Indies Rum. From that perspective, I knew that I wouldn’t be drinking whatever I carried. Yet, not carrying anything would make me look like a cheap guy, and this is one circle where I want to preserve my reputation. So what did I do? I picked up a bottle of Smirnoff plain vodka, simply because it is the most “fungible” drink. I’ll explain later.

Similarly, when you go for a function in India and don’t know what to gift, and are “too traditional” to gift gift cards, and think it’s not appropriate to give cash, you give a Ganesha idol. So for example after our wedding we had tonnes of Ganesha idols at home (similarly after our housewarming last year). Why did people gift Ganeshas? Because it is the most “fungible”. Again I’ll expect later.

And the wife reliably informs me that in Spain, when you have to go for a party but don’t know what to take, you take a bottle of wine. I don’t know about the fungibility of wine, but the fact that it is universally drunk, can be shared widely and is seen as a classy symbol makes it a popular choice of gift. So what connects these three?

So what connects? Fungibility of course. Economists have long argued that the best gift is cash, for the recipient can utilise that cash to buy the item that gives her maximum utility. Any non-cash gift decreases utility from the maximum that can be achieved by giving cash. This is a different discussion and I’ll not touch upon that now.

When you are going to a party, you can’t take along cash, so since the top choice is not available you take the “second best” option. What is the “second best” option in this case? Something that is close to cash, or something whose general utility is so high that the recipient values it as much as she would value the equivalent amount of cash. Of course you don’t assume that the recipient will sell your gift for cash, so you gift something that is a “safe option”, that you think they will have the least chance of rejecting.

So why did I take vodka? It is a universally popular, colourless odourless tasteless liquid, and I estimated that there was a good probability that the demand for that is going to be high. So even if I don’t drink what I carried, I posited, someone else will, and that will help me deliver maximal utility to the party.

With wine in Spain, you know everyone drinks and appreciates it, and there is a chance that it might be opened at the party itself. Even if it isn’t, wine in a sealed bottle doesn’t “depreciate”, and the host can then pass on some of the unused bottles at a party  that she attends! And soon there will be the virtuous wine circle. So essentially wine doesn’t disappoint, and is put to good use.

And it is exactly the same story with Ganesha idols. Like wine, it has intrinsic value. Who doesn’t like idols of a cute elephant-headed God? Maybe people who already have too many such idols? But then Ganesha idols don’t depreciate either, so all you need to do is to keep it in a safe place and pull it out the next time you’re going to a function! And thus the virtuous circle of Ganeshas will continue!

As it happened, at the end of Tuesday’s party, the bottles of Desmondji and Amrut Two Indies were empty. The Smirnoff I took remained unopened, as did another similar bottle which was possibly brought by another safe player. But I’m not concerned. I’m sure the hosts will consume it in due course, and even if they don’t, it will come of good use when they go to a party next!

Branding and traditional retail

Last night, the wife sent me to the grocer with a rather long shopping list. The grocer in question is Bhuvaneshwari Traders, a rather efficient “traditional retail” store close to home. There are lots of shop-boys there to service your requests, billing happens in a jiffy (yes, you get a printed bill) and they usually tend to stock most items that you are likely to  need. Of course, being a small kirana, they’re not able to stock a particularly wide variety of SKUs (and I don’t think that makes business sense, as well), but they seem to do quite awesome business by serving most of the customers’ needs, and very quickly.

It is in this kind of a context, I realize, that branding plays a major impact. Twice in my “shopping process”, I had to decide on the brand of a good quickly, and both times, I went for a brand that was on top of my mind – a brand that had “pull marketed” well enough for me to remember them. So, the shopping process consisted of my reading out from my long prepared list, and the shop boys producing those items at a phenomenal speed. The speed at which those guys worked made me believe that it was an insult to myself, and to them, if the speed at which I ordered was to be much slower. This was like Vyaasa dicatating the Mahabharata to his scribe Ganesha. Since Ganesha was so fast in writing, Vyaasa was compelled to dictate at the same rate.

So, when I asked for “1 kg salt”, the shopkeeper responded with “which brand?”. Given that I had to respond quickly, I had about a split second to decide what brand of salt I wanted. Captain Cook came to mind, with its ads of the “free flowing” salt. But then, I remembered having been told that the brand stopped production some ten years ago. The next thing that came to mind was Tata Salt, and I immediately remembered that my mother used to use the same. I also remembered their recent ad on Kannada TV “deshada uppu” (the country’s salt). I didn’t need to think further.

A few items down the list, when I asked for Garam Masala, two shop boys popped up with two different brands. Now, I don’t recall having bought too much Garam Masala earlier in life, and  I didn’t recall any ads either. But then, one of the packets produced was “MTR Garam Masala” and the other had a name that I had never heard. Here, the general branding of the two manufacturers in question played its part, and I instinctively went for MTR.

The purchase process for “traditional retail” is significantly different from that of “modern retail” (the supermarkets and the likes), and I hope, and think, that Indian marketers understand this difference in order to market their goods appropriately. While it is true that in the traditional retail context, “sales” plays a large part – give higher margins to the shopkeeper, and he will “push” (since some customers take his recommendation) your product rather than a competitor’s – there is also the “pull” factor. It is very rarely in these contexts that a customer sees a number of competing products side by side and has time to make a rational decision – most shopkeepers don’t afford them that luxury. The key to this is efficient branding, which leads to the customer demanding a particular brand of products, so that the shopkeeper has no opportunity to push the one that gives him better margins (some shopkeepers do try this – offering a competing brand claiming it is superior, but I’m not sure customers buy this).

And I think a lot of Indian marketers understand this.

Life Update And Other Stories

So I got married. Oh, we made a wedding website also. Wanted to have a dating game at the wedding where people try chat up each other on the chat box in the website before they came for the wedding, but unfortunately the box wasn’t widely used and the wedding party (yeah, we did have a dance party after the “vara pooje”) went off “peacefully” without any one pairing up (as far as we could see).

The biggest pain point at the wedding was immediately after I had tied the thaaLi around Pinky’s neck. The stage of the hall (not very big, mind you – the stage that is, the hall was pretty big) was invaded by all and sundry. Random uncles tried to ensure some discipline and make people queue up, but to no avail. We were assaulted from several directions by people wanting to shake our hand and get introduced to the one of us that they didn’t know. I’m not sure if either Pinky or I actually got to know anyone during that process.

Then, despite a lot of thought and prior planning (a long time back), the inevitable happened. There was a long queue at the reception. Thankfully, there were large groups of people so the queue cleared out fairly quickly. But it was still painful looking at so many people wasting time there when they could have spent their time at the wedding more usefully, scouting, networking, flirting, eating and the works.

A large proportion of the guests have given us gifts. It seems like we’ll have a very festive 2011. Ganesha Chaturthi will be grand at our house, given the number of Ganesha idols (in various positions) that we’ve received. Dasara (navaratri) will also be grand, given the number of other sundry dolls we’ve got. And a large number of (mostly really pretty) candle stands means that Deepavali will also be grand next year.

One thing we fail to understand is why someone cares to give us something when they don’t put their name on it. I mean, what is the use of gifting if the gifted doesn’t know who the gifter is? Is the gratitude for the wonderful gift to be directed to the general public that attended the wedding? Why would someone want to let go of the good karma that they get by giving some nice gift?

During our honeymoon at Sri Lanka, we realized that both of us are package-tour kids. That when we were young, most of our vacations were “package tours” where you were made to wake up early in the morning and taken to a thousand different places with a really busy schedule. We realized this when we kinda got bored halfway into our day-and-half stay at a beach resort in Bentota. I think the most boring part of staying at a resort is that you get bored of the food! How many times can you eat out of the same buffet, irrespective of how large it is?

I take this opportunity to apologise to my readers for not writing in the last one month. I hope to be more prolific in the future. Given that my wife and I met because of this blog (technically, due to it’s predecessor on livejournal), she quite appreciates my blogging and is very encouraging and supportive. And as I’ve been writing this for the last ten minutes, she’s been busy in the kitchen making what I think will be delicious sambar.