Cecil the Lion and the Art of Judgment

Do you have good judgment? How do you teach it?

Cecil the Lion and the Art of Good Judgment

 

My uncle Sivaramakrishnan called from Mumbai this morning stating that he wanted to ‘capture Twitter.’  

Sivaramakrishnan-mama is called SRK by neighbours in his largely Gujarati housing complex, a fact that he accepts with mixed feelings. “I can’t expect a Shah or a Patel with their one syllable names to wrap their tongue around Sivaramakrishnan,” he says philosophically.  “I don’t even tell them that my full name is Sivaramakrishna Sundaram.  They will stop sending theplas and your aunt is addicted to them.”

The other problem is that every time someone introduces him as “our dear SRK,” people expect Shah Rukh Khan, not a short, plump, balding bespectacled Sivaramakrishnan. 

SRK-Mama is an active Rotarian.  He has become interested in Twitter because he feels that it will increase his profile.  He harbours political ambitions and needs a platform.  The fact that he has to ask me for help shows how desperate he is.  I have some 500 followers and have no clue as to how to grow them.  

“Can’t I buy Twitter followers like how politicians buy votes?” asked SRK-Mama.

“Twitter is like catching a tiger by the tail,” I replied sagely.  “Look at how they are shaming that dentist who shot Cecil the Lion on social media.  He will go bankrupt.”

“There is no question of me shooting a lion.  After all, I am vegetarian.  If anything, I will let the lion eat me,” SRK-Mama said piously.

I chewed a “Bite Me” cupcake morosely.  SRK-Mama had caught me on a bad day.  I don’t know if you read Anita Raghavan’s excellent piece about Rajat Gupta serving jail time.  I did and it raised lots of questions about judgment and destiny.  Gupta, everyone will tell you—and many have—is a brilliant leader, thoughtful family man, and a large-hearted philanthropist.  He attributes his fall from grace to “destiny” in the article.  Mostly, it was bad judgment.  He made a series of small choices about friendships and notions of wealth that led to one catastrophic mistake.  But here is the nub and this is what got me to chew the cupcake morosely: such a scenario could happen to you or I. 

“Do you have good judgment, SRK Mama?” I asked.  

He paused chewing his murukku and breathed nasally over the phone line.  “You see, ma, people of my generation are not trained to have good judgment.  How can you learn good judgment if the biggest decision of your life—your life partner—is chosen for you in an arranged marriage? I didn’t even seen your aunt before I married her.  Where is the question of good judgment?”

The dictionary says that judgment is the ability to make “considered decisions.”  It also says that judgment is a “misfortune or calamity viewed as a divine punishment.”  The former leads to the latter, I guess.  

Judgment can also seem like a crapshoot.  Most people who make catastrophic mistakes rarely realize that they are doing so while in action: witness fashion designer John Galliano who was caught on video spewing anti-Semitic hate while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; witness Justine Sacco, the South African PR professional who blithely tweeted about Africans and AIDS and lost her job.  Or Rajat Gupta who thought he was taking a call in the middle of a board meeting, little realizing that it would take him to jail.  In this age when anything you do can be videotaped, shared, or tweeted, bad judgment calls can be magnified and amplified like never before. Worst of all, you are not allowed to lick your wounds in private.  And here was SRK-Mama, wanting to dive right in.

“Do you know people who have thousands of Twitter followers, and if so, how did they achieve it?” he asked, sounding like an engineering entrance exam.

I actually know several people who have over 35,000 Twitter followers.  Many of them are obsessing about how to double these followers, while simultaneously outraged that people who aren’t as good as them have more followers.  Meanwhile, their spouses complain that they are “addicted” to Twitter.   

The literature on how to develop good judgment is scarce and nebulous mostly because there is no fool-proof method of cultivating good judgment.  It isn’t as clean cut as tidying up a room using Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo’s rule of keeping only those objects that give you joy.  Judgment is messy; has little to do with intelligence; happens all the time, not as a rehearsal but as a live-stream; and can frequently go wrong at innocuous moments.  Then how do you cover yourself? How do you reduce the odds of bad judgment? Here is my list that is in progress.

1. Eliminate distractions.  Don’t multitask.  Bad judgments happen when you aren’t paying attention; when you are preoccupied with something else. 

2. Cultivate people you don’t like because they think differently from you.  This will force you to question your assumptions; and assumption, to quote the immortal lines of John Maclane in the movie, Die Hard, is the “mother of all f*^$ ups.”

3. Try your best to tame your ego.  A lot of bad judgment calls happen when you are feeling like the master of the universe; when your ego is so puffed up with pride that you cannot see the hurricane that is coming straight at you— to hit you in the face.

In view of all this, I tried to give SRK-Mama some advice.

“Don’t get on social media,” I said.  “You are a contented man.  Twitter will spoil your peace of mind.  You will start comparing yourself unnecessarily with people who have no relevance to your life.  And feel like a loser in the bargain.”

“How does Chandraayan the Lion sound?” he asked.  “I am a Leo.  A lion.  Instead of Cecil the Lion as my Twitter name, why not give it an Indian twist?”

I sighed.  There was no point protecting an octogenarian from the savage mores of the online universe.  It was a jungle out there and Chandraayan the Lion would have to learn to fend for himself. 

Oh, and if you happen to stumble upon the aforementioned Chandraayan the Lion, follow him, will you? Just don’t shoot him down.

 

Shoba Narayan is looking forward to reading the book that Rajat Gupta is purportedly writing in prison.  She hopes that it will talk about judgement calls.  Instagram @shobanarayan.  Twitter @shobanarayan

Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com