When Coffee Kills : Freaky Fridays – Weekly Blog

As the business fraternity in India tries to recover from the shock demise of Café Coffee Day Founder VG Siddhartha, lets take a look at some unaddressed issues facing the society at large.

Siddhartha, through Coffee Day was one of the shining stars in India’s entrepreneurial circuit in the late 1990s. From the first Coffee Day in 1996, the chain had expanded to 1600 outlets as on date. A phenomenal achievement considering the modest beginnings. The rise of CCD as a youthful, aspirational brand coincided with the rise of India’s middle class with higher disposable income. Siddhartha had most things going in his favour – a strong business case with a first mover advantage in a then untapped segment ( pre Starbucks, pre Barista, pre Chai Point), a good customer experience offering by and large and strong political contacts. Very little could go wrong, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, running a business in India is not as easy as it seems. For every celebrated entrepreneur, there are untold stories of five to six failures. You not only need to compete with competition, but also with political and regulatory uncertainties. On top of it, working capital challenges crop up. The desire to grow top line, bottom line quickly leads to more debt, leading to increased exposure and when the engine stops due to a seemingly small issue, the vehicle comes to a halt. The desire to become a cult celebrity may force people to take risky paths.

While various angles are being probed into Siddhartha’s death –  tax terrorism, investor pressure, political vendetta, what I fail to fathom at the core of this issue is this. As per the unverified letter written to the shareholders, Siddhartha acknowledges huge debts and declares enough assets to pare the debts. The huge debts could have been a reason to sell off his Mindtree shares. If he was so sure of him having enough assets, why then end his life? He cites pressure from a certain private investor along with tax harassment. Is the pressure unjustified? Was there financial fraud, which not many were aware of? With a new BJP government in Karnataka, was he fearing the worst of times for him? Only Siddhartha knew the answers and hopefully a thorough “un-tampered” investigation will reveal finer details.

With a huge debt burden ballooning and banks tightening credit norms in the wake of the ILFS crisis, Siddhartha had a huge task at hand. Siddhartha’s story is very similar to Ramalinga Raju of Satyam. Great brands, great promise but the owners confessed shockingly when nobody expected them to. And until they confessed, the world did not know that things were murky. They took that step because all roads led to a dead end.

It is saddening that Siddhartha chose to take the most extreme step when cornered. He seemed to have decided that ending his life was better than suffering in possible disgrace. When stress gets the better of the mind, then all hell breaks loose. The most important organ in the human body, aside of the heart is the human mind. Unfortunately, most of us give least importance to maintaining the mind in good condition. When we have the slightest of physical pain, we reach out to a doctor, take tablets. But when something troubles our mind, we decide to keep it to ourselves. We somehow feel that by confessing to a mental health specialist or a counsellor or a psychiatrist, we may be “labelled” as “mentally ill”. I wish Siddhartha had explored these options. I wish he had a coach who had guided him, along the way , when he was taking some crucial decisions. Very few organizations today focus on “mental conditioning” – training the mind. When we know that uncertainity is going to be a recurring theme in the business context, why not accept it and try to work on facing it? The mind, if relaxed and conditioned, can take effective decisions and restrict problems to be viewed just as problems, not life-threatening obstacles. Organizations spend time and money training people on data analytics, presentation skills, managerial skills but ignore the most fundamental skills required to survive in a complex environment – the Wellness Quotient (Physical and Mental). In fact, the word mental is seen as a stigmatic word in our society.

The other unaddressed angle is the whole media hype around quarterly earnings and results. This phenomenon is worse in the developed countries where a CEO’s fate is decided by his/her Wall Street performance every quarter. One bad quarter and you are out. Thankfully, India does not seem as cruel but we seem to be heading in the same direction. The pressure to report sustained growth quarter after quarter results in short-term decisions gaining preference. Unless the obsession with this stops , we will continue to see a bunch of stressed out individuals leading a highly stressed life.  Why would one aspire to be a CEO if life at the top is lonely, ever stressful and one mistake pulls you down and impacts your well-being? What’s the point of earning truckloads of money if you continuously are under the scanner?

There are no easy answers out there. But Siddhartha’s reaction is yet another warning of a deeper systemic malaise which is not being addressed at all. Today’s Indian CANNOT cope with excess stress and the environment is not conducive for discussing or managing stress. This coupled with the media fetish for instant celebrity-dom and quarterly earnings growth is enough recipe for disaster. Hopefully, the Siddartha file leads to a national debate on these two areas as well instead of trivializing it as a case on politics, financial ethics, tax terrorism , or ease of doing business , all of which are relevant but not the only issues.

No country for old men weak minds

Jai Hind

Mr. X : Schizophrenia Day Special Blog

Two days ago (24th May) was World Schizophrenia Day. Unlike its sexier counterparts like Valentine’s Day, there was no major marketing by any organization or any blitzkrieg on news/print/TV. Barring a few selfless psychiatrists and a few articles in the “inside” pages, nobody else had a major business stake so majority of the selfish world (me included) chose to ignore it. There were bits and pieces here and there but amidst all the euphoria over the return of NaMo in the world’s biggest democracy, this subject got drowned.

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain and interferes with a person’s ability to think, feel and behave clearly. This is characterized by symptoms like delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and bizzare behavior. I first stumbled upon this term when I read “Tell Me Your Dreams” – a Sidney Sheldon classic where the protagonist is affected by schizophrenia. The subject was also nicely tackled in Shankar’s movie “Aparichit / Anniyan” where Vikram beautifully essays the character. It is Vikram’s finest movies till date and it is credit to director Shankar that he is able to make masala movies with a subtle social theme and still rake in the moolah. Reading the book and watching the movie helped me understand the difficulties of dealing with people who have been affected by such mental illnesses.

Like most Indians, who are happy to lead a happy-go-lucky life and do not want to discuss difficult subjects, I too did not bother too much about mental illnesses and forgot about this term. Until Mr. X happened. Mr. X (name not revealed in the interest of confidentiality) is someone whom I know at a very deep level. His mom had her first psychotic disorder when he was 16 years old. One fine day, she suddenly told her son and husband that someone was staring at her continuously from the window. She started crying. She said that she was feeling tortured. X and his dad actually thought this was true as they had not heard of such illnesses. Things got bad to worse when X’s mom asked them to leave the house immediately as she feared someone was coming to kill her. X , who was a 16 year old believed this to be true and actually boarded a bus and both mother and son went to their relatives place. In the bus, X’s mom pointed at a random individual and said he had a gun. X got down from the bus and took an auto to rush to his relatives house. There also, the same story repeated. It took X’s relatives to convince him that her mother was suffering from a psychotic attack. 15 years ago, the awareness levels were very low to deal with mental illnesses. So, the family members tried reaching out to a “baba” to ward off “evil spells”. Finally, medical sense prevailed and a mental rehab centre was contacted. They came and took X’s mom by force and administered shock therapy. The scars of that incident still remain in X’s memory. In a few weeks’ time, thanks to shock therapy and medication, X’s mom recovered. The whole family hoped that this incident would not relapse.

10 years later, a relapse occurred. The same hallucinations happened and this time, thanks to advances in medicine, a shock therapy was no longer the first mechanism. Tablets could cure. Mr. X was looking to get married that time. After one of the alliances was finalized, he decided to disclose this to the bride’s parents. No prizes for guessing what happened next. The alliance was called off as the girl’s parents were scared what would happen to her child. They asked Mr.X to show the tablets. They googled and felt that the tablets were for suicide and not mental illness. A Chat with the doctor was in vain. After this shunning, Mr. X decided not to open this topic ever and hoped the episode would never relapse.

Destiny had other ideas though. Just when Mr. X’s wife got pregnant, his mom’s episode relapsed again. She threw away a lot of things in a fit of rage. This impacted X’s wife as well as a lot of her dearest items were gone. She started developing a dislike for X’s mom quite naturally. Later, it was found that as she had stopped taking tablets, so the chemical composition of the brain had altered and such behavior was not intentional but a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. Mr. X was lucky to have a mature and understanding family from his in-law’s side, especially his father-in-law. The others wanted a hospital admission but thanks to the patriarch’s opinion and Mr.X’s own experience of handling it for the third time, the condition of his mom got better with a psychiatrist’s help and medication. Mr. X also was lucky to have a supportive boss , whom he confided in. The boss took over some of his work and granted him an indefinite leave so that he could take care. Thanks to all this support along with a great consultation by a psychiatrist, his mom got back to normalcy in 45 days. Those 45 days were quite stressful for the whole family but I think God wanted to test their character.

Mr. X’s mother is one amongst the 8 crore Indians who suffer from mental illness in some form or the other. That’s a shocking 6.5% of the population. The sad paradox in our country is that as per WHO 2014 reports, the ratio of psychiatrists and psychologists is an abysmal “One in 1 lac people”. On the one hand, there is an outcry about jobs shrinking whilst the places where jobs are desperately needed get the fewest applications. In urban India, at least there are hospitals where this gets treated and experts available. But I am scared what would be happening in rural India. The uneducated poor may be killed/socially cut-off thinking they have been “exorcised” or “bewitched” or “under the influence of Satan”. We never know what happens there as the discussion there has not yet moved beyond toilets and drinking water despite 65 years of progress.

Unfortunately, most of the Indian society still feels mental illness is a stigma where in they want to be away from the persons affected. The topic is not discussed at all in schools, colleges therefore naïve people like Mr.X in his college days are unable to understand such a possibility exists. The reaction of the society for mentally traumatized patients is of two kinds generally – either be extremely aloof or admit them in hospital. I guess the people of this country will pick themselves up only if they fall. Which is why a deeply important subject like “World Schizophrenia Day” gets only 2000 odd hashtags globally compared to a silly “Belieber” hashtag which runs into millions. The developed nations are equally bad at managing mental illness. Understanding, appreciating and medical help are the three pillars of this. It was really brave of a celebrity like Deepika Padukone to openly talk about her depression and start the Live Love Laugh Foundation.

As the rural urban divide deepens and droves of aspirational Indian millennials comes out of college every year, one can’t help think of the danger of neglecting an important subject like mental illness. Schizophrenia, depression, psychotic disorders, suicidal tendencies are all part of the same family. It is high time we give a serious thought and change our “touch-me-not” attitude of attaching “stigma” to all forms of mental illness. Otherwise, this can become a destructive virus. Mental health supersedes physical health. A strong mind can overcome any physical onslaught. But a strong body with a weak mind cannot overcome any mental onslaught. Unfortunately, we learn chemical reactions in school but do not learn about the most destructive chemical reaction – the ones which happen in the mind. Not every-one may be as lucky as Mr.X to see their mom come back to normalcy after being on the brink three times. Let’s act before it is too late. Else, like poverty, this will become a perennial problem for the motherland. Living only on hope is a dangerous thing. The clock is already ticking.

Jai Hind