Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I Am Indian

The Madhesi political consciousness came to me much later. At the Kathmandu high school I attended, the m-word was in the air, people would tell racist jokes about your people like you were not even there, comedian Santosh Pant made a living out of it, and the guy was on national TV. But as a successful student who went on from leadership position to leadership position, I was to an extent shielded, but that was a false shield. It was weak. And one administrative blow crashed the glass around me towards the end of my Class 10 year. After that it took me years of emotional pain, and meandered career trajectories, and political action led more by a hunger for all things political than the Madhesi rights issue that I ultimately floundered upon the Sadbhavana types, and that gave me some of the vocabulary, which I quickly found highly inadequate.

Race matters powerfully, Barack Obama has said. I had a very happy freshman year at college in Kentucky. And then the blow of an administrative decision crashed my glass all over again. It was yet another experience in disenchantment with yet another highly reputed educational institution. And so I am a huge proponent of taking as much of education online as possible. Knowledge has to be freed up from the power structures of the day.

At college I was not thinking Madhesi rights. I was not thinking about it after. After the king pulled his coup in early 2005, I had no plans to get involved with the democracy movement, although I was much concerned, and when I moved to NYC a few months later, my full time involvement was gradual. I had no idea I cared so much about Nepal, the country I grew up in. I guess I did. It came from inside. But it was also the ideological purity of a democracy movement that brings a clarity that makes mobilization more black and white.

Late in 2006 the Nepalgunj riots happened, and that triggered the Madhesi Kranti, might as well, because it was that movement that mirrored the April Revolution of 2006 that gave Nepal the gift of federalism. I put full time work into the Madhesi Kranti. In many ways it was tougher than the democracy movement. Comrades in the democracy movement were now vocal, energized opponents.

When Upendra Yadav landed in Los Angeles a few months later, the first question he asked was, “Where is Paramendra Bhagat?” We had never met, we had never talked on the phone before. I used digital tools to do political work. It was no journalism.

Becoming NYC’s first full-time volunteer for Barack Obama brought it full circle. This was 500 years of world history come full circle. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

There is the macro politics. And there is the micro politics of emotionally damaged Madhesis and Janajatis you deal with at close range. NYC has allowed me interactions to see things up, close and personal.

But then the political compass is already pointing in the direction of economic growth. And if land-lockedness is Nepal’s biggest handicap, the solution lies in a South Asian economic union, and that basically asks for killing the false nationalism in Kathmandu that rests on all things anti-India. If Nepal’s political boundaries will have to weaken for Nepal to achieve prosperity, where will the identity come from? There are healthy sources of identity like culture, language, and religion. A South Asian economic union will not dilute those, quite the opposite. A more prosperous people will take better care of their cultural heritages. The resource crunch will wane.

Nepal’s future points in the direction of the land of my birth. My mother’s side of the family is Indian. If you have any idea about Mithila, you know how ridiculous the Nepal-India border is. My official birthday is not mine, but that of my favorite movie star, Amitabh Bachchan. I am Indian through and through.

I am 100% Indian. I am 100% Nepali. I am on the way to becoming 100% American. 300% is more than 100%. People with multi-cultural heritages are richer, and quite literally so. In today’s globalized world, being instinctive about cultural diversity gives you advantages. I deal with engineers in India. I happen to think Nitish through example has set an example to most of Nepal’s challenges. He is the ultimate Bihari Babu.

Eating MoMo was the best thing I learned in the decade plus I spent in Kathmandu. And I happen to think the dish is a billion dollar idea. I will forever remain fond of Narayan Gopal. I am a Buddhist. Buddha was a Teraiwasi like me. I earned the top marks in class in Nepali at high school. I got published a poem in Royal Nepal Academy’s Kavita, the most prestigious poetry magazine in the country at the time, when I was in Class 10. I have a love for the language.

I have been everywhere in America. The first question I was often got asked was, “Are you from India?” I never said no. I am Indian.
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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dilli And Imagination

Nepali architect - Arniko in Miaoying Temple
Nepali architect - Arniko in Miaoying Temple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been wearing the tech consultant hat for years now. My firm has been named Gutkha, the implication being this is not the real meal, that will come later. Gutkha is not a Thali. As a tech consultant you build mobile apps and websites for other people. My favorite clients are tech startup types. Their funds might be low, but they are full of hope and imagination, full of possibilities.

Dilli approached me with an idea. I thought it was a great idea. Done right it could see an exit within a year. He could put in the seed money himself, or he could chip in part of it, and raise the rest from friends, giving them equity in the process. I was not aware of where he stood financially. So I suggested he go the friends route. Put down your share, prepare a list of your friends and let me work through the list, I suggested.

But he never was able to pull the trigger. And I let things to rest. And I thought that was that until I met him in line while waiting to get inside the Sunnyside theater to watch the Neapli film Bhim Dutta. Dilli Bhatta, Bhim Dutta. Both Sudur Paschim guys. I was teasing Dilli later that he might have followed the language in the film, because I sure didn’t. They speak a different kind of Nepali in that part of the country.

I knew he had moved to Sunnyside from Jackson Heights, but I thought it was a rental apartment move. He told me he had bought his apartment, “cash, no mortgage.” I was happy for him, but I was also left scratching my head. You mean you could have put in the entire seed round all by yourself? Then why did you not do it?

There are a million apps out there, but then there are hundreds of millions of websites out there. Just this past December an app built by my team got sold by the client for a million dollars. That was a sweet exit. I bet you never read about it in the news.

There are a few multi-billion dollar exists, exits in the hundreds of millions are larger in number, those in the tens of million are much larger. A million dollar exit is not even news. But a million dollars is no chump change. Dilli could have bought four apartments like the one he just bought.

It is not like I approached him. He approached me. He sought me out a few times. One Saturday when he suggested we meet for coffee I was in Manhattan. But we did meet Sunday for coffee. I am not at liberty to talk about the idea publicly, of course. But I thought the idea had oomph. Somewhere between seeking me out and me following up on him a few times to get started, he cooled off. I never understood why.

I am not just a tech consultant. I am a tech startup guy myself. As of February I am part of an effort that is building something really cutting edge, and we hope to build an entire company around it. In the process I am having to network among angel investors like crazy. That makes me extra valuable for clients like Dilli. Because after the seed round, you will want to approach angels. And building contacts takes time and effort. What I am building for my own startup, I might have the option to leverage some of that for some of my clients.

But it is like Dilli came up with an idea, sought me out, got me excited, and he then cooled off. That to me is a strange trajectory. Granted it is high risk behavior. It is kind of like making a movie. If the movie is a hit, you stand to make a lot of money. But some movies are flops. They lose money. If your app is not downloaded and used by a ton of people, you might lose money.

But if coming with a great idea and coming up with the seed money is all that is required of you to potentially end up making a million dollars, I’d say that is a tempting path to take.

There are 200,000 Nepalis in America, maybe more. I was the only full timer to have worked for Nepal’s democracy movement back in 2005-06. There might be 1,000 Madhesis in America, no one knows how many, most of whom are closet Madhesis anyways. I was the only full timer to have worked for the Madhesi Kranti in 2007. But constitution and federalism are only a matter of time. Now it is time to focus on Nepal’s economic transformation like a laser beam. Cutting business deals with Nepalis in NYC to me is part of that larger narrative.

And so I stand perplexed as to why Dilli backed out. I have thought of one explanation.

Dilli lacks imagination.
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