The New Son of the Soil

Jana Reddy on his farm

Last week I was in Bangalore. I met an old friend, Jana Reddy, who took me to his farm in Palakkodu, Tamil Nadu, over 100 kms away.

And he is what the new sons of the soil look like.

He is a techie, responsible for a portfolio with over 3000 team members. Well, he is more of a technocrat, less of a techie. Married to a techie. His son goes to college in another city. Aging parents live in a lovely area close to his high-end apartment complex. Loving son, affectionate husband, responsible parent, giving friend. A down-to-earth person.

He was like this in 1996, when I first met him. And today too, he is as down-to-earth. More so, in many ways.

Because he chose to go back to the land. About 10 years ago, a harsh conversation with a business head made him see that there was more to him than climbing the ranks in a large IT company, however lucrative. He started thinking about what he’d want to do post-retirement. And it was the memory of his school-time summer vacations spent in his native village that held the answer.

Find some land, do some farming. Not just own some farmland, and be a consumer of it. But work the land, and be one with it. Sixty years of age would be too late to start, he reckoned. “I need to start now!”

That set him off in pursuit of buying some land. Ten years later, he owns 8 acres in Tamil Nadu.

Jana has built a house with mud walls and a thatched roof, fitted with all modern amenities. It has two wooden lofts; one is his sleeping area, and the other is his remote work setup.

He has a barn to house his goats and store his farm equipment. He has some poultry, most of which were killed by a leopard recently. He is building a stepwell.

He is not a farmer by education. He is learning as he goes, experiments, fails, pays dearly for it all, and then sees some success.

Jana’s farm is not a neat, flat piece of land. It is land that starts at the foothills and runs down towards the town. He chooses to keep it like that, working with the large rocks there to create boundaries and safety. He is using the slopes of the land to do rainwater harvesting. Sure, there are borewells, but the rainwater holds the power to sustain life.  The lack of water is worrying now, he is hoping for rains to start soon.

He looks at the hills rising magnificently, providing a beautiful backdrop to his land. And wonders why some trees on the hills are all green and thriving, while some others are burnt down. He wants to understand how that happens, and bring that learning to his farm. He knows that there’s a way that nature works, and he wants to align with that.

Even the driveway he has conceptualized follows the lay of the land, so one can feel the essence of the land as one drives in.

Standing at the highest points of the farm, you can look down to the house and the barn. You will be excused if you miss spotting them, because the roofs and the walls just blend with the landscape. No jarring colours, no paints, no artificial decorations. Just oneness.

Jana Reddy on his farm in Palakkodu

He reads books on farming, talks to farmers, and identifies what suits best for the land he is the custodian of. Sometimes it means going against the conventional wisdom, and you can see him struggling to get the farm workers to listen to how he wants things done. It’s probably the only time I have seen him upset, and it’s not even obvious; such a gentle soul.

Everything is organic in the farm. There are coocunut trees, areca, figs, mangoes, aloe vera, brinjals, green chillies, herbs, bottle gourd, lemons, cherries, flowers, agatti, tamarind…

The only hint of chemicals is the anti-termites he has used to protect his wooden lofts from harm.

All the garbage from his apartment and that of his parents’ house is separated five ways, and most of it is brought to the land to enable composting.

His ways of living are less consumptive now, he says.  Most of the money he earns goes into the land. Pre-covid he had built a solid business selling organic produce to about 250 families in Bangalore. Covid changed all that. He is into pleasure farming now, he says. “I do what I like to do!”

I hear that as, “I am experimenting to see how I can work with nature so the land is bountiful, beautiful.”

Many of the old sons of the soil belong to a certain area, are hardcore farmers; they know the ways of the land and have agriculture in their blood.  The new sons have lived in the city most of their lives, and look for land to work with, wherever they can get it. They probably have tech in their blood, but land in their soul. It’s a calling, perhaps not an occupation for them. It’s a choice, not a lineage. It’s an intention, a fierce one at that. To be a custodian of the land, to do right by the land.

When there are such sons around, the Mother will be okay. She knows that her sons have returned. All is well.

The Emergence

I walk a little taller today
As I connect to our mother, Earth
I see roots from my feet 
Going all the way to Her heart
And I see they have always been here.
I can be on this rain-loved grass
Or four floors above
But the roots keep me connected to Her
Like the string of a kite
That lets it soar to any heights
And yet be part of the life below.

I walk a little taller today
As below so above
I see me connected all the way
Up into the heart of the Universe
Up into the no-thingness of Sophia
Holding me erect, reminding me to
Not undermine myself 
And accept that I am confident
And remember that I am of the light

I walk a little taller today
As I go to the park
Rain-drenched greenery and my silent chants
Of Tara, and the Guru
Of the Heart Sutra 
And the Mahamantra
That is when the ladies of the lore
Visit me as if to deliver a message

That while I take the name of Rama and Krishna
The chants ask the ladies to invoke the blessings
So Hare Rama is as much about Sita
And Hare Krishna is as much about Radha
And invoking Jesus is as much about Magdalen

Sita chose to go back home into Mother Earth
When her work here was done
Maybe she remembered that she was of the light
And that light can’t be boxed inside rules

Radha never forgot her light-ness
Even though we think Krishna did
She comes to me playfully 
All sandalwood fragrance
Holds my hand, like a long lost friend
Reminds me I should look up quantum physics.

And what of Magdalen, the much maligned
Perhaps the original victim of fake news
The Goddess of my voice
Mastery and sovereignty
The backbone of Jesus
Perhaps the orginal for couple goals

I walk a little taller today
As above so below
Today they paid me a visit
And enveloped me in their soft embrace
My heart became full
My eyes followed suit
It’s the time of the Goddess
I allow her to emerge.

Decoupled Aspirations

Some of us have goals in life. Some have the plan to reach them, or to handle stuff. 

Sometimes it works exactly as the plan, we reach the goal and we are happy. Sometimes it works exactly as the plan, and we end up unhappy. 

Often it doesn’t work as per the plan. (There’s really no sure-fire method to making this work, is there?)

Often we find ourselves frustrated. 

“Things are not going as planned.”

“I haven’t met my goals yet! I am a loser!” 

“Why did this have to happen now? It was so not in the plan!”

I found myself having a series of these conversations last week. 

Co-founder, Abhinav and one of the team members, Nilanjana were having a discussion, and I happened to become a part of it. The discussion was about the current challenges being faced by her. And by the end of it I heard myself say, “You seem to have had a plan. And now things are not going as per the plan. In fact it has nicely blown up in your face, or so it seems. My guess is you are hung upon the plan going exactly as you want it to go. Can you loosen up your hold on it? Allow the plan some space to breathe and let it take its course?”

“In other words,” I said, “You know, be detached from the plan’s evolution?”

I was trying not to bring the Bhagavad Gita reference which many of us have grown up hearing: ‘Do your duty without any attachment to the results of your action.’ The last thing I want to do in the workplace is bring up stuff that has any reference to religion or spirituality. Especially to a team of millennials. 

And like a true millennial, she responded, “You mean like decoupled architecture?” (She has been writing on decoupled Drupal architecture, hence the question. Separate the backend from the fronted, so both have the freedom to do their job in the best possible way). Millennials can make innovative connections that will never occur to a GenXer like me.

I said, “Yeah, like that.”

Decouple your aspirations from how they should work out. Have a plan, but don’t get married to it. 

And thus, we stumbled upon the term, Decoupled Aspirations.

Abhinav listened to the conversation, and later told me that the idea stuck in his mind too. He has read the Gita, but somehow this term got through to him better. 

I had forgotten that I had talked about the very same concept to a friend, also a GenXer, a few days earlier. She replied, a day after this Decoupled Aspirations conversation at work. She said it made sense to her. And i responded, “Yeah, only, we now call it Decoupled Aspirations.”

She called up immediately to chat excitedly, because “the term spoke to her”.

Well, in two days, three people had understood a difficult concept just because we put a different term to it. And a day later, the friend used the same idea to explain something to her 10 year old who sat crying that she wasn’t going to win the student election! It calmed her down.

Wonder why this is happening, this instant understanding? My guess is that decoupling gives a sense of separation of two things, and that leads to creation of some space. And maybe the idea of the space created gives the relief one is looking for. And the room for comprehension.

Pink Floyd, Tom Peters and Me

Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war

For a lead role in a cage?

– Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd

Today, when this song came on, I settled into it. And allowed it to take me where it would. There are songs that serve as reminders of certain phases in your life.  Some songs bring with them forgotten feelings…whiffs of something precious, happy or sad.

But this song isn’t like that. I don’t have a strong feeling attached to it. But it does take me back to a time which I can now say was the start of something that redefined me forever.

I started really listening to this song around 1999 or 2000. I was a copyeditor for a computer magazine back then.

I would listen to the song often. I savored “Can you tell…a smile from a veil?” and “Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?”

And then I hit that bit, “Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?”

It just caught my fancy for some reason. It intrigued me. And I found myself writing it on a piece of paper and pinning it to the board next to my seat at work. I would look at it from time to time. One of the bosses even peered at it once, and immediately went behind a veil. He knew he was in a cage while all he wanted to do was wage wars. I could see that, for him. But it didn’t seem like a thing that should have been about my life, my work. I probably saw it like a poster…something out there in bright colors on a wall. But outside of me.

At the time, my main reading consisted of books by Tom Peters. Of course my usual diet of Richard Bach was there, and some bit of Gary Zukav too. But it was Tom Peters who was taking over my imagination. I had no idea how what Tom wrote made any difference to what I did at work day in and day out. But it made me happy to read his books: The Pursuit of Wow, and The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations.

Today as I listened to the song again I allowed myself to register this: that time of my work life—with 4-5 years of work experience—was sowing the seeds of what would happen five years later. I would discard the lead role in a cage for a walk-on part in a war. Except the walk-on part would become the lead role, but certainly not in a cage.

It is not nice to call entrepreneurship war. But whether I realized it or not back then I was stepping into what would be as consuming, as damaging, as exhilarating and as strategic and tactical as war.

Maybe Pink Floyd planted that seed in my head all those years ago. Or maybe I already came pre-planted with a seed which Floyd then watered everyday. Whatever the case, I know this verse was a catalyst. And Tom Peters was showing me the right ways of being a professional, of being a company.

You connect the dots by looking back, to paraphrase Steve Jobs. Yes, while waging wars you are just doing your best to take the surprises out of uncertainty. But once you have come some way you can start seeing how the dots connect.

Pink Floyd. Tom Peters. Entrepreneurship.

When I said no to a lead role in a cage. And no, I didn’t exchange my heroes for ghosts!

Thank you, Pink Floyd and Tom Peters!

Allowing it Through

When you are a doer, you just keep doing. And doing, then doing some more. In fact when you are not doing, you feel like something’s off.

Sometimes you might hit a place where you’re running on empty. Even then, you just do, without even having to think much, or feeling passionate or anything really. When I hit that phase recently, and spoke to David Hrostoski about it, he said it felt like I was at a point of contraction right before a big opening.

Maybe, maybe not. But today when I look back on these past few weeks, I think it was just my mind getting out of the way for things to rearrange themselves in some order. So that I would not be driven to ‘fix’ or ‘force’ things into shape.

It made me think of a specific discussion in an entrepreneurship program I had attended many years ago. It had a really great format—entrepreneurs facilitating conversations among participants to answer questions that would bring phenomenal breakthroughs, which if allowed by the business owners would change their businesses as well. The session facilitator spoke about how sometimes solutions come when we have had some quiet following an intense time spent researching, exploring, doing, failing, experimenting, hitting walls, and so on. It’s the quiet—maybe a nice long sleep, or a walk in the park, or a relaxing bath—that brings us that little insight that is needed to allow all the pieces to fall into place. This happens more often than we realize. Call it the Eureka moment if you want. But probably it is not always that dramatic as Archimedes had us believe.

Back in December 2017, if you had asked me what 2018 looked like for me, I wouldn’t have been able to say. I would have been able to tell you some bits here and some bits there. But a cohesive picture? No. Not only did I not seem to have the grasp on the road ahead, I didn’t even want to talk about it. I was okay to listen others talk about it, and just listen. Not give inputs. I guess it was a probably frustrating time for my co-founders, but they let me be.

We had our team offsite in the first weekend of January, and the vision for the year ahead was laid out by my co-founder. Nothing new for the co-founders, as we practically live the vision everyday. But putting it together for the team to be able to see it as we did was important. I went through his vision document. And as I mulled it from the team’s point of view I was able to come up with the key themes to keep the team aligned for the year. It just took me a few minutes. Of course we would still have the task of translating the themes into each person’s day to day work, but that could be done over the coming few weeks. But at least we had a vocabulary for everyone to align to, to use in their work, to use as their North Star for the year.

The offsite went well, and we have been having some great conversations since. And we are also working on drilling down the yearly themes to daily work.

While the vision was clear and is in the process of getting clearer for all, we still didn’t have the year’s sales numbers locked down. During the course of a day earlier in the past week, my co-founder asked if we had to discuss something related to automation for sales. I said no, but I did need help figuring out the sales numbers. So we went into the conference room and sat for maybe less than an hour. And emerged with sales numbers that looked realistic, yet a stretch for us. It all just fell into place. These numbers had always been a struggle for us in the past years to arrive at, but not this year. They just came through. And it happened without any drama, any excitement, any debates, any raised eyebrows. Smooth and easy. And both of us believe in it too.

Why? What was different about this year?

I just think in the past few months we had already done all the hard work, the debates, assessing the highs and the lows, looking squarely at what was working and what wasn’t, what we wanted for the company and what we didn’t and so on.

When the quiet happened, all of it just cohered into oneness. And it all just felt right. All we now have to do is keep doing things as per the vision, the themes and the numbers. And correct course when we see things going off track.

So now I am back to doing. Just do. Because, for now, I have allowed the real ‘what needs to be done for the company’ to come through.