The Story Rules Podcast E16: Santosh Desai – the pre-eminent chronicler of India’s culture (Transcript)

Santosh Desai
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E16: Santosh Desai – the pre-eminent chronicler of India’s culture (Transcript)

This transcript has been created using a combination of AI transcription tools and (some painstaking) human effort. Please excuse any typos, grammatical mistakes, inaccurate time stamps, or other errors. Specifically, the time stamps would not account for the intro portion of the podcast.

You may share portions of the transcript with due credit. Enjoy!

And, if you find this content useful, it would be great if you could leave a review on your preferred podcast platform.

Intro hook:

“The only thing I would say is ask fundamental questions; ask stupid questions; insight lies in interrogating the obvious. It lies in asking the obvious. It’s not new knowledge, it’s in the old knowledge. It’s in asking “why” to the most basic questions. The most basic questions are the ones that I think will give the most interesting answers.”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Santosh Desai, CEO at Future Brands Consulting and a pre-eminent chronicler of India’s culture.

Santosh wears many hats – he headed an ad-agency, currently heads a brand consulting firm, is a published author and a long-time columnist for the Times of India.

His weekly column City-city Bang-Bang – which he has been writing for 17 long years – paints a vivid, relatable yet surprising portrait of India’s fascinating culture.

I’ve always been a fan of Santosh’s work. Specifically, his stellar observational skills (which to my surprise, he says are not that great!), his ability to see the unusual in the usual and his almost poetic writing abilities.

In this conversation, we dive into the secrets of how Santosh Desai does his magic. How does he view the world with his unique fundamental questions. How he finds patterns and mental models that help him interpret and understand this world… and how he finally brings it all on paper with his lucid and lyrical prose.

It is an eye-opening conversation, especially for left-brain-heavy folks like me who tend to over rely on data, logic and structure!

With that, let’s dive in.

Ravi (1:50)
Welcome, Santosh, to the Story Rules podcast!

Santosh (1:54)
My pleasure.

Ravi (1:58)
Santosh, you’ve been a planner in advertising, and now you’re heading a leading brand consulting firm. You’ve basically had your eye on urban cultures in India for decades now, and you’ve been writing a column for The Times of India for how long now?

Santosh (2:17)
Seventeen odd years, now.

Ravi (2:19)
Seventeen odd years. And (the column is) roughly once a week?

Santosh (2:23)
It’s once a week, yes.

Ravi (2:24)
I was just doing the math, and that’s more than 750 columns. That’s incredible!
I remember this comment that you had made in another podcast, where you said that you cannot look at a market without understanding its culture. A lot of brand leaders, lot of planners, might just be looking at the numbers from the outside and thinking, “Okay. This is what is happening. These people are buying this product in this market,” or “This is what’s happening in terms of this subculture,” etc. The way I look at that statement of yours, from a storytelling point of view, is that when I teach storytelling as a skill, we talk about 4 or 5 questions that you need to answer to get to the nub of the issue. You start by saying, “What is happening? How much of that is happening? When and where is it happening?” and that’s where a lot of people get stuck. They just look at the numbers and try to build something on that.
What’s fascinating about your work is that you go one level deeper, which is “Why is it happening?”
What’s the underlying – as you rightly say – culture, which is driving the behavior that’s shown in the data? I’d love for you to start by talking about the importance of this ‘why?’ that drives a lot of these actions that we, then, try and analyze in terms of ‘what happened’ and ‘when and where’, etc.
Maybe, if possible, you could give an example of (an instance) when knowing the ‘why’ helped either yourself or a client, to understand a business problem better.

Santosh (3:53)
As you correctly said, there’s a common orientation not just in advertising, but across business – that your job is to manage outputs, so you start with that (in mind). You say, “what is it that will get me to the outcome as quickly and simply as possible?”
What you call ‘data’ is very often normative, which means you are trying to learn from other people’s experiences and trying to cut-and-paste, and apply them to your own; or you look at your own past experiences and extrapolate from that. That tends to be the general kind of (behavior). If you look at management schools – the MBA programs, it encourages this kind of (mindset). You are encouraged to work at the outcome level. Sometimes, it is glorified; the idea that you are a hard analyst who only goes by facts. The problem is that you are, very often, (missing out on the core). When looking at anything across the board – you (could) talk about valuation, or a pitch you have for a startup, or even trying to make sense of data, without a deeper understanding of (the) ‘why’ (behind it), what happens is that every data point becomes new. Because you don’t have a theory, you don’t have an understanding, you don’t have a sense of being able to move from one part of the problem to another.
You find a lot of businesses that have done lots of research, but (if) you go and ask them, “Okay, you’ve done so much research…distill it all together and tell me what is happening.” (they might not be able) And that’s a real struggle, because each of those pieces is discreet, and each of them rests at a surface level, and you don’t really get a sense of what is driving any (of them).
Culture – in the Indian context, very often, is the seat of behaviour. It’s the invisible lens of the mind. We don’t know that we are actually operating through culture. In India, you touch somebody with your foot and you will immediately atone for it in some form, because it’s a mark of disrespect. There are so many actions of ours, that we are not really aware of as to why we behave that way. I find that fascinating to try and get to the bottom of. It’s useful in so many different ways; in so many different cases you will find the idea of getting to the heart of something and understanding it is useful.
One example that comes to mind is many years ago, we worked on this brand called Saffola; that was a time when Saffola was being marketed on the premise that it was for people who had heart troubles.

Ravi (7:11)
(That) it’s good for the heart.

Santosh (7:12)
It’s good for the heart, but the advertising they ran was the most terrifying piece of advertising I’ve ever seen in my life – where it’s a man having a heart attack. I’m talking about a good 7 years back.
So, the man is having a heart attack. There are two films, and in both of them the man is having a heart attack. He’s at a birthday party for his kid, and suddenly he falls down and the brand – signature, if you like – was like an ECG signature. 

Ravi (7:38)
I remember that signature, yeah!

Santosh (7:40)
That was when we got the brand. Now there was this whole question of heart health, and the task of how to expand the footprint of the brand, because otherwise you’re talking to heart patients and the problem with that is, unfortunately, your consumer base is dying in large numbers.
If you make it too broad, then you lose distinctiveness. This was a brand that had commanded a price premium, which you couldn’t have otherwise. So we had to look for something, some understanding of what is the meaning of heart health – what does it come from? And the larger understanding came from it being the cultural trend in India, which I guess is also true in other parts of the world, that when we are confronted with our own mortality, and it happens at a certain age – I’m certainly past the age when that question comes up – but maybe in your early 40s or late 30s, sometimes your late 40s, you start figuring out that things aren’t as easy as they used to be. You don’t want to take the stairs, you want to take the lift. (When it comes to) walking a certain distance, (you say) “No, I’ll take public transport.”
There are many ways in which you start recognizing that things are now going south. But your immediate instinct is not to accept it; your immediate instinct is to deny it. Which is the reason why you’ll do endless resolutions like “I’ll cut back on alcohol”; “I will not have cigarettes”; and you keep making these resolutions and it becomes almost like a game. Your loved ones will tell you to cut back on this (and that), and you enjoy the cheating.
It’s a strange thing; it’s a serious subject. And yet, the way you deal with it is – you revert to being a child; you revert to playing these little games that you play with your own mortality. I think this was the insight of what we called the ‘mortality games’ – the idea being that while you have your little fun, do a simple act of insurance. Create a story. Play your little games, but in the meantime do something smart and get insurance: switch to Saffola.
That became the story. And it became something that they ran with for years, and it was very advantageous for them in several ways. But again, in my mind, the(re is an) advantage of just digging deeper and getting to a place of understanding what is really happening here, rather than saying “It’s heart troubles, (so) associate it with hearts”, “Scare them! Show them heart attacks!”
In my mind, you’re just looking at labels: Heart attack – serious – solution. It’s a very simple, linear line. I think that is one example.

Ravi (11:03)
I love that desire to go into the root cause of the action, and that depth. I think there are a lot of skills that you are bringing which I’m going to talk about in some time.
I was just reading your book, Santosh – Mother Pious Lady, which was essentially a collection of columns; I was going through one section of chapters and I thought, “Okay, I think I’m 20% done with the book.” But then I saw, no. This was just one mini-section of the first section. There are so many columns!
While I was going through this, (I saw that) one was talking about train travel in India, one was talking about clothing, one was talking about festivals; you recently wrote just about Holi. I was just thinking about the audaciousness of your task. I was thinking: India is a land of stories, one of the best parables we have is that of the five blind men and the elephant. It’s one of our gifts to the world of stories. Our culture – Indian culture, itself, is far more complicated than an elephant. It’s one-sixth of humanity! It has a five-thousand-year-old civilization, and it’s gone through so many transformations, including the recent one which was the liberalization in 1991 – these are massive transformations. Plus, of course, the impact of IT, the internet, smartphones, technology, all of that.
To me, to try and make sense of India’s culture is a bit like figuring out some new animal of elephantine proportions, which is – (A) not understood, but (B) it’s also moving fast, and it is changing rapidly. And all of this by (just) one person.
It seems incredible, what you’ve pulled off! Each of these 750 pieces are like small high-res images, which, when put together, paint a vivid, surprising, yet familiar picture of India.
Now, of course, it’s been 17-odd-years that you’ve been doing this, but if you were to go back in time as the person who just started off writing and doing this, what would you tell that person? Do you think it’s a doable task? It seems like a really audacious (thing) that you undertook this task and persevered at it, and met with such great results. So, I just want you to reflect on the nature of this undertaking…how difficult was it, earlier, when you started it; and now, when you look back?

Santosh (13:35)
It’s a fool-hardy venture. I say that very often when I’m typically making presentations about India to some international company, and I’m trying to encapsulate India in 45 minutes; but all of it is a fool-hardy venture. Like you correctly said, India is a complex, diverse, rapidly-changing and uneven (country). The change is uneven. It’s not even as if change in one part of India reflects change in another. I think there are several kind of reasons why it is a really difficult enterprise, and that is the reason why, in many ways, my preferred mode of looking at it is impressionistic and made up of little pixels. The starting premise is that our behaviour – in its unselfconscious form, is actually the richest source of data and insight about who we are; where we are going; what is happening with us.
They key to the deeper understanding about what we are, why we are, and the rest lies the minutiae of our behaviour. What it allows me to do in a sense, is to not take responsibility for making sense in a proposed theory, and coming from a big picture and then looking for evidence.
A classic approach of presenting a complex picture like that would be to say, “These are the 5 patterns, and this is the evidence that supports it.” My work starts the other way round – I’m only interested in the practical bits. And then, if a pattern emerges, so be it.
There is a disadvantage to that. It can be fragmented sometimes; one fragment tells you one story and another fragment tells you another story. The fragments have no responsibility to be coherent. In that sense, there is that limitation.
On the other hand, it allows you to do to justice to the complexity of India by not force-fitting an analytical structure which is too neat onto it, and accommodates the fact that there are so many different discordant voices that need to be heard simultaneously.
And it also tells you that one of the dangers of anyone having a view about something like India, is the fact that you can get stuck in a certain view. And you get stuck in a rut, saying “this is how India should be” and that is not where I’m coming from. I may have my own personal view about what India should be, but in terms of the work, it is much more about what is. Therefore, (there’s a few) behaviours that need to be understood on their own terms, connected to the understanding one us. In a sense, it compels one to keep an open mind about what is happening and let the story speak in its own voice rather than impose a narrative onto it.

Ravi (17:00)
Which is fascinating, Santosh. To me, I think there are three or four skills that mesh together (for you) to have done this for so many years in this beautifully detailed, pixelated way. One is this really vivid visual observational skill that you bring in; I want to talk about that as one of the elements.
The second I feel is the ability to spot the unusual in the usual, and the usual in the unusual. To really spot that – as we sometimes say – vujà dé and déjà vu, across some of these observations, and then bringing it all together in some lucid yet poetic, gifted prose.
I want to talk about each of these separate (topics). Let’s start with the observations: I love the description that you give of (scenes). (For example,) when you talk about what’s happening inside of a train compartment, I’m there. I’m visualizing everything; the person sitting on top, the chana(chickpea) vendor who comes in, the chaiwala(tea seller), everything.
It’s not that when you’re writing about it, you’re writing from a train compartment and you’re bringing in memories from decades back. My curiosity is where did this observational skill of taking in so much develop? Was it some kindly English teacher who made you observe and write a lot, was it somebody in the family? Why did it develop, and where do you think others can also build that skill?

Santosh (18:29)
What’s interesting is that I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. Very often, I go somewhere and (someone says) “So-and-so was wearing this; So-and-so did this.” or “Did you notice there was something there?”
And I am like, “I am clueless. I have no idea what happened. What are you talking about? I have absolutely no idea.”
It’s perplexing to me, to a certain extent, because I am not observant in that sense. I am observant in the sense of noticing (everyday life). To me, it feels much more like absorbing the entirety of the spirit of something, and the observations of the specifics are a part of that rather than themselves.
If somebody asks me to describe the kind of person (I saw) in that memory, or to vividly describe someone I recently met – what was his face like? Did he have a moustache or not? Almost certainly, I won’t remember.
I think in terms of essences. I try to distill the spirit of something, and the observation is therefore a part of the overall spirit. It’s in the ethos of something. Rather than in the specifics. It’s the feeling that it generates – how I felt about it – that I vividly retain.
And since I’ve been having this conversation on several different days with a lot of people now, the significant difference, if any, is in favoring things with meaning. In terms of believing that those little things are meaningful in the first place.
There’s workshops of different kinds, and I’ve done this exercise that when you force people to ask questions about something silly like, “What is milk?”, “What is farming?”
If you ask a question not about the kinds of farming, or what farmers do, but you ask the most fundamental question “What is farming?” “What is agriculture?”
Conceptually, if you had to describe it, what is the spirit of agriculture? What does it mean? What does it say about the world? It’s almost like when you ask a question at a fundamental level, and its interesting that when you ask people who don’t think like that, or when you force them to respond, you find very interesting answers. It’s not that difficult.
If you ask “what is the meaning of water?” It’s the most common object; it’s everything around us. It’s colorless, it’s tasteless; you cannot describe water. How does it activate life? What does it do?
When you water a plant, why does life (grow)? What is its action?
So, whether it’s a railway station or compartment, in all of it if you arrest your gaze and look at something, just allowing it to unfold, (you’ll find that) the meaning lies within it. I think there are insights, waiting to be picked up.
You ask the question, “What is money?” – and that’s a question that anthropologists have studied, it’s a far more interesting question than what to do with money, or which instrument is better.
I don’t know if this directly answered your question, but the overall summary is that I don’t think I’m a particularly observational person. The only difference is the fact that I believe the small observations are meaningful, much more so than a lot of other things.

Ravi (23:20)
So fascinating, Santosh.
Something that (what you said) triggered is this quote by Maya Angelou, which you might have heard, where she says “People will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
In a way, I think you’re retaining that sense of feeling when you go through an experience rather than just looking at the visual or outwardly appearance of it.
But how does such a skill get built? Is it something that you consciously worked on, or was it something that you felt was innately built within you?

Santosh (24:05)
I think a lot of it is innate, to be honest. Some of it is probably worked upon, in terms of constructive narratives and converting it into a form like writing. But, this sense of looking at a complex picture, then putting your finger on it and saying “Okay, this is the nub; this is where it starts” (is somewhat innate).
It doesn’t mean that I’m always right, but that sense of being able to do that – it’s almost like feeling your way around something and saying “That’s where it’s at” – is an innate sensing mechanism that one has.
The problem with subjective insights of this kind is that, how do you know what (really) is at the heart of something? How do you know this is THE explanation? Or, if it’s a meaningful, plausible (explanation). There could be several ways (of describing something). That’s the thing about data. The question of the objectivity of data and the subjectivity of arriving at an insight using this method, a more inductive method of thinking – is how do you know it’s true?
And the crazy part is that I have found that when someone talks about (something) or presents in front of a client or others, somehow, when the insight is strong, never have I heard a mention of “What is the data that (proves this)?”

Ravi (25:40)
Because everybody’s nodding in their head, right? They’re like “Yes, I see that too. But I could never put it to words.”

Santosh (25:48)
Exactly. It’s like that.
I’ve said that it awakens foreknowledge.

Ravi (25:54)
What knowledge?

Santosh (25:55)
Foreknowledge. It’s knowledge that you already have, but you didn’t know you had it.

Ravi (25:59)
Oh, I love that!

Santosh (26:00)
That’s what it does. I think that’s the resonance it gets when you get it right.

Ravi (26:11)
That’s a beautiful way to put it, Santosh. You are able to connect with something in the minds of other people where they, themselves have not made the connection. It’s (already) there, as you said – the foreknowledge.
It’s a brilliant skill, but what I’m hearing you say is that there’s no easy way to say “Okay, follow these 5 steps and you’ll become a better (insight finder)”, it’s not like that.

Santosh (26:35)
The only thing I would say is ask fundamental questions; ask stupid questions; insight lies in interrogating the obvious. It lies in asking the obvious. It’s not new knowledge, it’s in the old knowledge. It’s in asking “why” to the most basic questions. The most basic questions are the ones that I think will give the most interesting answers.

Ravi (26:59)
Don’t take stuff we do for granted, which is typically (what happens).

Santosh (27:05)
And avoid labels of all kinds. Labels are the most dangerous things on earth, because they’re frozen knowledge. They’re frozen in our understanding.
This happens in advertising all the time. I work in the auto-category; I understand this.
What is auto-category? Eventually, it’s all emotions. This apparently rational behaviour is the most absurd thing in the world. You pay 32 lakhs for the same mobility that you can get from a 3 lakhs car – that, plus a little bit of silence, plus a bit of cushioning.
There is no earthly way in which you can justify that. There is no mathematical way that you can use to prove that that equation makes sense. For you to say “I understand this,” – which is very different from understanding toothpaste or understanding anything else – those are false distinctions that we draw. It’s not just in this case; (You see) labels (being used everywhere), you call somebody a liberal, you call somebody a this-and-that; I just find that labels are fundamentally restrictive and limit thinking, dramatically.

Ravi (28:06)
Well said.
One point is to question everything, and (the second is to) resist the temptation to label things even before you start getting to know people.
Now, let’s understand a little bit of the research process, Santosh. I remember hearing you talking about a lot of travel. You kept saying that you travel and meet people. Is that one of your primary modes of getting inputs about cultures, sub-cultures, about the country, or are there other modes that you use?

Santosh (28:41)
It’s a combination of things. I think travel is important, because it allows you to (get a) first-hand feel; it gives you a sense (of things), and allows you to see new things that are happening. There are some things you cannot simply get by sitting around and thinking or reading.
What also happens is that the feeling that you get and what you’re absorbing is actually much more than what you observe. There’s a difference between observation and absorption. When you interact with somebody face-to-face and you’re in that milieu, there’s much more that you’re absorbing which your (consciousness) allows you to understand fully. I think that’s really critical.
The other (point) is that we are surrounded by texts. Everything around us is a text – cinema house uses a text; our language uses text; what happens on the internet is text; our everyday behaviour is text. To me, the strongest source of insight comes from acknowledging, understanding, and decoding the texts around us. There is no other way than to decode. Conventional research is about reportage. You ask people questions and what their conscious mind will allow them to tell you, or want to tell you, is what you are taking in. Whereas behaviour bypasses that. That’s why I say that unselfconscious behaviour, the stuff I read, stuff I like, the abuses I give – so much is revealed from all of that. You can only abuse what you think is sacred. There are so many things you can figure out from (the unselfconscious behaviours). To me, that’s the biggest side of it. There’s travel, there’s decoding of text, and there is secondary reading.
I feel that, somehow – particularly in business – there’s a strange (thing I’ve seen). There are highly intelligent people…who don’t think; who refuse to think. This is a paradox I find. And why would you (do that)?
In advertising, (suppose) you’re thinking of beauty products, why would you not look at the cultural roots of beauty in India, or the meaning of identity? You can spend hours and hours on a 300-slide report done by somebody but you cannot spend that time delving into somebody who has, in a scholarly way, written about a subject like this? It baffles me as to why we are so poorly read. When it comes to business (secondary reading), which is the third source (of insight). It’s not dramatically new to say that (people should) do secondary reading, particularly of a deeper kind.
There’s so much that is available, and you don’t need to agree with everything. You don’t even need to understand everything. Some of it is dense academic stuff. But, that’s fine.
To me, these are the three broad buckets (of, firstly) primary, immersive research: you can do other, more conventional forms of research but (I suggest) doing them yourself, and getting a direction for a place there is no substitute for. And do it often enough that it becomes meaningful; (secondly) decoding of text, and the third is augmented by secondary reading which gives you a larger perspective.

Ravi (32:41)
Tell me a little bit more about the secondary reading, which is to say, what would be a good example of a good secondary text in any sector that you want to talk about?

Santosh (32:49)
If you want a foundational text to understand India, you can read Sudhir Karkar’s ‘The Inner World’, he has a whole set of (interesting points). You have Ashish Nandy. Not everything you write(read) will have links to business, but they will have a lot of (insights). Some Naipaul books, if you want to understand hygiene in India. (Also, some) early Naipaul works; you’ll find travelogues. By definition, somebody from outside is coming into a new culture and bringing that external perspective and is able to see things that you have taken for granted.

Ravi (33:40)
Doing your work for you, almost.

Santosh (33:42)
Doing your work.
Travelogues are fascinating, because they provide an insight (that you would have a hard time getting on your own). Nowadays you have so much work (about everything): if you want to do beauty, you have so much work in that area, which will specifically trace the meaning of beauty through time. Nowadays you have specific work on money (, too). I’ve been reading about an anthropologist’s work about money – it’s about debt, actually – and it’s a fascinating work about the origins of the idea of debt across the world and how it has evolved.
In every category if you were to look for it, you would find work that (is useful for secondary reading).

Ravi (34:33)
And what you’re also saying is that there are some behaviours or truths which are fairly universal.

Santosh (34:40)
There’s work on India also. Some things are universal, a lot of things are not; but there is work on India and yes, I do find that the work on India that is accessible is not a lot. But it is there, and certainly more than what is accessible.
From where business tends to be, I think there is a lot of room for doing some secondary reading and getting a little deeper.

Ravi (35:13)
I guess if a person is a leader in a particular field, they don’t have to look for academic work in ten fields; they just have to look in their field. It must not be too difficult to dig a little deeper. That’s a great point.
I want to talk a little bit more about the travel part. Travel can have multiple ways in which it can be done. Can you describe a typical trip, or maybe one of your favourite memorable trips?

Santosh (35:38)
We do an exercise every year which we call “Bharat Darshan” (India trip), where a group of us from my company – it’s a small (team), about 30-odd people – and about 20 of us, or 25 of us, we break up into 6 different teams and every year, we travel with 6 different starting points.
Every year, there’s a very broad theme that we keep in mind. And it’s not for any commercial purpose; it’s not for any client, we don’t sell it, nothing. It’s purely for (our own) understanding. The method that we use is the immersive method, (that includes) some planning and some sort of interaction that is set up through mutual contacts, or we find ways of (doing it). You can use the local newspaper office and ask them for some help; you can ask young students and take them on as help in interns for that period; there are several ways. But you set up some interactions, and plan the rest.
You land up there and just walk into a coffee shop that is busy; hang around outside colleges; see an interesting shop and figure out a new business that’s come there, so try to meet the entrepreneur there. Essentially, look at interesting things that are typical of that place, as well as things that are new. Then you put it together.
So you do this, then we come back and have a workshop where we put it all together and finally process it further. We do this every year; we’ve done it about 7 or 8 times now over the last 10 years. The last 2 years have been a little difficult, obviously.
The themes are different, as well. Sometimes it’s something very concrete like food, other times it’s an idea like transitions. People who have made transitions either in terms of small town to large town; got married into a different kind of family; moved from one kind of job to another, changed professions; we just looked at people going through transitions.
Then we looked at something called ‘fault lines’, which is saying, “Okay, where do you start seeing conflict? Where do you see tensions?” and there are objective working at  cross-purposes.
You take different slices with different times, different years.
Also, even when we do a classic brand project, we look at it in terms of everything being cultural. All our work tends to be (seen) using this lens.
There is a vast body of knowledge and a direct experience that gets built up over the years. That is what travel enables. The people who work (with me), are all fond of travel. Travel is not a chore, but something that everybody enjoys, and I think that helps to generate this sense of understanding.

Ravi (39:06)
How long is a typical Bharat Darshan (India trip) trip?

Santosh (39:10)
It’s over a 3-week period, but typically it’ll be 4 or 5 days in any one place.

Ravi (39:18)
And over 6 groups, how many cities or towns would you have visited?

Santosh (39:21)
We were doing a count of all the towns we’ve visited, and over the years we’ve done 147 towns.

Ravi (39:30)
Wow! When you come back and workshop it, is that report made public?

Santosh (39:37)
No, we don’t (publish it). As a lot of people (tend to be), we are terrible at the public-facing thing. To help other people do it is easy, but doing it for yourself tends to be difficult. We’ve got it on our website; if you go to our website, you will see material on it. There are presentations we give that are accessible to our clients, any of them could request a presentation on any of the Bharat Darshans, but it’s not a (general public thing). We have published two or three small books on different subjects, but it’s sporadic and not a very perfect process.

Ravi (40:18)
But doing this itself is a fascinating practice, I think. At the end of the day, we are in the knowledge business; we find interesting knowledge and make sense of it, to help others. If we don’t take out time to build our own knowledge in this deliberate way that you do, (we won’t find new knowledge). It won’t always happen accidentally, (there needs to be a) deliberate way.
I remembered an interesting thing that you mentioned was that when you’re walking around, maybe at a coffee shop outside college, and something catches your eye, you take a note of it. Maybe you walk in and ask (about it). (Could you give) one or two examples that you remember? Like “In this particular town, I remember this (thing) caught my eye.”

Santosh (40:59)
I think there are several. It’ll be an elaborate story, but I’ll keep it short.

Ravi (41:03)
Go ahead.

Santosh (41:06)
I wasn’t there, but it was another team of ours in Aurangabad or Nasik. I think it was Aurangabad.

Ravi (41:14)
I grew up in Aurangabad, by the way! (and did) 4 years of schooling (there).

Santosh (41:17)
Oh, really?
So around 7:30 in the morning, they look out of their window and see this young couple dressed up and waiting at the side of the road with two bags. They think, “There’s a story here, somewhere.”; there’s suitcases, and they’re just waiting there. They go down and ask the couple what’s up.
(The couple replied that) they’re going for a pre-wedding shoot. The lady who’s going to pick them up had some clothes – essentially what she does is renting out clothes – so they were waiting for her.
Then the lady appears, on her scooty, with the clothes. Now the story isn’t the couple, but the lady.
They start talking to her and land up at her place. Her story is fascinating because she was a beautician, but her daughter – and this was the really interesting part – was in Malaysia or Korea, one of the two.
This was in Aurangabad, a really lower-middle class kind of place. This is a woman running a small business, but she apparently has a daughter who had done her Master’s (degree) in cryptography and she was a supermodel, according to her, in Malaysia.
You might say that was a weird story. (She said) “I was a beautician, but she convinced me that there’s a fashion (based business I could do), she sends me clothes from there and I rent them out for marriages and parties, etc. That’s the business I’ve set up.”
So, these people go and check out the website of the daughter and she is indeed a cryptographer and model, with a website and business.
So we ran into a story like this completely out of the blue. Interestingly, a couple of months later – because a lot of us keep in touch with some of those people – we came across a video report filed by a local channel somewhere, which showcased this lady and how her business was growing. She ran her first fashion show. It was fascinating to come across this completely random kind of woman who had this fascinating story. So many times, we come across such powerful stories. Sometimes, they are heart-breaking, like when we came across a bunch of young girls in Haryana with an abnormally high number of PhDs, because they kept studying to avoid getting married. The more they studied, the harder it was to get married.
So, you come across (all sorts of stories). Every Bharat Darshan, one thing that everybody comes back with – particularly those who are new – is a great sense of humility. There are such amazing people with such fascinating stories, who sometimes lead very difficult lives. There’s one whole story, there’s an insight part to it, and there’s also the human connection part of this experience. Both of them are very valuable.
We once came across this thing in Orissa, where you had a strange concept of the bhai-friend(brother-friend); the institution of the bhai-friend. Which is a strange hybrid between a boyfriend and the rakhi-brother. But this is a bhai-friend, which sounds like a boyfriend, functions like a boyfriend, but the framing (involves rakhi-based brotherhood). We met their parents and there were two boys with their “sisters”, and they said ki woh unke bhai-friend ke saath hai(that they’re with their bhai-friends.)

Ravi (45:12)
The parents said that? Wow!

Santosh (45:14)
Yeah, and they allowed them to go out with them and here they are on a bike, sort of hanging onto the pillion, traveling around. But (it’s considered okay) because they are bhai-friends. It was amazing that this Indian hybrid-ability of being able to find (a loophole between) the whole arranged-love-marriage kind of stuff. That pattern that you see is the bhai-friend being how you manage contradictions in a way that reconciles rather than emphasises conflict.
There are several more, I can keep going on about the other stuff we find.

Ravi (45:48)
This is so valuable, Santosh. It just brings so much colour to a discussion when you’re talking about something like this. It’s incredibly valuable.
So you talk about travel, you used the word ‘texts’ to refer to all forms of media, whether its mass or social media;

Santosh (46:08)
All forms, yeah. Calling any one of them as ‘media’ is insufficient; calling it ‘behaviour’ is insufficient. So that’s why the use of the word ‘texts’ – to try and capture what one is referring to.

Ravi (46:25)
One thing I’m curious about, that I find slightly missing here, is that data is also one of the variables. So, do you also look at research reports?
There’s two forms of data; one is the data on surveys (that involves) asking people, wherein I agree with you that people don’t necessarily talk about what they want to do, they just talk about what their conscious minds allow them to say. But let’s say, Google data – which is what people are searching for; what they are buying, so on. (Could you talk about) any of that (and if it’s helpful to you)?

Santosh (46:58)
Data is extremely useful – big data in particular. Data of the kind which is (inaudible), and also behaviour. The truth is that I find a lot of survey data (to be) suspect. But this kind of behavioural data is valuable because it is just another text. When I say ‘text’, I think the data is very much a part of that text. I do feel that there isn’t that much imaginative data that is available. Although all data tells a story – in fact, in the early part of my career, I was a great proponent of data storytelling and looking very hard at data and trying to (pull/cut out) a narrative, but over the years I just find data suspect in India. The more I got a first-hand sense of how data is collected in India, the less enthusiastic I became about data. Over the years, (I went from) being a data enthusiast to (someone who finds data suspect); and I did everything. (I was) fresh from MBA, I was trying to run regressions, I was using the whole bag of tricks, but over the years I tended to drift away from that a little.

Ravi (48:30)
This reminds of a book…I don’t know if you have read it, it’s called Whole Numbers and Half Truths by Rukmini Shrinivasan. It just shakes your confidence in all data sources in India!
There are so many possible ways for (data) to get manipulated across the chain, it’s scary. I get that point.
When you do have to look at data, are there some sources that you tend to place greater reliance on, versus others?

Santosh (48:57)
Like I said, for instance in the traditional marketing scheme of things, panel data; because longitudinal was more important than ad-hoc data. For instance, I would certainly set more store by that.
Aggregate consumption data which is verifiable (and/or)/(is) more interesting than other forms.
There aren’t that many sources. Throughout the years, you’d have looked at the NCAER as a data source; you’d have looked at CMIE as a data source; there are now various people who have compiled lots of data sources into these compendiums.
There’s a lot of data that, unfortunately, is not in the public domain. There are a lot of websites, that actually have consumption data which I think would have been interesting.

Ravi (50:04)
Amazon, Flipkart.

Santosh (50:05)
Amazon, Flipkart!
I mean, that is data. Even the little bit of dribs and drabs of data that come out of Swiggy and Zomato, I find those fascinating. And that’s behavioural data.

Ravi (50:18)
While a lot of these big, private corporations have their data, there isn’t too much of that available in the public domain, is the challenge that you see.

Santosh (50:29)
(Not) in the public domain. Yeah.

Ravi (50:32)
These are all ways in which you absorb and create some of these pictures and patterns.
I want to talk about the next element of this skill, which is the ability of vujà-dé, for want of a better word. For listeners who have not heard of it, it’s the opposite of déjà-vu. Déjà-vu is where you see something new but find familiarity in it, and vujà-dé is the opposite where you see something old and familiar, or something you take for granted, and see something new in it.
One lovely example that I’ve heard you talk about is the mobile phone. Mobile phones kind of come to us fairly suddenly. It’s not that they came across decades, but in that period of time, the way it took over our lives – we now completely take it for granted. It’s as if we’ve never lived life without it. But the way you talk about how this one unit of technology represents such a massive shift in giving freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of choice, to individuals. Can you talk a little about how you apply this lens of saying “This is something new; this is unusual.”

Santosh (51:45)
I will go back to the earlier point I’d made about asking the question of “What is a mobile?”
If you start by saying “What is it?”, (it helps.) And you said so correctly that the mobile phone is a completely new technology that has become old so quickly. We are so used to it and so blasé about it, that we now expect updates every 2 months. That is now the new mode.
Earlier, the different between Mark I and Mark II Ambassador was a grill that happened once every ten years. Now you expect things to move every few months, and if it’s not sufficiently new then you diss it.
Fundamentally, our sense of wonder and significance has been eroded quite a bit. The mobile phone is radical in so many ways apart from the base level. In India, the fact that you call a person and not a place (is radical). Earlier when you called somebody, you’d call their house – you called a place. With a mobile phone, you call a person. Not a place.

Ravi (52:52)
We used to have numbers saved as Matunga (and so on).

Santosh (52:55)
(Even if it was someone’s house it would be saved as so-and-so residence). If you wanted to try and call your girlfriend, you’d have to call 4 times to make sure her parents don’t pick up. There was an earlier time where you needed to do that; there was no guarantee. And for a large part of India to have an identity; to be somebody; to have a unique number, where people are calling you (is mind-blowing). Otherwise in India you say you have the classes and the masses. And the masses are a faceless body of people, who have never been given a sense of identity that is individual, then (you tell them) “Here’s a mobile phone. You are important enough to be called directly.
It just seems like a very rudimentary thing, but it’s a profound shift to feel the power of that. The other profound shift is just the level of the gesture, that I can take a mobile phone and the whole world is now packaged for me – an individual. The fact that it allows me (to have that many facilities is profound).
If you look at the number of decisions that a lot of people would have had to make in their lives, again people without power, without money, how many decisions do you make in your life? You are at the receiving end of decisions. Decisions are made to you; you don’t make decisions. And here in the mobile phone, there are micro-decisions but you make a few 100 of them a day! You click something, swipe something; the sense of power at a purely gestural level, through a gesture. The fact that you have a touchscreen – everything you touch, responds. The world obeys your command. The fact that you touch something and something happens. It’s yours.
Of course, this is just the most rudimentary form in which it has radically altered our sense of who we are.
The fact that you can waltz over hierarchies. Otherwise, to access the CEO of a company you have to go through several layers. Grab a number. You cut through that.
Anonymity and what it has allowed on social media (is radical). Self-presentation and the fact that you now have the self-confidence to take a selfie! You could be anywhere, but the only thing that matters is me. I can be in a place that is overwhelming, but I am not overwhelmed. My interest is to capture myself in this (moment).
I think in terms of mindsets, attitudes, the sense of who one is, all of these have been radically transformed by the mobile phone. It’s easy to take this for granted.

Ravi (55:59)
That is so powerful, Santosh. There are some thoughts that are coming to me as you were talking about this.
So, I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, and we didn’t have a phone in our house. We were in Bombay then, and we didn’t have a phone for a long time. For a long time, there would be a number given, which would be ‘C/O’ – Care of. Because if one neighbour had a number then you’re set. 

Santosh (56:24)
Same here! It was called PP. We would have a number which was called PP. I’ve forgotten what PP stands for. (Private Party). It’s similar to the C/O thing where a neighbour with one phone was enough. Everybody would give out that number.

Ravi (56:41)
And this whole thing of decisions, too. It took me back to when we were young and of course, there was just one form of entertainment at home – the TV. This was even pre-cable TV where there was DD and DD Metro. DD Metro at least showed some interesting programs.
And later even when cable TV came, even then choice was not with the child. I’m talking about teenagers, now. Your dad would have the remote, or the mom; and you’d be watching something that you’re not super interested in but maybe it’s been 5 minutes and you’ve developed some bit of an interest in it. And that’s exactly when your dad would change the channel! And then he’ll go to something else, and you’re like “Oh my god, okay. Fine. I’ll make do with this, at least I get to watch something.” and then in 5 minutes you develop some interest and it gets changed again.
So, there have been so many situations where we have not had the simple agency of “I want to do something on my own.” And to me, what you’re talking about is that there are all these repressed desires that can never come out in any survey or any conversations. I don’t even know that I want that choice. But once it’s presented to me, then oh my god, am I going to use it in a big way.
Do you sometimes wonder that today, despite all the technology that we have, there is much more technology yet to come. What are some big repressed desires which could present large markets that are there, but aren’t getting solved for?

Santosh (58:22)
I think there will always be a gap between what is possible and what one desires. And so, (if it comes to more basic things), technology in a sense is an attempt to (create magic of a kind). My definition of technology is that it is the overflow of the mind to the body. You have a powerful mind trapped in a currently inept body. Our mind can imagine being in 5 places at the same time, moving at speeds that are amazing; but our bodies are so useless in comparison. There’s such little we can do.
So technology has been saying “Space, time, everything (can be fixed.) You decide something is not strong enough, so you get a machine that is able to do (the job). You can’t move fast enough, so you get an engine that takes (less time). You can’t instantly reach somewhere so you communicate in a way that (makes it as if you) reach instantly.”
So over the millennia, what technology has done is close the gap between the mind’s desire and the body’s ability. The internet is the new (inaudible). Actually, what the mind is doing, is using its power to (collaborate) with others to create its own world. It’s almost like the mind founding a universe of its own kind.
The repressed human desires are infinite, in that sense. Because we want to be everything. We want to be the center of the universe. So why is it that even though it makes so little sense, we inexplicably move towards this (tech advancements)? Zomato announced yesterday that you can get something in ten minutes.
The eventual aim is to have no gap between desire and (its fulfillment). That is the fundamental repressed desire. The fact that if I want something, it should happen. Which is what the touch-screens are increasingly telling us. You touch something, it’ll happen. Whatever you can fulfill virtually, you close the loop as soon as you desire it.
I can go on Amazon now, and while we are speaking, order the next iPhone without breaking conversation. I think that wherever there is a constraint, there is a desire. There is a role, potentially, for technology. It takes so many forms. One is to live a longer life; live painlessly. You can have access to whatever entertainment you want at whatever time you want it. The list of what we want is unending.

Ravi (1:01:20)
In all of this, culture is sometimes an enabling factor and other times it can pull back, because you want to do a lot of things, but there are social and cultural modes that pull you back. When I look at the way India is changing now, I get confused. I think that ten or fifteen years back, were we so unabashedly traditional and showcasing culture? Has that increased significantly?
Normally you’d find that as there’s more technology, people get more “modern”, where do you see that direction having gone so far, and where do you see it going?

Santosh (1:02:04)
I think that’s a false equivalence. I know it’s a normal understanding that technology (modernizes society).
There is a direction (that it brings change in). Actually, the (kind of transformation it brings) is more structural. It can change your attention span invisibly. It changes that. It makes us become more individualistic. There are some things it does which are structural. Because of the structure of your interactions. Over a period of time, it trains you. It trains your behaviour. The fact that at any given point of time you have ten options means that you don’t want to spend time on any one. You are constantly missing out on something else, and that makes your attention span smaller. There are ways in which technology changes you. But at the same time, it enables you. WhatsApp Groups, for instance, because of their nature they enable a status-quo kind of behaviour. The structure is such that in a group of twelve people, if you have a new opinion and there’s only one of you, over 5 iterations it will be impossible for you to keep saying something which is at odds with the rest of the group. There is an inexorable push towards the center; towards the past; toward the conventional.
The nature of the WhatsApp group pushes you towards a certain direction that is structurally embedded in the way that it is. That’s the interesting part. Technology is just a structure. Depending on the structure, what it enables or retards, can change. To believe that technology by itself is modernizing is a mistake. Technology is not modernizing by itself.
And technology is not the only factor. There’s politics, currently. What you’re looking at today is partly-enabled by technology, substantially fueled by politics. I think there’s a global movement too, that enables this. The move towards looking at the past and being more involved with the issues of the past. I think that’s what we are seeing today.

Ravi (1:04:58)
There’s also this point that you had made in another conversation, where you said that in earlier times, maybe the 90s or so, where such mass technology was not available on social media, a lot of people may have kept these thoughts to themselves. But now they hear and see a lot more people expressing it and saying, “Yeah. This is what I was always thinking, or maybe was inclined towards and now this is confirming what I’m thinking.”
That’s a situation where technology pushes the direction, as you rightly said.

Santosh (1:05:34)
The fact of the matter is that at no point in history have all of us been allowed to say what we think. It’s never happened before. Communication in a public domain has always been highly regulated.

Ravi (1:05:52)
Very, very top-down.

Santosh (1:05:53)
Very top-down.
And because of social customs and the hierarchies, you’d be very careful about what you say. You can think something, whatever you like, but you’d be very careful about not saying things out loud. Hypocrisy is a great civilizing tool. Without it, civilizations cannot exist. You have to be hypocritical. You have to think one thing and say another, because in a social context that is where you are able to get along. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to get along.
What social media does is that it calls itself ‘social’, but it’s a different kind of social. A – it gives you anonymity; B – it gives you distance; C – it gives you the comfort of other people like you. However extreme a view you have, however neurotic you are, there are at least a few other thousand people like you. And the paradox is that the more extreme your view, the greater the search of people like you to find each other. You are the minority, so you are really hungrily looking for each other. Therefore, the attraction that brings you together is great.
The nature of social media is such that it gives you anonymity, instancy, access across hierarchies. If you have thoughts about the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, here’s a forum where you can call him abusive – and it could reach him. Where was an opportunity like that earlier?

Ravi (1:07:42)
The power that you can suddenly have is (scary.)
Santosh, I’m also curious to know about your process of reflection. You talked about how you absorb a lot of this information through various sources, do you have a formal process of reflection? For example, I’ve read about Yuval Harari having a 2-hour meditation that he does every day. I know some folks who go on long walks; there are others who talk to people. Do you have a formal, or informal, process of reflection?

Santosh (1:08:13)
I certainly don’t have a formal process of reflection. It’s a bit frustrating, actually, because I Don’t have anything concrete to say about this. (inaudible)
Over the years, I’ve become more sensitive to any idea that seems either unusual, or there’s something that you’ve come across which is interesting. I have learnt to record it in that moment, to the extent to which I can. I will have notes on my phone which are just little scraps, sometimes I can’t figure out what they were when I wrote them down. Otherwise, I have learnt to take notes. It’s just the bare thoughts, nothing expanded. If I look at the notes I have on my phone, there will be some notations.
What I did earlier, that I still do once in a while, is if I read something I would excerpt the parts that I found interesting and put them away and collect them, so I’d have whatever I thought was interesting stored somewhere. With time, what I started doing is I take photographs of things that I don’t know what to do with. I’m glad that I at least recorded it, but it’s not very easy to access. I have to figure out how to do that.
I think recording in the moment you have an idea (is the way to go).

Ravi (1:10:10)
When you say record, do you mean voice recording or just writing?

Santosh (1:10:13)
Writing. I also use the voice to text feature sometimes, because I am a text person. I’ve come up from the text age, so I still prefer text. But I like to pen it down because you’ll lose it otherwise.
And because my thinking comes from little observations from somewhere or the other, it’s very easy to lose it. There’s no mega thought that comes; it’s little slivers of something. That, certainly, is the closest I can say I’ve come to a formal process of generating these thoughts.
After 17 years of thinking up a weekly subject for my column…it, in a sense, forces me to think of things.
To that extent, it’s a formal burden, if you like, that I have to carry and think about something every week. Not everything I think of becomes an article, because unless there’s a slant or take that I have on it, something that I find interesting, (it won’t always get written).
I’m not a writer in a conventional sense. IF somebody asked me to write and said, “This is a lovely bouquet. You are a writer, I’m sure you can describe it well.” I would be thoroughly inept because unless it’s my own thought and unless I have something original that I’ve thought about it (I can’t write as well as I’d like.)
It’s about converting thoughts into words, it’s not about just words.

Ravi (1:12:01)
I love that fact that (you need to) have one big idea that carries the article through.
For example, in the recent post that you wrote about Holi, the big idea was how typically Indian culture and younger people at home are fairly repressed, and there are a lot of constraints on what they can do, who they can play with, how they can play, etc. And festivals like Holi are some moments where they are given that choot(freedom), for want of a better word, that “Go enjoy with your friends.”
That’s what you essentially mean by your angle, or your take on it.

Santosh (1:12:36)
Also, the fact that what I found fresh when I thought about this piece was that when I look at the structure of Diwali and the structure of Holi, and how one is tied to their social positions, it is a worldly kind of festival. It’s about how much money you have. What you can buy, how you can celebrate; how many fireworks do you have? What kind of lighting do you have in your house? Whereas Holi strips you down. You aren’t even recognizable as a person. How the big festivals structure us as fundamentally far apart from each other. I found that interesting.

Ravi (1:13:16)
I think this is a great time to segue into the actual thought process, the writing part of your pieces. I would love to start with the structuring of a piece. Let’s day you’ve decided to write on a certain topic, you might have thoughts all over; you might have some scraps of information from various sources. How do you start? Do you have some place where you put down all your thoughts – maybe a paper, maybe a word document, what’s that? And how do you, then, organize those thoughts to form the skeleton of the article?

Santosh (1:13:44)
For years and years, the typical process was that sometime during the week I’d have randomly thought of an idea first and noted it down, then closer to the date I would have taken notes. For instance, I have lots of these pads that would be full of random notes, so I could take virtually any one of them and it’ll be full of (notes). Obviously, people can’t see it, but I’ll have a bunch of things written there. More than writing the piece, it would be essentially the thoughts. I’d note them down – not in any particular order – and then that becomes the raw material for me to then convert, to sit down and structure.
There are broadly 2 kinds of structures: there’s the argument structure, and there is an exploration structure. The argument one typically comes if I’m writing a political piece, or I’m writing about an issue. In that case, typically I begin either through a specific aspect of the issue or about the topicality, something that draws in and announces the subject in some form.
Classically, I like to articulate the other perspective if it’s a point-of-view argument. I like to present the other side as honestly as possible, in a way that somebody writing for the other side would have presented. Without using any cheat words, where you deflate an argument by using one word rather than another, which a lot of people to do. But I try to be as honest as possible in representing an argument, and then present a counter to that – which may be my view; then pull back and maybe put the two (unclear); and finally, to make a larger, more conceptual, more universal point that be the case. Broadly, this is the structure I follow unconsciously when I do an argument piece.
When I’m doing a descriptive piece, like the Holi piece, which isn’t really making an argument, it’s much more to do with prioritizing what I have enjoyed in the thought process. IF I find a certain thought or phrase interesting, I structure (the piece) around what seems insightful to me. There, the structure is more fluid and depends on personal recollection of what is of interest; sometimes it is the structural understanding of something that is of interest; sometimes it is an explanation of something very common, that is of interest. Depending on what is of interest to me, what seems like “Okay, maybe I have said something a little new here.” The focus is on underlining and amplifying what I have found new in my treatment of the subject. The end, wherever possible, is a slightly larger, pulled-out view that (presents the information) in a slightly bigger sense. That’s broadly how I understand my own process.

Ravi (1:17:49)
For the exploratory piece, you have all these ideas; do you just start writing on a piece of paper, let’s say, or do you say “Let me start with A and B, then bring in E and D”, or something like that?

Santosh (1:18:07)
There are 2 things that can happen. One is that you just write a continuous piece. There are times where I write little paragraphs. On a document, I’ll have 8-10 different points. So, I’ll write 100 words on one point and then another 60 words on another and 50 on another, and then I connect them. There are times when there are little bits and they get connected, and other times it’s a flow. There are times where I write out without even taking any notes.
In the early days, I used to write an article in an hour. It was done in 45 minutes to an hour. Today, with time, it’s become much more laborious than that. Through the week there is some minor amount of work that is done. I spend an hour or an hour and a half doing the first draft on Saturday mornings. On Sunday mornings, I complete it. The first draft can often be incomplete. I do my actual first drafts on Sunday morning. That is beyond the word limit, I don’t control it at that time. I normally keep my piece under 1,000 words. Typically, 1,100 or 1,200-1,250 words.
Then, before sending it, I spend another hour or an hour and a half getting (the word limit) down, by the evening. It’s a discipline that I don’t go to 1,001. That actually tightens the piece and is a very valuable part of (the process). Without it, the pieces would be looser than what they are. So, you really have to tighten stuff. Sometimes, it’s a nightmare to have to remove 40 words. But it does help, that exercise.

Ravi (1:19:49)
Do you have a favourite time and place for writing?

Santosh (1:19:53)
Always. I sit where I’m sitting right now, which is a study that I have.
I have a fixed time, I work Saturday mornings, do nothing on Saturday evenings, then work on Sunday mornings and Sunday afternoons. But I also can write (at other times). I write on flights, because I need to. It’s a full-time job and you travel, so I need to write on flights, sometimes in hotels. But otherwise, when I’m at home, there’s a fixed spot and time. There’s a discipline.

Ravi (1:20:21)
It all comes together so well for the reader. I’m going to quote one line from the book, which I guess is from one of the columns, or maybe it’s one of the introductory elements to the book. It’s so beautiful.
Here’s what you’ve written in the beginning paragraph from the book, “We live in grinding poverty with which we cope with a sense of cosmic fortitude. We are on our way to reclaiming our rightful position in the world, but we are frequently undone by our slumdog status. People travel to India not to find a country, but to find themselves. We are a timeless civilization and an impatient, uncaged tiger. India is a receptacle of all extremes and accommodates in its commodious canopy every adjective invented.”
This is such an arresting paragraph. There is the brilliant use of contrast here, a lot of alliteration; it’s got rhythm, it’s poetic. It flies when you read it. One gets a sense of India rather than just a visual description of India. Does such a line come out almost formed whole when you’re writing for the first time, or is there a lot of chiseling involved?

Santosh (1:21:50)
No, more often than not, it comes out whole. There are times where one chisels lines, but more often than not for me, I either have it or I don’t. Very rarely do I find myself chiseling lines. What I do chisel is the argument, or the flow. The flow and structure, how you connect one paragraph to the other and how it flows, that is what becomes (the thing I chisel.)
Typically, in many ways, I have had two media formats that I worked with. One is the presentation as a format, in advertising and so on. So there’s a certain storytelling… a lot of my writing lets me hear myself speak when I write. I think that gives a certain (character) to my writing, which is in a slightly conversational mode. I see an echo of it there.
Apart from that, I don’t find myself chiseling lines too much. In fact, what happens is I’m walking and a line will (just) come out. It comes (to me). Then I have to make sure I note it down because I might lose that line otherwise.
So, no. I don’t chisel lines as much as I receive them.

Ravi (1:23:22)
You talked about flow. What are some hacks or techniques you use to build flow between two seemingly disconnected pieces or paragraphs?

Santosh (1:23:33)
The first thing is flow in the thought itself. It’s important to have flow in thought, because otherwise the (lines are more) contrived. When you are trying to connect different arguments, there are ways that you can cheat when you try to (present) another perspective, and all. You can do stuff like that. Which is a very straightforward way of moving from one point to another. But I find that it’s actually more advantageous to have a flow in the thought process, instead of using a technique like that.
For instance, when I was writing the Holi piece – I don’t remember it well, even though it’s so recent – you describe something. It begins with “As I sit to write this…”, I think, which connects it with the here-and-now but also acknowledges that when you read it, it will all be done. But (it represents) the things that don’t go away (even when the moment itself passes). That becomes a cue.
You leave cues in paragraphs which you connect to the next one. To build flow, you build the way you write in continuity so it allows the earlier part to connect to the later part. That becomes a way of moving seamlessly through any description.

Ravi (1:25:46)
I love that, Santosh!
Sometimes when I teach (data storytelling) as a skill, I use an analogy of a train. You have multiple bogeys of a train, and each bogey can be a paragraph or slide in a presentation, but you need the couplings in between to make them connect. I think referring to something you said or contrasting with what you said are cool ways to do that.
The other powerful storytelling skill that I see shown again and again in your writing, is the one that we call ‘Show, don’t tell.’ You wouldn’t say that Indians are frugal – well, you may – but you will (instead) show it to us. I remember in the book you talked about how if you lift the mattress of any middle-class house and you’ll find a row of plastic bags there. And that brings back so many memories! Yes, of course I have seen that in my house.
This ability of converting an abstract thought into visual evidence is very powerful. Do you start from the visual evidence and then say, “These are all pointing to frugality, so let me write about that,” Or is it that when you want to write about frugality, suddenly these memories materialize?

Santosh (1:27:00)
I think it’s a bit of both, but more often than not, it’s specific to the general than to the abstract.
To me, that is interesting. The fact that you don’t take off the plastic cover off one’s new car, for the first two years. Or the fact that you’ll have a nice sofa but you’ll put a hideous cover on top of it so as to safeguard the original fabric. Then you ask what they mean.
I’m a collector of this kind of typical behaviour, odd behaviour; I dig into it and ask what it means, rather than saying in India we are all frugal so let me (write about it).
But having found 3 or 4 things like this, (that make you say) there is reason to believe we are frugal, one might look for more evidence that you may not have thought of in the first place. To that extent, one can think in the other direction.

Ravi (1:28:22)
This is usually called inductive reasoning, right? Where you start with observance and specifics, and go from there. That makes a lot of sense.
The other tool that I find being used is analogies. A rich analogy that you used – again, these are all from a time in the past – was where during summer vacations there was no hill-stations, Kashmir, or foreign trips. It was almost always everybody trooping back to their native place or to where their main family is. The analogy that you used of the branch office getting connected with the emotional head office is so powerful!
It suddenly makes you think “Yes, that’s where the core is.” And you need to go back and recharge.
Analogies are a great storytelling tool, I think. They can be misused sometimes, but they are very powerful. Is it something that comes typically formed to you, or do you ty and reflect on it specifically, like “What is a good analogy I can use here?” How does it work for you?

Santosh (1:29:33)
When I try to look for an analogy, I struggle to find one.

Ravi (1:29:40)
It either comes or it doesn’t.

Santosh (1:29:41)
More than an analogy, it’s more like a mental model. If you think in terms of mental models, and say “What is the mental model of this holiday? Of this relationship we have?”
I prefer to think of it like a mental model. Then it’s not just a device but a conceptual frame. The mental model is that there’s a central headquarters, where things are controlled; you are living your life but it’s not independent and everything is controlled. What can happen when using analogies is that sometimes they’re appropriate, sometimes they work to some extent and sometimes not; they’re stretched. But if you think in terms of mental models then the rigor or the responsibility for that characterization to be more representative – nothing can be 100% representative for any phenomenon. When you express one phenomenon in terms of another, there’s only X amount of overlap one can have using metaphors where someone has called the thatness of this the thisness of that, which I think is brilliant.
I would think of it in terms of mental models rather than analogies.

Ravi (1:31:13)
That helps, I guess, because you operate with a finite amount of mental models. You aren’t struggling to think “What is this new thing? Is it something completely different or can I fit it with one or more of the models I already have?”

Santosh (1:31:33)
As a discipline of thinking, even if you’re thinking of something like education in India – what is the mental model? When parents worry about their (children’s) education, what do you say? It’s almost a visualization of the way in which things work. Our behaviour is an outcome of the visualization. The language that we use, what privileges (we have), what we don’t. For example, if the parent is worrying about the fact that nothing is retained, their mental model is that there’s a pipeline with lots of holes in it. As knowledge flows through it, it evaporates from here, it leaks out from there, and nothing is retained. The foundation is not built. It’s like everything is crumbling because nothing gets set.
If you were to put together a picture of what they’re describing when they talk about their child’s struggle with education, at the heart of it there is a mental model they have of how education works. This is true for our behaviour about everything. You’ll find that the underlying attitude towards anything is our own common sense.
Money, for example. We have a mental model of how money works. We have a mental model of how anything works, and we are not aware of it.

Ravi (1:33:18)
Very useful, as a researcher and as somebody who’s studying to understand what that model is and to help them articulate and say, “Maybe, this is a better model for you to use.”

Santosh (1:33:30)
Absolutely. You can modify the model, utilize it, you can plug issues in that model. It provides a framework to think about.

Ravi (1:33:42)
Another lovely example that you talked about in terms of the description of the Indian courtroom. It’s again a concept of vujà-dé, where we take it all for granted. This is how courtrooms always function. Then you ask, “what is a courtroom?” and the description you use is that a courtroom is an elaborate, theatrical performance – and I love this insight – to engender trust. Otherwise, how could one allow some random guy sitting there to announce that someone else be killed? To have that kind of power?
I love that viewpoint. We can talk a little bit about how courtrooms are built to engender trust, and are there any lessons that leaders can take from it? That if they want to engender more trust in themselves for their clients and for subordinates, etc., what can they learn from this instance?

Santosh (1:35:00)
The point is that there are so many things that we think have a certain meaning, and we take for granted. The courtrooms have authority; they are serious places. It’s a court, obviously they have the right to decide (the outcome of legal proceedings); there’s a Judge. These are all labels that we take as read.
But how do you construct authority? All meaning is constructed, in some form or the other. If you have to construct an air of authority around something that is non-negotiable, which one cannot argue with, what do you do? How do you communicate it?
You can communicate it by creating a higher-level and lower (level). You create a sense of symmetry that both sides are equal, nobody has any intrinsic advantage and only that person can figure out who has the advantage. There is a set-like thing, with the witness stand, etc. People have costumes, and there is a particular manner in which they address each other. There is a script that they must follow. First this guy, then that guy, then this one can object; It’s an elaborate theatrical production, that’s been naturalized to an extent that we don’t notice or realize it’s a theatrical production. It’s interesting how some of the most serious parts of our lives are all theatrical. The army – think about it, the most macho profession in the world is decorated and colourful like peacocks strutting. Soldiers wear (badges) on their shoulders and chests, and we call them ‘Decorated Officers’. It’s incredible. Any uniform is a costume. All the police people have uniforms.
Look at how authority gets constructed through (A) creating a separate cadre, investing it with meaning, creating its own codes and rituals that are distinct from the codes and rituals of the civilian world, versus another world; it’s an exercise in meaning construction. It’s not just that – old doctor’s waiting rooms have doctor’s certificates on the back, that’s a way of constructing authority. Newspapers: if you look at how a headline and newspapers are structured, (one sees that) it’s an enormous conceit to be able to say that I’ve brought whatever is important in the entire world to you, in these 16 pages. Look at the names of Newspapers. National Herald, The Times of India.
You arrogate yourself. But you do it. I think how this is useful is (1) for all individuals to understand that we live in a world where most of what we think of as natural is actually constructed; the idea of looking beyond the text; reading into text, do not accept it uncritically. There is a certain critical awareness of our surroundings that it engenders. That’s 1.
A lot of leaders instinctively understand how authority is created. Lack of access is the greatest sign of authority, which is deliberately created. To keep somebody waiting if they come to visit you, even though you’re twiddling your thumbs and playing Tetris or something, is a silly way of doing it but is a way nevertheless.
McKinsey…how do they create authority? The 2×2 grid and the graph – those are symbolic ways of creating authority. Most of them are nonsensical. I always find things like SWOT analysis and all, they are just sorting exercises. They are not analytical tools, they aren’t frameworks, they aren’t explicit. We confuse classificatory sorting with analysis, simply because you give it a name and framework.
Authority creation and meaning creation is a fascinating area, and the world is a awash in it.

Ravi (1:39:20)
Anything you think that regular leaders can learn from some of these? and maybe not go into the extremes of making people wait, but can they do something to establish their authority? Of course, I hear people talking about “You don’t have to dress to impress but you have to portray your authority.”
So, any other ways?

Santosh (1:39:48)
No, it’s not just authority. That is just one aspect. The fact is that everything you do has a symbolic shadow. It’s not about what you say, but about everything you do. The learning isn’t about authority or power, that’s just one part of it. In a world where authority and power are becoming less significant and less associated with the idea of leadership, if anything, that is the lesson to not learn.
I think it’s more about simply saying the fact that you can create meaning. If you have a loo for executives in your office, and then you talk about diversity and inclusion, you can’t do that. The moment you say there is (an executive) loo, that there is something in the excretory process of executives that deserves a different space than the staff, you fundamentally have a mental model of the world that cannot get reconciled.
I think it’s just the fact that in every action of yours, you get found out. All it says is that people may not tell you to your face, because it’s not conscious, but the image that you create is not a function of your conscious actions but your unconscious actions. It’s what an organization does unconsciously.
For instance, when we do an organizational audit – nowadays you don’t find those things, but earlier what we used to do is look at the notice board. And that notice board has not changed since 1945. You’ll find some old notices, that tells you something about the organization. Or you’ll find some very minor announcement with very many CCs.
It’s incredible how all of it is part of meaning creation. I’d say that what it tells a leader is that you cannot block your way out of this. There was a time when nobody questioned it but today you are being observed. It’s in the smallest unit of action.
Rituals are very important, also. They communicate a lot. Formal communication is the least important, I think, increasingly today. It’s the informal communication (that matters).

Ravi (1:42:46)
What’s an example of a good ritual?

Santosh (1:42:49)
Let me tell you what will be considered a terrible example.
We have this ritual of any new person that joins or anyone who leaves, we have a very wet lunch. There’s a ritual where the new person is welcomed, normally after a few months of them having been around. They have to talk to us about their first impression of the company and then go person by person, and describe how they see that person.
We are a team of 25 people, or actually at any given time there’s 15-20 people; and the same thing happens when they leave. Regardless of (the reason), we always throw a lunch for people who leave. There’s nobody who leaves without (a lunch). And they get to say whatever they want.
This is a small ritual, and the reason why the alcohol is important is because it allows people to loosen up and to say stuff that they want – obviously, without getting to the point where they are incoherent.
This is a small, not very significant ritual but I think it’s important because what it communicates is the fact that it’s okay to say what you want. We are interested in your unalloyed, unfiltered opinion, and there’s a conviviality that you create. And what happens is that over a period of time, everybody else has bene through this so there are shared stories of “Oh, so-and-so did this.”
It just becomes a place for storytelling, where there is organizational lore, it just becomes a sight which is looked forward to, celebrated, and yet actually has a meaning. It socializes people into the organization at a certain level, and when somebody is leaving it gives them memories. That’s why we have a whole lot of people who may come back and join us, or who are always present. Sometimes, we need to get rid of them from our office because they area just hanging around in our office after having left for many years. But I think it helps create a culture of it.

Ravi (1:45:20)
Such a powerful example. I can remember some such wet lunches from my consulting days, and they were really fun.
Is there a particular book, Santosh, or movie, or any other piece of work that you have gifted or recommended the most to others? Non-fiction or fiction.

Santosh (1:45:46)
There’s a book called Mythologies, by a French semiotician author called Roland Barthes. In some ways, it’s actually the inspiration for a lot of the essays that I write. He wrote on everyday things, things like soap powder versus detergent, or the idea of wrestling; he’s a philosopher and this is his most accessible book of essays, otherwise he has work that is considerably less accessible. To me, it was a very powerful lightbulb in your head, where you start seeing the world – this whole thing of things and how they are separate from meaning. The meaning isn’t embedded inside things but actually sprayed around it, created around it; that recognition came from this book. Because it’s a book which has short essays, even people who may otherwise find that kind of stuff daunting are able to appreciate it.
That, perhaps, is the book that I have recommended/gifted the most to people.

Ravi (1:47:11)
Any other works that immediately come to mind?

Santosh (1:47:14)
I’ve recommended Sudhir Karkar a lot to people who want to understand India. I am not a believer in business books. I detest them; I don’t read business books. I find them completely shallow and pointless. I just find the whole business learning discourse to be deathly boring and pointless. I don’t understand how intelligent people can fall for it.
If you were looking for business books from me, there isn’t any one that I can think of. The only books I find interesting are those that dig into and around the concepts that we deal with, that we work with. I find books on India interesting. At any given point in time, it would be a different book.
There isn’t a subject-specific book that I’d recommend. There’s no book on brands, for instance, that I’d recommend to anyone. There’s no book on advertising that I have read, so I can hardly recommend any. I have barely read about brands.
So, I’m not in a great position to recommend them.

Ravi (1:48:17)
This has been incredibly fascinating. In case people want to know more about you and your work, what’s the best place for them to go to?

Santosh (1:48:29)
I have a website,, but most of my articles are on the TOI blog page. If you want to check out Bharat Darshan, you can go to our website, which has some documentation of it.

Ravi (1:48:47)
Is there a second book coming any time?

Santosh (1:48:49)
Yes. As we speak, in fact, I’m working on a similar kind of book. It’s a ten-year hence kind of book.

Ravi (1:48:52)
Wonderful! Looking forward to that.
Thank you so much, Santosh, for coming on this podcast.

Santosh (1:48:54)
It was my pleasure! Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

Ravi (1:49:00)
Thank you.

And that was Santosh Desai, author, columnist and a superb chronicler of India’s unique culture. 

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation

  • The need to ask fundamental questions to get to the root of any idea
  • The importance of experiencing or feeling something in its entirety – rather than analysing and breaking it down into components
  • The importance of reading fundamental works on culture
  • How travel can be a great way to get to know the market and its changing dynamics

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

Get Storytelling tips in your Inbox

Subscribe to the 'Story Rules on Saturday' newsletter

Get a free e-book that decodes the hidden storytelling structure used by leaders like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Your infomation will never be shared with any third party