Forbes India was in the womb for a long period of time. The procedural delays in its arrival actually helped IG and Charles to convert their frustration into an opportunity; they ideated and planned and collaborated with me unhurried to conceptualize the Zen Garden. A lot of the column’s subsequent success goes back to the pre-natal attention it got.
Zen Garden was conceptualized on three premises. First, entrepreneurs are valuable people who often carry deep insights that can spark others. Secondly, these people are sometimes solitary individuals, they need the right probes and there are even times that they do not know what they know. The third premise was that if we bring in an entrepreneur to talk to an entrepreneur, these great men and women feel secure to explore the deeps to bring out valuable insights. There are three most frequently asked questions about the column: How do you choose the people you interview? Two, how do you know what to ask? And finally, how do you find the time? When we conceptualised Zen Garden, we thought of inclusion before we thought of exclusion. We told ourselves that it should evenly represent different sectors, regions and demographic profiles. That is how if you notice, in the last one year, the column has carried stories of people from all the parts of India, from different industries and business segments and of course covers both men and women, as well as for-profit and not-for-profit. We generally avoid people who are on the cover page anyway because not many would-be entrepreneurs can relate to them. So, lesser the limelight and more usable wisdom, better is the chance of being in the garden. That said, we also decided that a couple of times in a year, we must seek entrepreneurial knowledge from unusual sources. That is how the Dalai Lama was featured as CEO of the Soul. Leaving him aside, we seek out interesting people – sometimes well-known and respected like VG Siddhartha and Anu Aga and sometimes completely unknown like Sanghamitra Jena and Anita Shah.
Who I interview is planned months in advance and Forbes India team and I agree on the guest list based on the learning potential the guest brings for our readers and we take into account the level of media exposure. We want to be very sure that the person has respectability beyond just material success. Visitors seldom come to the Zen Garden uninvited. Once we know who is coming, I prepare for every meeting. That of course is a given. I research the individual; sometimes imagine page layout itself or the questions and the hook. But when I sit across, I suspend everything because I do not want my visitor to feel that he or she is sitting across a journalist. In the time the person is with me, I am a fellow entrepreneur, I am in awe and fascination and I want to hear their tale of the journey – just the way the column describes it. I am part sculptor and part photographer of words. The visitors let me sculpt their story from a maze of information and then I hold aloft something readers would love to behold and admire and learn from.
Memorability is a key requirement for that process of learning. Hence, in every journey, I look for a story that serves as a hook. But the story is not the thing; it is the one or two pithy points of self-realization that stays in the mind. That is where the sculptor stops and the photographer of words takes over. A photographer must know the exact angle, lighting, and the object and in a fleeting moment pick the one that is of essence, one that must be brought in to sharp focus, cutting out everything else. The time we spend together, is in itself a journey. That journey involves the photographer. The folks who shoot for Zen Garden are some of the best folks who are not outside of me and the visitor; they are part of the process. They know the nuance, they are listening into the conversation through the lens and what you do not notice is that they laugh when we laugh; they frown when we frown and that is why the picture on the page is so real. When you are fascinated with people, they take you to their inner most recesses and they show you their wellspring.
People who have come to Zen Garden are not looking for branding themselves – actually it is the other way round. So, usually I find myself across from an emotionally secure individual and all I have to do is to ask them to begin from the beginning. But the difference is in the subsequent engagement. As we begin from the beginning, I stop them to ask questions, sometimes I offer my own point of view, sometimes I show them something they did not see in their own journey and ask them to reflect. Sometimes, I must surprise my visitor so that he or she gives me the gem I am looking for. Usually, that surprise is a question no one has ever asked before. So, when I met the Dalai Lama, I asked him: What would the Buddha have to say to modern day business if he were here today? He listened intently and then he had a profound answer that is trademark Dalai Lama. He replied, “I do not know”. Then he burst in to a hearty laughter, subsided and started gushing like a mountain spring. All I needed is to listen.
There are times when in search of the Zen, I bring back a mountain and not the herb. For days and months it simply sits on my desk and I sheaf through transcripts that my colleague at work Shanti makes for me, and wallow in the other pages of information that I might have collected. There have been occasions when I have returned to the source with the one question that made all the difference long after the visit to the Zen Garden was over. It made the actual session, just the preparatory. The insights gleaned from designer Sujata Keshavan were found after the actual visit. In order to get the best, sometimes I have to suspend expectations that I must get the wisdom of the entrepreneur in a pre-packaged manner, in a finite session. So, this is not about meeting tight deadlines. I get my work done sometimes months and weeks in advance so that the like good wine and cheese; some of it can simply sit on my desk and ferment and age and become priceless.
And that brings me to the third most frequently asked question: where do I find the time? Usually, every visit to the Zen Garden takes half a day of intense preparation, half a day in the Zen Garden with the visitor and a day’s work thereafter, making it roughly two days of work per issue at my end. Usually, it is my weekends that are devoted to it and that makes it 48 weekend-days in a year dedicated to the garden. Sometimes, Susmita the gardener’s wife comes along to help me. After that, my handler at Forbes India, a serious young lady named Sveta Basaron takes over. If I am a sculptor and sometimes a photographer of words, Sveta is the curator of the museum. She has her own way with the layout and the blurb and the caption that makes you, the reader, think that you were right there when the conversation actually took place.