My life is in seeking out experience, feeling emotion: Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram

A version of this interview appeared in The Asian Age on March 13, 2013

From the maze of numbers, he moved on to those of the real world.  In abstract algebra, his area of interest, he saw contours of writing as  a creative field. In algebra, you build mathematical objects, one upon the other. You also try to show that seemingly different mathematical objects are the same — you try to see the world in a different way. This is the essence of powerful writing,” says Anjan Sundaram, the author of Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo (Hamish Hamilton).

Sundaram “broke” with America after his Masters in mathematics from Yale University after life seemed to have become “too beautiful”. Having made up his mind in favour of journalism, he landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo that “consumed” him. Mathematics, he writes in the book, “was pristine, but it offered no stimulus to the senses”. Mathematics’ “relations to the universe were numerous, but fortuitous”.

He writes: “It was man’s brilliance and vanity at play. I started to feel lost”. This feeling led to an urge to find routes to collide with reality. The result is Stringer. Sundaram’s collision with the real world continues as he is now in Rwanda, working on a book on yet another African nation. Sundaram has reported from Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press. He has received a Reuters award for his reporting in Congo.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q. Stringer gives an incredible insight into the country the world has “largely rejected”.  Was the book on your mind when you had landed in Congo?
A: Not at all. I went to Congo because I had read that 4 million people had died —  the death toll now stands at 5 million — and that there were not many reporters there. When I arrived in Congo and found a job with the Associated Press I became one of four international reporters in a country half the size of Europe — Congo is larger than Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, all put together. Imagine, just four journalists reporting from this massive country experiencing the most deadly war in the world. The desire to write Stringer only came as I was leaving Congo, after a year and a half there. The experience had been devastating. I felt the need to share it.

Q: You write in the book that you had left for Congo in a “sort of rage, a searing emotion”. Tell me more about that rage. Did the trip also had to do with your moral concerns? Or the sheer thrill of seeing history unfold?
A: There was certainly a sense of thrill at being witness to history. I was 22 years old. I wanted to see the world in its fullness. I lived with a family that had very primary concerns — there was often no food in the house, the baby was sick. I ate once a day, like them. As a journalist I met warlords, I saw mass graves, and went on military patrols with UN troops. I was embedded with UN soldiers as they attacked rebels in the Congolese jungle. All of this taught me a lot. And it fulfilled a need to see the world, feel a part of it, and understand something of its depth and extent. I felt powerful emotion in these places.

There was certainly a moral concern as well. Why did we hear so little from this place called Congo in which so many people had died? Why did the world turn away from this war, hardly visit it, and reduce it to two-hundred-word report at the bottom of newspaper pages? There are still too few journalists who live in Congo, experience it, and write from that experience. Too many of the stories we read and hear are by reporters who visit Congo for just a few days.

Q: You had set out to see “how people respond to crisis,” what people could become”. After your stay, what conclusions did you reach about Congo’s people’s response to crisis and the various ways it has made them what they are? 
A: My preoccupation was to understand what we could become. People are incredibly resilient in the face of disaster. People in Congo often resorted to black humour — theywould ridicule themselves and their country — in order to surmount the catastrophe around them. The incredibly grotesque rapes in Congo are also a result of the enduring crisis. There is a sense of impotence in a place like Congo, and human beings react very badly to this. We all have the need to mark our presence in the world, to feel we have a soul, that something in us is permanent, and lasting.

Q: It was extremely challenging to have lived the life you lived in Kinshasa. Did the small, personal tragedies ever deter your resolve?
A: On a number of occasions I wondered if I should leave Congo. After I was robbed at gunpoint I thought I would have to leave – because I couldn’t afford to stay on. But I think these experiences test your resolve. Each obstacle strengthens your vision, makes you ask yourself why you are there. I wasn’t in Congo merely for the thrill of it — the sense of fun quickly subsided, and every day was a test. I wouldn’t have stayed on if I didn’t believe that there was something incredibly important that I needed to see and experience. Eventually I felt I had to share what I had seen and felt, and Stringer is the result.

Q: You mention the links between peace in Congo and the world economy, how it is in the interest of the world to keep the conflict in Congo going. Do you foresee a resolution of the Congo crisis?
A: Illegal mineral trafficking networks have been set up in Congo with entrenched business interests that will suffer if the war were to end. Neighboring countries control Congolese mines and profit directly from smuggling that thrives in the conflict. There are dozens of wealthy Indian middlemen traders in Congo dealing in conflict minerals. The United States, despite its massive contribution to the UN peacekeeping force, supports the Congolese operations of Phelps Dodge, a large mining firm. They refused me permission to visit the mining company site. What did they want to hide?

Q: Tell me  something about the ethnic Indians in Congo.
A: Indians in Africa are predominantly businesspeople. They are a sizable population in east Africa, particularly in Kenya and Uganda, where they were brought by the British Empire to build railroads. You find in Congo this older generation of Indians — many run trading shops handed down to them by their forefathers. You also find a newer generation of Indians – with whom I spent a lot of time and describe in Stringer — who are fortune hunters. I travelled up the Congo River with an Indian to find a patch of land he had bought, hoping he would become rich from it. I lived with a Pakistani Punjabi who sold arms to militias. I met diamond dealers. These were people who had immigrated from India and Pakistan in the last 10 years, despite the economic growth and opportunity on the Indian subcontinent. Why had they left? They were an incredible interesting and enterprising group. Many of the stories in Stringer involve such Indians.

congo2Q: Since Stringer is your first book, did you have to work on the book’s voice, texture and tone?
A: Stringer is the result of four years of writing. It took me a long time to find the voice for the book – and also to shape it, to sift through the many experiences and find the ones that moved me most powerfully, and that needed to be conveyed.

Q: What do you make of the parallels with Naipaul and Kapuscinski? Are they among your early influences? How deep does your own understanding and admiration of the two run?
A: Naipaul and Kapuscinski have both been important to my writing, in different ways. An interview with Kapuscinski I was given in Manhattan inspired me to travel to Congo and work as a journalist. I kept a book by Kapuscinski in my backpack as I travelled through Congo — I could carry very few books because they were so heavy. His Shadow of the Sun was one of them. Kapuscinski opens your eyes to a place and can make you see itcompletely differently. Most importantly, he needed to travel and see the world to write about it. I think this gives a certain honesty to his work, and a great power. Naipaul I discovered several years later, as I was writing Stringer. His fiction struck me first. Reading him taught me about the process and craft of writing, and I still go back to him when I have questions. There is an intensity and precision in Naipaul’s writing that is very hard to find.

Q: Could you tell me a bit more about Serge Lang, the great mathematician who taught you at Yale and with whom you shared a great bond. How did his suicide after you left for Congo affect you?
A: I met Serge Lang in my third year at Yale. He was a prolific mathematician, legendary for his textbooks. He shared his passion for mathematics with me, and was one of the reasons I learned so much mathematics so quickly. But we also became close because of his activities outside mathematics. Lang was an activist, a fiery man. He said what he thought, and he didn’t just talk, he acted upon his convictions. I found something pure in this, something appealing. He dared to speak up against the establishment, and defended his positions ferociously because he believed in them so completely. He took unpopular views and made sure he was heard. I learnt of Lang’s death not long after I arrived in Congo. It was devastating news. As I describe in Stringer, we had not said goodbye properly. Lang was such a brilliant mind, it was strange to hear that he had possibly killed himself. I don’t know if that is the truth. I remember him behaving oddly before I left for Congo. He would not answer a number of my questions, and he seemed sad. I think he was one of the few people, when I left Yale, who truly appreciated why I was going to Congo.

Q: What was it like growing up in Dubai? Tell us something about those days? Your education and the books and authors you read?
A: When my parents moved to Dubai — this was around the time I was born — the place was still a desert. There was one school powered by a generator. My mother had to wait hours in line to make a “lightning phone call” back to India. I grew up watching Dubai undergo this enormous change — the city went from what was essentially a desert village to something like Las Vegas today. I went to school in Dubai until I was 10, after which I studied in India, until I went to Yale, at the age of 18. I think the experience of growing up in Dubai — I spent a significant part of each year there – planted the idea in me of travelling to find myself. So many people in Dubai were immigrants.
I read some as a child — but not very literary books. I read Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham and Tom Clancy. I read and adored Animal Farm. I loved a good story, and the feeling of a book transporting me to another world. I believe that my need to write has less to do with the literature I consumed as a child than a desire to share experience and emotion.

Q: Have you left mathematics forever? How removed did you find the “man’s genius” from his “destructive capacities”? Would you ever return to mathematics? 
A: I no longer practice or study mathematics, and I would not return to it. I cannot imagine myself working purely from my imagination — at least for now, my life is in the field, in seeking out experience and feeling emotion. I am excited about the world and want to explore it. Mathematics is powerful and beautiful, and the rigor of mathematics certainly helps me in my writing-the discipline to probe and penetrate, and to distill one’s idea into concise language, for example. The kind of mathematics I enjoyed — abstract algebra — also resembles writing in that it is a creative field. In algebra you build mathematical objects, one upon the other. You also try to show that seemingly different mathematical objects are the same — you try to see the world in a different way. This is the essence of powerful writing.

I live a lifetime in a day: Shahnaz Husain

Shahnaz Husain

Shahnaz Husain

A version of this interview appeared in The Asian Age on May 14, 2013

It has been a long journey for India’s beauty industry’s best-known impresario, Shahnaz Husain. For over 40 decades, the cosmetic czarina has been at the forefront of Ayurvedic “care and cure” that has inevitably made her a household name. But that and everything she has done thus far has just been a milestone: In the fifth decade of her journey, Shahnaz Husain has many things up her sleeve. She plans to set up Beauty schools globally “to impart training on skin and hair problems with the powerful magic of herbs and plant power”. Also on the cards are treatment and de-stress centres along with spas in hospitals “where people going through treatment can relax and rejuvenate themselves”.
Today, Husain says, awareness of beauty products and treatments, fashion and grooming is at an all-time high. She attributes this to “exposure to global trends and lifestyle changes, higher disposable incomes and the trend towards fitness and youth”. Husain feels that the beauty industry in India continues to thrive, with a tremendous potential for growth. “It is estimated that the size of the beauty products business in India is around `5,000 crores. According to ASSOCHAM, if we take the beauty salon and spa service industries into consideration, it is said to be much higher, over Rs 10,000 crores. It is to double by 2014,” she says.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Looking back at the journey of well over four decades, what would you attribute the success of Shahnaz Husain Herbals to?
A: One of the most important factors that is responsible for our growth and success is that I chose Ayurvedic care and cure. During my training in London in cosmetic therapy, I came across instances of damage caused by chemical ingredients and I was determined to find a natural alternative. The study of Ayurveda convinced me that it could provide the ideal alternative to the demands of beauty care. That is when the “Back to Nature” movement was starting in the West. I was exceptionally fortunate, because when the world was looking for a natural alternative, I was already there and established. I established customised beauty care, with a personalized style, based on individual needs and problems. It was a totally unique, path breaking concept. I devised my own clinical treatments and formulated my own products. These have become breakthroughs
in Ayurvedic beauty cure and care. Today we have become known, not only for general beauty care, but also for our therapeutic products and clinical treatments for specific skin and hair problems. I propagated a lifestyle and beauty care based on the Ayurvedic principles of holistic health. This concept of holistic beauty care was unique and caught on worldwide.

Q: How has the cosmetic industry in India evolved over the last four decades? What do you think have been the major breakthroughs for the industry?
A: Four decades ago, when I started my career, beauty treatments were mainly “colour and cover.” Superficial beauty treatments and hairstyling were “treats” women went in for. There was hardly any awareness of the potential dangers of chemical treatments and of other detrimental effects on beauty, like exposure to UV rays and environmental pollutants.

At that time, the beauty industry in India, including the beauty services industry, was largely unorganised and fragmented. Only some basic beauty products like cold cream and shampoo were available on cosmetic store shelves. The word “cosmetics” mainly implied make-up items. Herbal beauty care, as we know it today, did not exist. It is herbal beauty care which is a major breakthrough. In fact, it has driven the growth of the beauty industry in India over the last few decades. Today, awareness of beauty products and treatments, fashion and grooming is at an all-time high. This is attributed to exposure to global trends and lifestyle changes, higher disposable incomes and the trend towards fitness and youth. Today’s Indian consumer is aware of quality and the ingredients in products and wants to exercise this awareness by opting for high quality
and safe herbal products.

Scientific techniques and modern beauty concepts have also influenced products. Many kinds of beauty products, for varied purposes, are now available, even based on individual skin type, from sunscreens and moisturizers, to specialized cleansers, toners, astringents, scrubs, masks, serums, shampoos, conditioners, hair tonics, hair serums and so on. Product innovation has gone to new heights, especially in terms of anti-ageing or age control treatments and products.

Another major development is that branding has become important in the Indian beauty industry. Beauty companies concentrate on building up brand loyalty and brand identity through innovative promotions and value added offers.

Q: In the fifth decade, what are going to be the Shahnaz Husain group’s major strategies as far as expansion and outreach are concerned?

A: We are expanding our footprints across the globe. We will be taking Ayurveda and Brand India to more countries within the next year. By 2015 we plan to expand our presence in major countries like USA, Canada, Kazakhstan and Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, New Zealand and other CIS countries including Russia, Belarus and Latvia. Our future plans include concentrated international branding, strengthening and widening our global chain of franchise ventures and appointing distributors in unrepresented new markets. Product innovation has helped our organization to remain a dynamic one. So, we will continue to launch advanced products in Ayurvedic beauty care in the international markets.

We also plan to set up Beauty schools globally to impart training on skin and hair problems with the powerful magic of herbs and plant power. We also plan to open treatment and de-stress centres along with spas in hospitals where people going through treatment can relax and rejuvenate themselves. We plan to supply our Chemoline products for skin and hair care to top Cancer hospitals all over the world. The Chemoline products have been especially designed to help alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. These products draw upon the soothing and healing properties of organic ingredients and are known for their beneficial effects on the skin
and hair.

I have also been invited to lecture at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, on how I built a brand without commercial advertising and publicity. The lecture will be held at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. The audience will comprise of graduate students, MIT faculty, as well as aspiring entrepreneurs. I will also be sharing my journey from one herbal salon to a global network of franchise ventures.

Q: In Flame, your daughter wonderfully captures your journey. How was the process of working on your biography along with your daughter? Do you think the book 
encompasses all aspects of your variegated life and times? 
A: The book is an emotional experience for me, because it takes me on a beautiful journey into the past, with glimpses of my childhood, my early motherhood and my struggles to emerge from a sheltered life into the world of entrepreneurship. I could re-live some beautiful years of my life .the relentless hard work and the successes, how I started my first herbal salon ..because the difference between me and my daughter is only 16 years. I had the rare joy of growing up with my daughter.

Q: What drew you to Ayurveda? What makes herbal cure such a solitarily holistic and 
organic system?
A: As already mentioned, while training in London in cosmetic therapy and cosmetology, I came across instances of damage caused by chemical treatments. I wanted to find a natural alternative that was safe and without risks. My study of Ayurveda and my faith in natural healing convinced me that it could offer the ideal answers to beauty care.

Ayurveda is a holistic, herbal healing system. Actually, it is not merely a system of healing, but an entire way of life, which aims at helping man live in harmony with nature and also in harmony with himself. It views good health as total well-being, of body, mind and soul. The aim in Ayurvedic treatments is to restore the equilibrium, not only through herbal medication, but also through the diet and lifestyle. Ayurvedic treatments are not only for those who are ill, but for all those who wish to come closer to a state of perfect health. Similarly, Ayurvedic formulations for the skin and hair help both general care and maintenance, as well as the treatment of specific problems. Ayurveda makes use of herbs, plant products, minerals and other natural substances to cure ailments and also to come closer to a state of good health. It has a long history of safe usage and contains details of thousands plant products, minerals and natural substances, along with their medicinal properties, their methods of collection and extraction, as well as the specific combinations of complementary herbs.

Q: Could you share some of the strong USPs of Shahnaz Husain’s products?
A: During the last four decades, the Shahnaz Husain brand name has established unquestioned and unwavering brand loyalty. In fact, no other brand has been able to keep the trust and faith of the consumer the way the Shahnaz Husain brand has. The Shahnaz Husain products consist of formulations for general care and also include highly specialized therapeutic products for specific skin and hair problems. The ingredients comprise of herb, flower and fruit extracts, essential oils and other natural substances. State-of-the-art manufacturing and R&D units, as well as long expertise have given the Group an edge over others in the sophisticated formulation of products.  What is unique about the products is that they have grown out of clinical usage and massive client feedback in the chain of Shahnaz Herbal salons.

Today, the Shahnaz Husain Group is positioned as the brand leader in both the domestic and international markets in Ayurvedic beauty care. It is also ideally positioned in all market segments in India. In fact, after developing as the brand leader in the premium segment, today the brand has a commanding presence in the middle segment on the strength of brand identity.

Q: How important are innovation and product evaluation for your products’ long-term success?
A: We have remained a dynamic organization due to product innovation. Our commitment to research and development and the launch of highly innovative formulations from time to time, are some of the reasons why the brand has developed so strongly. In fact, there is no doubt that herbal beauty care throughout India is fashioned after the Shahnaz Husain innovations and products. As for product evaluation, our products are not only laboratory tested, but also clinically tested in actual user conditions in the chain of Shahnaz salons. In order to ensure purity and quality right
from the raw material stage, we set up our herb and flower farm. This is done through rigorous testing and research and also by using natural composts and fertilizers.

Our premium products, like 24 Carat Gold, Diamond, Plant Stem Cells, Platinum and Telomere DNA Defence ranges have stormed international markets and received prestigious Quality Excellence awards. Our Telomere DNA defence range of natural organics for skin care is based on the Nobel prize winning Telomere discovery. Telomere is a sensational breakthrough in skin care, which arrests the skin’s ageing process. The result of cutting edge research in chromosomes, Telomere has the effect of a dramatic face lift, rejuvenating the skin powerfully and imparting a youthful radiance.

Shahnaz Husain Chemoline is a line of highly specialized therapeutic products, specially designed to help alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. These products draw upon the soothing and healing properties of organic ingredients, in order to deal with the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the skin and hair, like hair loss, scalp and skin sensitivity, dry skin, extreme moisture depletion.

We have also recently launched the miraculous innovation Colourveda Natural Hair Colour. Apart from henna, it contains indigo and catechu to impart a darker colour to the hair naturally. The important aspect is that it is free from chemical colours and offers total safety from the damage caused by chemical colours.

Q: Your products are singularly unique. Is there a competition at all?

A: What is truly unique is that “Shahnaz Husain” is not a faceless brand name or corporate. The image that is foremost in the mind of clients and consumers is that of a real, answerable person, who is herself trained in cosmetology and cosmetic therapy. Every label has become a symbol, of my own understanding of organic beauty care, my vision and philosophy. Today, my name has become the brand. We have already established brand loyalty and brand identity. To that extent, “Shahnaz Husain” is the reality behind the brand. In fact, Shahnaz Husain is a household word in India.

We have an integrated system of Clinic Chain and Product Excellence, which rely on each other. As already mentioned, our products grew out of clinical usage. To this extent, we are totally unique. In fact, initially we did not retail our products. Our salons were the only outlets. Our products ranges are based on “care and cure” and also comprise of therapeutic formulations for specific skin and hair problems. There are entire lines for problems like acne, pigmentation, scars, dry skin sensitivity, oily skin conditions, hair loss, dandruff, etc. The equivalents of many of such products do not exist in the market. We have a nationwide distributorship system, because our franchise salons have spread throughout India, even to small towns.

Q: Do you think the cosmetic industry in India is poised for great leaps in the years to come with major cosmetic brands making their presence felt?
A: The beauty industry in India continues to thrive, with a tremendous potential for growth. It is estimated that the size of the beauty products business in India is around Rs 5,000 crores. According to ASSOCHAM, if we take the beauty salon and spa service industries into consideration, it is said to be much higher, over RS 10,000 crores. It is to double by 2014.

Q: Finally, what is a day in the life of Shahnaz Husain like? What are your preoccupations? Today, having been there and done that what do you feel has been your  greatest moments of satisfaction and professional joy?

A: I always wish there were more than 24 hours to a day. As I am involved in each and every aspect of my enterprise, I have an extremely busy schedule everyday. In fact, while I am getting ready, I start jotting down the things which occur to me. Fortunately, I have the ability to deal with several different matters simultaneously, giving different instructions to different people. I am very particular about personal obligations, sending gifts, flowers or cards to various people. My day includes discussions with different departments, from production, international expansion, public relations, to packaging and promotions. There are often foreign buyers to meet, or media interviews. I also keep some time aside for answering mail and important letters. Very often I have to attend various functions, like felicitations and award ceremonies. A thousand ideas and thoughts still crowd my mind when my day ends.

After a hard day’s work, I love going to Barista. Sipping coffee, with almond muffins in the Barista ambience is fine for me. Listening to music, the soft melodies of ghazals, in subdued lighting, is also something I love doing. I also love to paint, expressing my thoughts and feelings with a riot of colours. Painting and poetry are ways by which I can translate my emotions and creativity. For others, a good life may be living for 100 years, but I live a lifetime between the rising and setting of the sun. For me, the greatest joy is to see the worldwide recognition of Ayurveda. It makes my relentless efforts worthwhile. I strongly believe that Ayurvedic care can lead the international beauty industry within the next decade.