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The country of Tamil Nadu

18 May, 2012

Let me start out by saying that I have many Tamil friends and have recently funded a company where the founder grew up in Chennai. But, nowhere else do I feel more alien within India than when I visit Tamil Nadu. Some time ago, I was again there to speak at a Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) event about catalyzing entrepreneurship in Tamil Nadu. As I landed in Chennai, I was surrounded by people speaking only Tamil (I am sure folks from TN will say, “no %&*$ Mohanjit. You are in Chennai. Of course, you are only going to hear Tamil”). But it’s different. It’s no co-incidence that Auroville and the French influence is there, or at least nearby (although Pondicherry is a different world altogether), because I am now convinced that the TN natives are equivalent to the French in India. They love Tamil and will pretend only to know Tamil, even if they know other languages (I tried getting by with broken Spanish in France, but that didn’t work either). BTW, soon after I landed in Chennai and was having trouble figuring my way around, I got a call from one of our portfolio CEOs asking, “Mohanjit, which country are you in today?” I quickly responded, “I am in the country of Tamil Nadu”. We both chuckled.

Back at the airport, there are three taxi kiosks. I had made the mistake of not making taxi arrangements ahead of time, thinking that I would be able to get a private taxi for the day at the airport itself. That was a mistake. The two private taxi services told me that there would be a 30 minute wait since there were no cars available at that time. I applied my rule of thumb in India which basically says that when someone uses a unit of time, multiply it by at least 2. So, an hour wait was not something that I could afford. Hence, I was left with no choice but to begrudgingly go with a black and yellow government taxi. As I made my way outside the airport (which, by the way, is the one metro airport that most closely resembles a railway station, with all its chaos, crowds and space constraints). I am sure everyone is looking forward to the day when the ongoing renovation will actually result in a somewhat world class facility.

In any case, something in the back of my head was causing me concern as I meandered through the crowds towards what generally looked like a catch-all location for everyone who was equally lost as I. I made it to the taxi pick up area, and was asked to follow one of the drivers to his Ambassador (I couldn’t understand the gentleman, but that is what I assumed). It was an interesting car to say the least. It had plush interiors, with a neon green light reminding me of a prop for a bad B movie with the 70s funk music. I expected some “Dancing Queen” or “Night Fever” to be blasting (probably with a Tamil version). By the way, it has been at least 25 years since I was last in an Ambassador, so a part of me was fairly excited to be getting a ride in a relic, especially given the interior design. I curiously tried to glance at the odometer to find out how many kilometers had actually been driven. The odometer was actually physically missing (even it had given up after multiple decades of service). Then came the more interesting part.The driver asked me a question in Tamil, presumably inquiring exactly where I was headed.

I almost felt like saying “no comprendo” trying my Spanish in response to his Tamil. I was able to tell him the locality where I needed to go, and picking out only names of a “junction” or an “intersection” or a landmark hoping that one of them would get a promising nod and hopefully a smile (which required unnatural facial movements on his part, since that was completely missing). I think the fact that a mostly American, somewhat Indian non-Tamil speaking sardarwas his first customer of the day probably caused him severe heartburn. We started moving in what I hoped was the right direction. I did realize that the poor guy got paid for a one way drop, and his whole purpose in life at that time was to drop me as quickly as possible so that he could be back at the airport for another pick up of hopefully a Tamil speaking passenger (or a Caucasian with whom he would likely speak perfect English).

As part of the directions, the gentleman with whom I was meeting had told me that I needed to come to an Indian Oil petrol pump. Well, I got to a petrol pump and the driver started speaking with me in Tamil again. He pointed to the petrol pump and loudly said, “Hindustan Petroleum petrol pump, noooo Indian Oil”. If I could translate what he implied, he was basically saying, “you idiot! It’s an HP petrol pump, not Indian Oil. Now get the hell out of my pimpmobile”. He had put his palm on his forehead and was shaking his head in disbelief. Now I had to convey to him politely that although he was accurate in indicating that the petrol pump was indeed an HP one, my instructions/directions clearly indicated that we had to get to an Indian Oil station. I was at an impasse. He had stopped the car at the HP petrol pump, refusing to move further since he wasn’t sure if he was moving closer to or farther away from my eventual destination. Finally, I decided to break the stalemate by relying on the one person who dedicates his life to the people, for the people and by the people (no, I did not see Jayalalitha) but rather – the traffic cop. I tried indicating to the drive to move towards “traffic police, traffic police”, and in a silly way pointed to my Blackberry (hoping that the driver would understand that I was going to have the traffic cop translate the emailed instructions and break the deadlock). I was able to get through and he slowly rolled towards the cop. I opened the door (since the window mechanism was not working), and showed the traffic policeman my Blackberry with the emailed instructions. Much to my delight, he actually understood English. He actually scolded the driver a little saying that there is indeed an Indian Oil petrol pump about five hundred meters down the road. I thanked the officer and breathed a sigh of relief. There were still two more turns involved until I got to my destination, so I wasn’t quite done yet. Nervously, we proceeded and I did what I do in Bangalore. Instead of saying “right” or “left”, I say “right-o” and “left-o”. That little “o” at the end with a south Indian accent seems to give some comfort to the locals that the pardesisardar (that’s me), is at least trying to communicate in some version of the local language. After a couple of jerky turns, I was dropped off. The driver was more relieved than I was, although he still had the palm of his hand on his forehead as he sped off (I actually didn’t realize that an old Ambassador could still have that kind of power) back to the airport.

I did the rest of my trip (from my meeting to the convention center and from the convention center to the airport) in an auto rickshaw, not wanting to repeat the morning routine. As I have realized over my few years in India, the fewer the number of wheels, the more efficient the mode of transportation. The language barrier was not that bad with the auto guys since the destinations were clearly understood. It’s hard to mess up “convention center” and “airport”. Although I am convinced that every auto ride in India results in some days taken off my lifespan, thanks to the fumes I end up inhaling.

India is fascinating. But when many north Indians refers to everyone south of Uttar Pradesh as a “madrasi” and many south Indians refers to anyone north of Andhra Pradesh as a “bihari” or a “Punjabi”, you know there are bound to be situations where one feels like a foreigner in one’s own country. But again, like so many other things in India, one has to truly relish and enjoy the diversity rather than be alienated by it, as tricky as it may be at times. The lesson I keep learning from experiences like these is that India truly is a conglomeration of many different mini-nations, with different languages/dialects, historical and cultural nuances, different levels of homo and heterogeneity of socio-economic, demographic, political and religious strata, all of which makes is fascinating and challenging to build businesses here. And that’s part of the reason for me to conclude that if a team can create a successful business in India, it can do it anywhere in the world.

(Mohanjit Jolly is the Executive Director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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Venu . 6 years ago

Hi Mohanjit:

First of all a very nice article. Couple of things I admire:

1. You have a great sense of humility and pride about being an American with Indian roots/connection.

2. You have a greater sense of openness in terms of highlighting issues and also showing the brighter side of those.

3. More importantly your encouragement for all those dreamers who plan to start companies in India to not just look locally but also think globally.

Last but not least something to watch out is that in foreign lands where English speaking can be a challenge either the host responsibly arranges for a pick-up or the guest makes an arrangement through a reliable source prior to arrival.

Saying that, CII with it’s bandwidth can afford to lend a pick-up for distinguished guests at least.

Suresh V Jayanthi . 6 years ago

Somebody invented something called Google Maps, I am sure an equivalent exists on Blackberry ( I have no first hand experience of BB).

Wonder why you did not use it.

Arjun Kapoor . 6 years ago


Just so that we are clear – Im a punjabi from Delhi

I thought you’ll improve with time but no. You are the most cynical person Ive met. You’re paid to criticise and then invest in the same country – why the hell do you not go back to the US, what keeps you here ? If one snatches that money away from you, that veil of arrogance that you use will fade.

You need to understand that not everyone is as blessed as you in this country of a billion.

Stop complaining all the time for fuck sake !!!

This country is giving you so much experience, I hope it teaches you a lesson in humility and acceptance.

Grs . 6 years ago

Good reply. The article was like watching a movie with countless stereotype.

Pawan Prabhat . 6 years ago

Dear Mohanjit,

Your article gives a feeling of Deja Vu to every Hindi speaking North Indian. You have captured the whole experience very nicely though I am surprised that you were not fleeced by the rickshaw driver. My feel that language is what determines whether you are an alien in any country/state. I have a few North Indian friends/cousins who moved to TN and faced a lot of problems initially but once they became comfortable with Tamil it was very easy.

India is a “celebration” of diversity more than anything else.



srinivasan . 6 years ago

Dear Mohanjit,

Apparently, your office in Bangalore(or wherever in India) and people in CII have taken revenge on you by not planning things properly.

Expecting everyone in India to know Hindi, and everyone in the world to know English is stupidity, at the least.

Tamil is not based on Devnagari script or phonetics, and therefore it is not easy for them to pick-up any North Indian language.It is an independent language system.

Anyways the experience will enable you to think differently when it comes to markets.Aping Western customs will make us all clones of the yankees

With best regards

Karthik . 6 years ago

I am really surprised with the way this article was written. Being a seasoned traveler, I expected a more matured approach from you while portraying incidents in and around India. First of all, your opinion is right. Yes! India is a conglomeration of various countries; unlike any other inter-federation you couldn’t identify its differences if you feel yourself a part of it. Though majority of the cultures are different, we share some common interests which is invariable all over India. It is unwise to expect a moderate autowalla to hold a Mercedes at your comfort (I seriously doubt your planning skills at this point. Phew! I wasn’t having a vacation. It’s a big Damn meeting without a transport plan??!!). I’ve seen many pointing fingers on language spoken in Tamil Nadu (why the hell they don’t speak Hindi?? nuts!:D). Please understand Hindi was never taught as 1st, 2nd or nth language in Tamil Nadu nor made mandatory by Govt for a while. If someone wants to learn Hindi, they should afford to pay extra for the tuition or should give up Tamil as their 1st or 2nd language. So it’s too much to expect from a common guy like autowalla to speak Hindi. If someone you have known was bilingual (here I mean Hindi), he/she should be coming from an upper / middle class family or someone who have learnt it with a big plan to do business nationwide. Theoretically it’s a loss to a autowalla in a competitive market (like airport) if he couldn’t attract customers (by speaking in hindi).

I too travelled around India and should admit that I enjoy each and every inch of the diversity it offered, though it gave me some discomfort. Life would be so boring if everything looks like home. Every state has its own identity and life style. If you can’t appreciate it, sit back and enjoy your hotel room.

Instead of loving the differences (by which the article ends), you have highlighted the complexities of being an Indian in India.

Sam . 6 years ago

I dont know who deletes logical comments…maybe the editor wants only pleasing comments …its sad…here too Indian character of pleasing 🙁

Jay . 6 years ago

Huh, what a bunch of bull..why do you get this feeling of entitlement that everyone should speak the same language like you do? Do i expect a rickshawalla in delhi or lucknow to speak tamil? Where does it say all of us should speak a homogenous language? And if you want to make money in TN learn the local language.

Prem Pandurangam . 6 years ago

Mr. Mohanjit Jolly, I pity those who take money from you. You haven’t even understood India. Why invest in India? Commonsense and humility have helped people like me to travel the world without understanding the local language with minimum hassles. May be they forgot to teach you that.

Ranga . 6 years ago

Seriously – a piece of paper with the address of the destination is all that was required. If anyone should be blogging about this, it should be the taxi driver who had to transport someone who landed up so unprepared in a city of which he has no clue and does not speak the language as well!!

Ash . 6 years ago

What a load of BS…. How many times have you got by in the US by speaking hindi or punjabi or any language other than english for that matter ? Why this cynicism ?

I am stunned this is what DFJ thinks about investing in India.

Madhusudan . 6 years ago

Spot on about the taxis ( beaten up with buckets of bolts with drivers going hell for leather) and airport ( like an overcrowded bus terminus). There is a huge room for improvement in both and no point in defending that. Rest of it is the usual cliches from the Americanized Indian.

Sach Kantilal . 6 years ago

This blog post unfortunately exposes the poor competence levels of DFJ’s India strategy. It’s not a post in isolation — if you read all he has written over the several months as well as talk to those who have dealt with Jolly in a professional spehere, you’ll come to know that this is not an aberration and it sadly reflects in general how several international transplants deal with the real India.

VENU . 6 years ago

I am surprised at the huge backlash Mohanjit is facing for sharing his perspective on the ground reality. There is nothing wrong if somebody involves in critiquing and actual fault lies with people who tend to ignore and under-credit the insights. Forget about anybody’s ethnicity, nationality, etc., but just looking at the insights can’t we see and realize that yes there is room for improvement? As an investor in India I am sure Mohanjit has an incentive to prop-up and improve the business here and to that end if he has shared some gaps that exist here then it is not a sin! Meanwhile, let us also remind ourselves that unless we step out of the box our solutions and situations always seem wonderful and then of course people throw a surprise when a black swan event happens, so it is a healthy habit to allow people to share their opinions, act prudently to weigh those opinions and also steer all possible resources to deliver results based on those weighed opinions/ideas.

Arjun Kapoor . 6 years ago

Investments come with a sense of responsibility. Do we all come to VC Circle to know what is wrong about our country ? Or do we come here to read about trends in financings ? There is absolutely no value add in Mr Jolly’s blog. Im going to stop wasting my time and increasing my blood pressure reading it.

Contrast this with the article by Praneet Singh on the alignment between LPs and GPs. Informative, well written and beautiful.

AK . 6 years ago

It is interesting to see the reaction of several readers to this post from Mohanjit. It is an important lesson in behavioral science which I guess our politicians have deployed masterfully! Talk as much as you can about development or corruption or other relevant day to day issues, the masses shall remain quiet overall but the moment one critiques regional or lingual or caste based or ethnic issues the emotions boil! Let’s all grow up!!

James Gurung . 6 years ago

The article is a stark contrast to the attitude of Tim Draper of the same DFJ, who was seen dancing to a bollywood number at a recent TieCon in California. Mr Jolly pretends to know spanish, but “No comprendo” is spanglish and will be laughed at in any part of Latin America. It is high time Mr Jolly picked up a language other than English or Punjabi.

rahul narvekar . 6 years ago

wow this one has managed to stir up quite a few passions – mohanjit

Rammohan . 6 years ago

What’s revealing about this post, and as someone already pointed out, his earlier posts is that it highlights the writer’s wet-behind-the-ears approach to local market insight. While much of the value of what a VC does is LP/GP management, it’s quite painfully clear that in this case at least, there is little ability to understand what constitutes a successful business in India.

With the risk of appearing negative in a VC community website, this brings to attention to the recent Kauffman report which highlights the poor returns of the VC industry. I guess LPs are only keen to divert a few basis points to India just as a small experiment.


It’s for this reason, I’d put my money on a VC from Mumbai rather than one from Menlo Park.

JB . 6 years ago

Poor little Rich Jolly. I pity you. I pity your investors more. It is really a sad state of affairs that this kind of things are getting published. What makes you think that anything you write is worth reading by others, venture capitalist sir? Chennai is a mediocre city, but no more mediocre than you as a venture capitalist. Grow up, become an adult and try to make back the money that you lost for your LPs.

The country of Tamil Nadu

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