6 min read

On poetry and risk-taking

A light hearted take on how ghazals can come in handy in risk-taking.
On poetry and risk-taking
Google doodle - tribute to Mehdi Hassan, the "emperor of ghazals"

(This article first appeared in Founding Fuel Life)

Year 2000. It was the dot-com gold rush and how could I be immune to it? I left my job in Citibank to start up in the area of mobile Internet. We started with a bang, raising angel funding from the who’s-who of that era, including the global head of McKinsey and founders of Edelweiss and Chryscap. My name would regularly feature in ET and business magazines.

Just a year later the dot-com bubble burst. It was an apocalypse for technology companies. We ran out of all our money and had to fire 90% of the team. It was a time of great despair. The future appeared bleak. I often contemplated shutting down the company and going to the US like all my friends.

During this tumultuous time, the only solace I had was listening to the soothing voices of Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, as I would drive back, late at night, from my office in Nariman Point, Mumbai, to my home in the suburbs. Gradually, I would discover Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano and many more. (I think Ghalib is a far greater poet than Keats and Tennyson. He also happens to be one of my favourite ~19th century influences, the others being Darwin and Keynes.)

Coming from a background of Hindi film and English rock music, the poetry of Ghalib and Faiz were a revelation. Each couplet would speak volumes. The theme of the ghazal is often the unrequited lover whose beloved is portrayed as unattainable. This resonated with my situation.

Listen to how passionately Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recites Ghalib's famous couplet.

Startups are highly asymmetric and hard. Most entrepreneurs experience an emotion not much different from that of the unrequited lover; in which case an appreciation of poetry will come in very handy!

Below are some shers – couplets from ghazals – that capture the many moods and stages of the entrepreneur's journey, in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

Starting up

Gar baazi ishq ki baazi hai jo chaaho laga do dar kaisa
Gar jeet gaye to kya kahna, haare bhi to baazi maat nahin

(baazi: bet, maat: defeat)

If love is a gamble, why fear; let's go all-in
A win will be great; and even loss not defeat

~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Starting up is the most romantic part of the startup. The dreams of changing the world and making tons of money. Just updating the LinkedIn bio from engineer to CEO itself is priceless!


Husn ko be-hijab hona tha
Shauq ko kamyab hona tha

(husn: beauty, be-hijab: un-veiled, shauq: love)

Beauty was bound to be unveiled
My love was bound to be successful

~ Majaz

The young lover is determined of his own intention and harbors no doubts. Similarly, every entrepreneur is sure that their venture will definitely be successful, though the probability of success of a startup may be 5%. Talk about base rates fallacy!


Aankh se door na ho dil se utar jayega
Waqt ka kya hai guzarta hai guzar jayega

Do not be distant from me, lest I may forget you
What about time, it will pass anyhow

~ Ahmed Faraz

Founders of today know that the most important thing is to create their own personal brand and following. To this effect, they tweet everyday – hoping that it keeps them on the radar of VCs and the public at large.


Ranj se khoogar huaa insaan to mit jaataa hai ranj
Mushkilein mujh par padeen itnee ki aasaan ho gaeen

(ranj: sorrow, khoogar: accustomed)

I faced so many sorrows, that they have ceased to bother me
So many problems befell me that it has all become easier

~ Mirza Ghalib

Entrepreneurship is full of down days and heartbreaks. It calls for a special type of person who will not just persevere, but also relishes in the pain. Great founders are truly sadists!

Engaging with investors

ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa
aa phir se mujhe chhod ke jaane ke liye aa

(ranjish: estrangement)

though we do not get along, come only to torment my heart
come to get the joy of abandoning me again

~ Ahmed Faraz

The founder spends his time connecting with every VC that he can. He often writes cold emails to investors with the latest update and pitch deck. Sometimes, he fervently wishes that some VC calls for a meeting even if nothing were to come out of it!


Kitne aish se rehte honge kitne itrate honge
Jaane kaise log vo honge jo us ko bhate honge

How happy must they be and what swagger will they have
I wonder what kind of people will be those that she likes?

~ Jaun Eliya

Founders who have not raised money are envious of those that have raised angel investment. The angel round guys are envious of those that have raised Series A from Sequoia. Everybody is (was?) envious of those that raised from Masa!

Business without funding

Faiz thi raah sar-ba-sar manzil
Ham jahaan pahunche, kaamyaab aaye

(Faiz: the poet's name, sar-ba-sar: entirely)

My journey was itself my destination
So wherever I reached, I was successful

~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Some brave founders decide it is not worth playing the investors' sucker game. They simply decide to make something and charge their customers. They grow their business on these cash flows. Raising perpetual funding is not their dream.


Kuchh faisla toh ho ki kidhar jaana chahiye
Paani ko ab to sar se guzar jaana chahiye

A decision must now be taken on which way to go
It is high time and the situation getting out of hand

~ Parvin Shakir

The product is not working, users are not showing any interest, there is no money coming in. The writing is on the wall. This is no time to be coy and foolishly determined. Better pivot while there is time and runway, than regret later.

Aiming higher

Sitaron se aage jahan aur bhi hain
Abhi ishq ke imtihan aur bhi hain

There are more worlds beyond the stars
For love will be tested many more times

~ Iqbal

Congratulations, the initial idea worked and the users are coming. But the smart founders know not to rest on their laurels. For staying at one place is sure death.

Battle scars

Jo guzari na ja saki ham se
Ham ne vo zindagi guzari hai

That which was impossible to spend
I have spent such a life

~ Jaun Eliya

Even after he has attained success and a successful exit, the founder still carries scars of the entrepreneurship journey and knows how often he came close to death. More than flaunting his new-found wealth, he relishes in revisiting the gruesome stories from the battlefield!

Many of the ghazals above are among my personal favourites, and I hope that you will listen to some of them and they will become your companions for life.

All this walk down nostalgia lane reminds me of this famous Faiz sher!

kar raha tha gham-e-jahan ka hisab
aaj tum yaad be-hisab aaye

I was accounting for all the sorrows of my life
And I was reminded of you a lot today!

To read more poetry, head out to the treasure trove that is Rekhta