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Saturday, April 22, 2023

Fare thee well Sidharth Rao

Circa 2008, I had decided to apply for a job for the first time in my life, no longer depending on my parent's pocket money.

All my friends who knew me well advised me to get into advertising because of my passion for creativity. Problem was, I had never faced a job rejection before, which they told me I would surely face, especially since I was a college dropout and a fresher. And so in order to experience that, they told me to go for the best agency, face the rejection, and then start my career from a smaller agency. I did just that. 

The number 1 digital agency in India at that time was Webchutney (now Dentsu Webchutney). I googled the office address at Juhu Versova Link Road and then walked right in the office, asking for a job :D

The receptionist Rianna was shocked! Nobody had ever done that before. Rianna called up the HR Manisha, who then called up the Creative Director Nishi, who then called up the Mumbai Branch Head Poornima, who then called up the CEO in Delhi, Sidharth Rao.

Long story short, I was interviewed by HR, asked to come again and was interviewed by Nishi, and then asked to come again and was interviewed by Poornima, and then I got the job! What started as just an experience to get rejected, ended up in me getting my first-ever job.

It was many years later that I found out when Poornima had called up Sidharth to tell him about the bizarre incident of somebody just randomly walking into office and asking for a job, Sid looked at my CV and saw that I was a college dropout. He immediately told her to give me a shot at an interview instead of telling security to throw me out, as he himself was a dropout. He knew from his own experience that not all dropouts are failures.

It was that decision that changed my life forever.

I never knew Sid well for the first 2 years I was in Webchutney. He was the hotshot CEO and Co-Founder from Delhi who would occasionally visit our Mumbai office once every few months. I was just a junior copywriter then while he was in the upper echelon of management. But he would always greet me and everybody else with a "hi" and smile whenever he came down to Mumbai. And by everybody, I mean everybody, right from the top and middle management to the bottom feeders like me, all the way to the office boys, sweepers and security guards.

He was also always there at GoaFest, which is like the "Oscars" for advertising held at Goa annually, where all the top ad agencies of India would come together and prizes were awarded to the best campaigns and ideas. It was there that Sid and I first bonded well when my concept for Axe won Silver at GoaFest (Technically, we came first since there was no Gold awarded that year).

Also, the exact moment we bonded was hilarious. Sid had booked the entire beach shacks of Palolem for us to stay, and we were drinking and partying by the beach. It was quite late, maybe around 2 in the morning. I was just sitting alone at the edge of the dark beach, letting the waves gently hit me up to my chest and enjoying my high all alone, when Sid suddenly appeared out of nowhere near me and peed on the waves! I jumped out of the water like a freaking ninja on acid. He too was completely shocked to see me and apologised immediately while turning around. We still talked and laughed about that incident many years later.

As the years went by and we won more and more awards at GoaFest, Sid and I became closer. Eventually, I graduated from just brainstorming and conceptualizing ideas for clients to directly pitching those ideas to clients myself.

The one client meeting I will never forget was with Mahindra. Even though I was regularly meeting clients by then to pitch concepts and ideas, it wasn't out of the ordinary for one of my bosses like Nishi (Creative Director), Meghna (Copy Head), Saket (Tech Head) or Tarana (Client Servicing Head) to come along for the meeting, especially if it was a big or important client. But that day when Sukruta and I were about to go to Mahindra corporate office to pitch a campaign idea, Sidharth joined us!

He was visiting Mumbai right then, and decided to tag along. I was quite nervous that day when Sukruta and I were pitching to the head honchos of Mahindra because our CEO Sid was right there in the same room, silently sitting and probably judging us. We did win that pitch eventually, and years later, Sid told me he came along for that meeting because he personally wanted to see how I was interacting with clients.

As the number of accounts and pitches we won kept increasing, Sidharth too started spending more time in Mumbai than Delhi. In Mumbai office, I had the reputation for always being the first to reach the office and last to leave. But when Sid was in town, he gave me serious competition. And of course, he would show off and mock me if he reached before me :D Eventually, I became his regular drinking buddy, hitting the bottle together every night after a long day of intense work.

We found the perfect drinking partner in each other - somebody with high capacity who's still able to hold their drink. It was like a match made in Heaven. :D

As a drinking buddy, I will always keep the secrets he had shared with me locked in my heart, but there is one secret I will reveal now, which I know Shweta won't mind too because they got happily married three years ago. Back when Sid and Shweta first started dating, I was the only one who knew about it. :D Ah what a clandestine life I had to lead in office. My tiny matchbox apartment in Jogeshwari East became our regular after-drinks crash pad, where Sid and I would sleep in the bedroom and Shweta slept on the couch outside (both of them were still based out of Delhi back then).

There was this super hilarious moment when we all got back at my apartment in an auto and I collected our laptop bags from the back of the auto and when we reached my floor, we realised I had also taken the poor auto driver's spare tyre!!! In the darkness and drunken state, I didn't realise I had also grabbed his tyre. I ran downstairs but the auto was already gone. Sid took a photo of me with the tyre, and many years later on my birthday, he surprised me with a beautifully framed photo of that as a birthday gift!

Ah yes, he always made my birthdays feel special. This one time when he promoted me to head a new (but small) experimental business division in Delhi directly under the COO Rahul Nanda, I moved out of my Jogeshwari East apartment and was temporarily staying as a guest in his rented duplex apartment in Bandra before I was supposed to move to Delhi permanently. I had just returned to Mumbai from a long meeting in Delhi with Kavin Mittal regarding the new venture. That day was my birthday. As I stepped into Sid's duplex from the airport quite exhausted and ready to crash, he told me, "Fucker, it's your birthday, freshen up and wear something nice, I'm taking you out somewhere fancy".

And so he took me to AER, which was like the top-class lounge in Mumbai back then. It was the kind of place a person like me would never afford to go to. He even got Shenaz Treasurywala to join my birthday party and we had such a blast together! I will never forget that birthday.

Unfortunately, yesterday was another birthday I will never forget again either. As I was just about to sleep after celebrating my birthday with a few friends here at my home in Aizawl, Sumeet and Amit called me up to deliver the sad news that Sid had just passed away.

Fuck. Till now it feels so unreal. I was beyond remorse. I wish I could be there for his cremation which was held at his farm in Kharjar today. I wish I could be there to console dear Shweta. I wish I could be there to be with dear uncle and aunty, with sweet Nat. All the fun times we spent together, all the memories.

After the Delhi experimental business plan didn't work out, Sidharth quickly pivoted and helped me start our own games dev company, guiding me all the way. I switched my role completely from a copywriter to a game designer! A radical change like that was possible only through Sidharth's vision because he believed in me.

Since I had already moved out of my Jogeshwari apartment, I was about to look for a new place in Mumbai again, but instead of getting a new place of my own, Sid suggested we rent a place together! We went house hunting and finally moved into this posh 3BHK at Sea Hill Apartment, right opposite Olives on Khar West.

Of course I couldn't afford the bloody 3 lakhs per month rent, lolz, even if split halfway or four ways :D But Sid made me pay only a very small amount, like the newspaper and other service bills, and the salaries of our two maids and one domestic help. That was it. I will never forget his generosity.

What a rise it had been for me. From idolizing the man who had created the premier digital ad agency in India and somebody I thought I'll never get to hang out with, to being flatmates with him.

Sid had taught me so many things in the years that we were flatmates. He mentored and groomed me into what I am today. I started watching completely different types of shows and docus I had never watched before. I had a front-row seat into the world of VC funding and Capital raising. He had daily meetings with powerful people at Toto's and sometimes he would call me and I would just drop everything and go sit among them and listen to their powerful conversations.

He shaped my character too. This one time, we found out one of our maids had ripped us off. She had asked me for her salary and I gave it to her. The next day, she also asked Shweta for her salary again and she gave it to her as well, not knowing I had already paid her.

That night we found out about her deception, and it wasn't the first time either. Sid was infuriated. However, he told me, "Kima, you're such a nice guy and everybody loves you, but people take advantage of nice guys in this industry. You have to be tough and ruthless if you are running your own company. You must fire the maid immediately tomorrow, I'm not going to get involved in this shit".

That was the first time in my life I had ever fired anybody. Yes, it was hard for me to do so, especially with the maid crying and begging for forgiveness, but she had betrayed the trust we had in her. I did it and felt terrible about it, but Sid later patted me on the back and told me it was hard but necessary to do such things if I wanted to be successful.

Just recently, I had fired two of my chowkidars at my farm here in Mizoram. The reasons were justified of course, but I seriously don't think I could have done that had Sid never moulded me into what I am today.

Of course, being ruthless wasn't Sid's only trait, he was also gentle, funny, caring and understanding. After all, you can't run the top digital agency in India and various successful startups by being a stuck-up dictator. One of the ways in which I judge people is by drinking with them and watching them get drunk. A person's true colour comes out when under the influence. With Sid, the drunker he gets, the nicer he becomes. That's when you know a person is truly good inside.

Our nightly drinking sessions were very different too. Most people would talk about, you know, sex or politics or sports when they're inebriated. We on the other hand spoke only about our industry, new start-up ideas, new business opportunities, incubators, mergers and acquisitions etc. It was like, work never sleeps in Sidharth's environment. On the very few occasions we didn't talk shop, Sid would play Foster The People's "Pumped up kicks" on repeat. Sigh, those days.

And speaking of getting drunk, another lesson I've learnt from Sid is to never handle anything financial when drunk. Sid would never sign even a simple cheque, even if it was 100% legit and safe, when he was drinking. He would do so the next morning. I have followed that mantra till today and I believe I have avoided many costly mistakes because of it.

But no matter how wasted we got the previous night, when I woke up the next day (and believe me, I always wake up early every day, much to the irritation of my friends), Sid would already be up, reading yet another new book. The amount of books he used to order and consume was truly mindblowing.

In all the years that I had spent with Sid, there had been only one time he was angry with me. After Sumeet and I started our own mobile gaming startup, we were in Delhi with our team there, working on a few projects, when we suddenly received the mail that our application for the prestigious "Start-Up Chile incubator" had been approved!

We were ecstatic! Out of thousands of applications worldwide, only 100 were selected every year, and we were one of them! We were so happy that we partied immediately, getting drunk right there itself. It was much later that a very angry Sidharth called me up as he had just heard about the news from some other source. He was our main investor and company director, and we had completely forgotten to tell him about the news! :D Oh he was soooo angry with me, and at the same time extremely excited and happy too. :D 

I'll never forget all the random gadgets he used to purchase, like our own personal fancy bar stand, or tetris blocks with lighting system, or party hats with lights, or vintage posters and Tintin comics, etc etc. He sure loved his toys, and deep inside he was but a mere boy. We also adopted a couple of puppies and kittens, and when some of them passed away, he would cancel all his plans and meetings so that we could go to the crematorium. He would wear dark sunglasses to hide his pain and tears.

But he was always funny otherwise. He never stopped making fun of my tattoos (because we both have fucked up tattoos that we got when we were stupid). And he would never stop reminding me about the time I came home late at night from a business trip in Delhi and ate our dog's food from the fridge by mistake, and ended up with food poisoning the next day. How that never failed to make him laugh.

I have hundreds of photos and videos of Sid, and looking through them now breaks my heart again. All the great moments we spent together, both on and off work. But he was a fiercely private person, so even though he is gone now, I will respect his wishes and not put any of our photos here. However, he had always encouraged me to keep writing, especially about social issues. In fact, that incident about me and Mumbai police where I had invited them for tea (the one that went viral) was written because he encouraged me not to be afraid, in spite of the negative backlash it could have caused me.

There are two things I have achieved and feel proud of when it comes to Sidharth. 

One was when I had finally succeeded in convincing him to try Android (those were the days when most upper management were extremely loyal to iOS and Blackberry, and us Android fans were treated as outcasts, lolz). He even bought the OnePlus One phone when it first launched in the US, tried it out for a week, liked it, and then resold the phone to me with a huge discount. And so I was one of the few people in India to use the OnePlus One phone back then, because it wasn't available in India yet, all thanks to Sid.

The second was when I finally convinced him to try out our Mizo delicacy made from fermented soybeans and shrimp paste. I used to cook occasionally because he loved my special fried potatoes (Bareja too would come over immediately when I cooked that). One day, since I was alone at home, I decided to make fermented soybeans and shrimp paste chutney. Sidharth came home earlier than usual and suddenly started sniffing around everywhere, peeping out of each window. I asked from the kitchen, "Wassup", and he replied while still looking everywhere, "Hey man, something died out here, I think it's a pigeon, the smell is everywhere". God I was so embarrassed :D 

I told him that it was the dish I was making and we had a great laugh. That night I made him have it and he absolutely loved it. Believe me, I don't think there are that many people who initially thought it was the stench of decaying flesh to still try it out with no hesitation. He was never afraid to try out new things, be it food or business ventures.

The day our start-up was acquired by Jetsynthesis and our team had to move to Pune to our new office was probably the saddest moment for me in Mumbai. I bid a tearful goodbye to Sid and Shweta. Sid had groomed me so much, from a clueless copywriter trainee to a senior copywriter to a start-up founder to a game designer. I owe him my entire career. Words will never be enough to express how much he will be missed by his family and close friends, but writing this eulogy gives me a small amount of solace.

Goodbye my boss, my friend, my mentor, my sensei, my flatmate, my brother. Hope you have an endless jolly time with Anant Rangaswami across the rainbow.


Ropuia Ralte said...

Tûn ṭum chu thlalak a va awm lo ve :-D

Jacob L Pulamte said...

A chhan a rawn ziak hi Sir in

"But he was a fiercely private person, so even though he is gone now, I will respect his wishes and not put any of our photos here."