Umashankar Dikshit

There’s a whole series of articles on Umashankar Dikshit — a Silicon Valley pujari. Not a bad idea — (which incidentally is on sale.) Following the articles on Rediff and USA Today, there’s this really funny piece.

Now I’ve heard everything. The San Francisco Chronicle reported some weeks ago that a Hindu priest in Silicon Valley called Umashankar Dixit is in great demand to perform Lakshmi poojas when e-commerce startups are launched by Indians, as an increasing number are. Mr. Dixit says modestly that he is considered a ‘lucky hand’ because his God is Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. He — Mr. Dixit that is, not Ganesha — has been compensated in cash and stock options by several startups and says he has already done very well from the IPOs of successful companies like Exodus Communications. Rediff’s US edition and USA Today have since come up with their own breathless takes on Mr. Dixit, reporting among other things that he spends an hour every morning, presumably just after sandhyavandanam, on the Internet monitoring the financial markets.

It’s not clear from the articles whether Mr. Dixit is an Iyer, in which case he would normally wear three bands of vibhooti on his forehead — ideal, one would think, for launching companies which specialise in broadband networks. On the other hand, he may be an Iyengar who wears a U-shaped naamam on his forehead, more suitable for launching ASIC design companies. Or else, he may have decided to assist as wide a spectrum of startups as possible and may favour a simple kumkum pottu — in effect, despite all the gadzillions Sun Microsystems spends on advertising, it may actually be Mr. Dixit who is the dot in dotcom.

It is likely, although both the Chronicle and Rediff are unaccountably reticent on this point, that Mr. Dixit’s poojas are integral to the business plans of his clients and the willingness of canny VCs to part with vast amounts of negotiable tender. I have it on good authority that the average e-commerce startup in the Valley usually has its business plan scribbled on a napkin and requires you to sign a non-disclosure before it will show the napkin to you. Mr. Dixit’s clients have probably jotted down a business plan that typically goes something like this:

  1. Come up with brilliant idea for B2B category killer but don’t tell anybody
  2. Get copy of founders’ horoscopes for name selection
  3. Consult Dixit on launch date and muhurtam
  4. Finalise funding of 6 million
  5. Locate suitable garage
  6. Order pizza
  7. Don’t use this napkin to blow your nose

‘So who’s Dixit?’ asks the VC. ‘Oh, he specialises in ultra-long-distance wireless communications’ says the entrepreneur. ‘Wow,’ says the VC as he fumbles for his chequebook, ‘so that’s where you’re going, huh?’ ‘That’s where the whole world will eventually have to go’ says the entrepreneur, ‘but we’re giving you an opportunity to get in on the ground floor!’ And so it goes.

The Chronicle describes a typical Lakshmi pooja performed by Mr. Dixit in lyrical detail. The CEO of the company has set up a small, colourful shrine in a tiny conference room for the ceremony. ‘There is a basket with 108 U.S. coins, symbolizing the 108 different names and forms of Hindu gods; a platter with coconuts, limes and other offerings; and small silver bowls of turmeric, the yellow-orange seasoning signifying wealth, and kumkum, the red powder that Indians use to dot their foreheads. The ceremony, which involves a lot of chanting and tossing of flower petals, lasts about 45 minutes.’ As an honorarium, Mr. Dixit receives 51 dollars and 5,000 stock options. One assumes that for good measure, he also tosses some akshathai on the heads of the VCs, not to mention the Chronicle’s correspondent. And so it goes.

The startup buys two Porsches and sets up shop in a garage to begin work on its brilliant idea. Very soon, it is first round funding ‘swaaha’ as Mr. Dixit might say, and more money is needed although no product is in sight. That’s when the entrepreneurs hide the Porsches and go out and hire a couple of IIT graduates. If all the column inches of pure baloney that have been written about IIT graduates in the past one year were placed end to end, they would reach the moon. ‘Can I see the scar on your thumb you got from the workshop?’ whispers the VC reverently. ‘Aw, gee’ says the bashful IIT graduate, ‘you should see the one I got when they did my frontal lobotomy!’ Immediately, even more money rolls in and our intrepid entrepreneurs organise a homam that is, naturally, performed by Mr. Dixit. ‘We’re increasing our burn rate’ the founders reassure the investors. And so it goes.

Soon, everyone wants to meet Mr. Dixit who duly arrives in his modest Honda Accord. In the Valley, nobody thinks his silk veshti and angavastram are particularly odd. ‘Willya look at those cool threads!’ the investors remark, eyeing his poonal. ‘So how’s it going?’ they want to know. ‘It’s all His leela’ says the devout Mr. Dixit, looking skywards. ‘We’re a pure e-commerce play’ translate the entrepreneurs. By this time, breathless articles in publications like the Chronicle have caused normally cautious people to buy sleeping bags and camp out on the grass outside the company to get a piece of the action. The entrepreneurs use part of the windfall to buy homes in Sausalito. The grihapravesam is performed, naturally, by Mr. Dixit. And so it goes.

The Chronicle doesn’t say specifically what Mr. Dixit thinks of the whole dizzy dotcom world, although Rediff reports that he thinks the economy and the markets will recover very soon, praise be to Vigneshwara. The Chronicle is far too busy asking Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology who studies Indian religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara what he thinks of the idea of Mr. Dixit receiving stock options. Mr. Dixit will no doubt be reassured to know that Prof. Juergensmeyer thinks that stock options for priests aren’t incompatible with Indian culture. ‘Some Hindu priests’ the good professor says, ‘receive more than others, just as they do in other religions.’ Ayyaiyyo, for these kinds of penetrating insights they gave Juggu a PhD?

What Ganesha thinks is another matter for speculation. The prudent Mr. Dixit says he’s already using a part of his high-tech portfolio to construct a Durga Siddhivinayaka temple in Bangalore, so it may well be okay with Him too. I guess day-trading beats removing obstacles hands down, especially if He already knows which way NASDAQ is going and how the Microsoft saga will end. Sarva Vighna Upashaantaye…