Live your passions when they grab you most strongly
Interviewed By: Chhitra Subramaniam
The experience of the drink that Susan offered me one evening in Goa forever changed the way I would think of human potential. Susan the incredible hostess served nothing but the best, and she gave me a prelude to the now famous “DJ Margarita“. This one is blue, it’s made in India, and it’s good. One glass down, I was happy. Deliciously, incredibly, totally happy. The delicious inebriation lingers on with thoughts of what really makes some people become limitless. In hushed tones, she told me a part of the story, which is…
Once upon a time…
… In the year 2000, Desmond Nazareth an engineer from IIT Madras, a film-maker by passion and an IT solutions genius by profession, sat with a world map in his hands and saw that the agave-growing latitudes that cut through Mexico also cut through the Deccan Plateau in India. A passionate cocktail mixer in his leisure time, he decided to chase a crazy dream of making 100% agave spirits in India so that people would not have to pay an arm and a leg for cocktails made from the famed Mexican agave spirit, Tequila®.
2011. DesmondJi, India’s newfound avatar is the only agave spirit that does not carry the “Made in Mexico” label. How did this all happen?
Born in a lower-middle-class family in Mumbai, Desmond grew up traveling and living all over the country, as his dad continued to build radio stations for All India Radio. As a child in Rajkot, Desmond loved playing on the streets all day. Fed up with his street antics, his parents decided to put him into kindergarten school, from where he ran off within a few hours on his first day there and returned home. He was just 4 years of age. He convinced his mother that he would study at home, with her help. But later in Malad, Bombay, around age 6, when he saw that his friends were all at school and he had no one to play with, he decided mid-term that he wanted to do whatever it took to get to school. He studied hard at home to catch up and got into the first standard directly, turning out to be a model student from then on. Desmond says, “This is my recurring theme. When I decide what I want, I do what it takes and make it happen.”
Whether, at age 6, jimmying open a bicycle lock that everybody in his family tried to but failed, or at age 12, getting into a boarding school by secretly writing to a principal across the country for a scholarship (he wanted to escape the cruel teachers in a school in Guwahati), Desmond from an early age demonstrated critical thinking, problem solving, single-mindedness and a can-do attitude. His approach was so unique that the principal recognized that this was an exceptional child and gave him the scholarship. He got the education he was looking for and finished high school in Ahmedabad at the age of 15.
Engineering To Film-making
In 1981, he graduated from IIT Madras with an engineering degree. “I have been very fortunate to find ways of doing the things I loved which, of course, changed over the course of my life e.g. circa 1980, towards the end of my engineering studies, when I felt torn between my love for the arts, humanities, sciences, and technology, I figured out that multi-disciplinary film-making might be just the ticket to ride.”
Desmond did not even have money to pay for the applications, let alone for an education abroad. After extensive research (Google did not exist then) the audacious Desmond sent out 12 different pre-applications to top US film schools, explaining his financial situation and demonstrating his excellent academic record, and of course stating he did not have the money to pay the application fees or the flight, let alone the hefty fees. All the schools wrote back with admissions and various financial offers. Some of them even waived the application fee. Ultimately, Temple University in Philadelphia offered him a full fellowship to their MFA program, partly on the basis of his GRE scores, which were considered “perfect” and partly for his audaciousness. The stage was set for his future in film-making. He would attend Temple and spend the next 18 years in the USA, but not how you would expect.
From Film-making to IT
Of the film program, Desmond’s expectations were impossibly impossible. I.e. He wanted to learn everything about film-making – producing, directing, writing, cinematography, and editing all of it. Most such programs allowed only specialization, but Temple encouraged independent film-making. ”Again, I was asking for the moon… whenever I have asked for it, I get it… because I make it happen.” Temple welcomed him with gusto, throwing a wine and cheese party for incoming graduate students at which he was already a sort of “celebrity” or “character”, who had arrived at their film school from India on his own terms.
A few years after graduation, armed with film knowledge and getting deeper into his (then) chosen field of computer software, he decided to indulge in his hither-to suppressed passion for traveling the world. He carried just a few things in his backpack for 13 months on the road and discovered that even that was too much. All he really needed were very few things. Exploring the world with the bare essentials, the journey led him to the realization “One needs very little to be happy”. He returned brimming with several project ideas (a couple of which became “real” many years later) and much more learning than any college degree could offer. He says “Essentially I fell in love with the world.”
A chance encounter led him to solve a particularly messy software system bug. So in 1987 he created the first ever software toolkit to counter the famous “Y2K bug” problem that ended up causing waves of panic across global businesses closer to the year 2000. The company he founded in the US was the longest running Y2K solutions and services business in the field, and even involved a 8 year partnership with a then fledgling Wipro.
Margarita with a straw
In late 1999, Desmond returned to India. He continued to live a simple almost “Gandhian” life (which his travels had taught him) but, coaxed by friends, he rekindled one of his other passions, mixing cocktails. Searching in Mumbai for the ingredients to make a perfect margarita, he found that Mexican-imported tequila was very expensive and unavailable, so his creative mind started ticking. He just wanted to know “why” this spirit was so special. He saw pictures of the blue agave plant and suddenly recalled seeing them in his early youth in India. He picked up a world atlas and saw that the agave-growing latitudes that cut across Mexico also cut across the Deccan Plateau in India.
The engineer and filmmaker now took a decision that would forever change the way the world would look at ’Made in India’ alcohol.
Something like Tequila® had to be made in India, from Indian agave plants.
Madness. Few had ever attempted to make Tequila® outside of Mexico, let alone here. There was one big problem (amongst many). Even if he made it he could never call it Tequila®, which is a registered international GI (Geographical Indicator). But then Desmond loves the toughest of problems. Anything simple, which is easy to solve, does not interest him. One of his friends says “He chooses the wackiest of things to do – the wackiest combos and strange juxtapositions, moving from this to that to something else. But he does it in a very fluid fashion. It looks damn easy to someone else. But all the while he chooses to do the toughest things and he thrives on finding solutions.”
After 8 years of R&D done all by himself and another 4 years spent finding the perfect place that fitted both environmental and business requirements, getting the requisite permissions, fighting the bureaucracy, he finally set up “Agave India” in rural Andhra Pradesh – India’s first official micro (craft) distillery, with a ‘field-to-bottle’ approach, using natural ingredients and small batch double-distilling in pot-stills to retain the original flavour of the ferment.
He says “Our trajectory is orthogonal to the vast majority of Indian liquor companies, which tend to make so-called “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” (IMFL), by blending laboratory-made essences and flavours into flavourless and tasteless “Extra Neutral Alcohol” (ENA), produced using column stills. It takes serious passion to understand and make “authentic” spirits, which consumes much effort and time.”
When asked what the most challenging part of his life journey was? He says without drama “There were many challenging situations in life, especially arising out of my projects. In such “low” times, the urge to give up was overpowering. But ultimately, passion for what I was doing, and my innate perseverance, made me invoke problem-solving approaches to get over these ‘insurmountable’ seeming challenges.”
“DesmondJi“ the first agave based Indian premium brand was launched. He had fulfilled his dream of producing a proudly “made in India” alcobev product for a fraction of the price of imported Tequila® brands.
And the other guy “Mexico” blinked.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
Finding time for Passion
He had experimented a lot while in film school, with a wide variety of genres. After moving back to India, and while building ‘Agave India” and ‘DesmondJi”, he collaborated with like-minded friends and colleagues to make a 69 min. historical documentary on the 500-year old Indo-Portuguese connection (“Souls and Spices”), a 13-part TV documentary series for Portuguese international TV (“Contacto Goa”) dealing with the remnants of Portuguese influence in India, and a 3D CGI international fiction feature film project (“The Dance of the Monkey King”), which is at a ‘bound screenplay” stage.
Uniting Film-making and Philanthropy: The “Toolkit for Thinking” Project
Now that the “DesmondJi” brand is successful, Nazareth is in the process of exiting from an active role in it. He made it happen. He no longer wants to oversee its minutiae and will just be a guiding hand.
He says “I have always nursed the urge to give back to the world, especially since the world had nurtured almost all my passions when I needed it to. Despairing of working on issues concerning adults, I sought the roots of my own sense of immense sense of empowerment, and found an “explanatory” string of small empowering incidents in my early life, starting around age 4. Starting around 25 years ago, I came up with the idea of creating a global infrastructure for empowering ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’ children (age ~4 to ~12,) via real-life inspirational stories, shared peer-to-peer. These video stories would teach problem solving and critical thinking techniques, not in abstraction but embedded in specifics that children could relate to.”
“A whole database of stories gets created which is fully accessible to every child. It should be free for every child.
It makes me super excited to be on the verge of this 10 year journey, in which I will be once again traveling the world, including spending time in rural areas and city slums, and interacting with numerous like-minded people from many cultures in order to kick-start this “endless” project. It’s a big global project, I’ll make it happen.”
says Nazareth, still brimming with the robust self-confidence and enthusiasm for life that he first showed as a child, when he molded his own educational path and coming of age into this world.
As he gets ready to ride off on his old scooter in his trademark shorts and T-shirt, to start off on his swan song, I ask him to give me one last tip to let the inebriation of his story linger on and inspire me even more …
“Live your passions when they grab you most strongly – life is wonderful but far too short.”
By: Chhitra Subramaniam
Traveller, Producer, Writer, Animal care giver… but mostly, trying to learn some dance moves