Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Not Abducted by Martians!

It has been a while.

Let us say, after notching up a 100 posts, I suddenly found myself with nothing to write. The feeling that I had nothing new to say, the feeling that I was repeating myself of late, and my blogger friends and other readers were indulging me purely out of a sense of obligation began to crop up. I stopped writing. My connection with my blog was confined to routine, mechanical publishing of readers’ comments.

But some of those comments expressed cautious concern, not wanting to pry, but obliquely enquiring: Is everything OK? Are you all right? Cynic’s was one such comment. El Furibundo’s was another. Thanks, people. I owe you.

But a lot has happened in the six weeks I have been off blogging.

For starters, I have turned entrepreneur now, joining up with an old friend and ex-colleague. In a way, it is an exhilarating feeling--to be at last your own master, orchestrating the sales and marketing push for an exciting new product, exactly the way you want it done, unfettered by other peoples’ notion as to how it should be done. Suddenly you are in the thick of action once again with product presentations, demos, negotiations and closing deals. You are travelling again to familiar cities, activating old networks and leveraging old contacts.

It’s a nice feeling.

It is also scary; sometimes I have butterflies in my stomach. The fact that you don’t have a pay-check waiting for you at the end of the month, does not exactly do wonders to your sense of security. The “what-if?” dragon raises its head with alarming regularity and has to be put down with a firm hand. You start scrutinising the monthly bills a bit more carefully and unconsciously start charting out strategies for cutting down on unnecessary expenses.

I have also resumed serious reading, having just finished Le Carré’s “A Most Wanted Man” and the first two books of the much-acclaimed, much-lamented Swedish author, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. No mean achievement this, I say so myself, considering that each of the Millennium books is at least 600 pages long!

So forgive me if I don’t blog as often as I used to. But rest assured, I will definitely pop in once in a while to update you on my life as an entrepreneur.


Monday, 21 September 2009

The Pink Flamingo

Ravan and I choke on our beers.

Have we heard right or has Sidekick gone mad? Does Malhotra saab really expect us to chaperone him to a strip-tease club? Malhotra saab -- the dignified, silver-haired patriarch of XYZ Corporation -- in front of whom, we sit on the edge of our seats to show respect lest he should take offence?

Ravan and I are in Dusseldorf for two weeks to participate in a trade-show and we are put up at the ritzy Ramada hotel. After a hard day’s work, we are back in the hotel and unwinding with a beer in the bar, when Sidekick, Malhotra’s Man Friday, successfully seeks us out and puts forward his boss’s request.

“It’s only 7.30 pm,” says Ravan. “I don’t think the night clubs open before 11 pm.”

Sidekick has it all worked out. We will go for a nice vegetarian dinner, he says. Afterwards, we will go clubbing.

Ravan and I look at each other, not much liking the whole idea. We have to be at work at 7.30 am the next day and can quite do without a late night out. But Malhotra saab is a VIP customer and it would be churlish to turn down his request. So we nod glumly at Sidekick and give our assent.

During dinner, Ravan explains the basics to both the guys. There will be a centre stage around which the tables are arranged in multiple tiers. The dancers will come one by one, do their routine and go back. Once we are seated, girls from the bar will come and try to sit beside us. Don’t encourage them. Their only aim is to make you buy champagne which would be exorbitantly priced. Tell them we are only having beer and they will go away. Then we can enjoy our evening in peace.

Malhotra Saab looks convinced. He nods sagely. Only Sidekick looks a bit disappointed.

But the plot runs off the rails at the Pink Flamingo, the club recommended to us by the concierge at the Ramada. The sight of so many scantily-clad women totally unhinges the normally sedate Malhotra saab. Ravan and I have hardly sipped our first beer when we see our customer with girls wrapped around him on both sides and grinning like an idiot. “What is your names, baby?” asks our Don Juan in his rustic, Punjabi accent. The girls giggle and ask for champagne.

Ravan tries to signal a warning. B-E-E-R, he mouths wordlessly, with not much hope.

Kya pharak padta hai, yaar? Champagne order karo na!” says the Casanova, who has his hands full by now.

Frankly, I do not remember much about the rest of the night and I’m sure the same applies to Ravan as well. I have a faint recollection of dropping Malhotra saab and Sidekick off at their hotel and reaching the Ramada, well past 2 am.

What I do remember vividly is the attending the briefing session the next day at 7.30 am nursing the mother of all hangovers and not registering a word of what was being said.

Image Courtesy: www.iteamz.com

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A Century of Posts: 2

In Praise of the Stenographer

If you look back over the last 15 years or so, the stenographer as a species has totally vanished from the office scene. You do not see him anymore. The advent of the PC and the laptop, word-processing programmes with spell check features and the unblinking focus companies have brought to bear on headcount-related costs have all played their part in vanishing what was once the constant in any organisation chart..

The Biscuit tin Rider

One hot summer day in May, I find myself stranded in Mangalore without a ticket to Bombay. Lugging my suitcase, with sweat trickling down my spine, I visit the tiny offices of all the major bus operators for a seat on a bus leaving that night, only to be turned away every time. No seats are available. All buses are totally booked out...

Landing in Mangalore

The problem was that the mere prospect of landing in Mangalore airport in the ageing Boeing 737s of Indian Airlines filled me with such abject terror; I could not sleep for days prior to the flight...

Strong Medicine

It is one of those early morning departures and predictably enough it is going to be an Airbus A320 that will fly us to Bangalore. At 6.30 am, we are securely strapped in our seats and about to start taxiing for take-off when Mike surreptitiously palms something onto me.

It is a miniature bottle of whisky...

An Unforgettable Dinner

I indicated to BS that there could be a small problem: while I knew for a fact that Iyer liked beer, I was equally certain that he was a strict vegetarian. He was, after all, a Tamil Brahmin from traditional, conservative, orthodox Chennai and maybe he would have eggs at the most, but fish and meat were definitely a no-no...


The drinks menu is passed around and Subbudu first orders orange juice. Seeing the others order scotch and soda, he changes his mind and asks the waiter to bring Chivas Regal because “he has heard so much about it.” By the time the others have barely finished the first round, our man is onto his third drink and showing alarming signs of inebriation...

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

A Century of Posts: 1

Once I publish a blog post, I rarely go back and read it again.

But now that “Stepping Sideways” has completed a century of posts, I felt it is as good an occasion as any, to go through the archives and provide a link to those posts which, on re-reading, still managed to raise a chuckle. Pretty much narcissistic, you may say and I shall not demur. But, what the hell! Here are the links to six old posts that made me smile. In the next post, I will provide links to six more.

Modesty is my middle name, by the way.

The Missing Passport
It is well past midnight and all inmates of our bachelors’ pad in Vile Parle are fast asleep. An alarm goes off, but is quickly smothered after the first ring itself. My friend Moni gets up reluctantly and tiptoes softly to the toilet. Silently he finishes his shave, showers, sprays an expensive deodorant all over his body, gets into a freshly-laundered pair of trousers and puts on a spotless, white shirt...

Unsaintly Thoughts
A letter has come from the Rajneesh Ashram, enquiring about a product that the company markets. I am asked to go and make a sales presentation...

The Mumbai Local
Travelling in overcrowded suburban trains of Bombay forces you to learn many skills. Reading a broadsheet newspaper such as The Times of India holding onto an overhead strap with one hand in a swaying train compartment where people are packed in like sardines, is one of them...

Joshua’s Mumbai
Rakesh, by the way, is quite normal, compared to some of my other friends who have populated these blog posts off and on. Granted, there was that brief period in early 1990s when he declared undying allegiance to the state of Israel and started calling himself Joshua...

In Praise of the Beard
I have been having a beard for over two decades now. Many are the people I have misled into thinking of me as an intelligent, erudite, caring, sensitive human being by the sole virtue of my beard. Likewise, many are the sticky situations I have got out of with Houdini-like adroitness, by simply stroking my beard and looking thoughtful...

Ravan and the Cable Guy
Ravan explodes from his chair, draws himself to his full height and unships a few choice epithets in Hindi and Marathi, outlining the cable owner’s doubtful paternity, his unsavoury relationship with his sister, and his abject inability to satisfy his wife in bed...

Image Courtesy: www.gamespot.com

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Bell Hotel

When did Mr RS start working on the swimming pool? Was it after he made the container hotel rooms or before? Or, was it done at around the same time? I cannot recollect for sure.

But I do remember this interesting conversation I had had with him while the pool was being dug out. Sivakasi has no public swimming pools, he said. This one was going to be the first. It will give a chance for the townsfolk to learn swimming. It will be a standard size pool with changing rooms, lockers, and showers. Experienced male and female coaches will be available throughout the day and separate timings will be allotted for men, women, and children. The fee will be nominal. As for the hotel guests, they could use the pool at no extra charge, of course.

Amazingly enough, during my next visit to Bell hotel, I could see Mr RS had delivered on his promise. The small-built, soft-spoken genius showed me round the swimming pool complex and its immaculately maintained lawns and was visibly embarrassed when I profusely congratulated him on the successful execution of yet another project.

It did not take him long to realise the container park hotel concept, at best, was a stop-gap arrangement. By this time, he had also learned the ropes of hoteliering and realised the sustained demand for his compact hotel rooms, augured well for the future. So his next step was to totally demolish the container park, and build a brand-new brick-and-mortar hotel in its place.

Today’s Bell Hotel is an imposing structure, boasting of 40 well-furnished rooms, two restaurants, and a conference hall that can seat 100 people. A few weeks ago, after a fairly long gap, I visited Sivakasi and had lunch in one of the restaurants of the hotel and felt deeply nostalgic, reminiscing about its humble origins.

But Mr RS was nowhere to be found. But then, I was not surprised. The hotel brochure tells me that they are now a chain of hotels and Bell hotels can be found in the towns of Madurai, Tuticorin, and Alleppy as well. No doubt, Mr RS must be overseeing some fine detail in one of these properties or he must be scouring new towns in South India to set up yet another Bell Hotel.

P.S. This, incidentally, is the 100th post at Stepping Sideways, a small but significant landmark!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Sivakasi Revisited

The Bell Hotel in Sivakasi, when it opened its doors to the public more than fifteen years ago, was not a hotel at all. It was just a restaurant. Set in the middle of a huge grove of fruit trees, it was a long rectangular dining hall kept cool by noisy air-conditioners, where the itinerant business traveller could find safe haven during those languorous hours from 1 pm to 3 pm, when the heat was its worst and the whole town hunkered down in an uneasy siesta. The menu was madly eclectic, mixing and matching the South Indian-Tandoori-Chinese cuisines with reckless abandon. But the food was decent and that was all that we cared.

When I visited the restaurant the second time, there were already changes in the air. Mr RS, the enterprising businessman who owned the restaurant, had purchased two 40-feet containers, mounted them on iron girders at a height of two feet from the ground, cut out windows on the sides and had converted them into hotel rooms with air-conditioning, TV, attached bathrooms and room service from the restaurant.

As innovations go, this one was simply marvellous and became a big hit with the small traders and businessmen who came to Sivakasi from all over the country and who, hitherto, had to make do with dingy lodges with smelly toilets near the bus stand.

Within a year or so, the number of “hotel rooms” multiplied–one part of the grove began to look like a well-maintained container park, with fresh water and sewage lines discreetly laid underneath the sturdy, metal trellis. I stayed in one of those rooms once; it was a refreshing experience to wake up to sound of birdsong and sit on the narrow veranda outside (it was actually a narrow platform running on all four sides of the room) and have my cup of morning tea.

But all this was just the beginning. The tip of the iceberg, if you will.

The visionary Mr RS had a few more aces up his sleeve.

Photo Courtesy: http:// fusions.files.wordpress.com

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Honeymoon Suite

At ten in the night, Tirunelveli bus-stand is a beehive of activity.

Buses turn in from the main road in reckless abandon, scattering waiting passengers and stray dogs alike in all directions. The little shops that dot the perimeter of the holding bay are adorned with blinking, coloured lights as if in a fair ground. Tamil film music blares out loudly from unseen loudspeakers. The food stall owners hoarsely advertise their menu which runs the full gamut from “masala vadai” to “appam and chicken curry”. The smell of food is inviting and churns our stomachs.

But we have to find a hotel for the night before it gets too late.

Most of the hotels look decent and well-maintained, at least from the outside. Unfortunately, most of them are running almost full and can offer us only non-ac accommodation. Finally, my colleague and I end up at an establishment where he gets an air-conditioned single room and I get the suite.

“It’s the honeymoon suite, saar!” says the guy at the reception, grinning widely.

In my dirty, dishevelled state, I couldn’t care less even if it was the gallows suite. I quickly check-in, have a shower and meet my teetotaller colleague in the bar. Nothing like a bottle of chilled beer to raise one’s spirits. We have dinner and return to our rooms.

That is when I really notice the “honeymoon suite”. It is extravagantly furnished in shades of pink. There is a small drawing room area with sofas upholstered in pink satin. In the centre of the bedroom you have a large circular bed with a dark pink satin bedspread and matching dark pink pillows. The curtains are pink and so are the light fittings. On the walls, you have pink wallpaper with some flowery design. I sigh and get into my nightclothes thinking this is how the rooms in a French bordello may look like.

And finally when I lie down, I find myself staring at my own reflection on the ceiling.

There is a circular mirror, strategically placed on the ceiling, just above the bed.

Just before I fall asleep thinking of lovemaking couples and French bordellos, I notice the circular mirror is set in a pale pink, plastic frame.

God is in the details.

Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Twenty years ago, when I first visited the industrial town of Sivakasi near Madurai, it was a smelly, fly-infested place known for fireworks, match boxes, and low-quality offset printing. The industries that dominate the town and give its folks their livelihood remain the same, but the town itself has undergone a subtle transformation now. True, it continues to be a hot, dusty place with mounds of garbage piled up on the roadsides, but now, at least, you have proper hotels to stay in and decent restaurants where you can have a meal without risking a massive stomach infection.

Reaching Sivakasi itself was an effort: you had to make an uncomfortable overnight train journey from Chennai by a metre gauge line to Madurai first, from where it was another two-and-a-half hours of bone-shattering ride along a national highway up to Virudhunagar, where you turned left and drove along a small, ill-maintained country road, all the way to Sivakasi. Air-conditioned taxis were unheard of those days, so invariably you got down from the taxi, caked in dust and with aches and pains all over your body.

I will never forget my first visit to Sivakasi.

The hotel itself looks well-maintained from the outside in the early morning light. But I step into a dark, unlit lobby that smell of decay and disrepair; a surly clerk pushes a thick register towards me and gestures that I fill in the details. The ritual completed, he presses a bell when an old man appears from the darkness and tries to take hold of my overnighter. The clerk hands over to the old man the key to the room, a cake of soap, a pillow cover, and a bed sheet. The old man trudges up the staircase and shows me to my room.

I look around the room and my spirits sink to my feet. It is a fairly large room but has not seen a broom or a mop for a long time. There is dust everywhere and while I cover my nose with the handkerchief and try to open the windows, the old man proceeds to put on the cover on the pillow and sheath the dirty and stained mattress with the none too clean bed sheet.

But it is the toilet that destroys me. I take one look at the “Indian” type commode, streaked liberally with shades of brown, yellow, and green and encrusted at the edges with dark matter of indistinguishable origin and I am out of there, screaming. But there are meetings to be held and appointments to be kept. I brush my teeth and take a shower with my eyes shut tight and am out of the place in less than half an hour.

The whole day I survive on a bottle of water (purchased from the station in Chennai), a packet of biscuits and several cups of sweet, milky tea and coffee offered by customers.

But I have chalked out a two-day programme in Sivakasi. What is to be done? Staying in that hell-hole of a hotel is definitely out of the question. A colleague, who has accompanied me on this trip, suggest we take a bus to the town of Tirunelveli, 140 kilometres away, where, he assures me, there are better hotels to spend the night.

And thus we board the evening bus to Tirunelveli, where another adventure awaits us.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Devappa's Story

I often wonder about him.

When I first met him, he was one among the many boys who used to clean the tables in the busy Udupi restaurant we frequented as bachelors. Clad in khaki shorts and a matching shirt, he will pick up the dirty plates and dump them in a plastic tray and then would do a perfunctory swipe of the Formica tabletop with a rag dipped in soapy water. We noticed him because he was a friendly lad and was always smiling in spite of the long hours he worked.

In Udupi restaurants, as you might know, there is a well-entrenched hierarchy where the cleaning boys are at the bottom of the pecking order. Above the cleaning boys are the water boys—these are the lads who plonk down a steel tumbler of water in front of you the moment the cleaning guy has finished the swipe. Very soon, our friend, let’s call him Devappa, was promoted as a water boy, no doubt a just reward for his hard-working ways.

We were regular visitors to the restaurant and almost always used to troop in after 10.30 pm; on most weekdays, the restaurant was half-empty by that time, which gave us a chance to exchange friendly banter with the water boys and the waiters. That is how we learned that Devappa came from a small village near Kundapur in South Karnataka and that he was pursuing his studies by attending night classes in a school close to Santa Cruz railway station.

Almost a year after we first started noticing him, Devappa became a full-fledged waiter. He was immensely proud of his white and brown uniform and starched white cap. He continued to be his friendly and smiling self, even during weekend nights when the restaurant was packed with families with large women and screaming children and people standing behind seated customers, ready to pounce the moment a seat or a table was getting vacant.

A few months later we moved out of that suburb and stopped frequenting that particular restaurant. We were busy with our own lives—some changed jobs, some left Bombay for good, and some, like me, got married and moved to more distant but affordable suburbs—and gradually, Devappa became a dim and distant memory. Gradually, I forgot all about him.

Two years later, while seated in a swanky, Chinese restaurant in Andheri, who should come up to me and smile broadly but Devappa, but this time clad in a two-piece suit! He is the chief steward of the restaurant and converses with me in fluent English. I feel so happy and proud of him and my mind is so flooded with memories of my bachelor days that it takes a while to register that my former acquaintance is earnestly recommending me to try the shredded lamb in oyster sauce.

It has been almost twenty years since that meeting.

Where is Devappa now, I wonder. Given his hard work and dedication, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the owner of a chain of restaurants in Mumbai.

Image Courtesy: www.istockphoto.com

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A.K.Lohitadas - A Tribute

A.K. Lohitadas, a highly respected scriptwriter and director of the Malayalam film industry, passed away last Sunday.

I do not know what it is about the Malayalam film industry that it has lost four of its finest directors within the last two decades at relatively young ages when they were still at the height of their creative powers. G. Aravindan and P. Padmarajan both died in 1991, aged 56 and 46, respectively. Bharathan, when he passed away in 1998, was 51. And now, Lohitadas at 54.

Lohitadas, or Lohi as he was popularly known, came into cinema from theatre as a scriptwriter. “Thaniavarthanam” was a critical and commercial success and Lohi won the Kerala State Award in 1987 for Best Screenplay. The director of that movie was Sibi Malayil; Lohi was to partner with him for the next decade or so to give Malayalam cinema some very memorable movies like Kireedom, Chenkol, Bharatam, Kamaladalam, and His Highness Abdullah.

In 1997, Lohi came out with his maiden directorial venture. Bhootakkannadi, a dark, brooding tale of one man’s descent into a personal hell of his own making, did not exactly set the box-office on fire but was acclaimed by film critics and movie aficionados alike. Many memorable movies followed –Kaarunyam, Kanmadam, Kastooriman, and Arayannagalude Veedu, to name a few.

What I like most about Lohi’s work is that he refused to bow down to the dictates of crass commercialism and spun simple stories of love and grief, sorrow and separation, hope and despair, that touched a chord somewhere in the average movie-goer. The protagonists were always people whom you could relate to and identify with; the very ordinariness of their lives acquired a rare poignancy at the hands of this talented film maker. No wonder that most of his movies did well at the box-office as well.

It is also interesting to analyse how women characters were portrayed in Lohi’s films. Lohi’s women were never mere embellishments to an otherwise male-dominated script like most Malayalam movies of today. Lohi’s women were complex creatures, hardened by adversity, defiant against injustice, and yet possessing an inner core that was both vulnerable and morally incorruptible. It is no coincidence that talented actresses like Manju Warrier (Kanmadam) and Meera Jasmine (Kastooriman) reserved some of their best performances for Lohi’s films.

Fate played an important role in the lives of the characters created by Lohi. In an interview given few years ago to writer and journalist Shobha Warrier, Lohi remarked: “...that is my attitude to fate. Life does not proceed the way we want it to. It has a course of its own and it will move only in that direction.” Did fate play a role in his end as well? Was it fate that made him ignore the doctor’s advice six months ago to go in for an immediate coronary by-pass surgery?

Lohi and his films will be missed.

Monday, 22 June 2009

A Barman in Galle

It was not much of a bar. But then, it was not much of a hotel either.

We had arrived that afternoon in Galle, taken a narrow winding road that climbed up steeply and offered spectacular views of the Dutch fort and the sea to reach this old colonial mansion masquerading as a hotel, perched upon a desolate cliff-top. It was cloudy and overcast; a fine drizzle accompanied by sudden gusts of wind from the sea, added to the misery. The hotel seemed to bristle with menace, a feeling its forbidding exterior with its pitiless geometry did nothing to dispel. If we shivered, it was not only from the cold. The hotel somehow brought back memories of Wuthering Heights and the windswept, wild expanses of the Yorkshire moors.

An old lady and her manservant check us in. The room is huge with a high, vaulted ceiling and wooden floorboards that have not seen a coat of wax or polish for a long time. An old ceiling fan, the kind of which I had last seen as a small boy in the waiting rooms of Indian railway stations, starts rotating very slowly, creaking and groaning with the effort.

We feel depressed. It has been quite a long journey from Kandy through narrow, winding roads and we can feel the tiredness in our bones. It is an effort to unpack, but when we finally do, find that there are already somebody else’s clothes in the ancient chest of drawers.

The old lady is apologetic: Apparently, the clothes belong to a long-stay guest from Europe who has gone off somewhere for the weekend. Would we please leave the clothes undisturbed and she will give us another cabinet to keep our stuff? We nod dumbly.

An hour later, unpacking done, we get out of the room and walk along the corridor to reach a balcony that overlooks a verdant valley. It is almost dark now, but the rain has stopped and the wind has also subsided. But the atmosphere is heavy with humidity and very uncomfortable. Too early for dinner, I decide to pay a visit to the bar. The wife and the daughter decide to accompany me because they do not want to be left alone in the room.

The bar turns out to be a makeshift arrangement on the terrace of the hotel, with a temporary roof and netting all around to keep off the nocturnal insects. Sofas with lumpy upholstery are arranged haphazardly for the benefit of the patrons of whom we can find nary a trace. In the dim, dirge-inducing light of the incandescent lamps, we spot the barman, sitting and gazing at the sea in perfect solitude.

The barman turns out to be a young lad--a student earning some extra money by doubling up as a bartender--and a cricketer to boot. He seems happy to have our company and we spend an almost an hour talking to him. We discuss Sachin Tendulkar (but, of course!), the state of Sri Lankan cricket, and the cricketers Galle has contributed to the national team—players such as Romesh Kaluwitharana and Upul Chandana.

I remembered that surreal hotel in Galle and its solitary barman recently when I was watching the T20 World Cup finals between Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

I am sure he would have been very unhappy with the final result.

Photo Courtesy: www.asiaexplorers.com

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Mahatma's Travails: Part 2

Mahatma has flown in from Chennai, the previous evening. He takes a taxi to Hotel H in Byculla, has an early dinner, and very soon turns in for the night. He sleeps soundly till around midnight when he is woken up by someone softly knocking at his door.

Cursing the intrusion and half-asleep, Mahatma opens the door to find a personable young man who asks him politely whether he would like some female company. Mahatma is speechless with horror and just stands there rooted to the spot, which the young man misconstrues as a genuine expression of interest.

The young man tries to build on his sales presentation, by elaborating further on the services on offer, the virtuosity of the practitioners, and the rates for different services etc., cheerfully oblivious to the fact that his prospective customer has pulled himself erect and started bristling in an alarming manner. Glowering dangerously but still struggling for words, Mahatma manages to utter just one sentence. “No,” he says. “Please go away!”

Our personable young man now, knows all about overcoming objections and closing the deal. He knows some customers act shy and have to be brought out of their shell. Some, he knows, just act disinterested, just to bring down the price. So, as a first step towards breaking the ice and building rapport, he looks furtively around and making sure no one is in the vicinity, drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and asks Mahatma: “Sir, aap service kar rahe hai, kya?” (Loosely translated and put in context: Sir, are you working as a salaried employee in a company?)

Mahatma is taken aback by this sudden change in direction the conversation has taken. He has had enough of this young man and his impudence. He is about to bang the door shut at the young man’s face when the young man, probably sensing an opportunity slipping away, plays what he feels is his trump card—empathy. Vital for building customer rapport.

"I understand you salaried-people’s problems, sir," says the young man in his broken English. "Company need bill for everything. Don’t worry sir, I arrange everything for you. I organise bill for specials meals sir. No need for pay from pocket."

That is when Mahatma finally managed to prise himself away from this engaging conversation, close the door shut and call the reception to keep his bill ready for an early-morning check-out.

The incident created quite a flutter in the office and poor Mantri was at the receiving end of a lot of flak for having booked Mahatma in an inappropriate hotel. An aggrieved Mantri came to me the next day and complained: “Nahin lene ka to, bolne ka. Baat khatam. Itna shor machane ki kya bat hai?” (If you don’t want the service, just say so and the matter is closed. Why make a song and dance about it?)

Mantri never got the point.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Mahatma's Travails: Part 1

K. P. Mahatma was known for his temper tantrums. A well-built man with a blue-black complexion, K.P, when moved to anger, had the ability to contort his swarthy, Dravidian features into expressions of great ferocity that sent chills down the spine of many of his subordinates. When in a rage, K.P.’s eyebrows will move up and down in an extremely disconcerting manner and he will literally froth at the mouth, drenching the unfortunate victim in a shower of fine spittle. K.P. was our boss man for South and was based in Chennai. Even though all the junior managers sniggered behind his back at his various mannerisms, we were all a little, maybe more than a little, terrified of the man.

By contrast, P.K. Mantri was one of the most affable and laid-back people you could ever come across. Mantri walked the corridors of our Bombay office with a vaguely satisfied smile, his head up at an angle always, gently massaging his prominently protruding paunch. With his French beard and round-rimmed glasses, Mantri looked more like a college professor than a corporate lackey.

One day Mantri approaches me with an unusually grave face. KP is coming from Chennai for a meeting. All nearby hotels are full and the only place where he can get accommodation is at Hotel H, in Byculla.

“My God, Mantri,” I say, “you know that place is a dump.”

Mantri nods sadly. Hotel H those days was known for its “B” and “C” grade clientele from the Middle East and had acquired a very unsavoury reputation. Rumours even had it that the hotel had a secret entrance to smuggle in call girls without attracting the attention of the police.

“The rooms are ok. I have checked personally,” says Mantri. “And you know, the food is quite good.”

I caution Mantri about the possible repercussions and ask him to look for other alternatives. And as it so often happens in office life, I very soon forget all about our short conversation until the next Monday morning, when all hell breaks loose. KP is standing at the reception with his suitcase and he is ranting and raving. Eyebrows are going up and down like windshield wipers on high-speed and the man is generating enough foam to drown an armada.

We somehow manage to calm down Mahatma and try to piece together what had happened.

(To be continued...)

Photo Courtesy: www.cbgextra.com

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Blackberry Warriors

I have bought myself a Blackberry recently.

It is a sleek, elegant model, quite unlike the earlier Blackberrys which were thick, square and rather boring. This one is slim, light and nicely contoured: the Katrina Kaif of Blackberrys, you could say!

Actually, it was peer pressure that drove me to this purchase. In the new company I have joined, all the directors sport one. Recently, on a week-long association with one of them, I was intimidated to find that he was constantly on his Blackberry, making and receiving calls, reading or composing e-mails, surfing the web and doing a host of other things that left me light-headed.

As all you techno-freaks out there know already, the biggest USP of the Blackberry is its “push” mail application. You can set up multiple mailboxes in your device for your official and personal mails and the e-mails will land in your Blackberry more or less simultaneously with their landing on your mail server. There is no waiting around—your net-enabled mobile doesn’t need to login periodically to check if you have received new messages. It is a wonderful feature, works very well, and can be an invaluable facility for a corporate user, as it frees him to a great extent from the tyranny of the laptop.

But I do have a quarrel to pick with the Blackberry warriors.

Some people call it “The Curse of the Red Flashing Light”. Every time a new e-mail arrives on your Blackberry, a red light starts to flash persistently and in so ominous a fashion, it’s impossible to ignore. Never mind most of the time the messages are mindless forwards from friends bored out of their wits, pathetic scams from exiled Nigerian monarchs who need your help to reclaim their inheritance, or Facebook alerts from distant acquaintances you would rather have nothing to do with, but very soon you find yourself constantly checking the device for that the red flashing light. In no time it starts controlling your life and it has become an obsession.

I have been having the device for over three weeks now and I know I am not obsessed with that flashing red light. Maybe I am not normal. Most of the Blackberry users I know stop a conversation in mid-sentence and reach for their devices the moment the red light starts flashing.

That brings me to another issue, which is the quality of replies that you compose on your Blackberry. Just like most people find an imperative urge to open and read a mail the moment it arrives in their device, they feel equally compelled to reply to that mail that very minute itself. Most of the time there is no reflection and analysis, no search for alternative solutions in case a problem has presented itself, no delay between thought and action. This often results in an impulsive response, not well thought out, leading, at least in my opinion, to sub-optimum results.

While researching for this post, I came across this nice article in The Telegraph, UK by their columnist Bryony Gordon. Please do read it. Meanwhile, you have to excuse me now. There is that red light flashing in my Blackberry...

Image Courtesy: htp://Observatori.ca

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Greene and the Chennai Summer

I know it is not fashionable to talk about Graham Greene these days when bibliophiles wax eloquent about Stieg Larsson and Haruki Murakami, to name just two. But with Chennai wilting under the pitiless heat of a particularly malevolent summer, I am transported back to the hot, tropical climate of Sierra Leone that Greene so effortlessly invoked with his characteristic sense of place in The Heart of the Matter. Replace Sierra Leone with Tamil Nadu, replace Freetown with Chennai, and you will get a fair indication of what we are going through right now.

My blog posts have also slowed down to a trickle now and I conveniently blame it on the weather. In our house the dining table is used not only for the ostensible purpose for which it is intended, but also doubles up as a study table for my daughter, an activities and hobby centre for the wife, a makeshift bar when I invite friends over, a repository for odds and ends which we do not know what to do with, and as a browsing station for the whole family. This is where I normally plonk my laptop to compose my blog posts. But these days, it is too sticky and uncomfortable an area to inhabit—we even take our meals sometimes in front of the TV in the drawing room, which has better climate control.

To come back to Greene.

I had read The Power and the Glory while in college. The book was recommended to me by my father and probably he had his own reasons for suggesting the book, mired as I was at that time in considerable angst and confusion regarding my future. To my surprise, I liked the book immensely and followed up by reading the only other novel of Greene my father had in his collection, which was The Quiet American.

Then followed a long hiatus when I read no Greene whatsoever. More than a decade later, when my wife got a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) for her PhD programme, I suggested she do something on Greene. By a strange coincidence, her guide liked the idea and finally she ended up doing a comparative study on Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. The icing on the cake was JRF allowed her a handsome annual grant to buy books and we ended up having almost the complete works of Greene (and Waugh, even though I have not read him) which I devoured, a book at a time, during the course of the next few months.

My apologies for this pointless ramble.

I think the weather has something to do with it.

Image Courtesy: www.dailymail.co.uk

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Casino Nights in Kathmandu

I am at the roulette table and I am winning.

Not bad considering that I am entering a casino for the first time. Not bad considering that this is the first time I am seeing a real roulette wheel.

There are three of us: Henrik, Ranga and I, the three-member team that has been deputed to Kathmandu to check out the facilities and infrastructure of the company’s dealer in Nepal. We have arrived that evening by a flight from Delhi which offered stunning views of the Himalayan mountain peaks bathed in subtle shades of orange, pink and grey. It is an awe-inspiring sight and we are still talking about it on our way to the hotel.

We check into the Soaltee Oberoi (it is now the Soaltee Crowne Plaza), the most luxurious 5-star property in Kathmandu. We freshen up and meet in the lobby after half an hour and Henrik announces that we are going to eat Italian that night, at the Al Fresco restaurant by the poolside. We have a nice, cosy meal, washed down by some excellent Chianti which Henrik orders with much pomp and ceremony after scrutinising the wine list in excruciating detail.

After dinner, we decide to try out the complimentary coupons for “Casino Nepal” the hotel has given us during check in. The casino is in the same compound as the hotel and is hardly a minute’s walk from the restaurant.

I walk in with trepidation because whatever little I know of casinos is what I have gleaned from watching James Bond movies: Dashing young men in spotless white dress shirts with bow-ties and jackets; glamorous babes in elaborate gowns showing off their equally elaborate cleavages; vodka and dry martinis; urbane croupiers and stony-eyed bouncers.

But when we walk into the casino, most of the faces that we come across are Indian and the large gaming room seems straight out of a crowded Indian supermarket with pot-bellied, safari-suited businessmen and large women in saris jostling for space around the various gaming tables. The three of us head for the roulette as it seems to be simpler and more straightforward compared to the esoteric complexities of Blackjack or Baccarat.

Henrik and Ranga lose their “free money” almost instantly, but I start winning to our collective consternation. Initially I am playing safe, placing bets on odd and even numbers, red and black and so on, but egged on by my two colleagues on both sides, I start playing riskier, but somehow manage to win most of the time. By midnight, there is almost NPR 20,000 worth of chips lined up in front of me. Henrik advises me to quit after couple of rounds of losses, but when I finally encash the chips, there is still enough money to buy ourselves several rounds of the most expensive cognac at the hotel bar.

Image Courtesy: www.southborough.us

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


Herman was the big boss of the Industrial Products (IP) division. A tall, dark man, sporting an eternal scowl, his presence could be forbidding, to say the least. I was not reporting to him; we were just colleagues sharing adjacent tables and that was all right. Herman treated a junior colleague like me with an air of faint but acceptable tolerance. Relations between us, one could say, were cordial.

So one day, when Herman announced that he was getting an assistant, I was curious. Would it be somebody like Herman, cold, humourless, and unapproachable or would it be somebody younger and more fun to be with?

Subbudu turned out to be neither. He was a short, round man in his thirties, eager to please and, as I was to realise later, full of his own importance that made him act in a grave and ponderous matter. We became friends and Subbudu told me that he did not smoke and was a vegetarian and a teetotaller. He had also elaborate plans to revamp the entire IP department and confided in me that Herman was on old geezer far behind his times.

I said nothing.

Shortly afterwards, IP department gets a visitor from England and Herman, Subbudu and Tim Robinson go to an exclusive five star restaurant for dinner. As I was not present, Herman told me the next day about that memorable evening.

The drinks menu is passed around and Subbudu first orders orange juice. Seeing the others order scotch and soda, he changes his mind and asks the waiter to bring Chivas Regal because “he has heard so much about it.” By the time the others have barely finished the first round, our man is onto his third drink and showing alarming signs of inebriation.

The food menu is circulated and Subbudu opts for vegetarian. Conversation happens in fits and starts because both Herman and Tim are keeping half a wary eye on our man who is periodically nodding his head and smiling vacantly into space.

The food arrives. Subbudu finds the “Pork Loin chops in Apple Cream” ordered by Tim to be much more visually appealing than the Indian vegetarian dish ordered by him. He makes a grab for Tim’s plate without so much as a by your leave. While a mortified Herman looks on helplessly, Subbudu starts attacking the pork chops ferociously and untidily, splattering the gravy liberally on his face and shirt front.

A normally reticent Herman all but sobbed on my shoulder the next day. “I tell you Rada, I wish the earth had opened up and swallowed me that minute,” Herman said. “I have never been so embarrassed in my life!”

Needless to add, Subbudu did not work for Herman long.

Image Courtesy: www.sptimes.com

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Weeping Carrots

A hot, sultry evening in 1997. It is the annual day of the pre-primary section of the school. The auditorium is packed with proud parents watching indulgently as their children parade their skills in singing, dancing, and story-telling. The pièce de résistance is a pantomime put up by the kids, in which they act out the part of various vegetables.

Each vegetable is supposed to come dancing to the stage, introduce itself, and extol its virtues; I am full of carbohydrates, I am good for the eyes, for protein you have to eat me, and so on. Finally, all the vegetables come together holding hands and dance in a circle, emphasising how all of them are equally important for proper nourishment and good health.

The pantomime begins and the four-year-olds suddenly find themselves the centre of attention. While some take to their new-found celebrity status like ducks to water, a few are standing rooted to their spots, paralyzed by fear. There are sprightly tomatoes and terrified cabbages. Confident aubergines and sulking pumpkins. Prancing okras and stricken shallots. Potatoes disoriented by the powerful stage lights and teary-eyed beans wilting in the heat.

Two carrots come on stage, a boy and a girl. The girl carrot, already a nervous wreck, sees her parents and grandparents seated in the front row, forgets her lines and promptly breaks into tears. “Appa...” she cries, holding out both hands and beseeching her father to rescue her from this terrible situation. Some of the other vegetables, already on stage, snigger wickedly, especially the yam and the snake gourd. The drumstick and the bitter gourd are also equally mean and the situation is rapidly spinning out of control.

It is left to the boy carrot to save the situation. Showing admirable panache for one so young, he comes up to the mike and putting up both hands on his hips, looks at his fellow-carrot and the audience in turn and announces with a regret-tinged smile: “Arey, yeh gaajar to ro rahi hai!

The entire audience collapses in helpless laughter.

Yesterday. A hot sultry evening and we are sitting in the same auditorium waiting for the function to begin. It is the farewell function for the outgoing Class 10 students. The carrots and the beans and the other vegetables have all grown up to become self-confident, personable young men and women and it is such a pleasure to just look at them. Most of the batch has managed to stay in the same school and have grown together and the ties of friendship and camaraderie that bind them together seem even stronger than ever before.

I sigh and wonder how quickly time passes.

Picture Courtesy: www.growingyourownveg.com

Friday, 27 March 2009

A Voice Apart

It was Gauri who wrote a funny post recently on the tactics adopted by network marketers and the elaborate lengths to which they go to ensnare poor, unsuspecting customers. Suddenly my mind went back couple of decades when a person called RTR used to frequent our little flat in suburban Mumbai.

RTR was Moni’s friend. The two used to play badminton together and often used to come to our place straight after practice. RTR was a fitness freak, exercised regularly, kept himself in fine shape, was a non-smoker, and did not touch alcohol. He had a certain glowing vitality to his persona, which Moni and I envied as we slouched in the sofa guzzling beer and watching TV, while RTR sipped water.

If RTR had an Achilles heel, it was his voice. If you were to meet him for the first time, you would have expected a baritone and resonant voice, consistent with his robust physical frame. You would have anticipated a voice of great timbre and depth, a voice which stated its case in clear and ringing tones, a voice that exuded authority and confidence.

The sad fact was that RTR spoke as if he had inhaled helium from a balloon—in a squeaky, faltering falsetto that was mildly funny when you first heard it and rather jarringly annoying when you continued to hear it over a period of time. It was a voice that trilled along weakly, squealing and giggling and setting your teeth on edge with its shrill and fluty overtones.

After a while, I lost touch with RTR when he emigrated to Australia; Moni himself went off to Dubai to better his fortune. Gradually over a period of 20 years, memories faded and I forgot all about him.

Cut to 2006. I am sitting in the lounge at Bangalore airport waiting for my flight to be called. It’s mid afternoon and there are few passengers in the lounge. I am almost dozing off when suddenly I am startled out of my skin by a distinctive, high-pitched squeak which I had last heard more than two decades ago. It has to be, I tell myself, this high-frequency bleat has to be, RTR’s!
And so it was. RTR was holding court a few tables away and I went up to him to say hello. A bit shop-soiled and curling at the edges, but it was RTR all right.

But you may well ask: what has this to do with Gauri’s post? Well, during our brief chat RTR told me he was presently one of the top salespersons (is it what they call them or is it buttonholers?) for Amway in India and being a member of their Platinum Club (?) he had been specially invited by the company to attend a rally in Mangalore.

Wisely enough, I did not give RTR my phone number in Chennai.

Image Courtesy: www.travelingsalesman.org

Friday, 20 March 2009

Strong Medicine

On 14th February, 1990, an Indian Airlines (IA) Airbus A320 crashed on its final approach to Bangalore airport killing 92 out of the 146 people on board. The incident at that time created a furore, because Indian Airlines had inducted this new-generation aircraft into its fleet hardly three months before. Hyped in the business press as the first civilian airliner equipped with a fully computerised flight control mechanism--the so called fly-by-wire system--the aircraft was supposed to offer a safer, electronically-controlled flight. For weeks after the crash, debates raged whether the A320 was indeed a safe aircraft, whether the training provided to the IA pilots by the manufacturer was inadequate, and whether the aircraft needed air-conditioned hangars to protect its sophisticated electronics from malfunctioning in the hot and humid ground conditions of Indian airports.

My friend Mike James jets in from London, amidst all this brouhaha. We are supposed to work together in Bombay for couple of days and then go on to places like Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi from where Mike will take his return flight to London after a week.

On the eve of our departure to Bangalore, Mike is circumspect. “Which aircraft do you think we’ll be flying in, to Bangalore?” he asks me, a tad too casually.

“Must be one of the new Airbus A320s,” I say unthinkingly and almost immediately regret it, for I can see that Mike is worried, though he says nothing further.

It is one of those early morning departures and predictably enough it is going to be an Airbus A320 that will fly us to Bangalore. At 6.30 am, we are securely strapped in our seats and about to start taxiing for take-off when Mike surreptitiously palms something onto me.

It is a miniature bottle of whisky, the kind that you find on international flights. Obviously, Mike has done his homework and knows no alcohol is served on IA flights.

“No, thanks,” I refuse politely. “A bit too early in the day for me, Mike.”

“Good stress-buster,” says Mike good-naturedly. “I was planning to have just one before take-off; I suppose a second one will do no harm.”

Mike is in great spirits during the entire flight, if you will forgive my unintended play on words, and by the time we are descending into Bangalore, he is chirping like a bird. Suddenly a thought strikes me: “Mike, we have another four or five flights to take before we finish your tour. How are you going to handle those?”

Mike smiles broadly and glances at his feet and that is when I see the white plastic bag pushed into the area beneath the seat in front of him. He allows me a peek. It is full of miniature whisky bottles.

“The stewardess on the BA flight to Bombay was most understanding,” says Mike with a wink. “There must be at least twenty in the bag. Enough to last me for the whole trip.”

I am jolted out of my stupefaction by the heavy thud as the wheels of the aircraft touch down on the Bangalore tarmac.

Image Courtesy: http://clipartguide.com

Friday, 13 March 2009

Hotel Ships on the Rhine

Like all great rivers of this world, the Rhine has an awesome majesty and a certain timeless quality to it that leaves an indelible impression when you first see it. The Rhine has always fascinated people and inspired artists and poets like no other river perhaps. Today, during its majestic 1320-kilometre journey through the heart of Western Europe, this river links people and cultures, unlike in the previous centuries when it chose to separate them.

Originating in the Swiss Alps, the Rhine becomes a major transport route by the time it reaches the Swiss industrial town of Basel. Flowing through the Alsace region of France, the river enters German territory, going past the cathedral cities of Speyer and Mainz, followed by the famous wine-growing regions and finally by the romantic Middle Rhine with its wonderful castles some of which have been converted to exclusive hotels now. After leaving the Slate Mountains, the river passes through such important German cities as Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Duisburg before it enters the Netherlands and joins the North Sea somewhere near Rotterdam.

Dusseldorf is a city known for its many trade fairs. Although the city has hundreds of hotels, ranging from luxury properties to relatively basic accommodation, availability of rooms can be a real problem during important trade-fairs. This is when hotel ships—ships which are normally used for Rhine cruises so popular with the tourists—are brought in to cope with the influx of business travellers.

Staying in such a hotel ship can be a very unique experience. The cabins are painfully small; while it can be cosy and romantic for a honeymooning couple, a twin-sharing arrangement with another office colleague can be testing within such cramped quarters. And if the cabins are small, the attached bathroom cum toilet can only be termed as tiny, something you squeezed yourself into, every morning.

But it was fun. The ships were always berthed close to the Altstadt, the nerve centre for the pulsating night-life of Dusseldorf and you were always close to all the nice bars and eating places. On those evenings when you did not want to go out, you could have a quiet beer at the ship’s spacious bar, have an early dinner, and go up to the top deck where you could spend hours, enjoying the cool evening breeze and watching the slow-moving river traffic.

And finally when you went down to your cabin and stretched yourself on the narrow but comfortable bed, the river gently rocked you to sleep.

Photo Courtesy: www.simplygroups.co.uk

Saturday, 7 March 2009

An Unforgettable Dinner

Companies tend to stereotype customers. Most times this is done deliberately for marketing purposes, the underlying belief being, if we know the context in which the customer is placed, we can service him better. The context here could be gender, profession, industry, religion, geography, and myriad other factors.

But often, stereotyping can be an unconscious process which could be based less on factual data and founded more on our own personal and cultural biases and prejudices. Leading exponents of management theory caution you to tread carefully around stereotypes and one of them, Stephen Macaulay, puts it very bluntly: “Be wary of stereotypes—they may be a useful template but they conceal as much as they reveal. At best, they are a starting point for further exploration; at worst, they are totally misleading.”

When I read that statement, I suddenly remembered a dinner I had in Germany with BS who was my boss at that time and a customer who shall, for the purposes of this blog, be called Mr. Iyer.

We were in Dusseldorf to attend a trade fair where the company had a huge presence and where Mr. Iyer had signed with us for a substantial order. This, combined with the fact that Iyer had been a loyal customer of ours for the past two decades, made BS feel obliged to offer him dinner. BS wanted to take him to the old part of the town, the Altstadt, which was known for its narrow, cobbled streets, old churches, trendy bars, high-class restaurants and of course, the famously special beer of Dusseldorf, the Altbier.

I indicated to BS that there could be a small problem: while I knew for a fact that Iyer liked beer, I was equally certain that he was a strict vegetarian. He was, after all, a Tamil Brahmin from traditional, conservative, orthodox Chennai and maybe he would have eggs at the most, but fish and meat were definitely a no-no. BS, who was Danish, was rather dismayed by this piece of information, but finally we decided to go ahead with the programme anyway. In a worst-case scenario, Iyer will have to be content with a salad and some bread.

At seven in the evening, we hit Altstadt, which is also (rightfully, I must say) known as the longest bar in the world. The atmosphere is electric. The narrow streets are already filling up with friendly revellers and we get pulled in by the tide. A few hours later, after imbibing vast quantities of Altbier from many way-side bars, we land up at a quaint bistro, off one of the main streets. It’s a warm, cosy place with bright lights, loud music, and young, smart waitresses hurrying about with trays laden with food that looks absolutely delicious.

This is the moment of truth. Seated at a corner table, BS turns around to address Mr. Iyer, who is good cheer personified, after all that beer. “So, Mr. Iyer, what would you like for the main course?”

“What I would like,” says Mr. Iyer with great satisfaction, “is a juicy rib-eye steak, medium-rare, with a side order of fries, please.”

BS glances at me briefly and suppresses a smile. And I, the self-confessed expert in customer stereotypes, watch in fascination as, during the course of the meal, the rib-eye steak is polished off with clinical precision.

Photo Courtesy: www.nycotto.com

Monday, 2 March 2009

Joergen's Famous Letter

In a competitive marketplace where businesses have to scrap for a limited number of customers, customer satisfaction is perceived as a key differentiator and has become an important element of business strategy. Companies spend large sums of money in detailed analyses as to who are their customers, what are their needs, how adequately these needs are addressed by the company’s products and services and how can these customers be kept satisfied so that their loyalty can be assured.

While all this is very fine, some customers can never be satisfied. SPT, so shall I call him, for fear of libel suits and such like, was an example.

SP, as he was popularly known, was one of our VIP customers in Delhi. SP was a canny businessman and got into exports quite early. Business grew rapidly within a short span of time and with the expansion came the need for more products and services. Suppliers tripped over themselves to offer him every enticement in the book to make him purchase their products and SP played one against the other to get the best deals. Negotiations with SP were long-drawn-out affairs; finally when you managed to snatch the order from the jaws of your competitors, it was, at best, a pyrrhic victory, for there was virtually no profit in the deal—in fact, after provisioning for warranty and related expenses, you could consider yourself lucky if you didn’t lose money at the end of the day.

Negotiating for the best deal is, of course, every customer’s right and that was all right. But with SP, your troubles had only begun once you got the order from him. He bitterly complained and fought all the time about clauses in the Letter of Credit, equipment lead times, delay in installation, deficiency in training his operators, short-shipments, wrong shipments, warranty claims, product quality issues, you name it.

SP was what is politely referred in corporate circles as a “high-maintenance customer”. What they actually mean of course is that he is a pain in the rear.

On a Friday afternoon, Joergen gets a letter of complaint from SP. We have installed a machine at SP’s factory a few months earlier and the letter is a bitter tirade against the company pointing out how miserably we have failed in executing the order. The letter demands financial compensation and also broadly hints to legal recourse if the demands are not met forthwith.

Joergen, who has been personally overseeing the order execution considering the customer’s cantankerous reputation, is not amused. It is obvious the customer is resorting to wild exaggerations, half-truths, and even blatant falsehoods to take undue advantage of the company.

On Monday morning, Joergen calls his secretary and dictates a letter, the first para of which goes something like this:

“Dear SP,
Shortly after reading your letter which I received last Friday evening, I was carried out in a stretcher from the office frothing at the mouth and in convulsions. After having spent the weekend in an expensive psychiatric facility mostly under heavy sedation, I have recuperated enough to come to the office today to reply to the baseless allegations and impossible demands put forth in your letter...”

SP never complained thereafter.

Cartoon Courtesy: www.smalbusinessscope.com.au

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Life after a Layoff

My blog post “Acceptable Losses” elicited a record number of responses in the form of comments, phone calls, text messages and e-mails from both friends and strangers alike. I suppose the post touched a chord in most readers, because it talked about layoffs, a matter of much concern in these times of global economic slowdown.

Sanjay Dattatri was one of those strangers who wrote to me. He said:

“As part of my work, I talk to a lot of companies and people. Very soon I realized that there are a lot of layoffs happening in India, but mostly under the radar. Companies are not interested in exposing themselves to political pressure (like in the case of Jet Airways) and hence are finding excuses to fire people (Transfer them, drastically reduce salary, scrutinize their resumes for inconsistencies, look at their expense reports, dress code, anything at all that can be used to fire people on disciplinary grounds or make them voluntarily quit).

On the employee side, unlike you, most people are averse to letting on that they have been laid off, especially when some charge has been foisted on them. Indians are still not used to the concept of layoffs and there is a fair amount of social stigma associated with it.

Thus I found that people who got laid off had no support, neither societal, nor governmental (like employment benefits), or from corporates.

This prompted me to start a site with a built in forum where people can come to share their experiences, get/give career advice, find job openings and generally get support. This is a purely not-for-profit venture...”

Later, Sanjay came to see me at home. After successful stints in Bangalore both as an employee and as an independent entrepreneur, Sanjay is currently based in his home town Chennai, where he has founded a very interesting jobsite called www.jobsbyref.com, very different from the “monster”s and “naukri”s of this world. Please do check it out.

But the real purpose of this post is to request you to direct any colleague, friend, acquaintance or relative who has lost his job recently, to the http://laidoff.in site and also encourage them to participate in the forum (http://forum.laidoff.in). These are still early days for the site and the forum, but over time and with active participation, it could well grow into an important support resource for those who are fired, sacked, retrenched, laid off, down-sized or right-sized and need help.

Whatever is the term or euphemism used, people who lose their jobs suddenly, need all the help they can get. By directing them to Sanjay’s site, you can help their cause in a small but significant manner.

Cartoon Courtesy: www.lowcred.com

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Command & Control Issues

I was thinking of the happenings in Mangalore recently when a group of seemingly self-righteous men marched in and attacked a group of young women in a pub. The men were activists of the self-styled Sri Ram Sene and the attacks were ostensibly carried out to protect Indian culture and uphold the purity of Indian womanhood.

My grand uncle Keshavan, if family folklore is to be believed, was some kind of sexual athlete whose abiding pastime as a man, until he reached old age, was to bed women. He married couple of times, conducted a few well-publicised liaisons and had innumerable one-night stands in places as distant as Devikulam in the high- ranges of South Kerala to Chemancherry in the North of Kerala.

For a person who sought pleasure and perhaps a degree of solace in the arms of various women, grand uncle Keshavan reserved his more acerbic and caustic comments for the fair sex. While discussing women, he was extremely dismissive and one could always detect an undertone of barely-disguised contempt. In modern day parlance, he would have been doubtlessly nailed as a male chauvinist.

We, his grand nephews, used to analyse this apparent paradox: Here was a man who, if we were to believe the escapades related in hushed tones by the assorted aunts in the family gathered around the ancient grindstone on hot April evenings, went after anything that remotely resembled the female form. The same man also happened to be a copper-plated misogynist who made sneering and cynical remarks about members of the opposite sex that infuriated the said aunts considerably.

The adolescent grand nephews discussing the problem reached a facile, but perhaps erroneous, explanation. We surmised how could he have any respect for them, if obviously he had in his youth found out that women were such easy prey. If the aunts’ accounts were correct, he did not have to really try hard for his various conquests: women came to him like the proverbial moths attracted to the flame. No wonder the man had such a poor opinion about women.

Now we know better. Modern psychology asserts that misogyny, hatred, dislike or mistrust of women, stem from unresolved conflicts between man’s intense need for and dependence on women and their equally intense fear of that dependence. A misogynist feels that his masculinity depends on dominating women. Essentially insecure and racked by deep-rooted anxieties, he feels powerful by subjugating women and tries to control them by destroying their self-confidence. Any encounter with a woman is a battle to be won. He can never say, “OK. Have it your way,” with any modicum of grace to any woman.

Suddenly the paradox does not seem to be a paradox at all and I am able to see the incident in Mangalore in a new light. No, I am not suggesting that Mr. Muthalik and his followers are misogynists and that is why all this happened. Nor am I forgetting the fact that the incident had strong political underpinnings, as it gives fringe political groups such as the Sri Ram Sene an ideal plank to push themselves into the national limelight.

But if we go beyond all these obvious compulsions and explore deeper, I feel we find deep and abiding male anxieties at play, issues of command and control.

What do you think?

Photo Courtesy: www.daylife.com

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Monkey On Your Back

When I had sent out a mail to all my friends and past colleagues on my departure from the company, one of the first replies I received was from Joergen, wishing me luck and gently enquiring whether I was planning to retire in Kerala. I smiled when I read that message; Joergen had always been fascinated by Kerala.

Joergen was my first expatriate boss and one of the best. A tall, handsome Dane with a balding pate, Joergen, when I first met him more than 25 years ago, must have been in his late thirties. An excellent manager, he had a highly-evolved sense of humour, which sometimes played itself out as dry wit or cutting sarcasm, depending on how you looked at it. While he could be extremely solicitous to the customers and utterly charming to the ladies, Joergen did not suffer fools easily and used to routinely destroy them with the sharp, rapier-like cuts of his delicately wicked sense of humour.

One day I walk into Joergen’s cabin with a problem which I thought was beyond my abilities to solve. I am a 26-year-old greenhorn, new to the complexities of sales management and am understandably nervous when I start blurting out my problem to him.

Joergen makes me sit and asks me to start all over again. He lights up a Marlboro (this was before the days of the “no smoking” offices) and listens to me attentively, interrupting me not even once. I finish my narration and wait expectantly for his reaction. But Joergen is silent. Leaning back in his chair, he is looking up at the ceiling and quietly blowing smoke rings. He seems to be in some kind of trance.

Impatient minutes tick by, as I sit and fidget in frustration.

“So what are you going to do about it, Rada?” asks Joergen, after a long time.

I don’t know. That is why I have come to him. I tell him so.

Joergen looks disappointed. He shakes his head sadly and tells me: “I do not want the monkey on your back.”

“Sorry?” I cannot comprehend what the man is talking about.

Joergen is kind but firm: “If you have a problem, chances are you are the best person with ideas how to solve it. So please think the problem through and come and discuss the possible solutions. I will help you choose and refine the right solution. But by trying to dump your problem on my lap, you are just transferring the monkey on your back to my back. Sorry, not interested.”

We together solved the problem in the next fifteen minutes.

Even today when young managers come to me for solutions to issues or problems they themselves have not thought through, I derive some mischievous satisfaction by asking them not to transfer their monkey to my back.

Thank you, Joergen!

Image Courtesy: www.kchristieh.com

Friday, 6 February 2009

Acceptable Losses

I lost my job last Monday.

I go back to the office after a month’s medical leave and I am handed over the proverbial “pink slip” with an unsubtle urgency that is vastly amusing: Please hand over your laptop, if possible today itself, and oh yes, you don’t have to serve out your notice period: we are giving you a month’s salary instead. And please close the door on your way out, thank you very much.

So, I closed the door after me, very softly. Banging doors is just not me.

Even a year ago, such an unceremonious exit in India for a senior manager of a company, who has put in more than 30 years of service, would have been unthinkable, unless of course he had committed some financial impropriety or been charged with sexual harassment or something equally unsavoury. But right now, unfortunately, we are not living in normal times. Companies, their balance sheets all bleeding and under pressure by the shareholders to reduce costs and increase efficiency, are becoming increasingly jittery and unsure of what to do.

We know desperate people tend to make impetuous decisions; the same is true for desperate companies as well

By engineering my departure in so abrupt a manner, I could see the company had alienated a substantial number of staff, if the flood of distraught and disconsolate visits, phone calls, e-mails, and text messages I had received over the next two days were any indication. Similarly, by not allowing me enough time to say a proper good bye to my customers, all of whom will have to get to know of my departure through third-party sources, the company may ultimately end up garnering a lot of negative publicity it can ill-afford in these difficult times.

Finally after clearing my desk when I came out of my cabin, the entire floor stood up as one and quietly escorted me down the steps into the lobby, gravely shook my hands, and led me to the car. As I looked at the pinched and unhappy faces of my colleagues, some of who have worked with me for over two decades, I felt a deep sense of sadness welling up inside me. I was not feeling sad I was leaving the company; I was grieving the fact that I would not be working anymore with these wonderful people. It was as if by leaving, I was letting them down in some way; I was leaving them defenceless with none to stand up for them.

As I waved my final good-byes from the back of the car, no, I did not choke.

That would have been very unsubtle.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The First Anniversary

This blog completes one year on 31st January. Like all one-year olds, this one is also unsteady on its legs, incoherent in its speech and someone has to check its backside at frequent intervals.

Initially, I used to wonder: who would be interested in what I write and why should they, anyway? So, during those early days, I was frantically searching for ways and means to increase the flow of traffic to my blog. I shamelessly e-mailed all those in my contact list, beseeching them to read the posts and leave comments and to the utter consternation of my wife, started writing down and distributing the blog id to casual acquaintances and even perfect strangers.

Nothing happened.

So after a while, I decided to studiously ignore the blog counter that stubbornly refused to turn over and concentrate on the content. Not that the content was great but I started writing about those topics or incidents from the past that made me smile, not really caring whether anyone was reading the stuff or whether it was all disappearing into some black hole in cyberspace.

And slowly, one by one, all of you started trickling in, mostly perfect strangers who happened on the blog by pure chance or idle curiosity; you came by, read some of the posts and decided to stick around. And if today I feel a strong bond of affection and fondness towards those strangers, some of whom are also awesome bloggers in their own right and much younger to me in age, don’t grudge me this feeling of warm kinship for, these are the people who encouraged me with their comments, referenced some of my posts to Desipundit and Blogbharti, put me on their blogroll and in the case of a crazy lady/brilliant blogger, made me part of a limerick about her favourite blogs!

I cannot even begin to thank you for all the love, affection and encouragement you have so selflessly showered on me. You have also ceased to be strangers but close allies who share a common passion, even though I have not met a single one of you in person, excluding my wife who also happens to be a blogger.

A special thanks to the grammar bully. Barring a few of the initial posts, he has been kind enough to read all my posts prior to posting and edit them with a sharp pencil, while careful not to impose his own style on my posts. His edits, I would like to hope, have made the posts crisper, more readable and definitely an improvement on my own original version.

So thank you once again, guys and gals! You have made my past year such a pleasure.

Image Courtesy: bookburger.typepad.com

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

One Night in the ICU

I woke up to the sound of someone screaming.

In my heavily-sedated state, for quite some time, the screaming was just so much background noise and I just lay there, passively listening to it. Couple of hours later, when the effect of the sedatives had begun to wear off, I glanced around and could zero in on the source of the bellowing. It was from the bed diagonally opposite to mine, where lay a strapping young man, surrounded by the paraphernalia of monitoring equipment.

He was not just screaming. He was also cursing in general, with lots of wild ranting, partly directed at the nursing staff, and partly at himself. He seemed to be in some sort of delirium, not quite aware of what he was saying or the inconvenience he was causing to the other patients.

I pieced together his story partly from what one of the nurses in the ICU told me that night and partly by using the internet during my convalescence to browse through the fortnight-old newspaper reports that carried his story.

Sreejith, 29 years old, was a CPI-M loyalist and was working as the secretary of a local cooperative society. On 30th December, while travelling on his motor bike, Sreejith was waylaid by suspected RSS-BJP activists and attacked mercilessly. He suffered stab wounds and serious injuries to his head, legs, and hands.

Sreejith’s marriage had been fixed and was to take place on the 28th of January.

When I saw Sreejith that night in the hospital, he had already been in the ICU for over a week. The doctors had already amputated one of his legs and the concussion in the brain made him confused and disoriented. His pulse was unsteady and his BP had plummeted to alarmingly low levels. He was in a critical state.

Even after I left the hospital, I kept track of Sreejith’s condition and felt vaguely relieved few days later when I came to know that he had come out of the crisis and would survive.

For the past decade or so, the northern districts of Kerala, especially Kannur, have seen increasing incidents of violence between the cadres of the CPI-M and the BJP/RSS. Hundreds, mostly misguided young men who know no better, have been killed, maimed for life, or suffered grievous injury in this bitter struggle for supremacy between the two political parties. Mostly, it has been the lowly party worker who has suffered and, in some cases, paid with his life, while his political masters, content to play the puppet-master from a safe distance, have got away scot free.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

In the Hospital

The first time I went under the knife was more than twenty years ago, for a minor surgery. The second time was ten days ago, for a fairly detailed procedure which took about two hours to complete.

The first time, they gave me General Anaesthesia (GA) which was nice. One moment I was nicely sedated and looking up at all those green-masked faces above me and the next moment, I was out like a light. Pure binary. From 1 to 0 with no gradation in between.

After what seemed couple of minutes—when it was actually close to an hour—they slapped me not-so gently on the cheeks and said it was over and wheeled me out. Fortunately, while coming out of anaesthesia, apart from feeling a bit groggy and disoriented, I did not suffer any of its ill effects such as nausea and vomiting. Overall, you can say, it was not so disagreeable.

This time they gave me spinal anaesthesia. This is when they inject the anaesthetic near the spinal cord and onto the nerves that connect to the spinal cord to block pain from an entire region of the body, such as the abdomen, hips or legs. No, it’s not really painful, but the funny thing is, when the surgery is going on, you are aware in a detached sort of way of what is going on, even though there is no sensation and you can’t feel a thing. I could infer that momentous things were happening outside my line of vision; could hear periodic sucking and gurgling noises and muted conversation, but it was as though I had become a sort of dispassionate observer, well, listener, and what was going on had nothing to do with me.

Of course, the detachment and dispassion goes out of the window pretty rapidly once the effect of the anaesthetic wears off within a few hours after the surgery and your back-to-whole body starts protesting rather unsubtly at the trauma it has been subjected to. That is when you become aware of your entire body and also of your pain and they start fusing together and reach the point when you are unable to distinguish between the two. You are your body and you are your pain, and the two are not disparate but one.

I realise now that pure physical pain has no distracting elements. The nearest I can compare it to is to a smokeless blue flame.

So here I am, slowly getting back to normal. Learning, or rather re-learning, how to get out of bed (wince!), how to take baby-steps to the toilet, and how to slowly position myself in front of my laptop and tap out the words you are reading just now.

I feel very humble.

Friday, 9 January 2009

A Wedding in Jaipur

These days if you have to travel by train from Mumbai to Jaipur, you have convenient direct trains connecting the two cities. For example, if you board the Jaipur Superfast Express from Mumbai’s Bandra terminus at 3.45 pm, you are in Jaipur the next day by 10.40 am.

Such was not the case 25 years ago, when my friend Tata Kumar got married.

During those days, to reach Jaipur from Bombay, you had to travel in one of the main line trains plying the Delhi route up to Sawai Madhopur, where you got down and changed over to another train to Jaipur.

Tata Kumar, no stranger to the regular readers of this blog, is from Kerala and his wife-to-be, also his colleague, is from Rajasthan. The course of true love, steadfastly adhering to a familiar script, has not run smoothly in this case also--the girl’s family has vehemently opposed the match. After many episodes fraught with emotion and drama, during the course of which our hero has unwaveringly withstood with admirable dignity all threats and inducements to break off the relationship, finally good sense has prevailed and the girl’s family has relented and agreed to the marriage, which is to be held in Jaipur and as per Rajasthani traditions.

Thus we find ourselves on a cold morning in Sawai Madhopur railway station, boarding the first class compartment of a metre gauge train which will take us to Jaipur in seven hours. What we did not know at that time, of course, was that the bride’s uncle was a high-ranking official with the Western Railway and instructions had been wired beforehand to the local railway authorities to “take care” of the baaraat.

The “baaraat” is a motley crew consisting of a few members of Tata Kumar’s family, a few of his friends, couple of colleagues, and my uncle MK and his family.

It was to be an unforgettable journey. The entire first class compartment, washed clean, dusted, and beautifully bedecked with flowers, had been exclusively reserved for us. As the train pulled out of Sawai Madhopur, we were handed over toiletries and fresh towels to spruce ourselves up after the grimy, overnight journey from Bombay. By the time we were back in our seats, a refreshing cup of steaming tea awaited us, followed by a fruit platter and an elaborate breakfast served by attendants who were intent on fulfilling their guests’ slightest whim and fancy. It was as if we had moved backward in time and were in the India of the British Raj.

Finally, we arrive in Jaipur to be welcomed, to our acute embarrassment, with rose garlands and much fanfare.

And that night, the members of the baaraat, most of whom are equipped with two left feet when it comes to shaking a leg, bravely try dancing on the streets of Jaipur, in front of the decorated, open-decked car in which Tata Kumar sits in his sherwani and turban, a picture of silent and heroic stoicism.

Picture Courtesy: www.planetware.com
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.