Tuesday, August 11, 2015

B Goes to a Party

 So, Biju (B) goes to this birthday party of his uncle who is 80 years old and still going strong. He is quite the “hahaha” type. Except that he is also a man of note in church, a respected campaigner for everything in the Syrian Christian calendar of events. He participates in annual general meetings with glee and robustness. B goes with some trepidation because this uncle can be sweet as well as nasty at times. Like the time he criticised B publicly for his ignorance of church matters. That’s another story, for another time.

When B enters expecting to be treated like a very important person, the hall is full of people. And all of them are singing hymns at the top of their voice, which is quite disharmonious. There is no place so B is given a chair by the toilet. Hm, B thinks so this is the special treatment to a nephew. So B sings some hymns. Then the preacher preaches something, which he forgets when the ordeal of the cake cutting starts. There’s the “Happy Birthday” song and then everybody takes out their mobile phones, and the show offs they are, go click, click, click.

That over, the loud blandishments start. Everybody is all praise for uncle. Uncle also praises everybody except B. So there goes B’s self confidence, for a toss. B knew uncle did never like him, so it’s not new. Uncle holds forth, “I was this, I was that, I was there, I travelled here, I went there,” till one of his daughters says, “sit there and keep quiet.”

Uncle’s daughters Siji, Sinu, and Sony don’t know B, or, remember him. It’s so long since they met. So it’s okay, B thinks. B is sure if uncle had a son he would name him Shiju. Not surprising since one worthy in God’s Own Country named his son Shit. What must have he said to his son, “Shit, poo, poo, no son?”

When party is over, the payasam has been drunk, the party-goers find that their footwear have been mixed up. There were a few of them milling around in the narrow foyer hopping around like penguins on hot rocks. Luckily B found his footwear intact, at the place he had kept it.

“That was one hell of a party” B said to his wife.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Corporate Horror Stories - Part 3

A person I have known for some time retired recently. With a good package, may I add? He was a loader in a public sector oil company. His job was to climb on oil tankers and fill them. He received three million as retirement benefits and has a pension for life. I was contemptuous of the job he did, “loader, loader, government free loader,” I used to think. Not anymore. The government has taken good care of him, he boasts. The government loved him even though the company he worked for was making losses in billions, even though the tax payers were being squeezed to run the oil company. He hasn’t passed SSC, can’t read or write, he has very basic skills. He is a happy man. I am retired, but from the private sector. What did I get? Zilch. Nada.

My blood boils; my judgement is hampered as I write this. My laughter curdles in my throat into a suppressed scream. I weep silent tears. So many years working in the private sector and nothing? The man mentioned above has exchanged his car for a high-end Scorpio, worth more than a million, he has bought gold, and, adding insult to injury, he goes on holiday. I am a bit jealous of him, not a bit, a lot. Now he will sit and enjoy his life, going for long holidays, unlike me, working at bits and odds.

I remember those years I slogged in low-paying jobs. Oh, how those days come back in rush, as if in a bad dream. He also had a low-paying job but he had security. He bargained and got a better deal; whereas I was a sucker for thinking the private sector had more opportunities for advancements. I should have known better, the banyans and the marsupials (no allusion to any caste here, hehe!) I worked for don’t care a zilch for talent. They paid their employees the absolute minimum and wanted world-standard work done.

A big hee... hee... to all that crap.

However, the danger for those like me is that in the hallowed private sector – where I assumed talent was appreciated – more and more smart operators who know a little bit of everything are taking over. I was replaced as copywriter of a construction company by a man who said he knew how to write and design also. I found that he was being paid more than twice what I was paid. Dank. I had to leave and find another job. The new guy took over. He had a few elementary skills which he lied about when hired, but when it came to designing an advertisement he was helpless, which was soon found out.  Did the company want experience or glamour? Was it going to sacrifice my experience for the misplaced promise shown by the new recruit? I resigned when I found another job, which paid me more. The company lost a skilled hard working guy (me) who handled their advertising and public relations and gained a worker who was, basically, incompetent. This is happening with disturbing regularity in the corporate world.

Thinking about it, it seems like a trap which I have fallen into, unwittingly. I was swept away by the feeling that all will be alright, good paying jobs would come. But today, in India, the private sector is squeezing every drop of blood from their employees while, at the same time, working them to death. My typical work-week consisted of 60 hours of work with only a day – Sunday – off. On the other hand the government is paying its employees and public sector workers much more than they deserve to be paid, plus, a pension. That’s what happened in Greece. The country’s pension liability billowed from paying government servants. Greece spends 17.5 per cent of its income on pensions, more than any EU country. India spends around 6 per cent but this is estimated to rise to 19 per cent in 2050. Where will this money come from?

Meanwhile the man is enjoying life. Now, he is laughing I me, I suspect. He goes for multiple vacations, flaunts his wealth, throws lavish parties, wants to get his sons married, and is having the good life. Let him enjoy. He has worked hard for it, climbing those trucks in rain and hail, and filling those umpteen tanks. Thinking back that would have been a better job by far.

Monday, July 06, 2015


 This is a corporate horror story right from the bottom of my basket of tales. You have heard about how software companies pay their employees so well and they have a gym and cafeteria – food for free - in their office itself. Well, I have never had any of those amenities in the companies I worked, hm, slaved rather. Hey, but the story here is different. You will see how these companies can afford the abovementioned gyms and cafeterias.

I was working then with the company sales of which was around 2000 crores. A real biggie. The company was listed on the stock exchange and had good projects in various parts of the country. Then the chairman decided that we must computerise the whole operations as accounting for all the projects was getting out of hand. So we had experts suggesting to us whether we needed SAP or Microsoft. Microsoft was favoured because it was cheap. The chairman agreed to give the contract to a company who would do the development of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system for the company. Meanwhile the chairman also became friendly with the boss of the company doing the ERP system. It was usual for the chairman to have breakfast and lunch with the owner of the ERP company at his home.

I was in the ERP department to implement their Sharepoint system, which is a software that linked all the knowledge resources of the company, so that information was available to all when needed. The ERP manager chosen was a retired army Colonel who knew next to nothing about ERP or computers. The Colonel spent time chatting with his girlfriends on the computer and we pretended to work.

So when the chairman was merrily having breakfast with the ERP company boss, he assumed the Colonel was doing his job. The chairman was also cheerfully signing the completion-related documents which entitled the ERP company to claim their payments. Meanwhile the Colonel who thought ERP was some sort of caper which they played in the united services club went about addressing his staff in stentorian voice about duty and responsibility. He didn’t know what was happening behind his back. He was having long meetings with the ERP company in which he didn’t understand much of what was said, but kept nodding his head.

The chairman signed the last of the phased out payment cheques, a large cheque this time. The entire contract was paid out without much being done. When it came to a demonstration, nothing worked, because the basics of an enterprise resource planning system were not in place. This made the chairman livid with rage. He raved and ranted at the Colonel, who raved at his staff. The staff went home and raved at their poor wives. Crores of rupees had gone down the drain already and then somebody in the staff pointed out that the ERP company had never done any projects whatsoever because it was recently set up by a disgruntled employee of another software company.

The ERP company got rich, Microsoft got rich but the company I worked for was poorer by a few crores. Then the decision was taken to implement SAP. I only know the story thus far because by that time I had left.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What's Happening in Greece?

 I like the Greeks. Yeah, I like them because of their attitude. That handsome dude Prime Minister Tsipras is always smiling as if nothing is wrong. He is even enjoying the publicity, not bothered that his country is a broke nation. His hair is neatly combed and not a strand of grey is visible anywhere. He is clean shaven all the time, no stubble like his Indian counterpart. The other dude is his finance minister Varoufakis, he is handsome and has a cool walk, too, shoulders squared, swaggering like a rock star. Adonis, sort of. He rides a bike as an austerity measure, but who knows where his stash is?

So what’s happening in Greece? They have brought a continent and the world on its knees and have the gumption to smile. “Now you take care of us, give us more money, or, you go down with us.” Isn’t that hilarious? Hahaha! Another global financial crisis will cripple us. Meanwhile let’s make the most of it, hahaha!

The 2004 Athens Olympics started the slide. The country spent $ 9 billion hoping that tourism will get a boost after that. But the tourists stayed away because of the high cost of everything. The real problem started in 2011 and nobody bothered to check it. Greece went on spending without care. They were part of Eurozone now so let Europe take care of them.

Sure Angela Merkel can do something? Can she? Surely Obama can help this country which is as old as civilisation itself? No? Then what really is wrong with the handsome Greeks? Oh I get it. It’s their inability to impress western women with their cool demeanour that’s bothering them. No longer are they being lionised as God’s gift to mankind.

Well who needs them when they have enough cool dudery in the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Last heard they were in negotiations for buying a Greek island on the Ionian Sea.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ajith Pillai's Book "Off the Record"

Right from the time I knew him when we worked together in Malayala Manorama, I knew Ajith Pillai would write a book and it would be something to look forward to. Ever since I purchased the book on Amazon I couldn’t put it down, his sparse – Hemingway-ian – narrative kept me going impatiently from page to page. He is witty, ironic, and cynical and often would make me laugh with the stories he had written and the experience he had had. He was friend and fellow conspirator who helped me when I was in a dark period in my life. If I was dark and moody he would crack a joke and my spirits would lift. When we were short of money he would say, “Let’s rob a bank.” Of course, he didn’t mean it. He was correspondent of The Week and I was Manorama’s marketing supervisor. Though we were in conflicting departments our friendship was devoid of any rivalry. Being a foodie, he led me on a discovery of the restaurants in the Fort area: City Kitchen, Gokul, Martin’s, Mahesh and many more. He loved his food as he did his drink. But most of all he loved his job, wherever he worked.

The book I am referring to is Off the Record by Ajith Pillai a collection of his stories – on record – most of which I have heard from him in person. A good raconteur, a good writer, a good human being is how I would describe him. He was incorruptible and told me of the blank cheque handed to him by a tycoon to write a story favourable to him. Of course, he didn’t accept it. These are stories which are not part of the present collection. Likewise, he had submitted a two-word resignation letter at Observer which consisted of only “I resign.” That points to the humour of the man.

He and the late Vinod Mehta had a good personal chemistry. Under Mehta his writing and career took off, first at Sunday Observer and then at Pioneer and Outlook. Mehta trusted him and knew of his inherent sincerity and dedication. The legendary editor passed away without handing his baton to someone worthy of the mantle of the leader of the fourth estate and I feel the worthy inheritor would have been Ajith Pillai. Well, it’s cruel fate that Ajith didn’t get what he was due. He should have been an editor now, motivating a younger crop of journalists cutting their teeth on the burning problems of the day.

Ajith Pillai's Off the Record
Particularly gripping is his account of the Kargil war which he covered for Outlook. His dad was a high-ranking army officer and, I guess, that gave him the insight to report on the war in depth. Speaking of which it reminds me that he studied at one of the premier institutions – La Martinere – in Lucknow where, I presume, Vinod Mehta also studied. Yes, he did. (This I find after a Wikipedia search.) What’s about that institution that inspires creativity and good moral standards in a morally corrupt world, I don’t know?

Off the Record is a must read for all journalism students. Not only read it, but keep it on your desk to refer to it, re-read it and digest what he has to say. Treat it as your Bible and Bhagwad Gita. Particularly because mostly Ajith worked in an era when laptop computers, cell phones, and social media didn’t exist. I have seen him sitting in his cabin writing his dispatches in long hand and having them sent by teleprinter to our head office. When I told him my work in marketing was not working out and that actually I wanted to be a journalist he arranged an appointment with an editor, but the job didn’t materialise. No worry. At least, he helped, that’s the kindness of man I am writing about. Now, on hindsight, I think I would have made a miserable reporter.

Here’s what I think journalism schools should do. They should buy the book in bulk and distribute it to their students. The indefatigability of the man who took his reporting seriously will come shining through. We will hopefully have a new crop of journalists as dedicated to their jobs as he was.

Do read Off the Record even if it deprives you of your last vada-pao in McDonald’s. You will hunger for more, which is actually the purpose of this book.

Monday, June 22, 2015


Sometimes I wonder if the aggregate of the problems of this world is because of greed. This realisation has troubled me no end. Now greed pervades everything: sports, entertainment, publishing, broadcasting, software programming, etc. When I was starting in content writing for websites I was told by my manager that “everything is available on the net, you just have to copy and paste.” I followed his instructions and did likewise. Perversely it might seem, now, he is the manager of some company in the US and doing well. His instructions to his programmers were, “don’t try to invent the wheel, take the code from the source, paste it.” (Source code was available online from every website.) His motive was greed and how to make millions. He didn’t know then that his stilted philosophy would result in job loss for twenty people working under him. In those days from a poky little office in the Millennium Business Park our company made five million dollars a year by copying things from others san any fear of copyright infringement. Then, one fine day, the company shut down rendering us jobless. The reason was Google can easily detect copied content and can punish the site by giving low exposure and a low ranking in web searches. So greed didn’t pay and I had to find another job.

Earlier in my career I was general manager of a small publishing firm. I had risen from the ranks by sheer hard work. I had invested a lot of time and energy to build up that organisation: invented new systems, streamlined billing, dirty-ed my hands learning about how to run a publishing company. The company was doing well and there was considerable goodwill among the advertisers. The owner would greedily extend his deadline for ads that came in late so that he could earn a good profit for that month.  I became worried as the issues started coming late. The January issue would come in March and so on. The effect was that the magazine got so delayed that there came a day when we couldn’t catch up. I told the publisher to miss a few issues but he wouldn’t do that. Advertisers saw the foolishness of their ads appearing after a few months and stopped releasing ads. The magazine died a natural death and with it ended whatever small dreams I had nurtured.

That’s the predicament of most greedy organisations of today. They think their greed can substitute for enterprise and energy. They – like Gordon Gekko - think being greedy is good. But the thing about greed is that it gives rise to more greed. More greed then leads to confusion among the ranks, the foot soldiers get disoriented. Then the company, the enterprise starts dying and nobody can stop the decline in the company’s health because the top people are still thinking in terms of greed. Once the decline starts it is unstoppable, the end result is a lot of fights in the office, recriminations, finger pointing and death of a viable business.

Watch this space. More of this to come. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Vacation to Kerala

The vacation in Kerala was eventful, a revelation of sorts, as it always is. So, here I am with a bag of tales from God’s favourite country. I don’t know who all will read this and benefit, but here it is, my impressions.

Firstly, uneducated Malayali men are mostly wild and impulsive. They revel in being wild and uncontrollable, ingesting a bottle of whisky a day without any qualm and badmouthing everybody in the process. They destroy their own lives and that of their family members without thinking. All they can think about is liquor and sex. There is one such specimen in the house opposite my brother-in-law’s (BIL’s) house. He drinks, lazes around home, uses the worst profanities with his wife and children, and does no work. He is a pathetic sight, slouching his tall figure and walking on the street, trying to act dignified. He has had no education and was a waiter in a tea shop before he was kicked out. His wife is the breadwinner of the house. She tolerates him to some extent but loses her cool sometimes calling him the worst profanities when offended. She works as a domestic help and earns a good salary which can keep a family alive. But he goe s to her employer and borrows money, which is then deducted from her salary. These are people who get rice at Rs 2 and have health insurance and a pension when they are old. Yet, they can’t manage and depends on what is being doled out by the church and other charities.
River Periyar: though it starts in Tamil Nadu flows into the Arabian Sea close to Kochi

Leave this specimen of depredation and move along to the services. A malayali craves for a government job as a thirsty animal seeks water in the Sahara. Once inside the job, he knows he is lord and master over his domain. He behaves like a satrap newly appointed in his august post. I wanted the schedule of a new air-conditioned bus services from Tiruvalla to Kochi. On three occasions I was given three different timings. How could I know which one was true? I was disconnected after the most perfunctory information. “That’s all you get,” must have been the understanding among them.

Then I try the Tiruvalla railway station. Here the inquiry desk doesn’t bother to answer the phone. Dang! After ten tries, I give up, in frustration. Since I have a smartphone with internet I could get the train schedule online. Thank God!

The countryside is incredibly beautiful. There are lush palms and rubber trees waving in the somnolent air, punctured by the call of exotic birds. There are the backwaters which add to the mystique of a tropical paradise. Many times I have been tempted to get down from the car I was travelling to walk along the bunds that separate the fields and have a bath in crystal clear water. Kerala doesn’t have industries so the water is pure.

There are also unsightly sights along the way. This is to be expected in all towns in India. In Ernakulam where I stay with my brother there isn’t proper garbage disposal. They have to pay for garbage to be collected. So what happens if they don’t have money to pay? They dump the garbage on street corners. Stern warnings have been put at street corners, to no avail. People still dump. This is a problem with all towns in Kerala. Development has brought with it many problems, and the towns are struggling to adapt.

With talk of development, there isn’t licence enough to develop infrastructure. The Aranmula airport project is one such. After a series of see-saw tilts and nudging, the project seems finally to have met an ignoble end with the civil aviation ministry too having withdrawn its consent. It would have meant good development, jobs, visibility to a small village to which I belong, where I was born. Yes, I belong to Aranmula village. It’s sad that this dream didn’t materialise.

The Kochi Metro is another development project that is limping. Land acquisition along parts of its route has been held up due to court cases. The work is going on, but progress is slow. It will take more than a year to resolve all these and the project will go into further delay.

On the way back I take a flight, ticket for which has been booked six months in advance. At the check-in counter I insist on a window seat and am given an upgrade to a SpicejetMax seat. It gives me pleasure to see people who have paid tens of thousands in cramped seats when I enjoy complete legroom freedom in the Max seats. Hehe! Ask and ye shall receive what?

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Tabloidization of Indian Media

I read this speech Prannoy Roy gave when he accepted the award for lifetime achievement at the Bombay Press Club. Essentially what Roy bemoans is the tabloidization of Indian media which lowers journalistic standards across media platforms: print and electronic. And, I agree. Bravo Roy!

Last month I went to author CP Surendran’s book launch. The media was there in full force. I attended CP’s last book launch and the media was absent. Well, a few stragglers, not many. So I wondered if it was the booze, or, something else that made them come in such force. There were cameras of all types, jousting to get better positions, a general hullaballoo.

No, it wasn’t the booze but a chap named Anurag Kashyap that made them come. I don’t know the reason why Kashyap was invited. He confessed he rarely read Indian fiction, and was openly sarcastic about Indian Writing in English. But forget that, and forgive all that, he was asked to be a panel member in the discussion about the book. Holy of holies!

The media was there because Kashyap with a few hits to his credit is a celebrity and the next best thing that is happening to Bollywood. I haven’t seen any of his films so I can’t comment on its quality. But his disdain for Indian Writing in English was quite clear.

When the floor opened for questioning the media started questioning Kashyap about Bombay Velvet and other projects. Poor CP and his book were ignored, passed on, for the more saucy gossip of Bollywood. Tabloidization had begun. The scribes wanted some cheeky quote from Kashyap which they could print in the next day’s paper. They got them too. Kashyap is a hunk, a proper muscled Bollywood-type hunk, and was married to another starlet, now divorced.

Kashyap was dismissive and said Indian Writer’s in English wrote tripe and Indian filmmakers made crap. Both were lapped up and reported on. Roy said that tabloidization leads to lowering the standards of journalism and I agree, with all my heart and soul.

In another launch I attended, this time it was my own launch. Actually, my short story was featured in an anthology and the publisher called us authors to take the dais and talk about our stories. This is the only launch I have ever had, so far, at least. The media came. The publisher, I don’t know for what reason, had invited a Bollywood starlet to be present. She smiled a lot, a nervous, self-conscious smile. The media focussed on the starlet and ignored us authors. I was chagrined. The next day’s papers showed pictures of the starlet with the publisher and not a word, not a word – I emphasize – about us poor authors, who slinked to the far corners of the hall to weep bitter tears.

That’s tabloidization for you, and it’s a bad thing. The earlier our media gets out of it the better it would be for them.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Writing a Novel Is Like Putting a Universe Together

This appeared in my novel Mr. Bandookwala's dedicated blog yesterday. Reproducing it here for the benefit of readers of this blog:

Writing a novel is like putting a universe together: constructing its foundations first, living in it for days, acquainting with the people, and then letting it go. It’s a very slow process that requires immense patience. But once you are good at it, there’s a lot going for you. Recently I completed my novel and now, horrors, I am submitting to those whom I trust for a first look.

But then why do writers take this arduous journey to nowhere. Half the time – when you are writing - you are wondering what the critics will say. You are in turmoil, you don’t think straight, your narrative may falter, in which case – God forbid – you go back and rewrite. All along, you are not being compensated for your time. You are in constant dilemma: will my character say this; will he behave thus? Yes, in western countries you have grants, which you can avail while writing a novel. Yann Martel was on a grant when he wrote Life of Pi. But in India you have nothing. Zilch!

Yes, there is something. Aha! You get a lot of shit thrown at you if you read a chapter at a writer’s community. You sink into perdition once again. People in Indian write in their own language plus English (own language + English). I mean, Malayalis write in their English, Tamilians write in their English, you get the drift, right?

My effort has been to steer away from stereotype to portray a stereotype. In Mr. Bandookwala I have written about different communities and the different ways they talk English, without identifying the community. It becomes obvious which community I am talking about, and at the same time, a foreigner can laugh at the quaint way we talk. It was a tough task. But, now that it is done, I have the jitters again.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My Morning Walk

Every day I go for a walk in the morning, in the valley where I live, part of the routine now. I have a cane, which I use not because I need it, but because of the dogs that inhabit my route. They have become friendly, however, the odd one still barks at me. I go around 10 a.m., which is when I finish my yoga and breakfast.

There’s a curious mix of people I meet on my walk. One is a neighbour, the wrecker of the hills where I live, the local rich man. He owns a stone crushing business and has denuded the hills around my house with his industriousness. Through the night and day he mines the granite in these hills and sells it to the railways. He owns half a dozen cars and says he is doing well. Whenever I pass his house, I hear the loud admonitions of his wife, a dowdy, querulous lady. His is a joint family, which means his sons and wives and grandchildren live with him.

Sometimes he waves me good morning. Sometimes he doesn’t. That may be because he is planning his next business move to take notice of me. Gujjus being quite admirably money minded they always think about business. He bought another plot of land and is building a huge bungalow there complete with lift and lots of glass. He is the uncouth kind of man, rough of character, who, though he owns several cars, wouldn’t spend money to have them washed.

Then there is Ramu, the ironing man whose job is to iron all clothes in the locality. He is a resident of the valley for a long time, having been born here. He didn’t study beyond fifth standard preferring to loaf around with friends. Now his father has gone to his village and he looks after his ironing business. He and the eunuch, sorry, transgender, about whom I wrote a story (Lalla: the Eunuch), live in adjacent shacks.

Then there is this distinguished gentleman from Kerala, who tells me stories about VK Krishna Menon and KPRS Menon, because he himself is a Menon. He worked in a corporation for a long time and is in his eighties. He has maintained his health very well though he has a back problem, which he is bearing with admirable fortitude. He reads a lot and we discuss some writers and their works.

Then there is this gentleman who is a Bengali. We greet each other, in strict cordiality. He has never asked me about my background, nor have I about his. From general appearance he looks like a government servant, a babu, the sort who pushes files in government offices. He speaks with great care, mincing each word, cautiously avoiding any unpleasantness. He also is quite well off and has a big car and lives in a big house near the gymnasium. We only say “how hot it is,” or “how cold it is,” to each other, after our morning greetings.

I rest myself after my walk on a garden seat near the gymnasium. There is a steady stream of people in cars and bikes who visit the gymnasium to work on their bodies. I look at them and marvel their rippling muscles. I wish I was like them. One lady, a nicely muscled one, comes with a packet of biscuits which she distributes to the dogs, who, not being hungry in the morning, grudgingly hover around her gift. The dogs brawl over the food, but don’t eat it, leaving the biscuits on the street. I guess they are learning to hoard food from us.

Then there are two Malayali friends who always walk together. One is known to me, therefore he greets me. They talk all the while about politics, Kerala politics. Now, to be honest, I don’t know much about Kerala politics except that Oommen Chandy is the chief minister and Sarita Nair is somebody involved in a scam.

The dogs bark at me even though they know me. I wave my stick at them, a sturdy Wildcraft climbing stick. They seem unfazed. It’s their privilege to bark, let them enjoy their entitlement. I am not bothered.