Friday, November 25, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Different perspectives

I saw a program on the National Geographic Channel a couple of months back about the Ferrari factory. One guy who was working in engine assembly said that whenever he saw a Ferrari car his heart swelled with pride at the thought that he had contributed to its making. Another woman who sewed the leather upholstery said a similar thing. Would I have a similar feeling if I making hundred of the same thing everyday? I don't think so. At the very least, I would have had frequent bouts of trumspringa.

It reminded me of a couple of essays in the Organisational Behaviour book in IIMA. I don't remember the details but the idea behind the two essays was as follows.

The first was by Lee Iacocca who was in some top position in Ford at that time, probably its President. He talked about his exclusive car parking space, how excited he was every morning while coming to the office, about the plush executive dining room and the exotic fruits that are flown in from around the world for the dining pleasure of top executives. In short, he was chuffed with life.

The next essay was by a worker in the Ford assembly line. He talked about the monotony of his job, about the drug pushers in the Assembly line, about the bills that he had to pay, about the difficulties in educating his kids etc. In short, he was not thrilled about his job. The title of this piece was, 'It is the same company.'

That is why I was not convinced when I heard the statements of the workers. I won't be surprised if the workers were coached about what to say in the T.V. program in order to project a wholesome image of the company.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


When I see people come on T.V. and talk excitedly about the various jobs that they are doing, I tend to ask myself if I would have liked to spend my day doing similar things and the answer would invariably be negative. For example, this type of job will bore me in no time (not the genome sequencing part - that may be interesting.) Many people remind me of the soldier in the marching band whose mother shouts out, 'There goes my boy - he is the only one in step.'

Sometime back, a classmate of mine at IIMA, Rashmi Bansal gave me her latest book I Have A Dream, It was the first book about the business world that I was reading in many years. (It is not strictly about business. It is about many entrepreneurs who work in the social sector. Anyway it is very different from the kinds of topics that I had been reading about for the past few years.) As is my wont, I frequently asked myself whether I would have liked to be in the entrepreneurs' shoes and the answer always was 'No'. I would have felt overwhelmed by the challenges that the entrepreneurs faced and would have quickly given up.

Perhaps I have got used to my slothful existence and reading whatever catches my fancy. As this song says,'Na naukri ki chinta, na roti ki fikar...' Of course I do feel sometimes that I am being an enormous burden for other people although no one has ever said so. I get out of this hole by thinking that I will not help anybody by wallowing in self-pity. As Bertie Wooster would have put the cliché, what cannot be c must be e.

I listen with a quiet smile to glowing accounts of the seduction routines that most corporates put on show for new recruits. Talks of multiplexes, shopping malls, grooming accessories etc. will be rather uninteresting and I will think that people are wasting their time on kiddish stuff. (But I will be psyched by this kid. At that age I would not have started on Enid Blyton.) Perhaps it is all an elaborate rationalisation on my part to hide my envy. Whatever it is, it works.

Actually, since I became interested in reading about evolution, I become interested in jobs connected to it or in related areas like ecology or biogeography and most other jobs seem boring in comparison. (But not if it involves squeezing through narrow gaps.) Not surprisingly, the project that caught my eye in Rashmi's book was Project Chilika for cultivating seaweeds started by a marine biologist, Dinabandu Sahoo. I was interested to learn that he was part of an international team for deliberating on the problem of ocean acidification which I had read about some months ago.

Another project that caught my eye was Super 30 because I had seen a program about it on Discovery Channel. I was also interested to read about Prof. Trilochan Sastry, who joined IIMA as a professor when I was a student there. I didn't know that he had done some remarkable things (while also running a couple of NGOs and carrying out his professorial duties).

There were many tales of struggle and deprivation in the book but none more hair-raising than the one related by Anshu Gupta of Goonj:
Given the lack of excitement in his career, Anshu was getting his 'kick' from other sources. And that story started in 1992, when he wrote a moving piece for Hindi newspaper "Saptahik Hindustan".

"I was a new journalist so I went to old Delhi to look for a story. There I see a rickshaw, and on that were the words 'Delhi police corpse carrier'. So I wrote about this man whose job was to pick up unclaimed dead bodies from the roadside."

The man received Rs.20 for every body he brought in, and a piece of white cloth. Two things he said really shook Anshu; in fact they haunted him for a long time.

The corpse carrier remarked, 'In the winter business is good, sometimes there is so much work that I can't handle it.'

And his five-year-old daughter added, 'When I feel cold, I cuddle a dead body and go to sleep'.
I kept thinking how lucky I had been at most stages of my life. I didn't have the luxuries but I never had to struggle for the necessities or the educational opportunities which cannot be said for the people among whom these entrepreneurs work. I should guard against falling into the trap of privilege blindness. John Rawls also has some points to ponder.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I have nightmares

In 'Pigs Have Wings'. P.G.Wodhouse says:

It is one of the chief drawbacks to the lot of the conscientious historian that in pursuance of his duties he is compelled to leave in obscurity many of those to whom he would greatly prefer to give star billing. His task being to present a panoramic picture of the actions of a number of protagonists, he is not at liberty to concentrate his attention on any one individual, however much the latter's hard case may touch him personally. When Edward Gibbon, half-way through his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire complained to Doctor Johnson one night in a mood of discouragement that it - meaning the lot of the conscientious historian - shouldn't happen to a dog, it was to this aspect of it that he was referring.
I also sometimes have such Gibbon moments but it is not because I have given short shrift to any particular individual but about whether I should write about incidents that happened before my stroke. Of course, one reason for the paucity of such posts is that I was a nondescript, boring chap who just made up the numbers so there aren't too many incidents that I can write about that will keep you from yawning. Another reason is that it is not the focus of this blog. But sometimes I remember an incident that I can write about and I think, 'Focus be damned.' This is one such post.

George Jessel said, “The human brain is a wonderful organ. It starts to work as soon as you are born and doesn't stop until you get up to deliver a speech.” This is not true for everyone but it was certainly true in my case. Put me on a stage, stick a mic in front of me and have a large audience (say, more than five people) and my brain gets jammed.

In my school, an elocution contest used to be held every year for which each class would send some representatives. I had successfully managed to avoid being selected every year because of my acknowledged mastery in hiding behind the person sitting in front of me. But my luck ran out when I was in Std. IX. For some reason, my English teacher decided that I can do well in elocution. I have no clue what gave her such a bizarre idea.

I had to deliver Martin Luther King's famous speech, 'I Have A Dream'. (Some parts were cut to shorten the speech.) I liked the speech as soon as I read it but the prospect of having to deliver it in front of an audience did not thrill me. I think there was one elimination round before the final, sort of a semi-final. You know how it is - you tend to put your best foot forward in the heat of competition. As luck would have it, this was enough to put me in the final. There would scarcely have been anybody who had received such triumphant news so gloomily.

In 'Right Ho, Jeeves', Gussie Fink-Nottle was in a similar predicament when he was asked to present the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school. As the dreaded day neared, he almost became a mental wreck and I could understand why. Wodehouse fans will recall that Bertie Wooster helped out Gussie by the simple expedient of spiking his orange juice with loads of whisky.Plastered to the gills, Gussie gave a performance for the ages which delighted the young scholars at the grammar school. I knew that I will have no such luck.

From what I remember, the day of the competition was bright and sunny. It wouldn't have mattered if it was dark and stormy because the competition was to be held indoors but it would have helped to reduce the size of the audience which seemed to be bigger than usual. I had thought that people would have had better things to do than watch me stutter and stammer on stage but obviously I had thought wrong. I hung around cracking sick jokes while my heart was racing along at an unhealthy pace.

It was at this time that god decided to do his bit for me. If believers had played their cards right in subsequent years, I may have become a militant Hindu. What happened was this: participants wearing glasses were told to remove them before going on stage. I think it had something to do with the glare of the lights on the stage (I am not sure). I did not realise the full import of the instruction till I went onto the stage.

The stage was brightly lit while the rest of the auditorium was dark in comparison. I couldn't make out individual faces. There were a lot of hazy blobs in front of me. If my friends were making faces at me, I did not notice them. If the judges were scowling and making notes, I did not know it. The result was that my tension diminished and the speech went without a hitch. At the end, I did not notice whether there was a thunderous applause or derisive hoots - I was busy making myself scarce. When the results were announced, I had come second.

My English teacher was more disappointed than I was about my not coming first. She had hoped that, like Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!), lo! my name would lead all the rest. She had invested a lot of time and effort into preparing me for the competition. I remember going to her house where we pored over many pieces before she finally decided that this speech suited me. Whatever I had achieved was entirely due to her efforts. As for me, I was happy that I had not made a fool of myself. Of course, I strutted around with a 'nothing to it' expression now that the ordeal was behind me.

If you look at cricket history, you will find that many tail-enders have one knock which they can talk about to their grand-kids - Darren Gough once saved a Test Match for England; so did Danny Morrison for NZ; Glenn McGrath has a Test 50; Jason Gillespie has a Test double hundred... Being a genuine tail-ender in the area of elocution contests, this was my one moment under the sun. If Bertie Wooster has his Scripture Knowledge prize, I had this speech (of course , there must be some embellishments). After this I gradually faded away into blissful obscurity having regained my form in hiding behind the person sitting in front of me. (But my camouflage was not as good as that of this octopus. Not even as good as that of a frying pan. But it used to work most of the time. Except in Std. IX.)