Chapter 11: Calicut: Lola Kutty Land
There is an old joke about why mallus don’t get the time to work in Kerala. The explanation (according to the joke) is that they are too busy tying and untying their lungi. I presume it refers to the male mallus. But I think it is really unfair. I think the real explanation is that they are too busy teaching people the correct way to pronounce everything. Take the example of Calicut. Such a simple and uncomplicated name. But that would generate major unemployment in the state, because everyone can pronounce it. So, there is an official name change to Kozhikode. Even Vasco Da Gama would have lost his way, had this been done in 1498.
Many people now happily spend hours, or maybe days, educating ignorant foreigners (non- mallus) on how to pronounce Kozhikode. Come to think of it, if a movie can be made about this education, it may beat “My Fair Lady” at the box office.
Jokes apart, one has to admit that Lola Kutty land is a unique place. These are some of its distinguishing features-
1. Almost total absence of any language other than the local
2. Amazingly green landscape
3. Almost zero industrial activity. Only West Bengal and the jungles of Amazon come close.
4. Almost equal split between Hindu, Christian and Muslim population
5. Correlated with above, beef, fish, chicken and pork sausages co-exist peacefully
6. Half the state works in the Middle East and remits money back home
There could be a few more, but these are good enough to illustrate the uniqueness of the state. What happens in the state by way of economic activity is a mystery, because apart from fishing and some tourism, there are few visible signs of anything happening at all. It remains, as the tourist brochures say, “God’s Own country” in terms of nature’s beauty, but whether it can feed the population is a question mark. Probably the incoming dollars (or dinars) make up.
I have one major complaint about the average Malayali. It is that he rarely smiles. It may not matter to his fellow Malayalis, but I was taken aback by the apparent grimness. Maybe my sample was not representative enough, but I am fairly sure this observation is accurate. If it is so, then the reason should be found out, and a correction put in place.
Anyway, I am digressing. I got a job at IIM Kozhikode (whichever way you want to pronounce it) and went there in May 2005. I just managed to beat the monsoon, and fortunately found a landlord who spoke English. He was very nice and helpful throughout our two year stay in his 4 bedroom house. The house had two halls, one on each floor, six coconut trees, one of jackfruit, and a few creepers with pepper pods on them. I really felt like a king.
We had a jet-setting director, who moved around as if he headed yatra.com. He was rarely in town, and we often joked (behind his back) that he spent more time with Jet Airways air hostesses than his own wife. Anyway, he was a true academic in the IIM A mould, and we got along reasonably well. As usual, the marketing area was in the doldrums with only three faculty members and many students (though less than Lucknow). My first six months at Calicut went in writing a new book (my second) on Services Marketing. I also taught the course, and students chipped in with some original case studies (at my insistence, of course) for my book. These became some of its highlights (USPs, or Unique Selling Propositions, for those of you in marketing).
I think I must have inspired some colleagues to write books as well, because all the profs. around published a book in the next year or two (Suma, SSS Kumar, Tapan, Sunil Sahadev are some I can recall). I had always wondered why Indian management faculty did not write enough books. I found the explanation as I later pondered over the question. Writing something-anything- takes 100 times more effort than doing anything else. Maybe the pen is heavier, not just mightier, than the sword. Talking, sleeping, eating or traveling come to us almost naturally, but writing is an acquired taste (like Goat’s cheese or tequila). Many people come out with the weirdest excuses when asked to write anything, even their own CV. A case in point is MBA students. When asked to write a half page CV for a placement brochure, it takes some of them over a month to write it! For their own career!
I made a great new friend at Calicut called Ravi (it’s pronounced Revi, but I won’t go into that). He was a misfit, according to me, in mallu-land. He was open, outgoing, and he laughed a lot. He also played cricket for the local club of which I had become a member. We played an inter club cricket match once, and I enjoyed the nets and the actual game tremendously. We won the match handsomely too.
Ravi was also a cocktail enthusiast, and we spent a lot of time drumming up concoctions with whatever raw material we could find. Many exotic recipes were created and consumed. Feni, orange liquer, Bacardi, and the usual rum, brandy, vodka and gin were some of the liquors used. Pina colada was one of my favourites, and Polly’s Folly (vodka with lime, sliced green chilly and salt).
We went on picnics with him and our families, and I went fishing with him too. A long boat was used, where only one of us could sit at one spot, so we sat one behind the other. We spent a quiet hour or so, and the experience was very soothing.
I conducted a conference along with an American association of marketing educators called NASMEI, and it proved to be a big hit. I was able to outsource the catering and venue arrangements to the local Taj hotel, which helped me to concentrate on the academic aspects. Tapan, my colleague, helped to coordinate the publishing of papers sent, and we published them in two edited volumes just in time for the conference. Gerard Tellis of NASMEI, USA, was very supportive, and got a few international delegates. A unique feature of this conference was that there was no (wasteful) inauguration or valediction ceremony-only working sessions with paper presentations. My director did not appreciate this much, but many participants did.
Casa Marina, where we had a couple of parties, was a beautiful seaside bungalow converted into a restaurant/hotel. It was owned by a German, and managed by a local. A little further up, P.T. Usha had her Academy where she trains girl athletes. A few hours drive up the coast is the town of Cannanore. Nearby, there is a beautiful seaside fort called Bekal. It has a magnificient view of the sea. On the way to Bekal, there is a drive-in beach. It has a tongue-twister of a name, Muzhappilangad. But it resembles the hi-flying Florida beaches in the Miami region, made famous by the partying students in March every year. This beach in Kerala is actually deserted, surprising considering its tourist potential. But we found this in many places in the state, and it probably speaks of lack of entrepreneurial effort. Maybe the entrepreneurs are terrified of the red flags that may greet him.
Another lovely riverside resort in Calicut was Kadavu. This is a half hour drive, and offers luxury rooms, a nice restaurant, and boat rides in typical Kerala houseboats as well as regular motorboats. We took some of our participants from MDPs there for an evening party. Having prawn or fish with a beer in tow, gazing at the river, is a great experience indeed, comparable to some similar feelings one gets in Goa.
One memorable trip I remember from Calicut was to the Coorg area (now called Kodagu). Madikeri is the hill station that is a capital of the district. It is a quaint hill station, and has a very nice, quietening effect on the mind and soul. The only trouble is, the roads leading to it are soul-numbing. We traveled at around five kilometers an hour on some stretches to reach this place. But once there, it was delightful. Clean, reasonably priced, great food and lovely sights.
One new activity that we tried at IIMK was conducting Faculty Development programs. We found there were lots of takers. The reasons are many. Our state run university system leaves many faculty members disoriented and without proper mentors in teaching methods, research and publishing, and more. These gaping holes can be filled through faculty training programmes, where they spend a week or so getting exposed to the best practices at a good B-school, in a non-threatening ambience.
Another great learning experience at IIMK was the high tech distance learning program we had launched. This was delivered to 40 cities in India via VSAT by a company called Hughes Direcway, our technology partner. Students attended these classes on a computer terminal in their own city, with email and voice connectivity to the faculty. These were tremendous ways to bring mobility to education, and all IIMs later followed the lead of IIMK. We even launched a specialized Sales and Marketing program, and that was also a huge success. NIIT and Reliance later entered the fray as technology providers to some of the later entrants.
We also did a consulting project for Cochin Refineries on branding their petrol retailing efforts. This went down the tube, because the company was soon after merged with BPCL, ruling out any question of independent branding of its retail products. Mysterious are the ways some of our public sector companies work! Anyway, it was good to interact with all the officials of the refinery. We (my colleague Tapan and I) also found time to see ‘Hum Tum’ starring Saif and Rani (said to be a desi version of When Harry Met Sally) in a Cochin theatre during a visit.
The monsoons in Kerala drive everything, it appears. Every Keralite worth his/her salt carries an umbrella all the time, maybe as a reminder that the rain god is just around the corner, and can open up in all his glory at any time. The buses in this communist dominated state are mostly privately run, and so is the case in Kolkata, another place with similar political inclinations. In other capitalistic states, the state transport is much more active. I once asked a friend about this contradiction, and his explanation was “They (the government) swallow all the money, and there is nothing left to run the buses with”. Don’t know if that’s the correct one, but it is an explanation.
A major difficulty (and a peculiar one) that I faced in Calicut was with regard to student projects. Being a strong advocate of student work right from my own student days, I came across a brick wall when my market research students came and told me that locals did not speak much English (if any), and therefore could not understand many of the questions in a typical (MBA generated) questionnaire. So we had to think of strategies like questions that had monosyllabic answers, and so on. But then, some of these problems occur in rural areas too, if you are trying to do research there. Graphics (figures etc. ) are better understood, and simple words without jargon are appropriate for these situations. Anyway, these were learnings for everyone.
I also went with a student on a placement promotion trip to Mumbai, and that was another useful experience. We went to most of the big banks and a few consulting and FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods, like toilet soaps and toothpastes) companies. It was nice to see mostly positive reactions from many of the potential recruiters. Though students took care of the logistics and nitty gritty of the placement process, I think the faculty visits gave them some moral support.
During my days at IIMK, a controversy broke out between the HRD ministry and the IIMs regarding fees to be charged from the MBA students. The ministry was trying to dictate the fees and IIMs were resisting this assault on their autonomy. The following piece was inspired by this tug-of-war. The then minister was Murli Manohar Joshi.
Murli Meets Mughal-e-Azam
Murli was visiting IIM Delhi, trying to convert the institute’s logo into a colour recognised by all- saffron. His logic was impeccable, but he came up with an unforeseen obstacle. The Great Mughal, who happened to be the Chairman of IIMD’s board. This is how their conversation went.
Murli: Hamein Bharat ki sanskriti ki raksha karni hai. Is liye naye electives ki khoj karni padegi… jaise ki…murli bajakar bakriyon ko Manage karna.
Mughal-e-Azam: Hamari saltanat mein …hamara matlab hai hamari Institute mein yeh gustakhi karne ki jurrat karne wale aap kaun hote hain? Kya bhed-bakriyon ko manage karne wale multi-million dollars ki Securities Transactions ko manage kar sakenge?
Murli: Kyon nahin? Kya Praacheen kaal mein Krishna Bhagwan ne Dwarka mein raj nahin kiya tha? Aur apni madhur murli ki dhun se gopiyon ko bhi mantramugdh kar diya tha! Management aur gopiyon ka madhur sangam…nahin nahin..mera matlab hai Mangement aur bakriyon ka…nahin nahin…
Mughal-e-Azam (interrupting)…Saleeeem……roko ise. Is shakhsiat se hamein bachao. Chalo, hum mughal raj ki tauheen aur bardaasht nahin kar sakte. Hum is Institute ke Chairmanship se istifa dete hain.
Murli: Ek aur baat sunte jaiye, jahan panah. Is institute ka logo ab saffron yane bhagwe rang ka hoga, kyonki Bharat ki pavitra dharti par aur koi rang aam janta ko itna pasand nahin hai.
M-e-A: Nahin…hamaari aakhri saans chalne tak hum yeh nahin hone denge. Is mulk ki…matlab Institute ki Autonomy ko hum thes nahin pahunchne denge.
Murli: Magar ye logo to Ministry ki den hai…ise badalna hi hoga….
FADE …..to strains of hindi song…LOGO, na maro ise, yahi to mera…
What happens to anyone who goes to an IIM is that his life changes forever. It is a unique environment, where you are forced to do many new things. The residential setup with a cosmopolitan crowd-urban, rural, northern, eastern, western, southern, young, old and so on …the diversity is amazing. The only other place I got to see this kind of diversity was in the U.S. university I went to later on. All the assumptions that you have about yourself have to be re-evaluated, in general, when you land up at such a place.
To balance the cosmopolitan students and faculty, we had a totally rural ambience of Bilekahalli where IIMB was located. We were the first inhabitants of this new campus, and faced the music in many ways. No street lights-actually, no streets in the beginning, a makeshift mess of a dining room in a shed, no computers (that was not the IIM’s fault, there weren’t any in India then), no sports facilities except open spaces, and so on. Looking back, we didn’t mind it one bit. This is worth thinking about, in the context of material greed that overcomes many of us who graduate from there, from about the time placement season starts. Is material wealth correlated with happiness? I don’t know.
The atmosphere in the classes ranged from electric and ecstatic to bored and tuned out- depending on who taught and how they taught. The processes and the autonomy of using different methods of teaching (trying to teach?) were truly world class, and in some cases, superior to those I found in the U.S. later. For example, the system of doing course projects in every marketing course was the best thing to happen to us armchair engineers!
The first term, we did a project on estimating demand for mopeds (the dinosaurial equivalents of today’s Scooty). Off we went to meet dealers of Luna (the market leader then) and TVS mopeds in Bangalore. We were three in the group, and did not have the faintest idea of how to do this project. But amazingly, at the end of the term, we knew a lot more than at the beginning. Learning somehow happens when the responsibility shifts to the learner. In the next term, we again had a project, and this time we decided to estimate the demand for HDPE (plastic) carry bags in various applications. This also turned out to be a great learning experience, going into dusty streets to find sellers, ask them how many they sold, where they were used and so on, and try and put together this weird set of estimates into one whole figure. We might have been wrong by miles like any bad astrologer, but still we learnt a lot!
There was also my first exposure to the subject we called OB-Organizational Behaviour. I realized how much there was to learn about human beings, including myself, after going through that course. It was of course, the professor (S.K. Roy) who made it so awesome, and that spurred me on to take a few more courses in the area- and each of them lived up to my expectations. This was not always the case in other areas. I hated the finance courses, and could barely keep awake in some of them. There was a very good Indian Economy course (by Prof. Indira Rajaraman), where, for the first time, I could appreciate macroeconomics and India’s economic data- which were not so great at that point, though!
Some of the marketing courses were good too, particularly advertising where a lot of ad agency guys guest-lectured with their snazzy presentations, and they inspired me to get into advertising as my campus job later on. Industrial marketing (Prof. Thiru) was well taught, with a lot of case studies. The exams were a mix of different types. One I remember particularly well was a take home exam in Org. Behaviour, where we were given a set of statements (10, maybe) and we had to agree with them or disagree with them, with justification. I had to really rack my brains and refer to a lot of books to answer that exam (the copy and paste facility did not exist then). Far more than for many closed book ones. Later in life at Clemson, I would encounter a microeconomics prof., who gave us Agree or Disagree type questions for an entire exam.
The most boring was a course on Energy Modeling, where 99 percent of the people slept through all the classes. The system of electives and registration was new to those of us who came from the university system, but it felt nice to have a choice. Also, the CGPA system seemed fairer than the marks system to me. The relative grading kept everyone on their toes, because even if you were good, others who were better could pull your grade down.
An interesting thing happened somewhere in term 2 at IIM. I started writing under a pseudonym ‘Observer’, about small events like sports (the few that we could manage to play) on the notice board at the hostel, and found these pieces had a wide readership (later, it became our official wall mag –we called it Mural). So I expanded into areas like film reviews and jokes (PJs), along with Dash, my co-editor of the IIM magazine, and we became a rage. Some movies we reviewed those days included Mawaali, the Jeetendra-Sreedevi potboiler. In one of the movies we saw (at the now non-existent Drive-in theatre to which we usually rode on a bicycle), Shakti Kapoor played a character whose name was ‘Khoya Khoya Attache’! The movie was called Inquilab, and starred the Big B. Takeoffs on faculty were quite routine in these articles, and a new dimension was added when we discovered a guy in our batch-Vijayaraghavan, or Vijjy- who could draw cartoons. We had one cartoon of students being “ground” in a grinder by Prof Apte in his Economics course, another of Prof Jagadish looking in a mirror asking “who is the fairest of them all?” and so on. Serious comments also happened on events at times, but the dominant theme was humour.
We also had the unique tradition of coining nicknames for everyone. These were usually (not always) anglicized versions of our original names- Gunds for me, Paddy for Padmanabhan, Jockey for Narayan Das ( now a Harvard prof.) and the graphic ‘Toote Chappal Gande Paon’ for V.K. Ravi (a market research honcho and golfer today). We also had nicknames for faculty. Rajan (who was called ROI or Rajan of India) was very creative, and coined many of these. Among the ones that stuck was Cadbury, for a prof. who resembled the butler in Richie Rich comics. One prof. was also named Lothar, after the Mandrake comics character.
An institution at IIM campus was Uncle (with of course an aunty in tow)- who had a chai and bonda shop on campus. That was the place where evenings were spent reminiscing on the day’s happenings, or what was wrong with the system, or the world, or your grades, etc. all the time through our two years. The sweet couple (Uncle and Aunty) who spoke only Kannada (I think), and many of us who didn’t, communicated perfectly. When I later read Gerald Durrell’s book “My Family and Other Animals”, I could relate to his Greek communication- Kannada was Greek to us, literally, in those days.
Another institution was Naffy-the dog. He was named after the famous concept of the Need for Affiliation (n-Aff). He was the campus pet, and could be found everywhere. Rumours had it that he attended classes more regularly than some students. There was also, briefly , a monkey on campus-thanks to Fred, an exchange student from France, who carried one along. It was seen on the shoulders of some guys regularly, and even acted in a play staged on campus! I think it delivered some jungle mail to the Phantom, played by Snail wearing a VIP underwear on top of a pair of jeans for the right effect.
The cultural activities were truly some of the highlights of our stay at IIMB. We staged a play called “Waiting for Lefty” and I got to act in a lead role for the first time. My co-lead was Rose, and the other major pair was Ali and Navneeta. Harish Chaudhury (now an IITD prof.) directed the play. Many new talents were discovered in the three or four other roles in the play. There were other acts that brought the house down, like some Tamil song and dance acts, and a theme song, “Mere Dil Ka Quarter Kar Lo Occupy” sung by Hemant and Kishore Kelekar, incorporating many of the famous personalities like JD Singh, our beloved marketing prof, and many others.
The sports scene picked up after an innovation that our batch can be credited with. One of us had a Frisbee lying with us, and it was not too common in India those days. Someone came up with the bright idea of playing Frisbee Footer, a combo of Rugby and Frisbee. It had passing, and goals and so on, with a goalkeeper to prevent the goals. It spread like crazy, and we even had tournaments of Frisbee Footer.
There were also people who played Bridge all their waking hours, and I occasionally joined in. The lights used to go out fairly frequently (we were in rural Bangalore), and that used to be the occasion for the singers to take over. Our block had Deepak (Todo) who was particularly good, and we could listen to world class music at our doorstep. Our seniors also had a rock band, which played fairly good Elvis and other numbers, but they stayed in the city, and we interacted infrequently.
Gopal Bhat and his favourite song “Ek Chatur Naar” from Padosan was the highlight of many culturals. He was very comfortable with the classical part sung by Manna Dey (for Mehmood in the movie) in the song. He later also sang a ghazal equally well, along with Deepika for a program on All India Radio that I compered.
The wall mag was christened Mural, and we (Dash and I) also produced two issues of a print magazine we called IIMBIBE (Dash was Bibhuti Bhushan Dash, my partner-in-crime, rather, my co-editor). This was again a wonderful experience, with some classic articles written by Snail, Rajan of India, and others. I contributed one on Godliness and 100 percent attendance, arguing that the IIM policy on 100 percent attendance was designed to create godliness among us, because only god would be able to meet such tough norms. The letters to the editor column was also a highlight. We faked them, for the first issue itself, in the names of various classmates and faculty. If “bestsellers” can get endorsements/plugs before they are published, we thought we could write letters to the editors of an unpublished mag. Dash and I are in the pic below.
The second issue of the magazine, we decided to be different. We made it a faculty special, and started chasing the professors who we thought could contribute. It was again a learning experience. We discovered talent in unexpected places. Prof. AK Rao, who taught a very “dry” subject (Operations Research) according to students, came out with one of the funniest pieces.
Dr. Gopal Valecha who taught us organizational behaviour, described very engagingly his experiences at Ohio University. Everybody thoroughly enjoyed this issue as well. We, the editors, had the joy of chasing the profs for their articles, instead of their chasing us for assignments. Vijayaraghavan’s cartoon (which showed a donkey chewing up our magazine and exclaiming- ‘it’s very tasty’) adorned the IIMBIBE cover. This guy is himself a prof. at XLRI now.
There were of course, many dark moments at IIMB as well. A couple of student colleagues could not make the academic cutoffs, and had to leave half way. Two more died in road accidents, making one wonder if our pathetic road conditions were responsible. One was a bizarre case, involving almost everyone in the campus in a search. Puneet, pillion riding on a bike, disappeared after an accident close to the campus. A search along the road proved futile. His body was fished out of a nearby lake a few days later, leading to many theories about the events surrounding his death. That left many of us in shock for a while. Salve was the other colleague who died after his bike crashed into a pole in the city.
The summer project at IIMB was a veritable feast for me, as I liked to travel. This three-month project had me touring the whole of Kerala, parts of West Bengal including Siliguri and Darjeeling, and the eastern parts of Assam near Tinsukia. I had to cover the plywood manufacturers, assessing demand for some cutting tools like saw blades made of tungsten carbide. The Bangalore based company which I worked for was very professional, and treated us trainees well.
I encountered a lot of very nice and helpful people during my visit to the North-east. They were a lot more laid back and friendly compared to the typical rushed corporate executives that I encountered elsewhere. The natural beauty of the parts of Assam that I saw was amazing, but I suppose there were underlying economic issues that erupt in violent agitation from time to time. In fact, one of the worst massacres at Nellie had taken place just before my visit.
The tuition fee at IIMB those days was Rs. 1500 for a year, payable in three instalments. Of course, parental salaries were also down to earth, matching the fee. Even our own nominal salaries after we finished (not corrected for time value and inflation) were a pittance compared to what fresh MBAs make today.
One of the nice things I think I did at IIMB was doing group photo shoots of all classmates. I had to borrow a camera from Siraj to do it, and used colour film for the first time. To keep the group size manageable, I invited people block-wise, and floor-wise. Those pictures are today priceless! One funny thing about the pictures was that they cost Rs. 5 per print in 1984. Even today, they cost about the same. But today, there are fewer labs that deliver within the hour!
The year book, IIMPRESSIONS, was the last thing I worked on at IIMB, with Dash for company. We decided to go for a zodiac sign based format. All guys and girls of a zodiac sign were clubbed together with an introduction to the section, and people who knew them well were commissioned secretly to do the writing of the individual pieces on each. Zany and irreverent, complete with nicknames and mugshots (some of them have to be seen to be believed), it was the biggest blockbuster, with students who did not get it begging for copies months later! It was printed at an obscure letter press (not even an offset press), but that did not diminish its appeal.
We collected data for the year book through a questionnaire called Pakad Baees (Catch 22 translated into Hindi). Another innovation that the year book contained was the use of ads (rather, tag lines from ads) to attach to specific people in our batch. Like the Charms slogan, ‘Charms is the spirit of freedom. Charms is the Way you are’- applied to Chasha. Or a paint company’s line- ‘In a world of changing values, some things stand apart’, for Himanshu Manglik, changed to ‘In a world of corporate mediocrity, some things stand apart’. Or, Raymond’s “A guide to the well-dressed male” applied to Ravikumar. Or, “Whenever you think of colour, think of Siraj”, borrowed from Jenson and Nicholson. Another cigarette ad went, “Smoothness was never so satisfying”, and it fit Lingaraju perfectly. He was the smooth operator of our batch, in many ways.
A book that impressed me during my IIM days was Ogilvy on Advertising. I bought a copy, and read it many times. I still feel it is one of the best books of all times on marketing in general, and advertising and promotion in particular. The man knew how to market himself and his ideas! Proof that I read it.
I appeared for placement interviews with 3 or 4 ad agencies, and was selected by Living Media (India Today group publishers) for their agency, New Horizons, in Delhi. I had a meeting with Aroon Purie, their editor-founder, during the interview process, and I was impressed. India Today in the eighties was as reputed as TIME in the U.S. I remember that a copy of India Today was enough to bribe your way into some media houses and sundry other places. Even people who did not understand English used to keep a copy of the magazine on their table, just to appear “intelligent”.
I worked as an account executive/client liaison executive in the ad agency. We did regular ads for India Today, some for a city magazine called Bombay (now defunct), and the original designs for Computer World magazine that they were launching. An NID graduate was doing the design and page layout, and the first editor was a “techie” from Hyderabad. We also did ads for Appu Ghar, India’s first amusement park that came up at Pragati Maidan. It was Indira Gandhi who had given this name to the park, overruling the more westernized Disneyland type names that the promoters had wanted. The park was a big hit, and we got to see the rides at close quarters before they opened.
I changed residences once in Delhi, going from a “barsaati” in Defence colony to an apartment in Vasant Vihar. What shocked me was the price of food and accommodation in Delhi. I spent half my princely salary on the room, and the rest (almost) on food. Of course, they were interesting days. I took some time adjusting to the severe cold in winters, and used a room heater for the first time in my life. My two classmates, Venky, and Gobish (Gautam Biswas), were my room-mates, and we shared a lot of work-related stories. Venky worked for Maruti which had just set up shop in India, and was trying to get vendors to supply some parts. In 1984, Indian vendors were neither used to supplying quality, nor quantity. So it was an uphill battle for him and others in a similar responsibility. This was the first time I realized how difficult it is to buy something, even for a company.
One horrific experience at Delhi was the riots after Indira Gandhi was killed. Just because her killer was a Sikh, mobs in Delhi went around killing any Sikh they could find. I was horrified that such a thing could happen in the so-called civilized world. Many years later, the same horror story repeated after the Godhra train incident in Gujarat, where Hindu mobs went around torching innocent Muslims. We remain animals in many ways, and the veneer of civilization and sophistication is quite thin, is my only conclusion. But good governance can minimize the damage is still my belief.
During my stint with New Horizons, I had a first hand experience of industrial photography, which was really boring. People photography or landscape photography I used to enjoy, but this was something else. I also had occasion to visit Thomson Press, one of the most technologically advanced (it was a part of India Today group) printing outfits in India. It had computerized machinery in days before the PC came to corporates.
Within a year, I felt I was stagnating at my job (the bane of all MBAs, ad guys, and now IT guys in India as well), and went back to Bangalore to look for a job. I landed one in a company founded by three IIMA batchmates. The company was called Marketing and Business Associates (MBA again!) and was into marketing research. This is how my tryst with M.R. began, and lasts to this day. I found the job intellectually stimulating compared with my earlier one, and it also helped that I got to tour Ooty on one of my first assignments. I managed to do a decent job there, without speaking a word of Tamil, extracting info from potato farmers and tea garden managers for my client’s product, a micronutrient for plants that was sprayed on to the leaves.
My next major assignment was for WIPRO consumer , trying to figure out which ingredient customers would prefer in their toilet soap-Tulsi, coconut oil, or something else. Another was for readymade chapatis (heat and eat) in Mumbai, and for a fabric softener. Fabric softener was an idea ahead of its time, because not many had a washing machine in 1985. I used my first fabric softener in the U.S. a year later!
Another interesting research project I worked on was for BHEL, who had a Flue Gas Desulphuriser (FGD), costing about a crore rupees, and wanted to assess demand. So I went to a lot of industries which emit sulphur gases, and delicately extracted their pollution data. This was slightly difficult at times, and led to trips to the hinterland in many cases. But networking usually helped, and the IIM buddies usually helped in many ways. Like at Vizag, I was able to stay with Nandu Jr., a classmate, and got VIP connections in a couple of companies through his dad! This guy is now a marketing prof. in the U.S. We also were neighbours in G Block at IIM.
The marketing research industry was advertising’s poor cousin (probably still is) in terms of spending by clients, but for a person working in it, probably worth its weight in gold. Where else can you interact with the consumer of different products and services on a regular basis, gaining insight into how their minds work? I was posted at Mumbai, and one of the memorable experiences I had was of working with HDFC as a client. Indian companies those days did not have a customer-friendly culture, but HDFC seemed like an exception to me. Watching how customers were treated by their staff was a revelation.
My Encounters with Anopheles
I have tried to explore the meaning of what I do in my own way. Part of that exploration was through this series in which I converse with Anopheles, the female mosquito who bites.
A mosquito buzzed into my bedroom. I was sleepless anyway, so I started a conversation.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“From the drain on Street No. 6,” the mosquito replied.
"Do you always have to travel this far for dinner?"
"Not really, but I go for quality food. So I don't really mind."
"Tell me something. Is it necessary for you to suck the blood of human beings to survive? Can't you find some other food?"
The mosquito looked surprised. "The human body has 6 litres of blood on an average. What's a drop or two for you?"
I replied, "Our sleep is disturbed, for one. And, of course, your bite is, quite literally, A PAIN."
"Do you really need so much sleep? Why don't you remain awake and think about things?" the mosquito enquired.
"Like what?" I asked.
"You asked me why I had to draw blood from humans. Have you ever thought about why you slaughter all those animals you use as food? And plants, roots and fruits. Aren't they life forms too? At least, we don't totally kill or destroy you. All we do is take a drop of blood, and go. Is that so objectionable? " the mosquito looked at me questioningly.
That forced me to lie awake and think about the exaggerated notions of the superiority of humankind, before I finally fell asleep- after firmly tucking in the mosquito net.
My bedroom was abuzz. Once again, the same mosquito was with me. I learnt from her this time that she was named Anopheles. After a Greek mosquito goddess. We continued our conversation.
"What do you live for?" I asked.
"For a lot of things. For family, friends and society. And for myself, to enjoy life as much as I can. To realise my potential for doing good." It was amazing to find a mosquito telling me things which I thought only humans were capable of thinking about.
"You told me last time you lived in a drain,” I said. "Do mosquitoes always live in drains?"
"Of course not. Some have palatial accommodation. Lakes, ponds, tanks, …even buckets. Depends on what you can afford. And what lifestyle you aspire to have. But if you have grown up in a drain, it is very difficult to migrate to the lakes. You see, they have a different way of life out there. And they look down upon us."
This sounded suspiciously like the GREAT CLASS DIVIDE, and I ventured to ask, "But aren't all mosquitoes born equal?"
She gave me one of those looks. "Are all humans born equal?"
Without waiting for my answer, she went on, "Then why do you think we are?"
After a pause, she added, "There was this reformer, a couple of decades ago, called FULL MARX. He tried to change things so that all mosquitoes would be on par socially and economically. He painted his revolutionary ideas on walls in his own blood. He called the series "MOS KAPITAL".
"What happened then?" I asked, with great interest.
"Nothing. He went the way of all revolutionaries. His ideas were too idealistic. The mosquitoes who became powerful wanted to keep the power at all costs, and succeeded. The dreams of a classless society evaporated quickly. Life became worse than before. So his ideas were abandoned, and we are back to the earlier system." On that sombre note, Anopheles waved me goodbye and sailed away silently.
Anopheles was back with a buzz (and not a bang). Our conversation this time veered around to education. I happened to mention to her that I was a marketing professor, and was surprised to learn from Anopheles that mosquitoes also have schools.
"How much have you studied?" I enquired of her.
"Not a whole lot, I'm afraid," she replied. "You see, I have a large family to support. And I am the sole BLOOD WINNER. That leaves hardly any time to study. But I do attend some short courses from time to time, to keep myself up to date," she added.
"May I ask what these courses teach?" I was curious.
“Oh, this and that. Some are practical, like the one I attended last week, called ‘Stinging Least to Draw the Most Blood,’ which essentially taught me how to increase the efficiency of a sting. Then there was another called ‘How to Minimise the Danger of Human Attacks’. Some of them are for fun, like ‘Floating in the Air’ and ‘Swinging From a Single Hair’, or ‘Training Your Young Ones to Play Hide n' Seek in Keyholes’.”
"What are the objectives of your formal education system?" I asked her.
"That every little one should grow up to be a good, honest, useful mosquito," she replied without hesitation.
"To what extent is the objective achieved?" I wanted to know.
"A lot depends on the students themselves. Some are motivated and do well for themselves. Others sleepwalk through their classes and remain unaffected. Yet others put their 'learning' to mischievous uses, and become blots on the mosquito-landscape."
"Sounds very familiar," I muttered. "Anyway, let's change the topic. What do you do for recreation?"
"We create buzzwords. That is our major leisure activity," she informed me.
"What do you mean?” I couldn't fathom this one.
"Just what I said. We have individual events, in which each of us buzzes a new buzz. If the panel of judges feels it is original, we enter the final round. The best new buzzword (an accepted new Buzz is called a buzzword) gets a prize. We also have team events, where a team can work together to create new buzzwords. It's a lot of fun."
Anopheles proceeded to demonstrate a new buzzword she had just made up, by flapping her wings musically. "Do you have buzzwords too?” She asked me.
"Yes," I replied. "But in our case, the objective is different. We create buzzwords so that we can confuse novices (sometimes non-novices too), and then charge them money to clear their confusion. For example, take the buzzword "Corporate Restructuring". Till date, nobody has been able to figure out what it means. The process of explaining what it means has spawned an entire industry - called Management Consultancy." On that note, I bade her goodbye, and settled down to some well-earned respite from a 'buzzy' day.
My winged friend sailed into my room once more. “What’s on your mind?” I asked her.
“Oh, nothing.” But quickly, she was out of her self-imposed silence. “Tell me, if humans are so smart, why aren’t they happy?”
This was an unexpected googly- a doosra. I tried to counter with a lecture on the longings of all human beings to be one with the supreme being, and their quest for real happiness, but I didn’t sound convincing to myself. As I had thought, my arguments were instantly rebuffed.
“What are the major differences between your life and mine?” Anopheles asked pointedly. I had to think hard. “You fly, and I don’t,” I tried.
“Come on, now. Next you will say that you are big and I am small, and that you can read a book and I can’t. Is that all?”
That got me thinking about why we as a human race existed, and all I could think of was the violence, the greed, the crime, the grime and the filth most human beings encounter in their lives. Most of our instincts and higher abilities did not seem to be put to the common good at all.
“I agree we seem to be spending too much time on wars over oil and ideology, …” I stuttered.
“So do animals, over territory or other egoistic pursuits,” she said.
“But we do have a lot of saints who show us the path, and lead righteous lives,” I added.
“How many did you have in the last hundred years?” she asked innocently.
I counted up to four, and gave up. She sensed my discomfort, and changed the subject.
“OK, let’s talk about the subject of parents setting an example to their children. What do you tell your child to look forward to in life?”
“A job with Infosys,” I joked. I could see a frown of non-understanding on Anopheles’ face (or so I thought).
“That is one of our fastest growing companies,” I added.
“Will that make your child happy?” This was getting tougher than I had imagined.
“I think so,” but I was only half serious about this whole thing. “The only two things ‘happening’ in a child’s life are admission to an engineering college and a job in Infosys after that, it seems,” I continued. “And I don’t know if that’s such a good thing.”
“What do children who join this great company do?” her curiosity was aroused.
“Write some kind of programs- instructions for making computers work”, I said.
“So the homo sapiens want to spend a lifetime writing programs to make the dumb machines work?” I had to agree it sounded ludicrous when it was put like that.
“Well, we also have the BPO sector,” I said.
“And what do young people do there?” she wanted to know.
“Hmm..they answer phone calls, make sales calls, fill out forms dictated by someone across the world, decide whether some applicant should be sold insurance or not, and a million other things.”
“And we thought our life was mundane,” Anopheles could not resist this one.
It was time for me to get into the questioning mode. “Tell me, do you have religions?” I asked her.
“Yes, we do.”
“How many Gods do you have?”
“Oh, lots. We keep imagining as many as we want.” Sounded familiar.
“How do you handle religious extremism?” I was curious to know.
“What is religious extremism?” she asked. I could not believe this.
“Don’t you have people…uh, mosquitoes who want to destroy mosquitoes following another religion, or at least banish them, or something?” I asked.
“Not really, we are very liberal. Our policy is to live and let live.”
“And ours, live and let die,” I muttered, inspired by James Bond.
I was getting late for office, and excused myself. “We’ll meet another time,” I told Anopheles, “and continue our tete a tete.”
Chapter 14: Relatives Unlimited
I started believing in God after counting the number of relatives I had. Like him, they are omnipresent, and infinite. Unlike him, they are visible. I have benefited from this plethora of relations in many ways. Wherever I went, I would have an aunt or a cousin or a nephew to stay with. For example, I stayed with a nephew, Suren, at IIT Delhi’s Aravalli hostel when I went for an interview with the India Today group in 1984. Countless times, I stayed with various cousins and aunts in Mumbai, Pune,
Excess of relatives in one place can be a bit of a problem, though. I remember when I got married, both our families were in Pune. It was a competitive brood of relatives on both sides who fought for our attention, and wanted to feed us (lunch or dinner, no less). So we used to go on a Pune darshan every other day whenever we visited. This happened to a smaller degree on one of our trips to
Kolkata is probably the only large city where no known relatives (mine) exist. Maybe that’s because Bongs won’t let them survive. I have nothing against Bongs, but it is somewhat difficult to live in Kolkata for too long unless you were born there. I have actually visited Kolkata several times, and liked the place. Particularly the way commies co-exist with “dirty” capitalists and do everything that capitalists do, without batting an eyelid. Talking, rather than doing, is a national pastime, and probably Bongs are just a little better at it than the rest of us. If words could be converted into electricity, we would not have a power cut in our lifetime. Another good thing about Bongs is their zest for gulping down whisky. Smoking too, seems a passion, and it probably goes well with discussions about Karl Marx, but I would not call it a good thing.
Anyway, I am digressing. Back to relatives. My mother had six sisters and a brother. Each of these had several offspring, and ancestors through marriage, and so on. Our summer vacations were spent remembering the names of these assorted relatives of various sizes, ages and shapes. My brother had mugged up some names in the form of tables that he constructed, like we memorize maths/number tables.
Whenever a cousin was to get married, up until the early eighties, we all used to take off and reach the venue in large numbers. Reservations were unheard of in small towns, and so we did not wait for one. Roughed it out, spent many nights sitting on trunks (metal suitcases) in train corridors, dodging, bribing and begging Ticket Examiners. It seems almost impossible that we can pull it off today. Of course, the options today have increased manifold, particularly the flight options. I am not sure if the urge to travel remains at the old levels, though.
Most cousins of my age group today are in their forties and fifties, but strangely, we still meet in a fairly regular way, and also have a group on the net that we communicate on. Maybe this reduces the need to physically run around. Technology has its uses, even if Nero Wolfe disagrees.
My parents were quite progressive, and did not really mollycoddle me in any way, that I remember. I find that I became fairly independent minded in boarding school, which I joined in seventh standard. Though the atmosphere there was strict, it taught you to do many things on your own. In college, hostel life also forced me to structure my time independent of anyone’s advice, and again that was a great help. I feel those who stayed at home all the time may have missed out on the independence, bacause parents normally tend to take too many decisions on behalf of their children, more often than not.
Relatives came in all sizes and shapes and attitudes, so that gave me a wide exposure to different personality types. From a strict-looking household of my senior most aunt, where a lot of religious activity was a part of daily routine, to the almost anarchic lifestyles of some cousins, I saw it all. In fact, we may have a record for marriages of all kinds among our generation. We have a cousin who is married to a Parsee, another to a German, one to an American, and a nephew to a Pole (a girl from
Naturally, our food habits are all mixed up as well, as colourful and diverse as all the different areas we come from/have lived in. From burgers and pizzas to Puranpoli and idli-vada, we have it all. We enjoy almost every foodstuff known to mankind. Or at least, we have tried it a couple of times. Of course, it is a bit difficult to like German bread, but maybe it’s an acquired taste.
There have been an awful lot of teachers in my family, and I hope that is not the cause of our nation’s intellectual decline. But my grandfather (mom’s side) was a professor of philosophy in the days when it was a respectable subject. Abstract maybe, but respectable. Management had not made its mark as an academic discipline yet. But strangely, in our generation, my brother, sister and I, all gravitated to the management field for either an MBA or Ph.D.
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