Saturday, July 25, 2009


There is much ghoulish anticipation of Dubai’s total collapse; an unmistakable note of glee runs through every report. The imploding of impossible dreams is always good value, the bigger, the better. And nothing is more orgasmic than being able to say “I told you so”. There is, in fact, an orgy of this in progress, forgetting conveniently that Dubai is not all, or even largely, crystal-studded water bottles and “My other car is also a Porsche”.

What happens when all the waiting staff, gas station attendants, valet drivers, office boys, grocery store workers, nannies, busboys, bellboys, groundskeepers, grooms and security guards return, needing jobs, to Manila, Jakarta, Dhaka, Colombo, Kochi, Lahore, Banjul and Bratislava?

What becomes of the taxi driver who was in Dubai so that his son in Pakistan could go to college and “become a gentleman”, and another one from the other side of the Waga border who had “five daughters to marry off”? The maids who are saving to pay for the first brick and mortar house their families have known, the elderly van driver who spent his whole life in the Middle East, brought up an extended family and still had five years to go “to make money for me now"? Most people in Dubai have heard at least one similar story.

Zooming out a little, what will Kerala do, since its prosperity owes more to “Gulf money” than policy? What about Bangladesh where the amount of migrant money put into community development is apparently higher than the government can afford to allocate?

And what of the others, the ones who may have nowhere to return to? The emotional refugees from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the people who built real lives in Dubai, permanent lives, and only talked of "home" in requiem for a life that was gone. I took a lot of taxis so I heard many moving variations on this theme, but the wistful tales of snow in Peshawar, rain in Gambia, recipes for Koshari and the abominable Molokhia, even one poignant rendition of Amar Sonar Bangla, are nothing to the single line from a taciturn Palestinian: “My country is imaginary.”

A more expansive compatriot of his driving a taxi in Chicago told me: “But you always have India.” I replied hospitably that there’s room in India for everybody, if it should come to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Railroad crossing?

A friend forwarded a video of a train-related thing, which led, as YouTube videos do to an hour of watching others in the category. All that has led to one burning question - how can you be accidentally hit by a train?

They are loud: hundreds of metal wheels scrape on metal rails. They're heavy: you can feel the earth shake before you see them. Apart from that, there are bells, lights and a horn that you can literally hear for miles. (I can hear one right now, sitting in my room. The railway line is one and a half miles away). So, how?

In one video, a truck was halfway across the tracks and you could hear the brakes of the train screeching for ages before it hit it anyway. Another one is a hushed report of a guy driving across the tracks right in front of an oncoming train. This time the bad train was especially culpable, as far as I can tell, because he was "a father on his way to his son's birthday party." It doesn't matter if he was a drug dealer on his way to kill an old lady - the fact is he didn't look both ways. When I stopped watching, the newscaster was talking of an investigation into how many times the horn was sounded. Maybe they'll also check if the headlight was in fact on. And if the insects in the shrubs were breathing too loudly and drowning out the sound of a 10,000 ton diesel engine.

I leave you with this. For pure wholesome entertainment you can't beat provincial American news:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

August 15, 2008: 61 years of freedom

To really feel Independence Day, you have to be in school. Or have school-going kids or be with people who have such. Nobody else seems to pay much attention to it. My mother was chief guest at a school today for their Independence Day celebration. Her description made me as sharply nostalgic for my days of marching in my house in the parade, as I suspect it made her for her days of organising these events. This is the only chief guest I know of whose speech was actually addressed to the students assembled before her rather than into the middle distance. In a nutshell, she told them what it meant to be born into an independent country and that what they got out of it depended on themselves, not anyone else.

I went to register myself at the local election office a few days ago and found:
- Government officials have turned polite, efficient and punctual.
- Government information is no longer guarded by malevolent spirits and three-headed beasts – it's freely available on detailed websites.
- Government procedures are still shrouded in mystery, myth and legend, but less bad-naturedly so.
- Someone I studied with earns 4% of my salary. She has the same degree I have, the same general socio-economic background. But she was handicapped briefly by a traumatic marriage, which would explain some of it.
- The economic surge seems to have sharpened and widened the gap between the haves and have-nots rather than otherwise.

If it's just me noticing it more now, it's not because I'm freshly repatriated but because I have a car. It's the first time that I'm not dependent on public transport in India but I know the deadness of waiting for the bus, the tiredness that comes from constantly adjusting to circumstance, accepting the certainty of uncertainty, the large swathes of time swallowed by the mere mechanisms of life.

This train of thought was taken up again during the run up to the elections and the recent budget session in the parliament. There were so many candidates or spokespeople this time who held the right kind of education, spoke English in familiar accents, and felt as they ought, but the more reassuringly familiar they got, the uneasier they made me. We complain on our blogs and editorials but we are the urban elite, we already have the tools to function. We don’t need representation as much as the crowds in the suburban bus stops at the mercy of public transport, the small farmers at the mercy of the monsoon.

India is still largely a country of people who cannot read the expiry dates on bottles of medicine and bleed to death in the corridors of badly run government hospitals. Of millions of lives as unaffected by the recession as the boom. Of travesties, divisions and farces of all the more dangerous kinds. Our banks have one mode of customer service for my father and another for the labourer building the house next door, as does every other institution. Government warehouses overflow with subsidized rations that do not reach the poor they are meant for. Government schools have single-digit pass rates since political parties prefer to invest in wasteful religious and parochial sentiments rather than education. Kids sleep on the verges of highways and old people huddle in doorways in the rain. And, ominously, very little of the technology flowing into the country reaches the real core of India’s economy – agriculture.

There are a lot of wonderful things about this country that I appreciate even more now that I’m freshly repatriated. It angers me when people demand western standards of this, that and the other, and consider that the only yardstick. It makes me furious when someone's capabilities are judged by the quality of their English. Making India better is not about being like anybody else but about being the best we can be. Unfortunately, we warrant a lot of the criticism, court it, even.

We've come a long way in 61 years, there’s no doubt. And once India’s lower middle class and poor have uncorrupt representation and real attention, we can start to call it progress. Giving IT employees a new flyover to decongest the roads is important, but on its own, it’s just icing on a barely baked cake sitting in a faulty oven in a place without electricity.

My driver is surprised when I apologize for keeping him later than usual, and I feel like apologizing again for a much bigger thing that I cannot even define, but guilt without action becomes merely another luxury.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

World’s greatest entertainer gets world’s most boring funeral

I just finished watching what should have been the ultimate celebration of the phenomenon called Michael Jackson, but turned out to be a paint-by-numbers, made-for-TV funeral service for somebody. Except for the words of a few friends and the tears of his daughter, it was so devoid of soul that not even the expected “We are the world” at the end could drum up any magic. A slick choir, a predictable preacher and safe hymns. Windows-wallpaper lighting effects, some automated slides and a few sound bites. There was no connection between the man in the pictures and what was being acted out in front of the screen.

He cut across practically every culture in the world but his epitaph was spoken from an insular soapbox. He revolutionized the music video but his last one was an AV that any trainee editor could have put together in a day. It surprises me that it makes me so furious, but I feel as if a final, irrevocable injustice was done. He never got to make his come-back tour - this was it, his last concert, and they kept him off the stage. The King of Pop should have been moonwalked off it.

They should have probably called the Brits in for this one – the Diana memorials were (are still being) done impeccably. No matter what you think of the reason for it, the event itself is always moving and eloquent and all those other words that the TV channels are already brazenly, shamelessly using for this one.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

More from the questionable archives

August 18 2008

Today was my first inside look at one of the big corporations. I was standing by the fountain drinking tea and I witnessed one of those mass exits that I had only known from stories of snarled traffic and bad taxi drivers.

Line after line of SUVs left in an orchestrated convoy, carrying home hundreds of BPO dudes and dudettes – to a common point in each area in daylight hours and right to each doorstep at night. Hundreds of doorsteps, every night. Each car fitted with a radar tracker, each driver marked and signed-off, each vehicle cleared by security. With so many cars leaving at the same time and so many people milling about, you'd expect chaos, but there was none. It was planned, mapped, quick. It could have been a military operation.

The sheer scale on which everything is done is overwhelming. My induction was two full days, in the banquet hall of a hotel. 50 others were inducted with me. I spoke to one of the presenters and she said four similar gatherings were being held around the city and our group was the smallest. My company has five offices in different locations in Bangalore. When I say offices, I mean towers or campuses. I am in one with seven floors, each big enough to swallow 300 people. The cafeteria seats hundreds of people at a time. The gym and game room are always busy, at all times of the day.

My laptop came in the box, like at retail. No Dileep from IT comes to set it up for you. You take it to your desk, assemble it, plug it in – and the network automatically loads everything you need. There isn't any Sarah from admin to give you your insurance card and tell you how it works, no Subhash from accounts to explain how the tax works. If you need to know anything, you check on a giant online portal. If it's not there, you have an employees' call-centre.

When you remember that this is just one of the many technology giants in India and they're all providing similar amenities, you get an idea of the growth and change in the country. And feel some sympathy for the government hanging on to the tail of the tiger.

I met some other people who'd come in from advertising and they told me that it's normal to go into some sort of circuit overload. Before this I'd been in one company for so long that I'd forgotten how the first few weeks feel, when you're the stranger and everything is strange. They showed us a video or two at the orientation and it felt really weird to suddenly be on the front end of a corporate video. It's a giant leap. I don't know yet if it's a good thing, but the fact is that the universe gave me what I asked for, against a lot of odds. For that I am grateful, however this turns out.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

First impressions

I have a habit of opening up a new Word file and typing out whatever thought has just struck me, so I've ended up with a lot of rogue files with unhelpful names containing bits that were supposed to be turned into something greater, later. Today I decided to collate and organize them. I found this piece in a file named, tantalisingly, "I strongly recommend the yacht". It was written soon after I started my new job.

September 2008
When you're a manager whose only work is managering, how do you quantify your job? You haven’t got a list of things to complete, just a vague address of somewhere you have to be at the end of the year, and figuring out how to get there is supposed to be what you're there for.

And what did I do today? I talked a lot at a meeting on internal communications – officially not my concern – where I was invited to provide outside opinion. I put three people in touch with each other to further another’s training idea. I lent my weight to someone else's meeting. I advised a team member on how to deal with a difficult co-worker. I then spoke to that co-worker's manager. I interviewed one person, read the samples of work she sent in and requested a second opinion. I read three other resumés and set up interviews with two of them. I had a brief conversation with my boss. I approved two leave applications. I posted on the company’s blog by way of cranking up the participation from my team.

I replied to two comments on that post. I downloaded and learnt how to use various proprietary tools. I attended one training session. I sent a few thank you mails in reply to people welcoming me into the company. I spent some time wondering how to deal with those that palpably don't and concluded that that was their problem, so no action required from me. I read a lot of Powerpoint presentations. I cautiously opened an Excel file and poked gingerly at a toolbar or two. Apart from this, my mind was abuzz, gathering information – both volunteered and otherwise – and processing it, making plans and rejecting them. But mostly trying to understand 14 people in whose very quantifiable achievements now lie mine.

I called a job status meeting. I read a quality audit. I read some of their work. I listened a lot. Then I wrote an operations report stating their achievements in August and what they're going to in September. This is all a lot of work but at the end of the year what do I say I did, when the usual measures – the job lists, training plans, forums, commendations and project trackers – record others' progress?

Meanwhile, they need my help and they'll get it, in spite of themselves if necessary. As the she-Shepherd said to Izzy Stevens: “You show an aptitude for my discipline and I have a lot to teach. So you decide how important it is for you to hate me.”

Now, nine months later

Some of it is so prophetic I could cry, if I wasn't laughing hysterically instead. And I've gone completely off Grey's Anatomy after the stupidity of the recently concluded Season 5, though I'm still very aware of the fact that the next season will begin in a month.

I usually take my blog very seriously, not something to be used as a garbage bin for every random doodle, but I have to warn those who read it that my next few posts are going to be from those stray files. Probably inspired by P. J. O'Rourke's "Age and Guile" (Review: a thoroughly interesting book).

Friday, July 03, 2009


I had a road mishap today – accident is hardly a word for it. Of course there have been some scrapes and even an episode of road rage once (by the party of the second part, not me) but this was the first time any visible damage was done to the car. On my way to work this morning, a scooter leaped without looking and knocked out what I thought at first was a light, but later found was the plastic cage the light is protected by. So this was my first experience of the Great Indian Crowd Trick. Even before I got out of the car there were people around it. Someone pointed out the fallen piece and gave me some masterful advice on the extent of damage it represented. And such was the authority with which he spoke that I actually wondered for a second if he had any. But it was merely a superior quality bystander.

Luckily, the mishap took place under the watchful eye of a traffic cop so the usual exchange of acrimonies was dispensed with, as was the tradition of extortion by the crowd. As soon as the plastic bit was rescued from under the wheels of a passing bus and dusted off, it was clear that nothing was wrong with it apart from the fact that it wasn’t attached to the car. It was found (by another bystander) to fit back into place quite easily. The attendant scratches just joined the hundred others that Bangalore’s traffic has already inflicted. (A mechanic said: “Bangalore after all, Madam, let’s wait until there’re a few more then we’ll do all together.”) So when the policeman asked me if I wanted to file a complaint, I looked at my watch and said no. The Greek chorus approved and told me why.

Interestingly, this happened right in the middle of Whitefield Bus Stand but I didn’t recognize a single person in the group! I think the policeman knew who I was, though – he seemed more than ordinarily relieved that I didn’t want to return to the ‘tation for paperwork, as if he knew I had just saved him a visit from my Dad baying for justice and blood.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Generation 2.0

I suspect I’m dealing with a weird kind of generation gap right now. More and more, I find myself among writers who don't really proof or edit their work. More unnerving than that, they don’t seem to have the fear of the fatal oversight, the typo or bit of clumsiness you might spot in a printed document when it’s too late to change. My theory is that everyone below a certain age has grown up (professionally) in a world where it’s more important to get it out there than get it right. There’s no need to spend too much time debugging the first attempt because the next version will be along in a second.

Or it's a work ethic thing. I used to believe that 14 years in advertising didn't leave you with very much, but that’s not true. In the creative department of an agency, there’s no place to hide. Even now, most agencies store a copy of every project with the signatures of those who worked on it. Your mistakes will find you. You’ll get a chance to fix it, but that’s all. There’re no Excel sheets to cover you, no hiatus while your boss makes graphs and action plans. You learn a very important corporate lesson without the expensive training in five-star banquet halls from people with famous names – accountability.

As the recently concluded Cannes Advertising Awards are being debated or celebrated in the advertising world, I have a few long-overdue Gold Gargoyles to give out:
To the creative director who made me rewrite a paragraph 37 times.
To he who returned a smug 100-word masterpiece saying: “Very nice, now say it in 30”.
To she who made me sorry I was born for the tiniest little debatable misuse of an article.
To another, who said in response to the most common defense: “Is your benchmark your client or the people who get published in the New Yorker?”
To every one of them, for saying, at one point or another, of some particularly cherished piece of work: “This is shit”.
To the unknown copywriter in The Copy Book who gave me my most valuable piece of editing advice: “Kill all your darlings”.

But this little glory hallelujah to advertising becomes null and void after just a cursory glance through the ads in the newspapers. They’re not proofing or editing anymore, either. So I guess we’re back to the generation gap, then.

99% becomes the new 100%. Then it’s 98, 97, 96 and before you know it, 65% okay is perfectly acceptable. It's all very effortlessly fashionable. Perhaps having personal standards is now passé, and I'm the one not getting it.

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