Saturday, June 24, 2006

THERE IS this joke doing the rounds in the cyberspace about the job seeker who gets short-listed as a sweeper in Microsoft. He is rejected because he has no e-mail address to which the appointment order could be sent. Stunned, the man does not know where to turn with only $10 in his wallet. He decides to buy oranges from the wholesale market and sell them in retail. Within less than two hours, he sells them, earning a handsome profit. This opens the window of opportunity: repeating the process several times more that day, and on several days.

Over time, he grows a rich orange trader with a fleet of insulated delivery vans. Then he decides to take an insurance policy. The agent asks him for his e-mail address in order to send the final documents electronically. When the man replies that he has no e-mail address, the adviser is stunned, "What, you don't have e-mail? How on earth have you managed to amass such wealth without the Internet, e-mail and e-commerce? Just imagine where you would be now, if you had been connected to the internet from the very start!" After a moment of thought, the orange millionaire replied, "Why, of course! I would be a floor cleaner at Microsoft!"

Jokes apart, it is only a luddite who does not have an e-mail ID today. Whether you own a computer or not, whether you use it or not, you have not `arrived' if you do not have an e-mail ID. `What? You have no e-mail ID?' friends would sneer at you as if you were a despicable guttersnipe. The e-mail IDs of several people are straightforward like or or some such structure. But if you have a name like Thomas John or R Nirmala or Shahul Hameed or S Narayanan and you approach a popular service provider, you will be told that has already been allotted, would suit you?

That is when you look for other email IDs. Like Amitabha Guha, Managing Director of State Bank of Travancore did. To his consternation, he found that he had at least 492 namesakes. So he decided to settle for a distinct e-mail. A nature-lover, he chose, pretty confident that this was virgin territory. (For the benefit of the uninitiated, cyathus striatus is the name of a beautiful fungus, commonly known as the bird's nest fungus, Mr. Guha explains.) Oh boy, wasn't he in for a rude shock? That name too had been taken, and not by one or two, but several. (He is the proud owner of a unique email address now, located after long hours of hard toil and search.)

A law student who doubles as a salesman for credit cards to earn an extra buck chose aurora_borealis@... because `It's exotic.' This often involves an assumption that people will be more `impressed' by and therefore remember an interesting name like this. That is a myth, according to his friend. "Every time I want to send a message to him, I have to look up my diary because I just can't remember the goddamn ID."

"I have chosen a name that reflects my inner self," says Anjali whose ID starts with the word `sincere'. This depends on who your inner self happens to be! While a name like moonlightsonata@... or whenindoubtturnleft@... may reflect something deep within you, it is unlikely to convey anything more than an impression of amateurish adventurism. Well, the theory that the e-mail address reflects the inner self is not always true, would the collegians who answer to the email IDs like cat_on_the_wall@... tigerontheprowl@... and alwaysatwar@... aver.

Sheila Kiran, HR consultant, suggests that it pays to keep your email ID professional and plain. A prospective employer would think twice before hiring a young man whose email address is something like out-on-a_weeks_parole@... or mea_culpa@... or unabletostayunwillingtoleave@ or lunaticanonymous@... , however hep or radical it might sound, she warns.

Like Kishore (youcanalwaysreachme@... .) found out. Having cleared CAT, he was being interviewed by the panel at a famous B-school. He had heard that one could expect questions ranging from motivation theory to metaphysics to balance of payment. As he walked in, one of the professors looked at his application and asked him, `Why do you have an email ID like that?' As he was bracing himself up to answer the bolt from the blue, another panellist said "It should have been youcanreachmealways@... or alwaysyoucanreachme@... but not the way you have written." No word about dialectical materialism or capital account convertibility.

The sane advice is, it's all very well to have a killer of an email ID like jack_the_ripper@... for use by your pals, and you can be known in the chat room as I_live_life_as_if_there_is_no_tomorrow@... but save a sober-sounding address like sureshmnair_201457@... for your use by your prospective employer.

How Old Is Old?

LOOKING FOR a confused man? You don't have to look far: take the case of Padmanabha Iyer and his wife, Kamala.

For quite some time, Iyer has been enjoying the benefit of half per cent additional interest, applicable to senior citizens, on his deposits with the bank he patronises. Having superannuated four years ago, he has all along been certain that he is a senior citizen. Now, he is not as sure as he was.

The Iyers first flew down from Delhi to Hyderabad where their son had set up a business. A fortnight later, they took a train to Bangalore where their married daughter lived. After 10 days, they took a flight to Thiruvananthapuram.

The first lap of the journey was by Sahara Airlines. The couple was told that as senior citizens, they would be offered 50 per cent concession. At the reservation counter, however, it was a different story: the two were treated differently by the airline. Iyer who had turned 64 in April last was entitled to the concession, but the girl at the desk explained that Mrs. Iyer, who will be 62 February next, would not be. You have to have completed 62 years to be eligible for it. So, Kamala told her spouse, "I am still young, you are not."

The tables were turned during the train journey from Hyderabad to Bangalore. Iyer was told that as he is not 65 yet, he was not entitled to any concession. However, Kamala, being a woman above 60, need pay only 70 per cent. Mrs. Iyer was a senior citizen, but Iyer was not!

The man from Jet Airways, Bangalore was all smiles, though helpless. "Neither of you is 65 yet and hence I cannot offer any concession; the rules do not permit it." Iyer went to the Indian Airlines counter and received the same response; both had to pay the full fare for the last lap.

"This is funny," Mrs. Iyer observes. "I was travelling by bus in Punjab last year and was told that the Government would pay for the journeys of all women above 60." Says Iyer, "There are various welfare societies and organisations in Delhi working for the benefit of the elderly citizens and their rules stipulate that to qualify as elderly citizens, one must be above 55, 58 or at worst 60." And he proves his point by quoting the Life Insurance Corporation of India whose

Varishtha Pension Bima Yojna is open to senior citizens (defined as those over 55 years of age). However, the confusion is compounded by the newly introduced Dada-Dadi bond that is offered only to those above 60.

Tax consultant Suresh Kumar cautions, "Greater confusion awaits you when it comes to income tax." Nothing could be truer, for, a man can claim to be a senior citizen and claim tax rebate up to Rs. 20,000 under Section 88B only if he is above 65 years. Women taxpayers get the special rebate up to Rs. 5,000 out of the tax payable by them, but this rebate is not available to women above 65 who get senior citizen rebate.

Iyer has propounded what he plans to call Iyer's Axiom: Whether you are a senior citizen or not depends on whether you are travelling by train or by air or by bus, what your gender is and whether you are buying insurance, depositing money in a bank or filing your income tax return! By now, you must be as confused as Iyer!


COINAGES HAVE assumed interesting proportions now with the prestigious dictionaries lapping up all kinds of words. IT lingo gets more and more curious with ordinary mortals feeling out of place amidst them. If you visit places where IT professionals inhabit, the conversations may well sound like Greek to you. The denizens of this `IT country' speak a different tongue altogether. If you want to, eavesdrop on the muffled conversation in the canteen, listen to the shop-talk in the company buses, amble along the corridors without seemingly following anyone, and you will be convinced.

"I've been Dilberted again," said Satish Gupta, sipping a cup of tea in one of the several restaurants in one such IT campus. Shilpa Unnithan knew what he meant. "Did the old man revise the specs again?" "Yeah, for the fourth time this week." What do you make of it? You will be clueless unless you have been following the comic strip, Dilbert, who is harassed by his boss. Hence `to be Dilberted' is to be exploited and oppressed by one's boss.

Most companies have their own codes of conduct regarding use of their computers for surfing the net and e-mail service for personal messages. Some employers are very rigid and personal use of office equipment by microserfs is a strict no-no. Those working under such rigorous conditions are said to be `under mouse arrest'.

Speaking of surfing, one cannot resist the temptation to scan the net, databases, print media and research papers, hoping to find one's own name. The geeks have a word for it too. It is called `ego-surfing'.

Amir Hasan is disgusted with the palmtop he bought three months ago during his last trip to the United States. "I paid three grand, and now it's nothing but chip jewelry (Note that the yankee spelling stays!)," he grieves. The expression is a euphemism for old gizmos destined to be scrapped or turned into decorative ornaments.

Haven't you seen people, particularly luddites, stopping mid-sentence when the telephone rings or the mobile beeps, heralding the arrival of an SMS message? The brief seizure they experience, characterised by physical spasms and goofy facial expressions on hearing beeps is called `beepilepsy'.

Dentistry too has contributed to the geekspeak. The disgusting build-up of dirt and crud found on computer keyboards is called keyboard plaque. Referring to the computers in a public office, Vinay George says: "I dare not go near the terminals in that office. Each one of them is a bad case of keyboard plaque."

A highly eclectic `language', if IT lingo borrows from medical profession, it picks words from the toy industry with equal felicity.

The GI Joe popular with kids is resurrected in the form of CGI Joe. To the techie, he is a hard-core Computer Graphic Interface (hence CGI) script programmer with all the social skills and charisma of a plastic action figure!

When in doubt, what do you do? Turn to someone knowledgeable, naturally. The most competent, technically proficient person in an office or work group is called an `alpha geek'.
Employers are looking for `Plug-and-play' workers because they can be entrusted with projects on day one. "This Neeraj Kondepudi, the new guy we poached from Chennai, is great. He's totally plug-and-play." He is experienced and good at his job and therefore needs no training. With a couple of them on the payroll, beating deadlines is easier.

It is not just the twenty-somethings that get hired. Young entrepreneurs hire older, experienced people in order to lend their firms an image of being reputable and established. Employees belonging to this genre go by the monicker, `grey matter'.

There are `green' people too in the IT field. It must be certainly one of them who coined the
expression `the dead tree edition'. This is nothing but the paper version of a publication available in both paper and electronic forms.

Thus one could say, "The dead tree edition of the newspaper today carries the ad I mentioned to you about."

When the system is low, you might daydream, staring at the monitor, watching the grey bar creep across the screen. Hence the expression `in greybar land' as in `I was in greybar land for what seemed like hours, thanks to the poor connectivity.' A website that has not been updated for a long time or a dead web page is called a cobweb site.

A few of the expressions belong to the category mother would frown at. Take `Crapplet', for instance. Jasmine Singh throws up her hands in desperation and says: "I just wasted 30 minutes downloading this stinkin' crapplet!"

Asked what it means, she clarifies: it stands for `a badly written or profoundly useless Java applet.

Lord - but not Knighted

The large white two-storeyed colonnaded mansion in the sprawling compound with a high boundary wall and a heavy black wrought iron gate caught my attention the day I landed in Patiala. The gate sported three boards. One displayed the picture of a dog with the words ‘On duty’. The second announced the name of the house – ‘Rab-di-Daat’ or ‘God’s Gift’. The words ‘Lord Ujagar Singh Karbal’ were painted on the third.

I had not come across any Lord Ujagar Singh Karbal in the modern Indian History book that I studied in school, but given my knowledge (and interest) in history, I let that pass. Being new to the town, there was none I could consult and quench my curiosity about the inmates of the mansion. My morning constitutionals covered the locality but the place always seemed deserted. It intrigued me that while driving past the mansion to my office too, not one human being was in sight in the premises.

One winter evening I was with a friend in the Rajendra Gymkhana Club established by the royal house of Patiala imbibing what Wodehouse fondly refers to as b&s. A well-built man in his mid-forties walked in, wearing an immaculately tailored suit. He grabbed a bar stool and ordered a stiff drink. If anyone had missed him, which, given his bulky frame, was difficult, his gruff voice and his loud talk took away any excuse.

My host told me in hushed tones, ‘That is Joginder Singh.’

‘Joginder who?’ was my response.

‘Joginder Singh Karbal,’ I was told. He added that this strapping gentleman was the only son of Lord Ujagar Singh Karbal.

This non-meeting with Joginder Singh only whetted my appetite. I hoped that time would give me an opportunity to meet him and talk to him.

I did not hope in vain. I was the proxy of my employer bank at the annual general meeting of a large industrial unit in the neighbourhood. The meeting was followed by the customary lunch for the directors and the major shareholders. In my role as the representative of the banker to the company, I was an invitee. Joginder Singh who held a sizeable chunk of the shares too was there.

While sipping the cream of tomato soup, I sidled up to him and introduced myself. We struck up instant friendship. He invited me home for a drink the next Sunday evening. Later too, we met often.

One day I asked him how and when his father was knighted. My friend looked puzzled. ‘Knighted?’ I referred to the name-board on his gate which said ‘Lord Ujagar Singh Karbal’. ‘Oh, that, prajee?’ he asked in his distinctly Jat twang. ‘My father was a rich landlord in Sargodha, now in Pakistan. During Partition, he had to flee his hometown with his gold, wealth and movable assets, leaving the land behind. Landlord-da land utthe Pakistan-wich rah gayi si.’

What happens when a landlord loses his land? Landlord Ujagar Singh Karbal becomes Lord Ujagar Singh Karbal. Simple and straightforward logic, isn’t it?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Hamlet Redux

A staunch supporter in the ‘Catch’em young’ dictum , Nandan Menon believed firmly that children have to be introduced to literature in their early years. When they grow up, their interest would flower and flourish, he used to say.

Naturally, he was eager to practise his theory on his twin sons Suresh and Ramesh. What better way, he thought, than to initiate them to the Bard of Avon. He chose the story of Hamlet as the ideal vehicle to lead them to the glories of Shakespeare.

So, it was one Sunday morning that Nandan Menon sank into his favourite easy-chair and the kids, not exactly pleased with the prospects of being torn away from the adventures of Scooby-Doo on the TV, sat reluctantly at his feet.

‘Today I’ll tell you the story of Hamlet by Shakespeare,’ Menon said, ‘but before that I must tell you that there are some who believe that Shakespeare never wrote those plays. They believe that the plays were actually written by Bacon.’
‘How can that be?’ asked Ramesh incredulously?

Trying not to get annoyed at the interruption before he could get going, the father retorted, ‘How can what be? Your silly questions…’

‘How could that man Ham write…’

‘I said Bacon,’ Menon said helpfully.

‘Well, how could that man Bacon write it if the other man had already written it?’ There was genuine concern in the voice of Ramesh.

‘But those people don’t believe that Shakespeare wrote them, you see,’ Menon clarified.

‘Okay, then how can Shakespeare have his name printed on the book?’ it was the turn of Suresh. ‘And if this man Eggs did write…’

‘I said Bacon,’ Menon said for the second time. Realising that he had better get to the point soon instead of getting caught in these fine points, he added quickly, ‘Well, about the play. There was a man called Hamlet who …’

‘You mean Bacon,’ interjected Suresh knowingly.

‘I do not mean Bacon,’ Menon snapped. The ‘not’ reverberated in the room for a while.

‘But, daddy, you just now told us that he was called Bacon,’ both said defensively in a chorus.

‘I did not say he was called Bacon.’

Said Suresh politely, ‘Excuse me, dad, but you did. When Ramesh called him Ham, you said it was Bacon. And now you are making the same mistake yourself, saying he is not Bacon.’

‘This was a different man,’ Nandan must have lost his temper without his knowledge, for he saw the twin sons cowering. Soon, he gathered himself and said, ‘Now we are talking of another man. He was called Hamlet. His uncle killed his father because he wanted to marry his mother.’

‘Never heard of anyone wanting to marry his mother. What did he want to marry his mother for?’ Ramesh was back to his mood of launching his volley of questions.

Perceiving this grammatical solescism as the golden chance to show Ramesh his place, Nandan mounted his onslaught. ‘One may not end one’s sentences in prepositions as you have done, commiting a grave lapse. And I have told you the story of Oedipus, son of who Laius, King of Thebes.’ After a pause, he added, ‘According to the Greek legend, he wanted to, and did, marry his mother Jocasta, killing his father, unwittingly, though.’

Having scored a point there, Nandan put on a scholarly demeanour and went on, ‘That, however, is beside the point. It was Hamlet’s mother he wanted to marry,’

‘Oh, that man who, some people think, wrote the play,’ suggested Ramesh helpfully, unfazed by the criticism about the linguistic lapse and the ignorance of Greek legends.

‘No, you are talking of Bacon.’

‘A minute ago, you said it was Ham,’ Ramesh wailed. He looked plaintively at Suresh, who came to his rescue, ‘When we say Ham, you say it was Bacon and when we say Bacon, you say it was Ham.’

Distraught, Menon thundered, ‘Will you listen? This man Hamlet decided to kill his uncle.’


‘I told you: his uncle had killed his father.’

‘His father too?’ Suresh was curious to know.

Through his clenched teeth, words came out of the father, ‘Hamlet’s father.’ And he hurried on, not stopping to give an opportunity to put in a word edgeways, ‘There was this beautiful girl Hamlet wanted to marry.’

‘But you just said he wanted to marry his mother,’ Ramesh pointed an accusing finger at what he thought was my inconsistency.

‘I did not, dash it,’ Nandan exclaimed, lapsing momentarily, and pardonably, into some cusswords under his breath. He regained his composure in no time and continued his narration, ‘Well, this girl fell into the river. It was supposed to be an accident, but probably, …’

‘He pushed her in?’ Suresh completed my sentence on my behalf.

‘Who pushed her in?’ Despite his best efforts, Menon could not mask his irritability.

‘I thought you were going to say this man Bacon pushed her in,’ explained Suresh.

‘Hamlet, you mean,’ Nandan Menon tried to help him.

‘No, I mean Bacon,’ insisted Suresh.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ Ramesh said confidingly, ‘we get muddled because of these names. Let’s say Eggs for both Bacon and Ham. That way we won’t get mixed up. Eggs, then, means Ham or Bacon, whoever of these it was.’

Nandan Menon says that but for his iron will, he would have been overcome by the strong desire to migrate to Siberia.

Wedding Suit

Vijay Khanna is a good conversationalist if there was one. It is great fun to spend an evening with him if convivial company is in attendance. With the golden liquid that restores the jangled nerves setting the mood, he can regale you with hilarious real-life stories. That evening, the public sector veteran, articulation lubricated and hang-ups dissolved by the amber fluid, was reminiscing of his early days in the institution he later headed as Chairman.

It was the in the early part of his career. Khanna was posted in the factory in the North Indian state. The industrial township had hardly any scope for entertainment other than the film show in the factory club on the 16 mm screen on Saturday evenings. If you had watched the films for a year, you had seen it all, for it was the same fifty films that was being recycled. It was therefore not surprising that the middle level executives of the company looked for other diversions. What could be better than a get-together of a small group of close friends?

Over time, a pattern emerged: they would meet in the house of one of the group by rotation. Often, the conversation would invariably be reduced to talking shop. In order that it does not happen, it was decided that every time anyone of those present talked shop, he would be fined the princely sum of a rupee. The money thus collected would go into a piggy-bank fashioned out of a small earthen pot which they nicknamed ‘beer-belly’. When full, it would go to fund a get-together where beer would flow.

The year was 1972. It was winter. That Saturday evening they had met in the house of Dibyendu Chatterjee and his wife Debjani. He had a guest staying with him: Kumar, the only brother of Debjani. The country head of a large multinational corporation, he talked with a clipped accent. Nattily dressed, not a strand of hair out of place, spit-and-polished pointed shoes, a scarf in a rich burgundy around his neck, he was fashion personified.

The conversation that evening inevitably drifted to men’s fashion: how ‘solid’ colours and bold checks had replaced pastels and subtle stripes in shirts and how complementing shirts and jackets had given way to contrasting combinations. Casual shirts had, at different times, sported dog-collars, long collars, pointed collars, short collars, and no collars. Over the decades, the trousers had changed from drainpipes to bell bottoms to parallels and the lapels of coats had shrunk and become broad.

Chatterji, our host for that evening, was a soft-spoken man. Suddenly, he spoke up. ‘Would you like to see my wedding suit?’ He was on the wrong side of forty and his only daughter was about thirteen. Which meant the suit would be about fifteen years old, give or take a couple of years, Khanna estimated. Was it double-breasted with side-slits? Was it a solid ink-blue or one with bold stripes? Were the lapels broad or narrow? Everybody was eager to see what was fashionable in, say, the late 50’s or the early 60’s.

Encouraged by the over-whelming response, Dibyendu went into the house. It was strange, Khanna noticed, that he went in the direction of the kitchen but soon he emerged and called out to Debjani, ‘Ogo, Debu,shey chaabi-tta kothai?’ As soon as she went in, an argument in muffled voice and sounds of a minor scuffle could be heard. Apparently, the wife surrendered after the initial resistance, for Dibyendu re-emerged, a large shining stainless steel dekchi in hand, ending speculation on the reason for the domestic strife.

Debjani had exchanged the wedding suit, which the now portly frame of the lanky young man she had married could not get into, for the kitchen utensil the bartanwala itinerant vendor of vessels on barter terms, a common sight those days, a tribe which seems to be fast vanishing.

This confirmed Khanna’s vague feeling that he had overheard Chatterjee one morning on the telephone talking to someone in an agitated tone about the bartanwala.

Steely Resolve

It was one of those evenings when Vijay Khanna was in the mood. The audience was a responsive foursome and arrayed on the side-table were the accoutrements that restore the frazzled nerves. Once the amber fluid started its ‘trickle-down’ effect, one was justified in looking forward to some hilarious real-life stories from Khanna. He took us back that evening to his early days in the public sector organisation which shall remain nameless for the time being.

He had joined the service as a management trainee in the early seventies of the century that just went by, along with Murad Ali and Peter Samuel. Those where the days when concepts like Human Resource Development, Corporate and Internal Communication, etc which today’s MBAs swear by had not yet made their presence felt in the company. But then, other counterparts were toying with these newfangled ideas and could the self-respecting institution they worked for be lagging? So it was that their own house-magazine was launched.

As they had by then demonstrated that they could wield the pen rather well, they were the natural choices for the editorial committee of the house magazine of the company. The first issue was launched with great fanfare. Supposed to be a quarterly, it came out only in fits and starts, for want of material worth publishing. It was then that a senior officer who had grown with the organisation got elevated to the executive cadre and two others got promoted to the senior cadre.

Young Vijay Khanna had a brainwave: why not publish an interview with all of them? The trio took on hand the job of preparing the feature. It was a motley crew that had to be interviewed: Yogendra Reddy’s promotion was a foregone conclusion, for he was streetsmart, a go-getter and a performer with a proven track record. The meek shall inherit the earth, Hector D’Souza seemed to believe. A man of few words and a strict disciplinarian, he was the dark horse. Sahasranaman was dapper and suave, though brash in dealing with subordinates. He was well-known for the colourful and flowery expressions he used to employ while speaking and in writing. (It was known to a close circle that equally colourful was his private life, for there was a strong streak of licentiousness in the pattern of his behaviour when it came to the fairer sex.)

The three-man task force swung into action. It was decided that each of the interviewees would be asked the same questions (Regimentation had, by then, started taking roots in the young team!) Ten questions were framed. The questionnaire began with ‘What was your first reaction when you heard of the promotion?’ and ranged from ‘What do you attribute your success to?’ to ‘What is the message you have for the juniors and subordinates?’ and ended with a ‘What is your resolution for the future years of your career?’

The responses were appropriate: they were glad that hard work, integrity, dedication etc had been rewarded; they attributed their success to the blessings of the God almighty, benediction of the parents and teachers, good wishes of the colleagues, etc; they wanted the younger generation to toil, be honest and keep the flag high; they had resolved to put the interests of the organisation above theirs and persevere so that it scales greater heights in the coming years. The sceptic in Peter dismissed the responses as ‘the usual blah-blah.’

The response of Sahasranaman to the question on the resolution for the coming years was, ‘I have a mission in my life. I have to proceed to accomplish it. I have to resolved to gird up my loins.’ Murad Ali cryptically commented, ‘The tighter, the better!’ Obviously, he had heard from the office grapevines about the proclivity of the boss to stray from the straight and narrow.

Perils of Globalisation

We are well into the second phase of the economic reforms. Mergers and acquisitions are making stories in the pink newspapers and the finance pages. What is the upshot of the on-going restructuring exercise? This is the million-dollar question uppermost in the minds of most of us these days.

Being clueless in these areas, we thought we’d ask someone knowledgeable. Our friend Thomas, the grey-haired banker who had called it a day after four decades of service in a state-owned bank, should have, we felt, an answer to the riddle.

Thomas confessed that he did not know what to make of the goings-on in the industry, but he gave us a brief overview of what was happening in the banking world. There is nothing new in all this, he assured us. Earlier, Parur Central Bank had merged with Central Bank of India, followed by Bank of Cochin with State Bank of India. Recent days had seen mergers of banks, like Times Bank with HDFC Bank, and later, Bank of Madura with ICICI Bank and the latest, Nedungadi Bank with Punjab National Bank. More such mergers between banks, old and new, for consolidation can be expected, he said. The shake-out will separate the men from the boys. There are reports for some more mergers but they were in the realm of speculation, Thomas added.

What will be the future structure of the banking sector? What is in store for those working for these institutions? Responding to our queries, he said, "In fact, this question is as old as the hills. Ever since the nationalisation of the fourteen major banks in 1969, there have been debates and discussions on the different models for the reorganisation of banks," Thomas explained.

"Kerala, particularly Thrissur, is the cradle of modern banking and numerous such attempts have been made to consolidate. I’ll tell you the story of Antony and the merger of some of those banks and this might answer your question, at least in part," said Thomas. We were all ears.

"It was in the year I joined the bank that fourteen banks were nationalised. Our on-the-job training programme had stipulated a certain period at each desk. I was assigned to Antony for a month. This stocky fifty-year old man was the clerk handling the Savings Bank desk. A voluble man, always engaged in friendly banter with colleagues and customers. I would sit with him, make entries in the ledgers and the registers and the other books of account. When I made mistakes, he would correct me.

"Though Antony was not even a matriculate, he was efficient at work and a good teacher. He did not know anything about the state of the economy or the impact of the monetary policy, but he knew how to balance the books of account – and at that time, that was enough. He was not worried about things that were not of immediate concern to him. Therefore he tossed aside the newspapers with headlines that cried out 'Major Banks Nationalised'.

"When he heard from the colleagues that reorganisation of banks might be in the offing, he was deeply concerned. Several models were being thought of, he had learnt. Some planners favoured a mega-corporation like the Life Insurance Corporation of India. A bank for agricultural finance, another for large scale industries, yet another for traders and so on was mooted by some policy-makers. The country could be divided into five zones and each zone could have its own bank, suggested a group of academics. Other models were also being proposed for consideration, and Antony was plainly confused.

"In no time, a perceptible change came over Antony. His usually loquacious and cheerful self had transformed into a glum persona. I too noticed the change but thought some personal issue might be eating him. ‘Mr Thomas, do you really believe this restructuring thing will really happen?' Antony asked me one afternoon.

"Being new to the system, I had no clue except what I had read in the newspapers. I said so, but added that any such development will mean better service conditions and brighter prospects of promotion. It would prove to be of advantage to us because we would then belong to a bigger bank.

"That exactly is my worry, said Antony. When I had just turned 20, upon my father’s demise, I succeeded him as General Manager of Pavaratti Kanyamariyam Bank (Name changed) which he owned. Five years later, it was merged with Mary Sahayam Bank and I became Manager. When it was taken over by Knanaya Faith Bank, I got reduced to an officer’s level. A decade back, it was taken over by this bank and I was appointed as clerk. At this rate, if this bank is merged with a larger bank, my fear is that I may end up as a peon … Antony’s voice trailed off.’

Line of Succession

By the time this appears in print, the dust over the election of our new President would have settled down and the heat it has generated would have subsided. Even now it is more or less certain that the next occupant of the 340-roomed residence on Raisina Hills would be Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam.

This, we are told, is a departure from the past precedent: a term as the Vice-President was nearly a pre-requisite for ascending to the highest office of the country. In fact, one of the objections to Dr Kalam’s nomination was exactly this.

Conversely, it was so far a natural progression from Veeps to the Prez. The question of when a person, having been chosen Vice-President, gets a berth in the Presidential suite is only one of time. It was not just some learned politicians who subscribed to this view, Sumitra said: as many as seventeen years back, Rohit, then all of eight years old, had aired this opinion.

It was a get-together of the ladies in the neighbourhood. Others present there smelt some interesting titbit behind this statement. Experience had told them that if Sumitra quoted Rohit, there would be an interesting twist to the tale. Sumitra had shared many of these with her friends during afternoon sessions like this. Rohit, now a software engineer in the US, was famous in the locality for the wisecracks he had made in his childhood. And they knew when an anecdote was coming.

The last story they had heard was about the remark he made when Rohit’s father got a promotion. The child, having graduated from the nearby playschool, had just started going to the nearby kindergarten. Seeing everybody in the house excited about the elevation, he asked in all innocence, ‘Will you now be going to the upper KG?’

Expecting to be treated to another entertaining one-liner, her friends egged Sumitra on to narrate the story of Rohit’s sagely pronouncement on the promotion of the Vice-President. Sumitra said, ‘My brother-in-law Ramesh had a decent job in the government, but, given the way things worked, he felt he was not able to grow to his full potential. So he went and did a two-year course in a reputed management institute. There was a campus selection through which he joined a pharmaceutical company.

‘The company Ramesh had joined was a multinational and they had fancy designations like President, Vice-President etc. With his high rank in the final examination and the administrative experience he had gained, Ramesh was assigned the designation Vice-President.

‘Rohit, then in Class III, was learning his first lessons in Civics, had a genuine doubt upon hearing this, “So, after Mr R Venkataraman, will it be Ramesh uncle who will be President?” For young Rohit, succession-planning was as easy as that!

Picture Perfect

It was the party got up to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of Suresh and Asha. Not a big affair, just half a dozen close friends and their spouses. One was Asha’s classmate, two were colleagues of Suresh, one was a cousin of Asha’s. Suresh was a master raconteur and often the butt of his good-natured banter was his better half. All of us looked forward to a fun-filled evening.

Soon, the topic shifted to the early days of marriage. Suresh was only 24, but was in a hurry to get married to Asha, whom he had been wooing for over three years. The only thing that stood between the lovebirds was that he was still looking for a good job. Not that he did not have a job: he was teaching in the college nearby, but the job was not much up his alley.

He was elated that he could clear the Civil Service preliminaries at the first attempt. The finals and the interview followed. He did not make it to the IAS, but was selected for entry into one of the allied services and was very happy about it.

Soon after his training in Mussoorie, the engagement took place. He got a regular posting in Kozhikode where Suresh hired a house and had it done up: elegant furniture, good curtains, well-equipped kitchen, tasteful furnishings, the works. The wedding was celebrated in a traditional manner.

This was in the seventies when colour photographs were rare and videographers had not started hijacking weddings. There were, of course, a couple of photographers at the function who took a few snaps which went into an album.

During the evening strolls to the beach in Kozhikode, the young couple would pass a photo studio. On display were the close-ups of some film actors and actresses, the photographs of children and young couples, group photographs of families, photographs taken on the occasion of farewells etc. Passers-by could see them all through the glass-panes.

Suresh and Asha decided that they would also have a picture taken. She dressed up in her finery, and he decided to wear a suit. They went to the studio for taking a cabinet-sized photograph. With Asha to his left, Suresh stood at the designated spot, with a huge painting featuring an ornate pillar and a large flower vase as the backdrop. The camera was in place on the tripod, the lights were switched on, the white umbrellas for diffusing the light positioned in such a way that the spectacles of Suresh would not reflect the light.

The photographer, well into his sixties, was known to be a thorough professional. He went behind the camera, put the black cloth over his head, viewed the couple through the lens, stepped out, came to Suresh, held his jaw lightly, turned the face a little to his left, tilted it a trifle upwards and was finally satisfied. Then he turned to Asha. He asked her to move a little closer to Suresh so that her right shoulder and arm would mask his left arm and shoulder a bit. The lensman stepped back and had a look. Apparently satisfied that all was well, he went back to the camera and took position again.

All these adjustments and the glare of the floodlights were making Asha tense. Beads of perspiration spotted her brows. The cameraman, a perfectionist, noticed this, asked Asha to take care of this which she did, but the stress was showing on her face. The lensman asked her to relax and smile. She was fidgeting, not knowing what to do with her hands.

‘There’s no need to be tense. Just relax, smile,’ exhorted the cameraman. This too did not help, for she was still edgy. He said, ‘Forget about your hands, just be yourself. Be natural. Just keep your hands where they belong.’ Whereupon Asha’s right hand went into the left pocket of Suresh’s trousers where his wallet nestled. And, Suresh added with a wink, ‘Where it has stayed ever since.’

It has not been very long since I started ‘surfing the net’. A novice treading warily into the e-world, I was introduced to the ‘net’ by my college-going son. I can barely navigate my way to a site, while he has astounded me with his prowess at the desktop. He keeps a dozen windows open, and hears music, reads the latest news, looks up the tax laws as part of his home assignment, reads up on the genome project which fascinates him and prepares for the next weekend quiz, all at the same time by letting his fingertips dance on the keyboard.

One day he told us, ‘Anil Grover has switched from civil engineering at IIT Kharagpur to an integrated M Sc course in Mathematics’. We wondered how he knew because after we left Patiala in 1996 consequent to my transfer, there was practically no contact between the classmates except for a letter or two. The correspondence had petered out; perhaps Anil’s father had also been transferred and they had left without a forwarding address.

‘How did you come to know this?’ my wife, who knew that there had been no letters, could not contain her curiosity. His face beaming, he told us gleefully that he had been able to establish contact with him through the services offered by

Next Sunday I sat before the computer, my wife peering over my shoulders at the screen, to see if I could use the facility to find any long-lost friend, with some help forthcoming from my son,. I thought I would start from my schooldays and then progress to college and university days. It was rather easy, I could go to ‘Koodali High School’ in Kannur District, Kerala. When I punched the relative keys, the batch of ’61 popped up on the screen before me. Yes, there was the name of Karunan, T P, my bosom pal of my school days. We had shared the bench for six years and had maintained contact for a decade after that, but the thread had snapped some time around his marriage.

I looked up the details: he was in England now. The father of two daughters, he was running The Zambesi, an inn in Middlesex, he was manufacturing and selling personalised stationery under the brand name Zambesi. He ran a store in the neighbourhood, also called The Zambesi Store. ‘But, of all things, why Zambesi?’ my son asked.

The name Zambesi did ring a bell, but I couldn’t quite recall what it signified. That night, as I lay awake waiting for my eyes to droop and ‘sleep, perchance to dream’, I tried to clear the cobwebs of my mind … and, suddenly, it came back to me.

A popular boy in the village, Karunan was the man for all jobs. Not one who had set much store by the virtues of learning, he was there to pedal his way on a hired bicycle to the town to get the doctor to attend to an immobilised patient, to assist in the erection of the pandal when the Kathakali troupe paid its annual visit to the hamlet and to distribute the bit notices announcing the arrival of Gemini Circus or the Sivaji Ganesan starrer ‘Naan Aanayittaan’ in the town.

That was the day after the night on which the ten-day long theyyam festival in the village. Karunan had spent an active night in the fair grounds amidst balloons and bangles, plastic whistles and palmyra sirens, rubber balls and catapults. Naturally, he nodded off for a while in the biology class. Engaging us in an afternoon session, Vasudevan Master was holding forth on the digestive system and the alimentary canal when he caught Karunan napping. Stopping briefly, he asked Karunan, ‘Which gland produces bile? Karunan, stand up and answer!’ Rudely woken up from his siesta, Karunan stood up and looked around for a helpful hint. Rahman, known for his practical jokes, who was sitting right behind Karunan poked him lightly with a pencil and whispered, ‘Zambesi.’ Assuming an air of confidence, ‘Zambesi,’ echoed Karunan.

The name ‘Zambesi Karunan’ stuck.

And Karunan is not one to forget his roots despite traversing continents, I was convinced.

(Mis)Guided Missile

It would be a safe bet to say that it was with the advent of the space age that Trivandrum took its first step towards going cosmopolitan. Surnames other than those native to this region were uncommon in the city till TERLS – Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station – was established.

TERLS attracted a good number of technically qualified young professionals from other parts of the country. Around the same time, young professionals in other walks of life hailing from other states too started flowing in. Being in the early part of their working life, they could not afford two-wheelers, let alone cars. They had to depend on public transport for local conveyance.

The fact that the destination of the buses was invariably written in Malayalam posed problems. Many were the occasions when the bus would have sped forward by the time they could decipher the unfamiliar script and make out that the bus was headed for the place they wanted to go to.

Amol Banerjee, a young bank officer whose repertoire of Malayalam vocabulary was bankrupt, worked in the branch located at Statue Junction and lived in Sasthamangalam, then a quiet residential area. After office, he would make a beeline for the bus stop for boarding a bus that would take him to young Nibedita waiting for him at the door.

In the early days, he had his share of difficulty in identifying which bus to board. With much effort, he learnt the letter ‘Sa’ as in Sasthamangalam. Those were the days when double-decker buses were as much a novelty in the city as they are a rarity these days. A keen observer, Banerjee discovered that a double-decker sporting a board with a ‘Sa’ on it would transport him to Sasthamangalam.

So, he would board the double-decker arriving the bus-stop at 5.10 and ask for a ticket to the ‘Last stop’ in exchange of a 50 paise coin. He enjoyed the experience of getting onto the ‘uporer-taala’, occupying one of those front seats which afford a bird’s eye-view (Okay, a low-flying bird’s) of the sights on either side of the road and relaxing with an imperious ‘I am the monarch of all I survey’ demeanour. He would get off at the terminus.

Initial difficulties overcome, now things were perfect like clockwork, he concluded. Soon, God made things even more easy for Amol. He observed that a young woman would also be at the bus stop at 5.00 pm, taking the same bus and getting off at Sasthamangalam. When he saw her getting into the bus, he knew that this was his bus too. He did not have to take the trouble of looking at the destination board. When the bus reached the terminus, she would get out, so would Amol. She became his guide for the journeys homeward.

One day, things proceeded like usual. Except that, at the Rama Rao Lamp, the bus took a turn to the left (instead of to the right towards Sasthamangalam) and went Pattom-wards. Our absent-minded and dreamy-eyed hero did not notice it. When the bus stopped at the Medical College Terminus, everybody got off; so did he too. He looked around, discovered that something was amiss because it ‘did not look like Sasthamangalam’.

Perplexed, he located his honorary guide (who, of course, was not aware of this advisory status) walking fast towards the hospital, caught up with her and asked her, ‘Where do you think you are going?’ She turned round and asked our hero, ‘Why, my uncle has had a heart attack this afternoon. I am visiting him, but who are you?’

History has not recorded the events that took place immediately thereafter, but suffice it to say that the records in the police station do not mention about an eave-teaser named Banerjee trailing unaccompanied girls before nightfall, accosting them and interrogating them.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Parenting Ver 2.0

Child psychologists never tire themselves telling us how important ‘parenting’ is in moulding the character and attitude of the offsprings. This is about parenting of a different kind.

Latif was my classmate in VIII Standard. Having failed in several stages of schooling, he himself had forgotten the exact number of years he spent at school! The most instructive comment came from his grandmother’s recent response to someone claiming to be Latif’s classmate, ‘That’s what half the village says!’

To say that as a child, he was mischievous would be the understatement of the decade. He would pluck coconuts from Ramunni’s land, unleash goats tethered by Beepathumma and pelt stones at stray dogs that came his way. While returning from school, Latif’s dhoti would sometimes double as a net to catch fish from the temple pond. Mango seasons saw complaints about him peak: his missiles aimed at the tempting fruits would land on tiled roofs, breaking them.

It was the last day of the half-yearly examinations. As soon as I finished, I turned in my paper and got out. I was in the loo when Latif too walked in. He lit a match and burst a cracker. Scared, I ran out, only to find myself in front of the drill-master, Charles. My protestations that I knew nothing of it were not heard. When Latif emerged, he too was caught.

Both of us were brought before the headmaster. Though not a culprit, I was treated as one. Being a first-time offender, I was lucky to be let of with a severe reprimand and three canings on either palm.

Latif was told that he would be suspended unless his father came in person when the school reopened after the Christmas holidays and assured the headmaster that such instances would not recur.

What could he do? Obviously, Latif could not tell his father, a butcher with large round bloodshot eyes and muscular body, of the headmaster’s demand.

When the school reopened, Latif came, accompanied by a man in a lungi and banian. He had been coaxed by Latif to act as his father – just for the day – for a consideration, of course.

The ‘father’ and the son were ushered into the headmaster’s room. The headmaster reeled out the list of charges. He reminded the 'parent' of the accused that these were not the only complaints about his 'ward'. He talked of the time Latif put Kuttan’s cat in a milk powder can and used it as a football, poured water in the watchman’s lantern, and a dozen other similar pranks.

The ‘father’ was furious. He turned to Latif, grabbed his right ear and boxed it hard. ‘Scoundrel! Dare you do things of this kind again!’ he shrieked, taking his role a bit too seriously, and slapped him hard repeatedly. The headmaster had to intervene to prevent further corporal punishment.

While returning home that day, Latif told me he could have as well brought his real father along instead of hiring one. That would have saved him a rupee and the penalty would have been less severe. That was one instance where ‘pa-renting’ had certainly failed!

The Flag-Bearer

Kurup was bored stiff: life was uneventful and each day was like any other. It was therefore a welcome change when he was taken off his routine duties one day and assigned the role of the Protocol Officer for a VIP.

The boss informed the Protocol Officers identified like Kurup that their PSU would be playing host to a parliamentary committee for two days. Each dignitary was to have a Protocol Officer. If there was a squeak, heads would roll, they were warned. (The footnote was that any minor discomfort to the VIPs could cost the boss his job!)

All finer details of the visit were planned meticulously. Bouquets and garlands were ordered, stay and transport arranged, the data required for review by the VIPs collected and the papers required put in natty folders. The itinerary (including the mandatory trip to Kanyakumari) and the menu for the lunches and dinners drawn up. The bill would, of course, be picked up by the hosts.

The entire machinery got into action. As soon as the team landed, the parliamentarians were whisked off to a posh hotel in Kovalam. Plied with the goodies at the lavish dinner hosted by the PSU and lulled by the ambience of the resort, the VIPs were kept in good humour. The meeting held the next morning went off without any major hitch.

Post lunch, the team was to proceed to Kanyakumari. A dozen white ambassador cars stopped in the porch, picked up the VIPs one by one and moved forward. Leading the pack was the car of the Chairman of the Committee. In the front seat beside the driver was Kurup, the Protocol Officer.

The April sun was beating down mercilessly. For protection, the VIP raised the shaded window glasses. The two engaged in small talk. The VIP found the name Kurup amusing: “Aapne apna naam Kuroop (Ugly) kyon rakha hai? Aap to dekhne mein sundar lagte ho.”

The car had barely left the city limits when the VIP shuffled his portly form within the car. Kurup spied through the corner of his right eye: his guest now opened the suitcase, took out a polythene bag and pulled out the contents. It was a light blue garment with broad grey stripes. Too casual a shirt to be worn by a usually white khadi-clad politico, said Kurup to himself.

The VIP spread the garment open and muttered to himself. Handing it over to Kurup, he said, “Kuroopji, ek ehsan (help) karoge? I washed this in the morning and it is still geela (wet). Please hold it against the wind: by the time we get there, yeh sookh jayega (It should dry.)”

The choices before Kurup were two: do as he was told or get out of the car (and put in his papers the next day). Being a pragmatic chap, he opted for the former, hoping that no familiar face would catch a glimpse of him speeding southwards on the NH 47 in a car, a striped blue underwear flailing from his left hand!

Lost ... and Found

The country was in the throes of a major financial crisis triggered by the precariously low level of foreign exchange reserves. The policy-makers, a worried lot, wracked their brains and evolved a scheme to mop up the savings of non-resident Indians.

The scheme was to be implemented through major banks. Targets were assigned and incentives promised. Chairmen of banks vied with one another in attracting the maximum amounts from non-residents.

The national launch of the scheme, complete with bells and whistles, was to be in a predominantly NRI pocket – and rightly so. The Chairman of the Bank, the Finance Minister and other dignitaries would grace the occasion. The branch where the function would be held was headed by Ramaswamy, basically a hands-on banker who had risen from the ranks.

He knew an opportunity when he saw one. He was in the line-up for promotion and close interaction with the top bosses at this juncture would not hurt. He was not a fool to let go of the golden chance to impress them with his ability.

Ramaswamy had excellent reputation as a good organiser. Give him a task and it would be done. Give him a target and it would be achieved. In no time, a steering committee was formed for organising the function and sub-committees were charged with the nitty-gritty of the event. Everything from the bouquets and refreshments to the public address system had been taken care of.

The D-day was drawing close. The Regional Manager who had flown down two days in advance to oversee the arrangements nodded in approval. The honour of welcoming the distinguished gathering at the event would be yours, Ramaswamy was told.

He was aware of his limitations: erudition was not his forte. He therefore sought the help of the professor of economics at the local college in drafting his address of welcome.

In the script of the oration that the learned professor had drafted for Ramaswamy, he had dwelt on the predicament the country was placed in, sprinkling some statistics, to serve as the background to the issuance of the bonds. He had then moved on to the macro-economic theory in a few sentences, peppering it with some quotes from the likes of Keynes, Adam Smith, Mahalanobis and Caldor.

Ramaswamy had read the address of welcome many times over and committed it to heart. As a matter of abundant caution (a phrase any self-respecting banker would carry to his grave), he had the script tucked away safe in one pocket of his grey safari suit (Those were the hey-days of this monstrosity of a garb) specially tailored for the occasion.

The guests were received ceremoniously and ushered onto the dais. Ramaswamy emerged from the wings and stood at the lectern. After the elaborate and formal salutations addressed to the dignitaries on the dais, Ramsawamy proceeded to deliver his speech: ‘In the economic history of post-independence India, 1991 was a watershed year, for the country witnessed a severe economic crisis, a result of the balance of payments situation depleting from USD 6823 billion in 1980 to near-zero….’

It promised to be a discourse which would have done an academic proud. But disaster struck after the first few sentences oozing with learned pronouncements: the thing Ramaswamy wanted the least happened. The next sentence simply escaped him – totally and completely. Try as he might, he just could not recall the words.

His hand desperately delved into the right pocket of his trousers but drew a blank. Undeterred, he held forth impromptu, ‘We all know how important foreign exchange is for the country. Without it, we cannot meet our import bills, we cannot develop, …’ He ad-libbed on, in the same mundane, pedestrian refrain. It was a stark contrast from the cerebrally stimulating words that had preceded it.

Then his hand strayed into the chest pocket which had the speech. A relieved Ramaswamy exclaimed, ‘Ah, kittippoyi!’ (I got it!), rather loudly, unfolded the sheet and looked at it. The adage goes ‘Lightning never strikes the same place twice’ but here it was disproved, for Ramaswamy had left his spectacles on the table in his cabin. Without the glasses, he had no use for the scholarly scripted speech. Not one to be daunted by such adversities, he went ahead with his own extempore, albeit punctuated by stammers and stutters.

God then appeared in the form of Kuttappan Pillai, his trusted aide, who, though unschooled in English, was quick to spot the predicament the boss was in, ran to the cabin and fetched the reading glasses of the chief.

‘Aang...haa... kittiyodo?’ (You got it?) the speaker could not hide his immense relief at the succour in the worst crisis of his life. Ramaswamy proceeded, ‘Having drawn down on the bulk of the foreign exchange reserves in order to meet the oil import bill, the credit ratings assigned to the country by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor were downgraded, impacting the ability to raise funds abroad, resulting in current account deficit, setting off a vicious cycle….’ The profound speech reverberated in the hall once again.