Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Kolkata Lost and Found / Swapan Dasgupta / India Today / June 4, 2012 issue

There was a time, not that very long ago, when travelling through the streets of Kolkata was an unending and compulsive political conversation. It was the heyday of political street graffiti, executed with stylised, artistic professionalism. Whether large wall paintings of muscular proletarians with a red flag marching alongside determined sickle-carrying peasants or bold announcements of the next rally at the Brigade Parade Ground, Kolkata conveyed the unmistakable impression of a city weighed down by its romance with "struggle"-an evocative term left tantalisingly undefined.

Kolkata as the nursery of revolution was a caricature that persisted for more than 50 years-a long enough time for the rhetoric to negotiate a seamless shift from the worship of the "barrel of the gun" to the quasi-mystical invocation of "Ma, Mati, Manusha".

To be Bengali necessarily involved being permanently aggrieved. Prickliness and angst marinated well with endless cups of sweet tea, cheap cigarettes and a visceral distaste for material success. A good Bengali had to mirror the competitive celebrations of "struggle" on the walls of his beloved city. Those with other ideas took the expedient way out: They bought themselves a one-way ticket from Howrah Station. Kolkata became a great place to get out of.

A year ago, West Bengal chose to re-negotiate the terms of the Great Bengali Consensus. After 34 years, it resoundingly voted out the Left Front and chose, in its place, a grassroots leader whose signature tune, ironically, also happened to be "struggle". Not since Subhas Chandra Bose became the lost leader and the stuff of legend, had Bengal reposed such absolute trust in one individual. From 'Party' to 'Didi' wasn't merely a simple electoral swing of enormous magnitude. It symbolised a larger churning, the ramifications of which are yet to be felt.

Among the first things to strike a visitor to Mamata Banerjee's Kolkata is its steady incorporation into the melting pot of Indian urbanisation.

What had made Kolkata distinctive in the past was its sheer hellishness-the congestion, the overcrowding, the inhumanity of street life, the disruptions, the stench from garbage mountains, the potholes, the power cuts and, of course, the kaleidoscope of "struggle" on the walls. It was a Kolkata that was somehow tailor-made for the saintliness of a Mother Teresa, the stark cinematography of radicals who found beauty in suffering, and the ghoulish voyeurism of white connoisseurs of disaster tourism.

It's also an image that refuses to go away. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to combine her visits to the Victoria Memorial and La Martiniere school with the by-now obligatory celebration of initiatives for the uplift of sex workers. It prompted Sandip Ghose, a senior manager in a multinational, to remark on Twitter that the "Lapierre-esque portrayal of Kolkata, including parading of Sonagachi sex workers to foreign dignitaries, is sickening"

Sickening or reassuring, it doesn't correspond to the fact that Kolkata has ceased to be an urban nightmare. Indeed, for the average middle class resident, the city has become a rather attractive place to live. The new Chief Minister's contribution has not been insignificant. Thanks to the thousands of cactus or trishul-shaped lamp-posts installed on the main roads and even side streets, and funded from the mplads grants of Trinamool Congress's Rajya Sabha MPs, Kolkata must surely count among the best-lit cities in India. Coupled with the improvements in the quality of roads, an elaborate metro network and the mushrooming of modestly-priced flats all over the city, Kolkata is experiencing a new normal, centred on the re-establishment of civic order.

Why, if Trinamool Congress MP Derek O'Brien's claim is to be believed, the administration has pressed into service 14,000 people to clean the streets of Kolkata each day. If true, it is something that hasn't happened since the time the redoubtable B.C. Roy was chief minister between 1948 and 1962.

Last year, a restaurant serving Bengali fusion food opened in South Kolkata's Ballygunge. A new eatery in a city that is obsessed with good food isn't news. What was surprising is that the new eatery was located, of all places, on Bondel Road. Till only the other day, Bondel Road was a godforsaken connector linking Ballygunge Phari to the grim locality of Tiljala, on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Today, it houses a restaurant whose Saturday afternoon clientele could just as well have been transplanted from New Delhi's Khan Market.

There is a new Kolkata, bereft of the wall graffiti and the incessant bandhs, that is rapidly emerging. It is a city that is also re-learning something it forgot ever since the "troubles" began in 1967: The ability to enjoy itself. The Christmas lights reappeared in Park Street last year, there's always a wait for a table at Mocambo, Shiraz at the Park Circus crossing has undergone a face-lift and club life is booming. Even the College Street Coffee House has changed. "I went there after a long time," said a long-time Kolkata resident, "and I saw students gorging on plates of chowmein." Revolution R.I.P.

Mamata didn't create the change. The transformation had begun to be evident in the last years of the Left Front. Her advent and her over-stated claim of turning Kolkata into another London have reinforced a pre-existing trend. For five decades, Kolkata revelled in being contrarian; today, it is embracing normalcy with infectious enthusiasm.

"It's a bit like the freedom that prevailed in Russia between the end of the civil war in 1919 and the takeover by Stalin in 1927," suggests historian Rajat Kanta Ray, former vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University and, now, emeritus professor at Presidency University, the upgraded version of Presidency College.

The analogy may well be a trifle recondite but in the past one year, West Bengal is witnessing an uneven process of depoliticisation-a reaction to the intrusive, over-politicisation triggered by three decades of Left dominance. Since 2009, when the vulnerability of the Left was first exposed, the creative juices of Bengal have started flowing more generously than at any point in the past 50 years.

The lifting of the Bengali spirit may have more to do with the decline of the Left than with the advent of Mamata, but there is no doubt that the new environment of political non-involvement has acted as a trigger. "What is being witnessed is a generational change," said Gouri Chatterjee, a life-long resident of Kolkata who was till recently the editor of a magazine devoted to the performing arts. She attached importance to the entry of the "English-medium educated Bengalis with contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibilities" into films and theatre. Far removed from the generation that was inspired by subtitled European films but who were burdened by the trauma of Partition, this breed of artistes are not burdened by either pretentiousness or even a 'cause'.

Anik Dutta's Bhooter Bhabishyat (Future of the Past), which has been running to packed houses, is cited as one of Tollywood's best offerings-one which addresses contemporary themes without morbidity and which straddles the divide between Kolkata and Calcutta. Ironically, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the lead actor of Bhooter Bhabishyat and Kahaani-a Bollywood film in a Bengali setting-is the grandson of Ritwik Ghatak, whose films helped define an earlier genre of Bengali films with definite political sub-texts.

Yet, it is impossible to escape from politics altogether. Bengal is probably the only part of India where public intellectuals are not only taken seriously but also perceive themselves to be politically consequential. It is a far cry from the days of the Coffee House when self-professed intellectuals split hairs, engaged in rarefied banter and proudly flaunted their fringe status. Thanks to the advent of energetic Bengali news channels, the ambiance of the Coffee House has been transferred to the studios-with interesting consequences.

The CPI(M)'s excesses in Nandigram and Singur first brought the public intellectuals into the limelight. They certainly played a major role in undermining the legitimacy of the Left Front and transforming the image of Mamata from a stormy petrel to that of a liberator. On her part, Mamata assiduously cultivated and wooed the public intellectuals-although her first preference was always Tollywood stars with mass appeal-who, on their part, injected her slogan of Poriborton (Change) with a dose of gravitas.

Any alliance between a hard-nosed politician and ponderous individuals with equally rigid certitudes was destined to be ephemeral. Within a year of assuming power, Mamata has antagonised many of those who flaunted the banner of poriborton. The Park Street rape and the arrest of a Jadavpur University lecturer for disseminating the "vanished" cartoon proved to be the flashpoints of estrangement. From being liberator, she was abruptly dubbed fascist and spiritedly denounced in modest-sized protest rallies and TV studios. The administration's crackdown on the ultra-Left-inspired squatters' agitation along a stretch of the Eastern Metropolitan bypass even inspired the iconic international rent-a-cause celebrity Noam Chomsky to protest.
The net outcome of the revolt of the buddhijibis has been two-fold. First, the intellectuals, always ill at ease with a lady who played by her own rules, responded to peer group pressure and reverted to their cosy corner as the conscience-keepers of the few. Secondly, the intellectual class was split between those who saw Mamata as a female Caligula and the biddyajan, berated as captive intellectuals, who felt that she ought to be given more time to settle down.

What is interesting, and runs counter to the impression that Mamata is a stand-up comic, is that the Chief Minister continues to enjoy the confidence of those who seek to use her tenure to detoxify the state's institutions. The Mentor Group entrusted with restoring the quality of Presidency University has functioned without political interference, and its efforts to attract members of the Bengali diaspora back to the city's academic life are at an advanced stage. Yet, there are fears that the present wave of negative publicity may actually deter people from abandoning tenured posts overseas and in other parts of India.

The recovery of Bengal was a term that was first heard in 1972, after Siddhartha Shankar Ray gave the CPI(M) a bloody nose, using means that wouldn't have stood the scrutiny of human rights today. Since then, Bengal has undertaken many recovery ventures and has seen each one coming unstuck. Will Mamata's enterprise be any different?

Hoping for instant results is patently unrealistic. Mamata made a laughing stock of herself at an investors' meet by taking a roll call of the assembled worthies and demanding to know whether or not they will sink their money in West Bengal. After what happened to the Tatas in Singur, it is unlikely that the state will ever be the first choice of manufacturing industry. The mentality of the state has undergone a definite shift from the cholbe na ('won't do') days but there is still an under-utilised army of professional agitators who see every capitalist venture as a blood-sucking exercise. Their numbers may be small but their capacity for obstruction is considerable. There is a disproportionate political price a government has to pay for pressing the accelerator of economic growth.

Harsh Neotia of the Bengal Ambuja Group and one of the biggest investors in the state may have a point when he warns against comparing Kolkata with Delhi and Bangalore. In Kolkata, ambition invariably takes second place to the quality of life, with lots of civility and oodles of culture. In a competitive world, this makes the city a wonderful retirement home-affordable domestic help, modern healthcare and a compassionate environment.

Kolkata began life as the East India Company's foremost trading outpost. Today, it is trade and its ancillary services that keep the city vibrant. Yet, every chief minister since Independence has tried to bolster industry among a people who have developed a temperamental aversion to the rat race. Mamata isn't a great champion of capitalism as a historical process. Unlike Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who imbibed classical Marxism, she scarcely understands its dynamics. Ironically, it is this liberation from ideological profundity that may better equip her to guide a state that is most content seeing itself in the light of Bhutan's innovative Index of National Happiness. No wonder Rabindranath Tagore, and not Karl Marx, has remained the guiding force for a city that is rediscovering its lost soul.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembrance of things of the past - Materialism in a time of high tariff barriers

By Mukul Kesavan |

When I think of my childhood in late middle age, I remember people less vividly than I remember things. I remember scented erasers made of opaque rubber topped with a strip of translucent green. Also a cheaper eraser enigmatically called Sandow. And soap. The history of middle-class India in the 1960s and 1970s can be written in soap and detergent.

Red Lifebuoy was the soap you washed your hands with afterwards. Cinthol (green) was the bar to bathe with except for people with aspirations who bought Moti, a fat round of soap too large for small hands, or Pears. But Pears was posh; any household that routinely used Pears wasn’t middle class; it was the sort of place that bought crates of Coca Cola instead of bottles of Kissan orange squash, where the children went to boarding school and owned complete sets of Tintin.

The only detergent that seems to have survived as a brand is Surf. Not that anyone used the word ‘detergent’ in the 1960s. Surf was detergent: it was the generic word for any powdered soap that came in a box and was used to wash clothes. Nobody had heard of Rin or Nirma; a cheap yellow cake of washing soap called Sunlight was widely used, but it was an inferior thing, used offstage by the hired help, not the housewife.

There was a soap to wash woollens with called Lux Flakes, which smelt nice but disappeared from the market early on. I think our parents liked the thought of collecting petrol-perfumed woollens in giant brown paper bags so much that they were willing to pay Novex and Snowhite a bit extra for that privilege. Dry-cleaning was a way of being modern, smart and confidently middle class.

Apart from soap, childhood was defined by toothpaste. Nearly everybody used Colgate and that hasn’t changed, but for a while Binaca Green was a real contender. My earliest experience of difference was realizing that mine was the only family amongst the people we knew which read The Statesman and brushed its teeth with a green toothpaste. Everyone else took the Times of India and gloried in the peppermint joy of Colgate. We were pioneering ecological puritans: we brushed our teeth with a horrible non-foaming toothpaste that left us with a bad taste in the mouth entirely because it claimed to be made up of chlorophyll. The only good thing to be said for Binaca Green was that it sponsored a Radio Ceylon programme of filmi songs called Binaca Geet Mala.

There was a short-lived star in the toothpaste stakes, though, called Signal, which came in white and red stripes. Even a child my age who could barely recognize a polysyllabic word knew that the red stripes were made of a magical substance called hexachlorophene. Not that we cared: our interest was limited to our scientific curiosity about how the toothpaste worm came out continuously striped. It was later that I learnt that hexachlorophene caused fits and paralysis and was especially bad for children.

My grandmother claimed that this bore out everything she had always suspected about toothpaste; her solution was to make us scrub our teeth with index fingers smeared with powdered coal. She called it ‘kala manjan’, literally black tooth powder, and it came in small bottles with crude red labels. It left you feeling gritty in the mouth for hours afterwards and we resented it as we resented anything that seemed unmodern or vaguely home-made, but in retrospect it had an important virtue: you could swallow it without convulsing or dying.

There were some not-modern things that were diverting for brief periods. Just before winter, an old man with a giant single-stringed instrument that looked like a misshapen bow would camp in the stairwell that led up to our government flat to card the clumped-up rooi or cotton-wool inside our razais (quilts). His massive ektara made a deep thrumming sound which was amusing for about five minutes before you realized that it was the only sound it could make and left to play cricket or ludo or something.

Likewise, summer was announced by the ganderiwala or the sugarcane man who stationed his cart outside the house and ran giant sticks of sugarcane, six at a time, through his hand-cranked press. Then he’d double the husked sticks and run them through again. The juice ran through a sieve filled with broken ice into an aluminium jug. Before he gave you the glass, he mixed in a patented powder that was nine parts kala namak, a kind of rock salt that tasted — there’s no way of saying this politely — of fart. The juice, the ganne ka ras, was nectar and no one really minded about the dirt or the germs or the deep black of his fingernails for the same reason as no one boiled water at home or bought water outside except from vendors who sold it for two paise a glass: because we were stupid and didn’t mind dying young.

The cotton carder and the sugarcane man are nearly extinct in metropolitan Delhi as is Bapsi Sidhwa’s ice candy man. When I was a child in Kashmere Gate, the chuskiwala would visit once a week with his brown wooden box lined with a kind of woollen felt. He would then shape for us roughly conical lumps of shaved ice and colour them with radioactive liquids. They were horrible, unnatural colours; I ate the ice lollies because all my older cousins did but I hated the taste. When we moved to a government flat in New Delhi, I became an enthusiastic patron of the four-anna orange bar peddled by the Kwality ice cream man in the neighbourhood.

But because my childhood happened in an autarkic India, committed to the twin gods of self-sufficiency and high tariff barriers, it was the things that we didn’t have that I remember better than the ones that we did. Orange bars, HMV records, Godrej refrigerators, bond paper, Cadbury’s Fruit &; Nut, Naga shawls, Phantom peppermint cigarettes and ugly walnut tables from Kashmir were nice but they were available (if your parents had the money to spare) and therefore not nearly as desirable as the things you couldn’t have except from that supermarket in the sky called Foreign.

Wrigley’s Spearmint, Quality Street and (for unknowable reasons) Kraft cheese was the toll that foreign returners routinely paid for going abroad without their families, but these were perishable things from an inferior heaven. The real loot, or maal, was impossibly rare consumer durables.

Seiko watches, for example, with 17 jewels and radium dials. Not one of us knew what jewels were doing inside a watch but they were precious and the number gave us a way of measuring value in the same way as 17 gun salutes told you something about the standing of a princely state.

The thing in question didn’t have to be expensive: it merely had to be foreign and better in some real or imagined way than its Indian equivalent. So if you played table tennis you craved Japanese Nittaku balls instead of the deceptively foreign-sounding but actually desi, Montana. Later the Chinese came up with cheap, virtually indestructible balls called Shield but those were never as fetishized as the Nittaku balls because they became increasingly available in India and where was the romance in that?

But nothing was as glamourous as a can of Dunlop tennis balls. Unlike Indian tennis balls, these were sealed in pressurized containers and when you pulled the metal tab, there was a little whoosh and you breathed in a compressed burst of scientific-smelling foreign air.

So geometry boxes by Staedtler, table tennis bats called Butterfly, Bic ballpoint pens, little flat torches that dangled off keychains, and Parker 45 pens with impossible-to-buy-in-India ink cartridges… these were a few of our favourite things. We almost never got them, but when we did, we experienced a gloating fulfilment that only scarcity can induce.

Pundits sniff disapprovingly about the consumerism that the liberalization of the economy has encouraged. This would seem to suggest that before 1991, Indians, willy nilly, lived in a state of non-consuming grace. This is just not true; the middle-class children of the 1960s loved things much more intensely than their children do simply because they didn’t have them. You can spot us at a distance in airport terminals: we’re the grey-haired men who can’t tear themselves away from the cigarette cartons even though we stopped smoking three years ago and won’t part with money to buy any for our friends. We are that odd cohort, a Duty Free Generation that never went abroad in its youth… connoisseurs, therefore, of the unavailable.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

2 Open Letters and 1 Open Issue

An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes

By Mohit Chandra ||

The author is a partner with KPMG, and these are his personal views. This was published in the NY Times Blog.

Dear Graduates and Post-Graduates,

This is your new employer. We are an Indian company, a bank, a consulting firm, a multinational corporation, a public sector utility and everything in between. We are the givers of your paycheck, of the brand name you covet, of the references you will rely on for years to come and of the training that will shape your professional path.

Millions of you have recently graduated or will graduate over the next few weeks. Many of you are probably feeling quite proud – you’ve landed your first job, discussions around salaries and job titles are over, and you’re ready to contribute.

Life is good – except that it’s not. Not for us, your employers, at least. Most of your contributions will be substandard and lack ambition, frustrating and of limited productivity. We are gearing ourselves up for broken promises and unmet expectations. Sorry to be the messenger of bad news.

Today, we regret to inform you that you are spoiled. You are spoiled by the “India growth story”; by an illusion that the Indian education system is capable of producing the talent that we, your companies, most crave; by the imbalance of demand and supply for real talent; by the deceleration of economic growth in the mature West; and by the law of large numbers in India, which creates pockets of highly skilled people who are justly feted but ultimately make up less than 10 percent of all of you.

So why this letter, and why should you read on? Well, because based on collective experience of hiring and developing young people like you over the years, some truths have become apparent. This is a guide for you and the 15- to 20-year-olds following in your footsteps – the next productive generation of our country.

Read on to understand what your employers really want and how your ability to match these wants can enrich you professionally.

There are five key attributes employers typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your colleagues.

1.You speak and write English fluently: We know this is rarely the case. Even graduates from better-known institutions can be hard to understand.
Exhibit No. 1: Below is an actual excerpt from a résumé we received from a “highly qualified and educated” person. This is the applicant’s “objective statement:”
“To be a part of an organization wherein I could cherish my erudite dexterity to learn the nitigrities of consulting”
Huh? Anyone know what that means? We certainly don’t.
And in spoken English, the outcomes are no better. Whether it is a strong mother tongue influence, or a belief (mistakenly) that the faster one speaks the more mastery one has, there is much room for improvement. Well over half of the pre-screened résumés lack the English ability to effectively communicate in business.
So the onus, dear reader, is on you – to develop comprehensive English skills, both written and oral.

2. You are good at problem solving, thinking outside the box, seeking new ways of doing things: Hard to find. Too often, there is a tendency to simply wait for detailed instructions and then execute the tasks – not come up with creative suggestions or alternatives.
Exhibit No. 2: I was speaking with a colleague of mine who is a chartered accountant from Britain and a senior professional. I asked him why the pass percentage in the Indian chartered accountant exam was so low and why it was perceived as such a difficult exam.
Interestingly (and he hires dozens of Indian chartered accountants each year), his take is as follows: the Indian exam is no harder than the British exam. Both focus on the application of concepts, but since the Indian education system is so rote-memorization oriented, Indian students have a much more difficult time passing it than their British counterparts.
Problem-solving abilities, which are rarely taught in our schooling system, are understandably weak among India’s graduates, even though India is the home of the famous “jugadu,” the inveterate problem solver who uses what’s on hand to find a solution. Let’s translate this intrinsic ability to the workforce.

3. You ask questions, engage deeply and question hierarchy: How we wish!
Exhibit No. 3: Consistently, managers say that newly graduated hires are too passive, that they are order-takers and that they are too hesitant to ask questions. “Why can’t they pick up the phone and call when they do not understand something?” is a commonly asked question.
You are also unduly impressed by titles and perceived hierarchy. While there is a strong cultural bias of deference and subservience to titles in India, it is as much your responsibility as it is ours to challenge this view.

4. You take responsibility for your career and for your learning and invest in new skills: Many of you feel that once you have got the requisite degree, you can go into cruise control. The desire to learn new tools and techniques and new sector knowledge disappears. And we are talking about you 25- to 30-year-olds – typically the age when inquisitiveness and hunger for knowledge in the workplace is at its peak.
Exhibit No. 4: Recently, our new hires were clamoring for training. Much effort went into creating a learning path, outlining specific courses (online, self-study) for each team. With much fanfare, an e-mail was sent to the entire team outlining the courses.
How many took the trainings? Less than 15 percent. How many actually read the e-mail? Less than 20 percent.
The desire to be spoon-fed, to be directed down a straight and narrow path with each career step neatly laid out, is leading you toward extinction, just like the dinosaurs. Your career starts and ends with you. Our role, as your employer, is to ensure you have the tools, resources and opportunities you need to be successful. The rest is up to you.

5. You are professional and ethical: Everyone loves to be considered a professional. But when you exhibit behavior like job hopping every year, demanding double-digit pay increases for no increase in ability, accepting job offers and not appearing on the first day, taking one company’s offer letter to shop around to another company for more money — well, don’t expect to be treated like a professional.
Similarly, stretching yourself to work longer hours when needed, feeling vested in the success of your employer, being ethical about expense claims and leaves and vacation time are all part of being a consummate professional. Such behavior is not ingrained in new graduates, we have found, and has to be developed.

So what can we conclude, young graduates?

My message is a call to action: Be aware of these five attributes, don’t expect the gravy train to run forever, and don’t assume your education will take care of you. Rather, invest in yourself – in language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically. This will hold you in good stead in our knowledge economy and help lay a strong foundation for the next productive generation that follows you.

Together, I hope we, your employer, and you, the employee, can forge an enduring partnership.

These were the responses on the NYT site to this open letter:

And here's the rebuttal:

An Open Letter To Prospective Indian Employer

Published on in India

NYTimes India Ink carries a lot of nice things. Sometimes though, it does not. As an example, this hectoring “An Open Letter to India’s Graduate Classes” delivered from a position of moral, ethical and overall-I-am-awesome-and-you-are-not superiority. Here is my response.

Dear Prospective Indian employer,

This is your prospective/current employee. We are your Indian workforce,the worker-ants who build the vaunted “brand name”.You make us work 12 hour-work-days day in and day out. Weekends, for you, are just weekdays with different names. You call us at one in the night and if we do not pick up, you write in our annual evaluation “Does not go beyond the call of duty”. Our low hourly rates are the givers of your dividends. We are asked to guarantee our employment by signing bonds while you, as the company, retain the right to fire at will. And finally, we are the ones who are supposed to feel blessed that you have given us the opportunity to build India’s economic might by writing Java code.

Life is good—except that it’s not. Many of us don’t know it yet though. Having freshly graduated, we are kind of naive. Plus that presentation your HR lady gave us during campus recruitment, the one that had taken-off-the-Net stock images of smiling happy white people, was rather impressive. “Growing together with the company”, “work-life-balance”, “family”, “we reward performance” . Nice. We should have been gearing ourselves up for broken promises and unmet expectations but then as we said, we are naive. If we were not, we would put greater faith in “I am a Nigerian widow with 10 million dolllars to give you” emails than in that corporate presentation.

Today, we regret to inform you that you are spoiled. You have been spoiled by the “India growth story”, by an illusion that you can continue to make money by relying on cheap Indian skilled labor forever. You have been spolied by a subservient work-force historically conditioned to tremble in front of authority.You have also, it seems, started believing the PR you peddle. As a great man once said “Never get high on your own supply”. So a bit of detox is needed.

So why this letter, and why should you read on, seeing that I am making gross generalizations about “Indian employers”, affixing stereotypical labels on a heterogeneous group. Well if you can make generalizations, so can we. And we are after all 15-to-20-year olds (or have brains like them), so we are sure we can be excused for a bit of counter-ranting.

Well, because based on collective experience of working for Indian employers, some truths have become apparent. Read on to understand what your employees really want, besides leeching office supplies.

There are five key attributes Indian employees typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your fellow Indian companies.

1. You treat your employees like human beings.
A rather basic requirement really. And yet you are unable to satisfy even this. For starters, kindly get rid of the whole “going above the call of duty” thing. No one should be expected to “stretch yourself to work longer hours”. When a large number of people are expected to work over-time, it means that proper allocation of tasks to resources has not been done. Which means a big fail for you, dear Indian employers. It is not ok to call us while we are having dinner or sitting in the hospital waiting room at one at night. Understand the concept of “work-life” balance. If you cannot, take a good look at “global” employer practices, like those in the US and Europe. There people come at 9, go home at 5 oclock and stay home.

2. You pay your employees on time.
Another rather basic requirement isnt it? Someone works for a month and gets paid at the end of it. Except Indian employers do not exactly believe in that simple, time-tested global model. That’s why we hear of big corporations not providing salaries for months and then deriving positive PR when they actually do settle accounts of the lowest-paid of their workers. A friend recently left a job with another big “Indian employer”. They withheld a few days of her pay. Why? Cause they could.

3. You allow people to ask questions, engage deeply and dissent.
If you want to have your employees be original, encourage that activity. Instead what you do is pat on the back the yes-men, those who pitch in to help when boss’s son gets married or drive him to the airport. If you want “out of the box’performance, first of all come up with a word that is more “out of the box” than “out of the box”. Once that is done, kindly devise a corporate strategy that focuses on innovation. Because you see, if you bid for “by-rote” jobs, then you cannot expect your employees to express themselves creatively while still following “processes”. Not that they don’t do so, performing 80 hours of work in 40 does require a lot of intelligence, focus and brains. But if you want Google and Apple-type employees, change your business model first. Maybe, then perhaps maybe, the employees shall follow.

4. You devote resources to building skill-sets rather than “training”.
Dogs get trained. People develop skill-sets. If you really want “great” employees, and yes our educational system does do a lousy job of making graduates, then why don’t you do things right? Exhibit: A friend who, working for a major Indian IT firm, was kept in “training” for a year. This constituted mostly of sitting in meetings where he stayed silent cause he had only a vague idea of what was going on). For variety, he would be asked to read prescribed books and manuals (ramp-up module was what HR called it). He quit a year later, went to the US, got a Masters and now works at a Silicon Valley start-up “thinking outside the box”. The same dumb kaamchor Indian employee. The benefits of good training, I tell you.

5. You are honest and professional.
If you expect your new employees to be honest and professional, set the standard yourself, dear Indian employer. That means no Satyam Shivam Sunderam, no immigrant visa hera-pheri, no cooking of books, no housing five developers in one single room in New Jersey, and other assorted kindly-adjusts that we know happen. If you want to say “Everyone does it” then don’t single out your employees.
So what can we conclude Indian employers?

We, the Indian employee, do not want to send you a message. After all who are you, Indian employer? You are also, individually, Indian employees. Also a product of the same system, with your strategies and ways of doing business mirroring the system’s faults and limitations.

No problem there. Just stop the sanctimonious finger-pointing claptrap.



Blame it on the system

Graduates must take Chandra’s message to heart. But so must parents, teachers and the recruiters themselves

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Earlier this week, many of the Tweet-sending, blog-reading, link-sharing and overall nation-building masses went into a tizzy over a post on The New York Times India Ink blog.

Titled ‘An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes’, the piece by a partner with professional services firm KPMG pointed out a number of shortcomings in the legions of fresh graduates that India produces each year.

“There are five key attributes employers typically seek and, in fact, will value more and more in the future. Unfortunately, these are often lacking in you and your colleagues,” says Mohit Chandra.

The substance of Chandra’s blog post is hard to disagree with. A number of times in the past, this column has talked about the ‘unemployability’ of the vast majority of our fresh graduates. Many of them, including most of those from our top-flight elite institutions, graduate with little more than the ability to pass examinations. (Which ability, I cannot emphasise strongly enough, has no correlation whatsoever with actually possessing knowledge or understanding the subject of evaluation.)

Chandra broadly points out five key shortcomings: poor communication skills, poor problem solving, low engagement, a lack of interest in continuous learning, and a lack of professionalism.

All these are, no doubt, crippling problems for any individual in any walk of life, leave alone fresh graduates. And yes many, many Indian graduates suffer from them.

The post ends with a call to action: “Be aware of these five attributes, don’t expect the gravy train to run forever, and don’t assume your education will take care of you. Rather, invest in yourself—in language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically.”

But if Chandra is talking to fresh graduates, he is perhaps talking to precisely the wrong constituency. Because, while I agree that our graduates are hardly manna from heaven, I also believe that they don’t choose to be that way. They don’t transform into shallow, hierarchical, unethical, non-professionals 15 minutes before they graduate.

They don’t sit up and think one day: “You know what? The Indian economy is booming. I am entitled to awesome things. I think I will become a complete tool now.”

I am sure there are some genuine, wilful jerks in our colleges. But the vast majority? Merely products of a system that crushes them repeatedly, year after year, for exhibiting precisely the skills Chandra wants to see more of.

Let us start with hierarchies. A culture that puts elders on a high pedestal, demands unquestioning obedience from children, and shoots non-conformity at first sight, even in companies themselves, has no right to expect its young people to magically blossom into non-hierarchical whiz kids come graduation time. And no business school or graduate college can undo in six years the conditioning that society has done for the first 18.

‘Thirst for knowledge’ must be seen likewise. This thirst cannot evolve independent of schools or homes that encourage inquiry, experimentation and scepticism. While a brief glance at CBSE textbooks indicates that this is changing, we have an educational system that still obsesses with method rather than meaning, and theory rather than practice. And because we are petrified of any subjective evaluation at any level, we equip our young people to deal with a barrage of objective evaluations. This means answering standard questions with standard answers. Where does the issue of non-standard answers, creativity and originality even arise?

Similar observations about professionalism and communication skills can be made. But here colleges and business schools have a greater role to play: skills can be taught and ethics can be imparted.

(I am not even going to get into the issue of what locus corporate India—or corporates anywhere—has to lecture about ethics. That would be too easy, lazy and beside the point. Recently Ernst and Young asked executives all over the world if they would pay a bribe to retain business. Globally, 15% of surveyed executives said they would. But in India, 28% said they were ready to bribe for business. India performed worst.)

But even if you account for social conditioning, poor schooling and inadequate training in college, there is still one step in the graduate employment process that should push back and help unsettle the entire chain: the hiring process.

Simply look at the process of campus placements, where companies can hire in a highly controlled environment. They have access to all the students they want, all the resumes they need and often don’t have to negotiate salaries at all: campus jobs usually come with standard pay packets.

Unless things have changed drastically in the last decade, I recall companies picked resumes and prepared short-lists primarily on the basis of academic performance. The toppers always get picked. Indeed the factors that Chandra mentions—communication, professionalism, ethics—figure, if at all, only at some later stage.

In other words, where are the incentives for graduates to turn away from books and try other things?

Graduates must take Chandra’s message to heart. But so must parents, teachers and the recruiters themselves.

Bankrupt Bengal

Times of India - 24th May 2012
Jug Suraiya

Bengal is bankrupt. Thanks to the profligacy of the previous government, the state is so broke that it can barely afford to pay the salaries of its employees. But today Bengal faces a bankruptcy much worse than economic: it faces intellectual bankruptcy. Bengal has long prided itself that in the realm of thought it led India: what Bengal thinks today, the rest of the country will think tomorrow was the promise that the state made to itself and to all those — Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike — who lived in it. Calcutta as it was known then was the intellectual capital of not just India, but perhaps of Asia.

Its crowded and congested streets harboured borderless mental and cultural horizons. Its eclecticism, born of the Bengal Renaissance, championed political causes ranging from protests against the American engagement in Vietnam to apartheid in South Africa. Calcutta was a never-ending dialectic, a constant ferment of ideas. At its celebrated coffee house addas, the main item of consumption was not the beverage served in cups but the debate and discourse that were the real reason for the rendezvous.
Dissent — against anything from the rising price of hilsa to 'Coca-Cola imperialism' — was the order of the day. It was said that one Calcuttan was a monologue, two Calcuttans were an argument, and three Calcuttans were four arguments because one of them simultaneously held two points of view, just for the heck of it.

Calcutta played gracious host to diverse communities: Anglo-Indians, Armenians, Jews, Chinese. This heterogeneous mix — rather like the jhaal-muri snack the city was famous for — gave Calcutta a savour and a zest that were uniquely its own. The city was a true Mahanagar, a megapolis of the mind. When and how and why all that changed are open questions. Like a musical instrument put out of tune, did Calcutta lose its cosmopolitan rhythm, its cross-cultural fluency, with the advent of the Left Front, one of whose ministers was later to demand a ban on singers like Usha Uthup because, according to him, they represented 'apasanskriti', a transgression of traditional norms?

Doctrinaire narrow-mindedness which brooked no digression from its diktats, coupled with trade union radicalism, led to a flight of capital, both economic and human, in the 1970s and 1980s.

When Mamata Banerjee stormed the Marxist stronghold in an exhilarating electoral victory, she was hailed as the great liberator from over decades of communist repression. The euphoria was tragically short-lived.
Bengal's new-found idol has been seen to have feet of a clay so malleable that it can be made to fashion a conspiracy out of anything: a rape case (see this link) , a harmless cartoon (above), an innocuous and perfectly legitimate question asked by a bright student (see the video and the open letter below) who is accused of being a 'Maoist' by the chief minister for daring to ask it.

The Trinamool's thought police and its goon squads are reportedly on the prowl like tracker dogs sniffing out the whiff of what is deemed to be outlawry by the chief minister's whims. Will the stifling climate of fear and suspicion created by Banerjee's paranoia precipitate a second, and final, flight of Kolkata's already dwindled social capital?

All those who've loved the city and all that it has stood for can only hope not. They can only hope that 'poribortan' spelt as 'paranoia' does not turn a once and future Mahanagar into a barren desert of mind and spirit.


If you're wondering what Jug is talking about, see this video of the bedlam:

All I can say is that I am ashamed and dejected!

Here's the open letter that the student wrote to Didi that was published in The Telegraph:

Sorry Ma’am, but I am not a Maoist

- Open letter to chief minister
Taniya Bhardwaj asking the question. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Question Time Didi, organised by CNN-IBN at the Town Hall on Friday evening, was meant to be a platform for Mamata Banerjee to field questions from a cross-section of Calcuttans on the eve of her completing one year as chief minister. But less than 12 minutes and five questions into the event, Mamata stormed off, accusing some students of being “Maoists and CPM cadres”.

Taniya Bhardwaj, a Presidency University student whose question about the conduct of some of her ministers prompted Mamata to take off her lapel microphone and leave, writes a letter to her chief minister via The Telegraph:

Sorry Ma’am, but I am not a Maoist.

That is what you, the most important person in Bengal, labelled me at the CNN-IBN question-answer session on Friday at the Town Hall.

What exactly did I do to deserve this honour? I just asked you a question.

I had gone to the Town Hall on Friday just over a year after attending the CNN-IBN Battle for Bengal panel discussion at the same venue on April 21, 2011, and then a few days later, voting for change.

This is what I had written on April 28, 2011, in The Telegraph: “Changeathon 2011 is the most anticipated in recent history…. What makes it particularly exciting is the prospect of a revamped Calcutta ‘in 200 days’, the large number of fresh faces contesting the elections, the renewed hope for industrialisation…. I will vote with my fingers crossed — hoping for paribartan in the truest sense. And when I head to the polling booth, it won’t merely be a voting room, but more like a ‘changing room’.”

I had also written: “We want change, but are scared that we will move from a frying pan to a burning stove. Call me a sceptic, but I don’t see either political party as a positive alternative for Bengal.”
Sadly, a year later, you have proved — on national television — how right I was.

What did I do to earn the label of a Maoist and a CPM cadre from you?

I merely asked you whether affiliates of your party, specifically minister Madan Mitra and Arabul Islam, who wield power should act/should have acted more responsibly.

I, like many others, was greatly disturbed when Madan Mitra pronounced his own judgement on a rape victim before the police were done investigating. The Arabul Islam case, of course, is still making headlines.
I asked you what had been on the minds of most people around me, people who had voted for paribartan. Is this what we expect of our leaders? The ones who set examples and who people follow. This is all that I wanted to know.

What I got to know, instead, was that in Bengal today, asking a question can be equivalent to a Maoist act.
You also spoke of democracy. The answers you gave to the questions you took before mine were sprinkled with words like “people”, “democracy”, “Bengal”. But one of the most important features of a true democracy, which I have learnt as a student of political science, is the freedom of expression. This freedom means to be able to express oneself, to be able to question, to not have to mince words out of fear of authority, to be able to enjoy a chuckle or two at a cartoon about important public figures.
Sadly, there seems to have been a dramatic failure of this aspect of the democratic machinery in the state. And just like I won’t become a Maoist simply because you called me one, the state too won’t epitomise democracy unless it is truly democratic in all spheres.

All said and done, what you did was in haste, and it made me the centre of attention. And as you stomped off in fury, you automatically assumed the role of the spoilsport. Had you stayed on and heard us out, many of us would have left the Town Hall honestly believing that you are “a Chief Minister with a Difference’’. Instead….

You have spoken of the brain drain from Bengal so many times. I hold offers from the University College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies to study development and administration. I too will probably leave, and now you know the reason why.

A simple woman
(Presidency University, political science)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Some of My Favorite Kolkata Bongisms

Thanda lege jaabe. Translation: You will catch a cold. Bengalis love Nature. After all, about 36.4% of their rhymeless poems, scribbled on the back of cigarette cartons and paper napkins, are about its assorted glories. (The rest are about Prem or love). But Nature, the heartless seductress, remains cold to them. Literally. Wise men have not been able to find out what exactly it is about the Bengali genetic structure that makes them as susceptible to the common cold as Raina is to the short ball. Whatever be the reason, Bengalis are mortally afraid of catching the chill. And for good reason. Which is why when the mercury dips oh-so-slightly, you will find them wandering about in gear that would look excessive at the North Pole—brown monkey-caps, grey sweaters (typically called “pullovers”) yards of mufflers and woolen socks. The Bengali might keep the windows of his mind open (like the legendary Sidhu-jyatha of Feluda lore) but, come spring, will definitely keep the windows of his room closed. Because the first breeze of spring, as his grandmother used to tell them, is deadly (praanghati).

Season change hocche. Translation: It is because of season change. Ask a Bengali why his nose is running or why he is substance-abusing on Crocins. The answer will most likely be “Season change.” No one questions the logic by which seasons change every day of the year, or how one perceives the changing of season in a place like Kolkata, or for that matter, how exactly does any change of season bring about different maladies. No one asks. Because they themselves are too busy being sick. From season change.

Moshaari tangano hoyeche? Translation: Have you deployed the mosquito net? Bengalis may not believe in God. But they sure do believe in the magical powers of the mosquito net, the closest they can come to possessing Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. If a nuclear device is ever dropped on Kolkata or a meteor decides to hurtle towards us (unlikely an event that is, since cosmic bodies, following the example of industries, avoid this part of the world), Bengalis will, without breaking a sweat, go into their mosquito nets, convinced that the bomb or meteor will bounce off like a stubborn mosquito. Now if it could only have protected us against season change…

Bokachoda..Translation: Moronic Fornicator.If there is one Bengali word a non-Bengali knows, it is this. The iconic swear-word is the Bong F-word. Depending on the context and the way in which you say it, it can convey anger, wonderment, sadness, disappointment, arousal, excitement or joy. As an added advantage, you can take out the “Boka” and attach different pre-fixes (“pagla” [mad], “chagol” [goat], “chomchom” [a sweet]) behind the “Choda” and each combination becomes a lethal swear-word, a perfect example of code reuse. So great has been the influence of this word that one of the first websites in India to be banned (the owner was also arrested) was (around 1999) for its anti-CPM and sometimes anti-Bengali vitriol.

Horlicks kheyecho? Translation: Did you drink your Horlicks? That Horlicks is the secret behind the sturdy Bengali constitution is well known. What gets less attention is its contribution to the copyrighted Bengali male seduction technique. While many think that the awesomeness of the Bengali man’s kiss comes from practice acquired through a lifetime of slurping hot tea from a saucer, the truth is slightly different. It is Horlicks. As Prasenjit, the doyen of Bengali movies, has said.
Two actors, who don’t know each other and have to do a liplock that can stretch to 11-12 minutes. So between the takes I would go to her and say, “Have one biscuit or some Horlicks”
Yes. Horlicks and a thin arrowroot biscuit. Their mixture of carefully balanced nutrients provides stamina for lip-lock-outs . Furthermore, sharing a cup of Horlicks and biscuits, like oysters and wine, sets the mood for intimacy. And accept it, there is nothing a woman likes more than the intoxicating mixture of undissolved Horlicks clumps and Marie biscuit fragments off the lips of one’s paramour. (For further proof of the impact of Horlicks on the Bengali pysche, please see this [clip in Bengali])

Oh ma/ Baba re Translation: Oh mother/Daddyy. Nyakamo. The eyelid fluttering, back-arching, “I am a woman but yet a girl” faux-femininity that Kolkata Bengali females are famous for. And nothing says “nyaka” more than the “Oh ma/Baba re” at the beginning of every third sentence, almost as if every moment of existence is too much of a burden for these lovely ladies. Broken nail. Bad hair-day. Domestic help late for work. Terrorists massacre thirty. For everything the response is canned. “Oh ma/Baba re”.

Sob USA-te export howe jacche. Translation: Everything is getting exported to USA. In the Bengali dictionary of causology, the imperialists/USA were usually held responsible for everything bad, from rising prices to Mohun Bagan losing to Salgaoncar. (Now of course the imperialists have been replaced by Maoist/CPM, as per dictat of our great and glorious leader.) The black hand of unbridled capitalism was seen everywhere, particularly in the rising prices of essential commodities like hilsa fish, shrimp and mangoes. According to Bengalis, prices would have remained at the 50s level (1850s) had it not been for greedy “bourgeois” merchants exporting all these essentials to the US. Pretty logical I felt. Till I came over to the US where I find fish from Costa Rica and mangoes from Mexico, leading me to wonder, “Where do all those exports vanish?”

Dada ki party koren? Translation: Do you party sir? In other parts of the world, the word “partying” brings up images of beer boots, wet Tshirt contests, sandwich dances and overall debauchery. In Bengal, partying means sitting on dusty wooden chairs below large pictures of Marx and Lenin and discussing the fate of the Sandanistas and setting the question papers for the Board exams. In the 80s and the 90s, the “Party” meant the Communist Party of India Marxist and whether you were “in” or “out” of it determined whether you were “in” or “out” of the pyramid scheme of privilege that the “Party” was. Now of course the value of the “Party” variable has changed. Nothing much else.