Monday, 30 April 2012

Call Center Connundrum

Our beloved Prime Minister who believes in the "Silence is Golden" philosophy is a man with many distinctions. The only person in the history of this political melting pot of a country that is India, to have graced this august chair without ever contesting a single election in the public arena. Down to his 8th year as the custodian of Indian politics, this man has been the Governor of India's federal bank - The Reserve bank of India and also has had a very successful stint as Finance minister. The economic liberalisation of the 90s that took India by storm has to be attributed to his master mind. Indian economy was poised for a revolutionary shift from agrarian to industrial. This economic 'reform' brought about changes that were previously only read about in 'Forbes' by the business and political classes. Information technology was the next big thing to hit the world after England's great Industrial revolution. Jobs were aplenty and money flowed like Delhi's large open air sewers - rapid and unrestricted. 

Imperialist America & opulent Europe already reeling under pressures of escalating costs from operating from home was always looking for greener & cheaper pastures to cut their costs to less than a third. India was their golden goose. With a large English speaking population and dime a dozen technical & vocational institutions churning out graduates by the hour, they had literally struck gold. The western world's second gold rush had begun and everybody looked east. The first step in cutting burgeoning domestic operations cost, they had to 'outsource' a significant portion of their routine work to countries that spoke English and whose workers were willing to offer quality services at a price very minuscule as compared to their compatriots. The 'call centers' were thus christened and a new services business swept millions of undergraduates off their feet. 

The call centers had its Indian workers synchronize their watches to West Coast, East Coast, Central European and Greenwich Mean time zones. The Indians toiled in the night when the west woke up to their balmy mornings. Call centers were designed to offload certain functions that carried little risk if handled from outside such as handling customer queries on products and services, managing customer complaints, telebanking and telemarketing. South Indian cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai proved to be excellent breeding grounds for such enterprises to flourish. A large graduate constituency with a flair for English. This modern day pied piper lured many under graduate students who wanted some extra money for a better social life and a tryst with the corporate life. The benefits were purely mutual. While the companies raked in billions they also created a whole new horizon of jobs. Young men and women could live a life they had always dreamt of, independently. 

What is interesting is the way young India adapted itself to this novel business venture. Well in my personal opinion it was quite hypocritical of the west to have found a 'low cost business center' as they call it, but on the other hand, they hid this fact from their American and European customers. Not till recently, before the Democrats flaunted their patriotism by denouncing the concept of outsourcing, when the average American dialed a 555 number, he never could have imagined that a router diverted his calls to a far off call center nestled in a tranquil residential colony in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Of course, the farce continued to fool thousands of westerners since the adept Indians had been well trained by 'linguistic trainers' to adopt an American twang or a British twirl in their heavily Indian accented tongue. 

Gangadhar became Gregory and Lalitha became Laura.  This very unofficial  baptism   of sorts converted thousands of chaste Hindus and Muslims to Christian catholics overnight for their night jobs. Unsuspecting customers of home appliances, PCs, banks and even insurance companies would dial up the company's toll free number to find  relief to their queries. Gangadhar aka Gregory would answer these calls and would read out pre - typed answers from his computer screen for typical queries. These call center 'executives' were trained to maintain composure when faced with severe flak, to always address the discerning customer politely with mam and Sir suffixes. Initially, the customers found it extremely practical to be able to talk to a 'company representative' and discuss their issues freely and sometimes even got a quick fire remedy. For certain out of the box technical queries, the poor Indian chap who had no idea about would request for an extended time for arriving at a solution. The call center execs were discouraged from getting personal with the callers, since it would disclose their identities. The westerner would find it a breach of trust if they had to speak to an Asian about their problems and would file an expensive lawsuit against the company. 

The call centers spawned a modern day evil - Telemarketing. Unscrupulous service providers would sell off their customers private information such as names and telephone numbers to many of these telemarketing wings of call centers for handsome prices. Hundreds of trained telemarketeers in Bangalore would then call up NewYork, Denver, Atlanta and Los Angeles to pester Americans with products ranging from a diaper to a Ducati, all the while faking their identity & with an uncanny western accent. The delivery managers back in India were under constant pressure to up the sales of the paying company. So a deluge of calls to America were the order of the day. 

However it was all smooth sailing for the Indian economy as these IT enabled services or ITeS provided much needed relief on the employment front and also created a robust demand for electronics, fashion accessories, cosmetics and automobiles due to the surplus cash available for disposal at the hands of these hundreds of thousands of call center employees. This bubble did survive quite a long tenure and though its girth has reduced significantly these days as the westerners have moved on to even more cheaper shores such as China, Russia and Philippines. 

I have realised after much observation that call centers were created with the specific purpose of distancing an organisation's (particularly banks, insurance cos and FMCG cos) customer base from the organisation itself. These 'middle men' listen to both sides and act as messengers who charge a hefty price. 

In India, call centers make the experience of a complaint lodging and resolution - more harrowing than it would have been if it had been a direct face to face interaction. First of, the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) has been built by such a clever architect that if the customer is in a hurry and is in dire need of a fast response, he would as well give up in frustration since the options & instructions read out by a pre - recorded voice are so verbose and rolled out in such a dull pace. The interaction with a machine drives you nuts and you have to wait at least a good 5 minutes till you hear an option of connecting to a human operator. 

After listening to their emotionless welcome and exchanging other unnecessary pleasantries, you are asked to state your name, address, registered email ID, telephone number, date of birth, your policy number, no of units, sum assured, account number,card number, last transaction amount, last payment made etc etc and etc you are finally asked to state the intention of your call. While all you had to tell them was that your credit card was stolen by some nincompoop while you took the bus or the metro and the company had to block the card 'immediately'. They expect you to remember a plethora of numbers and figures while you are sweating like a pig under stress laid out on the slaughter bench. After you rack your brains for all this information, you are put on hold and then given a lengthy transaction ID and you HAVE to note it down on a paper!!! No! these call center execs do not facilitate you with an SMS of the same to your registered mobile number. 

Imagine, this was a leaf out of my personal experience when I had lost a whopping 9 credit and debit cards on the Delhi Metro and I could fortunately block all cards thanks to another call center 'Just Dial' and with the help of my not so bad memory. 

These call centers are not operated directly by the product manufacturers themselves in order to cut on obvious handling costs. These are companies that handle 'accounts'. So any given call center employee working in a call center hard pressed for revenue and reduction of costs would be handling at least 2 accounts. Accounts are original product manufacturers & service providers with whom the end customer would usually have a grievance. The executives usually are discouraged using logic, intuition and intelligence and are programmed to burp out preset responses. Therefore, many a times, we end up shouting at the poor call center executive, when our queries are not answered and we are talking to a new person each time we dial the telephone numbers to register a complaint or to follow up on the same. 

Today, practically all businesses have outsourced their customer grievance redressal cells to these call centers spread across India. Most of us have now realised their worth and standing and yet we call these guys every time we have an issue with a product or a service. Things do happen and actions are taken and not all is wrong. This business is in its adolescence & is slowing maturing. Many businesses have come out with novel ideas where customers are not harassed by long holds, machine talks and recurrent responses. This is a wonderful business tool and if put to proper use can weave out magic. 

Thank you for reading this post and have a pleasant evening. 

Bus Blues

Continuing with my India - centric topics, this time around I have chosen the humble bus, short for omnibus. The 6 wheeled, diesel powered  machine with doors that swish open at the touch of a button, the mango man's automobile,  is the muse for my latest post. 

It is seldom true if anybody in India hasn't ridden this amazing mode of transportation. It is impossible even for a single Indian, no matter how rich or poor that he / she would have missed a ride in this. Of course, I wouldn't count the scores of those Indians living in the remotest of places, which do not have access to roads leave alone travelling in buses and those millions living way below the poverty line. These are unfortunate exceptions. 

Well, we are all in agreement that we have all had the experience of travelling in buses, so it is all the more easy for each one of us to identify with the situations and the incidents that one comes across while hitching a ride in one of these metallic monsters. 

In the pre - economic liberation era in India i.e. in the 80s, when possession of a private 4 wheeler was the prerogative of the affluent &  rides in the auto rickshaw were reserved only for those special occasions or when your parents were in a particularly good mood, the bus was the obvious choice that was available to move about the city. 

Mostly state owned and even operated by Govt. departments, there was very little choice in the way we traveled. Well, I am still talking about the 80s and the 90s era when these rectangular muscular red buses abounded Bangalore's narrow gullies. However, Bangalore was still free of the IT infestation and the roads though labyrinthine were spacious enough for the free movement of these cattle of the automobile kingdom. 

2 entries, one at the front and one at the rear ensured that curious Georges did not jostle with the ladies. Special reservations for the fairer sex was also a revolutionary idea that put the latter on a pedestal. The friendly conductor would patiently ask the commuters to enter into a contract by selling tiny tickets with so many numbers and letters printed alongside the department emblem that only he could find a purpose for. One could observe the artiste in these men in khakis when they tactfully twisted and turned their wrists to punch half a dozen tiny holes on these paper tickets. These days, the IT city has conductors in Air conditioned buses handing out print outs of these tickets with details of the distance you would be travelling and the names of your embarking and disembarking points. 

The olden buses in Bangalore did not have those doors that swish open and close at the mere pull of a lever or a press of button. The entrances were just large openings at the sides of the bus, accessorized with metallic steps and a namesake railbar. These were the popular 'footboards'. Footboard travelling was the adventurous sport and the youth derived an adrenalin rush by dangling perilously on these footboards while the bus rambled along the city's roads amidst traffic that was poised for an explosion of sorts in the near future, when a bespectacled software engineer with rims as thick as 2 five rupee coins placed together, would soon start his dream project with some of this techie pals. The city's long standing monicker of 'Garden city' was all set to change to 'Silicon city'. 

Maybe, our mothers fed us real food back then, we had a robust body structure that had become impervious to the constant upheavals that the bus went through while driving in Bangalore's notorious pot hole ridden streets. I do credit the later governments of having improved the city's infrastructure quite significantly in line with its ever expanding economy and demography. 

As a student, when I did travel in these buses a few times, I experienced the true 'essence' of India. The jam packed buses during the peak hour traffic, especially in the summer gave way to a myriad of aromas (pun intended) to tingle your olfactory nerves. Truly, India has been built on the sweat and blood of its millions of citizens and one could get a first hand account of my fellow countrymen's first contribution. 

Bangalore, at least was blessed with bus stops that had decent shelters for the commuters to rest while waiting for the next bus. Back then, these buses were hardly ever on time and when they did come, they would be packed to the hilt. Tempers would run high when you had to muscle your way, first through those adventurous footboard travellers and then through the men who stood leaning against the support columns inside the bus. You would be the chose target of more senior commuters if you were a student, since (a) you travelled at concessional rates (b) you were small enough to be shouted at and (c) you carried bags that could have easily accommodated another person in its place. 

Another interesting aspect to travelling in these city buses was the 'surprise raids' by the department's vigilance section when they would board a randomly selected bus and would start checking the commuters for their tickets. A ticket - less traveler if found would be the center of everyone's attention as he was in for a grand mortification ceremony at the hands of these profanity happy 'department men' and sometimes women. A short lesson in honesty was mandatory and then came a demand for a hefty penalty. Obviously the poor chap who avoided buying the heavily subsidised ticket in the first place would not be in a position to pay the fine. After having a 'hit' the squad of inspectors move out of the bus along with the hapless conductor who also is in for an unwelcome penalty and a stern warning. Outside you observe the defaulter negotiating hard with the inspectors for an 'out of system' settlement. One would hear a wise crack from a corner of the bus, that the inspectors who usually raided during month ends - their lean period, have finally got what they wanted. 

A common sight on Bangalore's roads is the sight of dozens of people pushing a broken down bus. The buses make more than 5 - 6 trips on a regular route on any given day and they are hardly ever sent over for a thorough maintenance and repair job, except of course once in a year during Navrathri in Sep - Oct when Hindus worship weapons, tools and automobiles. The buses are decked up like bridesmaids on this occasion and are given a full body wash with papier mache ribbons and other decorative items are hung & pasted all over the bus - inside and out. 

Over the last decade at the turn of the new millennium, much has changed for good for the buses of Karnataka in general and Bangalore in specific. Both KSRTC and BMTC are the only state owned transport departments that are consistently raking in significant profits mainly due to their customer - centric programs and introduction of a number of novel schemes that cater to almost every commuting needs of the citizen. Bangalore has the highest number of buses and is second only to Chennai in India followed by Delhi and Mumbai. There are buses of literally all kinds plying the nook and corner of the city. Be it the buses that travel the inner echelons or the buses that shuttle around the city's round peripheral ring roads. There the posh air conditioned Volvos that provide a good enough reason to travel for the city's connoisseurs. There are the mini buses that are designated for routes that have narrow lanes where the big ones find maneuvering a difficult task.

Due to the ticking time bomb of traffic in the city, the state government has been striving hard to promote the use of buses for commuting to school and work. It introduced with much fanfare "Bus day" which is on the 4th of every month. Aimed at encouraging professionals who use their private modes of transportation to get to work to take to buses and at hundreds  parents who block the city streets while dropping their kids to schools, this initiative has been a success and has found an unlikely partner among the IT fraternity who have shown laudable enthusiasm in supporting the government's novel idea. This also reduces the pollution levels and the stress on the traffic management system. 

I take the bus whenever I need to go to the airport in Bangalore. The present day service of the uber cool "Vayu Vajra" is simply awesome and is definitely a pleasant break from the pollution and noise outside of it. The conductors and drivers who are both dressed in eye pleasing whites complete with lapels are cordial and serve with a smile unlike the worked up men in khaki in the regular city buses. 

Kudos to the transport department for having beefed up this section of the infrastructure so very nicely and for making the lives of millions of commuters all the more easy. Thankfully, Bangalore is getting the Metro and this metallic beast of burden will be relieved of some of its problems in the near future. To part off, I have a small bus riddle for all of you to figure out. 

- Have a happy journey. 

You are a bus driver at a station. 10 get on the bus and no one gets off. You drive 10 miles to another station where 3 people get on and 1 gets off. You drive another 10 miles only to get 25 people on and 5 people go off. Next you drive 3 miles while 12 people exit the bus. You drive back to the place knowing that a couple more stops along the way untill the ride is done. At the 2nd to last station 5 people get on and 2 get off. And at the last station (5.5 miles) 25 people get on for no reason and 1 gets off. What is the bus drivers eye color?

Thursday, 26 April 2012


I am a man obsessed with my country of birth, India. One who has walked across India has walked across the world, twice. There is so much of mysticism, marvel and awe in each and every aspect finding an existential position in my country. My way of looking at seemingly normal things are quite different. Like an inquisitive child, that is more interested in the internal mechanisms of a Mattel toy rather than its ethereal appearance, I delve into the interesting inside of things by mentally dissecting objects and situations in front of me. 

This time around, what flashed across my mind was the science behind India's greatest fashion icon, The Saree. No matter how many fashionistas and new age divas have comfortably adapted to western designer attires, we all know that Indian women look their flattering best in the saree. The Saree is generally a single 6 yard cloth that is draped around in different styles. These are seamless wonders whose beauty is greatly enhanced by its wearer (as long it is of the female kind). 

The World's Longest Saree 

The earliest reference to Saree can be traced back to the Indus valley civilisation, circa 2500 - 1800 B.C. when Indus valley priests used drapes which bore uncanny resemblance to the present day Saree. We must all remember that even ancient Indian civilisations held women in extremely high regards and the vedic age witnessed their glory reach its zenith with greatly admired and respected women scholars Mytreyi and Gargi. 

The word Saree is derived from the Sankrit 'Sati' which means a Strip of cloth and subsequently the common man's Prakriti language changed it to Sadi and after several change of tongues it became Saree in Hindi. 

I recently found out there are several ways in which one can drape around a Saree. 

1. Worn in The Nivi Style, mainly on important occassions by women of Andhra Pradesh
2. The Bengali & Oriya style by women of that region
3. The Dravidian style by women of Tamil Nadu
4. The Kastha style by women of Maharashtra.

(Source Courtesy: 

Since ancient ages the Sarees have been woven by skilled weavers by hand and the same is still very much in vogue and in high demand and also fetches a handsome sum of money for the seller. Saree weaving machines or power looms provided access to sarees woven out of synthetic materials as well and catered to the burgeoning demand, both in the domestic and international markets. 

The natural fiber, Cotton was the main and probably the only source of fabric for weaving the Saree. This material provided much desired relief to the victims of India's scorching heat. 

Not intending to make this topic all knowledge and thereby dull, I take you all to my days as a kid. Being the only kid, I was forced to move around with my parents whenever they felt the urge for some shopping. Impatience and a short attention span are the true traits of a kid and my nature was tantamount to these qualities. As a small boy, I felt my most harrowing experiences were when my mum & dad used to walk into these huge showrooms specializing in the sales of 'latest' Sarees. First of, I always used to wonder what all the hype and hoopla around this long piece of cloth was about. All of them seemed to look the same, only they came in some different colours and patterns. I used to liken them to the window drapes that we had put on in our home. 

The average time my mum spent at each of these Saree shops was roughly about 2 hours - the show time of any regular Hollywood potboiler. The salesperson across the counter used to have a smile stitched across the face and had the patience of Mother Earth herself. Dozens and Dozens of these 9 yard wonders were pulled off shelves and spread across under the scrutinising eyes of my mum. 2 - 3 heaps of Sarees later, my parents have a telepathic conference and just decide to walk out of this showroom! This was a typical 'cloak and dagger' situation for a 9 - 10 year old kid like me who was all the while hoping that we would walk out as early as possible with a satisfactory selection made. All hopes are dashed when we leave empty handed after investing my childhood's precious 2 hours, obviously on a weekend. Not to forget, my dad's face who looked like he was palpitating just imagining the fierce thoughts across the salesperson's mind when he begins folding back the dozens and dozens of Sarees back to the shelves waiting for an impending thunderstorm. So then, we make trips to another half a dozen Saree shops in the city's central business district and finally after 5 - 6 hours and a lunch break a selection is made and we return home with a tired kid, an anger gulping dad and a visibly happy mum. 

These were the 'normal' outings but things went more wrong, whenever there was a marriage or a betrothal ceremony in the family inner circle. It was time to enhance the shopping budget and go buy one of those expensive Sarees spun out of Silk! The shops housing these upper class of clothing material are huge and have more than a dozen smiling attendants just waiting to serve. My mum who I usually gave low marks for her general knowledge and awareness on current affairs, always astounded me with her in - depth know- how when it came to Sarees especially of the silken kind. 

Names like Kanjeevaram, Mysore, Dharmavaram so on and so forth just rolled out of her tongue and only the grown ups seemed to understand. Obviously, for me the only difference from the earlier harrowing experience was here the wait was to get longer and more painful and the heaps got even bigger. These expensive cloths woven out of worm discharges had Gold and Silver embroidered into them in intricate patterns. The 'borders' had patterns of flowers, elephants, peacocks and other colorful creatures. The colors of the sarees are mentally cross referenced with the existing wardrobe at home and the colors of the gems on the jewellery. Careful attention was given to ensure that the selected color and pattern does not match with any of the sarees in possession of my mum's friends and relatives - both close and distant. Obviously one cannot be caught dead with a matching pattern and color. That would be disastrous. After many rounds of screening, some are short listed and many more are rejected. After at least 3 - 4 hours the selection is made, which is apparently the best buy for the pre- decided budget. 

My teenage years gave my heavenly respite from all this tamasha since these were the days of rebellion and rejecting all of my parents' requests to accompany them to these shopping escapades. Home was dominion and I ruled it. 

The nightmare of saree shopping haunted me once more when I was a bachelor with an engagement ring on my finger. I had replaced my dad and I was the one carrying the palpitating face. Imagine the above exercise for one saree and a similar expedition for a dozen. It is 12 times more the trauma!Of course, I had the able assistance of my well experienced female family members, but I had to rest my posterior for hours in one of those plush air conditioned saree showrooms. 

Men, I have realised are lousy when it comes to selecting a 'surprise' saree for either their mothers, wives or sisters. We just do not have any idea about the color, the fabric, the design or the prices. When alone, we are the most gullible of customers and we end up buying stuff in our over enthusiasm to impress the females. I have had this experience when I along with a guy friend of mine went shopping for Sarees for my wife, my mother in law and my sister. Recalling our respective experiences as children, we did manage to spend some significant time ( I would qualify 30 minutes for 5 sarees as an excellent investment) and bought half a dozen. We had even managed a good bargain and there was also an 'unlimited exchange' period on the goods. Later, I would find out much to my embarrassment that the Sarees we had bought were not worth a dime and they would look very unflattering on the recipients if they ever decided to wear them at all. Our gifts were politely rejected by all the beneficiaries and now our maiden selection of sarees are the denizens of the cold dark recesses in the closets. 

Even worse, we realized much later that both I and my friend were swindled beyond hope and there was no way we could correct our errors since we had both made the purchase in Agra - notorious for fooling hapless tourists like us. 

This is a science that no man can conquer and it is left best with the females. After flushing down a couple of thousands of rupees, I have wised up and I make sure that it is best not to surprise your wife, when it comes to getting a saree for her. 

The End - of My worries. 

Roses are Red
Violets are blue
Just 6 yards in my saree
Make it 9 will you

- Anonymous. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Loquacious Locomotives

These metallic juggernauts are often referred to as ladies because they usually arrive with a lot of noise and also leave equally noisy. Also, since these rugged looking chain of bogeys have a lot to say and they do speak a lot edging on being quite often loquacious just like our beloved ladies who do not seem to know when to apply the brakes to their ever wagging tongues. No offense to either the ladies or the locomotives since we keep both of them very close to our hearts. 

The trains  are a world within themselves. There are so many people travelling on any given  train to constitute the populace of a small English county or to fill a medium sized football stadium. There are new born infants to ripe old granddads and grandmums in this chugging and belching village / county on wheels. 

Ever since James Watt invented the humble steam engine, the locomotives have changed our perception of mass transit systems. Her rumble and ramblings made way through titanic boulders resting on majestic mountain ranges, through cities and villages, deserts and even permafrost. She assisted their masters conquer territories and make colonies out of them and add subjects to their empire. 

She, has a lot to tell us all. She has stood along more than a century of human history and circled the earth more than once. If we imagine her as a fuel guzzling and smoke belching beast of labor with an intelligence of a horse or an ox, then we can very well imagine and grow ears to the numerous stories she has to tell us. 

The Trans Alpine
She knows no fatigue as she chugs through the scorching sun of the desert, the strong winds of the river side and the shivering cold of the snow clad mountains while the hundreds of men, women and children rest in her serpentine belly unmindful of all this. 

A royal saloon car
The locomotives were the symbol of great pride for royalties of yore when the king's, queen's & the prince / princess's saloons rolled on steel rails through the villages and towns of their kingdom greeted by cheering subjects. She eavesdropped on violet tinted conversations, surreptitious schemes discussed by generals & ministers with their kings and passing of royal sweet nothings in the mobile harem. 

The parallel & seamless bars of solid forged steel that run across miles and yet never  meet each other carry the heavy burden of a small world rushing past towards its destination. The toughened wheels of the locomotive eating away steel itself during one of its many superb runs. 

A Japanese Maglev train
The Caucasian (indicating Europe) railways have always been a notch superior when compared with its rustic earthen relatives such as the Asian and African (of course both of British origin) and very unarguably still is. The western world had the fastest sprinters who ran the longest distances. The far east and the mystic orient have now caught up with great style and panache and have runners that do not even touch the rails below (Maglev). 

Kaiser Willhelm II's troops with artillery on a light
locomotive enroute to the western front
Not always these gentle giants have been enjoying the good side of humanity. They have been witness to the mind chilling experiments of zealots and tyrants who exploited this icon of progress to mobilize thousands of their gun totting minions to scourge the countryside of its earthen charm. Its endurance translated its widened employment in affairs of the violent types such as wars. The locomotives were widely used in the two great wars by pioneers of this earth shattering technology. 

She was a mute and helpless accomplice in the Third Reich's satanic plans of a Jew free world when scores of innocents were moved in cattle containers to notorious concentration camps such Auchwitz. 

She became an unwilling partner when our great nation was split in two due to the different  names of our Gods. With great effort it carried millions across borders. 

Coal Wagon
Just like us flesh and blood humans, the locomotive is also classified based on her caste and creed. There are the commercial locomotives which enjoy the luxury of plush upholstery sewn into its oak wood pews and chairs, the noisy rickety trams that slowly push past the traffic infested roads of metropolises, the athletic super fast trains that compete with the Wright brothers' invention kissing the skies, the modern day metros that travel in the clouds and circle the city-scape again and again and the locomotive's poor cousin the freight carriers which are the lowest ranked carrying dusty coal to fire breathing boilers in industries, cattle and other beasts that drop dung by the minute, even chunks of mother earth herself embedded with precious metals & minerals. 

In India, the British introduced the railways and expanded its network with much enthusiasm. Call it British impudence, they spread its reach to many places in India that were previously unheard of as the white man was so cocky sure about his everlasting rule over this temperate paradise. This was one of the good things that the Brits did for us Indians and we have gained a lot from these common man's wheels. While she had remained silent when the nation stepped back into the dark ages slaughtering their brothers and sisters on the basis of their names, she sang and danced when she was the chosen ambassador of peace and chugged across the frontier holding out the proverbial olive branch. For the unfamiliar this is the reference to India's peace initiative 'Samjhauta Express'. 

She has been widely ignored and undernourished in this fast growing nation and has often bore the brunt due to the ineptitude of men in charge of her. Chinks in her security armor have often resulted in grave injuries to her body and soul. 

Despite these obvious shortcomings, there is a certain enchantment about her which is why she has been successful in attracting people in droves to be part of her circuitous journey through the vast expanse of the country. She is a messiah for the country's millions of poor and gives them a fighting chance to survive and even surpass the seemingly insurmountable situations in life. 

The humble locomotive has been a force to reckon with in India's growth saga and she is destined for an even great future in this robustly growing economy of ours. There has been great impetus lately on the safe operation of this engineering wonders and also to provide a more luxurious travel experience for the country's fast increasing middle class. 

These are excerpts from some of the episode's in a locomotive's lifetime. She does have a lot more to say as there are always new and exciting twists in the tale. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for more!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Innocuous Interpretations

Man's mind works in interesting ways. Just like no two fingerprints are alike, no two minds interpret things the exact same way. We would have come across such instances many times in our lives when we agree upon a certain issue with our friends but by arriving at the agreement with different approaches. Like a solution to a mathematical equation can be found applying so many formulae, people can interpret a problem or a situation in several different but totally innocuous manners. 

I recall a very famous story from the Turkish folklore. This story is about the legendary Nasreddin Hodja about whom we all used to read extensively in the 'Tinkle' comic books. 

It so happens that one fine day a very well renowned scholar visits the village of Aksehir which is incidentally where the Hodja lived. The scholar is accompanied by his group of admirers and disciples. The learned man asks the villagers to fetch their smartest man to hold a scholarly discussion. They promptly come back with the Hodja as he is a legend in the Turkish village for his wit and presence of mind. The Hodja spoke only Turkish and the foreign savant doesn't speak Turkish so they decide to communicate in sign languages. 
The scholar uses his stick to draw a big circle on the ground. The Hodja responds by dividing the circle in two by drawing a line in between. The foreign wise man draws another line perpendicular to the Hodja's line. The Hodja not to be left behind draws with his hands 4 small circles in each of the 2 quarters. The scholar then bends over and gestures with his palms facing the sky and wiggling his fingers. The Hodja then returns the gesture with his palms facing the earth and wiggling his fingers. The foreign scholar seems to be very happy with the muted discussion and he leaves a satisfied man. One of the scholar's disciples asks him what the discussion was all about. 
The scholar explains that he drew a circle saying that the earth was round and the Hodja drew a line cutting it into 2 halves representing the equator. Then the scholar drew a line perpendicular to divide earth into 4 quarters - 3 of water and 1 of land. The Hodja drew circles indicating the presence of under currents in the oceans. The scholar with his palm gestures expressed the water warms up and raises to the skies. The Hodja reverts with his gestures that this water then cools down and falls as rain. 
Meanwhile, the villagers whose happiness knew no bounds since the pride of their village was secured by the Hodja's scholarly repertoire. When asked to explain the Hodja explains thus: The savant drew a circle indicating a large plate of baklava which is a Turkish sweet dish. The Hodja draws a line in the middle saying that he can only spare half a plate. The savant then divides it into 4 quarters indicating 3 portions of sugar and 1 portion of honey. The Hodja agreed and drew circles indicating that 2 portions be mixed well. The scholar then insisted that they heat the syrup in a blazing fire and the Hodja adds that they drop crushed nuts over the syrup!!!
This is one of my favorite Hodja stories and I thought of sharing it with you all. Today is Friday and the weekend beckons. Enjoy your weekend and be happy! 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Wanton way of Wealth

Good was the age when there was electricity in the skies. The Indian Zeus - Indra showered upon the earthlings mighty thunderbolts from up heaven with his Vajra and rains ensued. The sun god gave plenty of light and energy during the day. The moon calmed down the earth simmering from the blistering heat of the day. Man domesticated beasts to perform his bidding and guard his homes and livestock. He dug out nuggets of gold from his bare hands just like he excavated copper and iron from mother earth's bosom. He gathered berries from the thick dense shrubs and gathered wood spared by the forests. He created the spark of energy from rocks and dry twigs and it gave him warmth during the cold and harsh winters. He danced & sung with his family and friends and his entertainment needs were met. He slept without a splintering headache and looked forward to a new morrow. He sprung yarn out of soil and he extracted color from the sweetest of fruits and juiciest vegetables. He created wonders that would stand the test of time and he studied the stars in the peace of the night. He mastered medicine and surgery and the crafts of engineering and mathematics. He invented money and he was no longer happy. 

Money has been the root cause for all bad things ever to occur on earth. Indian mythology is rife with stories of demonic kings performing severe penances to obtain supernatural strengths that would make the rulers of heaven, earth and the netherworld. The allure of the riches abounding in heaven corrupted the minds of these denizens of the underworld. Like the One Ring corrupted the creature Gollum, money has been corrupting the minds of men ever since its inception. 

The greatest wars of the world were fought for power and power translated into access to money. It has the power to induce a hallucinating effect in the most sane & wise of men and it is a very potent drug for which all of us have a strong fixation for. There is no rehabilitation center that has been set up exclusively to detoxify the afflicted of the money disorder. 

The Olympians fought the Titans for restoration for power to rule the nine worlds. On earth, power was money. Money or wealth was the reason Genghis Khan & Kublai Khan's marauding hordes created rivers of blood from the steppes of Mongolia to the prairies of Eurasia. The Spaniards set sail all across the world looking for treasures and previously undiscovered civilisations. We all know the legend of El Dorado where the Spaniards were in search of a mythical city made entirely of pure solid gold. 

The Mayans, Aztecs, Incans are all known to be civilisations with vastly violent histories always on the battlefields for territory and wealth. 

In Ramayana, one of India's two great epics, the demon king Ravana invades Lanka - The kingdom of Kuber, the Lord of wealth and also his half brother to himself lord over the unlimited source of wealth on earth. In Mahabharata, there is a great war of 18 days between cousins for territory and pride. The Kauravas who ruled over Hastinapur were deeply envious of the mystical city of Indraprastha of their paternal cousins the Pandavas who had erected this heaven on earth with the able guidance of the divine architect Vishwakarma himself. The epic war saw the complete routing of the entire Kaurava clan. 

Money maketh a man a very guile creature. It is the ultimate destination for which man is willing to stretch to any lengths and stoop to any depths. It obscures all images of humanity, righteousness and obliterates the clear distinction between good and evil. Faced with the opportunity of making money, man opts for the most bizarre of life's options. He shreds apart siblings, peeves his parents & destroys his dear ones. Money gives one a high that is unmatched by the most powerful intoxicant available in the market. 

Napoleon Bonaparte
No doubt money built great cities of the world but they were built on the foundations of murder. Money fueled the extravagant lifestyles of psychotic tyrants such as Julius Caesar, Caligula, Napoleon Bonaparte, Kublai Khan so and so forth. It is believed that the French lost an entire generation of men when their diminutive emperor decided to invade the frigid landscapes of Russia in winter. His blindness for power resulted in the slow and cold death of hundreds of thousands of his loyal soldiers. Kublai Khan's two failed expeditions to conquer Japan saw the end of Mongolian invincibility and the death of thousands of his men.

Such is the allure of wealth that men were not contended with ruling over huge swathes of land that they always needed more and more. Kublai Khan ruled over 1/5th of the inhabitants of the world in his time and yet he was hungry for more. Money turns men into meandering monsters who have no real aim or goal in life. 

World War I erupted as a result of Kaiser Willhem II lending support to Austria by marching his armies against Serbia. Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia formally mobilised his army in support of Serbia. England & France entered the fray to maintain the balance of power in Europe. At the end of this great war, Germany was left in tatters and inflation was so high that people had to carry pounds of money to get grams of bread. Though, over a 100,000 jews fought on the German side and laid down their lives, Kaiser Willhem who was now in exile in the Denmark squarely blamed the Jews for all of Germany's woes. Apparently, the enterprising community of Jews who were mainly businessmen and indulged in money lending and banking, were the scapegoats to his failed plans. 

We all know what followed next. Hitler was elected Dictator of Germany and his minions of Third Reich and SS were part of a devilish Pogrom that slaughtered millions of innocent Jews. 

Money literally controls the world and an unbalance in a country's economy can lead to civil unrest, wide spread looting, soaring inflation that would make life's basic necessities a luxury. This is interestingly portrayed in the German movie "The counterfeiters" where Hitler plans to ruin English and American economies by flooding their markets with counterfeit notes. This was perhaps the beginning of this notorious crime which is a large scale clandestine business supported by many corrupt governments that intend to wage proxy wars in a rival country's markets rather than on the battle fields. 

Money blanks out all rational thinking and incites the sleeping ugly beast in every man. It makes him a hypocrite beyond reform and it renders his basic senses averse to obvious signs of wrong doing. As they say Money makes everything right. Rich and powerful organisations made up of mega business houses operate in the shadows and find it justified to do anything necessary to make more of their commodity - Money. Wealth creation was never an ethical venture and it has become all the more scandalous as we grow old. 

A classic example to this is the case of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which was liquidated in the last decade due to its inappropriate business dealings and total lack of transparency. Interestingly, major audit firms such as E&Y were also held accountable for having overlooked certain in your face flaws. Most of us would have watched the Clive Owen - Naomi Watts thriller "The International" which is a syndicate that acted as a banker and arms broker for organised crime and corrupt governments. The very first management lesson we come across is that the purpose of any business is to create profits. It also does talk about ethics and laws against cartels, tax evasion, embezzlement of funds, declaring false P&L statements. However, it is a well known and undocumented rule that abound in management circles that ethics do not generate business and certainly does not give you wealth. Though many mega conglomerates proudly discuss their zero tolerance policy for corruption, many transactions of the grey color keep taking place day in and day out. 

To reinforce my argument on the corrupting ways of money, I take reference of last decade's civil strife in Africa's Garden of Eden - Congo. Belgian business houses dealing in diamonds and gems apparently used to buy diamonds from certain groups at rates that were much lower than market price. This money was used by the militia in Congo for ethnic cleansing. This was the blood diamond. After genocides of countless men and women,many a human rights organisations highlighting the matter a Hollywood movie later, the Belgian companies decided to veto out purchase of such blood diamonds. 

These are International cases but we have hundreds of such incidents that occurred on our very own backyard where money bought the justice system. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 where the poisonous gas methyl isocyanate was accidentally released in the atmosphere from the Union Carbide factory that killed more than 3000 people and permanently incapacitated tens of thousands of more. The Govt of India agreed upon an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for a sum of just over $400 million. This was the value estimated by lawyers for the thousands of Indian lives lost. Many are still fighting for their lives and countless are yet to get their compensation from the Govt. The perpetrator of this crime of negligence - Warren Anderson, now a disillusioned octogenarian is enjoying freedom and there have been no convictions till date.

There are daily reports of how men with money and influence get away with the most heinous crimes. Or at least they use the buying power of their money to prolong the justice delivery system. Truly, justice delayed is justice denied. 

Money erases many barriers as that of caste, colour, creed and education. A wealthy man is accepted and welcomed by one and all. No one bothers to investigate the source of his possibly ill gotten wealth. But money creates a very solid social barrier between the ones who have it and the ones who don't. 

Communism believes in social equality and doesn't foster accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. However in today's two biggest communist countries Russian and China, we see hundreds of millionaires and billionaires but many more in acute poverty. The power of money is such that no philosophy of man can remain successful when pitted against it. 

Money is man's most powerful and potent weapon and it all lies in his hands to put it to good use. Without money, many a man's greatest scientific, engineering & medical research and achievements wouldn't have seen the light of the day. Slowly but steadily man has realised his follies and putting honest efforts to make good his many wrong doings. 

Governments are using the motivational power of money to convince heavy industries across the world to reduce their carbon footprint. It is also a instrumental to bring to justice deadly criminals wanted in crimes against humanity. It is most useful in funding the numerous medical research in our fight against the unseen virus and the conspicuously visible danger of religious extremism. Money is required to pool resources to alleviate hunger & poverty and put to stop civil strife in countries. It is required for the quick and effective reconstruction of infrastructure in cities and towns devastated by war and natural calamities. It is required to protect the freedom of expression and fundamental human rights of entire communities of people under a tyrant's rule. 

Over the last 40,000 years since modern day man set foot on the planet, his needs have only been increasing and the resources at his disposal have been ever diminishing. Today man is looking in the direction of space to satisfy his ever expanding bag of wishes. Money is a resource created by man and it is all set to engulf him in its death grip. We have come a very long way to just stop and turn back. The least we can do is to decelerate the rate at which we are proceeding towards our imminent doom.

Realise the inherent empathy within us towards humanity and the earth. Reject the idea of snuffing out one life to brighten up another. Develop an environment of coexistence. Peg the unethical practices of amassing wealth which is gnawing away at the human fabric. Eradicate the evilness wrought in by the concept of capitalism. 

It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.

- Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Autorickshaw Diaries

Auto - rickshaws are those ubiquitous three wheeled juggernauts that run around Indian roads ferrying passengers from across the farthest points of a city or a town. These black and yellow machines which recently change colours to a more environmental friendly green and yellow run by private operators act as vital supplements to the burgeoning issue of public transportation. 

In some parts of town where public transportation operated by Government is inefficient or just not enough to cater to people's needs, these little automobiles come to the rescue and are most suited to cover short distances on routes that generally do not appear on the bus map. 

These 3 wheelers are spacious enough for 3 average sized adults to travel in relative comfort. Its 150 CC petrol / CNG fired engine is powerful enough to pull you through some really steep roads. When it comes to air conditioning, you are in for a pleasant surprise as you are privileged with fresh natural air in 360 degree surround. 

Although, these common man's transport do have an excuse of shock absorption in built in them, please do not keep your expectations high when you travel India's famous pot hole ridden lanes in these. 

These 'Autos' come equipped with a customised Made in India taxi meter which runs much faster than these autos themselves. Of course, one might say that a ride in relative comfort comes with a premium.

All this, was about the machine. A machine is incomplete without a man. An ride on the autorickshaw is made most memorable by the experience one derives from the interaction with the rider or the driver. Like most men, autorickshaw drivers range from downright obnoxious to interesting and sometimes even inspiring. 

I recall an incident when I was just a boy of 11 - 12 years. I had just collected my marks - sheet from my school and my mother had kept me company. We were on our way back home in one of those spacious BMTC buses & while disembarking the bus my shell shocked mum suddenly realised that her vanity bag had been flicked off by some extremely stealthy pick pocket. Unfortunately for us, that bag had money, keys to our house, my mum's credit & identity cards and other stuff. My mum somehow got us both home with her presence of mind. Those were the days before the mobile revolution took India by storm. So there was no one we could contact on emergency except for dad. After convincing a nearby shopkeeper that we had really been victims of a smooth criminal, we could call and inform our dad from a pubic telephone and we went home to just grumble over the day's happenings. 
The next day my mum was in for a very pleasant surprise. While at work, she received a call from an acquaintance of ours from whom we regularly bought items for the kitchen. There was good news on the other end. Her stolen purse was found and they were in its possession. Most of the things were in place except of course for some petty cash. Apparently, the thief had used an autorickshaw after the successful 'heist', took out the money and abandoned the bag for which he found no real use. This honest autorickshaw driver who found the bag lying on the passenger seat, took the pain to thoroughly search the belly of the bag and found an invoice belonging to a shop from whom our family used to buy regularly. Though not in his regular route, this good samaritan traced this shop and handed over the bag after much assurance from our acquaintance that the bag would be handed over to its true owner. Mum finally got back her bag with everything intact. Her only grouse was that she could not personally thank this guardian angel. 

This is one of our fondest memories of an autorickshaw and I sincerely wish this honest human being a good life.

There are several other incidents that we would have all heard of how gentlemen autorickshaw drivers have come to the rescue of pregnant women, answered to calls of distress by people being mugged by robbers and even have provided vital leads to police investigating cases. The autorickshaw drivers spend more time on the road than at home and they come across practically all genre of people making use of their services. Most of them would have developed a skill set that enables them to identify the true nature of a person just like the cops have an aptitude to sniff out a criminal from a crowd.

It is also quite interesting the topics that these autorickshaw drivers pick out for discussion. Usually on people's road sense, the harassment they face from the police, deadly affiliations some of their colleagues who have deserted the path of hard work and righteousness that have tarnished the names of their entire fraternity, politics and of course movies. You get more friendly with them and generally they open up their lives in front of you. It is surprising that this 'career' is taken up mostly out of a need rather than out of choice by men belonging to communities and from family backgrounds that stand in stark contrast to the life one can lead by becoming an autorickshaw driver. One often hears about many graduates and even post graduates who believe in leading an honest life becoming rickshaw drivers when society could not provide them with a deserving job.

Autorickshaws provide a respite to many criminals on the path to rehabilitation. The police takes it as a moral responsibility to put back convicted outlaws into mainstream society and tie up with banks & NGOs to sponsor such schemes to help them lead a respectable and honest life.

The professional name of an autorickshaw driver has taken a royal nose dive before the public eye because of the unscrupulous ways of a few wrong doers who believe in holding passengers to ransom, purposely mislead tourists and newcomers to town, flex their muscle & might before the government and threaten to go on flash strikes quite frequently to force the authorities to meekly accept their demands. Today, the public in general have stopped sympathizing with this fraternity as a whole due to the drastic shift in the majority's attitude and dipping servitude, though a few - very few good samaritans still continue to work old school i.e. in the honest way and earn a well deserved livelihood.

I would appreciate if you could all share your best or worst moments in / with the autorickshaw. Maybe a few more good stories will change our bespectacled perception about this class of working men. 

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

Martin Luther King, Jr.