Thursday, April 4, 2019

The survival instinct

As I was entering my office I got a call from my colleague Prasad. Do you know that Narendra Babu has quit – he enquiringly declared with a bit of astonishment. Babu was indeed a hardcore org-person. Had joined the company as a fresher and loved the product that he had seen grow from a single client to 200 clients today. He would be the last person to quit, we all thought.  And Prasad added – you know Krishnan started reporting to him just about a fortnight back. Now, that was a piece of high-end analytics.

Suddenly I recalled the conversation that I had with AP Krishnan some 3 years back.  I had just been given the charge of a new department carved out and APK was one of the first to join the team. He had been an old timer with some 20+ years of experience but was a difficult guy to handle – at least that was what I had heard about him, though had never got a chance to work with him.

During our first conversation, APK was briefing me about the work done by him over the past 20 years and listed out all the Managers that he had worked with. And then, with an impish smile he asked me – do you know what is common across this list? I thought for a moment and said – I think all of them have left the organization now. And with the same mischief in his eyes he added – some of them not in the best of circumstances. I was taken aback by that menacingly honest introduction of APK. But I was badly in need of a Program Manager in my team so just ignored that as a friendly banter. And APK’s reputation as a strong Program Manager was overpowering enough to allay all other concerns at that point.

Two years later, I was in a situation when one of the programs handled by Krishnan was in trouble. And my new boss was livid. I was given an ultimatum that if the situation was not in control in 2-weeks’ time, I should look for a job. One of those evenings, we were sitting in a shanty bar in Mumbai, with a mug of beer in hand, discussing the strategy with APK for the set of problems in hand. For the first time, I could see APK feeling helpless and frustrated at the unending deluge of problems.  I suddenly recollected our first conversation. I felt like a wounded soldier on the hospital bed. Despite a valiant fight, the end appeared so near.  A good two months had passed since that late night call I had with my boss, putting money on my head. The situation had improved but not completely in control.

That night I could not sleep. Within an hour into my sleep I got up sweating. It was a bad dream. I was standing all alone in that big conference room of this client Bank, where large framed portraits of all their past MDs used to hang across the four walls. But what I saw in that dream was all the past Managers of APK smiling at me from those large portraits and there was one blank frame staring at me. And I knew the end was close. It was my turn now.

Next day, I entered the Bank and went straight into the room given to us for the project work. My eyes were red as I had not been able to sleep the whole night. To my surprise APK was already there – he normally used to come after I had settled in.  He too appeared a bit haggard.  And after a short exchange of pleasantries, he said, in all seriousness, that he had decided to go on a sabbatical for one year. The reason of course was not the travails of this project but something personal. I tried to reason it out with him but he had made up his mind on that.

As both of us got busy with our work in the morning, this sudden development kept pounding my mind. Is he really serious? Is there really a personal reason? Will this save him from losing his job? Or both our jobs for that matter? And that famous Bollywood dialogue came to my mind. Gabbar ke taap se tumhe sirf ek hi aadmi bacha sakta hai… Khud Gabbar.

And now, when APK joined back after one-year sabbatical, he started reporting to Narendra Babu. Prasad was perhaps hinting at this when he said that APK had just started reporting to Babu. Or did he genuinely mean that Babu’s team would be dismantled so APK would be available again for us to consider for one of our projects.

As I was deeply immersed in these thoughts, Raji knocked at my door. I had a scheduled review on the status of my operations. Towards the end of that review, Raji reminded me that one indent for a Program Manager that we had put in the talent portal was expiring and asked me whether that had to be extended. I felt like a live bullet had just gone past brushing my ears.  APK’s profile was a perfect fit for my indent. It was a close shave I thought – a second time in a row. And I told Raji – please delete that indent, we are not looking for any program manager for now. As Raji was leaving the room, I just turned towards her and asked – is there a way to find out who all have an open indent for program manager? I might have an opportunity to return a favour, I thought. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Complex Majoritarianism and Majoritarian Complicity?

Recently, I was traveling by the Shatabdi express train from Chennai to Bangalore. During the journey, I observed that the steward serving us food was not very pleasant in his demeanor. Many of the passengers felt the same.  Some of them just ignored and a few others reacted but did not get any response.  And then, one of the passengers mentioned that the stewards were from the northern part of India and that indeed was the problem -  the north Indians coming down to south for work and vitiating the atmosphere.

As a matter of fact, the steward was indeed unpleasant but was not rude at all. The auto-rickshaw drivers in Chennai, on the other hand, are rude to the core. And I reckon, none of them is from the northern part of India. Same is the case with the local auto-rickshaw drivers in Bangalore or in Delhi. But dealing with them, people handle it as an individual aberration. However, when an ‘outsider’ shows a little attitude, the reaction turns parochial and an entire group is branded.

And therein lies the complexity of majoritarianism. The regional, religious, language or the social-class majority seeks a certain degree of primacy in the society, with a sense of entitlement. Be it this train incident; a roadside skirmish in any Indian city; an ostensible denial of a minority right in a majority domain; inside a minority dominated pocket within a majority expanse or even an offbeat thinker who doesn’t align with the majority viewpoint, be at work or in a society – the majoritarianism tends to command everything. Right from a trivial dress-code to a more expansive social practices or even to an organizational strategy.

As long as the smaller group remains submissive or compliant, there are no issues. The larger group doesn’t feel threatened as long as it maintains an upper hand. And precisely for that reason, the migrant businessmen from a specific part of the country are highly successful across the country and still are never at odds with the majority groups.  The psychology of Majoritarianism, howsoever complex it may appear, has also got to do something with the complicity of the Majoritarian. A majority group also consists of some balanced, moderate individuals. In fact, they form the majority within the majority. However, they remain passive on the face of such majoritarianism. And, as a result,  the small majoritarianist group sways passionate sentiments for unjustified and unethical parochial gains.

This passive moderate group has a major role to play if it truly believes in pluralistic principles - be it the roadside, a place of worship or a workplace. Did I err when I did not correct my fellow passenger in the train from branding and hence alienating a whole community. Perhaps yes. We can become a true pluralistic society only when the moderates thwart all attempts at isolating smaller groups in a given environment – the context could be a public place, a work place or a place of worship.  As there is no case for any patronage or appeasement of the smaller groups, there also is no room for any threat or check against the freedom of opinion and movement for anybody, anywhere, as long as the individual or the group is a responsible citizen of this country.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

When your diehard supporters become your liability

The 3 state set back to the BJP has kept the news channels alive with all sorts of analysis and dissection through their own sets of political pundits. Politics is not a platform where one admits one’s mistakes but I hope the closed-door ‘chintan baithaks’ will at least bring out the truth. For, acceptance of mistakes is the first step to success.  

Four years back, the BJP came in with a thumping majority and with lots of expectations. All these 4 years -  the common man, the so-called educated, urban, middle-class Indian has shown extreme patience with some irritants like high petrol price; high NPAs with the Banks that took away a major portion of the tax that he remitted in all honesty; some ugly social incidents that he discounted as more hype than truth; giving up on some subsidies as a contribution to a social cause; inconveniences of demonetization as a bold step in the right direction and many more.

This middle class Indian – primarily a working class group - has generally been apolitical but has supported a forward looking, honest party and has stood behind a hard-working, well-meaning Premier. This group has no permanent following and no hard biases.

He is not a ‘Bhakta’ but applauds good governance and is appreciative of fact that the path to good governance goes through some inconveniences and demands a few sacrifices. But he is very objective in his assessment.  He also maintains a stack of his expectations from the Government. Good governance, zero-corruption, stable economy, infra development, national pride and social equilibrium are all part of this stack. And above all, he seeks a safe living for himself and for his near and dear ones.

The results in Madhya Pradesh show that the BJP was just short of 36000 votes overall, as compared to the Congress. And the number of NOTA votes were about 1.5% - that would translate to somewhere in the range of 4 to 7.5 Lakh votes, depending on the percentage of voting.  As it appears, these fence sitters have made a big difference to the final results. Who are these fence sitters?  Is this a group of these apolitical common men? Who do not want to commit the past mistakes of bringing back a Congress government but are somewhat disappointed with the current dispensation.

This apolitical common man has immense patience. He doesn’t make noise but is not a mute spectator either. He is not a diehard ‘Bhakta’ but does not desist from giving a pat on the back.  He is not a zealot but his silent retreat from the polling booth will be deafening.  Today, he has only got on to the fence riding on NOTA and has rung the warning bell. Tomorrow, he might cross over to the other side and that would be a lethal blow. The ‘Bhakta’ is loud and is irrational - he can give a wrong impression of large scale approval. This objective, apolitical supporter might just whisper. The party should keep its ears on the ground to listen and to ensure the misleading cheers of the intransigent supporter do not drown these sane whispers.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The trait of being ‘disagreeable’

In the last couple of months, I have heard this term ‘Ajaatshatru’ to describe two tall leaders – Atal Ji and Ananth Kumar. They were described as the most affable leaders having no adversaries in their area of work – politics. And hence they were referred to and revered as ‘Ajaatshatru’ – the one having no enemies. Given today’s environment, it will be difficult to find a worthy successor to this particular legacy of these leaders.

Today, we are all well connected through the social media. We find different platforms to express our views on all and sundry topics of general interest. Be it a cricket match, a team selection, a political event, a celebrity marriage, a judicial decree or a simple nostalgic childhood picture – all of this gets discussed, debated and disputed in the closed-group whatsapp circles.  

In the recent weeks, in at least three whatsapp groups that I am a member of, I have witnessed political statements, positions, arguments and counter-arguments leading up to heightened tempers and near-disruptions to the otherwise congenial group dynamics. Politics and politicians who were always the butt of a joke in these ‘intellectual’ groups, have suddenly found unflinching followers from amongst these armchair experts. Positions are taken and daggers are drawn at the slightest provocation.

We as a society have had our own share of disagreements leading up to violence; impatience resulting in road raze and disparities resulting in crimes. However, the acquaintances and friendships were always above these conceited considerations. But the situation has changed now. There is little room left for disagreements. The much clich├ęd expression of ‘agree to disagree’ has lost its meaning now. Is it the mutated trait of a society, a nation or a generation? Or is it just the cognitive part of the Darwinian evolution that was never studied.

I am not sure when, where and how this mutation originated. How the otherwise indifferent living room analysts suddenly became die hard followers.  Was it the constant reference to someone’s foreign origins or the influencing of a prolonged embargo on someone’s US travel. Was it a crude jibe of ‘Maut ka Saudagar’ or a pun laced ‘Pappu’ - that started it.  The barrage of unsubstantiated information, popularly known as fake-news, has also added fuel to the fire. The dubious role of the media, that keeps ranting about ‘polarization’ despite being the most polarized itself, has not helped the cause either. And one thing that this neo-army of social-media activists fails to recognize is that very often their emotions are flared up based on information that is not received firsthand. A hearsay is not good enough and is not worthy enough to put your years’ of friendship and acquaintance at stake.

It is not that we should not have a viewpoint or not have a followership.  Just that these are often only vicarious connects. It is more important to preserve the real tangible connects and place them over these so as not to lose them for nothing.  As Dr. Pranab Mukherjee pointed out in a speech recently - the beauty of debate and dissent is that we can disagree without being disagreeable, we can ideologically oppose and still be friends. And therein lies a message for all. For the politicians, to refrain from personal attacks and for the followers, in adapting to the ideological pluralism rather than adopting someone else’s hatred. We can all strive to be “Ajaatshatru” in our own realms.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Migrants and the Migrations

In the last couple of weeks, the news of local backlash in a state, against the migrant workers from another state, made to the major headlines. The misery of such migrant workers attracted good media attention – some socially empathetic and a few politically motivated.  This is not the first occasion when the rootless migrant workers have been singled out in a state. We have had different editions of this anti-migrant movements in different states – be it against south Indians or Bihari’s or the people from UP.

Meanwhile, a prominent lawmaker of ours from Punjab has made a statement that culturally he felt much closer to the Pakistanis than the people in Southern India. Amidst all the convergent voices towards inclusive diversity, such a statement coming from a lawmaker describes the mindset. I only hope that it is only his mindset – that is more attuned to a ‘laughter challenge’ than some serious business. I am sure he will soon learn that a ‘tongue in cheek’ dialogue of a comedy show could well turn out to be a ‘foot in mouth’ in serious polity.

On a professional front, I head the Migration Center of Excellence in my organization that takes care of software version migrations. Therefore, of late, whenever I hear the word migration, my ears turn towards the conversation (pun intended).

The earliest of such anti-migrant protests that I have heard of took place in the 60’s.  Though these happened before my birth but I have read about these from the reminiscences of RK Laxman, while he had described his close relationship with Bal Thakre. That perhaps was the defining moment for regional politics in India which evoked local passions against the migrant workers from other states. As was evident from RK Laxman’s memoirs, it was more of politics than any person-to-person hatred.

The local politicians have used this formula of invoking sons-of-the-soil doctrine to flare up passions against migrants from other states, from time to time, be it the recent case of Gujarat or the numerous incidents in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or the North Eastern states.

I am a Tamilian, born and brought up in Kanpur, UP. I love my birthplace as much as anybody else would. Whenever I had a low point in my life, I always pepped myself up with the thought that it was not for nothing that I was destined to have born in Kanpur, at the banks of the holy river Ganga – while my parents hailed from a distant Tepperumanallur in Tamil Nadu – some 2000 kilometers away. It required to change 3 trains to reach Kanpur from my native in those days.

However, in 1991, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, there was a sudden anti-Tamil sentiment in the northern India.  My brother was traveling from Delhi to Chennai. And of all the trains, he chose the Tamilnadu Express. We had some anxious moments those 2 days of journey and the train was indeed stopped by protestors at some station in Madhya Pradesh but with some swift action from the authorities, the journey could be resumed after a short hold up.  That was the first time the very thought of being an ‘outsider’, in my own birthplace, hit upon me.

Over the years, I have moved from Kanpur to Delhi to Bangalore.  During my growing up years, Hindi was my first language of choice and I could never attain any fluency in Tamil.  Nevertheless, there have also been many occasions during my stay in Bangalore, when my Tamil origin gave me a few anxious moments. Further, my wife being a Delhi-bred Punjabi – that again is a fallacy as they are originally Bahawalpuri, with a distinct language and culture, but have lost their identity to the larger Punjabi bracket – my daughters have had little chance not to develop affinity to Hindi. And it bemused their teachers no end when they wrote their mother tongue as Hindi with a surname as Iyer.  Thus, with a dubious attributional evidence to prove my nativity, I sometimes feel lost in this seemingly parochial world.

On one hand I reassure myself that such regional extremities are far and few between and that the metropolitan society in India is largely pluralistic, on the other hand I am never confident about not having some political vested interests drawing boundaries to suit their convenience and short term interests. Just that one should not have the misfortune of ending up at a wrong place at the wrong time. And for that matter, is it not correct that most of us city dwellers are migrants. It is just a question of what reference point you are considering to prove one’s nativity and hence drawing the lines.

We perhaps can take a few lessons from the great migration of Maasai Mara that extends across regions and countries, along a contiguous forest land. The natural migration of the animals aligned with the change of seasons and availability of fodder, does not require a force of law to coordinate the annual phenomenon. Albeit, there are no vested interests there and the animal world has developed a natural instinct that guides them amicably through this migration. Even the international boundaries respect this movement and make way for this mass migration.

Coming back to my profession, the migration of applications across versions has been an equally challenging task for the software industry.  Migrations across software versions, across applications, across platforms is an industry on its own. A certain illustrious senior of the Industry has indeed propagated the concept of ‘Timeless Software’, which talks about the seamless movement of data and application across versions flawlessly.  But that would not run the kitchens. So, we continue not to create timeless software and we continue to struggle through agonizingly painful migrations.

While the polity needs a whole bunch of statesmen who would perhaps erase these physical barriers, the software industry, probably, is waiting for another JC Bose. As he proved that plants too have life and emotions, some such scientist will postulate a theory that the migrant data and the data structures too have life and emotions. And therefore, to uproot them and migrate them is fraught with all the pain.  The migration process therefore, will not just be a soulless lift and shift game, it will involve creating ‘harmony’ across the data structures. The plurality of software versions and their coexistence will be a norm. And the resultant amicability will be a ‘timeless’ tribute to that concept.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Problem of the middle ones

Problem of the middle ones

Early in the morning, a friend of mine threw up a contentious point of debate in our whatsapp group – discussing about the injustice done to our particular batch of officers in a public sector bank. As per his research, the couple of batches senior to us and a few junior to our batch, were much better placed in the overall hierarchy.  Is it true that we were the only ones who were wronged – questioned my friend.

We – the middle ones -  seemed to have been sandwiched between the two pillars of success.  And that brought back my childhood memories. We were three brothers – and no prizes for guessing, I was the middle one.  And in all those Chandamama stories that I read in my childhood, I always observed that the King would have three sons.  In order to pick the smartest of those princes, he would put them to a test. And invariably, it was the youngest one who would win the contest.
And then there were those old style bollywood family movies, where the elder brother would make all the sacrifices and the younger ones would go astray. In the end, in a melodramatic way, the younger ones would realize their follies, repent and then would fall in line. The elder one will heroically smile through the last frame of the movie.

So, there was goodness around the elder ones and there was smartness around the younger ones.  And we, the poor middle ones, were nowhere in the count of those writers.  And as I grew up, I even observed that at the airline check-in counters, people pleaded for the window or the aisle seats, no one cared for the middle ones.

The trauma of the middle ones doesn’t end here. You speak to a fast bowler in cricket, the sparkling stars in his eyes while talking about ‘hitting’ the middle stump is something special that you don’t see if it were to be a leg or an off stump. I don’t know why bashing the middle ones gave them so much joy. In football, the mid-fielders are made to do all the hard work but they rarely get a chance to shoot a goal and do not enjoy the prominence of a goalkeeper either.

In the corporate world, the juniors play innocent and novice, the senior management does half its work on the golf course and it is only the ‘middle’ management that ends up toiling to earn bread for both these layers. No respite for the middle ones here too.

But there is a silver lining.  We have a very talkative friend and we once jocularly made a suggestion to him to always block the middle seat in the aircraft. In case the person sitting to his left got bored of his talking, he could always turn towards the right. He acceded to our advice with gratitude and lived happily thereafter. So, perhaps, someday the writers will write stories on the middle brothers; the middle management will have the highest paid roles in an organization; the mid-fielders only will get to score goals; and the ICC will mandate the middle stumps to be made of concrete – that can never be shattered. Amen.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

My detective Mother would have put Sherlock Holmes to shame.

Last fortnight, I had the misfortune of realizing that I had lost my scooter that was parked in the basement of my apartment complex. The scooter was unused for the last 15 years and I was not sure as to when I had seen it last – after the last Aayudh Pooja. The fact that carrying a UP registered movable asset in Karnataka is more of a liability, is another story for another day. For now, let me just tackle and overcome this weird feeling of losing a personal asset.

The fact that I stay in a well secured complex where I pay a monthly maintenance that may be higher than the rental of a decent apartment, is not amusing at all.  But the fact that there was complete apathy from the office bearers of my association, in terms of helping me to trace the sequence of events and possible lapse in the security, is something that was disappointing and frustrating.  Again, that is not the story I want to cover today. But my attempt to uncover this mystery brought back my childhood memories of a theft that took place in my house at Kanpur and the after events.

I was too young at that time – may be studying in 3rd or 4th standard I suppose. So, it is some 40 or 45-year-old memory but somehow it is very vivid in my mind even today.  We had a regular maid for the household chores by name Rampyari. Quite trustworthy – as it used to be in those days. To the extent that one night she was thrown out by her husband and she had taken shelter in our terrace for the night before the issue got settled between them.

One fine day, my mother realized that Rampyari had suddenly disappeared from the house, while still on to some regular chores. Much later, my mother found that her Godrej almirah and the locker inside were unlocked. And on further inspection, she found that her most valuable and precious necklace – both in terms of monetary and emotional value – was missing.  Only after joining together the sequence of events that she realized that she was robbed of the necklace by her ‘trusted’ maid servant.

The police investigation followed and, without any surprise, nothing could come out of that. Call it the impact of a heavy financial value attached to the necklace or the immense sense of personal loss through a breach of trust – the same that I feel today – my mother became restless and started to probe further on her own. Today, I can imagine how difficult it would have been for a typical orthodox Chennai bred Tamilian lady to traverse through all the maze of this entire trail of her investigation in a primarily Hindi speaking city of Kanpur.

She started her probe by visiting the house of Rampyari at a chawl like building – at Idgah colony, if my memory serves me right. She found out that Rampyari had actually eloped with a neighbour named Rajkishore, who was a police constable.  Rampyari’s husband Mahavir had no clue about her whereabouts. So, then my mother started tracking Rajkishore. She found out, from some other neighbours, that Rajkishore had a relative, who used to pull cycle-rickshaw and was attached with a rickshaw-stand at a distant locality called ‘Naugharha’.  Next she went on to trace this rickshaw-puller named ‘Baggad’ but without the luxury of current day communication channels, it was very difficult those days to contact a person without a home-address. I assume she left her address with the rickshaw-stand and one fine morning this person – Baggad – knocked at our doors.

As Baggad sat outside our door, my mother served him tea and snacks and had a long conversation with him. The person indeed had good amount of information and told her that Rajkishore had taken Rampyari to his native town of Farrukhabad and perhaps had sold the necklace there to a jeweller to get some cash.

My mother broke the news to my father that evening, with complete details of her probe. My father was perhaps not aware of all this investigation being carried out by mother – everyday, after he left for office. Now, Farrukhabad was a completely new place for my parents and finding out a stolen piece of jewellery, with just a photograph of the jewellery (I think it was my elder brothers first birthday photo) to identify the same and no other information, was something impossible to achieve.

My apartment complex in Kanpur had a few single rooms at the 4th floor terrace and a lot of students from nearby towns used to stay there during their college studies. One such gentleman by name Dixit, used to stay there and study and as my mother was very social by nature, she would have hosted these boys for a tea and snacks on some festivals. The only other information she had was that Dixit’s family had a famous music shop by name Dixit Radios in Farrukhabad.

One early morning, with that little piece of information, my parents traveled to Farrukhabad. They found that music shop easily and could meet Dixit within no time. They narrated the entire story to him. From there, Dixit used his network with some local official – who perhaps was responsible for the quality control on gold shops. He was well aware of the shops where such stolen ornaments were sold and took my parents to one such shop.

May be our good luck or the influence of that Government official, the shopkeeper heard the complete story from my mother. He also looked at the picture of the necklace that my mother was carrying. My parents further apprised him of the sentimental value of the necklace and that they would not mind paying up for the same.

After some discussions, the gentleman shopkeeper opened up. He told my mother that such stolen jewellery is generally melted immediately but he liked the typical south Indian design of the necklace very much and hence decided to retain that. The shopkeeper further told my parents the amount that he had paid to Rajkishore.  He also told them that had they come down to the shop with the police, he would have just passed on some message to his team to immediately melt the necklace and they would have never found out.

Late evening, my parents returned to Kanpur.  My mother was beaming with pride and satisfaction. She had singlehandedly managed to recover her favourite necklace. It would have taken a couple of months for this whole exercise but her sheer tenacity and unstinted faith on a positive outcome kept her going on from one clue to another. And therefore I say, given the situation, given her constraints and given the lack of support from the system, this whole trail would put Sherlock Holmes to shame.
And today, I feel helpless – with eight cameras in my apartment complex and some 8 security guards deployed 24x7 to protect my property – someone flicks away my asset. An asset that was my very first purchase after I started working and hence had a sentimental value. With a non-cooperative environment, I have just given up on that. But I am sure, if my mother was alive, she would have persuaded me to trace out my scooter from wherever it was. For, the Sherlock Holmes in her would have never given up.