Monday, September 30, 2013

My (mildly random) review of lunchbox

The missus and I are just back from watching the critically acclaimed movie, The Lunchbox. It was supposed to be India's entry for the Oscar (but to everybody's consternation, was pipped at the post by a Gujarati movie called The Good Road). Artists and people of sensitivity gushed about The Lunchbox and the missus was convinced.

'It's a love story" declared the missus, and in that declaration was the implied message "Take me to see it or else" because the missus is one for love stories, especially the kind that make you dab your eyes with your handkerchief and sniffle a bit. 

I don't mind them myself, I must confess. I've sort of mellowed down and replaced all the cutting edge kung-fu movies in my to-watch list with movies acclaimed for being sensitive and sentimental. But this one was different.

It's a lovely movie, of course. Irrfan Khan is absolutely the finest actor in the world, as is the other guy, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The female lead has also acted splendidly. The shots are completely un-bollywood-like. Crummy buildings, very ordinary clothes and, most importantly, no hai-rabba songs.

To my untrained eye, however, there wasn't much of a point in the story. Brought up on a harsh diet of potboiler hindi movies, we expect one hero, one heroine, one villain, one comedian, one crisis and one happy ending. This movie had none. There is a housewife who sends her husband lunch through Bombay's famous dabbawala network and it reaches the wrong chap. The housewife is having a tough time getting the husband's attention and an unlikely kinda-romance blossoms between the wrong chap who is an elderly widower and the youngish housewife. They exchange notes through the dabba but never meet each other. And finally - spoiler alert - they part without having really met. It's really beautifully made, please watch it if you haven't, but a very long story about something 
which you or I would have narrated in about seven minutes.

Missus loved it of course. The delicate nuanced expression of love or whatever it is that gets her these days. But I thought the whole thing was rather like something we studied back in college, namely, nucleophilic substitution reactions.A completely waste thing we had to study, in my opinion, but we studied it nevertheless because 'guarantee ten mark question' was the reward. 

Since you're dying to know what a nucleophilic substitution reaction is, I'll tell you. If you add an alkyl halide to an alkali like say sodium hydroxide, you will get the alcohol of that alkyl group, the halogen having very decently detached itself from the said alkyl group -sodium, in our example- and considerately formed a salt with the halogen. But the way it was told us, and we had impressionable minds back then, it was a long drama of how the halogen atom tears itself away from the alkyl halide in the presence of a hydroxide, by being slightly more negative and thus making the alkyl group slightly more positive as a result of which the halogen went on for a couple of more thousand words. 

This lunchbox story was a lot like that. A very elaborate, and as far as I could see, completely random exposition of a perfectly ordinary turn of events.

And if you have deduced from the above that I am slightly pie eyed as I write this, consider yourself the victor of a cigar or a coconut.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Depressing stuff

One of the things that saddens me is how little our political leaders feel for the country. We all know they are power hungry megalomaniacs but sometimes, the pointlessness of the damage they do is quite amazing. I think it comes from complete insensitivity to other people's problems.

There is an old joke about a British explorer who wishing to cross the Sahara on a camel, gets a Bedouin to put him through the paces.

"We must make the camel drink enough water for the journey, effendi" says the Bedouin and proceeds to make the camel drink at the trough.

"This water will stay inside the camel for a whole fortnight, effendi" says the Bedouin, as they wait at the trough, "But" the Bedouin adds,  "if you want to wander longer than that, I can make the camel drink more. Would you like me to do so?"

"Of course" says the explorer "one can never be too careful" whereupon the Bedouin picks up two bricks and holding one in each hand, slaps them hard on the camel's testicles.

"WHOOOOSSSSHHHH" goes the camel and drinks an extra five gallons of water

"By Jove!" exclaims the shocked explorer "isn't that awfully painful?"

"Only if your thumb gets caught between the bricks, effendi" says the Bedouin

That, in a nutshell, is the Indian politcian's attitude toward his country.

Why this rant, do you ask? Well. I just read the other day that the Union Minister for Labor and Employment, Sis Ram Ola, raised the ceiling for employees to be covered in the ESIS act from Rs. 15,000 per month to Rs. 25,000 per month. The move will "directly benefit an additional 4.5 million industrial workers" it seems. What a crock. But first, a little outline of this ESI business

The ESI act makes employees and employers contribute to State run insurance hospitals, the idea being that lowly paid workers would have access to medical facilities at these wonderful state run hospitals. In practice, they don't. The whole scheme stinks. The hospitals are hell-holes and even the lowliest worker prefers to spend through his nose to go see a private doctor than to avail of the free medical facilities of the state. And the hon minister, instead of taking steps to wind down the rotten mess is actually increasing its coverage. No one in their right mind would go to the state hospitals, least of all the higher paid workers. All that the minister has ensured by his decision is to increase the amount of money that this rotten institution gets. And does the minister himself benefit? Not at all. There are no votes to be gained, other than the thousand or five employees of the ESIS and they're almost certainly going to vote, like the rest of their brethren, along caste lines regardless of what the government does. And does it harm the nation? Sadly, it does. It simply increases the cost of doing business for companies that honestly pay their dues and generally dissuade them from increasing their work force.

Why did Sis Ram do this? Because as long as his thumb don't get caught between the bricks, he don't care.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Friday night revelries

A few friends met up at my place last evening to celebrate the marriage of Chuck and Punvati who, displaying a go-getter attitude so rare among youth these days, went off and got hitched earlier this year. They had most decently invited me to the wedding bash but I couldn't go, and decided to make this up by inviting them over for dinner.

When I told the missus this, she had a sort of a seizure.  The domestic staff, apparently, was on leave and she had to go out for some dinner herself. "Oh, no problem" I told her, cheerfully, "I'll cook". The missus is a kindly soul. She realized that you can't just subject people to wanton torture. Hitler tried it and see where it got him. "Never mind, I'll cook a bisi bele bhat before I go. But remember to heat it up before you serve"

And thus, the little band of diners survived. Tony Sebastian, Abhishek Upadhyay and Harshal Modi apart from Chuck and Punvati, and me. Abhishek, who evidently has been researching these things, rustled up an Old Monk Rum based cocktail that he called Rum NasTea, because iced tea went into it in significant quantities. There were also cans of Dr. Mallya's finest and as the evening wore on, the discussion became more nuanced and sophisticated. I don't recall much, for some reason, but there was an interesting debate on the uselessness of the case study method for teaching management.

For those of you who have been fortunate enough to have given the field of management education a miss, an explanatory note might be in order. The case study method is the enacting of an ersatz real-life situation specially designed to highlight some management principle or the other. When it was first developed, it was hailed as a novel approach to the task of teaching complex and shades-of-grey kinds of problems but soon, everything was being taught through contrived  dramatic passages which were overwhelmingly inane. My earliest recollection of a case study was one which started with "Mr. Gupta was worried" and went on to describe how, after several interactions with his CFO Mr. Mehta, the said Mr. Gupta realized that he had not factored in the costs of providing a warranty for his products. All that the chump had to do, in my opinion, was to price his products a little higher, or make sure they wouldn't fail all that often or simply give a bum warranty. When I voiced these thoughts, MBAs Chuck, Harshal, Tony and Abhishek came out of the closet and declared, hesitantly at first and then more self-assuredly, that the case study method was a complete lemon. Abhishek also recalled that most case studies began with some form of "Mr. Gupta was worried". "Mr. Gupta was worried", it transpired, was the "it was a dark and stormy night" of the case-study world.

Much else was discussed. There were insights into the fascinating world of quizzing, with anecdotes featuring legendary quizmasters like G S Pradeep and Pornob. My younger son showed off his alleged guitar skills and was promptly treated to a virtuoso demonstration by Chuck who, unbeknownst to me, is an extremely kick-ass guitarist. I found some fish in the freezer and cooked up some fish in lemon-butter sauce. No one died.

We finally disbanded at 2 am but not before reflecting what an awesome bunch of bozos we were.

Wonderful time!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Raghuram Rajan piece

It seems to be open season on Raghuram Rajan. Everybody is writing about the poor chap. Some find his intellectual stature awe inspiring. Others find him dishy. Madame De wrote what to me looks like the prose version of "Love to love you baby". From what little I know of him, I am certain that he is more than a little embarrassed by all the attention.

"YOU know him?" you're asking yourself. "YOU? Narendra Shenoy? Insignificantest blip on the economic landscape? YOU?"

Yes, me. And I was invited to speak, too. But like all stories, this one needs to be told from the beginning.

Sometime last year, I got a call from a friend of a friend that an economist with the world bank wanted to speak with people in manufacturing about what they'd like changed in the government's policies pertaining to it and would I be able to spare some time. I readily acquiesced because my favorite sport is talking about myself and this chap appeared perfect. Unsuspecting, I mean, because most of my friends discreetly remember urgent appointments and slink off whenever I clear my throat and begin to talk about myself. Anyway, the World Bank trains its lads well. Probably starting with chewing broken glass and wearing barbed wire next to their skin, they graduate by sleeping on beds of nails and using sandpaper in lieu of tissue. Stoic, if you know what I mean. He listened unflinchingly and showed no signs of wanting to run away.

I told him my wish list - basically, rationalization of labor laws, changing zoning laws to make it easier to open factories, and opening more skill development institutes for young people who drop out of school after their class X - and shared some links and sources over mail.

That, I assumed, would be that, because few people, if any, return for more after having listened to Narendra Shenoy in his element but this breed is extraordinarily tough. I received an email a few months later asking me if I could participate in a workshop on discussing what policy changes would be desirable if manufacturing in India, especially export-focused manufacturing, was to be encouraged. The email added, in an off-hand way, that the workshop was being conducted by the chief economic advisor to the PM, Dr. Raghuram Rajan.

I ran around the room a few times Oh-My-God-ing and then composed myself and wrote back saying that I guess I'd be able to find the time.

They also asked me if I could speak "precisely 8 minutes. 3 minutes about yourself and your company, 5 minutes about what you would like to see changed in policy concerning manufacturing". I prepared a little talk and found myself severely short of material.  I mean, what the devil does one talk about for 3 whole minutes re oneself? I decided I would throw in some jokes and see what happened.

When I landed up at the place, I found that the group was seriously - I mean SERIOUSLY - august. The Secretary, Economy was there. The principal secretary for industry of virtually every state. Very distinguished World Bank economists, some half my age but graduated from Harvard or Wharton. I found the old voice apparatus, trusty in crises, drying up this time. My heart began to boom like a bass drum as my time to speak neared. When the moderator finally announced that leading entrepreneur Narendra Shenoy would now give us all the benefit of his wisdom, I approached the podium with the look of a French aristocrat trying to argue before Robespierre. Secretary nudged to Joint Secretary whispering "don't stare now but that is exactly what a dying duck would look like".  The jokes evaporated and I mumbled out my piece about labor laws and zoning whatnots in a voice that scarcely carried over the booming of my heart.

And Raghuram Rajan? He was the picture of quiet assurance. He summed up all our speeches (there were three other speakers) and referred to me, as he did the others, by name. In the tea break after our jolly little speeches, he came over to me and said (quite untruthfully, I must say) what a jolly decent speech mine was. I mumbled out a "thanks so much, sir" whereupon he told me, with a disarming smile, to jettison all this 'sir' nonsense. "Call me Raghu" he told me.

So there I was, chatting away with the man, oddly at ease. THAT is his real gift. The ability to put anyone at ease. He's so obviously a genius that it's hard not to be awed into silence when meeting him but five minutes and you will be speaking your heart out to him. Just the chap, in my opinion, to lead us out of the complete pig's breakfast that our well-meaning leaders have got us into over the years though, in the words of a friend, his job is not unlike trying to steer the Titanic using a paddle. But if anyone can do it, Raghu can.

High five, old man! 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

General rambling, plus some Kolkata anecdotes

Life, as Bertie Wooster has from time to time observed, is rum. On occasion, it will deliver unto you bounteous ego boosters causing you to walk with your chest puffed up, looking upon the odd Ambani or Tata who crosses your path with condescension and, on other occasions, make you feel like a little nematode exhibited at a convention of parasitologists. The latter has been happening to me of late. My self esteem has been competing with the rupee in its determined depreciation and for no particular reason. I haven't goofed up extraordinarily, nor, with the exception of one accidental stroll down Malad West's high street wearing shoes from different pairs, received any sharp rebuke from the missus. The upshot of this has been my disappearance from that jolliest of internet Hyde Parks, Twitter. My problem, you see, is that the chaps I follow are, to a person, extraordinarily bright. I follow conversations for a while and then, unsuccessfully trying to compose a suitable witticism in 140 characters, shuffle off to read a book, the old self esteem having suffered another bad day at the exchange.

Thus I found myself following a conversation where a friend who goes by the twitter handle @acorn declared that the city he lived in, Bangalore, was probably the worst run in the country. Another friend, @sachinkalbag hotly contested this statement on the grounds that Mumbai trumped Bangalore in every metric of bad running. And for no particular reason, I found myself thinking of Kolkata.

I've never lived in Kolkata. Indeed, I have only visited it three or four times. But the anecdotes I've heard have always made me wish I had spent my formative years in that splendidly dotty metropolis.

Once, a friend told me, he came upon a small group of people crowded around a tearful cyclist. It transpired that the cyclist had been knocked down by a tram. Though not injured in the flesh, he was clearly emotionally hurt. The crowd, after hearing him out, decided spontaneously that justice had to be done. It stopped the next tram that came along, beat up its driver, set the tram on fire and then, and my raconteur swore upon the grave of his grandmother that this was true, sang Robindro Songeet.

Another anecdote was told me by the wife of a college friend. She used to work in a bank and was posted in Kolkata for a few years. "The most delightful time of our lives" she told me, and my friend agreed. To illustrate this, she told me of a busy morning when all of a sudden, a bus came to a screeching halt just outside the bank. As she looked upon the scene in puzzlement from a window, she saw the driver-side door opening and the driver, showing great agility, jumping out and running full speed, followed closely by the conductor. A few yards behind were the passengers who had to concede a head start owing to having disembarked from the other side of the bus. Several of the passengers removed and flung their footwear at the quickly disappearing driver-conductor duo, making it unlikely that this was a friendly race. Anyway, the driver and the conductor proved to be fleet of foot and the disappointed passengers gave up the chase. My friend's wife sent minions to institute enquiries as to the cause of the brouhaha and learned that the conductor had had the temerity to overcharge one of the passengers by a rupee. One thing led to another and though they now had to suffer the hardship of going to their respective places of work on foot instead of by bus, their spirits were light because they had fought for their right.
"That was when I realized there was no other place quite like Kolkata" she told me, and she was right. There is no other place quite like it.