Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Skeletons in the Closet

This thought has been lingering in the back on my mind for a long time. The people who planned the Mumbai attacks must have had help from the local underworld, maybe the local representatives of Dawood Ibrahim’s gang. It is well known that services offered by the underworld, especially money laundering services, are used by the rich and well-connected in India. If investigators are on the trail of Mr. X who provided credit cards or cash to the attackers, Mr. X might be able to call on someone high and mighty, say Mr. Y, to protect him. Mr. Y might be just a businessman with good connections who has nothing to do with terrorism. Mr. Y might or might not suspect what Mr. X is up to, but would protect him nevertheless, since Mr. X might otherwise spill the beans on him. In short, as long as India has such a vibrant parallel economy that puts the legit one in the shade, India will be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Jawed Naqvi, the Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi, one of the smartest Indian journalists today, has written a brilliant piece on this issue.

There’s an interesting piece in the Independent which says India has not been passing on information to Interpol about the Mumbai attacks or the results of its investigation.

It makes sense for Indian investigators to want to keep their findings to themselves if sharing facts with Interpol or other foreign investigators will raise too many uncomfortable questions for India’s high and mighty, who might have had dealings with criminals and terrorists. Funnily, the Independent news report above does not say that India has been hiding its findings. Instead, it says Indian investigators have been regularly feeding the media, though not briefing Interpol.

The Indian investigation into the Mumbai attacks now seems to bear a startling similarity with the way Pakistan has been investigating the Bhutto assassination. Even though Bhutto’s own party, the PPP, is in power, the investigation into the murder has made little headway. It’s been over a year since Bhutto was assassinated, but the truth behind who was responsible, is yet to emerge. Is this because if the truth were to be found, many respectable players will have to run for cover? Is this because the guilty are being shielded by those in power who have been hand-in-glove with them in various other nefarious activities?

Corruption, black money and a parallel economy are some of the things India and Pakistan have in common. Now it seems that both countries have too many similar skeletons in their closets.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Short Story: Best Wishes For A Happy Married Life

Rajesh had managed to get hold of the key to Duke’s flat. I don’t know how he did it, but that evening there were four of us waiting in that cramped sitting room for Duke to arrive with his new bride. Duke had been gone for almost a month and the room smelt very stale. I wished we could open the set of small windows above my head, but we would have lost the element of surprise if we had done that.

‘I hope the train isn’t late,’ I said, hoping for an assurance from Rajesh or Sameer that the train would be on time. Instead Sameer snarled at me. ‘You were the one who wanted to meet Duke and his wife as soon as they arrived.’

‘True, but I didn’t really expect you guys to get carried away. All I said was that it would be interesting to meet Duke when he comes back with his wife.’

‘We should have met them at the railways station. Now for all we know, Duke and his missus are having dinner at a restaurant before coming home,’ Trilok said.

‘What exactly did Duke tell you over the phone when you called him up?’ Sameer asked Rajesh.

‘That he’ll be coming back today.’

‘That’s it? Nothing about his wife? Or the wedding?’ Sameer persisted.

‘He just said he would come back today. I asked him if the wedding went off well. To that he replied something like .. he would come back and tell us everything. It was very noisy in the background and I didn’t ask anything else.’

‘You should have asked him if his first night was a success.’ Trilok suggested with a snigger.

‘I’m sure Duke pretended to have one of his migraines and went off to sleep,’ Sameer said, to the accompaniment of smirks, sniggers and laughter.

Everyone was silent for a while. There was no sign of Duke or his newly-wed wife. ‘We could just leave and come back later,’ I suggested once again.

‘You go home if you like,’ Rajesh told me, knowing fully well that I would not leave. If I left, I’d have to go back to the flat at Vile Parle which I shared with Sameer. There was nothing much to do in that flat other than to watch TV. Trilok looked at his watch and I followed suit. It was around seven thirty.

‘Getting late for you, is it?’ Rajesh asked Trilok who ignored him.

‘Do you have permission from your wife to stay out late?’ Rajesh persisted. Trilok was the first among us to get married. Now Duke had followed suit and most probably it was Rajesh’s turn next.

I don’t really remember why we started calling Duke by that nickname. I have a feeling it was because Duke once exclaimed “I wish I were the Duke of Kent” while watching Wimbledon on TV. I don’t know for sure since I wasn’t around when the Duke said that.

‘Come off it. I don’t need anyone’s permission to stay out late.’

‘Is that right? Let’s say Duke doesn’t turn up till nine thirty. Will you still hang around here?’

Trilok gave Rajesh a lopsided grin. ‘Just you wait. One day you will also get married.’

‘Just because you made that mistake, why on earth should I do the same?’ Rajesh retorted.

‘I hope your theories are correct. If not, we’ll all have wasted our time,’ Trilok told Rajesh.

‘Did anyone insist that you join us here today? Please do carry on. Go back home to your wife.’

Trilok was silent at that. ‘I’m sure you are right. Duke does show all signs of being a ……..’ Trilok’s voice trailed off.

Sameer agreed. ‘I’ve never met a more effeminate male in my life.’

‘When was the last time Duke’s special friend visited him? Just a day before he went off to get married?’ Sameer asked Rajesh.

‘Just a day before he left,’ Rajesh reiterated.

‘Did they make a lot of noise?’ Trilok asked.

‘The usual level of noise.’

‘You ought to have eavesdropped.’

‘Did they make any grunting sounds?’ Sameer asked, only to be almost slapped across his face by a grinning Rajesh whose palm swished past Sameer’s face.

‘You naughty bastard. How many times do you want me to repeat this stuff?’

‘I feel sorry for Duke’s wife,’ Trilok said. ‘An innocent girl is going to suffer for the rest of her life. The poor thing.’

‘We are going to take care of Duke’s wife, aren’t we? Why do you call her a poor thing? She will be taken care of by her husband and all his friends.’

‘I pray to God that she is a beautiful girl.’

‘Do you think Duke would have accepted a dowry?’ Sameer asked Rajesh.

‘I’m sure his parents have taken a dowry. After all, Duke is an engineer and he works for an MNC.’

‘Have you found a new flat-mate?’ Trilok asked Rajesh.

‘Not yet,’ Rajesh responded. ‘I hope I find someone soon. I don’t want to pay the entire rent on my own for much longer.’

‘That was a fine thing Duke did to you. To leave that flat with just a fortnight’s notice.’

‘I don’t blame him. I don’t think he knew about his wedding much before that.’

‘Why on earth did he agree to get married? He ought to have more sense.’

‘He just succumbed under pressure. He is almost thirty two. And his parents have been trying to get him married for the last eight years!’

‘Any idea how much rent Duke is paying for this place?’

‘At least 30K a month. After all, this is Bandra West.’

‘If ever I have a daughter, I will never force her into an arranged marriage,’ Trilok declared. ‘Let her make her own decisions. If things go wrong, she won’t be able to blame me.’

At that moment, the key turned in the door. We hurriedly took up our positions. Rajesh had a rose garland in his hands. I picked up the plate filled with fruits. One of the bananas had a joss stick struck in it. Sameer took out his lighter and lit the incense. Trilok got his camera ready. I wondered what I should say. Congratulations? Welcome to Bombay? Welcome to Mumbai? We wish you both a very happy married life?

Duke opened the door and looked at us all in shock. He took a moment to recover, holding open the door for a few seconds as he did. He then entered the room dragging his suitcase after him. We waited expectantly for his wife to follow him. Instead, the door slowly swung shut.

‘You guys! How did you manage to get in?’ Duke demanded of us.

‘We wanted to give you and your wife a proper welcome,’ Trilok said with hesitation. At any moment, we expected Duke’s wife to open the door and enter the room.

‘How was your journey?’ Rajesh asked Duke politely. There was still no sign of Duke’s wife. Was she weeping outside the door?


Duke dumped his suitcase on the floor and slumped on the sofa next to me. By now I was convinced that Duke had left his wife behind in Patna.

‘Where’s your wife?’ Sameer finally asked him. ‘Hasn’t she come with you?’

Duke looked at us all for a moment and said, ‘oh! I called off the wedding at the last minute. I decided that I couldn’t get married to a girl I didn’t like all that much just to please my parents. I really didn’t like the girl even though I had agreed to marry her.’

‘In that case why did you agree to the wedding?’ Trilok asked Duke.

Duke gave him a baleful look and turned away. He didn’t reply.

‘So your parents will continue to look for your dream girl?’

‘Of course, they will. That’s their job, isn’t it?’ Duke said petulantly. ‘What else are parents for if they can’t find you the girl of your dreams?’

What's to be Done With Kasab?

The Indian government has decided to appease the public’s craving for revenge. All weapons captured from the terrorists are to be put inside a large cauldron and melted down. The molten steel will be used to construct steps for public lavatories in Mumbai. “Victims of Terror To Be Avenged”, says a popular tabloid, which manages to pass for a respectable daily.

Okay, I made that up, but going by the decibel levels generated by those baying for Kasab’s blood (without a trial, mind you), one gets the impression that weapons captured from terrorists will also be punished. It is not only the general public that’s baying for Kasab’s blood. Even members of the Bombay Bar Association (a non-statutory association of lawyers in Mumbai), have passed a resolution that none of them will represent Kasab in court. This despite the fact that the Bar Council of India Rules specifically say that:

An advocate is bound to accept any brief in the Courts or Tribunals or before any other authorities in or before which he proposes to practise at a fee consistent with his standing at the Bar and the nature of the case. He shall defend a person accused of a crime regardless of his personal opinion as to the guilt of the accused, bearing in mind that his loyalty is to the law which requires that no man should be convicted without adequate evidence.”

In all probability, Kasab (is that his real last name or did the Police make it up?), will be sentenced to death by hanging. Capital punishment is not inappropriate for the heinous crime Kasab is responsible for. However, we need to ask ourselves, is capital punishment the best possible response Indian society can come up with? Before we answer this question, we ought to understand that India and the rest of the world are in the midst of a global war against Islamic fundamentalism. The Islamists are fighting to create a global Islamic order. All over the world, they have recruited Muslim fighters with local grievances and harnessed their energies to the global cause. There is a clear distinction between the Islamic fundamentalists of today and the Arab/Turkish invaders of the past who came to India for loot and plunder. The latter were interested only in looting India and taking away its wealth. The former want India and other secular democratic societies destroyed and replaced with an Islamic state. Pakistan is the breeding ground for many of these Islamic fighters. However, Pakistan itself is not the enemy. There are many, many Pakistanis who do not want Pakistan to be talibanised. They might have a grudge against India over the Kashmir issue or the loss of Bangladesh, but they are India’s allies in this war against Islamic fundamentalists. Not only are they our allies, they are also the frontline fighters against these Islamists.

India has received enormous sympathy from the rest of the world subsequent to the Mumbai attacks. US pressure on Pakistan has forced it to place some leading Islamists under house arrest. Though Pakistan is yet to genuinely crackdown against the Lashkar-e-Tayba, the organisation most likely to have organised the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has been expanding its war against Islamic fundamentalists to include more and more terror groups. There are two reasons for the western sympathy and support, something we did not always receive in the past. One reason is that the West recognises India to be a fellow victim of Islamic terrorism. Secondly, India is considered to be a democratic country, unlike Pakistan, where there is greater respect for the rule of law. The last thing we ought to do is to blur the distinction between India and Pakistan.

Our fight is against an ideology, the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism, and not against a state or a group of people. How do you fight an ideology? With another ideology of course! With the ideology of freedom, democracy and respect for human life.

Twenty two year old Kasab was recruited by Islamic fundamentalists when he was a teenager, indoctrinated and trained and sent over to Mumbai. The terrorists did not have much of an escape plan, since those responsible for sending them to Mumbai did not really expect them to survive. They used weapons which could easily be traced back to Pakistan, the intention being to make it clear to India that Pakistani Islamists are responsible for the attack. The organisers would have been very happy if India had retaliated against Pakistan, as India almost did in 2001 following the attack against the Indian Parliament. A war between India and Pakistan would be a blessing in their eyes.

Hanging Kasab (by his neck, until he is dead, as the Indan Penal Code decrees), would make him a martyr for the Islamists. All over the world, public opinion is building up against capital punishment since it reduces the state to the same animal level as those sentenced to death for a heinous crime. In my opinion, not only should Kasab be given a fair trial, the courts should also take into account the fact that he was recruited when he was a teenager and brainwashed, without ever having the opportunity to listen to a different point of view. Hanging Kasab would not be much different from melting the weapons used in the attacks. Instead, Kasab should be sentenced to life. While in jail, he should be treated humanely and given the opportunity to appreciate how a democracy functions. Under the Indian Penal Court, a life sentence runs for fourteen years. Kasab will be a free man when he reaches his mid-thirties and should be sent back to Pakistan. In the eyes of his Islamic handlers, he would appear to be brainwashed by secularists. This approach will not only win us brownie points from fellow western and Pakistani allies in this war on terror, but would also be the right thing to do.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

A Christmas Party**

Alwyn picked up the phone, dialled Lorraine's mobile number and then hung up before she answered his call. 'Shit,' he said aloud and redialled the number. No point in waiting for Lorraine to call him back and ask him why he had called. He put the phone on speaker and curled up in a foetal position on the sofa.

'Hi! What's up?' He hated that tone which told him that she was very busy, which she most probably was, reserving the right to tell him she might have to hang up and call him back later.

'I'm off to have a drink with a friend. Just wanted to let you know. Don't wait up for me.'

'Okay. Sure.' She was ready to hang up. He wanted to hit her on the head with the phone, or better still shove his elbow into her face.

'Just thought I should let you know, that's all,' he repeated. The miserable bitch could have had the decency to ask him to help himself to the petty cash that she always kept in the top drawer in their bedroom. No, it was not their bedroom anymore. It was ages since they shared a bed together, with Lorraine preferring to sleep on the couch in her study after working till midnight.

He walked out into the night, wishing he were in bohemian Bandra rather than posh Cuffe Parade. He wished there was a friend who would want to have a drink with him. Not that he had much money. Lorraine had been paying all the bills for the past year and a half. He ought to be grateful he knew, but he hated her all the more for it. As he walked past the Taj President and entered Wodehouse Road, he wished he had taken some money from that drawer. Lorraine kept at least a couple of thousand rupees there at any given time. If only he hadn't shouted at Lorraine last week when she asked him what he wanted money for, he could have legitimately helped himself to some money and then casually informed her. To hell with Lorraine! There was a limit to what a man could put up with. Just after Holy Name Cathedral, he took a right turn which took him past Simon & George Drycleaners and into Colaba causeway. Now Colaba might not be as nice as his beloved Bandra, but it did have a few good watering holes he liked.

He had around a hundred rupees on him, enough for a beer at Gokul's followed by some Rice and Vindaloo from New Martin Restaurant. He wished he had enough for Leopold's, which served booze as well as good food, but no, his hundred rupees would not go so far. Hell! He did not even have enough money to get drunk properly, not unless he were to buy a pint of Old Monk's and follow it up with some RC. However he hated mixing drinks. To him, it represented the nadir of poverty, having to mix drinks to get drunk because one could not afford to buy four or five pegs of good whiskey or rum. It didn't really matter, he could pretend to be drunk and speak his mind to Lorraine.

After dinner, he went for a walk around the oval maidan and considered walking towards the marine drive. He decided not to. The walk around the oval had sobered him and there was no point in walking around any further and getting even more sober. He looked at his watch. It was only a quarter past ten. If he went home now, Lorraine might not even be home. He would look very silly if he got home before Lorraine did, after having asked her not to wait up for him. He wished Lorraine would do something obvious – like have an affair with her boss so that he could leave her. But no, she would always maintain her holier-than-thou attitude which infuriated him more than anything. And anyway Peerbhoy was the sort of guy who never thought of anything other than money.

Luckily for Alwyn, Lorraine was home, having dinner, when he got back. He growled a greeting and walked past her to the bedroom.

'I need to travel – to Delhi,' Lorraine told him as he was about to shut the door behind him. 'Peerbhoy wants me to go with him for the road-show. I'll be leaving tomorrow evening and will come back on the twenty-ninth.'

'So you'll be spending Christmas in Delhi?'

'I'm afraid so. Not that anything much will happen on the twenty-fifth, but we will be doing our homework for the rest of the road-show.'

'Thanks for letting me now,' Alwyn said, hoping to sound slightly drunk as well as sarcastic.

'You'll be alone for Christmas,' Lorraine said with a sad smile.

'How do you know that?'

'I don't know. I just said that.' Lorraine had a calm and matter-of-fact voice, tinged with sadness. If she felt even a teeny-weeny bit sad, she shouldn't go to Delhi. She ought to be on her knees, begging him for forgiveness, for all her arrogance in the past, for behaving the way she had.

'I was planning to go to Carlo's tomorrow evening,' Alwyn told Lorraine. 'And the day after I'm going to Goa with this friend of mine. We're driving down. Will be home for Christmas eve.' Alwyn was surprised with himself for having said all that. It had been a long time since he even thought of Carlo's place or planned a trip to Goa, for that matter.

'I see,' Lorraine said in a wooden voice. 'I'll leave for office very early and will ..'

Alwyn walked out of the room and slammed the door shut after him. 'And will go to the airport directly after work..' he could have finished that sentence for her.

The next day evening, Alwyn shaved, dressed and caught a train to Bandra from Churchgate. Before leaving, he opened the drawer and found almost five thousand rupees in the drawer. Had Lorraine kept more money than usual there so that he could help himself to it? No, no way. And even if she had, she was not going to get any thanks for it. Alwyn helped himself to a thousand rupees. Two years ago, before he signed that ridiculous audit report which had brought his downfall, he would not have thought twice about spending a thousand rupees over a single meal. Even a year ago, Lorraine would not have been so arrogant towards him. A husband without money is like a bottled drink that has lost its fizz, he told himself. He ought to lock up Lorraine and prevent her from going to work for a few weeks. That would teach her. Would Peerbhoy fire her if he did that? Most probably not. That old bastard needed her much more than anyone else in his office. In fact, if Peerbhoy fired Lorraine, she would find a new job in a week, while Peerbhoy himself would be in deep shit without Lorraine.

As he got off the train at Bandra and took an auto towards Carlo's place, he wondered why he didn't go to Bandra more often. Was it because he didn't want to be reminded of all the good times he had? Lorraine had been part of those good times. The auto took him past Carter Road and soon he was at Carlo's. The place hadn't changed. It would never change, despite all the changes that were taking place in Bandra. He was a stag tonight and paid the fifty rupee entry fee which only stags paid. Carlo's smelt of food and booze and was filled with cigarette smoke, as usual. In one corner under a large Christmas tree, a middle-aged man stood and sang a Portuguese song, accompanied by a guitarist and a drummer. Three couples were dancing on the small dance floor and all the tables were full. Tacky Christmas decorations were all over the place. A waiter came up to him with a jovial air and jaunty step which couldn't be copied by the highest paid waiter in the world and asked, 'only one?'


Alwyn found himself seated at a table for six occupied by a couple and a group of three people. They were quite friendly, all of them shuffling a little bit to see if some more space could be made for him. He ordered an Old Monk with coke. Alwyn and the couple sat on one side of the table, which had a blue checked top. A woman sitting opposite Alwyn moved her legs a little bit so that Alwyn would have more leg room. She was very plain-looking, almost ugly, but her demeanour was so pleasant, she looked radiant.

They were playing a song he was unfamiliar with. He tried not to stare too much at the dancing couples. They were ordinary people, the sort of people he and Lorraine had been when they lived in Bandra. He had met Lorraine while doing his articleship. They had found themselves with the same group of friends, all of them articled clerks working for the same parsimonious chartered accountant, all of them paid a pittance, but surviving in the hope of becoming qualified chartered accountants themselves and starting their own practices. They didn't start dating till Alwyn passed all his exams and started getting paid decently.

That song got over and the singer started a song which had been one of their favourites when they used to come here. It was an old Goan song, translated into English from Portuguese, a few Portuguese phrases retained in it for atmosphere and a couple of Konkani words thrown in here and there to add spice to the lyrics.

The li'l girl came down to Panjim bay;
The beach boys ran up and barred her way;

That's a fine shiny dress that you be wearing;
Do our eyes deceive, or is that silk threading?

Care to take a turn on the pier with us?
Você vai dançar connosco? Maachche?
Or would you rather go for a dip with us?
Vamos para uma sessão de natação? Maachche?

This dress ain't in any way for the likes of you;
There's no way on earth I'd jive with you;

As the li'l girl waited in the evening sun;
Thuka khobor aha? Ela parecia tão bonito!
The young prince rode up in his Suzuki Shogun;

As the prince and the young girl zoomed off to the east;
The beach boys burped and screamed out a fenny toast;

The singer sat down to take a break. A waiter placed a drink in front of him. Was it just coke or did it have some rum in it?

'Another drink for you?'

Alwyn ordered another Old Monk.

'Nothing to eat?'

'Not for the moment. Maybe later.'

'No no. Not good for tummy. Don't want people falling sick here. You eat something.'

What the heck? He might as well eat dinner and then get drunk.

'I'll have a plate of sorpotel and some pav.' Sliced bread might be mankind’s greatest invention, but nothing could beat the Goan pav.

'Great. A drink for the singer?' How did the waiter know that Lorraine's money was burning a hole in his pocket?

'Why not? An Old Monk for that splendid man!'

Alwyn found himself harking back to the good old days. Lorraine used to be reliant on him for everything. He was the smarter one, the man who had all answers to his girl's questions, even if they related to her work.

Lorraine had worn a white silk gown for their wedding which had taken place at Bicholim. Some twenty odd friends from Bombay had driven down to Goa. They had drunk so much fenny, it was not funny.

They used to dance every time they came here. Neither of them was a good dancer, but there was something about the place which made everyone break into a dance or start humming a song.

He ordered a third drink and then a fourth. It didn't matter. He had enough money in his wallet and then some more. It was not as if he was going to drive down to Goa tomorrow.

What was he to do with his life? One stupid mistake, a few arrogant words, a refusal to retract and he was ruined for life. He could not go on living like this. Lorraine was too nasty towards him. Everything she did was designed to humiliate him, to make him feel worthless. He wanted to take her to court, make her waste a lot of time and money and finally divorce her. But no, he was the weaker party. Lorraine had a lot more money than he had – most of his savings having been used to pay people off and cover up his mistake. It was a miracle that he did not end up in jail!

When he started his fifth drink, they started to play a Christmas carol.

Mary's boy child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day
Hark, now hear the angels sing, a King was born today
For man will live, for ever more, because of Christmas Day

He tried to tap his feet to keep tune with the song, but gave up after less than a minute. He was too sleepy, but did not have the energy to leave. He must have dozed off for a few seconds because when he woke up their old favourite was being sung once more.

That's a fine shiny dress that you be wearing;
Do our eyes deceive, or is that silk threading?

Care to take a turn on the pier with us?
Você vai dançar connosco? Maachche?
Or would you rather go for a dip with us?
Vamos para uma sessão de natação? Maachche?

This dress ain't in any way for the likes of you;
There's no way on earth I'd jive with you;

'Actually I really like jiving with you.' Alwyn laughed aloud. That was what Lorraine used to whisper to him as they danced to this song. Once Lorraine had worn a blue silk dress and she had looked so pretty and everyone had stared at her and all the men had been so jealous of him as he danced with her. Someone jabbed him from behind. 'Would you please dance with me?' No, it was for real. Alwyn turned around gingerly. Lorraine was standing behind him.

'What are you doing here? Didn't you fly to Delhi?'

'I cancelled. I told Peerbhoy that I couldn't go,'

'Really?' Alwyn could not think of anything else to say.

'Yes. Really. I just told him and walked out. I didn't wait to find out whether he agreed or not.'

'He might fire you!' They both laughed as he said that.

'I waited at home for you to come back. And then I decided to come here and join you.'

He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past eleven. The couple who sat next to him at his table had left but otherwise the restaurant was still packed. Four of five couples were dancing.

'Are you going to drive to Goa tomorrow?'

'Yes of course.'

'Can I go with you?' Lorraine sat down in the empty chair next to him

'Ah! No! I'm not too sure. Not much space in the car.'

'Please, please, take me with you, Alwyn.'

'In that case, we may have to hire a car.'

Lorraine laughed. 'I thought as much. I've been very nasty to you.'

'In what way honey? You kept the house going. If it weren't up to you…..'

'Listen, I don't want to work for Peerbhoy anymore.'

'And why not?'

'Didn't you once say we should start a firm of our own? Messrs Sequeira and Sequeira' He had, but that had been a long time ago.

'I'm no longer a CA. Lost my licence, don't you remember?'

'I am a CA. You can work for me. Help me run Messrs Sequeira and Associates. We'll do everything together. I know a few people and I'm sure you can pull in a few clients as well. How does that sound?' Lorraine's eyes were glowing with happiness. Alwyn wanted to pick up his drink and pour it down her head. And then smash the glass into her face. She would never understand.

'I'd be one of your associates?'

'Just on paper honey. Everyone would know that you are the main Sequeira, not me.'

'Let's make plans after Christmas, shall we? I'm too drunk to think logically right now.'

Lorraine laughed. 'That's alright honey. As long as we are together.'

Despite being drunk, Alwyn had a feeling that he would have to go along with Lorraine's plan, though he didn't like it one bit.

**Special thanks to my friend Jason Keith Fernandes who vetted this story and helped me find the right Konkani words for the song which appears in this tale.

Book Review: Maria Misra’s Business, Race, and Politics in British India

I came across this wonderful book while trying to learn a little bit more managing agency houses which dominated Indian industry prior to independence and for a brief while after that. I heard the term ‘managing agency’ for the first time over 12 years ago while attending corporate law lectures as a law student in Bangalore. ‘Managing agency contracts,’ our highly respected professor told us with uncharacteristic brevity, ‘are banned. BANNED. Companies are not allowed to enter into such contracts any more.’ His eyes conveyed a sense of horror as if managing agency contracts were something very disgusting and dirty, akin to may be the slave trade, as if he could never explain to us youngsters, how horrible a managing agency arrangement was. We students left it at that, not particularly wanting to inquire into something not very relevant for us and add to our workload. The second time I came across the term managing agency house was when reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, the best book about India I have read so far. One of the characters in the book, snooty anglophile Arun Mehra, works for a managing agency house. Seth takes some trouble to explain to the reader how a managing agency house functioned and how elitist and exclusive it was, even after India’s independence. However, even Seth does not manage to explain how managing agency houses dominated Indian industry during the British era. Maria Misra manages to do what neither my professor nor Vikram Seth could do (to be honest, they didn’t try to do so), that is, to convey to her readers an image of British India dominated by managing agency houses.

To explain in simplistic terms, a managing agency was a partnership which carried on the business of managing other business enterprises. A typical managing agency would enter into contracts with various companies for managing them. Under Indian company law, as it existed then, shareholders of a company could not challenge or override such contracts, even if they were contrary to shareholder interests. British India was dominated by 60 or so managing agency houses which controlled and managed most Indian businesses. The usual modus operandi for managing agency houses was to start an enterprise with their capital, execute a managing agency contract with it for a term of twenty or thirty years and then issue shares in the company to investors, who would be stuck with the managing agent.

These agencies were run by British businessmen, both English and Scottish, who believed in the racial superiority of the British over Indians, who epitomised the values around which the Empire was built and the ‘white man’s burden’ was discharged. Much more conservative than even the British Indian government, they were at the zenith of their dominance before the beginning of the First World War. Misra explains in detail how these managing agency houses refused to change with the times and eventually lost out to multinational and Indian owned firms.

Misra’s book is crowded with statistics. Misra tells us that senior assistants at these managing agency houses made INR. 3,500 per month, a huge amount of money for those days. Partners would typically retire with a fortune of around £60,000, whilst senior assistants could squirrel away an average of £30,000. Managing agencies paid their employees more than what the Indian Civil Service paid.

The managing agents believed that the ideal businessman was a generalist, who would not be too ‘technical’ and who could take a holistic view of the business and its prospects. Technical people were distrusted. As technology advanced, managing agents began to lose out on account of their technical incompetence. Misra gives us the example of Gillander, a leading managing agency, ordering railway engine paint which wouldn’t dry in the Indian climate for Duco Paints (an ICI subsidiary). Prudential, an MNC fired its managing agent since it did not understand the insurance business.

Managing agencies had so much contempt for Indians and their lack of ‘character’ that they refused to Indianise even after the Indian Civil Service started to do so. Few Indians were said to have the ‘character’ required to be a manager, with the exception of the Parsis. Indians were said to make good accountants and their rote learning skills gave them an unfair advantage in academic exams, though it was not of much use in real business. Frank Russell, a Calcutta businessman, took the view that Hindus had more brains that Muslims, but did not compare in character or physical courage. N. Macleod, a business witness to the 1913 Public Services Commission said that ‘instead of choosing men who are merely a bundle of bones and book-learning, the selectors should give preference to those men whose physical stature and appearance who be in keeping with the dignified and important position they are likely to be called on to fill in India. There is after all in the administration of Eastern countries, a great deal to be said for the man who looks the part.

When an Indian businessman by the name Birla invited Basil Eddis of Gillander to join the Board of one of his cotton mills, the offer was coolly declined. When another India business house by the name Tata invited Gillander to collaborate with it in the production of steel, the offer was turned down. Misra’s book is filled with interesting anecdotes such as these. The most interesting aspect of the entire managing agency business was that managing agency contracts were void under English law whilst they were enforceable in India – until 1970.

Saturday, 13 December 2008


Preetha was followed by three young men as she walked home. From behind, they made loud comments on her looks. Occasionally they would walk up to her and brush against her or blow into her hair, before retreating a few yards. Hoping to evade her tormentors, Preetha left the foot-path and blindly stepped into the busy main road. She was hit by a large white van and died on the spot.

“Kerala roads most unsafe for women” a newspaper headline screamed. “Eve-teasing rife in Kerala” another headline shouted. “Kerala has the worst record for eve-teasing in India”, a third one declared. The Home Minister grimly went through the news reports as he ate breakfast. His wife was yet to wake up. He rarely saw his seventeen year old son who spent most of his waking hours with his friends. That afternoon, the Home Minister presided over a meeting of various police officers. ‘Something needs to be done’, he told them. ‘Otherwise the bloody newspapers will say I am useless.’

‘I plan to increase the number of foot patrols,’ the Inspector General of Police, or IG as he was known, told the Home Minister.

‘As if that will satisfy those press vultures!’

A bright young officer who had recently joined the Indian Police Service wanted a new approach. ‘Sir, I think we should change the terminology we use. Eve-teasing sounds too frivolous. Sexual harassment is the phrase universally used to describe this type of behaviour.’

‘What’s in a name?’ a senior police officer said in a flippant manner.

‘Or in a phrase,’ another added jovially.

A grizzled veteran spoke up. ‘Sir, why don’t we send out a few policewomen as decoys, catch some of these eve-teasers and make an example out of them?’

‘That’s a brilliant idea,’ the IG said adopting his subordinate’s idea as his own. ‘We send out a lone policewoman in civil dress. An unmarked police car tails her and records everything. A few policemen follow at a safe distance. Once we’ve recorded enough evidence, we catch the culprits red-handed.’

‘And after we catch them, we take them to the police station and thrash the shit out of them. And lock them up for a few days.’ The Home Minister liked the idea.

‘Oh No! We must do things by the book or we’ll end up with negative publicity. It’ll be up to the courts to award appropriate punishment. We’ll have enough evidence anyway.’

‘I don’t trust the courts to deliver justice. In any event, nothing will prevent me from announcing the names of the culprits we catch at a news conference.’

‘I’m sure that will be alright,’ the IG agreed.

The finer points of the scheme were soon ironed out. A few days later, a young policeman woman wearing a silk saree and carrying a leather handbag ambled along a busy thoroughfare in Thiruvananthapuram. The Home Minister anxiously waited in his office for the results of this audacious experiment. If successful, it would be rolled out in other cities in Kerala.

Finally his phone rang.

‘What happened?’ he demanded.

‘Sir, we have caught four college students in the act.’ For some reason, the police officer at the other end did not sound very enthusiastic.

‘Splendid! I hope you have them in your safe custody. Fax me their names, the names of their parents, details of the colleges where they are studying and I’ll organise the press conference.’

‘Sir, this time I feel we should let these boys off with just a warning.’

‘Like hell we’ll do that.’

‘Well Sir, one of the boys claims he is your son. And we think that he may be speaking the truth.’

Symbolic Gestures Are Necessary At Times

Veteran journalist Jawed Naqvi is the Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. Highly respected and very much balanced, Naqvi has in the past worked for Gulf News and Khaleej Times. I have been a regular reader of Naqvi’s articles ever since they started appearing in the Dawn and have almost always been in agreement with the very sensible points of view he usually espouses. However, in his most recent article, Naqvi has taken a stand that I did not fully agree with. According to Naqvi, the refusal to bury the dead terrorists who attacked Mumbai is wrong. In support of his argument, Naqvi says, ‘they should know that no Constitution, other than perhaps the Taliban’s, endorses the abuse of dead bodies.’

Naqvi also finds issue with another symbolic gesture made by Delhi’s Muslim “leaders” “who have reportedly agreed to wear a black armband on Eidul Azha to mark their anguish at the carnage in Mumbai.” According to Naqvi, “nothing could be more cosmetic, meaningless and distractive than to make the token observation.”

Naqvi goes on to say that “everybody has been trying to carry on with life after the outrage.” Therefore, he wonders, why don’t Muslims do the same? In short, Naqvi gets the feeling (and he may be right) that Indian Muslims are forced to make these token gestures to prove their patriotism in the current climate.

Naqvi ends his article by making a very valid point. He says that it is inevitable that the Mumbai attacks were supported by some alienated Indian Muslims. Rather than make token gestures, Naqvi wants Indian Muslims to isolate such alienated brethren in their midst rather than demonstrating their sympathy with the Indian state. I have no issues with Naqvi’s final point. Identifying and isolating the bad ‘Uns in their midst is much more important for India’s Muslim community than refusing an Islamic burial to the terrorists. However, I think the decision to deny an Islamic burial was essentially right. Also, symbolic gestures can do some good at times like this, though it wouldn’t do to force a community to make gestures. Let’s admit it, thanks to Islamic fundamentalists and their activities, Islam and all Muslims have a serious PR issue – an image problem. As any self-respecting PR consultant will tell you, in order to fix an image problem, you need to get to the root of the problem. Getting to the root of a problem usually takes time and effort. Until the cause of the problem is identified and destroyed, it is necessary to undertake a few PR exercises which give some temporary relief.

Naqvi may not be aware of this, but refusal to grant a proper religious burial is one that is not unheard of among Catholics and Jews. If a Catholic commits suicide (prohibited by the Church), a Catholic burial is denied. Recently, the Dutch Catholic church extended this principle to victims of assisted suicide. Jews who practise Christianity will not be eligible for a Jewish burial and Christians who convert to any other religion will not be eligible for a Christian burial. I do not wish to use this forum to discuss whether the Catholic Church or the Jews are right in refusing a religious burial, but only want to stress that the decision to deny a Muslim burial is not unique. The Mullahs who denied the terrorists an Islamic burial have said that the terrorists have ceased to be Muslims by their heinous actions. I find this to be a very valid statement. Only Muslims are entitled to an Islamic burial and if one ceases to be a Muslim, one has no right to an Islamic burial.

If the terrorists are buried in an Islamic cemetery, even if the graves are unmarked, wouldn’t the local Muslim community be under so much more pressure for having given the terrorists a final resting place? Sure, they shouldn’t be under such pressure and they shouldn’t be forced to make such symbolic statements, but to be honest, the time for such niceties is long past.

Let me give you an example. Let’s assume a few bloggers (like me) install spy software on their blogs which allows them to hack into their readers’ computers and steal money from their bank accounts (yeah, I may be stretching it here, but do indulge me). Should I be forced to apologise on behalf of the rotten blogger(s)? No, of course not. What happens if the number of bloggers who play dirty goes up and they receive sympathy and support from say 25% of global bloggers? You can be sure that I would not be in a hurry to declare my blogging habit to a bunch of strangers in a pub after a few rounds. What if readers of blogs lose a lot of money due to a sudden spurt in such nefarious activity? The number of people who read blogs will be drastically reduced and I may be forced to make symbolic gestures to the public at large. I would declare that I have no idea as to who the bad bloggers are. I might donate some money to the people who lost money. I might put up the sign of a wreath on top of my blog, though fat lot of good it would do.

The decision to wear a black arm band is a symbolic gesture for sure, and the ones wearing it are in a sense forced to wear it, but such gestures are now necessary and are not to be written off, until the root of this problem is identified and destroyed.

After the Kargill war, when Pakistan refused to take back its dead, India gave the dead bodies a proper Muslim burial. Images of Indian soldiers conducting Islamic rites were broadcast to the world, giving India a PR coup. Should the Indian government at this stage step in and do what was done after Kargill? Offer an Islamic burial to the dead terrorists in a purpose made graveyard unconnected with any Muslim community in India, distribute photographs of the dead bodies and their burial to the world media and allow family members of the terrorists to visit the graves at any time in the future? The other alternative would be to cremate the bodies in an electric crematorium without any ceremony and scatter the ashes in the Arabian Sea. Let the terrorists float back to where they came from.

Our Children

Recently I read the results of a study on children carried out in the UK which said that more than half the British population believed that children behave like animals. More than half the respondents of the study said that children were increasingly a danger to others. More than one-third of those surveyed also agreed that "it feels like the streets are infested" with children, while 43% said something had to be done to protect adults. Half the respondents did not have much sympathy for children who got into trouble and didn’t think they might need professional help.

I was not surprised by the result of this study. In the last 6 years which I have spent in the UK, I have heard many adults express absolute hatred for children. Married couples have proudly told me that not only do they not plan to have kids, but they don’t like kids in the first place. In the UK, it is still illegal to breastfeed a child in public, though it is not illegal to drink in public (I am not against either activity). Passengers in trains and buses raise eyebrows if a baby starts bawling – why should I be inconvenienced by your child is the usual attitude, though a loud mouthed drunk will be cheerfully tolerated.

On the flip side, I have also seen gangs of children terrorise adults. Entire streets become no-go zones after dark, taken over by mobs of children whose ages range from six to sixteen. In some towns where there is high unemployment, it is common to see children playing truant and wandering around in groups even in the daytime. I’ve seen adults travelling in public transport cower into corners when a bunch of children wander in. Child gangs frequently assault people and commit robberies.

This is not to say that they are no well-mannered or hard-working children in the UK. Most children of middle-class parents in the UK are very well-behaved, in fact better behaved than children in India. I have many colleagues and friends who spend a substantial amount of their free time with their children. I had a (male) colleague who took a few weeks off to help his thirteen year old son prepare for entrance exams to a well-known public school. In all probability, the number of ‘good’ children in the UK exceeds the number of ‘bad’ children, but since the ‘good children are not as visible as the ‘bad’ ones, UK’s ‘children’ problem is bound to catch your eye if you live in the UK for more than a week.

There are various theories advanced for this state of affairs in the UK, which is not seen anywhere else even in the western world. The breakup of the family is usually cited as the main reason, though other European countries where family units have broken down do not seem to have similar problems with their children. In the UK, corporal punishment is banned in school. Parents are allowed to mildly smack their children, though any punishment that leaves a mark on a child can land a parent in jail. Interestingly, various European countries such as Norway, Austria, Germany etc. have totally banned any form of parental punishment that involves violence. The rationale is that no human being should have the right to use physical force against another and children very much fall within the definition of ‘human being’.

The situation in India and other Asian countries is in stark contrast to that in the UK. Asian children are pampered to an extent that may be described as ‘unhealthy.’ In some cases, both sets of dotting grandparents are at hand to do the pampering. Children are brought up to believe that they are the most important thing in their parents’ lives. A working woman who has her child taken care of by a nanny or in a day care centre is looked up on with suspicion, as if she is neglecting a sacred duty. Many Indian schools expect their pupils to receive full-time attention from at least one parent, which will invariably be the mother. There are some schools which refuse to admit students if both parents hold full-time jobs. I have always believed that Indian schools teach their children too much unnecessary stuff and give them too much homework (instead of wrapping up studies during school hours), but that’s for another post.

Every time I’ve travelled by air, the most unruly children are the Asian kids, who seem to be incapable of sitting still. Indian parents tend to believe that their children are entitled to make a nuisance of themselves wherever they are and others have a duty to put up with it. Recently there have been a few stories of how Indians have started to refuse to make allowances for children in public places, but by and large, strangers in India are willing to tolerate the shenanigans of children in public places.

In a way I am glad more and more Indians are starting to demand that parents not inflict their children on others, though I don’t think I would like to see India reach the same position as the UK is currently in. I have always taken the view that what’s usually branded as ‘western culture’ is actually the culture of urbanisation and industrialisation, though Japan stands out as an exception to this. As India progresses economically (at least it did till the recent recession and terror attacks in Mumbai), its culture is bound to follow a trajectory similar to that taken by western countries many decades ago. There will be more and more nuclear families, single parents and broken homes as is currently the case in the western world. However, it remains to be seen if Indian society will reach a stage where it has the sort of ‘children problems’ which UK currently has.

In my opinion, continental European countries like France, Italy and Germany are in a much better position than the UK vis-à-vis their children. In these countries, one doesn’t hear of children having such a strained relationship with their parents or having serious drinking or drug-related problems. It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this disparity among European nations, but if India continues to industrialise and urbanise, I hope it ends up in the continental European position rather than the British one.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Blessings Forever

Tenny bowed in front of his grandparents. His grandmother had tears in her eyes as she blessed him. His grandfather, on the other hand, had an amused look on his face. As Tenny’s grandmother started to mutter a prayer, the photographer yelled, ‘stop it right there.’ ‘Grandfather,’ he commanded Tenny’s grandfather, ‘you move a little bit forward. And grandmother,’ he pointed towards Tenny’s grandmother, ‘you turn slightly to the left.’

‘No. No. Don’t move too much,’ the video cameraman objected in an equally loud voice, lifting his head from the eye-piece of the video camera in his hand as his assistant flashed a warm beam of light on a perspiring Tenny and his grandparents. ‘Don’t move them too much, he told the photographer curtly. He was much younger than the photographer, but the video cameraman always outranked the photographer at any Kerala wedding.

‘No, I won’t. Just a little bit,’ the photographer compromised. Tenny’s grandparents moved forwards and sideways according to the directions they received, the crowd of people swarming around them also moving to give them the space they needed.

‘Go on now. Give him the blessing,’ the photographer gave the go-ahead. Tenny’s grandmother dutifully recited her prayer once again, but the spirit had gone out of her. Now it was just a show for the benefit of the cameras. Tenny continued to sweat profusely despite the ceiling fan whirling overhead furiously. There must have been around fifty relatives in that small drawing room, packed around Tenny and his grandparents.

‘Done! Done! Who’s next?’

Tenny’s maternal grandmother tentatively came forward. ‘Ammachi, go forward,’ Tenny’s younger sister prompted her, but the cameras made the old lady twice as shy as her widowhood demanded.

‘Tenny’s suit – its cut is so old fashioned,’ a cousin from Kolkata muttered. ‘Did he get it made in the UK?’

‘No, of course not. It’s the bride’s people who pay for the suit.’

‘True, but he could still have bought it in England.’

‘I think the bride’s father arranged to have it stitched by a tailor in Kottayam.’

‘No wonder …’

‘Who’s next?’ the photographer demanded.

‘It has to be Daddy and Mummy,’ Tenny’s elder brother suggested cautiously. He wasn’t old enough to be sure if the groom’s parents outranked the groom’s father’s elder brother and his wife.

‘Shouldn’t it be Perappan and Peramma?’ someone queried.

‘No, no, after the grandparents, the parents, then all paternal uncles and aunts in the order of seniority and then all maternal uncles and aunts,’ the photographer informed them, his authority derived from his long years of experience in recording weddings. Eight pairs of maternal uncles and aunts quietly prepared to wait their turn.

‘Yes, yes, Tenny’s father and mother should bless Tenny before I do,’ Tenny’s Perappan declared with a tinge of embarrassment.

Tenny’s mother walked up to Tenny, followed by his father.

‘A little bit to this side,’ the video cameraman ordered. ‘The father should stand to the mother’s left.’

‘Let’s not waste too much time over positions. We need to be in church by eleven. So, why don’t you take the photographs as best as you …’

‘Don’t you want the photographs to turn out well? Twenty years from now, do you want someone to look at your son’s wedding photos and wonder why you are in the wrong position?’ Tenny’s father did not have an answer to the photographer’s questions.

‘These blessings are eternal. To be recorded forever, and it’s my job to make sure they are done right. Our job,’ the photographer hastily corrected before the video cameraman or his assistant could say anything.

‘We are paying six thousand for the photographs and ten thousand for the video,’ Tenny’s brother informed an uncle in hushed tones, without hiding his pride at spending so much money on photos and video.

Tenny’s Perappan and Peramma took up their positions soon after.

‘Thank God Tenny managed to land a job in England. If he hadn’t…

‘It was I who advised him to study nursing. Everyone said I was mad. No one likes the idea of male nurses, but these days they are the ones who manage to get jobs in England and America.’

‘Tenny is not in England. He is in Scotland. In a nursing home faraway from civilisation. Our nurses get jobs in places where white people don’t like to work.’

‘I’m sure it’s good enough for Tenny,’ another uncle, this one Tenny’s father’s sister’s husband, sniggered.

‘Your turn will come up soon,’ someone informed the sniggering uncle who looked around for his wife. ‘Where’s Leilamma?’ he asked someone standing nearby.

‘No idea.’

‘Is Leilamma around?’

‘She’s here.’ Leilamma could be espied on the other side of the room, tucked in between three other relatives.

‘It’s ten twenty already. We will have to start for the church by ten forty.’ Tenny’s mother announced.

‘We need to take a few shots of the groom leaving the house and getting into the car. Ten minutes for that,’ the photographer said.

‘We can be a few minutes late. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get to the church by eleven.’

‘Oh no!’ the video cameraman objected. ‘We must get to the church before the bride does. I need to shoot the bride getting out of her car.’

‘Won’t that be recorded by the bride’s video?’

‘Don’t you want your own video show the bride getting out of her car at the church?’

‘At this rate, we will not be able to get everyone to bless Tenny.’

‘Can’t you take photos of Tenny getting out of the house while the rest of us bless him?’ an aunt asked only to be drowned out by hoots of laughter. Her two sons, Tenny’s cousins, cringed in embarrassment.

‘Never mind. As many blessings as possible till ten thirty. Then we leave.’

No one objected. Tenny continued to receive blessings at a pace dictated by the photographer and video cameraman.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Short Story: Important Questions

By seven in the evening, Kamala Teacher was exhausted. But there was no possibility of a respite for another two hours. As the students streamed out of the drawing room, Kamala Teacher rushed into the kitchen where a glass of buttermilk was waiting for her. Her youngest daughter was busy making dinner.

‘We’ve run out of curd,’ Kamala Teacher’s daughter informed her.

‘Dinner without curd.’ Kamala Teacher was prone to be brief when she was exhausted. Also, she was a maths teacher and teachers of mathematics have a natural inclination to avoid verbosity and unnecessary extravagance.

‘We don’t have even a drop left – not even for the milk.’

‘Why didn’t you set aside a few drops before having it all for lunch?’

‘I forgot.’

‘You silly girl! Go and borrow two spoonfuls from Murali’s mother.’ Kamala Teacher had a knack of keeping track of her accounts with each of her neighbours. Murali’s mother had borrowed two onions from Kamala Teacher a month ago and so far she was yet to borrow anything back from Murali’s mother. Two spoonfuls of curd would be set off against one of the onions, which meant she was still entitled to borrow something more from Murali’s mother.

Soon the last batch of the evening trickled in. Exhausted boys and sleepy girls some of whom had attended tuition classes elsewhere for other subjects came into the drawing room and squatted on the floor in a semicircle. The few pieces of furniture that were in the room had been permanently pushed to a corner. The last time the furniture had been put in their proper places was three years ago – for Kamala Teacher’s second daughter’s wedding.

Kamala Teacher’s husband was an insurance agent. Which was just a nice way of saying that he did not have regular employment. It had not always been like that. Kamala Teacher’s husband used to be a state government employee. It had been a comfortable job at the district collectorate, one which allowed him to look forward to a life-long pension after retirement at the age of fifty-eight. While her husband was in government service, Kamala Teacher had only contempt for teachers who offered private tuition. ‘I could never bring myself to work after school hours. And even if I did that, I would never do the things which some of my colleagues do,’ Kamala Teacher had declared vehemently many, many years ago when she got back to work after her first maternity leave. The allusion was mainly to Latha Teacher, the science teacher, who offered private tuition on a very large scale.

But times change and so do needs and values. Kamala Teacher’s husband decided to quit his very secure government job and start a business. It was a wholly unjustified risk in Kamala Teacher’s point of view, especially because they had, at that time, two daughters to take care of. Not only did Kamala Teacher’s husband quit his job, but he also insisted that they have a third child in the vain hope that it would turn out to be a boy. Both gambles failed to pay off. Kamala Teacher delivered a third girl child. A year later, the cement dealership which Kamala Teacher’s husband started ran up so much loss that they were forced to sell their house (which had less than one-third of its mortgage left to be paid off) and move to a rented house. Since Kamala Teacher’s husband did not have the stomach to try a new venture, he became an insurance agent. And Kamala Teacher started to offer private tuitions to her students.

At first Kamala Teacher was too embarrassed to market her services aggressively. ‘A few students asked me if I can offer private tuition classes and I have agreed. If any of you want to join, please meet me after class.’ Kamala Teacher made the announcement in all her classes and left it at that. Despite her reticence, many students from the sixth, seventh and eight standards immediately signed up. Kamala Teacher’s drawing room could accommodate twenty students at a time and she soon found herself teaching two batches of students on weekdays, three batches on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Each student paid twenty five rupees a month. Initially Kamala Teacher found it unbelievably tiring, but soon got used to it. She had little choice since her husband was having spectacularly little success in selling insurance.

However, Kamala Teacher was in for a shock. After a few months when the second term exams got over, almost four fifths of her students who had enrolled for her private classes, dropped out. Kamala Teacher was despondent, but she had an inkling as to the reason for her sudden unpopularity. Nevertheless, she took aside one of her loyal students and asked him why many of his classmates had deserted her so suddenly.

‘You see teacher, many of them who joined your classes, well, they hoped that you would give them a list of important questions to study before the second term exams we had last month.’ Kamala Teacher sighed. So it had come to that! She had nursed a forlorn hope that unlike Latha Teacher, she would have students attend her classes solely on the basis of the quality of her teaching! If only she were teaching tenth or twelfth standard students rather than middle school students. Tenth and twelfth standard students had board exams where the questions were set by anonymous teachers. Tuition teachers for tenth and twelfth standard students did not have to or rather could not be expected to provide them with a list of important questions! A good teacher (and Kamala Teacher had no doubts that she was good) would have students flock to her for the sheer quality of her teaching.

It took Kamala Teacher two months to reach a decision, but finally she made up her mind (assisted mainly by the fact that her second daughter fell ill and ran up obscenely high medical bills) a couple of weeks before the final term exams fell due. But no, she would not give a list such as the one provided by Latha Teacher. Her list would be longer with some important questions and many unimportant ones, all jumbled up. No, her pupils could not expect to learn just the important questions by rote and get near full marks in the maths paper. But they would do reasonably well in the maths exam if they only learnt the questions in the list she disclosed in her private tuition classes. Soon word spread that Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes were not such a bad investment. A couple of weeks before each end-of-term exam, Kamala Teacher would read out a list of around thirty questions, of which six would find a place in the question paper which usually had ten or sometimes eleven questions. The number of students who attended Kamala Teacher’s classes went up. However, her classes where nowhere as popular as Latha Teacher’s classes. Which was not surprising since Latha Teacher’s list of important questions had just twenty questions and eighty percent of the question paper was drawn from that list! It was routine for six or seven students from Latha Teacher’s classes to get over ninety percent marks in their science exam.

Kamala Teacher’s second daughter was in her eighth standard when Kamala Teacher started offering private tuition. This put Kamala Teacher’s daughter in a tight spot since many of her classmates assumed that Kamala Teacher was passing on the entire question paper to her daughter. They reasoned that if Kamala Teacher could give her tuition students a list of important questions, her daughter was bound to get the entire question paper. Kamala Teacher was much more affected by the insinuations than her daughter was. The fact that Kamala Teacher’s second daughter was really good at maths and got top scores did not help matters. When Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter (as bright as her younger sister) passed through Kamala Teacher’s classes, nobody had even dared to cast aspersions on Kamala Teacher or her daughter. There was nothing to be done, except to grin and put up with it.

After Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter went to college, Kamala Teacher’s list of important questions was shortened to twenty, but even then not more than six of those questions could be found in the question paper. Enrolment went up accordingly, though it never became as high as that for Latha Teacher’s classes. Four years later, when Kamala Teacher’s eldest daughter was ready to be married off (her second daughter had started college by then), seven questions from the list started to find a place in the question paper. After that Kamala Teacher refused to improve the quality of her list. Even when Kamala Teacher and her husband started to make plans to get their second daughter married, Kamala Teacher stood firm. At times, Kamala Teacher was sorely tempted to follow Latha Teacher’s footsteps and plant eight or nine questions from the question paper in her list. Surely there was no harm being done to anyone. The students who did not attend her classes were no worse off (other than on a comparative basis) and Kamala Teacher did have a duty to do all she could for her daughters. But Kamala Teacher held fast. There was a limit to the compromises she could make.

Soon it was time for Kamala Teacher’s third daughter, six years younger than her direct sibling, to be her student. Fortunately for Kamala Teacher, the girl was not academically inclined and her grades were such that no one ever had reason to believe that she had secret knowledge of the maths question paper.

Time flew by and soon retirement loomed in the horizon. Kamala Teacher once again keenly wished she were teaching tenth or twelfth standard students rather than students who took exams prepared by her and whose papers she valued. A tuition teacher who taught high school or higher secondary school students taking board exams could continue to teach even after retirement, whilst Kamala Teacher and Latha Teacher (who was two years younger than Kamala Teacher) would not be able to attract many students after their retirement. Kamala Teacher’s third daughter was twenty years old and they just did not have even half the money they needed to marry her off. They still lived in a rented house and Kamala Teacher’s husband could count on his fingers the number of insurance policies he sold each year.

Kamala Teacher considered her options as she started her final year before retirement. There weren’t many. She would have to continue with her tuition classes. Since she would be unable to provide her students with important questions just before their exams or show some leniency while valuing the papers of her tuition students, she was unlikely to get too many students from her own school. She would have to start teaching all subjects and not just mathematics. And she would have to look out for students from other schools to keep up numbers. There would be students who couldn’t stand their teachers and wanted someone else to teach them, students whose teachers did not give private tuition and hopefully some students who really liked her and wanted to learn from her, despite the changes in her circumstances.

‘What are you complaining about?’ the Tamil Sir asked her. ‘A maths teacher can teach all subjects, but we language teachers can only teach our own subjects.’ Which was true. She could teach physics, chemistry and biology in addition to maths. And also history and geography and Tamil. Heck, anyone could teach history. The King planted some trees. He fought a long war. He conquered his enemies. He abolished taxes. It was not so difficult. It was all there in the book. But there was no way a Tamil or English teacher could teach Mathematics. Thank God she was a maths teacher, the queen of all sciences, the king of all subjects!

It was at that time that Jayanth’s father enrolled his son for Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes. Jayanth’s father was the richest businessman in town and Jayanth, a puny boy in the eight standard with mischievous eyes partly covered with his very long hair, was his only son. Until a year ago Jayanth had been a normal boy with slightly above average grades. His mother spent an hour or two every evening helping him with his homework and if anyone had suggested that Jayanth be sent for private tuition, his parents would have laughed. That is until Jayanth’s mother caught her husband, pants down, with their domestic help. A quick divorce had ensued. Jayanth’s father hired the best lawyer in the district and made sure he got custody of Jayanth. His ex-wife could see her son only once a month. After his parents separated, Jayanth stopped studying. Threats, bribes and promises failed to work. In desperation Jayanth’s father had enrolled him in Kamala Teacher’s tuition classes. ‘Do something, anything,’ his father begged Kamala Teacher. ‘But please, please make sure that he passes his final exams and goes to the next class.’

Which was not going to be easy, Kamala Teacher realised as Jayanth sat in her tuition class and stared at his toes instead of paying attention to what she was saying. He had got miserable marks in his first term exam. Whilst other students excitedly wrote down the important questions Kamala Teacher dictated, Jayanth had drawn sketches of other children sitting around him. Kamala Teacher caned him a few times, with zero effect. Jayanth had given her a defiant stare and walked back to his spot on the floor of the drawing room. Unlike other teachers, especially Latha Teacher, Kamala Teacher was not a believer in corporal punishment. She used the cane and the ruler sparingly and had never slapped a student across the face in her entire career. When the second term exam approached, Kamala Teacher abandoned all hopes of getting Jayanth to do her bidding through the use of force and gave him a handwritten copy of the important questions she had dictated in her tuition class. Jayanth got twenty marks out of one hundred in that exam. Jayanth’s father came to her wringing his hands in despair. ‘What’s do we do now? he asked Kamala Teacher, easily transferring his burden to her.

If there was one thing that Kamala Teacher had never done, it was to pass a student who definitely deserved to fail, even if that student took her private tuition classes. No, she did not mind giving a couple of grace marks to one of her tuition students who scored thirty two or thirty three marks out of one hundred. But she had little hope that Jayanth would score thirty two or thirty three marks out of hundred and make it possible for her to push him past the thirty-five mark cut-off. And she was darned if she was to break that rule now. She knew that Latha Teacher and a few teachers did pass students who would not pass if their papers were valued by someone else. Did Jayanth’s father expect her to do that? What a stupid thing to do, sleeping with his domestic help! If only he hadn’t been so stupid, he wouldn’t be running from one teacher to another for help.

‘How’s he doing in other subjects?’

‘Not too bad. The science teacher tells me that he will definitely pass in science. , English, Tamil, and social studies are not too difficult. He has a strong foundation, you know. It is only maths that I am worried about.’

‘I’ll do my best. But I can’t make any promises,’ she told Jayanth’s father.

‘I am not sure how you feel about this, but if you can make my son pass his maths exam, I’ll pay you twenty thousand rupees,’ he told Kamala Teacher with a straight face.

Kamala Teacher was tempted to scream at him. How dare he try to bribe her? Was she yet another minister or bureaucrat to be bought for a price? But Kamala Teacher thought of her third daughter who would pass out of college in a couple of years’ time and would have to be married off. Twenty thousand rupees was not a small amount. Not something to be sneezed away. And it was not as if her actions had so far been pure and innocent. Granted she was not as bad as Latha Teacher or some of the other teachers. But she could not call herself a saint, could she? No, she was not going to slip any further. Jayanth would get a list of important questions like anybody else and he would have to learn them if he wanted to pass.

A few weeks after the third term began, Kamala Teacher realised that Jayanth showed little change. The problem was not that he was not intelligent or smart, but that he had no particular desire to pass. He did not pay any attention in class or later in the evening during his private tuition. When forced to work on a problem, he would give it a few moments’ attention and try to solve it half-heartedly. Rare was the occasion when he managed to solve a problem. Kamala Teacher was tempted to write off the twenty thousand rupee reward. Surely, if she got her daughter married using money earned through fraudulent means, God’s would punish her? Worse still God’s wrath might fall on her daughter. Of course not! She was not being evil. Jayanth deserved to pass more than most other students in his class.

As soon as Kamala Teacher prepared the question paper and sent it to the administrative office, she decided to give Jayanth the list of important questions. ‘There are twenty problems in this list. Make sure you learn a problem a day and you will be alright,’ she told him after giving him a handwritten list. Jayanth took the list and put it in his bag. A week later, Kamala Teacher called him aside after tuition class and asked him, ‘have you been solving the problems in that list?

‘No teacher, I have not,’ Jayanth replied, giving her a rare smile.

Kamala Teacher gave Jayanth a very stern look and said, ‘if you don’t start working on those problems, I shall beat the living daylights out of you.’

Jayanth stared back at her and then calmly walked away.

When Jayanth’s father came to see her a few days later, she told him, ‘I will need to give Jayanth separate tuition classes on Sundays. There’s no other way!’

‘Why not Kamala Teacher? I’ll send him to you on Sundays,’ Jayanth’s father said. There were just four Sundays left before the exams began. As a general rule, Kamala Teacher did not work on Sunday mornings, but she did not seem to have any choice.

When Jayanth turned up at her house on Sunday at eleven in the morning, Kamala Teacher had a different list of important questions for him. The questions were the same as the ones in the previous list, but they were in a different order. Jayanth looked surprised when she asked him to ignore the list she had given him earlier and to work with the new list. ‘You will have to do at least five problems each Sunday if we are to finish this list before the exams,’ she grimly told him. ‘Let’s start with the first one.’ Do you know the answer to this one?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Never mind.’ Kamala Teacher explained to Jayanth how a duet of complex algebraic equations could be solved, playing one against the other. ‘Did you understand what I just told you?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Kamala Teacher picked up a ruler and hit Jayanth hard on his upper right arm. ‘I’m going to explain this once more. If you can’t solve the problem after that, I will use a cane.’

After Kamala Teacher finished her explanation, she asked Jayanth, ‘do you think you can now solve this problem on your own?


‘Stand up. Come here.’ Jayanth dutifully obeyed. Kamala Teacher opened a drawer, took out a pencil thin cane, grit her teeth and hit Jayanth on his calf muscle twice. When she hit him for the second time, Jayanth winced and tears came to his eyes.

‘Now listen to me once more.’

Kamala Teacher went over the solution to that problem yet again and said, ‘Now I want you to do this problem. You will not leave this house till you’ve solved five problems today. Knock on the door when you have solved this one.’ She went inside to supervise her daughter who was preparing lunch. Her husband and daughter stared at her. They had never heard the cane being used so liberally by Kamala Teacher, but Kamala Teacher ignored them. Thirty minutes later she went to the drawing room to see how much progress Jayanth had made. He had done half the problem and then lost his way. He sat there on the floor, his notebook in front of him and the occasional tear falling from his eyes.

Kamala Teacher sat down next to Jayanth and said, ‘we all have personal difficulties. But that does not mean we can neglect our duties. You are a student. You must work hard and pass the exams. You used to be a good student and there is no reason why you cannot pass this exam.’

Kamala Teacher had expected that a mellowed Jayanth would now do her bidding. Instead in a fit of rage, he threw the notebook across the floor. Kamala Teacher stood up, took out the cane once again and said ‘come here Jayanth.’ This time she was particularly brutal. After four painful cuts which caused her own arm to ache, she told Jayanth, ‘I’m going to explain this to you once more.’ After she finished explaining, she said, ‘now solve the problem and knock on the door when you are done.’

‘Don’t you have classes from two?’ Jayanth asked her with a smile. It was already one.

Kamala Teacher was exhausted. ‘Yes I do. Tell you what. Please solve this problem and you can go home!’


‘Yes, I promise. Have you understood what I told you so far?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

Ten minutes after Kamala Teacher went into the house, Jayanth knocked on the door. He had solved the problem. ‘Can I leave now?’ he asked.

‘Yes you can. But please remember that you must learn nine problems next Sunday if we are to finish all twenty problems before the exams. So, it will help if you can learn a bit on your own before next Sunday.’

Jayanth shrugged non-committedly and went off home on his bicycle. The next Sunday, they managed to cover two problems before Kamala Teacher got tired and sent Jayanth home.

‘At this rate you will never learn all twenty problems,’ Kamala Teacher told Jayanth, her voice cracking with fatigue and stress.

‘I don’t care.’

The third Sunday Jayanth was much more obstinate and they covered just one problem, despite the fact that Kamala Teacher used the cane liberally. Finally, on the fourth and last Sunday, Jayanth showed some interest in learning and they managed to cover three problems without Kamala Teacher having to use the cane at all. Jayanth’s eyes continued to flash defiance, his body language that of a martyr.

‘Who are you trying to punish?’ Kamala Teacher asked him as she saw him off.

Jayanth was silent.

‘Your father?’


‘You fool. You are punishing yourself. If you have learnt just seven out of twenty problems, you may not pass.’

‘I don’t care.’

Kamala Teacher did not speak to Jayanth after that even though she saw him in her class for the next two days. The exams began on a Wednesday and the Mathematics exam was scheduled to be held on Friday. Kamala Teacher was one of the invigilators at the exam hall. On Wednesday and Thursday, Jayanth left the exam hall at least an hour before time ran out. However for the maths exam, he sat back and wrote and wrote till the bell rang. At times he would look at Kamala Teacher with surprise and then bend down to his task.

Kamala Teacher felt guilty for an instant. No, she told herself, there was no reason for her to feel so. She had not shown him any favour other than what all her tuition students received. The modified list she had given him was exactly the same as what she dictated to her other tuition students a few weeks later, with one minor difference. The first seven questions in the list she had given Jayanth had found a place in the question paper, while the list she had dictated to her other students had important and unimportant questions all jumbled up. But that was just a coincidence, wasn’t it? She had all along intended to make Jayanth cover the entire list, hadn’t she?

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Mumbai Terror Attacks: Rage, Retaliation and Restraint – Part II

I had written Part I of this article just after the attacks started. Now that the nightmare is over, it’s time to analyse the situation with a cooler head.

The Mumbai attacks were India’s 9/11. I say this mainly because it has suddenly become clear to me why the USA not only attacked the Taliban and invaded Afghanistan, but also went on to invade Iraq. The sheer need to find a scapegoat (any scapegoat) and lash out at that entity is overwhelming and I’m sure most readers will understand what I’m saying. However, having seen the disastrous effects of the Iraq war, it becomes all the more important that we do not try and follow the US example. India is a lot less wealthy and powerful than the US and we just cannot afford to make a mistake on the lines of what the US did in Iraq.

Till recently, I was sympathetic to the Pakistani view that the US had no business firing missiles into Pakistani territory, even if the objective was to kill Taliban. Now my eyes have been opened and I can see very clearly why it is absolutely necessary to kill the Taliban where ever possible. If American troops are being attacked in Afghanistan by Pakistan based militants, the US has every right to hunt them in Pakistan.

In all probability, the Pakistani government had nothing to do with the acts of its nationals who participated in this attack. The Pakistan based militants responsible for this attack most probably had the backing and blessings of their local chapter of the Al Qaeda. After all, what’s the Al-Qaeda but a loose coalition of Islamic insurgents who assist each other with funds, weapons and training? Massing troops on the Pakistani border (a la Operation Parakram) or threatening to launch an all-out war will not help anyone, except maybe the Taliban and the Pakhtun fighters in Pakistan’s north-west since Pakistan will switch its troops to confront India and relieve the pressure against the Islamic militants within Pakistan.

Trawling the blogosphere, one finds so many views on how India should react to these attacks. One view is that India must support as many insurgencies and separatist movements in Pakistan as possible, the idea being to cause the balkanisation of Pakistan. The idea has its attraction, but what would we actually achieve? If Pakistan were to splinter, it is likely that each of the chunks that breaks away will be economically worse off. A lot more unemployed men will be available to be brainwashed in the name of religion and used as cannon fodder in a war which doesn’t really concern them. The militants who attacked Mumbai are supposed to have come from impoverished southern Punjab. Let’s assume that Pakistan has splintered into Punjab, Baluchistan, Pakhtoonistan and Sindh. Would it mean that towns like Multan and Bahawalpur would cease to churn out men like Azam Amir Qasab? I seriously doubt it.

Another option I came up on was that India should send troops to Afghanistan to help the beleaguered Americans there. The biggest handicap the Americans face in Afghanistan is the shortage of boots on the grounds. The combined US-coalition troop strength in Afghanistan is not more than 50,000. If we could send our soldiers to help the United States (preferably keeping our soldiers in the north of Afghanistan where the Uzbeks and Tajiks are India’s allies), the fight against the Taliban would progress so much more nicely. Even after the American withdraw, the India-friendly Tajiks and Uzbeks would control northern Afghanistan and put the Pashtuns on the ropes. Making the Pashtuns insecure would revive Pashtun nationalism and cause further trouble for the Pakistani government. The problem with this theory is that it does not explain how support for Islamic militancy will dry up if the Pashtuns are on the ropes in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Internal squabbles within Pakistan may cause some of the militants to ignore India for a while, but it will not last for long. Remember, the Islamic militants in Pakistan are right now in the midst of a full-fledged war against Pakistan and the US in Afghanistan and it didn’t stop them from attacking Mumbai.

Manmohan Singh has already announced the formation of a new federal agency to tackle incidents of this sort. As if we don’t have enough agencies! We just need to reform the ones we already have. RAW and IB ought to be merged. The age-old distinction between external and internal threats is no longer there. External enemies work with internal enemies. Both RAW and IB must be run by intelligence professionals and not by police officers drawn from the IPS. I assume there will be an attempt to reinstate POTA or another avatar of this stupid law. We need to enforce the laws we have, rather than create new laws. Even if POTA were in operation when the Mumbai attacks took place, it would not have made an iota of difference.

Just as the 1962 debacle against China served as a wakeup call to modernise our armed forces, hopefully these attacks will force us to modernise our police forces and our processes for responding to such an event. There were so many things that were so patently wrong in the way we reacted to the attacks. Allowing mobs of people to surround the places under siege, permitting news channels to telecast details of the operations, most of it live, senior police officers jumping into the fray (only to get killed) rather than coordinating efforts, the list of mistakes is indeed very long. I think India was right in refusing to accept assistance from Israel or other countries when the siege was on. No, I am not saying we should be haughty or proud and say No even if we stand to gain. I just don’t think any fighting force can quickly start using new weapons or techniques, especially in the heat of battle. Now that things have quietened down, we should obtain assistance from friendly countries such as the US and Israel and plug the gaps.

There were a few points in our fighting tactics that looked silly even to a layperson like me. Our security forces kept saying that the terrorists seemed to know the layout of the Taj and the Oberoi better than they did. I have visited the Oberoi and the Taj many times and neither of them has a very complicated layout. May be some of the terrorists were locals who had visited the Taj and the Oberoi many times. Maybe the terrorists had visited Mumbai earlier and recconnoitered both the hotels. Nevertheless, there is no reason why our security forces could not have made themselves as familiar with the layout of the hotels as they wanted to be before going in. I remember reading an account of the Israeli operation at Entebbe many years ago. The Israelis obtained a blue print of the airport from the construction firm which built it, prepared a mock-up of the airport and practised with the mock-up before flying to Entebbe. Why couldn’t our chaps have done something similar? And once the militants were holed up in the hotels and NAriman House, why were we in such a hurry to complete the operation. Why didn’t we even make an attempt to capture them alive?

It is said that the local police ran way from CST instead of confronting the terrorists. It does sound like a grievous dereliction of duty, but then our policemen are not trained to fight men who fight back, are they? The average Indian policeman is good at bullying the weak and infirm, conducting midnight raids on brothels and rounding up the hapless women who work there. We need to retrain all our policemen. The armed reserve should be given combat training, rather than merely training them use firearms, whilst other policemen should be trained to understand the public and to work with them.

One kept hearing that the terrorists were armed with very sophisticated weapons. Since when did AK-47s and grenades get classified as sophisticated weapons?

Let me come back to the question I raised in Part I of this article. How do we retaliate against these attacks? We could use this opportunity to try and get Pakistan to extradite Dawood Ibrahim or someone else equally important in the underworld-ISI chain. However, the chances of Pakistan giving up someone so important and who would know so much, are not very high. The best thing to do, in my opinion, would be build a good case to prove that the attackers came from Pakistan. We should involve as many foreign agencies as possible while carrying out the investigation into this attack, including the background of the militants. Our findings will then have so much more credibility. If it is proved that all or most of the attackers came from Pakistan, the Pakistani government will be under tremendous international pressure to take some action against the organisations which planned the attacks.

Some of those involved in planning this attack were doubtless locals. Whatever maybe the grievances they have, I don’t think their actions can be justified. However, we should not condemn an entire community because of a few rotten tomatoes in their midst. Instead, we need to identify such elements and neutralise them before they do further damage. Our intelligence apparatus must be drastically overhauled for this task.

It is a fact that Indian Muslims are relatively poorer than other Indians. They have not really participated in the recent economic boom. Rather than trying to find out who’s to blame for this state of affairs, we ought to ensure that there are more Muslims become software engineers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, bankers and policemen. If Muslims have a greater share in India’s wealth, there will be few local collaborators for such attacks. Similarly, I think that if Pakistan were to be more prosperous, with fewer Pakistanis living in poverty, the chances of Pakistanis volunteering for such missions will be greatly reduced. No, we will not be able to guarantee that the flow of suicide bombers will totally stop, but it will be greatly reduced. I am not sure though, what we should do to spread the tendrils of prosperity from India to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It hurts to say this, but we will have to increase our defence budgets and spend more money on intelligence gathering. Rather than increase the size of our armed forces and police forces, we should train them better, arm them better and put in place better processes and a more efficient command structure. This increased defence expenditure is something our country could have done without, but it can’t be avoided after this attack.

Almost all fundamentalist attacks are funded by money from the middle-east. India must stop buying oil from that region, even if we end up paying more. India is Asia’s third largest oil consumer and we import more oil from Saudi Arabia than from any other country in the world. In the last financial year, 73.74 per cent of our oil imports came from the middle-east. India also imports oil from Nigeria and Angola. Getting oil from Russia and Venezuela may be more expensive due to higher transport costs, but at least we will not be putting money into the region that supports murderers such as these. A greater emphasis on alternative fuels will also go a long way in cutting our fuel bills. In these days of falling oil prices and growing alternative sources of energy, this is not an impossible task. With luck other countries will emulate India’s example and stop buying oil from middle-east.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Short Story: Outsourcing

The call centre was located in the most desolate town in northern England. At one time it had been a thriving industrial town, but now all it had was the call centre which employed over two thousand people.

The receptionist gave Ujjwal a cold stare as she printed their visitors’ passes. ‘She usually smiles at me,’ Ujjwal muttered to Venky and Pritam as they walked towards the conference room. It was not just the receptionist. The three men drew angry looks from everyone they passed.

John was already inside the conference room.

‘Hello Ujjwal!’ He mispronounced the name exactly as he had done on the last two occasions.

‘Good to see you again John. Can I introduce my colleagues Pritam and Venky?’

They declined the offer of coffee and tea.

‘We’ll stick with the same story.’ John told Ujjwal blandly.

‘Hmm, I somehow get the feeling that the people here suspect something.’ Ujjwal told John, scanning his face for a lie as he did so.

‘We haven’t told anyone anything and my instructions are to stick with the same story,’ John reiterated, as poker-faced as ever.

Ujjwal didn’t care. Word always got around sooner or later. And it was John’s problem, not his.

‘Shall I call in Peter and James?’

‘Why not? All five hundred seats are under them, right?’


John went over to the telephone and dialed. While he was on the phone, Venky checked his phone once again for messages.

‘Ujjwal, can I make a quick phone call?’

‘They’ll be here any moment.’

‘I’ll be quick. This is important.’ Without waiting for Ujjwal’s consent, Venky ran out of the room, dialing as he went out. His wife did not answer the phone. Either they were still in the hospital or she was still mad at him. He was about to leave a message when he heard footsteps approaching. He rushed inside but the footsteps just went past. It was another five minutes before Peter and James entered the conference room.

The introductions were brief. These men are here to assess our software and propose something better than what we have. Don’t you think its time we replaced the shit systems we are using?

Peter and James laughed easily. Of course, they need to be replaced. They then went about their tasks professionally and systematically. The visitors were introduced to various team leads. This is how we capture data, these are our servers, he does this and she does that. They took copious notes.

Venky’s mobile made a beep. ‘Doctor says no worry. Antibiotics given. No school for a week,’ the sms said. Venky considered calling back, but Ujjwal read his thoughts and frowned at him.

Soon it was time for lunch. They trooped off to the staff canteen which was crowded. On the way, Venky tried calling home, but got no answer.

‘Did John say he would join us?’

‘He said he would try, but we shouldn’t wait for him.’

Venky was a vegetarian. Would he like a cheese sandwich? But Venky couldn’t stomach the taste of cheese. He picked up a hummus sandwich instead.

As they walked in a single file past a group of men sharing a good joke, one of them put his foot out and caught Pritam, who went down with a thud. The culprit got up and helped Pritam to his feet.

‘Sorry mate,’ he solicitously told Pritam as he gathered his box-wrapped tuna sandwich and bottled orange juice from the floor. ‘Too bloody absent-minded. Too many things to think off. Mortgage, school-fees, brushing up my CV …….’

‘Bloody thieves,’ someone muttered. There was a muted giggle from behind. Neither James nor Peter said a word.

They went to their seats and quietly ate their lunch. Venky’s mobile beeped again. ‘Please call me now,’ the message said.