Sunday, 16 November 2008

Short Story: A Few Reasons to Return Home

Sreejit’s face has a look of intense concentration as his fat index finger glides over his blackberry's scroller. No, Tim hasn't replied to his angry email yet. To be honest, Sreejit isn't expecting a reply from that bastard. Tim's last email had made it clear that the next round of discussions would take place only after three months.

The man sitting to Sreejit's left has a respectful look on his face. A blackberry is not a very common sight in Kerala, not even in the first class waiting room at the Ernakulam Junction railway station. The man wants to tell Sreejit something, but Sreejit refuses to make eye contact. Instead, he opens old emails on his blackberry and reads them, his eyes focussing on the blackberry's screen intensely as if he is reading something very important, as if they are unread emails.

An announcement is made over the loudspeaker. The Netravati express is 'shortly expected to arrive on platform number 3.' Sreejit rolls his eyes in exasperation and puts the blackberry into the travel pouch around his waist. 'I don't believe this,' he says loud enough for his neighbour to hear.

Sreejit’s neighbour does not let go of the opportunity. 'This train is always late. Today it is late by only forty minutes. Usually it is late by at least four hours.'

Sreejit exhales and tells his neighbour, 'before leaving for the station, I called up Railway Enquiries and asked them if this train was on time. And they said it was.'

'IST stands for Indian Stretchable Time. Forty minutes late ... that's not late at all!’ the neighbour guffaws. ‘Once this Netravati Express was twenty four hours late. It came exactly on time, the next day!'

'I guess I've got used to seeing things done in a different way. I've been away from all this for almost five years now.'

The opening is not wasted. 'Are you from the States?'

'No, from the UK. I mean, things are not perfect over there. Trains do run late once in a while. But, this ...’ here Sreejit stops for emphasis. ‘This is incredible. They don't even apologise for the train being late. And of course, there is no need to explain to us why the train is late.'

Sreejit's neighbour becomes an apologist for Indian Railways. 'Netravati is coming all the way from Bombay. A journey of over 24 hours. So it can be a little bit late.'

'I ought to have taken a taxi to Trivandrum. I was told the train will be more comfortable. Now I'm not too sure.'

'My name is Babu. What's your good name?'

Sreejit is trapped. As a rule, he does not talk to strangers when travelling on trains. A habit inculcated over five years cannot be ignored. But he does not have a choice. He is forced to admit that he answers to Sreejit.

The train enters the station majestically. There is a rush of activity. People rush to the doors and mill around. Some people start getting inside even before the passengers have got off the train. Sreejit and Babu are travelling first class and so they don't have to fight their way into the train. They settle in a section of the compartment which has only two other people, an old man sleeping in a corner and a woman in her thirties.

The first class seats are reasonably comfortable, but there's dirt on the windows. Sreejit takes care to ensure that he doesn't touch the window sill.

The train has been at the station for fourteen minutes now. Sreejit looks at his watch and gives Babu an enquiring look. Why not? Babu is more than happy to explain matters. 'This train has come all the way from Bombay. At this stage, it won't be very punctual.'

'Makes a lot of sense to me. It's a 28 hour journey to Trivandrum, isn't it? Why be punctual for the last leg from Ernakulam?' Sreejit does not hide his scorn.

'It's scheduled to stop for ten minutes. Since it is late...'

'Since it is running late, I would expect it to leave as early as possible. It's been here for almost fifteen minutes now.'

Babu changes the topic. 'Are trains very punctual in England?'

Sreejit sighs and gives Babu a happy smile. He takes his time in replying. 'You know, I have a rather long commute to my place of work. I live in Reigate, that's in Surrey and I catch a train to London Bridge from Reigate everyday. Once every ten days or so, a train will be late, by a couple of minutes. And once a month or so, a train will be held up for say, ten minutes.'

'Is that all? In India we are used to trains running late all the time....'

'When a train is late by a few minutes, we start cribbing. In the UK, people complain about minor things. Out here people are passive. People don't care if the trains run late.'

'There's not much point in cribbing in India. We have too many people and not enough ...'

'I don't think so. It's also a question of attitude. If a train is late, there will an announcement every few minutes explaining the reason for the absence. They'll tell us the train is held up at such and such a place due to such and such a reason.'

'You must find it so difficult here after living in England.'

'I hate to say this, but after living in the UK, it's so difficult to adjust to the way things are done here.'

The train moves off and Sreejit heaves a sigh of relief. 'Finally,' he exhales. Babu sighs in relief as well, as if he is too embarrassed at having been let down by Indian Railways in front of a foreigner.

Sreejit decides to re-read the email he received from Tim a few days before he went on leave. It doesn't matter how many times he has read it before, Sreejit feels a fresh pang of rejection each time. Tim's email was very blunt and to the point. As discussed at the review meeting held the previous day, Sreejit's performance was not satisfactory. They didn't think he was capable of fulfilling the requirements of his role. They realised that Sreejit had a demanding role, but if Sreejit could not improve his performance and meet the five objective parameters set out below in the next three months, they would ask him to leave.

A vendor arrives with lunch boxes – there's chicken biriyani, sambhar rice, curd rice, fish curry rice etc. Sreejit buys a chicken biriyani while Babu settles for some curd rice. They start eating.

'I heard that food in England is very bad. Is that true?'

'Not at all. It is very hygienic and clean. You won't fall ill if you eat food from a vendor on a train.'

'Oh! Do you have people selling food items like this?'

'No, but each train, especially the long distance ones, will have a buffet trolley with an assortment of sandwiches and beverages.'

'Sandwiches! Is that all you get? It must be very difficult to live on such things?'

'I am used to that now. Actually, these days, I don't like spicy food. Come to think of it, why add spices to food? They don't have any nutritional value. In fact, they deflect the real taste of food. If you eat spicy food all your life, your taste buds will slowly die. You won't be able to appreciate subtle flavours. In fact, Indian food doesn't have subtle flavours.'

They go back to their foil packed food. Sreejit chuckles to himself. At the pub the day before he went on leave, he had nicknamed Tim Dr. No and everyone had laughed. Hopefully the name would stick. Tim had a habit of starting every sentence with a No. They all hated Tim and his joke had made him very popular. But Sreejit was the first of Tim's victims. Why had Tim picked on Sreejit?

Sreejit finishes his lunch first, because he doesn't eat half of it. He looks around for a bin to dump his foil pack, but doesn't find one. 'Just throw it out of the window,' Babu tells him. Sreejit is disgusted beyond words, but he reluctantly opens a window and throws out the wrapper. He then goes to the end of the compartment to wash his fingers in the tap. When he comes back, Babu is the process of disposing his lunch wrapper through the window.

'I just don't understand why there can't be a few bins in every compartment? Labour is cheap in this country. It won't cost too much to have the bins emptied at every other station!'

'We are used to all this,' Babu put in mildly.

'I guess I shouldn't be shocked, but I am. Each time I return to India, I get a jolt when I see the way things are done here.'

They are silent for a while. The train reaches Allepey, but no one enters the first class compartment.

Sreejit opens Tim's email once again. He goes through the five parameters they have set for him. They appear objective but they are not. His technical knowledge apparently is not good enough. How the heck can such an allegation be called objective? Before Tim arrived on the scene with a mandate to 'trim' the company, no one had complained about his technical knowledge. If at the end of three months, Tim ‘objectively’ decides that his technical knowledge is still not good enough, they can fire him and there is precious little he can do about it. He has consulted an employment lawyer. His company is entitled to fire him as long as it follows all the procedures, he has been told. He can take his company to the employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal, but unless he can prove that his termination is on account of race or religion, he is unlikely to win. No, he can prove nothing of that sort. All his colleagues are polite to him outwardly. No one has assailed him on account of his religion or skin colour. He isn't a homosexual or anything is he? his lawyer had asked him wistfully. If he is and is being harassed about it by his boss, he might sustain a claim that he is being terminated on account of his sexual orientation. No, I am not gay, Sreejit had politely replied though he wanted to scream at the lawyer who charged him 300 pounds an hour.

It is actually the last of the five parameters which hurts the most. He can live with an allegation of inadequate technical knowledge since he knows that it is a lie. But he cannot live down the allegation that his client handling skills need to be improved. He has been asked to work on his verbal skills so that clients can understand him better. It was the last parameter which forced him to shoot off an angry reply to Tim just before he caught the flight to India. Yes, I do speak with an accent. However, I've never had trouble communicating with anyone. That idiot who complained about my accent last month is prejudiced. He is biased. He is a racist. You don't have to believe him. Surely you know me better than that. I have been in the UK for 5 years now and my accent had always been legible. It was not as if I spend all my time talking to clients. Not more than ten percent of my time is spent with clients. I have been with the company for three years now and there has been only one complaint so far.

He knows that Tim won’t reply to his email. The Human Resources department has prepared Tim's email and any response will also be prepared by HR. They have done it many times before. The UK has some of the most employee friendly laws in the world, but if an employer wants to fire an employee, he can do so, provided he is patient and is willing to pay lip service to all the rules.

'So you don't see yourself ever returning to India, do you?' Babu asks him.

'Actually, I might. There are so many things about India I don't like, but India is still home. I will come back to Kerala one day and settle down here.'

'Really! That's very good. I thought you are....' Babu hesitates and then continues, '..you are one of those who hate India so much that they will never return.'

'Ha! Ha! Of course not! I have gained so much from my experience in the UK and when I return, I will have a lot to contribute.'

'I'm sure of that. When are you likely to return for good? Anytime soon?'

'I don't know. I may come back in a year's time, I may return after ten years. It all depends.'

Babu is too polite to ask what it depends on and merely gives Sreejit a smile as he goes back to his blackberry.

1 comment:

JI said...

Nice little story. It captures some of the obvious contrasts between India and UK well, and I can't but feel sympathy for poor Sreejit. Being settled in the UK for just 5 years, trying to do his job well, but being slowly edged out of his workplace is a situation that can cause immense emotional turmoil. I can see why he thinks home is better. There's nothing better than a chicken biryani to provide Sreejit some comfort, at least for a short while.

These things happens sometimes, and not just to Indians. In my last company, when they were looking to cut costs, they simply targeted the higher salaried employees, even though most of them were higher skilled and more knowledgeable than other staff.

There are plenty of Indians who have made a successful career for themselves in UK. In India, unless you are lucky to receive good education, the road to success is fraught with hurdles.