Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Power of Setting Free

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better” goes a famous saying. Google up freedom and you will get a thousand quotes from famous and not-so-famous people over the ages. It is one of the most used words and most desired states to be in for all human beings. It is something for which we have fought each other through the ages. And yet, in the world as in corporate life, one often gets to see the other extreme. In majority of sectors and organizations today there seems to be an excess of control which is being imposed on employees. Every organization is built around a certain value system which characterizes it, these are manifested to the employees and the external world through vision, mission and value statements. These denote what the organization stands for, what is the image it wants to project to the external world and what is the purpose of its existence. Once an employee joins an organization, this comes across to the employee in the form of organization culture- that soft aspect which one feels while working for an organization. These are propagated and upheld by the central or head office, and flow to the various branches or locations from them, and to do that every organization needs to have systems and processes to standardize practices. There is no disputing the importance of such processes, these are what ensure employees follow a standardized approach towards work, quality standards are upheld and the customer gets to see a uniform face of the organization across locations and service verticals. However there is also a sub-plot here, one that gets played out in the smaller teams in the locations. There is an evolution life cycle for any new employee who joins a team in the organization. He starts off as a rookie, learns about the organization and its processes and policies, gets trained on the job, undergoes skill upgradation (hopefully!) and becomes a fully contributing team member in a particular time frame (typically 6 months-1 year, depending on the job complexity) (I am talking of the middle section of the bell curve here, and not of the extremes). It is but obvious a new joinee would require hand-holding in his rookie avatar, and has to be brought up-to speed by his supervisor. This is the phase where one tends to micro-manage and closely monitor the daily performances and activities. However, the problem starts when this micro-managing becomes a way of life, even after the employee has begun contributing fully, and there is no particular issue on the skill or will front (ability vs willingness, for the framework inclined!). I have observed we are often reluctant to give autonomy to our team members. There are various mindsets at work- not having enough trust on the person that he will be able to do a good job without supervision, insecurity as supervisor (what will I do if I don’t monitor him? That is my job!), a know-it-all attitude (I know better, so he needs to ask me about everything!). I believe this has also got to do with the prevailing social conditioning that tells us giving too much freedom is dangerous, and it is important to be able to control! However, in doing so, we don’t realize what we are losing out on. From my personal experience I have seen the benefits of setting people free. Of course one will need to have tracking and monitoring mechanisms in place as a supervisor, so as to ensure one sticks to the overall organization mandate. However, as supervisor one needs to take a call on the extent of monitoring really needed, and one also needs to work towards making his teammates autonomous to the extent possible. The factors one needs to consider are whether the person has completely aligned with the organization culture and way of working, whether he has the requisite skill levels and confidence to take on the role independently and whether the basic relationships are in place with stakeholders, and that is the time to set them free. I have seen such team members soar and express their creativity and express themselves freely, and in doing so they have grown as professionals as well as individuals as well as put in high performances within the organization framework, isn’t that what all of us should want? And this is not to mention the sheer joy and satisfaction one gets seeing the above take place. Among the many benefits of setting people free, a very crucial one to the organization and team is the sheer number of good ideas people come up with, and we all know the execution buy-in is the highest if the idea comes from the person himself or herself. Of course, we will need to take a call regarding whom to set free, and when. How we do it is also equally crucial. There are also certain high risk jobs which would still require a constant supervision across all levels, purely given the complexity, job demands and high stakes involved. This approach may not also work for everyone, as this assumes that the other person doesn’t have any will issue, and has genuine intent on doing well. However, I have a belief majority of employees want to do well for themselves, and value freedom. This is also a journey for everyone involved as different supervisors may have varying confidence levels and the “freedom threshold” might be different and may require more handholding for some than others. But the more we can do this and the more people can be made autonomous (within the overall framework), the more organizations will gain, productivity will be likely to go up and attrition tackled, to whatever extent.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Simplicity-The Sehwag Way!

In his book Simplicity, Edward De Bono talks about how needlessly complex modern life has become, what with super-complex gadgets, smartphones (literally meaning you need to be smart to use them!), sundry electrical and electronic goods that come with manuals looking like rocket science equations, smart TVs and cars and what not! In fact he advocates an international “simplicity movement”, that includes setting up of a simplicity institute et al. While many of us may disagree with the extent of complexity in our lives and may debate to what extent this needs a thought, there is no doubt that all of us could do with a little bit of de-cluttering of our lives and minds, and make our lives a wee bit less complex so as to enable us to unearth our full potential and live stress-free, happy and fulfilling lives. No one epitomizes, or has epitomized simplicity as much over the last decade and half as a certain Virender Sehwag- that freak of nature, that one-in-a-generation cricketer and bender of set rules- he answers to all those descriptions and more, but perhaps his biggest impact on thinkers to come will extend far beyond cricket and organized sport, it will lead into territories of the mind, and will embody the fact that simplicity and clutter-free approach can take one places, and enable one to even go beyond boundaries that our minds, latent capabilities and our social and professional circles set for us. Sehwag announced his retirement this week, and while it was along expected lines, and does make one sad remembering all his cavalier knocks against top attacks around the world, it is also a good occasion to take a peek at his approach and understand where it all came from. There were occasions wherein he has let us take a look into his thinking pattern. When asked what he thinks about when facing a bowler, he had famously replied “see ball, hit ball”- a term which has moved into folklore now, and may well be used in future to denote a certain brand of irreverence and uncluttered thinking. Think of all the seemingly ridiculous things he has done- dispatching the first ball of a test for four, scoring run-a-ball triple hundreds, hitting a six while on 297, the list is endless. His record is also phenomenal for someone deemed a slogger when he burst onto the international scene, and one who wasn’t technically as gifted like a Tendulkar or as solid as a Dravid. It defies all conventional logic and confounded critics and experts alike, and therein lies the great success of his theory, or thinking if you like. It was not that he didn’t think, in fact, his planning was surprisingly effective and intelligent, whether it be targeting an opposition bowler on the field, or unsettling a team with his candid comments in the press conferences, but even that part of his rarely ventured into over-analysing, it was simple goal setting and sharp execution, and being in the moment. He had mastered the art of simple thinking- to the extent that he had successfully removed all self-doubts, all needless worrying which most of us are prone to, by creating anxiety-inducing situations in our minds, it was almost as if he had eliminated the “what if” question from his mind, and this, in a way, had liberated him. It set him free to chase impossibility, cause as they say, impossible is only in the mind, and the only hurdles we have in chasing our goals are the ones we create for ourselves. In removing all that, he, in a way, was free to paint his own canvas, which he did with great joy and elan. Life, really, is quite simple, if we can strip it down to its basics. It’s ultimately about being healthy and happy- yes, that simple, if you really think about it. Formal education while creating our bases and foundations also does introduce formal thinking bound by conventional ideas of what is possible and what’s not, which in turn adds to the clutter in our minds, and introduces us to conventional notions of success and expectations, adding to our stress and dissatisfaction levels. What use is all of it if we aren’t healthy and happy at the end of it all, really? Thus, strangely enough, a rustic man playing cricket offers us some simple idioms to follow in life, most of it unknowingly, I presume! De-clutter your mind, plan simple and effective goals with sharp execution, be in the moment, believe in yourself and your ability to do the impossible, and most importantly, have truckloads of fun while the journey lasts, and spread some cheer around while you are at it!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

India Modified!!

“India Modified!” screamed a newspaper headline the day after the election results got announced, bringing down the curtains on one of the biggest and costliest democratic exercises in the world. This was just the start, or rather the culmination of months of over-the-top coverage of the elections by our increasingly partisan electronic, and to an extent, print media. Through these months, the media has taken on various hues and shades in vilifying the hapless foot-firmly-in-mouth Congress leadership and at the same time, falling over each other in promoting BJP, or rather, the Modi persona, with as much vigor as possible. Getting into the right and wrong of it is pointless, and indeed, not the purpose of this article, but the associated hyberbole did make for amusing viewing at times for the country’s vast populace, ensuring no doubt a serious gain in the TRP ratings of the channels. This was reality TV at its best! All said and done, we have a new government in place now, one to which we have given a clear mandate, a mandate to take our country out of the doldrums we find ourselves in, owing in so small measure to the apathetic and paralysed government for the last 2 terms. The pattern of voting has been distinct, and to any politically inclined person, a very interesting case study. For the first time in 3 decades, the elections have achieved the kind of unification no other force or event in the country (barring perhaps a world cup win, or a war with Pakistan, or watching Arnab shout like a raging bull in a China shop on TV at 9 PM) can ever hope to achieve. State after state, constituency after constituency, people fed up with the horrific misrule of the last government as well as the strange vagaries of coalition politics, have come out in huge numbers and voted unequivocally for one party- BJP and one man-Modi. They almost seem to be saying- enough of this nonsense! We are giving you a strong verdict, go ahead and take us out of this mess! This election has seen some mind-boggling results- BJP getting vast majority of seats in Assam (where it has never been a force), sweeping across UP, breaking through the complex caste and class based politics in India’s political focus state, emerging as a potential force in Didi’s citadel Bengal (again, where it has never had any presence) and so on. In a complex country like ours, where elections are mostly about local issues, this time people seem to have voted for a national change- a veritable tsunami of anti-incumbency sweeping across the land! Narendra Modi is a very astute politician, and probably one of the best image managers in the country at present, or at least his team is! He had identified the winds of discontent against the Congress quite early, and launched into a ferocious no-holds barred attack, both the timing and the pitch of which were perfect! This was the best example of marketing one can give to students- the identification of the target segment was bang on, so was the need identification and the resultant pitch, epitomized by the “acche din aane wale hain” campaign, which is exactly what people of this country want to believe at this point! Of course, it also helps that he has a record of good governance and performance to show, it only increases the confidence of the electorate on him. The early noises have all been positive and inspire hope. The stress on minimum government and maximum governance, the diplomatic masterstroke of inviting all the SAARC leaders to the swearing-in, the lean cabinet structure. Good signs, as of now. However, in India, we have a peculiar problem. We have always believed in demi-gods, we always want to believe that there will be someone who will come one day and rid us of our misery. The responsibility is always someone else’s, and never ours. The state, the government, the prime minister, the authorities, the organization, the hierarchy, so on and so forth. We ourselves usually come last in the order of accountability, because that is typically the most difficult thing to do. Thus, we see ridiculous images on the so-called national television of Modi in a superhero avatar, with a spectre on his head, with songs of devotion playing in the background! We have anchors eating out of Modi’s hands, competing with each other in the dumbness category and asking questions to the new cabinet ministers, “acche din kab aane wale hain?” Expectations have already reached the moon, and very fast will reach the stars, in a way that is unfair even to Modi himself. There are positives to look ahead to- a strong mandate, no pesky allies to hold the policy making back, a strong leader, a team that looks good at least on paper, and so on. However, we would do well to remember there is no magic wand, and the people have voted for one man, and not anyone else, or any party in particular. Plus, there is also BJPs’ famous infighting to contend with. There is lot of hope, and a lot of anticipation- basically because of the utter resignation scripted by the last government. However, with some bit of cautious optimism, and a hopefully more sensible media, we may yet see the fruition of the slogan coined for the elections! The wishlist is huge and so are the problems plaguing the economy currently- the ever- rising inflation figures, the rising oil prices, reduction in industrial index and consequent reduction in job creation, the infrastructural issues like roads, power and water, and so on. However, it would not be wise to take on all these issues together. I personally have a prioritized wishlist of three areas for the new government to look at (it is not as if the government is going to consult me on the policy matters, but that’s one of the advantages of living in a democratic country!)- improving infrastructure like constructing more flyovers and better quality roads across our major cities as well as pushing the metro rail projects for all the major cities to quick completion, as well as improving last-mile connectivity with the remotest of villages, easing the norms of setting up new businesses- both large and MSMEs- in the country, which should include re-looking at the archaic and cumbersome laws governing currently, including the labour laws, and keeping environment on the forefront of all policy decisions. Enough and more number of cities across the world have come up in a way that takes more from our environment than it gives back, and I see no reason to follow that model. Development need not necessarily be at the cost of environment, they can co-exist and a way needs to be found for that. Of course, the number of areas to look into and the complexity cannot be described in one article, and there are people more equipped than myself who are entrusted with the job. However, all said and done, there is no doubt that this is a definitive time in our country’s history, and history has given us a chance at redemption, and whatever be the policies of the new government , and the extent of success and failures in executing the same, one thing is certain- its going to be an interesting time ahead for all of us! And to the new government, all I can say is Godspeed!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Some time back I was in one of India’s premier b-schools, for conducting summer placements for my organization. The first such experience for me- on the other side that is, and I got to experience and appreciate (not sure if that’s the right word to be using!) first hand the madness that’s a (premier) b-school placement process!
I being a creature of such a premier b-school myself, the external manifestations of the process were nothing new for me- in some ways it was even a déjà vu, so to say! Those crazy days and nights, with some 40 companies compressed into 3-4 days, last-minute shortlists, checking out your name in the lists and trying to gauge by which day you will get out of this crazy process, and return to a life with a semblance of normalcy. Then of course, those fun-filled 4 days, wherein you are pushed and pulled in and out of processes even as you struggle to remember which company you are appearing for and try to think up some high-sounding fancy about why you want to join the company and how till now every moment of your existence has been spent in ensuring your dream of joining company XYZ comes to fruition. All this even while you try to prevent yourself from blurting out in the Pepsi interview “I want to join Coke because…” (this has happened to someone I know!)
All this brings me to the point I wanted to bring forth and which has been in my mind from the day I was involved in that process as a recruiter. Why have a process compressed in 3-4 days at all? Why cant the entire placement process be spaced out over a period of say 1-2 months, wherein we would have separate companies coming over on separate dates, and students will be able to choose their favorite companies in a saner manner, and be able to perform better! I felt this most acutely while looking at the stressed out, tired and sleepy faces of the students when we were conducting the GDs and interviews! One guy we interviewed, mentioned they had been assembled in the auditorium at 4.30 in the morning, and here we were interviewing him at 2.30 in the (next) morning, almost 22 hours and running for the guy, through which he would have been shunted in and out of countless processes, being part of multiple GDs, some of which he would have cleared and some not, some interviews which he didn’t clear- so here was a tired, stressed, sleep-deprived bright 20-something sitting in front of us well past midnight, and we were expecting him to give of his best! How?? Is this another way to test how an individual performs under stress?? And is everyone really getting the best guy/guy they wanted? I don’t know.
The same process which seemed so exciting and adrenaline-filled as a student, suddenly didn’t feel so much exciting as a recruiter. And then you of course have the senior students acting as company contacts who also feel their share of the pressure having trying to juggle between the multiple (and many-a-times, king-sized) egos of 10 companies all at a time, all of whom want the best candidate, and invariably, there will be a missed feed here, and a resultant bruised ego there. To what avail?? And to imagine- this was just the summers, I could not fathom the amount of stress we make the students go through in the finals, where often a job in a particular company is seen as a make-or-break for their lives (at least on campus, though the fact that that’s not the case is only realized once we come out into the corporate world!)
I understand and appreciate the complexities for an institute involved in such a process, having to manage several high-profile companies and ensuring all of them have the satisfaction of being able to look at the top guys (that doesn’t always happen- that’s another story!). However, that I feel is a small price to pay compared to the monstrosity that we subject our young students to! And everything needs to be got used to- once a new system is put in place by all premier b-schools, all companies will get used to this in a matter of time. Students will also be better able to think logically and exercise their choice as to which companies to target- and not end up in a bank when they wanted to join an FMCG or vice versa(no disrespect to anyone here). We can even have sector-specific days- say 4 days dedicated to the banking sector only, if it gets too difficult to manage company X and convince them to come a day later than company Y! And have only those students interested in banking to appear during those days. Sounds difficult, I know, but why not give it a try?? This might also help in companies actually getting someone eager to join them, and consequently someone who sticks for a longer time.
Currently, I feel its all a result of the competition within our institutes as to how quickly the students can be placed/cleared, but someone needs to call time to this system! After all, wont we all want a win-win situation where the student gets to choose his/her favorite company/sector to sit for, the company gets the right candidate to interview and the student gets to really give of his best performance in the interview, instead of drearily waiting for the next feed and yet another process at 3 in the morning!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bengal-a political saga

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”- goes the saying. And living proof of this has been the left front government, or erstwhile government which has been in power in Bengal for 34 years, and was recently ousted, no routed by the Trinamool Congress- Congress alliance, and comprehensively booted out of power after 7 consecutive terms- a record by any means!
There are various stages to this story- for those who are uninitiated, misinformed or plain disinterested (which I suspect will be the majority!)- and to begin we must go back to our freedom struggle. During the later stages of our freedom struggle, when Netaji and some other leaders broke away from the ruling section in Congress (Gandhiji et al) owing to ideological differences, and an anti-capitalist anti-establishment feeling (Bengalis are anyways prone to these feelings!) started to take root in the Bengali intelligentsia, was laid the foundations of a Marxist movement, one which was pro-poor and pro-peasants, and which ideologically veered completely away from the primarily elite Congress leaders of the time.
Many decades passed, but this movement was still restricted to a few groups here and there, and would have remained so, but for the emergency imposed by Smt. Gandhi on the nation in the 70’s. The period ’72-’77 saw an extremely turbulent and violent era in Bengal, where the foundations of the Naxal (present day Maoist) movement was built, and thousands of brilliant and idealistic youth of Calcutta took up arms against the excesses by the then Congress government in Bengal. Hundreds of lives were lost, many more irreversibly destroyed, and from that fire arose the Communist movement- on the premises of equality (which people craved for at that point), justice and power to poor, notable the peasants. Given the times and the background, they got massive public support, and the Congress government was crushed in the ’77 elections, bringing to power a CPI (M) government which was to rule the state for 34 long years!
We are talking here of a time when Calcutta was among the most progressive of the metros, leading the way not only in art and culture (which was natural, given the artistic inclinations of the average Bengali), but also in business and investments, which though were mainly state controlled at that time. But then started the stagnation. There was no slide or decline, really, just that the city remained still in time, a poor caricature of its former glorious self, while the others surged ahead. While ’91 opened the doors of the country to foreign investments and private enterprise, Bengal kept its doors firmly shut, with a mix of botched up economic policies of the left government and some misplaced ideas of social justice.
But where the problem really lay, and which will also be the legacy of this failed government, is the systematic destruction of the Bengali mind. If you don’t like a policy, call a bandh, stall work and force others to come to your terms. The obvious results- businesses started fleeing, and no new businesses entered.
So how did this government survive 7 terms? A very common, and understandable question. Well, the answer is systematic rigging of elections. The magic of the promised land had started to fade by the 90’s, but owing to the entire state machinery being in their hands, and grabbing of the rural votes by a mix of coercion, force, blackmailing, empty promises and doling out money, the left front managed to drag on the government. And in the process, with every passing day, they became more and more arrogant, unconnected with reality and indulged in one failed policy after another.
The setting was ripe for a new movement, a new face and so came the rise of Mamata Banerjee. Probably the most ridiculed leader at the national level (right up there with Lalu), it is interesting to trace her rise. She first came into political prominence in 1984, when as a firebrand youth Congress leader, she defeated political heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee, which was the equivalent of Holland beating Australia in cricket! This created huge ripples in the Indian political scenario, and she was spotted and picked up by Rajiv Gandhi, who was entering the fray at that time after his mother’s assassination in 1984. thus started the rise of Mamata Banerjee in Indian politics. This entire period saw her transform from a raw, theatrical, emotional leader to a true leader of the masses in Bengal. All through this phase, she was involved in several newsworthy events, but the tide really turned for her one fateful day in the early 90’s. She was surrounded by several CPM goons on a Calcutta street, and beaten to within an inch of her life with bamboo sticks in full public view! She survived the incident, and came out as a true rallying leader of the common public, who by now had started losing their faith in the left front government. She rose inside the Congress, broke away and formed the Trinamool Congress in 1998, got into alliances with the NDA at the centre, became the railway minister, came out from the alliance and joined the UPA, became railway minister again. But all through this period, she kept her eyes firmly set on the throne of Bengal and kept plotting the downfall of the left. The chance finally came in the 2009 parliamentary elections, which dealt a decisive blow to the left. The myth of their invincibility was shattered, and 2011 was an event waiting to happen- only the scale of the defeat crossed all expectations! And this was also aided by the Singur and Nandigram incidents. The first where Mamata scored a victory in the eyes of the people by driving out Tatas (whether she was right or not is a matter of further debate, but the fact remains that the fertile land was given away to the Tatas, while there was arid land available at not some great distance away!), the second where the state used violence on its own subjects- a sure-shot sign of nervousness and losing control. What has also mattered in this long battle is the fact that Mamata remains to this day, one of the few politicians in this country who boasts of a clean image!
Now that were done with the elections, and a new government being sworn in, what are the chances of things changing? Well, let me admit, it’s a long road ahead- investments need to be brought in, a better work culture needs to be created in this bandh-prone state, infrastructure needs to improve, the impoverished state coffers need some filling, and the right balance needs to be struck between industry and agriculture. Whether the new government can do all this, and how long all this will take, is anyone’s guess. But at least a beginning has been made, and what is that saying about you never know how good a person/team/group is unless you give them a chance. And that my friends, is something that the people of this state really deserve- a chance at redemption!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Once upon an evening.....

“Ah, perfect! That’s all I need!” muttered Arjun under his breath, as he stepped out of the AC compartment of the Jamshedpur-Kolkata superfast express, the bitter winter night wind cutting into him, like spears tearing into his flesh. The train had suddenly jolted into a halt minutes earlier, and he found out to his dismay that the engine had developed a technical snag, which would take at least a couple of hours to fix, standing as they were in the middle of a dense jungle on the one hand, and a seemingly limitless open field on the other, almost half an hour away from the nearest station on either side.

Arjun was returning from his weekly trip to the Tata Motors factory in Jamshedpur , working as he was in a materials and supply chain project, as a freelance consultant, and he had really relished the opportunity of working with the respectable Tatas brand, as well as the project which seemed quite challenging to him. The company wanted to cut down the materials wastage as well as optimize the entire supply chain process, and one of the managers of the plant had got in touch with Arjun, as he had his reference from an earlier conference which both had attended. Arjun was based in Kolkata, married to his girlfriend of three years, Mithu, and they had a four-year old son- Aryan. Arjun and Mithu loved each other, but urban work-life and its attendant pressures had started to take a toll on their marriage- they were still the same individuals, but somehow things had started to sour. There weren’t really any major fights, none that he could remember, but there was a certain distance that had started to develop, the warmth, the spark that was once a part of their everyday lives was missing, and nowadays the only thing they talked about was their son, and matters related to him. Arjun had become a workaholic, and ironically felt at home only at work, at other times he merely went through the motions. The once exciting, fun-filled life had become a mechanical, routine affair, reduced to duties to be performed, and deliverables to be submitted.

“So, we are in for a long wait now!” his train of thoughts was broken by the middle aged man travelling with him, one of the few passengers on the train, which was surprisingly empty today, as they looked out into the dark night outside, a silence interspersed with the occasional buzzing of some unknown insect in the jungle outside. Arjun thought for some time, he had a late night dinner appointment in Kolkata with a prospective client- a deal he couldn’t afford to miss. He did a quick mental calculation, he was roughly one and half hour away from Kolkata, and waiting for two more hours would certainly mean pissing off the client, and consequent loss of business. He took only a moment to decide. “How far is the highway from here?” he asked the train attendant. “Well, it should be across the jungle, on the other side, but why? Wait, you cant be serious!” he blurted out, as he realized what Arjun was thinking. “Why not? I need to reach Kolkata by 9 p.m. I will definitely get a lift from someone on the highway.” Arjun was a daredevil in college, and was delighted he hadn’t lost touch with his old self. “But sir, the jungle isn’t safe. Plus, this is a Maoist infested area. Why take such a risk?” “Nothing doing, once I decide something, I carry it out!” saying so, Arjun picked up his laptop bag and jumped down on the tracks, skipped across them and headed towards the jungle. “What am I doing, I hope I haven’t lost my mind” he spoke to himself, as he nervously entered the jungle. He had just started to think to himself this had all the ingredients of a horror movie, and managed a smile to himself when he felt a drop of water on his shirt. Thinking it to be from some tree, he continued along the beaten path of the jungle, which he guessed would lead to the highway, since it is common for villagers to cross the jungle using a fixed path, which typically is made keeping in mind the wild animal density in and around. Another drop came down, he looked up nervously, and to his horror, realized that it had started to rain now! “Shit, this rain will make the cold unbearable” he muttered as he continued, faster, as the rain came pelting down on him, making a deafening sound as it crashed down into the jungle leaves and trees. This actually increased his danger, since he wouldn’t be able to hear any approaching footsteps, whether it be of any wild animal or a human being, as he had the Maoist danger in mind as well.

Arjun had started shivering, he realized the cold was as much a reason as fear- pure, primal fear, fear of the jungle, of the wild, of the unknown, as he quickly traversed the jungle path, occasionally running along. Crash! Came a loud sound, Arjun turned round with a start, to discover a fallen branch from a tree, he was running at full speed now, and was panting from the effort, when he discovered a light in the distance. Encouraged, he found new energy in his lungs and sped across the jungle. The light started becoming larger, and eventually saw a flicker of paved road! “Thank God!” he muttered, as he dragged his tired body out from the jungle into the wide national highway, which was glistening from all the rain. He also thanked his stars for the waterproof bag, as he realized his laptop was safe from water outside.

Now came the next part, getting a lift from someone going towards Kolkata. The highway was strangely deserted, and vehicles seemed few and far between. A couple of cars went by, not bothering to stop at Arjun’s insistence. He was giving up hope when a third car came along. Not hoping for anything, he loosely held out his thumb, and to his surprise, the car screeched to a halt a few feet ahead of him! Thanking God again, he rushed towards the car, and peeped inside, to look at a stunning young woman in her late twenties. She was wearing a black top and blue jeans, fitted perfectly well on a well-endowed figure, and her long black hair fell smoothly on her shoulders. “Once you are done checking me out, would you mind telling me where you want to go?” the question shook him out of the trance, and feeling suitably embarrassed, he managed a smile “Kolkata”. “Well, then, hop in!”

“You do seem desperate to meet the client!” she nodded towards Arjun with a wink and a smile, he smiled back in return. “Well, yes, sort of. Business is business, you know!” “Ah yes, of course, you are the typical workaholic male, aren’t you? Sacrificing family life and love for your near and dear ones for career and money!” “Umm…its not really like that you know! It’s just the priorities you set for yourself- planning is everything!” Arjun repeated his favorite quote. She made a strange face at him “Booringgg!” This made him laugh out loud, and he suddenly realized its been a long time he had done that- laugh out loud at something. “So, tell me, don’t you plan?” he asked. “Well, I tried few times, but I failed to execute my plans, or stick to them. That’s when I decided not to plan, to live every moment, and take care of things as they happen!” she replied cheerily, with a smile and a wink.

“What do you do, miss….”, “Call me Ms. X” “Sounds suspicious” “Sure is, but it adds to the intrigue, what do you think?” Arjun was getting more and more curious about this stunning young happy-go-lucky girl, who so easily offered him a lift, and now was unwilling to even share her name. He liked systems and processes, he liked certainty and cause-effect correlation, this ambiguity about the entire situation started bothering him, Arjun started to feel a bit uneasy.

“What are you thinking?” she shot a sideways glance at him. This stunned Arjun, for there was something about this woman which seemed very familiar to him, something about the way she spoke, her sideways glance, her wink, he had seen it all before, and yet…..”I don’t feel comfortable with ambiguity, you see” “Has it always been like this?” “Not really, in fact, I was quite the opposite in college, very outgoing and used to live for every moment” “So, what happened, why this change?”

This took Arjun back to his early days as a professional, the day he was given a severe feedback by his superior of his first job. “Arjun! You really need to pull up your socks! You cant make it in this industry with this easy-going manner. Try and adapt yourself, become one of us, we don’t want an exception in our midst. This is the last chance I am giving you!” he still remembered those words. He had forced himself to change, to adapt, to become one of them, and in the process, lost touch with himself, slowly and gradually, he became a different person. A successful and unhappy person, something which had taken the spark out of his marriage as well. He had started to live for goals and deliverables, and anything which didn’t lead to any goal being achieved had no meaning for him.

“But, that’s awful! Why would you change who you are just to fit in, man! I am surprised at how you have forgotten who you actually are!” her deep eyes were locked into his for some moments, and he felt he was looking at a soul-mirror. There was a lot of other talk, but he was immersed in deep thought throughout the journey.

“Mister planner, here we are! You can take a taxi from here, this is where my road deviates from yours” that same smile and wink. Arjun offered a smile, a shake of the hand, and getting out of the car, turned back and asked “I am deeply troubled by a question- who are you?” She smiled, looked into his eyes, “I am you, Arjun! I am the Arjun that existed 10 years back, the actual Arjun, undiluted and pure. I am your mirror, and just offered you a peek at your soul, some thing which is there in the deepest recesses of your mind, that’s all I am……”


“Hello sir! Where do you want to go?” a startled Arjun looked at the taxi driver next to him. He had a vague recollection of events in the past 2 hours, but wasn’t really sure how he got to Kolkata. He felt a slight shiver in his spine, a tingling sensation.. ”Garia please” he hopped on. The taxi sped off into the Kolkata night, Arjun looked at himself in the rear-view mirror, and did something he hadn’t done for a long time- he smiled and winked……..

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Traffic Jam- A Short Story

28th July 2010, Airport Road, Bangalore, 10.00 a.m…..

“Damn! Another red signal- another 3 minutes lost! That too on a day when I am already late for office! Murphy loves me!” muttered Ashok under his breath, as his car lined up in the huge Bangalore traffic pile-up on Airport road, resembling a snake lying lazily on the ground, with its coils wrapped in a hap-hazard fashion on the ground. He was working for a telecom engineering firm, and was one of the stars for his company. Bright and energetic, he was an integral part of the R&D team which churned out products according to client specifications, as well as developed new products for the market. Ashok had joined the firm 5 years back straight from engineering college, it was the place he had always wanted to be in, and where he could fully use his engineering knowledge and had a free hand in a product development environment.

Today morning was a chaos at home- Radhika, his wife of two years, had her cousin sister come over at their place, along with her family of her hen-pecked husband, and hen-pecking kids, and their normally calm and quiet house was resembling a madhouse, what with the brattish kids screaming and dancing around right from early morning, Ashok having woken up to their piercing shrieks and mournful wails, interspersed with each other rhythmically! The entire morning, set meticulously to every minute of the clock, had gone awry, and Ashok somehow managed to squeeze out of the house half an hour late, Radhika having decided to take the day off from her bank HR role.

Ashok was cursing his luck and those stuck around him in the jam, when a black Santro pulled up in the minutest of gaps alongside him, narrowly escaping scraping his car. He shot an irritated glance sideways, and was about to deliver an obscenity to the rogue driver, when his eyes fell on the driver- and he couldn’t speak another word- it was Sonia!

3rd June 2001, SVCE, Bangalore, 9.00 a.m.

“All fuchha boys stand on the left, with one hand in the air, another holding your ears, and girls, stand on the right, one hand holding your ear, another on your mouth! Good, now girls, blow kisses to the boys, and each boy will catch one kiss from the air, and tell which girl’s kiss he caught. If he is wrong, which we seniors will decide, the boy has to run around the ground in his undies! Now start!”

And thus started the strange spectacle of a group of first year engineering girls blowing kisses to the boys, who started catching them as if catching flies from the air. After the acrobatics ended, the fun started with the seniors singling out the boys, and taking their turns at ragging them. “Hey you! Yes you, with the spectacles, come here!” A shy, gangling boy hesitantly stepped forward, afraid to make eye contact with the seniors. “You look like you have stolen something! You pathetic creature! Come here and undress!” The boy was by now close to tears, and hearing this, they came streaming down his face. “Why don’t you leave him alone! Can’t you see he is crying? What kind of behavior is this? Or do you want to impress the girls by this stupidity?” Everybody turned their heads to see where that came from, and found a petite girl, with ponytailed hair, a pretty face and defiant eyes, seething in anger, standing among the first year girls group. “And who are you, Rani Lakshmi Bai?” bellowed the senior guy. “Who I am is none of your business, but if you don’t want me to go and complain to the hostel warden right now about this, let him go!” This did the trick, all the seniors were afraid of the strict warden, who only last year had expelled two from their senior batch owing to complaints of ragging. They let the boy go, but the others had to stay back for some more treatment. He looked up at the girl, with a shy smile on his lips, and their eyes met, for the first time. “Thank you” he murmured, and she replied with a sweet smile, and thus they met- Ashok Shaw and Sonia Fernandes, first year telecom engineering students at the prestigious SVCE.

5th June 2001, SVCE, Bangalore, 9.30 a.m.

First class of the first semester, and that too Quants, Ashok was thrilled to bits, this was what he had chose engineering for- he adored mathematics, and wanted to be a telecom engineer and use his mathematical acumen in developing more and more improved products. He rushed to class, only to find to his dismay it had already started! “Sorry sir” he mumbled to the teacher who gave him a stern look, and told him to come in and sit down. He looked around, all seats were taken except one- the one next to Sonia. He quickly moved over and took the seat, smiling nervously at her. “Hi” she flashed her smile at him. The class started. This was the first time in his life he was sitting next to a girl, studying that he had in an all-boys’ school. He was feeling a bit uncomfortable, and started shifting in his seat nervously. “Are you feeling okay?” she whispered over to him, leaning across, making him catch a wisp of her sweet fruity perfume. “Ah, yes, fine”, the perfume, the smile, the girl next to him, were taking his mind away from the exciting quants problem being solved on the board. “Steady Ashok, you have come here to study!” he told himself, and sternly looked ahead towards the board, making an expression that made Sonia giggle out loud. “Who is that?” shouted the professor, “Is that you, young lady? Please leave my class right now!” Sonia looked at Ashok, sadness in her eyes, and got up slowly. “Um, wait, sir, it was me who was talking to her” blurted out Ashok. “What am I doing? Have I gone mad?” But it was too late, both were sent out of the class.

“Sorry Ashok, it was my fault. But why did you have to say that to sir?” Sonia looked at him. “Anyways, now that we’re out, and we have almost an hour to go, lets go to the canteen and have some coffee and pakoras. What say?” Ashok was hesitant, “Oh come on” she pulled his hand along with her, making him feel extremely awkward, but something inside him pushed him along with the girl. That day, they chatted for two hours, missing the next class in the process, but Ashok’s guilt was overtaken by his desire to be with this bubbly girl, who was in every way his polar opposite.

The next two months saw their friendship deepening, and gradually they became the best of friends. They started hanging out together everywhere, all of Ashok’s boundaries were simply washed away by this sweet talkative girl. He started enjoying things he never thought he would enjoy, he began to live, laugh and run, he began to enjoy every moment of life!

21st April 2002, SVCE, Bangalore, 4 p.m.

“What are you looking at?” asked Sonia, with a smile adorning her sweet face. “Uhh, nothing, think there’s something on your face”, mumbled Ashok, as they sat on the steep rockface near to their college, on the highway. “Oh really? What is it?” she asked, mock concern in her voice. “You know, Sonia, there is something I have been wanting to tell you for some time”, “Ok, what is it Ash?” only she used this name for him, and it made him feel special. “Umm, well, nothing, leave it”, “Oh come on Ash, I know when you want to say something important, stop tweedling your thumbs and say it”. “Ok Ashok, here you go” he thought to himself, took a deep breath, looked at Sonia’s deep eyes, and as usual, got lost in them! “Ah Sonia, eh, umm, would you, I mean, would you like to, umm, would you like to….”, “Yes, Ash, I would love to be your girlfriend!” she shouted out, holding his hand, they looked at each other, with the sun setting behind them, it seemed the entire world had come to a standstill, they had forgotten who they were, where they were, everything around them had ceased to exist. Their lips met, and for the first time in both their lives, they kissed.

They went back to their hostel hand-in-hand, not to their respective rooms, but to Sonia’s room, which was empty as her roommate was away for a week. That night, they made love, two young adults discovering their sexuality and their bodies, how they reacted to each other’s touch and that night, they lost their virginity. It was the best night of their lives, and they went to sleep in each other’s arms, looking out of the window at the moon, her head on his chest.


The next few years were the best in their lives. They literally stayed with each other every minute of their lives, they ate out of the same plate, sat together, studied and exchanged notes, went for long bike rides and walks with each other. The world had become beautiful, seasons brought with them different colours, rain drops falling on the thirsty soil created music, there were dreams in their eyes, love in their hearts and music in their souls. Life was complete.

3rd February 2005, S.V.C.E. Placement Office, 3 p.m.

“Hey Sonia, I have got through Telecom Solutions, my dream company!” “Oh Ash, I’m so happy for you!” she gave him a bear hug. “Where will you be placed, Ash?” “Bangalore” A glum look came over her face. “Ash, I have got through IT Horizons, location will be Delhi”. “What? Sonia, how can you do this to me? Cant you give this up and try some other company for Bangalore?” “Ash, just like you have got through your dream company, so have I, I didn’t know they were going to give me Delhi as the location” “So what, Sonia? Come on, we love each other. Why should we live away from each other? Plus..” he hesitated. “Plus what, Ash?” “Plus, I was going to ask you to marry me, Sonia” he blurted out. “What! Are you out of your mind Ash? We have not yet started earning! And why does everything need to end in marriage? Why ruin this perfect relationship?” Ashok looked at her incredulously. “Ruin? What better culmination can there be to this than marriage?” “Oh come on Ash, grow up. We aren’t kids anymore, and anyways I never had the intention of marrying you. I don’t believe in marriages, Ash. I have seen that of my parents fail, I don’t intend to go through all that!” and she stormed out of the room, leaving him shocked. He couldn’t believe what had just happened, his entire future life, which he had planned so meticulously with Sonia in it, had just shattered around him. He slowly left the room, forgetting the joy of having got through his dream company.

He left S.V.C.E. next evening, for his hometown Bhilai, from where he left for Bangalore a month later to join his dream job, minus of course a large portion of the dream that was once Sonia. He never heard from her again.


Three years later, his parents, after undertaking an extensive matrimonial search, finally zeroed in on Radhika, the beautiful, homely daughter of one of their family friends, and they got married after two months of courtship.

28th July 2010, Airport Road, Bangalore, 10.05 a.m…..

“Move, you idiot, and stop day-dreaming!” shouted out the cab driver from behind. Ashok realized he and Sonia were looking at each other for the last few minutes, and his entire past life was playing out before his eyes, on flashback. He steadied himself, started the car, shot a smile and a nod at her, which she returned duly, and looked at the road ahead. The lights had turned green, and it was time to move on………