Saturday, 24 August 2013

Short Story: Flight To Dreamland

As the pilot announced the descent into Heathrow, Benny wished he had opted for the much cheaper Ukranian Airways rather than expensive British Airways. The food had been unappetising and the stewardesses had mostly ignored him, especially after he requested a third drink. Never mind, he would recoup the cost of his air ticket within a month of landing in London. The immigration queue took longer than expected and Benny wondered if the corpulent man in a smelly jacket behind him, holding a large mobile device, could be persuaded to send a message to Jason who would be waiting outside. No, let the bugger wait, Benny decided, as he fingered his shiny new jacket. If only Airtel hadn’t demanded a deposit for international roaming, he could have called Jason from his mobile.

‘What do you plan to do here sir?’ the immigration officer asked politely.

Benny managed to make a hash of his prepared speech. ‘I want to see UK. I know about England and Scotland and Ireland and I come to see everything.’ As his bowels tightened and he swallowed his articles and burped out conjunctions, a funny feeling rose to his throat. Would the officer see through his miserable charade and deport him, Benny wondered.

‘What’s your occupation back home Sir?’

‘I am credit officer at Amrao Bank.’ It made sense, since tourist visas are usually issued to folks with solid, verifiable jobs, who would want to return home before their visas expired.

The officer looked up and grinned, as if they had known all along that the letter from Amrao Bank, which had been submitted months ago along with the visa application, was a forgery. As Benny steeled himself for the handcuffs that were on the way, cursing Jason for his pig-headed advice, he heard the words, ‘Welcome to the UK, enjoy your stay here.’ Benny nearly screamed with relief.

Outside the terminal, Benny would have hugged Jason if it hadn’t been for Jason’s scruffy appearance and nervous face. A man who had been in London for the past nine months and who was an assistant manager could surely be expected to dress better and look happier? ‘Have you been waiting for long?’ Benny politely asked Jason as they carefully scrutinised each other.

‘Not a problem mate,’ Jason responded in an accent which had undergone substantial change and Benny immediately felt better.

‘Where’s your car?' Benny demanded of Jason.

‘In the parking lot. Where else?’ Jason laughed and all was well.

‘Let’s go.'

As Benny sank into the luxurious seat next to the driver, he reached out and punched Jason on his shoulder and said, ‘you’ve got to tell me how you did all this, buy such a nice car, get a good job.’ There was no response from Jason who continued to have the same strange look. ‘Never mind, there’s plenty of time.’

Are we having dinner at a restaurant?’ After a few seconds, Benny added, ‘entirely up to you. Either way, you are paying for my meal.’ He laughed at his own joke. It was easy to laugh about food, now that every meal would most certainly include a meat dish.

Once they hit the motorway and saw other cars whizz past across multiple lanes, Jason exulted, ‘I can’t believe I made it. I am in London finally!’

‘I am working tonight,’ Jason informed Benny all of a sudden, breaking the silence.

‘Night shift? Aren’t you an Assistant Manager?’

‘It’s up to me, how and when I want to work.’

‘You mean, you can choose? Well, then don’t work tonight!’

‘This is a cab.’ Jason looked deadpan as he stared ahead and focussed on driving.

‘You mean you hired this car to pick me up?’

‘No, this car is a cab. I drive this car.’

‘Yes, I can see that you are driving this car. Jason, what are you saying?’

‘I drive this cab. They call it a mini-cab, it’s a private taxi, not a black cab.’

‘You mean you are a taxi driver?’

‘Yes, not a regular taxi driver, but a mini-cab driver.’

Why did you lie to me, you bastard? Benny almost screamed. Then Benny slowly said, ‘I’m sure you make enough to eat.’

‘Yes, these days I do.’

‘So when you promised to help me find a job, is this what you meant? A taxi driver’s job?’

Jason gave wry smile and said, ‘It’s not easy to be hired as a cab driver. Takes time. So............. maybe........ you could start working in a’

As Benny maintained his stunned silence, Jason said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m around, you’ll never go hungry. Also, there’s a temple near my place. They give free meals in the evenings.’

‘At a temple?’

‘Yes, vegetarian, but filling.’

‘Sounds good,’ Benny said and tried to smile.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Book Review: Bosses of the Wild – Lessons From The Corporate Jungle, by Manjiri Gokhale Joshi

Human beings are animals, albeit social ones. Dig a little into any of us and you will find animal traits. Even as human beings evolved from being hunter gathers to farming to industrial workers, the animal traits have stayed under the skin. After all, our animal ancestry dates back to many millions of years - animals walked the surface of the earth for at least a few hundred million years whilst homo sapiens, the modern day human beings, came into existence only about 200,000 years ago. The modern corporate workplace bears remarkable resemble to a jungle, with two-legged animals fighting for money, survival and, uniquely for human beings, for glory.

Manjiri Gokhale Joshi, a former journalist who has donned a variety of mantles and is currently pursuing a Masters in Major Programme Management at Oxford University’s Said Business School, has in her scholarly work Bosses of the Wild – Lessons From The Corporate Jungle attempted to examine animal behaviour patterns and extrapolate from them, human conduct in the workplace. Joshi’s Bosses of the Wild delves into behaviour patterns of fourteen animals, of which only ten are fit to become bosses, according to the author. The Tiger is an outstanding individual performer, but would be a misfit as a team leader. But the Lion on the other hand is a terrific boss, Joshi tells us. ‘The leonine personality commands respects by simply being a lion.’ Mind you, the male Lion’s mane is as much as hindrance (it gets in the way) as it is a boon (commands respect). The Lioness is an even better boss than the Lion. It is a great team player, it nurtures the cubs and does most of the hunting for the pride. The eagle is a great performer, but will not be the best CEO. Rather, it flies high and lives for each kill. An eagle boss would have high principles, would not fall for flattery and would be a high achiever. However, nurturing a team and building an esprit de corps would not be a top priority. Then there are frogs who, within a small pond, are good at what they do, but do not have a global vision and are not too ambitious. The sloth is lazy, but gets by, since its lack of ambition prevents it from being eaten by ambitious rivals.

I found myself analysing many of my former bosses and colleagues and wondered what animal personality each could be classified under. To a large extent, each individual could be fitted into one of the animal personalities described by Joshi. One of the best bits about Bosses of the Wild is Joshi’s description in the beginning of this book of how different bosses would behave if an employee asks for a day off to attend a friend’s wedding, just before an important presentation has to be made. An eagle boss would blow his top. The rabbit boss would want to chastise the employee, but would be scared. Since the rabbit is even more scared of its own boss, the rabbit would make sure the presentation matches one approved by the big boss years ago. The employee will get his day off though. The Lioness will have the employee working on the presentation immediately, will review it in time and make sure it is ready before the employee leaves, one copy in the employee’s pen drive and a back-up version in the Lioness’s laptop.

The Jungle Story at the end of the book is an apt dessert after the multi-course meal served by Joshi. In the Jungle Story, Joshi depicts a succession battle within a corporate jungle. The animals behave true to type, with the succeeding Lion not hesitating to kill his predecessor’s cubs.

For me, the surprise package in Bosses of the Wild was the Hyaena. Joshi tells us that the Hyaena is not very different from the Lion. It is as much a hunter as the Lion and sometimes a Hyaena can even bring down a Lion. A spotted hyaena can weigh up to 90 kilograms and it can tenaciously chase a prey for much longer than a Lion can. This is because a Hyaena’s heart makes up 1% of its body weight while a Lion’s heart is only 0.5% of its body weight. The Hyaena can digest almost anything. It differs from the Lion in the manner in which it operates. Whilst the majestic Lion with its imposing personality does not need to prove anything, Hyaenas strategise, lobby and carry out well-planned out attacks which can bring down rivals.

Joshi tells us that the ideal boss would be a Lion without a mane, but with a roar that can be heard for five miles. ‘This impressive personality naturally commands respect and fear and the chances of insubordinate behaviour in the work place are automatically reduced to a minimum.’ ‘The perfect boss does not have the offensive bluntness of the leonine personalities. Instead, this boss practices discretion and a low key approach like the hyaena, displaying the patience to strategize and strike when needed.’ I wondered if this description would fit an individual like Narayana Murthy? Are looks and a commanding presence so important these days when employees are smart enough to figure out if the boss is doing a good job? On balance I would say that Joshi’s hypothesis is valid - Narayana Murthy is an exception rather than the rule.

On the whole, I really enjoyed reading Bosses of the Wild, which is written in simple, functional English with unadorned prose. It is a useful read for individuals who wish to improve themselves – each chapter on an animal type ends with advice on how individual bosses with such a personality may improve their performance as a leader. It also has limited advice on how to deal with each animal type. In my opinion, merely identifying an individual’s animal type would go a long way in dealing with that person.

I attended the Mumbai launch of Bosses of the Wild, where Kiran Bedi was the Chief Guest. Kiran Bedi asked for and found two volunteers to carry a copy each of this book to Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, the two top contenders for the Prime Minister’s post after the next Parliamentary elections. I hope that this book actually reaches those two gentlemen and that it makes a difference to the person who finally becomes India’s next Prime Minister.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Mark Twain’s Red Injun Joe

Recently I happened to re-read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and was struck by Twain’s treatment of Red Injun Joe. I had always thought of Twain as a humanist, one who had sympathy for enslaved African Americans and even Africans in Belgian Congo.

Not only does Twain contemptuously refer to Injun Joe as a  ‘murderin' half-breed’, but also shows him as a ‘stony-hearted liar’, someone inherently back-stabbing, cowardly and hell-bent on revenge. When Huck Finn finally tells the Welshman that the deaf and dumb Spaniard is actually Injun Joe, the Welshman responds thus: "It's all plain enough, now. When you talked about notching ears and slitting noses I judged that that was your own embellishment, because white men don't take that sort of revenge. But an Injun! That's a different matter altogether."

Here’s a more detailed inspection of Twain’s attitude towards native Americans.