Friday, 27 December 2013

Book Review : If God Was A Banker


THE CHARACTERS
Sundeep Srivastava : Anything Goes
Swaminathan : Mr Ethical - Smart, Intelligent, Sharp and Straight
Kalpana : Mrs Swami, and his biggest support
Natasha : Mrs Sundeep, mature and balanced
Aditya : The Real Kingmaker 
Naresh : The string puller, unscrupulous and unstrustworthy

THE PLOT
If God Was A Banker is a story of 2 methods - ethical results vs results by any means, and acts as a salutary warning to all corporate honchos as to what can happen if things go awry. This is a tale of Corporate India, where one needs a Guide or Mentor who watches over you, and gives you the opportunity and chances to grow. It is a tale of your choices, and how you use the chances your mentor provides you to make your own life and career. It is a tale of character and internal priorities, weaknesses and value systems - and how you adjust these value systems to the external realities. 

It is a tale of 2 friends and their spouses, and the story of their rise through the corporate ladder. Sundeep is rough, and ready to exploit any opportunity that comes his way - even if the idea originated somewhere else. He is all about self, and cares little about anyone else in the system - even the person who helped him grow, his mentor. Although highly qualified, skilled, intelligent - he nevertheless takes recourse to every means to achieve his objective. This book is a story of the rise, rise and rise of Sundeep Srivastava

It is also a story of the steady but somewhat bumpy (by comparison) rise of Swaminathan, a simple man who rises not by virtue of skulduggery, but by good old-fashioned ethical results, wherein the means and process by which results come are equally important, if not more, than the result itself. It is a heart-warming tale of how a man of sheer brilliance, intelligence and humility contains himself, plays by the book and yet succeeds. While in Sundeep you get to see the real world, in Swaminathan you get to observe the ideal, or should I say the optimal; a character that provides hope in you - that it is possible to succeed by being good as well

This book is also a heart warming love story; 2, in fact. The awesome, and simple but purely Indian love story of Kalpana and Swami, wherein Kalpana herself keeps her career on hold after marriage so as to take care of her husband and make a good home; of how she subsequently returns to the corporate fold, and manages both roles with elan. This book is, at the same time, a touching love story - a one-sided love story of Natasha, who marries the undeserving Sundeep, and gives him her all, just for the sake of love. 


THE ANALYSIS

This story is, all in all, a complete story of life in corporate India - of how work pressures create family stress, of how a man can go wrong, of cheating, crime and bribery, of avarice and self-centred strategies, of office politics that can break a career, of treachery and opportunism, of breaking rules and laws, of sheer greed and amorality, of a total failure of internal systems and processes to check wrong-doing. And yet, at the same time, this is a book  of hope and order, of how a steady but smart approach creates results, of how sticking to basics is the right thing, of how just being decent and human can create opportunities, of how you should use opportunities that come your way, of how not giving up is in itself a strategy, of how focus on excellence can give top results in your paycheck and your career - and of how the right attitude in bad times can get great future results. You can see all this, and more, in the lives of the 4 principal characters... a must read for all in Corporate India. In many ways, this is a slightly exaggerated mirror of life in the corporate world, and a deep and disquieting question on what we have become

The book is easily one of Mr Subramanian's best works, given that it successfully intertwines the professional and personal lives so beautifully well into one indivisible whole. The personal and professional stories buttress each other, and carry the story forward with effortless ease. Characterisation is excellent, with the focus being on creating a mental image of the attributes of the person, and helping the reader relate to the thoughts and emotions of each character. You can actually see into the mind of each person, and that is a significant achievement of the author. The language is, as usual, simple and effective. Most of all, the book is an effective, realistic if somewhat (only slightly) exaggerated look at the corporate world and its ugly underside, a book that forces us to think in depth of what we have become. A book  that says "Wake Up, India" from every page... well written, Mr Ravi Subramanian. A truly great piece of fiction... 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Book Review : The Sympathy Wave


Author : P. R. Ganapathy

The Author is a former management executive, having held leadership positions in India and the US. He now supports entrepreneurs working to alleviate the problems of the poor

THE CHARACTERS
Rohit Gaekwad : Lover, brat and an idiot in that order. Unfortunately for India, also PM-designate
Sunaina Gaekwad : Disillusoned
Pavithra Munjal : Sunaina's duaghter - nondescript, but beware!
Vikram Munjal : Swine - of the first order
Varun Mathai : Troubleshooter with a... well, lets keep this a secret, shall we?
Pushpinder Singh : Minister, and invisible...
Anwar Islam : War Hero, indebted to another...
Colonel Gupta : War Hero, and a Hero, Period. 
DIG Karandikar : A rarity - a police officer with a conscience. Also smart. Very Smart Indeed

THE PLOT
The book centers around a political family : one matriarch, and her son and daughter. The son is slated to become PM, but is just not interested in politics. He further wants to migrate to Colombia, and marry the daughter of a major drug cartel. The daughter is also not interested in politics, and has been forced into marriage with a no-gooder. In the backdrop, it so happens that Rohit and Vikram's plane chooses to vanish - and remains, shall we say, "vanished", and in an election year to boot. The wreckage is discovered in Rajasthan subsequently, and as a direct corollary, Rohit's party sweeps the elections - bringing his newly widowed sister to power, with idealistic dreams of cleaning the system, combined with an iron will to push the agenda through.

All is supposedly well - until a certain gentleman by the monicker of Colonel Gupta, a legtimate war hero, wrongly booted out of RAW, is approach by another equally legitimate war hero and victim of raw RAW treatment Anwar-Ul-Islam. After their first meeting on this matter of the vanishing plane, all is decidedly not well, as they manage to convince DIG Karandikar to join them in the hunt. The rest of the book is the hunt for the truth... was it planned? If so, who? Idealistic Pavithra - which seems far-fetched, given her idealism? Or Ttroubleshooter Varun, who is already after Sunaina not to appoint her son as PM, and wants Pavithri as PM? Or is it someone in the government?

THE ANALYSIS
The book is a surprise package; a fast-paced political thriller, with a simple plot which is relatively transparent, and yet sufficiently contrived to maintain reader interest. Interestingly, while the broad contours of the plot become apparent a little before the ending, the interest is kept up right till the last page, which is creditworthy. There is one discernible gap in the plot, which does not take away from the story in any way whatsoever. I cannot say more, since it would be giving it away. All I can say is that there is a possibility of a sequel to this book. 

The language is simple and easy to understand. You dont need a doctorate in English to devour this one! The characterisation is minimalist, and sparing. The focus is on keeping the story moving at a fast pace, for which needless detailing has been sacrificed.  This is a book that a part of me loves, and a part of me is undecided. I love it for the simple reason that the book is truly a good piece of writing, and is a near-impeccable story, as noted above. A small part of me is undecided due to the far-too-obvious parallels to real life portrayed in terms of the characters chosen, and which are too obvious to miss. All in all, I rate this book as 3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Book Review : The Hunt For Kohinoor


The Second Book Featuring Mehrunissa Khosa
By Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

THE CHARACTERS
Mehrunissa Khosa - Art Historian, Intelligent, Resourceful, with a troubled past
RP Singh - Sr CP, Police, straight but tough, with a deep and silent passion for Mehru
Raghav - Quintessential straight tough cop
Mystery Guy - Find out who in the novel. Cant say more!
Babur Khan - Also a mystery. American Muslim, Ex-US Army, but a terrorist. Methinks we might meet him again...
Jag Mishra - RAW boss. And a raw boss, if you can get a dual application of terms

For me, this was the most awaited book of this year. And to cut a long story short, it was worth it. And in more ways than one. A book which, to me, conclusively establishes Mrs Manreet's credentials in the .fiction world. A book which is a let-down in one way, but a huge, huge positive in another. A let down since you expected another chase through clues and hints - a-la Dan Brown; but a huge positive since you are treated to a book that is completely  different in style and approach to the earlier work. A let down since you expected a tense and bitter sweet love story between Mehru and RPS, but a huge positive since you are in its place treated to a story that builds pace slowly and gains momentum, carrying you alongwith itself, with no obvious flaws in the basic plot of the story, save one minor point, which, though not a flaw, seems a bit far-fetched. But that I can overlook; as it adds to the overall story, and carries it forward. And, this is fiction!

THE PLOT
This is the book which establishes the characterisation of Mehrunissa Khosa, started in the first book  in much more firm tones. She is more deeply etched and defined. It is a book about Mehrunissa Khosa - start to finish, and no one else. It is about how she gets entangled in a major terror plot, and is practically forced to help in the investigation, with grave risk to her own life and liberty, in a headlong 96-hour race that will determine the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands - as well as the lives of her loved ones. It is a book of an innocent citizen getting caught in the biggest international hot-spot - India/Pakistan, and how she is brutally used to further national interest. It is also about how she finally manages to see both the national interest and her own, and win.

THE ANALYSIS
The characterisation, is in keeping with the boundaries established in the first book., and has in fact given us a deeper understanding of the central character of the series, who emerges much more clearly defined. All other characters are subjugated in terms of characterisation,  which is in keeping with the objective of the series - which is about Mehrunissa Khosa. Of course, the author will need to ensure that RP Singh is also adequately fleshed out later in the series, as the main support character.

The book builds up slowly, first establishing the plot and the background. The story starts almost in a apologetic mode, in a hesitant fashion - but engaging as well, as our heroine gets caught in the elaborate trap. The story matches the expected reaction - slow and hesitant. You cant expect a historian to become a spy at the flick of a switch, unlike so many other novels I have read. The change is slow, hesitant and stumbling. Then, just as a normal person would adjust to the new realities, so too the story as well picks up pace, as Mehrunissa goes about her assigned tasks.

The first half of the book lays the plot and the background of the entire scenario with characterisation of the supporting characters. This is not wasted, as it has been well done - not too much detail, not too little; just enough detail to enable you to understand each character and his or her motives. Each characters reasons for behaving as they did has been clearly spelled out, which actually gives a deep understanding of the scenario, enhancing your reading pleasure. Point is that this is not your standard thriller or a headlong race.  It is in fact an engaging book, reasonably fast-paced, and enthralling, a book in which you can actually see both sides of the coin, a book which is an engaging story while being a thriller.

The scenes literally play out in front of your eyes, so vivid is the description and so rich is the language used - rich, but simple. This is what the combination of deep characterisation and effective narrative has attained, something I have only seen once before- in Jill McGivering's The Last Kestrel - http://reflectionsvvk.blogspot.in/2012/08/book-review-last-kestrel.html. This book is another in this category. And the most powerful point is that the 2 books of Mehrunissa are totally different in every feature - unlike other series, where the books' layout is largely similar. This is a mute testimony to the quality of writing. All in all, well worth a read; a truly good book...

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book Review : The War Ministry


Book Review : The War Ministry
By Krishan Partap Singh

This is the third and concluding book of the Raisina Series; and is the best of the lot. The journey, begun at a steady pace in Book One (Young Turks), and ably supported by the absorbing but different book Two (Delhi Durbar) is taken to a crescendo, a rapid and heady speed that will leave you in awe of the writer’s skills in terms of penning words as well as his understanding of international and Indian political realities and byplays. This current book is the fastest paced among the three, the most enthralling as well as the most engaging book of the entire series. As you close the book, you are left wanting for more,  alongwith a tinge of sadness that never again will you have the pleasure of wondering what happens next to Azim, Karan and Raj…

For those new to the series, the main characters are: 

Azim Khan : Steady, Ambitious, Idealistic Yet Practical, Patriot with a dream
Major Karan Nehru : Kargil War Hero, Egomaniac, Insecure, True Friend, Short-Tempered, Selfish, Drives you up the wall in frustration and anger – and yet, you find it impossible to be angry at him!
Raj Mehra : Kingmaker, Balanced, Smart and Intelligent, The Best Of the Three
Radha Khan : Azim’s Alter Ego; Wife; and biggest support – and partner in crime (alongwith Raj and Pooja) who plots to end the constant feud between Azim and Karan
Pooja Nehru : Mrs. Karan Nehru – only person to scare the Legendary Karan (As Above)

That about sums it up. The War Ministry is all about a running feud between Mr. Steady and Mr. Ego – Azim and Karan – which forces, yet again, Raj Mehra to step in after being harangued into it by the best-friend wives of the two fighting best-friends above! Sounds boring, isn’t it? Well, the interesting point is that these two once-best-friends-and-now-almost-enemies are The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of India, running a government in the aftermath of a War with Pakistan; and a running near-war situation with China. The repercussions for the government, and how these are handled make the meat of the book, and provide the spice and the binding – as political and international intrigue all play a role in the scenario – sometimes creating trouble, at other times having trouble created for them by the mercurial Karan’s irresponsible behavior, and the equal straightness, planning and stubbornness of Azim

You grow to respect Azim’s vision for India, his feeling of patriotism, and his handling of his Muslim Identity, and the way he handles the office  of the Prime Minister. Such is the shine of his character that you tend to ignore his flaws, which get hidden in the brightness of his lustre. His dream of a united India without religious or other divisions (only modern India, that is – not Pakistan or Bangladesh!) strikes a chord with you, as his handling of foreign policy matters and other governance issues. On the other side of the coin, you have the lovable but irritating egomaniacal idiot Karan Nehru, who always requires a hit on the head to come to his senses. He is Azim’s equal in all aspects – dream, vision, patriotism, handling governance etc; and yet his ego overshines the positives, leaving you frustrated and angry at this rank idiot! And then there is Raj Mehra… who takes three books to come into his own, and claim the rightful position of the binding factor of these two – one an idiot, the other a stubborn fool!

The coincidences with reality in the series are uncanny – makes you wonder, is this in store for India? A squabble between the government and The Army Chief, then a moderate Pakistani Army Chief, New party coming to the fore, irritated China… all this has happened in real life, as well as in the book! Food for thought… is it prescient? And this was written before  it occurred in real life. Coincidence? Food for thought! This is where the book scores – coincidence or not, it seems very, very real; is based and grounded in current socio-econo-political problems of India, and is very very logical in its story. The entire book is practical and believable. Its dealing with the Hindu-Muslim question and the concept of a Muslim PM – read the book for this alone. It will set you thinking, that is for sure. 

Add to the potpourri above a full-blown international crisis, with USA and China breathing down   India’s neck – in the middle of a full-scale political crisis at home, with Mr. Insecure-Inflated-Ego Nehru throwing  tantrum after tantrum. You read on in frustration as Mr. Short-Temper Nehru drives India towards an unprecedented Crisis in the middle of the book – not helped by Mr. Stubborn Khan; even as India heads towards disaster. You are treated to an edge-of-the-seat climax as India inches towards a war with China, in a home situation where the Central Government can fall at any minute – with Pakistan threatening a second front. You encounter despair as even Raj cannot get through to either Mr. Stubborn  or Mr. Ego – meantime, all the while, India hurtles towards war as Tibet explodes, China threatens, Pakistan starts growling…

Does the War Ministry survive? Does Mr. Ego learn the error of his ways? Does Mr. Stubborn climb down from his high horse? Does War erupt? Read the book to learn this, and more… for example, the firm and powerful handling of international relations by Karan and Azim – the only point on which the two agree. All in all, a truly superb book – a thriller.  Its edge-of-the-seat riveting climax will have you biting your nails as things come to a head – the first political thriller from an Indian Author!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Tackling Employee Dissatisfaction

The trend in Employee - Organisation relationships, as brought out in a few recent surveys, shows a majority of the employees are not engaged with the organisation; that the dissatisfaction levels are very high. Alongside this fact is the lament - or statement from organisations that they are making the organisation more employee friendly. And yet, there is no discernible impact on dissatisfaction levels in general - which are, if anything - rising. 

Reason for that is not one single attempt has dealt with the core issue/s at hand – why are the employees dissatisfied? Why are they disengaged? In my experience no one has even tried to attempt this. As a result, the efforts at engagement are centering around employee activities, rewards and recognition, feel-good programmes, dress-up and dress-down days, cafeteria enhancements, remuneration and emoluments, Saturday half-days which are applicable only to the HO, Gift programmes, intranet links and mailers, parties etc. Not one of these has worked; in fact – the exact reverse. All have boomeranged, and boomeranged big-time.

The reality is that these programmes have either no discernible impact, or indeed serve only to embitter the employee. For example, Saturday offs / Half-Days. These are usually enjoyed only by HO staff; more often than not the branches remain open. At times, even on Sundays - due to the proverbial "driven" boss, who has nothing better to do with his time - and walks in. Result? Your employee-friendly policy goes out the window, and actually causes deep resentment as you realise that the HO staff - or your classmate in Mysore - is relaxing at home! 

Another example: gift programmes, emoluments, Rewards and Recognition. The shoddy implementation of these, in place of acting as motivators, act as severe de motivators due to 2 strong reasons - first, lack of transparency in the process combined with a top-down approach which leaves simmering discontent among the staff, who are not convinced regarding the winners or the people getting appreciation. The general contention is that the favourite got it; its not for us. Secondly, the cut-offs or targets set for appreciation or Gifts is either not communicated properly - or is ridiculously high. The belief is that an unachievable target will drive the employees. The result? More pressure, as the boss makes it a prestige issue. The supposed Reward gets converted into an added target, and more reason for pressure. Result? Good-bye motivation, Good-bye engagement - and Hi There, Dissatisfaction! 

A third example - those lovely cafeterias, game rooms and other facilitators.  An excellent idea, one would think - except the moment the boss walks in - you walk out, or be tagged a loiterer! If that does not happen - in walks the boss, Milk Shake in hand, sees you... Bang! Meeting Chalu! Lets start the meeting. You have no option but to respond. Midway, one of you gets an idea. Out comes the Cellphone, in comes the entire team - and lo and behold, Good-bye game room / cafetaria and Welcome New Meeting Room! Next time, I Me Myself and others at my level make it a point to walk all the way to the cutting chaiwaalaa - individually, mind you (at the most in pairs) - have a cup of tea, spend 15 minutes cursing everyone and his uncle - and back to work! 

There is no systemic check on such blatant abuse of power, and total lack of personal space to the employee. What is worse, most of us do not see it as an encroachment of personal space. Furthermore, none of the relationship improvement efforts attempt to solve the real problems plaguing the corporate world, where what one actually does is in complete variance with our value systems, as well as frequently openly against the law. The lack of Job Security is a further dampener. The total absence of leaves (even if pushed, insecurity forces employees not to take leaves) is an added burden. This is complicated by a lack of security once outside the job. Not only that, a total lack of career planning for employees & no training for skill upgradation is another factor. And, as the icing on the cake, you have the other factors - lack of personal space, too much pressure, constant monitoring etc. The real problems are:


  • The penchant to take unhealthy or even illegal shortcuts; 
  • Pressure to conform rather than be an individual;
  • Pressure tactics; 
  • Hire-and-fire policies; 
  • Lack of proper training and career clarity 
  • Long work hours; 
  • General Lack of transparency & {perceived} unfair PMS
  • Lack of personal time and 
  • Downright unhealthy work atmoshpere cutting across levels and functions.


If you want the employee to be engaged – stop all the frankly ridiculous attempts at engagement – and:


  1. Start enriching his/her job; 
  2. Give him/her security; 
  3. Enable strong checks and balances against misuse of power;
  4. Intolerance towards unhealthy business practices and illegal acts - even at the cost of marketshare 
  5. Shorten work hours; 
  6. Invest in training
  7. Give personal space; \
  8. Empower employees and 
  9. Free from ridiculous levels of control. Thats it.


Nothing else is required. One straight, frank and blunt feedback – whenever such programmes, or measures are announced, I have heard snide remarks as well as foul language. Real foul language. It is a common statement – why should we do anything for the company, when it does nothing for us? Whats in it for me? I’ll stay here for 1-2 years and move on! How can anyone be engaged in such an atmosphere? Impossible!

From personal experience in leading teams - nearly 70-80% of employees respond positively to kind and understanding handling, personal space and independence, time for personal activities, and total intolerance of unhealthy / illegal acts. But once you go down that road, you as the Boss pay for it. Blunt : I have received instructions to commit clear transgressions of law or company rules from Seniors more than once, and oblique hints as a general rule. Further, there is a general statement - if you can do this much with so little pressure, yaar "unki G@#$$ maaro business 20% growth hogaa. You are killing performance! This when the person is already touching 90-100% on targets! That is the reality of Corporate India. 

Things are beginning to change - since, for the first time, people are openly coming out in private conversations, HR confidential emails, blogs, newspapers etc. There is a general dialogue that has started; this bodes well. What is more, those speaking up span the entire spectrum from the juniormost to the seniormost, which is a healthy sign, a harbinger of change - positive change. One might even say that it is only to be expected that some things will go bad in times of rapid growth (such as India saw over the past few years till 2009). Having said that, now is the time to set things right again... here's hoping that happens...

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Quit India Movement - An Important Milestone on our journey to Independence

The Quit India Movement - The Background

The Quit India movement was carried out in the backdrop of a rapid escalation in tensions - both with the british, and societal communal tension. Also in the background was American pressure against The British to free India,  as well as the increasing tensions caused by an attack by Japan. On top of all this came the Cripps Mission - which no nationalist would accept in his right mind. None except Jinnah, that is. 

By April 1942, it was looking as if the British would lose the war; they were under severe strain across the entire spectrum of WW2. Japan was already knocking on India's gates, while Malaya was lost, with a humuliating British withdrawal. Everywhere one looked, from an Indian standpoint, defeat had seemed imminent. The Empire had never looked as weak as it did then

The was moving hand-in-hand with the the increasing anger in the people, as wartime restrictions began to impact the people - in a war that was basically forced onto them. The dissatisfaction rose rapidly with news from Bengal - of the confiscation of food, boats, etc in the middle of a famine - to create high levels of Anger and Dissatisfaction in the people

The final straws came in 2: first, The Atlantic Charter - when the freedom to all peoples clause was expressly denied to India by the British in the House of Commons; and the Second was the Cripps Mission, with its clear and undisguised partition agenda. The Congress was unequivocally against Partition in any form; and the Cripps agenda was a clear invitation to disaster, with its pre-condition that any state could have the option of staying out of the Indian Union. In the words of Cripps himself - "I think he {Jinnah} was rather surprised in the distance that it {the british offer} went to meet the Pakistan Agenda - Stafford Cripps, 25 March 1942". This proved to be the last straw, in combination with a rapid deterioration in problems and escalation in provinces. 




QUIT INDIA
1) The British would have to clear out forthwith
2) If the British could not be persuaded to go, they would have to be thrown out
3) Once The British were removed, India would avoid being invaded because Japan;s quarrel was with Britain, not India
4) If Japan invaded India, it would be met with non-violent resistance
5) The stationing of foreign soldiers, including Americans, on Indian soil was a grave menace to Indian Freedom


Under pressure from a lot of ,moderates the clause relating to Japan was subsequently altered - due to the logical view that you cannot fight an invader with non-violent resistance, and subsequently the following text added in the final draft:



In places wherein The British and the invading forces are fighting, our non-cooperation will be fruitless and unnecessary. Not to put any obstacles in the way of the British forces will often be the only way to demonstrate our non-cooperation with the invader



This, then, was the complete Quit India movement. which was adopted on 8th August 1942



WHY DID IT FAIL
Treason. Sweet and simple. The draft resolution, which was sent to a closed door meeting of the Congress Working Committee at Allahabad a fortnight after the return of Stafford Cripps, fell into the hands of British Intelligence - Courtesy 2 communist members of the congress {Available in the unsealed British archives}. The Indian Communist Party had switched loyalty to the British after the attack on The Soviet Union. Thus, the plan failed before it could be officially adopted; or preparations made for its implementation. All leaders were subsequently arrested immediately. 


The plan was simple: Do, or Die. This is evident from The Mahatma's speech o 7th August 1942. We shall either free India, or die in the attempt. There was a specifc idea of implementation in The Mahatma's mind - government servants to openly declare allegiance with Congress; Soldiers to refuse to fire on our own people; students to give up studies etc. Unfortunately, it never got a chance to get off the ground. 


ITS IMPACT
The immediate impact was a massive set of disturbance across the length and breadth of India - Mumbai, Ahemedabad, Pune, Kanpur, Delhi, Varanasi, Allahabad, Patna, Jamshedpur etc. The spill-over effects lasted for quite a bit of time, as city after city and people after people set about letting their views known in no uncertain terms. There were rampant attacks on a huge numbers of Government offices and all signs of Government authority. There were also physical attacks on Europeans.

In the first week, 250 railway stations were destroyed or damaged, 500 post offices and 150 police stations were attacked. In Karnataka alone, there were 1600 incidents of cutting of telegraph wires. Unarmed crowds faced police and military firing on 538 occasions. They were also machine-gunned by low flying aircraft.

There was an all-India underground leadership - Sucheta Kripalani, Aruna Asaf Ali, Ram Manohar Lohia. Biju Patnaik, RP Goenka, JP Narayan etc. There was a vast and coordinated attack cycle by the people. The movement got support from a vast variety of people; it was a national uprising. Students, teachers, labourers, business people, villagers, government officials, policemen, ladies - all took part in it. 

Most critically, The Quit India movement was an important milestone since it established that The Mahatma had got the nation together as one - for the first time since 1857 in a demand for the immediate ouster of the British, and made clear that India could now only be held through brute power as the repression, with the use of brute military force, further established : that now India could only be held by Military might, It set the stage for the Indian Army Mutiny of 1945-46, and the Indian Naval Mutiny of 1946, as a result of the INA trials. From this experience during the Quit India Movement, The Raj knew that once the Armed Forces were taken, away- India was anyway out of their hands. And that, in my opinion, was the foremost achievement of the Quit India Movement


References:


1) The Shadow Of The Great Game - Narendra Singh Sarila
2) India's Independence Struggle - Bipin Chandra et al
3) Jinnah, India, Partition, Independence - Jaswant Singh

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Peculiar Problem Of English in India

It is a commonly held notion - by almost every section of our society - that English is a key to success - at least in Corporate India; that English education (especially the Public School variety, or the convent variety) is a pre-requisite. It is thought that English is a basic quality that is the key to unlocking doors as well as understanding complicated concepts and acquiring advanced skills. The importance of English, thus, is thought to be both in unlocking further doors, as well as acquiring skills that enable a person to succeed in life. 

Fine, List functions, roles, specific KRAs in your experience where English is mission critical - that cannot be outsourced to the secretarial staff. List the languages used in the normal course of business. Most of the times, it is a mix of local and English! So why the hullabuloo regarding English? And as regards English... who needs English? In 14 years, I am yet to conduct a single business deal in English. 14 years and 10 months, to be precise. All - repeat - All - my discussions have been in Hindi or even Marathi with bosses and channel alike. Why, then, is this notion? Does it have any connect with the reality?

Two, we get mails in English - but discuss them in our own language. Even in the Channel, even if our Channel Partner is educated (I have handled several CAs, one Major Industrialist as well as PhDs etc as partners), we speak in Hindi, or the local tongue. All the time, every time.  Why is this so? I repeat: in 15 years , I have not had one single full conversation on any topic in English. Not one single topic. If you want to do business in India, learn the local tongue, the local culture and the local habits. But does that mean we can jettison English?

Three, I have been a visiting faculty for Adverstising and Brand Management, and from that experience, let me clear one point. I have checked the study material and understanding of students, and those who dont perform have problems in English. They use vernacular material to study, while papers are in pure English! This, when they dont have any use of the English language in practical life outside some emails. Why on Earth are we trying to create rugby players out of people skilled in cricket? Teach 'em cricket! Talk to them in their language! Prima Facie, it seems that this proves the commonly held notion of English being a requirement of success; but the real problem here is not English, but something else; as I shall connect up later

Unless we attend to this fundamental dichotomy - hiring for English skills (that, by and large, dont exist) for a role that requires either local tongue, or some other skill, things will not change. Unless we understand that we are actually speaking in Hindi or local tongues, but writing in English, this argument will remain. But that is another story. It is easier to change our approach, which is manifestly incorrect!

This does not mean that we dont need English; we are a nation of several hundred tongues - Hindi, Punjabi, Kashmiri in the North; Bihari, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Manipuri, Naga in the East; Marathi, Guajarti in the West; Tamil, Kannada, Malayali, Telugu in the south alongside hundred of others. English is the only common language; English is the only link language - in fact, it can be said that English contributes to keeping us together and united, and helps us avoid Bangladesh-like risings - of which we have had one sample in 67, when we tried to enforce Hindi. In short, we need English as the link language. 

Further, the need for English cannot be underscored - as in some areas, English is a pre-requisite - like in International Trade, Business Process Outsourcing etc. Here, you do need proficiency in English - unlike other areas, where you only need a working knowledge at best. Please understand that I am restricting myself to the business atmosphere only; my focus in this article in Business and Indian Corporates. For people interested in Science and Technology, you can refer this discussion on LinkedIn, which discusses this threadbare, and has some industry experts partaking in: LinkedIn Discussion on English in Tech and Science

Thus, from the above we can see that while we need English, a few of us are not proficient in the language; and secondly, we have only a limited use of English, which is restricted to only written communication, and basic skills in understanding what is being said. First, let us attend to the question of why there is a need for written language skills in English. The answer is straightforward: English is the only possible script and language that is common across the land; there can be no other language that can fill the gap created by English - if it is abandoned. 

And in this, admittedly yes, quite a large number of students are lacking, as mentioned in the opening of the paragraph.  The reason is simple: not many parents can afford the costly education where you can acquire these skills. More than 75% of India resides in villages and small towns;and more than 75% dont earn enough to have their children sent to such schools. Quite simply put, this is a delivery gap of governmental educational services, which are shoddy at best, and pitiable at worst. 

In conclusion, it can be seen that English is a most peculiar problem in India : while at one level, we need it for integrity and continuity; at the other, it is the lack of proper education that is hindering a good number of our students. While at one level, it is a mission critical skill, at another level, it is only a basic skill since verbal communication is in the vernacular. While at one level, our students cannot afford access to good education, at another level, Industry bemoans lack of English skills. While at one level, we need people, at another level we cant hire them as they don’t have the skills! While at one level, it aids in keeping us one and united, at another level it is a significant challenge to our culture. While at one level, English speakers consider themselves a cut above – employing the language at every opportunity, at another level the local populace both wants to emulate while simultaneously belittling such anglicized people by the pejorative term “angrez”!

Why should we have an attitude of superiority if we speak English better, or are better educated – when this is largely because our parents had access to good education, and earned enough to put us through the same? And why should those who did not have this happy chance be left out? Thus, if you cannot afford a good education, will you be always on the periphery? This is what seems to be happening, since the consumption trends indicate that consumption of the bottom income layers has not gone up. This is more so, since in my experience, English is only a peripheral requirement in the large majority of functional roles, and that we need only a working knowledge of the same.

None of the questions I have asked above have easy answers; none of the questions above has any quick fix. These are hard realities, a fundamental dichotomy that lies at the core of our national identity. We are, essentially, by-and-large, a tri-lingual people – English, Mother Tongue, and Hindi. Till such time as this is resolved, and a local link language emerges, these questions and problems will remain. What we can do is change our outlook – hire people who are good at communication, and have the required level of skills in English for the role in question…


This is not an article which suggests solutions, or makes grandiose statements, or suggests a one solution fits all type panacea. I cannot state the impossible; such is the peculiar nature of the English Problem in India. The same language that is linking the diverse groups in our country together, is also  the target of much innuendo in the cultural sphere as well as in the skills sphere. The gaps are vast, and they exist on both sides – while we need to change our approach, attitude, and drop our  superiority complexes towards English on one side; we also need to improve education! There are no solutions; only questions. Perhaps, the answers lie in the distant future… 


Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Great Indian Skill Gap... A Reality Check

I am a corporate guy, with experience in teaching MBA classes as well . And I categorically state: there is no skill gap. The only gap is in our approach, at least in the general sense of the term. What is the difference between the 2 statements - Skill Gap and Approach? When you say Gap, the onus is on the student; when you say approach - YOU are the culprit. This is not splitting hairs, this is the core issue.

You say students are not corporate-ready. Fine, Enumerate steps taken by your organisation to tackle this. And please dont list A-lister colleges. Till date, I have not seen a single corporate aligning with universities, If you cant get in, dirty your hands and solve it, stop crying and face the music! Do you seriously expect a greenhorn to come raring out and write perfect code? Do you seriously expect a greenhorn to come out raring and bribe a government babu with impunity? And dont tell me corporates dont bribe, please! Do you seriously expect a new guy fresh out of college to climb on top of distributors who have handled hundreds of such college geniuses? Do you seriously expect a fresh college grad to put in 18-hour workdays? And again, dont tell me we have an 8 hour day!

Further, till date not one single person in my knowledge has specified exactly what a skill gap means in specific deliverable terms. No general statements, please, Identify specific gaps. Cant code? Cant adjust? Cant take pressure? But before you think of this, think of how do you treat your summer trainees? Is there any genuine effort to train them? I have been through it, so I know exactly how much we - aah- train them. Dont make me laugh. How on earth you expect a fresh guy to deliver as much as an experienced guy is beyond me.

The Army spends 2 years training its people - as well as regularly every 2 years. Dad had to attend regular several-month-long trainings, as well as got a 2-year break for further studies.  How much do we invest in training? I have been through - aah - induction programmes, which generally tell me all about the organisation - which a simple google search will reveal - and precisely nothing about how to deliver on my KRAs!!!!! And then we cry - Skill Gap! Wow!

Saying "Skill Gap" and 'Soft Skill" is fine; be specific - identify specific areas, attributes, habits, mannerisms that are, shall we say, desirable. In my reading, no one has, till date. It is a fashionable trend, saying we have a skill gap. And if I am wrong, please give me specifics, not generalities. We sales guys have a habit of dealing in specifics! 

It may sound funny to many people - but, again, my point made above is straightforward: try and identify s-p-e-c-i-f-i-c areas of gaps; and see the problems that emerge as you try to define it. And pray tell me how can a problem be solved if it is not even defined? I have certainly not read any article in main stream business news regarding anything beyond the generic term "skill gap"

For example, you say students cant talk properly? Fine. Why cant they talk? It is all very well to state they cant talk; ever thought about the why? Ever taken the trouble to ask them or their families? Ever thought about how they got here in the first place? And what do you mean they cant talk? They talk well enough in their own circles. So why cant they do so in front of you? What is it in your approach - or his history - that presents a block? Try and go into specifics - then you will see the real problem emerge- which is not repeat not a skill gap. It is something else entirely!

A gap is not in the ether somewhere; also try and relate it to the real world, where education is costly. Also keep in mind the population distribution of the nation; the top 200 cities do not account for more than 5.68% (from memory) of total population. The age group of 18-35 of the top 50 cities is something like 2.57% if memory serves me right. Or is it the general contention that India exists only in the metros????? Try and scale it up on a state-wide scale; let alone a national scale. And keep in mind earning skewness in India, consumption trends and spreads; average cost of a decent college education; as well as attend to why dont all students reach college?

The problem is two-fold; first, corporates prefer people to fit in to a certain stereotype; and woe betide anyone who challenges this. Anyone who does not fit in is left out - regardless of other skills sets he/she may be having. There is little focus on the person, there is no focus on giving something to the employee in terms of training and life skills, there is little focus on attempting to make the employee fit in, there is little focus on re-training line and staff managers to cope with the new challenges being posed - as corporate India enters the smaller towns and villages for its manpower. There is little thought being given to this - that simple fact that the modern serving corporate manager does not have the skill sets to deal with this new set of people, who have different values, attitudes and experiences in life from your top - 50 city metrosexual individual.

Second, Yes, there are gaps - but these are primarily socio-economic gaps, gaps of infrastructure, gaps of earning potential of parents, gaps of service delivery in schools, gaps of high fees that are unaffordable, gaps of social status,gaps of inferiority complexes that are rooted in our caste structure etc. You cannot simplify such a massive socio-economic problem as a skill-gap, and set up short-term institutes to bridge it!

These are students who could not get a top-line education in mainstream schools due to personal problems. Therefore, crying about their technical incompetence, or other issues is a pointless exercise. The real problems lie in the massive infrastructural bottlenecks that are facing India – lack of good teachers, lack of good pay for teaching staff, lack of good books in the Vernacular, lack of money for education in better facilities etc. Does this mean that they are to be left out always? Further, does this also mean that all of these are unemployable? They have passed the college exams, and are equipped with the basics. Despite this, the general claim is that 90% of such people are unemployable at any role?

That is why I say get into the specifics - it is only then that you will realise that what you are asking for is first of all impossible in the current set of circumstances, and second, that somewhere along the line you yourself are responsible. It will also lay bare prejudices and misapprehensions - which do exist in any corporate. It will also force you to identify key mission critical areas - because now you can be pinned down to your statements and held responsible - since now you are giving a pinpointed, factual answer supported by facts. And on that, you can be challenged! This will also serve to identify specific shortcomings in students, which can be communicated to colleges.

 It does not require much time to give proper feedback or engage with colleges - but no one does it. This is limited to the IITs and IIMs. Why cant it be taken to other colleges from where campus hiring takes place - and for all domains like Telecom, FMCG etc - as well as for all functions - Sales, Finance etc; AND for all levels - Sales Trainee, Management Trainee, Sales Officer Trainee, Trainees in other domains etc? The current focus is only on IITs, IIMs and other top tier places. There are others towns and cities, and other colleges – which go largely ignored; the manpower from them is not considered worthy of such mundane activities as feedback ad industry-college linkage!.

These problems are not going to go away for decades at least; in the meantime corporates will require manpower. So look internally; identify and re-train your own manpower to deal with these people. Create internal systems that can tackle the shortcomings/ As it is, we dont spend a dime on serious training, Simple fact, whether or not anyone likes it. As I read on Quora once - you can either train and run the risk of ,manpower leaving, which will give you at least some managers who are more capable - or dont train, and run the risk of unskilled managers staying with you.

You wont get the same skill levels everywhere; and the modern manager is simply not emotionally mature enough to handle people from such - aah - "skill gaps"! Because of this, there is a tendency to judge everyone in the same mould, rather than trying to judge the ability to perform after sufficient hand-holding and training. But, for that, you require time, patience, tolerance for other world-views, ability to converse in local tongues, robust internal systems to check abuse and targeting etc. This requires real management – which is diametrically opposite to what most managers do - which is just scream at subordinates, without adding any real value,. Start asking your own people to add some real value - and see this perceived skill gap lessen!

This will also generate a massive goodwill for organizations that do these activities; further, this will strengthen the Industry – College linkages, as well as create a pool of trained manpower. Not only that our nation will also greatly benefit by such an effort.  You can also look at it as a corporate social responsibility initiative – and this one initiative that  will give long term tangible and certain benefits. All it requires is a change in approach; this does not require much expense. The benefits more than compensate the effort required – and this is eminently doable as well. But it does require a very different approach, as well as a different mindset…