Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Till debt do us part

While the oil mafia tried to entice him with bribes to turn a blind eye on fuel aduletaration, murderd IOC sales manager S Manjunath refused to waver in the line of duty, despite his own financial constraints.

So reads the poignant story in today's Indian Express.

Details printed by the paper reveal that of his modest monthly salary of Rs 25,000, Manjunath was paying Rs 10,100 as EMIs towards two education loans (of Rs 3.5 lakhs) taken to finance his studies at IIM Lucknow. In addition, 3 months ago, he had availed of a car loan from his employer (EMI: Rs 1300)

It feels odd and a little sacrilegous to read about the private details of a deceased person's life. But in this case, the details are being published to make a point - that Manjunath could easily have taken the bribes offered and made his life easier.

He had apparently defaulted on the previous month's EMI for the PNB loan, prompting his father to write a stern letter to the son. A letter the son did not live to read...

Feeling Loansome?
In the last 5 years, education loans loans have become a way of life. Fees at professional schools - whether medical, engineering or management - have shot up. If and when students complain, they are offered a quick and ready solution: "take a loan".

And yes, getting a loan is not difficult. Loans upto Rs 4 lakhs don't even require margin. But repaying the loan is not all that easy. The interest rates charged by banks like SBI and Bank of Baroda is 10.5%.

This is linked to the BPLR (Bank Prime Lending Rate). Compared to housing loans which are available at 8-8.5%, education loans are pricier. But here's the surprise -BOB will even give you a car loan at 2% below the prime rate (ie at 8.5%).

I am not a banking expert so I can only conjecture that educational loans (below Rs 4 lakhs) are unsecured and hence the 2% additional interest rate charged is to cover the risk of default. In case of both cars and houses, the bank can attach the asset in case the borrower fails to repay.

Student loans have long been a millstone around the neck of college goers in the US. Interest rates (linked to their BPLR) are lower than in India, but the sheer number of people who take loans (practically every college-goer!) means the overall student loan market is huge.

The happy news for them however is that interest rates on federal student loans dropped to an all-time low - at 4.06% in July 2005.

This is a political decision. "The Bush administration is committed to helping students and their families finance college and career training," declared Secretary of Education Rod Paige while announcing the rate cut.

Student loan-seekers are not yet a big enough interest group in India but in years to come they will be. Future PMs, please take note!

Soon enough there may be a market for loan consolidators as well.

Think before you...
The point is 'how to finance your studies' is the easy part. But before joining a particular institute, make sure you have an idea of the kind of salary you will earn on passing out. Most banks offer a 6 month grace period after which EMIs begin.

The average salary from the average b school is about Rs 15-20,000 p.m. Ditto for engineers getting into IT jobs. Can you afford to live in Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore on Rs 10,000 a month (rent, transport, food, bijli et al) and repay Rs 10,000 as EMI?

Of course, you'll eventually earn more but not right away! A cousin who graduated from ICFAI Business School and got a 'decent' job found the going tough. The first 6 months, she was happy enough. Then the EMI payments started and suddenly every small indulgence became a major issue.

Inevitably, she ended up defaulting on the EMI. And then hopping jobs twice, lured by a couple of thousand more. I'm not saying this would happen to everyone - but it's a very real danger!

But the worst off would be medical students. Given that they earn paltry sums until they complete their MDs, it makes sense to take a loan only if your dad owns a nursing home or is willing to shoulder your EMI burden for several years to come!

Loans for studies abroad (which require collateral, and attract higher interest rates) are another case in point. You can take a loan - even upto Rs 50 lakhs. But will you be able to earn in dollars or pounds after finishing the degree - at least to recover your tuition costs?

If not, are your parents wealthy enough to start forking out the rather large EMIs that will follow??

So be a 'loan ranger' but make doubly sure the country you choose to study in has work permit possibilities. And that the institute you join has genuine campus placements. In case of bschools, a posting on www.pagalguy.com should get you an honest answer.

And even then, be prepared for some amount of struggle in the initial years. The best education adds long-term value - and you have to be willing to pay the price.

The problem is, not all degrees, diplomas and quasi-degrees/ diplomas are really a value-add. But we live in a culture where people think an 'additional qualification' is definitely an asset. At least it looks good on paper...

Unfortuntely, sometimes it's better to keep that kaagaaz kora. Save on those EMIs. And write your own destiny.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Want to be a 'creative commando'?

This is a recruitment ad published today in DNA.. At first glance, it appears to be an ad for the armed forces.

But then the headline says join the team of "creative commandoes" at GAIL and unleash your creative prowess.

GAIL - as in "Gas Authority of India"? GAIL and creative prowess?? The company is seeking executive trainees in the field of corporate communications with a 2 year full-time diploma in Mass Comm/ Advertising or PR.

The recruitment ad takes up 70% of the page and the headline tries to convince the prospective candidate it's a really 'creative job'. But, the entire copy reads like a typical old-school government job advertisement.

The payscale, age limit, company benefits - OK, those are relevant information. But under "how to apply" there's a long list of 11 points including please send "mailing address with pin code; tel nos with STD codes".

It's a step-by-step guide on how to write a resume! Considering the profile of candidates they're recruiting, is that really necessary?

There is no job description whatsoever. Or indication of how the candidate, if selected, will be allowed to unleash their 'creative prowess'. Unless you count the 'creative commando' photo, which I would not count as a good example of creativity!

What's more, a 9 pt caption notes that the people posing in the pic are 'the creative team at GAIL led by DGM (Corporate Communications). Why the mention of DGM? Because, it's a government organisation after all. A bit of fancy dress and war paint doesn't change that...

I wonder how effective this ad will be. And why companies go to such lengths to produce 'cool sounding' recruitment advertising. A job is a serious matter. Tell me what the job is. Not just how much fun it's going to be.

And never be creative for the sake of being creative, especially if it's for a 'creative' position.

Friday, November 25, 2005

In 'letter' and spirit

I picked up the Indian Express this morning and scanned it for a follow-up on Manjunathan's death - a story which was front paged yesterday. Because I know Express usually does follow-ups.

What was I expecting? Maybe a statement from Mani Shankar Aiyar. What IOC is planning to do to fix the adulteration problem, while ensuring staff safety. Or maybe just what is expected to happen to those arrested for the murder.

And sure enough, there was a huge centrespread piece titled "Where do we see such courage". The intro copy reads: We have received an outpouring of letters from readers in India and overseas, many of them former classmates of the slain Manjunathan.

"Excellent!" I thought and started reading. The very first name? My own! Um, only problem is I never sent a letter to Indian Express. What they printed was the first few lines and last few lines from this post on my blog.

A few other 'letters' following mine were excerpts from comments on that post.

Strange! Amit Varma thought so too and wrote about it here before I could get around to it.

Wheel turns full circle
Express broke Satyendra Dubey story - and it generated a tremendous outpouring of response.

This time it was different. I learnt of the Manjunathan story through Gaurav, who was his junior at IIM-L. First through an email, and then through his blog.

Then the story circulated in IIM e groups, mailing lists and more people blogged about it. Almost every blogger said "why isn't it being covered by the mainstream media".

Many of them emailed friends or associates or simply the editors of newspapers/ TV channels saying "This is shocking - please cover it!"

And 2 days later, it was covered in The Telegraph (front page) and the TOI (inside page). That night the story ran prominently on NDTV. On Thursday Express frontpaged it as well.

The wheel turned full circle because when we all first heard of the incident, we wanted 'confirmation'. One blogger found a small story in Express Newsline's Lucknow edition confirming the murder.

But murders - in UP or elsewhere - are not uncommon. The issue may never have received so much national media coverage, had it not been discussed so fervently via email, and blogged about.

I say "may" - because I do not know. I think it would have gone mainstream, but taken far longer to do so.

Also, the blogs written by Manjunathan's friends and batchmates painted a vivid picture of a sincere and well-loved individual. The blogs made him more than a statistic, they made him a compelling human interest story.

But at the end of the day, unless a blog post is sent as a letter to the editor, it is incorrect to label it as such. And that is the issue here.

Phir kya hua
This afternoon I got a call from the Express admitting that publishing part of my blog post as a 'letter' was a mistake.

And no, you can't see the online page which carried the 'letters' because it was removed sometime this afernoon and replaced with alternate content.

I have asked for a written apology and hope to get it - soon.

The Manjunathan episode illustrates the importance of bloggers and MSM collaborating - not competing with each other. And this can happen only when we both treat each other respectfully.

Of course, I am part-blogger, part-MSM... but that, I shall ponder on some other day.

Thou shalt not forget...
This is a blog set up by Manjunathan's friends from SJCE, Mysore. You can write condolences here, as well as help keep his memory alive.

Update: On Saturday, 26th Nov Express published a clarification, Amit writes about it here.

The post was to be published on rediff.com as a column. And that it was, on Monday, Nov 28.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Dumb and dumber

"Remember", the instructor said to the class,"a 35 year old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10 year old Indian's brain.... Americans are dumb, just accept it. "

- pg 53, One Night in a Call Centre

Yeah right. Much as I would like to revel in the idea of Indians being mentally superior, tuning into Go 92.5 FM's morning show over the last week has brought home this sobering reality.

We Indians are right up there when it comes to "dumb". How else would you explain the pathetic performance of listener after listener in Go's '30 ka 30' contest (30 foreign holidays to be won in 30 days!)

The questions are absolutely junta-level and yet, contestants struggle and squirm.

Q: Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of which US state?
Ans: Minnesota?

Q: In which country is carmaker Hyundai based?
Ans: Japan?

Q: Complete the book title: Zen and the Art of _______ Maintenance
Ans: Could you repeat the question, please?

Competition is stiff. There have been instances where answering just 1 out of 4 such questions wins you that free trip. Sometimes both people get that 1 answer right and there is a 'tie-breaker'.

RJ Taraana herself got exasperated and had to clarify: It's luck, pure luck, who gets selected. So there. Don't blame us - we don't have a rigorous screening procedure. Boo hoo hoo to that!

Now you might argue 'low IQ' and 'poor GK' are two different things. Perhaps.

But Go 92.5 is aimed at people whom advertisers refer to as SEC (Socio-Economic Classification) A/ A1 category of listeners. The padha-likha class.

Lagta hai sab class mein chain ki neend so rahe the... !

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

NDTV on Manjunathan

Tonight's 10.30 pm bulletin had an excellent story on what NDTV refers to as the "IIM Murder Case".

The channel visited the petrol pump in the interiors of UP where the killing took place. It even got a witness to declare - on camera - the names of the two people who shot Manjunathan. One of them was the petrol pump owner's son, Monu Mittal, as reported earlier.

So for once, bloggers should have no complaints with the "MSM"!

Ironically, the top story - preceding this one - was also about a man dying simply for doing his job. M R Kutty, 36, was a driver working for the Border Road Organisation (BRO) which is building roads in Afghanistan.

The Taliban ain't too pleased about roads reaching their part of the world - so what do they do? Abduct Kutty. The demand: "BRO, return to India, or else". Kutty learnt the cruel meaning of 'or else'.

His decapitated body was found "dumped by the roadside in Delaram, a district in southern Afghanistan's Nimroze Province".

Dangers ahead
There are apparently 290 employees of BRO still in Afghanistan - and work on the Zaranj-Delaram road project must continue...

Should they stick to their jobs or petition the government to be brought home? What would you advise if someone you loved was in such a dilemma?

We all know the answer...

And Manjunathan's father was on his son's case too. "I often pleaded with him that he should give up this job in that part of north India where the border with Nepal and the forest terrain made mafia operation conducive," Shakumugan told The Telegraph.

"But he would not listen," he sobbed, "and he would say he loved Lucknow which gave him his management degree, and that he was ready to give his life for Indian Oil..."

And he did.

Update: Indian Express has front-paged the news this morning. Read the report here.

Manjunathan - Soldier of Conscience

There are people who live for their jobs. And a few, very few who die for them. In the latter category you generally think: soldier. Dying to protect the Motherland. Yes, we have plenty of those, making the 'ultimate sacrifice' to protect our borders.

But Manjunathan was no soldier, he was a sales officer with Indian Oil Corporation. He did not join this company pre-warned about any mortal danger. And yet, for merely doing his job, he paid with his life.

The 27 year old IIM Lucknow graduate was murdered in UP on Nov 20. According to the first report on the matter, which appeared in the Lucknow edition of the Indian Express, Nathan had sealed Mittal Automobile Petrol Pump at Gola, about 50 km away from Lakhimpur district for adulteration of petrol.

He had also recommended cancellation of the petrol pump’s licence, said an IOC officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Consequences
Gaurav Sabnis was Manju's junior at IIM L and this is what he writes in his blog tribute: "Manju was murdered for doing his job honestly. Considering the circumstances, this case is no different from that of Satyendra Dubey".

Except this news has not yet stirred the nation's conscience. It has appeared on page 12 of today's TOI, Mumbai edition. And was reported on the CNBC ticker last night. Ironically, the same ticker reported that Captain Satish Sharma has been let off by the CBI in the petrol pump allotment scam.

Were the cases againat Sharma dropped for lack of evidence? Um, not exactly. PTI reports: After hearing two days of arguments, Special Judge Pratibha Rani accepted the closure report filed by the agency which said it was willing to wind up the cases against Sharma as the Home Ministry refused sanction for his prosecution.

The order came even as a PIL was pending in the Supreme Court against the Centre's refusal to grant sanction of prosecution on which the apex court had issued notices to Sharma, CBI and the Union Government.

The colour of money is black. So is petrol...Yahaan koi dudh ka dhula hua nahin hai. More recently, the NDA government was rocked by a similar petrol pump allotment scam.

Politicians come and go, but the Oil PSUs - the so called 'navratnas' - remain under the changul of the netas. I mean yes, they do have professional management but these professional managers - like IAS officers - are expected to function within certain boundaries.

Cross the line and well, you can see what happened to Manjunathan.

Of course, you might argue, Manju was not knocked off by the government. But those who perpetrated the crime did so to protect their 'basic right' to adulterate petrol. Their line of thought: Bhai sab karte hain... Itne saalon se kisi ne roka nahi - yeh launda kahaan se aa gaya?

The conversation from Gaurav's last meeting with Manju, a year and a half ago: We asked him how it felt to work in a PSU like IOCL. ... He shrugged. He said work was OK and all, but he felt that the business would improve a lot more if there was transparency. Apparently, part of his job was to inspect samples from petrol pumps, and report back to the company.

Well, adulteration was rampant and here is why: Manju said the reason why this adulteration happened so brazenly was that the dealers knew that no matter what happens, their licenses couldn't be cancelled. If everyone does it, how many pumps will the company shut down?

He said he usually tried to cajole, convince and scold the dealers to not indulge in such dishonesty. He said some fell in line, but most of them usually got back to the same old adulteration business. In fact Manju said, some of the petrol pump owners are downright scary.

But even he could not have imagined such an outcome. I mean, people like you and me don't consider violence as a means of settling a dispute. In UP and Bihar, it must be common enough for someone to believe he could kill an IOC officer and get away with it.

It was, in fact, pure luck that the vehicle in which the murderers were transporting the body was intercepted by the police. They had broken the signal and were speeding. Else who knows in which river or ravine the body would have ended up? And no one would be the wiser.

Aakhir kyun?

The cynical have observed that 'discretion is the better part of valour' and that Manju had no business trying to 'change the world' in the first place. Again, I would like to point out that Manjunathan did not decide to be an activist or crusader. He was merely doing his job.

As friend and classmate Sharad notes : "He received some threats from the Petrol pump owner and bribe offers too, but he refused to change his assessment".

Ho sakta hai soon enough Manju himself would have thrown up his hands and say "I quit!". I'm sure there would be no dearth of jobs - Reliance, for example would have quickly snapped him up.

The fact is, Manjunathan stuck on at IOC for 2.5 years after graduating from IIML. Despite his integrity being constantly tested. Despite being posted in UP. And that says something about the "IIM stereotype" that exists in most people's heads.

As another of his friends wrote : Manju was known to the entire batch as an awesome singer (especially for a song he used to sing with Badri aka Bhoja called Rama ho... ), with a natural feel for music and could light up your day by his presence.

That light has been snuffed. That voice has been silenced. But what he stood for - and stood upto - that, I hope will live on.

Widespread media coverage - yes of course! Let's work for that, lobby for it. But beyond the moment, I would like to see a lasting impact. For example, a case which is actually taught at b schools.

Because we all speak of 'ethics' in business. But it's a rare and extraordinary person who makes the 'ultimate sacrifice'. A sacrifice that - like that of our soldiers on a border we can't get a fix on after 58 years - simply might go in vain.

Monday, November 21, 2005

It's not about sex

"If we are accepting pre-marital sex, we are making youths cannibals"

"It should stopped, no debate required"

"Yesh vaishyavati hai... videsh se layi gayi gandagi hai. "

These are just a few of the comments SMSed by viewers which scrolled on the NDTV India ticker during a heated debate on Pre Marital Sex.

A topic that is suddenly all the more topical with Khushboo's views being attacked. And poor Sania Mirza getting dragged into the controversy.

Approximately 40% of NDTV India's viewers appeared violently opposed to the very idea of pre-marital sex, while 60% opined it was an individual choice. Pooja Bhatt, summing up "pro" view, said: "Main apne vichaar aap par nahin thop rahi hoon - toh aap apne vivhaar mujh par kyun thopna chahte hain."

Let me be free to hold my views - you are free to hold yours. And herein lies the crux of the issue.

It's not about sex, really. And it's not a cut and dried Indian sanskriti vs Western culture kind of debate either. We are a society in transition. People - and young people in particular - are redefining their personal value systems and the Old Order is feeling threatened.

A decade ago, the 'hip' young Indian was like a Michael Jackson, desperately trying to be White. But we've evolved since then and realised aping the West is uncool.

Someone once coined the term 'coconut' to describe young people of 'Asian' descent in the UK. Meaning they were Brown from the Outside but White from the Inside.

A similar generation of 'coconuts' now exists in India. These are young people who will embrace Indian food, Indian clothes, Indian music. The external and interesting paraphernalia of our culture are gladly accepted.

However the "white on the inside" bit is about being increasingly individualistic. About deciding what is wrong or right for oneself. So in the case of pre-marital sex what most 'coconuts' believe is not that it is inherently right or wrong, but that it is for each person to decide.

On the other hand you have the White from the Outside but Brown from the Inside brigade. Let's call them 'cappucinos'. On the surface they have adopted certain 'Western' things - they will happily wear jeans, not dhotis and wolf down pizzas and burgers.

But beneath the layer of white foamy froth, they are deeply "brown".

In such a value system, the writ of Society or 'samaaj' prevails over an individual choices and desires. And it's not just about pre-marital sex. It's also about who you should marry (ideally someone from your own caste), when you should marry (preferably around 25, definitely by 30!), having children ("arre, shaadi ko do saal ho gaye - koi issue nahin hai?) and so on and so forth.

Whose life is it anyways
The whole debate about pre-marital sex, for example, does not take into account the idea that some people may not want to marry. Or maybe they do but only if they meet the 'right' person and not because they are past their 'sell by' date.

Must such a person promise to remain celibate all their life? "Underage" sex and pre-marital sex are thus not one and the same thing.

And clearly, many of the young people who - in theory - support pre-marital sex aren't necessarily doing it 'without thinking'. At least, they're waiting for the right time, place and person.

According to the Durex Sex Survey 2005 Indians lost their virginity at an average age of 19.8 years as compared to 17.3 years (the average age when people had sex for the first time worldwide).

Another pertinent question in the Indian context may be how many people choose to remain virgins until they marry. These could include both the 'coconuts' and the 'cappucinos'. But the two may make their choices for different reasons.

Coconuts may not have sex before marriage but reserve the right to do, should they meet someone special. The other brigade will, on principle, not have anything to do with 'sex before marriage'.

Sex Surveys
All three major news weeklies (India Today, Outlook and The Week) have annual sex surveys. So do the likes of Durex.

A few points to note - the Durex survey was apparently done through the durex.com website which means it was not a random sample representative of the general population

Then there's the the touching belief that people will answer questions about their sex life correctly. I have my doubts, although the stats regarding India are conservative enough to sound 'real', unlike the surveys by Indian magazines!

Globally, people have had an average number of nine sexual partners. The Turks have had more partners than any other country (14.5), Indians have had the fewest sexual partners (3)

But I also wonder what 'losing one's virginity' means to Indians. Would it necessarily mean going all the way?

I ask this because the term 'proposal' has its own strange connotation. A college student saying "He proposed me" is not about getting married. It's agreeing to be someone's steady gf/ bf and go to the movies!

Similarly, there would be plenty of young people who will kiss and cuddle but don't 'go all the way'. In fact the Brown on the Inside brigade will often do everthing "but that" and justify to themselves that "I didn't actually do it".

Getting back to the original issues raised by Khushboo. It's not about advocating what's right or wrong but just acknowledging that people do have sex before marriage - even in India. So if you have made that decision, be safe about it. Better safe, than sorry!

P.S. Please, no Khushboo style protests to this post! On my part, I won't be making any Sania style retractions.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

And, the "no 1 CAT coaching class is..."

Drumroll, taaliyan, bahut bahut badhaiiyaan. Magar ek chhota sa problem hai. I no longer know who the "no 1" is. Or, what no 1 is anyways!

Is No 1 defined as:
a) The institute with maximum number of students enrolled?
b) The institute with maximum number of students who make it to IIMs?

Till yesterday, I was pretty sure IMS had the maximum number of students. IMS is the original pioneer in MBA entrance coaching and has continued to flourish despite many new players entering the scene. IMS claims to have 35,000 students enrolled for its CAT coaching this year.

Number 2 in terms of student enrolment I would think is Career Launcher. They too claim to have 35,000 students. I think it's closer to 30,000, but can't say for sure. My perception is, CL is no 2.

Which is why I was a bit surprised to learn from CNBC TV 18's 'Countdown to CAT' show - where T.I.M.E. experts were imparting fundas - that T.I.M.E. uses the slogan "no 1 CAT coaching institute".

Its website states that in "the last one year, about 45,000 students have gone through the portals of T.I.M.E. at various locations in the country and have benefited from our courses".

True? I know T.I.M.E. is popular down South, and that it is relatively cheaper than IMS and CL, which could mean big numbers. But I cannot provide an authoritative answer. Fact is, all CAT coaching institutes manipulate their numbers to some extent.

After the list of successful candidates is declared, X MBA institute will claim they had 800 successful students and Y institute will claim 900. The total of all institutes combined far exceed the number of IIM seats!

The truth is, students do enrol for 2 day GD/PI workshops or SIMCATS/ Mock CAT conducted by various institutes even while they have actually studied the material/ attended classes by another one.

As a successful A list B schooler recommended to JAM readers trying to pick the 'best course' :

To get the best of everything I would recommend:
Mock CAT & Correspondence - Career Launcher
GD/PI coaching - Take the TIME course
The 2-day IMS Achiever’s Workshop

So, we'll it pass. IMS ho, CL ho, TIME ho, jo bhi ho, fact is no matter no one can "assure success, everytime"

As I wrote in a column on rediff.com after CAT 2004, titled
"Where there's a coaching class, there's Hope!"

A huge industry -- mostly headed and fuelled by IIM alumni -- has convinced lakhs of students that if they practise long enough and hard enough, they stand a chance of making it. It is a myth that classes actively propagate and one that students choose to believe.

I have nothing against coaching (yes, I did take up a correspondence course and gleefuly passed on the material to two siblings who also cleared CAT :))

But the point is, God helps only those who help themselves. And so it is with coaching.

Practising shortcuts and solving mock papers can give those with the basic ability an added edge. But there is no way it can phenomenally improve your basic verbal, quantitative and reasoning skills.

Qualities which, frankly, are lacking in a large number of CAT aspirants.

The number of e-mails I receive, with incredibly poor English, asking for advice on 'how to make it to IIMs' would be amusing, if it weren't so sad. A couple of 100 percent real (unedited) samples:

"I am engineering student , what is the next step to select for my further studies.Is it better to continue my engineering studie s or i go to business studies which is the beter one"


Is there any real hope for such aspirants?

I don't doubt these individuals have some unique passion or potential. But clearing the CAT exam is clearly not one of them.

The thing is, 90 percent of the folks who clear CAT would have done so with or without coaching. Because they possess the kind of IQ CAT tests. So why do they enrol in coaching?

The coaching craze operates on the 'tipping point' principle. Once it has attracted a large enough mass of people (of which a reasonably impressive number are successful), it becomes the 'done' thing.

Cosmetics is the business of selling 'hope in a jar'. Coaching is pretty much the same thing, except in an overcrowded little classroom.

And it's a big business! Bennett Coleman & co has just picked up a 9.57% stake in MBA coaching institute Career Forum, valuing the company at Rs 94 crores (!!). And CF is one of the chhotu ones.

All the best for CAT. But never forget - there is life beyond it as well!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Neal n Nikki

Nikki Bakshi
Sweet n sexy
Full on rocking
Hot n happening

The evolved junta might go ugh! but brace yourself. This is the tune which will be ruling the airwaves in the coming weeks. It's a Yashraj film and you know how hard their Promo Machine works.

Yup, those are the rather cheesy lyrics from the catchy title track of their next release - 'Neal n Nikki'. A film, which, like Salaam Namaste seeks to redefine what being 'young and Indian' is all about. But from a continent away.

So while Salaam Namaste was set in Australia, this one's got Canada as the backdrop. And judging from the promo CD sent to JAM magazine by Yashraj, it's DDLJ in reverse.

Synopsis: Neal (Uday Chopra) gives into his parents’ wishes of marrying a girl called Sweetie from Bhatinda, but has just one pre condition to getting married. He wants to live it up one last time and wants to go to Vancouver on a 21 day bachelor vacation.

So the poor dear is let off for one last, long roll in the hay...

Neal gets lucky on his first day out in Vancouver and is asked out by a hot super model. A silly, spunky Indian girl screws up the date. The girl? Nikki Bakshi (Tanisha Mukerjee)!! But this is only the first of many chance encounters, where Nikki – mostly by accident – ensures that Neal never, ever gets lucky!!

Whatever Neal does, Nikki un does. Call it luck, call it fate, call it anything. Bit by bit, Neal’s bachelor vacation starts falling apart – whether he is going skinny dipping with a girl, or enjoying a romp in the back seat of a car. Nikki turns up everywhere to spoil things for poor, poor Neal!!

So far, so good. Now comes the really 'cool and modern' bit.

A truce is called between the two, when Nikki decides to help Neal get some serious action. She tells him she can get him laid and takes him to “babe heaven” – Whistler!!

Will it work?
Most likely, yes. Neal is living out every Young Brown Male's fantasy. Getting 'lucky' with a hot white chick on the day he arrives in Vancouver, for example. It's what every nerd who steps out of the airport is secretly hoping!

As for Nikki, she represents the "I can be naughty, but I'm basically nice" face of the young Indian woman.

I know, the film's tag line is "Nice is out, naughty is in" but I'm pretty sure they won't be showing Nikki "going skinny dipping with a boy, or enjoying a romp in the back seat of a car". Trust me on that.

The special feature of the Yashraj 'trendy' films factory is somehow, they get the styling just right. And I don't mean just the clothes. They do push the envelope, but not so much that it tears.

I mean in the end of Salaam Namaste, Preity isn't just left holding a baby she conceived while in a live-in relationship. The couple does marry.

Secondly, Yashraj is definitely formula but they always add some interesting touches. In 'Salaam Namaste' for example, the Jaaved Jaffrey character was quite a riot. Like 'Kaantaben' was, in Kal ho na ho.

Thirdly, Aditya Chopra is definitely the Invisible Hand orchestrating it all. Arjun Sablok is credited with story, screenplay and direction. Which is bad news - given his earlier, excruciating 'Na tum jaano na hum'!

But, if Yashraj has decided to film it, you can be sure the kinks and chinks have been ironed out. The same happened with Kunal Kohli, after all. After a disastrous Mujhse Dosti Karoge he managed a Hum Tum.

I thought the film was a poor rip-off of When Harry met Sally but most of India went gaga over it! Of course, Saif as leading man (and Rani to an extent) also added charm to Hum Tum.

Will two relatively lightweight stars like Uday Chopra and Tanisha manage to work the same magic? Well, at least Uday has worked hard on his 'look'. Pehle se accha lag raha hai. Tanisha has lost oodles of weight (a little too much I think!) but seems to suit the role.

But hey, one more chi-chi youth film with Preity/ Rani/ Saif in the lead would have been hard to swallow. It's been-there-done-that, we're-bored-what-next.

Having lesser known stars can be a blessing in disguise. The producers simply have to pay more attention to the story and dialogue.

They know that if the film's an entertainer, the word-of-mouth from the first weekend crowd will bring in enough audiences in the days to follow!

Bollywood goes corporate
Yashraj has managed to 'scale up' and corporatise. Cranking out more and more content for an entertainment-hungry India.

And when one has to churn out 2-3 'products' a year, originality is what takes a hit. The designer youth films of the Chopras are invariably 'inspired' by phoren ones.

Of course, being far smarter than the Bhatts, Yashraj never copies scene by scene.

Wonder Neal n Nikki ka idea kahaan se uthaya hai. With the film getting released next month, we'll know soon enough!

The caveat
For all its fabulous promos, box office success and even awards, a Yashraj film is never what I would call a 'classic'. That's because it is based on formula - although one that's been tweaked a bit and packaged beautifully.

I don't see Yashraj ever making a true cult film like Dil Chahta Hai. A film which was made with a completely different mindset.

Trouble is, even Farhan Akhtar can't make another Dil Chahta Hai (and shouldn't be expected to either!). We need both kinds of filmmakers. And then some!

For now, let's just hope Neal n Nikki is at least half as "Funny, frothy, fantastic!!" as Yashraj promos describe it!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Impressions of Indore

Chhote chhote sheheron se, khali bore dopaharon se, Bunty aur Babli jhola utha ke chale...

What is it that defines a 'chhota sheher'? By population, Indore city is a large town of 1.8 million residents - double the size of Chandigarh.

And yet, Chandigarh is not a city you associate with being a 'small town'. It's almost 'metro' in its attitude and way of life. Indore, on the other hand, is still a chhota sheher at heart.

I would define a chhota sheher as one where the residents are still very worried about log kya kahenge. Many choices an individual makes are within certain 'acceptable' boundaries. Boundaries set by the elders and some amorphous being known as 'society'.

One important point to note here is the large population of banias in Indore - traders and businessmen from the Jain, Maheshwari and Agrawal community. That partly explains why Indore is far more 'traditional' than Chandigarh!

Punjabis are far more freewheeling and freespending, while banias tend to be quite attached to prathas- or social conventions.

Which is why my cousin's mother-in-law - a sweet old lady - found me rather vexing. No sari, bangles, no sindoor, no toerings... "Kam se kam bindi to pehen ni chahiye", she murmured, after silently observing my kurta-and-jeans-clad frame for two days.

Kam se kam logon ko pataa to chale you are a 'decent married woman' is what she meant. But was too polite to declare, in so many words.

As they say - in Indore, do as the Indoreans do. Which is why a hoarding for Dena Bank featuring Juhi Chawla - without any bindi in Mumbai - has a prominent red dot painted on - in Indore!

Ek alag soch
'Progress' is a strange creature. Mother-in-law does not mind my cousin taking guitar lessons or choosing to have only one child (a daughter). But, she insists that bahu wear only saris. Bahu would much prefer to switch to salwar-kameez - but accepts silently.

Meanwhile, Indore is on the radar of all consumer marketers. But does junta here think and behave like Mumbai or Delhi? Not yet.

Both Dominos and Pizza Hut set up shop here... and subsequently shut down. "Sau rupaye ka pizza kaun lega?" reasons Lucky, a young nephew studying 'MFA' at the local Vaishnav university.

Ditto with the Lee-Levis variety of outlets which he says, hardly any students patronise. The unbranded options give them more bang for the buck and offer acceptable quality/ variety.

That ain't good news for all the malls and multiplexes which will soon throw open their doors in Indore. But perhaps housed in a mall - with a concentrated 'feel-good' ambience - the same brands may have better luck. And hopefully, sales.

As of now, Lucky is quite kicked with the local 'Vishal Megamart' (a chain which offers 'Fashion Street' kind of clothing in a/c environs). For now, 'value' scores over 'snob value'. But values can, and do, change over time.

What is 'value' anyways?
Consumers are complex creatures. That's evident from the consumerism practiced at this cousin's home.

A battered and seldom-used semi-automatic washing machine stands in one corner. The television is an ancient model of BPL and there's no cable connection. "Bachchon ki padhaai affect ho jayegi", is one reason. 350 bucks a month is too much to shell out - is the other.

However, the same household has a computer, with a broadband internet connection. Why? "Bachchon ki padhaai ke liye zaroori hai". Even though they aren't planning to take up 'hi-fi' careers, an investment in a computer is seen as 'worth it'.

And now, jijaji wants to buy a laptop. "Kaun sa brand achcha rahega?" he asks. I wonder why he needs one. The answer is surprising but simple: dhande ke liye.

You see, jijaji is an 'investment advisor' and although he has a loyal client base, there's a whole lot of competition now from new players. The likes of Citibank, HDFC Bank and HSBC have set up shop and their army of young, locally recruited MBAs is on the prowl.

These MBAs wear suits and ties and make jazzy presentations on laptops. "Is liye mujhe bhi laptop lena padega," he grins. "Impression jamaane ke liye".

What the Citis and HDFCs can't do is offer the 'personalised' service many clients require. For example, there are ladies who will specifically ask jijaji to come to their homes after their husbands have left for work - they wish to make certain 'private investments'.

Yup, these housewives want to make FDs or post-office savings - of money received from the maaika, or quietly salted away from the household budget. Like many other clients, these women use our address to receive their official correspondence.

"Hamare ghar mein roz ke itne courier aate hain ki sab delivery waalon se acchi khaasi jaan pehchaan ho gayi hai," says my cousin dryly. The perils of 'customer relationship management'!

The future
And yet, the picture I have painted so far does not tell the complete story. Although still small and not very visible, a 'new' Indore is coming up.

The new Indore consists of nuclear families, multi storeyed apartments, women clad in Babli kurtas and an emerging professional class.

This Indore houses a 'Bombay hospital' and an 'IIM'. Of course, IIM is only technically part of Indore - physically it's 16 kms outside of it and mentally, a completely different world.

But there are local MBA schools like 'Prestige'and 'IMS' which, by Indore standards, are decent. The students may not be CAT-level but speak fairly good English and don't look all that different from college kids in Delhi or Mumbai. They also have more 'freedom'.

Lucky explains the difference thus: "On Valentine's Day, Prestige had an 'official program' where students even auctioned roses...At our college (Vaishnav) when a group of boys and girls went to the local ice cream parlour a professor jumped onto a scooter, located us and dragged us back to the campus".

That's not to say Lucky is bechaara. He has plenty of friends who are girls - but no girlfriend. And, that's a conscious choice. Shaadi to arranged hi karni hai, he reasons. So, bekaar ke lafdon mein kyun padna?

It remains to be seen how long young people like Lucky - who still form the majority - continue to think this way. Until then, Indore's 'small town' status will remain safe. And so will the sale of bindis!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

It's broke, but why fix it?

The state of a taxicab can describe the state of a nation. Take Mumbai . The average taxi is a musty, dusty, crusty old vehicle. The below average ones actually appear to be held together by Scotch tape.

Some of the door handles will fall off if you try to use them, while others refuse to work at all. The same holds for windows as well.

Andar ka haal bhi kuch behaal hi hai. I mean it's better than your local train but if you view taxis as an alternative to using your own car then hell! The hygiene and comfort levels just don't match up.

However, the taxi does manage to get you from point A to point B. In doing so, the driver will dart in and out of traffic, without a care for 'rules'. But that's India for you - things get done despite the general chaos.

And although the taxi itself may be old and decrepit, the driver is usually warm and friendly. Just like India, as a country.

Yahaan sab kuch theek to nahin chalta magar as most foreigners will tell you at the end of a visit "the people are wonderful."

Across the world
To extend the theory, let's take the Tokyo cabbie - hyperefficient, but completely impersonal and exorbitantly priced. Sounds like Japan to me. The drivers actually wear gloves ...

The Singapore cabbie is polite, hard-working and operates a very clean and efficient service. As the urban legend goes, they also act as informal spies for the government - so watch what you say in the back seat! So Singapore.

The Kuala Lumpur taxi is a fine car but the cabbie himself is rude and surly and may not take you where you wish to go. Just like Malaysia itself - a fine showpiece of a country from the outside. Scratch below the surface and you see the social fabric is certainly not made of lycra.

Bangkok taxis are cheap, cheerful and yet - Toyotas! Which kind of encapsulates Thailand - First World goods and services at third world prices.

London's traditional 'black cabs' are old and stately looking although comfortable and modern on the inside. The London taxi is a 'symbol' of a kinder, gentler era - just like the symbolic presence of a Royal Family within a democracy. How very British!

New York taxis, of course, are known for their polyglot driver population - reflecting a country that welcomes immigrants.
"Taxi cabs are both loved and hated by New Yorkers" says the NY.com website. Ditto America's sentiments towards immigrants.

The Crux
If a taxicab reflects the state of a nation, one can argue that changing the taxicab could potentially alter the state of that nation. or at least serve as an important symbol of 'change'.

It could soon be curtains for the yellow-and-black Premier Padmini cabs that have ruled the Mumbai city roads since 70s, to well into the 90s. Instead, one could well see the Singapore-styled wireless cab network where the operative words could be... "Make a call, choose your cab, and it is at your door.

The Fulora Foundation and the Western India Automobile Association plan to create a GPRS-run fleet management system that gives "real-time vehicle status, city-wide low-cost service stations and an emergency response system"

The blueprint allows for cab services to be differentiated into mini cabs, medium-sized cabs and luxury cabs, with different rates. This transportation model is expected to increase the demand for call taxis and therefore, the cabbies' income.

In an interview to the Hindu, Sanjay Ubale (Secretary of Special Projects, Govt of Maharashtra) observed that "Singapore had the same cab transport system that India now has. They changed and the drivers' income has seen a 20-fold jump."

That was 6 months ago. But black & yellow khataaras continue to rule. Mr A L Quadros, general secretary of the Bombay Taximen's union visited Singapoor, came back and declared,"Nahin chalega".

Nahin chalega ya phir hum nahin chalne denge? Quadros and co would rather eke out a living in cabs that will one day fall completely apart than switch over to more modern vehicles. Or use technology to unclog the roads of parked taxis and make them available on call instead.

The path to progress in this country must always be littered with protest. The taxicab's journey into the future won't be an exception!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Head vs Heart vs Hair

Mere paas Lexus hai, bangla hai, dollar hai... tumhare paas kya hai?

Mere paas? Mere paas baal hai.

That, in a nutshell, is the reason call-centre worker Shyam manages to win back his lady love Priyanka in the Book That Must Not Be Called Literature . But which every-under-25 is going to read anyways.

Chetan Bhagat's "One Night at the Call Centre" is a book that I would classify as 'flick-lit'. Why?

Well, often a movie gets just 3 stars out of 5 but junta goes to see it because it's 'good timepass'. The same applies to this book. It has its flaws but in the end the reader gets his 95 bucks worth.

And, it's 'flick-lit' because I bet it's going to be made into a movie some day. Just like Five Point Someone. Note in particular the climactic scene where hero-on-motorbike chases the Qualis with Priyanka in it and proposes to her at a red signal.

Sigh! It's like Chetan envisioned the Bollywood screenplay even as he typed out those paras in MS Word.

Hairy thought
Warning: spoilers ahead for those who have not read the book.

But let's get back to the hair - and how it won Shyam the woman of his dreams. Priyanka, bowing to her mum's wishes gets engaged to one Ganesh Gupta - engineer at Microsoft, owner of Lexus and of Amaarikan style bungalow with in-house swimming pool.

Fortunately, Shyam locates some pics of Ganesh on the internet which show his emerging bald patch. You see, in the original pics shown by the ladkewallahs, this fact had been cleverly hidden by a 'touch up'.

Priyanka doesn't like the fact that Ganesh has been deceptive and decides this isn't the guy for her. Which is fine, people break off engagements for even more trivial reasons.

The babe's not happy about being under pressure to tie the knot with a total stranger in less than a month. If you ask me she's practically looking for an excuse to get out. And there are residual feelings for ex-boyfriend Shyam anyways.

But my question is this: What if Ganesh had been a little more studly?
What if he had a wonderful, full head of hair? (Think 'Monsoon Wedding' and Parvin Dabas). Would Priyanka still have ditched the NRI groom for the 'man she loved'?

Chetan said in an interview that he really agonised about whom Priyanka should choose in the end. He asked around and most girls said they would go for love over money/ comfort/ status/ meri-mummy-ki-choice.

This is what Bollywood believes too but honestly, I could never understand how Kajol could prefer Prabhu Deva to Arvind Swamy in 'Sapnay'.

I think women are romantic creatures - but on the other hand, practical too. There are enough instances in real life where they make rational decisions about whom-to-marry.

It's not impossible to fall out of love with the idea of love and fall in love with a 'suitable boy'. For every Priyanka, there is a Manasi...

Mansi has a fascination for grooms from IIT. Her current boyfriend, a graduate from IIT now earns more than Rs 5 lakhs per year. She recently met another eligible bachelor, also an alumnae from IIT who claims to earn more than Rs 12 lakhs per year. Mansi who is apparently very serious about her boyfriend says, "Had the guy who earned Rs 12 lakhs shown interest in me, I would have ditched my boyfriend."

But of course, this is a book. And like I said, it's written to be made into a movie. And books and movies need 'happy endings'.

So Shyam gets Priyanka - and Ganesh should go get a hair transplant. And maybe, in a further quest for coolness, start working at Google!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Ask not what your country...

Bihar, to most of us, serves as a glaring illustration of exactly what is wrong with India. Even more so, at election time.

But can we, the urban 'elite', DO something about it? The answer is - it's never easy, but you can make a difference.

This piece I wrote on ADR (Association for Democratic Reform) shows you what kind of commitment and perseverance it takes. But, pay-offs do come.

And yes, it is a matter of great pride that the founding trustees of ADR were professors and alumni of my own alma mater IIM Ahmedabad.

A few good men
B-schools are not known for people fighting to clean up politics. But some do
published Businessworld, dt Nov 7

The political and commercial morals of the US are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet, commented the inimitable Mark Twain. That being the case, the state of Bihar - as it goes to the polls - would certainly qualify as a public orgy. Affidavits filed with the Election Commission in October 2005 reveal that one in three candidates fielded by major political parties have chargesheets pending against them.

But there's a story behind the statistics. A story of how a few good men can take on a mighty messed-up system, and make a difference.

The story begins in August 1999, when a group of intellectuals got off their armchairs and formed the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in Ahmedabad. The 11 founding members included eight professors of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), two IIM-A alumni and a professor from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

The challenge before them: to make the voting public think, and thinking people vote.

ADR decided to start by addressing an issue, which almost inevitably cropped up in the post-prandial conversations on problems facing India: the criminalisation of politics. Public interest litigation (PIL) was the chosen route.

In December 1999, Kamini Jaiswal filed a PIL on behalf of ADR in the Delhi High Court, seeking disclosure on criminal charges faced by candidates, as well as their financial and educational history. The PIL was upheld, but the Congress, Samata Party and the Union of India appealed against the judgement.

In May 2002, the Supreme Court again upheld the PIL and on 28 June 2002, the Election Commission issued a directive implementing the judgement. With remarkable alacrity, 21 political parties met on 8 July 2002 and unanimously 'rejected' the court orders. They decided to pass an ordinance to circumvent the judgement.

Founder-trustee and IIM-A 1984 alumnus Ajit Ranade recalls the tensions prevailing at the time: "A group of us met President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and explained the situation to him. Kalam returned the ordinance but the Cabinet sent it back unchanged. He had no choice but to sign it the second time."

ADR and several other organisations moved court once again. In March 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, linking its judgement to the citizens' 'fundamental right to know'.

It was a well-earned victory, but even before the formal judgement came in, ADR had initiated its first ever 'election watch'. The battleground: the post-Godhra Gujarat elections of September to December 2002. ADR issued 40 advertisements appealing to the public for information and collected over 1,000 affidavits filed by candidates.

Names of 138 candidates with criminal records were released and widely reported in the print and electronic media as well as disseminated to political parties, bureaucrats and NGOs.

The 'election watch' movement has now spread across the country. In every state, ADR ties up with local NGOs and citizens' groups to help in collecting, compiling and disseminating information among public.

In Mumbai, ADR worked closely with AGNI; in Bihar it is collaborating with Lok Samvad, a network of NGOs it has identified and trained. Says Bibhu Mohapatra, ADR's full-time co-ordinator: "The affidavits are written in a language that is gobbledegook to the lay person." ADR's task is to simplify the data and amplify it through the media so that voters can make more informed choices.

Of course, critics argue, many candidates file false or incomplete affidavits. Mere criminality is not a ground for disqualification of candidates and, sadly, criminals often romp home victorious anyway. Counters Trilochan Sastry, a founding member of ADR and now a professor at IIM, Bangalore: "But there are many early signs of change." For example, MPs are paying up their electricity and telephone bills as liabilities must be disclosed.

Founder-trustee and IIM-A professor Jagdeep Chhokar believes the idea is to build up pressure on parties themselves to field cleaner candidates and the indication is that "it's happening". Rome wasn't rebuilt in a day, and one thing ADR is not short on is patience.

Fighting long drawn-out court battles, travelling through cities like Bhagalpur and Begusarai and taking on the establishment are not the general domain of IIM professors or alumni. Thinking 'out of the box' is an old management dictum. In this case, the pandora's box that is Indian democracy has actually been opened.

For more info log on to www.adrindia.org

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Diwali - then and now

Zamaana badal gaya, as they say. Aur uske saath Diwali bhi.

Ab Diwali greetings ko le lo. Greeting cards have gone the Siberian Crane way - they're a rare sighting. Instead it's the Diwali SMS or now, MMS. Aur ismein bhi alag alag type ke log-baag hain.

a) Wholesale variety: These are the folks who message their entire phonebooks, coz after all they're on a 50 p per sms plan - may as well make use of it. Never mind if some of the recipients are clueless about who the hell the sender is...

b) Designer variety: Ordinary 'happy diwali' and 'best wishes for the new year' messages won't pass muster with this lot. They take extra time and effort to come up with something creative. Or, wait for someone else to - and then promptly forward it!

c) Reply-only variety: Yeh log khud message nahin bhejte but if they receive one, will take the trouble to reply. I fall in this category :)

d) Bhayaanak variety: "Happy Diwali. Have you filed your Income Tax Return for AY 05-06? If not pls file it by 31st Oct 05..." Yup, the I-T dept just discovered the joys of spamming!

Diwali - Then & Now

Other ways in which Diwali has changed for People Like Us...

* Then: Rui ki battiyan, mitti ke diye.
* Now: Wax waale bane banaye khareed liye.

* Then: Ghee waale laddoo-barfi-halwe khaane ke din.
* Now: Chocolate hampers, sugar-free mithai are in.

* Then: Atom bombs, 10,000 ki ladis were cool.
* Now: Anaars, chakris and phuljhadis rule.

* Then: Problem - is saal client ko kya gift bhejna hai
* Now: Solution - Hamari company mein ab gift lena manaa hai!

* Then: Saal mein ek baar bacchon ke kapde aate the
* Now: Ab to har hafte mall visit mein Diwali manaate hain

I'm not nostalgic about the old days - except for the home made samosas and gulabjamuns which sadly, are missing from the Diwali mithai ki plates that neighbours now exchange.

In every other way, now is an improvement on then. And yes, the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' remains. But there is more awareness - more efforts to contribute to charity. More than one yuppie couple I know has taken the trouble to make a donation of toys and sweets to an orphanage.

So things are different - but it's still Diwali
Until next year, wish you peace and khushhaali!

The unholy 'jehadi'

Traditionally, you wake up on Diwali morning and the first thing you look at is a silver coin or rupee note. It is believed that "Laxmiji ke darshan' on the day of Laxmi puja brings prosperity and luck in the coming year.

Additionally, you wake up on Diwali morning and the papers are full of stories of children who will never see their parents again. Of entire families wiped out by Saturday's serial blasts in Delhi.

'Jehadis' have planned and executed this unimaginably evil act during the very month of Ramzan when they are enjoined by their God to undertake fasting and penance to purify themselves.

Can the elders, leaders and imams of their community please stand up and declare strongly and clearly, that they will burn in hell?

So far I've seen one picture of Shabana Azmi in some kind of protest march and I'm afraid she is not the kind of person whom the average jehadi looks up to for career guidance.

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth