Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Marriage Market

A beautiful young lady I know is getting married in December. She was a topper throughout her school life, attended one of the best colleges in Delhi and I definitely thought she would make it through CAT.

But after 2 unsuccessful attempts and a couple of timepass BPO jobs she has - much to the relief of the parents - agreed to 'settle down'. "The boy is from a very renowned family in Amritsar", her mother beamed, genuinely happy, when I met her at a family wedding last week. He is also, I am told, tall, fair and good looking -"aur hamein kya chahiye".

"Frankly, I am happy uska MBA nahin hua,"the mom confides. "It's very difficult to manage a career and family you know." I wonder whether the girl feels the same way. "Abhi to woh job kar rahi hai... but just for a few months. Baad mein woh thodi job karwayenge."

Hmm. To kya karwayenge I want to ask. Renowned families in Amritsar don't expect bahus to cook and clean. So the girl can hope to 'live like a queen'. Visit the parlour twice a week, socialise, shop and sit pretty. Waiting to brighten up the husband's evening when he gets home. Perhaps go to the club, or on long drives and weekends to Kasauli.

A year or two of this mauj masti and then she will be in the 'family way'. Husband will get busy with his factory and she with the kids. Nothing wrong in all this, of course. But is it really a choice she is making - or a life she is accepting because it's what the parents want? The path of least resistance, a comfortable existance.

Preserving the status quo...

Conditioning Counts
I am not writing this from a rabid feminist point of view which says all women must be highly ambitious and aspire to be CEOS. I am simply making an observation: that no doubt women have come far... but.

But there are enough women out there who are still brought up to believe 'marriage is everything'. Go ahead, do an MBA but you know, you don't have to work. In fact some parents go so far as to forbid their bschooled daughters from working.

One such girl - a niece - is currently cooling her heels in her hometown in U.P. It took a lot of convincing but her parents let her go and do an MBA from Pune. When her father asked me what I thought of XYZ small time institute I was about to say, "She can do better than that. Let her try for CAT again next year..."

But the girl called and begged,"Aap please aisa mat kehna. Nahin to isi saal meri shaadi ho jaayegi!". So she went ahead, but on the understanding that she was going to study for knowledge sake - and would not take up a job.

I think what tipped the scales in favour of further education was this: "Aajkal sab padhi likhi ladki chahte hain.. MBA ladke MBA ladki chahte hain".

Now, over a year after graduating my niece is twiddling her thumbs, waiting for her parents to find a suitable guy. Horror of horrors, she is a 'manglik' and it seems matching horoscopes is a must on the arranged marriage circuit.

Is she unhappy? Desperately. She could walk out and lead her own life - but she isn't that type. So she waits, and hopes that destiny will be kind. That she will get an undertanding guy who will 'let' her work. Or if not work, at least give space in other ways.

Friends who got married while she was away have but one thing to say. It's luck, pure and simple.

The 'happy' ones are those whose mother in laws don't nag them about waking up early. They get to roam around at home in their 'nighty', watch serials with the saas, go out shopping and for kitty parties. Their husbands are jolly souls who like to go our for dinners and movies. And again - importantly - mother in law does not mind.

The unlucky ones have the mother in laws you see in soap operas. There's one who insists the bahu wear only saris. She monitors how many telephone calls are made and encourages her own daughter to use bhabhi's make up and jewellery. The girl is an MBA but of course, working is out of the question. The husband is caught between mom and wife and prefers to stay on mataji's side.

"It's true, I'm not making all this up!" insists my niece.

Classified evidence
A quick scan of the matrimonial ads is revealing. I check out this morning's Hindustan Times which is a good reflection the Delhi/ UP/ Punjab mindset. Here are some samples under 'Agarwals' ...

A 25 year old under 'grooms wanted' is described as : "fair, beautiful, exceptionally talented, convent educated, interior Architect from best college in India." Whatever an 'interior architect' is! "Presently working only for her passion in Arts and Architecture".

Yaane ki worry not, hamaari ladki shaadi ke baad job nahin karegi.

All girls are of course described as slim and fair but this particular ad really takes the cake!

"Medico match for Garg girl 5'5" Oct 1981, very fair, smart, sharp featured, slim, extra beautiful (rare in Aggarwals) MBBS, DNS entrance cleared..."

However it's interesting to note that a number of the ads do mention girls with their qualifications (down to specific institutes eg MBA - Symbiosis), and a few even mention salaries. Which seems to indicate the girl intends to continue working after marriage.

But whereas 7 out of 10 boys I picked as a random sample mention salary, only 3 out of 20 girls had advertised theirs. Another 5 out of the 20 mentioned 'working girl' or 'with top company/ MNC'. 5 of the 20 ads mentioned a qualification like MBA or MCA but did not elaborate whether the girl was working at all.

One specifically mentioned 'smart fair homely MBA'.

Da Matri Code
In the world of matrimonial advertising I think these are distinct segments and codewords:

a) Girl with qualification + salary/ company working for: "Career oriented"
Will insist on working after marriage, will not play the traditional bahu role. "Bach ke rehna". Only for the strong at heart and those willing to help change the diapers. Dowry ka to naam bhi mat lena!

b) Girl who is qualified and 'working', but no salary mentioned: "Flexible"
Will work if the boy's family is ok with it, open to leaving it if required. In other words someone who will adjust and always accord the husband and his job the first priority. But she's not a pushover - dowry for her is a dirty word. So the Ford Ikon the boy's family is expecting needs to be packaged as a 'gift' that is being given to beti out of pure love.

c) Girl who is qualified/ from a reputed college but no detail about whether she is working: "Housewife material"
But will make a more presentable and interesting companion than the BA pass of yore. Will make a good mother, as you see educated mothers are very important today. Of course, may not be as 'homely' as mummyji might want, and this may create conflict in time to come.

d) The rest: "Born to be Mrs"
Girls who never aspired to do anything more than marry and settle down. The fairness and beauty of the girl are her prime assets. Family background and how much the parents are willing to spend, a close second.

Of course nothing 'works out' as we plan in life. There's a good chance that 5 years from now "Career oriented" will have a baby, mellow down and altogether give up her job.

It might be "flexible" who actually becomes a career woman - because her husband is supportive. Or, the family needs two incomes to afford a swanky 3 bedroom house in Guragaon.

And "housewife" or "born to be Mrs" may well put their interior decoration/ fashion designing/ dietician course to good use. And become entrepreneurs in their own right!

But the matrimonial ad reflects the present - aagey ki guarantee kaun le sakta hai...

A reflection of social trends
Actually, someone could easily do a PhD based on matrimonial advertising - how it's changed over the years and what that says about Indian society.

Even how the advertising in Hindustan Times published from Delhi and The Times of India (Mumbai edition) shows two distinctly different cultures.

The HT ads clearly reflect the 'north Indian mindset'. First of all, there are 8 whole broadsheet pages devoted to matrimonials. Poor TOI has just 4 (that too interrupted by inane 'articles' like "Who wants to marry Himesh Reshammiya'?)

Well I think there are 2-3 possible reasons for that quantitative difference
a) More people in the north have arranged marriages

b) It could also be that more young people up north rely on their families to find a match - and the families still prefer to advertise in newspapers. Whereas in say, Mumbai, more young people might be registering on portals like and looking for a girl/ guy themselves.

In fact Times themselves have a portal which might be cannibalising some of their print advertising!

But the difference between HT and TOI goes far beyond mere 'quantity'.

The HT ads - in true Punjabi style - are loud, garish and designed to attract attention. The richer the family, the bigger and more violently coloured the display ad. Choose from hot pink, green, lemon yellow, ochre and even violet!

The HT ads use different wordings. "High status" and "reputed family" appear in every 3rd or 4th ad. There are several references to "decent marriage", some specify "very decent marriage".

I'm guessing 'decent' means shaadi in 3 star + Santro car, while 'very decent' means 5 star + Skoda. Indecent, as it might seem to the likes of me!

Several ads mention the term 'NM'. At first I was surprised that so many Narsee Monjee graduates would be advertising but then I realised it actually stands for 'Non Manglik'. Words like 'convented' and gori/ v gori also appear far more often in HT.

TOI by contrast has many more ads referring to 'cultured' family. You're also more likely to see words like affluent and cosmopolitan. In fact TOI ads starts its listings with a section called 'Cosmopolitan' whereas HT starts with the caste based A for Agarwal.

Interestingly, many more ads in TOI than HT mention 'caste no bar'. However in reality what that means is say we are Agarwals, we will also consider Brahmins and Punjabis if the boy/ girl is really well qualified/ attractive...

None of the ads in TOI mention terms like 'decent marriage', I think that is due to a Times of India policy many years ago - if I remember correctly - to take a stand against dowry. Of course just because it is not said, does not mean it is... not in the picture. And TOI does have its share of ads for 'convented, fair, slim' (think: Aishwarya Rai) types.

Still, I find the TOI matrimonial ads more progressive and varied in nature -of course reflecting the composition of Mumbai city itself.

Admittedly my 'research' is unscientific but so is this whole marriage business. Where minds may never get a chance to meet - unless horoscopes and degrees first match.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Citibank's 'EMI' offer

Banking is an old world industry that has embraced new technology whole heartedly. The revolution started with ATMs, then came net banking and now banks have become cell-savvy.

This is mostly a good thing. ICICI Bank will sms you when a cheque is cleared and your account gets credited. There are other great things you can do under 'mobile banking services' including balance update, cheque book request and details of last 5 transactions, among others.

Then there are the credit card companies. Citibank will alert you if your credit card bill is due and still uncleared. And within minutes of making a high value transaction, the Citi call centre in Chennai will ring and confirm the owner has used the card. At least in case of a card being used thus for the very first time - thus reducing the possibility of fraud.

But there can be too much of a good thing. The other day, I made a purchase of a mere Rs 3046 and a couple of days later got this sms: 'Convert your purchase into 12 EMIs. EMI : Rs 279; Fee Rs 150. Diminishing Int. Rate: 18%. Reply 'DEMI' to convert."

Sounds really desperate to me - on the part of Citibank. You spam all your customers in the hope that a few are dumb enough or poor enough to respond to a dud offer. I guess even if the acceptance rate is 0.1 % - because all you need is a pea brain and a single SMS - the bank makes a ton of cash.

But something tells me there are enough such pea brains...

Credit card 'culture'
Like a good number of credit card users in India I use mine as a convenience and pay off the bill in full every month. But that's not good news for banks. They're keen to create a client base of 'revolvers' who pay just the minimum balance every month and interest on the rest. And they seem to be succeeding.

A nearly 5 year old cover story in Business Today estimates that 35-40% of card holders in India now revolve their credit.

Worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), research conducted by the Credit Card & Management Consultancy (CCMC) shows that the proportion of credit card holders revolving credit has increased sharply from 25-30 per cent in 2000 to 35-40 per cent this year.

I'm guessing that figure might be up because in these 5 years a large number of young people have joined the workforce. And they're more careless about reading the fine print than the generation before them. Plus, the 'gotta have it now' culture has only gotten stronger.

Of course we're still better off than say Australia - where only 25% of card holders pay off their card bills every month. Or America, where 115 million people revolve their credit and the average household is $8000 in debt.

The total number of credit cards in India is still just 18 million, which is no 3 in Asia but far behind Japan (85 million cards) and Korea (50 million cards). The very fact that we have 47 million debit card holders vs 18 million credit card holders in India shows we're still resisting the lure of building castles on '18% diminishing int rate'.

But I still think Citibank should not spam me- or any other customers - with 'EMI' offers. Unless I specifically opt in for them. Yeh to gale padne waali baat hai. Kindly let the air we breathe remain interest-free!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Cool Pool

A new SMS-based carpool service may reduce Mumbai’s traffic woes
- Rashmi Bansal

(this piece appeared in Businessworld, issue dt July 31, 2006)

AFTER the recent hike in petrol prices, Hema Deora, wife of petroleum minister Murli Deora, advocated: "People driving long distances should try carpooling." Coming from a person who doesn’t use them herself, this sounds a little like Marie Antoinette on the virtues of cake. Carpools are good for your city — but best used by someone else.

But seriously, traffic snarls and rising fuel costs have made the average car owner open to the idea of a shared ride. The trouble is finding someone to share the ride with. Someone whose schedule matches yours and will not intrude into your space. To enable this, motoring portal recently launched free carpool classifieds. However, there’s more to carpooling than just matching schedules. Here’s why.

Normally, people opt out of public transport because they want a vehicle at their beck and call. Hooking up with a daily carpool partner means adjustment, and that’s something auto fiends resent. So, is there a practical solution to the too-many-cars-on-the-road problem? The Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN) believes there is.

MESN is a public policy think tank committed to enable Mumbai’s efforts at a better environment. But it is doing more than just thinking. MESN will launch Koolpool, India’s first SMS-based carpooling system, in the next two months. Says Rishi Aggarwal, COO, MESN: “There will be two kinds of users: ride givers, who take their cars on the network and ride seekers, who prefer to leave their cars behind.”

An SMS- as well as web-based interface would allow Ride Givers and Ride Seekers to hook up with each other on a dynamic basis — each day you could get a ride with a different person in a different car! “There are pre-defined routes created by Koolpool and by the members, each with a unique route number and pool stops,” explains Aggarwal.

The economics of it works through a prepaid account. Ride givers earn 25 fuel points for every person picked up. These can be redeemed in multiples of 500 for fuel at HPCL petrol pumps. The prepaid account of the ride seeker gets debited when a member confirms via SMS that he or she has joined a pool.

Currently, Koolpool is building its member base. “Everybody is enthusiastic about it. But it takes time to convert enthusiasm to actual membership,” says Aggarwal. MESN is focusing on 40 corporates in Mumbai city. So far, Philips, JP Morgan, Lintas, Castrol and HLL have shown interest.

The locality that has shown most interest is Andheri (East), which faces some of the worst traffic problems in Mumbai. Focusing on corporates also reduces the problem of ‘who am I sharing my ride with’, which could be a concern if the system were open to everybody from day one. Photo ID cards will be issued as well.

There are successful working models abroad, such as (with 600,000 registered members across Europe), US-based and But none of them seem to be as flexible as Koolpool, which even allows ride seekers to share a taxi or an auto.

“Koolpool has been developed indigenously,” says Ashok Datar, chairman, MESN. The idea was conceived by Joshua D’Souza, chief executive, MESN, who met his wife through an SMS-based dating service. A similar system for a carpool service may work, he thought. But the idea, conceived in 2003, took close to three years to bear fruit. “indiatimes was sold to the idea and enabled the backend,” says Datar. Thus, without spending any money, Joshua had the system ready by 2005. In MESN, he found a platform to turn the prototype into reality.

Koolpool estimates that if 6,500 vehicles pick one member for an average 15 km a day on two trips for 22 days a month for a year, it would reduce 51.48 million km of travel per annum. But they’re not going to sell you carpooling as a way to ‘save the world’. They want to make it work for you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

She came, she smiled, she fainted

Miss Puerto Rico is crowned Miss Universe 2006. Ten minutes later she faints, because her dress was too tight.

A barrelful of laughs is not the word Donald Trump would like viewers to use to describe the Miss Universe pageant whose franchise he owns. But that’s exactly what it was.

Who watches such shows? Only idiots like me, who tuned in to Star World expecting to see Frasier. Only to discover Miss Universe 2006 was Monday night comedy. Just a slightly different form of it.

Where does one begin? Miss USA’s purple chiffon gown inspired by a wedding cake, perhaps? The poor girl looked like she would fall flat on her face, any moment.

Then there was the compere’s cheery assertion, “One girl’s life will change tonight!” Never mind if no one remembers the name of last year’s winner…

But, as expected, the question answer round provided the most laughs. Miss Japan is asked, “Which event in world history would you like to change?”. She confidently declares: “Men and women are the same… except men have more physical strength”…

Yeah, so she didn’t answer the question but obviously that does not matter. The girl with the best cosmetic dentist and clingiest outfit won the crown. When asked to define ‘success’ she rattled off a 5 sentence long answer in Spanish which, translated into English means “Gimme that crown, buster!”

Miss Japan – the historically challenged young lady – merely came in second. And Miss Puerto Rico did faint. I’m not making that up! There she is, getting carried away...

"She got dizzy. It's very hot up here. Her dress is tight - as you could see it was beaded and heavy," explained the organisers. She's had 'plenty to eat today' they further clarified...

Perhaps that accounts for the tightness of the dress! :)

The politics of the crown
This year, in a desperate attempt to revive the popularity of the pageant, the contest was held in Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. The same venue as the coveted Oscars.

As we all know where the contest is held has a lot to do with who wins it. Ideally, Miss USA would have won – but that would have appeared too blatant. So she merely makes it to the top 5. Miss Puerto Rico is a fine substitute. Short of official recognition as a state, it is United States territory.

But Puerto Rico is ‘Latin’ enough to satisfy the Hispanic and South American audience as well. Two birds killed with one stone!

It’s no coincidence that Miss Japan won 1st runner up and Miss Switzerland came in third. The signal, clearly, is to give the pageant a ‘First World’ sheen once again.

All those who fret about India not making it – coldly examine the statistics. Miss Universe is more of an American pageant. The 3 countries which have won the maximum number of titles are USA (7), Puerto Rico (5) and Venezuela (3).

Miss World, on the other hand, is a British pageant. The top three on this list are India and Venezuela (5 titles each) and the United Kingdom (4 titles).

The honey is where the money is. I don’t know what Venezuelan mamas mix into their chica’s Farex but for the other girls, clearly nationality does play a role in tipping the scales.

I’m sure Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame will one day oblige with a more detailed analysis! And one day, we may even have a Miss Universe contestant write a racy book on what really happens behind the scenes at such pageants.

But the good news is, we have a Miss India contestant who’s done that already! Ira Trivedi, a contestant at Miss India 2004 has just published an amusing and altogether convincing account of the madness that goes behind the method in the desi leg of the pageant.

The book is called "What would you do to save the world?" Title accha hai na? The book's no masterpiece but a good read for sure.

Just finished it yesterday, which is one of the excuses I have for pausing to actually watch the Miss Universe pageant. I feel like an insider, now that I am familiar with terms such as 'quarter smiles', 'half smiles' and 'full smiles'. Not to mention the joys of 'stick-on bras'...

A separate post is required to do justice - and one shall shortly follow!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Business Today B school rankings 2006

Several of you wanted to know my views on the Business Today b school rankings which were published recently. Well, here they are.

The piece is titled 'The Trouble with B School Rankings' and has been published in the latest issue of JAM magazine.

In a nutshell, I think it's a case of applying a methodology best suited for widely advertised FMCG products to educational institutes, whose excellence must be measured by completely different parameters.

I wish more discretion had been used, because these ranking surveys may mean nothing to the creamy end of the student layer. But they can and do mislead those with limited access to credible information...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Four different journalists have called to ask me - can you access blogspot. Several ISPs have apparently blocked access to the domain.

The answer is yes, and no. From my home connection (, I can't access any blogspot domains. From office, it still works on one connection and not from the other.

My guess is that some official issued a directive to ban X, Y and Z blogs for being 'anti national' (a reporter told me that specific blogs are named on the list). In doing so they did not realise that millions of blogs which are sub domains of blogspot would also get blocked. Perhaps ISPs do not have the technology to block subdomains -or they're taking the easy way out.

My thinking is - would it not be easier to simply contact Google, which owns blogspot, and request them to do the needful. I know they believe in extreme freedom of speech but there is a 'flag' system to mark out objectionable content. So in some cases I guess they do censor blogs.

Now let me try and post this and see what happens!

Friday, July 14, 2006

It's hard being the boss, too!

'How bad is your boss' asks Shyamal Majumdar, writing in Business Standard

From his piece, I learn there is a 'bad boss' contest running on and it seems there is no shortage of horror stories on the subject.

There seem to be a huge number of bosses out there who either take all the credit for themselves, or who think you have no life outside work, or who give out too many tasks with impossible and constantly changing deadlines. There are stories about bosses who are pathological liars, or control freaks, or someone who has the IQ of an eraser. The boss also seems to be having the spine of a jellyfish — someone who would never stand up for you.

Shyamal observes that some of these comments are obviously exaggerated, it’s a fact that there are enough bosses who can make your life into a Dilbert strip.
Which is why I guess the 'Hari Sadu' ad by job site brings a smile on most people's faces.

Though no organised surveys have been done on this issue, an informal study in India a few years ago found that almost 75 per cent of the employees surveyed identified their boss as a lousy manager.

Well, here's the view from the boss side of the fence. It is neither easy or fun being one. The most difficult lesson I learnt when I set up my own company was how hard it is to go from being an employee to an employer.

But you don't have to go the entrepreneurship route to go through this painful transition. Two, three, max four years into your job you’ll find yourself having to supervise people working under you.

Suddenly it’s not enough to do your own work well – you have to be responsible for their work as well. Many times, it seems, it would be far quicker to do the job yourself. But that’s not the answer.

Mistakes are made. You can’t yell, yet you have to let the person know something went wrong. Or well, you can yell– but then you’d be a bad boss. It seems perfectly unfair – someone else screws up and you have to broach the subject with patience and understanding instead of venting your own anger and frustration.

Being a boss – a good one - requires a great deal of emotional energy. As you rise higher and higher, you just need more and more of it. Remember the old aying ‘lonely at the top’, even in the flattest of organization structures.

There is an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ pecking order, Upto a point – even as someone’s boss – you are an ‘Us’. At some point your designation, salary and role put you in the bracket of ‘Them’.

Now people are noticing what you wear, how you conduct yourself, gossiping about something you said or did. This is all natural – you were doing it not long ago. But.. it takes some getting used to! And some people just never do.

Organisational issues
As Shyamal notes, part of the ‘bad boss’ problem lies in faulty executive promotion policies. For example, a company promoted its engineers to managerial positions for the wrong reasons, that is, technical competence rather than managerial proficiency…

He goes on to give the example of Microsoft, which has created a separate status scale for its software engineers. The basic idea being that managers gain promotion as they take on more people and greater responsibility, and software engineers gain in status and pay as they demonstrate brilliance.

Well, this should be emulated in just about every profession (the most brilliant writers often make lousy editors because, saddled with admin and production burdens they cease to write - and lose the very passion that brough them into their jobs!)

But, we also need to develop leadership capabilities in people as they rise up the ladder. It’s tempting to believe leaders are born not made but poor behaviour and attitude can be corrected. Not always, but since bad bosses affect everything from individual performance to overall morale – one has to try!

Toxic subordinates
Shyamal notes that behavioural studies have found that bad bosses believe in the following:

The average person dislikes work and will avoid it he/she can;

Therefore, most people must be forced with the threat of punishment to work towards organisational objectives;

The average person prefers to be directed; to avoid responsibility; is relatively unambitious, and wants security, above all else.

In Hindi there is a saying – taali donon haathon se bajti hai. As a boss I would have to say there are also a number of ‘bad’ employees who believe in the following:

My current job is not good enough for me. (But I’m still working here till I get something better!)

My boss is always out to get me (My performance is never the issue)

I am super talented so I am entitled to ___________

Fill in the blank with anything from ‘disregard the boss’ instructions’ to ‘come 2 hours later to work than everyone else’

Jack Welch write about ‘boss haters’ in his book ‘Winning’. These are the people who are cynical about authority and ‘constantly exude low-level negativity towards “the system”... their bosses feel it and return the favour.”

‘Winning’ is replete with advice for people at all rungs of the corporate ladder. For people just starting their careers, a very important tip from Welch:

“I would describe the wy woek-life balance as an old fashioned chit system. People with great performance accumulate chits, which can be traded with flexibility. The more chits you have, the greater your opportunity to work where and how you want.”

In short, no one is ‘entitled’ to anything – you have to earn the trust and respect of your boss, just as he/ she has to earn yours. Far too many young people joining the workforce today aren’t really recognizing this fundamental principle.

Also, if you keep hopping from job to job – because today the environment allows that – you never really accumulate enough of those chits.

The generation gap
A rare article with some insight in ET noted:

Growing up in post-liberalisation India, amid a buoyant economy, with the India story only getting brighter… India’s Generation …have seen few failures and fewer hardships. Disillusionment sets in fast, and the patience threshold is low.

The article quotes the example of a management trainee who came to meet K Ramkumar, HR head of ICICI Bank.

Sir, my boss spoke to me in a language which even my father would not use. I felt very bad. Nobody has ever spoken to me like that. I have always done well in my life,” he said. He wanted to quit. His boss had told him, “You are no good. You have to work hard.”

Tolerance is in short supply today – and a ‘bad’ boss and a tough one are often mistaken. A bad boss is one who – besides being a taskmaster – is one who diminishes you, does not add value to you.

A tough boss is one who may stretch you to the limit. But there is learning and growth in working with that person as well. And of course if you are really lucky – you find a mentor – a boss who actively works to bring out the best in you.

Subroto Bagchi, CEO Mindtree, once wrote a tribute to all the bosses he’d worked with who made him what he is today. If someone were to do a ‘great boss’ contest – they just might be surprised.



Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A very sad day indeed

It's close to midnight and I am still at the office. But sooner or later, I know I will get home... Unlike the 174 who have already died in the serial bomb blasts that rocked Mumbai earlier this evening.

By the time you read this I am sure the death toll will be far higher.

The television we brought to the office to watch the FIFA World Cup is beaming pictures of mangled railway compartments. And bloodied bodies.

On the roads and the railway tracks, the people of Mumbai are helping each other. The police is doing its best. The wail of ambulance sirens rushing the injured to hospitals can be heard...

My daughter is at home, asleep and oblivious. But there are other children who will wake up to find their world changed forever.

What can one say or do or promise to do in the future that will make that kind of pain go away?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Corporate - 3 stars

I am a huge fan of the Madhur Bhandarkar school of film making... but Corporate did not really work for me.

The Madhur formula is simple: take a 'strong' female character, provide a peek into a hitherto unseen but interesting world, expose its seamy underbelly. Treat the audience with intelligence; they can live with the fact that a film - like real life - need not have a happy ending.

'Corporate' stays true to all this but fails for two reasons:

1. The world Madhur has chosen to 'depicted is not as mysterious or interesting as the world of bar dancers or Page 3 personalities.

Besides, we've seen power and money hungry businessmen on screen before. And venal politicians for sure. This time they sit in gleaming glass buildings and are outfitted by Allen Solly. But overall the film looks like it was made by putting together 'leftover' ideas and characters from Page 3.

2. The bigger issue is the central character - senior Vice President Nishigandha Dasgupta, played by Bipasha Basu. She starts off as this ambitious, I-can-hold-my-own-in-a-male-dominated-world kind of character. But as time goes by, she wimps out completely in the name of love.

For these reasons I don't think 'Corporate' will be a hugely impactful film - critically or commercially. But it's still worth watching because, yes, it has many good moments. And in sum, it's decently made.

Of course, like a Hollywood production, you'll have to pay a bit of attention to figure out who's who. There are a lot of characters, and kaun kis camp ka hai takes a bit of time to digest.

'Corporate' is about the rivalry between 'Sahgal group of industries' and 'Marwah group of industries'. Both groups are bidding for a PSU which the government has put up for sale. Both woo a creepy looking politician called Gulab Rao who is stupendous in the film.

I loved the way he bellows into his cellphone "I am at a 'charity function'" when he's actually cavorting with item girls :). And the manner in which the tender is rigged feels like it came out of genuine research.

But a lot of other things do not ring true. Do senior VPs meet with secretaries in juice shops to learn of their rival's secrets? Chalo, maybe. But hiring a hooker to access a rival's room and steal data from his laptop? Maybe they should add a module called 'spy vs spy' for MBAs!

The film picks up steam in the second half. Sahgals launch the 'mint based sft drink' that Marwah was planning to. And another dose of 'reality' the pesticide in cola controversy is brought into the picture. The film makes a point about how 'issues' are actually used by business rivals to screw each other. That both media and NGOs can be easily manipulated.

Sahgal (played by Rajat Kapoor) is the suave and suited first-gen entrepreneur, with a more 'professional' management style. But Marwah (Raj Babbar) as the more traditionally rooted businessman is more interesting as a character study. His dependence on a 'bapu' for advice on all personal and professional matters is a nice touch.

Kaykay plays Ritesh, Sahgal's brother in law and Bipasha's love interest. He is required to act angsty and tortured and does that job pretty well. Harsh Chhaya as Sahgal's right hand man is very good. Minissha Lamba - never noticed her before - is rather sweet as a young manager. Lilette Dubey as a high class 'madam' (the kind who goes to the gym and interviews celebrities on TV!) plays her part to perfection.

I wish Madhur had not chosen 'colas' as the product that the two companies went to war for. Because that is a category where 'Sahgals' and 'Marwahs' slugging it out jars you. After all it's only Pepsi vs Coke today - both multinationals.

We do see a 'gora' in the form of a taklu called Steve who is Sahgal's JV partner, but I think the battle could very well have been over some other product where Indian companies reign - like mobile phones.

And this is an important point because Madhur always tries to present a 'slice of life' in his films so we expect less of creative license. I think he chose colas because around the time the script was written the 'pesticide in cola' controversy was at its peak. And so it was convenient.

As per the 'Page 3' formula humour and occassional insight is provided by the office peons and security guards.

"Jo kaam ek aadmi kar sakta hai... jab 50 log table par baith kar karte hain.. aur kharaab karte hain - usey Corporate kehte hain".

Ha ha. Mintzberg would probably agree :)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Let them have crumbs

'A rewarding career in hospitality and culinary arts' reads the headline of an ad for a hotel management institute. One of many hundreds which have sprung up all over India.

You would think, yes, there is a huge demand for hotel management professionals. And chefs in particular, looking at the rise of speciality restaurants and their exotic offerings. At truly exotic prices!

I recently met a girl who came to Bombay all the way from Assam because she always wanted to be in the hotel industry. She joined the 'Craft Course in Baking and Confectionary' at Sophia Polytech in Mumbai. This course is 1 year, full time and open to anyone who's completed HSC with 45% marks. But many, like this girl, choose to take it up after graduation.

During that one year you'll learn everything from the science of yeast to the "eight golden rules of recipe balancing". You become well versed with cookies, international desserts, shape cakes and Christmas cakes.

It's little wonder that students are highly regarded in the industry and land internships with prestigious 5 star hotels. Here, they slog from 6 am to 7 pm, training under experienced chefs to create new and varied sweet temptations. "We prepare 9 dessserts a day and don't repeat them for a whole week!"

It's back breaking, physical work although in pleasant and aromatic surroundings. During the trainee period you get paid a stipend of Rs 500 which does not even cover your to and fro travel. If you do well, you may be offered a job - at Rs 45,000 p.a. or Rs 4000 per month!

That's an amount that won't even get you a decent PG in Bombay these days. Unless you share the room with someone!

Well, maybe this is the price you pay to learn the tricks of the trade. The intern sighs and says,"Someone who's worked here 2 years gets Rs 6000... " And this is for a 12 hour shift which could be morning, afternoon or late evening.

This girl plans to pack up her bags, go back home and set up her own cake making business. But the question that bothers me is why - why should the hotel industry be so exploitative?

A single pastry at the hotel cake shop sells for Rs 80 and desserts Rs 200 upwards. Surely if trainees and junior bakers are paid a little more, it won't hurt them. Are they simply not bothered about attrition?

Because the hotel industry is booming in India, but hotel management graduates are on rather unhappy with their prospects. From the non-culinary side, many are joining BPOs and other 'service industries'. Those in the cooking side of things aren't as mobile but veering towards foreign cruise liners or starting their own catering business.

No doubt - if you stick on with a big hotel and make it through the struggle - you will eventually be rewarded. But are young people today willing to wait that long?

On the other hand we have the MBA. Forget final job placements. A student from a prestigious MBA institute would get Rs 12-15,000 p.m. as a summer trainee. And he/ she would spend the two months fooling around with xl worksheets doing an 'industry analysis'.

This girl, who can make the most luscious cakes and desserts (I've had some and can vouch for it!) can't dream of getting Rs 12-15,000 even after 3 years of slog in a 5 star hotel.

Remember how Marie Antoinette once sparked off a revolution with her "Let them eat cake... " statement? Well, someday we may see 'cake labour' rise up and declare, "Let them eat XL sheets!"

pic: from

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Nirula's to go national...

And about time isn't it? The chain which pioneered the 'peeja' and burger culture in Delhi is finally getting its act together. But now, with the Macs, Pizza Huts and Dominos firmly established - is it too late?

Once upon a time, whenever I visited Delhi, a trip to Nirula's was a cherished ritual. We had 'Open House' and 'New Yorker' in Bombay but they paled in comparison. "Why doesn't Nirula come to Bombay?" I would sigh every time I finished eating there.

Well, Nirula continued to expand in Delhi and in the northern region. But somewhere along the way, things changed. Mention 'Nirula' and my younger cousins would wrinkle their nose and declare,"Ab wahan koi nahin jaata hai".

In short, the young and cool crowd abandoned the eatery, although Nirula's still remained numero uno when it came to ice cream. And legendary for its 'Hot Chocolate Fudge'.

Of course, competition was bound to affect Nirula. But it didn't try hard enough to stay ahead. Nirula broadened its menu to include everything from chhole bhature to Indian meals - which was not a bad idea in itself. But the decor, the menu, the overall brand - all remained frozen in time.

As one kid puts it,"Nirula is the place where you go when you can't agree on where to go...". Another was more blunt and said,"It's the place where fat Punjabi aunties in polyster suits go to pig out". But of course, that would describe just about any fast food restaurant in Delhi!

The bottomline is Nirula's may seem thakela but it still has customers. And more importantly, a lot of goodwill. That's what Malaysian food company Navis Capital Partners has paid Rs 90 crores for. Of course, they know it's not going to be easy...

DNA reports: "The idea is to revive the Nirula's brand and make its presence felt across the country..." Moreover, the takeover also signifies a major revamp of all its outlets in Delhi. "Although we have decided to retain the name, we do plan to spruce up most of the outlets."

The menu will also change but some of the flagship products like the Big Boy Burger will be retained.

I think food is one area where Indian chains can give a run for the money to international chains. Because taste is a huge issue.

Everyone from Mac to Pizza Hut has been struggling to hit the right note. They've had to 'spice' up their menus, add paneer and otherwise adjust to Indian tastebuds. That's where the local guys have an advantage.

Where local chains lack is in systems, scalable models, big advertising budgets and an overall vision of where they want to be, say 10 years from now. With an infusion of capital, there's no reason Nirula's can't bring in the talent and the temperament to overcome those problems. And give the global giants a run for their rupee.

Better late than never... Let a new era of burger/ bhature battles begin!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Women in IT

Women now comprise 25%of the 2 lakh strong employee strength of Indian IT majors like TCS, Wipro, Infosys and Satyam, reports HT. Further Nasscom estimates this ratio will change to 65: 35 by 2007.

That's great, but here's the catch. IT has seen a sudden boom in the last 3 years. Let me take the example of just one company, Infosys.

Infosys employed 10,378 people in 2001-2. This number jumped to 15356 in 2002-3. By 2005 Infosys had 46,196 employees and is looking to hire 25,000 people in the current year.

So we're seeing a massive number of fresh engineering graduates joining IT. Over the last decade the number of girls opting for engineering has risen substantially so no one should be surprised to see them populating IT companies.

That's explains how, within a single year, the % of women in Infosys has risen from 22% to 28%. Similarly, women comprise 24% of the workforce in Wipro and TCS. That's up 55% and 58% respectively from 2004!

So are IT and women really made for each other? Well, it's a virtuous cycle operating. Girls generally prefer Computers/ Electronics as they aim for 'white collar' IT jobs. The existence of these IT jobs may have induced them into the engineering field in the first place.

I mean no longer do you hear parents saying engineering mein ladki kya karegi...

What happens next
So here's the deal: The % of female recruits would be far far higher than 25% at entry level and right upto 5-7 years of experience. It's what happens after that which is the real headache for companies in all industries.

Companies lose women when they:
a) marry and often relocate (read: follow their husbands). That's changing to an extent.
b) have kids and take a break. For many this becomes permanent, even though it was not intended to be so.

Yes, some IT companies have day care centres on campus (or tie ups off campus) but it's not just about the logistics. Given work pressures, even these arrangements are often not enough. What happens when you're working late or have to travel all of a sudden?

And of course, many women choose to opt out because they don't want to 'miss out' on bringing up their children.

I'm sure the industry already faces these issues but will need to really address them head on in the years to come. Narayana Murty himself acknowledged this fact recently.

"IT companies lose too many women from the middle management level to the opt-out revolution, due to family pressures. This is a phenomenon that we need to fight. It has resulted in significant loss to companies," Murthy told a gathering of more than 100 women IT professionals from various companies in Bangalore.

He added that Infosys, through its Infosys Women’s Inclusivity Network, is piloting a telecommuting project for women employees. "People can do part of their work from home using broadband connections. This, however, does not work across levels. Managers need to come to office to attend meetings".

A large number of female employees who joined in the last 3-5 years will soon enter the time-to-have-a-baby stage. It will be interesting to then compare whether IT is able to retain substantially more women than other industries.

Of course, companies will continue to take in lots of women at entry level and hence the overall % of women in the company will be maintained or even go up. But will we ever see a figure like "25%" or even 20% women at middle management level?

As for top management, there are some success stories - Meena Ganesh, CEO, Tesco, Neelam Dhawan, Managing Director, Microsoft India, Asha Goyal, VP, Quality, IBM to name a few.

The question is, will these numbers swell significantly 15 years from now? Are today's female recruits more ambitious and go-getting? And will companies enable them to succeed by chalking out new kinds of career paths??

Hard to say but... I think a real paradigm shift will take more than one generation! Yet, the young woman of today who wishes to make it big in her career has far more opportunities and less obstacles than those who were born a couple of decades before.

It's all about personal choice - and statistics never ever tell that story!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Professor paraded

Last year, a young girl was violated inside a police chowky at Marine Drive. Public outrage boiled over and in a rare instance of justice not being denied but speedily delivered, Constable Sunil More was convicted for his heinous crime.

This week, another young girl claims to have been violated at the opposite end of Marine Drive. By her professor.

However, in this case the 'crime' is difficult to establish. There is no semen, no torn clothes, no witness. The girl claims the professor made lewd advances. He flatly denies the charge. The college stands by him.

So what does the girl do? She goes to the NSUI and gets 'justice' in another form:

TOI reports: National Students' Union of India (NSUI) supporters on Friday stormed the Wilson College staff-room and dragged biology professor Vilas Athwale to the Gamdevi police station after blackening his face and hanging a garland of chappals around his neck. The act, unprecedented in Mumbai, followed a girl's accusation that Athwale had molested her in college last year.

Looking at an 'elderly uncle' type dragged through the streets does not make a pretty picture. Which is precisely why it made such big news. And raises a deeply ethical dilemma.

In a democracy it is believed that any man is innocent until proven guilty. If Prof Athawale is innocent, then this is a gross injustice.

But what if he is guilty and yet there is no way to 'prove' it? What's more, public humiliation might even serve a larger social purpose. Because 'elderly uncle' type professors behaving in an inappropriate manner with female students is a rampant problem.

It's invisible because victims rarely come forward.

In America, 20 to 30 percent of undergraduate female students claim they've been victims of some form of sexual harassment by at least one of their professors during their undergraduate years.

There are no statistics in India, but I am pretty sure they would be equally high.

The 'truth' is out there
Here is the Wilson story so far. The victim, speaking to DNA recounts the incident which took place in August 2005:

I was standing near the college gate when the vice-principal, Professor Parkar, confiscated my phone. Professor Athawale paid the Rs 200 fine on my behalf and asked me to collect the phone from him the next day. I met him in a passage that is hardly used by students or staff. We were talking when he began moving closer to me and suddenly grabbed my hand, saying ‘I love you… I love you’. I pushed past him and ran away.

I immediately told my parents about the incident. The next day, my father and a family friend met professor Parkar, who defended professor Athawale, saying he was a senior faculty member with impeccable credentials.

After three days, Parkar said that the principal wanted to meet my father. Instead, Professor Bal Nerurkar, from the department of mathematics, and Professor Parkar met my father. Although Professor Athawale never spoke to me again, I came to know that Professor Nerurkar had been circulating nasty rumours about me. They tampered with my attendance and failed me in mathematics to make me appear an insincere student. I approached the Students’ Council in February 2006.

So it can't be said the girl 'did nothing' at the time she claims the incident actually took place. She did, first of all, go home and tell her parents. What could be her motivation for 'making up' such a story?

What's more, she did not press the matter until she obtained a leaving certificate from the college, which makes sense as well.

The political angle
What puts a blot on the case credibility is the involvement of the NSUI. As we all know, 'student' wings of political parties are hardly representatives of students. No student who is actually interested in studies joins ABVP or NSUI.

Real students are worried about jobs, about admissions, about quality of education. They want better facilities, more opportunities, accountability from the system. When was the last time you heard NSUI or ABVP raise their voice and/ or create an impact on such issues?

Granted, a sexual harassment case is a serious issue as well. But is rabble rousing and blackening someone's face the way to 'deal' with it? Because that seems to be the preferred modus operandi.

Instead of lobbying at a policy level to get student issues addressed by their respective parties, the 'youth' wings prefer to pick up an emotive issue or two, create a tamasha and earn a few brownie points with their senior counterparts.

The 'youth' wing thus serves as a kind of training ground for goondaism and other tricks of the trade. Wilson college claims that the NSUI had been pressurising the college to admit a few students, which the management has refused. Hence NSUI has taken up this cause - to malign the institution.

Sadly, that is completely believable. Although it does not mean the student's case may not have merit...

Role of the media
Lastly, one has to wonder about how easy it is to make 'news' today. And how self conscious the police has become in the presence of the media.

Additional police commissioner D Kanakratnam said to the press: "We will not tolerate those who take law into their own hands and we will ensure that Aboli (NSUI leader) is punished for his misdeeds."

But the fact is that this parading of the professor happened under the very eyes of the police. On TV, you could clearly see that the police was practically escorting the crowd instead of breaking it up.

Perhaps they had instructions not to create a lafda after their teargas and lathi charge on students during the anti reservation protest created a major embarassment.

In a rare show of sensitivity, a few TV channels pixellated Prof Athawale's face. However, the newspapers had no such qualms and went ahead published his picture.

So everywhere you look, it's grey and more grey...

New development
And now, another class 12 student of Wilson college has come forward and alleged that she too was sexually harassed by the same professor.

Mumbai Mirror reports: The professor had tried to touch her and other female students while they were in the laboratory. According to her the incidents were frequent but she did not complain to the principal as she was scared of being expelled from college or being failed.

All I can say is, this raises a serious new dimension... The truth can be found, if you look hard enough. The question is, can we hold up to the mirror to ourselves and acknowledge the ugly side of human nature?

Authority figures preying on young students is an ugly reality. Uglier still is everyone being fully aware that X or Y professor is a pervert and yet looking away.

And ugliest of all is the rare case where a false accusation is made, destroying a man's reputation forever...

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