Friday, April 27, 2007

Hard Rock Cafe Mumbai: hardly rocking

First visit: fantastic.
Second visit: nice
Third visit: ok...
Fourth visit: bored!

Are there only 15 songs in the hard rock universe?

The service is slow and unsteady. And frankly, not too warm.

A bunch of guys dancing above your head to the tune of 'YMCA'. Even they looked listless.

Except for the company of a very dear friend, this visit was a forgettable experience.

I might be suffering from I-get-bored-easily syndrome. But I definitely think there's something missing.

Of course there are no other places in Mumbai which hold a candle to Hard Rock in terms of space, decor, sound system, sheer ambience and 'internationalness'. But it feels like one of those tourist spots - chalo ek baar dekh liya. Foreign se koi guest aaya, usey dikha diya.

Not a place that owns a part of my soul.

Or, in non-poetic language, a place where I would want to hang out. Over and over and over again.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

'Biotech boom' - but where are the jobs?

Everyone wants to enter a field which is 'hot'. One such field is biotech. You would have read innumerable articles on the scope of bitechnology. The jobs opening up in the sector. And of course the poster pin up company Biocon.

As a report in the Hindu notes: Career counsellors and those engaged in educational guidance... are flooded with inquiries about biotechnology courses and their scope. Biotechnology today looks like what information technology was in the 1990s.

But are prospects really that bright? Today, an engineer from an average college can easily land an IT job. What about the biotech graduate?

First of all, there is this huge debate over whether biotech should be offered at all the undergrad level. M. Radhakrishna Pillai, Director of Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram, stated to the Hindu: "Biotechnology cannot exist at the B.Sc. level, where one should learn the basic science. B.Sc. Biotechnology courses have created a confused lot in Kerala, defeating the very purpose of the subject."

The same holds true of other states. A number of colleges and universities, especially the private and deemed variety are offering 'BSc Biotech'. Students who were trying for medical but failed to get through would rather opt for a biotech course than a regular BSc. At least kisi ko kehne mein to better lagta hai.

For the colleges also, it's a happy thing. Fees for an undergraduate biotech course are far higher than a BSc. One assumes this is because the college will provide better facilities, more qualified teachers etc but... sadly this is generally not the case. In most cases, Biotech students actually use the same labs as the students doing Microbiology/ Life Science!

What about PG?
At the post graduate level, JNU is the most reputed college, the toughest to get into. The combined entrance exam held by JNU can also get you into 32 other colleges offering biotech at MSc/ MTech level. BHU, Goa University, Anna University and Pune
University are some of the next best choices.

Now this is the case in every profession. Everyone can't get into the best college. However, in biotech there are certain unique problems.

JNU has a tie up with DBT (Dept of Biotechnology) which makes it easy for their students to work on live projects during the course of the MSc. Others do not have it so easy. When it comes to industrial training, you may actually have to pay for it.

For example, students of PTU (Punjab Technical University), Indore who went to IIT Delhi last year for 2 months training paid Rs 15,000 (boarding and lodging extra). This money goes towards facilities (eg kits, labs, equipment etc) and the students get to work on a live experiment.

There is the option of doing a project with a company also - some give you a stipend while others don't pay but don't charge you either. However having an IIT Delhi project on your resume will help when you go out for a job - so students don't mind paying. And for IIT, this is a way to get some additional funding for projects.

So it's a win-win for both. But still, it's a little strange...

And what about the job?
OK, so now you graduate and start looking for a job. If there is such a 'boom' happening, it must be pretty easy, right?

Unfortunately not the case.

Shweta Agrawal, an MSc Biotech, has been looking out for a job for last 6 months. "I have given 15-20 interviews. The problem is there are very few real 'biotech' jobs," she says. The company may be 'biotech' but the job expected of an MSc is database management - not experimental. "It's very hard for a fresher to get a job in QC (Quality COntrol) or R & D because most companies have small teams and there isn't much job hopping."

What's more, pharmacy graduates are preferred because they can do formulation as well as QC. A quick look at various job sites would tell you that openings for fresh MSc Biotech are few and far between. BSc Biotech ki to baat hi chhodiye.

Actually from the job point of view, even MSc Chemistry may be better for you!

An exception to all the above would be the handful who complete a BTech from IIT (KGP, Delhi and Bombay) or a Masters in biology from IISc.

"If I don't get a job of my choice soon I will start preparing for MBA," says Shweta. "The fact is, by now, an MBA from even the most unknown university would have got a job for Rs 10-15,000 p.m," she sighs.

The alternate option of course is to do a Phd - either in India or abroad. However even after a PhD, prospects in India remain limited. You would most likely join a government laboratory (that's where much of the challenging work is being done). At age 28, armed with a Phd, you would earn Rs 8-10,000 as starting salary.

So if you are planning to do Biotech - keep all this in mind before making your decision. Don't be lured by the idea of a boom and the fact that it sounds cool.

Take up Biotech only if you have a deep love for the subject and wish to get into research. For which you must be open to doing a PhD.

Otherwise, MBA aapke liye theek rahega. And oh, there is an MBA (Biotech) being offered as well... One last bit of advice. Don't fall for it, go for a more general degree!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Song in my head

...Laari Choote from the film Ek Chaalis ki Local.

Incidentally 'laari' would generally mean lorry or truck, but here it refers to a train. And it probably means something like loved one - or laadli - in Punjabi.

So it appears that the hero and heroine are going to miss the last local home. The actors in question being Abhay Deol and Neha Dhupia, at least the song will create some buzz for the film! More than some silly kiss for sure.

The moment you hear 'Laari Choote' you know there's gotta be a Pakistani behind it. And that is the case. Xulfi of the popular band The Call. But this song is a solo effort.

One has to ask - yeh Pakistani musicians mein kya jadoo hai? Atif Aslam's recent Doorie is another amazing piece of work. Not just the title track, the entire album rocks!

Mahesh Bhatt, for once, gets it right. Speaking to the IHT, he notes: "Pakistani music had an appeal akin to that of African-American music in the United States: a tradition of song inspired by suffering".

Moral of the story: If you have a star cast which may make the audience suffer, throw in a Pakistani song or two! Agar Emran Hashmi ko neutralise kiya ja sakta hai, to Nehaji to chhotee si cheez hain.

Castles in the air

I got married at the age of 41... because I could not buy a house.

Coming from Hafeez Contractor , that's quite a statement. In an interview to HT Cafe Contractor elaborates:

Abhi loan milti hai.. It was difficult to get a housing loan back then.... Not that I couldn't have got married. But the girls I used to like were from rich families. And at the time I used to stay with my mother ina one-room kitchen in Gowalia Tank.

... That's the reason I understand a 25 year old's dilemma.. he wants toget married. But can't buy his dream house.

Of course, understanding does not mean the guy is doing something about it.Most of the buildings he designs aren't the kind a 25 year old can afford.Contractor blames this on government policies, such as restrictive FSI."We need to create an economy of abundance, instead of making people pay the price of scarcity - we are creating it," he laments.

Effect of this artificial scarcity: loans are readily available - but who can afford the EMIs anymore? My cousin visited a property exhibition in Mumbai recently where the cheapestflat - in Goregaon - was going for Rs 80 lakhs. Anything in Andheri, Rs 90lakhs - 1 crore.

"I can't take a loan for 70 lakhs," he sighed. And if he, working for oneof India's best known banks at a senior position can't afford it, I wonder which 30 something professional can!

Destiny calls
But back to the architect. An interesting fact about Contractor is that he almost didn't become an architect. Although he was obsessed with drawing from an early age, he actually did not get admission into architecture college because of poor marks in class12.

A profile on Business Traveller notes:

He was about to enrol in the army when an aunt tore off the letter ofadmission. Contractor then joined the Arts stream in Jai Hind College in Mumbai. The journey back into the world of architecture was by sheerchance.

The subject French was a handicap and so he decided to take tuitions from his cousin's wife. The cousin owned an architecture firm and sometimes theclasses were conducted in the office. One day, in the office, Contractorsaw the detail of a window and commented that it would not open in its present design.

His cousin was surprised and asked him to show his version of the window and despite having no formal training, Contractor's inputs were very good. Another family member then used some influence and managed to get him aseat for an entrance test in which he scored A+.

Amazing story, isn't it? Hafeez went on to become the most successful graduate of Rachana Sansad Academy of Architecture.

Too much hype?
Of course, Hafeez Contractor has his critics. Arzan Wadia writes in his blog:

Sadly, besides a few Indian architects, most are blindly aping the west. The band leader of the latter is none other than Hafeez Contractor. In a recent interview that he gave to a very good friend Rahul Bhatia,Contractor was asked :

"When you look across the Mumbai skyline, there’s a kind of sameness, nothing that catches the eye."

and his response was

"When you have a residential building, it consists of a living room, bedroom, hall, and kitchen. It’s only when you have something different, like a museum, or a hotel, that things are different."

I am baffled by such comments. What he is trying to imply is that residential buildings all look the same. How wrong can he be. Residential buildings the world over offer an amazing variety of design. He does not even have to look so far.

Kanchenjunga, at Kemps Corner is one of the bestexamples of residential high rises. Sadly not one of the hundreds of Hafeez buildings can even aspire to come close to that.

I agree - Kanchenjunga, designed by Charles Correa , is something else. But Correa does very few residential projects. Contractor may have done a lot of other work but is best known for projects like Hiranandani. The aam aadmi can recognise a Contractor building and it appears beautiful (beauty being relative to the other crumbling old buildings around).

As a brand name in architecture, Contractor is the biggest there is in India today. And that is no mean achievement!

The Other Architect
Perhaps, you say, someone new will come along and create a new, moreoriginal and India-inspired architecture. But wait, there was such a man.His name was Laurie Baker.

An award-winning English architect, renowned for his initiatives in low-cost housing... Baker sought to enrich the culture in which he participated by promoting simplicity and home-grown quality in hisbuildings.

Baker became well known for designing and building low cost, high quality homes, with a great portion of his work suited to or built forlower-middle to lower class clients.

More on the man who devoted 50 years of his life to a unique philosophy of architecture here.

Yet, when Laurie Baker died 3 weeks ago, how many newspapers gave it coverage on their front pages? Only the Indian Express. I bet the TVchannels didn't even consider it to be 'news'.

The man did not build skyscrapers or malls, after all. No castles, just beautiful, affordable, livable homes.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Air hostess dream

An air hostess job - on ground - is like being a waitress. And yet that simple prefix makes it so much more. A job with glamour, money and a chance to 'see the world'. At least that's how it used to be.

I grew up in a colony of scientists where every kid became a doctor, engineer of PhD. But there was one notable exception. A girl called Pushpa who joined Cathay Pacific.

The aunties might have gossiped and whispered but Pushpa couldn't care less. She was good looking - in an arrogant and casual sort of way. And she had perfect skin, which we were told was the essential requirement for an air hostess job.

Cathay was good for Pushpa. She travelled the world, enjoyed free tickets for the family and last heard, had married a Greek and settled down abroad somewhere.

An average-at-studies girl used her looks to her advantage. And got to see do things she could never have, stuck on ground.

But this story is not about Pushpa. It's about the dream of being an air hostess.

Today there are numerous 'air hostess training' institutes. One uses a celebrity brand ambassador, the other boasts of a UK certification and yet another says 'life long placements'.

Fine. But placements where? Mostly low budget domestic airlines. Frankfinn goes so far as to advertise an 'exclusive tie up' with Air Deccan - meaning that airline recruits only Frankfinn students.

Not sure if that's such a wise thing to advertise!

Sure, being an air hostess on Spicejet or Deccan is a decent 'job' but most of the elements of the dream are missing. No foreign travel, or paycheck with 5 zeros. No duty free shopping and no fancy 5 star hotels stays.

You are on your toes for 10-12 hours, almost continuously as a low budget aircraft has a quick turnaround time and makes 5-6 flights a day. Plus, you have nothing much to do or 'serve'. Just hand out bottles of water, or sell sandwiches.

And, there are irate passengers to constantly deal with!

Of course someone has to do this job - and there's always hope that you may move on to something 'better'. However, as far as I can see the new airlines apply less stringent standards...

And the likes of Kingfisher and Jet still place regular ads to recruit their own candidates - instead of relying solely on training institutes.

The point I am making is that people who join these institutes should be clear that they may have joined to pursue a 'dream'. But be prepared to end up with what is merely a job.

So don't expect automatic aahs and ooohs when you say "I'm an air hostess"! Which airline you fly determines your place in the pecking order.

So if you do have perfect skin - aim high!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Quota Chaos

Summer follows winter, June comes after May. These are natural cycles but we have man made ones as well

IIMs declare results before other institutes. Yes, a few do try to force students to make a quick decision, even put down large (non refundable) deposits. But eventually, nature has its way.

Students simply shift to what they perceive is the 'better institute'. Forgoing any time or money already invested.

In this light, it's hard to understand the government asking the IIMs to put their admissions on hold. The new quotas introduced were incremental. Declaring those who've made it from the general / SC/ ST list does not affect anyone.

But delays will lead to chaos for MBA admissions in general.

I also fail to understand why it took the Hon. Supreme Court 9 months to hear the petition. These are constitutional matters and the court must have a busy schedule but the lives of thousands of students are affected!

The next SC hearing is on April 23. If appeals and counter appeals are a must, can the time frame at least be compressed?

The new academic year starts in June. Or will that too be held ransom by Mr Arjun Singh and his government?

Monday, April 16, 2007

And now, a 'school of government'

MIT (the one in Pune - not Cambridge, MA) has introduced a 'Master's Program in Government'. A 1 year full time program for any graduate under age 35. Admissions will be through an online objective test followed by personal interview by an 'elite panel of leaders'.

So far so good.

We often debate why the country does not produce political leaders of a certain calibre. The answer is: there is no ‘career path’.

No course can lead to a 'campus placement' as Member of Parliament but yes, it may provide some kind of platform for those from non-political backgrounds. Especially the urban, middle class educated type - they're always keen on entering a profession with the right 'qualification'.

The question is, will this course serve that purpose?

Pros and Cons
MITSOG claims to be the 'first ever professional leadership program in India and Asia for a career in politics and government'. Frankly the only other 'School of Government' I know of is at Harvard. However, the JFK School of Government seems more focussed on public policy than serving as a stepping stone into politics itself.

The MITSOG course promises to be a blend of classroom lectures, field visits and national study tours to Parliament, state legislative assembly, zilla parishad, panchayat, NGOS, model villages etc. There is a thesis which includes 'internship' with a political party and a 15 day international visit to The Hague, British Parliament etc thrown in as well.

Secondly, in the manner of industry supporting a bschool, the MITSOG seems to have the support of the political and familiar-with-politics class. The ad, published this Sunday, features the name of T N Seshan as 'Chairman'. The website indicates 'leaders as faculty'. Leaders such as L K Advani and Shri A K Bardhan ("I am willing to play the role of Professor Emeritus").

And herein lies the catch in what is otherwise a well meant and much needed initiative...

a) Do practising politicians make effective teachers? Or desirable ones? Yes and no. They can share their experiences and offer valuable insights. But constrained by the politics they must practice, what they choose to share will be carefully weighed. And watered down.

The old guard may simply dampen the idealism of the young people who want to make a change by asserting ‘things have always been this way’!

b) Secondly would they enter the classroom prepared for rational discussion and debate, even on sensitive issues? Say a student questions Advani on Gujarat or Bardhan on Nandigram - would the faculty respond objectively or simply storm out of class?

c) The presence of big names - even if only for the odd lecture - adds glamour to the course (and ensures internships). But what about some of the other names on the list? There's Poonam Mahajan - 'leader - BJP'. So raw and inexperienced, she may need lessons herself.

Then there are the likes of Arjun Singh and Anbumani Ramadoss ... What will they teach - Quadratic Equations to Solve Caste Politic Puzzles?

d) International study tours sound great but are not really necessary. What most candidates who join such a course need is more exposure to the 'real India'. Also such tours cost a great deal of money… must be an optional element of a course which currently costs Rs 1.5 lakhs.

e) Lastly, emphasis on oratory and leadership development is commendable. The first is a technique one can teach - the second requires correct selection of raw material. It would be interesting to see the composition of the inaugural batch!

I'm also wondering what is the policy when it comes to selecting sons and daughters of politicians – if they apply. Do they get treated like everybody else - or do they have a competitive advantage/ disadvantage?

Having said all this I still think it's a good initiative. Because it's not about academic learning alone but practical exposure and hands-on experience.

But it will work only if politicians are restricted to taking a few guest lectures and admissions are clean and transparent. Neta log need to see a ‘School of Government’ as more than a course. It can be a pipeline of raw talent, of fresh and idealistic young blood and bold new ideas.

Bottomline: The support of the political class adds credibility to the MITSOG. But making politics itself a credible career option is a far more difficult task

I wish the MITSOG every success - we shall be watching closely!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Beti - paraya dhan

Jaya Bachchan, in an interview to Karan Johar on the eve of the Abhishek-Aishwarya wedding.

KJ: You think that she is the perfect choice for the family?
JB: I think so. I think that it is wonderful because she is such a big star herself. I have never ever seen her push herself whenever we are all together. I like that quality of hers to stand behind. She is quiet. She listens and she is taking it all in...

The minute she comes in it is like our daughter Shweta coming home for Amitji, and he lights up. I think that she will fill the vacuum that Shweta left behind. It is tough to accept that Shweta is not a Bachchan anymore and she is out.

Yup, the more things change, the more they say the same.

Women must 'keep their place'. Be humble. Step back... And Shweta, once married is 'not a Bachchan'. She is 'out'.

Maybe Jayaji didn't mean it that way... But it sounds like an ultra-traditional family to me.

It's none of our business, of course. Aishwarya understands the expectations of the Bachchan family and is willing to live upto them. But one can't help wonder... A woman who has been so independent, kya woh hamesha ke liye is tarah jhuk ke reh sakegi?

The first flush of love does not last forever.Like every other ordinary couple, Ash and Abhishek may eventually have to fight that out...

Friday, April 13, 2007

Movie review: Bheja Fry... No stars!

Rare is the film which truly lives up to its name... This one is asal bheja fry. I really did not like it!

The cast may remind you of Khosla ka Ghosla. But the movie is pointless, plotless and (mostly) witless. Vinay Pathak has acted well. The rest of the cast simply irritate, irritate and irritate.

Most of all Sarika.

So why did I see the film? Because Gaurav Malani - a guy whom I know and trust - wrote the review for JAM, recommending it highly.

"I can't believe this!" I smsed him after the show. "This is one of the most faltu films I've seen in recent times... How could you give it 4 stars?"

"Lol.. I thot the same when you reviewed Fanaa," he replied back.

So there you have it - if you violently disagreed with my review of Fanaa you may like this film. I get the feeling there will be two camps here - of the 20 odd people in the 1000 seater Regal cinema who paid to watch the show, a few were laughing. A lot.

The rest of us came out with a headache.

Oh, by the way, it's a remake of a French film. Which explains a LOT of things. There are some things which are best left untouched by remake artists. Anything French is one of them!

Other films releasing this weekend, reviewed by JAM:

- Bandidas

- Eragon

- Perfect Strangers

IT workers - least satisfied?

A pop up on rediff informs me that 'everyone is quitting naukri'. Timesjobs claims it has 3,073, 680 active resumes in its database vs 2,72, 889 resumes with the 'nearest competitor' (

What's astounding is the number of 'IT resumes' they claim to have. 820, 092!

Last year Nasscom estimated there are 1.1 million Indiansworking in IT and ITES. That number would have grown since then - but still, it's hard to believe that 2 out of 3 IT professionals have put their resumes on Timesjobs. Or any job portal for that matter.

But even if the numbers are inflated, as a proportion of job switchers, IT workers top the list. Are they truly dissatisfied, or just more net savvy than the rest of the population? Perhaps a lethal combination of both!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

And now, a botox lounge

JAM magazine receives a lot of press releases. Here's one which caught my attention, although not necessarily for the right reasons...

Botox Lounge throws open its door today
-One of its kind lounge in India-

Mumbai, April 9, 2007: Cosmetic treatments in India gains the much needed paradigm shift with the opening of the first ever Botox Lounge in Aditya Jyot Eye Hospital today. Inaugurated by Dr. Peter Rubin, Associate Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School, Botox Lounge aims to steer clear from the hospital set-up in terms of offering the best in class aesthetic treatments in an endearing atmosphere replete with soothing music, massage chairs, reading area etc.

Within the Theme of Relaxation, this set-up will also offer non-surgical cosmetic treatments like facial peels, face lifts, botox injections which will be the core procedure for erasing forehead wrinkles, frown line, crows feet in a set up that seamlessly transforms a patient procedure into a rejuvenating experience. The rationale behind offering cosmetic treatment in a lounge setting is to drive home the fact that botox treatments are simple, quick & pain free procedure that can be carried out in a relaxed setting without the trappings of a hospital room.

Speaking about the uniqueness of Botox lounge, Dr. Debraj Shome, Head, Department of Facial Plastic Surgery, Aditya Jyot Eye Hospital said, "The Botox Lounge is a revolutionary approach towards making cosmetic treatments an enjoyable experience. With an increasing number of people opting for botox as the most effective treatment for erasing wrinkles, we decided to bring in that extra personal touch by making certain striking changes in the ambience.

A Botox customer is not a patient; he/she is a normal person who wants to look better - hence we thought that the entire experience should be aesthetically sublime. The visual appeal of a botox lounge coupled with aesthetic subtle nuances and the 'feel good' factor are tailored to make our customers feel like royalty and will undoubtedly make a cosmetic treatment worthy of the time and money spent".

Dr. Peter Rubin, Associate Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, Harvard Medical School, said "The Botox lounge is another big step in the growth of the cosmetic industry in India. What I like the most is the fact that the person interested in cosmetic treatments will have total privacy and be separated from the rest of the patient".

Though located within the premises of the Aditya Jyot Hospital, the Botox Lounge is far flung from any operating or surgical room. The ergonomically designed furniture shining in all its resplendent hue, with plush interiors, dimmed lights in the waiting area and a massage chair, is a comfort zone of sorts for botox customers and their relatives/friends who accompany them. Now, a customer to the botox lounge will typically be ushered in with a welcome drink and read the latest magazines while awaiting their turn.

Said Dr. Shome, "I can now expect folks to turn up for Botox every month, even if they do not need it, just to experience the pleasure of being at the lounge".

End of Press release

Questions from my side (I have also, helpfully, provided some answers)

Q: Does it make any sense to send this press release to JAM, a publication aimed at an audience aged 16-24?

Answer: You never know... At the very least they could influence their parents and grandparents!

Q: Why a 'botox lounge' in an eye hospital?

Answer: Improved eyesight needs something good to look at...

Q: Will they serve alcohol?

Answer:: They don't need to... If someone asks, "What's your poison?" the answer is Botox!

Q: What magazines will they stock?

Answer:The wrinkle free kind.

Q: So will people turn up every month at the lounge... even if they don't need botox?

Answer: Why not... Doctor, do let us know when you start 'Root Canal' lounge - we'll sign up for that too!

On a slightly serious note, I wonder whether 'botox' is really so painfree and side effects free that it's almost like getting a haircut? Luckily, I am relatively wrinkle free and hence can wait a while to find out.

By then we may have botox spas, botox bars, botox fine dine restaurants ("Enjoy your botox over a relaxing 3 course meal. A quick shot between the second and third course - you won't feel a thing!").

And watch out for botox in transit. Waiting for planes to take off and land is adding a lot of fine lines - at departure gates and on weary faces!

Related read: More Doctors turning to the Business of Beauty in The New York Times

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Book review: Earning the Laundry Stripes

You read a book and think, "Hey, I could write better!" So you write it. Better, or worse? That's for the public to decide.

Here are reviews of three recent books which are not the 'first of their kind', but second or third in their respective genres. Okay, genre may be overstating it - they're all part of the 'Books about People Like Us' genre.

The point is, the specific situation has been written about before. So the author can't rely on the novelty factor- the book itself has to have dum. Let's see how they stack up...

1) Earning the Laundry Stripes by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

The book which did it first - Piece of Cake by Swati Kaushal

Similarities: Both are books about fesity young women managers making it in a man's world. You also get a peek into the inner workings @ large MNCs (Swati's book was set in Nestle, Manreet's in HLL). Coincidentally, both authors are IIM Calcutta graduates, currently living abroad (and you thought IIMC attracts only mathematical types!).

Differences: Piece of Cake was a light read - which is great- but it was too heavily inspired by Bridget Jones. The main character - Minal Sharma - was a little bit unreal. Earning the Laundry Stripes has far more depth and better sketched characters.

This could be because Piece of Cake took a more comical tone while Laundry Stripes is sub titled: "A Woman's Adventures in Hindustan Lever's All-Boy's Sales Club'. But that does not mean it's deadly serious - there is enough wry humour and a few comical situations as well.

Where Piece of Cake scores is with its bright and attractive cover. Laundry Stripes is grim, uninviting - and textbooky - in contrast. I don't judge a book by its cover, but plenty of folks at bookstores will...

What I liked about the book: It is a very authentic account of what you would go through as a management trainee in HLL. And this authenticity is drawn from personal experience. Manreet was in fact 'the first woman recruited into the Sales function of Hindustan Lever after a hiatus of 20 odd years'.

Travelling through those dusty towns selling saabun-tel-shampoo she collected her own stripes and through this book you relive that experience. (Although, please note, it's not an autobiography).

It all starts with the training period at 'Gulita' where crusty veterans thunder, "You MBAs.. what do you know of upcountry India, rural sales or sales, even!" Onto the initial months working as a Territory Sales In charge (TSI) covering mofussil towns. Requirements of the job include mugging up the price of every Lever brand across 40 SKUs (Stock Keeping Units). And may entail travelling in a bus next to a goat, staying in spooky local hotels and your skin smelling like 'Rinsurfvim'!

Of course, the 'you are a woman' factor is there at every stage . From Chauhan saab, the sales officer wanting to know,"Madam why didn't you join Citibank?" to the traders who are shocked to see a 'muhnager bai' but recover sufficiently to declare,"If Mrs Gandhi can be the prime minister of the country, then why not a woman in the Sales field?"

Noor is eventually posted in Mumbai, under the venerable warhorse Sam. Here she learns the battle manouevres for grabbing 'shallpiss' (shelfspace), increasing market penetration, expanding coverage and other assorted 'strategic bullshiting'. The truth of the matter, she realises, is that 'it was all to do with human relations... if those were handled well, sales would automatically follow."

So Noor turns her handicap into an advantage - along with all the regular stuff ASMs (Area Sales Managers) do, she bonds with the families of her distributors. She decides to be woman in a man's world, and not become 'one of the boys.'

Now and then Noor contemplates the difference between herself and the majority of Indian women, more so in Etah village (where all HLL trainees spend time understanding 'rural India').

Observing the wives and sisters of her distributors, who toil their days away in the kitchen, she ponders, "We managed our respective world with expertise and skill, but the worlds themselves were entirely different... I have been fortunate enough to have the choice of which world to adopt, a choice they did not have."

Of course, life is part choice and part destiny. After all, Noor herself has probably been recruited by HlL because a firang manager came to India and was shocked to see that a company that 'produced for and marketed to women' did not have a single woman manager in Sales and Marketing...

Apart from the 'S & M (Sectarian and Macho) world of sales' dope, there are some interesting sub-plots. There's the Punjabi-in-love-with-South-Indian, families refusing to accept it angle. A roommate with a good-for-nothing model boyfriend. And a policeman who follows Noor around, blackmailing her for 'five Gandhis'.

Largely, it works.

The one bit that's shaky is the author's attempt to comment on religion, communal riots etc using the character of Mehmoodbhai. It seems a little forced, a conscious attempt to 'make a statement' rather than a natural - or necessary - part of the story.

A more subtle point is made by Sam when he comments, "I am a Parsi. Trade feels happy with Bawaji, neither Parsi nor Hindu... It will help you too, being a member of the minority community, twice over. A woman and a Sikh, your dazzle will confound them. By the time they recover, you will be on your way to being a brand manager."

On that note, let me recommend this book for all MBAs and MBA wannabes keen on marketing careers, , and anyone looking for higher IQ chick-lit. Although you may not actually be 'dazzled' by this world you get a peek into... Kaafi mundane and boring laga yeh kaam mujhe!

Magar book padhne layak hai.

A technical point: Manreet joined HLL in 1992, but the book is set in contemporary India, maybe 2006. One might ask - has anything changed in these 15 years? From what I hear, HLL is still mostly an all-boys club with the odd female manager. Has the experiment, then 'failed'?

That is another long story - I shall save it for another day.

Earning the Laundry Stripes, published by Rupa & co, Rs 195. This book was sent to me for review by Manreet through her PR agency. I would have bought it anyways - but am yet to see it at Crossword.

Tomorrow: review of 'Above Average' by Amitabha Bagchi, another book about an IITian coming of age.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

'Hum hain na..' yeah right!

If I hear the tan tana na tana ta tana na jingle of ICICI Bank for a few more seconds... I will probably puke. The phone banking system of the bank which pays Shahrukh Khan several crores to give a dimpled smile and say 'hum hain na' had better do something about its phone banking services.

It's all very well to talk about 'revolution in the banking sector'. But is the idea of phone banking merely a strategy to help a relatively new bank expand aggressively? Or was it also supposed to make my life as a customer easier?

My interaction with ICICI phone banking over the last one year certainly leaves me in doubt over that question. The common problems one encounters:-
- Punch in your debit card, pin number etc etc and try to reach a phone banking officer (you may have an automated menu but it does not fulfil every need!).

"Sorry ma'am my system is down.. pl punch yr 16 digit pin number again..."

I do that.

The second person who comes on line asks me to do the same thing! And a third!!

And this is not an isolated incident. Invariably, there is some kind of accident or mishap while speaking to a phone banking officer - or you are put indefinitely on hold. Either way, it's back to hearing 'hum hain na..." tan tana tan tana tan tana tan.

Why not just change your tune to 'jingle hai na..."!

A single call to this bank can easily take 20-30 minutes. How different is that from going to the branch and standing in line there? And did you notice, it's not even a toll-free number!

Yes, on one occassion a higher-up in the phone banking chain went out of his way to help me with my net banking password. But honestly, had the bank used a better courier who would have left a 'We were here while you were away' slip (as is the standard practice) I would not have had to trouble him.

Customer 'service'
No amount of advertising can convince me of ICICI Bank's love for me. The only other time I hear from them is when they (or their DSAs) wish to sell me something. A car loan, a home loan.. whatever.

And I bet I'll get 16 calls a day if I ever default.

Service is when a phone banker calls and says,"Ma'am you have some money lying in your account which could be earning more interest. Can I put it in a fixed deposit? And by the way, a flexi-deposit may make even more sense..."

Instead they 'build the brand' by putting up giant hoardings all over screaming 9% interest. And expect us to sms our desire to participate.

But why should any bank bother? Hamara paisa pada hai to unhe fayda hai. Or so it would seem. A single call from a bank which is in my genuine interest would earn you more in goodwill and future business than you can imagine.

Perhaps all phone banking systems have these troubles - not just ICICI. Maybe ICICI customers are just more net savvy, more vocal. Here are just a few thread with complaints....

Avinash Murkute on (complaint posted on April 3 2007 - and apparently taken note of).But that's just one of a looooooooooong list.

A thread on Arjun Prabhu's blog started 2 years ago which still gets customers venting their ire (ICICI seems to be monitoring this as well and responding)

And here too ICICI features prominently. Along with Indiatimes shopping and Air Deccan. (I know most of us have vowed not to fly on that airline but let me tell you, but just in case, they have a completely dysfunctional website which is being 'upgraded' for the last two months! )

The bottomline: Some kind soul from ICICI is likely to read this, email me and apologise for the 'inconvenience caused'. But, the problem is systemic.

'Hum hain na' has to be a genuine philosophy for the company. Not just an irritating advertising jingle mouthed by a charming but overpaid actor.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Lights, Action... Cut!

Visits to the dentist can usually be characterised as
a) painful
b) very painful
c) painful beyond description.

Yet, today, the word that came to mind was quite the opposite. Comical is when you hold up a laltain-like emergency lamp a few metres from your face, so that dentistji can see the cavity in your mouth. And attempt to fill it in.

All because the electricity got cut 15 minutes ahead of schedule - at 11.15 am. Luckily, we'd finished the drilling bit or I'd have been hanging around half-excavated, till 3.45 pm when the MSEB deigned to restore power to Vashi.

It sucks. Absolutely, completely, horrendously. At first we had cuts from 7.30-10.30 am. Bad, but you got used to it and life went on.

Now, the timing has been changed - and from 3 hours, we're upto 4. Make that four and a half. Sales of inverters have shot up - fan ke bina to koi scene hi nahin hai. But what about life in general? What about hospitals, shops, offices... And why just New Bombay and other areas technically outside, or on the outskirts of Mumbai??

Far enough from Mantralaya and the homes of Godrej-Ambani-Birla to not stir the powers that be into action.

Further down, in the rest of Maharashtra, there are 8 hour power cuts, 12 hour power cuts. Maybe the hours they get power should be counted instead of the time they don't!

I am angry. We are all angry. But we know not what can be done...

A really long and hot summer lies ahead. There seems to be no option but to plan your life around what you can't change. My dentist had better go nau-se-baarah - not in the am but pm.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Chhote sheher, bade sheher

If you're a job seeker from a small town, you might want to take note of this.

And if you're a born and bred Mumbaikar, and feel strongly about doing something for your city, here's a youth initiative you should participate in!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Migration : you can't stop it!

The Gitanjali Express pulls into Howrah station an hour behind schedule. The four hour journey from Jamshedpur has taken five. I tumble out of the air conditioning onto the platform which - I kid you not - smells of fish.

Blinking in the mid-afternoon sunshine, a dozen cabbies descend on me. "Madam.. airport?" I know there is a prepaid counter but my plan is non-linear. It involves killing about 3 hours of time. Even as I am wondering which cabbie to take, a young man in a t-shirt and a shock of peroxide blonde hair butts in.

"Madam, Indica car.. with a/c". I haven't said 'yes', but he picks up my bag and starts crossing the road. Khaki-clad drivers of fat yellow Ambassador taxis silently watch him steal their prey.

It is an Indica. The a/c spews out air nearly as hot as what is circulating outside the tinted windows. But, hey.

The driver is from - where else - Bihar. Are all taxi drivers in Kolkata Biharis? He grins. "Buddhababu ne sara government jobs to Bengalis ke liye reserve kiya hai... What other option do we have?"

So what's the attraction of a government job? 10-5 working (and not much work). Rs 8-10,000 salary. "Hum subah paanch baje se raat barah baje tak kaam karte hain tab koi teen, saade teen hazaar bante hain."

Only an outsider, on a hungry stomach, will work so hard. This is a universal human truth.

In the UK, a poll of small and medium-sized businesses conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce found that "more than three quarters of employers believe migration is beneficial to the economy and want the government to help them take on more foreign workers".

Almost half said they had turned to migrant labour because they could not find British employees with the right experience and skills, while another 40% said they took on workers from overseas because they believed they were more productive and worked harder.

... One managing director, Phil Inness of Axis Electronics which employs 20% Polish workers, told the BCC: "In three years of employing from eastern Europe, we haven't had one negative experience. The only concern I have is that at some point they might want to go home."

Biharis come to Kolkata as taxi drivers. Kolkata ke pade likhe bachche come to Mumbai for apne standard ke jobs. Ambitious young men and women from Mumbai go to the US to study and hope to stay on. And of course, several permutations and combinations possible in the above story.

The kid who never filled a glass of water for himself in India will work at an all-night gas station in Pennsylvania for some extra pocket money. Idhar koi keh de, beta, you must work at Cafe Coffee Day after college... Kiski majaal!

The 'sons of the soil' - they are called. Because they have roots. Social networks and mental comfort zones. And, property as well. They have the option of selling their one-bedroom flats in crumbling old buildings and move to modern apartment complexes in distant suburbs - like those who made their homes more recently.
But they would rather cling on the old way of life.

All this, in light of the recent Shiv Sena agitation against Big Bazaar for dismissing 120 probationary workers. The party claimed the company has been discriminating against 'locals' and has asked for '80% of jobs in malls to be reserved for Maharashtrians."

The company has clarified that 86% of its workforce comprises of Maharashtrians - several of whom have gone on to become managers. However, the management has reinstated the workers and will try to find some role for them.

Meanwhile, migration is inevitable. New energy, new hopes and new dudes will continue to flow into our city of potholes and dreams. They will outrun the next guy to pick up a weary traveller's suitcase. They will keep their shops open an hour longer than the 'locals'. They will take less holidays because they have no one to spend them with.

And they will create wealth. Which creates the jobs that ultimately employ us all.

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth