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.


  1. Have you been reading "Above Average" for quiet sometime, or you are going to finish reading this book in a day?

  2. I read Laundry Stripes in a single reading. I was also surprised that I had not seen this book on the shelves of any bookstore. In the end when going thru the India Author section in my library I came across it and laped it up..

    Piece of cake you was exactly what mentioned. more of the Bridget Jones kind of story, laundry stripes was better in the sense that it was hard hiting.

    looking forward to more book reviews from you..

  3. Rashmi, in case you haven't, a book that you will probably love reading is Dum Dum Bullet, by Sandeep Goyal... Sandeep of course is now heading Dentsu, and before that, has had stints as CEO at Rediffusion Advertising, and Zee...
    The most amazing thing about the book, besides the wit and some brilliant insights into advertising and sales (Goyal starts off with his first job in sales at Nerolac), is the fact that it comes from such unexpected quarters. A chap who is clearly given over to the sole pursuit of results over all else, if one goes by his industry colleagues:) At the book launch, the best comment on the relatively sparse gathering was, "If Sandeep had invited all his enemies, this place wouldn't have been big enough". But I found the book simply amazing, and among the better business/my life story books I have ever read...

  4. This is the first I've heard of "Laundry Stripes" but that's not surprising considering I live in Canada. I enjoyed reading your review and look forward to the next one.

    BTW, I have nominated your blog for the "Thinking Blog" award.

  5. Nice review
    i have to start reading more books !
    saw the namesake (reviewed at and thats another book on my must read list.

  6. Things have indeed changed.In the current batch of 20 BLTs(the current term for MTs), HLL has 10 women recruits!!

    Of course, things still remain the same on the field, and the trade and distributor world still looks at a women ASM with eyebrows raised, but there is definitely a change in the lever offices of wht was once an all boys club.

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