22 January 2012

Mumbai's Dabbawala by Shobha Bondre

Icons of Mumbai
Mumbai’s lunch boys came to public notice and became a world icon of ‘Quality’ when they were certified Six Sigma. I always felt this was rather unfair because so many of Bombay’s systems also work at Six Sigma levels of precision – the doodhwalas, the pauwallahs, the fruitwallahs, the engine drivers, the office boys, the traffic cops (and on and on) without anyone ever stopping to notice. But after reading this book I did get the sense that the success of the dabbawalas is not just a consequence of (a) economic factors and (b) the molecular structure of the professional that Bombay coerces onto its inhabitants. In particular, there is also the clearly-articulated customer philosophy which every member of this exceptional service industry is expected to read and preserve in his record book:
  • The customers should always be treated with courtesy and respect
  • The customers should be dissuaded from using any ‘exotic’ and ‘fancy’ tiffin boxes which are prone to get damaged
  • Except for extremely rare, unforeseen reasons, the tiffin box should always reach the customer on time
  • If a tiffin box is lost in transit, half the cost should be borne by the concerned dabbawala
Another important factor that has made the movement so successful is that it is run as a cooperative – members are not just workers, they are owners.
Corporates should be as clear-headed – no wonder management schools started looking to them for lessons.

Originally written in Marathi, the translator, Shalaka Walimbe, has done a good job of turning the text to idiomatic English. Mumbai's Dabbawala is written partly as the memoir of Raghunath Megde, present president of the association of dabbawalas - his father’s uncle, Mahadu Bacche was the first dabbawala back in 1890, and as such, founder of the association. And, it is partly a historical and descriptive narrative by Shobha Bondre, filling in blanks and creating context and perspective, in alternating chapters.

As memoir, it is engaging, informative about village life in Maharashtra as well as the life of the dabbawala, and often touching, as well-told life stories should be. The author’s narrative is also easy to read and strewn with fascinating detail.
However, there are a few slips which I felt made this book fall somewhat short of perfect. For instance, we are told that when Mahadu Bacche came to Mumbai in 1890,

There were very few restaurants in Mumbai in those days and certainly no fast food outlets. There were only a few Sindhi and Christian housewives who used to provide home-cooked food.
I’m not sure how well the concept of Sindhi and Christian housewives providing home-cooked food fits into this historical framework: to my knowledge, in 1890 most Sindhi housewives were still in Sindh; a large majority of the Christians belonged to the Anglo Indian community, and I’m not sure if its housewives would have considered sending out dabbas to others – surely the larger phenomenon took some decades to emerge.
In another instance, a character introduces himself saying,
This is Rashid miya speaking.
But would any Rashid ever call himself 'miya'?

Mumbai's Dabbawala devotes considerable space to the much-hyped fascination and subsequent association Prince Charles has with the Mumbai dabbawala – including the details of their presence at his wedding to Camilla.
I have a fascination with the Mumbai dabbawalas too: they are a fascinating part of life in that fascinating city, and many of my paintings, which strive to capture its incongruities, feature them.

The part of the book I enjoyed most was Shobha Bondre’s experience of hearing the new management gurus Raghunath Medge and Gangaram Talekar address a gathering of students and executives at a two-day seminar in a luxurious, ultra-modern auditorium in Bombay. These dabbawalas had lived many years of their lives in village huts in rural Maharashtra and tiny overcrowded rooms in Bombay; and many years of their careers running balancing 75 kg lunch-box crates on their heads as they leapt into overcrowded Bombay commuter trains. Shobha Bondre was tense that they would feel out of their depth. “I didn’t even realize when I had stopped holding my breath!” she writes, and goes on to describe just how these wonderful men held their own and charmed the sophisticated crowd with descriptions and lessons from their inimitable lives.

15 January 2012

Suits by Nina Godiwalla

Mom… dad… here’s why I did it …
This book is a memoir, but it reads like a ripping good novel.
To be working on Wall Street is the culmination of a dream – in Nina Godiwalla’s Parsi community in suburban America, something better even than being a neurosurgeon or rocket scientist. It turns out that naughty Nina is brilliant enough to be the first freshman ever to intern at a top-tier Wall Street firm. And yes, she’s naughty enough and brilliant enough, once she’s been there for a while, to write this book which exposes all the sham.
As an investment banker, you are the most respected of the high-powered executives. There is a strict power hierarchy that is based on the paychecks: bankers, lawyers, accountants, and company executives. Hierarchies continue to dominate across university, across company brand. Oppression – and, often, petty vengeance – is a natural consequence. And Nina Godiwalla reveals here what she learns: that in corporate finance, you are rewarded for being a monkey – for agreeing not to think, speak, or have an opinion. It’s a fossilized culture, and pervaded by a terrible, crippling snobbery. Nina towers over Wall Street, reducing it to the width of an Excel spreadsheet cell, understanding from the heavy scent of musk cologne that she isn’t the only one trying hard to make a good impression. Comes the moment when realisation strikes: the overpriced gourmet stuff charged to expense accounts doesn’t really taste better than the Ponsri Thai food around the corner from work! And that exciting pace, the intellectual challenge, the unparalleled exposure to top executives – comes at the cost of dignity and sleep.
I wondered how Nina could write as bluntly as she does and escape legal action. In the course of the book she answers the question herself:
“You better not tell anyone,” she reminded me.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “No one would ever believe me.”
Written like a diary, this book intersperses scenes from Nina Godiwalla’s childhood and they add colour and warmth to the Wall Street life of screeching adrenalin. Nina's love for her grandmother - and her feelings when the specially-prepared pista barfi is greeted with snickers from her classmates ("barf! barf!"); her close relationship with her siblings, one of whom is interning with the Peace Corps in Morocco at the same time Nina is having this tryst with the apex of capitalism; incidents involving her dominating father and wise, long-suffering mother - are all told in an engaging style that paints an impressively lifelike picture.
In both these very different planes of existence, Nina Godiwalla excels as snoop reporter. I enjoyed her descriptions of New York and its inhabitants, so immersed in the urgent necessities of their lives that they don’t see anything around them. Even the bus drivers have an attitude familiar to anyone who knows Bombay’s BEST. And I loved the relaxed way she muses about men.

If you were standing close enough, you would choose Scott, though they were both second-glance guys.
One of the things that horrified me was Nina Godiwall's descriptions of how women are treated in Wall Street firms. They are mocked and degraded just for being women – the men use raunchy banter as an oppressive tactic during discussions; they proudly de-stress by frequenting strip clubs – there are any number of ways they make a woman feel small:
“Ladies first” always felt like a dirty trick, especially when you were caught in the back of the elevator and an older man near the front would say it. Smashed in the back corner, as the only woman, I’d grudgingly try and squeeze my way out.
Another thing that upset me was thinking about how Nina Godiwalla’s father would feel when reading her frank and beautiful descriptions of her childhood and his role in it, and I kept hoping that he wouldn’t read past the dedication:
To my mom and dad,
for giving us everything
But then it struck me that the sentiment behind this dedication was so strong that it would follow him through every trial Nina Godiwalla faced, right through the book.

The Wednesday Soul by Sorabh Pant

I'm dead - but nothing seems to have changed!
Sorabh Pant and I were neighbours, lying placid and box-like next to each other, on the pages of Sunday Mid-day for some years – an adhering subliminal kinship. Sorabh is a stand-up comedian too and the first time I saw him was when he performed in Pune and my unladylike guffaws earned me an Oscar from him. I was looking forward to this book, though a bit worried that I might have to ignore it in favour of saying rude things. Luckily, it turned out to be well written and with a solid plot, racy, spiced with romance and violence, and I really, really wanted to know what was going to happen at the end. But it wasn’t just that. As a book about the ‘afterlife’ this one has its share of deep philosophy (with Sorabh’s inimitable twist). As a book written by a voracious reader, it had quite a few references I didn’t get. And as a book by a really funny guy, it had a range of ha-ha moments – from ‘nooooo!’ groans with eyebrows raised, to any number of mild tummy tickles, and a few times I laughed like anything. I loved the reassuringly familiar overtones of Sorabh’s hereafter – in particular its bumbling bureaucracy, its hyperventilating junior executives, the crazy superimposition of Indian scriptures with Indian Penal Code, its free employment of fictional and historical characters, and even a movie (“Chaplin directed by Hitchcock”). I enjoyed the way he suddenly tossed in phrases that looked like they had been dragged in from another book and dressed up a bit:

Moments later she wished she hadn’t opened her eyes.
Unhurt, but shaken.
I also found the caricatures in this book hilarious – especially the language in which lack of idiom gets a special Sorabh spin. Says the policeman:
Money accomplishes wonders. Madam, do you even know the bribery costs for undergoing the wonders of my “investigation”? They is huge.
Now, instead of spoiling all the surprises by describing the book and its people in 200 words as us books guys are supposed to do, I thought I should give Sorabh a chance to let him reveal only as much as he wants:

How would you react if someone said that your book was what would happen if Douglas Adams and Arthur Koestler decided to have a baby?

I would first want to know how they actually met and who initiated the courting, and also the tougher question of the biological creation. Then, I would smile - because, I love Douglas, even though, my limited literary pursuits have not yet led me toward Koestler, though they shall now. I want to know who wrote the words of my father (or mother).
I enjoyed the innovative names your characters had … Chitr, Kutsa, Harithi, Air-Awat, Bàri … but was a bit mystified … could you help?
I actually did some insane research for all these characters. For me, the character's name has got to resonate with their actions and their personality. Chitr is short for Chitragupta, the accountant of the Hindu afterlife. It seemed funny to give a burly, ass kicking dude a woman's name.
Kutsa was Indra's right hand man, who apparently betrayed him and went out there and did the monkey (sex) with Indra's wife, Sachi. It would have been a cliché to name the villain, Ravana, Arjun or Rampal or whatever. So, I dug deeper for someone who would be an utter immoral bastard.
Harithi is my continuing fascination with North East women - they're gorgeous and fascinating. They never felt the same about me. I did lots of research but I think it either means, 'protector of children', or 'eye seeing'. I've forgotten, but, once you read the book - you'll know why both those names fit.
Air-Awat is of course based on Ayrawata, the legendary flying elephant in Hindu mythology. The story goes that he has eight Eledactyls (elephants that evolved from pterodactyls and can hence, fly - oh, it's complex :)) who work with him in the afterlife. So, his airline is Air-Awat (like Air India but, with less cancelled flights) and Ayrawata is his name (Sanskrit pronunciation).
Bàri is a detective in the afterlife who used to be a Swiss rescue dog, a St. Bernard. He is based on Barry, who was an actual St. Bernard who rescued roughly 50+ people in the 1950s. I changed his name to Bàri, because it sounded vaguely Swiss, even though, it's not!
There's also Khangard - a depraved bird of the afterlife who is based on Garuda. Khangard is the Indonesian version of Garuda.
When you were writing the book, what exactly were you ‘on’ and where can we get some?
Mainly my own story!! I was obsessed with this world for five years - it's the ultimate drug. And, also a mixture of pineapple juice, wine and just a small kilo of cocaine.