Wednesday, January 12, 2005

If Its Tuesday, It must be Belgaum...

In the newspaper-periodical industry of India, there come several annual rituals. The most famous among them is the year-end ‘special issue’. Another such ritual is a cover story on sexual liberalisation and/or social Talibanisation. There will be also the one on latest development on the Bofors front – with an ‘exclusive’ interview of Quattrochi.
The most favourite of the business papers and less so for the general interest ones comes in February-March – the b-school salary report, complete with details of hi-tech interviewing (video-conferencing), foreign postings (Wall Street), ESOPs (nowadays, not only Infosys) and the like. In these kinds of the reports, the darlings of the media are always the I-bank/consultancy types. They are the ones who get the six-figure (dollar, not rupees) salaries, look like Charlie Sheen and throw attractive sound-bites (“the challenge of the job… the money is immaterial”).
There is always a footnote in these articles about the FMCG industry – which takes in the maximum numbers at the lowest salaries (okay, okay – not the lowest but one of the lowest!) – and never offer foreign postings or dollar salaries. Forget foreign – they don’t even offer metro (10 lakh+ towns – i.e. includes Patna and Raipur) postings… this industry solely attracts people on the basis of the Theory of Minimum Resistance.

Once inducted into the company, they are sent to the remotest corners of the company (preferably where you particularly clueless about the language) – ostensibly on training – to learn the tricks of the trade. This is not unlike an IAS officer’s first posting in an arcane district headquarter. Only the rough-and-tumble nature of this job ensures that the incumbent does not have the time to pen an ‘English, August’.
What follows is a desi and more interactive & perilous version of ‘Crystal Maze’, which makes for excellent after-dinner conversation – after one finishes it. While this cross-country rally is on, however, you seldom have time for dinner – let alone conversation.

This is a stint where one braves Alliance Air flights, Naxalite bombings, Ranbir Sena shootings, AIADMK bandh calls, Shiv Sena protest marches, Orissa heat waves and North Bengal floods – to answer the call of duty and beyond.
And those who come out of these alive cease to remain ordinary mortals. They get confirmed as Area Sales Managers.
As the story of a famous phone-call goes: The management trainee had called up his boss – in between his training in West Bengal. This was when half of the state was under knee-deep water – and the other half was under waist-deep water. Or thereabouts. After the trainee’s impassioned plea (“Sir, I am standing in knee-deep water”) to get him out of the rain-ravaged territory was followed by an advice to stay in the hotel till the floods subsided. This was when the trainee revealed – “Sir, I am in my hotel room only.”
Is this a true story? Maybe not – but the feelings are.

What follows is my take on this fantastic training – which is (for most of the lot) the first brush of reality. This makes the experience all the more memorable but whether it is enough for one to dwell on for 3000 words is a different question altogether. Like a MBA, it is full of generalisations, it is confused, it is naïve but thankfully, it is merely a set of unconnected observations – there is no attempt to draw far-reaching conclusions from them.

It all started with my first assignment on a rural sales van in Tamil Nadu.
We had been on the van for an inordinately long time – winding our way through tiny hamlets. I was singularly unsuccessful in spotting the ‘rural boom’ predicted by all the marketing gurus. Maybe the dusty unmetalled roads and the half-naked kids blurred my vision a bit.
If my linguistic limitations were somewhat problematic in Madras, they were insurmountable in these places. Tired of being an observer for a majority of the journey, I tried to make a sale in one of these stops.
Finding a reasonably affluent-looking shop, I suggested a few products to the retailer – all of which were accepted without too much of a protest. The salesman accompanying me did the translation – and the retailer spoke a smattering of English.
Emboldened by my initial successes, I tried to extend the products sold on these kind of routes. I suggested shoe-polish… by suggesting the brand name of the product. Too much of marketing post-mortems at b-school led me to the illusion that every person on the face of the earth would be familiar with the name – if not the development of the brand.
“What’s that?” – asked the retailer.
“Shoe polish” – I answered, even demonstrating the product efficacy by pointing to my shoes.
This caused a lot of mirth in the shop – as the retailer told the salesman something in Tamil, trying to stop laughing all the time.
The salesman looked despondent – as he translated. “Sir – he has offered a challenge. He has asked you to wait in his shop for the whole day. If you manage to find one – just one – shopper who wears shoes like yours, he will buy our entire stock at double the price.”
A more adventurous person might have taken up the challenge.

A similar place later threw up a different twist to the tale while I was trying to convince the retailer about the latent demand of the soap – by playing the ultimate trump card of popularity of the times.
“It is being advertised on all episodes of KBC” – I said.
“But nobody watches KBC here”, he calmly countered.
Seeing the look of incredulity on my face, he explained, “Star is a pay channel, you see… while you can get Zee for free.”
Here was a town that time forgot… so did the television ratings people.

Just when one is all set to write the obituary of the Indian ICE dream, there comes another small-town which changes the ending yet again.
I had reached the distributor’s office ahead of the appointed hour – and it hadn’t reopened after lunch. I resigned myself to an hour’s wait in the scorching sun. After all, Kanchipuram did not look like a place with a coffee-pub to while away an hour.
In between the millions of sari-shops that lined the main road, I suddenly spotted an ‘Internet - E-mail – Chatting’ signboard. Quite elated at the sight of a ‘connected world’ – and a way to while away the lunch hour. I tried to locate the Internet parlour but there seemed to be only the sari shops. One of the salesmen approached me with an oily grin and oilier hair. Very optimistic, I thought – if he wants to sell me a Kanchipuram silk.
“Ganihelbyou, saar?”
“Um – I was trying to locate the Internet place…”
“Thizwaysaar.” – and he waved me to come inside. Inside this sari shop? I must have looked very unconvinced as I started to step in.
“Shoes oudside please.”
I took off my shoes and followed him over yards of silk and satin – into an air-conditioned anteroom. Eight terminals lined the walls – all of them complete with speakers, printers and the works. As I logged onto to Hotmail through the lightning-fast connection, I thought my experience of the Indian contradiction was complete. Till of course, the time when I was greeted with four adjacent Internet parlours in Cudappah – but there was no power (for the next four hours) to run the Pentium III machines there.

When through with spotting contradictions, one has to contend with the backbreaking, skull-splitting modes of transport that connect the dots on the landscape. While jet-setting friends take a stopover at Geneva, one has to wait at Bellary (MP: Sonia Gandhi) for the connecting bus to arrive – and one can amuse oneself with the calculating the Frequent Traveller Miles accumulated by travelling in the state government buses for the past 181 days and 11200 miles.
Just as a point of interest, the social hierarchy is very clearly mentioned in the buses of the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC). The first double seat is ‘Reserved for MP’. The next is ‘Reserved for MLA’. The next three are ‘Reserved for Ladies’. Down South, they treat their ladies very well – but put them after their gods.
The unending bus-trips to the innermost recesses of the states also lead to spinning of great epics of fantasy. The profusion of cinema theatres and the paucity of the fairer sex prompted romantic epics, mostly. Innumerable re-hashes of the “boy-meets-girl” theme abound, all suited to fit the yuppie-in-the-jungle mould. A sales trainee (boy) is on his way to a sales point on the overnight bus where he meets another sales trainee (girl) going to the same place. Love blossoms amidst cartons of soap and sacks of detergents – ad nauseum.
But then, what else can one do when a ramshackle behemoth of a vehicle is hurtling over the countryside at 70 mph – with the potholes outside and the blaring video inside making it impossible for a minute’s sleep.

In fact, sex seemed to be on everyone else’s minds as well – especially the surrogate kind. If the hotel had a TV in the rooms, it had to have FTV. Without fail.
There were diversions of other kinds available as well.
I got off the bus at Tirupathi – and looked like the archetypal yuppie-on-a-hike, at least in those surroundings. Backpack, Bisleri bottle and all that. Trying to remember the directions given by the office, I tried to navigate my way to the T.P. Area, where all the inexpensive (not “cheap”!) hotels promised to be.
At this point, I was approached by a gentleman (for the want of a better word) in a check-lungi and a t-shirt that read, “I met my friends at batchmates.com”.
Having been warned sternly about the perils of talking to strangers ever since I was three, I tried to ignore him and walked in the general direction of the exit.
Trying to keep pace with me, he offered – “Hotel, saar?”
I slowed down a bit now. The ride was an arduous one and I desperately needed some sleep before I attacked my distributors.
He tried again – “Good, clean, cheap…”
I was very tempted now, as the prospect of locating the fabled T.P. Area seemed distinctly uninviting.
His trump card of his offer came through – “Ladies also, saar. No problems, very safe…”
In my fresh-out-of-school innocence, I thought he meant that the hotel would be very safe for any ladies who may be accompanying me. So I said, “No – no ladies” in the halting Tamil-accented English that had seen me through most of small-town South India.
His eyes brightened up – “No ladies, saar? Young boys then? Also very safe…”
This was when I broke into a run.

Despite this and more than its fair share of other hazards, the job has its perks – however quirky and far-fetched it might be. And where can it be better demonstrated than the state of Bihar, which Microsoft Word insists I change to Bizarre!
There was a crowd assembled in front of the distributor’s office-cum-godown as I alighted from the car. The mood was distinctly restless – and it was definitely too big to be a lowly sales manager’s reception party. The distributor broke away from the group as he saw me – and looked terribly gratified.
As he shook (almost tore away, actually) my hand, he expressed his abject delight that an area sales manager had ‘deigned’ to ‘set feet’ on his humble town.
After the initial pleasantries completed in his office, I asked him the reason for the anxious assembly outside.
“Oh nothing serious”, he said. “A van of mine got looted in the morning – they got away with about 30000 bucks.”
“Uh – nothing? 30000 bucks? Won’t you file a FIR or something?”
He smiled – “Kya hoga, saab? Nothing’s going to come out of it – only a hell of a lot of problems. Yeh to roz ka maamla hain, lekin ASM thoda hi roz aate hain?”
A hard-nosed businessman feels my visit is worth more than 30000 bucks – I don’t know whether that was a tribute to me, the MNC I work for or Laloo Prasad Yadav. But it is quite a high, all the same.

Just as it is a bit of a low to encounter places from history and literature, which turn out to be nothing like what they promised to be.
Especially rivers have this uncanny knack of disappointing – in fact, Wordsworth institutionalised it ever since he visited Yarrow.
The bus grounded to a halt – somewhere in the middle of nowhere. My neighbour in half-mime half-Telugu explained that the engine needed some water before it could make the final 10-minute stretch to reach Kurnool town (Rayalseema, Andhra Pradesh). A river lay ahead of us – a dilapidated board said ‘Tungabhadra’. Adolescent memories of one of the best historical novels to be written came back. “Tungabhadrar Tirey” (On the banks of Tungabhadra) – a Bengali novel by Saradindu Banerjee – recounted the tale of a thriving civilisation on the banks of the eponymous river, which was something like the seminal fluid. Romantic visions of a throbbing river were dashed by the sight of a trickle of water, meandering its way through rocks and silt. The ten-minute break was simply not enough to philosophise about adolescent fantasies and their untimely demise.
About a year later, on the outskirts of Ranchi (capital of Jharkhand), I passed a similar rivulet – as an identically dilapidated board proclaimed ‘Subarnarekha’. Ritwik Ghatak’s morbid masterpiece about the decadence and callousness of society – symbolised by a brother-sister duo, growing up on the banks of the river – seemed to be mirrored by the moribund state of the river. The river seemed to have become a quagmire – somewhat akin to Ghatak’s vision of the society. As the car passed over the culvert, I looked back to see a strain of glitter along the modest flow of the river. At least, this river had lived up to its name. But was as disappointing as the earlier one.

This sales training exercise is a marketing textbook, travelogue, Dale Carnegie handbook, newspaper – all rolled into one. It is an attempt by the companies to stop its managers from reducing the marketplace into a matrix (plotting, say, affluence vs propensity to spend or something equally arbitrary!) – in which anything and everything can be reduced a coloured circle at a given co-ordinate. And of course, underlining the basic paradox (or the hopelessness) of trying to sell chocolate chip cookies in Western Orissa.

But what actually comes out of the training?
A rudimentary grasp of the (and accent) language/dialect of the region of training.
Knowledge about the cheapest beer-bars of the town of posting.
Endless cups of tea consumed at the largest wholesale counters there.
A shift in reading habits – from A&M to Stardust because the friendly bookshop owner has never heard of the former.
A healthy disrespect for the b-school curriculum.
An even healthier contempt for the country’s infrastructure.
And of course – the extremely misplaced confidence that shows through when somebody asks “What do you do?” and one answers, “I sell soap in Bihar”.
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