Friday, September 19, 2008

Workplace decorum... what's the fuss?

My father worked in the same office in Kolkata's cluttered Bentinct Street for 28 years before retiring with pension. From the office peon to his subordinates he was called 'Bhowmik-da' by everyone.

He was invited to every 'chhat' puja and celebrations at his Bihari driver's house.

And his colleagues, by his own admission, were no more than graduates from Calcutta University, who would dig into boudi's (my mother) cooking with great concentration when they came over to our house.

It must have been confusing for him when the office hired a new CEO with a bunch of abbreviations after his name with an advanced degree specially in office management.

The peon and driver of course could not come to office dressed in faded half sleeved shirts and semi-clean trousers. Out comes swanky uniforms complete with caps.

The smoking area was revamped with potted palms and an ugly brass frog with coins in its mouth, squatting on what looked like a pile of human remains.

The 'ladies' were given an e-mail IDs where they could complain anonymously of any harassment from their mail co-workers.
("What a dratted nuisance, now I have to learn how to operate emails to lodge a complaint?" The 40-year-old typist who brought her stitching to office was heard grumbling)


I don't know if the productivity had gone up (the CEO's yearly appraisal was apparently based on that objective), but the peon and driver were tolerant in their criticism of the affairs.

("I wouldn't mind these god-forsaken $%^&#$@ uniforms so much if they weren't starched")
Swearing in office was another taboo. "Shala, what's wrong with a well-rounded healthy swear word?" Bewildered Chatterji babu asked around.

Now coming to my office, I would say it is a pretty formal place. But as is true everywhere, half its population comprises Bengalis - a breed infamous for taking possession and giving a homely touch to even a railway station waiting room, if they happen to stop by for an hour.

I had my reservations initially about the place because I came from an Indian news agency where decorum meant waiting to see if you are around before casually stealing your "bread pakora" (not speaking metaphorically) during tea time.

The boss (Editor in my case) called me Ria, Rupam and Rohini for the first one month of joining and looked genuinely surprised when I politely pointed out that my real name is Rituparna. He apologised and called me "Oye ladki!" from next month on whenever he had any instructions to give me.

So my current workplace looked very daunting and proper, where people did not greet each other with friendly expletives. Until my deep dark secret came out one day. I'm a compulsive foodie (don't judge me). I have to munch on something whole day. Yeah, yeah, I'm getting help and am much better now. But people here looked on me with great wonder as I demolished peanuts, chips, lunch, breakfast, tea, coffee, dinner, biscuits, crackers, chocolate, sprouts, and chewing gum.

It was probably too much. So the good natured ribbing started. Whenever there's no food present on my desk (between meals) they would ask solicitously about my health.

I was so wrong in thinking that these people were cold-hearted monsters.
The formality dispensed with, they threw office decorum to the wind and started calling me fond teasing names like "pagli" (mad) and "bhootni" (female ghost).
Both of which I'm sure calls for a case of harassment.

I added to the general lack of formality I confess, with my horrible slips of tongue.

Like the time I was complaining to a senior colleague how I'm always forgotten somehow when he asks people to share his dinner. What I wanted to say was "It's like I'm always in the fringes."
What came out was "I'm always a fringe benefit." To much laughter and teasing.

So what I'm trying to say in this long rambling post is, its good to have rules in offices to keep people disciplined. But lets not overdo it. Look into your heart and honestly tell me how satisfying it is to say "shala bunchot" when you want to let off steam. Or in my case continuing the great tradition of my old place and stealing boiled eggs from a colleague's plate when he is looking the other way.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Delhi Blasts - some disjointed thoughts

(Picture courtesy: Reuters)
Pardon this disjointed post.
Five serial blasts in the heart of the national capital, New Delhi, which is also my second home now, killed 18 people. One blast occured on Barakhamba Road where my office is located.

It could well have been me.
The location of blasts is what made me write this post.
There was a time when terrorists used to strike at India's security infrastructure - its army vehicles moving in single file in the Kashmir Valley or at its police camps. But the Parliament attack had changed all that. The daring attack which exposed vulnerabilities of our security system posed a chilling question.

Are we ready to intercept and halt such strikes or will we be caught off guard every single time a fringe amateur group makes up its mind to seek its 15 minutes of fame, helped undoubtedly by cross border peddlers of terror? The answer is quite clear. This is a chronology of terror strikes in India in last five years - (http://www.reuters.co.in/)

March 13, 2003 - A bomb attack on a commuter train in Mumbai kills 11 people.
Aug. 25, 2003 - Two car bombs kill about 60 in Mumbai.
Aug. 15, 2004 - A bomb explodes in the northeastern state of Assam, killing 16 people, mostly schoolchildren, and wounding dozens.
Oct. 29, 2005 - Sixty-six people are killed when three blasts rip through markets in New Delhi.
March 7, 2006 - At least 15 people are killed and 60 wounded in three blasts in the northerly Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi.
July 11, 2006 - More than 180 people are killed in seven bomb explosions at railway stations and on trains in Mumbai that are blamed on Islamist militants.
Sept. 8, 2006 - At least 32 people are killed in a series of explosions, including one near a mosque, in Malegaon town, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Mumbai.
Feb. 19, 2007 - Two bombs explode aboard a train heading from India to Pakistan; at least 66 passengers, most of them Pakistanis, burn to death.
May 18, 2007 - A bomb explodes during Friday prayers at a historic mosque in the southern city of Hyderabad, killing 11 worshippers. Police later shoot dead five people in clashes with hundreds of enraged Muslims who protest against the attack.
Aug. 25, 2007 - Three coordinated explosions at an amusement park and a street stall in Hyderabad kill at least 40 people.
May 13, 2008 - Seven bombs rip through the crowded streets of the western city of Jaipur, killing at least 63 people in markets and outside Hindu temples.
July 25 - Eight small bombs hit the IT city of Bangalore, killing at least one woman and wounding at least 15.
July 26 - At least 16 small bombs explode in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, killing 45 people and wounding 161. A little-known group called the "Indian Mujahideen" claims responsibility for the attack and the May 13 attack in Jaipur.
Sept 13 - At least five bombs explode in crowded markets and streets in the heart of New Delhi, killing at least 18 people and injuring scores more. The Indian Mujahideen again claim responsibility.

In 2008 alone 127 people have died of terror strikes.

But what chills me to my bones is the change in strategy of the terrorists. Since 630 pm I have been flooded with calls from friends and family asking me just one question - "Are you all right? It's a weekend so we were worried that you might be out shopping at any of the markets or hanging out with friends..."

The blasts mostly took place in Delhi's posh and popular markets and at a park where youngsters hang out in the evening. Police found and defused a bomb near a children's park at the India Gate. Another was found inside a building housing a cinema hall. On all television channels distraught relatives wailed "he went out for an ice cream..." "he said he would pick up a pair of trouser..." "he was out with friends at his favourite restaurant..." It's a Saturday and people are busy unwinding like anywhere in the world. They were out there to make up for the fun they miss out on on weekdays.

So is this going to be the norm then? Being hit when we are least prepared and at our relaxed best? In a way this tells me that it's an open war not just against our country but particularly against our lifestyle.

Our markets, our economy, our leisure, our laid back attitude as compared to a stark fanaticism that ravishes all goodness, despises and denounces anything that gives pleasure to the senses. In short whatever is sinful. This is the email address of the group that claimed responsibility for the attacks. al_arbi_delhi@yahoo.com - a group that calls itself Indian Mujahideen.

Their message: "the Message of Death" - "In the name of Allah, Indian Mujahideen strikes back once more. ... Do whatever you can. Stop us if you can."

Minutes after the blasts, the Leader of Opposition blames the government for failing to provide security to its teeming millions. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi gloated that it was he who kept pushing for the POTA. The Congress spokesperson responded in kind saying these allegations were quite on expected lines.

The links to the disaster hangs on the testimony of a 12-year-old balloon seller who may have seen the perpetrators. The fate of a billion hangs on the bickering of a government which will make some noise for a while, let the issue die its death, and be roused again at election time when undoubtedly the BJP will raise it from its slumber.
A mother who has lost a 25-year-old son will give 13 TV and newspaper interviews, collect her 2 lakh compensation package and live the rest of her years in blankness.
I might as well say - lights out, pack up.

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Sita sold detergent

The deserted streets, the gutkha chewing rickshaw-wala perched on his seat at our living room window, my grandmother touching Arun Govil's feet on the telly screen, our maid calling my mom from the kitchen - "Boudi, Ramayana shuru hoye gechhe!" (Ramayana has started)
Those were heady times. Especially a saree-clad Deepika who plays Sita one day in Ramanand Sagar's 'Ramayana' selling detergent powder on TV on the next. A friend (pissed I'm sure at having to make tea while visiting me at my shack) commented on a packet of Homelite matches on the counter.

"Do you remember how Homelite used to be a status symbol?" When I was growing up in a one-room hovel in a galaxy far far away, my mother would save on monthly expenses by getting a 10-pack Ship matchbox. I had much use for the empty match boxes.

I would cut out a portion of the cover, wrap three rubber bands around the box and develop a toy guitar that I would strum around the house to my mom's irritation. Or bury a dead fly in an empty box that would double as a coffin. Or wrap it in old gift wrappers and make tiny gifts to place at the foot of my toy Christmas tree.

I always looked at Homelite boxes in awe, thinking of the things I could do with them. For one, they were much bigger than the average match boxes, plus they had compartments inside! And cost more as well.

With booming consumerism, we are now spoilt for choice by the big multinationals. If Homelite was a stranger at our house, so was Maggi instant noodles. Ten bucks a packet was a princely sum for my parents especially when locally-made chowmein packets in transparent wrappers cost Re 1 a pack. Toh koi ye kyu le, woh na le?

Every time the Maggi jingle would come on TV I would fantasise about a home where a mother would not act as if I had just eaten her pet dog every time I nagged her to buy Maggi.
"School se aate dhoom machate..
Ek hi baat ye dohrate..
Maggie Maggie Maggie...
Do Minute..
Pal Bhar mein tyaar
Khaaney mein mazzedar..
Maggie Noodles"

That is how it used to go.

Nirma washing powder was a regular buy. What with a school uniform that felt like jute overalls, nothing would get mud (and sometime blood) stains off without the tough love that Nirma had to offer. In pre-Revive days my mother would strain the rice water daily (she still does, bless her soul) and soak my clothes in it so I would go to school wearing what felt like a starched bullet-proof jacket.
Coming from a family that gathered at 5 pm for the merry Ho Ho, my mother (the same one who starched my clothes to distraction) would bring out the tea and papadums.

Lijjat was a winner all hands down. For some strange reason the rabbit in the Lijjat papad ad scared the beejeesus out of me. It wasn't cute and clearly it was a man in a rabbit costume.

My father, a strong believer of the mysterious healing powers of Boroline, applied copious amount of it on his hands and face. That is the smell I still associate with him. Boroline is still going on strong, but what cost him Rs 5 a packet is now Rs 20. And he has expressed his desire many times to write to the company as a consumer dedicated to the product.

Those were the times of consumer loyalty. Sometimes simply for the lack of choice. Some ads were surprisingly progressive for their times.

"When history gets a real drag,
and the teacher is a real old nag
Zing it up
Zing it up with the zing thing
Goldspot the zing thing
Goldspot..."

Was the Goldspot cold drink ad. If I had a penny for the number of times I sang that song in history class, albeit under my breath, I'd be a millionaire by now.

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