Calcutta to Karachi

21st March 1999

Dear A,

I read in Balloons magazine that you are looking for a pen friend. Would you like to be my pen friend?

My name is M and I am ten years old. I live with my parents, brothers, grandparents, uncle and aunt in Calcutta. I study in the fifth standard of a girls’ school. One of my brothers is in the second standard, and the youngest one does not go to school yet.

Tell me something about yourself. I know you live in Karachi. My father tells me I can not go there and you can not come here. That means we should always be pen friends, isn’t it?!

Yours faithfully,



30th March 1999

Dear M,

Yes, I want to be your pen friend!

It is nice to know you have such a big family. I don’t have brothers or sisters, and live with my parents. But I have many friends in my colony. We play catch, and hopscotch, and hide and seek. Some of my friends also play cricket with the boys but I don’t.

What are your brothers’ names? Do they fight with you? I have a small cousin brother. He always fights when he comes to my house. I hide my toys when he comes because I know he will break them!

I read in school that Calcutta was the capital city when India and Pakistan were one country many years ago. I want to go there one day to see the Howrah Bridge!

Your new pen friend,



21st April 1999

Dearest A,

I was so happy when I got your letter! But I had exams and I could not write a reply for many days. Now the exams are over, and my father says I can write to you.

My brothers’ names are Z and D. Z fights with me sometimes, but D is very small. I love them both. They call me Apu!

Yes you should come to Calcutta some day. It is a nice city! We can play and have a good time. My father says that our Prime Minister has become a friend of your Prime Minister. So you can come here now! Isn’t that nice?




14th May 1999

My dear M,

I laughed when I read that your brothers call you Apu. Do you know why? It is because my cousin brother calls me Apa. Apu and Apa sound so similar!

I read in the newspaper that Pakistan and India are fighting each other. Now how will I go to Calcutta? Ammi even told me not to send you letters now, but I will send this to you anyway. I will buy the stamps with my pocket money and post the letter on my way back from school. Do you know I have started collecting Indian stamps from your letters? Next time you send me a letter, buy a new kind of stamp. This way I will have a bigger collection!

Yours lovingly,


Babu Moves

1. Files: 2 flat, 1 cover
2. Pages falling out of above files
3. 2 pen stands, borrowed from colleague, now retired
4. 7 pens: 2 working, 4 not working, 1 broken
5. Invitation card: Chiranjeevi Branch Manager's son...
6. Old newspapers, 500g
7. Table fan
8. Wooden seat, to be placed on top of chair

The office boy panted twice between the two levels separating the floor where Babu used to sit and the floor where Babu would sit from today. Babu first enjoyed a loo break, and then a tea break, before he strolled into the elevator that would take him to the floor where he would sit from today. He reached the floor, waved at his new Babu neighbours, sighed, and almost graced the wooden seat placed on top of chair. Then, with a long perfected combination of hurt and anger in his voice, he reproached the office boy. "Why did you not switch on the table fan?" The office boy, hurt and angry in turn, muttered unprintables beneath his breath, and took the rest of the day off.

1. Duffel bag, full of clothes, 7kg
2. Trolley suitcase
3. Shopping bag, bursting at the seams, 8.5 kg

With the office boy taking the rest of the day off, Babu's new Babu neighbour frantically looked around for someone to carry his luggage to his car which would take him to the airport. "Babu, why don't you help me? I will miss my flight otherwise," Babu's new Babu neighbour requested Babu. Babu, till now enjoying the scene where his new Babu neighbour was lamenting the lack of office boys in the world, had to help his neighbour. "Of course," he said. "Thanks friend," said Babu's new Babu neighbour, adding, "Oh, I'll take the trolley. You can take those bags." Babu pulled, dragged, pushed and lugged his friend's luggage to his car. He then muttered unprintables beneath his breath, and took the rest of the day off.


Melting Pot

Reader caution advised: No poem this, but poetic licence it has!

Come to think of it, it couldn’t get more cosmopolitan than this:

Maaru company, with office inside building at crossing of Chowringhee Road and Park Street

Park Street having been recently officially rechristened Mother Teresa Sarani

named after the Albanian almost-saint

Sarani the quintessential Bong for avenue

also found in Lenin Sarani and Karl Marx Sarani

in respect of Roosi pioneers of communism

Chowringhee Road for its part renamed J L Nehru Road

after India’s first Pradhan Mantri

a man of Kahmirian roots born in heartland U Pradesh

corner view from office partly blocked by ad cum route marker for American burgers

with a Scottish name

reminding me of company’s early Amreeki links

and customers now in 50 countries

Or could it not?

“Cha khaiyega ka?”

Liveried attendant – throwback to Raj days – not that old this company??

Cha being Bong for tea in English, chai in Hindi and chaai in airhostesspeak

khaiyega commonly attributed to corrupted version of pristine Hindi khayenge

but more a natural part of khati, or pure, Bihari Hindi

but Cha khaiyega an apoplectic adaptation of Cha khabe in Bong

the language in which solids, liquids and gases are all eaten, or khawa jaye

ka not as naturally part of khati Bihari Hindi as khaiyega

more the case of corrupted and easy pronunciation of pristine Hindi kya

favoured by migrants from eastern cowbelt and northern minebelt

the rustic Taan, or accent, making me smile

“Thora der baad,” I consented, doffing my hat to cosmopolity. AbNQ

Road Crossing

The old lady was terrified by the noise of the cars. With her failing eyesight and slow gait, she wondered whether she would be able to cross the road that morning, and reach the bank to collect her pension. It was to her big relief then that a strapping young man offered her help. She looked up into his face, gave him a wrinkled smile and blessed him in her croaking voice.

The young man waited for the traffic to thin. He eyed the bank pass book in the old lady's hand and almost rubbed his hands in glee at the thought of such an easy prey early in the day.

The traffic thinned after a few seconds. The young man took the old lady by the shoulders and took slow steps forward to match her pace, who nevertheless had to shuffle along faster than usual. They were halfway across the road when it happened. The young man's shoelace came undone, and he tripped and fell. An oncoming bus missed the old lady by a fraction, but not the young man.


Forms and the Man

Marketing, done well, is the ability to sell to someone something they don’t want in a package they don’t like at a price they are unwilling to pay. Most people who disagree with this definition are marketers themselves, and hence we shall discount their disagreement.

Shah Rukh Khan once admitted that he is a commodity. Okay, he has that oh-so-cute dimple, ability to shake a leg on top of a train without falling off, and an army of females who envy his wife. With so much going for him, SRK would be a commodity whose going rate is always good. Still, he was recently dumped on the open market by a cola major for incomprehensible reasons. Imagine then the pitiable plight of daily workers like detergent sellers, factory labourers, salaried consultants etc., who might have only the oh-so-cute dimple in common with SRK, but who are commodities nonetheless. One special season every year, they are compared to their competitors, their prices haggled over and bids placed for them by people who don’t want them, in packages they don’t like and at prices they are unwilling to pay. This special season … (roll of the drums) … is … (crescendo) … the … (crash of the cymbals) …Appraisal season.

You know it’s that time of the year when the Department in charge of the whole thing starts sending frantic notifications to all and sundry, accusing them of laziness and gross incompetence, and provides statistics for further effect. The smart ones among the lazy and grossly incompetent pick out the hidden adjectives in the message, and make a mental note to mention their antonyms in their own sales pitch (some call them assessment forms). Not surprisingly, in a way some things never surprise you, the said Department stops all training sessions for composing sales pitches right when they are most needed.

Invariably, and much to the self righteous chagrin of the abovementioned Department, everyone starts filling out their forms two hours before the deadline for submission is about to expire. Those intelligent enough copy out slightly tweaked (as in, “Visited the company stall at Expo 2008 and said Hi to the representatives” to “Visited the company stall at Expo 2009 and said Hello to the representatives”) versions of their earlier forms. Those even more intelligent copy out largely untweaked (as in, “Visited the company stall at Expo 2009 and said Hello to the representatives” to “Visited the company stall at Expo 2009 and said Hello to the representatives”) versions of their friends’ forms. Brains are racked for what their owners have achieved in the past year, and after a long search, the brains reply, “Attended team meetings regularly.” A few more pokes, and the brains truthfully grumble, “Filled up timesheet conscientiously.” Owners of the brains give up, and write out on their own, “Organised birthday parties for team mates.” The ultimate examples of laziness and gross incompetence, the creative writers, despair the unimaginative structure of the forms, and end up ranting about it on their blogs.

After the much abused Department server inevitably crashes, deadlines are inevitably extended and spaced out. Meanwhile, discussions during coffee breaks revolve around terms like expectations, evaluation, review, and for sheer lack of creativity, review1, review2, and so on. Inside information on the relative leniency or ruthlessness of the powers that be are traded in hushed tones. The powers that be enjoy their days of glory as work gets done faster (or gets done at all), instructions are promptly acted upon, and juniors put on the powers that be’s favourite caller tunes on their phones. The lucky ones also get a few errands done along the way and occasionally have doors to their cars, or better still, to their juniors’ seductive new cars, held open for them. A pat on the back here, an indulgent smile there, and their worth on the information exchange takes the shape of a bull run.

Finally, a few days later, as numbers and comments roll in, popular mood dips regardless of the nature of the numbers and comments. Those getting anything less than the best complain that they deserved the best, while those who get the best complain they deserved it last year itself. Such is human nature. Little does it realise that even commodities fluctuate in value! Sigh…


To Tie or Not to Tie - Alternating Perspectives of a Necktie and a Corporate Historian

Clothes maketh the man.
- Someone

And if that man beeth on the payroll of an MNC, they maketh him even more.
- Centuries later, Someone Else

(Apologies to female readers, but Someone and Someone Else weren’t always politically correct.)

I am a tie. A necktie. I am a sombre blue in colour with white pinstripes running diagonally across me. I came with a tie pin, a flashy show off if ever there was one. But we got on well together. Contrasted against the silky white of our friend the shirt, we had quite a day. A really good day. A really long time ago. Umm, no, I don’t quite remember how long. You see, since that day – the day our man got married – I haven’t quite seen the light of day, and have lost count of time. This is surprising, because I belong to the wardrobe of someone who’s on the payroll of an MNC. Imagine my surprise then, when today our man poked his head inside his wardrobe, and pulled me out from under a heavy duty pair of Killer jeans. Killer was suitably miffed for not having been the chosen garment for the day, as he had been for very many days, and came down heavily on my tail. Ouch, I totally agree with his name…

There was a notification from the highest level of the MNC that tried to, more or less, take away the option of wearing a tie. Another thing it did was, more and not less, to banish the wearing of jeans (Killer or otherwise) and sneakers. Of course, reactions to this notification varied. There was an organized underground movement by rebels to get the junta to wear worn out denim and anything but formal shoes on the first Friday after this notification. Then there were those closet dandies who decided to come out in the open regarding their clothing preferences. (“Our man is one of them,” adds the necktie.) And as usual, there was the majority that was confused, did not know which side to take, and decided to maintain the status quo while it became clear which extreme would ultimately win…

I was slid over and knotted appropriately around our man’s neck. His wife did a double take when she first saw this change in her hubby’s appearance, but recovered quickly to perform the filmy style knot tightening act of the loving wife. The kids were thankfully off to school, otherwise I am sure they would have giggled their heads off at the unexpected sight of me. A little while later, our man dutifully missed his office bus by a whisker, and looked around for an alternate means of transport. He then suddenly remembered me and decided to give a royal miss to the public buses stopping invitingly in front of him. A tiewala in a public bus? Nah! A cab driver got lucky instead…

Unknowingly or knowingly, battle lines were being drawn in the form of rolling eyes and jibes at the changed look of the dandies. Members of the opposing factions eyed each other warily and started to move around in the safety of numbers of their own kind. Elevator conversations invariably turned to discussing about which person had taken which side and taking stock of the parties’ strengths. The atmosphere in the cafeteria was generally tense but even that was occasionally heightened by the guffaw of the rebels at the sight of a dandy smearing his tie with chicken gravy. The erstwhile smoking areas in the office building served as meeting places where members of the confused majority were brainwashed alternately by the warring factions and cajoled, urged and threatened to join or face consequences. Eventually, with numbers stacking up against them, the rebels took to refuge in minor victories, as in, “Even my boss doesn’t wear a tie, so why should I?!” and started challenging the ‘wearers’ to maintain their dandyism once summer arrived…

Our man and I reached office by the time the guards at the office gates had regained their humour post the morning rush. One of them saw us, smiled, touched the knot of his own tie, and said to our man, “Et tu, saar?!”


The Chair Bumpers

Having enjoyed the sunshine, central AC and spacious loos of a modern office building, I was recently deported to an ancient twentieth century office. After a few days of mild depression (comparable to that of a Beverly Hills resident putting up in an Indian railway general class waiting room), I decided to stop being glum about it, and to look at things from a positive perspective. About many things, I managed to console myself, but the pièce de résistance, the one thing I can still not reconcile myself with, is having a seat next to a shared printer.

With reams being written and talked (did someone say Stop Talking, Start Doing?!) about eco-friendly workplaces, it is astounding to get to know about the affinity of laptop-toting execs for The Printed Word. Once I got used to my chair being bumped from behind by people (ranging all the way from “Oops, I’m so sorry,” to menacing eyes saying “Get outta my way!”) on their way to collect their Printed Words, I did some analysing and inferencing and categorised these Chair Bumpers as follows.

·         I-Can-Do-It-On-Screen-But-It’s-Easier-On-Paper

I ask, what is easier on paper? Reading? No, they say, it’s the ease of analysis and annotative capabilities and the comparability and shareability of documents (using multiple copies of course). Yeah, I add, the invigorating aroma of fresh ink on virgin paper too? They nod in excited agreement. These I-Can-Do-It-… types will typically have self-important expressions of smugness when they come to collect their Printed Words, and start reading them on the return journey to their chairs – So much to read and so little time, yaar! As if they hadn’t read the Words on their TFTs before.

·         Read-at-Home

Poor workaholic souls who take their work home, yes, both in electronic and paper format. Their trick is to be spotted by the boss with a bunch of Printed Words while leaving the office. Earns them an additional point from the higher-ups and helps them show off their workaholism to their fellow travellers on their way to and from home. (For more on commuting sociology, read this.)

·         Clandestine Publishing Company Pvt Ltd

They will come in early, stay back during lunch hour, or even after hours, so that they can print their copies of War and Peace in peace (sorry for the pun!). The good part about these Publishers is that they avoid bumping chairs, and in fact greet you apologetically and envy you at the same time for sitting so close to the printer. In the beginning, it was strange to be greeted politely for a change rather than being Chair Bumped, but then things fell into perspective pretty soon. Publishers of this type are easy to spot – before striking Ctrl-P, they’ll always look around with shifty eyes and make sure the path to the printer is free of obstructions. And then, they put Usain Bolt to shame by the speed with which they complete their sprint to and from the printer. Oh and yes, a friendly guy sitting next to the machine is a potential partner in their Publishing Company.

·         The Environmentalists

With a stricken expression as if the printer is using their blood rather than ink to do its job, the Environmentalists use duplex printing and hunt around for used paper in their drawers that they can recycle onto the printer tray. You would know them by the tagline Please do not print this unless it is absolutely necessary at the bottom of each of their emails. I would readily have myself Chair Bumped by these people than anyone else, but the trouble is they oblige me very rarely. So that journeys to the printer become social occasions and time for chatting up with long-lost friends who sit near the printer.

And then of course, you have those who sit next to the printer all day and take out prints of their blog posts by the dozen. Muwahahhahaha!!!