Monday, November 16, 2009

Nominations for "Achievers of the Year"

Have been thinking for quite a while to write but ended up with at least half a dozen unfinished notes. Looking back into those, I realized all of my thoughts were pointing towards certain unprecedented achievements that some individuals /institutions have achieved over the past few months. I have tried to put them together, and created a list of "Achievers of the year" of my own. Do feel free to comment and also suggest if I missed any names. Here goes the list (not necessarily in the order of importance):
1.The Thakreys and their ilk: For the ability to make an issue out of nothing and getting all the free media attention for it. For integrity in their family and parties-Each one of them toes the same line in spite of all political and personal differences. For setting new benchmarks in ethics in Indian politics. They've definitely broken new grounds by attacking an MLA who chose to disobey them at the floor of the house. Next target: Warning our honorable PM to speak in Marathi the next time he is in Maharashtra, followed by "appropriate action" if he doesn't oblige.
2.Arundhati Roy: Our one-book-wonder, for the ability to speak about almost any topic under the sun and getting all the media attention in the form of front-page articles and prime-time interviews. For saying that India has forcibly occupied Kashmir and has been conducting atrocities on the Kashmiri diaspora (Kashmiri pundits who were killed/migrated/continue to suffer, be damned). For advocating that India should cut its carbon emissions at the expense of its growth (otherwise how will the developed world manage to keep their air conditioners on all the time). For advocating that the barbaric acts of naxalites are perfectly justified (definitely, if they don't scare the government agencies away, how will the mining mafia prevail in the region!)
3.Madhu Koda: His money making abilities will put Warren Buffet to shame. No one would have made USD 400 million in less than 2 years, starting from humble backgrounds of a mine worker.I tried to extrapolate how much he would earn by the time he will be 85 (average age of Indian politicians),assuming he makes money at the same rate and invests it with returns of 10% per annum.The number turns out to be a whopping USD 174 billion! Now who says he doesn't deserve the "Achiever of the Year" award?
4.Bhartiya Janta Party: For setting an example of what will become of a politcal party which is out of power.The BJP has almost become an institution in itself on the aftereffects of losses in elections-chaos,mismanagement,lack of direction and infighting which eventually lead the party on a path to self- destruction.This has enlightened other parties and now they are ensuring whatever it takes to stay in power (including nurturing the "enemy's enemy", money exchanges and what not)
5.The Ambani brothers: For striking this fabolous internal gas-sharing family agreement, which if implemented, would have resulted in billions of dollars of profit for Reliance (billions of dollars lost by the government be damned, anyways the money if gone to the government would have been lost in corruption). Now what with the deal not coming through, the brothers have again shown strong belief in business ethics by taking their (dirty) secrets out and washing their linen in full public view.
6. Ajmal Kasab: For the ability to keep the Indian media as well as courts interested in what was originally an "Open and shut" case. His resilience (e.g. asking for mutton biryani) even while he may be on a (never -ending) death trial is a lesson that each one of us needs to learn. That his trial has been going on for a year now proves the Indian judicial system is fair and just, and gives an equal opportunity to everyone to plead for innocence, even if it is a man who was caught red-handed, was recorder on a thousand cameras, has hundreds of witnesses and even has confessed to his crime.
7.Manu Sharma: For enlightening hundreds of thousands of people languishing in jails, on how to get out of the prison and lead a normal life. He is a father-figure for all those convicted for various crimes and has shown the ways in which one can make the law authorities show their generosity. Up next is a book from him on "!00 ways to escape punishment for serious crimes". We believe the book will be a best-seller
8.The media: For ensuring the Indian television viewer is so much informed that he can put Britannica and Wikipedia to shame. Because of our news channels, people are already aware and prepared for the impending doomsday in 2012, a Chinese military invasion that has already started, and that by 2050, the entire human race will be wiped out from earth and replaced by robots.The media must be also be lauded for its role in highlighting the heroism and achievements of all the 7 achievers mentioned above.
The list probably doesn't end here!!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Maya's Maya

It is simply amazing how an individual can make a mockery of the entire government machinery and manipulate it to suit one's own pursuits. I am of course talking about the one-in-only Behenji who has made the state exchequer her own pocket money to turn most of UP into a "statue state". Probably it is a befitting indicator of state of affairs in UP. While the honorable CM is blatantly misusing the government machinery to fill up her pockets and establish a "Maya only" rule in the state, all others are expected to behave as statues and keep quiet. But what baffles me all the more is how come none of the political parties did not speak about it when she started spending billions of rupees on her "iconic pursuits"? Why did they open their mouths only after the elections were over and when it was clear that Behenji is not even a marginal player anymore, forget the king maker's role that was anticipated before the elections? Why did our leaders have to keep quiet till the inauguration date of these parks and statues, an instance of the most gross misuse of public money in recent history? Just to earn some additional brownie points and get some political mileage? At least an intervention a couple of months ago would have saved a few millions from the state exchequer!
Finally it took a PIL from one of the commoners for to make the entire country stand up and take notice. Again two things clearly come out of this: 1)Our political parties, irrespective of their so-called "morals" and "affiliations", cannot be trusted, and 2)In spite of our judicial system being one of the most slowest in the world, it still works!
I wonder what came to Mayawati's mind when she thought about littering the entire state with tonnes and tonnes of stone. If she really wanted to make her name and make people remember her, won't it have been more fruitful to spend the billions on schools and hospitals named after her and Kanshi Ram? What about a "Maya education scheme" where all school going kids from the weaker sections get an additional stipend on top of free education? Or maybe a "Kanshi Ram UP nirmaan" scheme, where village panchayats can get aid from government for panchayat-led infrastructure improvement projects in the village? Talking of social empowerment, special courts could be set up to deal with cases involving the people from weaker sections of the society to ensure fast-track redressal of cases. But social empowerment has never been on Behenji's agenda. While her own purse has swelled over the past decade to crores of rupees, the people in the state who vote her, are still looking up to her to fulfill those elusive promises.
I have been thinking about what could be the possible answers from Behenji's stable once she has to give an explanation for this gross laundering of public money. I am already in for a surprise with the first shot from her gun-that these parks and statues are being developed as tourist hot spots. Tourist hot spots? Behenji, it's high time you got right your sense of what tourists look for. It's no wonder why the state hardly draws any tourists in spite of a rich cultural heritage of the Hindi heartland and Mughlai influence in and around Lucknow. May be another explanation she will come up with, will be that through these statues and parks, she gave employment to thousands of stone carvers and construction workers who have been losing business of late. Hence, it is a targeted "package" for a specific community.
Of course this sounds ridiculous but trust Behenji to come up with even more ridiculous reasoning. But can anyone stop this misuse of money and ensure the state exchequer is spent where it ought to be-ensuring the basic needs of people like healthcare, housing, education, jobs, are met? Can the central government or the courts step up and stop this rampant mockery of governance? Unfortunately I don't trust the former and the latter has too little power in its hands.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Of identities, names and lotus notes

I hate lotus notes. It will make you wonder, what the heck! Of all the things on earth, why would I choose a nondescript email software as something to loathe? Well, there’s a long story behind this, which started from the day I was born. In pursuit of my parents’ desire to have an “attractive and unique” name, they tried out a variety of permutations and combinations on me. They kept stumbling upon new names only to find out a few months later that they were not as “attractive and unique” as they thought! This meant that by the time I was five, I had already lived as Siddharth, Saurav and Gaurav before finally being christened as Vivek, the name that sticks on till today. It took my parents a couple of years to figure out that even Vivek was not as unique as they thought, but apparently they had run out of options by then.
Throughout this transition of changing identities, there was something that always stuck with my name-my last name, Sharma. Until I joined McKinsey!
The day I joined the firm, I was given a strange sounding email ID vivek_sharma-xfr@mckinsey.com. I wondered why this strange suffix was attached to my name, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that I had two more namesakes in the Chicago office. Things started getting bad when I and one of my namesakes started getting each other’s emails almost everyday, with some confidential and not-so-confidential information spilling over into each others’ mailboxes. Finally, within a week, I was requested by the IT guys to suggest an alternative name for myself, as lotus notes is too na├»ve to differentiate between vivek_sharma@mckinsey.com and vivek_sharma-xfr@mckinsey.com ! To keep things simple, I went for a truncated last name and agreed to an email ID of vivek_s@mckinsey.com. I had never imagined in the wildest of my dreams on what would follow in the future. Read on:
To give a background to those unaware of how lotus notes works, unlike other email clients, lotus notes assumes your name to be the same as your email ID. This means, it stores my name in its databases as “Vivek S” and not as “Vivek Sharma” (which, since I was five, for all practical/impractical and official/unofficial purposes, is the name I have been using). Things are all the more annoying since lotus notes does not even differentiate between names with the same letters. For example, if you type “Vivek S” in the address bar while sending an email, the stupid software will pick up vivek_s@mckinsey.com from the address book, not bothering that there is a “Vivek Sikaria”, a “Vivek Shankaran”, or a “Vivek Sharma” (my namesake) in the same address book, all having the same letters in their names!! This is unlike other mail clients where typing initial letters of a name will let you choose from the contacts that have the same letters in either name or email ID.
Now, since in all my email communication, my name appears as Vivek S, most people assume it to be my name. Thanks to this, for all practical purposes in the firm. I have been rechristened as “Vivek S”. Even all the official transactions including my salary slip, flight tickets etc. have my “new name” engraved on them (though I have been able to change some of them after repeated reminders). Not that the attempts to remind people that I am “Vivek Sharma” and not “Vivek S” have been successful. In fact, they have been real disasters as people ended up sending emails to my namesake in the Chicago office. Some of them include flight bookings, hotel bills etc. which are followed by frenzied responses from my namesake, asking the travel desk not to charge his credit card! One of my assistants has even recently emailed a scanned copy of my credit card, with CVV number to my namesake, I am just hoping that I don’t end up getting massive bills from Chicago in my next credit card statement!
A few months back I landed up at the ITC Kakatya hotel in Hyderabad and they won’t let me check-in since I did not have my passport with me. I was amazed why on earth would I need a passport to check-in into a hotel in India, especially when rest of my team did that without any hassles! I finally found out that the booking was done in my namesake’s name, who holds a US passport. Nevertheless, I finally managed to sort things out and gave them my business card. They signed me up for their rewards program and now I get monthly newsletters from them at my office address, with my name addressed as “Vivek Sharma, Associate Principal, McKinsey & Company”! Every time someone else from my team sees the newsletter and if I am around, I can be assured a full day of leg-pulling (which thankfully doesn’t happen too often, as I am out of office on most days).
I have been putting up at Ritz Carlton in Jakarta for most of my time in the past six months and every time I check-in, I find myself listed as a Singapore citizen, born in 1965 and Director of Development, Asia! That was another of my namesakes who doesn’t exist in the firm anymore. In spite of my repeatedly telling the hotel staff that this guy doesn’t exist in the firm anymore, they still end up messing it 8 out of 10 times. It is so annoying to find myself listed as 43 years old in their database!
But having namesakes can also have its advantages, one of which I got during my trip to Hong Kong last year in July. I landed up at the JW Marriot and was quite surprised with the exceptional courtesy these guys offered me, the goodies including free room upgrade, complimentary breakfast & drinks and access to their business lounge. I first of all assumed the special courtesy was thanks to a platinum credit card from a prominent bank that I flashed, but I soon realized something fishy, as none of my team members, including an EM, were getting any of those privileges. But I chose to keep quiet and enjoy the goodies. My doubts that it was a case of mistaken identities were confirmed at my checkout, when they handed over a box of chocolates and a birthday card to me. My birthday was a good seven months away! If this wasn’t enough, the hotel even sent me a “Platinum Plus” card a few days later, which apparently you get when you spend more than 75 nights a year in JWM properties. I don’t remember having spent more than 7 in my entire life!
A couple of years ago I would have never imagined a minor glitch in an email client would make so much of different to my life, but it has, and in the most unbelievable manner. It is quite annoying but at the same time quite funny at times as well. Here’s what IT can do to your lives!!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The slumdog phenomenon

So amidst all the hype, Slumdog finally laughed its way to the Oscars, sweeping almost every award it was nominated for. The movie has truly proven to be the underdog movie of the decade, rising from a situation where its distributors backed out and Danny Boyle had to scout for a new distributor, who agreed for a limited release only. Rest of course is history.
Much has been written about what made the movie such a big hit. Whether it was the (seemingly unacceptable to some) unashamed portrayal of slums in India or the feel-good factor that the movie brought about in these depressing times, it is difficult to say what exactly made the film click. If you take my personal opinion, it was a good movie, but I am not sure whether it was really worth the 8 (or 9, I couldn't care less) Oscars it won. I think there have been several movies in the past which were much better than Slumdog, but probably it was the Slumdog phenomenon that blew everyone away. So much so that, even a movie like The Dark Knight, both a commercial blockbuster and critically acclaimed movie, totally lost its sheen to this year-end hype. Look at Jai Ho, which has turned out to be a phenomenon. Does any of the ARR fans believe this song would even figure in his all time top-20 compilations? No way! Same with Gulzar, of all the hundreds of masterpieces he created in his 50 year career, he just needed lady luck to smile on him for just an average song to get this award!
Back in India, the movie has created substantial hype, especially after the Oscar wins and the slum-kids going all the way to the Kodak theater for the for the red carpet. I have been reading some interesting developments including people protesting the term "Slumdog" and opposing the portrayal of the "other face of India". I guess rather than crying foul, the movie should actually be an eye-opener for we Indians. In spite of the advances we made in IT and manufacturing, in spite our professionals proving their mettle across the globe,in spite of the 9% growth rates, we cannot hide the fact that we are still a country that still has hundreds of millions of people living in abject poverty, people who do not have access to even the basic of needs-housing, sanitation, health care and education. Why are we claiming Slumdog shows India in poor light? Is it not the true picture of a sizable population in India? It is high time we also looked at the plight of "Whining India" instead of just basking on "Shining India" and worked to improve the living standards of the people living in slums.
We Indians hate to look at the hard realities. The movie in no way criticizes the slums of India, it is in fact quite an outstanding portrayal of the hope that exists even among the minds of poorest of these people, but some people find this offensive. Some even accuse this will start a new wave of "Slum tourism"! Why are we so defensive? Why can't we accept the fact that our infrastructure sucks? Why can't we accept that almost 30% of our billion plus population still does not attend the school? Why can't we sportingly accept that we are a developing nation, and are getting there, and getting there very fast? We still need to bridge significant gap compared to the developing world, and if we are confident that we are on the right track to bridge this gap, we should not be ashamed of accepting the present. Else, we will be simply living in a fool's paradise without realizing the ground realities.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Indonesia tales

A lot has happened since I scribbled something on my blog. Oil prices dropped down from 150$ to ~35$ a barrel, USA got a new President, the world slipped into probably its worst recession ever, Merril Lynch and Lehman Brothers went kaput, our PM got a surgery done, Satyam created a flutter in the entire IT industry, slumdog became the underdog at the oscars, and of course, on top of all newsboards these days is the massive bailouts being planned across the globe. Even the newspapers bear a completely changed look these days. Flip through any financial newspaper six months ago and one would find news about companies making record profits and having massive expansion plans, stocks markets going at record highs and B-schools setting new records in placement. Turn to today, the newspapers are agong with companies making record losses, every corporation is talking about layoffs and cost cutting, while there are many others filing for bankruptcy.

 Coming to the main theme of this post-I am taking a shot at an altogether different category of "current affairs" this time. Read on to find out: 
 The past few months also have had quite interesting developments on my personal front as well. I have been out of India for almost six months now, save the once-in-a-while weekend or extended weekend trips to India. This is the first time I have been away for so long and initially I was quite excited to be working out of India. Overall it has been quite an overwhelming experience, working across boundaries, aquanting with different cultures, experimenting with cuisine and exploring several places where I probably would never visit again in my life. I will never forget hopping onto a ferry along with our Innova after a gruelling 10-hour drive and then driving further for ~2 hours through dense forests to this place called Kotabaru where probably I was the first foreigner to visit the place ever. Another one was to a place called Tanjung Uban where I had to step into a motorboat and traverse into the sea, we had no life jackets and I didn't know how to swim! Finally, having reached that place, someone informed the local police that there was some foreigner moving around in the town. The next day, a policeman and an immigration guy landed up in my client's office and asked for my passport. They took it away for verification and gave it back after 3 hours! Those were probably the scariest 3 hours of my life! If that was not enough, we were taken out for lunch at a Padang restaurant and I could not eat anything. I survived on fried and instant noodles for four days! And how can I forget the Padang food-standard serving is at least 20 dishes on the table-all served at once and the guys charge you only for what you eat. Rest is served to the next customer. Doesn't sound hygenic but you can't be a chooser in the middle of nowhere! What added flavor to all these adventures have been the airlines in indonesia. My key takeaway-never ask them for a seat preference-you will get the worst seat available on the plane. I had to travel in economy in domestic flights a few times and whenever I asked for an emergency row seat, I was dispatched to the last row! But there were a couple of instances when I got it (pulling my language assistant for talking to the airline staff helped!). So on those days, even though I was supposed to be the guy to open the emergency exit door in case of an emergency, the air hostesses would come, give their instructions in Bahasa (Indonesian language) without even bothering to ask me if I understood even a word of it, and go away! No wonder Indonesian airlines have a poor safety track record and are not allowed to fly anywhere to Europe! And of course, every flight in Indonesia comes with complementary weather turbulences where you can be almost blown off your seat, and landings when you feel as if the aircraft is going to turn turtle at the drop of a hat!
 People in Indonesia are quite friendly in striking up a conversation and whenever I meet someone here, this is the typical first conversation I end up having most of the time:
Q: Vivek, are you married?
A: No
Q: Oh, so then you must be having a girlfriend!! Is she from India?
A: I don't have a girlfriend. I am happily single (P.S. The stress on "happily" is deliberate and straight from the heart)
Q: How is this possible?(looking at me, shocked!) I don't believe this (scratching his/her head)!! How can you be not married and not even have a girlfriend (bewildered look)? 
A: Yes, it's true, you have a living example in front of you, and it's purely by choice! (smiling as usual)

 A related interesting development has been the speed at which all my ex-classmates and friends are walking down the isle. On an average, I am receiving at least one wedding invitation every week (there are three for next week though, all in the same city). This is really making me think if it is the time for me to get cruxified as well. I always thought I had plenty of time on my hands to think about it. (I still believe the same!) But with so many wedding invitations being poured in, I am being forced to think whether I've grown old enough to bite the bullet! I talked to one of my friends today-he just got his 3-year old daughter enrolled in school. Gosh!! 
 I also realized I am spending a lot more time on the social networking sites these days, though I blame it on the loneliness here in Indonesia-an alien country with nothing to do but work, and a limited circle of people to talk to, or hang out with. Thankfully, I am still not at the desperate extent of flipping through profiles of pretty faces on orkut/facebook/myspace and dropping messages like "hi, can we be friends", etc.!! Hope that doesn't happen as well!

 This was my first attempt at going beyond current affairs, though my initial intent was different. Hope you liked reading. Do pour in your suggestions. Your inputs on topics for fresh posts will be highly welcome. I am anyways looking for some alternative careers in these times of recession, your inputs on whether I can make it as a professional blogger on not will be highly welcome.
 
Cheerio,
Vivek