A character in search of the author

I missed a beat. I had started off sending these mailers out with the intention of maintaining a rhythm of an update per quarter. I had been to Calcutta last December and was en route to Pune on New Year’s Eve and managed to reach my apartment just in time to ring in the New Year. The apartment that got burgled last month – but that is another story.

So having reached Pune just before the deadline I had set myself, I was too tired to live up to it. By the way, I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. That’s a quote. I was also had this niggling doubt at the back of my mind. Well, two of them, actually.

Was I sending these out because I needed to say something or had I some thing to say? Cliché – but nevertheless relevant. The other thought was some feedback on whether it is prudent being so forthright, in these mailers. Emails do have a way in getting forwarded. But what would I lose if these get forwarded to the “wrong” people. Besides losing the job, that is? What does that mean? Well that is another story.

What were on my mind really were two observations or questions if you may, that stuck on from the brief time that Deep and I spent with Br. Mac. After hearing us yap away for a while he remarked that it was as if we were almost afraid of ourselves; that we were almost trying to convince ourselves that the life we were leading was really great. Really. Hmm.

The other one was that a lot of his students studiously avoid meeting him if they feel they have not been “successful” in life. Conversely, they showed up only when they had “success” to share. May be. I am not sure that that was what I was doing when I met him. I had reached out to him when the chips were really down. I owe it to him to have been able to rescue myself when I was really down. That was a long time back and is really another story.

My going to Narendrapur for a college reunion – the first one since I left college in 1983 – was definitely to face a ghost from the past. It was almost as if to assert that I have done better that what you thought I could. Can you believe it? It took me almost a quarter of a century to go back.

I had stayed off because I didn’t want to be embarrassingly remembered of shouted at as a trespasser. (That’s a quote too.) Some of you reading this email will know what I am saying and smile – it is enough to tell the others that it is not relevant any more. It actually is another story.

The story currently being played out is turning out to be a cliff hanger. It is filled with clues and no one is being able to figure out whether it is one of a dead man walking, or the unfolding of a chronicle of a death foretold, or whether it is a whodunit. I am out looking for the author so that I can replace him and write my own story before it gets out of control. May be I know the author already and am trying to screw my courage to the sticking place (Oh! ain’t he weary of these quotes) and empower myself.

Time is running out. To indulge in another quote before I send this out, “We will not end the nightmare, we’ll only explain it, because this is the Twilight Zone” … that’s from Five Characters in Search of an Exit.

New Sheriff in Town

I had promised in my last quarter mailer that I would try to come back with a “things I built” theme this time. Well there has been a setback. A number of threads that ran through whatever I did through out the last quarter. All of these were in the corporate world. All of them ate into whatever energy that I have to shield my personal life from the former.

Early in July I was in Calcutta on a reconnaissance trip. I had dragged my boss along and got him to introduce me to the powers that be in the Calcutta circuit of my organization. The idea was to relocate soon and set up PeopleSoft operations of our practice group in Calcutta. What was a matter of discomfort was that I would need to poach on my earlier organization.

The first whiff of smoke came in the form of a piece of news that my boss shared with me. There was a proposed change in the senior leadership. There was to be a new sheriff in town, the deputies were unsure of what that would mean. The signs of these change had there for a long time – as you can always discover on hind sight.

The drama is still being playing out over the last three months with the cloaks-and-daggers, smoke-and-mirror and the palace politics that a lot of these internal takeovers generally bring in with them. The final curtain has not come down yet. I suspect that in the game of snakes and ladders in progress, some lead actors will remove themselves from the play.

At this point I can not but remember something in The Economist “Company bosses are being fired in record numbers nowadays. In some ways this is not the disaster for them that being axed is for the rest of humanity…Yet the psychological blow caused by dismissal may be far more devastating to the formerly lionized – now unwanted – corporate leader than it is to mere mortals.”

So what is in it for me? “Thou shall not go to Calcutta”. KB had not cared whether I would go to poach or omelet but this has thrown me off my spin. The axis has changed. I made two trips to Chennai over two weeks in September.

One of them needed me to pass through Bangalore on September 12. What is this with September 12 and Bangalore? I have walked in the city each year that day over the last seven years. The other important date was my birth day.

September 21 is a strange date. I know of three other people who were born on the same date in different years. The name one (born a year later then me) is the same as another who was born on the same day I was. I do not know almost any thing of the other person. I went for lunch with the third person in Chennai. Then, two of my friends and colleagues had daughters born to them on that date and both these babies couldn’t survive the first few hours/days. Now my friend Balvinder has lost his mother on September 21.

To move on to a more cheerful subject would be my brush with the CMMI certification process. I was thrust into the role of a “practice champion” to ensure that we survived the assessment audit. The team slogged for three months to earn the sobriquet “brilliant project”. Two directors and I were given a shirt each bearing the company logo and CMMI initiative for all the hard work.

So, what next? I have lost count of the number of times I have asked myself that question. Some people live in the past, some as if there is no tomorrow, it seems my fate is always to hope for a better future. Have you heard “High Hopes” by Frank Sinatra? I am listening to it as I am typing this. It goes like this: “Just what makes that little old ant / Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant / Anyone knows an ant, cant / Move a rubber tree plant # But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes/ He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes # So any time your gettin’ low ‘stead of lettin’ go / Just remember that ant/ Oops there goes another rubber tree plant”

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It’s fun, and only slightly illegal

When I started this habit of quarterly updates last September I thought it was a neat idea. What I did not realize was that I might be short of words even if I wrote only once in three months. Now, if I am not able to figure out what have I done in the last three months that I would like to talk about, then am I leading the life I would like to? I am sure that some of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances would have the same feeling too.

So why am I doing this any way. I can still hear Br. MacCarthaigh’s commandment “no introductions” in essay classes back in school. This, however, is not an essay, and it is all that I would perhaps be able to write of in this email. I will take a few minutes to explain the purpose of these emails and go along with the risk of losing my readership.

For a number of years I have been noticing that I have been losing touch with people whom I knew. We would promise to be in touch and start exchanging emails. The gap between these mails or phone calls would increase and finally fizzle off. Some stray event would remind me of someone and I would try to write back but that person had by then moved on and the old email address was not valid any more. Even if it did work, it was awkward finding words and picking up the thread.

I tried out some tools and explored the possibility of developing one. I will perhaps write out the specs of the tool some day but I can’t wait till it is developed. Others might benefit but I would lose all my contacts by then. Then I remembered something from my brief encounter with the operations research approach to maintenance of light bulbs.

The approach says that you change all the light bulbs in your charge at a predetermined interval. It doesn’t matter whether they have conked off or not, you just change them. That does not rule out the need for changing bulbs as and when they break down, but you do that as and when required. I leave it to text books to explain the virtues of this approach. I will only say that I have adopted a similar approach.

I have started going in with a mass mailer before a quarter starts (or ends – depends on how you want to look at it). That triggers off notes from some of you. I try to get back with a reply that in turn some of you respond to. This goes on for a while and fizzles off till I return along with a change in the season.

Of late business networking sites have also interested me quite a bit. I have been able to track down some people I knew and had lost contact with. Late in 2005 I was able to find Joao in Portugal and last quarter I found Marcin in Poland . These sites also throw up interesting tidbits.

I have 170 odd contacts in my Linkedin contact list. One of them is in the HR function of Cognizant in Calcutta, one in Bangalore and works for HP, while a third works for Birlasoft in Noida. None of them know each other, but all of them know this gentleman who works for Novell.

I don’t know how such patterns in human connectivity would affect you but it amazed me when I figured this out. It is not difficult to imagine from a logical perspective but to actually see it happen within two degrees of separation is strange. Does that make me a “connector” as Gladwell would define it?

Before I lose all my readers let me squeeze in a few more words.

I pulled off a hat trick of having a visa stamped on the passport for an aborting long term travel. I didn’t travel to Moscow first time this happened, I did not travel to Paris the second time, and now I did not travel to Stoke, near Manchester. I am losing my touch. This destination was not as exotic or exciting as the last couple of times.

I was settling into business operations when I wrote to you last time. This quarter end finds me looking beyond that. Mild cribs, renewing contacts and going places have been major themes in my mailers till now. I will try to come back with a “things I built” theme next time.

Ah, and yes, I almost forgot this. During the last few weeks I have been spending a lot of time at a site that plays songs from the 50’s. I did not know that I did not know of a lot of singers like Alma Cogan, Miki & Griff, Teresa Brewer, Doris Day, Frankie Laine, or Tennessee Ford. The name of the station is “Jodash 50’s” at live365.com and the utility I use to record these songs is the Hi-Q Recorder. It’s fun, and only slightly illegal. Thus spake Monty Python.

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Thoughtzine Vol. 2 Issue 1

This is my third general mailer. Thoughtzine Vol. 2 Issue 1 so to speak. Some of you in your replies or in subsequent conversations have told me that you enjoy my mailers; none have asked me to shut up; at least not yet. Some have referred to them as blogs, one as a page from a “Prison Diary”, but I liked the term thoughtzine the most. It gives you a freedom to write what you want to, yet the reader would expect and settle for a certain framework as far as the table of content goes.

So, to maintain the continuity, I am happy to report that I continued to catch up with some more friends. One of them is Shankar whom I met after thirty odd years. After earning degrees (or should it be learning by degrees) from five countries he now fixes spines of his patients who come into Delhi from all over the world. No wonder he gets to sleep for five hours a day and has to work seven days a week. God knows the number of people in this world who have some problems with their spine. Anyway, to get back to the story line, I met Shankar on my way back from a vacation in Rajasthan.

Meheran Garh of Jodhpur is managed well buy the trust that runs it. It is amusing that it is referred to as the “Meheran Garh” Fort. It is like saying “Meheran Fort” fort. The “Maharaja” of Jodhpur was educated in the west. He has been able to transfer some of the packaging that you would normally see in a museum in the US. Things like the elevator to take you to the main level, the audio tour that has the “extras” thrown in, and the souvenir shop that concludes the tour.

The fort is worthy of such packaging. I wonder though why only one part of the city has indigo painted houses. Or should I be wondering how is it that one part of the city still has indigo painted houses? Cynics might say they get paid to keep it that way.

No one, though, would describe the hustle on the narrow lanes of that lead to the Tripoli Bazaar as managed chaos. It might sound a bit romantic but I believe that you can feel the pulse of a city or town in such narrow lanes. I have always felt nostalgic about the lanes and alleys of places I have been. Be it Asansol where I grew up, or north Calcutta where I migrated to, or Assan in Kathmandu where I went on a project.

The snaking lane in Jaisalmer also threw up surprises. The shopkeeper who sold me a camel skin hat for eighty rupees (when the market rate seemed to be a hundred to one fifty) handed over a silk carry bag worth five rupees when we asked for a poly-bag. Then there was this terrace restaurant on the first floor that offered a wonderful sunset view of the Golden Fort.

A well in the fort is supposed to date back to the time of the Mahabharat. Legends apart; this fort is perhaps the only one in the country that housed the civilian population besides the military establishment and royal family. Real estate deals still take place within the fort walls. The houses are repaired with stones of the antique buildings supplemented by new blocks made from the same material. I saw the house of Mukul of the film “Sonar Kella” being repaired.

Jodhpur might have some industry that is independent of the tourist traffic. Jaisalmer is however totally dependent on tourism. And “Sonar Kella” it seems to have helped to generate a lot of domestic tourism.

The sand dunes that suddenly appear in the barren land about forty kilometers off Jaisalmer also seem like a make believe desert that has been planted there for the benefit of the tourists. It does give you a taste of the desert. You can use your imagination to extend the experience on the dunes to visualize the desert that you see on TV. But somewhere at the bottom of your heart you feel that this is not the desert that you had hoped to see.

I went as a tourist so I could excuse myself gaping at a lot of things. But there were a few feelings, realizations and observations. Commonplace experiences that made a mark: after all that is what travel is all about.

I used to swear by Lonely Planet. It is a great piece of work. I remember the advice to avoid a hotel in Benaras because all the rooms open inwards on to the staircase and that somehow make the hotel very noisy. It is a meticulously researched guidebook that is meant for visiting tourists. Domestic travelers should not plan village safaris in Rajasthan, for example, because the Book advises you to do so.

Then there is a section of the population in popular tourist destinations that are out to fleece you. Be it the “panda” population in Orrissa or the “tribal” population in Rajasthan, or the travel agent who will sell you one backwater trip while promising another. It is always a challenge to enjoy your vacation in spite of these fellow countrymen.

We people of India have a bad sense of history. A young nation with a rich past has complicated matters. The cannon balls on the bastions of the Golden Fort co-exist with the laundry that has been laid out to dry. Unfortunately we are part of the history. The non-western world perhaps remembers history perhaps in a different way too. In the movie Sahara someone says, “We use events to find dates, not dates to find events.”

So what else did I do in that quarter of the Christian calendar year when I went to Sonar Kella?

On the job front I mentioned a transition in my last mailer. I am trying out how “business operations” taste; what the war for talent really means; living the headache of managing young talent, or resources; the trick of housing members of the of the same project in the same work area. I could describe this job as “managing demand and supply in the space-time continuum.” 🙂

I have been active in the cyber space too. I have started using an e-mail it that says shoumo@ganguli.in. I have booked the http://www.thoughtzine.com domain – haven’t yet figured what to do with it. I have also started writing reviews at mouthshut.com. In case you want to have a look at the reviews of the hotels I stayed in during the Rajasthan trip (or the other reviews on Airtel or Pench) you are most welcome to visit http://www.mouthshut.com/user/Saumya.Ganguly.html. If you want to sign up please use the link http://www.mouthshut.com/SIGNUP/Register/register.php?ref=Saumya.Ganguly&rid=R9F1R2.

Jobs that pay the rent

The last time I sent out a mass mailer with some updates it seemed that there was something to talk about. I have been waiting since then for similar events to happen so that I could again write to you. The last quarter has unfortunately been less eventful. But the idea is not to brag about the wonderful life that I am living, it is to share how the chips have been falling.

I was on a flight towards the end of October and was watching “The Devil Wears Prada” where Andy Sachs (after landing a job as the second assistant to Miranda Priestly) is celebrating with her friends. They toast to “jobs that pay the rent”. Good perspective – even if it sounds a bit like Walter Mitty. I wish I could look at my job with such clarity. It would minimize the frustration and would also help me let go and indulge in that dream of starting a farm & kennel or a Sukumar Ray merchandizing business with an online distribution channel. I am sure all of us would like to do the same if we were brave enough or stupid enough – depending on how you look at it.

A fresh perspective is something which I have gained each time I have caught up with someone after a long time. For example meeting Patrick at Belmont or Manoj at Foster City or Sumit at San Jose were experiences in themselves. It is also a very good feeling not only to be able to renew old friendships with ex-colleagues and old classmates, but it also gives your ego a boost to be accepted by the family members too. Manoj’s children listened to my stories, let me have their room for the night and made me a goodbye card when I left.

Sumit and his wife drove me to Palo Alto to watch “Aniket”, an original play performed by Enad (http://www.enadonline.org/aniket/aniket.htm). It is a “Lessons Learnt” case study of a not-so-fictitious couple returning to Calcutta, trying to fit in and enjoy the best of both worlds. It was as if there was this effort by the Bay Area Bengalis to keep the tribe together and discourage defections back to the “homeland” that has moved on and is surviving without their physical presence anyway. But this is, as I said, a “Lessons Learnt” story. For best practices for the same exercise please contact Debasis Das. There are some in my current organization too who have successfully made this transition.

There is isn’t really much to talk about this time. I am trying out a few transitions myself in my job front. I hope I have the energy to continue my efforts. Meanwhile there are these jobs to pay the rent.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, and a Peaceful 2007.

Post Script: I have added 54 recipients to this distribution list. If you are one of them and want to read my back issue I would be happy to email the same.