Sense of responsibility

Our meeting was a disaster. There was no consensus on even the need to save the company, let alone the way it was to be done.

Mr A, my boss, sat through the meeting, silent, like the man who has accidently walked into a divorce proceeding, but knows not how to extricate himself from the mess without seeming to be rude.

That Mr A was among the oldest employee of the company in our branch did not instill in him any feeling of loyalty that was so manifest in rest of the agitated members. That seemed strange to me, for I believe that his skill-set is not likely to be of any use to any other organization, and that he has a direct stake in the survival of the company.

Later that day in our office, I delicately broached the subject.

“There is a fear that if things continue to slide, it will be curtains for the company. Have you thought of any plan B?’ I asked him, seeing that he was waiting for his opponent to make his move on the online scrabble.

“What for?” he mumbled absently.

“You don’t fear that things will get worse, and we should start brushing up our CVs?” I tried a more direct approach.

“You are panicking too soon. That fool doesn’t know what he is talking about,” answered Mr A. I understood he was talking about his arch-rival Mr X, who was the one who had called the meeting today.

“Why, you see a turnaround?” I asked.

“Of course. Its commonsense. In a company of our size, what you do at branch office doesn’t matter, but what is done at the HQ is important.”

“And…what is being done at the HQ?”

“Nothing, so far as I can see. But that will change with the requirement of the times. Pressure to stay afloat will force them to act.”

“But that can also mean shutting down braches like ours.”

“Of course it can. That could be one of the options. Changes in technology could be another. In fact there are at least half a dozen possibilities of what could happen.”

“None of which we control,” I said, agitated.

“Don’t try to be a control-freak. There are thousands of things in life you don’t control. If you start worrying about all of it, when will you live?” he said, smiling at last.

That bugged me, for it was too condescending, but I let the matter rest.

A few days later, I found Mr A in an agitated state. It was early Monday morning, a time when we generally go for a cup of tea at the canteen, and I asked boss if we should go.

“No, you go ahead. I have something urgent to finish,” he said without looking up from the screen.

“What is it? May I do something?” I asked, surprised.

“Oh nothing. Superboss asked me to make a plan to submit to the HQ to turnaround the dropping sales. He feels that our branch is at stake and that we should take the matter seriously. I totally agree. All the buggers here are living in fools’ paradise, thinking they can keep on living like they did and others will think for them,” he said accusingly.

The change of tack was too quick for me, and I let it sink for a while. Taking a deep breath, I asked, “So what does Superboss want?”

“A proper plan for restructuring, and a new business model that is specific for our branch, but, if possible, something that can be integrated into a model for the whole company. In any case, we must do something to guard our interest,” he explained reasonably.

“What was the provocation today for Superboss?” I asked, for I knew therein lay the solution to this mystery.

“I think he got a letter from the CEO, who refers to a prospect of closing down some branches, and has asked for suggestions to avert such a possibility,” Mr A said.

If our branch were to close down, Superboss may or may not be taken to the HQ. Clearly his job was on the line. So things had come to such a pass.

“What’s the plan you have in mind?” I asked Mr A.

“Changing product line, upgrading technology and aggressively hiring new agents. It is a no-brainer. Shift in technology keeps on happening, and you must incrementally update yourself. If you don’t, you will have crisis at hand, when you will have to do it. We have left things to drift for too long.”

“But the other day you were not so worried. You said that…” I began, but was interrupted.

“I know what I said. And I know what I am saying now,” he said heating up. “Instead of talking shop, that bugger should come up with practical proposals,” he said implying that I was siding up with Mr X.

“Mr X has no plans,” I said to placate him. “But should the HQ not think of solutions. The crisis has been created because they did not act for so long,” I reminded him.

“No. That is where you are wrong. The crisis is because the branches did not give the right picture to the HQ. Did not project their requirements. HQ is not where action is, branches are. We should wake up now, or it will be too late. You call for tea here, we will have to work hard to get this document done today. Maybe we will be sent to the HQ for making a presentation next week….”

Our office was filled with a degree of urgency not seen before. At least not in the last few years. Within a week, the whole branch was buzzing with frenzied activity.

For making an office work, nothing like putting the job of the top man at stake, I thought happily. I wish I could engineer that more often.

***


Botanical Garden at Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The Botanical Garden at Nuwara Eliya is the second enchanting garden that I have visited in Sri Lanka (see pics of Kandy Garden in an earlier post). It would be silly to compare the two, as both of them have very distinct character and charm of their own.

The Botanical Garden at Hakgala, 10 km from the Nuwara Eliya hill station, was setup in 1871 and is located at an elevation of 1745 meters above sea level. The climate in the region is extremely pleasant throughout the year, with hardly any extreme season.

Too much fiddling has not been done by man to disturb the natural beauty of the area, and it is a photograher’s paradise. It does not boast of ancient and historic trees like the Kandy-Peredenia Garden, but has over 10 thousand species of flora and some of its huge trees are also more than a century old.

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Nuwara Eliya

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A bunched up Book Review

animalfarm2Catch-22_1slaughterhouse-five-cover

     

 

 

 

 

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I do not why I have lumped these three books together – there must be a method behind the apparent madness.

The first two are American, the last British. The first two are anti-war while the third is on political philosophy.

But they do have some similarities. They all are from the middle of the last century, all sad-funny, what is called dark-humor. All have an underdog at the center of it, though the ‘underdogs’ in the last are the farm animals ‘minus’ the pigs and the dogs.

All these books have sensational quotes; all of them can be read happily by children and adults alike without meaning anything to them; all of them are depressing, for they ask you to abandon hope and try to understand the society ‘as it is’. All of them are against regimentation through ideology.

***

The central theme of Slaughterhouse Five is on the bombing of Dresden; but is also about Vietnam and other wars that will follow. It is about a person who is ‘unstuck’ in time and exists at all times of his life, all the time. I understand that to be merely living in memory, for the science fiction bit in the novel is really not very important.

Kurt Vonnegut was in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allied forces, for no apparent reason, killing over a hundred thousand civilans – more than the Hiroshima atom bomb. So, the novel is partly autobiographical, and probably that is why it is so rich in detail.

The anti-war sentiments are spot-on and the most beautiful passage is where it describes a war movie running on a rewind.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed
.”

But like I said before, the novel is dark and offers no solution:

That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why
.

***

Another beautiful anti-war novel is the famous Catch-22. Here is how the novel describes the clause “Catch-22” –

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

The confused question of relevance of nationalism that has become so central to the ordering of our lives is brought out thus –

What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

The book is scathing at places, and truly insightful –

“It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Again, as is common with all the books reviewed here, it offers no hope. The society wants a total submission and eventually the life of the individual; the individual instinctively resists, for it is not in his DNA to die for others; much persuasion and heartburn later, the matter remains unresolved. Such novels, after all, can only raise questions and warn against the prevailing lies.

***

The last in the list is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This one does not have a war as its backdrop, and I probably include it to underline the fact that it is not war that is at the root of our problems – war is only a symptom, an inevitable result of the way we have ordered our society and brainwashed ourselves.

Let’s begin with the story, for it is beautifully-childish. The farm animals overthrow the regime of a cruel man and take it upon themselves to run the farm in the best possible manner, in the interests of the animals. But the newly named ‘Animal Farm’ under the democratic rule of the pigs fast degenerates into a dictatorship of ‘Napoleon’, the brightest pig, and his family, who use a group of dogs as their ‘musclemen’. They mainly use ideology and oratory to keep the other animals satisfied, but have to use ‘muscle’ eventually, when even the dumbest start to understand the true nature of the new order. The last lines of the novel shows the animals peeping inside a cabin where the pigs are having a party with the neighbouring humans, and the author concludes –

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The beauty of the novel is that it simultaneously attacks capitalism and communism. And because of that, the novel comes to an inevitable dead-end, where human greed and cruelty comes out victorious once again.

Not surprisingly it was banned in both the US and USSR at one point of time. Written in 1944, it was before the excesses of Stalin era came to be, and so we can also salute the foresight of the author. But the worrisome part is not the “I told you so smirk”, the worrisome part is that the book is so ‘universal’ – reading it you know that this cycle of greed and domination will happen again and again. The way children pick up the same comics to read, again and again and again, despite knowing what will happen.

***


The Great Democrat

He always has a smile ready
Has that son of a gun –
And has a tear or two to spare
For the funerals.
 
He loves his people
And all that belongs to them –
He is their father and teacher
Rolled into one.
 
He is the greatest democrat
He has never lost an election –
Why, when people want to vote
He lets them give him two.
 
His wisdom is unsurpassed
All respect his legal mind –
And when the law fails to serve
He helps the lady blind.
 
A protector, a defender, a nationalist
He is the scourge of the enemy –
And the way he is a-going
In an year there won’t be any.
 
His name will be writ in history
(To that the History Department will see – )
He will set right the ancient wrongs
And set the country truly free.
 
The papers are full of his praise
As they should, for he does no wrong –
And the schoolchildren are glad to study
His autobiography.
 
And that his good work may not go waste
He teaches and prepares –
His wife and sons and daughters
With due care.
 
***

An Ode to Greed

We want more,
And more, and more…
 
How would this poem sound
If I added, “and more”
A few hundred times more?
 
Never mind;
The fact remains
We want more,
And more, and more…
 
***

 


Rumi

rumiLife is fire,
And hatred
And passion,
And desperation-
Life is not lived
With calm reasonableness.
 
The stillness of mind
Reason and balance
The shadowy peace
Of the quiet lake
Hides death, or,
Maybe, something else.
 
Let Rumi talk of love
And peace
And of miracles
Of faith - 
We shall ask Rumi of all that
When we die.

***


How to write a novel

My first class at ‘How to be a Writer’ started with a BANG.

“Mr Teecher, how does one begin a Novel?” I asked getting to the point straight. For I was clear, I want to write a Novel.

“Mr Ranga, we will come to that shortly,” said the long nosed thin Teecher.

But that was not good enough. I knew the fellow would start by teaching short stories and limericks. I had been warned of that by my friend Dhiraj. “These courses are no good,” he said, “they teach you to write short stories and limericks.”

So I persisted. “Mr Teecher, we must start with the Novel,” I said and grinned, for it was no good getting the fellow angry.

“All right,” quoth he, and shrugged. “Although it is irregular, but just to give the class a taste of the best in English literature of the twentieth century, we will begin with the Novel. Now the difference between other writings and the novel is that the latter has a setting and is rooted at a particular time and place. It has a set structure, with a beginning and a resolution. It is normally linear and….”

“All that very well Mr Teecher, but how to start it?” I said, knowing the fellow was making it sound too bad, so I would be discouraged. My friend Dhiraj had warned me of these tricks. Methinks, Dhiraj has attended a writer’s class sometime.

“The start of a Novel,” began the Teecher slowly, for he must have known he was going too fast, and he can’t fool us by going too fast, “can be of any kind. There is no set pattern. I will give you some examples of the beautiful starts of some of the classics.”

So saying, he opened his notebook and starts to read. The fellow has not done his homework, or he should have learnt these by heart. Anyway, this is what he said:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Thus began Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece Anna Karenina, setting the tone for the novel. ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’ wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, positing the conflict of the novel in the first sentence itself…”

The Teecher had misunderstood me. “No, no. How do we start writing a novel, I am asking,” I made my good self clear and grinned, so he may not get annoyed.

The Teecher thought for some time. Slowly he kept his notebook aside, and thought some more. “Although there is a set sequence in which the students are introduced to the art of writing, seeing the enthusiasm of Mr Ranga, I will, for a change, begin with some tips on how to write a novel,” he said, getting my point. You have to be firm with these fellows, Dhiraj had told me, and he was right.

“You must have a plot, to begin with. A rough sketch of the storyline, as it were. The names and characteristics of the main characters must be drawn up…” he began, but I interrupted on an important point.

“Teecher, my drawing is not so good,” I confessed, for when you are going for learning, there is no harm in being honest. It gives man honor and dignity, to confess weaknesses, however painful it may be. Mahatma Gandhi did that, and see what happened to the British Empire.

“Ummm,” thought the teacher, made some faces, no doubt because of deep thought, and said, “Ok, skip the drawing part, just write the characteristics of your main characters – the protagonists…”

After a long lecture, in which I took copious notes, he ended by giving us assignment for the next class, which was, to prepare notes for the novel we wished to write.

***

I worked hard all week, with my notes. I even consulted Dhiraj, who said, do not tell all your notes to class, or other students will cheat and write novel of your bright ideas. That was a good point again, and I worked carefully, hiding some important facts about my main story and my main characters.

***

“Mr Teecher,” I began, when my chance came to read out my notes, which was after two silly girls, who wrote about their heroines who were in love with a Pirate and a Vampire, two different girls, I mean two different heroines…Anyway, as I said I began thus:

“Mr Teecher, my story is about a great man, who was a nobody and became a big man, but ended being a nobody at his death-bed, and thought about the missing opportunities he had for love and doing good. But now, he thinks, no good thinking that now, for it is all over, and I have played my innings.”

I paused for reaction, for I knew the idea was very modern. Generally, people do not show their great men coming down again in their novels. But I did not want to write routine old stuff.

“Go on, Mr Ranga,” said the Teecher, for he was hooked.

“That is all,” I said, for I did not want to reveal all to cheating fellows in my class.

“Mr Ranga, you will have to flesh out the plot. Where did the events take place, when, who were the main characters. And even the plot is too generic. Exactly what happens, how the man becomes great, how does his downfall come about,” said the Teecher.

“It happened somewhere in India, in the twentieth century,” I replied, not giving away much. “The hero was a businessman, who hit it rich in petroleum and becomes a Prime Minister.”

Again the Teecher interrupts me. “The novel has to be plausible. Imagination must be tempered,” he said.

I thought of Dhirubhai Ambani, and saw his point. “Ok, I said. The man makes it rich in the petroleum sector and becomes a king-maker. His decline comes because his sons are no good, and his daughters run away with drivers and actors.”

I was clear that it was not a Dhirubhai story, and this ending would make it clear. “At deathbed, he is in a refugee camp…”

The Teecher interrupts again. “Refugee camp? How did that come in?”

“There was a war in which he lost everything. His industry is nationalized,” I reply, grinning. I could see he had not foreseen that.

“But how does that make him feel about missed opportunities?” Teecher asked, clearly perplexed.

“Because he could have gone over to the enemies side, which was more powerful. But details later,” I said firmly, “Now for the characters. Man, his wife, his two sons, his two daughters.”

The Teecher sighed, “Describe your characters. For example, the description could be like – A balding middle aged man, of medium height. Greying, thin mustache on a rotund face. A middle-class businessman with delusions. Frowning and agitated demeanor. Of modest beginnings, which is evident in his style, dressing and language.”

Methinks, the Teecher dislikes me. It was clear he was describing me, hiding behind the great man in my story. But I let that pass, for, as Dhiraj told me later, Gurus become jealous of their chelas when the chelas start doing better than them.

We were given the task of writing synopsis for each of our chapters for our next class.

***

It was difficult to write synopsis without giving out too much information. I consulted Dhiraj, who said caution is better part of valour. No use showing off in front of class girls, he said, keep the synopsis short.

***

My turn for reading out my synopsis came two weeks later, for I had to listen to the rubbish by the girls about Vampires and Pirates. Some parts I liked, where the girls giggled and said there will be some lovemaking, and that gave me some idea to throw in the sexy parts in my synopsis, and I kept on rewriting and improving. But without giving out the intimate details, as they say.

“Mr Teecher, Chapter 1. Old man is born in a cheap family. He is the thirteenth child. He is put in village school. He decides not to join Mahatma Gandhi, for business is what he likes.

Chapter 2. He goes to college and works at night. Teachers are bad to him and girls giggle. Yes, just like that giggly girl in the front seat. But he is not deterred. He also feels attracted to a rich girl, but not says anything to her. This he will remember at the end of the novel, with regret.”

I look around for reactions, and was happy to note that the girl sitting next to me was smiling.

The rest of the synopsis went off well. Mr Teecher said I should start working on the novel ‘in right earnest’.

***

It has been two years since I wrote my first novel. It set me back two hundred thousand rupees to get it printed. My friends liked it a lot, and Dhiraj was very happy too. He said I should write more, but it is costly to get them published, so I will think about it.

Dhiraj was also right about the Teecher. He is jealous sort of fellow. I asked him to write a praise to be printed in the book. And what he wrote shows he wanted to be a writer, but did not have the guts. He wrote:

“The first novel of Mr Ranga is a notable effort in terms of the ground he has covered from being a semi-literate. The first time he showed up in my class, I knew he would write a novel and get it printed. He has that kind of money, and the burning desire to add respectability. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors as a novelist.”

Anyone can recognize the sarcasm, but he was right about the money and respectability, and so I let his words be printed in my book. In any case, one must not snub gurus. It is not in our culture. Also, my large heartedness would make the fellow squirm at his own mean-ness.

I dedicated the book to Dhiraj, my wife, my two sons and my two daughters. It was unveiled at a glittering ceremony by the Prime Minister.

***


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