Sunday, March 26, 2006

The many moods of the Prime Minister

A photographer from Plus Ultra visited Parliament when it was in session and managed to capture the Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh in a variety of moods and different facial expressions.

From left to right and top to bottom :

Ecstatic........ Crestfallen ...........Pensive ..........Suspicious

Withdrawn ..... Assertive .......... Submissive.... ..... Boisterous...... ....

Calculative...... Manipulative.... Euphoric........ Appreciative

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The eternal bachelor

Among the many hundreds of people who frequent the Marina Beach for their morning walk, there is a particular group of walkers referred to by others simply as ‘the Walkie-Talkies’. As the name suggests, they are a pretty garrulous bunch and known for their ruthlessness in dissecting any subject under the sun and examining it with a critical eye. They can cover an awesome range of topics, from the waist size of the girl who just passed them by to more cerebral discussions on how Nostradamus had predicted two thousand years back that humankind would be knocked out of existence by mobile phones.

One morning, the Walkie-Talkies had settled down into their rhythm when a Nike-Shorts brought up the topic of TV serials and how most of the stories revolved around mothers-in-law and how they were being projected as much-feared, larger-than-life figures. To which observation, a Polo T-Shirt added that it was a well-established rule that the mother-in-law was the central and dominant character in Indian society and her writ ran large and unchallenged . An Adidas Track-Pants concurred and cited the example of his own household where his mother ran roughshod over his wife. Bata Thatha, who had been uncharacteristically quiet so far, interjected at this point, “Gentlemen, what you say is substantially true, but there are some exceptions. Let me tell you the story of my cousin’s son, Ashok”

“My nephew Ashok (said Bata Thatha) was a mama’s boy, if ever there was one. Right from the day he was born she kept him under her thumb and refused to let him out of her grip. He was brought up as a timid boy and not allowed to mingle or play with other children in his school or his neighbourhood. He was, understandably, an object of much ridicule.

But, as was the case with all male members of my family, he grew up to be a tall and handsome young man and attracted the attention of many young girls. Ashok may have been timid, but his hormones soon started to assert themselves and he concluded, quite rightly,that he needed to get married at the earliest. An arranged marriage was out of the question, as his mother would never put in a serious effort at match-making and would even sabotage any attempt by others. So, he had to find a girl himself and somehow convince his mother to accept her. He went about this task with vigour.

The first girl that Ashok brought home was Malini, who was wheat-complexioned, long-haired and strikingly pretty. After she was introduced to his mother, they sat down in the living room, where Ashok hoped that pleasantries would be exchanged and the mother won over. At this point, his mother whispered to him “Ashok, can I have a word with you alone?” He followed her, nervously, into the kitchen, where she told him clearly, “Ashok, that girl must simply go. I don’t approve of her hair. Far too long and unnaturally black. Must have been dyed.” Ashok, though disheartened, knew that it was futile to argue with his mother, as she was known to cling to her position for ever once she had made up her mind. So, he had to reluctantly lead Malini out of the house and let her go.

The next one to come home was Shalini, who was tall, slender and with short, brownish hair. She had hardly removed her slippers and walked into the house when his mother nudged Ashok on his ribs and said, “Ashok, can I have a word with you alone?” So, off to the kitchen they went, where Ashok was ticked off sharply, “Are you mad? Can’t you see that she is terribly underweight and malnourished? Even her hair is falling off. She must, most certainly, go.” So, sadly for Ashok again, Shalini went out of his life.

The third one was Dharini, small-made, bright-eyed and curly-haired. She lasted a little longer. In fact, they had got past the introduction, exchanged small talk at the living room and had now moved to the dining room for lunch. Just when Ashok was beginning to entertain some hopes, his mother uttered the dreaded words, “Ashok, can I have a word with you alone?” So, the kitchen it was once again, where Ashok was severely rebuked, “Ashok, that girl must go, pronto. She is so short that she doesn’t even reach the top of the dining table”. Ashok again reconciled himself to his fate and had to drag Dharini out of the house and into the street. He had, to use his mother’s words, let her go.

A broken-hearted Ashok met me (continued Bata Thatha) six months back and narrated his tale of woe. He told me that he was terrified of taking any girl home and mortally scared of the sentence, “Ashok, can I have a word with you alone?” that his mother would bring up ominously as a prelude to rejecting any girl on the slightest pretext.

Though Ashok is a spineless imbecile, I felt that I couldn’t let a relative down, especially one who was in such serious trouble. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water. So, I thought it over and came up with a typically brilliant suggestion, a sure remedy for his painful malady. “Ashok,” I told him, “the mistake you have made in each case is to allow your mother to find some reason, some trivial excuse or other, to reject the girl. What you must endeavour to do is find a girl who is an exact replica of your mother in every way and bring her home. Your mother will not be able to find any cause for rejecting her”

All male members on my father’s side of the family can think on their feet and Ashok, astounded by my idea, set out immediately, in single-minded pursuit of such a girl. And, he found her! Harini was her name.

Harini was exactly like his mother in every detail- shape of eyes, height, colour of hair, complexion, you name it. She dressed like his mother did, in a traditional sari. She talked just the way his mother did- in that measured, slow, manner. Even, most of the mannerisms- raising the eyebrows, scratching the nose, etc- were similar. When she got up and walked, her gait matched his mother’s step for step.

And it worked! Ashok’s mother was cornered and overpowered at last. She could not come out with a single flaw or a single reason for rejecting the girl. Not once during the evening did she ask Ashok, “Ashok, can I have a word with you alone?”

Bata Thatha paused at this point to tie his shoelaces. The others pounced on him. Nike- Shorts said, “Your story and the happy ending only corroborate our point that the mother-in-law was the most dominant character in our society”.

Bata Thatha finished tying his shoelaces and implored the other Walkie-Talkies to be patient, “Wait, the story is not yet over. Let me complete”.

It is true (resumed Bata Thatha), that Harini by bearing an amazing similarity to his mother in looks, mannerisms, gait, etc managed to get past the ordeal. Ashok’s mother, for the first time, did not raise any objections, as rejecting Harini would tantamount to a rejection of her own self. She had to give Harini her stamp of approval”

But, at this point, Ashok’s father who had never had a meaningful conversation with him at any point in his life, tapped Ashok on his shoulders and said, “ Ashok, can I have a word with you alone ? That girl, Harini, must go. She is too much like your mother.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The bacterial warfare

Unable to fathom how a bunch of second-rate English cricketers could crush the Indian team and inflict such a humiliating defeat at home, I caught up with former Indian test cricketer, Vijay Ghanekar (name changed to protect identity) to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Out of the 46 test matches that Vijay figured in, between 1974 and 1986, India won 28 – all of them on home soil. So Vijay has impressive credentials to speak on this subject and do an incisive analysis. What did they do right then? What are we missing now?

“Quite simply, all we did was to make sure that the visiting Englishmen drank plenty of water”. said Vijay sipping his beer that I was paying for.

“What do you mean, drink plenty of water?” I asked, scratching my head .

“Yes, as soon as any English team arrived at the Bombay airport and got past the Customs, we would line up to give them a traditional welcome and offer them a glass of water each, drawn from a well close by. Before they reached their hotels, the bacteria in the water would have the desired effect on their sensitive stomachs and they would head straight for the bathrooms. The “Delhi-belly’ would ensure that they were kept in safe custody in these bathrooms for the remainder of their tour, rather than at the nets. When they came on to bat occasionally, they would be in no condition to face our bowlers- even one as pot-bellied as Prasanna or as big-bottomed as Bedi. Some Englishmen wanted to shed their white flannels for brown pants”

Vijay recalled an incident. One of the English cricketers, Phil Edmunds, returning home after a two-month tour of India, uttered these memorable words “ You know what I am looking forward to, back in England? A dry fart”.

“I can’t forget”, Vijay continued, “ the sight of Richard Hadlee, the New Zealand fast bowler, in a Test match in 1976, starting his run-up and collapsing on the ground just before he reached the bowling crease. He had to be removed on a stretcher. The Indian batsmen in the middle exchanged high-fives, pleased that the team’s bacterial move was working. India went on to win the test match by a huge margin”

“So, what ended this winning streak?” I asked innocently

“ The advent of mineral water in the ‘90s triggered a sharp decline in our fortunes. Now, every visiting cricketer is offered bottled, ozonised, ultra-pure, mineral water and the famous Indian bacteria is simply not allowed to work its patriotic magic and do its bit for the country. What a shame”, he lamented.

“ In cricket, as in war, love and business one has to identify one’s competitive advantage get one’s strategy right, and deploy the right resources as early in the process as appropriate. Our strategy then was to dehydrate the Englishmen, using water-borne bacteria as soon as they set foot on Indian soil. Our real heroes were Vibrio cholerae, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and the diarrheogenic Escherichia coli. Ah, they don't make 'em like that any more....

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Pontiff.......

President Kalam is, no doubt, an erudite scholar, a scientist of distinction and a man of unquestionable integrity. But the President’s pronounced propensity to pontificate for prolonged periods can arouse as much anger as my annoying alliterations. He seems to be convinced that God brought him into this world, planted him purposefully in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and placed on his broad shoulders the onerous task of educating every single Indian who comes within his striking distance. He takes this role seriously and performs persistently. No person is spared his tedious lectures, no subject is outside his grasp and no occasion finds him at a loss for words. Unwary people are converted into unwilling pupils at the slightest provocation.

If he is tiring, the media can be quite exasperating. How many times have we been told that the “President stunned the visiting dignitary by making a PowerPoint presentation”, when all it takes to do that is to press a button with one’s forefinger – a task that is not beyond the capability of even an one-eyed, one-armed, bow-legged, imbecile. It is certainly not rocket science.

Yesterday, my attention was drawn to a news item, headlined, “President wears his scientist cap as plane hits air pocket”. I am not able to find it in the online edition, but I will give you the gist. It started by saying that when the President was returning from Mauritius and having a mid-air chat with the members of the media at 1.30 am, the plane suddenly became very bumpy and bouncy, causing some nervousness among the media persons. Pausing at this point and reflecting on the headlines, I thought to myself that the news item would go on to say that the President had launched into an explanation of the phenomenon of air pockets, how turbulence is created when bodies of air moving at different speeds meet at high altitudes, how the changes can cause the lift of the plane’s wings to vary quickly and unpredictably or some such funda.

Instead, the awestruck correspondent goes on to report that the President remained calm and unruffled in the face of such adversity and pacified the media thus, “ This is a normal geographical feature. When a plane hits a cloud, it will bounce”

The sycophantic correspondent ends the report unable to contain his admiration at the President’s repertoire of knowledge, his amazing understanding of the actions of all the physical forces in the Universe and the breathtaking insights he is able to provide on the most complex of subjects.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Don't worry, be happy

The root cause of most of the problems that we face as adults is that, somewhere down the line, we jettison the cheery disposition and unfettered exuberance that characterize our teens. As teenagers, we would have laughed our guts out on seeing the Maths teacher trip over a banana skin and fracture his ribs. Served the old man right, we would have told ourselves. ‘Guy ought to be happy that he wasn’t knocked down by a truck’ we would have commented in a careless manner and carried on with whatever youthful activity we were engaged in at that moment.

At some pre-ordained moment soon after our teens, we metamorphose into morose morons. Sliding into adulthood, we lose our bearings and our sense of humour completely. When a colleague trips over his shoelace and rolls down a flight of stairs, rather than assessing the situation as one pregnant with comical possibilities we reach out to help that person to his feet, overpowered by a misguided sense of sympathy and concern. A 14-year old would have remarked that the fellow who rolled down from the third floor ought to be thankful that it wasn’t the sixth floor he started his roll from, so why the unnecessary fuss?

It is all a matter of perspective - as my daughter has been trying to impress upon me for years. Consider these conversational nuggets.

(when she is 5 years old): Can I take four of these chocolate éclairs?

Me: Four éclairs!

Daughter: Am I asking you for the whole box? Be thankful I want only four of those.

Five years later, same parent, same offspring:

Daughter: Can I invite thirty of my friends to my birthday party?

Me: Thirty friends!!

Daughter: I have forty classmates. I am being extremely considerate to you and inviting only thirty of them. You ought to be thankful, you know.

Five more years roll on:

I need to go to the beauty parlour. To colour my hair

Me: And I am expected to sponsor the event. How much?

Daughter: Five hundred rupees.

Me: Five hundred for your burgundy hair!!!

Daughter: Listen; some of my friends spend two thousand rupees on hair smoothening and a massage. I am merely colouring my hair and it sets you back by a measly five hundred rupees. Be grateful, you stingy Scrooge.

You follow the pattern. Any situation, however grim, can be made to appear rosy, by invoking an image of an even graver situation, thereby placing the original problem in a new perspective and a favourable setting. You end up thanking your stars that you had averted a major calamity and that you had actually gotten away lightly. As in
this letter written, from a boarding school, by a daughter to her mom and dad. Or those good-news, bad news jokes we keep reading.

Why not apply this technique in some typical situations? :

: I have the scan reports. You have brain tumour.

Patient: Brain tumour!!!

Doctor: It is far better than being diagnosed with meningomonosi calmnia, a rare disease that attacks the middle toe and can prevent you from wearing shoes. believe me. Be thankful, it is just your brain that has been affected.

: We are downsizing. You are fired!

Employee: Fired!!!!

Boss: We had to gun down a few of your other colleagues. Believe me, you are a lucky devil!

You have been glued to that stupid computer for two hours now. Why don’t you stop your silly blogging and do some useful work for a change?

Me: There are some incurable addicts in the blogosphere who cannot get off the computer and who need to post some stuff or other for 22 hours every day. You are lucky to have as your life partner, an amazingly responsible and incredibly sensible person who strikes such a wonderful balance and exercises such remarkable restraint. Be happy, woman.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Brahmastra

The historic Indo-US nuclear deal was signed after several rounds of hectic negotiations. While dozens of scientists, diplomats and bureaucrats participated in these talks, the public is not aware that the deal almost fell through, but was made possible by the single-handed effort of one man. A senior correspondent from Plus Ultra reports from behind the scenes and provides the hour-by-hour sequence of events that unfolded on March 2nd 2006.

8.00 am: Indian team consisting of Ronan Sen, India’s Ambassador to USA, Shyam Saran, Foreign Secretary and Mr.Narayanan, National Security Advisor admit to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that no headway was made during the discussions that went on till early hours of the morning

9.00 am: US Secretary of State, Ms Condoleeza Rice, says that US will insist on safeguards

10.00 am: Indian scientists offer to wear pads, gloves and abdomen guards while testing nuclear bombs

11.00 am: US rejects these safety measures as “short of adequate”

12.00 Noon : PM calls up US President George W Bush and says that India will now have to play its last trump card that afternoon. President Bush is still clueless what this is all about. PM issues instructions to launch Operation Brahmastra

2.00 pm:. President Bush visits Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Warmly welcomed by President Abdul Kalam.

3.00 pm: President Kalam begins his powerpoint presentation on his “Grand Vision 2025”

4.00 pm: President Kalam on his 10th slide and beginning to explain vision to President Bush, in his thick Tamil accent

5.00 pm: President Kalam on his 25th slide and warming to the theme. President Bush seen getting restless.
( Photo : President Bush seen in state of growing restlessness as President Kalam is transiting to his 42nd Powerpoint slide)

6.00 pm: President Kalam on his 45th slide, about to elaborate on his theme. President Bush seen getting extremely fidgety

7.00 pm: President Kalam on his 62nd slide, dwelling on his idea of power-generation by a mini-grid of microturbines running on methane released by Indian cattle. President Bush seen in extreme state of agitation.

8.00 pm: President Kalam on his 87th slide, and nearing the half-way mark of his presentation.

8.12 pm: President Bush throws up his hands in despair, capitulates and begs to be let out

8.14 pm: Indian negotiatiors with pen in hand ask Bush to sign the nuclear deal, if he wants to be put out of his misery. President Kalam stands menacingly with finger on the PgDn button of his laptop.

8.15 pm : President Bush inks the deal. PM sticks to his end of bargain and prevails upon President Kalam to stop his presentation.
8.17 pm: President Bush rushes to the safety of his Air Force One aircraft and takes off.

Operation Brahmastra was a complete success.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fly Indian

On reading media reports on the rebranding of ‘Indian Airlines’ as “Indian”, Plus Ultra caught up with the Civil Aviation Minister, Mr.Praful Patel, as he was just about to board a Jet Airways flight and sought more details. Excerpts from this exclusive interview :

Plus Ultra: Mr. Praful Patel, what was the inspiration behind the change of name to “Indian”? Is it meant to appeal to the sense of patriotism and therefore put some moral pressure on Indians to patronize the national carrier?

Praful Patel : Contrary to the general opinion that “Indian” is a shortened form of “Indian Airlines” or is meant to convey “something belonging to India”, the word Indian is actually derived from “ Incredibly dissatisfied avian”. Yes, that’s what it stands for and aims to achieve.

Plus Ultra: When the entire corporate world seeks to increase customer satisfaction, why is Indian harping on ‘dissatisfaction”?

Praful Patel: I need to give you some background. Some time back, we had appointed Mckinsey as our consultants to help us formulate our new business strategy. They brought with them a battery of suited, booted MBAs who studied the whole operations threadbare on their laptops and made the startling discovery that there was an inverse correlation between customer satisfaction and our own market share.

Above graph presented by Mckinsey clearly shows a downward trend in market share with drop in customer dissatisfaction.

From the graph, you will see that in 1986, when IA customer dissatisfaction was 100%, our market share was 100%. Today, the percentage of dissatisfied customers has dropped to 60% and our market share has slipped to 40%. So, the obvious thing to do is to target 100% dissatisfaction again, so that we get our 100% market share back.

Plus Ultra: Somehow, the idea of targeting customer dissatisfaction doesn’t sound right.

Praful Patel: Look, you have been brainwashed by the likes of Peter Drucker, Deming and Tom Peters into thinking that customer satisfaction is the sole mantra for success of an organization. But, Mckinsey presented an entire body of evidence to convince us that customer satisfaction is an elusive, unattainable goal as customers constantly revise their benchmarks. Take the punctuality of flights. Back in the 1970s, if a Monday morning 6 am flight took off before the evening of Friday the same week, it left the customer delighted, In the impatient 1980s, the Monday 6 am flight was expected to take off latest by Tuesday morning 6am. In the decadent 1990s, the 6 am flight had to take off by 7 am, to avoid customer satisfaction. In the restless first decade of the third millennium, flight delays are measured in minutes. By the next decade, a delay of a few seconds will invite the wrath of the greedy passenger. So, where’s the end?

Plus Ultra: Do all your employees feel that way?

Praful Patel: We asked Mckinsey to present them some gory stories. For instance, a train reached Tokyo station exactly 8 seconds after the scheduled time, The irate passengers pulled out the train driver and jumped on him samurai style and crushed him into pieces. So, we asked our employees, do they want to face a similar fate? No, they chorused, better to peg customer’s expectation down. We also showed them some medical reports of over-worked employees of competitor and this proved to be the clinching argument.

(Above) ECG of an IA employee responding to a customer complaint. Note the perfect P-Q-R-S rhythm reflecting his equanimity .
(Below) ECG of an harassed over-worked Jet Airways employee under constant stress in quest of customer satisfaction.

Plus Ultra: So, how do you go about ensuring dissatisfaction?

Praful Patel: Believe me, it is hard work. It requires teamwork and wholehearted cooperation of all the divisions, departments and employees. . Whether it is the ticketing person digging into her nose, or the check-in staff involved in a juicy gossip when a big queue is waiting, or the air-hostess maintaining a BMI > 50 and a waist size > 50”, or the handler of the luggage tossing the brown suitcase marked “fragile” on to the conveyor belt from a height of six feet – everyone must play his or her part to perfection. It just requires one bad employee – one weak link in the chain- to throw the spanner into the works. We had a case last week where two consecutive flights took off on time, which caused a slight drop in dissatisfaction levels. We suspended both the pilots for the misguided exuberance. You see, we need to quell this menace and crush the rebellion before it reaches dangerous levels.
Plus Ultra : What do dissatisfied passengers do ? How do they react?
Praful Patel : We have convenient exit options available for passengers who are about to blow their fuses
Photo above shows dissatisfied passengers exercising easy exit option. Note 'Indian' parachutes use national tricolour.

Plus Ultra: Do you have any back-up plans to be implemented, in case a passenger has managed to board the aircraft, without being suitably dissatisfied already?

Praful Patel: Sure, one can’t take any chances. We always have contingency plans. In January, a 7 am flight was taking off at 6 pm, when one of our alert flight attendants noticed that a passenger in seat no 17 A did not appear adequately dissatisfied. Discrete enquiries showed that he had not had anything to eat and was looking forward to the meal that was going to be served. We had to do some quick troubleshooting and bring matters under control

Photo above shows what hungry, salivating passenger was expecting to be served and was drooling for.
Photo below shows what he was actually served.


Plus Ultra: Would you like to share any other insights with our readers?

Praful Patel: Yes, we would be obliged if any of your readers brings to our attention any specific cases where they experienced satisfaction while flying Indian. We will act on this feedback immediately and correct the situation.

Plus Ultra: Thank you, Mr. Patel. Our best wishes on your journey of Total Customer Dissatisfaction.