Story 15. One Of The Apples Of My Eyes.

My stories so far have been about out of the ordinary and sometimes bizarre experiences with people that I had come in contact with. Here however is a story, very ordinary in telling but of great courage and grit shown by a father and son team from very small beginnings who underwent a lot of difficulties, but overcame them all to build a successful business and family life for all members of their family and a partner who for all practical purposes a member of their family. I am now involved with the third generation of the family with the young men in college testing their brains with me. A family that I am extremely fond and proud of.

Balram is a friend from my Speakeasy days of the late sixties and early seventies of the last century in Mumbai. We used to run into each other in the same dives and became good friends over time. The ties between our two families have stood the test of time of 46 years.

This story is about the success of Balram’s family and one particular individual in it. The family has had its share of ups and downs and all the in-betweens like broken marriages, reconciliations, deaths, births, laughter and sorrow like any other family, almost all of which has been experienced by me along with it either close at hand or from a distance. Just an ordinary garden variety family out of which one risk taking individual paying attention to satisfying his customers has overcome many hurdles to become a successful business man.

Balram is from an agricultural background from the Konkan. His elder brother stayed back in their village looking after the parents and tilling their family farm. Balram worked for a British company as a clerk but had big ambitions. He loathed the atmosphere in the company and the white collar trade union which had a strangle-hold on the management and wanted to get out. He found a way out by getting a couple of his relatives from his village trained as electricians in an ITI to come over and started an electrical contracting business to which he eventually added house painting contracts as well.

He did well enough in a decade after I had met him for him to quit his job and concentrate his energies full time on his business. His two delightful two young sons and two daughters were studying well in Mumbai and the eldest, Suresh is the hero of my story. I had given the contract for rewiring and repainting of my flat in Bombay to Balram and he brought Suresh along one day and the youngster simply stole our hearts. My late wife particularly took a shine to the young lad and the feeling was highly reciprocated.

Suresh completed his graduation in due course and joined his father’s business and diversified into fabricating made-to-order furniture as well. For the latter, he took on board his childhood friend a trained designer, Dinkar as his partner. The furniture business did so well that Suresh eventually separated from Balram’s business to go for larger contracts which the latter was loath to get into. The two girls got married and went to their husband’s homes, one of who eventually divorced her husband to build a career for herself only to get married again, and the younger son has gone on to build a strong and successful career in the private sector as an employee. Balram and by default I are grandfathers many times over.

While Balram was making a life for himself in Bombay, things soured between him and his elder brother following the death of their parents and over the division of property. Due to this and when the time for Suresh’s wedding came along, a role I had to play, the bonds between my and Balram’s families were strengthened further.

Balram fixed the wedding of his eldest son and the eldest daughter in one ceremony which is quite common in our families with relatives having to come from distant parts to cities to attend weddings. Normally Balram’s elder brother would have taken a daughter in marriage for his nephew as in our system the brother’s son is also considered to be a son rather than a nephew. Since relations between Balram and his brother were not good, at the request of Balram and his wife, Urmeela and I adopted Suresh as our son in a Vedic ceremony and took the daughter in marriage as our daughter in law. Thus Suresh has been my religiously adopted son since 1991. I have seen him grow into a fine and level headed individual and he is a particular favourite of mine.

About fifteen years ago, just about the time when I was also retiring from active corporate life, Balram retired and went to his village to repair his old ancestral home and take charge of what his portion of the inheritance came to. Their old home in Central Bombay was converted into an office for the business which was taken over fully by Suresh. Suresh and his friend/partner moved to New Bombay and eventually bought accommodation for themselves. Balram often visits their New Bombay set up but is usually impatient to get back to the village where he claims that his health remains better!

The business started to grow with good word of mouth references till four years ago when a very satisfied customer suggested that with their regular and well trained crew, they should consider diversifying into new construction and also advised them to go outside Bombay and New Bombay to find opportunities. That is exactly what these young men did and went to a town near their ancestral village on the Bombay to Goa highway and bought up some tracts of land. Phase one of their new business has been completed and they have started phase two of a gated community. On the border of their property abutting the highway, they started a restaurant with clean rest room facilities, sadly lacking for miles in either direction on that busy highway, and that business has also taken off like a rocket under the capable management of a local working partner/manager.

As I write this, Suresh spends most of his time at the project site while Dinkar stays behind in Bombay to look after the business there and to service clients from Bombay with interests in properties being developed in the Konkan. Sons of Suresh and Dinkar do not want to join the business and would rather study and get into what they hope will be 10 to 5 jobs. I do not want to disillusion them and just goad them into studying well. There is enough time for them to experiment and there is always the safety net built for them by the earlier two generations.

Among the various options that I have been considering for my long time retirement, moving to the Konkan is one that keeps cropping up with annoying frequency with Suresh wanting me to do so immediately and I wanting to savour Pune life for just a little more. My readers will know all about this piece of information soon with photographs etc. Till then, please bear with me.

Story 14. Doing Business With Friends.

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I met S for the first time in 1974. I was a visiting customers and he too was as an agent for a big textile company. We kept meeting each other in the market for many years till 1990 I joined the company for which he was the agent. By that time, we had known each other fairly well and both of us had visited each other’s homes many times.

S is a deeply religious person forever going off on pilgrimages and visiting temples. An activity in which his wife actively participated and they were well known for their fervour including their significant contributions to the establishment of a local high school based on Hindu traditions.

S has been blessed with two children the elder a daughter now a grandmother who lives in the same town that S lives in. Her daughter, son in law and grand daughter live in the USA and the proud grandparents often go to the USA to baby sit and shop.

The younger child M, our hero, is a son and also a grand father now. He too lives in the same town and shares the same residence with his father. His two young sons were the first ever in my life to call me grand father. The grandparents doted on the two boys and in many ways, at least in my opinion, spoiled them silly.

When S was our agent for a few years before I retired, M used to work along with his father in the agency. He however decided to branch off on his own as S was quite a control freak and would not let the young man have much freedom. He set up a manufacturing unit rather than start an agency and by all accounts, he flourished. He also became a sourcing agent for a European company and did well on that business as well.

This was however galling for S and when M decided to move his residence to a near by city where his establishment was, relations between father and son broke and they stopped talking to each other. They however needed to communicate with each other on various family matters, and I was elected by both of them to be one of the links. I was and continue to be registered in M’s mobile phone as God Father!

In due course, the grandchildren grew up and the elder boy unfortunately became an alcoholic. He caused havoc in the small town where the family’s reputation and businesses suffered and the family spiraled their way into near penury in a short time with neither the grand father nor the father able to spare enough time and funds to mend damages constantly caused by the errant son.

I had to step in and arrange for the young lad to be admitted into a rehabilitation center and what happened to him subsequently is an entire story by itself. Suffice it to say that for the past one year he has been sober. In the meanwhile, the younger lad was sent to the UK for advanced education at considerable expenditure and on his return he joined M in his business but relations quickly soured between the two as the youngster did not like the way the father was conducting the business.

By now, you would have gathered that the family had become totally dysfunctional and it took a toll on S and his wife’ health with both suffering heart attacks with the latter succumbing to one of them three years ago. M too had an attack and recovered to find everything in shambles and started to rebuild his life with some vigor but had to simultaneously play a number of care giving roles which started to affect his life in multiple directions.

I had linked some of my business associates with M to supply raw materials for his business and when M started to default on payments, I was dragged into the mess with increasing frequency. It was during this period that M stopped taking my telephone calls, which he was doing with his suppliers too. I went through some tough times resolving these issues, which I was able to with some dexterity by linking up with M’s customers and forming a syndicate to sort out the cash flow problems.

As I write this, the problems where I was involved have been solved and M came to meet me last week to apologise and to make amends as it were. He requested me to intercede on his behalf to restore supplies of raw materials on credit, so that he can get back on his feet. I flatly refused and informed him that what made me withdraw my support to him was his refusal to take my phone calls. He pleaded with me that he was going through so many difficulties and was not in a position to answer me with any assurances, but I held firm and said that I had had enough and despite our long lasting and special relationship, I would no longer get involved in business matters but would be available as a family friend. He went away sulking and it broke my heart to see him in that condition but I decided that at my age and stage of life, I can do without such melodrama. I still do not know if that was the right decision but, I have decided to be firm on my resolve.

One of the maxims that is very popular in Indian business circles, observed more in the breach, is not to do business with friends but to make friends with business associates. I give this advise to all my mentees. In this case, I followed the maxim but a friend made via business turned out to be my Waterloo.

Story 7. The Perquisite.

The Delhi that I visited recently is vastly different to the Delhi that I had lived in between 1980 and 1983. It is but natural, but one of the most cherished meetings that I had during my recent visit was to my old colleague and friend Jagdish. I actually took over from Jagdish as Regional Manager for North India and Jagdish stayed on in Delhi in a different position and was of great help to me professionally and in my personal life.

Jagdish can be recognised anywhere for his ready wit and sense of humour and great laughter. He and his equally delightful wife Asha had visited me in Pune last year and my readers can understand the bonds that tie the two of us despite the fact that I left the employment in that organisation in 1990 and Jagdish retired from it a few years later.

This story involves Jagdish and will give you a chuckle or two. During our meeting at Delhi, both Jagdish and Asha remembered this particular incident with great relish. Jagdish and Asha are real names and I do not have to hide their identity for the purpose of this post.

Our business was in the hands of some very old established firms of Delhi who were wholesalers. Almost all of them had migrated to Delhi from Peshawar which is now in Pakistan, at the time of partition and all of them had struggled hard to create a new life in India having lost everything that they had in Peshawar.

The Peshawari culture is characterised by its flowery language with great emphasis on politeness. Some of the phrases used are music to the ears of people who understand Urdu / Punjabi, which fortunately I do. Some typical phrases are peculiar to the Indian subcontinent where non blood relationships mean a great deal and a form of talking about them is almost poetic.

This story revolves around that kind of prose, which translated into English loses much of its charm but the humour will come across alright. I hope.

One of the Peshawari Sardars, insisted on giving a farewell cum welcome party at his home for Jagdish and me and we were commanded to bring our wives along. Jagdish informed me that this was something that I should not deny to maintain the good relations that he had so assiduously built with the Sardar over his long stint as Regional Manager there, and I agreed.

When we arrived at the venue, which was the Sardar’s home, it was to enter an old fashioned home with a front room directly opening on to the street, but on crossing which, one entered a courtyard with all four sides built up with rooms. As we entered, the Patriarch and his good lady welcomed the four of us in the anteroom with garlands and escorted us to the court yard where two rows of young Sardars and Sardarnis were lined up facing each other. At the foot of the lines three tables laden with fruits, dry fruits and a variety of snacks and one with the finest spirits and beer were invitingly arranged.

The Sardar indicated that they were his children, their spouses and grand children and then turned to Jagdish to invite him to introduce me to all the family. The subtle message being conveyed to me was that Jagdish was like a family member who knew all members of the family and that it was expected that I too would integrate myself with them in due course.

The beauty of the request was in the language used.

Sardar : Jagdish Saheb, please introduce the family to Rajgopaulji. (With a typical gesture with a flourish.)

Jagdish : Sardarji, they are your children, you introduce them.

Sardar : They are your children too. You do the honours.

Jagdish : Okay, if you insist, I shall do the honours.

Jagdish then took me by my arm and led me to each of the men standing there and without faltering even once, introduced me to each of them. Asha in the meanwhile was doing exactly the same thing with Urmeela among the womenfolk. This was and in many parts of India, still is the norm and it is only after a certain informality is established that the men are introduced to the womenfolk.

The Sardar proudly walked behind Jagdish and me and was very happy with Jagdish’s performance. At the end of the line, we were led to the three tables with the Sardar insisting on fixing the first drinks himself, and the women folk retired to their side of the house. As soon as I found myself alone with Jagdish, I asked him in all earnestness if this was part of the perks of being the Regional Manager, Delhi and Jagdish readily agreed that it was, but this was special as the Sardar and a few others will be happy to see the back of him and wish to celebrate his departure rather than a regular feature.

It was after the party was over and the four of us were in the car returning to our residences that Jagdish remarked that we would have a few more such parties to attend, one offering things better than the other. I again asked Jagdish about the perks when he finally got the joke after Asha the sharp one, got the nuance and explained in Punjabi to jagdish.

Story 3. The Room Boy.

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I would not have used quite the same language, but read on. In a cockeyed way, this relates to this story.

This story would not have happened had it not been for Prohibition. Most of India suffered from this bane for many decades immediately after independence but, sanity was restored due to sheer economics and all but one state in India have now totally removed that aberration or have liberalised regimes that do not consider drinking alcoholic beverages as a criminal activity.

My story takes place in Gujarat where prohibition is still in force but where one can easily get all popular brands of drinks at often lower prices than the neighouring states. In fact, Gujaratis claim that they enjoy their parties more because there is prohibition.

It was in 1986, just about a year after I had one hip replaced that this happened. Those were the days of wine and roses for me and I would not ever consider being without my sun downers anywhere.

I had to visit Gujarat as part of my official duties and I would mostly keep these visits to the bare minimum possible for the obvious reason. Whenever I had to stay overnight, my local contacts would arrange to purchase a bootlegged bottle of whiskey for use by me during the visit. I would gift away and left over before I left the state, much to the joy of the recipients.

In this particular instance, the hotel that I used to regularly stay in could not give me room due to a big convention and I was put up in a newer hotel. I checked in late in the evening after a full day’s work and a cheerful Room Boy carried my bags to my room. I gave him a generous tip and bade him good night and settled in. I took a shower and got into my after office attire of lungi and kurta, fixed myself a drink and settled down to watch some television.

There was a knock on the door and on opening it I found the cheerful Room Boy enquiring if I needed any other service. I thanked him and said no and said that I would order for food from Room Service and shut the door on him.

Fifteen minutes later, the same thing happened and this time he was more specific and asked me if I wanted a bottle of booze using sign language. I said no and sent him off once more.

Fifteen minutes later he was back again and I could sense that it was him again and was a bit annoyed when I opened the door and told him clearly that I did not want any liquor and that I did not want to be disturbed again. He cheerfully said, that he understood but whether I would be interested in “any other service” winking and making it obvious as to what was on offer. I lost my cool and told him that if he disturbed me again, I would kick his backside all the way to the staircase and decided to give him a demonstration for his troubles.

I came to after a few seconds. I was flat on my back on the floor, having tripped over by the kick not finding its target but my lungi. I lay there petrified for some time hoping that I had not damaged my artificial hip joint. I made tentative movements and having satisfied myself that I had not, I slowly got up and shut the door that was still open with no sign of the Room boy. I sat down on the sofa and telephoned my local contact to fetch me take me to an orthopedist after taking an X-ray. That was duly done and it was midnight before I came back to sleep.

I never stayed in that hotel again. And I never kicked anything or anybody again when wearing a lungi.

PS. Thanks Mitch.

The Conversation.

The location: A mobile phone service center.
The occasion: I had gone to collect a repaired handset.
The participants: Me and the person, obviously a farmer, sitting next to me.
The reason: Both of us were waiting to be called in a queue system to collect our hand sets. I was browsing the net in my tablet.
The language: Marathi.

My neighbour looked like this:
Maha farmer

I was in traditional Indian attire of white kurta and pajama like this:
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My neighbour: What is that in your hand?
I: A tablet. Something like a small computer.
MN: What are you doing with that?
I: Checking for mail.
MN: Times have changed. We used to get mail through post office.
I: Yes, but this is faster.
MN: Yes, that is the problem. Everything is too fast now.
I: Sad, but true.
MN: Are you a Netha? (Leader, often used derogatorily to refer to a politician)
I: Good Lord, no. Why do you ask?
MN: You are dressed like one and have a computer with you.
I: The computer is a gift from my son.
MN: What does your son do?
I: Has his own business in the computer world.
MN: Does he make a lot of money?
I: Enough to buy me a gift like this.
MN: How much does that cost?
I: I don’t know. I did not ask him.
MN: Did he teach you to use the computer?
I: Yes.
MN: I wish that my son could teach me!
I: Don’t worry, your grand son will teach you soon enough.
MN: With a big grin, Yes, he goes to school here in Pune. Wants to be an Engineer.
I: I wish him and you all the very best. It will happen.
MN: God willing. Thank you for your good wishes.

My neighbour was called to collect his hand set and I was left to ponder over that conversation.

On the way out, he stopped near me to take leave of me.

The Telegram.

An important decision has been taken by the Indian Posts & Telegraphs Department. Telegrams will no longer be sent / received as there is just not enough traffic in these days of mobile telephony and the internet.
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That is a still from a Hindi film where the Postman delivering a telegram reads the contents to an illiterate lady. They would read letters and write replies to be taken back to the post office for onward despatch. This one service alone earned the postmen in India a high status in rural India. They would do the same in the cities too where necessary. I have blogged earlier about the great relationship that I have with the two postmen who deliver letters and other posted items to me and they are always welcome in my home. Sadly, at least as far the telegram is concerned, they will no longer be necessary. Now they are more important for the money orders that they deliver which too will pass once the plans to make available mini banks in rural India come to fruition.

As a Sales Manager, I once received the following telegram from one of our Travelers. “Gave birth to old lady and missed train. Will come to office day after tomorrow.” You can imagine the mirth that created.

That same Traveler, was sent to find and book a hall to hold an exhibition for us in a town in Gujarat. He sent this. “Found Vyapari Mandal ready to give hole to us. Vyapari Mandal is Merchant’s Chamber and “hole” is how Gujartis pronounce hall.

This Traveler was a resident of Bombay and would go on tours to upcountry markets and would return to Bombay to settle accounts, replenish stock of stationery etc, and take rest before proceeding on the next tour. He was an ace salesman but a timid fellow. We had to organise a conference of Travelers at short notice once, and the only way we could contact him was to send him a telegram. We came to know later that the telegram was not delivered to him because he would not open the door to the Postman. He simply could not believe that anyone would send him a telegram when he was at home. We had to send a person to his home to get him the next morning.

I had a particularly finicky boss who would keep my telegrams till I returned to base and would show me edited telegrams to impress on me as to how I could have saved a few rupees by using lesser number of words to convey the same message. I soon learnt how to be good at sending telegrams.

In India, we had a parallel system called the Phonogram. Those days, the Posts and Telephones were under one department and this worked quite well. One could call up the Telephones and they would call you back to ensure that the number was genuine before accepting the phonogram the cost of which would be added on the telephone bill at the end of each month. Since the clerks taking down dictated phonograms were not exactly masters of the English language, we often had hilarious spelling mistakes in the telegrams received. Phonograms used to be first read out to the recipient if he had a telephone and often what was read out did not make any sense. One had to wait for the confirmation copy to come to understand. Just four years ago, my father wanted to send a phonogram to one of his friends and was devastated to find that the phonogram does not exist any more.