The Female Guide to attending Mallu weddings

My previous note on the topic seems to have touched a common chord with my peers everywhere. This, combined with the fact that I have been cooped up at home due to an unexpected extension of my joining date (apparently my company decided that the later they allowed me to join, lesser the damage I could do) prompted me to think of something which I do not normally think about. Girls. Ha.

My train of thought ran somewhat like this. Since the ratio of girls to boys in Kerala is slightly greater than 1 (yeah, that’s right. Read it and weep, you ArjunPandeys and Aditya Kashyaps) it stands to reason that a typical mallu wedding could and should consist of a few PYTs of my age group. Following that train of thought, it is only reasonable that such PYTs be subjected to the same treatment at the hands of saree clad assassins from Palakkad as would the poor guys. After all, Kerala, under communism, achieved gender equality much before the rest of India did. So, a set of guidelines for PYTs to counter such attacks (in the same vein as the original post) should be of a great help. After all, I am nobody if not someone who likes to devote every waking hour to the aid of PYTs.

Girls attending mallu weddings are mostly subjected to questions regarding marriage, health or children. If you are above the age of 20, you will be immediately categorized into one of three possible slots.

  • Educated – This means you are still studying and as such, can be marked down for a possible future match. If you have taken up MBBS however, you can be hunted down without mercy anytime.
  • Employed – This apparently means that you are desperate to settle into married life. Any employed girl who wants to remain single for some time is looked upon with deep suspicion. “Avalkku affair kaanum” (She must be seeing someone) will be the universal chant.
  • Married – Married girls have it tough in a different fashion. Any girl married for over a year is expected to have produced one child and be planning for the next.

Irrespective of your slot, these guidelines should come in handy.

  • Faced with any question, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you. You have the right to speak to your mom. If you cannot find your mom, God save you.
  • Try not to wear a saree. Handling its myriad folds and making sure that you do not trip over yourself as you walk is a major distraction when you are trying to fend off the questions and remarks of aunties. In fact, this is a secret weapon which mallu women have developed over the decades to ‘distract and conquer’ young ladies whom they want to interrogate. If you have ever attended a wedding sans saree, one of the first questions would be, “Ohh, why didn’t you wear a saree? You are old enough now, you know.” The auntie is actually thinking, “Shit, she is going to be a tough one to break.”
  • If you belong to the “Educated” category, you will be quizzed about the course and college. Always reply “Engineering” and follow it up with the name of the closest engineering college. This will buy you time (the 4 years until you get the B.Tech degree) and save you from having to explain why you thought going to NIT Suratkal was better than going to Ponnani. Never say that you are a medical student. Since it takes nearly 6 years or more to become an established doctor, you could be poached any day starting tomorrow.
  • If you belong to the “Employed” category, you will be asked about the company and location. Thankfully, girls do not have to field “salary” questions. In response, you can name any company under the sun except Infosys (in which case, you will immediately be referred to Girija for further consideration), but the location has to be Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram. Any employed single girl working in Noida or Bangalore is automatically assumed to have a boyfriend. And an employed single girl working overseas must surely be in a live-in relationship. “Ithu Kali kaalam alle?” (Isn’t this KalYug?)
  • Never allow the ladies to hold your wrist. Over the years, hardened veterans develop an amazing ability to predict vitals such as body fat content, haemoglobin level, bone density and even menstrual cycle just by holding your wrist. Worse still, they will then proceed to give you a detailed diagnosis of your problem and how the same symptoms resulted in health complications for Mrs. Kurian’s daughter.
  • If you are married, tell them your husband recently had a vasectomy. Trust me; it is far better to shock them than to have them plan your family over the wedding lunch.

If you get the chance, tell everyone (including the bride, God knows she needs some relief) the story of how Girija’s son was caught for watching porn while in school. Every victory, however small, counts.

Note: My good friend Yazhini Chandrasekharan recently took the trouble to contact me all the way from wherever she happened to be when she contacted me. A travel aficionado, she keeps changing her Facebook “Location” tag several times a day. Google has given up searching for her. So has Vodafone. Apparently gypsies do not have to pay bills. But I digress. The reason she messaged was to remind me that girls in Tamil Nadu have to face the very same problems that mallu girls do. I don’t disagree.

The Female Guide to attending Mallu weddings

My previous note on the topic seems to have touched a common chord with my peers everywhere. This, combined with the fact that I have been cooped up at home due to an unexpected extension of my joining date (apparently my company decided that the later they allowed me to join, lesser the damage I could do) prompted me to think of something which I do not normally think about. Girls. Ha.

My train of thought ran somewhat like this. Since the ratio of girls to boys in Kerala is slightly greater than 1 (yeah, that’s right. Read it and weep, you ArjunPandeys and Aditya Kashyaps) it stands to reason that a typical mallu wedding could and should consist of a few PYTs of my age group. Following that train of thought, it is only reasonable that such PYTs be subjected to the same treatment at the hands of saree clad assassins from Palakkad as would the poor guys. After all, Kerala, under communism, achieved gender equality much before the rest of India did. So, a set of guidelines for PYTs to counter such attacks (in the same vein as the original post) should be of a great help. After all, I am nobody if not someone who likes to devote every waking hour to the aid of PYTs.

Girls attending mallu weddings are mostly subjected to questions regarding marriage, health or children. If you are above the age of 20, you will be immediately categorized into one of three possible slots.

  • Educated – This means you are still studying and as such, can be marked down for a possible future match. If you have taken up MBBS however, you can be hunted down without mercy anytime.
  • Employed – This apparently means that you are desperate to settle into married life. Any employed girl who wants to remain single for some time is looked upon with deep suspicion. “Avalkku affair kaanum” (She must be seeing someone) will be the universal chant.
  • Married – Married girls have it tough in a different fashion. Any girl married for over a year is expected to have produced one child and be planning for the next.

Irrespective of your slot, these guidelines should come in handy.

  • Faced with any question, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you. You have the right to speak to your mom. If you cannot find your mom, God save you.
  • Try not to wear a saree. Handling its myriad folds and making sure that you do not trip over yourself as you walk is a major distraction when you are trying to fend off the questions and remarks of aunties. In fact, this is a secret weapon which mallu women have developed over the decades to ‘distract and conquer’ young ladies whom they want to interrogate. If you have ever attended a wedding sans saree, one of the first questions would be, “Ohh, why didn’t you wear a saree? You are old enough now, you know.” The auntie is actually thinking, “Shit, she is going to be a tough one to break.”
  • If you belong to the “Educated” category, you will be quizzed about the course and college. Always reply “Engineering” and follow it up with the name of the closest engineering college. This will buy you time (the 4 years until you get the B.Tech degree) and save you from having to explain why you thought going to NIT Suratkal was better than going to Ponnani. Never say that you are a medical student. Since it takes nearly 6 years or more to become an established doctor, you could be poached any day starting tomorrow.
  • If you belong to the “Employed” category, you will be asked about the company and location. Thankfully, girls do not have to field “salary” questions. In response, you can name any company under the sun except Infosys (in which case, you will immediately be referred to Girija for further consideration), but the location has to be Technopark, Thiruvananthapuram. Any employed single girl working in Noida or Bangalore is automatically assumed to have a boyfriend. And an employed single girl working overseas must surely be in a live-in relationship. “Ithu Kali kaalam alle?” (Isn’t this KalYug?)
  • Never allow the ladies to hold your wrist. Over the years, hardened veterans develop an amazing ability to predict vitals such as body fat content, haemoglobin level, bone density and even menstrual cycle just by holding your wrist. Worse still, they will then proceed to give you a detailed diagnosis of your problem and how the same symptoms resulted in health complications for Mrs. Kurian’s daughter.
  • If you are married, tell them your husband recently had a vasectomy. Trust me; it is far better to shock them than to have them plan your family over the wedding lunch.

If you get the chance, tell everyone (including the bride, God knows she needs some relief) the story of how Girija’s son was caught for watching porn while in school. Every victory, however small, counts.

Note: My good friend Yazhini Chandrasekharan recently took the trouble to contact me all the way from wherever she happened to be when she contacted me. A travel aficionado, she keeps changing her Facebook “Location” tag several times a day. Google has given up searching for her. So has Vodafone. Apparently gypsies do not have to pay bills. But I digress. The reason she messaged was to remind me that girls in Tamil Nadu have to face the very same problems that mallu girls do. I don’t disagree.

The Airline Case

The client in this instance was a reputed airline company, which for obvious reasons, shall remain unnamed. The case facts, in brief, were as follows:

Case Facts

The client had been running their operations in Europe successfully for the past decade. Then, during an ill-fated board meeting, the CEO, who had just returned from a vacation in Goa, asked the VP (Operations), “Why aren’t we in India?” The VP, who himself had just returned from the Riviera, was caught off guard. In his confusion, he assured the CEO that the India operations were being planned and would start in the next quarter.

And so it happened that the airline opened its first office in Delhi during the monsoon season in the early 2000’s. The economy was improving, and the local breeds of businessmen were beginning to forgo trains for planes. To improve acceptance and to reduce costs, 90 % of employees were locally recruited. The only foreign employees were pilots and head stewards. All initial studies pointed towards a reasonable ROI over the next couple of years.

However, the reality wasn’t that simple. The airline operations were plagued by constant complaints from the employees; the air hostesses in particular. It was extremely perplexing for the India operations head, who also happened to be a European. He had been deputed to India with promises of cheap labour and exciting career growth. But things were fast spinning out of control, with the number of employee complaints increasing day by day. So he employed a consultancy firm to conduct a root cause analysis of this problem.

Base Lining

Since the complaints were mainly from employees, the consultants decided that the study necessarily had to be conducted on board flights. After four weeks of free air travel, three cases of peanut allergy, four instances of missed flights, and one sexual harassment suit against one of the team mates, they presented a comprehensive 500 page report ( along with a 60 slide presentation) to the client.The three major gripes of the employees were as follows:

  • The Indian air hostesses resented being called by the captain to the “cockpit”. Each time an air hostess was paged to “come to the cockpit”; her friends would see her off as if she were never going to come back. It is surprising that the European captain, who always seemed to go off into fits of laughter while addressing his co-pilot as “Mr. Dikshit”, appeared not to be able to grasp the irony.
  • There was an incongruity between the size of the seats, which were predominantly designed for comparatively slender European posteriors, and the average Indian traveller, who was wont to fill the seat and then overflow. In such cases, the regulation seat belt buckle would often disappear into the folds of the passenger’s stomach. Air hostesses as a rule are required to check that seat belts are fastened before takeoff. Unfortunately, this requires them to often peer into the crotches of the better endowed passengers. No wonder the air hostesses actively discouraged their parents from boarding the same flights they were handling.
  •  Indian passengers as a rule carry their entire luggage as ‘carry-on’, thus creating pandemonium inside the craft as they try to stow it before take-off and remove it after landing. The concept of ‘travelling light’ doesn’t appeal to an Indian. So, every passenger carries enough luggage to just meet the maximum carry on limit. At the receiving end of this ‘economy-mentality’ are the air hostesses, who often have to tug and push errant bags that simply refuse to fit into compartments that were designed to house laptop bags and clutches. This forced exercise before every flight often put them in a bad mood, which had to be necessarily taken out on themselves or the company officials, since they couldn’t very well shout at the passengers.

Recommendations

The consultants proposed three neat solutions:

  • Replace ‘cockpit’ with the sexually inert term ‘pilot’s cabin’
  •  Install a simple circuit in the seat belt buckle that de-activates a small light bulb fitted onto each hand rest when the seat belt lock engages.
  •  Increase the cabin luggage compartment size. This was based on the realization that it is better to change yourself rather than fight an Indian consumer.

End Result

The company’s accountants then ran a cost benefit analysis of the recommendations, and presented the following findings:

  • The term cockpit was mentioned in all the flight manuals (2), flight attendant manuals (5), galley instruction manuals (1) and notices (3). Each flight thus carried 11 copies. The fleet consisted of 50 planes, amounting to a total of 550 copies. The reprinting costs to print all of these would amount to Rs. 3,850,000. The company HR division reported that organizing sexual harassment ramification and lingo retraining classes for pilots (to teach them to say pilot’s cabin instead of cockpit) would cost an additional Rs. 25,000 annually.
  • The indicator bulb circuit would cost Rs. 1000 per seat and installation charges would add another Rs. 500 in order to conform to DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) regulations. A typical Boeing 737 has 140 seats. This would result in costs of Rs. 10,500,000. The added strain on the electrical power consumption would be Rs. 800 per plane annually.
  • Refitting the planes with deeper luggage compartments would cost Rs. 50,000 per plane. In total, following the recommendations would add Rs. 16,850,000 fixed one-time investment and Rs. 65000 recurring costs to the company’s budget.

In contrast, playing ostrich would cost Rs. 3,000,000 in employee attrition and nothing more. (Ascribing a 10% attrition rate amongst its 300 strong air hostess work force due to these reasons, and a severance package of Rs. 1 lakh per employee). There wouldn’t be any brand value damage since all airlines in the Indian market were facing the same issues. Hence, the recommendations were summarily rejected.

The Airline Case

The client in this instance was a reputed airline company, which for obvious reasons, shall remain unnamed. The case facts, in brief, were as follows:

Case Facts

The client had been running their operations in Europe successfully for the past decade. Then, during an ill-fated board meeting, the CEO, who had just returned from a vacation in Goa, asked the VP (Operations), “Why aren’t we in India?” The VP, who himself had just returned from the Riviera, was caught off guard. In his confusion, he assured the CEO that the India operations were being planned and would start in the next quarter.

And so it happened that the airline opened its first office in Delhi during the monsoon season in the early 2000’s. The economy was improving, and the local breeds of businessmen were beginning to forgo trains for planes. To improve acceptance and to reduce costs, 90 % of employees were locally recruited. The only foreign employees were pilots and head stewards. All initial studies pointed towards a reasonable ROI over the next couple of years.

However, the reality wasn’t that simple. The airline operations were plagued by constant complaints from the employees; the air hostesses in particular. It was extremely perplexing for the India operations head, who also happened to be a European. He had been deputed to India with promises of cheap labour and exciting career growth. But things were fast spinning out of control, with the number of employee complaints increasing day by day. So he employed a consultancy firm to conduct a root cause analysis of this problem.

Base Lining

Since the complaints were mainly from employees, the consultants decided that the study necessarily had to be conducted on board flights. After four weeks of free air travel, three cases of peanut allergy, four instances of missed flights, and one sexual harassment suit against one of the team mates, they presented a comprehensive 500 page report ( along with a 60 slide presentation) to the client.The three major gripes of the employees were as follows:

  • The Indian air hostesses resented being called by the captain to the “cockpit”. Each time an air hostess was paged to “come to the cockpit”; her friends would see her off as if she were never going to come back. It is surprising that the European captain, who always seemed to go off into fits of laughter while addressing his co-pilot as “Mr. Dikshit”, appeared not to be able to grasp the irony.
  • There was an incongruity between the size of the seats, which were predominantly designed for comparatively slender European posteriors, and the average Indian traveller, who was wont to fill the seat and then overflow. In such cases, the regulation seat belt buckle would often disappear into the folds of the passenger’s stomach. Air hostesses as a rule are required to check that seat belts are fastened before takeoff. Unfortunately, this requires them to often peer into the crotches of the better endowed passengers. No wonder the air hostesses actively discouraged their parents from boarding the same flights they were handling.
  •  Indian passengers as a rule carry their entire luggage as ‘carry-on’, thus creating pandemonium inside the craft as they try to stow it before take-off and remove it after landing. The concept of ‘travelling light’ doesn’t appeal to an Indian. So, every passenger carries enough luggage to just meet the maximum carry on limit. At the receiving end of this ‘economy-mentality’ are the air hostesses, who often have to tug and push errant bags that simply refuse to fit into compartments that were designed to house laptop bags and clutches. This forced exercise before every flight often put them in a bad mood, which had to be necessarily taken out on themselves or the company officials, since they couldn’t very well shout at the passengers.

Recommendations

The consultants proposed three neat solutions:

  • Replace ‘cockpit’ with the sexually inert term ‘pilot’s cabin’
  •  Install a simple circuit in the seat belt buckle that de-activates a small light bulb fitted onto each hand rest when the seat belt lock engages.
  •  Increase the cabin luggage compartment size. This was based on the realization that it is better to change yourself rather than fight an Indian consumer.

End Result

The company’s accountants then ran a cost benefit analysis of the recommendations, and presented the following findings:

  • The term cockpit was mentioned in all the flight manuals (2), flight attendant manuals (5), galley instruction manuals (1) and notices (3). Each flight thus carried 11 copies. The fleet consisted of 50 planes, amounting to a total of 550 copies. The reprinting costs to print all of these would amount to Rs. 3,850,000. The company HR division reported that organizing sexual harassment ramification and lingo retraining classes for pilots (to teach them to say pilot’s cabin instead of cockpit) would cost an additional Rs. 25,000 annually.
  • The indicator bulb circuit would cost Rs. 1000 per seat and installation charges would add another Rs. 500 in order to conform to DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) regulations. A typical Boeing 737 has 140 seats. This would result in costs of Rs. 10,500,000. The added strain on the electrical power consumption would be Rs. 800 per plane annually.
  • Refitting the planes with deeper luggage compartments would cost Rs. 50,000 per plane. In total, following the recommendations would add Rs. 16,850,000 fixed one-time investment and Rs. 65000 recurring costs to the company’s budget.

In contrast, playing ostrich would cost Rs. 3,000,000 in employee attrition and nothing more. (Ascribing a 10% attrition rate amongst its 300 strong air hostess work force due to these reasons, and a severance package of Rs. 1 lakh per employee). There wouldn’t be any brand value damage since all airlines in the Indian market were facing the same issues. Hence, the recommendations were summarily rejected.

Here’s my moment, where’s my dialogue?

Andy Warhol (or was it Oprah Winfrey?) decided that every man would have his 15 minutes of fame. In today’s fast paced world, this time window has reduced to anywhere from 30 sec to 1 minute, during which we are expected to act, react and respond. Quite a task.

Today morning, I saved a middle aged man from certain death by traffic. He was about to step out in front of a speeding bus when I grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him back. It was an instinctive reaction on my part, and while I was more shocked by the incident than he was, I was better at covering up my shakes. He thanked me profusely, and smiled expectantly at me while he waited for me to respond. Maybe my shakes hadn’t yet subsided; maybe I was too pumped up from the adrenalin. Whatever be the reason, the only thing I could blurt out was, “Myeh”.

Which got me thinking. Here I was, standing smack in the middle of a situation which may occur perhaps once in a lifetime (unless you are a fireman or Robert Pattinson). And all I could think of saying was “Myeh”. Not very creative, you could say. Compare this with Congress Gen. Sec. Digvijay Singh, who, after the July 13 Mumbai blasts, responded by saying “We are comparatively better than Pakistan where blasts take place every day, every week”. Very colorful and extremely thought provoking.My response pales in comparison to such brilliance.

Anyway, it could be that the lack of a classical education is handicapping our cognitive abilities. Our ancients were much better than us in the art of verbal stroke play. The story goes that in 1843, after annexing the Indian province of Sind, British General Sir Charles Napier sent home a one word telegram, “Peccavi” implying “I have Sind.” Although apocryphal, it’s still a great story. The famous English Admiral Horatio Nelson’s point of zenith was the battle of Trafalgar, in which he won the battle and lost his life. As he lay dying, he is said to have demanded, “Kiss me Hardy”. This was directed to the captain of HMS Victory, Thomas Hardy. Hardy obliged, and Nelson immediately said, “Thank God, I have done my duty” before passing away. Hardy’s technique must have been enviable.

During World War II, we had Gen. Oliver P. Smith. He is most noted for commanding the 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where he said “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating; we’re just advancing in a different direction.” Exactly what Rupert Murdoch would have liked to have said last week, I’m sure.

I could never think up such spontaneously brilliant ripostes, however hard I tried. Most of us might have heard of what J. Robert Oppenheimer said after witnessing the first nuclear test at Los Alamos desert (he did take some time, but in the end he quoted the Bhagwad Gita. So I guess we can excuse him the momentary lapse of concentration). What many of us may not have heard of is the then test director Kenneth Bainbridge’s comment after seeing the test. The poor guy could only think of saying, “Now we are all sons of bitches”. He would have sensed a kindred spirit in me.

Here’s my moment, where’s my dialogue?

Andy Warhol (or was it Oprah Winfrey?) decided that every man would have his 15 minutes of fame. In today’s fast paced world, this time window has reduced to anywhere from 30 sec to 1 minute, during which we are expected to act, react and respond. Quite a task.

Today morning, I saved a middle aged man from certain death by traffic. He was about to step out in front of a speeding bus when I grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him back. It was an instinctive reaction on my part, and while I was more shocked by the incident than he was, I was better at covering up my shakes. He thanked me profusely, and smiled expectantly at me while he waited for me to respond. Maybe my shakes hadn’t yet subsided; maybe I was too pumped up from the adrenalin. Whatever be the reason, the only thing I could blurt out was, “Myeh”.

Which got me thinking. Here I was, standing smack in the middle of a situation which may occur perhaps once in a lifetime (unless you are a fireman or Robert Pattinson). And all I could think of saying was “Myeh”. Not very creative, you could say. Compare this with Congress Gen. Sec. Digvijay Singh, who, after the July 13 Mumbai blasts, responded by saying “We are comparatively better than Pakistan where blasts take place every day, every week”. Very colorful and extremely thought provoking.My response pales in comparison to such brilliance.

Anyway, it could be that the lack of a classical education is handicapping our cognitive abilities. Our ancients were much better than us in the art of verbal stroke play. The story goes that in 1843, after annexing the Indian province of Sind, British General Sir Charles Napier sent home a one word telegram, “Peccavi” implying “I have Sind.” Although apocryphal, it’s still a great story. The famous English Admiral Horatio Nelson’s point of zenith was the battle of Trafalgar, in which he won the battle and lost his life. As he lay dying, he is said to have demanded, “Kiss me Hardy”. This was directed to the captain of HMS Victory, Thomas Hardy. Hardy obliged, and Nelson immediately said, “Thank God, I have done my duty” before passing away. Hardy’s technique must have been enviable.

During World War II, we had Gen. Oliver P. Smith. He is most noted for commanding the 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where he said “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating; we’re just advancing in a different direction.” Exactly what Rupert Murdoch would have liked to have said last week, I’m sure.

I could never think up such spontaneously brilliant ripostes, however hard I tried. Most of us might have heard of what J. Robert Oppenheimer said after witnessing the first nuclear test at Los Alamos desert (he did take some time, but in the end he quoted the Bhagwad Gita. So I guess we can excuse him the momentary lapse of concentration). What many of us may not have heard of is the then test director Kenneth Bainbridge’s comment after seeing the test. The poor guy could only think of saying, “Now we are all sons of bitches”. He would have sensed a kindred spirit in me.

Consulting Series Part 2 | The Insecticide Case

The summer of 2010 was an incredible experience for me. I was interning at a leading agro chemical manufacturer and they sent me on a blitzkrieg visit to cover all their major markets in South India. The poor souls were labouring under the misapprehension that I would somehow discover what was going wrong with their flagship product, a 25 year old insecticide that was showing distinct signs of geriatric breakdown as far as sales were concerned. “Fresh perspective”, is what the industry euphemistically calls the interns, who more often than not are greenhorns with absolutely no idea about what they are doing. In this case, the company had enticed me by sugar coating a desperate situation with the magic phrase, “Strategy development”. I started work with wild fantasies of coming up with a magic pill that would metamorphose the “decline phase” of the product into “accelerated development”.

First Stage – Base lining

All good strategy development projects start with a lot of secondary research, to get to know as much as possible about the situation at hand. The idea behind this is very simple. When you go for your first client visit, you do not want to ask them the reason why they want to cling on to a product which is naturally dying a slow death. For all you know, the insecticide might have been named after the founder’s ex-wife. Marked similarities between the two might have led to emotional attachments. So I found out a consultant in US who had done some work for an MNC on the same problem. He seemed amused when I informed him of my assignment. “Mr. Nair”, his email reply read, “I have had to change companies twice after I worked on this case. All the best.” So the problem was universal. But I wasn’t about to be disheartened. After all, I was an intern. I had fresh perspective. And of course, it was always possible that the US consultant had made the faux pas of suggesting that the MNC change its product’s name.

Second stage – Market research

I toured 4 states in South India over 4 weeks, visiting 39 villages, 200 farmers, a landlord who wanted to marry his daughter to me because he thought I was an IAS officer and an amateur film producer who wanted me to preview his magnum opus (which also happened to be his first work). I travelled in the luggage compartments of trains, and shared a berth with an elderly woman who ended up stretching her 5 foot frame to cover the entire berth at night. I covered villages which had escaped the 2010 Census drive. Everywhere, I hounded farmers and retail shops with clipboards holding questionnaires. I had taken a course on Research in Marketing Design at IIMB, which was all about how to create questionnaires using scientific techniques and decision making insights (like how to avoid double barrelled questions) and conduct analysis on their results. But the questionnaire I prepared for real life application took shape over a bottle of Black Dog and a nightout. This was one of those moments when one realises that the twelve lakhs of tuition fee might have gone down the drain somewhere in between. I could have bought over a thousand bottles of Black Dog instead.

Third stage – Enlightenment

The next stage is crucial in any consulting assignment. It’s that time of the project when the presence of a solution or the lack of it dawns on you. It usually comes slowly over time, feeding upon a steady diet of myriad observations, irrelevant theories, insufficient field research and unshakeable prejudices. But rare cases of sudden enlightenment have also been reported, after having which, you usually race off to establish new religions. In this case, yours truly discovered the reason for low sales after fortuitous discussions with a few farmers. It turned out that while the insecticide was a huge hit with the farmers as well as the pests (for exactly the same reason) at the time of its introduction, 25 years had elapsed since then. What the company failed to realise was that the farmers as well as the pests had been replaced by their second generation, who obstinately refused to acknowledge its usefulness, having seen better products. I was in a fix now, for the emotionally charged clients who had sponsored my dinner dates for nearly a month would not be pleased to hear that their product, which they so obviously loved, was close to kicking the bucket in the market.

Fourth stage – Plated service (also called Windup presentation)

Then came the fourth and final stage, called so after the catering tradition of dressing up dishes and presenting them to the diners in a mouth watering format. True to training, I conjured up over 20 Perception maps, BCG matrices, two 50 page reports and a green formatted presentation. After all this effort, it turned out that the VP – Sales of the company, to whom I was supposed to present all this, was a hard talking, paan chewing ex salesman from UP who spat at perception maps, hadn’t heard of BCG matrices, disdained thick reports and was colour blind. Believe me. You can’t make this shit up. To top it all, he was a giant of a man with a huge booming voice. “Tell me what to do about this product.” It was a command, not a statement. To my credit, I tried honesty first. “Well sir, taking into consideration the fact that this product has been a cash cow for the company for the past 25 years, with the first 15 of them seeing a high growth phase and the rest 10 a maturity phase, we need to realise that the product is inevitably going into the decline phase as of now and will continue to show decreasing ROI until it finally goes into red. Meanwhile, as I have shown in my report and as is evident from the perceptual maps, the customer demand and perception of quality is showing huge gaps in the market, which can be filled by introducing new products that will give us first mover advantage in at least three product categories, thus effectively nullifying any loss of brand value we may face if we pull out this insecticide at this juncture.”

The VP’s face, which had progressed from a wheatish hue through a pale pink to a florid red by this time, betrayed signs of apoplexy. “Are you telling me that we have to withdraw this product?” It was a threat, not a question.

I weighed my options. This guy seemed old enough to have been the product manager at the time of launch of the insecticide in question. He seemed close to retirement now, and probably looked upon the damned thing as his legacy. Compared to his old age, I was young, smart and had a long way to go in life still. No sense in getting strangled by him unnecessarily.

“Of course not, sir, just change the name of the product. We can re launch it gloriously.”

Consulting Series Part 2 | The Insecticide Case

The summer of 2010 was an incredible experience for me. I was interning at a leading agro chemical manufacturer and they sent me on a blitzkrieg visit to cover all their major markets in South India. The poor souls were labouring under the misapprehension that I would somehow discover what was going wrong with their flagship product, a 25 year old insecticide that was showing distinct signs of geriatric breakdown as far as sales were concerned. “Fresh perspective”, is what the industry euphemistically calls the interns, who more often than not are greenhorns with absolutely no idea about what they are doing. In this case, the company had enticed me by sugar coating a desperate situation with the magic phrase, “Strategy development”. I started work with wild fantasies of coming up with a magic pill that would metamorphose the “decline phase” of the product into “accelerated development”.

First Stage – Base lining

All good strategy development projects start with a lot of secondary research, to get to know as much as possible about the situation at hand. The idea behind this is very simple. When you go for your first client visit, you do not want to ask them the reason why they want to cling on to a product which is naturally dying a slow death. For all you know, the insecticide might have been named after the founder’s ex-wife. Marked similarities between the two might have led to emotional attachments. So I found out a consultant in US who had done some work for an MNC on the same problem. He seemed amused when I informed him of my assignment. “Mr. Nair”, his email reply read, “I have had to change companies twice after I worked on this case. All the best.” So the problem was universal. But I wasn’t about to be disheartened. After all, I was an intern. I had fresh perspective. And of course, it was always possible that the US consultant had made the faux pas of suggesting that the MNC change its product’s name.

Second stage – Market research

I toured 4 states in South India over 4 weeks, visiting 39 villages, 200 farmers, a landlord who wanted to marry his daughter to me because he thought I was an IAS officer and an amateur film producer who wanted me to preview his magnum opus (which also happened to be his first work). I travelled in the luggage compartments of trains, and shared a berth with an elderly woman who ended up stretching her 5 foot frame to cover the entire berth at night. I covered villages which had escaped the 2010 Census drive. Everywhere, I hounded farmers and retail shops with clipboards holding questionnaires. I had taken a course on Research in Marketing Design at IIMB, which was all about how to create questionnaires using scientific techniques and decision making insights (like how to avoid double barrelled questions) and conduct analysis on their results. But the questionnaire I prepared for real life application took shape over a bottle of Black Dog and a nightout. This was one of those moments when one realises that the twelve lakhs of tuition fee might have gone down the drain somewhere in between. I could have bought over a thousand bottles of Black Dog instead.

Third stage – Enlightenment

The next stage is crucial in any consulting assignment. It’s that time of the project when the presence of a solution or the lack of it dawns on you. It usually comes slowly over time, feeding upon a steady diet of myriad observations, irrelevant theories, insufficient field research and unshakeable prejudices. But rare cases of sudden enlightenment have also been reported, after having which, you usually race off to establish new religions. In this case, yours truly discovered the reason for low sales after fortuitous discussions with a few farmers. It turned out that while the insecticide was a huge hit with the farmers as well as the pests (for exactly the same reason) at the time of its introduction, 25 years had elapsed since then. What the company failed to realise was that the farmers as well as the pests had been replaced by their second generation, who obstinately refused to acknowledge its usefulness, having seen better products. I was in a fix now, for the emotionally charged clients who had sponsored my dinner dates for nearly a month would not be pleased to hear that their product, which they so obviously loved, was close to kicking the bucket in the market.

Fourth stage – Plated service (also called Windup presentation)

Then came the fourth and final stage, called so after the catering tradition of dressing up dishes and presenting them to the diners in a mouth watering format. True to training, I conjured up over 20 Perception maps, BCG matrices, two 50 page reports and a green formatted presentation. After all this effort, it turned out that the VP – Sales of the company, to whom I was supposed to present all this, was a hard talking, paan chewing ex salesman from UP who spat at perception maps, hadn’t heard of BCG matrices, disdained thick reports and was colour blind. Believe me. You can’t make this shit up. To top it all, he was a giant of a man with a huge booming voice. “Tell me what to do about this product.” It was a command, not a statement. To my credit, I tried honesty first. “Well sir, taking into consideration the fact that this product has been a cash cow for the company for the past 25 years, with the first 15 of them seeing a high growth phase and the rest 10 a maturity phase, we need to realise that the product is inevitably going into the decline phase as of now and will continue to show decreasing ROI until it finally goes into red. Meanwhile, as I have shown in my report and as is evident from the perceptual maps, the customer demand and perception of quality is showing huge gaps in the market, which can be filled by introducing new products that will give us first mover advantage in at least three product categories, thus effectively nullifying any loss of brand value we may face if we pull out this insecticide at this juncture.”

The VP’s face, which had progressed from a wheatish hue through a pale pink to a florid red by this time, betrayed signs of apoplexy. “Are you telling me that we have to withdraw this product?” It was a threat, not a question.

I weighed my options. This guy seemed old enough to have been the product manager at the time of launch of the insecticide in question. He seemed close to retirement now, and probably looked upon the damned thing as his legacy. Compared to his old age, I was young, smart and had a long way to go in life still. No sense in getting strangled by him unnecessarily.

“Of course not, sir, just change the name of the product. We can re launch it gloriously.”

5 Reasons why I can never become a fictional secret service agent

Direction impairment – I once drove around a butterfly flyover in Koramangala, Bangalore for half an hour trying to find an exit. I need a good view of the sun’s position and ten minutes of mental calculation to understand the cardinal directions. Imagine an emergency situation where a building is on fire and someone yells at me to “proceed out the east exit and then go half a block south immediately“ ; I am likely to sit down where I am and try to get my head around things. Contrast this with super spy films, where the hero, often wounded and carrying a hostage, speed reads an entire city map within seconds and then manages to find the right shortcuts, all the while negotiating rush hour traffic.

Inability to withstand torture – I find this the most disturbing of super spy requirements. Any 12 year old worth his salt (read, who has seen all episodes of ‘24’) knows that eventually, everyone breaks. So what’s the use of withstanding all the pain and embarrassment in the first place? If I am captured and questioned, I am most likely to volunteer any and all information, including the low down on the Kennedy assassination.

Blind trust in good looking women – I mean, in the lost unlikely scenario that a good looking dame who is in the honey trapping business takes it upon herself to recruit me in order to pick my brain, who am I to disabuse her of her illusion? If she asks me to proceed out the east exit, I might actually go to the trouble of asking someone else for directions, so as to impress her. If that doesn’t tell her the amount of brains I have to be picked, she deserves what’s coming her way.

Zero knowledge in poker, rummy or baccarat – Self-explanatory. All spies, irrespective of age, race or gender, play poker and win all the games. I can’t differentiate between a straight flush and a manually operated one.

I do my own laundry– Riddle me this. Why haven’t you ever seen James Bond washing his tightie whities? Or Bahadur (yes, he is an old Indian spy) doing his dhotis? I don’t know the reason too. And until I can figure that out, I am one step further away from being captured and tortured.

The quick and dirty 5 step guide to attending Mallu weddings

Quite recently, I was emotionally blackmailed by my mother into attending the wedding of a distant family relation. “The groom is your auntie’s father-in-law’s third nephew’s son”, my mother told me. “What will they think if you don’t attend? They know you are in town. What will we say if they ask us about you?” I admitted that all these questions have great potential for social embarrassment. But why the hell would they remember to ask about me? They would be understandably busy during the wedding. I could not conceive of any situation where the groom’s mother would actually run around asking, “Where’s my husband’s uncle’s daughter-in-law’s sister’s son? It’s been ages since I saw him. Where is he?”  She would more likely be sizing up her own daughter-in-law for the post ceremony title bout. My dear reader, let me ask you something. If held at gunpoint, could you recall the face of your auntie’s father-in-law’s third nephew’s son? If you can, you could be my mother (or my auntie). In either case, my deepest apologies.

Anyway, I attended the wedding, and frankly, it was a harrowing experience. You’d expect only the groom to feel so during any wedding, but you would be mistaken. A 25 year old unmarried, employed son of a relation (doesn’t matter if this relation can give as good as she gets) is considered fair game. Mallu weddings have a way of attracting saree clad women from all parts of the country who have been dying to ask you about your future plans. It doesn’t matter where they catch hold of you, they will show no mercy. So, based on my experience (which I will not recount here since my therapist told me that reliving the experience might prove to be too traumatic for me) I will outline a few tricks to avoid what I went through.

  • Faced with any question, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you. You have the right to speak to your mom. If you cannot find your mom, God save you.
  • If against all your instincts you are forced to talk, never tell them that you studied at an Indian Institute of Management. You will spend the better part of the next half hour explaining what it is and why it is not half as bad as Ponnani School of MBA, where “Girija’s son went to do his Yembeeyay”. Believe me, it’s not worth the preparation you put into CAT.
  • The next inevitable question will be about job and salary. Just say Infosys and “reasonable”. Trust me. You do not want to rattle off names like Avendus Capital, Mindtree consulting, Flipkart or Schneider. The reply would be a sympathetic nod and the story of how Girija’s son got a better job at Infosys.  And yes, any would be over-enthusiastic consultant who says he works at Booz & Co. will only have himself to blame.
  • Never, I repeat never get suckered into giving career advice to anybody’s younger son. The temptation will be there, when an innocent question like “Could you please talk to Appunni here? He is soooo lazy. I honestly don’t know what he will become”, can easily catch you off guard. Believe me, Appunni will not appreciate any advice you give, his mother will closely monitor every word of it, and your career advice will not be worth shit anyway. It is a lose-lose-lose situation. If at all you get suckered into it, tell Appunni the story of how you and your buddies went playing beer pong the night before CAT and how the next morning you nearly puked all over the CAT paper. Everyone will be scandalized, most of all Appunni, but at least you will get a laugh out of it.
  • The last guideline is exactly that; a guideline. There is no known way to counter this deadly question, which is mostly asked by grandmothers at these weddings. They labour under the impression that their sole duty during Vanaprastha Ashram is to catch hold of errant youngsters and marry them off. Be very afraid of the ones who have taken their rheumatism pills on the day of the wedding. It is an empirical observation that such grandmothers are seized by a missionary zeal to aid cupid (or Kamadeva, depending on your religious leaning).  My favorite way to counter these questions is to knowingly nod at the lady and point to my mom. She is sure to abandon me and corner my mom to extract all the juicy details about her future daughter-in-law. Caught by surprise, my mom invariably panics and admits that she is guilty of the most horrendous sin any mallu mother can commit- of never having started searching for a prospective bride the day her son graduated. Serves her right for emotionally blackmailing me in the first place.

Meanwhile, go meet the groom and shake his hand. My therapist told me that it always pays to be in touch with fellow victims. And yes, beat the crap out of Girija’s son if you can find him. It helps, too.