Friday, May 29, 2009

Two Good Men

I wish to record two little experiences with two good men. The experiences are little, everyday ones. But something about them has touched me deeply. Something about them has given me a joy I intensely crave for -- the joy of believing that this world is inhabited by good people. It makes it sound reasonable to be good oneself. It makes me feel that perhaps the path to simplicity is not that complicated after all!

My first experience is with a person called Irshaad, the owner of Sana Cane Furniture in Shivajinagar. I first met him about half a year ago in connection with purchasing cane furniture for our living room. He turned out to be an apparently avid Muslim, beard and prayer cap on his head. His attire wasn't anything to drool on -- dirty shirt and trousers and a battered boot. A very workmanly appearance. And the funniest thing was his bike -- a very old 100 CC, one of the first which used to ply our roads, perhaps way back in the 80s. But an immediately noticeable aspect about him was his gentlemanly behaviour. A polite and articulate way of speech most Muslims can boast of. And a very Indian-accented but immaculately correct English. These contrasting colours in his personality caught my attention immediately.

My first meeting with Mr. Irshaad was in the middle of Queen's Road, from where we proceeded to his workshop which was approached through narrow, muddy lanes with Muslim children, Muslim ladies, Muslim shopkeepers selling clothes, food-items and everything -- a very typical old-city look a part of every big city would have. The workshop itself turned out to be an extremely unkempt tin-sheded place. Pieces of wood, cane, nails, dirty clothes, polish, strewn around to give the place the most classic look of untidiness. The entrance was a narrow opening cut into the tin-wall in the form of a two pane door, one of which has been kept locked for some reason. I had to struggle getting into the workshop through it.

On the one hand, Ramzan was round the corner. October 1, I think. Mr. Irshaad's workmen would go on a week's vacation after Eid day. On the other hand, we were expecting guests on October 2, and positively needed the furniture to be delivered before that. It was about a week to go. And the deal was made that he would give us our furniture before that. Going by our previous experience with some of the most professional (so-called) parties of Bangalore, e.g. Big Bazaar, we set our own expectations on a date about a week or ten days after Ramzan, never mind the urgency of our need for the furniture. In the meantime, we would of course keep pushing them, without which perhaps nothing would be delivered even in a year.

There were some other aspects of the deal which were particularly precarious. First, Mr. Irshaad literally chased us to an ATM and made us make half the payment in advance in cash. And second, the whole deal was made orally. There were no paper receipts. No bills. No invoices. No quotations.

The surprise came on the Eid day. By that time, work worth a day was remaining, as reported by Mr. Irshaad. But since Eid had arrived we reached an understanding (unwillingly on our part) that the delivery would be delayed till a few days later. However, on the Eid day, we got a call from Mr. Irshaad. Second day Moon hadn't been seen. Eid had been postponed to the next day. Work would therefore continue and be finished. So did it happen. We had our furniture in our living room on October 1. Taut cane weavings and the heady smell of fresh varnish!

That wasn't my final experience with Irshaad. A few weeks back, we needed some maintenance on our furniture. Since the service guarantee (again oral) was for five years, I called up Mr. Irshaad and told him that I had purchased my furniture from him about 6 months back and that they needed some attention. Without arguments, Mr. Irshaad said that I could come to his Shivajinagar shop and pick one of his boys. The explanation he gave for troubling me to come was that if he sent his boy by himself, he might just loaf around and go back and say that he didn't find our house. Anyway, I went to his shop and found it unattended. While I entered hesitently, the neighbouring shopkeeper came up and informed that Irshaad was in the Mosque for his evening prayer, had asked him to seat me while he was away and would be there in 10 minutes. Irshaad appeared in around that time. Another visit to his workshop. The boy was sent and the work was done. I was instructed to give the boy a token Rs. 50 after the work was completed. Given with pleasure!

He is a meek looking, greying, aging LIC agent. He carries a small handbag sort of thing which is full of his agency related papers. Each time he is needed to produce a document, he clumsily sifts through the contents of the bag. I noticed that sometimes he finds them; something he doesn't.

I got Mr. Raghunath's reference from my colleague Vijay who was both his personal acquaintence and a client himself. Vijay had more to tell about Raghunath. Raghunath's son used to be his classmate. Vijay had spent much of his time during student days in Raghunath's house and had received very affectionate treatment from the entire family. Raghunath is a past employee of HMT. He had incurred some heavy losses in the stockmarket etc. etc.

My experience with Raghunath was very brief. Only 3 meetings. First, in office when he came for the introductory interview. I sent him back asking him to come home, as I wanted it to happen in the presence of my wife. Second, the very same evening at my house. He arrived punctually, gave an elaborate explanation about the policy which got very boring and tiring for me, and left after giving me a list of documents needed for initiating the policy. Two days later, Raghunath was at our office. I handed over the documents to him while we had coffee together. He left shortly. Within two-three hours, I got a call from him wherein he informed me my policy number.

Why these little incidents have had a visible effect on me is not very clear. I think it's got to do with many things. And for those many things, some of which I can guess, some perhaps, I can't clearly see, I thought it worth recording these two singular experiences.

Recently when I was sharing this experience with my wife, she said: 'But they were just doing their job.' And immediately, we both concurred on the point that perhaps that's what made them such a rarity. None of these two men did a favour to me. They just did their jobs well. I felt so phenomenally thankful for the smoothness that my dealing with them enjoyed. This smoothness is a rarity in cases of the best-known organisations notwithstanding their process-orientedness, their customer-care centres, their 24 hour toll-free lines and their interest free personal loans.

Another more important thing to notice was the relative anonymity of both these personages. They aren't famous. they aren't important. They are ordinary people. In all probability, they aren't ever going to break free of their anonymity or ordinariness. But they cling on steadfastly to such standards of professionalism as might not meet any international standard, and yet result in the rarest of the rare experiences in business -- a feeling of complete satisfaction.

Mr. Irshaad took approximately Rs. 10000 from me as advance without providing a bill. He expected me to trust him. I don't know what gave him that confidence that I would trust him. But I simply had to. He returned my trust amply not just by delivering the furniture on time, but providing with immediate and hassle-free service. No paperwork involved. The whole experience was most fascinating how trust worked both ways without leaving one with a feeling of having been cheated. An example that even business can be done through trust.

You see many people sitting on positions of power and importance setting all sorts of wrong examples: researchers faking results, politicians and officials misappropriating public money, people travelling in big beautiful cars breaking traffic lights, artists selling insincere work, reporters selling sensation, TV channels selling endless soaps, not to mention scientistswriting blogs in company time. Among them, there are these Irshaads and Raghunaths, trudging about on rattling BMTC buses and old motorbikes, wearing the most indistinguished look -- who live by high standards of ethics.

What's the use of being good and anonymous? What's the use of being professional if it doesn't translate into riches? I don't know. But to me, I think they simply prove a point -- it's OK to be good people. It's OK to be honest. It's OK to do one's job with sincerity. Such a life is possible. And it's OK to live it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sensationalists at Workplace

We all come across numerous losers who get emotional about things in all ways except the correct one. This post is an ode to them.

Their behaviour is characterised by one singlemost quality: Whatever they are talking about, they will give you normative statements about it before giving out positive ones. In other words, they will impress you with how strongly they feel about a thing before they reveal their real understanding of it. A list of examples follows:

- It's a good site. (I have studied it.)
- It's a beautiful theory. (I have understood it.)
- It's based on raag yaman. Lovely raaga! (I know about this raaga.)
- Tolstoy's writings gives me goosebumps. So intricate! (I have read Tolstoy's work.)
- This country is going to dogs! You should shoot all the politicians. (I am concerned about the nation's welfare.)
- This is my favourite part of my thesis. (I have done my PhD with a lot of affection. Therefore it's a good thesis.)

- ...

It's generally understood that you get emotional about something you are deeply involved in. So, the easiest way to prove the existence of your deep involvement in something, particularly when the involvement is not there, is to show your emotions about the thing. It shows that you have it in you to get deeply involved in something, which needs you to be at some level of intelligence. So, if the listener is weak enough in logic not to see that emotions are not a sufficient condition for intelligence, and is gullible enough to believe that your emotional involvement is authentic in the first place, he'll interpret it as a sign of your intelligence.

I'm sure we all have learned to expect such people around us in parties, conferences, workplace etc. Also there are some disguises in which the same thing appears. For example, use of superlatives, e.g.
- I read it a long time back. (I have been involved in this for long. Hence, the involvement is ripe and deep.)

or casual/askance statements like:
- ...when I was talking with Queen Elizabeth last year ...(proves that I had been to England last year, and I mix around with monarchs, and most importantly it's no big deal for me.)
- I feel nauseous in the flight (Ya, I mean, I travel by air very often.)
- Man, M. G. Road parking situation is horrible! (I travel by car often.)

Similarly, for example, throwing jargons, e.g
- Picaso, right? It's surreal!
- Plutocracy bla bla totalitarianism bla blah bla ... existentialism bla bla bla blah... emricism, idealism...

Sometimes, it requires a conscious effort to resist the temptation to be one of this kind at occasions. But, it helps in general to stay away from this temptation. Discipline in this regard the makes it possible to experience the actual fun of emotional involvement. Faking it closes all roads to the authentic experience; or at best delays it severely.

I also beg your pardon for a slight tinge of cynicism in this post. I definitely don't mean that all high-sounding discourses are phony. Often, trying too hard to sound simple and modest could be the worst form of vanity. But definitely, if one is conscious (without being paranoid) of the germs of vanity that is present in all of us, we would learn to minimise its expression in our behaviour. I do feel this discipline to shun vanity is very hard to get, but unfortunately lies at the root of all ethical behaviour in professions like research, art and social-service.