Friday, May 7, 2010

An Exceptional Human Being

I walked in, nervous, jittery and unsure. At a glance, I saw that there were several people in the reception area. All were carrying a file, and I thought, “Oh my God! Was I supposed to get a file? For what? I wasn’t informed. Now what to do???”

“Hi, Meera,” said Lakshmi, the receptionist. She knew me from my past visit to the college with my dad.

“Hi, Good morning!” I replied with a tremulous smile. She handed me a file with my application form, and asked me to sign in.

“Thank God!” I thought to myself. “I wasn’t supposed to bring anything.”

Spying an empty seat near a fair girl, I sat down. After a quick glance at her (she didn’t even look up from the newspaper she was reading), I pulled out a paper from the pile on the table, and started flicking through it.

The tension in the room was almost palpable. No one spoke to anyone, not even daring to look into the eyes of the other. Strangely, in retrospect, it did not even cross my mind that most of them were going to be my future classmates. I would be spending a very important year of my life with them. At that moment, I was busy visualising my interview... the very first one in my life.

“Ok, everyone! Most of you have arrived. Let’s go for the aptitude test. Follow me!” said Lakshmi, moving towards a white door which lead inside.

Silently we got up and filed in behind her. We climbed up the narrow staircase and went straight into a classroom. We were asked to sit two in a row, papers were distributed and the test started.

Once the test was over, we were again asked to wait in the reception area. The tension seemed to have lifted. People were starting to whisper and talk to their neighbours, obviously discussing the aptitude test.

This time, on my right, on the other sofa, sat a round faced, medium height guy. He looked typically Tamilian, the intelligent, studious kind. Next to him, sat a dark complexioned, thin guy, wearing spectacles.

“Hey,” he said, addressing both of us. “How did you do in there?”

“Ok,” I replied. “My maths was weak.”

“Ok,” muttered the other guy.

“Great! I’m Mohit,” he continued, “What’s your name?” He asked, turning towards his neighbour.

“I’m Karthik,” He said shyly.

When Mohit looked inquiringly at me, I said, “I’m Meera.”

“Are you from Chennai?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m from Bangalore.”

“Oh, my family is from Bangalore too. On my dad’s side.”

“Oh really!” I enthused. “Do you go there often?”

“No, not really.”

“Oh ok.” My elation dropped. He wasn’t really from my hometown.

All this while, Karthik listened silently, contributing nothing to the discussion. I wondered would he turn out to be one of those silently superior guys, looking down on all of us, or was he simply shy. Mohit rattled on, talking about his work experience. Once in a while, Karthik spoke up, as the discussion turned to the recent downturn and the poor industry conditions. Since I was unaware of the particular details, I simply listened, trying to follow their train of thought.

“Hey, am I talking too much?” Mohit asked suddenly. “My friends tell me I have a habit of simply carrying on and on...”

“No, not at all,” I said, not daring to look at Karthik and suppressing a laugh. At least he was entertaining us, while we waited for the group discussion round to start.

Soon, Mohit and I were called, along with some others. We were the first batch of students for the group discussion. After that, I was the first one to go in for the interview. It went off quite well, considering this was my first interview. After I came out, Mohit was called in. He bid me good-bye and confidently walked in.

As I waited for my mother to come and pick me up, I chatted with the father of the fair girl I had sat next to when I had come in. They were originally from Delhi. Her name was Seema and she wanted to study HR here. Her dad worked in L&T, and they were in Chennai from the last thirteen years.

As soon as our taxi came, I bid them good-bye and left. There had been no sign of Karthik anywhere. In fact, I completely forgot about him. He had simply been a diffident guy I had met, who had come alive when voicing his grievances against the HR in Cognizant (the company he had worked in). But the one thing I remembered well, was that he spoke good English and held some strong views.

Two months went by. I got selected. And there began an arduous journey of intense studies, after years of lack of it, and the chance to meet and befriend a truly exceptional human being!

Classes started, strangers became acquaintances, and slowly grew to be friends. Amidst all the commotion, the studies, the building of relationships, I gradually started noticing this one guy – Karthik Selvam – the one I had met on the day of the interview and dismissed from my mind.

One the first day, our director, Mr. Vikash Sethi, told us that we have to build strong brands and interesting personalities of ourselves to compete and succeed in this world. And the first signs of this brand building I remarked in that one person. He was passionate about two things in life – Music, personified by A.R. Rahman and Sports – cricket, football, basket ball... you name it. He even went to the extent of wearing Reebok clothing, since his idols did too. In his own words, he would do anything to watch a match of cricket or attend a music concert by A. R. Rahman, even forgo his exams!

However, his passions did not constantly distract him from his studies. In fact, he was an ace student, especially in maths based subjects. But he lacked self-confidence, always saying, so and so is the topper! I am a bad student... etc. Most of the time, I was his target or Seema. Often I used to challenge him over this, and generally win the argument. And he would gracefully accept defeat with a sweet, bashful smile and twinkling eyes.

Gradually, through several interactions and observing him with others, I realised that he was really a very sincere, decent guy. If truth be said, in my entire life I had never met such an honest, polite man, with a mind as simple and straightforward as the affable warmth in his heart. The movies depicted such characters, (unfortunately some of them were old Vijay movies as far as I remember), but I had not dreamt of meeting one such in reality. I even remember talking about him to my parents and my friends... So much in awe of him was I! But I never got a chance of telling him so, until much, much later in the year...

In the second trimester, we also had some specialised marketing courses that would be taken on weekends. We were the largest group, seventeen in total. Rumour had it that the marketing classes had all the fun in the whole college, the profs were cool and fun loving, and the assignments were very interesting. All of us were excited and looking forward to the courses.

I had a fixed seat in the third row – the aisle seat. Everyone else used to more or less move around. Karthik did too, and with him two other girls, Amrita and Saachi. They would rarely leave him alone. Everywhere they went he had to follow, and the vice versa. Although, I had observed this, it did not sink in until I realised that for all group assignments they wanted to be with him. Then, and only then, I understood the situation. The girls did not do anything, or contributed in the most minor ways, while Karthik slogged over the whole project. Moreover, after finishing it, he had to also explain the whole thing to the others (at times they weren’t even aware of what the project was about!)

I wondered why he let them take advantage of him again and again. Why was he being so kind and gentle? The situation got worse as days went by. During one project, we were all part of a single group. At that time, I was not feeling well and the deadline drew near. I allocated everyone a portion of the work, knowing well that if I did not do so, the others would not offer to do anything. However, in spite of my threatening to leave the parts that Amrita and Saachi was supposed to do unfinished, unless they contributed on time, they did not do so. So as usual, Karthik and I had to complete it, while another guy, Arvind, worked on another angle of the project.

It was then, that for the first time, I heard Karthik complain about the situation. Since I was already very angry and irritated with the girls, I asked him outright why he let them get away with it.

“What can I do?” he said, “They just won’t do anything. Always expecting me to do it!”

“So, who spoilt them?” I retorted.

“Well...” He muttered, looking abashed.

“That’s right. You!” I stated firmly, well beyond caring to spare his feelings. “If I was in your place, I would never have done that. If one assignment we let go... They will understand immediately.”

“Ya... that’s right... But...” he mumbled, looking down at the desk. “I can’t...”

In a flash, I realised how similar we were! In spite of all my bombastic declarations, in truth, I knew that I would have never been able to abandon any task. I could not be at ease with a sub-standard assignment, just because it had my name on it. Whatever I did had to be the result of my best efforts given the circumstances. Karthik shared this belief, and that is why, he continued to push himself to work hard at every project that came his way, even if he had to do it all alone. At least in my case, I had some friends to help me out, but he rarely had that advantage. And at that moment, all my anger and frustration dissolved to complete admiration. Here was someone who worked day in and day out, silently for the sake of friendship. How lucky were those girls!

Meanwhile, another unique aspect of Karthik surfaced. Being a Gemini (just as I) he had two distinct personalities. The shy introvert would suddenly transform into an insistent argumentative individual who was adamant to put his point across to the adversary. The recluse would suddenly transform into a maniac who loved to pose in front of the camera. His moods would change as swiftly as the current weather in Chennai. It was fascinating to watch the aggressive part in him find expression in front of the lens. It wasn’t a “cool dude” that he wanted to portray, but often a “macho, violent” person, who was the complete opposite of his usual self. Even his new bike was bright red in colour!

Whenever there was a discussion about cigarettes or hard liquor in class, he would turn towards me and say, “Hey, Meera, this is for me. I smoke 3 in a day...” or “Well, what do you think? I can at least have three or four pints in a day. What say?” But in truth, he had never smoked nor tasted any alcoholic drink in his entire life. Sometimes I wondered why... Was he suppressing his desires or was he naturally averse of these youthful pastimes? I hope that the latter was true, and so he would not have a constant inner battle to fight.

However, the only thing that he truthfully admitted to at all times was his diffidence in front of strange women. He could never summon up enough courage to start a conversation with them. And thus he lost a chance to talk to a girl he admired every day on his way home in the bus... And according to him, a lifetime of girlfriends!!!

As days went by, the time for placements arrived and brittle tension increased in all of us. How to get a job in a good company with an excellent salary and a great growth opportunity? They were so many ifs and buts, so many unanswered questions, and so few options available. Karthik attended a few interviews, went up to the final rounds and then did not get selected. He was extremely disappointed and disturbed. I sadly watched him struggle with himself, not daring to intrude in his personal life.

Then one day, there was a sudden outburst from him, the recipient were his two angels. They accused him of being abnormal and moody, hiding from them. As the fight grew more intense, I butted in, asking them to leave him alone, if they knew that wasn’t his usual self.

“But he is our friend!” she declared.

“So is he mine!” I replied. “But I’m not constantly asking him what’s wrong! Let him be! Let him take his time.”

“Maybe! Maybe he is your best friend! But he can’t behave like this,” Amrita shouted back. Angrily, she stormed out of the room.

I looked at him questioningly. He shrugged despondently.

“What’s wrong?” I asked tentatively, not knowing if I was doing the right thing by asking him now.

“I don’t know. I am just not interested in studies anymore,” he replied frowning.

“I feel the same too,” I agreed. “I don’t have the same ‘josh’ as the first trimester. And I don’t know why.”

“Well, I know some of the reasons. They are personal. But...” he hesitated.

“Is it the placements?” I ventured.

“Yes, a lot of my tension stems from that. I don’t seem to be breaking through. I go to the final interview and then... Whoosshh... Everything falls apart.”

“Relax. It will happen. Don’t get tensed.”

“But when?”

“Soon... Don’t worry! It’s not as if you are desperate for a job!”

“I am! I have to support my mom. She is getting older.”

“Your dad?”

“Oh! Don’t you know, he passed away when I was three years old!”

“Oh! I am sorry! I didn’t know,” I mumbled stunned.

“It’s ok. I should have told you,” he replied calmly.

I stared at him, still fazed. So many little things started making sense now. His gentleness and care, his sympathy and purity, was the result of his mother’s upbringing. Not that he wasn’t manly or protective, but the rough edges, the usual brashness associated with his age was tapered down to an extraordinary softness and maturity. His need to prove himself capable of his mother’s care and trust was his central aim. He had great ambitions and I am sure all the necessary talent to achieve them.

He was truly an exceptional human being.

A simple man, with a gentle heart and a brilliant mind!

An unforgettable friend, who in a very short time won my trust and absolute respect!

A truly exceptional human being!

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Rural Visit as part of my MBA

As we got down from the bus, eager to see the “chandie”, we were greeted by several cows right at the entrance, some tied to a tree, others lose, while the men stared at us. Hesitant, a little wary, we huddled together at first, watching, a little wide-eyed, all the activities around us. Gradually we split into smaller groups and started walking down the narrow lane (in fact only a restricted passage).

When we tried to talk to a few vendors, one of them, busily arranging his wares, categorically told us to go away, because he was interested only in sales and not in talking to us. Amused, we realized that he must have seen many such students coming in to simply gather information and not buy anything. There was a small boy, handling a stall selling tools and other utilities, who shyly told us that they had come early in the morning and would be here for the whole day. When we asked him if he came every week, he simply nodded and quickly looked away, discouraging further questions.

As we proceeded, we saw that some women sat alone under old umbrellas selling seeds, or ground spices, or some trivial items such as tooth brushes, safety pins, rubber bands etc. There were many spurious products (as mentioned earlier), with names very similar to the original brands such as “Pokia” powder instead of “Ponds”, or “Eyepax” instead of “Eyetex” etc. In fact, it was very interesting to see the branded items sold next to the fake ones, with minor price differences. Unless we were very observant, it is actually quite difficult to catch these phony items, since everything else in the design remained the same. So we are sure that the common customer would have no idea that he / she wasn’t buying the real branded goods. There were such replicas not only in the personal care segment but also in the other categories, such as watches and clocks, and obviously movie DVDs and CDs.

There was even an old astrologer, taking advantage of the market day, to latch onto several gullible customers and recount to them a very rosy picture of their futures. One could always contemplate to completely rest in peace and happiness in the future, after listening to his recital. Everything would be so wonderful! Even our guide warned us not to believe a single word of the poor old gentleman, but it was an enjoyable experience watching him predicting the future so passionately.

As we made our way back, I saw two men selling ‘chickoos’ from the back of a van. They were blaring some of the latest Tamil songs. It caught my attention because of the loud noise, which was to an extent jarring, since no one else was making any such unnatural sounds. As we came back close to the entrance / exit of the market place, I caught sight of a hut, behind several stalls, serving some cooked meals. I believe it must have been for the vendors to have their meals there, since the ‘chandie’ had to be manned for the whole day.

At the entrance, we rushed to a small store selling orange drinks in ‘Mirinda’ bottles, with labels on them of a local brand. We were parched and exhausted from the excess heat. As we shared the drink, we noticed the difference in taste from the original Mirinda drink, but wondered if the rural folks would... After the refreshments, some of us went back in and bought fresh vegetables and fruits, which were cheaper here than in Chennai, and the quality was better too.

Strangely, we did not notice any big banners or other advertisements around the place for known national or local brands. It is not to say that the customers coming to this market were from the lowest strata of the society, in reality most of them had mobiles and appeared to be at ease in using them. They had two-wheelers as in mopeds or bikes, or even owned small vans. Some even understood a little of English, and responded in Tamil. And we also spotted some men who appeared to be well educated and from the middle class society, buying from their favourite vendors. However, it looks as if the bigger companies have not tapped into this market as yet, or have overlooked this prospect.

To conclude, the ‘chandie’ is not only a weekly market place, but also a meeting ground for the farmers (and other vendors too). It is here that they can gossip about the other villagers and the major events that have occurred in the past week, and most importantly, they can exchange news about their own harvest and the difficulties they faced with certain crops, the fertility of their lands, etc.

Moreover, the rural folks are not strangers to technology, and are on the contrary often eager to learn and adopt new ways that would enhance their lives. Therefore, it is a great chance for marketers to grab their attention at such a location, where they are relaxed and receptive to new ideas. On the other hand, this visit was an eye-opener, as to how close to a metropolitan city lies a market as yet untouched by the aggressive and ungentle hands of the modern marketer.