Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Drive me Nuts!

I slowed down as I approached the intersection.

The instructor sitting next to me, on my right hand side, already an aberration I was still grappling hard to understand, was losing it.

“Why do you always slow down on approaching an intersection? Can’t you see that you have priority?” he hollered in exasperation.  “You are causing a great confusion to the guy who is driving behind you, he will see no reason to slow down, nor would he expect you to slow down”

I casted an apologetic look at him and accelerated, marginally, while still looking furtively to my left and right as I passed the intersection, where, to my great amazement, other cars and, wonder of wonders, even lorries waited obediently.

Kalyani Nagar, Tilak Road, Mount Road, Brigade road and more junctions from India flashed across my mind.

Horns, expletives, shaken fists flitted across my memory at the cross-section where the four roads met was a maelstrom of vehicles, positioned at angles nowhere along the direction of roads. An aerial view will have presented a maze of cars, scooters, bikes, lorries and other vehicles locked in unbelievable array.

In India, you ALWAYS slowed when approaching an intersection.

I may have priority.

I might know that I have priority.

But it is idiotic to think that each, or even any, of the drivers approaching the junction from the other three roads would even consider that as a possibility, leave alone as a right. On Indian roads it had always been, to borrow an economic term, to the advantage of the first mover and the time-tested truth, might is right.

20 years of driving in India, had instilled the following mantras deep in my psyche.
  •  The road belongs to bigger vehicles and your place and right is proportional to the size of your vehicle – trailers, lorries, tempos, cars, autorickshaws, bikes, scooters and mopeds.

  • In a strange subset twist, the scooters, bikes and mopeds gain precious grounds as they occupy less space and hence can zig and zag and twist and gain each square centimeter that is available to be gained. Again, an aerial shot of a moving two wheeler, would resemble that of a swift racer snake.

  • The three wheeled wonder, the autorickshaw, defies all laws of physics, gravity and road sense. They rule the road. Even the mighty trailers and lorries sometime stand in awe and give them way. The drivers are dare devils and they have an hawk’s eye to locate the spaces available and an eye-hand coordination that will satisfy a most demanding kindergarten teacher.

  • Hence as a car driver, I have been superseded by the bigger vehicles by their size, ignored and pushed aside by the smaller vehicles with their mobility and dexterity.

  • And we trust the HORN. It clears the way like no other means can even dream of. We honk when we see a vehicle in front of us, when we see a vehicle approaching us from any side, when we see pedestrians jaywalking on the road, even when pedestrians, the miniscule percentage, that still use zebra crossings to cross the roads, when the signal turns green, when the signal becomes amber, when the signal shows red. Most of the time we do not know why we use the horn, but we use it anyway, and not to be outdone, all the other vehicles use their horn as a reply or as their first act. The pedestrians, as they cannot honk, wave their arms and shout and curse, and jump, run or stop, adding to a general sense of mayhem.

  • Signals are present because there is a government department that installs them. To give them more credibility is at the risk of your life.

  • And when it comes to signals given by the drivers/riders – there is one simple rule- They are decorative and NOT TO BE UNDERSTOOD as a signal on what the driver/rider intends to do. We never take them on their face value. He may have given the signal to turn right or left on a previous junction and may have forgotten to switch it off. Illuminating signals and hand signals are often displayed simultaneously and you do not have all the inputs to process what he intends to do. Many scooter/bike/moped riders just look in the direction they intend to go and one has to note their head movement in the absence of or along with any light/hand indications. An autorickshaw driver may signal right by an indicator, left with his hand and go straight. We always wait to see the final act, we do not rush into any preconceived opinions based on frivolous things like signals.

  • Opening the door while driving to inspect the tyre, to drop something that you do not need inside the car are normal. And any or all doors can be opened while the vehicle is in motion.

  • If there are three lanes and a service lane, then the traffic will move in 7 lanes. This is correct. To expect only three lanes to be used and the service lane to be left unused is a crime against utilization of available space.

  • When we approach a roundabout, we continue to drive. We enter the round about when we have space. And once into the flow we can always move and leave when we need to. We do not wait before a roundabout. There is no nonsense of “look for vehicles approaching from the left”.

  • When we see a bicycle rider on the road, most times we do not, we continue to drive. We might splash some water on him, or make him lose his balance with us passing by, but we do not signal and leave the lane (practically not possible too) and get back again after signaling.

  • When there is an unmanned level crossing, we cross and we do not stop unless there is actually a train crossing the road that we are planning to cross.

  • When there is an unmanned level crossing, we cross when we see a train approaching. We are good in calculating the relative speeds of the train, that of our vehicle and the distance to be covered.

  • When there is a level crossing with a gate, we cross as the gates start to close or while they come down, here again we are good in calculating the speed of movement of the gates and the distance.

  • Even after the gates come down, two wheelers cross by ducking under the gate. This is seen purely as an act of goodwill to avoid the traffic jam when the gate opens.

  • We occupy both sides of the road, on either side of the gates, and somehow wriggle across when the gates open.

And my instructor expects me to drive through a junction just because there is a puny teeny weeny yellow diamond perched on the side of the road, that tells me I have priority.

Go, tell it to your grandmother!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Football Widows

Football widow (n) – A woman whose husband ignores her for long periods to watch a football match.

Hello girls

The quadrennial event is back.

In a week from now, 22 grown up men will assemble on a rectangle field, monitored by 5 other men under the name “referee”, watched live by about 70,000 people in the stadium and millions more from the comfort of their homes in front of their television sets. One of these 22 men mentioned above will kick a football from its central spot on the pitch, and you will lose your husband for the next month.

Welcome to the world of football widows.

You would have expected the intervening four years to have somehow dimmed the enthusiasm and tired the bones. 

The chance of that is the same as Myanmar winning the world cup in the next 40 years.

The husband that you thought you knew well, undergoes a transformation. He is no longer lazy to get up at odd hours (depending on which part of the world you are in), run to the supermarket to stock up beer and chips or even help you out with a few chores in exchange for not disturbing him during THE match.

If you are not actively involved in the game of football, the next few weeks can be confusing.

The same husband, who swore by one Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Neymar or Salah, can now be seen cursing three or all of them. Club loyalty is different from the country that you support. You do not have to reorient yourself to the current liking of the husband, as this is just a matter of four weeks. Come August, the clubs shall be back in action and the old loyalty shall return, assuming the player had not changed clubs during the summer transfer. 

Do you want to know the meaning of club loyalty? It starts, in some cases, almost from the womb, or as you can see in the video below, at a rather young age.

My father in law often quips, what can’t be cured, must be endured.

That is the only advice I can give you.

It need not be all that bad, you can still make the most of it.

Here are a few suggestions.

1. Go partying with your friends, can be a picnic, a film, an opera, whatever. Your husband will not even notice that you are gone.

2. Ask him for what you want, just when the match is about to start. Placing yourself between him and the TV increases the chances. 11 times out of 10, he would agree to what you are asking for. Such fortunes do not last forever, so make the most of it.

3. Follow the fortunes of the team he supports. Placing your demand when the team is winning increases the certainty of the demand being granted.

4. Buy good quality ear muffs, that block out the noise.

5. Remove all fragile and breakable items from the living room. I can share here a video link of “an angry river plate fan” from youtube . But his reaction is so severe that even I am slightly aghast.

6. Plan your outing during the game, the roads will be deserted, it will be a pleasure to drive on those empty streets.

7. In case you would like to take part in the discussions, here are few useful information.
  • Pele and Maradona do not play anymore
  • Cruyff is dead.
  • Holland and Italy are not playing this world cup.

8. If your husband is happy after the match, do not ask him why? If he is morose, do not ask him why? If he is furious, do not ask him why? 

9. Best option of all is pack your bags and leave. Return after the finals. On second thoughts, return a few days after the final. (You do not want to be the one cleaning up the mess)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Arbeit Macht Frei

Have you ever seen a flimsy moth being drawn towards a flame. It gets too close, has its wings singed, falls off, crawls away, in case it had not died already, grows the wings again and approaches the same flickering flame again.

I am that moth when it comes to Auschwitz- Birkenau.

Visited the haunting place for the first time in 2012, was left devastated, vowed never to visit again and go through the inevitable depression that suffocates you for weeks at a stretch.

I was there for the 6th time on Sunday the 13th of May 2018.

I resisted penning down my thoughts so far and I give in today.

I am a certified WW II addict. I lapped up everything available about Nazi Germany, Hitler and the Holocaust in particular.

The seminal work The Rise and Fall of theThird Reich by William L Shirer kickstarted the obsession.

Countless films, the top amongst them, The Pianist, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Son of Saul, Schindler’s List and the ultimate Life is Beautiful reduced me to copious amount of tears and a near nervous wreck.

But, none of this prepares you for actually visiting the place.

Opinion is divided on whether such trips, nicknamed Holocaust tourism, are necessary.

In my opinion, yes. 

All the more now, as most of the people with firsthand experience are dead, and those who belong to the next generation of the affected families are already getting old. Soon, there will be a complete disconnect. A visit here would be a stark reminder of what happened, not in the distant past, but in recent memory, in a world that was apparently civilized, where a world order existed. 

This is a reminder of what could happen, once again, if we choose to let a few run riot.

When I see leaders like Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Milos Zemen, Narendra Modi and Viktor Orban, coupled with even Nobel Peace Prize winner standing mute witness to the Rohingya crisis,  the horrors of the Auschwitz- Birkenau suddenly appear to be becoming a possibility, yet again.

After six visits, I am qualified to lead my friends on a detailed tour by myself, but to a first timer, I would strongly recommend a guided tour in a language that you are comfortable with.

The walk around tour starts in front of the incongruous “Work sets you free” sign.

The Nazis were perfectionists. The camouflage was so complete that no deported Jews, the political prisoners, the Roma Gypsies, the homosexuals, the dwarves ever suspected that anything so catastrophic was in the offing.

Everyone believed that they were being relocated. The Nazis did not want chaos, panic and disorderly conduct. They wanted everything to be smooth.

The offices of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp have done a wonderful job in coaching the guides and the guides are knowledgeable, and while they must be tired of repeating the same tour day in and day out, they appear genuinely interested in letting you know the full details.

In my last visit, our guide was one Magdalena. She was beyond perfect. She had a melancholic face. It appeared as if it was ready to break into crying at any moment. And she was elegant. She was impeccably dressed. Her diction was perfect, so much so, I had to re-look at her name tag to ascertain from her surname that she was indeed a Pole. Her voice had a quivering tenor, it was as if she was struggling not to weep as she spoke. She spoke in one constant monotone. A flat rendition. She never raised her voice. At moments she paused, as if gathering herself, recovered her composure which looked as if it was about to crumble, and continued with the same √©lan. 

She must audition to the next movie on the concentration camp for the part of the voice over, and Oscars may introduce a new category and award her the statute.

A female Morgan Freeman.

The way the visit is organized coupled with her sombre tone made the last visit of mine the most impactful.

It starts, rather innocuously, in Block 4, and continues to Block 5 and 7.

The first rooms display pictures of the layout of the concentration camps, some photographs of people arriving at the camp, a map of how Auschwitz sat right at the centre of the occupied Europe, and how several spokes from each corner all converged on the central dot, called Auschwitz.

A few quotes, slowly increasing in the vitriol, building up the sense of despondency.

The visit slowly increases the torment quotient, a isometric view of the gas chambers is shown. And blue prints of precise engineering drawings are on display. Every single detail is about efficiency. The flow of people in one direction, neatly arranged chambers for disrobing, with pegs numbered, (the victims were told that they were going for a shower, and were asked to remember the peg numbers, in order to collect their clothing on emerging), and the simple and efficient openings on the roof from which to dump the measured quantity of Zyklon-B, the electrical winch/lift to transport the bodies one level above after they were gassed, the sequentially arranged ovens to incinerate the bodies.

Every single detail screams efficiency.

You see some empty containers of Zyklon-B recovered after the liberation. Ironically, the Zyklon-B, which was used to gas the victims, was produced at IG Farben, the same unit where the concentration camp inmates worked the whole day as cheap labour.

You are guided to the next room, where, all along the left wall of a 15 meter long hall, in a glass enclosure that is at least a meter deep, piled right up to the ceiling, you see human hair.

The guide mentions the term human hair just as your eyes adjust to the poor light and you flinch away from the glass partition as if someone had physically assaulted you. I saw this girl walking in front of me, it was her first time certainly, and I saw her jump three feet sideways with her hands help up and in defence. She was petrified.

The guide drones on saying how after the gassing was completed (the chambers were locked for 2 hours to ensure complete killing and then the exhaust was started) the bodies were dragged out, hair was shaved, gold filling of teeth were extracted and how every single thing that could be used was recovered before the bodies were sent to the ovens.

She reels off statistics. How the killing capacity was double the oven capacity to cremate, how one day’s killing took two days of ovens operating round the clock, how this led to the immediate construction of Birkenau, a camp 10 times the size of Auschwitz, where the killing was “improved”, the capacity was increased. Lessons learnt in Auschwitz were applied in Birkenau to make Birkenau the most efficient termination camp. (more of it later)

You come across a document fixing the price of human hair at 50 pfennig per kilogram.

The human hair was used in textiles and making wigs for parlours and anatomy lessons.

From here it is non-stop battering of your senses till they are numb.

Displays the size of a football field, hurl at you eye-wear frames, some with lenses intact, brushes, utensils, suitcases, prosthetic limbs…..

The suitcases carry the name, the town from which the person hailed from, and date of birth. In case you failed to notice, the guide is programmed to direct your gaze to that particular suitcase, the details of which tell you that the possessor of that suitcase was just six years old upon arrival and immediate death by gassing.

As you stand there transfixed and numbed by the sheer size, the guide reminds you that this was just a fraction of what was recovered upon liberation, that which the Nazis did not have time to burn away. The numbers of 1.5 million dead is repeatedly hammered into you, lest you forget it.

In one of the first three blocks, you walk along the corridor, where the photographs of the inmates adorn the wall on either side. All in striped pajamas, all gaunt, with bulging eyes, shaven head. Each one meticulously numbered, the date of birth, the date of entry into the camp, and the date of death. The luckiest one survived just a day. Few lasted two to three years.

As you walk past Block 10, the guide tells you that this was the place where medical experiments took place. Not the gory macabre Doctor Josef Mengele stuff, that was in Birkenau, this was a comparatively milder sterilisation experiments done to ensure that races other than the pure Aryan race were not procreated!

Then you approach block 11, known as the death block. Here the Nazi court tried and sentenced scores of inmates to death by execution, for something as frivolous as a stolen loaf of bread. Punishments were meted out. Prisoners were sentenced to confinements and standing cells. The ones sentenced to death were disrobed and were marched to the courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, where they were stood in front of the firing wall and summarily executed. You walk the same route that those hapless victims walked as they were led to their death. The extent of secrecy practised could be assessed when you look up to the boarded windows of Block 10 overlooking the courtyard.

The guide stops you in front of the canteen, where a makeshift gallows was erected to hang 11 men on the suspicion that they helped three inmates escape. The public hanging was meant to be a deterrent to dissuade others from trying to escape. 

The only two approved modes of death, as sanctioned by the Nazis, were, starvation and execution.

The guide informs you that you are about to end the first part of the tour and takes you out of the double layer of electric fences to the outside.

There you stand with a gallows facing you, the gas chamber to your right and a decent looking villa about 100 meters down on your left.

The commander of the camp, Rudolph Hoss (not to be confused with Hitler’s man Friday, Rudolf Hess) lived in that villa with his wife and five children, a mere 100 meters from the gas chambers and the ovens that were burning the corpses.

Your mind connects with this scene from the film, and see how apt the scene looks now when you stand here in this spot.

The guide tells you of the poetic justice, when the authorities hunted down Hoss after the liberation and brought him to trial and agreed that he would be hanged at the spot between his villa and the gas chambers, facing the camp for which the special gallows was erected.

You then walk to the gas chamber. This was a rudimentary chamber compared to the Rolls Royce model the Nazis deigned and improved subsequently at Birkenau. This one did not have proper chambers to disrobe (as a result most often the inmates disrobed outside on the lawns), no pegs to hang your clothes, no fake shower nozzles that were never connected to a water supply.

This cavernous chamber is however big, the floors almost slippery smooth with all those rubbing and hosing down that must have happened after each gassing, scratch marks on the walls, the cyclops of an opening from where the masked Nazi soldier must have dropped the measured quantity Zyklon-B. No one speaks  a word. The guide announces before we enter the chambers that she would remain silent in respect of the dead. Jelly legged you enter the next chamber, where the two ovens stand. The spine tingles and the hairs on your hand stand on their root.

The calculated quantity part of the Zyklon -B is what unnerves you. The Nazis had earlier stumbled upon this simple means of killing by experimenting in the basements of Block 11 on a group of Soviet POWs. They later kept fine tuning till they arrived at a precise number on how many grams of Zyklon – B was needed per person.

It is not possible for a normal human being not to cry at this instant. It feels natural to wipe the rolling tears away.

You step out and see towards the villa and cannot bring yourself to believe that five children played children games and read comics by the fireplace a stone’s throw away from ovens burning human flesh.

The guide gives you a 20 minute break after which a bus will transport you to the same horrors on an industrial scale.

To Birkenau!

By this time you are already numbed. The iconic entrance gate with the railway line going right inside sends shivers down your spine. You reach the unloading spot along the railway tracks, you recognise it from those photographs. On the other side of a rather wide road, you see the sorting place.

Here, a German officer and a Doctor decided, with a simple wave of their wrist with a pointed finger, whether the new arrival would proceed to the right, inside the concentration camp, where the person would be subjected to inhuman conditions of living, a meagre ration of food and inevitably would starve to death, or walk further down the road to the end where they would go to one of the five crematoriums and immediately gassed to death. 

The old, the invalids, the women and children usually walked this way and were killed almost immediately. Here the charade was complete. A walk down a corridor, a place to remove the dresses and hang on numbered pegs, a chamber with fake shower heads, the complete works.

German efficiency at its best!

Four hours since you started and the gravity of the whole tour that you had just completed starts to sink in.

You step out of the Birkenau camp, a privilege most of the inmates did not possess, get into your car and drive away.

Just 76 years ago, millions had arrived on these very platforms, clutching their suitcases, utensils, shoe polish cans, brushes, toys and dresses hoping to start life in a new place, wondering what language they needed to learn, what new trade they had to perfect, what new neighbours that they would have and died within the first few hours.

Those who died on the arrival were the lucky ones.

Those who died after months of humiliation and inhuman living conditions were far worse.

But, those who survived, having lost the rest of the family, must have been the hardest hit.

On one of my earlier trips, I had seen a Polish gentleman who had been liberated from the camp at the end of the war. He completed the entire tour without uttering a word, silently crying.

After my sixth visit now I would go into a depressive state for a few weeks. The ever resilient human spirit will find its strength and I will get back to normalcy.

I will have one more visitor who, on spending a weekend with me at the end of a European tour, will ask me

“Is there someplace nearby, where we can just make a day trip?”

And I will reply

“Do you know Auschwitz?”

Monday, April 9, 2018

Workplace Humor

Disclaimer 1: Names NOT changed in the narration. All of them deserve to be mentioned.

Disclaimer 2: This is going to be a long read.

Each workplace has its own share and category of humor. It is too dreary to spend a minimum of 1/3rd of your work life seriously. If there is no humor in the workplace to lighten the atmosphere, many would collapse, literally and figuratively. I am not an authority on the level and quality of humor that is available across the spectrum, but if I have to imagine a scale of 1 to 10, a steel melt shop must rank very close to 10.

For the less initiated: A steel melt shop is a place where various technologies are engaged to produce steel. The hard and cold steel that the common population knows has no place here. We are talking about liquid steel; 1600 deg Celsius of liquid steel that flows like water. It’s not a job for feeble-hearted. Adrenalin flows high. Every moment is a second away from a disaster. The functioning of a steel melt shop is an engineering marvel. Each day is as exciting as the previous, if not more. To survive there a person should be strong, committed, possess nerves of steel and a enjoy a healthy dose of humor.

What I shall document now are various episodes in my career at Mukand Ltd, a place that is still producing steel, one of the finest organizations ever. What made the place special are the people who populated it.

This was a place of extreme camaraderie, innovative work culture, fiercely competitive, great mentors, trustworthy leaders, warm friendships and above all a collection of people possessing such a healthy sense of humor that I had never come across in the subsequent 17 years in the same industry. We all believe that this humor kept us alive, kept us together and is still binding us together. My latter year acquaintances are familiar with the legendary stories of Mukand thanks to your yours truly narrating with absolute mirth, episodes after unbelievable episodes.

Disclaimer 3: Humor often thrives on hyperbole. Believe me when I tell you that not one episode has been exaggerated. On the contrary, I may have ended up diluting the original laugh quotient for which my powers of narration alone are to be blamed.

A friend in need:

In the later seventies a steel shop man was not a popular specimen. One look at the “engineer” slogging away in the harsh environs of the steel shop and his un-washable uniform was enough to drive the prospective father-in-law to immediately change his mind and give away his daughter to the next door bank employee or the government clerk. Thus it was a time of celebration when Samba (Sambasivam shortened, it was usual to have every name abbreviated or shortened – steel shop is too busy a place to spend time in calling each other by full name) returned from his hometown with news that he had been betrothed during the holidays, and shall soon be going on another holiday to attend his marriage.

It was fortunate that the entry to the steel shop was limited and outsiders were not usually allowed. The security at the main gate called the steel shop office where the ever reliable P.N.Bhosale (for some reason he was always called by his full name, no one shortened his name – he also had the tough headmaster air about him) took the call.

The matter conveyed by the security was calamitous.

The future father-in-law to be of Samba was at the gate. He wanted to visit his son-in-law to be’s workplace to assess as someone “poisoned” his mind that steel shop is not a place to go choosing grooms and that his daughter would not have any personal life worth mentioning.

Plus the place is dangerous!

P.N.Bhosale reacted quickly. He was known for his great acumen and timely thinking. He asked the security to escort the gentleman personally in a jeep and deposit him directly to his office.

R.V.Dalvi (Dalvi-da), the then chief of steel shop was called immediately and Dalvi-da, an even more astute player, immediately went about marshalling the resources and the play.

Samba was called from the shop floor, given time scrub clean off all the grime and dust, donned fresh civilian clothes and occupied Dalvi-da’s office.

The Father-in-law was made to wait in P.N.Bhosale’s office, where he was treated like a royal. Few employees of the steel melt shop were orchestrated to visit and whisper reverently (loud enough for the old man to hear) that the gentleman is going to be the father-in-law of THE Samba Sir.

P.N.Bhosale led the father-in-law to be, personally to “Samba’s office” where five other officers, on cue, left the office scribbling notes on the spiral books and whispering in hushed tones. Samba played his part well too. He looked genuinely surprised to see the old man and invited him into “his” office and inquired about his sudden visit.

The old man was so ashamed to have suspected this great officer and left almost immediately, fully satisfied.

As it happens in the fairy tales, the bride and Samba lived happily ever after. To this date we have no clue if the wife subsequently exposed the true episode to her father.

If there is internet in heaven, Samba will be smiling in reminiscence as the dear friend is no more.

Commander and the neophyte a.k.a. ghanta morning.

Mr.Ghosh was a terror. An absolute gem of a man, to this date my friend, philosopher and guide, but back when I joined, fresh out of college, still wet behind my ears, he was an absolute terror. Mr.Ghosh lived and breathed steel. He probably had no hobbies. He was focused on the shop floor and the performance. He was excited and exhilarated at each achievement and blew his head off at each setbacks. He was passionate and his emotion swings from extreme joy to incendiary fury was legendary.

I was walking towards the furnace around 8 in the morning.The trainee engineer started in the general shift and after few days/weeks of training was sent to shifts, usually tagged with a senior melter to learn the ropes. Unknown to me, there was certain fiasco in the night shift and Mr. Ghosh had been on the furnace since some ungodly hours. He was on the way back to his office, and we met on a narrow steel bridge.

I wished him “Good morning”.

He exploded in reply. “Ghanta morning”.

It is not possible to translate this phrase; loosely it means “Good morning, my ass”.

I was taken aback and ventured to explain that I was not stating the condition of the morning in question but generally wishing him well. He was flabbergasted. He looked at me with incredulity written all over his face and walked away muttering “All that was missing in this madhouse was one Shakespeare, now that’s also taken care of”

Mr. Ghosh will feature in few more episodes. His manner inside the shop floor that stemmed from his passion is no measure of the absolute gentleman that he is, to this day. When I was leaving India, I went and met him to seek his guidance and blessings. My children, to whom he was just Ghosh uncle, asked me later, as to why I was so formal and “slightly scared” of him and I explained thus

“To you he has always been Ghosh uncle, similarly for me he will always be Mr. Ghosh”

Mr. Ghosh and Dalvi-da operated like most Hollywood cop films. A volatile cop and a composed steady one. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson like. And the pair did wonders.

Story teller.

Each shop floor has one. In our case, it was, and will always be, Mukund Arjun Pednekar, Pednu to all. He was responsible for refractories.

A quick background to non-steel people. The liquid steel at obscene temperatures need to be treated and transported in “ladles”, simply a vessel to transport from one place to another place. To handle the high temperature, these ladles are lined with refractory bricks. Pednu was in charge of that.

The said ladles were having a bad run. There was a spate of ladle punctures. (A water bottle with a hole is a nearest example, imagine liquid steel at 1600 deg Celsius flowing out and causing excessive damage)

Mr. Ghosh stormed into Pednu’s office and demanded immediate corrective measure. Pednu was told that no efforts or resources to be spared in stopping the event.

Pednu asked Mr. Ghosh to sit down and narrated a story.

Buddha was staying in a village. A woman came to him, weeping and crying and screaming. Her child, her only child, had suddenly died. Because Buddha was in the village, people said, “Don’t weep. Go to this man. People say he is infinite compassion. If he wills it, the child can revive. So don’t weep. Go to this Buddha.” The woman came with the dead child, crying, weeping, and the whole village followed her – the whole village was affected. Buddha’s disciples were also affected; they started praying in their minds that Buddha would have compassion. He must bless the child so that he will be revived, resurrected.

Many disciples of Buddha started weeping. The scene was so touching, deeply moving. Everybody was still. Buddha remained silent. He looked at the dead child, then he looked at the weeping, crying mother and he said to the mother, “Don’t weep, just do one thing and your child will be alive again. Leave this dead child here, go back to the town, go to every house and ask every family if someone has ever died in their family, in their house. And if you can find a house where no one has ever died, then from them beg a fistful of slat and bring it – but from the house where no one has ever died. And that fistful of salt will revive the child immediately. You go. Don’t waste time.”

The woman became happy. She felt that now the miracle was going to happen. She touched Buddha’s feet and ran to the village which was not a very big one, very few cottages, a few families. She moved from one family to another, asking. But every family said, “This is impossible. There is not a single house – not only in this village but all over the earth – there is not a single house where no one has ever died, where people have not suffered death and the misery and the pain and the anguish that comes out of it.”

She went on asking until she had gone around the whole village. Her tears dried, her hope died, but suddenly she felt a new tranquility, a serenity, coming to her. Now she realized that whosoever is born will have to die. It is only a question of years. Someone will die sooner, someone later, but death is inevitable.

Mr. Ghosh, the simpleton and the person focused only on his shop floor performance, was growing impatient. It was nothing short of a miracle that he listened to the whole story.

“Why are you telling me this story? I am asking you to stop ladle punctures” bellowed Mr. Ghosh.

Pednu, with no trace of even a smile, said seriously “Please get me a fistful of refractory material from any steel shop – but from that steel shop where no ladle had ever punctured and …”

The real miracle is that Pednu is still alive.

Why we build a toilet

It was still those nascent years of computers. We had people who were filling out an excel sheet, while totalling the numbers on a calculator and entering into the relevant cell. I am not joking.

Mr. Subramaniam (Subra in short) was a late entrant to Mukand. He merged easily into the original crowd with his impeccable sense of humor.

In one monthly review meeting, he was pushing for funds for purchasing a computer for his department. This sounds like a joke today where a workplace without computer is unthinkable. He was confident that capturing data and its subsequent analysis would be faster and more accurate. Mr. Ghosh would not relent. He wanted assurance that the said asset would be subjected to 100% utilization.

Subra kept on hammering on the usefulness that he foresees and Mr. Ghosh kept on insisting on 100% utilization. Anyone other than Subra would have agreed to 100% utilization and got his fund allocated.

Not Subra.

He had a Jack Nicholson-esque smile when he said “Mr. Ghosh, when we build a house we also build a toilet, but we don’t target 100% utilization…”

The computer purchase was approved.

The best book on humor.

As a voracious reader I am often asked to give my opinion on the best comedy story that I have read. While usual suspects like P.G.Wodehouse and Joseph Heller cross my mind, I am unable to tell them about the best comedy book ever, as they would not be able to get their hands on it. Even I do not have access anymore.

The book in consideration is, what was known as “Logbook” that existed in steel shops of yesteryear. Before the days of omnipresence of computers, and before some lazy engineers at CERN invented internet, the communication channel in a steel shop was this “logbook”. The shift foremen used to write their reports and the managers used to read it the next day and leave their comments and so on.
Narasimha Sadashiv Joshi (Joshi in short) and one Maru were part of so many original transactions, that it is now part of the legend.

On being asked why he had not carried out a certain task assigned to him Joshi just scribbled a quick reply “I was in a hurry”

This enraged Maru to write a reply “Your hurry can’t be hurrier than the 
company’s hurry”

Go figure.

On another occasion when Joshi ended up collapsing the entire refractory lining of the furnace in his failed attempts in removing Sulfur from steel with an inordinately long process of steel-making, he was left devastated, but still had the presence of humor to leave the following entry in the logbook.

“First sample S reported high, lime added, slag made, Sulfur did not drop

More lime added new slag made Sulfur did not drop

Even more lime added new slag made Sulfur did not drop

Another batch of lime added new slag made Sulfur did not drop

But lining dropped, Amen!”

Concept clear nahin hai.

No record of humor in Mukand days can ever be deemed complete without mentioning K.R.Srinivasan. (KRS in short).

Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Inzaghi was born offside!

In the same vein we could say KRS was born with a scowl. He was permanently frustrated at the management.

He had a radiant smile too, so full, that it almost covered his whole face, leading us to call him Jayasuriya, after the Sri Lankan cricketer.

One day, during lunch time, I found him smoking at the Narayan’s tea shop with a frustration that was more pronounced than the norm. I ventured to ask him what had happened.

He was responsible for one production unit that was grinding billets before rolling to ensure quality. The productivity of this grinding shop was a concern as this was a bottleneck for the rolling mill. He was called for a meeting in the morning asking to explain why the productivity of this grinding shop could not be improved.

This by itself was not any cause for such a fervent frustration.

So I waited for more to come out.

And he lamented thus
“Yeh company main kissi ka concept clear nahinhai! ( No one in this management is clear about any concepts) – I spent 4 hours in the morning answering how the productivity of the grinding shop can be improved. And, now, this afternoon I have another three hours to explain how to eliminate grinding”

Missed trick

Nothing triggered quick thinking and on the spot innovation than the monthly reviews where each section was grilled for their performance. Whatever we did was never enough. If we did actually poor, then God help us.

Sunil Bhandari of the mills was presenting. Mr. Ghosh asked him as to why his rejection in the previous month was higher than the month before.

Bhandari did not miss a beat. His reply was a classic if there was ever one.

“Mr. Ghosh, it is not high. In fact the month before was exceptionally low, and that’s why this looks to be higher, otherwise this is the usual level of rejection”
Dalvi-da, sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered to me with awe and respect.

“20 years and I never thought of such a reply, this is sheer genius”

All these humor seeped into your life outside the working hours too. The following two incidents reflect the easy going life we had as one extended family even outside the office hours.

Even a funeral gets lighter.

The mother-in-law of Prakash Abhaysinh Nanavati (Nana to us) died. It was monsoon time. The Bombay rains can be a bitch and they were on her funeral day. A practicing Jain, use of petrol was forbidden. The family was struggling to light the funeral pyre with sodden logs refusing to light up.

P.K.Mitra And Asit Kumar Dasgupta (Mitra-da and Dada to us) were among those present. While all of us were heavy drinkers, these two were well known for the copious amount of alcohol they could (and would) consume.

Mitra-da looked on and with a solemn sincerity and quipped to dada “When we die, no such issues! All that is needed is a matchstick and we will burn for days”

Unbeatable logic

As families living together in a colony within the plant, the numbers of get together in a year were many. All the families used to meet on one of the numerous lawns and after few hours of gossiping, have dinner and get back home. A normal social outing, that was a welcome relief from the routine work. The children bonded well due to these occasions and most children are in contact with each other even today, from various corners of the globe.

It was one such evening. My parents-in-law were in town and they too joined us for this get-together. I was a smoker then, and I desperately wanted to smoke, but did not, as my father-in-law was around. Thankfully, after about an hour and a half, my parents-in-law decided to head back home, they were tired and they did not belong to the group. Those days, whenever anyone wanted a cigarette, the most reliable source was Subra, who smoked like a chimney. (All that smoking had its toll, he died of the first massive stroke he had, at a very young age of 57)

So, I approached him, after my father-in-law left, and asked him for a smoke.
He immediately fished out one, and offered the light also to me.

He asked “Why such desperation?”

I explained to him that I could not earlier on, as my father-in-law was around, and now that he had left….

Subra’s reply was a classic. 25 years later, am still on the lookout for a better logic than what he said to me that day…

“Your father-in-law allows you to do so many things with his daughter, and he should object to your smoking, strange”

We also had one Raju Tolani, (Raju to us) a national bridge champion, no less, with an exceptional sense of humor. It is not possible to reproduce them in written form, his was a perfect combination of timing and an unique delivery. 

Only he could do what he did.

Thus Mukand corrupted me and spoiled me forever. When I say, Mukand, I mean this group of people, most are not part of Mukand anymore, but all of us still remain in touch. They made it possible for me to survive in the harsh environs of a steel melt shop. It landed me in trouble too. The subsequent organizations viewed me (and still view me) as someone who is not serious.

Of course I am not serious. Given an option between brood and laugh I choose to laugh.

For that, I, happily, blame Mukand.