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.


11 comments:

  1. Perfect narration of cordial and friendly atmosphere prevailing in SMS in those days of eighties and nineties, and yet without sacrificing productivity and quality! Yes, the first person to meet at SMS was Bhosale – like Jeeves! He used to speak with me in Gujarati!

    Though from Project Dept, I was accepted as SMS man after some induction of ragging.
    About team of Ghosh Sir and Dalvi, I agree totally with you Kishan. Ghosh Sir, was volatile at times and impatient as always but brilliant man. Dalvi can be equated as super cool Dhoni of the team leading from front. Monday morning meetings with Ghosh Sir was a nightmare since he would have been at receiving end on Sunday instead of venting his ire at some Bakra!

    Pednu (The Guru!) always had some witty comment up his sleeve and his story about Buddha is true and oft repeated!

    Subbu, as I used to call him was my neighbour and a brilliant Tambrahm. Once I borrowed his car and while returning keys, I remarked that his car is running smooth and his reply : “Is that so Nana? I would never know since I have used only one car so far in my life just like an Indian middle-class husband!” He would tell me that I love to eat so I jog most of the time to be able to enjoy tasty food!

    And the stories about Dada (Dasgupta) and Mitra would never end. Once while all ladies were collecting dishes on terrace after a party, he told – Arey Bhabhis – please leave some left-over stuff for crows tomorrow! I remember very well when Kishan adopted Dada as his foster father just to tickle him about inheriting his property!

    Many men were grateful to Krips since in parties he would keep ladies busy with Housie so that they can not keep tab on number of pegs downed and cigarettes smoked!

    SMS group which included ladies (admitted later rather grudgingly by you know who all?) was so cohesive in the colony, that we still meet as often as possible even after 15 to 20 years! Missing Chatterjee, Panse, RG, Harpal (Santji), Rawat, Kriplani (Aa Bail…), Mukesh, Pinto, Patankar (of Jhansi Ki Rani fame) and others.

    Yes, as you said correctly Kishan, those were the good old days inside the plant as well as in Kalwe Colony.

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  2. Wow nana the comment is as long as my blog thanks.
    I have plans of a part 2 where more of colony humour will be addressed too
    We were (and still are) the original dirty dozen

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  3. This is the golden era in our life.The hierarchy was never felt when we meet as friends.That is the secret of good bonding even after so many years...and hats off to the maturity of the seniors who handled it well and we are indebted to them for teaching us humbleness and co-existing as a family.

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  4. Nana - Subra had a specific phrase - he used to say " middle class morality " 🤣🤣

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  5. Krish, I think all Steel shops have funny and friendly episodes to remember and real friends appear but when it gets combined with Colony living it transcends all barriers. Though I have not been a part of your Mukand life yet I can relate because of my experiences and your beautiful narration. Enjoyed thoroughly.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Uday
      You should write one about your Bokharo days - The moving speed breaker that was the buffalo for one

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  6. Dear Anonymous.
    You inspired me to publish a cook book,which eventually ended in blog....
    Why don't you start penning your memories and life lessons for people like us to learn and cherish....

    ReplyDelete