Monday, January 21, 2008

My African Safari

Our car was merrily racing ahead, finding its way through the lush green countryside. I was tempted to put on my windcheater but my hands never moved to pick it up. John was in a merry mood, humming a happy number in his native Swahili that matched my mood. He seemed overjoyed to find me in the front seat next to him rather than the customary back seat reserved for his employers. And I was indeed playing his employer, if not the one who paid him his meager salary.

Despite the fine weather, the lurking thought came back to nag me with a vengeance. I felt a dull pain in my navel as I thought of my people back home. I missed my son, wife and parents like never before. I missed life.

It was almost three months since I had left home for Kenya to take guard as my firm’s business development manager in a modest office in Nairobi’s central business district. We sold tailor-made software solutions for the horticulture industry and it was the management’s wish and command that I give a thrust to the African operations. The proposition showed me the promise of greener pastures but my folks took it with a pinch of salt.

With my peers and relatives thriving on the pleasures of more prime assignments and plush remunerations in more esteemed western countries, my African safari seemed like an ugly duckling far behind the smart swans, desperate to stay afloat in the deep sea of career achievements. Nevertheless, the deep sigh of my parents did convey a reluctant approval.

And did I have a reason to protest? My career was a chequered mess across industries and in each career stint I had changed jobs like shirts. This celebrated track record coupled with an equally legendary bank balance had only added to the wrinkles on their worried faces. So, they sighed as if to warn me - Africa or Antarctica, you better stay put this time.

And they were right. The stakes were even higher now. I had a family of my own – a son with a one-year-old smile oblivious of his father’s social status, and a doting wife who faked a solace in the staged pride of her husband’s “rich and varied experience”

John woke me up from my slumber. We had reached Nakuru. The sleepy village was more an ideal picnic spot than a place of commerce, hard to find in Mumbai. I could picture my son jumping to glory on the green carpet of the adjoining farm, when again John shook me, this time pointing his thick finger at the sprawling concrete structure across the deserted lane.

“What brings you here, Mr…?” barked the grumpy old guy at the reception.

I took some time to digest the fact that he was the receptionist. We exchanged plastic pleasantries before I was directed to a large sofa. It was after half an hour that I was summoned in a small, cozy cabin smelling of fresh paint. Seated across the large mahogany desk was a burly figure. Just before I entered, the nameplate had given me a fair idea of the events to follow.

A N Salunke
Factory manager

An Indian marketer’s worst nightmare in Africa is to bump into another Indian in an official encounter. You could always meet up in social gatherings or homely treats and raise a toast of nationalism together but here, the protocols were more demanding.

And here was an Indian to judge my merit. I could already sense a hostile dismissal of my ideas ending in a haunting “no sale” journey. And worse, it would invite the wrath of employers, again Indian.

Yet, going by the Maharashtrian surname, I gathered enough poise to enter the cabin and take a seat that, I implied, was offered to me.

“Good Morning, sir.” I was at my polite best. The cold stare was frozen.

“I am from Innovative Software. We are into Farm management solutions and I just thought………………”

Before I could finish, he croaked with open contempt:

“We have an in-house team managing our IT. And we are doing fine”

This was followed by a laugh that seemed hyena-like to me. I had no option but to show my teeth to applaud his sense of humour.

I made another feeble attempt.

“How wonderful. That’s really great. But we could still have a look. I have the demo on my laptop. It’s really ……”

“Sorry. I am short of time, really. Anything else?” He cut me short.

There was nothing else really. But visions of my squirmy boss forced me to keep the struggle alive. Now I was desperate.

“Are you from Maharashtra, sir? I am too. Where in….”

“I am from Satara. Now, if you don’t mind. Good day to you” pat came his reply.

I forced my way back. John was waiting outside with the characteristic look of a dutiful chauffeur. By now, he had a good idea of my official plight and I found some comfort in the warmth of his mute sympathy.

Quite ironically, the person who had shooed me away minutes back was my countryman, who swore by the same religion and spoke the same language as mine. Or was it so?

And which was the lingo that voiced John’s unstated concern for me? With these unsettling thoughts, I hopped back in the car.

====================

I was now five months old in Kenya. Touring over a dozen flower farms across six villages around Nairobi, I dragged my weary expectation with my laptop each time I entered an office. But the disparate army of ruthless blazer-clad farm managers on the other side simply refused to budge. With nothing more worthwhile to do, I began to draw patterns out of the statistics in my transit time.

For instance, though the outcome of the meeting was a denial in every case, the manner in which it was conveyed was in perfect co-relation with the color of the manager. The white managers buried my case with an official chuckle reserved for the developing tribe, the dark ones were encouraging in their “let you know” replies while the brown varieties seemed only eager to put the final nail in my coffin. Needless to say, I was alone to celebrate this analysis.

But how could I? I was on the verge of being branded a non-performer. The reward that would follow the branding exercise was a recurring nightmare in my mind. The couple of prospects that lazed in my “hopeful” list were moving steadily to being written-off in my employer’s books. With each passing day, I felt my wheezing confidence shrinking in size.

One fine morning, I set about, filled with false aerated hope, in the direction of a departmental store that stood close to my residence. It was the kind of weather one would prefer to observe life from the window, teacup in hand, catching insights with every sip.

But preference was not part of my modest perks. The tea, window as well as the home were mine only till my employer thought so. Hence, their usage was implied to be termed and conditioned to suit my employer’s needs, albeit not mentioned in my appointment letter.

And yet the purpose of my visit to the store was far from official. I thought of pampering my mind with beer and leave the rest to my muddled judgment thereafter. It was an adventurous thought, one that could cost me my job, but I was in that typical rebellious mood that sweeps the middle class once in a while. And nothing like liquor to epitomize the hushed protest. Tea would only remind me of my bourgeoisie existence.

This idea was easier to execute as it had unknowingly been timed well. My immediate boss was away on an ill-timed novel vacation (ill-timed for the company, novel for him) to the Alps with his wife, a luxury that came with his job. This meant I was to compile his weekly excel report to the supreme boss swirling his big cushioned chair at our headquarters in Sweden. But this also meant my weekly third-degree interrogation in the name of visit report was off for a week. So, what the hell if I spent a day at home.

Yes, the chauffeur was a problem, he would be here anytime. But by now, John had come to strike a chord with me, noiseless in its music and one befitting the unsung. I had not done anything like this before but I decided to trust him. I took the plunge.

“Yes, brather. What you want” the fellow at the counter was cheerful.

“Six tuskers, please” I placed the order.

Tusker was a popular brand of beer that I had fallen in love with. That it cost fewer shillings than a bottle of mineral water was a handy excuse to fool myself. But honestly, it was the happy elephant on the sticker that was great company during my dusky evening solitude. I was now used to raise a toast with the majestic mammal every time I opened a Tusker can. But today, it would be in broad daylight for a change.

I proceeded to the cash counter to pay for my goodies. The guy there seemed to be more authoritative than his position allowed. My hunch was right. He was the owner of the store, probably on one of his inspection rounds. Did he ever enjoy an abrupt vacation, I wondered as I thought of my boss.

“You Indian? From where” he asked eyeing me carefully.

“Bombay” my short reply.“I am Indian too, Kenyan Indian” He smiled.

The qualifier was a breather. Having spent generations in Africa, Kenyan Indians had pickled in authentic Kenyan flavour. There was very little Indian about them. And in my marketing avatar, I was happy to note that.The old guy before me seemed more than interested. His volley of questions continued. I tore few pages from my life book in response.

“Software. You software” he picked up the most unusual thread. Or I thought so.

“Yes” I answered back, rather wearily. And how can you help, you haggard. I wanted to ask him.

“You know Point Of Sale. Government make it mandatory for department store. You fit software for me. I know friend in other store. You get big business. Over 100 store in this area, more in Nairobi”

This was unexpected. And I was here to buy tusker. So was this my lucky break?

“Yes, we have Point Of Sale software. We can fix this job for you. But your budget?”

I was unduly hesitant about my question. I didn’t want to displease this messiah who now seemed to remove the snowy flakes of dejection from my professional life.

“No worry, you tell price. I want good job” he maintained.

My joy knew no bounds.This was another risk, more fatal than my beer adventure. I was here to sell farm management software. Worse, we had no PoS software. My only hope was my employer. I would first have to somehow show him the opportunity.If he was convinced, look for an alliance partner with the product, adjust his share in the top line, and put the final price to the store owner.

Yes, my train of hopeful bogeys ran on a narrow gauge of possibilities but there was no other option.Suddenly, there was so much to do. I came out of the store, lost in thought.

=============


There was so much to do. I was confused…what first? Taking a lungful of air in, I turned to pick my cell phone, an ancient discarded piece reserved for my exclusive use.

“Speaking,” my boss groaned on the other line.

“Sir, we have a big opportunity coming our way. There is a department…”

“Big or small, let me decide. Spell the opportunity,” he cut me short as expected.

The sarcasm was unnerving at best. In less than ten minutes, I threw as many adjectives I could to show him the elusive treasure my wishful thinking had dug with earnest hope. There was a dramatic pause at the other end.

I was almost ready to face the ceremonial full stop when he came up with a twist for me. One that was destined to twist me, I found later.

“You’re on your own. Get me a price. And then I would measure the time you have washed out”

It was futile to tell him that price would come much later, we had to fix the product first. I made myself some coffee and got down to task. The Kenya Telecom lines were clogged as usual. Our own VSNL would be jet speed in comparison. In an hour, I had narrowed my choice, in line with our prospect’s need and the region, to two vendors for a potential tie-up.

One was an upmarket product catering to the Fortune 500 companies - an alliance with a non-entity serving the Dark Continent – nah! They would shoo me away within no time.

The other name with a clumsy tag line looked very much a shady player, but I had little choice.

Know Point- POS it in style, the web site declared.

For a second, I thought of scraping the whole idea. Why dig another grave? I already had one in place, eager to lap me up. But some force made me hopeful… the hope was indiscernible, just like the force. The firm was located in Andheri, a known suburb back home. Was it the native connection, I am not sure, but I picked up the huge landline instrument to dial the annoyingly stretched ISD number.

=============

It really intrigues me, always in hindsight, the crystal-clear pattern of my fate, and yet the foolish resolve to defy it, every single time.

The events happened in quick succession, each shaping my gaffe in style.

I could never come up with a price for my boss. The store owner was supportive for a while, restless with time and foul in the end, throwing a mouthful of abuse every time I ventured to buy more time. Matters became worse soon and I stopped visiting the store even for my groceries.

The icing on my cake of catastrophe, however, came later. In the form of a contract between Know Point and the store for a PoS software installation and support. In exploring the uncharted waters of this opportunity- my cape of good hope – I had unknowingly passed it to Know Point. And did I have reason to whine?

My resignation letter made matters very easy for my employers. All the same, it was also my blanket to cover my collapse, at least till the time I was around. The firm had magnanimously waived my notice period. That was a great relief, one that saved me from any immediate liability. The deferred counterparts would greet me following my ignoble homecoming. But I had time to expect them, and reconcile with.

During the last week of my stay, I was invited to a dinner at the Nairobi Maharashtra Mandal – a group that was supposed to simulate my hometown and culture in this part of the world. What it probably did replicate was the loud shimmer of hollow ideals.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my last supper in the august company of some happening people –who had made their mark in the foreign land, with bagful of tales - of glory, of pride, of triumph. While the men narrated their legends of professional heroism, the women presented their jewellery, public version of their marital bliss, as also a rich discourse on the multitude of “spare time” hobbies. With everyone ready to explode at the slightest provocation, there was a serious dearth of audience to take in the loaded gospels.

On my drive back, late in the wee hours of the next morning, John seemed quite pensive. It was to be our last journey together unless destiny had other plans. But he spoke his heart out, like a close friend that he certainly had grown to become. Like my cheerful maid, Rose, who diligently moved the heavy teak furniture everyday to sweep the floor spot clean, the roadside grocer Williams, who shoved generous handfuls of vegetables into my shopping bag without weighing them and the milk woman who cheered me up with endearing tunes of Swahili folklore every morning.

Not that I was ever under any illusion about this non-interfering and god-fearing tribe. One of the worst victims of colonial hangover, they would starve to death but would never step out of their cottages without an elaborate English attire – their status symbol as prominent as their rough skin and empty stomachs. They would not mind running menial errands for you but would never hesitate to ridicule you if you were found in sandals. You can skip putting your best foot forward, but shoes, you got to wear mate! …they will tell you with foolish authority. But even with all the quirkiness and tomfoolery, I could still relate to them on a wavelength that was effortless and a bond that was universal.

Towards the end of our warm sojourn, we passed by a procession of queer men, women and children on a desolate turn. John briefed me they were the Masai clan of Africa. A fierce, warring and semi nomadic tribe solely living off their cattle, engrossed in their age-old rituals, termed repulsive only by the encroaching civilization around them.

“They ugly peapal, dirty peapal, eat blood, but brather, they are our peapal” his eyes were moist.

“I am sorry but Indian corrupt, they take our job, they become manager in our farm and rule us. But one day, this will change brather. God is great”

It was some mutiny he was hinting at. I could feel the ache of several years in his cracking voice. An ache inflicted by the shovels of greed that we have dug deep in their land to fill our insatiable kitties, whether in industry, trade or employment.

In a land that confers first-rate status on you without much fuss, we have been busy making exclusive claims to the honor. Even the most mediocre of our people, sooner or later, can aspire to command a semi-managerial position in Africa, a status that comes bundled with big mansions, a simulated life of Western comforts and a rich army of local help - chauffeurs , maids, watchmen, gardeners........in sharp contrast to the difficult life back home in India - match-box flats, huge housing loans, swarming suburban travel, low-paid jobs and forced self-help. Those who lack the maturity to cope with the dramatic shift lose their poise in the deafening noise of their volcanic rise.

My African Safari is long over. I am back where I belong, rather where I am supposed to belong. But the disturbing memories of some of our glorious ambassadors in Africa haunt me to this day. Wherever I heard them ridicule the locals as “Kalus” or abuse the working class with the choicest obscenities, I could only laugh at the hypocrisy of our beliefs, our so-called war against apartheid and our orchestrated nationalism, roaring each time India wins a cricket match.

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