Sampath G

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

If you were S, what font would you be?

In Culture and Society, Technology, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm
First published in DNA, June 16, 2012

This is a hand-written column. ‘Hand-crafted’, if you like. Not by design but by accident — my computer crashed, and the only way I could meet the deadline was to start scribbling the whole thing out on sheets of paper.
And I’m willing to bet my motherboard this is the only hand-made article on this page, if not the entire edition.
Does that make it special? I like to believe it does. In an age where even self-proclaimed bibliophiles are turning their backs on books in favour of that monstrosity called ‘e-book’ or a Kindle, where you don’t open a book so much as access it (ugh!), I want to take my PC crashing as a cosmic sign urging me to fire a salvo for what the word ‘writing’ used to mean: making ink marks on paper using pen or pencil.
I believe we should set aside at least one day a week where we would exchange the keyboard for pen and paper.
This is the least we can do by way of tokenism at a time where ‘writing’ primarily denotes an activity that can be carried out without pen or paper or ink — something inconceivable even half a century ago, when you still needed paper for your typewriter. The only time many of us pick up a pen these days is to put our signature on some document.
It would be naive to assume that this shift has had no impact on the way we write. Neuroscientist and author Livia Blackburne writes in her blog about a study that got people to write two reports, one on a computer and one on paper.
The writers were given all the information needed to write the reports two days in advance, and when they came for the experiment, they got three hours to write each report. According to Blackburne, the researchers used keystroke tracking and video cameras to record their progress. I must admit I was gratified to find that the results of the study confirmed all my technophobic prejudices.
First, computer writers wrote texts that were 20% longer. Clearly, brevity is not the soul of MS Word. Secondly, the computer writers took half as much time to write the first draft than pen and paper writers. In other words, speed and greater productivity (defined in terms of word count) are the pluses of writing on a computer. It’s no coincidence that they are also the defining values of a civilisation controlled by the logic of capitalism.
Longhand, by contrast, is defined by the values of slowness and thrift — you don’t want to expend more effort (read words) in conveying something than what is strictly necessary.
As the study showed, the keyboard-tappers and the longhand writers are not two different kinds of writers so much as different aspects of the same writing self, representing divergent orientations. A novel or a poem set down on paper by a writer in his handwriting is also a singular art object and not merely a text (which is all that a doc file could be).
Writing in longhand leaves a trace in the real world — of an ‘original’. Which is why original manuscripts of celebrated novels are collector’s items, just as paintings are. A page of handwritten manuscript reflects the first deposit of thought from the writer’s mind. But that’s rarely the case with the first drafts written on a computer. According to the study cited by Blackburne, ‘computer writers made 80% of their revisions during their first draft.’
There is also an old world romance and an artisanal aspect to writing by longhand that you will never experience while typing on a keyboard. And if you happen to be writing on blank paper as opposed to ruled sheets, every page, every line, and every letter would be as distinctive as an individual crystal of ice.
For instance, the letter ‘s’ in a given font will look the same on a computer screen no matter who types it, and no matter how many times it is summoned to the page by the writer. (Of course, there are thousands of fonts out there that offer you the opportunity to showcase your individuality by borrowing a font that you had no hand in creating, which is all the more ludicrous when you consider the fact that all of us come loaded with our own ‘custom-made’ font — our handwriting.)
But in longhand, no two ‘s’es will ever be exactly the same. If there are 20,000 ‘s’es in a book you’ve written by hand, every one of them will be different from every other ‘s’ — each a unique existential sign whose form will be determined by a number of factors like your state of mind, your nervous system, your energy levels, the stiffness of your finger joints, the angle of your back, the speed of your thoughts, the letters preceding and succeeding ‘s’ in the words where it occurs, the texture of the patch of paper where your pen is going to form the shape of the letter ‘s’. All these variables and more will combine in a never-to-be-repeated-again fashion every time your hand forms an ‘s’.
Thus, each one of your ‘s’es is as extraordinary as you are, really, like the billions of other human ‘letters’, shall we say, that have gone into the writing of the script that is humanity’s history, a history that’s being ‘written’ even as you read this. The tragedy is that every ‘s’ on this page is the antithesis of the handwritten ‘s’ — a sad metaphor of what technology does to human beings in a mass industrial society.

What were we as a society before we became corrupt?

In Culture and Society, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:33 pm
First published in DNA, June 2, 2012

This year marks the silver jubilee of the Bofors scandal — the first time that we as a nation felt a collective rage over corruption. We were so pissed that we voted Rajiv Gandhi out of power. Much public money has flowed into private coffers since. And today, nobody can say that the country is less corrupt now than it was 25 years ago.
If anything, 2012 has so far yielded a bumper harvest of scams, with Wikipedia listing 38 scams as of May 31 — a new scam every 3.9 days, or 93.6 scams a year.
Of course, we are not sitting back and twiddling our thumbs, no sir. We’ve had a high decibel anti-corruption campaign going for some time now. In fact, you will not find a single Indian who is in favour of corruption. But it makes you wonder: how come then, when every single citizen of India (including Sharad Pawar and P Chidambaram and BS Yeddyurappa and Mukesh Ambani) is against corruption, corruption is so endemic?
Or is it possible that all this breast-beating over corruption is just a smokescreen that prevents people from seeing the real problems — in our society, among us, with every single one of us?
The unstated assumption of the entire anti-corruption discourse is that corruption is some external disease or virus that can be rooted out or destroyed. But what if corruption is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the people we love, the god we worship?
What if our very conscience, our inclination to think, to care, has been infected, and corruption has built its nests in our very cells and tissues and pancreas and medulla oblongata? You can’t very well chop off your medulla oblongata, can you? Obviously, the best you can do is to become conscious of the real state of your medulla oblongata, and how it is affecting your thinking and your behavior and your desires and your fears.
To take another metaphor, if you keep your house dirty, you will get cockroaches. And we all know that, no matter how many times you call pest control, the cockroaches will keep coming back so long as your house is dirty. Besides, it’s not enough even if your own house is clean. If your neighbours keep their homes dirty, or your surrounding environment is unclean, the cockroaches will not go away.
Corruption is the indestructible cockroach that will multiply and multiply so long as our society’s defining values are the moral equivalent of dirt. What then, are our society’s defining values? Simply stated, they are: power, and money as a currency of power. Most people today spend their entire lives chasing either power or money. And so do our elected rulers whose decisions shape our lives.
Some people get the quantum of power/money they need and are content to use it to get what they really want. A vast majority live without the basic minimum power/money required to live a life of dignity and fulfillment. And the tiny minority (in this, I include humans as well as non-human entities like nation-states, corporations and political parties) who monopolise a huge chunk of power/money use it only to accumulate more of power/money. If you did an X-ray of our society today, you’ll see a huge hole in its heart. The medical term for this hole: moral void.
The French philosopher and mathematician Simone Weil defined evil quite simply as ‘the substitution of means for ends.’ Power is a means. To possess power ‘is simply to possess means of action which exceed the very limited force that a single individual has at his disposal,’ notes Weil. But in a society built around a power hierarchy, the seeking of power, expanding it, and retaining it, takes the place of all, and any, ends the power was supposed to be the means of achieving.
We have seen this too many times in history — from the Roman Empire, to the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and now in India, where the brown-skinned rulers of today have ganged up with the white-skinned ones they replaced, and together they are ranged against the dark-skinned natives across the length and breadth of the country — from Chhattisgarh, to Orissa to Kudankulam, Jaitapur, Mithi Virdi, and wherever you look.
Corruption is the logical culmination of a belief system that says the end justifies the means. Before you know it, you’ve reached a point where the means are all that matters — Weil’s classic definition of evil. So, sitting in a world where profit (a means) is an end in itself, economic growth (a means) is an end, national security (a means) is an end, it is rather naïve to talk of combating corruption without first addressing this reversal of means for ends.
Economic growth, political power and national security are all means to an end, which, let us say, is a just society. But if you read our newspapers, watch our TV channels, and listen to our businessmen and politicians, you don’t get the impression that a just society is on anybody’s agenda. But then, why will the powerful care for justice?
Corruption is simply another name for concentration of power in one or a few individuals either directly or through institutional mechanisms like the state or the corporation.
Therefore, the only way to eliminate corruption is by eliminating concentration of power, such that every person has the same amount of power as everyone else. Is that an impossible utopia? Well, if you believe it is not a value worth striving for, then you might as well go ahead and pay that bribe and get on with your made-to-order anti-corruption campaign.

Where the books go when you’re not reading them

In Lifestyle, Literature, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:30 pm
First published in DNA, May 19, 2012

I don’t enjoy shifting cities. Setting up a new place can be very stressful. Perhaps the only thing about it that I enjoy is the opportunity it gives you to arrange all your books. In the process you end up spending many pleasant hours with some old, long-forgotten friends.
You open the carton and pick one up. As you wonder which shelf it should go to, you flip through the pages, and start reading at random, something like “To Helen, a gift was not something you gave to person number one, but something you didn’t give to person number two. This was how we wound up with a Singer sewing machine, the kind built into a table.” You want to read on, but you have a task to complete — emptying all the book cartons (there are eight of them) and transferring their contents either to the book shelves or to the loft.
You sigh, put off the decision of where it should go, and pick up another book. You again open a page at random. “An erection is a thought and the orgasm an act of imagination. The male has to will his sexual authority before the woman who is a shadow of his mother and of all women.” WTF, you say to yourself, and continue to read. Before you know it, three hours have passed, it is lunch time, and the wife peeps in to check, gives you that look, and says, “WTF, you haven’t emptied even one carton yet!”
It was to avoid this scenario that in Mumbai the wife had taken over arranging the books, with the result that I could never locate a book when I wanted it. How is that possible, you ask. All I need to do was look carefully, no? No. As it happens, the ease of locating a book depends a lot on the logic of their arrangement. If the logic of the arranger is not the same as the logic of the searcher, then the searcher and the searched may never meet. At least not until the searcher and arranger move cities and the books have to be arranged again.
In our Mumbai place, the wife had taken a ruthlessly pragmatic approach. Initially, I had trouble figuring out her logic. How could you mix poetry with sociology? And Foucault sitting next to Stephenie Meyer? One day she told me: she had arranged the books according to height – yes, height! Like how kids are made to line up in school for the morning assembly. The shortest on the extreme left, the tallest on the extreme right. So if you ran your finger across the spines, you could begin with Billy Budd and end at Guide to Effective Marketing Communications or some such tract I wouldn’t dream of admitting to owning.
And it wasn’t only height. The wife’s selection criteria, not unlike that of a college girl appraising potential boyfriends, was a complex matrix of age, height, good looks, and hygiene. So the physical attractiveness of the covers, the newness of the title, and whether it was a 1948 edition stolen from a hotel in Goa or purchased last week on Flipkart, decided whether the book went to the Gulag or the top row of the new bookcase the carpenter will make. That’s how Padma Lakshmi ended up in our living room while Rushdie went into the loft to co-exist with lizards and spiders.
Granted, in a situation where there are more books than there is shelf space (which is always the case, isn’t it) you have to choose, much like Sophie did, between your beloved children. But put yourself in the book’s shoes for a moment (I know books don’t wear shoes, but still try). If I was a book, I’d do anything to be out there on a shelf in the living room, I can tell you that. It doesn’t matter if I am Chetan Bhagat, I want to be sitting up there with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Kenzaburo Oe. So the point is, as a book arranger, you need to be fair, and follow a logic that books can live with – and that doesn’t include height or good looks. Not in my book.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing the past two weeks — curating my bookshelves. Arranging and rearranging, casting Delillo into the dungeons, retrieving Agassi from oblivion, moving Follett to the middle row, commanding Llosa to take Follett’s place.
I feel like the warden of a huge, cosmic hostel for living and dead writers. And I get to decide who shared a room with whom. Should I put Theroux alongside Naipaul? Or have the arch-MCP Henry Miller trapped between Greer on one side and Steinem on the other? Would Sylvia Plath be uncomfortable with Russell Brand, or would she be happier in the company of Emily Dickinson?
I shuffled them around, trying out different rationales — nationality, genre, author, subject, century of publication. Should I put all the French authors together? But how can Flaubert be on the same shelf as Catherine Millet?
Do I put the books I love the most closest to my desk? Or should that honour be on rotation basis — with the books on my current reading list sitting within arm’s reach?
I banish literary giants from my presence, on a whim, and summon them back when I wish. Come to think of it, even the world’s most powerful literary critic (who’s that, by the way?) can never wield such power – except in her study.

A brief introduction to Boo-lean algebra

In Book Reviews, Culture and Society, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm
First published in DNA, May 5, 2012

Let me say this upfront: Katharine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an excellent work of reportage (narrowly conceived); the language is beautiful (it’s beauty all the more striking given the ugliness of the language’s referents); and it’s heart is in the right place – Boo’s sincerity and concern for the people she writes about are not in question. Having said that, Behind The… is also a seriously flawed book. On at least three counts.
Number one: Boo’s ideological baggage, and her seeming obliviousness to it, restricts her to a symptomatic understanding of poverty. It is this superficial understanding that informs her approach to her subject – the human beings who live in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum.
What do I mean by ‘ideological baggage’? In sociological terms, it refers to one’s beliefs about the nature of the world which we take to be the truth, forgetting (or not realising) that it is merely one narrative about the nature of the world, but a narrative that has been elevated to the status of truth by powerful institutions. It also means that there can be no ‘reportage’, no ‘facts’ and no writing as such, that is ‘outside of ideology’ or ‘ideologically neutral’. This is a basic given that informs most academic writing.
But ‘ideological neutrality’ is a myth that continues to survive in the minds of journalists and editors and even Pulitzer Prize winners, and they often speak about ‘journalistic objectivity’ with the same touching faith that a three-year-old talks about Santa Claus.
I don’t have access to Boo’s mind beyond the evidence of her writing. But such evidence as exists points to complete ignorance (or is it indifference?) about the nature of her book considered as an ideological project. In her Author’s Note, Boo states that she wrote the book to answer the following questions: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?”
The book’s foundational questions reveal, in stark terms, the intellectual bad faith of Boo’s endeavour. For example: how did she arrive at the conclusion that lack of opportunity causespoverty, as opposed to being the effect of poverty? She didn’t: it is merely an assumption that allows her to hold on to the ideological fiction that creating an “infrastructure of opportunity” is the best way to combat poverty.
And this logical inversion in her thinking is the ideological filter which ensures that her narrative will never interrogate either the western, scientific, modern values and the contractual relations that they legitimize, or the global institutions and practices they gave rise to, and at whose mercy every Annawadian lives and dies.
As a result, Boo takes the poverty of the Annawadians as a given. In her book, poverty is an effect of nature, like sunlight or gravity. She notes that all the families in Annawadi are migrants. But does she ask what forces drove them to become migrants? Surely that’s a fundamental question you need to ask if you’re planning a “deeply reported account” of the people you’re studying?
But no, Boo doesn’t name the forces that made Karam Husain leave Siddharthnagar, “the impoverished Uttar Pradesh district where Karam had been raised”, and choose a miserable existence in Mumbai. Was it even a choice? How did people in Siddharthnagar live before it became “impoverished”? Or was it always already an “impoverished Uttar Pradesh district”?
The closest Boo comes to asking such questions is in the case of Asha, a wannabe slum lord. Boo follows Asha to her village in Vidharbha where, faced with the reality of farmer suicides, she gets a big opportunity to connect the dots – between rural distress and urban migration and destitution. But all she has to offer is this: “Ashamed and in debt, somefarmers (italics mine) killed themselves – an old story, one of the Marathi-movie staples.”
It is an accepted sociological fact (not necessarily acknowledged by economics) proven by innumerable studies and research projects, that poverty is caused by disempowerment. The less control a people or a community have over their lives and resources, the more they are likely to slip into deeper and deeper poverty.
Economic development in independent India, and especially the accelerated phase of development that has generated the new-found ‘prosperity’ that Boo is so dazzled by, has been predicated on a systematic dispossession and disempowerment of large masses of people who, though they may never have been wealthy in monetary terms, were by no means living in want.
Vidarbha’s farmers before the advent of multinational seed companies and an export-focussed agricultural policy, Chhattisgarh’s adivasis before the state government signed MOUs with mining companies, residents of Tamil Nadu’s Illuppur town, a thriving centre of artificial diamond polishing before India opened its markets to cheap Chinese gemstones — to take just three examples, were doing okay in their modest, low-efficiency, low productivity, low consumption, low carbon economies.
But the hunger of global economic capital for their land, resources and new markets – a hunger which moved the Indian state more than the hunger of its own people – kick-started the processes that became liberalisation (for the overcity) and pauperization for the vast majority, which then had no option but to embark upon the long march to various ‘undercities’ in megacities like Mumbai.
Urban poor don’t drop from the skies. They come from somewhere, and they are actively produced when India’s predatory urban class preys upon the resources of the rural poor (most commonly, their land) in order to sustain its own unsustainable economies.
The aluminium that Abdul collects as scrap as well as Abdul himself, are products of the same process of plunder unleashed by the forces of global capital whose servant the Indian state has become, and corruption is merely the lubricant that facilitates the relentless sodomising of the 99% by the 1%.
Reading Boo, it is possible to imagine that you and I, and our lives in gated communities, have no direct bearing on the sewage-enriched lives of the Annawadians. This can be such a liberating thing to know, it is hardly surprising that IMF-ers and copybook neoliberals have fallen in love with the book despite its excoriating account of poverty in shining India. It is after all nice to be freed of the moral responsibility for the misery of fellow citizens.
For all her claims to a “vagrant-sociology approach”, Boo is in no mood to acknowledge, let alone report on, the screaming fact that the creation of poverty is an integral part of the very processes that have brought mind-boggling prosperity to those perched at the top of the economic food chain.
By not identifying these pauperising processes for what they are, Boo presents a misleading picture of what she calls “the infrastructure of opportunity”. Of course, there will always be some space for a few individuals to come and take a bigger bite of the crumbs that drop off the high table. It is these crumbs that Abdul and Asha fight for, and accumulate, and hope will lead them to middle-class respectability. But Boo doesn’t ask why they are only ever in a position to seek crumbs and not sit at the high table themselves.
Instead, her exclusive focus on the immediate reality of poverty leads her to magnify how the poor screw the happiness of other poor. As you read again and again how the poor fuck the poor, the fact that the rich have already fucked the poor by rigging things in such a way that the only way the poor can survive is by fucking other poor doesn’t seem so noteworthy anymore.
In other words, the question to ask in a book like this is not about “the infrastructure of opportunity” but the “infrastructure of empowerment/disempowerment”. Sadly, Boo doesn’t want to go there, and her book stands diminished by this refusal.
In fact, the best work of nonfiction about poverty in contemporary India is a rather less lushly written volume, titled Listening To People Living In Poverty, a publication brought out by the NGO ActionAid, in December 2003. Unlike Behind The…, not only does it document lives, it also provides an explanatory framework for understanding the life stories it documents.
It is less about journalistic flair, more about articulating a truthful answer to the real question that is the burden of a book like Boo’s: why do the Annawadians continue to remain poor? Is it possible that the majority of them remain poor not despite India’s growth story but because of it? Such a possibility does not come within a thousand miles of Boo’s mind, let alone cross it.
In her review (the sanest one I’ve read so far), academic Mitu Sengupta fears that “that the neoliberal establishment will find substance, in Boo’s book, for their wider narrative of why the government can only ever fail, and why retracting the already-thin cover of publicly funded programs remains the best bet for getting India back on track.”
It is easy to see why her fears are fully justified: there is nothing in the book that indicates Boo’s understanding of poverty and its alleviation is radically different from that of the neoliberals. Boo believes that a better “distribution of opportunity” is the way out. The neoliberal gang has no problem with that. The problem comes when you start talking about distribution of power, and sharing control over resources and decision-making – then things get ‘political’. And Boo’s book, of course, is pure reportage, a polished gem of facticity itself, and totally ‘apolitical’ – which is precisely how ideology operates.
While there is nothing in her book to discourage its co-option into the neoliberal agenda, there’s plenty — especially about how government welfare schemes suck – to actively encourage it. It’s hard to imagine that Boo is innocent of these possibilities.
Number two: Boo’s strategy of novelising her narrative and yet keeping herself out of this novelised account clashes with the moral responsibility that an author of nonfiction has towards her subjects.
Throughout her narrative, Boo remains the invisible, all-seeing subject, while the poor Annawadians are objects of her authorial gaze. While we get to know what she thinks of each of them, we never get to know what they think of her and her project. She makes a cursory attempt to redress this imbalance in her Author’s Note at the end, but that’s not the same as putting yourself at the same level, and sharing the same space, as your interlocutors – both in the life situations in the slum, and in the text.
An effect of this segregation is that, by the end of the book, the slum-dwellers remain ‘them’ and the readers remain ‘we’. Boo writes, without any self-consciousness, “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who have means are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.” Now, who is this “we” here? And who are “we” to pass judgement on the poor? Ironically, this is also the closest Boo comes to acknowledging that the poor are so completely disempowered that they have no say in the choices of governments and markets. Yet she does not see this as having anything to do with why they are poor. Nice.
Finally, Boo’s portrait of the poor, instead of rendering their selves as real to the readers as their own (reader’s) selves, ends up other-ing the poor. Of course, an otherness conceived as a separate self that is ultimately mysterious and hence unknowable and worthy of respect is what good novels are about.
But Boo’s novelistic narrative stops the poor-as-the-other at a comfortable distance – they are the ‘other’ defined at the level of people-not-like-us, people we can understand through, and meet in, Boo’s book, but not people with whom “we” can discuss national economic policy.
Boo does not portray even one poor person as someone who can empathise with or understand the life of someone from the overcity, except in broad aspirational brushstrokes.
More than anything else, it is this authorial snobbery that caricatures their humanity – they are human, no doubt, but not so human that they can occupy the same space as our own intimate selves in our world, or Boo’s self in her book. It would have been interesting, and only fair, to see their understanding of her life, of her values, of her childhood, of her ambitions, articulated in these pages. But we don’t get it.
Boo, however, gets full access to all their innermost secrets, and shares them with millions of strangers. If she had an ethical issue with this one-sided relationship, we don’t hear about it.
That is why, having read the book, we, like Boo on the last page of her book, can still think of Annawadians as ‘they’ and ourselves as ‘we’. We can congratulate ourselves on our resources of empathy, our ability to be moved by the suffering – and then go back to cursingthose hawkers who have encroached on our footpaths.
We acknowledge another’s humanity not merely by empathising with them, or getting to know them intimately, but by letting them empathise with us – which is the real test of class barriers. This is where Boo’s book fails most spectacularly – not one resident of Annawadi is shown to be capable of understanding Boo in the same way she is allowed to apprehend their lives’ meaning. This water tight segregation of the self and the other is both the charm (for the non-Annawadian reader) and the harm in Boo’s beautiful narrative.

When HR is short for ‘horror’

In Management, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:18 pm
First published in DNA on April 21, 2012

There are plenty of movies and novels about salesmen, copywriters, editors, journalists, accountants, and even CEOs. But when was the last time you saw a movie or read a novel in which the hero/heroine was an HR executive? Never? Ever wonder why? I have my own theory: writers and filmmakers know that their main character should be one with whom the audience can empathise. And having an HR manager as the lead character sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Sure, not all HR execs/departments are bad. There are exceptions, but most are busy proving the rule. Last week, I got a call from a journalist friend who had just resigned from his job at a reputed publication. He was upset with his ex-employer’s HR.
During his last month at the company, he came down with gastroenteritis and took four days’ sick leave. But the HR deducted four days’ salary from his final paycheck though he had plenty of sick leave left. Apparently, his company’s HR policy did not allow an employee to take sick leave (or fall ill) during the notice period.
“What kind of idiocy is this?” he ranted. “Suppose during my notice period I have a heart attack and so can’t come to work for a few days, my company’s humane response would be to aggravate my misery by cutting my salary!”
Evidently, both logic and fairness were on his side. And it wasn’t the first such HR horror story I’d heard. Anybody who’s ever held a job has at least one. But it got me thinking about the purpose of HR departments, and why they are so universally held in abhorrence.
So what exactly is the role of HR? You don’t have to be an MBA to figure out that HR has four critical functions that, unlike salary processing or attendance marking, can neither be outsourced nor automated: 1) retaining talent; 2) identifying talent outside and persuading them to join the organisation; 3) coming up with sensible ways of measuring performance; and 4) putting systems in place to keep employee motivation high.
While friends in the media cite the odd organisation that may be above average with functions 1 and 2 above, most HR departments are clueless about 3 and 4. This is all the more puzzling, given that if you have an effective way of measuring and giving feedback to employees, then that becomes a training tool as well, and a motivator for employees who are performing well.
Instead, in most organizations, HR bursts into the larger consciousness only during appraisal time, a process that is often the butt of cynical jokes, and not without reason, given the bad faith underlying the practice in many organizations.
A friend from the publishing world tells me (and I’m told this is not an uncommon practice) that his company’s appraisals are rigged in such a way that even if all the members of a small team have performed exceptionally well, the team leader necessarily has to give a ‘poor’ rating to at least one of her subordinates.
So, what this means is: it doesn’t matter if you are a fair-minded boss, come appraisal time, you will be forced, by your HR, to play favourites. Is there a better way than this to kill team spirit, break the trust between boss and subordinate, and provoke mutual suspicion, and jealousy between team members? And yet, HR departments continue with such appraisal systems.
The above problem is compounded by the fact that in the publishing and media space, the infamous KFAs or KRAs (Key Focus Area/Key Result Area) are often arbitrary. For example, how do you quantify two excellent editing jobs versus five so-so editing jobs? Similar questions would arise in other sectors too.
Again, common sense dictates that the approach of HR in, say, a detergent company, would be different from what is needed in a more creative field, such as the media. And yet companies are content to hire HR personnel with zero experience in their own sector, and don’t bother to give them a grounding in the specific requirements of their sector even post-recruitment. And such personnel, clueless about how to address the larger HR functions in the company, naturally seek to justify their existence through bureaucratic bull shit, looking to screw employees’ happiness over minor transgressions, which, clearly, was what happened to my journalist friend.
Of course, HR needs to put in place punitive rules to protect the company’s interests against those who may ‘abuse the system’. But how many HR departments have systems in place to reward people who report to work on off days, don’t take their compensatory offs, work from home, and go beyond the call of duty to do 16-hour shifts? The stick is fine, but one reason HR is hated is because they often do away with the carrot at the end.
Ideally, every company should ask itself: what do I want HR to do, for me to succeed as a business? The answer will vary, depending on the sector, the size of the organization, the market position of the company vis-à-vis the competition, and the brand values and corporate culture of the company. But it is this answer that ought to drive the HR of a company. It would be foolish to expect that generic HR practices would be good enough for any company. And yet, how often do we see people in HR supplement their generic HR skills with the domain knowledge specific to the industry they happen to work for? About as often as we see movies about HR managers.

Are you a Delhi person or a Mumbai person?

In Lifestyle, Trends, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 11:42 am
G Sampath | Saturday, April 7, 2012
First published in DNA

It’s not been a week since I moved to Delhi, and I miss Mumbai already. If you ask me what is it about Mumbai that I miss, I can’t give you a convincing answer. I miss nothing in particular, and I miss everything in general.
I know that this Delhi-Mumbai debate — which city is more worthy of love and human habitation — is a touchy subject, especially for Dilliwalas. I’m a Dilliwala myself, or used to be, when I moved to Mumbai seven years ago to help launch this newspaper. There were also a couple of Delhites who had moved with me and they would go on and on about how Mumbai sucked and how Delhi was so much better, cleaner, easier to get around, etc.
Now, I am not the kind of person to develop roots in, or affection for, large, overcrowded, urban spaces full of smart people living and working in localities and offices that are increasingly beginning to look like localities and offices in other large, overcrowded, urban spaces full of smart people living and working in — well, you get my drift. But I’ve lived in each of India’s metros (except Bangalore) at different times in my life, and I’ve found that temperamentally, I am most compatible with Mumbai. I don’t know if it’s the sea, the local trains, or the humidity, but it didn’t take me long to get used to the rhythms of the city, the Bambaiya lingo (just yesterday an auto driver in Lajpat Nagar turned and stared when I told him ‘aage se left lene ka’), and yes, the traffic jams too.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m writing this sitting in Delhi, but it seems to me that the Mumbai traffic jam is somehow more tolerable than the Delhi traffic jam. In Mumbai, there is a sort of hidden camaraderie born of shared misery — we are all in the same jam together kind of thing. But in a Delhi jam, all I feel is a cold hostility that could, it seems to me, erupt into fatal fury at any moment. And I worry that I shouldn’t do something to trigger it. So I try and honk politely if I must, and smile apologetically into the rearview mirror when I do.
But this applies to not just jams on roads but jams elsewhere too. I’ve never seen people hustling their way to the front of the queue at the bank I used to visit in Mumbai. But earlier this week, I stepped into a Delhi branch of the same bank and the first thing I see is a well-built, middle-aged woman screaming at the bank manager because her queue was not moving fast enough. For someone like me, who is easily intimidated by official-looking people, and especially people like bank managers, to see an average citizen intimidate an intimidator was even more intimidating. Delhi is full of such people. Quite a few of them carry guns. Some use them too.
One thing Mumbai has over Delhi is its more equable climate, with the extremes limited to a few days during the monsoons. Yet the national capital’s climate is not without its advantages. I now scoff at Mumbai friends who dare to complain to me on phone about how hot Mumbai is already. “Mumbai? Hot? Hahahaha!” I laugh at them for a full minute. Delhi’s climatic extremes give me the upper hand in all weather-related discussions with Mumbaiwalas for a full eight months of the year, when Mumbai can never be as hot or as cold as Delhi. From June to September, I’ll need to avoid all talk about the weather, for I’d rather not hear disparaging references to Delhi’s micturitional monsoons, especially from Mumbaikars who think nothing of wading to work in neck-deep sewage water.
La Shehrawat in a deglam role as a Delhi girl in the
2006  Hindi movie Pyar ke Side Effects
is a quintessentially Delhi girl who hates Mumbai
Then there are the usual comparisons — about quality of life (where Delhi scores), cost of accommodation (where Delhi scores), cultural and ‘intellectual’ life (where, again, Delhi scores), safety of women (where Mumbai scores), public transport (where Mumbai scores, though not by much after the advent of the Metro in Delhi). There is also the old cliché about how ‘connections’ is the currency of power in Delhi whereas the size of your wallet determines the pecking order in Mumbai. Other aspects that are too subjective for a meaningful debate keep popping up every time — the food, places to hang out, fashion sense, and yes, the people. Delhi men talk about ‘Mumbai girls’, usually appreciatively, while Mumbai women talk about ‘Delhi men’, usually with disgust. It is never the other way around — no Delhi girl will speak of ‘Mumbai men’, and Mumbai men don’t speak of ‘Delhi girls’, though Delhi men themselves do.
All said and done, I guess the city one prefers is as much a matter of sensibility as other, less nebulous, factors like where one grew up, studied, has close friends/family, etc — all of which, in turn, play a role in shaping your sensibility. In my own case, I grew up in different cities, and my friends/family are scattered all over. Yet I prefer Mumbai. Don’t ask me why, though. As I said before, there’s no convincing answer to that. I believe you’re either a Delhi person or a Mumbai person. It’s like your sun sign, but unlike a sun sign, this one can, and sometimes does, change during a lifetime.