Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A hundred words. A million stories.

She is done with the morning’s cooking and cleaning.
“Listen, you take the rest of the month off. We will let you know when to start again.”
Madam hands over her March salary. It’s March 15.

She stands outside the apartment door.
“Take this. We will let you know when it is safe to start work.”
Madam places half of her April salary on the floor for her to pick up. It’s May 5.

It’s June 15.
A remote village. A crumbling two rooms house.
She blows into the chulha, into the poverty and hunger she had once left behind.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A chaiwallah who delivers!

This chaiwallah has served the best tea I have had over last twenty years.

Every journey at New Delhi railway station starts with a stop at his corner. A corner that somehow gives a semblance of peace and organization in this place, the Paharganj side entrance, that is otherwise a cacophony of loud noises and chaos.

If you can walk a few hundred meters while carrying your luggage, it is best to get down from the cab in front of the railway reservation center, the public urinals on the right – yes that’s it - about fifty meters before the traffic lights that greet you at gate #1 of the station. The short walk is anyways faster than the crawl of traffic and it allows a compulsive tea drinker like me a chance at the best cup Delhi has to offer.

He sits atop a stool, layered with cushions, with a large pot of tea brewing in front of him. The gas stove and the stool are placed over a large wooden bench, about two feet above the ground level. There are layers of bricks and tiles between the board and the stove. On his right is an even larger pot full of milk, the cover of the pot partially pushed back for easy access. Plastic jars containing sugar, tea leaves, and cardamom are on his left on the bench. A knife lies on a pile of ginger next to the jars.

He adjusts the flame as the tea rises to a boil, his face a picture of concentration. He grabs two large tea strainers, one placed atop the other, assembled like a double strainer, and stirs tea in a quick circular motion, stopping for a moment at the center of the pan and bringing the strainers out vertically with a trail of tea falling through the strainers as his arm reaches upwards. Then with an expert flick at the edge of the pan, with the strainers turned upside down, he deposits the contents of the strainer back in the pan into the boiling tea. He adjusts the flame again and starts the dance of the strainers again.

While he works on brewing that perfect work of art, the connoisseurs gather around. They extend their notes and coins towards him, mostly tens, and with his free left hand he places them in the box sitting between his legs, occasionally returning the change as required, and keep adding a disposable paper cup to the tray for each of the ten rupees. He stops collecting notes and coins once he has the tray full – about twenty cups.

When he is happy with what the boil of tea tells him, he reduces the flame to minimum and starts pouring. Almost in the sequence they deposited the money, the hands pick their cups and step back. The last drops from the pan fill the last of the cups in the tray.

The system works.

And before the last cup leaves the tray, he is busy pouring water into the pan and creating his art all over again.

I stand there watching him for a while. He does not speak much. He gives an instruction to a chotu every now and then, other than that he is focused on creating joyful of cups. Twenty or so at a time.

With my cup of joy in one hand, I walk across the road, competing with rickshaws, autos, cars, taxis, and keeping my luggage secure from the visible hands of coolies, who want me to hand my bag to them, and from the invisible hands, who want me to relieve me of the bags.
They have scanning machines now at the entrance. No choice but to feed the bags to the x-ray machine. I walk through the body scanner, which has not worked forever, with my cup.

The train is on the platform. I walk in the direction of my compartment.

At the door I wait. There are a few sips of joy still left in the cup.

Dashboard of Stories

It started with the business card of Bada Seth, the day he lost a car, a crore and a company - I taped it to the dashboard not to lose it; bill from the lunch with Kristy Madam was more for bragging; and by the day Irani Babu's bahu delivered his second grandson in the backseat amidst the mayhem of Mumbai monsoon's traffic and the hospital parking attendant handed me the stub, it was a habit.

(a one line story, written July 19)


Autumn is here - in the garden where we walked and in my heart.

(a one line story, written July 2019).

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Working with women… men will still be men. Specially oilfield ones!

The first time I wrote about a female working with SLB, the article made it to INM Masala Pipeline. Lakshmi enjoyed a very short lived (one day type short!) celebrity status in Kakinada. The last time I wrote an article on women in SLB (this time for CAGazzette), it was vetoed down by the boss (although I still maintain that the article was harmless, mostly). And the women in SLB have presented me another chance (if I can shrug the laziness for a while and keep the words harmless). So, amid the rofo, pipeline, market share, CRM crashes and all sorts of target crises, here I go…

It was still my early days with SLB and the Kakinada base was still the kind where containers were offices when Satish Pai visited. As goes with any VIP visit a round table was called. When it was time for questions one of the ‘true’ oilfield men asked a question, which most present there failed to understand. The person who asked had few decades on rigs, the person to whom the question was asked had few decades with oilfield as well. They understood each other. ‘Why is SLB recruiting field personnel who have only one hand?’ was the question asked by the oilfield gentleman. Satish Pai smiled.

Early 2006 and it was my first SLB training and as the instructor walked into the classroom at ELC that morning his first comments were (with a lot of Latin American accent!) – ‘Great, no girls! Now I can teach you guys without having to watch my words!’ More than anything the rig hands, the oilfield men, fear watching their words. Women make them do so (not all but most oilfield women, some just join the other club!).

Two years after the first training at ELC, I walked into another classroom at SLB training school (at KTC this time) and that was an all boys class as well. With a difference. The instructor and tutor were both ladies. Synergies of gender diversity were beginning to show up. The tutor was from somewhere in Russian region and was as hot as her red Porsche! Thankfully she sat at the back of the class! (and we all could pay attention to what was happening in front).

During this training at KTC, one Friday evening we had our class event. The planning was done by our course instructor. We went and watched a baseball game (out of 6 students there were 3 Americans!), then dinner of pizzas while throwing balls at some gaming alley and the night ended with a trip to a ‘gentlemen’s club’! None of the male instructors had been this generous! At the club we stood in queue and presented our IDs to the security manager. As my turn came the security manager asked me to remove my scarf. No scarves allowed inside. Club rule! I tried reasoning with them, sir this is not a scarf, sir look at my passport photo, it comes with the same thing which by the way is a turban, sir we keep our heads covered, sir… sir… The fellow was strict like some rig safety officer, just won’t budge. Realising that I was to miss on the opportunity of one dollar lap dances and much more, heartbroken I readied myself to say good byes to the others. But our course instructor won’t give up as yet. She went to talk to the security guy and having understood the root cause (various gangs have scarves as their identifications, each with a different color and the clubs had seen gang violence, hence the rule) she came up with a solution. If I wore a baseball cap all the time I was inside the club, the security will be ok. Since I was wearing an under-turban, patka, baseball cap solution worked! So there I was, finally permitted to live my one dollar American dream. Thanks to a female in SLB. Now that is ‘how synergy is created in a gender diverse work force’!

We did few jobs in Gujarat in 2007. For first five odd jobs it was an all male crew. Since the land jobs are a better option to send trainees for field exposure, one of the jobs our FSM sent a female trainee with us. She helped a bit with the work, but more than that the rig crew helped a lot! When we returned for the next job one and all from the rig floor asked ‘didn’t she come?’ They remember SLB crew members names (when they are female crew members) and in the process they remember SLB. Brand recognition!  Synergies of a diverse workforce! There are a lot of advantages of a diverse (I mean gender diverse) workforce on a rig. Don’t believe me? Ask our current completions FSM if she wasn’t woken up in the middle of her sleep by the other SLB crew members (males!) for making a call to the crane operator to move some load!

Who says men don’t like gossip? We do! At least the kind which involves females. We don’t really care much about the male only gossip (at least in India!). And will there be any SLB/work gossip if there are no female colleagues? Only one gender workforce won’t give us scandals… and without scandals no gossip. Talk about synergies!

It may nigh be impossible for a male admin of any segment to get a car out of Rana (gender diversity I tell you… it works). If it was a male only workforce will SLB’s very own Amitabha Chatterjee write his novel? Where will we men find our muse while working in oilfield? And if we didn’t have the female mannequin at Mahape reception (dear Suraksha) won’t it be such a dreary place (no matter how hard Rajput ji tries to smile at the visitors!)? And the danger of a male only workforce might have been - no safety mannequin; or even worse a male mannequin!. Who would want a ‘Mr Surakshit’? Suraksha works better.

The client seminar is about to start. Hotel staff has arranged the conference hall very well and all looks good (to my eyes!). In walks Azra. ‘I asked for red roses to be placed on the tables’. The hotel staff runs around and lo behold, we have red roses on tables. Benefits… always benefits of gender diverse point of views.

Client engineers (at Baku) while signing my FTLs would go through every line, check every supporting document and ask all sorts of questions. Getting a ticket signed there was a rather time consuming affair. One month I had some other work and our admin went to get the tickets signed, I was worried about the answers to the questions. There were no questions! Tickets signed in minimal possible time!

We had few new recruits in the office over last few weeks under field exposure program. First came a male recruit. Our FSM was in a training the first few days of the week. We got his orientation done and then just let him be with some small work here and there. FSM wasn’t disturbed. Next week came a female recruit. Our FSM was sick on Monday. But within first few hour five guys called/texted her about the presence of a ‘good looking’ FE. Communication does improve with gender diversity.

A natural extension of gender diversity in an organisation like SLB is dual careers. Now here are some definite synergies (more so for individuals involved). It is time of a downturn in the activity. There will be some people who would find themselves without a job. Dual careers… very rarely in that list.

As part of Well Services team in Perth I found myself sitting in a female dominated team (guys were busy hammering iron in Karratha!). Ops manager, EIC, sales manager, two DESCs, admin and two female FEs. There were two or three of us males. That was a time when both n+1 and n+2 were females for me and you get reasonably good SLP3 ratings and comments I tell you. But that is not the synergy I found the best. There was an SPE dinner. There were free entry passes with the boss. These were couple only entry passes (may be because they had a dance floor!). And for once I did not struggle to find a date! One just need to look… tons of synergies friends!
When we put on coveralls.. all is covered so to say. Male, female.. all is blue in SLB world. The physical activity, the long hours, the grease and grime, safety glasses, hard hats, gloves, boots the unforgivable oilfield work ethic may hide all the differences. But once the showers are done and hair let loose… the diversity does bring in new fragrances, such a blessing when surrounded by sweaty human beings (essentially sweaty men!).

We are professionals when we are at SLB. But even the professionals when washed clean of their work do prefer the presence of fairer sex. It may be a point of view… but if you think about it this point of view has a female in focus!  Professionals or not, oilfield or not, us men.. well we will be men.

Things have changed (and are moving in positive direction with every passing day) in terms of how most of oilfield men (especially real old hands) view ladies in covies at a rig floor. Listening to the question that day at Kakinada, Satish Pai smiled. And as only a person with sufficient wisdom for his position could answer, he did. I do not remember his words but the gist was – ‘There are women now in almost all kind of jobs and doing all these jobs as good as anyone. They are already in Oilfield and in SLB. We are just going to push and increase the numbers. The world, especially oilfield world, is changing in terms of gender diversity.’

Jokes apart, things have certainly changed in oilfield over last few decades as far as gender diversity is concerned. And how!

(written for a company magazine, edition dedicated to gender diversity in oilfield, March 2012, Mumbai - the editors of this edition deemed the article unfit for publication :) )

(the article my boss vetoed down)

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55) was the leading Urdu short-story writer of the twentieth century. He was born on 11 May 1912 at Samrala in Punjab's Ludhiana district. Educated at Aligarh, he worked for All India Radio during World War II and was a successful screenwriter in Bombay before moving to Pakistan after partition. In a literary, journalistic, radio scripting and film-writing career spread over more than two decades, he produced around 250 stories, scores of plays and a large number of essays. He wrote over a dozen films, including Eight Days, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib. The last one was shot after Manto moved to Pakistan in January 1948. During his controversial two-decade career, Manto published twenty-two collections of stories, seven collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, and a novel.
MANTO is among the Urdu writers who have portrayed the horrors of Partition in a stark manner. His first story, Tamasha was, however, inspired by the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh. After that he wrote plays, radio talks and essays besides short stories. His portrayal of human failings touches the reader for its honesty and truthfulness.

Innumerable novels, short stories and poems have been written on the unbelievable violence that took place with the Partition of the country in 1947. More than a million innocent men, women and children: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were massacred in cold blood. From the literature produced on the subject, without doubt, the most powerful were the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu. His one short story Toba Tek Singh describes the beginnings of the tragedy and the lunatic heights reached (Manto was for a while a patient in the Lahore mental asylum).

Saadat Hasan Manto is generally considered the greatest short story writer of the Urdu language, centered on the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. Manto is known for being part of Urdu literature’s Progressive Writers Movement. Manto touched the hearts of many with his convincing and utterly original portrayal of human fallibility. He died several months short of his 43rd birthday in January 1955 in Lahore.

Black BordersBlack Borders by Saadat Hasan Manto
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was first published in 1947 as Siyah Hashiye (Black Borders), the 32 cameos that comprise this slim volume present horrifying sketches from the holocaust of the Partition.

From the very first page where author has written his dedication, To that man who, while narrating his many misdeeds, said, “When I killed that old woman, I felt as though I had committed a murder.” the author holds the reader and even after you have turned the last page of the book you are still held in that same spell.

This book is a collection of 32 cameos which describe the horrors of the partition. Manto sketches the scenes with such simplicity and such a great mastery that only Manto was champion of.
If a reader dares to live through the realities of partition, Black Borders is the book that will take you to a child who lost his father, a father who lost his daughter, a sister who lost her brother, a girl who lost her pride, a citizen who lost his nation and a nation which lost everything. Black Borders are indeed full of red colour and only Manto’s writings ever did justice to the truth and horrors of partition and this book is a supreme example of his original portrayal of life.
The translator has done every possible justice to the text by matter-of-fact and simple translation. No heavy words and no beautification of text is done as was Manto’s style of writing.

It is slender booklet worth every one of its 50 pages.

View all my reviews

Spirit of Mumbai

The waves start from Dahanu Road, Kalyan & Panvel, the waves start before Sun brings life, the waves start with young, old, rich and poor, the waves emanate from towers, from chawls, from penthouses and from under the flyovers, the waves start every day, even the days when the world stops.

The waves travel via Virar, Boriwali and Andheri picking up energy, the waves travel via Dombivali, Thane, and Ghatkopar assembling flavours, the waves travel via Mansarovar, Vashi and Chembur collecting sounds, the waves go over the land, the waves go under the land, the waves go over the water and for four months every year the waves come under the rains, the waves travel every hour, even the hours when Sachin bats.

And then the waves converge, converge to the heart, converge and complete the spirit with its colors and shades and then the heartbeat ticks. And like blood the waves flow out of CST, out of Dadar, out of Churchgate. The waves carry that undying spirit that is Mumbai, the waves carry the spirit every moment even the moments when the bombs go on, even the moments when the guns fire, even the moments when the swords strike, the waves carry the spirit even in these moments when the God’s chose to rest.

Lehron ka shor, hawa ka jor, daudti jindagi…

Our offices and banks in March of 1993, our markets and roads in August of 2003, our travel and trains in July 2006, our hotels, hospitals and cafes in November 2008, and again they came in July of 2011, and they came before that, they came in between and they still plan to come in future. They come unknowing that Mumbai is strong - the tetra pods of Nariman Point brave the terror of sea every moment, they come unknowing that Mumbai is accommodating - there is always space for more of us to squeeze into the bulge that is our peak hour local, they come unknowing that Mumbai teaches it’s children to live a life which is fast, hard, unforgiving and they come unknowing that Mumbai sings, Mumbai dances, Mumbai loves, Mumbai cares, they come unknowing that be it July or be it November, the spirit of Mumbai is in every breath, in every moment.

Kadmon ki taalon pe geet gati si bedhadak jindagi...

(written Nov 2012, Laxcon towers, Palm Beach road, Navi Mumbai)

Finding Memories

Up till this moment...
titled as - Finding Memories
signed as ...Mithrandir...
who introduced himself as...
'Once upon a time,
When the poems had a rhyme.
There lived a lonely man,
Under the tree, across the river.
At long it came to pass,
On his way to mountain lake.
Was it black or green as grass,
He crossed a waiting snake.'


Most of the land owning native Punjabi households employ few helping hands. A help for work in fields, a help for taking care of cattle, a help for taking care of cattle dung and upkeep of cattle space, a help for house cleaning, etc. As the average age of family members in a household decreases, the number and types of helps increase. Older generation still keeps itself busy in manual work and hence acts as a help for young ones. Young ones need more help in today’s Punjab.

Like most of the houses in this village house no. 1 also employs few helps. One of them is
Mukhiya. From Bihar.

He has been in Punjab for nearly two decades. Came here for the first time as a teen and has been working the fields in and around this village ever since. In this period he visited his native place few times, got married at a young age and brought his wife to Punjab as well. They have three children now – a girl of 14 and two boys of 12 and 9. These children - born in Punjab, their lungs full of Punjab’s air ever since, their feet used to Punjab’s soil like a touch of mother, speaking Punjabi as fluently as any other native Punjabi child, at home here more than their parent’s native place in Bihar – still appear a Bayia to the native Punjabis.

Bhayia – Brother. Punjabi alphabet misses the soft ‘bh’ sound. Somewhere between a ‘Bayia’ & a ‘Payia’ lies the Punjabi version.

Bayia – a word meant to represent the most honorable of bonds, a brother’s – is a symbol and a sound of inequality and discrimination for these children.

(written for blog action day October 2014. #BAD2014, #Inequality, Blog Action Day)

Bahar Jana

An early morning flight more often than not implies a round-about mid-night wake-up alarm. And the company driver was stricter than one would find usually and deposited me at the airport at 2:30 for a 4:30 flight when at this airport a 4:00am check-in would have been well ahead of time. Most likely they fly a single digit number of flights from this airport in a day. As was the case I along with two other company employees found myself sitting in departure area with plenty of time to spare. I still had few chapters of ‘David Copperfield’ on the other side of the bookmark and I was happy to busy myself while the two companions talked about the fishing gear they had purchased and were carrying with them on way to their respective homes.

It must have been 30 minutes or so since I started reading when I was asked a question in a language I least expected for the place I was at. Generally, they say that Punjabis are found everywhere. I have tested this hypothesis and found that to an extent it was true but not always. For example in Baku (Azerbaijan) in nearly six months the only sardar I have seen is when I look into the mirror. Same was true for Turkmenistan. No sardars here as well (apart from me of course). Hardly any Indians for that matter. Baku, though, does boast of some Indians. In any case hearing, “beta koi pani di botal hai” at Ashgabat airport was a surprise and I looked up from my book and found a sardarji standing next to me. An old man, with hardly any black in the beard, wearing a kurta pyjama and a distant look in eyes. He was asking for a water bottle, an empty one to be precise. It was early morning and it was his time for the bowel movements and in his (our - his and mine) world they need water afterwards, toilet papers don’t suffice. It was quite a request.

In ‘Tales from Ferozeshah Bagh’, Rohinton Mistry, tells a tale of an Indian who goes to Canada. This particular Indian finds it hard to “take a dump” on the western style commodes. He can only do it squatting. This leads to a lot of embarrassing situations and in the end he decides that he can’t become westernized as he can’t do it the ‘west way’ and packs up everything and decides to go back to India. On the flight back (most likely before the flight takes off) he eats something which causes some stomach trouble and the toilet of the airplane didn’t allow him enough space to squat and in the end he, one way or the other, succeeds in doing it the west way. He was finally successful in his quest to be westernized but by that time he is already on his way home.

I did have a water bottle but it wasn’t empty and I did not want to give him the drinking water I had carried along. Had he been somewhat younger I would have just rubbished the request. But here was an old man, truly Punjabi and desi by nature. Travelling to or from some part of world where he clearly did not belong. What were his reasons? I do not know maybe even he himself don’t know. Maybe, just because it was ‘the thing’ these days. Going to Kaneda, Jurman, Amrika. The wanderlust and lust for ‘currency’ doesn’t leave space for reasons.

I told him to wait and went to the canteen in the lounge, asked them for an empty bottle and the lady there was kind enough to fish one out of the heap of bottles in rubbish bin. This I passed onto the gentleman and he was on his way to ‘relieve the pressure’. ‘Bahar jana’. That is what we say back home in Punjab. For both the things, taking a dump and travelling out of our country.

I looked around and found that the sardarji was not alone. I noticed a group of over twenty Punjabis, men, women, boys, girls, sitting in a corner. Turbans, flowing beards, Punjabi suits, duppattas. Lions of their land, sitting in a herd, apprehensive of the unknown, out of place and out of their elements. To avoid the usual situation of having to make conversation with my own type I busied myself with the book and did not look left right up or back till my flight was announced.

(written sometime in 2010)

When I die...

When I die, will you know?
When I die, who will know?
When I die, will you mourn?
When I die, who will mourn?
When I die, will I die?

(notes from a client meeting @BP office in Baku, Azerbaijan, 2010)


Sukhdev Singh is milking a buffalo when I call him. We are speaking after a long gap. His voice carries the same cheerful energy I remember....