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Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Train Rant

The article contains a range of stereotypes which may or may not be endorsed by the author. However, for the sake of looking cool (the raison d'etre of anyone’s existence on social media and using Latin expressions), I would go on, unfettered and undeterred like the Indian Railways.

Rail transportation in India began in 1853 with the first train running from Bombay to Thane, covering a distance of 50 kilometres in three hours, a record that has stood till date. The intent was to ferry goods from the interiors to the ports. That was the last time ‘good’ and ‘Indian Railways’ was used together in the same sentence. Since then, the word ‘good’ has been replaced by freight. So a goods-train is now a freight-train, the word ‘freight’, obviously carrying one ‘e’ too many.

But this post is not about the goods travelling on a freight-train, it’s about the goods travelling on a passenger train.  

But before the train itself, comes the train platform: the only place you find more shit than the Indian Parliament, clearly hinting that (1) we need better cleansing of rails and platforms, and (2) Indian public does more work squatting in train toilets than their lawmakers sleeping in the capital. On the plus side though, all railway platforms are equipped with weight-sensor technology that hastens the arrival of the incoming train if them all impatient passengers stand at its edge, peeping in the direction of the train. The platform is also home to hawkers selling best-selling Indian classics such as Half-Girlfriend, You Can Win and Rapidex English Speaking Course; confectionery stalls that stock all exotic biscuits but manage to sell only water and all other shops which exist only as the solution to the quintessential ‘Bhaiya ye X jane wali Gadi kya isi platform par aegi’ question. For passenger comfort, all railway platforms are equipped with... never mind. A few platforms at select stations did begin to mark the position of each coach, but the move was termed as too-passenger friendly and its expansion plan was, quite logically too, shelved.      

At the onset, one must realize that RAIL is just LIAR spelt backwards. So every time the announcement lady expresses regret about the delay in arrival of your train, she clearly doesn't mean it. Or at least her tone doesn't suggest so. All announcements are made with the same aplomb, the same gaiety.  To think of it, ‘lady’ is just a vowel short of ‘delay’: the same letter ‘e’ that’s extraneous in ‘freight’. Meanwhile, for the uninitiated, there are four categories of delays: (1) No Delay (delay between 0 to 120 min) (2) Minor Delay (2 hours to 12 hours) (3) Major Delay (when AM becomes PM and PM becomes AM and, (4) No delay (train reaches same time, next day as the next day’s train). As expected, as per statistics, most trains arrive on time and hence the terms ‘train’ and ‘late train’ can be/are used interchangeably.  

Once one does get on the train though, he expects normalcy to resume (strictly speaking, to begin). But the wait gets a tad longer, for the railway coaches are military barracks, hermetically compressed with comfort thoroughly squeezed out, placed carefully at the epicentre of a kilometre-long-magnitude-10-on-Richter-scale-earthquake, huffing and puffing through the dark of the night at breakneck speeds touching 50 kilometres an hour. Interestingly though, quite unlike the traditional Indian society, the lower berths are the higher births and upper berths have to actually work very hard to get up there. However, the battle for Middle Earth is the battle to avoid the middle berth. The Indian Railways actually plays a big daddy to those on the middle berths by directing them when to sleep, how long to sleep, when to eat and when to interact with fellow passengers. The middle berth, without a doubt, is the railways’ middle-finger.

Then comes the turn of the very toilets on wheels whose products you see on the rails beside the platforms. One step inside and you begin to wonder how much the Indian Public is capable of delivering in so little time, which further dwarfs the achievement of the lawmakers at the centre, even if we’re talking about just shitty work. Most coaches have both styles of toilets: Indian and Western, basically Indian and Western-followed-by-Indian as none of these have either a bidet* or tissue papers. No wonder in the latest census, 29 lakh people, most of them frequent train travellers, didn't state their religion, for ‘constipation’ wasn't one of the options mentioned.         

Inside the coaches and outside of the toilets, we have charging points which either never work or damage your charger when they do, fans that provide more sound energy than wind energy, ACs that are either not working or too cold, pillows thinner than your biceps, a cotton bed-sheet that you have no idea how to unfold, another identical bed-sheet that is always two cm too thin for the AC and a woolly blanket that is always two cm too thick. 

Finally, a word on your fellow passengers. No matter which coach you book, the family travelling alongside will always have at its head a patriarch who is a high-school snoring champ, a matriarch who would invariably have the middle-berth and will instantly ask you to swap it with your lower-berth and a Kinder-Joy munching youth brigade that would want to consume every wafer and cola it sees along the way, making more noise than the honking-Joe behind you on every traffic signal. There is also the entourage that disembarks just before the train starts, leaving behind all their bags, only for you to realize that all forty-four belong to this family of four.   



The best thing about a train journey, though, is that like most journeys (and this post here), it ends.




*That thing you clean your ass with? Yes. It is called a bidet. Don’t worry. Even I Googled. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Maggi Noodles and Other Stories

Of late, Maggi and its parent company, Nestle, have been embroiled in a major controversy regarding the high Lead and MSG content in the noodles. This post is an attempt to critique the popular rhetoric on the issue.

And drive traffic on my blog by writing about this trending topic.

‘Tu Maggi nahi khata na?’, enquired my frantic mom over our usual 2-minute daily phone call last night. When you mom calls you and asks whether you consume something presumably bad for your health, it’s not news. But when that something is not chicken-on-a-Tuesday or alcohol or beef (on-any-fuckin’-day), then it is definitely a cause of concern. Now I don’t eat Maggi for multiple reasons which include, but are not restricted to (1) taking the tastemaker out of the sachet is as difficult as back-to-back ejaculations, and (2) 2-minutes is how long you last the first time, and DEFINITELY not how long cooking Maggi lasts every time. Now that I've spoiled your memory of Maggi with sexual innuendos, let’s look at some of my genuine concerns. One, I do not know how much 225 ml of water is. Whatever quantity I take is either way less or way more. Two, I know the packaging says that the image that it carries is only indicative and the actual preparation may differ, but it doesn't say by how much. In my case, it’s usually between 99.9% to 100.1%. Three, they never mention, in minutes, the ratio of the time and effort to cook to the time and effort to wash the kettle, which as per my experience is anything between 1:1000000 to 1:100000000, or as Nestle would like to put it 2:2000000 to 2:200000000. 

Having said all this, I do have a point to make here. What has happened to Maggi is absolutely unfair, unjust and a lot more un-things. For long, the people of this land have been mean to other people of this land. But who thought that privilege would be extended to inanimate objects? Now I know that Nestle brand-mangers would kill me for labeling their beloved brand as ‘inanimate’ and an ‘object’, but I still take the liberty purely on my resolute belief that there’s definitely something wrong if they’re reading this blog right now as against salvaging whatever anti-flammables they can to put out this fire. It’s true that it takes years and years of labour (artistic and donkey-like) and insights (original and plagiarized) to build and cultivate a brand (unless, of course, you are merely importing a foreign brand in which case you just need donkey-like labour and plagiarized insights). Scandalizing and marginalizing such a brand undoes all the effort all these people have put in. Think about the Nestle salesmen who go from store to store booking orders and the Sales Officers who go from Distributor to Distributor having chai… Yes, brands are inanimate, but the people behind them aren’t. With the huge dip in sales, a lot of salesmen will not earn their incentives this month; incentives that form a major chunk of their take home salary. And with Maggi contributing almost 50% of the Nestle portfolio, the small distributors will suffer grave losses with many going out of business by the time the brand is back on the shelves. Yes, a ban on Maggi is definitely a shock for its loyal customer base and a setback for the Brand Managers, but for some, it’s an absolute catastrophe.

And now, let’s get some facts straight. It’s a rather well-known fact in the industry that Nestle is a pioneer and world leader in terms of food safety and compliance. In fact, other companies look up to the amazing standards of food quality that their Swiss competitor has. It is also a well-known fact that our friends in need at FSSAI are not friends in deed, at least for all food companies. There have been multiple reports of its officials deliberately causing delays in new product launches, arbitrarily changing laws to stall projects and imposing random fines (the tune of which defies logic and mathematics). In fact, a lot of Food companies are known to get FSSAI approvals quicker than others for almost all their brands, while some others with relatively smaller purses have to stand in queue for years.

Then there’s the question of the alleged state of the art laboratories in which the food samples are tested by FSSAI. I doubt what fraction of the dangerous chemicals are in the packet and what fraction get included during the testing process. Hi-fives if you’re imaging your highschool chemistry lab, albeit with all the equipment a hundred-year old, or if you went to a government school as I did, in which case the thought process is the same minus the going-back-100-years part.

Finally, if 12 different laboratories test products from the same batch manufactured at the same plant under the same standard operating procedures, and if 9 of the 12 label the product as unsafe and 3 label it safe, there’s nothing conclusive for or against the product. The only thing I know for sure is that not all the laboratories are right, which is as much a question mark on the laboratories as it is on the product being tested.

Next, a word on our beloved media. This morning, I came across this in today’s Times of India. A similar report appeared on business-standard here. The correspondents from both the stories tried to contact the officials of the concerned companies: Heinz and Kellogg, in this case, only the correspondent from Business Standard could elicit a response. So either the ToI journalist doesn’t have enough contacts (which means he’s a bad journalist) or despite having a contact he can’t get a response (which also means he’s a bad journalist). Sweeping statements such as ‘there was no response from the company’ and ‘all our emails went unanswered’ portray the company as callous and insensitive, which, as the other report proves, is clearly not the case.  The ToI correspondent, clearly, has no idea that the Kellogg brand in question hasn’t even been launched (its approval has been held up for some months now). The report from Business Standard is more informative and hence, more balanced. Unfortunately, apart from first year B-School students, no one reads the Business Standard.

Finally, a message for us third-world Indians who believe that these rascal MNC food companies adhere to different (and lower) food safety standards of manufacturing in India as against abroad. Last year, we went (on inspection) to the sole plant of a leading cereal maker. This is what they made us wear before entering the plant:


And this is how we usually look.


Clearly, a lot more hygienic.

Every worker on the shop floor was dressed in a similar way.
Although not as smartly as Ranbir Kapoor in ‘Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani’ while making laddoos at the nearby halwai as shown below, but I hope you get the point.

   

All said and done, I believe it’s never too late to make amends. I will now head straight to the nearest kirana shop to purchase my packet of Maggi and then to the nearby laboratory to borrow a borosil beaker.
Let’s try with exactly 225 ml this time.

P.S: As much as I want to, the post has not been sponsored by any food company. One of them pays my salary, and that’s that.   

P.P.S: Keyboards don't have the stylized é key, so please, can't we just call it Nestle and not Nestlé? 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sales Managed

By this time I have begun to realise that Jugal Hansraj and I have so much in common in so many ways. I write so infrequently now that every time I come back to it, it’s a comeback, just like Hansraj gets roles so infrequently that every time he acts, he debuts. And like my writing, no one misses his acting.
 
Okay, sorry. Some of you do miss my prose, I admit.

So this post is about the life of an Area Sales Manager (ASM). Basically an overpaid and underworked salesman and an underpaid and overworked manager. The purpose of this post is not to advertise or chastise the profession. The intention is to advertise and chastise it. I do not intend to critique a specific FMCG company. I intend to critique them all.
My intentions are noble, or so I would like to believe. And hence, the post is meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, unless you’re an ASM with Tata Chemicals, in which case you can take a carton of salt and sell it in wholesale at an undercut price.

To an outsider, it’s tough to explain that we ASMs are employed and yet don’t have an office. A lot of aunties go up to my mother and ask the typical ‘apka-beta-kahan-kaam-karta-hai’ and ‘office-kahan-hai’ types. Mothers usually have these very simplistic explanations to everything. So I, apparently, go door to door, selling stuff and taking payments. But she still can’t get over the fact that I don’t have an office. ‘Kahin-kuchh-toh-hoga-na’, she enquires almost every time she calls. And at last, I cede and give her the address of my Carry Forward Agent (CFA).

ASMs, I believe, are the only breed for whom ‘work’ (and not ‘home’) is the driving word when they ‘work from home’. Almost 60% of the productive work gets done from home while the remaining gets done at the distributor office (usually his home, so technically still ‘work from home’). And yet, whenever the bosses call and enquire about our whereabouts, we are always in the market (even at midnight). Don’t get me wrong, but not having an office also has its merits. We, for instance, do not suffer from Monday morning blues. For us, every day is a Sunday and every day is a Monday. A better metric for us is the day of the month. So while the first three weeks of the month have 21 weekends, the last week has all days working. It has as many productive man-hours as the first three weeks combined, out of which the last day alone is 50%. So our typical month is like a typical Dhoni knock. Nudging, pushing and prodding for the first three-fourths, taking quickly run twos and threes for the next few and finishing it off with a last ball six.

Just that MSD meets his numbers more often.  

I doubt there’s another profession that has its evaluation parameters so tangible and measurable. And I also doubt there’s another profession that has its evaluation parameters so confusing and ambiguous. What’s absolutely clear is that growth is an absolute must. What’s absolutely not clear is which growth we’re talking about. So when we ring up our bosses after the month closing, gleefully narrating our double digit volume growth over the same month last year, they gently remind us how the growth over the previous quarter has been stagnant. And when we call them next month, about how the territory has shown great volume growth over last year as well as the previous quarter, they quickly remind us that the growth in value terms has been sluggish. And when we show both volume and value growth over last year as well as the last quarter, there’s always a smaller territory in the region that has registered twice the growth during the same period.
And yet, the band for success is fixed. There are no Bs, Cs and Ds in sales. It’s either A or nothing. In percentage terms, anything between 0 to 100 percent is a failure. It basically means you can neither plan nor execute (and neither do you go to the market). Anything between 100%-105% is an A and means that you can plan and execute well (doesn’t matter if you go to the market). Anything over 105% is again a failure because you can plan and execute but can’t control (because you don’t go to the market).   

But hey, we still love our jobs! For it allows us to travel (to non-descript upcountry locations), meet new people (bluffing salesmen and stingy distributors), stay among the locals (in shady hotels with bedbugs and ceiling fans inside bathrooms) and enjoy different cuisine (by chance and not by choice).   

But more than anything else, I love my job for the sheer learning potential it offers. One learns to lie with a straight face (boss I will definitely do my numbers), be overly optimistic (boss I will definitely do my numbers with or without the stock), be overenthusiastic (boss I will definitely do my numbers with or without the stock with one week to go), be prophetic (boss I think I will do my numbers with or without the stock with one week to go ), make excuses (boss I would have definitely done my numbers with or without the stock with one week to go had there been no earthquake in Nepal) and make promises (boss next month I will definitely do my numbers).

And I also love it because it has a jargon of its own. No, no, we do not invent our own words. We give a different connotation to the existing ones. For instance, ‘align’ means dissemination of information, ‘stock’ denotes shortage, ‘target’ means impossible, ‘phasing’ is a myth, ‘delivery’ mean late, ‘commitment’ means anything but commitment and ‘closing’ means fear. There are also a few phrases that we hold up our sleeves that come out as and when required (and are never ever true). To the retailer: ‘Sir bika toh apka, nahi bika toh humara’. To the subordinates: ‘Tu kaam kar, incentive mujh par chhod’. To the distributor: ‘Sir abhi aap pay kar do, baad mein adjust kar lenge’. And to your boss: ‘Sir market mein hoon’.

Phew! Long rant. Still love my job, for there are only a few professions that one can bitch about so much and yet keep one’s job. Possibly because our bosses don’t have the time to read what we write. Or maybe the upcountry town they’re touring right now has our distribution, but doesn’t have internet.


Or electricity.