Historian S Muthiah says with grandfatherly affection that retirees should put down the stories of their lives, “not necessarily for a book, but for their grandchildren to learn about their family, the life it lived and the world it was in, once upon a time.” And all that you need is 500 words a day, for say a maximum of six months. Point taken.
Office Chai, Planter’s Brew, co-edited by S Muthiah and Ranjitha Ashok, is a collection of articles by corporate honchos of yester years. These have been expressly written for this book. By the way, the book is a product of an idea that germinated while the author was on a morning walk with his friends. If nothing else, the walk was fruitful, for having brought out this edition. May more such ideas germinate!
The book is sprinkled with anecdotes: each chapter is about 8-10 pages long and each is a reflection of one of the former top executives. The underlying thread is that of an India that was more calm and serene, unhurried by the ravages of modern offices; an India that was at peace with itself and others. Most of these organisations were still British outposts despite the British having left Indian shores back in 1947.
The gora and the hoi polloi
Some of the interesting practices of the past are succinctly captured. Like: if you were a Brit, then at office you were served tea and biscuits on a tray complete with teapot, cup and saucer, and sugar and milk separately. If you were an Indian, you got ready mixed tea poured from an aluminum jug into a cup plonked on the table! There were separate dining rooms and full service team for the sahibs.
The Brits passed on whatever management techniques they knew. Indian managers put a premium on quality, “ensuring service, punctuality, keeping word on deliveries, meeting deadlines and never procrastinating.” The expats took detailed interest in work. A boss once asked his star intern, “Have you been lending your report to any of the trainees? There is an uncanny resemblance. I can see through this.”
The Brits created a lot of team spirit through sports activities, particularly team games, building a loyal team in the bargain. Alas! this is a thing of the past, given the modern day hustle bustle of life. They also had their sense of humour. At an interview a young Indian wondered that as he lived 15kms from Calcutta and had to take multiple modes of transport to reach work, whether he could be allowed to come beyond the mandated 7 am. He was promptly told, “I had a friend who travelled 100 miles a day from his house to work and back by train all the time. He never complained.” And when the young man looked askance, the recruiter wryly said, “Well, he used to work in the Railways.”
No place for relatives
Shaw Wallace swore by meritocracy. There was no place for relatives. When a guy wanted to marry Charles Wallace’s daughter he was told, “you can marry my daughter, but you have to then leave the company.” The man promptly did that. After all, you can get another company but cannot get another Ms. Wallace.
At dinner you wore a proper dinner jacket, sat down to dinner at a formally set table. Nobody spoke loudly; it was all very refined. Cigarette smoking was a done thing. Almost everybody smoked. Meeting a client, auditor or legal adviser, meant wearing a coat. Younger officers always referred to their seniors as ‘Sir’. Sometimes things did get out of hand. At a social get-together, after a prim and proper start, a guest ended up dancing on the dinner table!
The British never poached employees from another British entity. One company that interviewed C D Gopinath (later an international cricketer and businessman) for a job noted that he wanted a shift because the other company was paying him poor. The interviewer spoke to Gopinath’s boss and ensured a pay hike!
It was clearly a different era. Old timers will get a sense of nostalgia, the young generation would get a perspective of how things were.