If you lived in Delhi for as long as I did, chances are you would know a few big people first hand. Like ‘know-know’, like you would have spoken to them, touched them for real and all. God, that ‘touch ’em’ bit reminds me of the Biblical meaning of ‘knowing’, as in “And Brad knew Angelina, and little Dang was born”.
College in Delhi was like Zeus meets Brahma redux. Everyone was someone’s something. Myth has it that there was this one time when an ex-PM’s protege was spotted by a PCR in her big car with a bunch of men near Race Course Road. Upon being told that she lives there, the cops thought the kids were all stoned and decided to have some fun. ‘Lat us eskaart you meddam”. I think they would have considered themselves lucky when the said meddam went straight inside the PM house and did not invite them for a late-night tea party.
Then if you have gone on to live in Mumbai, you would probably have gotten to know a few bigger people. The office building I used to work in also housed Twinkle Khanna’s furniture boutique. And I once saw Makrand Deshpande (you know, the guy with hair growth disorder?) eating a sandwich at Prithvi. Oh and yeah, during my first visit to the city, we went to this disc called Polyesther’s and I saw this guy who used to come in the Sheetal banyan ad. I even asked him whether he was the man I thought he was. He was glad someone noticed him, I think.
Bangalore, on the other hand, is an egalitarian society. No one is big or small here. You are only a Kannadiga or not a Kannadiga.
Anyway, I thought it’d be nice to remind myself that my life has n0t been altogether devoid of brushes with greatness. In this series, I will try to faithfully recapture what I remember of the few epiphanies I have had in life. Epiphanies are powerful visual spectacles, as I am sure you know from your Mahabharata and Ramayana days. I haven’t experienced too many, and I am already carrying cylindrical power in both my eyes.
Chapter 1 – Mr Arun Maira, Senior Advisor, Boston Consulting Group
I met Arun (as he insisted on being addressed as) during my stint as business research (BR) editor in a Gurgaon KPO. Now after four years in the editorial profession, I’ve got to say that business editors enjoy considerably greater clout than financial or academic editors, simply because ‘business’ is a little less specialised than ‘finance’ or ‘academics’, and hence the quality of the writing produced in a BR firm is a little less…emm…’special’, if you please. I enjoyed a philosopher-like reverence in the firm, not the least because I told them how the term ‘working capital’ is such an oxymoron.
Impressed by my lateral thinking skills I think, the head of one of the research teams (who is one of the people I have come about to have massive respect for) one day invited me to meet this ‘client’ who had a peculiar request. Now if you know anything about KPOs and still think getting to meet ‘clients’ is a routine affair, you are obviously on grass. Only the CEO and GM-level people get to interact with the said species, and it was no surprise then that they were the only other people present with the ‘client’ in the CEO’s swanked out ante-chamber. Which made me feel like this. Look at the client’s picture below, and I think the contrast will drive itself home. If I remember correctly, I think I hadn’t even shaved that day.
So this was Arun Maira (Mehra). He was not Carey Grant, but man! he was dapper! The only Indian in the BCG experts’ league. From nifty kerchief to crisp accent, class was his middle name. Just something about him that made you want to touch his feet. By far the biggest client our firm had had, and there I was, exchanging visiting cards with him. Just how big this client was? Well, big enough to justify the upkeep of a team of 25 just to service his company. A good 20% of the whole BR department.
After spilling some tea on the table, I settled down to take notes.
As it turned out, Arun wanted someone to help him with the research for a field book he was writing for Indian corporates. The theme was social responsibility and reforms. The scope – as he explained to us – was supernovic. History of politics, business, society, economics, philanthropy, all rolled into one. And just churning out link after link from dear ol’ Uncle Goog’s stable wasn’t going to be good enough – someone had to tie up the random shards of ideas and produce synoptic thematics on every subject. That explained what I was doing there – I was going to be their writer gnome.
Now my company was already notorious for brainwashing people into believing that working 19 hours a day is pretty average stuff. With my regular job as inhouse scavenger, this new task would mean I’d stand out even by those standards. Initially then, the only reason I agreed was for the resume effect. I was of course pretty startsruck as well, but it wasn’t the fawning type of reaction. I made a few incisive remarks during the discussion, Arun approved, the CEO looked happy, and I got the job.
The next three months were unadjectivable. There were several instances when I left office early…at 5am. By my side was an almost-namesake, and together we produced about 1000 pages of material. It wouldn’t have gone beyond the first 10 though, if Arun had not reacted with patent kindness to the first deliverable – on the then incendiary Nandigram, a political cesspool to which I brought my incorrigible philosophical angle. That’s what started it.
“I want to study the religious fallouts of a new bill that no one has noticed.”
-“Aha, what would I do without you?!”
“Want to compare a little town in Madhya Pradesh with Gotham.”
-“I think that could be an interesting spot.”
“Want to hold twohourlong teleconferences with disgruntled ex-Shell officials”
-“You boys are the best, you know…”
‘Billable’ hours had never met a more willing benefactor.
Arun taught me a simple virtue – how to make people feel comfortable. It’s an important art in a world where all sorts of insecurities screw with really talented people. I don’t know how much of the work we did he actually ended up using, but I do know that he thought about every single one of the 10 hefty folders we left with him.
“The Indian corporate”, he’d say, “is still coming to terms with its conscience.” I quote loosely of course, but I can so clearly see “the coming to terms” play itself out in the angst-ridden response of Tata (one of Arun’s most loved former employers) to the Nano imbroglio. In Arun’s cabin, pedigree would subtly announce itself from a little IIM plaque here, a BCG honourboard there, and of course from his many books. Arun emboldened me to ask questions of the high and mighty, though he was one of them. He was different, because his interest in improvement was not a theoretical insert. He also gave me the belief that no thought is irrelevant. That even finance and physics have room for philosophy and films. He would call me on my cell phone and not the office extension when he felt excited about something he read. “T, I think we’ve got something here! Can we not meet before Saturday?” And T would thank him for the break, knowing no one in the company would dare prevent THE client from meeting his chosen one.
Meeting days at the BCG office in the Gillette building in Gurgaon were like paid holidays. The company anyway had a strict formal dresscode, complete with tie and all, but after a while I gave up trying to look good in front of Arun. This one time, he appointed someone else to work on an unrelated writing assignment. When I heard about it, I was upset. “I wanted to do that for you, Arun.” Green tie, white shirt sleeves rolled up, Arun gave me a beleaguered look. “I know, but this young lady we’ve got, she’d feel really bad if we stopped her now…”
The last email I wrote to Arun, the last deliverable I sent him…I wish I had made it a bit more personal, thanked him more. I have often thought of writing to him, but I am scared he wouldn’t remember me. Maybe I will now.
Disclaimer: Parts of this are based on my memory of the time spent with the man. The quotes are in no way accurate but only a nostalgic approximation.