Let's set the scene correctly, Gomi is a cow. Sacred, respected, and almost like a family member to its owner, Uncle Hariyani.
Monday, November 7, 2022
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Sunday, March 6, 2022
By a few twists of my career path and through a friend in Chennai, I became appointed as the Director of the Malaysian subsidiary of a UK shipping company headquartered in Dubai. I have heard of the name "Kutty" in several conversations with my friends in Chennai and Bangalore; all of whom have once worked with Mr Kutty, the owner of the shipping company.
The galore of praise for this Mr Kutty accompanies most of our conversations and I had always wondered why most of them left the company despite the praises.
I learned later about the underlying story of one such "patriot" who used money from the company to pay someone else's debt and was shown the door out "gracefully." The others must have left for various other reasons. In any case, it was quite evident from the beginning that this "kutty" was not a "kid" and was nothing small.
As the game unfolded
My urge to meet Mr Kutty was enhanced as some "invisible" hands within the company keeps pushing that opportunity away. Probably, these were people who either did not like my appointment as Director or those who felt threatened by it.
Considering that I was being entrusted to be the front face of the company in Malaysia, it was absurd that I continue holding the seat without seeing the owner on whose behalf the responsibility was being held. There was an unusual term called "statutory Director" being used by the people who described me and I thought that meant "puppet acting as Director to fulfil the Registrar of Companies requirement."
As time went by, it was quite clear that the people within the local management merely wanted a signatory who would get the visa for them to work in Malaysia and who would take the "statutory blame" if something went wrong. That was all they wanted from this newly appointed "statutory Director". Now, that irked me. I was not looking for a full-time job, but was not ready for a part-time "acting" job either!
With the mindset of without further ado, I called upon my connection in the system and made it clear that I need to see the owner and get my "script" if I were to continue performing this "acting" job ... and the meeting was hesitantly arranged. We met in Singapore. Lo and behold, this "kutty" was a 6-feet tall eminent personality with a distinguished character. There were no further decorative words required for me to understand that he is a brand by himself.
For the meeting, I had 2 outcomes in mind. One, if the chemistry was right, I wanted to go deeper into the game; or two, if the tone felt "grey" I should be out of the game. There was no in-between-the-lines game plan.
By the first 15 minutes into the conversation, I could make out that my grasp of the universe is like scratching the surface when compared to his depth of view. So, there was no need for him to ask a question and make me feel small, I already felt small without that effort!! I knew Malaysia well enough to pitch at the same level, but he had the competency for the whole globe. I enjoyed the chat very much as it took a smooth journey through what I knew and what he wanted to know.
Where do we go next?
Ironically, despite knowing that my "business competencies" were far behind his, I felt at home talking to him. It was as if I have known him earlier and there was a feeling of trust that I cannot define. I am a person who starts with "distrust" and works my way into the trust space as the relationship develops. I do not trust someone in the first meeting. But in this instance there was an element of trust that developed right away, we went into talking about the potential to form a joint-shareholding company in Malaysia.
The meeting ended with a tentative schedule to meet him in Chennai with an action plan about the new company.
A small storm
The day before my flight to Chennai, I received a call from my friend saying that he has just tendered his resignation from the company. This is the friend who initiated my entry into the company as "statutory Director." He was also one of the first employees of the company and the right-hand man of Mr Kutty when the company first started in Dubai. Wow, that was patriotic history and his sudden exit was a storm I did not anticipate.
His advice to me was to decline the joint-company formation and leave the company. That felt more like a knee-jerk response to me and did not feel right at that time. With some unanswered questions playing in my mind, I continued with my travel, landed in Chennai around midnight, checked in to Harrison Hotel at Nungambakkam and had my breakfast the next morning with mixed feelings about the adventure that was unfolding. Nevertheless, my auto-rickshaw ride took me to the apartment where I was meant to have the meeting.
This time the meeting was more casual though I had a colour document with a summary of my proposed action plan printed on high-grade off-white 100gsm glossy paper. He went through the narrations while clarifying a few points but his mannerism showed heavy inertia in taking that "controversial" step of forming a joint venture company. I could make out that he was no longer motivated to go ahead with the plan. It could be the cloud formed by my friend's sudden resignation or some other events that changed his perspective of the plan.
I continued with the company and gradually my participation increased in the later years, I was an active Director participating in the day to day business, property purchases, and discussions on expansion plans. We had the US$85 million "Logistics Masterplan" blueprint that was created with the help of Frost & Sullivan, vetted by Price Waterhouse, and presented to the Economic Department of Singapore after I wrote an email to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. That "aircraft" remained on the runway without ever taking off as the financial crisis in the Middle East hampered free cash flow and the decision was to hold the horses.
We came a long way since then, with many ups and downs along the way.
The stubborn streak
Remember I said earlier that "he would look for your weakness and ask questions that you cannot answer ... and that would make you feel small"? This is not an overstatement, it was real.
He operates in the future. Each day, he anticipates the problem appearing on the horizon and sets a solution. So when the problem arrives at the doorstep, he would have already had a solution. When things are quiet his famous statement was "everything seems calm, something is wrong!". When the sea is calm he anticipates the storm that we cannot see. This was not an easy strategy for me to capture or copy. Being unable to copy that strategy could have been a blessing in disguise as otherwise, I would always be in a problem-solving mode instead of grasping the joy of the day.
The human brain is said to have 100 billion CPU cores with the capability of running at 1,000 GHz; while actually clocking an average of only 600 GHz on a normal day. His neural networks must have been running closer to 1,000 GHz most of the time.
In hindsight, due to his "living in the future" with a "high definition eye for detail" and "1,000 GHz CPU," he notices gaps in proposals, calculations and analysis very quickly. It is a very common outcome where a Commercial Manager prepares a detailed analysis and summarises the proposed action plan, just to be shot down by him in the first 90 seconds. The fatalistic part of this reaction is the Commercial Manager would become a Persian cat and starts to say "meow, meow, meow" without further counterargument.
In my personal experience, around 2008, a request came from our HR Department in Dubai asking for a self-appraisal. The message said, "the company wants to hear your perspective". I spent a good deal of time writing my self-appraisal detailed into different parts of my job scope and in addition, wrote a voluntary appraisal about the company. I remember, my synonymous line "IAL's size is like a Nair Tea Corporation, but our processes are still at the Nair Tea Company level" because "Nair is the one who takes all decisions and initiates action with no self-propelling Managers". Nothing came out of it. I was told later that the paper was not read nor discussed. Maybe the analysis was not deep enough 😊
Commonly, he would stop absorbing once he finds the first gap in a presentation. In my perspective, if he had allowed a listening ear to the rest of the story while noting the gap to be resolved later, he may have been a more powerful mentor and there would have been fewer Persian cat moments among the key staff. Think about it - the cat has nothing to lose as it is paid a salary to purr, scratch and dream!
The eminence in the name
Considering the yin-and-yang of his character, he built a brand around him without too much propaganda on social media or news. His actions spoke for themselves when the company did well and his processes kept a tight lid on the visibility of numbers within the business. Back in 1996, being among the early company to adopt IBM Lotus Notes and coding 167 business applications, it must have been way ahead of the pack in the industry.
As he approached "retirement" from business and kicked off the "launch" of his personal passions, I was fortunate to be part of the transition. He does not spend time socialising in the business circles or attending "committee meetings" on the political playing field, but it was a common sight to see people trying to see him and get a glimpse of the "eminent" man named "Kutty."
I still enjoy the rare occasions when I get to sit with him and have coffee under the mango tree in Tiruvairanikulam at his riverside mansion. The conversations still have the magical charm that is hard to explain unless you experience it.
Tuesday, March 1, 2022
Kite Beach, Dubai was filled with people enjoying the cool weather while cycling, running, swimming or otherwise, having breakfast while feeling the breeze on our hair. Rahul picked me up from Novotel WTC and we got to Laola which was rated as the "best each facing cafe" by him, but that day's "low-speed service with expensive coffee in cheap paper cups" did not go well with his (and my) reviews of the place! They can do better.
Vijay Hariyani was prudent. He said, "enjoy the scenery and good weather ... small glitch with the service is fine". His engaging conversation of the day took me through a whirlwind of history and I "walked with him on the salt fiends and yesteryears" as I became absorbed in the way he narrated the little stories that connected to each other. It was like small dots that connect to make a big picture ... and I forgot about the annoyance I had when I got my coffee in the paper cups ... Rahul and I ordered another coffee 😊
Vijay's walks on the salt fields from 1985 to 2010 have deep experience and excellent stories right from the point of action. I did not get absorbed by chance, the depth of the story is like watching an Amitabh Bachchan movie with twists that make you want to know more ... though Rahul may have had a hard time hiding his yawns after having seen the "movie" several times 😉
It turns out that the Maharaja of Kutch, in ancient times, had a close relationship with the palace of Yemen. His frequent trips to Aden and friendship with a businessman from Mumbai gave birth to the idea of setting up salt harvesting in Kutch. His Cowasji Dinshaw* (a Parisi businessman with vast business interests including a large salt field in Aden) encouraged and supported the Maharaja's efforts to set up the first salt field under the name "United Salt Works" in Kandla on the Maharaja's own plot of land. After the independence of India, this land was taken over by the government as part of the nationalisation policy where the royal house had to hand over its powers to the democratic government.
*Cowasji was so well connected in Aden that he was called Adenwala in Mumbai.
The salt fields were run as a business with a Parsi gentleman (let's call him Farzan for the sake of this story) from Bombay, assuming that royalty must have been paid to the Maharaja. The salt fields did well and flourished, but over time yield dwindled and it went into deep financial trouble. While the fields were in trouble waters, workers were unpaid, machinery was left idle and probably a host of vendors had unpaid dues too.
Vijay's connection to this field came when he was invited by Farzan to assist in rescuing the situation by finding a way to generate cash and revamp the operations. Considering the depth of the problem, Vijay who was on his way to retirement, took this assignment as a problem-solving challenge rather than one where business can be restored.
On the sidelines, as Vijay sat with Farzan to review the "action plan", one vendor appeared and was agitatedly asking for his dues ... "You have not paid me Rs34,000 the last 9 years!! I have gone to your office in Kandla and they keep pushing me around. Will you pay or not??" ... and Farzan was not new to this kind of aggression, so he kept his calm and ... "No problem Saab, sit down, don't get angry ... now you came to me let me check. I promise you I will check and confirm right now" ... followed by a shout to his accountant ... "Baiju, bring the ledger and check if we owe this gentleman his payment"
Meanwhile, Farzan continued his chat and ... "Saab, you came a long way, you want tea? Have some tea ... boy, order one chai for this gentleman"
Baiju went on his search for the "historical records in the Museum of Farzan" and came back with a crumpled, discoloured but legible, loosely bound thick ledger and pointed to the handwritten record with multiple corrections and said, "Yes sar, we owe him Rs34,000"
Farzan was a fair man, he immediately accepted that he owes the dues to the vendor and told him ... "Now, I know I actually owe you. So, don't worry, I will pay you" ... and the vendor being cool by now, but slightly annoyed ... "I need to know when you will pay me" ... and Farzan, "You see Saab, I have a long list to manage and I don't have any money now. I am arranging. And I will pay you, but I cannot commit a date to you now"
The Saab hit the roof and started his retort ... "You have to tell me a date. If not I am going to take you to Court. I will make sure I sue you ... blah, blah, blah ... (maybe) with intermittent use of the words that mean idiot, cheat, bluf, dishonest"
Farzan's eyes broadened and focussed on Saab like inspecting a rough pearl from the ocean and he called out to his trusted accountant ... "Baijuuuu, cancel the tea! Write Saab's name in the list of legal suits. Bring me the list"
Now he shows Saab the list of 48 names, and says "Tikey (means OK) Saab! I will write your name here. You are number 49 suing me in Court. Go to Court and take action. I will manage it. Thank you Saab, go ahead" ... and with a wry smile, he tells Vijay, "I like people going to Court. That way they don't disturb me anymore!"
With that Vijay embarked on a semi-retired mission of trying to find a solution for Salt Field No. 1 of the Maharaja of Kutch that was established in 1920 and has been dormant for the last 15 years.
As he met with the local community and spoke to the leader he realised that the "weight of the whey is much more than meets the eye". The people have been living in the company houses for the last many years while the unpaid wages were mounting. They are irked and exasperated with the situation that they were left with when the field stopped operations. As Vijay struck a conversation with the elders, he realised that the problem is more than just numbers. His demeanour must have been so charming (like Amitabh Bachchan!) that the people took him to their houses, showed him around and went at length to share their side of the story.
Along the way, as he felt more connected to the crowd, he asked for water ... and they served him a good cup of tea (not the type that we got in paper cups that morning!). It became quite apparent that they are not going to allow any items to be moved out of that place unless they are paid. The company has junk machinery (old abandoned machines that have become junk by this time) and various scrap materials that can be cashed.
Several visits over the next 3 months, more tea and some talks with the elders yielded some results. The community agreed to allow the scrap to be removed and sold, provided they are settled with the revenue made from the sale. That seemed like a good deal to strike with the people to loosen the knot and move the company agenda. With that the elders helped fix the buyers, scrap was removed, sold and the community was paid some compensation.
In the historical timeline, Salt Field No.1 still remained undeveloped while the workers are staying in the same area doing other activities to sustain themselves. Salt Field No. 2 has become Friends Salt while Salt Field No. 3 has become Ahir Salts.
- The Rann salt desert in Gujerat is approximately 400,000 acres in area.
- This is an area where saltwater comes in with the tide and recedes leaving behind the salt deposits
- The government has allotted permits to harvest the Rann salt only for bromine production while allowing the local sale of salt only during the salt crisis.
More interestingly ...
- Japan had been a big importer of salt from India for the purpose of making caustic soda and the downline materials from it
- North Korea used to trade by selling pulses to India and buying salt ... Vijay has managed loadings to North Korean vessels while having coffee with the Captains and having cautious conversations (cautious because they do not talk about politics!)
- Land deposits of salt are very rare, however, there is the Sambhar reservoir in Rajasthan where land deposit of salt is harvested
- Meanwhile, rock salt is found in Himachal Pradesh
And I never realised that ...
- Salt being a relatively cheap commodity is sold at approximately Rs1 per kg profit by the salt fields which generate 300,000 kg a day on average ... thus making a profit of Rs300,000 per day!!!
- Man, that is a handsome profit.
Now, going back to Jakko where Vijay hired the contractor the herd of donkeys to transport gypsum ... after the stint of recovering Gypsum, Vijay was engaged by another businessman and friend, Mr Naidu from Chennai to survey the land around Jakko.
With the help of the local master Mr Hussensha, the area was surveyed on jeep and to the amazement of Naidu, there was a vast land that can be identified for salt harvesting.
In the later developments, Naidu managed to secure 4,000 acres on one side and another 6,000 acres on the other side of the Jakko salt field that was managed by Vijay previously.
In their expansion of the business, Anantham, the boss of Mr Naidu further expanded to another 60,000 acres that were leased based on the ancient British format salt field lease agreement!
... I need to sit with Vijay again to untie some of the knots in this blog. More updates to come.
Saturday, February 26, 2022
Perumal Gounder from Namakkal, Tamilnadu ... he is my favourite father-in-law ... Ooops! ... the only father-in-law. He passed away on 20th Feb 2010 right at the end of the Chinese New Year holidays.
His one step in the "right" direction in the underground pedestrian tunnel at the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station way back in 1991 made my day and was the start of my journey towards marriage. In the age of deep cultural reflections and him being from the hardcore land of India, it was amazing how practical his thinking was.
Wedding photo of Perumal Gounder (right) and Kaliammah
His daughter was walking up to Platform 2 at the station to meet and greet the family, holding hands with the boyfriend whom the family has not approved yet ... that is how he first met me! Both of us were holding hands, chatting and casually walking up the stairs as the trains never come on time and we were early by half an hour. But to our dismay (or blessing) the train was earlier than scheduled on that one day in the last 5 years and the whole family was right there as we emerged 😀
He started talking right away as we met, without too much of a formal introduction, and he went on chatting about the train journey, their snack at Gemas station and the good sleep thereafter. The family has arrived to participate in the graduation ceremony of my wife (then girlfriend) at the University of Malaya. I had a car by then and drove to the railway station with the idea of fetching them to their relative's house, provided there are no smoke and thunder when they meet me for the first time.
For them, I was then a Malayalee who sidetracked their Tamil daughter into a relationship, and a Malayalee was not at all acceptable in the close-knit Gounder* circles.
*Gounders are a clan from Tamilnadu who are very close to their culture and select their sons-in-law from within the clan in arranged marriages. Here I was from outside the clan, and like adding salt to the wound, I was not even of the same state in India. That was a mighty gap that does not fit their checklist.
So what happened at the pedestrian tunnel?
As he continued talking while we descended the steps, my future mother-in-law was fuming mad and that was visible in her gestures. She had told my wife that they will all take a bus to the relative's house and "we do not need to get into the Malayalee's car now ... and why the hell did you bring him to receive us at the station??"
At the base where the tunnel starts there was a left turn (to my car) and a right turn (to the bus station). While the whole family turned right based on the "approved protocol of the day" to take a bus and dump the Malayalee at the tunnel, he continued chatting and followed me to the left. I stopped to tell him,
"They are all going to the bus" ... and my mother-in-law gestured to him to say "we need to go this way" ... while he turned to me and asked, "so where are you going this opposite way?" ...
... and my response "my car is on this side, if you are OK, I can drop all of you, otherwise, the bus station is on the other side"
To my surprise, he turned to his wife (the fuming mother in law) and said "the car is here, we go this way" and continued walking with me with "ah, so where did I leave the story, yes, that time when I came to KL in 1943, I was in Chembong ...." I am sure my mother in law would have had the moment of what-the-xxxx is he doing, we clearly agreed that we are not going to allow this Malayalee guy into our genetic pool, and you are so cool after meeting him for 3 minutes.
That turning point got me talking to him all the way to Klang, lost the way a few times under the pylons and finally found their relative Bengali Karuppiah's house. With his talkative nature, I had half of his biography written on my mind in the first few days itself. For me it was an exciting encounter as ... firstly, I had not had any close encounter with someone who was born and brought up in India, secondly, his memory was so good that each story will have detailed dates, figures and people's names spiced up with the motions of the times.
On the first day when I met him, I understood why Karuppiah of Klang was called "Bengali Karuppiah" .... not because he looks like a Bengali, but because he beat up a Bengali man due to some cow dispute!! On this day also I understood he has very high regard for one Muthu from Singapore which I found out after marriage that Muthu refers to "Muthu Annan" whom my wife had spoken about previously.
By the second day, he owned up "I was completely against you marrying my daughter. It was like a big blow to my status in the Gounder clan. Then I spoke to Muthu and he told me that I should accept it if my daughter is happy with the choice. And by the time I met you, I decided that I am going ahead with the decision" That was a big milestone in my decision of marriage.
As we moved along ...
Each time we met, I was getting an updated version of his village and stories of his childhood as I was beginning to build my image of India. I (and all my family) had never been to India at that time! His narrations were very specific about the "teppa kolam" (small pond) at the village, his adventures of walking off in the middle of the night to see a movie and returning before anyone is awake, and the many attempts he made to get his passport to come to Malaysia (then Malaya).
He was so frank that many in the family fears his stories that may reveal too much of the hidden secrets and mysteries, which I must admit was indeed true and was really fun hearing the occasionally "juicy" truth rather than filtered stories.
We had a good time during the several holidays when he was with us to Cameron Highlands, Singapore, Penang, Kota Tinggi Waterfalls, Lake Gardens and Melaka. Among the trip that he enjoyed the most must be the trip where he went to India and had real fun with his brother-in-law, Ramasamy of Vagurampatti. He spoke of this visit so frequently that I clearly "remember" the stalls where they had drinks, the pond where they had roast duck with idli and the days that they enjoyed each other's company at the office. We were trying to arrange another such visit but the efforts failed. The only trip we could manage last year was one to Singapore where we had a barbecue by the seaside.
My memorable "wedding invitation" trip ...
By the time my first sister in law was getting married, I was a good companion for him to chat with each time we met. So I was assigned to take him on a round trip send my sister-in-law's marriage invitation to some family members and several of his friends.
On that "invitation" trip the travel took us through memory lane as it was to his younger day's region - Chembong, Negeri Sembilan. And indeed he was so elated to go to his original enclave and barge into his friends' houses - while also barging into wrong houses twice - and scolding the lady of the house who opened the door to a stranger!!
Chembong Estate is where he had come and settled into a job when he arrived in Malaya. This is where he had bachelor friends who shared the estate quarters with him, cooked wild boar and enjoyed the night with beer during paydays, rented a car to watch movies in nearby Seremban town and made a maiden trip to Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur. He was a bachelor with no hooks having fun with no limit (I assume) until my mother in law arrived to tighten his freedom 😐
When we went there to send the wedding invitation, he was like a young boy enjoying the past glories while narrating those events to me.
Going back to the beginning ...
Back in India, when the story of jobs in Malaya was going crazy, he and a group of friends gave their money and details to an agent in the village to apply for the visa. The agent was under police surveillance for some other fraudulent activity, which came to light when the long delay for stamped passports ended with the sight of the agent's house being sealed with police tape! Now the passports are stuck inside the house and the money is as good as gone.
Some villagers probably climbed into the house through the roof and "rescued" the passports which were found to be un-stamped. Now the money is gone and the visa is not in hand. With that, he made a second attempt through another agent and got the visa.
The landing point was Singapore where the stay was with a group of Gounders. The close-knit community had shared accommodation for those who arrive looking for jobs. Staying there are trying to find a job did not yield much result, but his brother (who was years elder to him) took him to Serkam in Melaka. From there he landed a job in Chembong Estate through some known network of people.
Missing a friend ...
Well, it is very nice to have had such a good "friend" in my life and to have heard significantly interesting stories that I would never have heard otherwise. The hours of listening that I did is the greatest memory now that I try to recollect some interesting episodes. Considering the days when the cultural perspectives were strong in the community, his guts to take the controversial decision to allow me to marry his daughter was exemplary. And he stood by the decision without giving in to the pressure from some relatives.
I certainly miss his stories ... most of the stories would have been repeated many times, but each time it would have a few new points and sometimes reveals the secrets of the past.
Part of this content was published as a Facebook Note on 8th March 2010. Reproduced here and expanded to safeguard the content since Facebook (now Meta) has discontinued the Notes feature.
Friday, February 25, 2022
My world has two sides, like the yin and yang ... one that is designed for speed and the other designed for a stroll.
When I reached 50, I had a misconception that I have understood the world. Due to a not-by-design stroke of the paintbrush, I had an unexpected twist of my career that saw me walking along Dubai Marina all alone on weekends listening to my favourite music and having ample time to re-evaluate the priorities of my life.
The experimental change from Kuala Lumpur (living with family) to Dubai (living by myself) changed my perspective on life drastically. I realised that many things that I took for granted in relationships, health and happiness requires attention. I was more selfish in the pre-50 segment of my life and mistook the experiences as "knowing a lot about life" just to learn at 50 that I knew very little.
Over the next few years, I lost weight, gained stamina, improved my tolerances with people around me, understood that the world revolves without my help, and started enjoying the new "me". Today, I am 57 (wow! time flies indeed) and my priorities have totally changed over the last 7 years. I value things and people very differently. And I value my time in my job differently too.
Ok, so coming to the "my world has two sides" part. I work with a boss who is young, energetic and extremely futuristic. So much so that the people around him would grasp only a fraction of what he narrates from his vision. Imagine listening to a new concept for half an hour and ending up knowing less than when you started ... that's how it would feel in the beginning. A few more Google searches and reading will be required to connect the dots properly.
I am doing a catch-up job each time he shares a video, book or new technology. If he had the right resources, he would "land a rocket on Mars tomorrow", that is the speed of thought with the level of his detailing and conceptualising of the game plan. On our daily conversations, I hear thoroughly thought through details on self-adjusting colour on droplets of paint that can create a whole wall of image based on the algorithm, sustainable island resorts with self-contained supplies, tooth-fairy tales that educates children, underground farming to preserve the land above, a complete under-the-surface city, smart accommodation with self-managed self-billing services, and many more.
My workdays start with a dose of one of the videos or a chapter of one of the books that he has shared. Usually, these materials will awaken the senses and charge up the adrenalin for the day. Speed. That's the result of the action. Some of the references would be a discovery of something that I had not thought of ... like hearing that "the website design should have slightly off black fonts and a tad off white background" i.e., it should never be fully white or fully black; to suit the human eye ... I bet you must be Googling this now!!
After some period of being exposed to this "radiation of virtual energy", I became habituated to depth-in-the-details views on things. I don't know what this is going to do to me in my old age ... would my kids serve me coffee from a distance with a long bamboo stick because I want it "exactly 83 deg C with Liberica beans in an off-white coffee mug with a grey handle"? ... maybe not, because my younger son measures the temperature of the oil using a digital thermometer when frying chicken and that irks his grandma ... so looks like I have rubbed it on him 😆
On the other hand, my boss' other half is a medical doctor (by qualification) and an entrepreneur (by design) who promotes inner well being, under the brand name Bodysm. I happen to be one of the Instagram followers of the well-being space and Bodysm's postings usually trigger the "Oh that's worth thinking!" reaction because some of them would lend the opposite perspective compared to my workday Tony Robbin's noise and thunder.
Considering that I am on my halfway point to retirement*, my weekends are usually the complete opposite of workdays. I wake up early, get my caffeine boost at the hotel coffee house, have a chat with Azhar the enthusiastic waiter ... and then it's personal time ... wandering to a mall for a second coffee while watching responsible fathers deal with their kids who are trying to play hide and seek under the table while tilting the hot coffee or seeing faithful husbands getting a brief lesson from the wife with a complete reference to the last 5 years' data of his misdoings (he stands no chance in that debate as he won't remember any of those past events!). And I would feel so lucky to be all by myself and have the almond croissant with no one to tell me how that could shorten my lifespan by 3 minutes over the next 10 years ... and oh yes, I would miss home badly 😜
That's the time when these messages from Bodysm would awaken the other side of the Atlantic ocean, the brain cells that were sleeping during the workday. It would now be the "slow down, listen to the music, do not multitask and kill yourself, watch and embrace life" kind of perspective to life. When I am basking in the glorified retirement mission, these are absolutely the way to go! Embrace life, and not race with it. The 2022 opening message "Do not multitask" hit the home button on my keyboard of resolutions.
With that, my resolution for the weekends has been "do not multitask ... catch one friend who has nothing to do ... listen to his version of why the world needs him ... and then go on with my mission of watching-the-world-go-by". Oh my, that has made my weekends feel so "spacious" ... giving the mind enough electricity to value the sights of birds chirping at the outdoor seats of Nero Cafe, the petunia on the road shoulders that colour the walkway and the workers who are enjoying their meal heartily while squatting on the ground within their exhibition workspace.
Life is dynamic. I cannot say that the thoughts of today are permanent. For now, the combination of high energy weekdays and low-speed weekends feels refreshing. It's like a cycle of charge and discharge.
*Just for you to know and in case you want to fund my empty plans 😀... by retirement, I do not mean doing nothing and watching the neighbour's dog chase its tail. My glorified retirement dream is to visit the smaller countries in the world, listen to some old folks re-live their past glory by sharing their story, ... and chase some insects with my macro lens while "slowing down and embracing the music of life"
Make it a mission for tomorrow's breakfast - take a spoonful of Liberica* "television brand Kluang coffee", mix in cold water to create the "expresso", filter it into an off-white ceramic mug then add 83 deg C hot water (not boiling water), stir to perfection, add no sugar and sit on the outdoor seat.
Sunday, February 6, 2022
Vijay Hariyani became a friend by chance when his son, Rahul Hariyani (CFO, IAL Group, Dubai) was my colleague. His rhetorical way of describing his deep experiences of the yesteryears impressed me and I became a fan of his stories. Other than our meets in Kutch when I travel for work, it has been routine to meet each time he comes to Dubai.Today's coffee chat at Paul Cafe (Deira City Centre) took me on a journey through the Kutch Kori (native currency pre-1947), coalfields of Uttar Pradesh (1979), salt fields of Kandla (1986), and a live narration of the mega earthquake of Kutch (2001, 15 mins before the Republic Day flag raising). His stories had enough material for a good history book with a presentation of emotions and a storyline that match the quality of Discovery Channel.
It looks like the British left Kutch undisturbed during their rule of India. The place being barren and with no tangible commodity became just a royalty-paying "region" where the maharaja pays a royalty to the British and remain cordial. Kutch Kori, the currency of Kuth, was in play as a parallel currency at that time with coins of silver and copper. This was later replaced by the Indian rupee after 1947.
Coalfields of Uttar Pradesh (1979)
Vijay's career as the Commercial Manager at a Chemical Unit in Barabanki UP took him to the coalfields of Uttar Pradesh where he was sent through the town of Banaras into the jungles where coal was being mined, and his employer was looking for 10 loads of coal every day. The complex haggling for prices with the brokers in Banaras was tough. At premium prices, coal was readily available in required quantities and the right quality too but that was not optimum for the company.
Being a "Registered Coal Consuming Industry," the company was eligible to get government approval for sourcing coal directly from surface coal miners in Vindhyachal, the hilly jungle areas at the border of Uttar Pradesh-Bihar. But transportation would be a challenge. Vijay has never done such sourcing before and this was a "national geographic" kind of challenge!
Vijay's efforts to track deeper and reach the source of coal was through one of his transport vendors in Banaras. Having reached the Vindhyachal coalfields on a four-wheel-drive jeep and met Mr Singh, the ex-military Punjabi "controller" of the field, he understood that the task of getting 10 loads of 12 MT a day was much more difficult than what was explained by his contact in Banaras! His purchase order of 500 MT of coal was not going to be useful unless there are trucks to carry them to town.
Mr Singh, the controller, introduced him to the twisted-moustache-bearing tough gentleman called Tej Balisingh who was the de-facto contractor of the workers in the field. He promptly agreed to place sufficient workers to load the trucks. But then the next day was going to be the "test of fire" to see if the promised 10 trucks were going to arrive to pick the coals. As with most promises of the day, 3 trucks arrived with a load of empty promised that saw no more than 3 coming to load the coals each day thereafter. Vijay's employer was losing patience and a sure-fire solution was needed to address the backlog. Mr Singh's experienced advice was to seek the help of Tej Balisingh to secure more trucks.
Having heard the story of the new city executive who has come to the jungle with a purchase order but no trucks, Tej invited Vijay to dinner. And to add misery to Tej, his guest was a vegetarian who consumes none of the freshly hunted deer meat nor the carefully cooked lamb. Aloo Tikki (a potato dish) and roti (local bread) settled the dinner fare. And now Tej invites Vijay to join him for hunting that night. They get onto his jeep, drive deep into the jungle where the sound of the jeep was louder than the roaring tiger. Apart from that, the silence was as good as wearing a noise-cancelling earbud. After reaching the selected spot, conducting a small prayer ritual with whiskey, and serving small shots of whiskey as blessings of the day, Tej was ready with his gun. As envisaged by Tej, the deer appeared as though the whiskey sprinkles has drawn it to the bull's eye of the hunter's gun! There goes a loud shot and a sprawling deer. It was not a sight that Vijay could stomach nor forget for several days.
After the non-customary vegetarian dinner, jungle prayer of whiskey and the successful deer hunt, tej became a good friend. Now he promised to look into the truck fiasco. True to the twists of his moustache, Tej secured 10 trucks a day and saved the target delivery for Vijay's purchase order. My thoughts - that must have been a major feeling of success when Vijay managed to crack the "code" and achieve the delivery. A total of 3 purchase order cycles of 500 MT each was executed during his engagement at this coalfield, by which time the normal supply of coal resumed.
In his days at the coalfields, he had his share of witnessing Tej beat up a misbehaving driver who disturbed a local lady and also face an angry driver who drew a knife to kill him! As the driver who cut the queue and refused to go back in line reached the weighbridge, there stood Vijay blocking him from entry. And that awakened the sleeping cat causing the driver to release a movie standard dialogue " Do you know who am I? I have murdered two people before this and am familiar with the punishments. This is nothing new to me" ... and he drew his knife. Vijay has an option to think of his wife in town and back off, which would mean that he is defeated forever. Or stand the ground and get killed! Vijay decided to release his version of a movie standard dialogue "Go ahead commit the third murder!" Viola!
Fortunately, the news of the fight had reached Mr Singh on high ground and by the time the knife-wielding driver grasped the handle of his knife, he was manhandled by Singh's men and brought to "justice".
Earthquake of Kutch (2001)
I am going to zig-zag into this timeline as I want to end the story on a positive note. This is a sad history that is absolutely necessary to pen down but not pleasant to dwell on. The earthquake was a very sad episode that resonated all the way to Malaysia where I lived and we had friends who organised aid and supplies to Gujerat at that time (my other memory was when I was involved in the aids to the Maldives during the tsunami incident).
Going by the day's flow from sunrise to 08:45am, combining some news stories into our conversation and "seeing" the picture of the day ... this is how the day played in my mind as Vijay was talking about it ...
While all preparations for the Indian Republic Day was underway on 26th January 2001, the flag-raising in various schools, office buildings, government complexes and business premises was planned for 09:00am. Hemlata, Vijay's wife, was away in Mount Abu for a Rotary Club function while Vijay had to cancel his trip at the last minute due to the visit by his company's Director. The company Director, Ms Bhartiben Shethia and her daughter had checked in to a hotel the day before while Vijay was reading his papers in the morning lying on his easy chair.
Unknown to Vijay at that time, some 300 school children were walking in a long line weaving through narrow lanes between buildings to get to their school ground for the flag-raising. Vijay's fellow Rotarian friend cancelled his visit to Mount Abu since Vijay could not make the trip and he went to the Chamber of Commerce building on that morning.
Opposite the lane, Vijay's neighbour, a retired colonel was going about sipping his coffee on a slow morning, while Vijay's driver was making his way towards the house to fetch Vijay to the hotel where Ms Bhartiben was staying.
At around 08:45am Vijay heard an eery rumbling sound combined with a violent swing of his ceiling fan which was standing motionlessly till then as it was switched off due to the cool winter weather. Within seconds his cupboard in the living room crashed to the floor, things in the house started tossing around and as he ran out of the back door the fence wall collapsed right beside him while he saw a whole apartment building collapsing in the foreground at a distant. It dawned to him that it is an earthquake but there was no time to think or grasp the intensity of the 90-second magnitude 7.7 shakes that destroyed Kutch.
As it came in the news later, sadly, the 300 schoolchildren who were parading in the narrow lane died being trapped under the collapsed buildings near Anjar township. What a morning, that turned into mourning so quickly!
Scores of people were killed under rubble and Vijay found out that his friend at the Chamber Of Commerce building was an unfortunate casualty. Vijay's driver tried to drive off to safety only to realise that there was no "safety" zone anywhere within the next 50km.
He finally reached the house, fetched Vijay and they went to check on Ms Bhartiben at the hotel. Fortunately, most of the hotel occupants has escaped but were shaken from the incident. They could not go back to Bombay since all roads to Kutch were cut off. There comes a challenge for their stay and meals till connections are restored. Fortunately, Vijay's neighbour, the ex-colonel gave a staying place to Ms Bhartiben and her daughter till roads were re-opened several days later when they could travel to Ahmedabad and fly to Bombay from there.
A charged-up morning filled with the enthusiasm of Republic Day turned into mourning just 15 minutes before the flags were raised. This incident will stay in the memories of the people here for years to come.
Salt fields of Kandla (1986)
After the successful adventure with Tej Balisingh in the coalfields of Uttar Pradesh, Vijay's career took a turn towards the salt fields of Kandla where the company was having a yield of 60,000 metric tonnes from a salt field covering 4,300 acres (well, that is the size of 4 small towns!) when the benchmark was 200,000 metric tonnes annually. The salt fields were financially strapped and continuously reaching out to their offices in Mumbai for funds. The mission was for Vijay to get the operations to stand on its own feet without "begging from head office"! That was a pretty steep expectation on his shoulders for the new assignment where he had no experience whatsoever. All he had was the experience of dealing with the knife-wielding driver and managing the trucks organised by the twisted moustached Tej Balisingh.
Upon landing on the salt plains he realised that there were 2 units where the company operated its salt production, the 4,300 acres plot at Kandla and another smaller plot on the western side, Jakhau. The Jakhau was not operating for almost 8 years due to financial and logistics problems while staff were being paid wages! Their wage has been on a backlog of 6 months with an occasional payout when the head office sends funds. That operation was totally unsustainable due to low yields. Vijay took control of the operating plot in Kandla and began his new adventure of learning from ground zero. His walks along the bunds and talks with the lower level workers slowly gave him the awareness of what was going wrong.
Further analysis of the financials to see the amount of money spent for different purposes revealed that the company has been spending on wages, transport, logistics, and also bund repair. But the bunds were in a dismal condition causing saltwater to zig-zag its way the spill off into wrong pathways as well as slip back into the ocean. So, this time when money was allocated to repair the bunds, Vijay decided to walk there himself and stand there to see why the repair was not working. As expected (or unexpected) the truth revealed itself - the repair was being sub-contracted to a contractor who was supplying 3 workers for the job while claiming the costs for 10 thus the work was in theory only 30% done. When this was fixed, the bunds had better efficiency while slowly increasing the yield.
Meanwhile, the bank had to be appeased. There were 200,000 metric tonnes pledged as inventory while the real inventory was less than 20,000 metric tonnes. Previously the bank had been briefed that the salt layer is deep so the remaining inventory was "underground". Now the bank caught up with the truth and was becoming restless with the arrears of loan payment as well as the "missing" inventory. Vijay would have no choice but to own up to the correct numbers and find a way to streamline the loan repayments.
What the place needed was a champion to support the activities and Vijay's investigation pointed towards an ex-employee, Mr Chothani*, who had left some years back who was said to be a good technical person. Re-hiring him was a challenge because Chothani had left the place when the place was in a hopeless condition. His mind clearly remembers the place and he refused to re-join a "place with no hope and no future". It took some convincing to bring him back and then the conversation of technically improving the bund height and layout began.
*Mr Chothani became a good friend of Hariyani and his wife Indiraben became his God-sister. Chothani moved to Kenya in 1995 for a salt field development assignment and later passed away in Kenya. His wife, now 84, is now living in Adipur with her son and family.
With all the changes and efforts the yield rose to 220,000 metric tonnes annually and added yet another feather on the cap of Vijay. As the yield improved, sales management was moved to Vijay's portfolio for better control of local selling prices. The combination of positive changes moved the plains into self-sustenance very quickly.
The restless bank agreed to deduct 15% of each incoming payment that was banked in the recover the loans without squeezing the capital. With that, the loans were cleaned up within the next 9 months.
The donkeys of the western salt plain
Don't get me wrong, I am saying "donkeys" to mean real donkeys and not humans being called donkeys!!
The western fields at Jakhau were in a point-of-no-return when Vijay approached the senior man in that area, Mr Hussensha Bawa**, and decided to revamp the workforce. This required the option to retrench the existing workers who have a backlog of months of wages and hire a new workforce. With a circus of union leaders playing in the background, this task was going to have some fireworks in the sky. As the retrenchment benefit package was being announced the sleeping union leaders woke up and coaxed the workers to reject the offer. And now Vijay is in another situation like the knife-wielding driver of the coalfield weighbridge. The question to the union leaders was "Where were you when these people were not getting their salaries?" and he told the workers "You have a choice to accept or to continue with your salary dues which you can go and ask the union to pay!" With that, the conclusion became as clear as daylight.
**Mr Hussensha Bawa who was working in Jakhau since the start of the saltworks during the 1950s, had vast knowledge of salt activities. Though he was Hariyani's assistant, he evolved to be a mentor who guided Hariyani with his skills in understanding the local geographical and political aspects. He passed away in later years but his children are well settled and are in close contact with Hariyani till today
Now, where does he go for the money? he needed Rs 400,000 for the settlement and the head office was not in a good mood to dish out that fund. The senior fellow at the plains came up and gave Vijay a piece of breaking news. Gypsum is a byproduct of salt harvesting. Usually, salt fields would mine the gypsum and sell for an added sideline revenue. The senior says that this plain has never been mined for gypsum thus there should be enough gypsum deposits to cover the Rs400,000 requirement.
The company's head office would be more than glad if funds can be raised internally at the plains with gypsum. Just like the story of the coal and the trucks; finding a buyer who would purchase the gypsum on an as-is-basis was not going to be easy. Buyers were offering Rs65 per MT when the cost of harvesting and heaping was Rs95 per MT, so that was a crazy no-deal. This cycle of hide-and-seek with buyers went on until the man with the donkeys appeared. He offered an option to first investigate the viability then make an offer.
This man had 50 donkeys and 4 workmen! He placed a few donkeys in his logistics plan to transport the gypsum 3km from the site to the heaping ground. With his test, he found that it was indeed viable and offered Rs25 per MT for the job. Now the whole deal became happily viable. Vijay grabbed the opportunity and agreed to pay him Rs30 per MT instead with an agreement to speed up the work. The donkey owner now introduced the main buyer who was in Porbandar, who in turn was supplying the gypsum to cement plants. Now the Porbandar man becomes the next good friend of Vijay and remained friends for years to come.
Meanwhile, the troop of 50 donkeys carried the gypsum diligently for 3km in multiple trips to create heaps at the loading bay. the buyer paid Rs400,000 as advance and that solved the worker's benefits package. Surprisingly, the donkeys were operating without any human intervention on their 3 km journey!! When the bag was mounted on the donkey, filled with gypsum and with a tap on the back it walks all the way to the heaping area. Upon unloading they walk back to the starting point. At the end of the day when the bag is removed they hop off to the feeding spot! That would have been an amazing 50 donkey logistics team to shoot a video if it was now.
Now, with the earnings from the huge quantities of gypsum deposits generating good cash flow, the Jakhau salt field restarted its operations in 1989. Another "success father" on Vijay's cap.
... our next adventure
By the end of the stories, we had finished our Americano and cappuccino with a host of soft bread, almond croissant and chocolate pastry. And now we began planning a visit to Expo2020.