Trials & Tribulations of a life in advertising

Monday, April 24, 2006

Certainly, a ten point something

In 1995, Chetan Bhagat, left IIT and like thousands before and after him, simply failed to log out. He carried the years with him; the never ending tests, late night paranthas, movies in Priya. Years later, from the secluded confines of an investment bank in Hong Kong, he decided to revisit his alma mater. His nostalgia takes him on a rendezous along the corridors and friendships that once defined his life. And if it was an engineering degree from undoubtedly India's best scientific institution the first time around, on his second visit, Chetan Bhagat comes out with what is a significant achievement in Indian fiction. We'll never know how much of "Five Point Someone" is autobiographical. We'll never know how much of it is unreal. What we do know is that he has achieved something truly unparalleled in Indian writing in English. He has made the familiar the popular, defied the stereotypes and in the process touched the hearts of thousands.

To know the significance of "Five Point Someone", one only has to remember that this is a nation where Khushwant Singh remains the bestselling novelist. In one sweet stroke, Bhagat has upped the ante. And he has done it in a style that's as intimate as it's casual. Through some skilfully sculpted characters - Hari, Ryan, Alok, Neha, Cherian - he has produced a narrative that's both honest and humane. Hari Kumar is the narrator of who we don't know much about. Only towards the end of the book do we get to know that his father is an imposing disciplinarian. Alok is the only hope of a semi-paralysed father and a struggling mother. He needs his ten points because he needs his sister's dowry. Ryan doesn't accept his parents' love but is glad to accept his pocket money from their pottery business. Cherian is the cold hearted Head of Department with the beautiful and level headed daughter Neha carrying family secrets too scary to be let out. Bhagat brings out their passions and fears in a seemingly effortless manner. Ryan's rebellion, rooted against his parents, but aimed at the system that refuses to budge, Alok's fears of losing out on a steady income, and Hari's intimacy with Neha that both of them find hard to define; these are the threads that make Bhagat's debut novel a candid account of teenage crises in an elitist institution. He doesn't imitate, he doesn't patronise. He just shares.

And what he shares is not something that you find regularly in Indian fiction. There are no lengthy descriptions, no tiring passages. (Bhagat doesn't spend more than 30 words at a stretch describing the IIT scenery). The prose is not lyrical either, and thank heavens for that. There are no cliched examinations into the pasts of the main characters. The protagonists are too interesting to require any background check on their past. And it's this honesty that makes reading Bhagat so interesting. An honesty that makes you easily identify with at least one of the main characters. The crises that he throws up are the crises every teenager faces. The choices he presents are the choices we all would have faced at one point in our lives. "Five Point Someone" is the diary Chetan Bhagat must have mentally updated in his years at IIT and he chose to click the refresh button at a time when there was a clear dearth of original talent. He has thrilled us, he has touched us. And he has done a much needed "Trainspotting" in Indian fiction.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Boredrooms And Other Forms Of Torture

Of all the systemic and institutionalised forms of torture known to mankind, the boardroom is the most agonizing. Here you have a captive audience that can be called at a short notice and forced to endure excruciatingly long hours of sheer torture. Unless you have a valid excuse – reasons of health or more often than not, another boardroom meeting – you cannot escape this persecution. I have one such agonizing agenda later this afternoon.

I have been attending boardrooms for a little over four years now. And I’ve noticed certain inalienable truths about meetings in general.

1. No office meeting has ever ended within the stipulated time. Once in the advertising frame of mind, you can discuss all evils surrounding humanity. For as long as you want.

2. No meeting ever limits itself to the agenda. Meetings that begin with the latest market findings can effortlessly digress to closely associated subjects like Ganguly opening the innings.

3. No meeting has ever begun on time. If everyone is unusually punctual, the first 10 minutes will be devoted to just that. How come everyone is on time today?

4. Whenever someone says “I’m viewing this with an open frame of mind”, you can certainly conclude that he or she has already decided what the issue is and what ought to be done.

5. “I think we have a consensus here” is a beautiful rendition of “I don’t give a damn what you guys think, I’ve made up my mind and you’ll follow it”.

6. It’s not important how good or bad an idea or suggestion is; what matters is who is stating that. As you move up the value chain, you have to confront the inescapable truth. You don’t judge an idea. You judge the person.

7. You can go into a meeting without preparing for even 5 minutes. To be the star of the show, all you have to do is keep reacting to every trivial thing discussed there.

8. When you find nothing else to criticise an idea or an individual, you can “count on your experience”. “Two years back we had a similar problem and..” or “In my previous job, we tried this track”. Nobody can ever dispute your non-existent, totally irrelevant experience. Of course, unless someone else is clever enough to do the same to you.

9. In front of others, subordinates generally laugh with their boss at the slightest hint even if they have heard that recycled joke a million times.

10. The time tested ploy to answer someone when you are asked whether something’ll work or not, or whether an idea is the right one, you can always fall back on this gem. “Maybe, maybe not”.