The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 6, 2011

Mom and Pop Companies

The expansion of the private sector in India is to be welcomed after years of dirigisme and stifling over-regulation. There is now considerable competition in most spheres of business. Still, many companies - no matter how big - are run like mom-and-pop concerns, like personal fiefdoms, with little scope for professionalism.

Of course, the private sector in India is coloured by the same prejudices and sensibilities that suffuse general society. Even the most educated managers are often unable to look beyond class or gender stereotype. Here are a few examples.

Sudha Murthy, wife of one of the founders of Infosys, and an engineering professional in her own right, wrote eloquently about being denied even the possibility of a job interview with Telco. So agitated was she that she sent a letter to JRD Tata about the 'injustice the company was perpetrating.' That letter had the requisite effect, and she was invited for an interview, where she was told that the reason women were not encouraged to apply was that they had never worked on the factory floor. Surely, though, that should change, said the lady. Otherwise how would women ever work in Telco?

She got the job. Later on, she married Narayana Murthy, helped set up Infosys, which, as we all know, went from strength to strength, and is now one of the most successful enterprises in India.

Unfortunately, though, Sudha's experience didn't transform the culture in the new organisation. A few years ago when the wife applied for a job there, one of the questions she was asked during the interview was 'How do we know you won't get married and leave?' Would the hiring cretins ever ask a man this question? No. But a woman is always fair game for this sort of condescension.

I don't know if the culture has improved any in the fifteen years since this episode. I would certainly hope it has.


A friend applied to NDTV - again, this was about fifteen-odd years ago. He was interviewed by Prannoy Roy himself, the head honcho. Roy is an urbane and erudite man, not an insular fogey, but even he was more interested in my friend's social background than in his qualifications. I guess the fact that he was called for an interview meant that his qualifications were sufficient, and from that point on, it was a question of ascertaining his family background, his connections, 'is he one of us?' There has always been a class divide between the English and local language press in India, and this sort of interview served to confirm the divide by hiring people from Roy's own milieu.

I think NDTV has broadened its reach and approach over the ensuing years. Going by the reporters that now appear on TV, one is heartened by their different backgrounds and accents and outfits. Perhaps this is a company that has now understood the true value of diversity.


The healthcare industry is undergoing a boom in the country with top-notch hospitals being established offering world-class medical diagnostics and care. So successful are some of the hospitals that they now want to branch out into entertainment. Reality TV and medical dramas both require the services of medics, and what better way to raise the profile of a hospital chain than by having its celebrity doctors participate? Inevitably, the egos of these star doctors rival those of the actors, as happened with a friend of mine who was the brunt of one such bigwig.

Dissatisfied with some paperwork that Tilottama had prepared, the doctor's wife (herself a doctor) phoned her in the office.

'Tilottama?' said the doctor's wife. 'This is Uttara Bhuj.'

'Yes, Uttara,' replied my friend. 'How can I help you?'

'Excuse me,' said Bhuj's wife. 'You are not my friend, I hardly know you, so I'd much prefer it if you addressed me as Dr Bhuj.'

My friend was not one to take this lying down.

'I am sorry,' she said, 'But you are not exactly my best friend either, so courtesy then demands you address me as Ms Soni.'

Bhuj's wife lost her marbles at that point and began to shriek and snarl. 'Do you know who you are talking to?' she yelled, and went on to add sundry threats and demands.

'Listen,' said Tilottama, 'If you have something official to discuss with me, we can continue to speak. But I have no interest in your threats.'

And she hung up.

Moments later, the phone rang again. It was the star husband, the main doctor himself.

'What is all this?' he thundered. 'You have been rude to my wife!'

'Mr Bhuj,' began Tilottama, and was immediately interrupted.

'Doctor Bhuj,' said the good doctor. 'Where are your manners? I'm going to the Chairman to complain about this serious lack of professionalism.'

Tilottama's patience wore even thinner.

'You can talk to the Chairman if you like,' she said. 'I hope he understands the difference between professionalism and attitude. If he doesn't, I see no reason to continue in so blinkered an organisation.'

I guess the problem is that bigwigs in a hierarchical society as India are so used to getting their own way, throwing their weight around, stomping on everybody they consider beneath them, that a mouse that turns stymies them completely. They are not sure, suddenly, if they are dealing with a mad person. Immediately Dr Bhuj was conciliation itself.

'Arrey, why fight at all?' he said, as though he were the soul of bonhomie. He then proceeded to discuss the situation calmly, and the two of them managed to sort the original matter out.

Frankly, I don't expect this enterprise to grow out of its mom-and-pop-hood.


km said...

one is heartened by their different backgrounds and accents and outfits.

Did you forget the sarcasm tags?

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