Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

I bought this book for the title and the cover visual- Usually I try to buy books just based on gut feel, visuals, and some backdrop of the story. This time, the title, “A case of Exploding Mangoes (ACOEM)” killed me. Needless to say, I do have a prejudice for mangoes as I just cannot resist them.

Coming to this book, Mohammed Hanif, the author of ACOEM really has exploded in the area of wit and satire. There have been numerous times where I chuckled, laughed, rolled in laughter over the choice of his words, wit and the portrayal of characters.

The plot is fairly simple- It goes off in 2 threads: One narrated by Ali Shigri, Air Force Junior Officer in the Pakistani Military where he plots to kill General Zia and avenge for his dad’s suicide and the other one is the day to day chores of General Zia, General Akhtar, ISI [Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence], Brigadier TM, First Lady, Pakistani Military, Zia’s fear of his security et al. It meets in the air crash where General Zia along with the American Ambassador, Arnold Raphel gets killed on August 17, 1988 where a crates of mangoes are placed in the C-130 aircraft. Along the way, there are numerous incidents depicting on how Americans view Pakistan as an ally in their war, Blind Zainab’s rape case, Pakistan’s First Lady suspecting on General Zia having an affair, General Beg’s Rayban glasses, insights about Pakistani military etc.

I did not like the climax of the book as it goes off in a different tangent and the connection was never made between multiple things- Maybe Hanif wanted it that way but full kudos to the author for his satire in this debut novel. I am quite sure that context plays a major part in enjoying this novel -Folks in India and Pakistan would have seen some of these characters on media and visualizing these characters in the novel at funny encounters makes the day!

Hanif has a gift with words, wit and satire- Let me take some pearls here from the book:

Ali Shigri was suspected of a plot even before he committed any crime and he was subjected to torture. So when the plane crashes, he believes that there is“poetry in committing a crime after serving your sentence and punishment before crime has a sing-song quality”. :-)) I love this!!

While Ali Shigri was tortured, the things that were going on his mind were, “ There is something about these bloody squadron leaders that make them think that if they lock you up in a cell, put their stinking mouth to your ear and shout something about your mother they can find all their answers”….What an interplay of words?

On the medals of military folks, “ Look at the arrangement of fruit salad on a uniform shirt and you can read his whole biography. The 40th Independence Day medal. The Squadron Anniversary medal. Today-I-did-not-jerk-off medal.” :-)) :-))

On one occasion, Hanif does not leave the Indian musical sisters as well- Lata and Asha. “ Old, fat, ugly, Indian sisters who both sing like they were teenage sex kittens- But across the country battle lines are drawn between those who like Asha and those who like Lata. Tea or Coffee? Coke or Pepsi? Maoist or Leninist? Shia or Sunni? “

On General Akhtar’s devotion to his boss General Zia, “ This is not a ordinary 3-star devotion to a 4-star general. Theirs was a bond between two dogs stranded on a glacier, each sizing up the other, trying to decide if he should wait for his comrade to die before eating him or do away with the niceties and try to make a meal of him immediately”

Democracy Vs Progress

I was recently attending an AGM [Annual General Body Meeting] of my housing society- My society comprises of 1000 apartments and each apartment has got a building representative. Each building is labelled from A-Z; so its kind off a centralized-decentralized structure when it comes to maintenance et al.

The purpose of this blog is not to enumerate about my building society but to talk about “consensus building decision making” and “how to take responsibility without authority” and whether “democracy is really good”.

I have been to all these meetings and the key take-away is as follows:
• Everyone wants to make a point
• Everyone has an opinion about everything that they know partially, fully or none!
• Everyone wants to point a problem [seldom do people point a solution]
• Everyone feels the housing society core committee are their employees [I wonder where from this notion is coming as these are honorary jobs where core committee does not take any salary or bill by the hour]
• Everyone wants ROI
• Everyone feels that they need to push hard and feel that there are areas of improvement all the time- I am okay with this but at least the good work has to be recognized some time!

Coming to core committee- They have a challenge to please all the owners of 1000 apartments without prejudice or conflict of interest! They have to get consensus for each and every thing; otherwise it will be labelled as dictatorial and people in India don’t like Hitler in general.

Secondly the core committee are constantly taking responsibility without any amount of authority. This is slightly tricky because in any responsible role, you have to take a decision and if this goes wrong, you will be penalized by 1000 apartment owners and if it goes right, nobody will even acknowledge. That’s the beauty of this job. I feel this is slightly similar to the vertical-horizontal split in a typical Indian IT services firm. Indian IT services in an effort to sustain the scale; created industry based verticals and capability based horizontals. These capability based horizontals will operate on a shared service mode and someone who is in a vertical has to take responsibility without authority as s/he has to constantly collaborate with the horizontals keeping the end customer expectations in mind. Getting things done when you are NOT a boss is relatively easy in a professional set-up but in this type of honorary or public service set-up, I think it’s a nightmare!

Finally coming to my pet peeve which is “democracy”- Is this really good for us? I feel that in the name of democracy, some of the progress is getting stunted across board. I see this in a silo-ed version for this board meeting. During my final pass out year at BITS, pilani we had T.N. Seshan [ ex- Chief Election Commissioner for India] as a speaker and he was articulating about “benign dictatorship” instead of democracy. Mr.T.N.Seshan was passionately advocating benign dictatorship for India as he wanted progress in many areas. I distinctly remember folks talking about the utopian nature of this idea and also some folks who did not understand what he was even talking about [ I was in the latter part as I never comprehended why we are talking about dictatorship when we are supposed to celebrate democracy]. There were some folks who were talking about why democracy is important for India blah, blah. After this AGM meeting, I am completely convinced of Mr.Seshan’s line of thought- I pity Mr.Manmohan Singh sometimes as he has to balance between consensus building, keeping the job, make hard decisions, tell politicians NOT to be corrupt [that is a big ask given the 2G spectrum allocation or the Mumbai Adarsh housing scandal], ensure security etc. This list is endless and progress in a democracy is a real challenge- It is definitely NOT impossible but a real hard nut to crack!

On a tangential note, we are all fairly democratic with our better half to progress in life! Looking at this optimistically, there is progress at least in personal life if one follows true democratic principles! :-))

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Barack Obama’s Presentation Skills- India Trip, Nov 2010

I am sure there must tons of coverage on what Barack Obama did at India and his Asia tour of 2010- There was considerable coverage in the India media before he arrived and after he departed. Politicians, Corporates, Institutions, Villages et al had an agenda with the Big O and vice-versa. While there is a lot of talk around Obama having an agenda for the US and how he wanted a win-win situation with us- I am not blogging those important details as there are better folks than me who would have documented that. Also there was a section of crowd that said, “now we have got attention” and another section that said, “we better get this attention as we are definitely invincible”, blah, blah- We are not entering that area as well.

Quite interestingly, the premise of this blog is look at one sliver of Big O’s visit which was his town hall session at St.Xavier’s college at Mumbai [tp:// ] where a lot of students were supposed to be grilling him with hard, sensitive questions. I happened to see that session in the TV and I got some valuable insights on presentation skills- I think I will be the millionth fan of Big O’s presentation skills but nevertheless wanted to record that. I know that big title, designated corporate honchos can also learn on the art of presentation through this Q & A session alone.

Here are my observations:

• Non-filler usage- This is an amazing skill especially when you are extempore and faced with sensitive political questions. Typically, folks use “you know”, “I mean” etc some 200 times in a 5 minute conversation- Even senior corporate honchos have this problem. Hint for their HR team: Get a communication coach for your CEO and VP’s. I have already blogged about this earlier!!

• Connection with the audience- Usually communication coaches call this as “eye contact” but Big O has clearly crossed that part. This connection is beyond eye contact- there was an emotional angle associated with the answers of some of the questions. Its again to hard to develop this skill because this requires good amount of empathy and compassion! Both of these are in scarcity today.

• Engaging the audience and local association- There were many times where Obama mentioned about local things at India, Gandhi etc. This brings the relevancy and also engages the audience- There is a huge plus in connecting with the culture even if it is a 30 minute conversation!

• Assertiveness in communication- I think this is an amazing trait of Big O. The tone tells about the assertiveness on some issues!

• Answering the questions specifically- This seems like an OBVIOUS point in a Q & A session but most of the leaders or presenters in this type of sessions don’t answer the question and beat around the bush. I won’t say Obama was perfect in this area but given his constraints he did a great job. There was a question about why Pakistan not being called a terrorist state and Obama’s answer was picture perfect- He said that Pakistan’s stability is good for India and there are extremists in Pakistan as they are in any part of the country in the world. India is on a super growth mode and an unstable Pakistan is not good for India. He also added some masala on how great Pakistan is but the key point is abstracting the question and focusing on stability which is important for India. Fair enough! From purely a ATQ [answer the question] perspective, his answers were great. From a different perspective, US wants Pakistan to be an ally and they need Afghan control in the war and they are ramping down as well. These are some underlying aspects but as I said earlier, there are enough folks who are deep in to this debate that I don’t want to join that gang with my opinion. :-)

You can view the Youtube version here:

All of the above points seem very obvious and easy but I think it’s very difficult to implement on regular basis! More importantly, these are highly significant for any leader today whether s/he in business or politics.

After I blogged this, I was curious to google about “Barack Obama’s presentation skills” and I got a whooping 96,700 results. I was bang on with my assumption of me being a millionth fan or one among the millions who likes his presentation skills.
I wonder how much of home work Obama does for his speeches or is it a innate talent! I would have asked that question in St.Xavier’s, Mumbai if I was present during that day!