The Chennai Conflict – 1

Me - 1985 at CSI. Notice incipient fatigue ( onset of tiredness )
Me – 1985 at CSI. Notice incipient fatigue ( onset of tiredness )

I once worked for a very large IT / computer company. This job led to some very strange experiences. A lot of it was due to my inexperience with the world and my lack of communication skills. ( Which continue to plague me to this day…  🙂 )

As a newly wed, I was often away from home for large tracts of time, weeks and weeks in contiguous chunks. In the days before the internet, cellphones and pagers this absence left me incommunicado with my dear darling wife. We did not possess a landline in the little ground floor flat where we met the Cantankerous Cat and the The Peeping Tom.  Often the trip would find me in some backwater of the country such as Imphal, up in the mountains, which is another unwritten story of terror. I well remember the ultra heat of Naini, the wetness of Guwahati and the dry, dusty, wilderness of Andul ….. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Chennai. It was called Madras then. On my delayed honeymoon, we’d spent a week at a beach resort about an hour from the city. Remind me to tell you about that… ( not the gory details, obviously! This blog is Rated-PG! )

When our story opens, the camel in question, me, was busy playing the first instance of a role he was to play very often in his later career; the odd-jobber, cleaner-upper, quicker-picker-upper. My immediate boss at the time was a couple of years older than me, but who, I see now, was thrust into a role for which he was possibly not yet ready. His boss was essentially a horse-dealer / car salesman. I never actually saw him in a check coat but I did see him in a horrendously loud tie once. At that point I was well on my way towards a spectacular burn out. I was clocking well over 80 hours of work per week. Working alone in cities that very often did not have any other employee from my company left me isolated. It seems now I got to work alone more often than some of my colleagues did. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus rickshaws, ( cycle and auto ) are where I spent most of my time, when I wasn’t in a hotel room or client’s computer room.

One evening, I dropped into the office to submit some expense claims and was accosted by my boss.

“Hey, there you are! You better hurry up and finish off the oddjobs at the glass factory. I need to send you out on a trip.”

“Boss, I told you I’m taking a week off as soon as this done in a few more days.”

“Oh, yes, hmm – well you better finish there fast.”

“Where am I going next?”

“You just finish this things first.”

“And how long will I be away? I need some time here in Calcutta, there’s some personal stuff to take care of. All this travelling to the outer suburbs is not giving me much time to do all that”.

“Well, finish quick, because this thing is coming up fast!”

I don’t know if you noticed it. He carefully avoided my question about where and for how long my new assignment was going to be.  A few days later I was handed an airline ticket. Outbound – 2 days later. Return – open. Destination – Chennai, way down the east coast.

Boom! Bang! My famous temper caused a major depression accompanied by gusty winds, thunder and lightning. The ticket was cancelled and I took a week off. The ticket was re-booked.

English: The Ripon Building is the seat of the...
English: The Ripon Building is the seat of the Chennai Corporation (also known as the Municipal Corporation of Chennai, formerly “Madras Corporation”) in Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally I was on the late evening flight to Chennai ( Madras). I was booked into the office guesthouse which was on the upper story of the office itself. On the flight I found myself sitting next to none other than Mr M from the “Alice does not wear drawers anymore” story! Small world, eh? Mr M was a little taken aback to find out that the gormless youth from 5 years ago was now considered important enough to have his employer fly him around. How do I know that? He told me so. Older Indians in the mid-80s did not think tact was necessary where it concerned someone about 25 years younger…. 🙂 🙂

The flight landed around 11:30pm and I decided to take the coach service into town. I had no address. ( Typical, for me. Ten years later I still hadn’t learned. See the horrifying 8-part Nepal story...)  All I knew was that I was headed to the Wipro office. As the coach trundled on through the sleeping city, I was left as the only passenger. I had no idea where I was going. I did  not speak the local language ( Tamil). The driver and his assistant asked me where I wanted to be dropped off. I had no idea. If I’d been headed to a hotel I could have named it. Sergey Brin and Larry Page were 14 years old so Google maps lay way out in the future. I was completely and utterly lost. It was well past midnight now in an Indian city which may just as well have been darkest Africa.

Then I saw it. The neon sign that said “Wipro” lay right in front me on the right hand side of the bus. I got off and carried my suitcase across the road. I was stopped at the base of the steps by two security guards. One was well into his 60’s, a tall, dark man, bulging heavily at the waist. His assistant was much younger. Then proceeded one of the strangest conversations.

The state of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai, is the capital city, were waging a political battle running against the northern states that spoke Hindi. Much of central Indian politics is dominated by “leaders” from this, the Hindi-belt. The people of Tamil Nadu objected to the use of Hindi and there was a statewide policy of ignoring anyone who spoke in Hindi. Hindi movies ( from Bollywood ) were not shown in theatres in the state. I spoke English, Hindi and had a “working knowledge” of Bengali. They spoke only Tamil. At 1 am in the morning, tired and cranky, I sorely needed a bed. But my conversation with the two stalwarts was a non-starter. I flashed my business card and found out they could not read either. But the logo made an impression on the older one. And he sort of half-knew 2 words in English. “Yes” and “Up”. That’s all I needed.

15 minutes later I was fast asleep.

< Part 2 – coming up soon >

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