The Chennai Conflict – 2

My stay in Chennai was not a very happy one. I was already well-short of being gruntled. ( see history in Part 1 ) I found the ultra-conservative nature of the locals disconcerting. Every light switch, every fan, fan regulator, every keyboard, monitor and tape was marked vermilion…. tagged by the little man who came every working day to bless the entire office and all animate and inanimate objects inside it. I found going out with colleagues for lunch / dinner a strange affair. Food was all vegetarian, people were a little awed by my comments about the kind of food I liked. I was similarly confused by their biases and prejudices.

That's me in the glasses and the white socks with green bands. The guy on the right. Not in Chennai, but in Bhubaneswar.
That’s me in the glasses and the white socks with green bands. The guy on the right. Not in Chennai, but in Bhubaneswar.

Thank god for the Rangaswami family, friends from Calcutta who had moved there. They made my incarceration bearable, took me out, fed me beer ( prohibition existed  in the state and you needed a “permit” to get a drink.) They even took me out to see a Tamil movie, the only one I’ve ever seen in  my life. Otherwise, life started at 4am. Just before 6 am I was at the Dunlop office where a coach took me and bunch of other Dunlop employees to the factory in Ambattur. Arriving there by 7:30 am, there was time to eat some spicy rice-pancake like thing dripping in a fiery red, very spicy sauce. I mean, I like my food spicy, but this was killer spicy. And by 8am I was hacking code in the computer room with a very annoying companion. I was slated to be here for 6 weeks, I’d been told. Life was a drag!!

Then my second wedding anniversary approached. A day before that my boss from Calcutta came out to see how I was doing. I was far from happy, but I needed the job and the money it gave me. I gave him a letter to hand over to my wife back in Calcutta.

“There’s a letter for her. Leave it with the receptionist and tell her to call my wife. Here’s the number. My wife will come around and pick it up from her.”

Nothing could have been easier. He took the letter away and flew back. My anniversary came and went. Our second anniversary away from each other. ( Read about the first anniversary here.. ).

Two days later, I fell violently sick. Running a high fever I was unable to move. The guest house had no phone.I was unable to get out of bed and walk down to the office one floor below me. I lay there for two days while the fever raged. No one knocked on the door. No one came to check. I could have been dead there. On the third day the guy who cleaned the room came in. Somehow, I managed to explain to him what I wanted.

“Take this ticket down to the receptionist. Get her to book me on the next flight out”. He came back with the ticket. I was on the waitlist for tomorrow’s morning flight.

The next morning, 7 am I was across the road with my suitcase. Exhausted from the fever, I accosted the driver of the auto-rickshaw filling gas in his three-wheeled vehicle. I asked him how much it would cost to get to the airport, fast. He rattled away in Tamil. I knew it should be around Rs 30 or so. I thought he was asking for Rs 80. The argument lasted 35 seconds. I got in and waved him on. I was too tired to argue. I decided I’d hand him a Rs 50 note and walk away. We reached the airport, I hauled out my suitcase and gave him the Rs 50 note. I picked up my bag and was just going to walk away when I saw him digging through his pocket. He handed me Rs 20 back! So much for communication skills!

Once inside, I made straight for the Indian Airlines duty manager.

I said “Look, I’m sick and if I stay here any longer you’re going to have to cart a dead body back to Calcutta. Do yourself a favour and use your position to get me on the plane.”

And so I landed in Calcutta and found out that my wife had not got any message about any letter. I went to the office and was attacked by the big boss’s.

“What the hell are you doing back here? Get into my office!”

Which, as he found out, was quite the wrong thing to say to me. We both learned something that day. I learned that far from being expected to be in Chennai for 6 weeks, I had in fact been indentured to the Chennai office for 6 months! The manager in Chennai had not mentioned this when I first dropped in to introduce myself. Neither my boss nor the big boss had felt it necessary to tell me either. Things became very quiet in that room for a bit.

“I sent a letter for my wife a week ago. Where is it? No one has let her know that a letter exists for her to pick up.”

The letter was found in a drawer of my boss’s desk.

Muddled apologies from him were brushed aside by the big boss, who continued to attack me.

“You didn’t introduce yourself to the Regional Manager!”

“I did meet him. He barely cared to know who I was and had nothing to say to me. No one in the office came up to check where I was in the 3 days I lay there sick. One floor above them! I had to make my own arrangements and look after myself. And…. what the fuck do you mean 6 months!!  When the fuck were you going to tell me that?”

(There were HR policy ramifications of a 6 month stay out of my home office. Id’ have lost my expense account and been forced to look for accommodation somewhere and cook my own meals. Which on top of the long hours would have been an intolerable burden for someone as close to burn out as I was then.)

He was rocked back. My boss next to me was fingering his pen nervously. The meeting broke up with no decisions made. I picked up the undelivered letter and walked out. For the next couple of days I smouldered around the office. Meanwhile, I had been offered a chance to leave and join a startup as systems manager. I spoke with them. We firmed up our deal. Then I walked back into that office and handed in my resignation to the big boss directly.

He had been sort of expecting it, but he was still upset by it. I’d spent most of my time looking after clients all alone with no support from the back office. He had made some exceptions for me. Notably, when my expenses had been denied by the accounts department because I’d crossed the thresholds for employees at my lowly level. I remember the accountant dragging me and my expense sheets into his office. I remember him telling the accountant “Arre, yeh to hero hai! Always, just pass them.”

He held on to my resignation letter. He was busy interviewing people for the new intake. He came to me and asked again “Are you going to change your mind? Or shall I send this in to HO? I have to send in the final count of new recruits next week. Let me know at once if you do change your mind.” I suppose that was nice of him. I left to join the startup.

And that, my friends, led to the Hello World episode and extreme poverty.

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