SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Three

(I)

The girls were finally on their way to hut number 76 in Hawks Bay. The beach itself remained a largely elusive thing even as their driver left the bustling highway and turned off towards the coast. The traffic was just as snarly as on the main road as six and eight wheeler goods transport vehicles plied a road that had seen better days at least fifty years ago. The girls were nevertheless agog. Every fleeting and lingering vista of the sea elicited an exclamation of happy surprise from both women. Even their driver, taken up with the enthusiasm of his passengers would point out an especially large swell just breaking on the coast, or a jagged rock hiding a structural pearl of some sort – hidden from prying eyes, opulent huts owned by the well heeled movers and shakers of the city nestled behind some of these precipitous facades.

They finally arrived at the designated hut, to all purposes looking quite deserted. When they got out of the car the first faint signs of life floated on the sea air from the front (or was it the back?) of the hut. It was Bhangra music; so the dance floor acrobatics had already begun Sophia thought with a grin. She herself was given to a more demure sashaying of a dancing evening, but Farina would be in her element! Her friend was already smiling and humming along with the Daler Mehndi tune wafting from the seafront. Her eyes were bright and in her mind Sophia was convinced, she was already bounding and cavorting with the wild abandon of a Bhangra caper. Sophia laughed – this was going to be a fun evening.

Sophia paid their driver for his transport as much as for his services as their tour guide. She had been assured by her friend Qasim that there would be more than enough cars and someone would be sure to give the girls a lift back to their hotel. The path to the front was dimly lit so that they had to pick their way carefully to avoid stumbling on the craggy ground – discretion was always the better part of valour when kicking up one’s heels, or otherwise revelling in an Islamic republic.

The scene at the seafront was like something out of fantasy folklore; a glittering wonderland. The front of the hut (which was situated at the back, away from public scrutiny and righteousness) was lit up with a thousand delicate fairy lights; some of them twinkled on and off while others waxed and waned delicately. The concrete patio was set up with a raised wooden platform that was the dance floor. Placed all around this platform were four seater tables and chairs. Each table was adorned with a tealite in gust-proof holders. They flickered mesmerisingly, throwing around huge shadows further away from the hut and smaller table-bound penumbras closer to the cabin. There were about fifty people milling around or sitting at the little white tables.

It was 8 O’ clock and less than half the guests had yet arrived. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he was nowhere to be seen. The girls then did what every out-of-towner does at the beach in Karachi – they went scrambling down the small precipice at the sea edge of the hut and onto the beach. They then took off their sneakers and dug their toes into the sand. Farina gave a little whoop of joy and rushed towards the gently foaming surf. Sophia, with her dread of creatures creeping in the dark, made more gingerly progress towards the rhapsodic call of the Arabian Sea. They soon realized that they were not the only ones ankle deep in the briny water; there were other seaside ingenues like themselves who were just as dazzled by the wizardry of the ocean.

‘Sophia! Sophia! Hi! Hey! Come back up!’ called a voice from the top of the precipice. Sophia turned away from the magical froth at her feet to the silhouette of a man standing on the promontory – it was Qasim. She waved at him and the two girls clambered back up to the top.

‘Welcome to Karachi madam!’ said a now smiling Qasim. She gave him a quick hug and introduced Farina whom he had heard about enough to know fairly well, but was meeting only just now.

‘Come, I want to introduce you to a few people’, he said and whisked them both off towards a corner of the fairytale patio.

‘Sophia, Farina, this is Samara, Tazeen, Asif and this is Uzair’

‘Everyone, this is Sophia and this is her doctor friend Farina!’ Qasim finished with a cheeky grin.

Sophia grimaced at Qasim – ever the joker! Farina cringed just a little before laughing out loudly, breaking through the awkwardness of that last bit. Proud as she was of her professional title, she hated being introduced as a doctor in social settings. She had, even in her short association with the title, seen how it prompted people’s baser instincts to surface; ranging from a fawning over their new doctor connection” to bombarding her with an inexhaustible roster of the many others in her field they intimately knew. She hated being a statistic, she had declared to Sophia, “that was bandied around as a flex” at social gatherings. Sophia, the quintessential introvert herself, understood the sentiment all too well.

Soon, the duo armed with glasses of orange juice, was dancing to western pop songs from the 80s, frequently peppered with a rousing tune from the subcontinental music scene. The dance floor that night, saw a bizarre mix of genres as the moonwalk was quickly followed by the high energy leaps and hops of the Bhangra which was followed by John Travolta’s evergreen Grease moves. There was a lot of laughter amid sky high spirits.

Half an hour later, Sophia found herself dancing with Uzair, a wide grin fixed on her face. She was vaguely aware of the fact that her facial muscles had been in stretched-out mode for the last twenty minutes and had been maintaining that exhausting protraction more or less of their own accord. She tried to reel in the smile, to pull her mouth together, but it continued to break out into a dimpled grin, taunting all her efforts at restraint. She looked at the glass of orange juice in her hand, wondering if she could possibly lay the blame for her giddiness elsewhere. But it was just plain old orange juice – sweet, citrusy and wholesome.

There is something to be said for the pure headiness of self suggestion. And so Sophia gave up her endeavours to sober up, allowing herself to be swept up on the wings of gaiety, euphoria … and new emotions. She remembered that she laughed a lot and was acutely aware of Uzair’s eyes on her. Farina who was dancing with a sprightly group nearby sensed the undercurrents with a barely concealed delight of her own, a voyeurystic thrill. She was also tripping on OJ* and on the gambolling winds that were carrying in all this surplus of good cheer from beyond the seaside horizon.

Sophia and Farina caught each other’s eyes at some point and laughed wildly. It was an interlude of intense emotions. whether it was delicate flirtation that seemed to surge into ardent courtship or a private little smile that swelled into crazy laughter.

At midnight, the spirited festivity mellowed as the bride and groom to-be entered upon the stage of the beach hut. They both had yellow flower wreaths of gladioli and marigold around their necks. The bride also wore ear rings and bracelets made of the same yellow blooms. She looked sweetly whimsical, a quirky hybrid of the east and the west as she sat in her jeans and t-shirt festooned with the flowers of the eastern bride-in-waiting.

Soon it was 3 O’ clock in the morning. But the party was far from over as the reveling crowd flowed in and out of the hut in constant waves, sometimes dancing and sometimes sitting, until another fabulous song came on. Sophia and Farina however, were done for the day. Drained and exhausted as the adrenaline rush of the last few hours slowed to the sluggish circadian rhythm typical of that late hour. A few carloads had just started to leave so the exodus although far from its mass had slowly begun. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he would know if one of the departing cars had space for the two girls to be dropped off at their hotel. He was sitting in a corner of the narrow veranda, surrounded by a group of low key revellers, crooning a zen-like medley ranging from the Vital Signs* to Frank Sinatra. Sophia stood at the periphery of this assemblage unsure of what to do. He was in the very middle of being the coincidental star of the evening and she was loathe to break that trance for him as much as for his smiling, humming swaying audience.

It was Farina who came up to her just then saying that she’d found someone who would give them a lift into the city. It was Uzair. He was going back with a friend he’d said, and since they had an otherwise empty car, would be happy to take the girls back to their hotel.

(II)

The next morning Sophia had a text message from Uzair: would she and Farina like to be shown around the city? He’d be more than glad to be their guide for the day. Also, there was the annual food bazaar being held at the Park Towers.

So many unexpected, inadvertent tour guides in the City by the Sea! thought Sophia laughing to herself, a smile of quiet pleasure settling itself on her face. Farina was excited at the prospect too, not only because in her ten months in the city, her experience of all noteworthy sights and sounds had been limited to within a 5 km radius of the hospital which was where she stayed as well, but also because there was the promise of being a first hand witness to a good old real life romance; titillating entertainment; seeing a brand new love story unfold (regardless of the ending) before her very eyes! She felt her own heart skip a beat much like it did when she read the old world romances of Georgette Heyer or the dazzlingly brazen love stories of Nora Roberts.

And so, a plan was firmed up and at noon, Uzair picked them up to show them around Karachi’s hotspots. As they drove around, or walked or sat in the winter sunshine, the conversation was easy and the mood was light; Sophia felt a warm little glow around her heart. She wondered once again, at the serenity with which she had acknowledged this fledgling beat of new emotions.

It was close to midnight when the girls got back to their room. It had been a marvellously eventful day, gratifying for both girls in their own ways: Sophia had allowed herself to go with the flow, experiencing a whole new sweep of feelings as Uzair gently wooed her. Farina had enjoyed watching the subtle courtship as much as she had relished their day of food and adventure. The combined mental and emotional exertion made up as it was of strange and new things had been intense. And so despite being suffused in a kind of exhausted elation as the glow of the day still clung to them, sleep came quickly and restfully.

(III)

‘He’s nice Sophie’, Farina said suddenly at breakfast the next morning.

Both girls had slept soundly and Sophia had dreamt. Copiously; towards dawn as she normally did. She wasn’t quite sure of the essence of those dreams, but she had dreamt and that meant something new was taking shape on the horizon.

She smiled at Farina, feeling herself flush.

‘Yes, he is’, she said, unwilling to outwardly commit more than that to the fickleness of the universe.

She wanted to share the latest text message from Amir Taurab with her best friend, as she always did. He had been the topic of many an exasperated, tragi-comedic conversation between them. She picked up her phone and opened up the message, immediately closing it. Something held her back this time. She didn’t trust the usual predictability or equanimity of her emotions this time. The truth was, she didn’t feel like the reluctant Juliet anymore. She felt herself flush again.

Yes, there were changes in the air; Sophia could sense them, smell them almost. The atoms ricocheting around her were carrying a new energy. In the wisdom that the universe sometimes bestows on her creatures, Sophia knew then that her serene acknowledgement of the situation was but the natural first act of stepping into altogether new shoes; changing her sensible flat pumps for peep-toe heels. She also knew cloaked in the same clear-thinking aura that when she was kind to herself on the precipice of a great change, the universe tended to be kinder too.

Smiling at Farina, Sophia picked up her mug of tea, and took a sip of the hot, soul uplifting brew. She looked out of the window at the lushness outside and then beyond into the sunlit horizon.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

* OJ: orange juice

* Vital Signs: a Pakistani pop group famous in the 80s and the 90s.

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Two

(I)

It has to be said here dear reader, that Sophia was not exactly a tomboy, but neither did she exude the ripe femininity of a femme fatale – she lacked the necessary airs and graces required for that delicate drama. Ironically however, it was this very lack of the obvious, the normative and the expected that made men hesitate and look again; to ponder for a while (for there was never any of the usual emotional agitation of new love urging them quickly on); and then to feel the brush of something oddly tender stir their hearts.

And so it was that despite not fitting the mould of the eastern debutante, a sizeable male demographic in Sophia’s circle of friends and acquaintances had at various times been in love with her or imagined they were in love with her. Many in the latter category, when they did look into the varying depths of their hearts where infatuations tend to swarm tumultuously about and realized that it wasn’t love after all, did a curious U-turn: From the fickle pursuers with the furtive motives, they morphed into almost belligerent beings; their attitude now towards Sophia one of self conscious nonchalance, bordering on brusqueness. It was indeed an emotional sluiceway of confounding vibes and vehemence that was directed towards her. She had in turn, in the interest of careful self preservation, developed an outer shell of hardened nacre: genial with all, friends with some but allowing no one within the inner sanctums of her heart.

To say that she left a trail of bruised hearts and tempers in her wake, would not be entirely true. For with her reticence to be coveted, she also brought a grace to all those unrequited overtures of love. Even when she was aware of a heart roving in her general vicinity, looking for a way into her auricles, she pretended not to see it scramble about; all the while maintaining an everyday sunniness that made it appear as if she was obtuse, blind even, to the iridescent hues of romance. So that the men, sincere and otherwise walked away with their dignity intact and their egos secure.

(II)

Sophia opened up the old samsonite suitcase, its well-worn and weather-beaten visage a reminder of its dutiful service to her father on his many business trips in and outside the country. Despite its toilsome age, it was yet, whole and undamaged. She dusted it off and started to pack for her trip to Karachi. She was going to attend a friend’s wedding in the City by the Sea.

Twenty minutes into her packing, Sophia sat on her bed for a minute to look at her phone. There was a message there from Amir Taurab – how he had got her personal mobile number is another entirely different tale of dogged determination and out of the purview of this story. But he had, and he had now sent his one careful message of the week; connecting with her in one way or another, all in the guise of inquiring about the state of his account or about one of the financial schemes of the bank. She sighed inwardly and opened the message:

Hello Sophia ji, I’ve been thinking for a very long time now and I wonder if you would go out for dinner with me. I am sorry if this message offends you, I did not meant for it to do that.

“Meant” for it to do that … Sophia’s Elf of Fastidium piped up in some corner of her brain while she read and re-read the message with her other self preserving nacreous part – the part reserved for intentional and incidental admirers. She was also aware now, of a third part of her brain that was watching all this piqued neural activity with a quiet interest; a calm, serene anticipation. She focused on this part of her sensibilities. Was she losing her self protective edge? Did she need to be this bullishly self preserving? Why had she given him her number? Did she want to be forever alone? Did she not want a companion? Sophia blinked as much with stupefaction as with the glimmers of a new realisation. She looked at the message again, ignoring the typo (she sincerely hoped it was a typo … why did she sincerely hope it was a typo?!), locked her phone with deliberate care and put it away, together with her bounding and rebounding thoughts. She needed to pack.

(III)

Sophia landed at the Quaid-e-Azam international airport in Karachi at 1 O’ clock in the afternoon. The big city bustle overwhelmed her as soon as she walked out of the Arrivals lounge into the bright sunlight of an otherwise cool December day. She was immediately mobbed by staff from the various taxi kiosks that lined the entirety of the wide corridor all the way to the parking lot. They were all talking as one, urging her to pick them! Pick me! Pick me! is all she heard as her jangled nerves negotiated through the shouting milieu. She craned her neck and finally spied the White Cabs stall a few feet down the corridor. She pushed her trolley purposefully onwards at which the frenzied crowd around her finally parted very much like the Red Sea did for Moses.

Forty five minutes later, she was at the front desk of the Avari hotel being checked into her room. She was going to pick up Farina – (Doctor Farina now!) – from the hospital in a couple of hours. She grinned happily. Farina was Sophia’s best friend. They had known each other since they’d first met at six years old in boarding school in the salubrious hills of Murree. They had spent ten years together under the tutelage and guardianship of Irish Catholic nuns until trained and mentored into upstanding young women, they were then handed back permanently into the care of their parents. Even though both girls had set themselves medical career goals in school, Sophia had gone on to do business studies while Farina was now doing her residency in general surgery at one of the leading university hospitals in Karachi. Their reunions were always effusive and joyous.

Sophia and Farina arrived at the hotel, surrounded by the cheerful air of shared confidences and humour, carried along as these are on endless streams of conversation and banter. There was going to be no more time today to continue to catch up over copious cups of tea like they usually did. As soon as they were back from the hospital, it was time to get ready for the pre-wedding party at the beach. Beach parties were still a novelty for both girls, having grown up in their various mountain and river bound cities. At 6 O’ clock, their rental car arrived to pick them up and drive them to Hawks Bay beach.

Sophia was looking forward to the evening not only because it was a long weekend away from work and that she would be spending it in the company of her best friend, but also because some secret little part of her heart had opened up just a tiny bit to experience new emotions in new ways amid a gamut of new and exciting possibilities.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part One

The alarm went off like a screaming banshee, putting an end to Sophia’s dawn time dreams. She had chosen this whining, grating sound to wake up to when she’d got her new phone two years ago, and had kept it; like a sadistic reminder of the torturously early mornings that she had to endure. She sat up in bed trying to hold onto the fleeing threads of her early morning subconscious meanderings. These were the most lucid and memorable of her REM world of visions and omens, the two intuitive genres in which she had learnt to see them pan out, in some way, in her universe.

She got out of bed, the dysania* wrapping around her like a gnarly, leather cloak – impenetrable and rough until the first sips of her tea. And because she wasn’t a “morning person”, that blessed first cup was consumed not at home since she got up with just enough time to get ready in a petulant rush, but at the office. This meant that the brooding glower of the sleep-deprived followed her into the brightly lit portals of corporate enterprise. The tea boy however, was trained to perfection and was the only one really who had the temerity to smile at her while placing within five minutes of her arrival, a steaming mug of the revitalizing beverage in front of her. He would then watch with gratified concentration, as his brew slayed the shrew. The caffeine in the otherwise unremarkable tea blend would work its magic and Miss Sophia would then bestow her first smile of the day on him, the bearer of invigorating brews!

It was the middle of the month, the time when monthly deposit sales goals took on a manic urgency of delivery, wildly elevating the stress hormone levels across the entire Premier Banking floor. The collective cortisol deluge was enough to drown out all undercurrents of cheerfulness and most elements of grace. And it frequently did. Today however, Sophia at least, felt a lightheartedness: one of her customers (he’d been banking with her for a year now) had promised to transfer USD 250,000/- into his foreign currency account with the bank, that was also tagged to her as his relationship manager. That inflow would help to meet her Foreign Currency sales objectives nicely for the month. She allowed herself a little smile while she sipped on her tea, bequeathing it on one of the most critical staff at her workplace: Arshad, the tea boy, that concocter of blessed brews!

The world of Consumer Banking at the foreign banks in the urban centres was, by default, peopled with attractive young professionals mostly under the age of thirty. They were, most of them, graduates of foreign universities and carried themselves with the aplomb of corporate royalty; that imperial air only ever set aside for the rich, the famous and the hefty deposit deliverers. The aesthetic wisdom of this human resourcing, long ago vetted and abetted by the forefathers of the service industry, had played out most satisfactorily in the Pakistani market too. Comely countenances and pleasant demeanours had seen the bank through many a national financial crisis, process breakdown and personality foible. A smile, a gesture and a sashay of well heeled personal service have indeed, countless times worked their magic in smoothing ruffled tempers and preventing stinging letters of complaint being received at management levels or worse, by the banking ombudsman.

Sophia sipped on her third mug of tea of the day. Her lead generation calls were done and she was now at 3 O’ clock in the afternoon, waiting for Amir Taurab to come in and hand deliver the receipt from his remitting bank. He had insisted on giving her the largely superfluous document to ensure his weekly visit to see Sophia Zaidi was still professionally cloaked, thin as that veneer of business formality was. The truth was that Amir Taurab had fallen for his Relationship Manager and had over the last eleven months made every attempt to titillate, impress and win her over. But she was a different cup of tea; a rich high-grown infusion. She was a waif of a woman with the charisma of a queen, unaffected by the trivialities of wealth, good looks and social stature. Heck! He brought them all to the table in not entirely modest degrees either. She had responded genially enough but had kept him at arms length, ever polite, ever proper and oh ever so lovely!

Amir Taurab arrived at exactly 3.05 pm and sat directly across from Sophia’s work station so that if she looked up, she had no recourse but to lock eyes with him. He wore his dark glasses because he believed that they lent him a gravitas over and above the other aesthetics he naturally exuded. Sophia was busy with another client so he waited. The Floor Manager approached him (like she tiresomely always did!) and asked if she might help him. He politely declined (like he tirelessly always did) and said he would wait for Ms, Sophia to attend to him. He had a dull suspicion that his infatuation with his RM* had not gone unnoticed by the rest of her hawk-eyed colleagues.

By and by the object of his affection looked up and at him. He nodded in gracious acknowledgement.

Sophia filled in the term deposit form for another customer (he had been one of her first deposit customer when she had started out as a personal account officer three years ago). She glanced up to ask him about something on the form and looked right into the barely concealed, Rayban Wayfarer-darkened gaze of Amir sahib. God! He was so … indelicate about his feelings. He nodded at her in that strange ostrich like way, to which she dutifully responded with a small smile and a little nod of her own. She wished he’d back off; without taking offence or the entirety of his premier relationship off the bank’s books. It was a sensitive and sometimes stressful balancing act for the female staff at the bank: keeping impassioned admirers at bay, while showing just enough interest to keep them from absconding money bags and baggage.

Twenty minutes later the document was delivered and steaming cups of tea were being partaken of amid the usual banter:

Sophia: ‘Thank you Amir sahib. I’ll make sure to follow up on this remittance. It should be with us in seventy two hours at the latest’.

Amir Taurab: ‘Please call me Amir. The “sahib” makes it all so formal. Otherwise I’ll have to reciprocate with “Sophia ji”.’

Sophia: ‘It’s a bit unusual to do that Amir sahib. I hope you understand’.

A sweet smile; placatory dimpling: holding-on-to-the-deposit geniality. And yet again, for the hundredth time, the ruse of charm and amiability sat nicely between them, gratifying both, customer and Relationship Manager in their own particular ways.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

* Dysania: the inability to wake up in the morning. A chronic difficulty in getting out of bed.

* RM: Relationship Manager

OPINION | A POST PANDEMIC FEIERABEND*

2020 has induced a knee jerk reaction all its own. The instinct to be glad to have seen the back of it as it goes careening into the past, swept along by our combined tsunami of emotions, is palpable in the various conversations had around it. I have tended to hesitate making my voice one with the rest of the inflamed clamour. I have tended to warp speed away from the present to take a far and away, Space Odyssey-like view of the last 300 odd days, and counting. If you ask me then, it is almost like a universal recalibration of the important things in life, presented to us in cosmic fable form; Aesop and Arthur C. Clarke hitting more than a few psycho-social home runs in the timorous expanse of our current life-space.

I have a couple of friends, lovely people, who, simply put, have been bested by life mentally and emotionally. Who have, over the years of “living a productive life” been inextricably caught up in undefined little crags of disquietude – one could call it manic depression on its bad days. Occasional bouts of frustration and anxiety have, over time, taken permanent space in their psyches. So insidious and sly has this psychosis been, that its backlash of exasperation, rage and the unrelenting need to fit in just so, are now synonymous with the spirit of enterprise, success and community. Caught up as we all are in this crazy limbo between life and the final farewell, the essential catharsis comes in the shape of frequent and voluble sounding off on one another. We rave and we rant about the government’s woeful ineptitude, the kilos that just keep piling on, the hijacking of our religion by the crazed Right and the lack of a glass of wine when you need it most to get just a little comfortably numb. We are, one and all, veritable shrinks; roles we have inadvertently taken on, given the stigma (and cost!) attached to the clinical psychological recourse. But when we’re talking of a chronic mental pandemic, everyone pitches in to do their bit in braving a dear one’s purgative assault on their senses. We absorb until our own cups brimmeth over, and then, we return friendly fire!

The truth is, we have all been existing in some version of a survival mode.

And then the pandemic struck.

As it took root and raged, these friends, through no impetus of their own or the social and professional structures they so meticulously occupied, were suddenly left to themselves. Their ties to the lives they’d lived, severed for a few months. And so, left with no choice, they sat back and healed. The transformation has been stunning. They appear happier, calmer and at peace – at least for now. In all its perverse, blood thirsty ravagement, the Pandemic has somehow also helped to heal in the simplest, most unexpected way – by enforcing long bouts of time-out on us in the (mostly!) safe havens of our abodes, enabling us to once again understand and appreciate what it is like for the mind, heart and soul to realign.

I can make the above keen-eyed observation if you will, with some level of distance from the malady we call a “Successful Life” because 5 years ago, i decided to give a bit of a flying kick to what had become my reality – work, workout, dinner and bed – ad infinitum. I may even have, over time, transcended in some modest way, to a higher plane of mindfulness and centredness: Each new day is a blessing, I value my health, I cherish my peace of mind and the sum total of my acquisitive aspirations now boils down to experiences rather than material appropriations.

This past year of being forced to sit back and smell the Araliya*, has been just about long enough to bring us as a species to that critical crossroad. The question before us is that when we do re-embark on the bandwagon of industry and undertaking, how do we proceed from there? Do we continue to live with each day blending insipidly, blandly and sometimes aggressively, even militantly into the next, underscored always by burgeoning bank balances and power mongering? Or do we embrace the timorous quality of life itself and the need to re-evaluate and make it really worthwhile?

For my part, I have this instinctive gut feel. Gone are the days (or very nearly) when bosses evaluated one’s productivity as being proportional to the number of hours that were spent in the hallowed Halls of Slog, empty and fruitless though many of those hours might have been. The new generation workforce impelled by the way our conventional workplaces and work lives have been altered over the past year, is looking for ever smarter, ever shorter, ever more flexible ways to get the job done. In another decade or so, the look and feel of Human Capital will itself undergo a sea change: it will be about new ideologies, epiphanies and insights rather than the sum total of man hours spent on a project, that will determine success. The workforce will be intrepid, and driven on a whole new level – explorers of the very frontiers of the human equation.

And that universal affliction – that global psychosis brought on by the bullheadedness of the 21st century that our lives are so woefully beset by – that may just finally find its nemesis in a post pandemic Feierabend.

“To create the new, we must first de-create the old, and the reality of de-creation is as strong as the reality of creation”**

Feierabend: A German term meaning the time of leisure and relaxation between the end of the work day and bedtime. It denotes a connection to one’s core, of family, friends, hobbies and ones mindspace. In the context of this feature, it means a whole new ideology of how we gauge progress and success as we more fully embrace our humanity.

*Araliya: The colloquial term for the fragrant Frangipani or Plumeria flower/ tree

**Quote by Helen Vendler, an American literary critic and Porter University’s Professor Emerita at Harvard University. 

THE CORPORATE SERIES|Demystifying Organizational Success – (Part 2)

Too often, in the everyday throng of the corporate world, Management tends to lose sight of many of their star players. The race to better the bottom-line translates into a disproportionate recognition of the sales staff, who are bringing in the business. This imbalance is further exacerbated by the notorious bell curve that shapes most corporate performance appraisals: there are a limited number of distinctions that can be allotted and these are summarily assigned to the usual suspects.

While this system is great in the short term, it is unsustainable and damaging in the longer term. In the relentless competition for limited business, where the pie doesn’t grow as proportionately as the hands digging into it, it becomes a self-defeating endevour. That is because the robustness of the new business is not supported by a congruously adequate operational and service structure/ platform. This disparity translates into dissatisfaction, both internal and external, culminating finally into good staff and customers abandoning their loyalty to the organisation and the brand.

What, then, is a workable panacea to this conundrum?

Where the company is in an early growth phase, skewing your rewards structure towards the left to make it more sales driven, is in fact, a good approach. Based on the presumption that the basic operational and service infrastructure is already in place and functionaing, the objective then can predominantly be to mobilize new business.

Up to what point, then, can this skewed rewards structure be gainfully applied?

That strategic pivot needs to be meticulously defined as the acceptable number of complaints per 1000 customers or the Complaints Ratio. This will also define how the company aims to position itself in terms of a niche or mass market service provider or both. If you’re the former, then a complaints ratio between 5% and 7% will work; if you are catering to a more specific, smaller/ discerning subset of customers, then a complaints ratio of less than or equal to 1% should be the standard.

Right from the start, have a robust feedback system in place to not only capture customer driven complaints but also bank initiated VoC* streams. (I will go into more detail on Customer Experience systems in another blog post). To ensure that the business that your sales teams have so laboriously extracted from the market, remains within the realms of your brand, it is essential to define and keep in perspective the goalpost at which to recentre the rewards program of the company towards a more balanced sharing out of bonuses and compensations. This then, will be defined as the Tipping Point at which the company should regroup and review their performance enhancement techniques and payouts.

Talent Management: While the compensation and rewards system may be frontline-skewed depending on which part of its life cycle the organisation is at, there are other steps that can be taken to ensure internal organisational robustness. A key element here is talent management. This is a hybrid financial and non-financial/ psychological reward system that ensures the company retains its best and brightest even while it is predominantly focusing on business acquisition and growth. Enter the HR department and the Management Committee. These 2 entities will need to work in focused tandem to ensure the success of any talent management initiative. The modus operandi is simple:

The top performers in every unit across the organisation need to be identified. This is your talent pool.

An HRRM* needs to be designated to each of these individuals. These RMs will regularly (every quarter at least) engage with their professional wards to find out how they’re doing/ discuss skill set development opportunities/ identify possible new positions/ optimally manage expectations – basically a VoE* and staff development session.

Each one from the talent pool is also assigned a Mentor who is a member of the Management Committee. They also meet regularly where the conversation is about aspirations/ life goals/ sharing of experiences – basically a Character and Ethics building session.

It is incredible how effective and motivating non-financial reward and recognition programs are. Human beings at their core, are an amalgamation of emotion and feeling. These psychological gestures of appreciation are sometimes more effective than even financial rewards and result in a thriving, loyal, market leading work force. Having said that, both financial and non-financial acknowledgment structures that are highly skewed towards just a few functions/ units, lose their temerity and effectiveness with time. ManCom* wisdom plays a big role in finding that right balance, at a given inflection/ change point in the life of the organization of keeping all their people feeling appreciated and happy to be a part of the brand.

Succession Planning: This element of the corporate rule book is not given half as much importance as it should be. I have seen a number of fabulously managed units/ companies fall to the wayside when the manager leaves. The culprit: poor to non existent succession planning and training. There are a couple of reasons for this inadvertent oversight: the first, mostly because it just is not on the company radar, which means there is no trickle down incumbency of this factor into performance appraisals. This also means that it usually doesn’t tend to happen and even if it does happen, it is haphazard and personality driven rather than systematic, continuous and goal oriented. The other reason has to do with our human emotions again – an insecurity about being challenged or even being outshone by the Second-in-command. This i have also witnessed and have seen the natural/ most probable successors to a job role, leave the organisation as they are sidelined and trivialised.

Again, a robust succession planning system needs to be in place to ensure the organisation does not fall into the rut of outsourcing most key positions or losing its essential human capital of promising/ talented one-downs.

(Read Part 1 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/10/29/corporate-seriesthe-de-mystification-of-organizational-success-part-1/ )

(Read Part 3 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/12/01/corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-3/ )

  • *VoC: The Voice of Customer feedback platform consists of a number of feedback streams to allow customer concerns and suggestions to be effectively channeled.
  • *HRRM: Human Resources Relationship Manager
  • *VoE: The Voice of Employee feedback platforms are formal avenues to facilitate constructive staff critique and suggestions.
  • *ManCom: corporate-speak for the Management Committee.
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THE CORPORATE SERIES|Demystifying Organizational Success – (Part 1)

It has now been over 6 years since i decided to take a sabbatical if you will, from my corporate career. I embarked on it more in the spirit of a healing process (life had thrown a few curveballs at me in 2012/13), rather than a wild abandonment of the work rigour, resulting precariously also, in the sudden and definitive staunching of a hitherto steady income!

Even so here i am, half a decade on, happier and probably somewhat healthier and wiser too! However, you can take a person out of the corporate halls of slog, but you can’t take the corporate exactitude out of the person. And so, i have over the last 5 years, approached all my experiences across the service industry spectrum, from the hospitality to the airline to the internet service providers with my customer experience hat adroitly perched upon my head. I have, quite a while ago, given up even the pretence of being a congenial, everyday customer with a heart full of forgiveness and a kind blurriness of mind reserved especially for appalling episodes of experiential breakdown. I notice everything and while i have made earnest efforts to not treat every service gaffe/ misdemeanour like it was committed by a flawlessly trained prodigy, i do pick my “service battles” from the point of view of identifying those likely eliciting the maximum bang for the buck. So while i won’t voice the mental angst of grossly delayed service followed by fumbling/ bumbling remedial efforts, I will respectfully opine on the myriad different withdrawal regulations that are applied to my NRFC* account – each disparate rule a tribute to its creative forger and executor of the day. The subsequent explanations to central bank auditors could make for a whole new banking science fiction genre; not to mention the plethora of post facto documentary and explanatory toil that I, the customer, would likely have to undertake to help the institution to regularise its stream of inadvertent but almost lovingly repeated foibles.

And so, to cut to the chase, i’ll go right to the helm of affairs – to the leadership of the organisation. That seat of power that can make or break the best and the worst of enterprises.

So what does a good Management Team do to create organisational success?

There are a few simple but utterly alchemical factors here that can convert even a seemingly jinxed piece of corporate enterprise into a decent success. I will explain each in successive blog posts.

Creating and Nurturing a Distinct Organisational Culture: There have been a couple of times, (twice for those inclined to use “couple” to mean a scattering!) where i have become part of a company culture where i felt like i was working for a home enterprise. The work environment being so disparate across the board that it ranged from an all out gestapo reenactment in one unit, to a space bubble with barely a shared ethos among its occupants, in another. And although the 2 units were highly dependent on each other in a particular product value chain, the twain barely ever met in purpose, harmony or delivery. Left unchecked, this work culture dissonance had added over a month to the end to end delivery turnaround time of the particular service. Complaints were rife; staff had been changed multiple times; bonuses were withheld. But despite the best of intentions, the issue stuck like the karmic backlash of a past life. Simply because there was no defined work culture, ethos or a shared Big Picture.

This work culture incongruity is a death knell for companies, especially in the service industry where, unlike in consumer goods producing FMCGs*, the end-user gratification is a sum total of their experience at that point in time with the organisation. Think of opening an account at a bank; your entire takeaway is nothing more than the knowledge that you have a new account in a particular bank underscored by the experience that accompanied that fact. Therefore, leaving the objectives of a mid-sized to large corporation undefined to its daily drivers and facilitators translates into the inevitable gross dilution of end-user experience that in time leaves nothing of the original/ intended USPs* of the company

Enter the dual magic of the Vision and Mission Statements*. These vessels allow management to clearly, concisely and effectively embody not only the existential purpose of the company; but also right to the T, what it means to be a part of the company as staff, customer, supplier and advertiser. (I’m personally not a big fan of shareholder stakes being vocalised in these statements). Building focused understanding, enthusiasm and energy behind these formal statements help to create and perpetuate a distinct company culture. People respond because by nature we are social creatures, and these statements of purpose then become the catalyst for nurturing a community of professionals with a clear unified end goal. A robust company culture though, is not a static thing. While the primary values remain unchanged (e.g. an FI’s* focus on technology, accessibility and financial security), the culture around those values is ever evolving to successfully accommodate the continuous diversity of its people, systems, customers and the external environment. The openness to change needs to be learnt/ imbibed at the get-go; imparted with veracity, in the very earliest of company orientation training programs.

Company management, the ManCom*, is the rightful custodian of the Vision and Mission statements; while every staff is the practical incumbent. In the best organisations, Management role models these values in visible ways to give them meaning, relevance, and to embed them into the DNA of the organisation at large. A game-changing organzational culture is one where its staff members are recognizable almost anywhere in the positivity of their bearing, attitude and pride of affiliation. For me, one such organisation was ABN AMRO bank in the late 90s into the mid 2000s in Pakistan. It was a poster child for hitherto unknown brands taking the market by storm; and continues to be a professional alma mater for so many even after it has ceased to exist in that particular market.

And so, a cohesive organisational culture which brings people together into a work community of purpose, is the first cornerstone of an organisation that successfully leads the charge and is able to cement its position as a leader in the industry.

(Read Part 2 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/11/12/the-corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-2/ )

(Read Part 3 here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2020/12/01/corporate-seriesdemystifying-organizational-success-part-3/ )

*NRFC account: Non Resident Foreign Currency account

*FMCG: Fast Moving Consumer Goods

*USP: Unique Selling Proposition

*Vision and Mission statements: A Mission Statement defines the company’s business, its objectives and its approach to reach those objectives. A Vision Statement describes the desired future position of the company. Elements of Mission and Vision Statements are often combined to provide a statement of the company’s purposes, goals and values.

*FI: Financial Institution

*ManCom: corporate parlance for the Management Committee