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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mr. Bandookwala, MBA, Harvard

I recoiled at the sight of him. Was it the same person? Was it the man who, when he strode into Pinnacle Construction Ltd., used to make the receptionist and telephone operator quiver in their seats? Was it the same man who was known as the blue-eyed boy of the chairman, the MBA show boy from the US, who dazzled everyone with his brilliance and his personal charm?

Surprising how people can change when their positions are taken away from them. Fate had played a cruel game with Mr. Bandookwala. No, he neither had a bandook, a gun, nor was he in the business of guns, not that I know of. But he had all the making of an Automatic Kalashnikov 47 about the way he strode, the way he spoke, and the way the peons and the employees of his department scattered and hid from his gaze in those days.

Now I couldn’t believe the man sitting opposite me was the same powerful Dinshaw Bandookwala. The fire seemed to have died in his eyes, eyes which now looked sunk and haunted. His nervous tics and obsessions were more apparent, his fingers worrying a few polyps on his face. He carried a crumpled leather bag and didn’t wear his natty shirts and equally elegant ties.

Times were when I used to admire the clothes he wore, two-toned shirts straight out of the Arrow executive collection, something I wished I had. They were too expensive for me. I admired the deodorants he wore, and everything about him spelled class and panache. But the man who was sitting opposite me seemed to have shrunk, his eyes had lost its glitter, his well-cut hair was in disarray, and his shirt was soiled as if it hadn’t been washed for days. The way he sat opposite my executive chair, he seemed like a supplicant, the sort who came to me for advertisements and sponsorships.

********

Those were the days I had to queue outside his cabin to get his attention. He had left strict instructions that I had to have permission from him through the secretaries to meet him. Then when he gave permission, he kept me waiting outside his cabin till, at last, he had the inclination to meet me. All this for his own work, work for which he would take credit. I would hang around his cabin this way for hours, afraid of even knocking for fear that I would disturb his concentration. When I, a blubbering mass by now, finally entered the cabin to get approval on some proofs, he would look at me rather distractedly and shoot me something like, “Why is the article “the” not before “company”? And, I would come out of my dither with difficulty, think of what to say, and before I could say anything, he would dismissively fling what I had written at me and say “Rajesh, first read and edit carefully before bringing me such crap.” His lips would curl as he said this.

I would be so traumatized that I would stare at the sheet not knowing what had gone wrong with my writing, my words, and wonder whether I would ever make it as a writer, or, for that matter a “corporate communication executive.”

******

But things had changed. I had resigned from the job at Pinnacle Constructions Ltd. and moved ahead. I am now General Manager (Corporate Communications) of a leading construction company and Mr. Dinshaw Bandookwala wants my account. After leaving Pinnacle, Dinshaw hadn’t done well in his business and obviously he was now clutching at straws. I could see from his drooping expression that he was either lazing around in front of the television doing nothing or was into something addictive. He smelled bad and looked as if he hadn’t had a bath for a long time. Unbelievable! He smelled so good in those days, the best of deodorants for him, brands I wouldn’t even recognize. He drew the best salary in the company, he was given the company’s best car, a huge cabin with a view of the city, a driver, and a peon as a, sort of, personal valet. This peon carried his lunch bag and brief case from car to his cabin and back, shined his shoes, brought him tea, handed him papers, delivered his paper to other executives and stood outside to run errands and serve him lunch. He had mandated that the peon should wash his hands with soap every time he handled his food and also shouldn’t eat his food unless he had eaten.

With me he had similar rules. I was to be very attentive when I spoke to him as if he was some celestial deity, whom I had to worship for giving me darshan, or divine sighting! I would tremble when the peon rushed to me to whisper that he had called me. And then what I have described above would repeat and rarely was there a day when he wouldn’t throw proofs and drafts I had carefully written and taken to show him. “You call this writing, there’s no flow, no thought, no ideas, you are all over the place,” he would say shaking his head. I believed I was bad, and I would exit his cabin as would a man condemned to death by hanging.

Everyone in the organisation was subjected to such treatment. His secretaries, he had two of them, were insulted every hour for this or that. Sometimes he wanted his secretaries to call someone and make them hold on the phone before he spoke to them; sometimes he wanted them to connect them immediately. He never told who was to wait and who was to be connected, and this led to endless rows with his secretaries. Everything had to be done in seconds or the big man would become mad and angry. And when he became angry everyone would get mauled. He wouldn’t think before making personal remarks, “you are wasting the company’s time, you shouldn’t move from your seat unless I tell you to,” he told his secretary one day. A high-ranking executive working under him was told to fan him when a few flies settled on his face one rainy day. The peons called him yeda, mad, behind his back.

*************

What a change? Can a man change so much? I mean, how much can a man change when he is relieved of his position? Was he justified in misusing such a position with impunity as Dinshaw did? These questions buzzed around in my mind like bees. I was enjoying every moment that Dinshaw sat cringing before me, his facial tics making his discomfiture apparent. He used to be so glib in those days, articulating marketing concepts and spouting jargon as if he was an encyclopaedia of management concepts.

That he was the chairman’s blue-eyed boy was understood by everybody. They hastened to get out of the way of this fast-talking master of business administration (MBA) from Harvard when he approached. He was supremely confident then and flaunted his knowledge, poise, and charm. I couldn’t believe how such an individual could fall, and fall so fast in a few months. But that the cantankerous chairman could change his geriatric mind and dictatorial ways was not unknown to the staff. So when the staff kow-towed to Dinshaw they did it with the full knowledge that the powerful show boy could be a penniless pauper if he wasn’t too careful. But Dinshaw went cheerfully ahead, enlivening staid annual general meetings with presentations, socialising with industry leaders at dinner and cocktail parties, mingling with fickle minded media sales executives and advertising agency regulars.

Now when Dinshaw speaks he doesn’t have the twang of his American accent, proving that the drawling accent had been put on to establish that he was a foreign-returned MBA. Words didn’t issue from his mouth with hardly a thought about what harm it could do and he no longer had his collegiate charm. Oh God! I groaned. He hadn’t even shaved himself properly, stubble stood on his chin, and the hair around the temples had a few grey strands. Those days he went to a famous hairdresser who only served clients by appointment. No, no, this can’t be the Dinshaw Bandookwala I had worked with, no, this is another apparition of him, ruined, derelict. I couldn’t believe it. Was he depressed, or, ill with some incurable disease? I was feeling sorry for him.

************

He misused the system. There are certain people who take advantage of the trust that is bestowed on them. Those days he used to come at around lunch time everyday and leave around six in the evening. Most of his work was done from his posh flat in Peddar Road, also a company-owned one. Should he have been so totally dependent on the company’s perquisites? He should have known that the chairman “bestoweth” as well as “taketh away” as the good Lord often does. Did an MBA from Harvard not give him even mundane wisdom such as this? Or, was the MBA any good at all, considering it didn’t even teach everyday commonsensical truths? How can young people like Dinshaw not know the pitfalls of being totally dependent on his employer?

Now as he droned some spiel about synergistic convergence in the marketing space, which I knew was drivel, I interrupted him:

“What happened, Mr. Bandookwala? What went wrong?”

He looked up, a bit shaken at this question. He looked hurt. His eyes misted, a haunted look came over his face, and he bit his lips to stop it from quivering.

For a few moments he was silent and sat there looking at his fingernails, slowly shifting his gaze from one hand to the other, a sign of being depressed. I hadn’t got an answer; I was waiting for him to speak. His head slanted to his right, his mouth opened to speak but closed again and no words came out.

What went wrong? I was still wondering.

*******************

Mr. Bandookwala had a way with women. I could deduce from the day I saw him that he was something of a ladies man. The tell-tale signs were there: the confident smile, the small inoffensive jokes, the gallant manners, the opening of doors, and the saying of pleasant things like, “you look nice” and “I like your pendant” which women like a lot. He knew how to give a compliment without sounding like he needed something in return for it. Most of all, he could make women laugh with jokes that didn’t make him look like a male chauvinistic pig. And this made me admire him even more because I didn’t have those qualities. When I cracked jokes women stared at me as if something was wrong, but when he made them, women hung to his every word.

There was a steady stream of desirable women dropping in to visit him in those days. They were stunning-looking girls who had had been models for obscure clothes and jewellery lines, and the novelty of their faces having worn down, now were working as ad space sellers for magazines and newspapers. I had to admit that they must have got their jobs because they were good looking and the newspapers were desperately looking to gain entry into busy executives’ cabins if they wanted to sell any space. Beauty sells, especially of the feminine kind. So one newspaper had decided that they would hire only “pretty girls” and on any given day there was a queue of “Pretty Girls” from the newspaper waiting to meet charming and successful Mr. Bandookwala, the bestow-er of the company’s advertisements.

I used to be jealous when he would sit for hours flirting with the “Pretty Girls.” One day I was slinking outside his cabin trying to catch his attention through a tiny peep hole. He was flirting with a comely space seller inside. I had to send the proof of the company’s private circulation magazine for printing and needed his final approval, a squiggly signature he would write with a circle around it on the proof. He had taken one look at the proof and had flung it on me in front of the desirable specimen of feminineness, “Why is there a common before ‘and,’ I told you I don’t want serial commas in my magazine.”

But those days I had detected nervousness, an obsessive streak in him, his inability to let things go before passing on to the next project, his inability to accept the inevitability of things others see as stumbling blocks that should, at all costs, be avoided. It seemed these compulsions were eating into his family life as the staff often found that the ritual of hand washing was going a bit too far. “Have you washed your hand?” he would ask his peon obsessively. Was he alright? Was his marriage going okay? What’s obsessing him so much as to insist that his peon wash his hands before he handled anything he ate or drank? He also confronted people instead of finding ways mitigating common human foibles. He was intolerant of mistakes. Maybe, being ambitious, he wanted to be seen as a dynamic man, a faultless man, but there’s a limit to such an obsession.

************

“What happened, Mr. Bandookwala?”

I knew I was being blunt, but if I was to entrust him with the marketing and corporate relations of the company I am working for, I needed to know. Or, else? Or, else, I could be out of a job and could demolish whatever career I had painstakingly built after I left Pinnacle Construction Ltd.

“Is everything okay on the home front?” I knew I was being inquisitive but I had to know if I was to consider his proposal at all. You never know about such high-profile people, what with families breaking up, people wanting more space and all?

“No nothing, they are fine. Why do you ask?”

Still I wasn’t convinced. He was lying. Something had happened of which I wasn’t aware. A man who was considered a mover and shaker in the realty industry, a man who was considered the spokesman of Pinnacle Construction Ltd., was now a depressingly remote person without the charisma I had once associated with him. It shamed me to think that I had thought of him as my role model.

And then I ended the appointment as too many things were queuing up to be done. I wanted to help him, but I felt I couldn’t trust him with the company’s business as too much was at risk. In corporate portals your reputation depended on the people with whom you were associated, and I didn’t want my company to be associated in any way with someone who had botched up his life, real bad.

Then from the corporate grapevine I knew the truth, the naked, shocking truth. There were rumours of a few affairs he had had on the sly. His wife had left him and he was living alone in Bombay.

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