Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
Journey down memory lane

The writer reminisces about his first assignment abroad as a foreign officer of the EEPC on a three-year assignment to Beirut. The 48th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

 

Our Lufthansa flight left Washington Dulles International airport very much on time, thanks to typical German efficiency. As we all settled down comfortably, friendly hostesses began to serve our drinks, followed by our supper. The last few days were hectic in Washington and now our planned retirement schedule has just began and would become more apparent once we set our foot on the Bangalore soil.
 
I remember I was talking to a leading gasket manufacturer in Delhi, when I was on the final leg of my Bharat Darshan tour, prior to my posting as a foreign officer in Beirut. I was scheduled to return to return back to Calcutta the next day, and a few days thereafter, I was to take a flight to Beirut. Only a few days earlier, before I left Calcutta, I had been to the Lebanese Consulate office and met Mr Hada, the Honorary Counsellor and obtained my multi-entry visa. I was very excited about this first international trip and that too on a three-year posting.
 
The operator had transferred a call from Girish, who asked me to return back to base immediately and I advised him that I was on the wait list for the next day. “No, make it tonight, and be in the office first thing tomorrow morning”.  Meanwhile, our Delhi office managed to get my seat for the same day and I returned back. Next morning I left home early, stopped at the Bharat Battery factory at Tangra, when Girish located me again and asked me to return to office immediately. When I did, it was a rush job, running from one place to another, Reserve Bank of India (RBI), our head office and quick meetings. At the end, I was told that all documents, including the passports would be delivered at home, as I was flying that night, taking a Pan Am flight 002 to Beirut, leaving at 0030 hours!
 
I was embarking on an international journey; I had not bid goodbye to my close friends and even my family came to know of my trip that day only after I had reached home. My dear friend and well wisher, Girjashankar Shivshankar Joshi, was the MC directing all of us as to what to do; his car was at my disposal and hurried packing began, and our family came to Dum Dum airport to bid goodbye.
 
Apparently, I was the only passenger boarding the Pan Am flight going west, and at 11.30, I was asked to go through customs formalities. The flight left on schedule at 00.30 hours.  Around an hour later, they served a hot breakfast, and as I had not had time to sit and eat a proper meal, I enjoyed it, but only to go back to sleep. The coach came and collected some five passengers, including me, and another twenty minutes later, having collected my baggage, I was outside, in the lounge.  It was early morning in Beirut, and my predecessor, V Lakshmipathy personally came to pick me up. The city looked beautiful as we drove along the sea and reached home on Jean D’ Arc off Hamra Street.
 
Lakshmipathy had spent some four years in Beirut, and was promoted to take over the London office of EEPC. After a quick shower, we walked to Wardieh Square, and went up the Commestra Building, where I was introduced to Rozine Gulvartian the secretary. As we had coffee, Lakshmipathy generally explained our activities, and assured me, that it would be a cake-walk for a person like me, coming as I did from the industry. We then rushed off to the British Bank of the Middle East, so that account operation responsibilities were passed on to me. On his advice, I had carried my passport, and registration and signature attestation formalities were quickly complied.
 
We were on Rue Hamra, the main thoroughfare and fashion centre of east Beirut; the same street led all the way to Buruj (or the Martyr square), but near the Sabbagh Centre, where in the corner was the Central Bank of Lebanon, the road was known as Rue Kantari, which is where the Indian Embassy was located. Not a great distance to walk, half a mile at best, and so, we took a brisk walk to reach there. The ground floor of the building had a huge glass paned display of goods. This turned out to be the office of the State Trading Corporation.  We did not stop here, but quickly rushed to pay a courtesy call on Ambassador AK Dar. I was introduced as the new successor; Lakshmipathy reconfirmed that he was leaving for London on posting there.  It was a general chat and he was given a brief about me; the Ambassador was courteous and mentioned that he looked for to continuous support and cooperation from the Council's new representative.
 
We moved on to stop over at STC office, where I was introduced to Ganga Lal Casewa, the manager. We spoke briefly; he too was nice and looked forward to close cooperation from the new foreign officer.
 
We returned back, walking to our office, taking the same route of Rue Kantari becoming Rue Hamra and then a brief walk by the Jean D’ Arc to reach home. Mustafa, a cab owner was the man Friday for the entire Indian community, which is what Lakshmipathy told me. It was he and a couple of others who took us all in the afternoon to the airport to bid good bye to Lakshmipathy and his wife. I think we had a quick bite in Amritlal Parekh’s residence, who was also living in the same building in the seventh floor.
 
Our apartment was in the Saleh Shatilla Building on Jean D’ Arc, where Lakshmipathy had begun his Beirut career some four years earlier. It was a very spacious flat with three bedrooms, and reasonably furnished.
 
I think we returned back from the airport, had some food in Mr and Mrs Kumar's residence, and who arranged to have me dropped near the Commodore hotel, which was a couple of minutes away from our apartment. I woke up early, because of the time difference, and got ready to reach the office by 7.45 am, because I was told that offices opened at 8 am. I had the key and when Rozine came in, I was already in the office, making notes, surveying the set up, so that I could start early!
 
By about 11.30, I had the first surprise visitor; Kish Kapoor, my ex boss, and general sales manager of Indian Cable Co Ltd, under whom I worked for some six years and established a proper export department, write later, had just walked in.  It was a pleasant surprise; he wanted me to give him the pleasure of company over lunch. We had a lunch and returned back to office. I had left InCab in 1968 and had moved over to Ushas to work under Lala Bishanswaroop Agarwal, the man who built the ‘Usha’ brand in India. I had worked under him for a little over a year, before applying and getting the job with EEPC as its Foreign Officer, in May 1969.
 
Rozine was waiting for me to explain a few things, as our office, apparently closed by 2 pm every day, in line with the Indian Embassy. Sorry, poor girl, you are in for a surprise, as I thought to myself. After she left, I continued to investigate the office work procedure, filing system, data that we had to give to visiting exporters and the information that we have been passing on to intending buyers from the market.
 
Customer service of a different kind was expected in disseminating knowledge of India. Our job was to build the image of India as a supplier of products and services; we had to explain that we have the manpower to come and assist them in building factories and there were hundreds of products, with American, British and European brands that were being made in India, many of which were being exported back to their parent companies, where there was collaboration.
 
The task before me was enormous and on the very first day I realized that I had to pick up some Arabic and French, which were the main languages in Lebanon, though I was told that the Arabic spoken locally was very ‘refined’ compared to the ‘crude’ form used in many other parts in west Asia, Middle East in particular.
 
So, working from 8 to 2 was not going to help; I had made up my mind that it would have to change from 8 to 5 in the next few days, whether Rozine liked it or not!

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at anantha_ramdas@yahoo.com.)

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In Tamil media, astrology, spirituality and religion are hot-selling items

Tamil Nadu boasts of the largest number of spiritual magazines (around 70). Most of them are geared to exploit the vulnerability of their readers  

 

Tamil Nadu boasts the highest number of spiritual magazines in India. At last count, the number of such magazines was hovering at around 70. What is common to all these magazines is dollops and dollops of free spiritual advice (new mantras being published every month) besides, of course, the ubiquitous astrological advice. Almost 25% of the state's population seems to look at astrology as a full-time career option.

Let us take a look at the typical content in such magazines. The cover story would be an enticing topic like-"How to ensure your ward's success in exams"- an annual feature during the months of March and April. Then there are a few think-pieces on hypothetical issues like whether LordRam did the right thing in banishing Seeta from Ayodhya-never mind if the issue has been discussed a zillion times before. Then there are pages after pages about new temples with the gratuitous mention at the end of each that "visiting these shrines will help the poor earn wealth, parents to get their daughters married, unemployed will get a job and the sick heal quickly".  There is nothing wrong in publishing information about new and unknown temples but the unsubstantiated reason offered at the end to nudge people into visiting them is what rankles readers like me the most.

The less said about astrological forecasts offered by these publications the better. The predictions range from - "you will fight with your brother" or "mother's health needs attention" or attention getters like "please be careful with your boss" or "you will enter into a land dispute". Stuff like, "you will suffer from stomach ache and diarrhoea" is always a possibility in India and cuts across age and gender barriers!

Tamil TV channels telecast several programmes exclusively devoted to astrological forecasts. Jaya TV, the Tamil Nadu chief minister's channel tops the list. But this is a trend that cuts across Indian states and language barriers. For the past couple of months, many Hindi channels too have devoted their prime time coverage to a strange Nirmal Baba, some under the guise of exposing his hollow antics. In fact, several godmen and godwomen are prime time newsmakers on all regional channels.

The promotion is not restricted to advice. A magazine called "Kumudam Bhakti" used to supply 'holy' Ganga water along with its Diwali issue.  Another magazine regularly sent out "tantras" to be kept in the pooja room with assurance that doing so would result in a flood of gold coins in one's home.

If you analyse a one-year collection of any of these astrological magazines, it becomes apparent that there is a simple formula to dishing out advice. Inject a bit of fear with regard to health, wealth and relationships and pander to greed by dangling the prospect of goodies. Who is going to cross-check anyway? It is like Vividh Bharati playing the same "Man Chahe" geet on a few Wednesdays without anyone noticing it. And who is to know whether a "Rekha, Madan, Rinku, Chinky and Pintoo" from Udhampur or jhumritalaiya have really requested a particular Hindi song? Does anyone know if the same predictions are repeated?

Most of astrologers give themselves titles like "Chakravarthy , "King of Astrologers", "Real Astrologer". I also learn that a new breed of people who have taken voluntary retirement from nationalised banks have found themselves a second career as astrologers. No wonder, India has no dearth of them.  

There may be a few good astrologers but they are conspicuous by their absence. MR Ramarathnam, a retired professional, based in Chennai, says, "The real astrologers will never take money for predictions. Neither will they look at horoscopes after sunset". Gone are the days when astrological advice was given cautiously keeping the reading public in mind.

Sukumar Sakthivel approached a Tanjore-based astrologer who calls himself "the King of Mandreekam" (mandreekam is the Tamil word for sorcery). Within a week, he received a detailed letter from the astrologer telling him that his life was in danger and someone had performed black magic on him. Solution?  "He advised me to send him a cheque for Rs39,000 immediately to perform a chandika homam that would help in warding off my enemies", says Sukumar. There was also a veiled threat that in case he did not do the pooja, his condition would worsen. Sukumar's spouse Sanyogita fired him for even approaching the astrologer. A week later, Sukumar and his family took off for a trip to Kerala (a kind of religious pilgrimage) and in the next three weeks, Sukumar landed a new job. He is doing fine now. I hope this incident serves as warning to those who spend money based on such advice.

A retired professional who wanted to build a temple for Lord Hanuman shared his experience with a local magazine. He started out by approaching an astrologer for "prasannam" (an astrological forecast using sea-conches and shells) and as shocked to be told that he wouldn't live to see the temple completed. While he was completely shattered, his wife rubbished the astrologer's predictions and gave him the confidence to continue his work. Twenty-seven years later, the gentleman is still alive and though his wife passed away two years ago, he can't thank her enough.

Ramarathnam adds, "The world today is characterized by an extreme avarice even in the religious community. Even temple priests do not perform the archanas religiously. Most of them are only after money. There is also an explanation that they offer that they also need to survive and so they need the money".  Again, this is not restricted to Tamil Nadu. The greed and grasping behaviour of the pandas (priests) at the world famous Jagganath temple a Puri (Orissa) is often a culture shock for first time visitors, even if they have been warned. Nobody denies temple priests their legitimate dues, but can money be the only driving factor in a temple?

A Mumbai-based priest who performs poojas at film stars' homes was famous for demanding gold chains and gold rings to religious ceremonies. He is so glamorous that he even appeared in a television advertisement. Another Dombivli-based priest has extended his brand to offer catering services. In South Indian Brahmin families, there is a tradition of visiting the "kula deivam" (family deity) after a marriage in the family. The temples of the family deities located in small towns are seldom maintained well as none of the younger generation of Brahmins is willing to take up the job of a village priest.

The dwindling population of Tamil Brahmins in villages in Tamil Nadu (and even in cities) is posing a major challenge. Prior to visiting these temples, you have to keep the priest informed well in advance! Interestingly, most cities have an acute shortage of priests and pujaris because the next generation don't necessarily want to follow the family tradition or devote time, beyond their school work for the rigor involved in learning all the Sanskrit rituals and mantras by rote.  This means the price of having a priest for rituals soars during major festivals or the wedding season. Most of priests have four-wheelers and two-wheelers and during major festivals, most religious activity has to be timed according to the appointment given by the busy priest for the puja and rituals. It is this shortage that has removed the taboo on women conducting religious rituals.

On the flip side, the new generation is far less religious or inclined to follow rituals like thread changing ceremonies or the "sandhya vandanam" or performing the gayatri japa regularly.
Nikhil Kelkar a retired professional says, "I follow the principle of Sadguru Wamanrao Pai (who passed away recently). Man can shape his destiny if he has the will". Mumbai based professional C Vaidyanathan, a logistics expert, believes that self-confidence is the key. He adds, "No problem is insurmountable if you have the will to face it head on. If you are part of the problem, then the solution lies with you".

Lastly, readers will do well to recall a short story written by Munshi Premchand. Look at his foresight! An angry housewife throws something at a cat which has entered her kitchen. The cat is dead. There is a furore in the house. The priest is summoned and he orders that a golden statue of cat is made and donated to him to seek salvation from the sin of the cat-hatya. Even as deliberations and negotiations are on with the priest, there is a shriek from the kitchen. The cat is not dead-it has run away!

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Returning to our roots: The end of a long journey

After spending some 38 years overseas the writer is seen making plans to return back to India. The 47th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

The property market is a barometer for the economic conditions prevailing in the country, because it has always a dream of every person to own a house and call it and make it his/her own home. Land prices, for instance, in Washington DC area were increasing by the hour, if and where available; as is the universal habit with building contractors, they were buying small parcels, demolishing the old houses, and building multi-storied buildings, or townhouses with most modern facilities.
 
The rates varied from location to location. In some areas like Woodbridge, a few miles down the road on the Richmond Highway where very large and beautiful buildings were built just a few years earlier, was now coming down in market value. The enthusiasm was now on the back-burner, as the owners were facing difficulties in travelling back and forth to their places of work. Tenants were leaving the owners in the lurch and a lot of houses were being foreclosed by banks, which had lent money for buying them.
 
Our own house, which was also on the Richmond Highway side road, was in demand, all because one could be in Washington DC in less than fifteen minutes by metro or by car. As our son had made up his mind to return and settle down in Bangalore, we began to seriously consider a move likewise at the best opportunity. We began a search for a good real estate broker who could advice us.
 
We recalled how some seven years earlier we had met Nigel Willis, whose name was recommended by a neighbour, as the realtor who would be putting up a Chimney Wood Court townhouse on sale in a week or ten days from the time we met her, and gave us his phone number. We got in touch with him and after a brief chat, Nigel gave us good guidance, recommended his own friend Robert (Bob) McEl Roy, a real estate financier who was associated with the Bank of America, and based on his advice, we made a bid, which was accepted by the owner. We had happily lived in that townhouse for some seven years, and now, we planned to sell it at the best possible price.
 
In the meantime, as other houses in the community were also coming up for sale, we visited and it was my wife Neela who came up with recommendation of two other realtors, Curt McArtor and Patty & Maria. So, we asked Nigel, Curt and Patty Maria team to make the bids so that we could make a comparative study and decide as to who would be our agent to handle the sale. We chose Curt, whose recommendations and ideas were more practical and within our budget, because we needed to do so upgrading before the house went on sale. We did not want to spend too much money on beautification and modernization, as it was then difficult for the new owners to make changes, should they desire to do so.
 
I must marvel the professional way Curt and his team went about doing the planning. We had regular discussions, repair and repainting work, and finally a virtual photo session by a specialised team, ending with a beautiful brochure printed and presented to the prospective buyers. We had planned that the whole process should take something like 120 days at best. Before the deadline we had a few buyers but it was a military couple who made the final successful and acceptable offer. Prepared by lawyers on both sides, after a few last minute minor hiccups of repairs, the entire transaction took place in less than one hour in the lawyer's office, based on a simple document like our drivers' license! Just like they said in the meeting, “the entire amount will be transferred to your account by 2pm today, when you can get the confirmation from your bankers”. When we called Jim at the bank at 2.15, he confirmed the amount has been “credited to your account” but you can access it “only tomorrow”! Doing business like this is a satisfying experience!
 
Meanwhile, we had located a nearby residential complex with some 500 apartments, so that we could move in when the sale was completed. Since Gregory, the new buyer had already deposited the required amount in the escrow account; we had no problem in making our commitment to move into the rented apartment until our return.
 
We had decided to leave Washington by second week of October 2007; based on the long use of my Visa card and the ‘miles’ earned, I decided to use the same for getting one ticket from this, and buy the other through the agents, but coordinating the departure plans, so that we could leave together. We finally made a booking to leave on 19th October.
 
Leaving in October meant that we had spent some 38 years abroad. We had come to the Middle East in a couple of suitcases and now we had to leave behind a lot of stuff, mostly free and for charitable institutions and for the needy, but other personal items, down to the kitchenware, etc, had to return with us. There was nothing electrical that we could take, because of the different voltage systems applicable in both the countries, and even the table-top computers were given away to needy students, along with book shelves, other wood furniture, etc. Since the new rented place was a walkable distance from our Chimney Wood Court home, by using our cars we began the shift, as we moved into the final sale and transfer deed formalities.
 
We planned a holiday within the US and Canada before our departure and bid goodbye to our employers. In my own case, as luck would have it, the Sheraton Suites, which was a franchised property, managed by Starwood, was bought over by TPG group, a very large conglomerate with interest in various areas including hospitality industry. Their own staff was moving in to take over our jobs, and a lot of the staff was retained, but I was one of the few who had to go; in a way, earlier than planned. I had decided to give them notice in September, so that I could train somebody before leaving in October, but still take a vacation. Well, this was not to be.
 
In more ways than one, this was a blessing in disguise; I was able to systematically pack our belongings, prepare and keep detail recording of every single box that was to be sent back to India in a container; stay at home, cook the food, and dispose junk collected over years and deliver all those recyclable items for charity. Who would need heavy blankets, snow jackets and other similar items for use in India? We disposed off the first car, a Nissan Sentra. It was bought in no time, as the buyer could not believe her own eyes when we said that it was one owner-driven and accident-free! The other, a Protege Mazda, is the hardy vehicle we took on our trips to Atlantic City and drove it all the way to Ottawa to see the Niagara Falls on the way and spend some time with our niece there. Our son Anand had joined us for this purpose from Dubai and after a few days drove back to Alexandria.
 
In New York we went took the trolley and drove around all important places and the Lady of Liberty Statue, a gift from the French more than 200 years ago.
 
We took a few days rest, and took off again, but this time, all the way to stop over and spend two days in San Jose to be with our extended family, after which we took our flight to visit Las Vegas to spend two days in the MGM Grand. We met thousands of one-eyed jacks (slot machines), and saw the unbelievable sight of people gambling away their fortunes in the hope of making one!

In the end, we had the excitement, enjoyment and saw some nice shows. We did not return with loads of cash, but did not lose much either, as we had planned everything to the detail and stood by our own promises!
 
I think a couple of weeks later the clearing agents came and collected the entire consignment, and assured us the delivery in Bangalore in four to six weeks thereafter.
 
For the last few days stay before our actual departure we returned back and stayed at the Sheraton Suites to be with our friends with whom I had worked for some seven years. My wife had left her job at the Fort Belvoir a couple of months earlier, and so it was a sort of forced relaxation, but anxiety kept creeping in as what we would do when we get back in India.
 
I sold the Protege just a few days before we left the Sheraton and took the opportunity to visit the Shiva-Vishnu and Karthik temples in Maryland before we left for India.
 
Our Air France flight left Washington Dulles airport on time; it would stop at the Charles De Gaulle airport at Paris for a few hours when we would change aircraft for our onward journey to arrive the next morning in the early hours, after some 17 hours of flight!
 
Immediately after take-off, food was served along with drinks and table wine. I had a good meal, and dozed off to sleep, with my safety belt on...

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at anantha_ramdas@yahoo.com.)

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