The academic project and trust's business kept me occupied for the next half year. But I could not see how to go faster with the development of the younger generation. Even if we could lift a few of the new generation into a new orbit, it would set the path.
But the dream of breaking the entry barriers of elite institutions seemed very difficult. The mediocre path was not in my option list. First was the challenge of knowledge gap. It was partly linked to the fact that all our teachers used the medium as Hindi. But, there was no elite institution in the country that taught in Hindi, even non technology intensive ones like the IIMs.
We also needed more folks with scientific temper. We could not wish to stay like this till next generation developed that. We needed to show them role models.
I needed fresh ideas. Now I felt the urge to leave the area and rediscover the world, and forge new friends with different knowledge. The present level of work was quite settled, and the team and processes were going to be stable for years. I started transitioning my and Piya’s work to the local heads.
They would report to us on mail, and I planned to visit every month and monitor. Within four weeks, we were ready to move out.
After some research, we settled in Thane near Mumbai in May, 2013. The suburb had all the facilities and suited our low profile lifestyle. It gave me time to observe, read and think about future and also complete this book.
But staying all day on the fourteenth floor was proving too much to handle. The distance with nature was also counter-productive. After some weeks, I expressed a desire to join some part time work in Mumbai. Piya laughed, “But you won’t last too long in a job now. I know you.”
I said, “There is no harm in trying. At least I will know something in the process.”
I went for many interviews, before settling down in a small consulting firm. The single owner and boss here was Mr. Bhatia. During the interview, he asked, “Why haven’t you done proper jobs for last seven years? By now, your equivalents must be fund managers somewhere.”
My resume had listed the business role at the trust. I had also cited a limitation on the working hours. I answered, “I tried to set up a business but it failed. I had an accident, and then had to shoulder many responsibilities. So I worked for this Trust.”
He said, “You cannot make an honest and successful business out of these poor folks. They have no purchasing power, but they aspire to live like the rich. You can make them buy inferior products at higher margins and buy their good quality produce at thin margins.”
I didn’t say anything. I did not like his attitude but then he was truthful in stating what he thought. He continued, “But I like that you have a different experience than others. I can hire you but don’t expect a salary anywhere closer to a similarly qualified person. Even for fulltime job, I could not have paid more than ten lacs per annum. But for limited hours, I cannot pay more than three lacs. Tell me if you have any issues.”
I said, “Make it three point six lacs. It would be just more than my first post MBA job fifteen years back.” He agreed.
The firm was a local one, and had prominent personalities on its client list. The owner, Mr. Bhatia, was a flamboyant Punjabi fellow. The firm consulted on anything under the sun, from advertisements to financial advice. There were about thirty employees. When any assignment came, all huddled in a conference room and came up with ideas. It was up to the owner to select one idea and then develop that into an action plan.
It was the most unstructured place. What the owner liked about me was that he would pay only for days when there was work for me. But he rated me highly, and took frequent advice. What I liked about the offer was that I could work for half the time. And for two or three days a week, I would go out of the apartment and mingle with the other employees. The diversity of assignments with the firm told me a lot about rich personalities in Mumbai.
A couple of months passed with small tasks. One day, Bhatia called me to the office early. He had been excited about a new assignment. Last night, some major film star had requested him for an advice. This star wanted to pick up advertisements that would make his photo be a part of all rural homes.
In the office, the usual huddle was called for. Various ideas came up. In my turn, I said, “I recommend fairness creams.” A usual laughter followed. It was quite common. But Bhatia was all ears. He said, “It’s already in use by many stars. Where is the scope of one more entering homes?”
I said, “There is no limit to how much people's mind can be played with. They will try each fairness cream with a new hope. So if even the product is a hit for just two months, our star's purpose is served.”
Bhatia thought for a while. Then he rejected it and moved to a new idea.
About a month later, while watching television at home, I saw a new fairness cream advertisement. It featured the same movie star and targeted the rural audience.
I called Piya, and said, “I gave this advice to Bhatia for the same star. Bhatia could have told me if he was stealing the thought, I would not have bothered.”
Piya laughed aloud. She said, “Welcome to the corporate world. Leave this Bhatia and start your own firm.”
I did follow the first part of advice. But second part was not possible, that wasn’t the reason I was here.
I informed Bhatia on phone about my exit. No explanation was sought or given; he knew the reason.
Piya needled me again, “Whom do you think was better – Dau, Sardar or Bhatia?”
I said, “You are comparing rotten apples with rotten oranges. But that said, Dau was better – he had the guts to never crib, cry or complain. Dau was a true Rajsik character while Bhatia is primarily a Tamsik character, full of himself. He has a lot of negative emotions in his head.”
I added after some thought, “I guess Bhatia also hasn’t’ made much money out of my advice; some stronger fellow must have grabbed it leaving Bhatia with crumbs.”
Piya said, alarmed, “I think we should go back to Sohagpur. You will soon start analyzing how it works here.”
I smiled, “You asked me, so I said. Don’t worry; I have better things to do.”
Soon I got another job offer. An old friend from IIT days, who owned a company that brokered Merger & Acquisition deals, offered a role to analyze companies. The domain was limited to companies that had an agriculture or rural business. There was less work and he could market my resume. The fee was going to be a quarter percentage of the deal value I would recommend. It would be paid only if the deal materialized. Targets that could be packaged well were called promising ones; their valuation could be taken to different heights by playing with metrics.
After a couple of non promising targets, my friend assigned a really hot one – A dairy business that had approached him for finding a buyer. I analyzed this dairy business for a month, visiting them frequently. After a month, I told my friend, “Sir, this business has no strategic depth. They have no control over their feed or livestock quality or medical costs. I cannot advice their acquisition.”
He smiled, “Friend, we all know that. I think our private equity clients also will understand it. So let us not worry about it. Once it goes public, the clients will also exit it and make money. But the story has to be created now. We have so many things to write about –how they keep the herd happy, and that their processes are all mechanized, etc. etc.”
I smiled and said, “See they don’t even have enough omega 3 fatty acids in the feed. That is a measurable metric. But how do you measure the happiness of the herd, or the intensity of their fart.”
He laughed, as I did. Then, he said, “I like the new metric you came up with. We will use it somewhere in another business valuation. But on a serious note, we make money only when this deal goes through. Both the buyer and seller are quite intelligent parties; they just need us to package and vet the deal, and market our report to the world. Coming from an educated person like you and me, it would look good.”
I said, “You will have to ask someone else to deal with this one. I am sure anyone will take this - it is a certain fee coming one’s way.”
My friend said, “Ok. I respect that.” Then our association faded. I lost interest in further assignments.
Again, for some weeks, I remained mostly on the fourteenth floor before the outdoor job bug bit me again. Piya asked, “Where will you search now?”
I said, “This time I will try like a less educated guy.”
I roamed around Thane. On advice of an Auto driver, I went to stationery shops near the Railway station. There were roadside stalls having a hundreds of different leaflets with different vacancies. Each leaflet cost two rupees. I gathered about fifty different ones, and came back to my apartment.
Piya laughed and laughed. She said, “Now you will snatch a poor person’s job.”
I said, “No. I will search for some part time role, that won’t interest anyone.” That was an improbable target, in a city like Mumbai.
While I searched, going over ultra small fonts, my toddler kept interfering. Piya would also have questions, the most intelligent one being, “Will they hire you if they know you live here, in this apartment?”
I said, “I would say you are a 24 hours caretaker maid and that’s how we live here.” She was not amused.
Then she asked, “What if your new office colleagues want to visit here?”
I replied, “Let me first get a job. Then I will answer your queries.”
My efforts didn’t go in vain. I shortlisted a few advertisements. After contacting them on phone, and going through the process with two of them, I got one role – rather I chose one. Both had no takers.
The job was one of managing finances of the Auto Rickshaw Union of Thane. It was a trust that ran on very small donations from its members. The job description required the person to file quarterly statements and take signatures from the various position holders in the trust. Once in a month, the collections had to be made though there was no pressure – they came voluntarily.
It was a one room office with one phone line, one desk and two cupboards – all very old furniture. It was about five kilometers from my apartment. There was only one other colleague, an old Marathi man, who He said, introducing himself, “Folks call me Nandu Bhau. I am the head here.” He was kept there by someone high up. He would interview me.
He asked me, “Do you know Marathi?”
I said, “No.” He asked, “Then how will you manage here?”
I said, “Anyhow most of the drivers are from North; should not be difficult.”
He said, “Okay. Salary will be two thousand only. Will you be able to manage?”
I asked, “I will work elsewhere too. What are the timings here?”
He said, “I live next door. I am around all day; I drive auto but go out only for a couple of hours. You come when you want. This office has no door.” It was an open room indeed.
I asked, “What is to be done?”
He explained, “The main sir doesn’t come here; he is a close friend of the MLA. His name is Chotta Bhau. He will call you to explain your work. You fill those registers; keep a record of all income and expenses.”
I said, “Okay. But will I get paid on time?” I was not worried but I feared losing this job if I did not act like one cash strapped person.
The old man smiled, showcasing his entire brownish dental set. He said, “Koi problem ho, Chotta Bhau ko bolne ka.” (‘Don’t worry. Any problem- you just tell Chotta Bhau.’)
My prospective boss’ was known as Chotta Bhau, meaning younger brother in Marathi. I wondered what this Chotta Bhau would be like.
Next day, I met Chotta Bhau. He wore white kurta pyjamas and white leather footwear. His real name was Ajit Aamre. He was about five feet two inches, stocky and in his mid fifties. He was a nice gentleman, though a bit rough in his language. He marketed himself as the right hand man of the local MLA, who in turn was marketed as the right hand man of his party’s top bosses. He had been the main organizer of this Auto Union and had formed this trust. Once upon a time, almost twenty years back, such activities meant a path to becoming an MLA, but now the world had changed. Though, Chotta Bhau still thought he was very important in his senior’s eyes.
The Auto trust’s activities were simple. When their party would be in power, this trust shall also get some donations. They would conduct some social activities in slums where drivers lived. That would strengthen the voter base. Some percentage from the funds could be siphoned off by Chotta Bhau to survive, and lead a modest life.
When not in power, like these days, the trust languished. Its monthly donations from member Auto drivers, were supposed to total to about a paltry ten thousand rupees. That too was very irregular, and not kept record of. Out of that ten thousand, two thousand was my salary, two thousand went to Nandu Bhau, another thousand rupees on phone bills, and five thousand went to Chotta Bhau. Chotta Bhau also earned by running around for the MLA, and by siphoning off something from those whom he took to the MLA for some work. Nandu Bhau doubled up as an auto driver to maintain his household expenses.
In a way, Chotta Bhau was paying a significant part of trust’s monthly money to me, which otherwise he would have kept. He would not have hired anyone but the problem was that both of them were absolute disasters in managing the books and collecting the fee. They did not know accounts, or how to file them online. The trust’s accounts were not prepared for last four years, so they would not get any donation even if the MLA could find someone willing to give.
In such circumstances, Chotta Bhau was being pushed into closing it. He could not afford the paltry expenses of running it. But this was his identity as a major grass root leader. Closing it was akin to erasing his political identity; and he had no clue what to do about it. So I was hired, in the hope that somehow filling this post was the solution.
When I came home, and described the Trust and Chotta Bhau to Piya, she laughed for almost an hour. Babu, now a toddler, laughed with her.
But I liked both of them at first sight. They lived in a make believe world of theirs, but behaved like owners of an Estate.
The only problem between three of us was that I was not that much in awe of Chotta Bhau or Nandu Bhau. It was not disrespect, but I always had been a bit straight. It was not a trait expected of a guy taking up a part time job for two thousand rupees. My attire was always unbranded and simple, but language was much refined. So Bhau must have wondered about it.
In a few days, feeling guilty, I gave Chotta Bhau an offer, “Bhau, you pay me only when the month’s collection surpasses ten thousand, or we get some donations. I have found more work in remaining time that will pay me enough.”
Nandu said, “Bhau, he is making excuses to go.”
Chotta Bhau said, “No. He is not that kind. He talks straight.”
In a few days, we became pals. I would order tea and vada pav and pay for all. Nandu Bhau would also get to smoke. He became a more eager assistant now. We meticulously updated the list of members and their numbers and addresses, and the shift timings when they plied autos. Most of them were not the owners, so owners had also to be approached for monthly fee. But Chotta Bhau’s name worked in easing things. I revised upwards the importance rating of Chotta Bhau; he still was an important person when a strike threat was needed once a year or on some other occasions like festivals etc.
Preparation of the Auto trust’s books was another tedious job. But it became easy once I saw their bank statement- they hardly used the bank account. Only about ten percent receipts of cash had been issued, as most Auto drivers did not bother. But we could not ignore the unaccounted part in the books as it would have shown a lower membership. That in turn would significantly affect Chotta Bhau’s standing. So entries of cash inflow and outflow were made for last four years. The amounts were quite small for a year; it did not raise anyone’s eyebrows.
In two month’s time, the accounts were filed. The members’ list took another month. In last four years, Thane area had seen three times growth in the number of autos. Majority joined this union but records were not kept properly. The list of members stood at two thousand now. Logically, at old membership rates, we should have been collecting twenty thousand rupees a month. If we added inflation, it would be double of that.
However, there were more complexities. First, there was a competition from another union. Collection of any fee without tangible benefits would have led to loss of members, especially when the traffic police was under a different ruling party. Second was that Chotta Bhau took approval of higher ups before any proactive steps.
One day, I told Bhau, “Bhau, now all filings have been submitted online. I have prepared some letters addressed to the local government for requesting funds for various social activities. Please put these forward.”
The activities ranged from training auto drivers to doing a study on their socio-economic conditions.
Bhau was very elated, as if they were not requests for donation but some certificates he had received. The letters were in Marathi. Without informing both Bhaus, I had approached and paid a clerk at the Collector’s office to prepare the requests.
Chotta Bhau gave them to the assistant of the MLA, to be marked and moved forward.
After some brainstorming with Nandu Bhau, I asked Chotta Bhau if he could get the office‘s drinking water connection repaired, and get the parking space in front of office cleared by moving vendors aside. He promptly got it gone. There was space to park four auto rickshaws now. I got a board installed signifying the office.
Next, I did a deal with a food vendor. We allowed him parking space meant for one auto. In return, he would pay two thousand a month. Further, for all food supplies to office visitors, he would charge at normal rates but give back the profits to us which were almost half of the rates.
Then we stared calling twenty auto drivers to visit the office each day in the first half while I was there. They would come in at times convenient to them. We would ask them to have tea, breakfast or lunch, as their need was; but each one had to pay for himself. They did not mind, rather once our interaction was over, they felt happy of having a network. Chotta Bhau also started coming regularly, not to be left behind.
In this manner, we met almost five hundred members in that month, about a quarter of all membership. We indirectly collected about fifteen thousand rupees.
But more than that, we collected a lot of experience and data. Most folks had come from outside Thane. About half of them were fairly young, who had left their homes in far north and migrated. There was a stiff competition for an Auto Driver’s job. But it was quite a well relaxed job where owners could not exploit them to work long hours. On the other hand, those above forty were quite settled. Most had children who aspired to become professionals. It was a pleasant surprise.
But there were many other issues- they paid a relatively heavy price for basic civic amenities; they didn’t have medical insurance and if an auto needed maintenance, it wiped out their many months’ savings.
Once that month’s collections were given to Chotta Bhau, he gave me two thousand rupees. I was hesitant. I said, “Bhau, deposit them with yourself. I will take when I need them.”
Bhau said, “I don’t promise if I will have it then.” I said, “No worries.”
Bhau then got emotional. He said, “You work very well. If you don’t take this money, I will feel bad; at least allow me to throw a party for you.” Then he asked both me and Nandu to come for an evening party to a dingy dance bar that evening.
Chotta Bhau was otherwise a simple wife fearing family man, but tonight he wanted to throw a grand party – I think my not taking money was bothering him about his status.
I said, “Bhau, I haven’t had such drinks ever.” I did not mention country wines else he would have been happier. Country wine meant something much cheaper in the cities.
Chotta Bhau said, “You don’t drink but you see, na.” Then both of them laughed loudly. He said, “This Nandu can drink your part also, and see on your behalf too.”
The meeting was fixed for eight p.m. at some Chaaina Bar near Castle mill area. I told them, “I have to be home by ten else the owners will throw me out.”
I went home that afternoon and updated Piya about our celebration plan. She laughed for another hour.
The Chaaina bar had a small door, guarded by two men – a low end version of bouncers. Bhau was known there; they both saluted him. Inside, the tables were laid out in dark, while the dimly lit stage had many young girls standing, and tapping their legs on the Bollywood tunes. It was pretty early in the evening. The usual time for customer arrivals was after nine p.m.
As the night grew, the music became loud, very loud and the girls dancing became mildly more active. Some clothes came off, but remained far less than the Bollywood version of such bars. It had no art or taste or fun, but a stamp of girls’ poverty written all over it.
Nandu and Chotta Bhau drank like fishes. Once, inebriated he made many big plans. He said, “Had you come earlier in my life, I would have got a ticket. These brokers have got all the posts while folks like me have got sidelined, just because I don’t generate money. But I have built their base here.”
Then he moved to his another passion – how to run traffic systems. He did not ever remember simple numbers of this Auto union trust, but he remembered complex budget financials of local railways and highways tolls.
Our party got over by eleven. The bill came to a thousand rupees. I decided that next time I was going to take the money he gave, instead of letting them blow it away like this.
Next month, we got a grant of Twenty five thousand rupees from government, budgeted at the rate of Rupees fifty per driver. Five hundred drivers were to be trained on traffic signals. We printed two page leaflets. Whenever a driver came to the office, Nandu Bhau gave one to him and explained also. Then we took his affidavit of having been trained, to be submitted back as record. Almost full amount became our savings.
We also started an initiative to help any driver in distress of any kind –whether it was a medical need or tuition fee payment for children or anything else. He had to inform us. Then we would see who could help them. Those days the social media was still not so actively used for such causes. But the news could be spread anyhow.
No major need arose in three months, except one case where a rare blood group was needed – a blood bank owner was contacted and he helped us.
In six months, the trust’s bank account also touched one lac. I had informed Bhau that I would leave after a few months, but assured him to call me when he needed. I also started training Bhau’s daughter on how to run the affairs. She had completed her graduation and was sitting idle, looking for jobs.
By then, I had become like one of his family members, and he had a lot of members in the extended family- all living nearby. I had been many times to his home, but had never called him to our apartment. By now, he understood that there was some story behind me, but didn’t bother me.
During Ganesh utsav, I called him and his family to our apartment for lunch. Lakshmi had also been there to see the festivities in Mumbai. He came with his two children and wife, all decked up as if going to a marriage. They were initially surprised to see our set up, but then settled down.
Bhau said, “I knew from first day that you were doing this work for some study. Else why would you need to work for two thousand rupees?” He said instead of trying to guess what I did.
I said, “Bhau, there were days not long ago when I needed just two rupees also. And I was searching for a job when I came to you.” Then I showed him the advertisement leaflets that I had bought. He still didn’t believe but could not refute my search also.
Then I said, “I was looking for an honest work where I could fit in, and according to my timings. I really like your work but I have other commitments also. I will fully train your daughter.”
Then I addressed her, “If you do this work sincerely, you will never need a job. The world will offer so many opportunities if you will remain sincere and selfless to your work.”
I trained her for next one month. We expanded the purpose of the union to include the wellbeing of drivers’ wives and their issues. She learnt to unblock her mind and expand the footprint according to the changing times.
It had been more than a year in Mumbai region now. In the meanwhile, my core work had been growing. My calendar started to get fully occupied. After a month, I stopped going to Bhau’s office but they could call me on cell when needed.