I can’t express the joy I felt inside me when I got my appointment letter from Southern Investments ( SI) in Madras. Leaving home was heartbreaking for me though. As I look back in life I doubt whether there is a stronger bond than that between a young widow and her young child, staring at a mountain of problems. Among the many things I imbibed from the young widow, my mother, was her determination to not give up, whatever the circumstances. Also, along the way I learnt, from my wife, not to blame others for your difficulties, it made no sense doing that. It never solved your problems, just gave you a crutch, that’s all. I cannot tell you how much their words ,” It will be alright”, meant to me in my growing years. Mummy gave me enough money to manage till I got my first salary, and I left, as the storybooks say, to find my fortune.
In early May, Madras is HOT. The only people who had Air Conditioners were the two Directors and the Chief Engineer, of the Company. Even the General Manager, who would have been the CEO of today, did not have an Air Conditioned room. I never understood how the CE had this facility when his senior didn’t. Anyway, who was I to question this? Did I care? Not, in the least. J, two years younger to me, was my first friend in SI. The great part was we were similar “Enthu Cutlets”. On one of the early days of my career, I learnt a very crucial lesson, and J taught me that lesson. An old man, someone who was called Mr. Chettiar, walked in to the office ( I was posted at the front desk with J, to learn how a Front Desk functioned) in those days. J gave him a wide smile and chatted with him and then offered him a cup of coffee. He thanked her and went in and had his coffee, while chatting with our GM. I turned to J and asked her – How come this guy is so welcome here? He’s not even wearing an ironed dhoti. She turned around and told me – ‘We developed a property belonging to Mr. Chettiar and he owns 22 of the 96 apartments we have built there’. I didn’t know where to look. I quickly realised how stupid I was to judge a person by how he or she was dressed. Mr. Chettiar was very wealthy but he wasn’t going to show it off. Why should he? I realised, as I moved on and success touched me, that staying grounded was one of the most difficult things for anyone. The need to announce success, ones “arrival’ etc seems so important to us as we climb the ladder of success. Over the last few years I realised success was a very relative term and in reality it meant different things to different people..
Work at SI was amazing. I learnt so much while there. The great thing about Civil Engineering is that it is the only branch of engineering that can be learnt by a non technical person. I later got to know that I was a guinea pig and SI wanted to test if their theory that engineers made bad commercial managers and non technical but sales oriented people did better, running a Branch Office. I think SI was right. I was taught estimation ( now called Quantity Surveying (QS)) and how to read drawings for three months. The afternoons were very difficult as one had to stay awake while the sea breeze set in and the mixture of warm air and the cool breeze was too difficult on the eyes. I learnt to love Tamil even more than I already did, due to the passionate ways that Mr. U, our in house architect , explained words to me. After three months, I went to site and the site office was a thatched shed and as Project Manager – Trainee, I was given, a first for SI a Godrej Chair and Table. I had two Site Supervisors working under me – one was M, who was the Senior guy and another was J, a junior. M was one cocky fellow. On my first day, when I called him to come and see me he came over and sat on my desk. For a moment I was stunned and did not know what to do. Quickly I gathered my wits around me and told him, calmly and using my finger as well, “Get up. Sit on the chair. Never do this again”. He never did. When senior colleagues came to site, they would ignore me and go meet the site supervisors. I kept telling them they had to go meet me when they visited site. They ignored me as they were veterans. I didn’t stop reminding them. I then found the kindest among them and told him how I needed help to learn my job and that when he comes to site would he please take me around and pass on some tips. “Wadhyar” or Teacher, was his nick name. He and I became close and I learnt a lot from him as he knew construction well. Slowly I got everyone to know that I couldn’t be ignored. I never did that by complaining to the GM, though I had almost daily access to him. Every youngster must learn to never make the mistake of complaining and riding on the strength of others. One afternoon as I walked up to the second floor I saw a mason plastering the wall. I was with J, the supervisor and I asked the mason in Tamil – ” enna padukkaraya” – J burst out laughing – he said that meant – are you lying down. “Padikkara” was what I should have used – are you learning. I thanked him and the ice broke there. In a couple of months I was given another site and then put under Mr. K to learn handling of maintenance and forming of associations. My ‘portfolio’ grew as I was enthusiastic and never said no to anything. I learnt so much from Mr. K and the patience to handle irate customers to anything on maintaining a building was in my portfolio. I rode a second hand TVS vehicle that had seen better days, many moons ago. Riding it was such a pleasure though, remember my dreams of owning a car, well, I was on my way.
Before we did our Class 10 Board Examinations, the then Senior Master, Mr. P S Kailasam, used to famously tell us, “,March 2nd day of reckoning, ( That was when the examinations started). You fellows are not serious and therefore you will not get a good combination in college and you may have to choose a mix of Geography and Anthropology. While I drive in my car I will see you on the road with a broom in your hand and and I will wave Ta Ta”. Now, one morning, while I was supervising the gardening at Mr. Chettiars building, a familiar blue/grey Fiat went by into the complex. At that precise moment, while I held a large broom to pass on to a sweeper, whose bespectacled eyes should I see looking out from the drivers seat ? Mr. P. S. Kailasam himself. Believe you me, I was both embarrassed and yet excited. I dropped the broom and ran forward and met Mr. Kailasam. He remembered me and invited me home for a coffee as he lived in the building. I declined as I did not know if we were allowed to socialise with clients. Of course, in later days, I enjoyed coffee at both his and Mr. Chettiars house, after I sought clarification from my GM, that I was allowed to have coffee with my clients. I learnt then, that work, whatever kind it was, is something you should never be ashamed of. You were putting in your best and what you earned was after you worked hard for a month. Whatever you did and whichever post you held, do your work properly and you will eventually do well. Later I will tell you how I learnt that there was no alternative to experience. Every hour and every day taught you something in life. When I went back to the hostel and washed my hair off the cement and sand dust, it felt good. When I washed my shirt and trousers, I realised I was contributing. There is nothing like contributing to a team effort. Nothing that makes your food taste good and your tea sweet than when it is paid for by the wages you earn from your hard work. I am grateful that the amount Mummy gave me when I left to start my work was the last time I took anything from my home or parents.
In my next Blog I will let you know what I feel about Politics at work…it may be useful…
(Note – it is so as to not identify the persons I worked with, that I use only initials of their names) Please do send me your critical views and areas where I can make the writing more interesting, considering that this is only a series of an ordinary guy with an ordinary career.