Passage to India – Tuesday – IT, Elephants and Humanity


After my early morning walk on the beach in Trivandrum (including a small dabble in the Arabian Sea much to the consternation of the locals) I nibbled through a very pleasant breakfast in the hotel alongside the blue pool. Not unlike breakfast on Tracey Island but without the strings or the risk of TB1 disturbing one’s lime juice.

The previous night we had sat here being entertained by our Prospective Suppliers (henceforth referred to as PS). We had played the small talk game required by this sort of initial meeting. And all-male small talk at that, which can get you into a “my small talk is bigger then your small talk” sort of competition.

The good thing about being the Prospective Customer (PC) is not only does the PS pay, but the PS also is obliged to make the conversation. The PC can relax and merely respond, or not, as the mood takes. The PC not responding enthusiastically only makes the PS nervous and work harder.

I started the evening feeling quite lively and witty. Maybe they had put something into the coconut juice. Then across the blue pool, a Strange and Surreal Entertainment (S&SE) started which tended to drown the conversation. Drowning the S&SE in the water might have been a better option. Unfortunately they were merely reflected in the pool. “They” being two elaborately costumed people of indeterminate gender. The costumes were traditional Indian, inevitably brightly coloured and exaggerated so as to make the two figures larger than life.

The next hour consisted of the S&SE making strange music by some (indeterminate) means interlaced with a few introductory words for each piece (“love”, “the bee feeding on the lotus plant”, “desperation” – that sort of thing). All of which rather stifled the conversation. Neither my voice nor my hearing is strong enough to compete with anything louder than the sound of a milk float. But we got by, and we smiled, and I told the PS that I had travelled all day and would get an early night. Thus ended the first full day, and the first of many Indian buffets.

So after breakfast the next morning, we were driven in a gleaming air-conditioned car, through warm, humid, palm-lined streets to the PS’s mansion offices. We had “Traditional Indian Welcome” at the top of our agenda, so we suspected something Indian and traditional would be arranged. Hopefully not any more S&SE. Amongst other things they had “arranged” was an elephant. Apparently they borrow them from the local shrines or similar, when nobody is looking. As we climbed out of the car, we were greeted by a reception party of maybe a dozen executives and staff from the PS, some wild dancers making wild music. Garlands were draped round our shoulders as if we had won something. Indian elephants have the smaller ears. Somewhere in my attic I still have my Brittains plastic replica African and Indian elephants (big ears and small ears). Noddy is in the adjacent box.

I was invited to mount the brute. How could one refuse? So they put a large box by its side, manhandled me up and told me to sit well forwards and hold on tight. Not that balancing on one leg had been uppermost in my mind. I half expected to find a contract up there to sign for me to turn PS into VS (Valued Supplier). Instead they eased the elephant around – and took lots of photos of me. They do this for all their PC’s, but that didn’t spoil the special experience.

Ten minutes later, I was off the elephant and sat in their board room, winging my way through the Specsavers IT Strategy, and confusing them with optical jargon. The rest of the day was walking the offices, with a series of spot presentations/pitches by staff. The PS had a good feel – energetic, enthusiastic and articulate staff; stated values of Humility, Humanity and Integrity, and a mission to “Transform Lives through Innovation”. The PS worships and adores its Founder, now posthumously. When making a decision it asks “What would (Founder or PS) have done? In a western world that would be a recipe for disaster and abuse. Here it seemed quite logical.

And herein lies another chasm between western and eastern attitudes. One feels they have a right; the other feels it has a privilege. One fights for the individual; the other for the family or group or history. One is aggressive and pushy; the other is relaxed and at peace, knowing that there are more important things than self-promotion and profit.

At the end of the day we flew north to Pune, connecting in Bangalore. In Bangalore airport, every other person seems to be an IT worker, equipped with loose white shirt, black trousers, laptop bag and coloured security necklace. Bangalore is the business end of world IT – hundreds and thousands of people doing technology from large white concrete office blocks. The outsourced temples of Java, dot.net, Oracle or SAP.

Earlier at the mansion house of the PS, I had explained that Specsavers key systems were named after philosophers – Socrates, Aristotle and Plato; and made a few obvious quips. There in the south, the tropical air, the elephant, the humility, the humanity and the garlands of flowers were intoxicating. Maybe we should introduce such to our offices in Fareham. There is a zoo at Southampton – and now I can ride an elephant I could be in charge of arrangements. I will give them a call now. That would be a trunk call of course. Sorry. It was inelephantable.

But here in Bangalore with cheap food and a veritable overload of IT techies, the industry seemed to be more about bits and bytes, hard drives and bandwidth. No room for emotion or feelings. Machine over Humanity – high technology, information super highways, database tuning and i-things buzzed around the collective brain cells and laptops filling the airport. One suspects one could have wired them all together and surpassed the whole world’s computing power – a viral brain the size of a planet waiting in the departure Lounge.

Bangalore, The centre of world technology. Running America and the western world. One almost believed it. That was until all the lights went out and we were plunged into semi-darkness without so much as an backup generator. So much for technology. I know I work in IT – but give me warm humid humanity and dabbles in the Arabian Sea anytime.

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