The Great Indian Family Business – then and now

When I tell people I know here in the Netherlands that my parents’ marriage was ‘arranged’, they cannot hide their curiosity. So I tell them more. I tell them that at the time that the marriage was arranged, my father’s family ran a business and my mother’s father had a job as a highly respected bank manager. Out of the union of these two families, other businesses were transacted besides my brother, my sister and myself.

Then quite often, I see an expression that borders on ‘poor you’ or sometimes ‘ a not knowing how to react to such a story’ look. One that happens to be true and is presented as just another fact of life. Like you are born, you grow up … then old …. and then you die. Hopefully time passes between each stage and you have enjoyed the ride.

I guess my parents enjoyed the ride, bumpy as it was at times, though unfortunately neither of them lived to old age, even by Indian standards. For them and my grandparents before them such liaisons that appear to be so utterly transactional were essential to how families and communities generated wealth and a net of social security for each member in a trusted environment. The ‘transactional’ is the ‘relational’ so to speak.

My parents’ ‘arranged marriage’

I grew up listening to business talk along with my daily daal and rice, as do probably millions of others in India even today. In 2018, India figures as third in family run businesses worldwide. Not only that, these businesses are generating more capital than non- family run businesses, and have been doing so since India’s independence in 1947. In that sense, nothing much has changed. However, a lot has changed in how these businesses are run. What defines family and how each member presently goes about conducting their business has gone through a sea change in the India of today.

So if my father had lived in this day and age, would he have necessarily given up being the army officer that he was, to join the family business as a junior as was then expected of ‘the eldest son?’ If yes, would the head of the family business suggest he had better first get a management, business or law degree in order to prepare him for the challenges ahead, while at the same time offering to support my mother while he did so? Or would my mother have been the one to use her talents and/or qualifications to enrich the family business and support my father through his formal education? How would she, in turn be supported to make sure that my siblings and myself got the nurturing that we needed in order to grow up? Would the family have a constitution or a council to structure and regulate the business? Or would decisions continue to be taken around the dinner table – along with the feeding of daal and rice into the mouths of young ones? These and the answers to questions like them mark the difference between a family’s business then and now.

My mother joined my father in running the company

To this day, my maternal and paternal family members run businesses. Their children are not expected to take over from them. As India faces myriad social and economic influences from outside and within, family businesses are also be evolving in order to thrive. As the well-known industrialist Adi Godrej has predicted, a lot of family run businesses in India today choose to hire professionals to manage them. It won’t be long before these businesses become institutionally run ones. As for those of us in the Netherlands with a desire to broaden our horizons with regard to India, it should be some source of comfort that when it comes to professional culture, there are meeting points. Engineers understand engineers across the board. Sales people understand others in their profession. However, this does not make it necessarily ‘easier’ to do business together. The deeply entrenched cultural norms that we all carry with us can be very determining as to how we conduct ourselves and communicate. Cross-cultural awareness of intercultural communication is crucial for successful international partnerships.

As for my father, he was probably better off pursuing his career where he was. Not that he was made to fight battles. He was ‘offered’ to the Indian army by the family – another practice in the Sikh community of those times. But that is another story. Like a lot of army officers of his time, he was excellent at all things ‘relational’. He could make genuine contact with people of all ages in a matter of minutes, had no head for balance sheets and, in his own words, ‘invested in people’. In the India of today, he probably wouldn’t be chosen as a candidate for the family business at all.

The owners of Zodiac Reprographics – brothers Jaideep and Ajaydeep inherited the business from their father MD Singh (also an ex army officer)

My cousins co – owners of Zodiac Reprographics won awards in 2014 and 2018

The Shoemakers and the Elves

On a recent autumn day, while water-laden clouds and sunshine displayed behaviour as erratic as a cardiogram of a person in grave danger, I found myself following my nose. For no particular reason. And my nose led me to a place I had been to several times in the not so distant past.

I heard my heart hammer, even as the memories of hammering came back to me. Here, deserted today, on a school day, my children and their friends, then aged between seven and twelve, had built castles in the air. They’d imagined themselves to be adept at the task, and we had encouraged them in the enjoyment of their fantasies. The structures stand to this day as evidence of a particularly relaxed approach to lending out hammers and nails to young kids to have a go at building. Signs warning of loose nails and planks are around, as well as the clear message that building here is at one’s own risk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Amsterdam, and the place I am referring to has a name – ‘land of the young’. Over the years it’s been spruced up and the playground facilities have been vastly expanded, but some years ago, it had a fairly wild and untamed look and I loved going there with my children because of that. Building is just one of the many possibilities to occupy its target group. Others are swimming in open water on warm days, baking bread, shooting with bows and arrows, zip lining over water, observing farm animals, or ‘normally’ playing on swings, slides, monkey bars, climbing equipment and the like. All of this at no cost.

In a time when the X box, the Wii and the Play Station have pretty much conquered the hearts and minds of young and not so young alike, I begin to feel a wave of nostalgia for the land of the young. Obviously, some part of me tells me, it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. It can be ‘ and – and’. The Play Station and building castles in the air do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive to each other.

Because, here in Amsterdam we can have it all.

Because here in Amsterdam, we can also pretend to be the shoemaker and go to bed, leaving the castles in the air behind. The inspectors, like the elves will appear at some point while we are at rest. They’ll get out their tools, climb and trod carefully, hammer nails here, and wrench them there, and, without messing about too much with the children’s fantasies, they’ll make sure those structures stand, and that no untoward sharp bits stick out. So that when the same little shoemakers or other ones are back, they can once more marvel at the workmanship, and choose either to improve or to build from scratch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the fairy tale, the shoemaker and his wife, poor people, won the sympathy of the elves who wanted to help them get rich and they did. When Mr. and Mrs. Shoemaker secretly discovered that their benefactors had no clothes or shoes, they decided to make these as Christmas presents and hid to watch what the elves would do. The elves, now suited and booted sang and danced: “Now we are boys so fine to see, why should we longer cobblers be?” But their help was not needed by then.

And here in the land of the young, the elves keep coming and the shoemakers should never get to see them.

The elves are there for folks like me, who want their children to enjoy building castles in the air.

Link to ‘Jeugdland’ (Land of the Young)

 

Catch of the day

‘Zwerver’! It means tramp, and that’s what my son said to me when I came home with my catch of the day. Call it another manifestation of middle age crisis, if you like, but I’ve begun to find it difficult to pass by garbage that I happen to catch out of the corner of my eye, without stepping off my bike. Middle-aged yes– but still quite able to bend, lean, sit on my haunches, balance, stretch to get my catch of the day.

That’s when one or the other member of my family comments. Or gets downright upset, while I try to separate plastic from tin, paper, cartons and silver foil in our back yard.

Plastic. Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Crawling along, or embedded in the earth in the company of trees. On the forest floor, hugging reeds on edge of a lake. Glittering. Rolling along in silent midnight’s wake. Sticking out of earth, as if growing there. Bits and pieces everywhere. Flap flap flapping in rhythmic beat. Red. White. As black as peat. Plastic calling out to me. Like no other in the garbage family. Ducks cluck cluck clucking in the vicinity.

So I heed the call of plastic and stop in my tracks.

today’s catch

On one such collection spree, when I was trying to precariously balance myself on a slope leading to a canal, a twelve year old student of mine bicycled by, a bemused look on her face. I’ve seen different reactions, especially when on a walk, I hold my catch of the day in my hand. One lady recently, looked, smiled a bit, then suddenly bent down and picked up and discarded something she saw on the street in a bin. A wordless connection bound us together.

 

 

yesterday’s catch

What do I do with this catch of the day? Most often I dispose it with our private plastic collection, gathering day after day in an oversized bin in the kitchen. I lack the brilliance of Marius Smit – who came up with a foundation called ‘Plastic Whale’. This is what they do:

  1. They fish for plastic in the canals of Amsterdam and in Rotterdam
  2. They manufacture boats with the catch of several days
  3. They use the boats to fish out some more plastic from the canals of Amsterdam and in Rotterdam
  4. They also use the recycled plastic to make office furniture

And here’s the thing. We can all join them. We can row through Amsterdam or Rotterdam fishing for plastic. It’s a new concept in tourism, and its works.

You can find more information about ‘Plastic Whale’ here:

1. article in The Guardian

2. video plastic fishing

3. volunteers fishing plastic in amsterdam canals

Me immigrant. You….?

Tarzan was an immigrant in the jungle, and the apes that brought him up named him ‘Tarzan’ which means ‘white man’. Then Jane came along and soon after he had saved her from being attacked by a violent leopard, they had a conversation. This is how the conversation went.

Me Tarzan You Jane, scene 1932-8x6

JANE: “Thank you for protecting me.”

TARZAN: “Me?”

JANE: “I said, thank you for protecting me.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her) “Me?”

JANE: “No. I’m only ‘Me’ for me.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at Jane again) “Me.”

JANE: “No. To you, I’m ‘You.’”

TARZAN: (Pointing at himself.) “You.”

JANE: “No. I’m Jane Parker. Understand? Jane. Jane.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her.) “Jane. Jane. Jane.”

JANE: “Yes, Jane! (She points at him) And, you? (She points at herself again) Jane.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her) “Jane.”

JANE: “And you? (Pointing at him) You?”

TARZAN: (Jabbing himself in the chest) “Tarzan! Tarzan!”

Tarzan had accidently landed in the jungle long before this conversation. Although he really was an immigrant, he considered the jungle home. Or more his than hers anyway. He taught himself English. Then Jane came along. His version of English became unfamiliar even to himself because he had to take Jane’s version of English into account. However, since she was very pretty, he didn’t get all worked up about it. Anyone who comes into the jungle and is pretty is welcome, as Tarzan felt that the jungle was sparse in preti-ness. And since he was brave and had just saved her from a ferocious leopard, she persisted in helping him by teaching him the difference between ‘me’ and ‘you’ and when one should use each of these words and how they are linked to one’s identity. So, me is me only for me. He got it. At the end of it all, he was able to jab himself in the chest and cry out in pleasure “Tarzan! Tarzan!”

Finally he knew who he was.

This is just one tale on the theme of immigration. There are many others.

Chewing on the intestines of Paris

Here’s a riddle: if the Paris metro lines are the arteries of that great city, then what are its intestines?

paris-centre-mapAnswer – its sewers.

And the intestines of Paris are offered up to visitors just as many of its other attractions. For adults there is a modest fee and for EU children there is none, to descend under the Place de la Résistance in the heart of the great, buzzing metropolis with its treasure troves in abundance.

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To my wonder and surprise, I find that, like in India, the profession of the sewage worker is often passed down from father to son. Not so surprising too, that the board is one of the last, because it conveys this bit of information along with the emotion that sums up the entire exhibition. Pride. The son takes up the profession of his father with pride. And Paris reveals the workings of its intestines with pride, and wishes its visitors to know that by making its intestines available for public consumption, so to speak, it is also giving its sewage workers visibility.IMG_3608

Some random thoughts go through my head….

The Delhi metro, the Mumbai local trains, and the Indian Railways are impressive arteries but the intestines of India fail, in some cases appallingly. In the most ‘modern’ of cities, sewage and drinking water pipes can get mixed up, and the consequence on human health is lethal.

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I remember the ‘out castes’ – the ‘untouchables’, the ’Harijans’ by other names – who don’t smell so sweet. They are often unprotected and use the most primitive of gear. It is seen as a natural birth-right, or more accurately put, a natural birth wrong. So much so that even the central government hires the same castes to take care of unclean jobs. The latter get a salary, and the employer gets a work force. It is seen as a ‘win-win’. A permanent government job is something to be proud of – anywhere.

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It is hard to think with pride about most Indian cities, when it comes to infrastructure. Everyone I know is reeling under the weight of living in them. One insight this Parisian tourist site does give, is the number of years, centuries even, that it took to get its intestines to work as efficiently as they do. Many Indian cities simply do not have that luxury – as they burst at the seams, exploding….

But… I don’t really have the time to digest or absorb much of these intestines …as nausea drives me towards the big metal door with steps leading upwards – back onto the boulevard, allowing me the luxury of air that doesn’t smell like shit.IMG_3600

link to website page of the intestines of Paris