Notes from my Lockdown Diary – Part 2

Continuing from where I left in Part 1, the mandatory lockdown continues to introduce us to many “New Normals” – some of which I touched upon in my last post. If you haven’t read that, please read here.

Before this COVID-19, Zoom was one of the widely used tool in companies for conference calls. Now, it has become a house hold name and the most popular App after WhatsApp!  Anyone and everyone these days are on Zoom calls.  On Day #6, the daughter who is now in 8th grade, slowly came up to me and asked to set up a Zoom account for her. After checking and confirming that she has indeed taken the approval from the wife for the same, I set it up for her. What started as sessions for doing work sheets jointly with friends which are being sent every day by the school, have now become Dumb Charades and other game playing sessions over video calls, I am told. I have now become the villain for setting up that Zoom account!

And by now, in almost all households, one round of Zoom meetings have happened with father side family, mother side family and of course one with the immediate family of brothers, sisters and so on.  And as per the hierarchy of WhatsApp groups, friend’s re-union meetings will soon start over Zoom! While on this, I have now ensured that the Video is permanently switched off on my company Zoom account settings so that while on the day long business calls, embarrassing scenes from the surroundings do not get captured.

Like on Day #8, when I was on a review call with my team locked in my room, there were a few SOS bangs on the door. As the bangs got lounder, I excused myself to find out what happened. The daughter while pretending to clean up her room spotted a cockroach which had flew from outside. Now in our flat it has been years since we spotted a cockroach and now this was of the flying variety. You can imagine the scenes involving the daughter and the wife now when they found that the creature had taken refuge under the cot. So, I was summoned in the midst of my ongoing call to fix the cockroach problem.  Just because of killing the cockroaches, bees and other insects which keep creeping in the house now and then, my sin count has multiplied over the years and chances of an entry into heaven for me have been seriously damaged. All this while the family keeps cheering me from the side when I execute the killings!

I asked for a Jhadu to kill the cockroach and I was promptly handed over one. Without realising that I was handed over a “phool jhadu” and that too a new one, I went about the act of killing the cockroach systematically. Soon enough, the creature was killed much to the relief and happiness of the wife and the daughter. But then, wait. Those of you who have used a new “phool jhadu” will know that for a few days it keeps shedding dust and cleaning that is another big job. So, by using a new “phool jhadu” which was handed over to me for killing a cockroach, I ended up filling the entire room with a trail of dust from it! The next half an hour or so went in just clearing the room of the mess. In these times of the Corona virus which affects the throat and lungs, this was an episode that could have been totally avoided, I must say. But then you know the effect, cockroaches have in our lives!

Yesterday being a Saturday, I offered to do the cooking. “Today is weekend no? Why don’t you give me a break and do the cooking?” I knew that this will come and so I did a pre-emptive strike and made the offer myself which was immediately accepted. And as expected a slew of instructions flew!

“In the name of cooking, don’t end up messing up my kitchen!” 

“It is not enough if you just cook. Just clean up the place after the cooking!” 

“Whatever doubts you have, ask now. Don’t keep calling me and asking later!” 

“And try to do something different. Not your usual menu of Tomato Rasam and Potato curry!”

My immediate reaction (obviously in my mind) was “Why did I take up this now?”

Anyway, having committed in the first place, went about the job as meticulously as I can.  First up, as a Pillayaar suzhi, kept a vessel full of water for boiling as we have the practice of boiling the drinking water. Then, just when I was about to keep the rice on the pressure cooker, realised that the handle was loose. My engineering brain while cursing the design, was wondering how come the handle is always loose whenever I try to use the cooker, the answer for which I got very soon. In my quest to show off to the wife that apart from cooking, I am also providing some value addition, I got into the job of fixing the handle.  Within a few minutes, the plastic around the screw gave way and the handle came off completely.

The next half an hour went in erasing all evidence of this mishap lest you know what will happen. While I was engrossed in this, I completely forgot about the water kept for boiling due to which half the water had evaporated. Now, I had another set of evidences to be erased! All my male friends will totally agree that this business of erasing any evidence from the wives is an exercise in futility!   So when the wife dropped by to inspect what is going on, she could immediately notice that the cooker handle was skewed by one tenth of a millimeter in spite of my elaborate cover up attempts.

“Now what did you do to my cooker handle?” came the first arrow.

“I just tried to fix it as it was loose. But when I tried to tighten it, it broke”, I answered.

“Did I tell you to meddle with it now?

Do I not know that the handle is loose?

Am I not using it for so long?  

Because of the heat from the stove, the plastic loses its tensile strength and gives way easily. That’s why I don’t try to apply pressure and tighten that!  

I am a commerce student and I am aware of all this. And after being an Engineer you still can’t wrap your head around this?”

A barrage of arrows ensued.  My engineering degree continues to be the most attacked feature in my life!

Soon enough, the wife, realised that much time has been wasted by me without making much progress on the lunch preparation. So she decided to take charge and my cooking endeavour ended abruptly that day.  I remember reading somewhere that women are far ahead in multi-tasking than men. I decided to agree to that statement 100% from this day.

To be continued…

Postscript: Those of you who wondered about my well-being after the wife read Part 1, I am well and holding up. She indeed read it and laughed it off. Covid-19 has its plus points.

Pic courtesy: Webdunia

Notes from my Lockdown Diary – Part 1

As I write this, India is in a complete lockdown due to Covid-19 and today is Day #5. 16 more days to go.  May be more. Never in our lives have we experienced a lockdown like this.  Neither our parents have.  As Indians, we are normally used to different kinds of curbs that hit our daily lives very often. I am talking of the Rasta rokos, Chakka Jaams, Curfews, Hartals, Bandhs and so on. But this is at a different level.  Even Kashmiris who face the brunt of partial shutdowns would feel the same, I reckon. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, when we were hearing of the Corona virus news from China, we wouldn’t have imagined that it will hit home so close and like this which sort of forced the government to shutdown India completely.

This complete India lockdown has brought to the fore the many “New Normals” in our lives. To start with is of course WFH – “Work From Home”, hitherto a kind of privilege enjoyed by the IT folks. In the current scenario, almost everyone is forced to WFH.  Just that in the New Normal, it also implies “Work For Home”. With the entire family spending time within the confines of the four walls, there is no dearth of tragic scenes which are comical and comic scenes which end up turning tragic depending upon which side of the divide you are! In this diary notes, I try to capture some of these scenes for posterity!

In India,  milk for daily use is usually delivered at our doorsteps. Not now. Milk is delivered at the building lobby and you have to collect it. The wife who usually picks the milk from the door has now delegated that responsibility to me to go down and fetch the milk from the lobby. “Anyway you can’t walk and exercise and all. Just consider it as a morning walk and do it” is the wife’s take. “Does that apply only to me” was the immediate question which arose in my mind. For obvious reasons, it remained a mind voice.

As part of the lockdown routine, newspapers also have been stopped. For many men, newspapers play more than just one role. Apart from the obvious one of providing updates on happenings around the world, it also performs the most important function of aiding daily “bowel cleaning”. Without the paper in hand, for many, it is a torture. One had to dip into the old newspaper stock these days to get the day going! In the West, I hear newspapers are filling in for the toilet roll shortage in stores.

“Because of the shutdown, can’t even do my daily exercises! Can’t even do walking within the complex”, I lamented on Day #2. “As if before this you were regularly going to the gym and all!, the wife taunted. “After this New year resolution, I remember, you went to the gym at a stretch for 3 days which is better than the last few years record of two days!”, the taunt continued.

“In my friends group, a gym trainer is sharing day wise simple exercises one can do at home. Let us do it together at home”, the wife declared. “By sharing these videos openly, isn’t the gym trainer risking his future business?  Why is he doing this?” My rather nonchalant question was obviously misconstrued and dismissed with this rejoinder. “That is his problem. Why are you worried? Chalo, let us start”! So thanks to the daily dose of gym trainer’s home exercise videos, we have started doing stretching and exercises at home for the past 3 days. Today being a Sunday, of course I took a break!

In India, if you ask the women who they usually miss the most, it is not the kids or the parents or the husband. It is the maid servant! On returning from office, if you find the wife in a pissed off mood, you can safely conclude that the maid has applied for leave for few days and has not arranged for ‘Badli bai’ (replacement maid)! So these days, one of the most important terms during appointment of maids is she should arrange for ‘badli bai’ when she proceeds on leave for more than 2 days. For less than 2 days leave, the bai herself will tell to manage with the ‘Ghar ka bhai saab’!

Under the lockdown situation both wives and husbands alike miss the maid servant. In the absence of maid servant, the monthly calendar has been temporarily morphed into a scheduler for carrying out BJP activities at home in turns. BJP here is an acronym for Bartan, Jaadu and Pocha! (Vessels, Sweeping and Mopping)

At home, the wife allotted Jaadu on Day #1. The vacuum cleaner which had not been used for years now, had to be first dusted and cleaned before being deployed for action. As I got into my cleaning gear, connected the plug of the vacuum cleaner and switched it on, there was a “dup” sound and off went the power! The next scenes are easy to imagine. “You had to use that vacuum cleaner which you last used when you were a bachelor, today only? You can’t even get an electrician now to fix the power problem”, the wife now donning the “Chandramukhi/Manjulika” avatar, yelled. “Wait, let me speak to the society manager and find out if our building electrician is available here only” I quipped. “Why you have to call the electrician? You are an electrical engineer, no? You can’t check the problem yourself?”  If I have one regret in life about my choice of education, it is the stream of engineering I chose – Electrical and Electronics!

To all youngsters who come to me for advice on which stream of engineering they should go for, my standard answer is “Anything but electrical”. Only if you are an electrical engineer will you be asked to fix the fan, check the AC and so on at home. I have not seen a civil engineer husband being asked to repair a wall if there is a leakage and all. So all aspiring engineers, do keep this in mind.

Thankfully, it was just a tripping of the circuit breaker due to the overload on the motor of the vacuum cleaner. God that day was kind enough in not subjecting me into further embarrassment and power was back soon. That also meant that the idea of using the vacuum cleaner had to be buried and sweeping had to be done physically with the Jaadu. After that the wife, being her turn, did the Pocha smoothly in 15 minutes flat using the Easy Spin Mop! Why this build up about the mop, you may wonder. Read on.

On Day #2, it was my turn for Pocha. When I got up in the morning, I didn’t realise that my tongue’s Vastu was not alright that day. As I readied myself for the Pocha or the mopping work, I quipped, “How come there are so many deep stains on the floor?”  This was a remark meant to highlight the quality of the work the maid does. But I forgot for a minute that the mopping was done by the wife the previous day! “So, If I am doing lousy work, why don’t you do it properly and remove those stubborn stains today?, the wife retorted angrily, of course. After getting a demo of how to use the engineering marvel called the Easy Spin Mop, I launched myself into the job. It certainly seemed simple when the wife gave the demo.

After draining the water, I took out the mop stick and started mopping. Soon enough I turned my attention to the 1st tough stain which I encountered. Being quite conscious of the fact that the stain needs to be removed of its existence, I started mopping like a man possessed.  Next, I heard was the sound of some plastic breaking which emerged even over the “Ponaal pogattum poda” song from the old Tamil classics playlist playing in the background. The mop stick unable to withstand my sincerity and urge, gave way and broke into two! The wife who doesn’t usually miss these kind of noises in the house, immediately got alerted.  You recall I talked of the Vastu and all.

In the next few minutes, I was given an earful about how the maid was using the mop smoothly for two years and that the mop stick was just replaced two weeks ago and how a simple task cannot be accomplished etc., etc. “These days, the quality of goods is so bad in India. How can Make in India succeed?”, I mumbled in self-defence. “Pottu udakarathayum udachuttu, Quality mela pazhiya podu” (Why blame quality after breaking the stick yourself?)  Little did I realise then, that I will have to now do to the back breaking Pocha for the rest of the days!  The broken mop stick ended up breaking the peace at home which was holding up till Day #4!

To be continued…

Postscript: On day #5 today, as I sat down to pen this blog, the wife said, “During the lockdown at least why don’t you give a break to your blog?”  I put up a brave face and replied, “This week I am actually writing a light piece, not the usual serious stuff!” My BP is now racing upwards as I begin to wonder what will happen when the wife reads the blog.

Pic courtesy: Webdunia

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.

Covid-19 in the world and Comvid-20 in India!

Since the advent of Social media, “Going Viral” is considered the ultimate thing! As we speak, the world in general and India in particular are reeling from something that literally went viral. The Corona virus pandemic which is now being called by WHO as Covid-19 which started from the Wuhan region in China, has now been spreading rapidly across the globe.

In China where it all started, we understand that things are getting under control. The new cases are reportedly fewer which is a key indication of the virus not spreading further. The Chinese government has been swift in taking tough decisions including shutting down towns and cities in a bid to arrest the spread very early.

As one can expect in a globalised world as it is today, while the situation is getting better in the origin (China), there are other countries where Covid-19 is taking a huge toll. First Italy, then Iran and now Korea have been under the onslaught of the Corona virus in the last couple of weeks. And those who have visited the affected places like Italy and those who came as tourists from these countries into other cities have become silent carriers of the virus. So, countries like America and India have also come under the affected list. Though the numbers are low at this point in time relatively, considering the population in these counties and the viral nature of the contagion, the risks associated cannot be dismissed away.

The approach of the countries to the pandemic is also a reflection of these societies. In highly disciplined and if I may add, regimented countries like China, Korea and Japan for example, the governments moved fast, enacted tough strictures and the public fell in line. The results are there to see. On the other hand, in flexible and If I may say, slack societies like Italy, the government has been slow in action and reaction. It’s only today that we read of Italy taking a call to shut down parts of the country which have been affected. The damage is already done.

From the perspective of economy, it’s already been well documented as to how the global supply chains with its epicenter in China and in particular Wuhan have been disrupted globally. It is believed that Covid-19 will impact global GDP by over 2% negatively in 2020 and this is huge.  As the Corona virus signalled the first decline in demand of oil, Saudi and Russia decided to pump more oil in a battle of market share! Result – Price crash to the extent not seen in 25 years! The chain of events have led to the carnage in the stock markets worldwide. After a long while, we saw the circuit breaker being triggered at NYSE yesterday!

Apart from manufacturing industries affected by Covid-19, the other worst industries are those that deal with people. Travel, Hospitality, Tourism and Events sectors will see an impact worse than the Lehman crisis time! It would be sad if the next summer Olympics being planned in Tokyo in July 2020 is called off due to the Corona virus. As can be only expected, Japan has been super ready for the event for a  few months now and will be a pity if all those efforts go down the Corona drain!

After the Lehman shock of 2008, Covid-19 is the next best example of a globalised world rising and perishing together in ironic harmony. There are very few countries which are immune to this today. The synchronised interest rate cuts by the Central banks a few days ago, I am not sure will help. Because what we are seeing is a supply side disruption and constraints arresting human movement. This is a not a demand problem or a capacity building issue where capital infusion could do the immediate trick. Of course any softening of interest rates is welcome! While the world struggles to get into terms with the aftershocks, I do believe that China from where it all started, may recover faster than expected. Already people have started going to offices after a long break since Chinese New Year and factories have started brimming with activity from last week. Again, at the risk of being repetitive, being a disciplined and a regimented society which China is, we should not be surprised if China gets back to normal by June while other affected countries still continue to struggle to get back to their feet!

Coming to India, along with Corona virus, we had another thing which has been going viral in the past many weeks – the “communal” virus” or Comvid-20! Ever since the Citizenship Amendment Bill got passed and became an Act followed by the government’s “chronological” intent to take up NRC (National Register for Citizens) all over India, the country has been on the edge.

The CAA protests also took almost the same route as a virus spread.  What started off as peaceful protests in different parts of the country essentially college campuses, soon spilled over to the streets. A hitherto unknown entity to those outside Delhi – Shaheen Bagh, entered the daily vocabulary and a subject of Prime time loud debates. And finally culminated with full blown communal riots in Delhi in the 1st week of March.

For Modi Sarkar which prided itself of not facing a communal riot in the country for 6 years since 2014, the Delhi riots have come as a huge blot on its image. That the riots happened in the first place, that too in Delhi which is the capital of India with its heavy security apparatus and when a big diplomatic event that of the US President Donald Trump’s visit was in progress, is an embarrassment. The coverage of the Trump visit therefore turned “split screen” globally with beaming faces of leaders and burning streets of Delhi, side by side!

That today, Social media has a huge role to play in spreading this communal virus is unmistakable!  Images and counter images, Videos and counter videos were just going viral in what I call as a battle of narratives! In sum, even today, we are yet to get a final answer as to who lit the spark first. And in spite of all the media and social media explosion, we may never get it, in our lives! Everything that went viral finally did their bit to mobilise mobs, fuel frenzy and finally celebrate madness.

Covid-19, with the world putting its might behind it may soon get a vaccine and a cure! However, Comvid-20 with its epicenter in India and to do with the majority community Vs minority community wrangle ingrained in our minds for decades, may not get a vaccine soon. Unless, we become a truly secular society where religion is personal and ceases to be a vote bank. Welcome to Utopia!