Posted on 25-12-2011
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Unforgettable memories are all we’ve returned with from Madhyapara village outside Dhaka. For my father, this was a nostalgic return after 63 years to our ancestral home they’d abandoned during Partition riots. Hospitable occupants at our lost home were inviting my parents to spend more time here, but unknown to us, a hostile undercurrent was gathering momentum. They were afraid we were coming to repossess our 400-acre mislaid property, especially as Bangladesh Parliament had recently passed an amendment to ease “enemy property” recovery. We later heard they were livid with the man who first identified my great grandfather. They mistakenly thought we’d bribed him to help us reclaim our land.

My father’s childhood memory determined the places we’d visit. He recalled the Padma river ferry junction from where they’d travel to different places like Faridpur, Madaripur, Barisal. I later understood his main intention was to re-experience Padma river hilsa (ilish in Bengali) fish, the benchmark of all hilsa according to East Bengalis, although West Bengalis may not agree. A Bengali is identified by his love of hilsa fish. Eating Padma ilish at the ferry-ghat is a tradition, even public buses advertise ILISH in large letters across the bus-body to entice people to this fresh hilsa destination. It reminded me of how everyone rushes to eat fresh oysters on-the-spot at San Francisco wharf as the fishermen haul them in. Unfortunately I had to brutally stop my parents enjoying the freshly caught hilsa displayed in rows, cut into slices, marinated in turmeric, invitingly ready-to-fry. Because hygiene was doubtful here with swarms of flies partaking of the fish first, and the oil and frying pan over-used and black.

Back in Dhaka, my father was enjoying a green mango drink in a modern cafe. He asked for one more, but without ice. The café waiter flatly refused, saying the drink formula called for ice. Surprised, we explained once again, but he was adamant. Then he came near me, switched to a very local Dhakai Bengali accent, and confessed that without ice, the tall glass will look vacant as it’s the ice that gives it the big size impression. My father gave a mischievous laugh at the boy’s honesty, and happily accepted the iced drink. In fact I noticed my father was continuously embracing people of Bangladesh, as though they were a part of his family. This was clearly a psychological connect, I’ve not witnessed it in him in West Bengal.

Nor have I ever seen my father making a tantrum to go to any place. But Armanitola in Dhaka he absolutely had to visit. He perfectly recalled his last journey here as a 10-year-old after his father’s death, from Rangoon to Kolkata by boat, then to Gualnanda by train, by ferry to Sadarghat in Dhaka to stay with relatives in Banshibazar and Armanitola. Then from Sadarghat, they’d reach Madhyapara by steamer, where you can now so easily go by road. But the traffic jam in Dhaka city is unimaginable; traveling a kilometer takes an hour. Our dead-slow car ride to Armanitola was to find a field where he used to play with his relatives living there.

When moving tortoise-like, you have to toggle your mind-gear to enjoy the jam session street festivity to avoid boredom. Were Dhaka’s auto-rickshaws obsessed with safety? They have a metal mesh as in police vans carrying convicts. Suddenly a 3-wheeler auto-rickshaw sidled up to the side, a bird-cage door opened, passengers started emerging. My eyes were riveted there, I counted one, two, three ….a total of 8 people were traveling in that auto-rickshaw, and they all reached their destination. With nothing to do, I was calculating the high efficiency of these 3-wheeler transport cages with the luxury of the Pajero, Land Cruiser, BMW among others that were stagnating along with us in the massive traffic squeeze.

My father was totally disappointed when we arrived at Armanitola. We couldn’t find the playground, nor his relative’s house. I suddenly awoke to the name Armanitola. Does it have anything to do with Armenia? Armenians had come to India much before the British for trading mostly in silk, muslin and jute. There’s an Armenian church in Kolkata and other cities. My on-the-spot Google search confirmed that Dhaka has an Armenian church built in 1781. After Madhyapara, this beautiful heritage church is now etched in my mind. The kaleidoscope of my Armenian connections in Paris appeared before my mind’s eye, they are all highly rooted to their homeland. Even Patrice Civanian, who’d worked in my company, is from Armenia but born in France. His parents had told me that Armenians came to India as early as 327 BC, with Alexander the Great.

That evening I met an Armenian gentleman who’d come to pay homage to his ancestors at Armanitola church. He knew little about Bangladesh, the tourist guide informed him he can experience golf and rickshaw at the same time. He said he wanted to take home a beautiful decorative pedal rickshaw displayed at our hotel. He thought it was to draw tourists, and had no idea that the livelihood of poor people in Bangladesh depended on rickshaws.

It’s time to say "au revoir" to my erstwhile native land where I experienced my life’s 5 most memorable days. On the 30-minute flight back to India, it felt like we were distancing ourselves with thousands of kilometers in-between. This feeling was reminiscent of the romantic-heartbreaking Hollywood movie Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. After a short but intense relationship the couple knew their parting was inevitable. That was a story, but this, my respected readers and victimized brotherhood, is my real life experience of discovery and loss. The unwanted political separation in 1947 turned so many of us into beggars, homeless, suffering tragic deaths, a situation I’ve never been able to accept. I’m sharing my small Bangladesh experience with all of you who’ve lost everything during Partition, as though we’d been in the Holocaust.

To download above article in PDF Father’s tantrums for Armanitola

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Posted on 18-12-2011
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Shani kheer (milk dessert) turned upside down will never fall, it’s like a thick plate,” is an incredulous childhood image that’s etched in my mind. Mutually doting on each other, my grandmother Nalini Bala had re-lived her erstwhile luxurious life in Burma and East Bengal before becoming an impoverished refugee in India, by brainwashing me with myriad little stories of that fantastic time.

Last week we took my parents on a nostalgic trip to retrace their original home. Untangling our car from the perennial Dhaka traffic jams, we drove with bated-breath anticipation to Madhyapara in Bikrampur just 35 kms away. In the backdrop of my father’s wistful recollections expressed in peaks and troughs of emotion, we discovered that the Buri Ganga bridge had deprived us a steamer ride from Dhaka Sadarghat that he used to enjoy. His running commentary said we’d cross Kirangunj over two Dhaleswari rivers, enter Munshiganj district to Siraj Dikhan police station. The region, famous for early Buddhist scholarships, is the oldest capital of Bengal since the Vedic Period. We’d read about Buddhist scholar Atish Dipankar from Pala Empire, scientist Jagdish Bose, freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das, and Benoy, Badal, Dinesh (after whom Kolkata’s BBD Bagh is named) who gave their lives revolting colonial rule. My grandmother would say they’ve all originated from Bikrampur, but I’d never believed her. When their courageous tales were endorsed here, you can imagine how Nalini Bala was accompanying me to our lost home.

Our Bangladeshi navigator stopped at a 100+year-old local sweetshop. A hard, yellowish, 6-inch-dia, milk sweet on a banana leaf totally displaced me, my grandma’s voice reverberated in my body and mind. So this unique shani kheer, available only in Siraj Dikhan enroute to our village, was for real! The heritage sweetshop owner even recalled tales of the revered Raisaheb Ruhini Sengupta, my great grandfather.

Going forward, our contact hailed a 95-year-old Hindu religious man in one of those extremely colourful rickshaws that dot both the urban and rural Bangladeshi landscape. Everybody knew that he survives on fruits and knows everyone here from way back when. Visiting after 63 years, my father started recounting long-lost experiences. The spritely, wrinkled swamiji, his forehead vertically divided by a 1×3 inch thick vermillion streak upto his surprisingly natural black hair, corroborated each recall just as enthusiastically, and they’d hug each other like long lost friends. I’d never witnessed my father express such bonhomie. Swamiji embellish my father’s childhood tit-bits with detailed information on Ruhini Sengupta. He also mentioned that Bikrampur’s Durga festivities comprised 80 pandals before Partition, now only two Pujas are celebrated.

The road to the village was extraordinary. Arched trees on both sides touched one another to filter in patches of early winter sunlight to welcome our disoriented homecoming. I recognized the “shanko" my grandmother had described, the single bamboo walkway with bamboo railings that connect houses separated from the road by water bodies. People would balance tightrope-like, walking with perfect grace, even with large bundles on their head on upto hundred-metre shankos.

Veering into a small brick road alongside paddy and potato fields interspersed with water hyacinths, my heart skipped a beat as this signboard appeared: "Madhyapara Union Parishad." Our navigator escorted us to the local village Chairman, Mohammad Azim, to make us acceptable here. Chairman was waiting with several old people. He honored my father, making him sit on his tall Chairman’s chair. Myth-like stories were emerging of Raisaheb Ruhini Sengupta’s prosperity, power and fame. My father would start a topic, “My grandfather used to walk….” and old Karim Mia would excitedly continue, “…and if turbulent oxen are fighting there, they’d stop, and respectfully step aside to let him pass.” This reunion in the Chairman’s bureau reminded me of Mafia recognition methods where two unknown Mafia-men on a pre-determined meeting are each given a torn currency note. If their 2 pieces converge exactly, the men know they’ve correctly found each other, and can proceed unhindered. The spontaneity of my father’s memoirs was as incredible as the response from the increasing number of white-bearded, henna-ed men over-crowding the room. I was just an open-mouthed listener matching their conversation to my grandmother’s stories.

In extreme brotherhood terms we walked the next 2 kilometres to our lost ancestral home "Subal Dham." Amid lush greenery and mustard fields, several questioning people kept joining our party. My father’s eyes moistened he saw his 400mx100m “dighi” or fishpond. He was shocked his large red mansion was demolished, sprouting in its place small tin houses. All that remained of his homeland gone adrift were a set of red British-style steps that jutted into the pond, and a concrete bathroom for women at the back. A current inhabitant of our property, Md. Mofiz, recounted the heritage property of Raishahib Ruhini Sengupta, which amounted to 400 acres. He said, “The 360 degree horizon you see would have belonged to your family.” I was utterly shocked. After the Sengupta family was forced to flee during turbulent times, the Government appropriated the property, cut them into bits and pieces for many to occupy. Mofiz also knew that this was only the country house of Raisaheb, that his principal home and property were in Rangoon, Burma. My great grandfather was initially a PWD worker in British times. The British rulers rewarded him with the Raisaheb title for his excellent performance as the principal engineer in constructing the Burma-China border road. He maintained a high establishment in Burma, and my grandfather was the eldest son of his 10 children. My grandfather became a successful advocate in Insein, Rangoon, before he suddenly died, leaving family with his father.

As my father narrated childhood memories sitting atop the red steps, occupants of our erstwhile property crowded in to hear him. I’m grateful to Chairman Azim for smoothening our visit. Some people were scared that we’d come to repossess our 400 acres. We had to re-establish that ours was an emotional nostalgic journey to discover our vanished legacy, and not to reclaim our 400 acres that got branded as “enemy property” and auctioned off after Partition.

To download above article in PDF Red steps to reminiscences

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Posted on 11-12-2011
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

My long standing agenda to take my parents to their lost home in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, finally fructified this week. My 85-year-old father and 80-year-old mother have never been able to digest their sudden and forceful deportation to West Bengal in 1947 after Partition. I’ve travelled through every continent in the last 38 years but this visit to Dhaka and Comilla is taking up unending GB space as I download memories that I may have to narrate some day to my 7-year-old granddaughter who’s currently growing up in London and will want to know about her roots in this side of the world.

The glorious past of our family told in a dreamy way by my grandmother, Nalini Bala, was like a Hollywood story for me. I loved listening to her through my childhood when we lived a castaway joint-family existence in a dark and penniless situation in our refugee colony home outside Kolkata. When the wind howled outside, and monsoon water leaked in drops from the thatched roof on our flooded floor, my grandmother used to recall hallucinating stories of bygone days to distract me. After I immigrated to France, and would return to meet my grandmother, even at the ripe age of 95, she’d never stopped talking about her luxurious homeland on the other side of Bengal. This Dhaka trip, December 2011, made all her words ring true.

But let me first take you to my mother’s ancestral home in Batisha, District Comilla. On 29 November 2011 the Bangladeshi Parliament passed a landmark bill that will enable the return of property seized from the country’s Hindu minority. Called the Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Bill 2011, this dealt with “Orpito” property, meaning vested land that’s been occupied by people without family heritage or without paying for it. What this signified is that those who’d lost their land from 1947 onwards stand a chance to get back their property if they possess authentic documents to prove their legitimate ownership. We were not aware of this new law being passed, nor were we visiting her father’s village to reclaim anything. It was just nostalgia tugging us there.

Our Bangladeshi contact from Comilla was careful to meet us 50 kms from my mother’s heritage home. He greeted us warmly but appeared a little edgy. The area was a little troubled he said, being at the border with Tripura, India. He took my father aside and asked whether my mother could remove her red bindi, which is clearly a Hindu ritual. I was shocked initially but adjusted my disquiet to be in tune with the country’s culture. Driving on we could see verdant paddy fields, crossed the Border Security Force guarding the borderline, which is just a wire-fence that disintegrates into no-fence after some distance. Turning off the highway on our right, we reached Bodhiya Bazar. The kindhearted Bangladeshi gentleman told us that we should say we’ve come from Dhaka. I could sense a hostile feeling building up in my parents; my mother asked why she should lie when she had no bad intention. We explained what our contact had said. The Jamaat Islami, a far right, anti-Bangladesh-liberation party which collaborated with Pakistan during the 1971 War of Independence and later joined the current Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party was politically strong here, and against the new property law. Our contact caught different people to trace my mother’s Puber Bodhiya Bari (eastern house of Bodhya class) where her family had lived. He conversed with people on the road while we followed in the car. Everyone kept questioning him on why we were here. He would frequently turn to warn us not to forget to say we live in Dhaka and not India.

An 85-year-old man waddled up to the small group that was trying to find out what we were doing in that area. When he heard about tracing my mother’s house, he grinned toothlessly and asked, “You know my Sengupta friend who shifted to Dhaka after his father was murdered in the fifties?” Gesticulating with his hands, he indicated that my grand-uncle’s head was chopped off under a big tree in his own huge orchard where he was resting at noon. He quickened his pace and excitedly went ahead with our contact on foot to show the house. At the turn were several large ponds on both sides of a narrow lane leading to the house. My friend did not allow me to take the camera saying it could be risky. My mother was dejected; she could not control her emotion that the large main house had been torn down. She was sadly remembering all the different places after an absence of 60 years.

The present occupant of this property recognized my mother’s family and hospitably invited us to tea. Meanwhile our contact nervously urged us to leave at the earliest as more people were getting alerted that unexpected visitors were in the village. It was an emotional moment for both my mother and the present occupant, yet I had to be rude to get out of the situation. I’ve never seen my mother so distraught, but I pulled her away. Fortunately we left the place quickly. The next day we heard about the chaos our trip had instigated. It appears a large gang of politically inclined people had come armed with sticks to chase us away. There was great suspicion, especially as we were visiting within a week of the new law being passed. In general too when an outsider visits with a local person as guide, villagers think the guide is the middleman with the original owner in the background.

It was very difficult to make people understand that ours was an innocent visit down memory lane. Next week I’ll tell you about the emotion of my father in his village in Bikrampur where we got the evidence that my grandmother’s stories were not the figment of her imagination, but absolutely accurate


To download above article in PDF Downloading lost memories

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Posted on 04-12-2011
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

"Customer is King" is jargon that may not be right. That’s because a king has aura, by law everybody pays him obeisance, and he has administrative responsibilities, but the customer is a free bird. This free bird wants no cage that binds him/her to duties. At the same time he/she wants to be caressed by a brand, to experience its human sensitivity. Very few companies in the world can drive with end-customer desire. An enterprise, big or small, often loses this criterion by giving too much importance to backend engineering when installing the value system. By itself an enterprise is an asset, its goodwill is the end customer’s desire inclination toward its product or service.

What is the meaning of a brand’s human sensitivity? In an Indian airport you suddenly see a famous German automobile company publicly exhibiting its new vehicle. Written prominently beside it is, "Do not touch the car." What can this mean? You are exposing the product in a public place to eventually encourage sales; simultaneously you are giving a monarchical order to the public. In a museum you are conditioned not to touch any painting. But this is a mass area, yet sales are targeted to high income customers. To resolve this dichotomy you pretend your demo-advertising is in a museum. The other day, flying Air India to Kolkata from Delhi international airport, I saw the same German company demonstrate a very futuristic vehicle. This time a sales representative was by the car. From a distance I watched several very simple people going towards the vehicle and very quickly returning from it. The representative gave them no importance. Not a single affluent-looking person went near the car in a span of half an hour.

Being an automobile engineering fan I was curious to see the car. I asked the salesman about the car’s speed and cost. His first question was what my budget was. That totally turned me off, and I immediately left the demo site. I’m not giving the brand’s name as my intention is not to criticize it. This is an example of customer insensitivity. Clearly the manufacturer’s approach is of an arrogant lord, claiming the product is its asset, goodwill and museum piece. What’s the meaning of exposing the car in public if it’s not friendly with people? Everybody should be allowed to experience the car, irrespective of being a customer or visitor. You may say this kind of exhibition is to aspire people, but that’s questionable. Rather the brand establishes a distance from human sensitivity. Alternatively, the car should be exhibited in 5 star hotels according to its target customer focus. This is context of service.

I checked the Internet for the vehicle’s cost, which is Rs 2.25 crores. It can run 370 km per hour. In the highway it gives 8 kms per litre, city driving is just 5 kms. Is this a farce or Formula 1 racing? Making cars guzzle so much petrol in this day and age is quite criminal. What happened to being environment friendly? Was it mere lip service to collect brownie points from environmentalists? In India where would you drive such a car? We are not in Germany where the roads are paradise with no speed limits. I’m sure some Indian will buy it for status, and show it off as a museum exhibit.

Human sensitivity is a big factor in any industry today. After all everything is handled by human beings. If you are a heavy industrial machine maker with lots of sophistication and automation but without human aspect, you will find today’s Zap generation would not like to work here. A medical instrument cannot aspire a patient if it’s not totally diverse in look from a medical instrument. Nor can a vehicle feel totally secure to sit or drive it unless you feel and experience the safety features. This will lead to your admiring the vehicle.

Twenty five years ago industry was god that surprised people with new products. But the scale of end-customer surprise intensity has gone down drastically. End-customers always want a positive surprise such as inventions to miniaturization that happened in the last century. Now is the time for humanizing a product or service. I’ve entered all layers of end-customer society in diverse industries across the world, both B2B and B2C. What I find is that in selling IT services, soaps or cars among others, believe me all levels of customers say that they want to be treated without ignoring their personality. .

The end-customer’s "I believe in it” factor is super important to create instant trust for a product or service. But this is not enough. The decisive purchase factor comes from “It works well for me" meaning the service or product has been totally customized for an end-customer’s need and desire. End-customers understand extreme functionality of any service or product that brings progress to society. This is the area where human sensitivity takes place seriously. The third customer need is, "It looks good” factor. This is the easiest part to deliver. But customers will not return if the product’s functionality doesn’t match expectation, and if the “I believe in it” factor is lost.

You may research a thousand end-customers, but that’s considered a hygiene factor. An analogy: A technically perfect singer does not necessarily attract the public. Even without a perfectly trained voice, you need other values like charisma to pull in masses. In the same way, irrespective of the industry, to perfectly connect to every end-customer, his/her work, transportation, marriage, family, home, social cauldron, education, health all count. No product or service can exist without some human benefit. Singers Kishore Kumar and Elvis Presley didn’t get technical training in music, but they reached millions of people. Their human connect went beyond everything. Your enterprise may have every system which can be processed and reproduced. But to bring human sensitivity you require huge passion to understand them. This passion of gathering human sensitivity is the core to drive your total enterprise with human sensitivity. Once you have this human instinct, this goodwill is your real value for growth and net worth.

To download above article in PDF End customer desire enterprise

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