Archive for June, 2022

Stiff-upper-lip police authorities world over surely take a jaundiced view of the kind of narratives dished out by P. G. Wodehouse, holding these to be posing a grave danger to the law and order situation in their respective areas of contol. After all, these espouse the merits of pinching not only policemen’s helmets but also umbrellas, silver cow creamers and such other objects which are dear to their owners. Suave gentlemen, in a hurry to impress a young lass waiting for the rain to stop, think nothing of stealing someone’s umbrella and offering it to the party of the other part. Woolly-headed Lords do not shy away from pocketing a scarab from the collection of American millionaires. Aunts who are not gentlemen keep enticing their nephews to steal cats so as to win an upcoming race. Even members of the porcine species get kidnapped. Cooks get charmed into moving to greener pastures so the lining of the stomach of their prospective employers may continue to be in the pink of health. Gutsy young ladies who are bent upon making insurance companies more spiritual by the latter having to cough up large amounts of claims resort to persuading profesional thieves to steal vintage stamp collections owned by their heart throbs.

Given this singular absence of morals and ethics amongst the characters etched out by Plum, it should come as no surprise that his books are not permitted to be stocked in the libraries of our prisons. This is the only way the prisoners can be reformed and the foundations of our civilization can be stopped from quivering uncontrollably.

Here is a rib-tickling post covering an incident which occurred in one of the jails of India earlier this year, wherein a hapless prisoner was summarily denied a book by the Master.

Suresh's Corner

Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage / Minds innocent and quiet take / That for an hermitage. 17th-century English poet Richard Lovelace from his poem To Althea, from Prison.

My heart goes out to the well-known human rights activist, Gautam Navlakha. I shan’t go into the whys and wherefores or the rights and wrongs pertaining to the justification or otherwise of his confinement in a prison in Mumbai, where he is holed up in a high security cell. Let the lawyers and the judges break their heads over matters that go over my head. That is not part of the mandate I have set for myself in setting out to pen this piece. Reports tell us that he is allowed a 30-minute constitutional ‘in the open space’ and must clean his own cell. So far so bad, but it gets worse and this…

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Can the works of P. G. Wodehouse impart some lessons to CEOs and managers in managing their affairs better? His fans are always eager to relive the moments of mirth and bliss experienced by them while going through his books and stories. However, those of you who are from the realm of management and are dimly aware of the existence of a British humourist known as P. G. Wodehouse would by now be shaking your heads in disbelief wondering how something dished out by way of making one chuckle, guffaw and laugh could have anything to do with the stiff-upper-lip discipline of management.

To the latter, one would say that humour is serious business indeed. It is bound to make us feel lighter but cannot be taken lightly. In the past, we have examined in some detail the question if humour is serious business and have found an answer in the affirmative. In an earlier post, we also touched upon the way management theories and practices have evolved over the past century and checked if there are any common points between such theories and what Plum dishes out by means of his scintillating works.

The Intellectual Halo Around Seriousness

The deeper reality is that we value seriousness and tragedy over humour and laughter. Our minds boss over our hearts. Seriousness somehow makes us sound more intellectual. Most of the times, anything humorous is treated by us as being frivolous and perhaps fit to be scoffed at on the intellectual plane. On campuses of high-brow seats of learning, it is easy for us to visualize absent-minded professors going about with a heavy tome or two clutched in their hands, with a morose look on their faces, as if they were just being led by an invisible hand to the gallows. At management seminars and conclaves, serious talks get applauded while a speaker conveying a plain vanilla message coated in delectable humour gets ridiculed for playing to the gallery. In companies, at board meetings, detailed power point presentations of a serious kind get appreciated, whereas anything said in a lighter vein runs the risk of being greeted with healthy scorn.

One admires such management thinkers as C. Northcote Parkinson, Sharu Rangnekar and Laurence J. Peter who have broken this glass ceiling and given us rich management lessons in a humorous manner.

In their book Humour, Seriously, Naomi Bagdonas and Jennifer Aaker debunk the myth that humour has no place at the work place. In an interview, Jennifer Aaker opines that leaders with a sense of humour are seen as 27% more motivating; their teams are more than likely twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge. When leaders use humour in their interactions with their team members, they signal humility and humanity, thereby reducing the status barrier between themselves and their audience. The goal of humour at the work place is not merely to make others laugh; it is to put people at ease, thereby enabling them to be more open and candid in sharing their opinions.  

Humour in Brand Management  

Consider the innovative way humour gets deployed by a few brands of repute to keep their images shining bright.

Since 1946, the Air India Maharajah has been representing India with charm and dignity, making the company more visible to its customers all over the world. Created by Bobby Kooka along with Umesh Rao of J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency, it has kept pace with the times – as a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a Romeo in Rome and even a guru of transcendental meditation in Rishikesh.

Likewise, we have the case of the Amul girl. The mascot was created as a response to Amul’s rival brand Polson’s butter-girl. The idea was conceived in 1967 once ASP (Advertising, Sales and Promotion) clinched the brand portfolio from the previous agency FCB Ulka. It was executed by Mr. Sylvester Da Cunha, the owner of the agency and his art director Eustace Fernandes on hoardings, painted bus panels and posters in Mumbai. The mascot, since then, has been mobilized to comment on many events of national and political importance.

Not to forget some of our politicos who have risen from the ranks after having been successful comedians, managing countries and motivating their denizens to stand up to bullying by oversized neighbours waging wars so as to widen their sphere of influence.  

If a lay manager were to pick up such books by P. G. Wodehouse as Psmith in the City, Blandings Castle and Elsewhere and Something Fresh and put them under a managerial lens, she is surely apt to discover a treasure trove of precious lessons in such diverse fields as marketing, entrepreneurship, operations, systems and procedures and human resources.

When it comes to the art and science of managing bosses, Rupert Psmith, Reginald Jeeves and Ashe Marson have created a few templates for a manager to follow.

The higher the level of entropy of our business environment, the higher would be the need for humour in business. As we march into the future, a Wodehousean approach to Management could help CEOs and managers in more ways than one.

(Illustration courtesy R. K. Laxman)

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Suresh's Corner

 “I go in for what is known in the trade as ‘light writing’ and those who do that – humourists they are sometimes called – are looked down upon by the intelligentsia and sneered at.” P.G. Wodehouse.

As a diehard fan of the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, I was idly surfing the net to see what kind of material one might encounter on the Master, apart from the standard Wikipedia synopsis. I was pleasantly surprised to come across a website specially created for followers of arguably the greatest humourist the world of English literature has produced. There are those who would scoff at describing the works of the ‘Master of Farce’ as literature, but I will treat them with the scorn they so richly deserve. Rather than attempting to describe the contents of the website to the lay reader, I felt it might be better to send an email…

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P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), fondly referred to as Plum, dished out his narratives in an era which one could allude to as the sunrise era of the science and art of management. He was a prolific writer, publishing more than ninety books, forty plays, two hundred short stories, several poems and other writings between 1902 and 1974.

He used a mixture of Edwardian slang, quotations from and allusions to numerous literary figures, and several other literary techniques to produce a prose style that has been compared to comic poetry and musical comedy. One of the qualities of his oeuvre is its wonderful consistency of quality, tone, wit and wisdom.

The Early Years

When Wodehouse arrived on the literary scene, Max Weber (1864-1920) was speaking of different forms of authority – charismatic, traditional and rational-legal, while Henri Fayol (1841-1925) was working on his twelve principles of management.

While Wodehouse, was busy honing his unique skills as an author, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) was preoccupied with a new approach to management. In 1909, Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, highlighting the importance of organizational structures and a chain of command. In the same year, Wodehouse had come up with The Swoop and Mike. Much like a management executive, Mike happens to be a solid, reliable character with a strong sense of fair play; he also has an appetite for excitement. 

By 1910, Wodehouse had published Psmith in the City, offering us insights into the working of a bank and hinting as to how one could manage bosses. The Little Nugget came up in 1913 introducing us to Ogden Ford, someone who, like a bright and upright executive, can manipulate his distracters with much aplomb and even stand up to and tick off his step father.  During December 1913, Henry Ford had installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of automobiles. His innovation had then reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to one hour and 33 minutes.

The Delicately Nurtured

While Wodehouse was busy introducing us to such emancipated females steeped in entrepreneurial enthusiasm as Joan Valentine, Jill Mariner and Sally Nicholas, Mary Parker Follett was having a profound impact on the development of management thought. She was active in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when women occupied few executive positions in business, government or education. Her audience was small, but devoted. Her remarkable work can be found in the volume Mary Parker Follett – Prophet of Management, published in 1995 by Harvard Business School Press.

During 1940, Wodehouse published Quick Service, outlining the risks involved in stealing portraits, thereby touching upon the realm of decision making under uncertainty. In 1942, C. Northcote Parkinson came up with the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” a useful concept to capture the growth of bureaucracy (The Parkinson’s Law). As to bureaucratic eccentricities, Wodehouse covers these in at least two of his works, Psmith in the City (1910) and Frozen Assets (1964).

One of the brands created by Plum, Reginald Jeeves, continues to stand for impeccable service. As long as such mentally negligible bosses like Bertie Wooster are around, it will never become obsolete. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr. (1875 – 1966) was busy steering General Motors on a highway of high growth. He brought in such concepts as an annual model change, brand architecture, industrial engineering, styling and planned obsolescence.

Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005) subsequently enlarged our vision of the realm of management. Functions like Marketing, Production, Finance, Supply Chain Management, Systems and Human Resources emerged. In 1964-65, Plum offered us Galahad at Blandings which showcased the unique abilities of Galahad to sort things out satisfactorily at Blandings Castle, which as usual is overrun with overbearing sisters, super-efficient secretaries, and the love struck, threatening to put an end to Lord Emsworth’s peaceful, pig-loving existence. In 1966, Peter F. Drucker came up with The Effective Executive, highlighting traits not dissimilar to those of Galahad and Rupert Psmith.


Philip Kotler (born 1931) further expanded the Marketing horizon by conceptualizing the 4 Ps – Product, Place, Pricing and Promotion. Many other leading thinkers expanded and enriched our understanding of management and leadership processes in organizations while Plum was busy unleashing his brand of humour upon the unsuspecting public. Way back in 1935, in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere, he had captured Freddie Threepwood’s marketing endeavours to peddle Donaldson’s Dog-Joy biscuits. Come 1967 and he gave us ‘Company for Henry’ (The Purloined Paperweight) which spoke of the art of managing to purloin a paperweight, while Philip Kotler gifted us with Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning and Control.

During 1969-70, Wodehouse had published A Pelican at Blandings showcasing yet again the genius of Galahad to manage things effectively, establishing that he was yet to reach his level of incompetence. During 1969, Peter and Raymond Hull were publishing The Peter Principle.

Much after Wodehouse had handed in his dinner pail, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman gave us In Search of Excellence (1982). In 1989, Stephen R. Covey offered his unique managerial insights through 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The idea here is not to say that when it comes to the realm of management, Plum’s works were ahead of their times. It is merely to put both on a time scale and check if any pattern emerges. We can see from the above that while in some cases, he was still stuck in the classical models of management which were more of a command and control type, whereas in some other cases, he was indeed ahead of the curve of management thought.   

An Ever-evolving Field of Thought

A unique characteristic of management professionals is that they seem to have a very short attention span for concepts. Their craving for novelty in management concepts is never satiated. Give them Statistical Quality Control and Just-in-time and they lap it up with the kind of enthusiasm a cat shows on being offered a fish slice. Show them the potential of Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing and they embrace it with all gusto. They are enamoured by a concept only until a new buzzword comes along. Each buzzword has a limited shelf life as an effective intoxicant.

Thus, management thinkers and writers have a unique challenge – that of marketing even old ideas in a flashy new language. In order to maintain their status as a management guru, the hapless guys/gals have to not only keep coming up with newer tissue restoratives but also to keep recycling the older ones and offering the same in dazzling new bottles. 

Like all other realms of knowledge, management continues to be an ever-evolving field, in tandem with the evolution of our economies. With rapid advances in technology, all segments of this knowledge are undergoing major changes. There is a dire need for futuristic business leaders who can achieve goals in a sustainable manner, backed not only by hard core analytical prowess but also by such soft skills as compassion, empathy and equanimity. Leading business institutes are increasingly depending on literature and fine arts to groom aspiring managers whose heads are screwed on right, thereby giving them a better chance at tackling the rise in the entropy of the business environment.   

Despite an evolution of managerial thought, over the last century, the fundamentals of organization management and leadership have not changed much, though the delivery of those concepts has been reshaped to service the needs of a new economy. Rigid hierarchies have slowly given way to flexible organizations. With the advent of a work-from-home style, many organizations have become dispersed in space and time. In a similar vein, Plum’s works remain frozen in time, using the eccentricities of the British aristocracy as a fodder. All over the world, his fans keep churning out pastiches, thereby keeping his works alive. Several societies in different countries keep organizing various events, keeping the Wodehousean flame alive.

The underlying messages in his works continue to be relevant in our contemporary times. However, their timelessness lies in keeping the human race away from getting depressed while facing the harsh slings and arrows of fate.

(Inputs from Prof Satish Kapoor are gratefully acknowledged.)

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Kind of moody the guv’nor had been for some days. Not at all his usual bright self. I had put it down to reaction from a slight attack of influenza which he’d been having: and, of course, I took no notice, just performing my duties as usual, until this evening which I’m talking about, when I brought him his whisky and siphon as was customary and he burst out at me.

“Oh, dash it, Jeeves!” he said, sort of overwrought. “I wish at least you’d put it on another table for a change.”

“Sir?” I said.

“Every night, hang it all,” proceeded the guv’nor, “you come in at exactly the same old time with the same old tray and put it on the same dashed old table. I’m fed up, I tell you. It’s the bally monotony of it that makes it all seem so frightfully bally.”

I confess that…

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Lord Emsworth

Much like all masters perched on the literary high table, P G Wodehouse also used Nature as a colluding partner in his narratives. When all is well with the world, roses are in bloom, bees and birds go about doing what they are ordained to do, and the sun goes about spreading cheer with due benevolence. But when giant egos clash or a disaster looms large, Nature stops in its tracks, birds stop chirping noisily, breeze ceases to blow and even flowers stand still.

In other words, Nature is depicted as having a sensitive soul, cheered up when the proceedings are going as per plans, but looking askance when the reverse happens. In the hands of proficient wordsmiths, it assumes a character of its own and provides mute support to the goings on in the narrative.

By way of an example, consider the story ‘Lord Emsworth and the Girl…

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Lord Emsworth

The narratives dished out by Plum not only amuse but also educate the lay reader. Critics may label these as escapist fares, but that does not take away the kind of social and spiritual lessons which are embedded therein.

When a girl whom you have come to respect seeks your protection, you try to rise to her expectations. Suddenly, the spine which was made of cottage cheese gets transformed into one of chilled steel. You stand up to bullies and tell them where they get off. You look them in the eye and make them wilt, making them beat a hasty retreat from their time-tested positions. Like Angus McAllister, they suddenly find more merit in ‘ceasing to be a Napoleon than to become a Napoleon in exile.’

The Parva School Treat Transformation

When the story begins, we find that Lord Emsworth’s soul is weighed down with woe. The…

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One of the several challenges of advancing age is the kind of vague pessimism which starts creeping upon us. The soul awakens us to some deeper realities of life. The mind takes a jaundiced view of Fate bearing gifts. The body, an old creaky jalopy that it becomes, needs to undergo more frequent bouts of denting and servicing.

Different body parts, of which we were blissfully unaware so far, start giving up their life long silence and start a ‘Me-Too’ kind of a campaign, demanding exclusive attention. The engine starts firing only on four out of its six cylinders. The fuel pump starts developing blockages. The carburettor needs cleaning more often. The radiator starts leaking. The battery charge keeps getting depleted faster.  The nervous circuitry starts letting us down. The lining of the stomach starts registering a protest as and when greed takes over prudence on the dining table; no longer can it match the relative youth of one’s taste buds which keep making one drool over deep fried stuff and gorging upon it with gay abandon.

Every 3 to 5 years, a new pill has to be popped up, adding to the existing array of pills and capsules of different hues to be put down the hatch at regular intervals. 

But howsoever dark the clouds may be, P. G. Wodehouse is there to help us to maintain a chin-up attitude!    

A Cardiac Challenge

Fifteen years after I had undergone a cardiac bye pass surgery, a condition of gradually unstable angina again caught up with me recently. I would spare the hapless reader of this piece from the medical and technical details of what exactly transpired. Suffice it to say that a complex array of cardiac tests were done using menacingly hissing gigantic equipment which made one feel sympathetic towards the character played by Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible series of flicks. After some of these tests, one was put on a drip, wired to a noisily beeping monitor and left to reflect on one’s life. The adventurous trauma finally ended with an angioplasty when a doctor with a stiff upper lip announced having sneaked in two stents inside the heart.

The process left one feeling like a much-punctured and deflated balloon, devoid of all vitality. In any case, at the best of times, one enters a hospital with a sense of deep trepidation. The fear of the unknown gnaws at one’s insides, leaving one wondering if someone sinister like Roderick Spode had eventually succeeded in turning one inside out and had then gleefully jumped upon the innards with hob-nailed boots.

But the adventure was not without its perks. Since one is willy-nilly forced to surrender to higher powers, one tends to become more spiritual. One learns to be more ‘patient’. One also runs into a delightful array of doctors, nurses and patients, almost all of different hues, ranks, sizes, shapes and temperament. 

Some Doctors That I Ran Into

One of the doctors I ran into was built along the lines of Doctor E. Jimpson Murgatroyd of Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen fame. His looks could easily send one’s spirits down in the basement. He had sad and brooding eyes and looked like someone who had been looking on the dark side of life since he was a toddler. Nevertheless, his advice was sane, frank and honest, though brutal.

Yet another I came across sounded more like Doctor George Mulliner. He was a caring and compassionate doctor whose brow was perennially worried about his patients. Whether consulting or doing a procedure, he would intermittently flash a reassuring smile, arresting a sudden spike in the adrenaline coursing through the veins of the hapless patient.  He gave an impression of someone who would be thinking beautiful thoughts while in bed but only after having read aloud a kids’ story from the oeuvre of someone like P. G. Wodehouse to his younger ones.

I also met Doctor Sally Smith who was not a generalist in this case but a junior cardiac specialist. I found her to be calm, empathic and fair. She placed a premium on understanding the psychology of the patient and genuinely tried to understand his/her concerns and address these to the best of her ability. When something critical was pointed out to her, her shapely eyebrows did not flicker even a fraction of an inch, making one remind of Reginald Jeeves. I am reasonably certain that during childhood, her doting mother had fed her with ample supply of salmon. She was a living proof of the fact that a woman cardiac specialist need not of necessity be an ugly duckling with steel-rimmed spectacles and a wash-leather complexion. In fact, she reminded one of Drew Barrymore of Charlie’s Angels fame, radiating charming competence of a high order.  

Initially, I also ran into someone like Emerald Stoker. She was one of those soothing, sympathetic kind of doctors you can take your troubles to, confident of having your hand held and your head patted. She was quite young but there was a sort of motherliness about her which one found comforting and restful. One could ask her any question about the impending procedure and she would answer it with empathy and patience. When one left her cabin, the sagging spirits had soared and the brow was not as burrowed as before; the soul was no longer in as much of a torment as it happened to be in earlier.   

The Nursing Angels

Some of you may remember Amelia Bingham of Bachelors Anonymous fame. She had fussed over Mr. Ivor Llewellyn, head of the Superba-Llewellyn studio of Hollywood, so very well that the latter ended up proposing to her, much against his own resolve to cease and desist from making impulsive marriage proposals.

Luckily, unlike Mr. Ivor Llewellyn, I do not head any Hollywood studio. Nor do I have a track record of having suffered through as many as five divorces. I am merely a widower. So, if any of you suspect my having fallen for one of the many nurses I ran into while in the process of getting an angioplasty done, you could not be more off the mark. One has one’s code, you see: The Code of the Bhatias!

If one of the nursing angels was like a Florence Nightingale who ensured that I kept getting adequate nourishment during my stay at the hospital, another was like Aunt Agatha who took sadistic pleasure in pricking the hands at all the wrong spots, eventually finding an appropriate vein in the forearms where a cannula had to be put. All of them had their own methods of removing the cannula and other sticky plasters. Some preferred to zip up the proceedings by doing it in a flash of a second, leaving one all shaken and stirred, ruing the painful loss of some body hair. Others went about it gradually, in slow motion as it were, making the proceedings somewhat painful, though for a longer duration.

However, in some aspects, their behaviour was pretty consistent. All of them kept treating me like an errant school kid who needs to be cautioned to have all his medications on time. When it came to checking blood sugar levels, all of them insisted upon puncturing one of the tender fingers. My repeated pleas to draw instead a sample from the cannula fell on deaf ears.

Patient care and comfort was, of course, their first priority. This included an ever-smiling visage as and when they entered the enclosure allotted to me. Some of them resorted to small talk, making decent and unobtrusive enquiries about one’s family members. When leaning over across the body to attach some leads, they would often apologize.       

Some were cast in the mould of Mary Anthony of Absent Treatment fame. They were tall, had a ton and a half of red-gold hair, grey/blue eyes, and one of those determined chins. Few showed signs of superior intelligence, capable of such feats as supporting a team in burgling banks, like Jill Willard of Do Butlers Burgle Banks? One, with a lissom and willowy profile, came across as Audrey Blake (The Little Nugget), who could have aroused romantic thoughts in the hearts of some of her patients.

The Common Thread

For all medicos, the patient comes first and foremost. When working in a public hospital, the pressure of revenue generation is singularly absent. Their exposure to a large number of patients with a wide spectrum of ailments makes them hotter at their jobs. Their professionalism only grows and matures over time, benefiting humanity at large. They facilitate the process of longevity and make us happy in the process. Their methods may be rough at times, but, as Jeeves says, one has to break a few eggs to make an omelette.  

It may be noted that there was a specific reason I did not carry any book of P. G. Wodehouse while being in the hospital. With all the tubes and monitors one was often connected to, one did not wish to add to medical complications by bringing about bouts of uncontrollable mirth. Guffawing, laughing out loudly and falling out of beds allotted to one would have raised many an eyebrow. Mere memories of his works and the delightful range of eccentric characters and goofy situations he has unleashed upon us are enough to help one to face the harsh slings and arrows of Fate. 

I confess I underwent the traumatic experience only thanks to the support received from my family and owing to Plum’s works. He has left behind for all of us a world which is so very soothing and comforting that one could undergo any difficult experience in life and yet experience happiness.

After all, in Something Fresh, he has himself said that:

As we grow older and realize more clearly the limitations of human happiness, we come to see that the only real and abiding pleasure in life is to give pleasure to other people.

Sure enough, he delivers on his promise!

(Allusions to nurses are courtesy Neil Midkiff; Caricature of yours truly is courtesy Suvarna Sanyal)

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