Praise for My Books

"Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour."
- Khushwant Singh on The Long Walk Home

"An enjoyable tale of a sassy girl's headlong race up the corporate ladder."
- India Today on Earning the Laundry Stripes

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

An Indian Summer, Sales Spiel, and a Life Lesson

Destination: Dohad, Gujarat (read boondocks)
Purpose: Sales trip (ostensibly in pursuit of earning my laundry stripes!)
Serendipity: A Life lesson (entirely unanticipated, in the mode of Serendip-Sri Lanka)

Summer time in Gujarat gives an altogether new meaning to heat. It was May; I had donned my usual protective gear: huge sunglasses and a cotton dupatta wrapped burqa-fashion. The car window was rolled down to allow for fresh air, that stung mercilessly.

We were driving from Baroda to Dohad, an arid dusty stretch. Do-had: 2-borders. A matter-of-fact name for a nondescript town bordered by the desert of Rajasthan, and the tribal region of Madhya Pradesh. What exactly was I doing, rattling down a searing tarred highway in a groaning Ambassador car with a 45°C sun burnishing bright over me? My company sold detergents for a handsome living – enabled by an antiquated rule of non-ac cars for Sales tours. This was likely driven by a Calvinesque belief in the power of suffering to build, simultaneously, character and sales. 

I, engineer-IIM-grad, could have been working with a global bank, an a-c office with potted palms and polished floors. But no, I had wanted to learn ground realities about my consumer before I sat in the ivory tower of Brand Management. Therefore, at campus placement, I had accepted with alacrity the offer of Area Sales Manager. However, during those long journeys down Gujarat highways I often wondered when the real world would get too real for me.

After a four-hour journey we reached my Distributor's house, an old haveli whose rambling innards housed a joint family and a couple of godowns. Govindbhai, my Distributor, came from a family of grain merchants. Being a distributor was not as remunerative as the traditional family business but it did something for his status in town.

Perfunctorily I enquired about Sales – the reports were with me but an unexpected response was usually guaranteed!

"Surya Devta’s kindness, madam," he offered with a smile.

The reference to Sun God was Govindbhai's reverential take on my Company's, and therefore my, Summer Sales Spiel: more heat equals more sweat equals more dirt equals more washes equals more detergent equals more sales. Simplistic, but it worked, especially in rural India where, despite the heat and grime, people have a penchant for wearing white.

Of course, I had to be selective about the application of this logic as I had discovered during my first few months on the job. Declining sales in summer season were explained by an ingenuous twist to the equation: more heat equals water shortage equals less washing! Sales, as I had figured, is nothing to do with logic. It is about relationships: a fluid web of constantly changing dynamics, with the ASM, Distributors, Sales team, and Retailers as the nodal points.

We spent the next two hours reviewing Sales details over endless cups of tea. Then Govindbhai broached the topic of nashta.

After rounds of demurring from my side, and energetic protestations from him, I found myself seated at a ten-seater dining table on the first floor of the haveli. The spread on the table was mind-boggling: a cheerful smorgasbord of papad, dhokla, undhiyo, lentil, kadhi, three types of vegetables, lightly flavored basmati rice, hot-off-the-stove-rotis, yoghurt drink, and sliced mango. Truly, a feast for the Lady ASM from Bombay.

I still found it a little discomfiting. I say still because this happens every time that I make a visit. Sitting at the table with the men I worked or interacted with - the Sales Officer, the Distributor and his male relatives - while the women cooked and served from the kitchen. The women of the house would eat later, that was the custom - I would be politely informed when I suggested they join us. I had partaken many such meals but the disconcerting feeling never left me. Seated at that table I was on a level plane with the men: I was acknowledged as their equal. This recognition, however, distanced me from the women, and did not balance my equation with them.

After lunch I went to the kitchen to thank the women. It was big and airy. There were five women ranging from seventeen to seventy inside. They examined me with frank curiosity and proceeded to quiz me about my family, my home in Bombay, who managed it when I travelled, what about the cooking?

Meanwhile, I learnt that they spent most of their time in the kitchen. Feeding a family of fifteen was like feeding an army, the grandmother informed with pride. The agenda consisted of moving from one meal to the next: arms wrestling with atta dough, expertly sifting grain for possible pebbles, gently rolling out thin rotis, frying papad over just the right heat, chopping vegetables into florets or cubes, preparing the seasoning. The wealth of tradition was passed down from the matriarch to the bahus. The granddaughter of marriageable-age was apprenticed into learning.

'The women in the kitchen' – yeah, I boxed them – were so different from me, and yet  alike. We managed our respective worlds with expertise and skill, but the worlds themselves were entirely different...

Something was bothering me and it was during the market visit, amidst detergent bars and sales chatter and more tea with retailers, that my mind supplied the answer. I had been fortunate to have the choice of which world to adopt, they had not. I felt a sense of empowerment because I had the ability to switch from one world (the-all-male-dining-table-world) to another (kitchen-cocoon-women-world) when I wanted. That was not something I could see either my male counterparts, or the women within the kitchen, doing.

After the visit, at four in the evening, the sun still bright, we were ready to start the return journey to Baroda. Govindbhai, however, seemed strangely hesitant to let us go.

"A small favour, if you would please, madam?" he said.

I nodded.

He looked at me nervously, shifting his gaze from me to the ground. "My daughter, who is in Class 8, is back from school She would like to meet you… You see, she wants to be an engineer when she grows up."

Back again at the dining table – this time though I was facing specific questions of a very determined and curious girl. She soaked up all the answers but it was I who got a life lesson: in a dusty little town, from inside a traditional haveli with its airy kitchen and no study, it is possible for a young woman to think different. 

The sun was setting as we drove back from Dohad. The rays glinted off the Gulmohar flowers and seemed to cast a halo around the entire tree. Did I mention that I like this tree a lot? In the sweltering heat of the Indian summer it stands tall and green, bursting forth with fiery red flowers – a cheerful respite against a monotone background. I remember that journey because I noticed quite a few Gulmohar trees on the way back.

This post has been submitted to the Indiblogger Cleartrip "My Purpose" contest. Hope you enjoyed it :)


  1. Absolutely delightful post! It indeed is possible for people to be different, more so when you least expect it, more so in rare places.
    All the best! :D

  2. Thanks Debby! Glad you enjoyed it :) Absolutely agree with you - you find wonder where you're least looking for it. Cheers!

  3. i loved your post. Isn't it wonderful how the unexpected is there everywhere and we only have to accept it, particularly people. I hope Govindbhai's daughter realises all her dreams.

    Good luck for the contest.

  4. Beautiful post, you write very well!

    The part of India that you made a trip to, is trying to rapidly emerge from the shadows of the tall towers of urban India. I think you inspired the women in the kitchen to become through their daughter what they couldn't become themselves. And, I am pretty sure that you inspired the dad as well...Good luck to the kid, hope she succeeds in her plans.


  5. @thisandthatinmumbai: Many thanks! I agree with you, as long as we keep ourselves open and accepting, the world continues to amaze :)

    @Desi Babu: True. The best part of 'shining India' is that a whole world of opportunities has opened up which were hitherto inaccessible.
    And thanks for the generous praise :)

  6. very charming read.
    the inquisitiveness of the young now a days is astonishing, their carrier choices.
    well written.

  7. @likemymusings: Thank you! The young have always been inquisitive - that's why they're young! I guess the trick is to stay curious and choose the path less trodden...

  8. Nice one! Being open and aware every moment definitely makes feel life like a magic. Loved this post.