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

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Crowd Gawked and Suddenly I Became A Laundry Queen

Recently I wrote a column for Tehelka's Personal Histories page. It is the story of my Indian summer and how, being a woman in an all-male corporate world entails many things, free matrimonial advice included. 

You can read the article by following this link

And, in case, it's not legible, here is the complete text. Enjoy!

     A dusty highway, blistering sun, a non-ac ambassador car, and a mulmul duapatta for protection against the twin vicissitudes of an upcountry sales job in the Indian summer. I had, after all, opted after MBA to join India’s largest consumer goods company as its first woman recruit in sales, whereafter I was promptly dispatched to sell sabun-tel in the hinterland. 

     As was practice, I started at the bottom. Early days saw me riding atop detergent bags inside the delivery van, marching from shop to shop as I attempted to sell Life-bo, Lux-ah, Rin-Bim-Surrf to retailers askance at a woman who wanted not to buy from their store but sell to them instead, attempting to meet their eye as they addressed the space above my right ear, downing cups of sugary chai as I rattled price per carton or bag ... Advice started to pour in gratis: Couldn’t I manage a bank job after my MBA? What did my parents think of this line of work? A husband would not appreciate a woman who tramped from store to store selling detergent and whose companions were, gulp, all men. By the time I graduated to being the first woman Area Sales Manager I realized I was officially an oddity, a square peg in a round hole.

     One morning as I commenced a retail beat where we had newly launched a detergent bar with revolutionary stain-removing powers - yes, a foot soldier has no option but to swallow the brand manager’s spiel - we encountered an irate shopkeeper. He insisted the new product did not live up to its advertising claims. As proof, he thrust an oil-smeared shirt at me - a housewife had unsuccessfully tried the new product and, dissatisfied, had flung the detergent bar and shirt in his shop. My sales officer and I tried to placate him while he kept haranguing to a band of curious onlookers. Thereafter, he proceeded to declare that the company’s ASM would personally wash and demonstrate the incredible stain-removing properties of the new bar. As I gasped and searched for ways to damage-control, a plastic stool, a bucket of water and the rejected bar appeared. The retailer urged me on, the crowd gawked and abruptly, I was cast as the Laundry Queen. 

     Hell, I’d sit there and wash clothes! but with all eyes on me, how was I to retrieve myself from the situation? I did a cursory rubbing of the shirt but the stain stayed stubborn. Which made the retailer vituperate against giant companies that only understood boycott. The situation was getting dire when my sales officer took the shirt from me, identified another stain to work upon, and began. Sam Balsara was an elderly Parsi due for retirement whose defining feature was the talcum powder he dabbed on his face against the heat and humidity of the Indian summer. As he gabbed with the onlookers he proceeded with his laundry in a leisurely manner. When he finally held up the shirt, voila, the stain had disappeared!

     On our return journey, I demanded to know the secret of his heroic wash. ‘Talc’, he said simply. ‘Smear it on the oil stain first, then wash. Check with your mother.’ He retrieved a bottle of talcum powder from his satchel and grinned. ‘Our company is full of men trying to understand the women of India: what does a housewife want in her cooking oil, soap, shampoo... But you Madam, do not need to spend time and money chasing women for insights. You are a woman. Don’t try to be a man because it’s a man’s world. It’s the woman they’re all after.’

     We laughed but Sam wasn’t finished. ‘A woman as well-read as a man will go further than him. Guaranteed. Only, on the way there, she should not leave behind what her mother knows.’ It was an edifying thought and I committed it to heart. 

     I went on to work in marketing, advertising and consulting before I took up writing full-time. And the lesson I learnt that summer day has stayed with me.

     The square peg is different, yes, but it has a unique contribution to make. 

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar is the author of four novels, including the acclaimed The Long Walk Home and the upcoming thriller The Hunt for Kohinoor

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