Business

A Day And A Night In Slovakia

  From Vienna to Piestany via Bratislava

From Vienna to Piestany via Bratislava

Chasing Windmills

Soon after we’d left the Vienna airport, they came up, on both sides of the Bahn, an unending presence along the route running from the edge of the highway to the horizon itself: white towers with long blades drawing energy from wind that pushed them. As in Judo. Standing tall on the rise and fall of the Austrian landscape, they turned with gusto. It was raining. Gray air and grey cloud pressed down on the lush green expanse of earth, earth free of buildings, cut through by grey road and dotted with these high windmills. Until yesterday Europe had been awash in uninterrupted golden sunshine, but this moment in the rain changed two weeks of the sun into mere memory.

“This rain is good,” our customer who was driving us from Vienna to Slovakia said. “There’s been too much pollen flying.”

The Austrians voted out nuclear energy a long time ago, and they must succeed with alternates. In Slovakia, our customer said, a Soviet-era nuclear plant is serving its five-million Slovak population just fine. (I haven’t done a fact-check. The customer was brilliant, so well informed.)

At the border, the profusion of windmills ended.

Auto Power

The big thing in Slovakia is auto. Most big European names have moved in, whisking to effervescence the dour east-bloc economy of yesteryear: Porsche’s Cayenne, Volkswagen’s Tuareg, the BMW 5, Citroen’s C3, Land Rover, KIA’s Sport, the Audi Q5. Auto has done for Slovakia what software did for India. Nearly half the industrial output is auto, which constitutes a quarter of its exports. Every few moments we passed trucks lugging fresh-made cars out to the world, cars shining like candy even in the absence of sun.

“They bought used cars from us in the past,” our customer remarked. “Now Germans buy new cars from Slovakia through agents in Germany. Up to 33% cheaper.”

The first things that show up when Bratislava appears are the spanking new malls, rising behind arched sound barriers lining the stretch of highway that passes through town. Slovaks have it good these days. A forklift operator in an auto plant makes a thousand euros a month, with an indirect payout of 47% on top.

Going through Bratislava, looking at a hill covered in old buildings, India’s police quarters and its railway quarters came to mind. The buildings were painted in bright colours, but the colours couldn’t hide dullness, the communist past of them. They weren’t painted back then. The newer buildings nearby were different, designed by free-market architects.

Bratislava is hilly, riparian with two rivers — the Danube and the Morava. Riding a wide old bridge, I noticed a hotel named after Chopin. And on a hoarding, again by the bridge, a hotel was advertised which was named after Mendelssohn. Europeans fight the most horrible wars and yet they unite completely for the arts.

Leaving Bratislava, we were in the plains again, fertile plains with hills in the distance. The mountains lurked beyond the hills, perhaps, but we couldn’t see them from the valley of the Váh river, from the road to Piestany.

Tiny Piestany

Piestany is small, population 30,000. It is a spa town whose springs have drawn humans to them since 80,000 years ago. The town centre has the things a town centre should, in a petite pedestrian zone — in a brisk ten-minute walk we’d covered the area. The boutiques were modest (Zaira, selling garments, hit my eye). The restaurants suggested French and Italian cuisine, but the Argentinian steak ruled everywhere. The Hotel Park Avenue, where we checked in, boasted unchallenged the best Argentinian in town. The hotel sat on the corner of a nice old park. Communist dictatorships nurtured parks — I remembered the large ones I’ve seen in Ceaușescu’s Bucuresti.

Everybody spoke German. They learn it at school, a carryover from when East Germany and Czechoslovakia were ideological buddies. Our waiter spoke English, and he organised for us vegan soup and aglio olio. Afterwards, he urged that we try their chocolate egg — a shell of chocolate the size of an ostrich egg, with ice cream inside, and raspberry sauce. “Somebody should order the chocolate egg,” he said and laughed. He was tall and young and good-looking, and he laughed after every three sentences. “I’ll take it,” our customer said, relieving the vegans.

Loveable folks, the Slovaks. Only five million of them, living in a beautiful land with room to spare. They won’t take one single refugee.

We’d come to Piestany to visit a factory, with a mission to move a hundred-worker operation to India. The senior executive who showed us around didn’t hide our purpose from the workers. They weren’t afraid of losing work they’ve been doing for years, because they wouldn’t be losing their jobs. We came away without suffering guilt.

On the return, the clouds had gone, and the world was again golden.

Some Soft Stuff About Big Guns

  Photo by AWSeebaran/iStock / Getty Images (Illustrative Image Only)

Photo by AWSeebaran/iStock / Getty Images (Illustrative Image Only)

“We’ve checked with the hotel,” the key organiser said from the podium. “They have no plans to do a fire drill today. So if the alarm rings, it’s the real thing.”

Just a start-of-the-event routine, of course. Still, the announcement evoked light titter in dispersed pockets among the audience. People were in a good mood. We’d been served coffee and tea and good pastry while we waited for the hall doors to open, which they did at 09:00, as scheduled, accompanied by a tinkling bell to shepherd us — a uniformly dark-suited lot — into the large, swank hall. The host was a British company with operations in England and America and the Middle East and Australia. An old reputation for punctuality was at stake.

The company has been active in India since times when the nation was a British dominion. This important fact was given us by the CEO (an Indian) of the company’s Indian operations, whose father once commanded the sole aircraft carrier in the Indian Navy. When a boy, the CEO has played many times on the deck of that aircraft carrier. Being raised like that has done things to him: He was confident like hell, with a chest to match which he held out, and impressive height, and slicked-back hair — plus, in his stance, a faint whiff of the warrior.

He had two massive displays of that venerable vessel behind him — pasted on PowerPoint, one image on either side of him. I don't know about the others in the hall, but, coming as I do from small-town India, I envied him his boyhood playground.

Through a crisp presentation, the CEO detailed the history of the company’s involvement with India: supporting the defences of Kolkata at the start, through the Wars afterwards, and as a supplier of field guns and combat-aircraft and trainer aircraft to independent India. Now the company aims to win market share against the increased competition of today. To win Indian business, it needs to mandatorily demonstrate a commitment to developing Indian suppliers, and do its own manufacturing in India.

We were suppliers attending the conference. They were top-management folks engaged in procurement. Through speeches and videos, they told us what a good thing it is to be their supplier; senior guy after very-senior guy spoke and congratulated us for being invited to the party.

To prove the point, they brought on stage the CEO of an Indian company that has already started supplies to them. This man was an officer in the Indian Army who resigned and joined the corporate world, bringing along a straight back, a stiff neck, and a marching gait. “It has been a great experience, I tell you,” he glowed. “We received the ultimate compliment from them. During the recent exercises, they fired our missiles from their guns.”

Having taken the stage, the soldier had made it his post, and he wouldn’t leave it. On and on he spoke of his experience with this customer. “You see, they didn’t teach us how to make a product,” he said. “They taught us to build systems. Really, I tell you, these people changed my life. I have learnt so much from them.” For good measure, he spoke the lines again.

I might have imagined it, but I think I saw a squirm left of me, a shift of posture on the right of me, and surely there was a repeat, and still, the soldier spoke on, clearly beyond time given him, and when he finished he didn’t appear satisfied. He seemed pained, like he felt far more praise was due than he’d given.

I saw him later, speaking to little groups at lunchtime, working hard to do justice to what he’d received from his host. He reminded me of some elders in my childhood who swore that the cure for India’s ills was to bring the English back, to give them whole our country. The English would whip us into discipline. They’d teach us the basics we lacked.

That was last week. I’m back now, working with my folks, like the other suppliers who would be working with their folks, to win, to qualify to work with this company and participate in making big, killer guns in India.

Good thing? You tell me.

My Post: Follow the News, Follow the Money

Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images

“Follow the news,” he said, bringing to my mind Deep Throat) and All the President’s Men. “You’ll see where the government is spending money. Just now they bought a huge number of rockets. The Israeli Spike missile contract is brought back. Ammunition! They’re stocking ammunition in large quantities. Suddenly. Why? Why do they need so many rockets so urgently?”

I listened, my eyes locked to his. The man before me was a brilliant businessman, quite young and rising fast, and, more importantly, a key customer with top-class global exposure.

“Our borders are getting hotter,” I ventured. “China has all but acquired Pakistan …”

“Pakistan is nothing,” he interrupted. “Nothing. Okay they have nukes. Maybe they can bomb one Indian city. Max. But when India responds, Pakistan, so small it is, it will be blown off the map. The Chinese are the real threat. Every day they are coming one kilometer into Arunachal, sometimes three four kilometers, walking in when they want, walking back. Someday somebody will lose his head. Some ego will explode. Then?”

I wondered about his geography while he took a moment to rearrange himself in his seat. We were sitting poolside in the hotel he was staying at, the temperature had fallen and a chill had enveloped the area, as it had the entire city — the chill was creeping up and down beneath my jacket and trouser and shirt, and my socks even, seeking skin, teasing out an occasional shiver.

“I don’t believe in these things, Shashi, but I must tell you something. There’s a 37 year-old guy. In my city. He’s done his PhD in astrology. He doesn’t accept money for his services, because he believes he’d lose his powers if he did that. That fellow is saying, and people are quoting him, that right now the stars are steadily moving toward their same positions when Kargil happened. I don’t believe in this prediction business, Shashi, but give it six months. In six months we will have a war. With China. Not a long war. About three months, maybe.” He swayed his torso side to side to measure out in mime the possible duration.

“Three months,” I cried. “That’s long!”

“Yes,” he began to nod after a pause, giving each nod generous time, and then he took his arms behind his chair, clasped his hands there and stretched. “There will be a big recession. The economy will take a hit for two years, maybe three. We will all suffer.”

“The entire world will take a hit,” I said. “We’re not a small economy anymore.”

He thought a bit, and went back to nodding, even slower this time. “But there’s one thing,” he said. “There’s one thing Modi has done. He has really gone out and got India some powerful allies. So we should see.”

It was my turn to nod thoughtfully, slower even than him, gazing at the beer on the table now, gelid and golden, tempting as hell. You could tell its temperature by sight, from the even, thin, drop-free frost over the entire mug. Nice squat mug with no handle, with Kingfisher Ultra in it.

“Right,” I said, marveling at how every Indian businessman that I know adores Modi.

“Some of us will have good business if there’s a war. But I hope it won’t happen,” he said. “But you must follow the news, Shashi,” he said. “You must follow the news. Read what the generals are saying. You will see how things are shaping up.”

I nodded again, and my eyes clouded, and turned inward, and caught Deep Throat by a column amid blue vapors in an underground parking lot. “Follow the money,” Deep Throat urged in his thick voice, sticking to his line after all these years. In a moment I snapped back to the moment, and found my customer still with me, and we got down to the business that we’d met for.

This morning, I found myself recalling the conversation, which happened last night. I was nodding to the recollections. I was still nodding after breakfast, and again in the car on my way to work, which made me think I must write about it, and thereby clear out my head and steady it.

Also, I decided to rent All the President’s Men this weekend. The news should wait, I figured, in these times of Fake News. And because my life is better when there’s no news in it.

Loyal Subject Of The King Of Good Times

 The Shangri La, Bangalore

The Shangri La, Bangalore

I took three Americans to Ssaffron, on the 18th floor at the Shangri La. From a corner table we took in the night-view during pauses in conversation. Not a great view for Americans, but on my part, I pointed downward to the Ashok in the distance, and told them, “Our first five star hotel. The government used to run it.” I meant to pique some interest, but the line went nowhere, so I pointed to the cricket stadium where all the lights were on. We spoke cricket, and kabaddi afterward. “It’s rugby in miniature,” an Indian American from the group said of India’s indigenous game.

I didn’t mind it when the government ran the Ashok. Being in business, I get along with government folks. I used to entertain customers at the Mandarin on the top floor there. They had then the most popular band in Bangalore: Shyam and the West Wind. Shyam appeared like he’d ridden in from a Marlboro ad, bringing along a voice to match. He sang like a real man too.

You had a choice of beers even then, all of them Indian. UB and Kingfisher beat all other brands, and foreign guests called Kingfisher the best lager anywhere. From Kingfisher conversation often turned to Vijay Mallya. I’d read somewhere that Mallya, upon taking a table at any restaurant, first leafed through the menu to the drinks page—to check if his liquors were listed. I’d tell my guests that thing about him.

The chef at the Mandarin was Chinese Indian, and his cuisine Indian Chinese. Once a waiter ran to him with a bowl of fried rice. Earshot of me, the waiter told him, “Guest is complaining rice isn’t cooked.” Picking a pinch of the stuff and rubbing the grain between fingers, the chef told him fried rice isn’t served boiled.

The Ssaffron at Shangri La is cozy inside, breezy at the alfresco. Whereas waiters at the Mandarin spoke Kannada and Tamil, at Saffron Hindi rules. Of the two waiters assigned our table, one was Bihari, the other Bengali. Both were smart young men, very proud of the five northern styles on the menu. Everything we ate was grand.

Two of my guests were Scottish American. We talked a little history. To explain South Indian civility, I told them, “Here in our province the last major battle was in 1799. We’ve seen only peace for two centuries now.” A bland expression came over their faces—I couldn’t read the meaning of it. But they assured me they weren’t bored, and I told them about Tipu.

Vijay Mallya bought the sword of Tipu Sultan from the English during my Mandarin days. I’d read the news with some emotion. I was young. Also, despite all I’ve learned about Tipu, that bundle of folly and tyranny and intellect and great daring has endured as my hero. He fell fighting on May 4, 1799, right before the breach in his fort. His body was found with his sword still in hand. The moment is a Homeric image in my mind.

Mallya flew off to England week before last, to his thirty-acre residence there. He’s left behind a broke airline he founded, and its huge unpaid bills. He has tweeted that he hasn’t run away; doesn’t say when he’ll return. Mallya is Bangalorean. I spend time on the terrace at his UB City, over coffee at Cafe Noir, with customers at Toscano’s. I enjoyed Kingfisher Airlines when it flew, although I hated his personal message on the monitors during takeoff and landing: “Every member of the crew is handpicked by me.” The food was good, service perfect. His female staff wore their skirts red and very tight, but I shouldn’t have noticed that.

Yes, I’ve been a loyal subject of the King of Good Times.

These are sanskari times. Even as everybody is worked up about Mallya’s escape, they are also bristling mostly for and a little against a culture bonanza another Bangalorean has organised in Delhi, this very weekend. Yoga and Meditation top the program list. Great makeshift edifices for his show are installed on a sensitive stretch of the Yamuna’s flood banks. The statutory authority let him off with a fine, whining meanwhile that the matter has reached its attention too late to stop him.

The man, a painfully soft-spoken godman, with the double salutation Sri Sri to raise him above the masses, closer to the Creator, declared he’d not pay the fine. “I’ll go to jail,” he declared. His devotees gasped. Others called it a bluff. But our Prime Minister was Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Chief Guest at the opening ceremony, and so something happened and the godman paid only 6%. The balance he may pay later, and everything can be worked out between now and later.

When you run short of heroes, you look to America. But Steve Jobs is dead. Obama is leaving. The Clintons are stale. My rockstars have aged. They have Trump on offer, but I’m not buying.

We weren’t too long at the Ssaffron. Everybody needed to rise early next day.

Dispossession

We’d just arrived, located a spot for pooje, and begun to lay about the prayer articles: a composite picture-frame of Ganesha, Saraswathi and Lakshmi, lamps, incense, vermillion powder, camphor, sweets, fruits, flowers, a pick-axe, a spade. A villager and his son soon arrived. We were a few: three promoters, two government officers, a team of four from the contractor, one from the architects, and a promoter’s wife. The villagers have been cultivating the land taken away from them seventeen years ago—not owning it, but tilling it, told by the government that when people come to build a factory, they shouldn’t make trouble.

The villager announced himself owner of the land and member of the panchayat. His face showed defiance and its impotence before government. He is strong from toil and from decent nourishment—uncommon for village-folks. He hadn’t come to fight. He asked the government officer to tell us to give jobs to all the youngsters in the surrounding villages. The officer explained how jobs are given, of merit, need, and qualification. The owner said the Deputy Commissioner had promised that all the villagers would get jobs when they acquired the land. He demanded a job for his son. What is his education? High school. I laughed. He protested tamely: what more can a villager study? I said I laughed because we hadn’t laid a brick and already we were talking about jobs. He was silent. All were silent.

It was a beautiful day. A cool December breeze played about this high ground, the sun shone bright in the early-morning hour. We had set out before dawn from Bangalore and arrived in three hours, enjoying a smooth drive. The pooje went exceedingly well; the poojari is apparently the favorite of film-stars Ambarish and Vishnuvardhan. The beautiful location captivated the whole party. It rolls down to the river which was dry when I first saw it; now in December we saw it full and in lazy flow. The man from the architects said we should build a resort by the river. The contractor suggested we build a guest-house overlooking it.

I wondered before this villager, he in a blue-check sarong, I wearing blue jeans, if we are worthy of his land which we now possess for no great effort but merely because of a shift in economic policy. His land has been taken away from him and sold to us. He would know its every inch, as did his father before him. He would know each undulation, every furrow, where water reached, where water didn’t reach, the whole nature of the ground, the character of its trees, all of which are beyond us. We will have a factory and a garden there. We will improve the supply chain and recruit and motivate people. We will install machines, jigs and fixtures. And accountants. The scent of the land before rain, the turning of the land with the seasons, the coming and going of crops, the ox and the plough, the surprised snake slithering away at the feet, pesky birds, good monsoons, drought, healthy crops, worms, plant diseases, husk in the wind, lunch come from home taken in the shade of the tree, the harvest festival: no one will ever experience this land as he did.

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