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.