Retails tryst with rural India

Updated: Jan 21 2007, 06:02am hrs
At a time when the country is soaring on its retail wings, Earning The Laundry Stripes showcases the struggles, trials and challenges of a woman sales trainee in the largest consumer company of India as she battles to find a foothold in the male dominated distribution chain and retail world. Her journeys into the small dusty towns and cities provides an interesting insight into the lives of ordinary men and women, whose traditional moorings have gone for a toss hit by the changing winds of commerce.

Initially elated at the prospect of creating history as the first women in twenty years to join the out-of-bounds arena of sales a typical male bastion Noor Bhalla, the gutsy management student from IIM, Calcutta, is thrown into a turbulent roller-coaster ride where the environs are as hostile as her co-workers in the sales trail. Encountering on a daily basis the prejudiced and patronising attitude of distributors and shopkeepers, handling questions like why didnt you join Citibank to her superiors proclamation that the single-most definitive thing about Sales is that it is a mans world, Bhalla learns to take it in her stride as she does bumpy rides on delivery vans, assignments with no basic amenities, and junior sales managers who watch porn movies in conference rooms.

Belonging to the genre of institution-MBA-lit, this first novel by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar based on her own academic and professional experience, defines life as a student in the hallowed portals of IIMC to an independent career woman tackling the challenges of a sales career in bulleted points of motivation, and therefore a must-read for aspiring women MBA students.

But it does offers for todays urban youth, more at home with the lingo and life style of the western world, a peek-a-boo into the ugly face of real India where the girl-child is routinely used to serve father, brother and husband, where even meritorious girls have to forego their dreams at the altar of tradition and marriage, where the lines of religious divide are sacrosanct, and where a poor village girl can get her nose chopped off for talking to a strange men.

What carries the book forward is the protagonist Bhallas attitude of facing life head-on, and the often weird adventures that it lands her in dealing with eve-teasers, floods and crocodiles, of a much touted stain-removing detergent that fails to work its magic in front of a crowd, of a blackmailing policeman and of a bus ride with a goat all in the daily life of a sales trainee!

Bhalla learns the rules of survival when after trying hard for a year to be one of the boys and to feel comfortable in her Venusian niche on Martian territory, she discovers how to turn her handicap of being a woman into an advantage. Frustrated at being designated either sister or daughter by sundry distributors and shopkeepers, she later finds that these very roles allow her access into their family and with their womenfolk (how many male ASMs can manage that) and thus understand not only the efficacy of her companys products but also indulge in some smart bonding, a factor that provides the much-needed edge over her male colleagues.

During her rural stint a company policy in view of the sectors importance as the next big marketing revolution Bhalla in her typical act first, think later style decides to organize a population control seminar but soon realizes to her horror that despite ending up with laryngitis due to her incessant lectures, it has all been a waste of time and effort as in typical Indian double-standard style, instead of a direct no, the village women had been instructed to humor her instead. Needless to say, her project is a dismal failure.

But the nadir of her rural stint comes when she discovers the meaning of natural birth control in the villages which means that while the men do count their cattle they do not count their daughters. So, a family of three children would actually mean three sons, damn be the five daughters who from morning to dust serve their brothers and fathers but are not worth to be counted!

Bhalla goes back to Mumbai (or Bombay) as she prefers to call it, having learnt her lesson that in rural India, its best to stick to popular wisdom. Her sense of despair is somewhat mitigated when the daughter of a distributor expresses her wish to become an engineer like the ASM Madam. The staccato style of narrative with bullets and footnotes is replete with funny sound bites. Sample some gems from the text: downgray means downgrade, management trainees or MTs that sound suspiciously like Empty Tins when said loud and fast to hilarious ones like shallpiss, which is nothing but shelf space! Though a slow-starter with the beginning focusing too much on the life of an IIMC-ian, the witty and frank writing captures the essence of struggle and survival in contemporary India.

Read it to get a feel of retail as well as rural India that plods on with its segregationist roles for men and women, but where the threads of commerce are slowly and sometimes painstakingly providing the much-needed impetus for social change, and also for realistic role models like the ballsy babe Bhalla who discovers the great pleasure has been doing what others said I could not do.