Vista-71: A day in the life of a wannabe Mr. Chips


Friday, July 23, 2004

A day in the life of a wannabe Mr. Chips

By Raja Ramanathan
 Jenny was late coming to the first class. She was doing this course on Human Resources Management because she had to. It was a compulsory course and she could not get her diploma in Business Management unless she did the course. So she had left it to the last. She had avoided doing what she considered a totally boring and useless course to the very last, but, now she had no options. She had to complete the course.

The class was starting at 6.30 pm, and, she had bought the text book, and, saw that everyone was already in the class room. Just one smoke before she went in, she told herself, and, stepped out in the cold winter air to light her cigarette. Her throat had by now become immune to the harsh nicotine smoke, but, nevertheless she muffled a cough, more brought on by the cold than the smoke. She took a few quick drags and stubbed out the cigarette, popped a piece of gum into her mouth, and, moved towards M10.

Shridhar Raghuraman was just beginning to warm up when he saw Jenny open the door. He could not resist saying, ‘…I trust you are in the right class. This is the Human Resources Management class. I once had a student sit through one and a half hours of the first class only to realize at the end of it that it was not  the Management Accounting class that she had registered for…’  Jenny nodded her head, ‘Yes. I am signed up for the Human Resources Management class. Sorry, I am late…’ and found her way to the learning pod at the end of the class. She felt somewhat embarassed at being late and being singled out for the attention of the instructor’s remark.

‘So…’ Shridhar continued from where he had interrupted himself when Jenny entered the class,’…the purpose of this course is not to make HR Vice Presidents of all of you, at the end of fourteen weeks. The purpose is to give you an idea of what HR should be doing, which more often than not it does not do. Of course, we will use the text, but, what will keep all of us awake as we sit through every Tuesday evening from 6.30 to 9.30 pm is if I get the opportunity to talk less, and, all of us get to hear a variety of voices as you participate…’

Jas who was sitting in the next to Jenny looked at Jenny and smiled. ‘…3 hours, too long…’ Jas wrote on a piece of paper and showed it to Jenny. Jenny nodded her head in agreement. In any case Jenny had switched off her mind. She was thinking of the car. Her car was giving starting problems in the morning, and, Rob, her live-in boyfriend of two yearss standing was away at his mother’s place, in Sudbury, for the week. What would she do if it did not start in the morning ? She had not renewed her CAA card, and, could not call CAA. Perhaps she would have to charm one of the young men in the parking lot to jump start it.

‘My name is Shridhar Raghuraman, and, since that is more than a mouthful for most of you, call me Shri,’ the instructor continued. ‘I have been teaching this course for six years now, and, teach it because it teaches me so much. You will be surprised at how many ideas I have picked up here which I implement at my day job with Axis Chemicals, where I head the Human Resources Department. At this stage, what I would like to know is the answer to three questions from each of you,

What is your name ?
Why are you here ? That is, what do you expect to get out of the next fourteen Tuesday evenings we will spend togethr ?
Have you had any Human Resources’ experience ? This is to help me identify, in advance, those of you will ask the difficult questions…’ Shri chuckled at his own little crack. No reciprocal response from the class. Most of them were still trying to figure out his accent.

Sam Blackwell sat in the middle of the class. He had never expected to have to learn from a Paki. What would a Paki know about Human Rights, in any case ? How could he teach Canadian law ? How could he talk about Human Rights ? Wasn’t he from a country where they practiced female circumsion ? He was fuming. Look at what is happening to Coxstown. All these Pakis swarming in, their smelly Paki food, their Paki music and those Paki churches…Sam stuck his booted shoe out in the most aggressive form of protest that he could muster, and, ran his hand through his short cropped hair.

‘Why don’t we start with you?’ Shri started, looking to Andrea who was beginning to open her text book as she sat in the first learning pod. ‘Fine,’ she said, and, started off, ‘I am Andrea Kostopoulos. I am here to complete my business diploma. I have no HR work experience…’ ‘Thanks Andrea, and, welcome to the class,’ Shri said.

Andrea Kostopoulos was followed by Gurmeet Brar, Sibhani Tharmarajah, Harry Delisle, Usman Mirza, Judy Peacock, Adriana Piccoli, Siva Sivasathamparan, Jasmeet Sodhi (call me Jassie, please), Nathan Goldmann, Kevin O’Connor, Sam Blackwell and fifteen others who made up the medley of communities that had come to be Coxstown in Ontario. The last to introduce herself was Jenny Freeman. Other than Adriana Piccoli who was doing the course to see if she wanted a career in Human Resources Management everyone else was there because they needed to complete it for the business management diploma. They had no choice but to take this course and the way they responded made it clear. No one had owned up to any Human Resources experience.

‘Let’s take a stretch break,’ Shri said, at the end of the introductions, ‘…and be back in five minutes…’

Jenny walked towards the exit, reaching for her pack of cigarettes. A few others from the class were also heading towards the exit, and, she recognized Kevin O’Connor. Kevin slowed down as he passed her, and, then they walked in tandem. ‘Hope he doesn’t keep us till the bitter end, 9.30 is quite late…’ Kevin said as they pushed the exit door. ‘Yeah, and, I hope my car starts. It’s been giving me trouble of late and my boyfriend is away,’ Jenny said, thinking of the world’s number one problem from her ringside seat. ‘Where do you live ?’ Kevin asked, ‘…I can give you a ride home, if you have a problem. More effectively, I have starter cables in my van and can jump start your car if it doesn’t start here…’ ‘…I live in the condo on Country Court Boulevard…’ Jenny said, thankful that some solution to the world’s number one problem seemed to be emerging. ‘Thanks for the offer. I may take you up on it…’ ‘Country Court Boulevard runs parallel to my street, Clarke Court Drive. My phone number is 898 567 2345. Call me at anytime if you have a problem. My girl friend may take the phone. Tell her to wake me…’ Kevin said, and, both of them stubbed out their cigarettes and walked back towards the class.

Sam Blackwell was debating within himself whether he should continue his racial degeneration by listening to the Paki instructor teach. Since he didn’t know what better to do, he just stomped back into the class making it clear what the message of his stomping boots was. For effect he looked at the Paki and ran his hands once again through his close cropped hair.


‘…I am glad to see that most of you decided to come back…’ Shri started off. ‘…I shall presume that those who did not found out that they were in the wrong class and so they did not come back…Please note that I have to take attendance not so much to ensure your presence in the class, but, that is the only way the college knows that I have taken the class and will pay me…Unfortunately I take attendance after 8pm, so if you want to be marked present you will have to stay till then…’

Sam was getting furious with Shri’s supercilious humour. He had to say something. ‘Excuse me, but, can you tell me when the mid-term tests are ?’ Sam asked. ‘Good question. Tests are a necessary evil of the system we are in, and, I will deal with that in the next class…’ Shri said with a degree of pomposity which was his response to Sam’s Doc Marten boots and close-cropped hair. The stage was getting set for a good showdown between the two races. ‘I think it will help if we know the grading structure right up front…’ Sam was not going to let him get away. Shri was up to it, ‘…If that is your concern, please look at the course outline for now. Full details of the course evaluation process and exam dates are given there. If there is anything left to discuss we can talk about it after I have presented it in the next class…’ The class knew what was happening, and, they wondered how this would pan out. Surprisingly, Sam backed off. He knew that this was not a good enough fight to spoil for. He needed something more emotional to pick a fight on. He would wait his day. ‘Fine,’ Sam said and settled back to doodle.

Jasvinder, Jas,  watched this exchange and knew what was happening. From the looks of Sam he looked as if he had stepped out of South Africa just after they set up the truth commission under Desmond Tutu, and, was waiting to be allowed to strangle Shri, legitimately. Jas knew how difficult it had been for her father to teach in the all-white Seymour Collegiate where he had been a supply teacher for years after migrating to Canada in 1972. Jas was born in 1975, and, she would so often see her father waiting in the morning for the school to call him to stand in for a teacher who had taken the day off without notice. When the call came he would rush to answer the phone, and, on occasion when the caller at the other end heard her father’s Ludhiana accent they would disconnect, to call another teacher.  And when he did get a call, often the parents would complain that their children did not understand what the Paki teacher taught. Shri, seemed different. While his accent was not North American, it wasn’t straight off the boat from Trincomalee, either. Jas thought Shri was a Tamil running from the Tigers. In any case all these South Indian and Sri Lankan names sounded the same.

‘…Today’s class will be somewhat different…’ Shri’s voice brought Jas back to the immediacy of what was happening. ‘…Since you have not had the opportunity to read the text, I will take you to a slightly different level. In subsequent classes we will talk of the more operational aspects of Human Resources Management. Today, we will look at things from a more conceptual and historical level so that we understand how this function has come to be what it is today...'

Adriana’s cell phone went off and she sheepishly picked it up and slid out of the class. Shri was always bothered by students’ cell phones going off in the middle class, but, he never laid down a rule that they should switch them off. This was because he never switched off his. Smita would always call him on her way home from work, and, he always wanted to take her call. More than his wanting to take her call she would be grumpy when he saw her next if she missed talking to him on the way home.

‘…To understand where Human Resources is today I am going to take you back about 25,000 years in human history…’ Shri continued. Sitting in the third pod from the front, Gurmeet turned to Miriam sitting next to him and said, ‘…I thought we signed up for a course in Human Resources. This sounds like a history course…’ Miriam chuchled.

‘…Some twenty five thousand years ago a major event happened in human history that changed completely and totally the way men and women lived. Till that point of time, humans or homo erectus, lived as individual hunters, hunting for their own food, discovering ways of improving the taste of food by cooking it over a fire, and, mating to produce similar creatures…’ Kasha started searching in her English-Polish dictionary for the word homo erectus. Sounded like a bad word. Were instructors allowed to use such words in class ? Kasha continued fumbling with her dictionary.

Shri continued, ‘…around twenty five thousand years ago, humans moved from living as individual hunters to living in small groups, growing food, and, sharing what they produced. This gave rise to what came to be known as the village. A village started off as a group of huts set side by side, around perhaps a common piece of land, on which people grew vegetables, cereals and all that. After they had eaten and taken what they needed they had something left over which they used to get something else they did not have. Does anyone know what this process was called ?’

Jackie was beginning to listen to Shri. She had thought that Human Resources Management was all about rules and manuals. This guy seemed to be talking about something else…’…barter…’ Jackie said, and, Shri looked at her appreciatively for having broken the monologue. ‘…Thank You…that is correct…’ he said…

‘So, with the creation of the village and the barter system, humans found that needed something to regulate their behaviour. Who owned the barley that was grown in the patch of land behind my house ? And what was to happen if my neighbour took it away ? So, they formulated something called laws which controlled who owned what, and, what happened if you took something without the owner’s knowledge or permission. Unfortunately, women got included among the items of property and men set rules about what women should be doing. The more unfortunate thing is that trend for men to continue to decide what a woman does continues to circa nineteen ninety eight…’

‘What nonsense ?’ Sam said to himself. ‘Men set those laws because women needed protection…’ Sam quickly said to the class, chipping  in, and, sitting up straight. Shri was going to respond when he saw Jenny’s hand go up. ‘Yes…’ he said looking at Jenny. ‘Sorry. The idea that women needed protection is something that men created and went ahead with…’ Jenny said somewhat forcefully. Shri quickly cut in as he did not want this to become a debate on women’s issues. ‘…Both of you have a perspective you are coming from…the important point for the purposes of what we are talking is that laws evolved. These were the first laws to emerge, and, created a framework for social behaviour…’ Shri went on somewhat rapidly wanting to stop the potential conflict in the class from distracting the trend of what he wanted to say.

Neither Jenny nor Sam were happy with Shri’s intervention. They just sat back.

‘These events that happened twenty five thousand years ago were collectively called the Agrarian Revolution,’ Shri continued looking away from Sam and Jenny. ‘Remember the important developments of this period of time were the emergence of the village, the evolution of barter as a means of acquiring what you did not have, and, the earliest rules which they called about who owned what and what happened to someone who took something that belonged to someone else…’ Shri was tempted to say, ‘…including a person’s wife…’ but bit his tongue.

‘We shall now fast forward to the sixteenth century after Christ. A set of events happened in the period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that, once again, changed the way humans lived. These began with the discovery of the power of steam and the fabrication of Gutenberg’s printing press and so on. Does anyone know what these events were connected with ?’

Jackie was beginning to like the way things were going. She wasn’t as fatigued as she was when she came in. ‘…Industrial Revolution…’ she chipped in, her class participation still limited to two words.

‘…Thank you, once again…’ Shri said. ‘You are correct…The Industrial Revolution was what these events came to be called. And with the Industrial Revolution a new social institution, different from the farm developed. This was where the workers got together and ran the presses and made candles and cutlery and so on. Does anyone know what this place was called ?’

Jackie wanted to respond, but, did not want to get identified as the eager beaver student…Shri looked around for a few seconds, and, Jenny caught his eye. He stopped, did not say anything, but, Jenny knew he was waiting for her to answer.’…was it called a Factory ?’ Jenny asked somewhat tentatively.

Glad that this somewhat pale-looking girl had responded, Shri continued, ‘…Thank You…you are correct. Yes. It was the factory. The factory was a different social institution. No longer did the worker decide where to plant the crops. The factory owner decided where to locate the factory generally on the banks of a river so that they could bring in the raw materials and send out the goods they produced, easily. Instead of stepping a few yards to the farm land where they grew the crops, the worker now had to walk, sometimes a few miles to the factory. No longer could they take their extra barley or corn to their neighbour who had millet and tea extra, and, exchange the goods. Instead they were paid a wage for the hours they worked, and, were paid in coin, which they took to the market to buy what they needed. The world was changing, yet once again, but, it had taken a long time for it to change…And with the factory came the need to keep records, who worked, how long each person worked and how much they were to be paid. And that was the first real known need for a Human Resources Department…the need to keep records…’ and, Shri could just not resist saying, ‘…unfortunately five hundred years later that is what most Human Resource Departments still do, just keep records…’

The impact of what he said was lost on the class, but, Shri was happy with his turn of phrase.

Shri could sense the class getting restless though a few of those in the class were sitting up and listening. It was time for another stretch break. ‘…Five minute stretch break…’ he announced and walked towards the men’s room.

Jenny picked up her bag, felt it to make sure that her cigarettes were still there and moved to the exit. She looked at Kevin, asking him without saying so if he was coming. Kevin said ‘No..’ by shaking his head. He was cutting down his smoking. Gurpreet saw Jenny heading to the exit and joined her knowing that she was heading for a smoke. As they reached the exit, Gurpreet took out her phone and punched in a few numbers. ‘Be here in an hour…’ she said to the voice that picked up the phone, Sat, or Satnam Singh Gill, her paramour. She would leave the class at nine pm, feigning a headache and go for a spin with Sat, for an hour. Her parents had arranged her marriage to Joginder a few years ago. Joginder had come from the Punjab, all  ready and fired up to make life in the land of snow, and, raise a hockey team siring children through Gurpreet. After a few temporary jobs as a machine operator earning minimum wages in factories run by fellow countrymen he found himself at a loss. He had hoped to make it big.  That was not happening. Also, Gurpreet was not exactly the bashful virgin that he met at his uncle’s home in Chandigarh. She had several men friends from school days, and, this chap Sat seemed to be touching her a little too much when he dropped her off after college. Once he even saw him lean over and kiss her on the cheek. When he asked her about it Gurpreet dismissed it saying, ‘Oh! Sat…he’s cute…’ Joginder could not understand what was happening and why Gurpreet did not want to have chidlren. ‘Wait some time…’ she would say, everytime he wanted to make love to her, au naturelle…The cold was horrible, clearing the snow became his task after his father-in-law had a heart attack. Finally two years into the marriage, Joginder who always kept his hair worn long decided to go home for a holiday. It was two years since then and he had not written to Gurpreet nor had he returned. Within a few months of his leaving, Sat and Gurpreet were together every evening, and, since she did not want her parents to know, she always insisted that Sat come to college and be with her between nine and ten in the night when she had to go home. Needless to say that the back seat of Sat’s Toyota Camry saw some active use every time they met.

(May or may not be continued)





Post a Comment

<< Home