Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Review - Zero Percentile 2.0

Where do you begin to review a book like Zero Percentile 2.0?
Belonging to that inspired genre of fiction where language is but a quickly-assembled vehicle for ideas, it would be unfair to burden the novel with any expectations there. The most that one can complain about is the inconsistency there. The language remains flat and insipid through most portions (sample this bullet-pointed description:  “The principal was tall and fat.”) and mooches along time-worn cliches. Courage is mustered (and never buttered), smiles flit across faces (as opposed to other unmentionable parts), couples “love each other like crazy” and when “thunderstorms, rains and the (sic) blinding streaks of light” accompany star-crossed births, one can sigh and comfortably snuggle to the fact that one is looking inside an imagination and sensibility which has remained underfed. And yet it insists on singeing you now and then with sparks of cringe-worthy inspirations like “a cocktail of different emotions in his heart”, “most aesthetically done lingerie” and possibly the worst metaphor for eyes, ever: “those two communication channels”. Information does not simply get lost in workplaces: it gets “extinct under silos of everyday work”. Moments like these where one wishes that the author would have restricted himself to the “tall” and “fat” adjectives he had displayed such uncanny mastery over.
But one wonders at the quality of editorship when one finds phrases like “most deep”, “thousands of passerby”, “his looked helpless” (unless “his” happened to be hanging out of the trousers at the moment) and when one has to frantically refer and reaffirm that “loathe” still remains a verb despite its repetitive usage as a noun.
But language, as many of these new-breed writers insist, is incidental, if not inessential. In the context of English in India, even an elitist conspiracy against the masses.
So if it’s not about how you say it, but what you have to say, let us examine the plot. ZP 2.0 begins where ZP 1.0 ends and that does not speak much for either of them. The setting is the takeover drama of PureConsultants, a Gurgaon-based software company which has dreams of becoming the biggest software company in the world, an ambition only slightly more exaggerated than Rohit Shetty’s dream of becoming the next Scorcese. An ambition as bloated as that needs a man needs a man with a vision at the helm, and Motu, the bloated protagonist, is just the man for it. A man brimming with business insights, all of which he had realized long before the story starts. Sample a few:
·         “Motu had realized a long time back that if he wanted to attract the best people in the industry he had to build a brand.” (Gaat it? Hire mediocre talent first, let them build the brand, then chuck them all out and hire the best people.)
·         “Companies needed to innovate to stay competitive.”
·         “Motu had realized a long time back that there were no real rules in business except that it needed to succeed.”
Insights which would make a Times-Ascent columnist weep.
To take Motu’s PC to its rightful place under the global sun, is the team. Arjun, the CTO, his protégé, with a broken marriage and a daughter, Diyaa, brought by “the lady who gave birth to her” a little prematurely in the world and suffering from many handicaps -- speech, slumping heads, braces on the legs – (it would be perhaps too much to expect any actual medical condition named) all of which she spectacularly, and predictably, overcomes over the course of the story to win back the affections of the perfectionist mother who abandoned father and daughter. Till then, Arjun and little Diyaa take on the world. As Diya tells her papa:
“You told me yesterday that to have the courage to do something is bigger than the actual achievement. I will definitely try. Don’t be nervous… we will win.” Diyaa smiled at him.
Incidentally, this is a speech given by a five-year old.

Given his challenges, Motu has spared Arjun the challenge of managing his next-big-thing in the hands of San, short for Sanjeev, the quintessential cliché for maverick:
“San was a maverick, liked to live king-size (as opposed to queen-sized), and importantly, always on his own terms. He was a dropout from IIT Delhi. (That ISI stamp of mediocre fiction: IIT!) He did not complete his degree as ennui forced him to discontinue in the middle of III year.” And you thought no one could force him to do anything.
 San arrives “tall” and “disheveled” “wearing jeans, crumpled T-shirt and something that came closest to slippers that usually men wear at night” for an interview, and through the book variously refers to money as “greens” (The only greens I have seen in Indian paper-notes have been the five-rupee ones) , “dough”, anything but money.
 It is a posturing that pervades the novel backed by nothing but air as warm as a fart trapped in an electric blanket. San christens Motu BD, Big Daddy, (rather than the more appropriate Biggus Dickus) and together the product they build is called “Babe”. What this product actually does for their big,big pharma client is never made clear. Alex, the CEO aspirant, dreaming of a merger of nothing less than 200 BN dollars, explains the role of the Babe as “it will give the USFDA what it wants, keep it satisfied, and will take care of one of the most painful parts of the merger” and later to his board as “this product is very important to us strategically. It will lead to a substantial amount of saving on the current expenditure of the company, to his board”. This is as detailed it gets.
Even though Babe remains a pivotal element of the plot all through the novel, its purpose is to only serve as the arena for the most cringing metaphors when San complains about funding breaks, crying how they are not letting his bade turn into a beautiful woman. And, of course, unabashed and unrestrained posturing. Sample this conversation about the Babe between the CEO and CFO:
“What is your opinion on the babe?”
“How do you want it”, she asked.
“Raw and naked.”

When the Babe runs into some issues (Explained away with the same fidgety-eyed vagueness: “older, unusable code”, some unmentioned changes of rules from USFDA), Motu realizes no amount of money and effort can put back together the Babe again. Since no details about the product and the issue are ever revealed, because none exist, one can only watch the drama unfold and wonder that leave aside board-room drama, has the author ever witnessed a module being developed. It is indeed difficult to classify ZP2.0 as a business fiction or, more specifically, an IT fiction, since it is equally clueless on both. When PC, in its earlier avatar of NumeroSoft, gets its first shot, shortlisted for another of those vague projects by the pharma major,  Pankaj, still at the helm of affairs, makes a pitch on why this unknown startup serving Delhi lalas should be favoured over its Infosys-numa and Accenture-numa rivals, with what the author knows best. IIT-IIT-IIT. “Two of the people are here from IIT and getting into IIT is tougher than securing admission in the famous MIT or Stanford.” And then it gets deliberately vague again. “They took turns to explain their parts of the presentation. Each of them spoke very well and came across as thought leaders on their topics.”
The question still haunts us: which genre do you classify such a book in? Language a casualty on the very first page, only a few pages need to be turned to realize that the book packs not even that modicum of details that, one would assume, make a fiction business fiction. The insidious insider account it poses to spill is at best a badly-overexposed , clumsily composed, photograph of a preening half-wit standing akimbo with the Infosys building as a backdrop.
Earlier, a delivery manager apprises Arjun, the CTO, thus: “There were multiple components that had to be plugged together to make it function. One of the most important components is not working well.” These are the vague mutterings which go for cutting-edge tech industry talk.
And as for the author’s knowledge of how Indian businesses works, let this end the discussion here and now: “New age Indians had for long stopped inducting undeserving family members and relatives into the mainstream of their businesses.” Right.

Maybe, it’s about the characters and their stories after all. So let us continue with the introductions.
Then there are the ladies, the love interests, Priya and Jaanvee. Priya forms the love-triangle with Motu and Pankaj, and their story continues, and mercifully, ends here. Janvee described in the same clichéd strokes as San, “eco grad from St. Stephen, MBA finance from IIMA” is the genius CFO who cannot figure out the mysterious company taking away PC’s Fortune 100 clients and poaching their employees, raising its shareholding from .5% to 51% over a period of many months, than do the obvious – ask the clients and the exiting employees. It takes the genius of Motu to make the first crack, even with the mysterious competitor’s ownership of PC now poised within kissing distance of 51%, as he traces the ownership to Pankaj by some judicious keywords on Google search (the details of the keywords left again conveniently vague). Later, even as the countdown to the finale begins, the AGM where control of PC will in all possibility be wrenched from their hands, he finally has the blazing epiphany only to be rebuffed by the CFO:
“What if we make a counter offer at a higher price to buy back the shares?”
“They will raise the price too. Moreover we don’t have the hardcash to pull it off. We will go bankrupt.”
LBO, anyone?

Another thing that the author keeps insisting about the girls is that while their beaus might be obese (Motu) and hygienically-challenged (San), the girls are the perfect realization of that ever-elusive beauty with brains.
She [Priya] was a rare combination of mind and matter which enhanced her appeal” -- leaving one wonder where that appeal had rested before the mind and matter elements.
A beauty with brains [Janvee], she could easily qualify among the top five in the “thinking man’s most wanted women’s list”. None of the men, all of course national icons, are quite mentioned as any figuring in any “thinking” or even unthinking woman’s desire list.
The sexist undertone continues where spinster Janvee’s passion for PC is explained thus. “PureConsultants was her surrogate child, replacing the physical, in-flesh one.” Got it? Same passion, but for the men it is a dream, a vision…. for San, the dough, the fame… but for Janvee it is the repressed mother bursting out.
To be fair to the author, it might be guessed here that the poor being might not have had much of first-, or even second-, hand experience of how females really feel: “[Janvee] never felt a tingling in her loins on seeing a man.” Perhaps shemales.

 And, of course, even as the drama reaches a climax, where PC, for all its Alexandrian ambitions, finds itself besieged by a mysterious competitor and a stalled watershed product, lacking the wits and balls to do anything, the posturing never stops. The finale is set when Motu crashes into the AGM in a helicopter, and hailed by the pilot, an ex-IAF wing-commander, and nothing less, as “one of the best things to have happened to the Indian business”. Arjun, who reunites with his wife conveniently on a chat, uses the moniker – superhero007. A failed marriage, a disabled child struggling against prejudices, PC nose-diving: nothing punctures our preening superheroes’ bloated egos.

The last of the jokers completing the pack is Nitin, for whom Lady luck seems to have reserved the worst of her plans. Infected with HIV in the previous novel, the sky falls on his head when he fires a cheating employee who hereon always stalks him with “loathe” in his eyes. His condition now revealed to everyone by the newly-acquired malefactor, Nitin hits rock-bottom when ostracized by his own colleagues and hounded by the press, PC apparently being new-age India’s beau ideal. “Opinion polls were conducted on him with an overwhelming (and uninformed) majority declaring he was on the wrong side.” Then, Tanya enters his life with a knock, a knock quite not like the pounds of the incessant media always at his doorstep, because “this knock was uncanny, soft and intriguing”.  (I have tried knocking on my door for minutes and never quite managed anything like this.) Tanya is a lawyer out on a purpose, to reclaim Nitin’s lost right to suffer with dignity, because “her father had caught the virus [HIV] on his only (How unlucky can you get?) visit to a brothel on the East Coast in the US.” It is notable how the novelist remains silent on the more significant details like what does Babe do and what ails it, and abundant in detail where none is really acquired.
Tanya writes a townhall speech for Nitin that makes his colleagues, as fickle as film extras, hang their heads in shame and suddenly Nitin is the darling of the awakened media, the subject for Hope, “one of the most prestigious shows on national television” (the author would brook no small regional ambitions for PC), the programme of course running to the highest TRPs ever, even beating Mahabharata, where Nitin confesses his love for Tanya on his knees (To experience the drama, imagine Phaneesh Murthy doing the same for Seetalwad, who’s proved in court his innocence in the sexual harassment case, on 60 Minutes) because alas, the lady with that uncanny knock has left him now, apparently unable to control here tingling loins for him anymore. Because, she reenters his life, buying “most aesthetically done lingerie” and tearing at his belt to let her give him the “priceless present I am planning to give to you” even through two condoms, as she proposes.
Love is in the air, Janvee, that repressed corporate spinster, is being propositioned incessantly by San in business discussions. Motu, even as the drama reaches the convulsive climax  – hostile takeovers, attempted murders, vendettas – is found “humming the Beatles’ number and I love her with the picture of Priya etched in his mind” when phoned by his hysterical CFO. And Arjun, the superhero Bond, is chatting incognito with his wife on the net with all the smug smirk of a Clark Kent since she does not know his identity yet. Once a virus unites them in the PC HO, a fatal attack on PC’s website and not a love virus, they reunite, delegating baby Diyaa’s care to fellow-employees with suspicious propensities:
·         “Arjun sent her away with a junior technologist who loved children.”
·         “He sent Diyaa to a sleeping room with an enthusiastic (ahem!) and cooperative office help.”
(Earlier, an apparently well-endowed doctor tells Nitin, our HIV victim, “I hope I have been able to drive home the enormity of the situation.”)
The plot peaks to the crescendo. An AGM, held incidentally to the backdrop of Mumbai Taj attacks where a lead character dies (Guess! Guess!); the ownership of PC changes hands and then is handed back to Arjun by a Pankaj, friend turned foe turned friend again over shared grief; San, the Anakin, turns to the dark side; and Nitin, perennially fraught with ill-luck, is stabbed and comatose. When, despite his now Lance-Armstrongic status, the doctors threaten to pull the plug out of his life-support (his CEO friends apparently running out of funds to support him any longer), Tanya stalls his evil plans thus: “She brought him home. She converted Nitin’s room to a hospital ward. Along with oxygen she gave him a daily dose of soul-stirring music from her ipod. She often took off her dress and snuggled up to him for hours with his head resting on her bosom, and gave him a…” (Ellipses left deliberately.) My tear-streaked advice to Tanya here would be to close the windows before that striptease since this is a narration by Pankaj.

Interspersed along these various hilarious plotlines are mind-bending revelations like:
·         “The Indian mindset of equating the doctor to god”
·         “As it happens in most love stories with a good ending, Arjun married early.”
·         “Motu’s mind, as is the case with all young people, had no acceptance for stereotypes.” (This one made me chortle aloud.)
In the end, ZP2.0 reads like a reenactment of a corporate drama by an obscure fund-strapped regional channel, by a director as uninformed as the actors. It packs a lot of fluff over two-dimensional characters and a hollow plot. Big-swinging-dickey cockiness borrowed from Wall-Street non-fictions and plastered on Karol Bagh pretenders (where, incidentally they live “blocks” away from each other) with not enough “dough” to buy buttons for their tattered boxers.
A bad, honest attempt might be forgiven. People learn. But it is that conceited assurance that the author packs, of coming from a world “populated by educated people, many of whom have travelled across the world, thus leading to a more mature outlook towards things” that make the readers wish that either the author’s hands be chopped off for typing this excrement and wasting our time or this travesty be stopped immediately. Perhaps, this review would deter a few readers and there would be no ZP3.0.


Reclaimed unsettled days

The biggest dilemma when you step out of the stock corporate career is getting up on most days and not knowing what to do with the rest of the day. We tell ourselves that we work for the work, for the money, and if we are such good bullshitters that we can bullshit ourselves, to make the world safer and happier. Perhaps we do, in measures. But nothing compares to the fact that our work structures our life. It gives it an agenda-fitted calendar, deliverables and timelines. It gives us a set of protocols: what to wear, where to go when you wake up, how long to sit at various spots, the jargon, the workflows, the whole hog. At the most, it would give you back your weekends,   which you’ll spend, in all probability, half-thinking about the next week.

These are still early days. But getting up and knowing that the entire day yawns ahead of you, unanswered, too cramped with possibilities is a greatly unsettling feeling. And yet delightful.