Riding the Tiger

Short story by Vivek Shanbhag 


Uche came from a small African country. We were colleagues. Uche and I were among twelve executives chosen from eight countries for a ten-day training camp in Mumbai. It meant a lot to be chosen for such a camp. It was one of the many ways in which we were prepared for new posts and greater responsibilities. They said the camp would make us aware of the cultures and business practices of other countries.

The camp took place at the company's training centre overlooking the sea. We had already spent seven days there, oblivious to the sweltering summer heat, the brimming sea, and the gusts outside. The huge glass windows didn't let in even the slightest sound, and when we looked out, it was like watching a silent film. High, foaming waves chased the shore. Clothes fluttered like flags against the strong winds. Rows of vehicles cruised along the beach. Hundreds of little shops plied on push carts. People came to run, walk, look and buy. The outside world seemed to carry on noiselessly.

Uche stayed in a room next to mine. That was one reason he got close to me. The days were tiring. We listened to eight hours of talk on how to formulate policy and how some company somewhere had been turned around. And discussions were a must. Dinner over, we would sit around chatting.

We sometimes strolled along the beach. Uche was the centre of our entertainment. He sang superbly. He played music on his cassette player and danced to it. It seemed like he was born with the gift of music and dance. His dark, strong body, gleaming with good health, would start swaying the moment music fell on his ear. He pulled out a strand of his curly hair and showed us how long it was. He sang his country's slave songs. To show us he knew black magic, he pierced a knife into his palm and pulled it right through the other side.

After dinner on the eighth day, we were told about the plans for the last three days. A game would be played to see how we would put into practice what we had learnt that far.

It was a management game. They would create a virtual business situation and put our skills to test. We were divided into four groups of three each. Each group represented an imaginary company. All four companies had more or less the same number of factories and workers, the same amount of money in the bank, and the same sort of liabilities. We had to run the company for three years.

The game began at eight in the morning. An hour equalled a month. Stocktaking of production, marketing and debt repayment had to be undertaken at the end of each hour. Each day was a year. The companies had to announce their income, expenditure, profits and losses at the end of each year. At the end of the third year, that is on the third night, the teams had to make presentations on what strategies they had employed, how these had increased profits, what had not succeeded, and where they had suffered setbacks.

Sixty pages, which we had to read, told us the rules of the game, what we could produce, what procedures we had to follow to open new factories, what products we could sell in which countries, what technology was available and how much time and money we would need to develop new technology, how much we would have to pay workers, what labour problems we might face, which countries were democracies and which military regimes, what religion the majority practised, and such other details.

This game was considered very effective to orient executives to conduct business in the world market. Peter, who had designed it, had come down from England the previous night. We felt envious when we heard of the royalty he got each time his game was played. Peter had to ensure that the game was conducted properly and fairly, and also play the roles of the banks and the governments. He talked proudly about how the game would teach us to use our real strengths and help us make up for our weaknesses; it would also provide us with an opportunity to test our skills in live situations.... All details, he said, were facts he had culled from many sources. He said he would review everything at the end of each month. We got ready to manage our virtual businesses.

The game filled our heads. Armed with those sixty pages, we returned to our rooms. Uche, Jeff and I were a team. Jeff was of Dutch origin, born and brought up in England. He had worked as an accountant and risen from the ranks at a young age. We were delighted that Uche was with us. We had no time for our usual fun and games that day. We had become alert to the need to read up and be ready for the contest. We read up everything individually and then got together and discussed the state of our company. We discussed the rules. The game had begun to seep into us. It was half past one when we went to bed.

By morning we had crammed up hundreds of facts as though we were going to face an exam. They had set up the game in a huge hall. Four tables stood in four corners, and huge world maps were spread out on them. Inscribed on them were names of countries. Chips representing companies assigned to us were placed here and there. Uche was excited when he spotted his country's name. He pointed it out to us. We were given half an hour to grasp the details and ask for clarifications.

We calculated production, marketing and transport costs and arrived at a selling price. Jeff, being an accountant, quickly added, deducted and evaluated how the price would reflect on profits at the end of the year. We discussed where we should invest our earnings, and the pros and cons of taking bank loans as against putting in our own funds. Everything looked simple, and we anticipated huge profits.

The game began. We had to sell our products at the end of the month. We were given a list updating us on where a particular product was in demand. We had to write details of products we wished to sell and their prices in each country. Only Peter knew the prices quoted by the other companies. The lowest bidders would get first priority. If they declined, the offer would go to the next lowest bidders. He would sort out the slips by product and market, and announce whose tenders had been accepted.

Our prices turned out too high in the first month and we didn't win even a single tender. Only a fourth of our production was sold when we reduced the prices of some products in the second month. Jeff warned us that we would have no funds left for wages and raw material in two months if we continued at this rate. Nothing went as we had planned, all our calculations went awry, and what had appeared simple at first now seemed tied up in a thousand complex knots.

Each team had its own strategy. As soon as a tender was announced, the winning team cheered loudly. A keen contest was emerging. By the end of two months, our situation had improved a bit. We thought of ways to lower prices, and reworked our logistics so that we could make profits.

We had at our fingertips all information about our factories, though they were mere chips on the map -- the number of workers, wages to be paid, production capacity, actual productivity and so on.

We could have employed new technology and opened new factories. That way, and by not taking into account the initial investment, we could have produced quite cheaply. We had better production potential in two of our factories, and we were not producing to capacity. We leafed through the regulations to see how we could set that right.

We learnt about the labour problems there. If we conceded two demands, productivity was likely to go up by ten per cent. A machine had become old and four or five workers were getting injured in accidents every year. The first demand was that this machine be replaced. This would cost us a lakh. The second demand was a ten per cent wage hike.

Jeff again added, deducted and multiplied, and ruled out the idea, saying it wouldn't be profitable. In his view, if we were to spend so much and increase production, the real profits would start coming in only in the fourth year. Since we were playing the game only for three years, he said this expense was unnecessary. He suggested instead that we start new factories with new technology.

Uche and I thought otherwise. We said it would be a mark of good administration to solve the problems of the factory. Jeff explained his calculations all over again to convince us that our decision was not correct. “Man, never mind,” Uche said.

We didn't have enough money for a new factory. Jeff suggested we take a bank loan. A rule said we had to pay a certain amount to each worker if we wanted to close down a factory. We could sell the land once this was done. Calculating all this, he said we should close down a factory. “Let's not be hasty. We'll think about it,” we said. Not a word of what we said could pass muster against his power to peer into the regulations, weigh everything in rupees and paise, and accurately predict the extent of profit and loss. Jeff's sword of accounting logic could cut up everything mercilessly. He would have an answer supported by reason and statistics to every single idea of ours. When Jeff got up to fetch tea, Uche sighed, “He is impossible.... He could become the head of the company one day.”

At this point Peter announced that the market survey was ready. It cost Rs. 5,000. It was a ten-page report that gave details of each market, its seasonal ups and downs, what product would be in demand in which country, and what rules had to be followed to sell them. We too bought it. Jeff read it comprehensively, gave it to us and got immersed in some calculation. “We can make profits if we expand our business to Africa,” he exclaimed enthusiastically, as though he had just discovered something. “But not right away. We'll wait for two more months,” he said.

When we got up to go for lunch at the end of six months of business, the atmosphere had acquired a totally different colour. Wondering enviously how those who had won tenders could sell at such low prices, guessing at what the others' strategies could be, planning counter attacks, getting all worked up, sporting artificial smiles, holding whispered conversations, competing fiercely, guarding secrets, counting profits and losses... the mood of the battlefield had set in. During lunch no one mixed with the others, and the teams talked only among themselves.

Uche, who stood looking out of the window, seemed distracted. "What’s up, Uche? Thinking of how we can make more profits?” I said.

“We shouldn't open factories in Africa. We shouldn't get into that market,” he replied.

“Why not?” I asked. I thought he had found a flaw in Jeff’s plan.

“Because it will destroy the people,” he said.

I was stunned. Concerned he had become sentimental after seeing his country on the map, I told him to relax.

“How can you say that? You should know better than Jeff. You, with your castes, religions and gods, aren’t all that different from us. Each of our towns lives a different life,” he said.

I couldn't fathom what he was saying. When we sat down for lunch, I said, “I don't understand what you are arguing.”

“I’m not arguing, just stating facts,” he said. He broke the long silence that ensued and told me many things about himself and his country.

“We are all still slaves. We have a democracy only in name. A distant relative of mine had become the president. The present ruler murdered him and brought in military rule. He put up a show of elections and has been in power for fifteen years. We are forbidden to use the word ‘president’ to refer to anyone but him. In our country, our company has a chairman, not a president, as in yours... Our country used to grow a lot of cocoa at one time. The earlier government had built huge warehouses for its export. People looked upon them as an impressive achievement of the previous government, so he destroyed all of them. He made the people poor. Yet he encouraged their desire to buy. Big companies from other countries were also involved in this conspiracy. He ensured that nothing was produced in our country. Even this shirt I wear has to be made and given to me by someone else. All indigenous industries are dying for want of technology and government support. We are still alive because we get some petrol and oil from our land. All of it belongs to the government. Food distribution is in the government's hands. They only distribute products of big companies. Our taste, smell, clothes and the amount of food we eat… everything’s changing.

 “What we eat is getting to be the same in every house. No one wants variety. They want mass production and marketing. If people have a choice, will they ever buy those products? We work for them and buy what they produce. We are becoming just cheap labour. Take my house, two uncles have lost their jobs and are sitting idle. Their factories closed down, they were given twenty thousand each, and sent home. One of them has lost four fingers while working…”

I was bewildered by Uche's talk. I couldn’t have imagined he was thinking of all this. What images he had evoked as he spoke! The darkness inside their houses, their empty meal plates, the blank looks of uncles who had lost their jobs, voices that trembled as they sang, teeth that parted in affectionate smiles, sleepless eyes, beliefs and dreams, lifestyles that had changed so much men couldn't even hug their wives.... Instead of looking at the map merely in accounting terms, as Jeff was doing, Uche was unravelling hundreds of threads.

I just sat there listening to him. "Come, it's getting late," Jeff said, got up and left.

The game was on again. It had put everyone on a high. "Uche has gone crazy", Jeff whispered in my ear. We didn't argue with Uche; we decided not to extend business to Africa for the moment. Each player was at it as though his intelligence was being challenged.

As the game progressed, we got so familiar with the rules that it seemed we had known them all our lives. At times we felt the rules were controlling us.

Our calculations were wrong twice and our stocks started piling up.

When we announced the annual results at the end of the year, we were in the last position, but we weren’t running under loss. Jeff got worried. He was the type who always wanted to win.

When we sat down for dinner, he said, “We must think clearly before we meet. If we do as we have done today, we will always be in the last position.”

"Go to bed early.... sleep well," he said before he left.

Uche and I sat talking for a long time after that. How many things I told him about my country and myself!

I lost as I spoke about our customs, beliefs, marriage rituals, the aspirations of my middle class parents, the pride my worker-father felt on my being in this kind of a job. I told him about Gandhi. I told him about the freedom we had won in I947 and the politics of the country, I told him about the anxieties that rob me of my sleep. I told him about my childhood, I told him about my wife. I described to him colourfully how some people are possessed, I told him about the taste of patrode.

Embarrassed that I had spoken too much, I went back my room. I couldn't sleep well. In the morning, Jeff came to my room and told me about the strategies he had worked out. Uche's words troubled me. The game had become so haunting that a thought had woken me up suddenly in the middle of the night. The thought persisted even after I got up, drank some water and went back to bed. The game had aroused some instinct, some secret desire, in each of us.

I was distressed by its hold; it tied us down to our groups and prevented us from mixing with others or enjoying anything. I couldn't continue reading the book I had left half-read. There was no singing, dancing, or chatting. No walks or the beach. Only this.

The moment the game began after breakfast, Jeff raised the subject of going to Africa. Uche said it was out of the question. We felt Uche was overdoing it. We had no go but to expand our business to Africa. No team had yet set foot there. If we didn't get there first, there was no way we could increase our profits. I tried to explain to him from the details in the report given to us.

“That's it. That's precisely why I say no,” he said again.

“Don't be such a sentimental fool. We have no clue what you have or don't in your country. All we know is what we see on these pages. Understand this is just a game," Jeff told him.

Uche wouldn't give in.  “Of course it’s a game. Not just now, it's always been this way. You pull strings just looking at names and maps... Would you play a game of killing people? If the lives of your family were at stake, would you move puppets around and say you have killed so and so?” he said.

Uche’s words were sharp. Jeff tried hard to calm him. “We aren’t losing any money now. Let's not have bigger profits. We'll manage as we are,” Uche said, to which Jeff countered, "Which means you would have gone ahead if we had been under loss... No fun just keeping money... The fun is in making money.”

Uche’s stubborn arguments continued. We felt Uche was overdoing it. There was nothing we could do without his consent. The rules were such. We had to take a unanimous decision. Peter, who represented the government, would dismiss a proposal if it did not have the consent of even one of us. We had no way but to somehow convince Uche.

“Stay here,” Jeff said to me and took Uche out. They returned after ten or fifteen minutes. “Uche will co-operate,” Jeff said. What he had told him, whether he had threatened him, whether they had fought, I couldn’t make out. I felt bad when I saw Uche's face. Perhaps I had spoken so much the previous night to show him that I had understood, and to tell him that I too was like him. I also wondered at what stage in my life I had understood and yet turned it all into a game.

I couldn’t make out how Jeff had convinced Uche, what power he had employed, or what note he had struck. “Yes, yes,” Uche said indifferently to everything. Finally, at the end of the third day, we had risen to the second position.