As far back as I can remember, my first job interview happened when I was around 20 years of age. ‘Management Trainee’ was the buzz word going around, and I am speaking of the late 60s. The recruitment pages in the newspapers were crammed to bursting with adverts for management trainees, fresh out of college and wet behind the ears. The elite Indian Institutes of Management were still finding their feet. Talent spotting with a vengeance were well-known corporate houses along with private and public sector banks. Not to be outdone, candidates with good deportment and communication skills (in English naturally) were avidly sought for jobs in tea gardens. I lived in Calcutta and the tea garden contiguity was fertile ground for employment. Today, there is a great deal of furore over whether Hindi should be considered the link language for the nation or not, but that will keep for another day. At the time I am talking about, a job in a reputed tea garden was a particularly well-paid billet, primarily to compensate for the lonely life one was expected to lead in remote and hilly even if beautiful, surroundings.
From the little I could gather via third party sources, a management job in a tea estate largely involved driving around in a jeep through lush vegetation and supervising crop rotation (whatever that meant), tackling a few labour issues and returning home to a lovely bungalow with a private garden; a quick shower and off the to the nearest club, about a 90-minute bumpy drive; play darts and drink the house down with your colleagues. An early marriage was highly recommended, at least by anxious parents. No worries about being stopped by the local cops on the way back home asking you to breathe into a tube. If anything, the cops would have shoved you into the slammer had you turned up sober! That was the kind of job it was. Nice work if you could get it, some might say. Well, I nearly got it, were it not for a couple of inadvertent missteps during the interview.
Unlike in the other sectors mentioned earlier, like banks and well-known business houses based in our bustling metros, the entire interview process for an executive trainee job in a tea garden was not particularly rigorous. The short essay you were asked to submit along with your application form, appeared to suffice. Why am I seeking a professional career in tea? in not more than 300 words was the task given, and I felt I had got it all down pat, including a couple of quotes from Shakespeare. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this essay, because nearly all the questions at the interview were drawn from what one wrote about why a career in tea appealed to one. So there I was, along with twenty other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants, clutching a file folder containing my precious certificates, waiting to be called in for the grilling.
As I was somewhere around 7th or 8th on the list of interviewees, some of us eagerly crowded around the candidates who came out after the interview to ascertain the nature of the questioning and the personalities of the officers seated on the other side of the table. This was a waste of time and effort because the candidates just interviewed never gave you an accurate account of the proceedings for fear you might gain an unfair advantage and pip them at the post. I just sat back, waited patiently while muttering, under my breath, some material I had read up about Assam, Darjeeling, CTC, Earl Grey and so on. Frankly, I have no idea why we candidates did this. Mugging up some stuff at the last minute, depending on which company you are being interviewed by, in the hope of impressing. The managers do not expect you to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the business they are in, neither are they going to question you on the same. They are there to assess potential, personality and bearing – the crease of your shirt and the knot of your tie, that sort of thing. Let me stress once more that I am talking about what used to happen over 50 years ago. Things are very different to-day.
Soon enough, the bell tolled for me. I quickly adjusted my Half-Windsor knot and walked in a nervous gait to the conference room. There were three gentlemen seated comfortably, two of them smoking. One of the trio motioned to me to sit across the table in a straight, hard-backed chair. To be perfectly clear, I was asked to sit on the chair, not across the table. After the cursory good morning, I did as I was bid. What is it about job interviews that you always feel the chaps who are asking the questions are out to get you? Stuff and nonsense, of course. They are probably very sweet guys, who go home to their wives and children and read a good book or watch something wholesome on television. I think it’s just some sort of paranoia that afflicts the candidates. The bloke sitting in the middle (I marked him down as the leader of the pack) kicked off the proceedings.
‘Right Mr. Subrahmanyan, or let’s keep things informal, shall we? Suresh it is. Why have you applied for a job in our company?’
I thought that was a stupid question, but I didn’t show it. ‘Well Sir, I am in the market for a decent job and you had advertised in the papers looking for candidates with my kind of qualifications.’
The man in the middle looked a bit muddled but he pressed on. ‘Yes, we can see that. I was looking for a less obvious answer. What I meant was why our company in particular. Do you have a special fondness for the tea industry?’
‘Actually Sir, I am not sure how to answer that. At home we don’t even drink tea. Filter coffee is the beverage of choice. As you might have guessed, I come from a Tam-Bram family. We are big on filter coffee. However, I heard tell that this advertised job is for a position in the tea gardens. I thought a change of scene from the usual city-based jobs, not to mention a change of beverage, would make for a diverting experience.’
The gentleman to the left of centre now piped up. ‘Tell me Suresh, if I’ve got your name right, have you ever drunk tea at all? And before you answer, let me assure you that coffee is also available at the tea gardens. Not sure about the filter, though.’
Smug character. What’s not to get right about a simple, two-syllable name like Suresh, I thought to myself. I bashed on. ‘In our college canteen Sir, we all drank tea because we could not afford coffee. However, we only had the canteen staff’s word for it that they were serving tea. For all we knew, it could have been warm water with some brown sludge mixed in and a sprinkling of sugar. College canteens! I am sure you have experienced it, Sir.’ A touch of levity, I felt would go down well.
Nobody laughed, not even a semblance of a smile. ‘Never mind about us,’ continued the smug one, ‘where do you see yourself ten years from now in our company?’
That was the killer. Every person who has interviewed me has had this horrid question tucked up his sleeve. I saw it coming but could do nothing about it, like one of Bumrah’s slower deliveries. I mean, this was my first job potentially, and I was not even sure about landing it and here was this guy asking me about ten years down the road. I decided not to hold back.
‘With due respect Sir, I know nothing about your company. Not yet anyway. I don’t even know if you will be offering me the job. Right now, I am unable to think beyond that, and my thoughts are all about my interview tomorrow with a Delhi based multi-product conglomerate. Ten years from now? Who knows? Maybe I’ll be sitting where you are right now.’ I was pretty certain I had blown it. The sheer effrontery! The interview was all but over. I had nothing to lose. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought to myself. I proceeded to ask, ‘Excuse me Sir, but may I ask a question?’
‘Shoot,’ said the middle man. Ah, if wishes were horses.
‘I see that the person on your left has not asked me a single question. Looks like he was trying to stare me down, while blowing perfect smoke rings. Why is that? Is it some sort of passive-aggressive, psychological strategy to put me off my stroke?’ The person on the left merely smiled enigmatically and scribbled something down on his notepad. The man in the middle said ‘Thank you, we’ll let you know.’ The magic words, ‘we’ll let you know,’ meaning my goose had been well and truly cooked.
I then went through the rounds of some well-known companies. One of them asked me to draft a mission statement for them. I quietly demurred as I did not know what that meant. I was on a mission myself, namely, to find a job to suit my temperament. That is how I stumbled into advertising. They said the tea garden job involved too much drinking and having a good time. Guess what? Advertising had all of that, and more. And lots of exciting work at the ad agency. At the end of the interview, they asked me one question. ‘You speak and carry yourself well, but can you hold a drink?’ They were pulling my leg and my response matched their spirit, ‘Certainly Sir, I’ll be your bartender at all the agency parties. I’ll hold as many drinks as you wish.’
I got the job.