If it is about quirks, there should be one about the author as well. So the blurb describes Madan Sabnavis as an “accidental” economist, who became one due to his inability to open other career doors.

A corporate economist for more than three decades, Sabnavis now dons the hat of the Chief Economist of a public sector bank. Obviously, his brush with the corridors of India Inc has given him not only insights but lowdowns as well. Even as he has crunched data, drawn charts and commented as an economist— mostly even-handedly — his impish second self has not failed to notice the trappings of life in corporate offices.

Breezy take

These observations are the stuff of “Corporate Quirks”, a breezy roundup of what happens offscreen , away from the board and meeting rooms.

It is part slapstick, mostly amusing, facetious at times but entertaining nevertheless. The kind of minutiae you may want to read on a flight when you are in no mood for serious stuff.

His one-liners which open some of the passages are clear pointers of where we are headed as we travel with him . Like, “the opulence of the front office décor varies with the fundamental solvency of the firm”. Or, “to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism, to steal from many is research”. More telling is this: “Every organisation has an allotted number of positions to be filled by misfits. Once a misfit leaves, another will be recruited”.

Anecdotes galore

The author clarifies that the little stories that he narrates are “quirks” but relate to people whom he has worked with . His employers have been ICICI Ltd, ICICI Bank, L&T,NCDEX and CARE Ratings. You then get an idea of the precincts of these lores. Those who have worked in these corporates may be able to put names and faces to the author’s anecdotes. The people alluded to have contributed greatly to these organisations, of course, as he avers.

But there are certain human feelings and reactions, born out of egotism and greed, friendship and antagonism, jealousy and worse, which are the same whether in a BKC glasshouse or a Dharavi shack. And more than the balance sheet and P&L numbers, stories of these themes, add colour and flavour to our understanding of what happens among the suited and the booted.

When the anchors of business channels ask “can you provide some colour to your numbers” after the quarterly results, what a funny bone would expect is perhaps this kind of yarn but what gets spun before the camera is a different warp and woof. The unreported tales are grist to the Sabnavis mill. Sample the following.

“There are several examples of CEOs in these professional organisations who never want to retire….The Boards always agree for such continuation…The media blows the bugles. At the AGM, the issue of extension of tenure and higher compensation package for the CEO would need approval of the shareholders. The presiding Chairman of the Board would start the deliberations by stating that all the institutional shareholders which constitute over 75 per cent of the shareholders have already voted in favour of this resolution. Does anything more have to be said.”

Or, this. “The CEO of an organisation I worked in the financial centre of Mumbai had a lift dedicated to him and others could only look and not travel. His time was precious and saying hello to anyone who did not matter was a waste of time. There was a small group who all had similar academic backgrounds from the prestigious IIM-A who could have access to him”. You cannot fault anyone in the metropolis if they wonder whether the gender in this para is a “terminological inexactitude”.

Where would one normally pick up these threads ? Sabnavis had key positions in the organisations he worked. But the Delhi School of Economics post-graduate and Stephanian did not have to strain too much . Inputs came from all around including the peons. 

Coffee talk

“The coffee-vending machine,” he writes “is not just a refreshment machine but an entire congregation of bonhomie and camaraderie, which is otherwise not visible in the company. Colleagues who you abhor become your friends and mates, when disseminating such information. Often, the gossip that you start seriously comes back to your ear of what is going on and you may just believe that someone else has said the same thing”

The author ends the book with what can be called corporate lexicon. Yes, what one says is not what one means, often . Thus, ”We are a merit-based organisation” translates into “We can rook you anytime and hence don’t take increments for granted” or “You learn a lot here and it is a helluva experience” means “Don’t expect any monetary rewards” or “We have an open system here” which actually implies “We are as closed as Hitler’s cages for the Jews”.

This then is the flippant side of life in the corporate world. Those who have lived this life know that “whispers in the corridors” are juicy and riveting than formal deliberations. These however may be open secrets, among those who know their corporate beans. Also, the book could have done with better editing, eliminating constructions like “R.K. Laxman whose caricatures told so much” or “Just like the anthem that we taught to recite when in school”.

The reviewer is a commentator on banking and finance

About the book
Title: Corporate Quirks: The Darker Side of the Sun
Author: Madan Sabnavis
Price: ₹595
Publisher: KBI Publishers

Check it out on Amazon.