Of Malini & Melanie and Memories of Tiffin

Recently, I completed my second serialized short story, called “Malini Vs. Melanie” covered in four installments. Where do we writers get story ideas from? The answer is from the world around us. “Malini Vs. Melanie” in which, of course, the names and situations are disguised is based on a true story I came across during my days as a Management Consultant. In an organisation in which I did some work a young lady was living a Malini/Melanie kind of life but in somewhat greater degree than in my story. She was living with a colleague at work during the work week as Character A in Location A ( somewhat like Melanie) and would return to her parents home every weekend as Character B in Location B, ( somewhat like Malini) if you get what I mean!! 

One of the books I enjoyed reading last year was “Tiffin” by Rukmini Srinivas. This is my review of the book from which I am sure you will gather that I loved the book. Speaking of “tiffin” brought back a flood of memories. One does not hear the word so much in the North of India these days I would think, but it is still commonly used in the South. The origins of “tiffin” go back a long time from the days of the old British Raj.

When I was in college in Madras from 1968-71, we came across small eating houses with names like “Sri Rama Tiffins” and “Sri Valli Tiffin Rooms.” Here one got vegetarian South Indian fare of reasonable quality at a very reasonable price.  Cut to 1972, when I was selected to be a Summer Trainee in The Madura Mills, in those days a British-owned blue chip company. You would call it “internship” these days but back then we had to do a two month “Summer Project” between years 1 & 2 at XLRI, where I studied Personnel Management and Industrial Relations. My project had to do with “codifying the labour policies, identifying areas for improvement and suggesting recommendations for more effective implementation” or something of that kind.

My guide, a few years senior to me from our Institute told me that we would meet for lunch at the “Officers Tiffin Room.” Based on my experience with “Sri Rama Tiffin” mentioned before, I though it would be a dining hall of some kind where people standing behind urns would dish out food as we filed past. To my surprise, the OTR was a hallowed sanctuary for the Senior Staff (there was also Staff, and Sub-Staff, in those days when hierarchies were more clearly defined and followed). Here waiters with turbans and cummerbunds served the saheb log as they ate decorously at tables, where each had napkins in holders marked with their names and printed menus displayed the fare for the day. They had an excellent five course meal with some gin and tonic ( I suspect) for the Angrez sahebs.

It took me some time to find the place as it was my very first day there. I walked in rather sheepishly and saw the others were at lunch. I saw the many Englishmen who held all the top positions in those days. I had been welcomed by Mr Murton,  the Personnel Manager that morning. Around the room I spotted Mr Mackenzie, Mr Turner and Mr Kirby amongst others. At 21, I hadn’t had much exposure to Westerners till then, besides they were all 50 +. I tried to catch the eye of someone who looked more junior to these gentlemen.
I saw an Englishman much younger than the others sitting by himself. Since he looked more approachable, I sidled towards him as there was plenty of place at his table. He saw me, noticed that I was looking lost and gestured for me to join him. Greatly relieved, I almost ran to his table. As I reached there, he stood putting out his hand to shake mine. “My name is Henry. What is yours?” he asked. I almost collapsed because he was, I realized, M B S Henry, at 36, the General Manager and Big Chief of the Company. ( Martin Henry later became the youngest Managing Director to be sent out from England). “So you have come to advise us on our Industrial Relations?” he smiled. He put me so much at ease that I sat for perhaps longer than I should have, chatting about cricket amongst other things. That was my first lesson in Corporate Humility!


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