One of Mumbai’s lucrative businesses is supplying drinking water to buildings through water tankers. The water is drawn from natural underground wells in and around the city.
In my early years at work, someone suggested to my Nana that he bid for the contract of supplying water to the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), a Fortune 500 Company owned by the government of India. ONGC operated its oil and gas rigs off the Mumbai shore and they needed a constant supply of potable water. Without much thought, he bid for the contract and won it. (My Nana often took business decisions impulsively. Luckily for him, most worked out profitably.)
This one though was a disastrous decision. ONGC was a tough client and the unorganised private owners of the wells that supplied us the water were very unpredictable and unprofessional. We were squeezed from both sides. What added to the pain was that our tankers had to move in and out of the Mumbai docks since our ONGC delivery station was located at Victoria Docks inside the Mumbai docks. That involved dealing with the Mumbai Port Trust which was another tricky matter.
In the first few days after we began supplying water, I went along with one of my tankers to unload it at the ONGC station.
At the delivery point, a strict-looking ONGC inspector with a thick moustache climbed on top of the tanker to check if our tanker was full. I can’t remember what happened that had led to me to exclaim, “Yaar, what are you looking for? We have a full tank.”
“Yaar” is a very casual and informal greeting exchanged between Indian youth. It is almost never used in a formal business relationship. So, when the Inspector heard me use that word, he was incensed. He began screaming and shouting and said, “Who the hell do you think you are – you bloody water supplier – to call me “yaar”?”
So there I was, all of eighteen, trembling with fear about what I had done. I later explained my mistake and apologised to my Nana, but he just smiled and said, “It doesn’t matter.” To me, he is a living god and the best example I can think of, of someone who has perfected the art of forgiving and forgetting.
After that incident, that person made life incredibly difficult for my Nana and me. No amount of apologies seemed to make a difference to him. He would just not cooperate with us and doing business with ONGC became extremely difficult. This was the typical style of an Indian government officer who enjoyed taking businessmen to task by bullying them. Of course, I realised I had been wrong too, but I felt this man was taking the matter too far.
Internally, I was feeling wretched and told my mother about this incident in a passing conversation. What I didn’t know was that my mother was friends with the Shashi Ruia family (of ESSAR fame) and that she was in touch with them. Shashi Ruia, the billionaire founder of the ESSAR business group in India had interests in oil, energy, and shipping.
Most of the ESSAR Offshore Supply Vessels (OSVs) were servicing ONGC rigs at that time, and ESSAR was one of ONGC’s biggest offshore partners. The water we would unload at the ONGC receiving station was directly fed into ESSAR vessels docked at the station.
A few days later, my mother called me and said, “Alok, I have spoken to my friend, and she has asked you to call Shashi Uncle and explain your problem to him. Be honest and ask him for advice.” I was very nervous but gathered up the courage to call up Mr Shashi Ruia and arrange to meet him in his massive, elegant office at Nariman Point. I was trembling when I explained to him what had happened.
Mr Shashi Ruia laughed for a long time after hearing my tale.
He deeply empathised with me and was stunned by my business drive and enthusiasm. He then picked up his landline phone and said something to his operator in Tamil. I heard the name of my ONGC Inspector in that conversation, but was not sure what the context was. Later, I learned that the Ruia family had lived for a long time in Chennai and all of them spoke fluent Tamil.
A few minutes later, the phone rang. Mr Ruia picked up the receiver and said, “Hello, Inspector saab?”
The voice on the other side replied, “Yes, who is this?”
Mr Ruia said, “This is Shashi Ruia of ESSAR.” I could hear the dead silence at the other end.
Then the voice said, “Sir, what can I do for you? What made you call me?”
Mr Ruia then said, “Arre yaar, I have this bacchha (kid) in front of me, and he tells me that you didn’t like being called ‘yaar’ by him and you are punishing him for his mistake. Please let him be, yaar.” Mr Ruia made it a point to call the inspector “yaar” many times.
You can imagine what happened after that. The ONGC officer became reasonable with us and began to treat me well.
Excerpted with permission from Why I Stopped Wearing My Socks, Alok Kejriwal, Westland Books.