Monday, May 01, 2006

Suryanarayana & Other Fearless Indians


Two years ago, at a technology seminar in Bangalore, I got talking to a telecom engineer in his 40s. He worked with one of the bigger private telecom companies and was responsible for building and maintaining their fixed line infrastructure. As I look back, I would say he looked like a homely, south Indian man of the house, with a soft-spoken and gentle demeanour.

The kind of man who would work hard and well until 6 pm and then go home to his extended family in a house possibly built by his father or grand father in Malleswaram, the older part of Bangalore. And so we spoke, of the challenges of telecom infrastructure and the opportunities that were opening up. And the competition.

Then I asked him where he had worked before his present job. I presumed he had worked with a state-owned telecom company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam. I was right, he had. But then he said he was away in Africa for a couple of years before returning to his present job. Where was that, I asked, mildly. “Somalia,” he answered, with a sheepish smile.

Black Hawk Down

“What in the blazes was he doing there ?” I asked, visions of Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu fresh in my mind. “Well, laying a cellular phone network,” he said. “For whom,” I asked. “For one of the territories, under the control of one of the warlords.” This was amazing. I asked him whether it was simple as he made it sound. You know, rise in the morning, read papers, brush, have tea, shave, quick breakfast and off for work. “Well, not exactly,” he said.

He explained that you couldn’t be walking around on your own, you usually had the guards with you. Of course they belonged to the warlord your cellphone company owed allegiance to. “So you were walking around Somalia with gun-toting guards erecting cellphone towers ?” I asked. “Well, you could put it like that,” he said, as we sipped our coffee in the sedate ballroom of the Taj Westend in Bangalore. Somalia I discovered later had six cell phone companies and a state-of-the-art network.

Reading about the beheaded K Suryanarayana, I was reminded of my meeting with the telecom engineer, who I shall not name. Both seem similar in disposition. Suryanarayana actually quit a job at the privately owned Tata Teleservices to take up this assignment in the Middle East. Which in turn got him to Afghanistan. Where he was working on a longish assignment. One that was doomed to never return from.

Risk Vs Rewards

Its not that both these telecom engineers were not aware of the risks of working in these places. The money was obviously good, but not work risking death. And yet they were. They couldn’t be more middle class than you can get, with families. Though, reports allege Suryanarayana had more one than one family to look after. Be that as it may, the prospect of not returning home was high. Or in their god-fearing outlook of life, death wouldn't visit them unless fate commanded it. Wherever in the world.

I asked the Bangalore telecom engineer what made him take up the Somalia assignment. He said he wanted a project challenge. And somehow did not place too much emphasis on the risks that came with it. He sounded embarassed about it. I couldn't figure this one. I concluded, partly, that as always, India had failed its aspiring populace. Some aspired for money, some for challenges, some for sheer excitement of seeing the world. Their government jobs were deadening and numbing. Of course, for others, it was bliss.

So they moved out. The sad bit I thought was that they never would get a hero's welcome when they returned. Because they were not heroes in the taditional sense. And they were not exactly fighting for the flag. They would be treated with the same disdain most returning Indians are treated with, at the immigration counter. They wouldn’t mind either, waiting only to get to their homes, sometimes far away from the cities where they landed. This was just another job. Except for A Suryanarayana. Who never came back.

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