Wednesday, January 24, 2007

If Pigs Could Fly

When I was growing up, I wanted to see the world. My ambition was to be a commercial pilot because then I would get to see the whole world while working and even get paid for it. But that was not meant to be. I think I am unlucky when it comes to flying.

I have flown to a few countries in Middle East, Eastern Europe and Great Britain, have plans to go to Western Europe this year and North America the following year, yet not in a manner I dreamt it. Firstly, I had to pay to travel to these places which is exorbitant comprising approximately fifty percent of my shoe string travel budget. Secondly, to save costs I opt for cheaper airlines which usually means having a stop over which can last as long as twelve hours. I never imagined that it would come to this but being a frequent flier, I have started to hate flying be it for business (paid for by the employer) or pleasure (paid for by myself). I pray that they would invent some transport device very soon as in SciFi movies so that with press of a button I am transmitted flesh, blood, and soul to my destination.

Frequent flying and stopovers would have been bearable if not enjoyable had I not heard exciting tales from my friends. These fables were not related to travelling per se. They were more about running into attractive girls at airports or airplanes, striking up conversations with them some turning out to be good travel guides for the destination whereas others providing good company during the flight and/or transit. It never worked that way in my case.

In my earlier job I used to make day business trips upcountry in Business Class. My colleagues reportedly always ended up sitting beside some industrialist's charming daughter. I have mentioned charming over here because not all of them were pretty. But with right education, ambition, attitude and style they impressed that its not about appearances only. They may not be fair or beautiful, but they had the looks. I too wanted to sit next to some rich person's daughter. Yet I always ended sitting next to the rich industrialist himself with his starched shalwar qameez, ultra starched moustache, uptight attitude and don't get me started on his looks. Occasionally I had to travel with my boss, we used to go in First Class and the experience was even worse because we got to sit with MPAs or MNAs. With boss on one side and MPA/MNA on the other, it was like stuck between devil and deep sea.

Talking about ambitious confident girls, I am digressing, ever wonder where did all the sweet girls disappear. Wherever I look, I always find bold girls (except when I am travelling. Then I find bold men!). What happened to the shy girl of yesteryears who would never look into your eyes, taking care to only take a peek from the corner of eye, and if you catch her she would mesmerize you by blushing, speak in a voice so soft that it felt like a soft breeze, if by chance you happen to stand close to her you smell a faint perfume like that of roses (makes you realize why roses are romantic and by any another name would smell as sweet). Getting nervous she would clasp her hands, and you can swear that you have never seen a better work of art than the pattern of henna on her hands and forearms or when her choorian crinkle it felt like music to your ears. Where have they gone?

Back to the topic. When proceeding to the check in counter, I always increased or decreased my pace so that I get a chance to stand next to a lady in the queue. Though I have been successful in this feat but then again, fate had something else stored for me. As soon as I start a conversation regarding where does she study or work or spends her holidays, she gets called to a different counter meant for families or ladies only and I am left hanging between mechanics, electricians or some snooty boy who is studying in some unknown college in some nook of Europe but considers himself nothing less than a graduate of Ox-bridge. Even if you are lucky enough to strike up a conversation with girl in the check-in line, the seats that are allotted are world apart. I never really could understand how Airlines allocate seats. You never end up sitting besides the person who is behind you or ahead of you at check in unless it is someone you really don't want to sit with. Obviously you are not frank enough with the girl to present your tickets/passports together for seat allocation. She would think of you as weirdo, pervert, stalker and there is a large possibility of embarrassment at the check in counter with all and sundry to see.

Occasionally I find someone in the waiting lounge, still I never get enough time to get to know her. And more often than not, she is supposed to go on a different flight. But more than that, the situation becomes awkward with all the Pakistanis in terminal observing me. Some are pulling their sleeves up so that they can pound on me to save the damsel in distress from harassment. Some maulvi sahab with a burqa clad wife and large contingent of kids will be brushing his beard with his hand looking for the first opportunity to find me alone and preach me (tableegh) that this is Haram. And then there would be some foreign educated or still studying idiots looking to break into the conversation because if I can do it, they could too. As soon she starts to warm up to me, the PA system announces the opening of departure gates of flight and one of us has to leave.

Sometimes I notice a beautiful lady sitting in the waiting area or arriving in the waiting area when the departure gates have just opened. Since I am closer to the gates I proceed to sit in the aircraft. Once inside the flight cabin, while proceeding down the aisle, I can see people craning their necks over their front seats looking behind me to spot that girl. Its so predictable and I have seen it happen so many times. As soon as I reach my seat, I stow my hand carriage into the storage cabin and get seated. If anybody is counting, he would observe that the number of necks craning to catch a glimpse has increased by one. Being down on luck that I am in these matters, I never even get to see the girl. But there have been occasions when I saw some uncouth person walking down the aisle and I have prayed to God 'not him, not him, o please God' but I think a plane has some prayer proof ceilings because of all the people, this person has been allocated a seat right beside me and he was no where to be seen in the check-in line.

I was glad to hear that they were starting a cruise from Karachi to Dubai and was looking forward to trying my luck there.

PS: After reading about cruise's misadventure and REAL entertainment provided by the entertainers of Eastern European descent, I have decided to stick with flying.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Ethical Dilemma

Its been a long time since I wrote anything. Even at the moment, I don't have much to write. However, I would like to reproduce an essay my friend jokingly wrote in reply to question for his Wharton MBA application.

Though the essay does not answer the question posed yet it is based on true events. The actual writer of the essay is not the narrator but the self proclaimed Brad Pitt lookalike.

A. Describe an ethical dilemma that you have faced in your professional life, how you dealt with the situation, and what the outcome was?

As a corporate banker at one of the leading institutions of Pakistan, arguably the best in the World, I have been confronted with several instances where my analysis and recommendations had determined the fate of major transactions. I have since left the institution. However the case I am going to describe today pertains to my personal life while working there, perhaps the darkest chapter of my brief life story as it has a very dark person in it as the main character.

One fine day on a sunny afternoon me and few of my colleagues from my previous “local” institution (can’t remember its name), were supposed to attend a funeral of another colleague’s father. I had a lot happening in my life at that time so I was not sure whether I was happy or sad! I was in love with the girl of my dreams and had recently proposed to her so I was happy, but she had given me 'thudda' (kick) on my butt which made me very sad and my self confidence had taken a massive hit. I also felt very angry because another colleague had been hitting on my girl (it was the same dark guy from this story), but he had also been kicked in the butt so again I was happy. Actually I was confused. There were times I felt that girls were not meant for me and that’s when I tried to take some of my frustration out on a local hen boy (murghi wala) and few stray animals.

Coming back to the point, we were traveling to attend the funeral. The Dark Guy was driving like a maniac and on several occasions we were close to an accident (Man I hate that guy!!!). I feared that blacky (aka Dark Guy) was driving like he was on a mission. He wanted to kill me! After all he was my “Raqeeb-e-Roosiah” (Haramzada saala). Despite all the tension I kept thinking about my love and how to keep her out of Darkness( if you know what I mean). My brain was working overtime but despite all my efforts couldn’t think of any possible solution. I wanted to cry! I was deeply engrossed in my thoughts when I heard tyre screeching. We were inches away from collision from a Green Suzuki Khyber. My black friend was involved in verbal spat with the two individuals in the other car. Somehow these guys knew each other as they kept inquiring about each others mother and sisters. Things got heated and my friend was told to get out of the car which he obliged (why would you do that. Road is clear, drive away). Out came two huge men from the other car. Each of them well over 6 feet 5 inches, whereas my friend was 4 feet sharp!

Then came the sequence of punches and kicks which my little friend successfully blocked with his cheeks, ribs, groin and other critical areas. I was out of the car first thinking what to do. During this time another colleague of mine had lost glasses and went completely blind for the time the fight took place. At that moment the back door of the car opened and out came a handsome man. Standing over six feet, broad shoulders and with long hair swirling in the wind, he reminded me of Brad Pitt from “Interview with a vampire”. He jumped towards the two scoundrels to rip their necks off when I got in his way. A thought had just entered my mind. This was the time when I could get back at Kaalia for hitting at my girl. This was the time when I could get this thorn out of my love life. Brad was surprised that why I had stopped him. I told him the little black guy likes to fight his own battles. He wont appreciate you getting involved. Brad stopped and stepped back, ordered pop corn and started enjoying “Kutam kutai… Zabardast pitai”. Finally people had to intervene to get the two parties separated. We were congratulated and appreciated by people all around for not intervening and letting our little friend stand up for himself.

That was one time when my ethics were really challenged. I had to make a choice between love and friendship. I am proud that I choose love despite the fact that I am still Khuday-line. Although I still in the state of self-denial that I am over her, but the truth is something else. I am a better, bigger person now. If she calls me now I will walk over 10 little guys to get to her!

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Finally submitted the budget couple of days after the deadline. I thought we would be the last one to submit it since the deadline had passed. Fortunately, there were some groups who submitted afterwards. Best part of being in the current group is that everyone realizes that we have four divisions each with a different business model and hence such delays are over looked. From what I have been hearing, we have a better grasp of business this year than previously.

Anyway, life should have been easier after submitting the budget. But it seems that one thing leads to another. Now we have to prepare a presentation to justify the budget. Had the budget been showing increasing income, the task would have been easier. But our budgeted profits are going down next year. Though I wont be presenting the budget yet I am assigned to come up with explanations and justifications for the same. As with all other cases, the deadline seems to be extremely short.

Was talking to my father yesterday. He asked me whether everything is under control. I replied in affirmative as I believed it to be the same. Had I been assigned the task yesterday or earlier, I would have still replied in affirmative yet at least would not have believed it.

Lets hope that I am able to come up with some justifications in the short time that has been allowed to me. Deadlines always seem so short and near.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Son of the soil

Last week, I called up an old friend who is studying at London School of Economics(LSE). I was talking to him after a gap of four months. We talked on a wide range of topics including but not limited to academic standards in UK, their comparison with Pakistani universities, all the remaining friends enjoying marital bliss or newfound parenthood while we are still bachelors, spending ramadan in a foreign country, political turmoil, baluchistan, waziristan, taliban, in the line of fire etc. After a while, we ran out of topics to be discussed over long distance call. I asked him "So what are you doing nowadays?" He replied, "I have bought a ticket for going to Pakistan on Eid and am counting the days". I laughed at the fact that he is feeling homesick. He struck back, "You weren't much different when you were at London Business School. You had a ticket in your hand. More than graduation, you were looking forward to going home and flew back the very next day after graduation". He was right.

I have spent more than half of my life abroad mainly in Middle East and Europe. And I have met a lot of people who share the same feeling i.e., once you buy the airplane ticket for the flight home, time slows down. You start counting the days when you can fly out of the place. It does not matter how settled you are in a foreign country or even if you have a nationality. Your neighbour and colleagues are at a loss to comprehend why you are in high spirits all the time. But an imminent trip back home can have such an effect on you. I am afraid to generalize as it invites a lot of criticism but I am sure Pakistanis in North America would also feel the same way.

When abroad I can't help comparing the facilities and comforts available over there to the lack of them back in Pakistan. When parents, siblings or friends try to convince us to move back home, we usually argue against it by focusing on absence of democracy, lack of civic culture, non availibility of amenities, high levels of noise and air pollution, dreadful traffic jams, pathetic public transport, loadshedding and blackouts in summers, and floodlike situation during monsoon rains etc. But as soon as the ticket is in hand all is forgotten; I look forward to spending time with family and friends rather I can't wait to be among them.

Afterwards I called Manu, younger brother of a friend, who is in London for his professional exams. His last exam is on 20th October and will end around 12 noon. I asked him what are his plans after that. He said that he is flying out to Lahore from Manchester the same day. I inquired why from Manchester. He said because the flight from London is next day and he does not want to wait another day. Right after the exam he will take a train journey to Manchester and take the PIA flight out to Lahore. I had to convince him to wait one day as he will be running on a tight schedule and a slight delay in exam or train timings would mean a missed flight. Its not that he is not happy in London. According to him, living in London is the best thing that has happened to him. However, once the departure date has been decided and ticket is in hand, its hard to wait any longer.

It really has been a very long time since I travelled on PIA as I mainly travel on European or Gulf airlines. But when I was a kid, my father always preferred PIA for flights to and from Pakistan. Not because the ticket was cheap or service was excellent but because he felt it was his patriotic duty to do his part for increasing Pakistan's GDP. And whenever I boarded a PIA plane, on entering the cabin there was always a faint scent (would an adult describe it as a smell or an odour, I am not sure) which was nostalgic and made me feel like that I was already in Pakistan. For me it really was to quote a PIA slogan "Watan say pehlay, watan ki khushboo". I dont know how to translate it into English but I know how I felt: PIA was a piece of Pakistan, standing in it made you feel standing on Pakistani soil.

I would misquote someone here, "You can take us out of Pakistan but you can't take Pakistan out of us".

Saturday, September 23, 2006


I had no idea that there would be so much corruption in Kuwait. Being a born and bred Pakistani, I have come across my share of corruption in Pakistan.

Everybody knows that Pakistan is a third world country with limited resources and not enough money in the national coffer to pay the government employees i.e., policemen, judges, government servants etc. Having a low income does not justify taking bribes or corruption but at least one can understand why it so rampant throughout our society. WASTA is a kuwaiti term with the same meaning as in Urdu _ to use some person as "source", "jugarh", "paava" to get things done. And people have come to accept it as part of the Kuwaiti culture.

All the expatriates that arrive over here don't get the residency formalities or driving license formalities completed themselves or rather they can't do that. The employer arranges for all these formalities as he has a 'mandoob' on payroll whose sole job is to build connections in all government departments. He is the Wasta in government department.

So far I don't know whether they take bribes or not but they don't work without a Wasta. But Kuwait is the richest country of the world in terms of income per capita. I think Wasta is just to feed the egos of local Kuwaitis as they definitely don't need bribe money.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rocket Science

In my earlier life as a Corporate Banker, I have done a large number of Financial Statement Analysis. But I never thought that so much goes behind generating those three statements Balance Sheet, Income Statement, Cashflow Statement and the notes associated with them.

From a lenders point of view, some numbers are very important and thats what we focused on when analysing the statements or forecasting the numbers or doing a variance analysis. However, when its your own organization not some but all numbers are important and significant importance is given to all variances.

I told my chartered accountant colleague that I never considered that so much goes behind generating these statements. Its like a different world altogether. He comforted me that 'you can easily master it; its no rocket science'. I replied that I excelled in such subjects in academia as Derivatives, Options and Futures, Fixed Income Securities and Financial Engineering, Ito's Lemma, Black Scholes, Greeks etc. otherwise known as rocket science.

However, this cost allocation, internal pricing, warranty amortization, labor cost, bonuses, etc. and to top it all of budgeting, strategy planning, balance scorecards, feasibilities and forecasting is driving me nuts. The other day I was at the office on a weekend finalizing the budget numbers. An ex-colleague of mine in Pakistan found out. He was flabbergasted, "Working on a weekend in Middle East? Qiyamat ki nishaani hai (sign of the end of the world)!!!"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Financial Database

How many system can an organization have? Having worked for a Bank, I always thought that a single system usually does the job. For different functions or departments it might have different modules but in the end they must all work together like the cogs of a machine. For smaller tasks, spreadsheets such as MS Excel could be used but it would be just a simple analytical tool and not a system. How wrong was I?

The company uses one finance system at the Operations Site. However, to analyze the data it is uploaded into another project management software in my division. However, the vouchers are also sent directly to Central Accounts division who upload the data onto an Oracle database. Whereas the first system was for financial and material consumption aspects, for services rendered by the Operations another database is used. To top is all off, report generating solution is used to generate information from the data generated by all these systems. The authenticity of data is not assumed correct unless the numbers tally with the Oracle output. I am sure you are finding it confusing. Believe me I have been at the company for around a month and I still find it confusing to obtain all kinds of reports from different systems. For a further analysis, all of this is downloaded in Microsoft Excel where a day is usually spent in organizing the data using VLOOKUP etc. followed by the analysis.

To top it all off, everyone knows that system generate inaccurate information. They always ask for information outputthat is 80% accurate (for an actual revenue and associated numbers – not some false forecasts). This is the situation when we are using 5 systems. How did they work before computers arrived?

Earlier I have worked in Banking sector of Pakistan in operations at Branch level. My first experience was at a small IT oriented bank and we were used to closing our books daily online. It also gave us a clear idea how an efficient system should work. By nature, banking solutions need to be accurate. My second stint was at one of the Big Four banks of Pakistan where they were still using paper registers and ledgers in tandem with computers to keep track of assets and liabilities. Though the system may be inefficient in terms of time and effort required for daily balancing of books yet it was accurate.

Using a computer based solution is much easier once you get the hang of it as everything flows smoothly through the system. The paper and pencil system requires a special skill and temperament which is developed after years of working through the system. I was involved in the migration from paper and pen based system to fully computer based solution. Overnight the skills honed after years of burning oil in branches become useless. The computer does everything automatically. Consequently, a lot of people lose their jobs and even if they don’t lose their jobs, the importance of their jobs gets reduced very much.

At the present company, they are bringing some new consultants next week who are going to make a presentation on a Enterprise wide solution. I am looking forward to the meeting. Its not that I expect the system to be implemented and all the old stuff to be thrown out. On the contrary, I expect it to be one of the numerous meetings I would attend during my time in this company without any change. The advice that I have seen many people recommend as the best advice for Middle East is “Don’t try to change the system.”

Whether I will heed it, the answer is No.