Sunday, July 03, 2011

My Life in Britain

I left India on 2nd July 2004, and traveled through Singapore to Britain. It was a rather strange day, not just because the day lasted almost 30 hours due to my traveling route and English summer; I was embarking on a journey completely unprepared and in a way, unnecessary. In a way, I was okay: Had a decent job in a decent company, just moved back to Calcutta with my parents after a stint overseas, and been rigorously advised, by my parents and friends, to start a family. I was 35 then - so my chances of playing with life were written off - and had no particularly transferable skill, as my computer skills were largely forgotten after years of working in a General Management role.

I ignored all the advice on the contrary and came to Britain. It was a wrong decision, I knew instantly. I knew no one in London, except an old friend from my Bangladesh days who migrated earlier and who tried to find me an accommodation in one of her boyfriend's flats (which did not materialize). I had an introduction from a kind relative to a Sikh businessman who he did not really know, but was somewhat connected through another distant relationship. I was picked up at the airport and was left at a Gurudwara, which, speaking no Punjabi myself, was quite a challenge. This was a place, I shall suspect, which housed a number of illegal immigrants, as I hardly saw any of my co-residents at any time of the day. I obviously knew they were there, and heard the noise of their living during the evenings, but no one ever came out of their rooms or spoke a word even if I passed them at the door. I indeed didn't know that one could drink tap water in Britain, and therefore, spent the first two days looking out for a water filter as one would find in India. It was only desperate thirst that made me drink tap water for the first time.

It was also very strange. In my 35 years of life spent in India, and then traveling in Bangladesh and other countries, I was hardly been alone. The space around me was ever so forlorn, so quiet. I was living in Southall then, which had a buzzing, not very unlike New Delhi, marketplace. But I had hardly any money to spare and all I wanted a job; I was not welcome by the shop-owners who would often people of their kind, who can at least understand Punjabi. This will go on for two weeks before I shall find a shared accommodation with the brother of an ex-colleague who was in Britain working for a software company. That would be a life-saver: Having people around me and be able to talk.

But even after moving into a more sociable environment, there was no job in sight. I had Internet access having moved to this other place, and started trying out the online application route. I had no clear idea how to find work in Britain. The Jobcentre was too confusing and being a migrant, I didn't fall into their remit. The High Street employment agencies were unfailingly rude, some not even allowing me to enter into their offices as they answered the doors. My 700 job applications only brought a few regret letters, which I was still storing on the advice of my immigration lawyer (as a High Skill Migrant then, I had to at least prove that I was looking for work). It would take me a full four months to find any work.

By then, my reserves were running really low and I was regretting the decision to come. No one seemed to take any cognizance of the qualifications I had and knew about the companies I worked for India (today, the situation is very different: These companies have acquired companies in Britain and have become known names within their respective sectors). I was very quickly descending into being a very poor man in a very rich country, after having lived, mainly due to the company expense accounts, as a fairly rich man in a poor country.

It would be a stroke of luck that my ex-colleague, whose brother I was sharing the flat with, would also come to Britain, and would find this Cash-and-Carry who wanted to create an online catalogue (with the intent to have a subsidiary retailing operation). He needed someone to help him, and I was hired to take the photographs and do the data entry. This was an interesting job, right into the Asian underbelly of British commerce, where things operated very differently from what you would expect to see in a company. One of my first battles erupted when I tried to get stock status for the Online catalogue: I was told I couldn't have a stock status. When I argued that no one would do an online purchase if this couldn't be fulfilled immediately, the owners of the cash-and-carry shop still didn't budge. After a protracted negotiation, which we were careful doing as this could unravel the project which was my sole sustenance, I came to realize that they maintained quite an opaque stock keeping system presumably to evade VAT.

I moved on from that job soon thereafter, because I learned to be flexible and to accept whatever comes rather than sticking to what I wanted to. So, I ended up being an e-Learning salesman, selling to NHS and other public sector organizations. This was an extraordinary piece of luck, yet again: I understood e-Learning better than most other people vying for the job, but had no idea about the public sector sales. Thinking back, my presentation probably impressed the two directors of the company as they were entrepreneurs themselves: Whatever I could or couldn't do, I was no stranger to risk-taking, and I could prove I have always had an evangelical career: I was not spreading God's word, but I was preaching technology to tech-heathens all my life.

This would eventually become an impossible struggle. I was learning the job and the country at the same time as chasing the monthly targets. I did quite badly, though got at least two clients for my employer, who would, over a longer term, become large accounts. However, the short-term, volume-based, sales was not for me. I did many other things for the company. I contributed in terms of marketing, more strategic inputs, ideas of products and solutions: These are things which I always do well. But my sales numbers were disappointing, and my commissions were next to nothing. I was hoping that the two large accounts I cultivated would pick up in time to save my job, but when I realized that they would still take months to actually complete their pilot projects and place larger orders, I started looking for another job.

The next job I got, with a small e-learning software company in the City of London, was in many ways taught me the things I needed to learn. I started at a similar role, as a Sales Executive, but this time, I had months' preparation behind me and knew the sector and the job. So, while it was another transitional job for me, I was doing much better. The relative stability of the job allowed me to invest time and acquire a qualification in Marketing: I was also starting to connect with people and building a network in London.

In a way, I never gave up on my entrepreneurial ambitions, and while I was working in e-learning, I was also talking to some of the English Language training companies to take their products to India. This was an offshoot of my earlier work in India: While I was in technology training, just before leaving India, my pet project in the company was to develop an English language offering. I knew how much this could help the students we were training. I never gave up that dream, even after I left all that and migrated.

So, this time around, I was planning, with someone I knew from my days in Bangladesh, to set up an English Language training project across South Asia. Today, when I read the Business Plan I prepared that time, I laugh: I was completely out-of-my-mind optimistic. My plans were perfect and they impressed the people we were talking to then. But in terms of my expectation how much money would actually be put into a project of its kind by an investor new to the sector, I got it wrong. Hence, despite making progress in terms of getting interested partners, the business eventually didn't happen.

While I understood the shortcomings and quite happy with my work at the time, I couldn't resist when someone who I made my earlier English training presentation to, came back and offered me a job. This was a project I wanted to do; besides, this was about putting my past experience in action and traveling to territories known and unknown. So, I left the job I loved and took up this job. The good thing about this job was that it meant traveling to India and elsewhere. Everything else was bad.

For example, we didn't have a product to sell. No one wanted to adapt the training programmes to the markets we were going to. I was supposed to sell the boxes as it existed. We kept negotiating prices, to be able to survive in the Indian market, but still remained out of reach for most Indians. The company I was working for, the distributor, was after a few fast bucks, and was pushing me somehow or the other to sell a few quick franchises and pass on the responsibility of selling to them. This is not what I ever learned to do, or I was prepared to do. My pleas about developing a suitable product will go mostly unheard: In return, I would be subject to a racially motivated treatment sustained over a long period of time. By then, I did set up a few pilot franchises in the hope that this would allow me to persuade everyone to develop the products we need, but I overlooked the fact that I was in the company of mercenaries. This was painful: I was caught out in the middle - I didn't wish to leave the franchisees stranded nor I could do much to push things forward - and I remained in the limbo for more than three years. In the end, I shall come to a point of no return, when I had to accept that the inevitable and leave, not least because, by then, the franchisees in India and elsewhere also lost patience and started to close or start doing something else.

Personally, this was a strange time for me. It was a time when I felt the full glare of racial discrimination, but beyond that, living with deep frustration of not being able to do the most obvious thing easily moulded me somewhat. From my big company experience, or even in the smaller e-learning companies I have worked with, if you could prove something is rational and makes business sense, and if the company could afford that, it got done. This was all different in this English training business. Even the smallest thing took a lifetime. There was no money available to do anything. Besides, no one cared about the little people - employees, franchisees, students - we had to deal with in India.

Later, thinking through this, I would conclude that my mistake was to stay on once I knew that the business was going to happen. But, then, I always prepared myself not to leave at the first instance, but to stay on and try to change things. This was what I tried to do. I would have to pay an enormous price for this failure. My savings would be decimated, as I had to make loans to the company on and off to keep the overseas operations going and to fund traveling costs, and I would not be paid back. My credibility would be questioned, as some of the franchisees saw it as a personal betrayal that I couldn't deliver what I promised. The stress would affect my health and I would be unable to complete some of the courses I enrolled for, losing money and opportunity even further.

So, last year, when I finally walked out of this job, I was all but ready to give up and go back to India. By then, I had a British passport, and I thought I could come back and see the world - my original motivating factor - at any other time. I was almost going back: I started looking for jobs in India, and I started a business with my brother set to run it in my absence. But, then, I decided to try again.

It was almost telling myself to make a fresh start and go back to my cash-and-carry days. I am better off now, as I know the country and the industries, have good local qualifications, can drive etc. I was ready to do whatever came my way. In a way, this was to become my second coming, starting off all over again. I would wipe the slate clean and go forward.

I was lucky, as I almost always was, to find a job which would be interesting. I would accept a lower salary, and endless working hours, and employ my skills of infinite patience in the face of stubborn resistance to change and my experiences in the fault lines of global training, to bring change to an organization which was caught out in a rapidly changing marketplace. This would prove to be my most interesting career challenge yet. With time, this will help me restore my sanity, my health somewhat; this will teach me yet another set of lessons that I needed to learn about living and working abroad.

As I settled into this new role, I postponed my plans to go back to India for a few years. By now, I lost my mother and my brother, and I had not much to go back to India to. Besides, I am painfully aware that I have to live in a different city, and not in Calcutta, to make a living in India. London, in a sense, is as good as Mumbai for me. I am also constrained by the fact that I am in my final stages of completing my Masters degree in Education at the University College London, and enjoying the intellectual life in London, the conferences, symposiums, idea sharing, to the fullest. If there was one reward for giving up international travel and staying home, this is what it would be. My father is most willing to travel and come and see us: I am hopeful, in time, he would be able to spend more time in London than he did in the past.

So, I stay put - I want to give myself at least another three years like this, working on this education project that I am into. I am enjoying it, and despite the challenges, this is transformational for me. I am learning things enormously. I am hopeful that I shall be, along with other colleagues, able to steer this forward and make this a 'small great company'. Whatever it is, it is an experiment worth doing.

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