Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Lata Subramanian's A Dance with the Corporate Ton - Reflections of a Worker Ant

My first glimpse at the title of Lata's debut book A Dance with the Corporate Ton filled me with anxiety. I wondered if the book would appeal to my mind. I imagined entering a clueless world dominated by finance and its correlates. The word 'corporate' conjured up an image of formally clad, high-heeled, 'properly'-attired, 'airy' individuals speaking in a jargon unintelligible to me. The word 'Ton' reminded me of 'automaton' and everything it symbolized - automatic, mechanical, artificial, unemotional, rigid and unpliable. With so many misgivings, I started reading. But then, there was no looking back. I thanked my stars for having picked the book.

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The book can be categorized as a memoir as well as a case study on behaviors in the corporate world. It can also be read as a diary of a doting daughter. It can be a metaphor for an ambitious bee fluttering from one flower to another in search of an elusive nectar. It looks into the notion of invisible power structures that dominate us from within and from outside. We are very social beings. And in order to avoid ostracization, we try to fit in. We are molded willingly or otherwise, into certain structures and hierarchies.

A worker ant looks at it all. She observes, participates, rebels. But she cannot get away from the colony. She is, after all, an ant.

The book's cover design and the title are well-matched. The 'cloned' individuals tap their feet, hand-in-hand to a common tune. They are 'dancing'. They are so straight it seems as if they have starched their clothes while wearing them. Stiff, standoffish, eyes closed in indifferent oblivion. The book is an exploration of this dance, and the background tune. The 'ton' or the "elite of the Georgian society" have found home in the contemporary corporate houses that cater to certain mannerisms.

Lata introduces herself as hailing from a Tamil Brahmin family - 'Tam Brahm' it becomes for whatever reasons. Her parents have a volatile temper. They are rebels to a certain extent, but they are also careful carriers of the legacy they have inherited from their parents. The culture Lata grows in, is a mixture of freedom and restraint. She goes to school, oily-scalped, dreams of Prince Charming, reads Enid Blyton, watches Hollywood movies and listens to the Beatles and Saturday Night Fever. Troubles brew at home. She mentions some bluntly enough to catch you off-guard. Other times, like the corporate boss, she decides how much you 'need' to know, with a terse
"Never mind why. That's not the point of this book."

Humor forms a significant part of the narrative Lata weaves. It is evident in the jokes she cracks at her own expense. Speaking of meritocracy in a world that is pigmentocratic (society where wealth and social status are determined by skin color), she watches herself in the mirror and accepts her not so fair complexion.

"I discovered that I wasn’t good looking when I went out into the world to look for a job."

" Well, will you believe me when I tell you that the interviewer in question pointed to my one crooked tooth and said, “You have a crooked tooth? Our requirements are that crew must have straight teeth.

Her look seemed to say,Who is the idiot who thinks she can work in advertising”?

Her being a woman, working at a time when not many of her sex were in the 'higher' rung of the corporate world, helps her see the politics of patriarchy at work. The objectification of the female body, the use of heels, her own 'voice' that is her succor, are actually ways to control, and employ assets to their best advantage. Bemused over high heels which are an important part of the formal attire, Lata asks

"Or were the confounded instruments of torture designed by devious men and women to keep women off balance and always in their place?"

The use of language and actions/gestures are also crucial in the grooming of the corporate brigade. As the worker ant climbs up the ladder, her increasing dissatisfaction arises from the widening gap between her 'natural' behavior and the highly polished coatings of corporate cultivation.

"We all wear masks. The few who never quite get the hang of the art, I’m afraid, never quite fit in."

"The spatial and mental distance between employer and employees is not new. History is witness to this management philosophy existing since time immemorial."

There are normative rituals that help define a company's mantra. They intend to keep the workers secure in their place. Their ambitions are kept under check too, as happens in the Gulf-Air case. The workers act as pawns, protecting the king like in the game of chess, an analogy Lata uses later in the book. Even the culture of perks and applaud is strategic. It ensures the engagement at the lower level, while instilling a false sense of indispensability and hard-work in the minds of the worker-ants.

Lata's book ends with a note on the 'ton' that will dominate our lives soon - The Robot. In the book, Lata has painfully recollected the incidents of handing 'pink slips' to people who have become a liability or no-asset to the company. When individuals are laid-off, without prior notice, when internet wrecks havoc, so to say, in the lives of the hitherto employed families, it indeed is a bitter pill for her to digest. But now, with the arrival of robots, things appear even gloomier. While Lata hopes to see more 'Mindfulness' in the current business affairs, she also wonders, given the facade of the advertising industry, if it will end as a gimmick too. And when the artificial intelligence takes over the human mind, will creativity and compassion breathe their last?

There is a story towards the end of the book - The Robotics Emperor. It is a sharp commentary on the world that is taking shape. Driver-less cars, people-less streets, vanished empires - is it a modern rendering of the old Midas story? The ruminations of the Robotic emperor are partially a saving grace. Its ability to think on those lines leaves room for hope, but this is just a story. Will reality nurture such possibility? It is hard to answer that question.

The social conditioning on the human mind  that ( as Lata realizes) has been an important player all through her life, is a given. It is a given for all of us. The trappings we fall for account for our failure and success, both of which are measured by the same 'conditioned' mind. Dreams of a unicorn in the business world are deceptive but have stayed put in the present world. Are they going to end up as wild goose chases for the ambitious but blind and aping youth? Lata ends on a questioning note.

As I finished reading the book, I remembered Somali's words. Somali observes that this book is "a must read for young professionals, particularly for women professionals" as well as "Senior Management Professionals". (To read Somali's article, click here) I concur with that view. But the scope of the book does not stop here. It can be read as a commentary on the way power works in various strata of our society.

Power is, as Foucault has observed, "a complex strategical situation in a given society". It works implicitly by evoking a response of acceptance. Discourses are created, language employed towards that end. Institutions dissipate knowledge that make current ideas synonymous with truth. Discipline is a tool that only endorses domination. The corporate boss knows everything. He can see everything. He functions like the 'Panopticon', "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power". (Foucault, Discipline and Punish) Training institutes are nothing but grounds for 'grooming' and 'breeding' - metaphors used extensively throughout the book to stress on the fabricated identities of the modern world. The subject, that is the employee, is unable to see through the sham. Brands shine so brightly, they blind the eye. There are perks handed out, there is "Management Cat Walk" where students "auction themselves off to the highest bidder", willingly singing the "dum laga ke haisha" mantra. You "instill a feeling of pride" to "encourage" the employee to "contribute". That is the spectacle of power working internally. The parade of perks is a puppet dance (remember the title of the book!). The employee is the puppet.  

"When you are too young to know any better, the acquisition of symbols of success tend to serve as markers of that climb, signalling to yourself and the world that you have arrived or are on the way to doing so."

One final word on the illustrations. The serious issues raised in the book are deftly balanced with its brilliant illustrations. A look at just the artwork drives home the many points raised here. And come to think of it, they are very much in keeping with corporate humor. The black and white cartoons are evidently satirical. They are also in keeping with the office humor comic strips popular in the corporate world. Remember Dilbert? I am not sure what prompted Lata to use precisely these cartoons to enrich her book. Was it to lighten up the dark mood or was it a 'marketing/advertising strategy', I wonder.  Was it a deliberate adoption of the 'language' used and understood within the corporate walls, just like the French words that pop up in the 'ambience' of worker ant colonies? 

Do you use the right words in office?!!! (Image Source )

Lata hopes to see a change in the corporate world. She hopes to see resilient, aware employees and more involved bosses. She hopes to see all this leading to "real life gains" for all. Will it be possible given the unstoppable robotic era we are entering? Will it be possible to create "a habitat of happiness", as Chip Conley speaks in this extremely interesting talk. (Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile) Will it be possible in a world of automatons, devoid of feeling, hell-bent only on performance and excellence?

The answers are not easy to find. 

The review has been accepted as a Guest Post on Marketing Buzzar. Click here.


  1. Jewel doesn't know its value but a jeweler. And you're a very skilled jeweler. Like the way you presented the various aspects of the book. You really made me interested to read the book. Great review, Sunaina :)

    1. You are very generous in the praise. I just tried to present my thoughts in the best possible manner. If the review fetches more readers, it serves its purpose well...:)

  2. I bow to you Sunaina. This is such a thorough and excellent review of the book. Along with the book, I would say that the review is also a MUST READ for all. :-)

    1. Thanks Somali. All you fellow bloggers have helped me in a great way. The thoughts you generate, and the ideas you present help me think too...:)

  3. That's a beautiful description of her book Sunaina... straight into my reading list, thanks to your post :-) Cheers and kudos!

    1. Do share your thoughts on the book Archana when you have read it...:)

  4. It's a Classic Review, Sunaina.. Your Presentation is too interesting!

  5. An all compassing and intriguing overview, Sunaina, as always!
    You are a master of writing reviews..I foresee hoards of writers approaching you soon for the favour:)

    1. You have helped me too, with your book. I have realized lately that I should write more about the books I like.

  6. A very intriguing review, Sunaina. Great job done, as always... :-)

  7. Thrilled to see Foucault and Dilbert. It makes your absence in my space even more painful.

    Lata's book is in my reading list. I like the person who emerges through the writing and hence decided to read this book though I have !little to do with the corporate world.

    1. No, no...I have not been absent from your blog. I just happened to be engrossed in Lata's book. Due to less time at hand, I am unable to read and write much and so I take up one thing at a time. I am back to your blog now....And please do read Lata's book and post your review. I am looking forward to it and I had even asked Lata to ask you to review the book. When I read it, I was apprehensive whether I would be able to make sense of it, but as you see in my review, it is meant to be read by like-minded people like us. Foucault is writ large there and a well-read person like you can bring more depth to the reading of any book, Lata's included.

  8. Vert interesting article, Thanks Sunayana didi.