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‘Earning the Laundry Stripes’ is a very authentic account of what you would go through as a management trainee in Hindustan Lever. And this authenticity is drawn from personal experience. Author Manreet Someshwar is an IIM Calcutta grad who was ‘the first woman recruited into the Sales function of Hindustan Lever after a hiatus of 20 odd years’.

Travelling through those dusty towns selling saabun-tel-shampoo she collected her own stripes and through this book you relive that experience. It’s not an ‘autobiography’, says the author, but at times you can’t be sure.

It all starts with the training period at ‘Gulita’ where crusty veterans thunder, “You MBAs.. what do you know of upcountry India, rural sales or sales, even!” Onto the initial months working as a Territory Sales In charge (TSI) covering mofussil towns. Requirements of the job include mugging up the price of every Lever brand across 40 SKUs (Stock Keeping Units). And may entail travelling in a bus next to a goat, staying in spooky local hotels and your skin smelling like ‘Rinsurfvim’!

Of course, the ‘you are a woman’ factor is there at every stage. From Chauhan saab, the sales officer wanting to know,”Madam why didn’t you join Citibank?” to the traders who are shocked to see a ‘muhnager bai’ but recover sufficiently to declare,”If Mrs Gandhi can be the prime minister of the country, then why not a woman in the Sales field?”

Noor Bhalla is eventually posted in Mumbai, under the venerable warhorse Sam. Here she learns the battle manouevres for grabbing ‘shallpiss’ (shelfspace), increasing market penetration, expanding coverage and other assorted ‘strategic bullshiting’. The truth of the matter, she realises, is that ‘it was all to do with human relations… if those were handled well, sales would automatically follow.”

So Noor turns her handicap into an advantage – along with all the regular stuff ASMs (Area Sales Managers) do, she bonds with the families of her distributors. She decides to be woman in a man’s world, and not become ‘one of the boys.’

Now and then Noor contemplates the difference between herself and the majority of Indian women, more so in Etah village (where all HLL trainees spend time understanding ‘rural India’). Observing the wives and sisters of her distributors, who toil their days away in the kitchen, she ponders, “We managed our respective world with expertise and skill, but the worlds themselves were entirely different… I have been fortunate enough to have the choice of which world to adopt, a choice they did not have.”

Of course, life is part choice and part destiny. After all, Noor herself has probably been recruited by HlL because a firang manager came to India and was shocked to see that a company that ‘produced for and marketed to women’ did not have a single woman manager in Sales and Marketing…

Apart from the ‘S & M (Sectarian and Macho) world of sales’ dope, there are some interesting sub-plots. There’s the Punjabi-in-love-with-South-Indian, families refusing to accept it angle. A roommate with a good-for-nothing model boyfriend. And a policeman who follows Noor around, blackmailing her for ‘five Gandhis’.

A fun read with some deeper insights as well. I recommend this book for all MBAs and MBA wannabes keen on marketing careers, , and anyone looking for higher IQ chick-lit. Although you may not actually be ‘dazzled’ by this world you get a peek into… Kaafi mundane and boring laga yeh kaam mujhe! Magar book padhne layak hai.

You only wish someone had taken trouble to design a better cover!

Earning the Laundry Stripes, published by Rupa & co, Rs 195.

If you liked this you may also enjoy ‘Piece of Cake’ by Swati Kaushal – a Bridget Jones style look at life in a multinational. Swati too is an IIM C grad and once worked with Nestle.

– Rashmi Bansal

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