Thursday, March 08, 2012

Scammed - Confessions of a Confused Accountant

Book Review

Anonymous. (2011). Scammed - Confessions of Confused Accountant. Bangalore. Grey Oak Publishers. Pages: 175. Price Rs. 175/-

Auditing and business consulting cannot be combined just as oil and water do not mix. The reasons for this are simple. Auditing is retrospection. It deals with hard, cold facts. It advises against adventurism and advocates conservation. Caution is its watch word. On the other hand business consulting is prospective in nature. Optimism is its mantra. It functions in uncertainty. Its principle is gung-ho adventurism. It favours exploration of new ideas and new markets. ‘The only safe ship is the ship in a port’, business consultants wryly quote! Therefore the twain cannot meet. The split and demise of Arthur Andersen LLP is attributed to the firm’s overweening ambition to ride the dichotomy between auditing and business consulting at the same time. Eager to compete with its (own) business consulting arm, Andersen Worldwide in revenue generation, Arthur Andersen compromised on accounting standards, as a result of which Enron, the Texas-based energy firm sank. Along with it the original accounting firm Arthur Andersen broke up and its regional fragments merged with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, KPMG, three of the ‘Big Five’ Accounting firms (which included Arthur Andersen) and Grant Thornton. In order to ward off the stigma attached to the name Andersen, Andersen Worldwide is now renamed Accenture.

However auditing firms jockeying into business consulting is not new. James Oscar McKinsey a Professor of Accounting at the Chicago University founded McKinsey & Company in 1926. McKinsey was hired to turn around Marshall Field & Co a company manufacturing and marketing readymade garments that ran into doldrums during the great depression of the 1930s. Many decades before words like ‘downsizing’ were heard, McKinsey proposed that Marshall Field & Co do exactly that to turn the company around. Unable to implement his radical suggestions the company brought him in as CEO and charged him with implementing them. McKinsey was initially successful but because of his overbearing nature, made potential enemies. As he ventured into areas he knew nothing about and his mistakes caught up with him, the pressures of work finally got him and at the age of 47 McKinsey died of pneumonia.

If we delve into the history of businesses and accounting firms, we are likely to come up with many more such cases. Do we learn any lessons from these stories? The answer is ‘no’ going by the experience of Satyam Computer Services Ltd. (Satyam) and its auditors PwC – well, the Indian ‘member firm’ of PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited (PwCIL) anyway. The two were charged with fudging accounts for several years and a partner of PwC along with the Founder Chairman of Satyam and some others of the two firms were arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy to defraud the public. The charge-sheet ran into 55000 pages. Did the story of Satyam and PwC inspire Anonymous, the author of Scammed ­to write the novel? It possibly did. The setting of the novel is Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam. (The British, who could not pronounce Visakhapatnam, made it Vizagpatam and then shortened it to Vizag. For several years now the state has reverted to its original Telugu pronunciation but the author seems to have not noticed it. He insists on calling it Vizag). Its characters  speak with a thick South Indian accent’! (What else would you have them do?)

There was a time when literary critics in the West dismissed fiction by authors like Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace as pulp fiction, meaning really not serious literature. This of course leads to the question whether literature should really be as sombre as a Russian novel to be considered serious literature. While authors like Somerset Maugham were hailed by critics in their life time, others like Jane Austen achieved this distinction only with passage of time. Although Indians have been writing in English for a long time it was only in the last few decades that they have really made it big on the international scene. At the same time the Indian approach to learning, writing and speaking English has been dramatically changing. There was a time when people who could speak and write grammatically and idiomatically correct English were in a minority. The purists lament that as the numbers of English speaking and writing people multiplied, there has been a dilution of standards. There is less exactitude with regard to grammar and syntax. Fastidious adherence to the ‘English pure’ gave way to colloquial Indianisms. This is because the curriculum of English teaching in the country has also been changing. Instead of studying Shakespearean plays, Milton’s poetry and Johnsonese, students are taught, what has come to be known as business communications in English - writing letters, advertisements and notices etc.

In the literary arena, it all started (perhaps) with Shobha De who introduced Hinglish in her writings. She was not taken seriously (or kindly) by critics at first. But as her novels acquired popularity – from those readers who did not have a stomach for more serious authors like Nirad Chaudary, V. S. Naipaul or Salman Rushidie – her publishers recognised her as a saleable author. If one can say De marked a turning point in Indo-Anglican literature, she opened up the market for more authors who catered to the needs of a certain type of burgeoning English-speaking class.

The explosion of communications through the IT, ITES and off-shoring of jobs truly Indianised English and there is no looking back. Employees of the Business Process Outsourcing Centres (BPOs, popularly known as ‘Call Centres’) have created their own patois - different of course from what they were expected to speak with their customers outside. In short, the expansion and proliferation of the English-speaking elite (?) has resulted in a ‘dumbing down’ of standards. Shobha De did not have serious competition for maybe a decade and a half till Chetan Bhagat debuted. He found a winning formula by precisely identifying his target audience. If the (Indian) English-literature consuming market is largely populated by the information technology guys (and girls) why not directly address them? This he did and was an instant success.

Scammed is in the Chetan Bhagat mould. Its setting is the accounting / business management industry. Its protagonist Hitesh Patel was entrusted by his accounting firm to audit a motor car company in Visakhapatnam, where he espies a lot of white-collar crime and siphoning of funds in it. While making a report of it to the principal board members he finds himself making some useful suggestions for the expansion of business. To an outside observer his formula of forward integration may not be very appealing. For example if a motor car company wishes to diversify into car-hiring business is it necessary that it should confine itself to cars manufactured by the parent company, unless it was for captive consumption? Be that as it may, the director was so impressed with the idea that he offers him a job at five times his salary to implement it. As fate catapults Hitesh into the big league of five figure salaries, five star hotels and of course beautiful girls he also willy-nilly gets sucked into a vortex of organisational politics, political intrigues and financial wheeling-dealings and finally financial offences. The novelist seeks to paint Hitesh as a self-righteous manager with only a weakness for a few girls. How else could he plant those steamy scenes so essential in a formula novel?

In Indish, the adjective ‘homely’ has a cultural connotation, quite different from what the word means in general English, and qualifies a woman as dutiful, home-loving and not coquettish. Therefore high-paid eligible bachelors look for ‘homely girls’ in matrimonial advertisements. In this story too after Hitesh had had his flings with attractive but unfaithful girls he finds succour in his ‘homely’ personal assistant Payal, whom he had ignored for long. As she dotes on him as a mother-hen he finally finds his soul-mate. She lends him a shoulder to cry on when he is down and generally offers him solace and succour. The characters are too linear and colourless but the book may be a good travel companion in a short journey. The novel could have done with some editing and proofing - its Indish notwithstanding. But the last two chapters seem to have been written by a more professional hand.

This review is part of the Book Reviews programme at 

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