Sunday, March 8, 2009

The way we do

We Indians love ostentation. It goes beyond class and creed. We all do it. The occasion to splurge can be anything from a simple naming ceremony to a major event like a wedding. There are many other rituals, occasions and festivals to indulge in this trait. There are families who save and save and make their daily lives miserable only to splurge all their savings on a daughter’s marriage. A birthday can be such an occasion if there is no other opportunity in sight.

Historically Indians respected two types of persons. One who has given up everything and leads an ascetic’s life and the other is the one who exhibits extreme ostentation. This was well understood by the British who ruled us. They followed the examples of our Nawabs [Muslim rulers] and Maharajahs [Hindu kings].They too dressed gorgeously in bright coloured [usually bright red] tight fitting material [most uncomfortable considering the weather conditions] with as many decorations stuck on or attached to from head to foot. They also built huge mansions and used only a small portion of these to live. All this was more to impress the natives than for convenience. In the course of time they got used to this miserable way of dressing and excelled in it!

This ostentation is thus a national character and has percolated to even professional bodies like that of doctors. These bodies periodically hold continuing medical education meetings and conferences and I am forced to attend these. Most often I am happy to be in the audience. But occasionally I have to suffer being on the dais. Let me explain to you the conduct of one such day long professional conference. This will come as no surprise to Indians who read my blog but to those non Indians it will hopefully provide some merriment.

The conference begins with registration of the delegates. Outside the venue, spread across several tables, sit the members of the reception committee. The duty of these members is to welcome the delegates, confirm their registration and give them the detailed information as to the subjects and the speakers. This is not all. There is also the job of handing over what has come to be called as delegate bag and other goodies. The delegate bag can vary from a mini suitcase to a hard cover document holder depending on the level of splurge. The goodies vary from toiletry, stationary, writing material, clothing, drug samples and promotional material on display. You should see to believe the glee on the faces of receivers of these goodies and the attempt made by each of them to garner as much of these as possible and stuff them inside the delegate bag.

A word about the delegates. If one considers the cost of holding such conferences it comes to around 1500 to 2000 Indian rupees in a reasonable conference venue for about 200 delegates. Normally the delegate fee is fixed around a nominal 200Rs. Where is the rest of the money coming from? Yes, you guessed it right. The drug and equipment manufacturers foot most of the bill including that spent on the gifts. Some pharma companies even go to the extent of carting the delegates from far off places and foot the bill of their stay and entertainment. Here I must digress and tell you a real life story.

Some years ago I was the convener of a national level conference with the registration of nearly 1000 doctors. It was a three day conference and on the second day of the conference I saw a commotion at the reception. A doctor from Bengal was bitterly complaining about the ill treatment that he had to undergo because of the mismanagement by a pharma company which had sponsored him. He was in fact looking for that company’s local representative. He had arrived a day late because the car which was hired for this worthy’s use for a trip to Ooty [a popular hill station 5 hours away] broke down on the way back and this doctor was forced to take a bus with a halt at a town on the way over night. The ignominy of it all! All because of the incompetence of the pharma company and he wanted to vent his ire at the local representative of that company. I knew where that youngster was but did not tell this to the delegate who after a while quitened down. I talked to the youngster later who had successfully dodged this doctor. In my heart of heart I felt this was a punishment from gods above for extreme avarice.

Thus most of the expenditure is sponsored and we doctors who can easily pay for our learning will not do so as these companies are there to spend for us. It is demeaning but who cares when there is someone to pay and which fool will refuse?
Because of all this involvement and goodie distribution, the registration takes more than an hour. The timing for this is 7.30 am to 8.30 am. Before they listen to the talks should they not be fed? So they are given breakfast which simultaneously goes on with the process of registration and sometimes beyond.
It is a sight for sore eyes to see the delegates doing the balancing act of holding the plateful of food in one hand and the now heavy delegate bag in the other!
The actual conference which was to begin at 9 am actually begins at 9.15 am with the first talk which lasts for 45 minutes. We now have what is called as inauguration. If you are wondering why this inauguration that too after the first talk, here is the explanation. If one has the inauguration at 9 am then, of the expected audience of 200 there will be about 20 in the hall. If you delay it by an hour then you will have at least 100. Why have a ceremony at all? Why can’t we get along with the conference with just a few minutes of welcome? You westerners don’t know the importance of ceremony in our scheme of things. There are important people to be honored, there is a chief guest who should give a talk, then there is the president of the local body who has to have his say, then the secretary has also to speak a few words which may stretch to quarter of an hour. There has to be an invocation to gods for the success of the conference and lastly there has to be a vote of thanks. All this will take anywhere from one to two hours of valuable time. When I made bold to tell the committee on one occasion I was made to shut up as no conference can take place without giving an opportunity to all these important persons to speak and then to thank the sponsorers.

An additional feature of our function is gift giving and floral offering. This is another hilarious aspect. Everyone who has anything to do with the conference is publicly honored with a memento. A popular gift is a watch mounted on a decorative wooden platform. One enterprising president of the local association saved a lot of money by buying these in bulk and used these for the next four years!

After this laborious and often boring inaugural is over, the delegates get down to the serious business of learning. But the boredom of the inaugural is not easy to get rid of. To help them do so, a cup of coffee is served soon after the inaugural function. Despite the announcement that they must get back within the next 15 minutes, it is half an hour before they get back to the next talk.

If you are under the impression that the master of ceremonies just calls the speaker to the dais and lets him get on with the talk, you are sadly mistaken. There is another ceremony before each talk. Two doctors are called on to the dais. One is called the chairman and the other co chairman. The chairman is asked to introduce the speaker and the subject and the co-chairman moderates the Q and A session and thanks the speaker. The M.C takes time to introduce the chair and the co-chair as these two would otherwise take offence [are they also not important people?] Now chair and co-chair are comfortably seated and the speaker is at the podium. The chairman starts the introduction of the speaker. Of all the funny things we do at these conferences this takes the cake. The introduction starts with eulogies. How brilliant the speaker was as a child, how different he was even at that tender age and the way he sucked the milk out of his mother’s breast, this goes on till he finished his brilliant education and the how he was then let loose on the patient population and the tremendous service that he has rendered since then. Needless to say all the information is provided by the speaker before hand and he sees nothing amiss in this. Now that the audience is made aware of the greatness of the man who is going to speak, the talk begins with thanks form the speaker. Beginning clich├ęs like, now that you have had a cup of coffee and awake you can hopefully follow what I am going to say or it is always difficult to keep awake after a hearty lunch etc. Needless to say the introduction ceremony has eaten into the actual talk time and the speaker has now the job of condensing his talk of 35 mins to 15 mins. He has prepared 45 slides and he will not leave the audience at peace unless they see all of them. At breakneck speed he will go through all of them and still will not be able to finish his talk in time and there is usually no time for Q and A. Now it is the turn of the co- chair. He will heap praise on the speaker with all the adjectives he can muster. Now the chairman gives a gift to the speaker for the wonderful job done and cochairman and the chairman exchange gifts or the M.C will call two more important persons sitting the audience to come over and do the gift giving. This eats into the time of the next speaker.

Around 1pm comes the lunch break. In a conference where learning is the motive the luncheon should be simple and not take more than half an hour. But we do things in style. Our lunches usually have five courses with a three course dessert to top it with. Even a full hour is not enough. This is also the time for delegates to visit he various stalls where the drug manufacturers exhibit their products. There again are incentives for doctors to visit these. So when all these are over the delegates reassemble at the hall at least an hour late. So what should have begun at 2 pm will now start at 3 pm. Same thamasha described above repeats till the end of the conference. What should have been over by 5 pm gets over by 6.30 or 7 pm.

This is followed by a photo session for the hard working committee members. Time is spent on congratulating each other for the wonderful job done and then at last, worn down by the day long productive and unproductive work, the team leaves for home.


Dip said...

As a reired President of a multinational Pharma Company, I appreciate what you have written about the way we do things.

My thoughts said...

I sent this note to a large number of doctors on my mailing list.Only three responded! none on the blog!
My US based daughter told me that it is the same there too but done differently!
Education is the last thing on their mind when they attend these meetings!