My Six Cane Chairs

It was around 1986. We lived in a small rented house in Shivaji-park in Mumbai. I was teaching as a lecturer at IIT Bombay. My salary was Rs 2395/- a month (equivalent to USD 40 in those days). But we were very happy, and our life was simple.

We had a largish kitchen and a rectangular  dining table was placed right next to the cooking platform.  Me and my wife Kiran were thinking of getting six new dining chairs. Our existing chairs were really in a bad shape.

Kiran was studying interior design at Rachana Sansad.  She asked her friend Farida about her advice and recommendation.

Farida said that we should go for cane chairs – nice looking, light weight and easy to move around. When we asked where do we go to shop cane chairs, she said “Well folks – If you are really serious on cane then I suggest you go to Bilu Mehta”. She said this rather casually. (I dont think she thought we will actually go!)

We took from Farida the address.

I remember when we reached Bilu Mehta’s factory in Seweri, it was early afternoon.

We saw a Parsi gentleman of age around 45 years sitting in the office busy on a phone. His factory was huge with lots of cane furniture haphazardly stacked around. It seemed like a huge mess.

Mr Mehta finished his telephone conversation and looked at us

“Yes, what can I do for you”, he said with a curiosity on his face.

I said “Sir, I am Dr Prasad Modak. I teach at IIT Bombay. We are interested in buying cane chairs”

“How many” asked Mr Mehta

Kiran promptly answered “six”.

There was a silence except the sound of the rattling table fan. We could see that Mr Bilu Mehta did not know what to say!

In the next ten minutes, we understood that Mr Bilu Mehta makes for his clients a minimum of 100 chairs as a lot and works only on large orders. (Later we also learnt that the famous cane furniture of Bombay Gymkhana was his!)

“Well, I am really sorry I cannot help you”, Bilu said in an apologetic tone.

“But could you tell me who recommended you to reach me?” He sounded all curious.

When we mentioned Farida’s name, we saw him a bit softened. He stared at us and then gave a mischievous and friendly smile.

“Well Dr Modak, I will do the six cane chairs for you. But I have a condition”.

Bilu’s condition was strange. He wanted to come to our house and have a dinner cooked by my mother. “I want feel your house, see how you sit on the dining table, experience the food and be a part of conversations you usually do”. He explained that only then he will be able to design and visualize the right kind of cane chairs for us.

We were surprised but when I spoke to my mother, she was very excited by Bilu and his “approach”. She was  extremely keen to have him for the dinner (Today designers talk about “empathy” to be factored in the design and I think Bilu Mehta already knew about it)

Bilu came to our house for a dinner on a Saturday night. My mother had prepared authentic Maharashtrian food and Bilu simply relished it. We all had great conversations till late night. I realized that although everything sounded casual, Bilu was observing everything like a hawk – our kitchen, the dining table, our postures on the chairs etc.

I went down to reach him to his car. “Well Dr Modak, thank you, Kiran and your mother for inviting me. Your chairs will be with you by 2 weeks. Pay for the chairs in cash to my delivery man when the chairs will be delivered.”

I did not have the courage to ask Bilu the price I have to pay. For a person drawing a salary of USD 40 a month, affordability of the chair was very important. But I kept shut.

In the next two weeks, we got the delivery with a challan. The six chairs costed me 1800 Rs or USD 36 – close to my one month’s salary. As my nature is, this cost did not bother me and not also to Kiran.

The chairs were beautifully designed. They looked wonderful in a dark grey-brown polish. Perhaps Bilu had noticed that Kiran and my mother had a habit of folding one leg while sitting and conversing on the dining table and so the base of the chair was made a bit trapezoidal – that is not usually seen. The back of the chair mimicked the spine and was ergonomical.

We were very happy with Bilu’s six cane chairs. And so were our friends. And so was my mother.

It was the first day of Diwali and the bell rang at the door. We had two workers from Bilu’s factory. They were his staff who were sent to do minor repair work and repolishing.

When they finished working on our chairs, I asked them about the charges we have to pay for “servicing”.

“Nothing saab” one of them answered.

I called up Bilu, appreciated his gesture and asked about the charges

“Well Dr Modak, let me clarify. These six cane chairs belong to me and not you. So, I will be taking care of them so long I live”

He wished me Diwali greetings and put the phone down. There was no opportunity for discussion.

This conversation was important in my life. I understood then the principle of a responsible product/service provider. Do we see such Bilu Mehta’s in the industry?

I was discussing with Dr Deepak Kantawala, a doyen in the field of industrial effluent treatment plants (ETPs). Dr Kantawala was running a consulting company called Environmental Engineering Consultants (EEC). EEC had designed and built several industrial ETPs in India and particularly in the Thane Belapur Industrial Belt.

As we were chatting, one of his senior Chemists Prabhu walked in.

“Prabhu, did you bring the data on the NOCIL ETP that you were collecting last week”, Dr Kantawala asked. He was smoking a pipe.

As Prabhu was sharing the operational data of NOCIL ETP, I learnt that EEC was sending a team of chemists each year to check the performance of the ETP they designed for their own interest and at no cost to the client in this case NOCIL.

“I do this as a part of my responsibility Prasad”, Dr Kantawala said “Besides, this operating data tells me where did I go wrong and helps me improve my design approach”

I thought I almost heard  Bilu Mehta here except Dr Kantawala telling Mr K Dharam, President of NOCIL that the ETP actually belonged to him and not NOCIL! It is very rare that you see consultants who take responsibility of their work (and reputation) after the product/service has been delivered.

How many of us work today as responsible professionals to ensure best of our services to our clients, going beyond the Terms of Reference (ToRs), validate our learning with experience and all this at our cost? But if we did, will our clients value and appreciate such gestures? And you will ask whether this is any more feasible or rewarding?

We have now moved to a more spacious house in Shivaji park. I  make several times more money than I was paid as a lecturer at IIT Bombay. But I still have those six cane chairs stacked in our old house reminding me about Bilu and his words “Dr Modak, let me explain, these chairs belong to me and not you!”

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  1. Very nice. The concept of Producer’s responsibility has been practiced by them even when the concept was not discussed.

  2. Prasad,
    Since we, both, are chela’s of Dr Kantawala & Prof Arceiwala, we try to to give life long service for our projects.

    My company has given free service to clients who no longer work with us ( even after 25 years), and also had cheekily not paid our last installment of fees.

    I am sure there are many more chela’s around but we are ignorant of their existence.


    Nayan Khambati

  3. Sense of responsibility to your work! Dying concept in modern world unfortunately. In every walk of life we come across apathy look at condition of roads in Mumbai pathetic and we hear every year same excuses loss of life due to bad roads has become acceptable norm…….
    Prasad you can write imaginary world where all are responsibly working
    And if you recollect we got our cane sofas designed and fanbricated by Kiran

  4. Dear Dr. Modak,

    We met briefly in ATREE during your I have been reading your blogs for last two months. I enjoy reading your blogs. They are witty and inightful at the same time

  5. Valued lesson to be learnt for present day service providers! It’s really creditable Dr. Modak how you motivate people by narrating your life’s anecdotes!

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