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Monday, February 13, 2012

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 12 February, 2012)

(Picture Courtesy: The Sunday Guardian. Illustration: Sandeep Adhwaryu.)

I’ve never been an intern. Why work for free? So, I got a radio job for Rs 5,500 a month, back when the Southern belles who’re now working their backsides off to fit into Bollywood were expanding their waistlines to thrust into Kollywood. Getting them to coo regularly enough about where they’d get tattooed and suchlike would eventually catapult me to breakfast show producer (for the same salary).

As my career graph crawled upward, I found myself supervising unpaid interns. One had some nurse-patient roleplay gag going with her boyfriend, and rarely showed up. Another bribed me with a hard drive full of stand-up comedy routines.

However, my moment of reckoning came when I was bossing about interns at a Delhi-based news channel. A portly kid with glasses, braces, and a penchant for designating people ‘Army Corpse’ sauntered over. “I’m not interested in ticker,” she yawned, “How can I become anchor?” I was tempted to say, “Sleep with me.” But I had a feeling she would’ve.

Welcome to the generation born with a Cuban cigar dangling from their lips, whose first words were probably “moonwalking’s lame.” You can’t exploit them. You’re lucky if they complete their internships without giving you grey hair. What do they even want to intern for?

I decide to ask my 20-year-old kid brother Manoj, who believes he’s doing the world a favour by getting out of bed. He spent a week in the Sales and Marketing department of a chain of five-star hotels. Why? “Duh. Looks good on apps.” Learnt anything? “Their canteen’s got good food. And they’re lame. They lecture you if your tie’s not straight.” What did you do? “Fixed it.” No, on the internship. “I taught them MS Excel. Fools didn’t know Functions; they were using calculators! So, in return, they let me assign rooms for this celebrity wedding.” And that’s fun? “Yeah, it gave me a sense of power to know all these hot actresses would be sleeping where they’d be sleeping because of me.” Ma’d be so proud. Do your friends do stuff like this? He grins. “Two of them got told off by the watchman for playing in the park next to their office. Fail.”

Shashank, a third-year student of mechanical engineering, interned at a glass-manufacturing firm. His report sounds trippy. “We had this air-conditioned cabin,” he says, “right next to this room where they melt raw materials to make glass. It was sixty degrees C, and people were just sitting there, without any gear!” Did he learn anything? “You know, the practical stuff, what the industry expects from us, and how different that is from what college gives us.” So, you guys figured your education’s useless? Yeah, except it gets you internships that make you realise that.

20-year-old Teja interned with a foreign car-manufacturer. He made a fatal mistake, he rues. “I went alone, so it was very boring.” He didn’t like it? I can almost feel the shrug over the phone. “No, it was pretty cool. I got to see how a car’s built from parts, on the assembly line. And I got to work on one of their main projects, the prototype of a new car. I had to do quality assessment tests on it.” Whaa, you test-drove it?! “Nah, no licence – I’d just turned 18. But I saw it built from scratch, and what concerns there are in different areas, and all the metrology that goes into it.” Sounds important. Did the workmen “sir” him? “No,” he laughs, “No kicks of that kind. But I picked up some Japanese.” Thanks to a fellow-intern from Japan who didn’t speak much English.

And then there’s Sanjana, 19, who, along with a friend, walked into an IT major “wanting to learn something new.” They ended up making an iPhone app in two weeks – a GPA calculator. “They want us to make some small changes, and then it should be on iStore.” Hey, that’s pretty cool! Mmm-hmm, it should help with the MS applications.

Sridevi, 23, is a paid intern at a PR firm. “It’s nice to have a stipend, and I like the fact that I’m actually learning,” she says, “In college, it was just theory.” Her first internship was an unpaid stint at a radio station: “It’s lots of fun, you get to listen to music 24/7!” She figured out RJs aren’t as clever or spontaneous as they’re made out to be: “It’s all recorded!” She also got to tell serious-looking executives where she felt their competitors were getting ahead. Her big moment was the day an RJ couldn’t make it to his show. “I got to go on air!” she beams.

There’s something to be said for this lot, I think, who know just what they want – and know they deserve respect for it. And while they won’t hesitate to tell their bosses that they’re not here to serve snacks and top up coffee cups, they don’t let their successes go to their heads, either. You don’t pay them, but they’ll make their stints count by taking what they can; internships, to them – whatever my brother says – are more than just a line on their apps, and they don’t see why they shouldn’t have fun while they’re at it.


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