Berlin's streets and landmarks are deserted amid strict social-distancing measures (Photo: Rajasekharan)
Pratap Pillai is an Indian-origin engineer who has sailed the seven seas for decades, starting as a trainee engineer to finally being the chief engineer of merchant ships. He has always been trained to be ready for the worst-case scenario in the deep sea, even a shipwreck.
For the past nine years, though, his propinquity with the idea of being shipwrecked has been more theoretical: as someone who works from ashore, his new function entails touring various seaports of the world to inspect his Norwegian company’s vessels before they leave the port. To do his duty, he literally lives out of a suitcase or two and trots from one country to another.
For this latest trip, he had left Singapore — where he is based — for Amsterdam on March 5, before heading to a few destinations in Spain and then to Hamburg where he reached on March 10. It was a fruitful trip until then, and Pratap had no complaints although the nightmarish prospects of COVID-19 wreaking havoc had begun to surface in many parts of the world. In Hamburg, too, he did visit a few spots to inspect his Norwegian company’s ships. He was hoping to wind up work and head back to Singapore.
But within hours, he realized that he was faced with the equivalent of a shipwreck on land, adrift in the German city and mostly confined to his hotel, a 250-bed, four-star accommodation where currently there are only two guests, and he is one of them. “I have not yet met the other guest,” says Pratap, who spends his time working remotely. Which means he stays awake to interact with morning-shift employees in Singapore. He would love to be back in the city-state and wake up for work after a good night’s sleep.
But he can’t.
Pratap’s efforts – and that of his company – for his re-entry into Singapore have not met with success so far. He is an Indian passport holder and has a Singapore work visa. Unlike a citizen of that country, travelling back to the south-east Asian country isn’t easy for him. Even citizens have to get a nod from respective embassies before they can fly back to the island nation, which has earned praise for containing the spread of COVID-19.
Soon, monotony began to grow intense and days became weeks. In between, Pratap contemplated travelling to India, specifically to Kerala, his home state where his wife and son live. His wife works as an anesthetist at Alappuzha Medical College in southern Kerala. He was happy with the thought of visiting them and working remotely from there despite the fact that he would have to be in home quarantine for 14 days. Anything would be better than living in a deserted hotel, he decided.
But by then it was too late to fly to India where the government imposed a ban on air travel starting on March 22, first for a week and then announced a three-week nationwide lockdown disallowing most forms of transport and movement of people on March 24. Pratap is still awaiting the news on his re-entry to Singapore. He can’t travel elsewhere from Germany because many of its neighbouring countries have sealed their borders.
The uncertainty has been getting worse and worse for Pratap, who seems to be cursing his fate and the timing of his travel. He hadn’t signed up for a scenario like this one. Hardships abound. Since the hotel is not allowed to serve food even to its guests, he gets packaged food items like cornflakes and milk for breakfast. For lunch, he walks down to an Indian outlet at the train station nearby that still serves cooked rice. There are no other open restaurants or supermarkets nearby and, in any case, he would rather avoid crowds due to fear of the coronavirus.
As if his predicament was not uncertain enough, Pratap doesn’t know how long the hotel and the Indian eatery will remain open. He has bought a large amount of biscuits and stocked up on bottles of pickles. His lunch and dinner are as frugal as possible. After work, he spends time in the hotel lobby for a few hours going through his phone and laptop. He works most of the day in his suite where he has set up his workstation as though he may have to settle down there forever.
“I was hoping to be back in a week or so,” says this 47-year-old who sometimes stands outside the hotel, Europäischer Hof, staring pensively into the distance and the empty roads, waiting for a nod from Singapore authorities.
It has been almost a month since the distance he has covered is totally predictable: from his room to the lobby; lobby to the train station that is just a few minutes away and back. The hotel staff works in shifts and there are not more than 20 of them currently on duty for 24 hours in the hotel. That includes the reception staff and security guards. For a business hotel that was a bevy of activity, it resembles an empty modern palace where the sound of silence is eerie and depressing. He says that his company is doing its best, but the lockdown and travel restrictions are hobbling their efforts.
Interestingly, a story about his plight appeared in a local German newspaper, Hamburger Abendblatt. He is amused, but doesn’t think much about it since the most important thing he wants to do now is to get back home, either to Singapore or India. He is happy to converse about COVID-19, Hamburg, his job, India, Kerala, his family and about the need for governments to be strict about keeping a tab on people and their activities. He is concerned about the subversive tendencies of some people that can ruin countries and make people vulnerable. He doesn’t discriminate against anyone, but he wants state and Central governments to invest more in intelligence.
Pratap feels blessed that he can talk on the phone to people, but he is upset that he can’t visit an uncle of his, who is barely three years older than him and who lives in Berlin, about two hours’ journey from the train station next to his hotel. The problems are manifold: he has already set up his ‘work tools’ in his suite, he says. But then as he keeps talking, one senses that he made that assertion either to comfort himself or to downplay his despair.
His uncle cannot visit him and stay in his hotel without official permission. The rule is that Pratap cannot meet anyone outside of business and put himself in danger of being infected. The employer is worried about him contracting the viral disease that is spreading very fast in Germany notwithstanding low fatality rates.
Pratap is also worried that going to his uncle’s place may not be wise if he happens to get a permission for re-entry into Singapore. After all, his guarantor hired by the company to look into his well-being is in Hamburg. His company has been consistently sending in applications to Singapore authorities in Germany to get him fly to Singapore; so far, all applications have been rejected. The last one was seeking approval for him to travel on April 19 – which also got rejected. Now he is waiting for his chance on April 21.
Not knowing the language is also frustrating, Pillai says. It is often an exaggeration when we say somebody is in a Catch-22 situation, but not in this case. He is anxious about how long the hotel will stay open. What would he do if it downs its shutters? Will he get accommodation in a new one when only 10% of hotels in the city are open? With most hotel amenities off-limits at his current one, including the gym and the swimming pool besides coffee shops, he is lonely and unmoored.
So is his uncle.
Rajasekharan Pillai is crestfallen that his plans have gone awry. Both he and his wife have older parents to take care of back home in Kerala. According to his earlier plan, he and his wife would have been in Kerala by now.
The couple is now biding their time, cooking, reading, watching the Spree River from the balcony of their apartment on Mühlenstraße in Berlin’s Ostbahnof area. Earlier, the riverfront used to be crowded when the weather gets as pleasant as it is now. These days, police immediately disperse groups of more than two people. And so, the riverfront is not as buoyant as it used to be.
Inside their home, they both look at the rooms that are now sparse and plain with nostalgia. Hoping that they were relocating briefly to India, they had put up posts on social media and on eBay to sell their furniture and home appliances. Many of them are gone, including a TV. “Many more of our possessions will be gone soon. Tomorrow somebody is coming to take this,” Rajasekharan says, pointing at a pretty table.
He doesn’t find life under lockdown monotonous because of his familiarity with the historical city although these days he doesn’t venture out and his company has asked employees to work from home despite the fact that there is no full lockdown that stipulates such a measure. “Trains keep running. Liquor shops are open and so are tea vends in train stations. But people are much fewer on the streets though this is the best weather to be outdoors,” Rajasekharan tells me with a whiff of regret. And then he guffaws as if to make up for the involuntary shift in his otherwise sunny disposition.
Rajasekharan, who has taken up Singapore citizenship, is a McKinsey veteran of nine years and a serial entrepreneur. He had left and returned to McKinsey twice. He steers various businesses in partnership and otherwise – they include a Singapore-based headhunting firm, a consultancy and various other entities in India and elsewhere. He is a Bachelor in Industrial Engineering from College of Engineering Trivandrum and Masters in Business Administration from California State University, Hayward, US. In his career, he has been enormously successful across various functions, including manufacturing, management consulting, e-commerce, procurement, production control, logistics and so on.
“Leaving Singapore was not on my mind at all,” he says. Yet, he relocated to Berlin in July 2018 to work with one of one of his favourite former colleagues, Thomas Netzer, who handled Europe operations of Wayfair Inc, the e-commerce company that sells furniture and home-goods and is owned by Niraj S. Shah, the Indian-origin American billionaire.
Netzer made an offer after acknowledging that he knew that Rajasekharan was perfectly happy in Singapore.
Rajasekharan then thought about it, consulted his engineer wife Manju — who happens to be the sister of Kerala’s senior Congress politician and legislator Shanimol Usman — and finally said yes to the offer to revamp the company’s sales and services profile over the next two years. He did extremely well, streamlining all operations as the Europe arm grew at a fast clip.
“I met my goals much ahead of schedule and I wanted exit to spend time with my mother. Thomas understood it and the company agreed to my wishes. And then came the COVID-19 crisis out of the blue,” says he.
Rajasekharan digresses a bit to state philosophically that unprecedented events occur in life and that one has to be always prepared for that. He adds that the Berlin assignment was a deeply challenging one because he had to initially get used to cultural shocks, learn fast and unlearn faster.
“I have worked with people of multiple nationalities, but the work culture here is different and once you get used to it, it is the best system,” he emphasizes. He is excited to talk about Germans and anything German. “It is an amazing country,” he says.
Since he is working from home and not involved in the day-to-day affairs of the company, he spends time reading and watching movies. Since he has already sold his TV, he watches them on his laptop. “There is no choice. I have to be inventive and also adjust to new situations,” says Rajasekharan. “Now what the company needs is a local guy, not someone like me. Since we have put all the systems in place, I have made myself redundant in my office. That’s the mark of my success,” he says, laughing.
The man comes across as a storehouse of knowledge on people, places and new business strategies. He is also a consummate conversationalist who can hop from one topic to another with finesse. “But then I have to hold the bridle every time I do an interview. We are not supposed to talk politics, family, relationship status, health details, and so on. In India or the East, such things don’t matter. Here they do.”
Rajasekharan goes on to talk about other tasks at hand that include helping friends and associates with putting new systems in place so that working in the time of the lockdown becomes smoother.
“Learning should never end,” he avers. He then points to the bookshelf at his Berlin home to say that he gets a lot of time to read these days. “But someone is coming to pick this shelf tomorrow since we had already sold it to that person,” he says with a wry smile. Rajasekharan adds that he is worried about his nephew and hopes that the latter gets the nod from Singapore authorities shortly.
For a first-class professional, all that he now wants to do is to spend time with his mother. He keeps repeating it as he dwells at length on multiple subjects of his interest: from politics to strategy and uncertainty to work culture. “Manju’s father is also critical. We need to be there for them,” he says. Rajasekharan then looks up to the skies one can see from the window of his room and sighs, his composure turning fragile.
“They need us the most now. But we don’t know when we are going to leave,” he says. He points out that his nephew Pratap would know more about what it means to be shipwrecked. “He is trained to know that. But we all know figuratively what it means.”