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Onshoring—a zombie success story

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2012. Onshoring—a zombie success story. Part 1: <http://techwhirl.com/technical-writing-humor/tech-writer-horror-stories/onshoring-zombie-success-story-p-1/>. Part 2: <http://techwhirl.com/technical-writing-humor/tech-writer-horror-stories/onshoring-zombie-success-story-part-2/>

“I have some very good news to report about the long-awaited reduction in force and offshoring of the documentation group.” The development manager’s voice came from a half-dozen speakers in the cubicles of the technical communication team. “It’s not going to happen.”

The whoosh of six simultaneously released bated breaths drowned out his next words. We’d been expecting the worst, and had spent more time during the last month helping each other polish our résumés than actually documenting the software. Nobody had noticed, lending an uncomfortable amount of credibility to the rumors. Of course, Cook hadn’t bothered to come down to give us the message in person, so the announcement didn’t mark anything like a sea change in corporate morale-boosting.

“Check your e-mail tomorrow for details of the new plan,” he said, followed by the click of his speakerphone disconnecting. Immediately, the prairie-dogging began, heads popping up over the tops of the cubicles.

 “What happened to him?” Lakshmi wondered aloud, swaying dangerously on her knockoff Aero chair.

“Must’ve gotten religion.” The voice was muffled, the speaker not having joined the rest of us in craning our necks. Coming from Shiv, our resident atheist, that was funny. I smirked.

“I wouldn’t breathe easily just yet,” I observed. “Let’s wait to see the e-mail.”

“How bad could it be?” Lakshmi’s brows knitted; you couldn’t see the lower half of her face, even standing on her chair, but her eyes were frowning.

“Remember when he decided we’d save money if the developers wrote the documentation and we just edited and formatted it?” I reminded her.

“Touché.” Sanjay’s family originated about as far from France as it was possible to be without actually crossing a major ocean, but he lost no opportunity to add an “ay” to anything adjectival.

“Don’t you people have any documentation you should be writing?” Shiv chimed in. We didn’t formally have a group manager, the self-directed team fad having hit India years after it had been abandoned in the West, so he’d taken it upon himself to play that role. Heads disappeared below the tops of the cubicles. Nobody wanted to screw things up now that we had a good reason to pull hard for the company.

***

It took some time for Lakshmi’s how bad it could be to manifest. The next day, there was no e-mail, but Shiv was missing. This was unusual, since he had a near-perfect performance record. To the best of my knowledge, he had missed only that one day when the corporate clambake and team-building exercise went badly wrong. The ironically named Cook had harvested the clams himself, and he’d insisted they tasted just fine. He even ate them himself. Me, I’d stuck with the tofu tubesteak, claiming religious objections but really objecting to eating anything that had spent it’s life filtering shit from the unhygienic coastal waters. Cook never dared challenge anything we said about Hinduism for risk of offending, and couldn’t be bothered do the work necessary to learn when we were yanking his chain. We therefore ruthlessly exploited his traditional American hypersensitivity about anything to do with a foreign religion whenever the opportunity presented itself.

In the event, I was the only one of our group who’d missed the resulting bout of dysentery, which led to an unscheduled toilet team-building exercise. Potty jokes not withstanding, it said much about Cook’s own bathroom habits that what felled all of the documentation team (but for your humble narrator) and 90-odd percent of the developers, he seemed to take as par for his course. For three days, I wrote like a man possessed, doing the work of three and falling behind steadily until the others returned. I woke several times to a bad case of keyboard face, and my hands trembled from the caffeine overdose for days afterwards.

But we met the ship deadline. Possibly only because the developers were hit even harder than we were, proportionally speaking, but meet it we did.

Shiv was back the following day, but he looked worse than the day after the clambake. His pallor was more noticeable than usual, he barely looked up when the chai wallah came by, and the prominent veins on his forehead were scarcely evident. His eyes were dull, there was a white crust around his lips, and he responded to questions in incomprehensible monosyllables. One of the freebie donuts the company sometimes provided lay half-eaten on his desk. I shrugged, and returned to work. He’d either get better or he’d call in sick the next day. Either way, there’d be extra work for me.
A few hours later, Lakshmi stuck her head into my cubicle. “Hey... you’ve got to come see this.”

I got out of my chair, having hit a brick wall. Some things are just so stupidly implemented, you can’t save them with documentation, though that doesn’t stop you from trying. It’s why they pay you the big (by Bengaluru standards) bucks. I followed her down the narrow aisle to Shiv’s cubicle. I heard the frantic clicking long before we rounded the corner and peered in. Shiv sat slumped in his chair, but his fingers were flailing away at the keyboard as if he’d been possessed by the ghost of Abhishek Jain. A string of drool trailed from his mouth and pooled on the floor, and the armpits of his shirt were soaked.

 “Shiv, you doing alright?” I nudged him, without so much as a blink in response.

“Here’s the fun part.” Lakshmi grabbed his left wrist in her tiny hand, bent his arm at the elbow, and put the palm on his bald spot. Both hands kept typing as if nothing had happened. “Weird, huh?”

“That’s more than weird. It’s scary.”

“In an amusing way.”

“You have a much crueler sense of humor than I do.”

“Men are the weaker sex. Admit it.”

I ignored her, having long ago tired of that particular argument. “I think we should call someone.”

“Like Cook?”

“Yeah, like that will solve anything. At best, we’d get Shiv sacked for abusing recreational drugs on the job.”
“Probably. Maybe we should call the nurse?”

A familiar throat-clearing made us both jump. “There’s no need for that.” Cook was tall and thin, nearly skeletal really, and moved with uncanny silence. The way his forehead jutted out over his eyes exacerbated the cadaverous look and made it hard to meet his eyes. “It’s all part of the plan to avoid offshoring your group.”

Lakshmi and I exchanged alarmed glances.

“He’ll be just fine, as long as you put his hand back on the keyboard.”

Lakshmi reluctantly complied, wiping her hand on her jeans afterwards.

“Don’t you two have some writing to do?”

“Yessir,” we both chimed.

As we returned to our cubicles, the sound of typing redoubled.

***

A few hours later, Anjali entered my office, Lakshmi in tow. She tossed her iPad onto a stack of paper on my desk. “Look at this!”

I picked up the tablet, and had a look. Page after page of documentation, all new. “So?”

“It’s not perfect, but if it were all like this, I’d be out of a job.”

“So clearly it’s not my writing.”

Clearly.” The corner of her mouth quirked upwards. “And not Lakshmi’s either.”

I knew where this was going. “Shiv?”

“Got it in one,” Lakshmi nodded.

“You’ve got to see this,” Anjali nodded her head back over her shoulder in the direction of Shiv’s cube. We trooped off together, and there he was again, fingers still flailing away at the keyboard. The puddle of drool on the floor had expanded, and the sour smell coming from under his desk told me he hadn’t been to the toilet recently.

“Distasteful.”

“You don’t know the half of it. My cubicle is right next door.” She waved her iPad in front of Shiv’s eyes, and the typing didn’t even waver. “And it gets worse.” She grabbed my shoulder and steered me down the hall to Deepak’s cubicle. The same frenetic clickety-clack emerged, and when I poked my head in, there was Deepak, and he smelled about as bad as Shiv. That was something, since he ordinarily soaked himself in cologne. The front of his Lauren-knockoff shirt was soggy with drool; the sides and back were soggy with sweat.

“Brainnnnns,” moaned Lakshmi.

“Yeah, really. If it weren’t for the lack of rot, I’d be buckling on a helmet.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“Not as long as you’re here, clearly.”

“Guys?” Anjali put a hand on each of us. “I don’t think we have to worry about them tearing the flesh from our bones. This isn’t the Romero zombie shtick.”

“So what is it—Luke Kenny?” I ignored Lakshmi, who’d distorted her face into a lopsided grimace and was reaching a clawed hand for my head.

I slapped her hand away. “Stop it!”

Unperturbed, Anjali continued. “I’m thinking it’s Haitian.”

“Haitian?” we both replied.

“Jinx!” I got out, a microsecond ahead of Lakshmi, and she shut her mouth, glaring at me.

“Yeah. You know the voodoo thing?”

“I thought that was a myth?”

“It’s not clear. Wade Davis did some fascinating ethnobotany work back in the 80s, but his methodology was shaky, and it was never clear whether he’d been analyzing real zombie powder or the fake stuff.”

Lakshmi was growing apoplectic, so I took mercy on her. “Unjinx.”

Her glare dimmed slightly. “There’s a difference between the real fake zombie powder and the fake fake zombie powder?”

“What do I know? I’m an editor, not a doctor, as mama-ji never stops reminding me.” She licked her lips. “The point is, I’m not sanguine about this. If it were just Shiv, it could be a coincidence. But...”

“... two points make a line,” I finished. She nodded.

“So what do we do about it?”

“Well, first thing is we stay away from the jelly donuts.” She pointed at some traces of white powder on Deepak’s desk. I bent over, and sure enough, the ruins of a jelly donut were visible under the desk.

“Um...”

Anjali and I both looked at our colleague. “Lakshmi, you didn’t!”

“Hey, they cut off the donut supply after the last quarterly review. I figured that with revenues looking up again...”

“We’d better get you to a doctor.” I licked my lips nervously, glad I’d held out for the chocolate glaze.

“And tell her what? That our boss is turning us into zombies? That would be well received.”

“It would if your doctor’s an empiricist. Tell her to keep an eye on you overnight and watch what happens.”

“I don’t feel very well.” Lakshmi’s forehead was glistening under the fluorescent lighting.

“We’d really better get you to a doctor. I’ll take her.”

I nodded my gratitude. “Meanwhile, I’ll do some research. Can I have your iPad?” Anjali handed it to me. Our computers were spywared to Redmond and back, and the network was firewalled worse than the People’s Republic of China, but there was a dental office two floors down that ran an open wi-fi hotspot for their patients, and the signal was strong enough to reach our floor. Anjali handed me the tablet, and took Lakshmi by the arm, stooping slightly to reach the shorter woman.
“Good luck!”

Don’t eat the donuts,” she shot back over her shoulder.

***

Not only did I not eat the donuts; I went across the street for my chai. No sense taking any chances, and I needed a change of scene to think things through. What I’d learned about zombies was only reassuring from the perspective that nobody would be trying to eat my brain at work, and we wouldn’t be locking the doors and hiding out with shotguns and talwars to ward off the zombie apocalypse. Nobody knew if zombies were real, how they were “made”, or what cured them. About the only thing everyone agreed on was that they had a prominent place in Haitian legend, and that the Haitians believed in them strongly enough to include a provision in their legal code that equated zombification with murder. Were we in Haiti, we could call in the cops and let them haul Cook away. (I naturally assumed it was Cook. Who else in the company knew that our team existed—or cared—other than the developers? And they were warily friendly these days, since we had a common enemy.)

We weren’t in Haiti... but with Fedex, you could have anything in the world overnighted to you, and five minutes with Google revealed a dismaying number of stores that promised to ship me the real stuff.

There wasn’t likely to be anything supernatural involved, unless Cook had converted to vodoun without anyone noticing. Not likely; I’d peered in at his office, and there were no obvious fetishes, no odd marks painted on the walls in chicken blood, and nothing more sinister than a wall of framed Successories posters. So hiring a houngan, even if one could be found in the eastern hemisphere, or a local pujari wasn’t going to do us any good. The trick was going to be finding someone who had experience with mind-altering drugs, and that was way out of my league. I’m not a good Hindu, but mama-ji would have had my hide if there had been even a hint I was experimenting with such things.

Mind-control drugs is not the kind of thing you Google, cop-ware being what it is these days. Calling the cops seemed promising, but what would we tell them? “Namaskar, sahib. Our American boss is turning us into zombies by spiking the free donuts with zombie powder. Can you help?”

Not even in a Bollywood film.

This is the kind of corporate maneuvering where it would be great to have a powerful boss who can intervene on your behalf. I don’t think I have to tell you why that wouldn’t work in this era of matrix management. So like it always was, the job was ours. Fortunately, years of neglect have taught us to be clever when necessary. When you don’t have any power, you learn to be subtle and use an enemy’s strength against them. This was emphatically not a job for Bhima—more something in Hanuman’s line of work.

***

The solution came to me that night over a lovely Madras curry washed down with a pint of Kingfisher. To the best of our knowledge, Cook neither ate nor drank on the job—I think he was embarrassed to be seen eating Western food in an Indian workplace—so there was no hope of slipping him one of his own donuts and letting karma take care of the rest. But, like most Americans in India, he found the climate unbearable, and sweated profusely. To solve the problem, he filled his dress shoes with Gold Bond powder. As a result, he emitted tiny puffs of powder with every step, and left a faint trail of the stuff wherever he walked.

I picked the vendor with the best ratings on Amazon, crossed my fingers they weren’t gaming the reviews system, and ordered a week’s supply of the carefully named “relaxation powder”. We’d know within a few days whether it worked, and there would be plenty of time to order more if it did. It arrived the next day. By then Lakshmi, had recovered, though her usually sharp wit had become blunter than usual and she was reluctant to cross words with me. Nonetheless, Anjali and I persuaded our little Aishwarya Rai to distract Cook long enough for me to slip into his office. When I left my cube, he was sitting in her cube and she was standing so his eyes would be at breast level; we’d all had many opportunities to notice where his eyes lingered whenever he visited her cube.

In Cook’s office, there was no challenge to finding his supply of Gold Bond; the drawer it lived in bore traces of powder on the handle, and powder had dripped downwards onto the two drawers below it. And sure enough, when I opened the drawer, there it was—beside an unlabeled canister of what appeared, at first glance, to be powdered sugar. I briefly contemplated stealing some before thinking the better of it. Instead, I tipped out the Gold Bond into my pocket, careful not to leave any visible residues, then replaced it with the powder from Amazon. Then I left, wanting to do more prowling but afraid of being caught.


On the way back to my cube, I passed Cook, who ignored me. Back at the cubicles, Lakshmi was fuming. “Did you see the way he was looking at me? Pig!”

“Your sacrifice for the side will not go unrewarded. In a few days, you’ll p0wn him.”

If you ordered the right stuff.”

“Trust me.”

I hoped she had reason to.

***

The next day, I stopped by Cook’s office to see whether we’d made any progress.

“Cook, Sahib?” He looked up from his monitor and grunted. “Friday is a Hindu holy day, and I would like to take the day off to visit my mother.”

He reached for his mouse, hand shaking, and clicked something on the screen. “I don’t see anything on the calendar.”

“This is an obscure local holiday celebrated by the people of my village.”

“I don’t even know where your village might be.” He licked his lips. “But if it’s important to your family, then by all means take the day off. Just be sure that one of the others can take over any of your deadlines. Shiv seems to be ahead of schedule; ask him.” He met my eyes briefly, guilt plain on his face.

“Most assuredly I will.”

He looked away from the screen. “Don’t you have any work to do before you leave?”

I bowed. “Of course, Sahib.” And I left before I could do anything that would disrupt his unusually accommodating attitude.

Shiv and Deepak were still typing like madmen, and I could smell them almost as soon as I came within earshot. Lakshmi was waiting for me by my cube. “So?”

“Day 1: so far, so good. I asked him for the day off on Friday for a religious holiday and he let me go.”

“Really? That stuff’s powerful, whatever’s in it.”

“I’ll say. But tomorrow it’s your turn to check in on him.”

“Fair’s fair. I’ll get Anjali to check on Thursday.”

We returned to our work.

***

The smell had gotten so bad that by the mid-morning chai break, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went to the Reliance Fresh across the street, beside the Barista where I sometimes splurged on really good Western coffee, and bought a sixpack of plug-in air fresheners. Holding my breath and pinching my nose shut with one hand, I dashed into Shiv’s and Deepak’s offices, plugged the small cubes into the wall, dialed them up to full potency, and fled the scene, gasping. Lakshmi was waiting back at my cube, a particularly evil grin on her face.

I handed her two of the air fresheners. “Here. One for you, one for Anjali.” I plugged in my own. “So?”

“He’s definitely declining. I paid him a visit,” she put her shoulders back and pushed her chest forward, “and he hardly noticed. Same idiot gaze as usual, but when I changed position, he didn’t follow me. I think it’s working.”

We exchanged smiles, and went back to work.

***

Day 3 was Anjali’s turn, and when she returned bearing sheets of paper, we knew something was up.

“What?” Lakshmi and I chorused.

“Here are your quarterly performance reviews.” She handed each of us a sheet of paper. There was silence long enough that I knew Lakshmi was also reading hers a second time.

“I wouldn’t give myself a review that glowing,” I muttered.

“Neither would I, but... yeah. Me neither.” Lakshmi frowned, and snatched the third sheet of paper from Anjali’s hand. "Humph,” she snorted. “Figures you’d give yourself the best rating.”

“Of course it’s a great review. I did all the work.” Anjali tipped her nose in the air, snooty as a rajah, then couldn’t sustain the required air of wounded dignity and giggled.

“At least he finally stopped calling you Angela.”

“I’m fed up with being called Angela. Honestly, how hard is it to remember Anjali?”

 “Seriously, though. How long do you think it will be before anyone notices?”

“Longer if we keep meeting our deadlines and don’t give anyone reason to pay closer attention.”

“I’m with Lakshmi. I’ll check on him again tomorrow, and refill his powder if necessary.”

“Agreed. Now back to work. I’ll go see if Shiv and Deepak are showing signs of life now that Cook isn’t dosing them every day.”

***

With Anjali’s help, Cook submitted the daily status reports in glowing terms; because of the enormous volume of work Shiv and Deepak had done, we were well ahead of schedule, so those reports were not exaggerations. By the end of the next week, Shiv and Deepak were back to what passed for normal in our little group, and we were able to unplug the air fresheners. They had no memory of the past week, but were ravenous after a week of neglect by Cook; apparently, none of us had realized they might need to be told to eat. Naturally enough, we ended up at our favorite thali place for lunch.

“I am outraged,” Deepak said after finishing enough dhal and rice for three men his size. “There should be some justice here.”

“Oh, I think karma will be satisfied.” Anjali had gotten creative with the departmental budget, and for the first time since we’d worked together as a team, our computers were up to date and the false Aerons had been replaced with real ones that would not cripple us before retirement. The catered dinners that had arrived when we had to work late earlier in the week were another nice touch.

“It occurs to me we may be thinking too small,” Lakshmi observed.

“Small people have small goals,” I replied, ducking as she threw a piece of naan at me.

“Here’s a goal big enough even for your swollen head: the New York management team will be arriving next week for their annual inspection tour and showing of the flag.”

“So?”

Shiv cleared his throat. “I think what she’s saying is that if we can zombify one manager, there’s no reason we cannot zombify them all. A weekly conference call to instruct our pet zombies on our goals for the rest of the week, to remind them to take their medicine, and to take personal hygiene breaks every few days. Then there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.”

“I’m not sure I like where this is headed.”

“Because males are always the weaker sex.” Lakshmi threw another piece of naan at me. “What’s that phrase your American friend liked so much? Payback is a bitch. Time those bloody Americans learned a little lesson in payback, Indian style.”

“Reverse colonialism at its finest,” Deepak observed.

“Indeed.” Lakshmi raised her glass of chai. “Lady and gentlemen, let us raise our glasses to karma!”

Cups clinked, chai spilled on the banana leaves, and we shared warm smiles.

Author’s notes

For readers who aren’t technical writers, the underlying irony is that a significant number of documentation jobs have been outsourced to Indian techwhirlers; if you own a Windows computer, you’ve probably already encountered outsourced Indian technical support staff. I liked the notion of predatory capitalists finding a way to offshore Indian technical writers while still keeping the jobs local. That seems somehow fitting for the 1%. The main inaccuracy here is that the local boss is an American, but I’m invoking poetic license for plot purposes.

A few cultural notes:


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