CHENNAI: Linear progress is one thing, but evolutionary growth is quite another. Author and corporate advisor R Gopalakrishnan, who has served in top-most positions in two big industrial houses, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and the Tata group, has in this latest work, 'Doodles on Leadership - Experiences Within and Beyond Tata', has reflected on a range of issues, not as progress on a straight line, but as one's perspectives evolve integrally alongside one's career growth.
It is a combination of adversity and luck that drives the more contemplative souls to put to larger public good their art of doodling. R Gopalakrishnan does not disappoint his readers one bit, in his sober, measured prose, reflecting the huge responsibilities he has shouldered at two multinationals of a different sort.
Till the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s' in India, 'business' and 'businessmen' were hardly endearing words in the country's cultural lexicon; a group, for all their silent achievements in pushing economic growth and jobs, were more seen as the money-making types by those riding the high horse of culture and values, at best an useful appendage in tax mobilisation. All this despite Mahatma Gandhi's notion of 'Trusteeship' having inspired our pioneering industrialists from Jamsetji Tata, Jamnalal Bajaj, the House of TVS and so on.
In this backdrop, what is striking about this book is that it shows how business leaders, who have evolved in this eco-system - the author has been in it for over 50 years seeing how two big corporate groups have responded to changes and how they tried to innovate when technology, financial prudence and managerial expertise are the keys-, have a better understanding of India's social reality.
Having gone through a very rigorous process, Gopalakrishnan has been able to figure out how the 'Indian entrepreneurial tradition' has evolved prior to and after Independence. That business managers and leaders also add "value" to the national life and that "there are many roles that can be performed in order to save the nation." He says, "throughout my career, I have learnt that business enterprise can be a soul-elevating experience- it has been so for me!'
He unveils a very interesting and significant equation between nation, society and business enterprise. To see this equation is to appreciate - in fact the author likens it to a 'pilgrim's account of the wonder that is India'-, the vast plurality and diversity of the Indian societal fabric. He quotes from Tony Joseph's book, 'Early Indians', as to how "India can be defined as a multi-source civilization, which draws its cultural impulses and its practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories." "India is composed of a large number of small populations."
Gopalakrishnan affirms that business folks see this truth face-to-face, when they step into any market. Yet public discourse is distorted, the author is at pains to explain, more so, "when self-styled leaders try to define an idea of India for all Indian people without conceding that there are alternate and valid views of India." It is not so much religion or language that binds Indian society together, but a 'mind-boggling' diversity that weaves a harmonious fabric called India.
To illustrate the diversity and harmony that makes Indian society that has existed for millennia, the author from his experiences amid "travel and work" mentions five "exotic" examples. He first talks about the 'Hussaini Brahmins', a 'Mohiyal community with ties to both Hinduism and Islam'. That community got dispersed from Lahore in 1947 and now lives in Sind, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. "The most notable member of this community was actor Sunil Dutt," he says.
Second, he speaks about the 'Siddis' of Karnataka, a people who descended from the Bantu tribes of Southeast Africa, brought by Portuguese merchants to India several hundred years ago. Gopalakrishnan discovered them when he was a young area sales manager in Karnataka.
Third, the author speaks about the Parsis, who "have been very close to my experiences - partly due to my professional career with the Tatas and as a resident of Mumbai. "They are a cosmopolitan community in many ways. An early Indian Parsi who acquired enormous wealth was Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy, who made his money through the opium trade with China. Interestingly, he began his trading firm with a remarkable diversity of partners - Motichund Amichand, a Jain, Mohamad Ali Rogay, a Konkani Muslim and Rogeiro de Faria, a Catholic from Goa," writes the author.
The fourth are another interesting lot -'Patnulkarar - meaning silk thread person- or Saurashtrian Tamils, who are Brahmins and originally from Saurashtra in Gujarat and migrated Southwards. As a community of silk thread merchants and weavers, "they are immensely successful entrepreneurs who are part of the Tamil whole, yet distinct in their identity."
The fifth fascinating sociological group is hardly known to many. Gopalakrishnan talks about the 'Gadi Bero Tamils' , who are Tamils who live in a village called Gadi Bero in Bengal. It is a Tamil community in Bengal, around whom, traced to the times of Aurangazeb in Delhi, a "community of Tamil Iyengars developed," he writes, adding, "If I was a social anthropologist, I could have been more detailed in my commentaries and provided many more examples."
Gopalakrishnan expresses the hope that these five examples would be sufficient to demonstrate the "diversity, stability and harmony of India". While growing up, he says he took them for granted, but now - underscore Now-, "I realize that this is most precious inheritance that must be nurtured by every Indian."
Significantly, reminding us all about the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the early 1930s', the author indirectly cautions us about the perils of fascism, when small-minded regimes "can disturb the equilibrium of centuries-old, ecologically balanced societies."
Drawing from classical literature, including the famous Sangam epic 'Silappadikaram' in Tamil, the author delineates how the tradition of trade has evolved over centuries on this soil, how the advantages of 'supply chain management' was seen even then. From the Tamil merchants of Poompuhar to the Mandvi merchants of Gujarat, there has been a profound understanding about leveraging information, wind patterns, ocean currents and so on, the author draws attention to.
The 'Nagarathars' or Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, had evolved a "very interesting and intricate management development and succession planning system." "When a boy in a family turned eleven years old, he was inducted into the business as an assistant (podiyan). He worked for a decade as a 'podiyan' and then became a deputy (aduthavan) for another ten years. In the third decade of his career, he became a shareholder (pangali), and at age forty-one, he was groomed to be the chief (muthalali). This system is brilliant and can stand alongside any modern management development system," the author writes.
This breathtakingly vast canopy that makes India hold together is not so much through centralized political power, but through village, caste and family. There are several such historical nuggets and sociological insights that make this book eminently readable....