My professor friend, Raghavan, dropped in last week, with Evergrande and the Pandora Papers in the news. I sat him down and was just about to offer him tea when my fixer friend Murthy dropped in. Murthy has some form of ESP because he knows exactly when I replenish my stocks of scotch. I offered him some, and had to offer Raghavan some, too. Raghavan demurred, saying he’d have to drive back home, but Murthy offered him a ride, since he had a car and a driver. So I poured Murthy the generous slug that he always demands, and Raghavan an equal quantity.
When I told Murthy that Raghavan taught at a business school nearby, he began to talk of his friends in the university and his contacts with the government body that oversees business schools. Between mouthfuls of hot samosa and cold scotch, he dropped name after name, all the way up to the minister of education, but Raghavan just didn’t respond. He sipped moodily at his scotch — the fourth round, by the time Murthy got to the minister — without saying a word.
“What’s the matter?” I asked Raghavan. “You’re not your usual joyful self today.”
“A little problem,” he said vaguely.
“Sharing it might fix it,” I said.
“I don’t like what I do,” he said, after a moment’s thought.
“Oh!” I said. “It happens to all of us. Sometimes I hate what I have to do.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” he said. “I think I’m doing the wrong thing. Sometimes in the middle of a lecture.”
“That, too, happens to all of us,” I told him. “Tell us more.”
“We teach people the wrong things,” he said. “The whole education system, and business schools in particular. It’s all rotten.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“The whole idea of life is to be content,” he explained. “But we teach… We teach discontent. In education, the idea is for you never to be content with what you know and how well you know it. It’s more of the same in business school, except that the knowledge is about making money. We teach people how to exercise their greed. And once they get into business... Business rests on greed and discontent.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Businesses are built on growth,” he said, “and growth comes from discontent. Look at the messages you get. If you don’t have a nice job, you haven’t made it. If you don’t have a nice house, you haven’t made it. If you don’t send your kids to good schools, you haven’t made it… And so on. Businesses sell you discontent disguised as dishwashers. If you were content with your house and your job and your car, businesses wouldn’t grow fast enough.”
“Hah!” said Murthy derisively. He’d been listening carefully — he does listen carefully when it matters — and he offered an opinion. “Businessmen are amateurs at it, and their teachers are even more ignorant.”
Raghavan sat up straight. “What do you mean?” he asked, an edge to his voice. “We professors have PhDs in the subjects we teach! How dare you say we’re ignorant?” Raghavan usually never gets aggressive in conversation, so I assumed this was the scotch talking.
“What’s your point?” I asked Murthy, interceding only to keep them from coming to blows in my house.
“Theories they teach in business school are just a watered down version of politics,” replied Murthy. “The closest you get to real politics in business school is in what you call human resources development, where you learn to manipulate people.”
The scotch still had hold of Raghavan. He emptied his glass at one swallow and held it out to me for more. When I refilled it, he took a long sip before continuing. “And I suppose that’s why all the leading politicians everywhere depend on businessmen for their livelihoods! Just look around you! Business is power!”
“I suppose that’s why all businessmen whimper when politicians change the laws!” Murthy, I saw, was losing his habitual cool, and was holding out his glass, so I refilled that, too.
“But it’s other businessmen behind the changes in the laws,” said Raghavan.
“You know what crony capitalism is all about. You’re seeing it at work here in India!”
“Of course!” said Murthy. “But it’s politics and politicians that decide the direction they’re going to take. Businessmen need politicians to get their work done so they can look good and raise money from the public. The stock market is at the mercy of rumour, and who are the masters of rumour? Politicians!”
“Business isn’t only about the stock market,” said Raghavan, his voice rising dangerously. “Companies aren’t affected so much by rumour, not if they’re professionally managed.” He emptied his glass again, holding it out to me for more.
By the time I’d refilled his glass, Murthy was ready for a refill. By now there was just enough left in the bottle for a couple of drinks for me, and I left it under the table in the hope that the two drinkers wouldn’t see it there.
But it just wasn’t my day. Despite the heat of the debate, Murthy managed to keep an eye on the bottle, and, when their glasses were empty, he reached down and retrieved the bottle himself, pouring the remains of my precious scotch into his own glass and Raghavan’s. He raised the bottle to eye level to confirm that it was indeed empty, then announced, “We should leave after this round.”
And leave they did, at the end of that round. They were still arguing loudly as they left, leaving me to throw away the bottle of scotch that they’d emptied without letting me have so much as a sip!...