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Indian PMs and the art of not learning from the past

Rajiv Dogra’s new book takes a deep, perceptive look at the role played by Prime Ministers in shaping India’s foreign affairs. The author, however, could have written more on the maverick P.V. Narasimha Rao, says Utpal Kumar.

Utpal Kumar

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P.V. Narasimha Rao with Manmohan Singh.
India’s World: How Prime
Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy
Rajiv Dogra
Rupa, Rs 349

Among Indian diplomats, writing on Pakistan, Ambassador Rajiv Dogra invariably shines with his categorical assessment of what has become “a criminal enterprise” for India and the world. He is upfront and unapologetic without ever being flippant. Reading his books, especially on Pakistan (Where Borders Bleed: An Insider’s Account of Indo-Pak Relations is a case in point), one often gets the feeling of reading the work by a diplomat and a historian combined in one.

So, when Dogra comes out with a new book, India’s World: How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy, it instantly draws attention. And it doesn’t disappoint a bit. It is a fast-paced account of the eight prominent Prime Ministers of India, out of the total 14. One only wished he had delved more deeply on P.V. Narasimha Rao, about whom he himself writes: “If Jawaharlal Nehru ‘discovered’ India, and if Indira Gandhi made it ‘proud’, Narasimha Rao ‘transformed’ it.” Giving just 10 pages to this utterly neglected Prime Minister who single-handedly, and without proper majority in Parliament, transformed not just Indian economy but also foreign policy, seemed out of place. In contrast, Rajiv Gandhi, who seemed bright and made a few good amends but delivered very few tangible gains in global affairs, gets almost double the space.

Given the author’s love for history, it’s not surprising to see him devote the maximum number of pages to Jawaharlal Nehru, and rightly so. For, either via his contributions or through his follies, he shaped India’s destiny in many ways. So much so that even after seven decades of Independence, the Nehruvian edifice continues to survive, though in a crumbling shape especially since 2014.

 Dogra begins the book by telling how India and Indians were left to fend for themselves while the financially generous Marshall Plan by the US was available to rejuvenate Europe. “India made a virtue of its misery by terming it self-reliance,” the author writes. But as events suggest, the fault primarily lied with the Indian leadership who pushed idealism at the cost of pragmatism. Nothing can be more ironical, especially in the land of Kautilya who had over two millennia ago “propounded the concept of saam (advice or cajole), daam (pay or bribe), dand (punish), and bhed (exploit secrets) as the policies to be followed, as per need, by a ruler. Indians, especially in the Nehruvian times, never really went beyond the first option, and very rarely used the second. What else can explain India’s decision — or rather Nehru’s unilateral decision, as Dogra asks in the book — abdicating the UN Security Council seat for its “brother” China, which returned the favour in 1962 – and is still doing so in the Galwan Valley? It is this kind of idealistic posturing that put off even J.F. Kennedy, who was an admirer of Nehru till the Indian PM visited the US in 1961. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr writes in his book A Thousand Days, “Reminiscing about the meeting, Kennedy described it to me as ‘a disaster — the worst head-of-state visit I have had’.”

 Even internally, Nehru had disappointed many, including his friends. The author quotes Maulana Azad, writing in his memoirs quite apologetically, about supporting Nehru for the post of the Prime Minister. “I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then have made me realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life… (It was a great mistake that) I did not support Sardar Patel…”

 But to be fair to Nehru, he worked on a clean slate. He had no precedent to rely on. Which can explain his mistakes on Kashmir, China, et al. But what about India giving Pakistan a bloody nose in 1971 in today’s Bangladesh but losing everything at Simla. Dogra asks very pertinent questions, “Why is it that we are generous with others to the extent of sacrificing our interests? Is it because by nature and tradition we hesitate to displease a visiting guest; that he must not leave resentfully or with an empty plate? Or, is it that, despite knowing of the policy misadventures of predecessors, every new Indian leader feels that he or she can write a new chapter on a clean slate?”

 I think it’s both. In the process, the Indian leaders lose both their own respect and the nation’s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto got his 93,000 men as well as the territory captured by India, without giving anything, except soothing words said charmingly: “Aap mujh par bharosa keejiye (Please trust me).” Bhutto had no intention of fulfilling his promise. As he told a close political aide on his return to Pakistan, “I have made a fool of that woman.” Years later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee fell more or less into a similar trap vis-à-vis Nawaz Sharif and Gen Parvez Musharraf.

This is where current Prime Minister Narendra Modi scores over others. Yes, in the first few years of his first term, there were several overtures to Pakistan, but once he saw the outcomes, he mended his ways. There are still many holes in India’s Pakistan policy, if there’s one, but at least now we have started learning from mistakes, we have started reacting to Pakistani misadventures, we have started putting the accountability clause in the relationship. After all, didn’t the Indian leadership make a monkey of themselves by first claiming the whole of Kashmir through a parliamentary resolution in 1994, and then three years later, under PM I.K. Gujral making a move for composite dialogue? This is the last thing a government should do: To revert its publicly-stated stand without any reasonable ground.

The Modi government seems to be making amends to this trend of not learning from the past and being stupidly generous. For, one overwhelming characteristic of the Indian ruling class has been its reluctance — and failure — to learn from the past, thus being condemned to repeat the same mistakes again and again. For instance, Indira Gandhi should have realised much before inviting Bhutto that he was the man behind the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Writes Dogra, “On his own, Ayub was a cautious man; he was most reluctant to risk a war with India. But Bhutto talked him into it. The time was most opportune, Bhutto added, because India was badly shaken by its ‘humiliating’ defeat in the 1962 war with China. Moreover, after Nehru’s death, his successor Shastri was ineffectual… ‘It is now or never,’ Bhutto insisted.” And, Indira was being generous to this man!

Despite deep historical exploration, this book is primarily for the layman and the general reader. It will help understand where we, as a nation, went wrong and how. And like Dogra’s previous books, it’s simple, yet profound.

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The constant twists and turns make ‘The Girl I Met That Night’ unputdownable

Murtaza Ali Khan

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The 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic famously said, “What you seek is seeking you.” In other words, the things you desire are seeking you in the same way you are seeking them. Zahir Chauhan’s latest novel ‘The Girl I Met That Night’ perfectly captures the essence of Rumi’s saying. The story’s protagonist Kabir Shergill shifts from Manali to Mumbai to make a mark for himself and soon with his talent, hard work and some luck, he climbs the ladder of success as he starts working with one of the top advertising agencies of India. Leading a lavish lifestyle in Mumbai while living in a stylish house in the posh suburbs of Mumbai and driving a BMW, Kabir now has everything he ever dreamt of. But his life changes forever when one fateful night he meets a beautiful girl named Anamika.

Right from the onset, Kabir is drawn to the mysterious Anamika as if he were always destined to meet her. Stuck in the middle of a highway while returning from Darjeeling, the two decide to narrate each other a story of their own lives in order to kill the time. But Anamika puts one condition. She agrees to tell her story to Kabir on the condition that once the night is over Kabir would neither ask anything further nor will ever try to find her. That their story would end right there once the night is over. Kabir agrees to her condition and Anamika keeps her promise and narrates her rather disturbing tale. And, as soon as the night is over, Anamika leaves as per the agreement.

But Kabir cannot get over Anamika’s story and decides to break his promise. He tries to look for her but months pass by and he doesn’t get a single clue about her. Ultimately their paths cross again and to his surprise Anamika also recognizes him. They spend a day together in Mumbai as Anamika further talks about the dark story she had narrated that night at the highway and how her life has been over the years. Knowing her now, Kabir gets really attached to Anamika but before he could do anything to express feelings for her, the next morning she disappears again. Who is Anamika? What’s her truth? Where has she disappeared? What is so mysterious about this girl that is forcing Kabir to look for her everywhere?

‘The Girl I Met That Night’ takes us on a whirlwind adventure from Mumbai to Darjeeling to Bangkok to Manali to Ladakh as Kabir relentlessly keeps searching for Anamika. Zahir has crafted a tale of love bordering on obsession that anyone who has ever fallen in love would relate to at one level or the other. Every time Kabir and Anamika meet in the novel, Zahir’s penmanship appears to be at its best. Their second encounter in Mumbai during which Kabir takes Anamika to Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir is easily the highlight of the novel. Also, the beautiful love story of Bakhtawar and Maithili whom Anamika come across in Thailand deserve a special mention. Not to mention the haunting dream sequence in the beautiful hills of Manali. Love stories are full of clichés and ‘The Girl I Met That Night’ is no exception but the constant twists and turns make it unputdownable.

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YOGA FOR ELDERLY: 3 PILLARS THAT SUPPORT AGEING

Namita Piparaiya

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We all age differently; there are no rules about what 65 or 75 should look like. Therefore, our mindset to ageing plays a big role in determining the process of ageing. 

One of the best demonstrations of this is the Counterclockwise research study by Harvard scientist, Ellen Langer.

The question she was trying to answer was: “If we put the mind back 20 years, would the body reflect this change?” So in 1979, she took a group of elderly participants into a time warp—making them live for a week, in a remote monastery, as if it were the year 1959. Newspapers, TV shows, movies, sports games, clothes, photographs and even the conversations—everything was changed so that the participants were actually living as if it were the past. She even removed all mirrors from the location! 

And the body did reflect this change in mindset. After the study, the participants were able to hear and see better, their posture improved, arthritis pain was reduced and there were improvements even in IQ! People felt younger, clearly demonstrating that our mindset can accelerate or decelerate our own ageing. 

So, remember that there is no rule book of ageing. We all respond differently to the passage of time and we must remain open to all possibilities without t judgement or fear. As long as there is breath in the body, you have the energy and capacity to heal. So, the first step to ageing well is to let go of any preconceived notions or negative associations with the process of ageing. 

Simply have faith in your body, breath and mind. A positive mindset provides the foundation on which we develop the right habits and routines to help us lead a healthy, productive life.

Three pillars that rise up from this foundation to support the process of ageing are: regular exercise, stress management, and wholesome diet. 

REGULAR EXERCISE

Staying physically active strengthens our heart, reduces blood pressure, strengthens the bones and joints, lowers the risk of diabetes, improves the quality of our sleep, and even improves our memory and brain function. More importantly, it helps prevent falls which can result in serious injuries and immobility for extended periods of time. 

Recent WHO (World Health Organisation) guidelines (December 2020) strongly recommend that all older adults (65+ years) should undertake regular physical activity for substantial health benefits. These include: 

Aerobic exercises: At least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise is recommended per day. A good way to get this type of exercise is to go for a brisk walk. 

Strength training: This should be done at least twice a week as it helps strengthen the bones and joints. 

Balance exercises: This is critical for senior citizens to prevent falls. Getting up from a chair, moving sideways or backwards, standing on one foot, and walking outdoors are all different ways to improve our balance.

General activity and movement: Last, but not least, is staying active throughout the day, and not just when we are exercising. So, make a point of getting up at least every hour and take a quick round for a minute or two before sitting again.  

It is important to try to incorporate all or most components of the above routine into your weekly schedule, as far as your individual capacities and medical recommendations will allow.  

STRESS MANAGEMENT

Everyone has stress. And stress in small amounts is actually a good thing—it helps us achieve goals, deliver outstanding projects, push our limits, escape from threats and so on. But the problem faced by modern men and women is that we are almost always overloaded with stress. That is why chronic stress is at the root of most modern-day diseases. 

Stress can result in headaches, memory loss, nausea, sleeplessness and can create more severe issues when left unchecked. That’s why it’s always a good idea to talk m to someone if you’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Amongst senior citizens, common causes of stress include medical issues, physical disabilities, dependency, loss of loved ones, generational gap with children, and an unstructured environment with too much free time and a lack of clear purpose. 

Senior citizens can manage stress in a variety of ways: 

Socialising: Maintaining strong social connections with others is highly effective in improving our mood and longevity. This can include activities like laughing clubs, morning walk groups, spending time with grandchildren, etc. 

Music Therapy: This helps increase positive emotions and lowers stress and anxiety levels. In fact, according to some research, listening to music is more therapeutic for seniors than for younger people.

The Outdoors: Spending some time in nature amidst greenery and natural bodies of water can generate feelings of happiness and even help with depression. 

Pranayama: Yogic breathing exercises help improve lung capacity and one can use the breath to relax one’s nervous system.

Meditation: Various meditation techniques bring about physical changes in our brain such as increasing our grey matter, and improving our ability to manage difficult emotions.

Including stress management and relaxation techniques in your daily routine will help you work on your ‘mental fitness’ which should be taken just as seriously as your physical fitness. 

WHOLESOME DIET

  Irrespective of our age, it is important to eat a variety of whole foods to get the entire range of macro and micronutrients that the body needs—especially sufficient fibre. Good eating habits keep you mentally sharp and help you feel younger and healthier. A healthy weight also enables you to handle any disabilities and reduces the risk of diabetes (Type 2) and heart ailments. Our diet should also be in alignment with any existing health conditions or medicines and should match our activity levels. While your diet and m supplements should be decided in consultation with your physician, here are a few suggestions for someone who is moderately active: 

Fruits and vegetables should be eaten daily. Try to eat a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables of different colours, instead of the same ones every day. 

Dairy or dairy alternatives should be low-fat and consumed in moderation. 

Choose whole grains like whole wheat, brown rice, millets, and oats over white flour (maida) or processed items. 

Include lean proteins such as beans and peas in your daily meals.

Current research suggests limiting solid fats and to favour polyunsaturated C and monounsaturated fats instead. These are found in nuts, seeds, avocados, vegetable oils, etc. 

As we age, there are some things that become more important: 

Monitor nutrients – In general, as we age we can become deficient in nutrients such as Calcium, Vitamin D, E, K, Potassium, and Vitamin B12. Overconsumption of Sodium is also something to be mindful of as that can disturb our electrolyte balance. Do monitor these in consultation with your doctor. 

Stay hydrated – Our thirst mechanism becomes less effective with age, which means we may become very low on water without the body realising. This increases the risk of dehydration. 

Stock up on dietary fibre – Fibre builds regularity in the digestive process and reduces the risk of lifestyle diseases related to the heart and sugar metabolism. You can find it in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fruit skin is also a good source of fibre. 

Avoid overeating – As we age, our energy requirements go down, so we may need less food (or calories) than we did in our youth. For instance, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (USA) recommends 1,500 calories a day for sedentary women over 60 years and 1,800 calories a day for those who are moderately active. Therefore, if your activity levels are low, you should consider eliminating high-calorie, processed, sugary foods as the body will not be able to utilise them. Instead, they will get deposited as fat and cause weight gain. 

When making a diet plan, it’s important to pick one that you enjoy and can sustain for the long run. Going on crash diets or suppressing yourself can be counterproductive. Instead, build habits that are sustainable, with awareness and mindfulness. 

The excerpt is from the e-book ‘Yoga for Senior Citizens’.

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Is white always right?

Uday Singh

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When the Native Americans first came across white people on their land, they assumed that they were sent by God. And, when the same people first came across black people, their reactions were far from welcoming. The Mayans and the Aztecs exhibited similar reactions when they first saw white people, and that was one of the main reasons why the Europeans were so successful in making significant initial inroads into their territories, before eventually overpowering them. If native communities had different reactions to the white people or treated them as just another tribe that they were used to seeing on a regular basis, then they would not have allowed the Europeans to gain such a stranglehold on their lands. 

That prompts the question as to how different world civilisations would have evolved if the color of the skin, along with hair and eyes, was consistent across geographies. In an alternate universe, if the skin color was white across all continents, then poems such as Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (exhorting the United States to assume colonial control of the Filipino people and their country), loaded with twisted and self-serving logic (giving the colonisers the license to kill with impunity and without any guilt all under the guise of serving a higher calling), would have still been written but would have been based on some other readily visible trait, say the straightness of nose or shape of the chin. Once enough of the population begins to associate a broader set of attributes, such as intelligence, bravery, strength, and power to that trait, then the rest of the population would follow implicitly. From that point on, all those with a straight nose (for example) would be considered intelligent, strong, or courageous, regardless of the real makeup or personality of that individual. 

Let us look into a few examples — from ancient Greece, with very little awareness of other skin colors; from the Middle Ages, with moderate awareness of different skin colors; and from more contemporary times – to shed light on the ascent of the white color.  In the History of the World, written around 300 BC, Herodotus talks about black people being similar to the Hellenic people, that is white people, except for the fact that their seed is greyer in color. He can be excused for being wrong on that front, about the color of black people’s seed, but he can be commended for the fact that he did not regard black people as inferior or consider them barbarians. Note that this interpretation is based on an early 19th-century English translation of Herodotus’ book; there is an outside chance that the translator might have tried to be politically correct and sanitized Herodotus’ actual words. 

In Prince, written in the early 15th century, Machiavelli talks about Italians being the black people of Europe. It provides a glimpse into gradations of white, with the northern Europeans regarded as whiter than the southern ones. In the more recent A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, Nicholas Wade proposes opening up the notion that there are three different races, or five, depending on the level of granularity one wants to get into, based on the readily discernible skull shapes—Afrikaans, Caucasians, and Mongoloids. Scientifically that is a fact, but does it have to lead to the immediate next question that pops up in most minds as they read that fact—if the skulls are different, does that mean one of them is better than the other? If no special attributes are implicitly assigned to any of the skull shapes, and they are just accepted as different skull shapes, no more, no less, then people of all skull shapes can coexist and each individual interaction is judged on a case-by-case basis rather than on stereotypes based on skull shapes. 

In India, a country of over a billion people, with a diverse population in terms of hair colour (ranging from black to light brown), and of eye color (shades of black, brown, and green), there is one product that almost every Indian is aware of—Fair & Lovely, produced by Hindustan Lever, an Indian subsidiary of Unilever Corporation. Aside from the fact that it is a huge testament to the marketing geniuses behind that product, Fair & Lovely has carved out a huge market selling “fairness” — another term for white skin in India — to the population. It promises to make the skin a couple of shades lighter through its use over just a few weeks. This may seem like a politically incorrect statement in the United States (and potentially in some European countries) but it does not cause any controversy in India. Everybody accepts it as part of life and mostly, girls with darker complexions continue to use it in the hope of making their skin tone lighter. Do these 1.1 billion people validate that white or fair is the desired colour? Are we instinctively wired to regard white as good and black as bad or is there something else going on here?

The excerpt is from the book ‘Inconspicuously Human’ (published by The AlcovePublishers).

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‘AGNIBAAN WILL HELP INTROSPECT HOW WE ARE DESTROYING THIS PLANET AND WAYS TO ADDRESS IT’

S. Venkatesh opens up about juxtaposing ancient mythology with present-day science and politics in ‘AgniBaan: Guardians of the Fire Chamber’ and how he is managing a demanding career in the financial markets with his passion for writing.

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 Q. Share a glimpse of your latest book ‘AgniBaan: Guardians of the Fire Chamber’.

A. It has two stories running in parallel. One, set in 535 CE, begins in the Great Pyramid of Egypt and culminates in India, and centres around an ancient mystical connection between the two countries. The other, set in the modern day, is a global conspiracy involving geopolitics, assassinations, electronic warfare, and climate change. Is there a link between the two stories, and how is it connected to a plot that will bring the world to its knees? You need to read the book to find out!

Q. How difficult it has been to juxtapose ancient mythology with present day science and politics?

A. That is one of the main ‘aha’ experiences of writing for me. To be able to connect seemingly disparate events, often tens of centuries apart, and bring it all together in the form of a compelling narrative was one of the high points of writing ‘AgniBaan: Guardians of the Fire Chamber’ (published by TreeShade Books). By way of the process, I spent around 10 months reading and learning extensively about certain topics around science, history, and geopolitics but did not try to force-fit any of these into a plot. Over time, the facts started blending together into a story. I have realised that when the subconscious mind is left free and unfettered, it is able to join the dots much faster and more effectively than the conscious mind. 

Q. Tell us about the main characters involved in your story and their role?

A. As I mentioned, ‘AgniBaan’ has two stories running in parallel. The modern story has two protagonists, Dhruv Ralhan and Megha Rao. Dhruv is a commando from an elite secret unit of the Indian Army. He is bold and fearless, but he is on forced leave from the army, the culmination of a dark turmoil that continues to haunt him. Megha is a historian, known for her discovery of an ancient manuscript. She is an empath, someone who embraces life, connects deeply with people, and never gives up on those who are close to her.

The other story, set in 535 CE, has an Egyptian warrior, Aphotep, as its main protagonist. Aphotep is the last surviving member of the Guardians, a group which protects an ancient secret. 

As the story progresses, Dhruv and Megha find themselves in the midst of a global geopolitical storm, as an audacious plot hatched by a clandestine organisation threatens to bring the world to its knees. They need to deal with their inner demons and find a link between seemingly unrelated events, even as time is running out.

Q. Can you elucidate on the nature of research work that has been undertaken in the making of this book?

A. The research for ‘AgniBaan’ was quite extensive, involving elements of science, history and geopolitics, and spanning topics as diverse as superconductivity, nuclear reactors, climate change, cryptography, and Indo-Egyptian trade. A lot of the research was concentrated in the first ten months of my work on ‘AgniBaan’ when I read books, academic research, and white papers on these topics, and also spoke to subject-matter experts. During this phase, I did not put pressure on myself to come up with a story. I just allowed my subconscious mind to join the dots and spot patterns. Once the facts started coalescing together into a story that is when I put pen to paper and actually started writing.

Q. What does the word AgniBaan symbolise in your book? 

A. AgniBaan means fire arrow. In the book, it is the name of an ancient secret for which wars have been fought over the centuries, for which men have staged the most ruthless massacres. The AgniBaan has a figurative meaning as well, as it represents the balance of the elements, the delicate equilibrium of the universe. It forces us to introspect on how humankind’s excesses have ravaged the planet and disrupted the balance of nature. This is echoed, both in the book and in real life, in the imperative to combat climate change. 

Q. How content are you with the response of your first book ‘Kaalkoot: The Lost Himalayan Secret’?

A. One of the most gratifying experiences about writing ‘KaalKoot’ has been to see the love it has received from readers. While getting the bestseller tag has been good, it is infinitely more satisfying to see it resonate with readers up to this day. A few weeks ago, almost three years post-publication, I received an email from a reader at 3 am. He had stayed up finishing the book because he could not put it down!

When ‘KaalKoot’ was published in 2018, one of my objectives, based on my research for the book, was to highlight the dangers the world faces from potential pandemics and biological agents. With ‘AgniBaan’, I hope to stir up introspection among readers about how we are destroying the planet and the urgency with which we need to address climate change. Gauging by the reviews so far for the book, it looks like introspection is happening. 

Q. How did you develop a passion for writing?

A. I have nurtured a desire to write since my childhood when I used to bury myself in books from my grandfather’s library. But my writing was limited to school and college forums. After studying at IIT Delhi and IIM Calcutta, I took up a demanding career in the financial markets, with the likes of Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, and Macquarie. During this phase, while the urge to write would surface periodically, it got buried amidst the blur of corporate travel, deadlines, and targets. But my work and extensive travel also gave me a huge reservoir of ideas that I could tap into for inspiration. Over time, I learnt to channelise my passion more effectively and used the time I spent on flights and in airport lounges to retreat into a quiet space in my own mind. That is how I penned my first book ‘KaalKoot’.

Q. With the growing influence of digital media, how do you perceive the future of book reading?

A. A big psychological factor we are all dealing with today is the shortening of attention spans and the increase in the amount of noise around us. We are deluged with information and choices so books compete with Netflix shows, WhatsApp messages, and political debates for attention. But there are positives too. Social media has given readers the tools to share thoughts on books with other readers, and authors now have more avenues to connect with their readers. I do not see book reading suffering per se, though I do see it potentially morphing into different formats to match audience and media preferences. 

Q. Tell us something about your upcoming books on which you are working currently?

A. I am working on two books in parallel. One of these is a thriller set against the backdrop of the high-octane, take-no-prisoners world of the Indian stock markets. The other is a thriller that examines the deadly implications of certain recent scientific discoveries and links them to certain ancient secrets.

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THE INCREDIBLE FLIGHT OF INDIA’S PARACHUTE MAN

Harsh Mariwala, founder and chairman of Marico and author of ‘Harsh Realities: The Making of Marico’, opens up about the challenges he faced in his entrepreneurial journey and much more.

Utpal Kumar

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Harsh Mariwala is an Indian entrepreneur, who is the founder and chairman of Marico, a Fortune India 500 company. Mariwala has penned a memoir of his business journey, Harsh Realities: The Making of Marico, covering everything from his successes and failures as an entrepreneur to how he built a consumer brand, value of culture building in a company via openness and transparency, and key learnings. It is also a story of grit and redemption. He opened up about the complexities of running a business with family members and much more.

Excerpts:

Q. Tell us about this book and what made you write it?

A. I could write this book because I had a lot of time due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But it couldn’t have been possible without the support of two individuals. One, my wife, who was able to add substantial value to the script in terms of making it far more anecdotal and emotional; she also added more gravitas to it. Two, my co-author Ram Charan, who is a renowned management guru and has written around 30 books.

It’s a memoir of my business journey that talks about my successes, failures and has nuggets of wisdom by the co-author. At the end of each chapter, he gives his insight into the learnings. It talks about building a consumer brand, culture building, family issues, innovation and a story of grit and redemption that were the pillars of founding and forging Marico. It leverages values like openness and transparency.

Q. One of the highlights of this book is that in your life failures have been as important as successes. Tell us about your journey and how you learnt more from your failures?

A. I started off by joining the business as a commerce graduate. I had not studied business so in a way nobody has taught me and when I joined the family-managed organisation so in that journey I failed in a lot of stuff, including basic issues. That was my initial set of failures. Out of every failure, I have had learning. After issues with quality assurance and product development, we set up a whole department around these. We took these failures very seriously. That has helped us become a far more robust organisation in terms of our own capabilities. As we progressed further and started growing the business, some things didn’t work out well and in some cases, we launched a product where the market size was too small.

So there has been a fair share of failures. We had a product failure in recent times; 10 years back when we launched a snack but gave preference to health over taste, the consumer wanted it to be tasty. The learning from that was incorporated in the product development of Saffola Masala Oats which has done extremely well and we are market leaders in that.

Q. Family plays an integral part in Indian businesses. You too had to deal with the same while running the business. Share your experiences of managing the business as well as the family?

A. It adds to the complexity because at one level, you are staying in the same house, and at another level you are related to each other, competing in the workspace and are co-owners, so these multiple role relationships make it a little difficult. On top of that, there is first generation, second generation, respect for elders, lack of openness, at times you can’t tell them how you feel. It becomes far more complicated if you are in a large family setting with a lot of family members in the same company. The key thing is to manage it proactively. The family is an asset on one level, it brings in a lot of benefits, but if not managed properly, it can be a liability.

I took the initiative of sitting down with my cousins, suggesting a roadmap for how to run the company from a family perspective. It took two to three years and resulted in the formation of Marico, which required a lot of patience, perseverance and consensus-building. It worked well for me. The key learning for me is that other stakeholders, including family members, play an important role in your journey. You have to have a win-win arrangement where you can co-exist and at the same time work independently.

Q. You once said that if the business has to thrive, it has to be run by the best person, not necessarily from the family. Do you think that things are now changing in Indian business families?

A. Normally in Indian business families, still there is a lot of hierarchical thinking, and it is expected that your children will take up your roles and be your successor. Internationally, things have changed. But it’s a matter of time it will change in India too because it’s getting competitive. If you put a family member ahead of anyone else in terms of capabilities, the business can suffer. The key thing is that the business should come first and then the interest of the family.

Q. You took a substantial risk in taking your company from your family company to a new one, Marico. It must have been a tough decision. Tell us about those momentous days, and how do you see them today?

A. It was not difficult as that was what I was aspiring to do. It took me two to three years to convince the family. If I look back, it was the most important decision in my career. That gave me a lot of freedom in terms of selecting my team, set of portfolios/products, allocating resources and growing and having an identity of my own. It became much easier for me to operate in Marico than when I was in the Bombay Old Company. Being self-motivated helped me and I learnt from the setbacks and hindrances. If you have a burning desire to succeed, then you will overcome all the roadblocks.

Q. Tell us about the flagship coconut oil brand Parachute and the sleepless nights initially had to run it. How do you look back at the legendary battle you fought with the rivals and how it paid off in the long term?

A. The initial forays of the brand parachute were through distribution and innovation delivering for growth. And gradually we became the market leaders, the product became strong and it became a big franchise. In 1993, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) acquired Tata Oil Mills Company (TOMCO), predominantly a soap manufacturing company, which also had in its portfolio a coconut oil brand, Tata Nihar Coconut Oil. Because of that acquisition, HUL wanted to acquire us too. The battle was not easy, when you are under attack from a much larger player there is a lot of fear in the organisation. The challenge was how to overcome that, motivate people, how to take them on rather than selling off. It was quite tense, but I was quite resolute in taking them on. It worked out well for us, we didn’t lose any market share. We acquired that brand (Tata Nihar). It was a big source of victory for us.

Q. Parachute also shows your faith in the product and once convinced you always stand with your decision. How did you come up with the unique name and what really made you go with the instinct to not part ways with Parachute when you had so many tempting, often intimidating, offers?

A. When I joined the organisation, I was the first person from the next generation to join the company; my father was managing the company. One of the businesses we had was the edible oil business that was mainly sold to industries. It was then sold loose to consumers by the retailers under the brand name Parachute. I converted it from unbranded to branded, over a period of time. In that journey, a lot of friends advised me to change the brand name from Parachute to something else, but I never thought of changing it as I found it unique, symbolic, and talked about.

Q. The business worldwide is facing one of the ‘hardest realities’ in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of businesses have collapsed or are on the verge of collapsing. How do you see the pandemic?

A. A lot depends on the kind of business you are in. There are certain sectors that were very stressed including airlines, hospitality, and retail. Such companies suffered the most as there was little to no income. Those who had liquidity were able to survive, but those who didn’t either had to pack up or will pack up. You can’t afford to remain closed for so long. The key learning was that companies need to have some cash balances in their system. You have to play a little safe as you can’t overborrow thinking everything will work out. The pandemic provided opportunities: newer initiatives, B2C brands, and e-commerce. We were able to magnify the opportunities in the area of healthcare in terms of Saffola Honey, Saffola Protein, Saffola Chyawanprash. A whole host of new products came into the system. In terms of leadership, it gave us news insights. The corporations have also learnt to deal with the scenario in a proactive manner when it came to health, safety, vaccination, hospitalisation, and whatever help was required. The organisations which were sensitive to such needs have done well. I hope that the third wave doesn’t impact businesses that much. The corporate sector will do well in the coming times.

Q. The pandemic came at a time when the Indian economy was already facing some bumpy rides, and Covid-19 has made it even worse. What’s your take on the issue, and what do you think the government should do to help the country come out of it?

A. I don’t think only the government is responsible for the state of the Indian economy. We expect everything to be done by it which is not fair. A lot is in the hands of the entrepreneurs in terms of grabbing the opportunities for the growth of their companies.

The pandemic has had its own impact on the government’s finances as the tax collections have gone down. You need to evaluate what the government could do looking at the ways and means of the situation. I am cautiously optimistic in terms of increasing our overall economic growth rate, a lot will depend on the third wave and mutations of the virus. To give a kickstart to the Indian economy, the government has taken various initiatives. It could do demand-side reforms, for example, reduce the GST rates for six months. This could provide a fillip to the Indian economy. It could also resume the work on the pending reforms that are stuck due to certain reasons be it farm reforms, judicial reforms and other such reforms.

Q. What is your take on the farm reforms?

A. There are different aspects to farm reforms. The biggest hesitation is the MSP. It is also giving freedom to farmers to sell beyond mandis which is a good thing. I did not expect this kind of hesitation for farm reforms. The government is on the right track in terms of the announcement. It has become a political issue. The government should have discussed it a bit more openly instead of just announcing reforms, the process of implementing could have been better. By and large, there may be some areas that could get improved.

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‘WE ACHIEVED BETTER RESULTS IN OUR CAREERS BY APPLYING CFO NITI LESSONS’

In a freewheeling conversation, Pramod Bagri and Sandeep Kumar open up about their inspirations, ideas, and motivation behind penning the book ‘CFO Niti: Candid Conversation with India’s Finest Finance Leaders’.

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Are you intrigued to know what it takes to run India’s biggest finance units? If so, then you can have a peek inside the Chief Financial Officer’s (CFO’s) office and how their offices function through ‘CFO Niti: Candid Conversations with India’s Finest Finance Leaders’ (published by Konark Publishers). The book offers detailed insight into their personal growth stories and the progression of the finance industry in the past decade. In an e-mail interview, Pramod Bagri and Sandeep Kumar share why they chose to interview CFOs and the fascinating details they uncovered during the process. Excerpts:

Sandeep Kumar

Pramod Bagri

Q. When and how did you first became interested in writing?

A. As part of large consulting organisations, we have been writing domain-related articles for the past few years, generally posted on internal portals like Linkedin, and others. We have been also fortunate to work with CXOs of Fortune 100 companies and learn from them directly. With this book, we intended to reach out to a wider audience and help them get mentorship directly from industry leaders.

Q. Tell us about your book ‘CFO Niti: Candid Conversation with India’s Finest Finance Leaders’. When and how did you two plan to write this book?

A. ‘CFO Niti’ brings you a never-before-seen view of the CFO office and the leaders running India’s biggest finance units. It brings to the readers the detailed stories of these CFOs—their personal journey, insights into how the CFO’s office functions, and their perspectives on the rapid evolution of the CFO’s office in the past decade. You also have access to their daily routines, their reading list, their inspiration areas, what they look for in their talent, and many more interesting tit-bits. We have captured discussions with CFOs of Maruti Suzuki, Tata Steel, Amazon India, Larsen & Toubro, Hindustan Unilever, and Aditya Birla Group.

We started working on this book in 2018. Like most great things in life, this book was more of a confluence of multiple happenstances than a planned exercise. At a chance discussion, both of us (Sandeep and Pramod) debated on the importance and prominence of the CFO office. While we both agreed on its importance, we were not too certain of the prominence it has today within large organisations. Out of curiosity, we ran a search for the most important CFOs, and what we found was a bit surprising. About 90% of the content was focused on the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and their leadership styles. Another 9% was on the Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs), Chief Information Officers (CIOs), Chief Technology Officers (CTOs), and others. The CFOs were mentioned very few times, a lot less than the other CXO group. Next, we searched on Amazon for books on CFOs; the results were even more despairing. It was a bit strange that there was not enough content on this topic.

We thought this wouldn’t do at all. Most large organizations, with strong finance functions, have a whole bunch of staff aspiring to be the CFO. All the newly minted Chartered Accountants and Masters in Business Administration (MBAs) in finance have the dream of making it to the vaunted CFO position one day. They could all do with some knowledge about the role and the people who occupy it. Why hasn’t anyone bothered to put together some insights around how the CFO office functions, what makes a successful CFO, some inspirational stories about their lives, and many such instances of CFOs lives that are worth being discussed. This small discussion led to an effort to find India’s most important CFOs heading the largest, most profitable, and impactful organizations, and chart out their life stories across multiple parameters. The aim was to not only figure out the secret sauce that went into the making of a successful CFO, but also understand their personal lives in detail; what values drive the CFOs, and what are the common factors that bring success in this role. This book would act as a guide to a student or a mid-career professional to understand what key elements they should inculcate in their careers and eventually target this coveted position.

Q. You have mentioned in the introduction of your book why you chose to write on CFOs over CEOs. Would you like to elaborate on why you chose to write a book specifically on CFOs and not on other C suite roles like CTO, CIO, or others?

A. There are three reasons why we chose to write about Chief Financial Officers. First, there was and remains a demand-supply gap. There is far lesser content available on this topic than the requirement and the number of people who are interested in understanding and creating a better finance function. Apart from the usual suspects like finance professionals aspiring to someday become the CFO, finance students looking to chart out their careers, and business leaders wanting to create a best-in-class CFO Office, we wanted general readers to get inspiration from the growth stories of these industry leaders. We recently did an event for Ortho TV attended by a large number of doctors and were surprised to find the level of curiosity and enthusiasm to derive learnings from the book and improve the functioning of their organisations.

Second, the CFO office has undergone a sea change in the past few years compared to other functions. From being considered bean counters responsible for accounting and reporting, the CFO office has transformed to become the nerve centre of decision-making in large corporates. CFOs now are equal partners to business teams and contribute wholeheartedly to business growth and not act as watchdogs only. As you will find in the book, there are several anecdotes and paradigms (e.g., “Fly-on-the-wall test) where CFOs have themselves spoken about how their roles have transformed over years. This needs to be highlighted so that smaller organizations and entrepreneurs can look at the best practices and imbibe and implement the same. Third, both of us are students of finance and have worked with CFOs all our professional careers. Unlike our daredevil CFOs who are supremely comfortable with stepping out of their comfort zones, we opted to stay in our circle of competence!

Q. While you were planning your list of CFOs to contact, were there any female CFOs on the list? Didn’t you think of including any female CFO in your book?

A. There is no denying that women are underrepresented in this important role, not only in India but globally. We did reach out to the ones spearheading large organisations, but due to varied reasons, it did not materialise. We will ensure their presence in the next series.

Q. Were there any surprising details you guys uncovered during the interview process? 

A. You will find the most surprising details in the early lives of these leaders:

o A CFO who started his career as a cash counting resource in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

o Someone who almost made Molotov cocktails at the age of 18. We are not telling who!

o A CFO who aspired to be a doctor and another who wanted to be a fashion designer

We have tried our best to give a feeling of “Mentor by your side” by preserving individual voices and not homogenising or editing everything. We also included sections like “Extra shots” that capture the way users can apply these learnings, key takeaways (perforated pages and can be torn and pasted to your desk), photographs capturing the journey, and final thoughts that summarise the secret sauce to becoming a successful finance leader as well as how each of these conversations has enriched our lives.

Q. In your book, you have discussed how much this book is going to be helpful for the young aspirants who aspire to enter and work in the financial sector. Nowadays, we are witnessing financial consciousness among people, do you think your book is going to be helpful for such people in any way?

A. Given the higher levels of financial consciousness among the millennials, it is even more imperative for them to understand what it takes to build a sustainable large business and what role an effective finance team plays in it. This book allows our readers to reflect on and learn from these leaders, not only regarding finance but overall personal and professional growth. Learnings like “Safety-Liquidity-Return” while investing, “Never waste a crisis” and many more lessons can be applied to one’s financial wellbeing. The book is written in an easy and lucid style without any jargon and we have several reviews from non-finance readers who have come back and shared their key takeaways from the book and how it helped them.

Q. Was there a specific person’s story with whom you could relate very much? What were the key learnings?

A. Each CFO’s story is different and the key learnings are varied. We were lucky to have early access to these conversations and both of us have very different life views than what we had when we started. We started this book with an objective—to contribute to the larger community and act as a bridge between this untapped sea of knowledge and the beneficiaries. However, we ended up receiving a personal transformation as we heard these leaders detail out their life journeys, lessons, and roles. While we have been closely interacting with global CFOs as part of our roles, these interactions opened our eyes to a completely different world of theirs. After many of these interviews, we spent hours reflecting on deep life lessons we just witnessed. We were able to instantly achieve improved results in our own professional lives by applying some of these lessons. We firmly believe ‘CFO Niti’ will have the same impact on the lives of its readers.

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