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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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Book Beat

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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TIME WE LISTENED TO YOUNG, REBELLIOUS MINDS

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Opinions of a Teenager… is it just another book? Or is it a voice of a teenager who has never been heard before? Or is it a light at the end of the tunnel?

You are not a child! Don’t behave like a kid! Don’t watch this on Netflix, it is only for adults! You have grown so big, but your brains are pea sized! You should not go out so late, you are not so big! Haven’t we heard this so many times, haven’t we said this to our children, haven’t we all been party to this?

Teenagers are neither kids nor adults. Nothing is designed for them—clothes, too small or too big; TV shows—cartoons for kids, rest for adults; books—oh, don’t even ask!

I am not surprised why teenagers have no voice… nobody hears them. They are just hanging around in the school (now home!) or in their homes as just an appendage, with awful pimples, pointy moustache, uncertain beard and much more like that. For the last year and a few months this has been worse than ever before—all of it concentrated in the confines of household, probably in the same shapeless tee-shirt and loose shorts.

Whose fault is it anyways? Nobody chose to be a teenager. Everyone wants to be a big adult and all that. However, these seven years must be lived as a teenager, just teens. So, why shouldn’t they be heard? Why can’t they express themselves, un-edited?

May be this brings the ‘already adults’ some insights and can help these young minds pave a better future for themselves. If nothing else, it will give them immense confidence in themselves… something that they really need.

The book, Opinions of a Teenager, is their voice. Listen to it.

The pandemic has holed up people in their homes, some crowded, some noisy, and some depressing. No schools, no friends, no respite. Despite that the children have been amazing in devising new ways to keep themselves ticking. At the age of thirteen, this boy Shreyas, whose parents have not been home (they are both doctors and attended to patients all through the pandemic) has become the ‘light of his own tunnel’.

He has endeavoured to type out his thoughts (I would have said penned down but these days kids prefer typing to writing!) during the worse time of the lockdown this year, and self-published a book. This probably helped him vent out all his sentiments for or against issues such as education system, music preferences, dos and don’ts of keeping pets, planning your career, etc.

It may be a rebellious act against a lot of accepted norms but at least it is an honest beginning. As adults, we should not get offended if some child tells us where we are wrong or when we should change the way we think. We should include these young minds because they are the future adults and will be responsible for our tomorrow as well.

So, read the book, hear them out, and make tomorrow better. Icing on the cake is the way it is written, far from preachy, hilarious, and rib tickling for all ages.

‘Opinions of a Teenager’ is available as an e-book on Amazon. Enjoy!

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‘Gita helped me to understand myself, made me more optimistic’

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Author Richa Tilokani talks about her debut book ‘The teachings of Bhagavad Gita’.

Richa Tilokani is a marketing, communication and advertising professional who is passionate about writing. Richa has written about wellness, travel, fashion, lifestyle, and culture in myriad magazines, newspapers, and blogs. She opens up about the inspiration behind The Teachings of Bhagavad Gita: Timeless Wisdom for the Modern Age (published by Hay House India), hurdles along the way,self-empowerment and more. Excerpts:

Q. What influenced you to write ‘The Teachings of Bhagavad Gita: Timeless Wisdom for the Modern Age’?

A. It was not really a well thought out plan as such. It just happened that I started working on it to help my family, and then it grew from there. So I expanded the scope and thought maybe some first-time readers could also benefit from it.

Q. What kind of research went into this piece of work?

A. It has been a very long journey of research and learning. I was fortunate to learn it from my grandfather who was a devotee, and my mother who helped me to clarify the doubts I had. Some concepts I learned in childhood, some I understood through experience. Every time, I have approached the sacred book as a humble student and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. It’s been many years of learning and I still have a long way to go. 

Q. Tell us about some of the challenges you faced while penning it?

A. Well, it was a challenge because the book is very sacred and the teachings very profound but I’m grateful to have had this opportunity. Yes, I had to face the dreaded writer’s block and that took a long time to go. I used to think I won’t be able to write and was constantly rejecting my work. Writing amidst the pandemic, when there was so much uncertainty and fear all around, was another challenge for sure.

Q. Did you decide to simplify ‘Bhagavad Gita’ so that people of all age groups can better understand and benefit from its teachings as many people believe it is complex, for old people or simply confused about its applicability to modern times?

A. Yes, the key goal was to show that the teachings are highly implementable and can help people navigate the post-pandemic world. There is no need to fear or worry about how complex they are. Everyone is at different points in their journey—so they can approach them at the level at which they are. They can be as simple (or as complex)as they want them to be. They can help both the beginner and the advanced seeker; it depends on what they want and how dedicated they are towards their goal.

Q. How can the readers discover the art of self-empowerment with the help of this book?

A. Well, self-empowerment according to me is when you feelyou are being the best version of yourself. When you are able to live life to the fullest, achieve your goals and also help others in their journey. Some may find it in service, some in their work and some with knowledge—all routes are right as long as you are progressing.

Q. How has writing ‘The Teachings of Bhagavad Gita’impacted your viewpoint about life?

A. It helped me to understand myself, made me more optimistic and nurtured my faith. It taught me to have faith in the self, in work, in family and in a higher power—having it makes life simpler and easier. I understand that life will continue to throw challenges but we have to learn to manage them and ourselves in the best possible way.

Q. Do you agree that this is the right time for this work to come out as readers can seek refuge in the solace this book will provide them amid the ongoing pandemic?

A. Five thousand years ago, the teachings were first shared and they were relevant then, as they are now. These are unprecedented times and everyone is struggling with multiple challenges. I have tried to relate the teachings to these times and hope that they can offer solace and hope to the readers.

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THE BLESSING THAT WAS AAMIR KHAN

Aamir Khan wasn’t sure whether Rang De Basanti was going to work or not. But he put himself firmly behind the unorthodox idea and became the character.

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Aamir had done about 30 films when he said yes to RDB. I couldn’t believe my luck, and yet, it all seemed so natural that Aamir should be the one to ‘understand’ this script instinctively.

I didn’t know him at all at the time. One day, I sent him a text message. ‘I have made a film called Aks. I want to narrate my next film to you.’ Twenty minutes later, he texted back. ‘I am in London. Should be back on third. We can have it thereafter.’

I waited till the fifth and sent him another message. ‘In case you’re back, can we meet?’ Twenty minutes later, came the punctual response. ‘Yes I’m back. Can we hear it on this date at this time?’ I went to his office.

AK: What would you prefer? Giving me the script or narrating it?

Me: What do you prefer?

AK: It’s not about me, it’s about you.

Me: How much time do you have?

AK: It’s your pace. If you need 15 minutes, they’re yours. If you need a day, it’s yours. I want to listen to your idea.

I marvelled at how this man, whose body of work ranged from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar to Lagaan, a focussed artist who could solve the Rubik’s Cube in less than 20 seconds, was only interested in what I wanted to create, not who I was! At an early age, he had shown contempt for conventional education and chose to learn only about cinema. His unusual choices and dedication have made him an iconic actor who had the pulse of his audience.

I started narrating to him. My plot was an unusual one that moved between the 1920s and 2005 played by the same set of actors. A bunch of university students become part of a documentary featuring real-life revolutionaries. Initially, they don’t identify with the characters or have a full understanding of their own history. They know little about their forefathers who fought for the rights they take for granted, and yet, as the film progresses, they find a cause worth dying for.

There were two parallel stories and wherever they crisscrossed, there were sparks—until they overlapped and the lines blurred. It was a new narrative to say the least and very difficult to imagine. All one could do was to feel it and take a leap of faith. I needed a man who believed in the risk he was taking. I was helming a tumultuous ship!

Three hours later, both of us felt good about it, but there was both anticipation and caution.

AK: I haven’t seen Aks.

Me: I will arrange a screening for you tomorrow.

Aamir saw Aks. I was on tenterhooks till I heard back from him. Aamir says in Ru Ba Ru (Face-to-Face), a 2011 documentary on the filming of RDB: ‘This was around 2002 and I was already part of Mangal Pandey, which was also a heavy historical film—the story of a freedom fighter. But I loved the screenplay and the inspiration behind RDB.’

In the book I’ll Do It My Way: The Incredible Journey of Aamir Khan by Christina Daniels, Aamir is quoted in this context, ‘I didn’t know whether it was going to work or not.’ But he put himself firmly behind my unorthodox idea and became the character—something he is known to do. And I don’t mean it in a superficial way. He imbibed the soul of DJ and Chandrashekhar Azad and gave his own interpretation to it, ranging from the sublime to the mundane qualities of the character. Bharathi had given me a quote which she had read, ‘There are two primary choices in life. Either you let things be the way they are. Or take responsibility for changing them.’ I sent Aamir the same as a one-line brief for his character impetus.

Avan Contractor created a more urban hairstyle for his character DJ. This was immediately post the period film Mangal Pandey and was a whole new look. Arjun Bhasin, the stylist, worked on the entire cast’s look. Aamir rehearsed his Punjabi dialect and twang to perfection. He became one with the cast and crew—every supreme artist understands that the entire crew has to be elevated to another level to make magic happen. He was paired opposite Alice. She observed his command over the cast when she told BBC, ‘It’s only when you notice how people talk about a person that you realize how important or famous they are. Everyone looked up to Aamir, including the younger actors. He’s a lovely man, incredibly generous and funny.’

Aamir is a visionary and understands everything that is going wrong or right with the creative process. Sometimes, tough decisions like ‘let’s shoot for 10 more days’ became easy because Aamir backed the need to do it. Also, he had no ego about whose scene it was. If the scene belonged to the other boys, he would happily stay in the background because the film’s narrative was the Bible that could not be tampered with. Aamir’s cinematic understanding remains unparalleled in our industry. Without his nod, RDB would have been another dreamer’s script gathering the dust of apathy and inertia.

While signing on the dotted line, Aamir included a clause, which was the reason I ended up making the movie on time in the first place. Here’s an example: ‘If my fee is Rs 4 crore and you don’t pay me on time, then you’ll have to pay me Rs 8 crore for defaulting,’ he had said. I had never even seen Rs 8 crore till then.

‘The Stranger in the Mirror’ has been published by Rupa.

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A peep into India’s timeless values

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The book ‘ Peep into India’s Timeless Values by Dr Shimla provides a close look at those values and principles of behavioural conduct that have been laid down by ancient sages and thinkers of India to help guide human beings to the righteous path besides inspiring them to live in harmony with society, the world, and nature itself. All those values, that had given rise to a highly cultured society, had their roots in Vedas. Such virtue-based societies stayed intact for a long time. People followed value-based conduct as a natural way of life in earlier times which in the present times is on a decline. 

Dr Shimla has painstakingly culled the most relevant Indian values having universal appeal and reflected upon them in a present-day context. She has organised these values under six heads: personal conduct, society and relationships, human health and mental equilibrium, holistic view of environment, fundamentals of governance, and religion and spirituality besides introductory and conclusive chapters. Each chapter has an initial thematic verse from the scriptures.  

As is said that the virtue of the society is really the basis of its stability, the introductory chapter, therefore, draws a broad sketch of eroding values and moral ethics in our society in all spheres of life. The author first discusses the causes and effects of the downfall in values in the present scenario and then goes on to describe the time tested and long-cherished values of India. 

An individual is the basic unit of the edifice of society. If the individuals are of great character and adopt righteous values, then the society and the nation are bound to be great. The chapter on ‘personal conduct’ is devoted to essential human values to be followed by each individual in their personal life and interaction with others in society.

Man owes a lot to society as a whole as also to individuals like parents and teachers. In our culture, a man is ordained to repay debts in different forms for which he has to enter into Grahast Ashram (household duties). This stage starts with the uniting of two persons, man and woman in marriage. The seven vows of marriage outline the Dharma and responsibilities of a Grahasthi. Along with that, come the duties of relationships between husband and wife, parents and offspring, between siblings, and a plethora of other relationships in extended families. Then comes the religious and social duties that include the cooperative coexistence in the society and doing charity, welcoming and respecting guests, and also supporting the persons in other three stages of life as envisaged in Indian scriptures. The chapter on ‘society and relationships’ describes how to perform these duties in a righteous way.

The body is the foremost means for attaining all goals of human life, and human birth is the ultimate in the process of evolution. A human body with the sharpest brain is the greatest gift of God bestowed upon any living being in the entire creation. Therefore, to keep the body as well as the mind in good health is a sacred duty of all human beings. The chapter on ‘human health’, sheds light on the time tested values of the Indian system of thoughts with regard to health and highlights the holistic view and interconnectedness of mental and physical health. The ancient wisdom has been discussed purely with the Indian perspective which the world is lapping up after getting convinced about its efficacy in stressful modern times.

The chapter on ‘holistic view on environment’ discusses the Indian view on the importance of a clean environment. It is so vital that life itself could not be possible without the environment. In the Indian system of thoughts, everything in the world is believed to be enveloped by God. The whole universe is made of five great elements (panch-mahabhut), and they have their own presiding deities which are worshipped. The concept of sacred trees, sacred animals, and sacred grooves lends a spiritual connotation to these natural resources. The concept of rebirth in any form of life links us to the animal world and inspires compassion for them. Moreover, our scriptures forbid committing any cruelty or violence to animals. 

Cutting a green tree is linked with paap and planting trees is considered a meritorious deed. These beliefs and many more that are ingrained in Indian culture could ensure a cleaner environment.

In ancient times, the governance was based on Raj Dharma (duties of the Ruler) and Rajdanda (Impartial and pure justice system). These, as described in the ancient Niti Shastras like Vidur Niti, Manu Smriti, and the political science and economic policies by Chanakya, had been the cornerstones of governance, the justice system, and taxation. The seeds of a welfare government can be very well seen in these ancient thoughts.

 Dr Shimla perceives a connecting thread in these Niti Shastras that has a bearing on the constitutional imperatives and rights in the modern era. The ancient principles of Raj Dharma along with the modern constitutional provisions about rights and duties form the part of the chapter on ‘fundamentals of governance’. 

 The chapter, on ‘religion and spirituality’ discusses simple religiosity and spirituality and how it touches the lives of ordinary people. It is defined simply as,

“Yad Bhuthitamtyantam Tatsatyamiti Dharna,

Viparyayh Krito Adharmah Yasya Dharmasya Sykshmatam”.

‘Whatever conduces the most to the good of all beings is held to be truth, doing opposite to it is Adharma. This is the subtle nature of Dharma.’

India is home to almost all the major religions of the world which could be possible only because of the tolerant and democratic nature of the majority religion. It is said that Hinduism is a way of life. The concept of one all-pervading God who is Omnipresent, Omniscient, and Omnipotent makes it the most liberal religion. It is not only tolerant to other faiths but also divergent views within Hinduism. The belief in the concept of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth makes it universal. It is believed that this life is one of many lives and one can be reborn as any living being according to the effects of Karmas. Hinduism also believes in humanism. A man can even achieve divinity by dint of his good deeds and even God can descend on earth incarnating as a human. The great Message of ‘Bhagwad Gita’ and the tenets of other faiths like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism also find a place in this chapter. 

After discussing the causes of present times’ degradation in the value system in our society as contrary to the great value system of yore, the conclusive chapter explains how that grand system of human values designed by our sages and thinkers is a way forward to look for the solution to the host of problems the humanity is besieged with today. What appears most striking to me is the way the author has interpreted the simple sayings and even the Vedic Mantras in a totally different light. They are not simply Mantras to be recited but concrete instructions and exhortations to ensure a better life on earth. Her interpretation of Shanti Mantra appearing in Yajurveda is brilliant and unique so far as I understand. I like her way of linking the issues of environment and personal conduct with the concept of ‘paap’ and ‘punya’ as a sure panacea to many of the world’s problems. 

Her simple and lucid language and liberal use of mythological references and examples from day-to-day life to illustrate a particular human value add an interesting touch to the readability factor of the book. It’s a commendable work by the author. It is certainly worth a read for all as it presents the Indian values in a different light, especially for the younger generation who might have lost sight of this priceless heritage of India as well as the offspring of the Indian diaspora living far away from their roots.

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DEBUNKING MYTHS AROUND AYURVEDA

Let’s bust some of the common myths and misconceptions surrounding this ancient alternative medicine system.

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You are about to embark upon a journey of knowledge. The first thing to do is jettison myths and misconceptions. In my conversations with those unfamiliar with Ayurveda, I have realised that they carry at least one of the myths mentioned below.

AYURVEDA IS UNSCIENTIFIC

As mentioned before, Nature  published a paper in 2015 that I co-authored. It was titled ‘Prakriti’ and was about how genome-wide analysis correlates with Ayurveda; it established the scientific validity of the concept of Prakriti. For decades, many Western cynics scoffed at Prakriti as an unscientific idea. In fact, they said that since Prakriti could not be proved as a valid idea and since Ayurveda began its investigation by determining the Prakriti of an individual, Ayurveda was nothing but pseudoscience. But in the chapter ‘Prakriti and the Genome’, you will learn how each of the three doṣas (vāta, pitta and kapha) correlates to a number of unique genes.

Throughout this book, I will underscore the scientific validity of each idea presented. But more importantly, I will be honest about the limitations of Ayurveda. In the past few centuries, Western medicine has leveraged scientific progress to make seminal breakthroughs. Ayurveda hasn’t done the same. Yet, simply because it is still playing catch-up doesn’t make it a non-science.

AYURVEDA IS STATIC

Ayurveda has been evolving for millennia, but one must concede that the last significant addition to science was made in the late nineteenth century. Back then, new plants were discovered and their medicinal qualities investigated. As a result, new treatment methodologies came into being. The earliest texts, the Rig Veda and the Yajur Veda, mention only sixty plants. Till date, more than 1,200 plants have been used by Ayurveda. Even plants that came to India with the Europeans — plants such as tomato, tobacco and potato — were utilised as healing agents. These plants have been mentioned in the Shaligrama Nighantu, a text created in the nineteenth century.

AYURVEDA IS RIGID

Today’s Ayurveda practitioners leverage modern diagnostic tools to offer the best care possible to their patients. They can read a CT scan, a blood report or an EEG chart with as much proficiency as an allopath. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies that manufacture Ayurveda medicines rely on modern technology to deliver quality products. While researching the prakṛti project, we used software developed by C-DAC, Pune, to determine the prakṛti of individuals. Like any science, Ayurveda has exhibited a willingness to adapt. This will become amply clear as you read this book, especially the chapter titled ‘The Summative Approach’. The pioneering

physician and surgeon Sushruta explicitly asks the practitioner to go above and beyond the science of Ayurveda and leverage newer scientific fields to become successful and productive.

AYURVEDA HAS INFERIOR DIAGNOSTICS

Just because Ayurveda acknowledges the efficacy of modern diagnostic tools doesn’t mean it has inferior diagnostics. In ‘Pathogenesis and the Path of Moderation’, you will learn how Ayurveda identifies the existence of disease at the earliest stages. In the chapter ‘Tailor-Made Healthcare’, you will be exposed to the sophisticated customisation of treatment. This can happen only if science can diagnose the unique condition of the individual’s physical and mental state.

AYURVEDA IS THE SCIENCE OF BRAHMINS

Ayurveda does not originate from a particular caste or sect. The first Ayurveda guru, Charaka, was a wanderer with a castefree identity. Sushruta was born a Kshatriya. He was, in fact, the son of a king. Meanwhile, Vagbhata, the author of numerous classical Ayurveda texts, is believed to have been a Buddhist.

Few visionary gurus of Ayurveda were Brahmins. It is generally observed that people from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are great practitioners of the science of Ayurveda. In Kerala, Ayurveda still thrives in some of the scheduled castes and tribal communities. In fact, when the Dutch governor Hendrik van Rheede was working on his book Hortus Malabaricus, he took help from an Ezhava (a ‘backward’ caste) physician Itty Achudan Vaidyan. Ashtavaidya parampara is a Brahmin lineage in Ayurveda.

But it’s easy to see why the modern interpreter would equate Ayurveda with Brahminism. Both use Sanskrit slokas to preserve and propagate ideas. That shouldn’t be surprising —back then, Sanskrit was the language of science as well as the language on the streets. Having said that, many ancient Ayurveda texts we use till date were created in other Indian languages. Again, that is quite logical — Ayurveda developed organically across the length and breadth of India. 

Over time, as other languages grew in influence, those languages were used to document brand-new solutions created within the framework of Ayurveda. In short, Ayurveda has always been a people’s science that does not discriminate on the basis of caste or any other divisive entity.

AYURVEDA IS ALL ABOUT HERBS AND VEGETARIANISM

Ayurveda promotes moderation instead of any form of extremism. While the bulk of Ayurveda medicines are plant-based, animal-based medicines are also used as needed. Many wonderful Ayurveda medicines have animal products in them, although vegetarian alternatives exist for most. One way in which Ayurveda promotes moderation is by asking the individual to balance the needs of life and the afterlife. One can enjoy life while doing deeds to enjoy the afterlife. Joy can be derived by consuming fruits and vegetables that are most suitable for the season and person. Also, some specific foods have been identified as wholesome and worthy of consumption:

• White pumpkin is the best creeper vegetable.

• Dry grapes are the best fruits.

• Green gram is the best among pulses.

• Red rice is the best among grains.

• Chicken flesh has optimal strength-giving qualities.

• Mutton soup (māṁsa rasa) offers the best nutrition and is digested easily during an illness such as influenza and tuberculosis (TB). For broken bones, soup of a mutton leg is great medicine. Ayurveda neither promotes vegetarianism nor embraces the consumption of meat with gusto. It respects individual choice and propagates a moderate path. Also, if a person is used to consuming meats (as part of one’s natural diet, or sātmya), it will not advocate an overnight relinquishing of such a diet. 

Ayurveda also suggests that an individual’s diet be aligned with lifestyle and profession. Those who do a lot of physical labour are better suited to the consumption of more meat. Details of how Ayurveda uses animal-based products are provided in the chapter ‘Limitations of Ayurveda’. A great number of Indians are vegetarians, but as a civilisation, India has meat consumers. Recent political developments might have stigmatised the consumption of some meats, but our ancestors knew better than to politicise scienceand medicine.

AYURVEDA TREATMENTS ARE INCONVENIENT

Ayurveda treatments include oral medication, therapeutic tools such as massages, and lifestyle changes. Together, all of these help in sustaining health and restoring the body to its former glory. Some of the oral medication might be bitter, but I believe taste should not be a criterion while choosing medicine. The good news is that many companies and institutions are finding ways to make these medicines more compact and palatable. Check out the chapter ‘The Summative Approach’ for more details. Meanwhile, other treatment techniques — such as massages — can prove to be quite invigorating and relaxing for both the body and the mind.

The excerpt is from the book ‘Ayurveda: The True Way to Restore Your Health and Happiness’ (published by Ebury Press).

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