The admissions team at the Yale School of Management must have received a wide variety of answers on asking prospective candidates what their biggest achievement in life was but ‘getting married to my wife’ couldn’t possibly have been one of them. At least, not until Ramesh Ramanathan said it during his interview at Yale. Married for 28 years, with an illustrious banking career and a stint in India’s most talked about civic movement behind him, Ramanathan still thinks getting married to Swati Ramanathan is his biggest achievement in life. According to him, their love story was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge twice over, with the couple having to convince Swati’s parents for about a year to allow them to get married. Their decision to give up their cushy jobs abroad and return to India in 1998 was driven by their intention to bring social change in the country and because they wanted to do something together.
The couple work with the government and citizens to improve the quality of life in cities and towns. It is a passion that has consumed their lives ever since they returned from the US and both of them are clear that they couldn’t do what they are doing without one another. While it is pretty evident that they are each other’s biggest cheerleaders, the Ramanathans admit that they are equally critical of each other too. By doing so, they are not afraid of holding up a mirror to each other thus helping them reflect on their shortcomings. Having been together since they were 18, it is clear that the couple, both 51, lean on each other when it comes to most things but aren’t afraid of discussing issues threadbare either. Their complete trust in each other helps them learn together, with intense debates helping them in their journey towards social change.
Where did you meet?
Ramesh: Swati was my cousin’s neighbour. I think we were 18 when we met. I remember going back and writing in my dairy that this is the girl I am going to marry. My life’s sole ambition was to marry Swati, but the path was not easy. She was from a conservative Gujarati Jain family and her parents were not too keen on us getting married; they took her out of the National Institute of Design when they got to know about us. It took us 12 months to resolve that drama — I had to drop out of college to get married. I think Yale was shocked when during my MBA interview I said that my biggest achievement was getting married to my wife.
Swati: We met in 1982 and eventually got married in 1986. We were sure that we would marry only with the consent of our parents. My mother had to face a lot of resistance to ensure that I pursue my education; she didn’t give in to family pressures of trying to get me married off early. So, I didn’t want to let her down and didn’t want to do this without her consent.
Any challenging moments together?
Ramesh: To show Swati’s parents that I could support a family, I got into steel trading and was doing quite well. It was Swati, in fact, who encouraged me to pursue higher education — she realised that I wasn’t getting enough intellectual stimulation. She told me, “You have to do something that puts to use your complete potential.”
Swati: It was clear that he was capable of so much more. While he was going about the business with a sense of responsibility, I could see that it was not his calling or something that he was really passionate about.
Ramesh: I remember that Swati adjusted to life in the US faster than I did. She took up a job waiting tables at the university, while I took some time to find my feet. She was extremely supportive during that time and kept telling me everything will fall into place, and it eventually did.
Why did you decide to come back to India?
Swati: We knew we were always going to come back to India. We had left the country in 1988 to pursue our Master’s and decided back then that once we had saved enough, we would come back. That happened only in 1998.
Ramesh:One of the reasons we came back was to learn and bring about social change and also to do something where we could spend more time together. I was a banker and she was an architect and our worlds didn’t intersect at all.
How has the journey for social change been so far?
Ramesh:When you want social change, there are no clear answers; there is only discovery. You do things and learn that some things work and some don’t. You not only need emotional courage but also intellectual nimbleness to figure out why something works and something doesn’t.
Swati: This is relentless stuff and doesn’t happen easily. Life in the private sector gives you skills but doesn’t prepare you for this process, because nothing is under control in public life. Both of us share a common approach to work — we are intensely committed and passionate about everything we do. We are both in a hurry and want to accomplish as much as we can, as quickly as we can. This is a shared journey for us.
How do you motivate each other to do well during tough times at work?
Ramesh: Having each other helps. I have to credit Swati for realising this much before I did. This [social good] is emotionally parching work — it drains you. You need a source that can help you recharge and having each other is what works for us. When you are involved in advocacy work, learning how to influence others when you have no power involves a lot of nuances. So, there are a lot of things that we bounce off each other.
Swati: If either of us were doing this alone, it would be difficult.
Do you compartmentalise life and work?
Ramesh: There is no switching off. We are on, 24X7. I don’t think there is a single non-work conversation that Swati and I have had for more than 15 minutes.
Where do you both differ?
Ramesh: I am a detail-oriented person myself, but Swati takes it to a whole new level and is fanatical about details; I have learnt a lot from her in this context. I am the guy who scatters paddy seeds — some of them will grow and some won’t. She is more like a diamond cutter; everything has to be perfect.
Swati: To me, it is important that everything has to be perfect. I think sometimes it is an issue of disagreement between us. Ramesh keeps saying that you can’t do everything you want; sometimes you have to know when to let go. But I feel that in India, we don’t pay attention to details and end up compromising on the outcome. I think that needs to change.
Ramesh: For Swati, it is not just the details of her projects that are important; it is also about the little details in our lives. I am a big-picture guy but, thanks to her, I have learnt to appreciate the smaller moments. I remember that initially, I would get a lot of grief about papers not being folded properly and the bathroom door being left open. So, one day, in a hurry to leave for work, I locked the bathroom door without realising that Swati was inside. She then had to yell out to my neighbour, who called her mother, who finally came to her help. Let’s just say that I came home to two very angry people that evening.
Which areas or topics do you concur on?
Swati: Since we have been together from the time we were 18, we have evolved together. Our journey in life has been a joint one and we complement each other a lot. I have learnt to deal with my fears — sometimes, I am afraid to dream on a large scale because it often seems impossible. Ramesh, on the other hand, thinks anything is possible. To make something that is impossible seem probable and then possible is what I have learnt from Ramesh.
Ramesh: So, there is a yin-yang balance. The other area where we complement each other is that I bring an analytical approach and she brings a creative approach to the table. Analytical approaches — with all the data and MIS reports — are intrinsically interesting to me but thanks to her, I have realised that this is just one of many approaches. There is a lot of other stuff and I have learnt to lean on her for that. We are each other’s best critics.
What is your time together like? How do you unwind?
Ramesh: Our day starts early. I make freshly brewed south Indian coffee, roasting and grinding beans every day; that’s how we like to start our mornings — with a good cup of coffee. In fact, I tell all my friends that I make the best coffee this side of the Vindhyas.
Swati: I like to cook for the entire family. We have an open kitchen and my son and daughter join in as well — it often becomes a family affair.
Ramesh: To date, we still celebrate a monthly anniversary. So, on the 10th of every month, we take some time off work, have a meal together and spend time with each other.