Ancestry is a fascinating subject, which very few of us really know about. While Alex Haley traced his African American lineage back to 200 years, I traced my family roots back to 1823 — a good six generations back — to a small little village called Vilakuddi, in what was then known as Thanjavur district.
There was a small temple where my ancestor was the priest. Four generations down was my father, who had no desire to stay back — overcoming a mild polio affliction and his father’s protective instinct, he chose to migrate to a distant city, Calcutta.
With no great formal education, he struggled initially, but managed to find a job as a stenographer. He went on to become an accountant, before landing senior roles in companies. I find it fascinating how, over generations, the family completely changed its trajectory. The tradition in the family was to value scholarship of a certain kind, different from studying engineering or mathematics, and to live a modest life.
I was born when Lord Archibald Wavell was the first Viceroy of India, just before Mountbatten, and after World War ii. Calcutta was my hometown till 21 years. Being fluent both in Tamil and Bengali meant that people in Bengal felt I was a Tamilian masquerading as a Bengali and folks back in my village believing I was a Bengali masquerading as a Tamilian!
I studied at Jesuit-run St Xavier’s Collegiate School, managed by Belgian priests. And one of the things that really impressed me was their scholarship. They were at ease teaching Sanskrit and Hindi. The teacher who taught us religion was equally familiar with the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita.
Very early on, my dad instilled in me the importance of physical fitness. When I was eight, I started playing tennis and that’s how I met India’s first tennis maestro Dilip Bose. He was a tough task master and never allowed the kids to let their guard down, when we used to play at the Bengal Lawn Tennis Association. While he taught us the finer nuances of the game, he ensured that we stayed fit by making us scamper across the court.
His one advice, which then sounded a bit weird to me as a kid, was “the body is the only car you will have for life”. The importance of physical health has only grown over the years and I still continue to play tennis.
In school, I had to learn lots of languages. It was too complicated for me. We spoke Tamil at home. When I went to school we spoke English. When I went to the market I had to speak Bengali. And since Hindi was a national language, I had to learn Hindi. My mother insisted I should learn Sanskrit too, because that was the mother language. Later on, she thought it was a good idea for me to learn German too, in the hope that I could go to Germany to study. In all, I ended up studying six languages, though I can read Bengali better than I read Tamil. It’s just fascinating how place of birth and upbringing can shape an individual. It’s like in billiards, you hit one ball and it ends up moving a third and, eventually, the fourth ball is pocketed.
After completing my Physics Honours, I went to IIT Kharagpur to pursue engineering. Those days there was no campus recruitment. But something interesting happened to me, between my BSc Physics Honours and my BTech Honours at IIT. A Jesuit, who was my teacher and rector of the college, told me that he had been asked by a firm in Calcutta to recommend two bright students. “They will most certainly hire you. Do you want me to recommend you?” This was 1964.
Now, if you’re born and raised in Calcutta, there’s a place there called Fairlie Place. It was equivalent to Ballard Estate in Bombay and, if you got a job there, in those days, meant you had arrived in life — you got a princely salary of 450 and got to live in Moira Street or Park Street. I was more than eager to take up the opportunity.
Surprisingly, I was put through several rounds of interviews, and was finally told to meet the managing director. It felt a bit over the top that an entry-level trainee was being interviewed by the top boss.
But, as it turned out, it was a fortuitous one. The managing director, Mr. Mohi Das, had a pleasant disposition and after a few rounds of questions, he leaned forward, saying, “I don’t intend to offend you, but does the family really need you to work? If they do, you have the job.” I was a bit taken aback, but replied, “No, my dad has never shown any signs that he is short of money. I just think it will be great to work with a wonderful company like yours.” His response was: “You have the job. But I want you to talk about this to your dad and mum, and tell us.”
Those days my parents were in Bombay, so I rang up my dad. He was furious: “Who the hell told you to go and look for a job, and then you are asked a question whether you need the job while I am still alive? Don’t embarrass me. If you want to study further do that, but I don’t want you to take up this job.” I went back rather sheepishly to Das and told him what had transpired. He said: “I think you did the right thing, because I finished my career with just a degree. But I feel when you are at the peak of your career you have to study a bit more.” That conversation influenced me to pursue engineering at IIT.
Call it what you will, but in life there comes a moment when a fairy or an angel or just a stroke of luck puts you on the right track. Had it not been for Mr. Das, I would have ended up working for a shipping company which eventually shut shop years later.
I was 21 when I graduated from IIT. Suggestions came in from friends to study management at IIM. After making some enquiries, I felt the whole thing sounded flaky and it would be better to land a job.
I was growing desperate because it wasn’t easy finding a job those days. But, luckily for me, one thing Bengal taught me that phaanki-baazi (idleness) can be a virtue at times. During one of those idle days, I remember it vividly, January 8, 1967, with four months left to graduate, The Statesman carried an ad from Hindustan Lever (HLL) which wanted to recruit engineers as computer-system analysts.
I had chosen computers as my final year elective. I sent a handwritten application, and wasn’t really expecting a call. But I did get a call to come to HLL’s office at Fairlie Place. Here was my chance at the good life again. But what I faced in Calcutta, after three years in Kharagpur, was the beginning of its decline. The Left Front had taken over and the unions were strong. At Lever’s office, unions were on the offensive with placards. “Down with the management, no introduction of computers.” And there I was being recruited to be a systems analyst. It is one thing to read about it in the newspaper but quite another to face it. It is terrifying.
My final interview, however, was in Bombay, and here came along another angel — an Englishman named Scott Burney. During the interview, as he kept chewing one end of a pencil, he said: “You want to be a computer engineer and that’s fine. But I think you may make a good marketer. Will you sell me this pencil?” He gave me the pencil that resembled a daatun. But then I made a pitch to him about the lead being very strong and the wood being very old wood and so on. At the end of the interview, he said: “I think you will make a good marketing guy. If you ever change your mind, knock on my door.” I thought to myself that there was no way I was going to be in sales or marketing after being an engineer.
A few months later, I joined as a computer engineer trainee and three weeks later was given a ticket to go to Nasik as a salesman for Surf and Dalda! I told my immediate superior that I don’t want to do sales and marketing but was told that I cannot write computer code or appreciate numbers if I didn’t understand the insides of the business. Everybody had to go through this training — work as a salesman, as a supervisor, as a godown keeper and so forth.
I had no choice but to set foot for the first time out of Bombay and into a small town called Nasik. I didn’t know a word of Marathi and here my job was to promote Surf. Those were the days of galvanised-tin buckets which left red rings on the floor of bathrooms! Since Surf was about putting the contents in a bucket and lathering, we inevitably had to promote buckets too.
I believe all the detergent makers back then — HLL, Swastik Oil Mills and Tata Oil Mills — should take the credit for the birth of the plastic industry in this country. There was a little company in Calcutta called Brite Brothers, which made plastic buckets, and HLL was a big buyer. Our sales pitch was: buy six packets of Surf and get a bucket free. The formula worked.
In marketing, selling a new idea is very different from extending a brand into new products. I realised that when I went to smaller towns such as Igatpuri and Pimpri Gaon, and little villages. The folks there wondered, “How can my banian be cleaned by just ducking it into water with froth on the top?” So, our task was to get somebody to take his shirt off and we’d wash his banian. We got some pretty dirty and smelly banians.
At IIT, I had become a little “famous” because I was the only chap who had a job four months before graduation with a salary of 650. My mates thought I had made it big, and here I was washing other people’s innerwear! My biggest fear then was ‘what if any of my IIT mates see what I was doing?’ And, boy, it did happen!
To my horror, in a small town called Ojhar next to Deolali, I bumped into an IIT friend. He was surprised: “What are you doing here? What is the blue packet in your hand?” When I told him what I was doing, he was aghast: “Gopal, how can you do this? What happened to all that electronics and server mechanisms and computers?” I was squirming but tried to put a straight face and said: “Listen, in a job, you have to learn all the ropes. But please don’t tell anybody that you saw me here!”
It was most embarrassing but, I believe, in life everybody is a salesman. If you are a managing director or a country’s minister trying to sell an idea but you think it is below your dignity to market it, then you are missing the big picture.
Eight years into my job, I had become a regional sales manager. On a visit to Jalandhar, I had to work with one of my subordinates who was twice my age. Given my engineering background, I used to carry a little diary in my pocket to make detailed analysis of each sales call. After each call, I would measure time spent on greeting, on product presentation and on selling. I found that this gentleman, Mr. Sood, instead of spending time selling the product, was greeting people and exchanging niceties: “Oye pappey ki haal hai! What is the news of your grandchild? How was the wedding in the family?”
So, over lunch, I told him that my analysis showed that he was not doing a great job at selling the product. His response was: “So, what should I do?” I said that he needed to cut down the amount of time spent on niceties and focus more on the product. He replied, “Yeah, it’s a very good point and I never thought about it.” It puffed up my ego. Then he said: “In the afternoon, why don’t you do the calls and show me how to do it?”
I had three options. First, I could cite my seniority, and say, “What the hell! I am your boss. You are telling me to do your job!” Second, I could be submissive and agree. Third, show that I can do the job, if you are testing me. So, I ended up choosing the third.
That afternoon, from shop to shop, I made my presentation, 70% of which was on the product. But, the guys did not seem interested. As I was leaving for the day, Mr. Sood put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Listen, I am very happy with what you have done. As my boss you did not hesitate to do my work, though you sucked at it! I hope you realise that you must have the warmth of a relationship before you can sell your product. You couldn’t do that because you didn’t know a thing about your customer. I have attended weddings of customers, I know their children, I know their children’s children. I will do what you want me to do but I am not going to change what has worked for me for all these years.”
I came back pretty chastened.
Partly, I was very happy that I took the gauntlet and partly, that I had learnt a valuable lesson that one cannot fake relationships. The more you spend time on relationships the better it becomes. You can’t be a general if you are not willing to share the pain of a soldier. If you are not willing to do the menial work that you ask your subordinates to do, then you can never be a leader.
This is part one of a three-part series. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.