Ever since the audio cassette came, the great dream of those like me, who started working in the seventies, had been to own a two-in-one which enabled you to take your music where you went. But in those days of import restrictions and minuscule pay, owning a product of some quality – invariably made outside India – remained in the world of dreams.
So, when I went on an assignment to Korea in 1987, I knew precisely what I wanted. I savagely saved every dollar that I could manage, and on my return trip when there was a short stopover at Hong Kong airport, I marched straight for the consumer electronics section of the duty-free shop. I asked them to give me a Sony two-in-one within my budget, the equivalent of a few hundred rupees, without caring to identify the model or any specifications like wattage. Acquisition in hand, I marched out of the shop in less than five minutes.
That device served my family well for over 10 years, with friends appreciating the quality of sound out of something so modest. I myself could vouch for that. One of the first cassettes I quickly acquired was of my favourite singer, Joan Baez, who sounded just as she did in a London concert in the mid-seventies, which I will never forget.
Such was my admiration for Sony that I carefully read through its founder Akio Morita’s autobiography, Made in Japan, and learnt from it some invaluable lessons: do not discount your product for quick revenue growth if you take pride in its quality; look after your workers so that they stay with you for life; and floating exchange rates are an unmitigated evil invented by loony economists, which could in one day negate years of effort in cutting costs by a few percentage points.
Then, when we sold our Gurgaon house in 2003 and had some money for the first time in my life, I quickly went out and bought a Sony music system. With its impressive-looking speakers, it adorns our sitting room to this day. Again, having heard some of the finest Indian classical musicians in concert, I can tell you the quality of sound from their CDs out of that music system is properly authentic, and has enriched my life greatly.
But even as I continued to repose my faith in Sony, the papers reported storm clouds over the company. It seemed a classic case of success going to the head of a company even as it no longer has the guidance and authority of its visionary founder.
Sony, which had come to symbolise the manufacturing prowess of Japan, also came to be afflicted by one of the nation’s classical flaws — infighting among all-powerful bureaucrats living in silos. Japan’s inability to think up a new agenda in the last decade is partly due to the absolute power of its individual ministries and its people’s helplessness in the face of it.
Still, my faith in Sony products remained so unshaken that when the time came to bid goodbye to my workhorse Walkman, I went and bought a Sony digital recorder. However, as the company went into successive years of losses, I decided enough was enough and advised our daughter to go in for an Acer laptop, as I had done and was quite happy about it. But fate intervened, and she ended up – with my support – buying the cheapest Vaio, which cost about the same as a comparable Acer, with a really large screen. She has till now been delighted with its performance.
As Sony has been adding billions of dollars to its accumulated losses every year and its valuation plunged to a fraction of Samsung’s, I wonder if the emblematic Japanese company has become the preferred brand of old men. Samsung is certainly far quicker in offering what young people want (how many old timers are savvy with a smartphone?), but I don’t see Samsung having the same quality edge that Sony has in more mature products. Of the two air conditioners in our Kolkata apartment, I can’t say Samsung beats Voltas.
As the Japanese economy seems to be in irreversible decline, beaten by low-cost Asian manufacturing, India could cleverly open its doors wide to Japanese companies to make itself their manufacturing base. I feel it will benefit both significantly. Or maybe I am biased, permanently smitten and fascinated by things Japanese — and by Japan, which remains an enigma.