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Kiss and tell


Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Anyone who has made the journey from a lower-division clerk in Bhubaneswar to a leading global IT entrepreneur certainly has a story to tell. More so when that career is embedded in independent India’s hurly-burly economic history — from the stultifying days of the licence raj to the heady opportunities created by liberalisation.

And Subroto Bagchi, co-promoter of the $200 million IT and R&D services firm MindTree, admits he “has a strong sense of history” in writing this book. Having been born in 1957, two years after India adopted the concept of a planned economy, and embraced (rather than “kissed”) the opportunities of economic reform, Bagchi says he “saw the need to build a legacy”. “I want to build a 100-year view,” he explains.

That is evident in the somewhat immature look and feel of this, his second book and its subtitle: Life Lessons for the Young Professional. The quest for a legacy is understandable since Bagchi has acquired the role of a sort of uber-mentor in his company, developing and expanding leadership capabilities in what is now an 8,000-strong organisation. For this role, he has acquired the novel title of “gardener”.

But the focus on an intellectual bequest is unfortunate. It has resulted in retrofitting a readable memoir with somewhat banal nuggets of wisdom targeted at youngsters starting out on their careers.

This detracts from the real worth of Bagchi’s memoir as a comment — and a perceptive and occasionally amusing one at that — on India. For instance, he describes the creation and journey of a file in India’s bureaucracy — a situation that hasn’t changed greatly even today — and how his boss, the upper-division clerk, asked him to drop the term “pressing preoccupations” from a letter Bagchi drafted because he did not understand it.

Bagchi’s family history spanned an even wider swathe of Indian history. He writes about his grandfather, a civil surgeon in the employ of the princely state of Seraikalla, a village in undivided Bengal and one of the many vassal states of the British. His job, as required by British law, included looking after the jail — a situation that hasn’t changed 60 years after independence. “Even today, a civil surgeon of a district oversees the jail; it is not under the police,” Bagchi writes.

Older readers will readily identify with his account of his brief but eventful career in DCM — the textile giant promoted by the Lala Shriram family, one of the business stalwarts of the licence raj. The pen-sketches are evocative: labour working in shocking conditions, the trusted retainers (one Brihaspati Dev Pathak, otherwise known as paon choo Pathak, alluding to his sycophancy) and so on.

In one account, Bagchi writes about his efforts to transfer stock from a warehouse to a mill in the midst of a major strike. Workers tended to attack the last goods truck in a convoy so truckers were reluctant to be at the tail. As a confidence-building measure, Bagchi volunteered to ride with the last truck.

“A cheer went up, the truckers jostled to be the last so they could have Bagchi saab as their khalasi, the driver’s sidekick who sometimes rides the load.” The story stands on its own, but there’s some sage advice as an addendum about “taking risks, to allow people to try things out without fear of the consequences...”.

The good thing, though, is that the didacticism is usually reserved for the end of each chapter, plus a last chapter of advice distilled in point form, so readers can safely skip it for the real meat of the book.

Bagchi’s childhood in the tribal areas of Koraput, Orissa, then as now one of India’s poorest and most disenfranchised regions, gives him a unique perspective on India. “That India is still very much the same,” he says. But he sees hope, as he did in Pallavi, the hotel-management trainee who served him tea in his tony Delhi hotel that morning and who, by the greatest of coincidences, came from Koraput. “This girl, who has come to Delhi from small town India, is the solution and the future of India.”

At the start of our interview, Bagchi explains that he deliberately trivialised his job description by choosing the term “gardener” as his designation. This diffidence — it’s bound up with the concept of “servant leadership” apparently — is admirable. But he appears to have extended this attitude to his book and detracted from a good story with unnecessary management-speak.


Author: Subroto Bagchi

PAGES: 256
Price: Rs 399

First Published: Sun, August 03 2008. 00:00 IST