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Manoj Bhargava: Lucknow boy

Indian-born American billionaire Manoj Bhargava, the man behind 5-hour Energy drink, is a mix of tradition and modernity

Shivam Saini 

Manoj Bhargava at the unveiling of the Free Electric cycle  in New Delhi
Manoj Bhargava at the unveiling of the Free Electric cycle in New Delhi

When they met on a July afternoon in 2014, Prime Minister was unimpressed with The Indian-American waxed eloquent on how he wanted to use most of his wealth, estimated at $4 billion, to help poor people, and Modi remained mostly quiet during the 45 minutes.

"He didn't think I was real," the 62-year-old recalls, two days after he unveiled a machine to bring power to dark homes in November. Named Free Electric, the can light up 24 bulbs, run an electric fan, and charge a cell phone and a tablet when pedalled for an hour.

Designed in a $100-million engineering laboratory called Stage 2 Innovations, located in Bhargava's 25-acre suburban corporate campus in Farmington Hills, Michigan, 10,000 of these cycles will be handed out in India early next year - gratis. Once launched commercially in March, the cycle will cost Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000.

With a sleek frame, a battery and a turbine generator, the machine is as uncomplicated as the man behind it. In his white and blue check shirt, tucked inside blue trousers, topped with a sleeveless black cardigan, Bhargava walks into the lobby at The Oberoi in New Delhi, with his son, Shaan, in tow. The 24-year-old Michigan State University graduate helps schedule meetings for his Princeton-dropout father who goes without a full-time assistant.

Father and son know their solution is unconventional. "The experts will laugh at us," says Lucknow-born Bhargava, rubbing his forehead to erase the tilak left over from a havan the previous night. "It is in the nature of experts to find flaws in great inventions. Thomas Edison, I'm sure, had the same problem."

Experts do have reservations. Leena Srivastava, of The Energy and Resource Institute, believes the cycle might find takers among fitness-conscious urban dwellers but it will only add to the tediousness of rural life. "It is like adding salt to the wounds of rural folk," she says.

Will farmers find the time in the busy harvest and sowing seasons to pedal the cycle? Besides, with 100 per cent electrification and adequate power becoming a distinct possibility in the near future, Bhargava's cycle could stare at an uncertain future.

But the man who hopes to power millions of homes around the world cares little - all he wants to do is "fix the earth", though he admits that "it sounds insane". At least three leading Indian bike companies have shown interest in manufacturing locally, he claims.

This past month, Bhargava was busy gathering support for his cycle. "Free is coming," announced full-page advertisements in leading newspapers. "I have to get every constituency together," Bhargava says, shedding his characteristic carefree demeanour. "If there's no ground support, there would be opposition from politicians."

There's ample ground support in Uttarakhand where the first 50 cycles will be tested in nearly two dozen villages before the launch.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat trying out the hybrid cycle
Uttarakhand Chief Minister trying out the hybrid cycle
When Uttarakhand Chief Minister rode the cycle at his Bijapur residence in Dehradun on Thursday, the bonhomie between the two men was palpable. "We are working on the same wavelength," Rawat said. Not for nothing has Bhargava pledged to invest Rs 500 crore for development in the hill state.

"Uttarakhand is the land of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Bhagwan Shankar," Bhargava declares, his American accent dropping when he utters the last four words." I want to start where everything originated."

Bhargava grew up on the first floor of a two-storey house off a busy road in Lucknow's Khayali Ganj. Today, the neighbourhood overflows with traffic, noise and litter. Rows of kiosks that sell second-hand text books, household items and inexpensive garments crowd the pavements. A cinema hall located three buildings away screens B-grade Hindi films.

The book store of his publisher father, Narottam Bhargava, took up space on the ground floor. When he was six, the family moved to a five-bedroom house with gardens - a "little farmhouse" - spread across more than an acre in an upcoming Lucknow locality.

Soon after he turned 10, Bhargava was pulled out of Lucknow's Mahanagar Boy's High School and was sent off to Woodstock School in Mussoorie, which had more international than Indian students at the time, in preparation for the family's move to the US three years later.

The family of five landed in America in 1967. A father who aspired to pursue a PhD at Wharton, a mother who was keen on studying accounting, and two sons and a daughter in school - "we were a family of students," laughs Bhargava, who was in ninth grade then.

From having his own room in Lucknow, the 14-year-old found himself spending the night in the living room of the family's two-bedroom, $80-a-month apartment in West Philadelphia. The floors of the third-floor abode creaked so bad that not a day went by without complaints from the landlady downstairs.

The standards of education at his low-cost public school made things worse for mathematics-loving Bhargava. So he phoned the Hill School, one among the several schools that served as a gateway for Ivy League education. "They said that the school was for the elite of the country," says Bhargava.

Bhargava offered to take a math test and aced it.

For the 10th-grader, whose family could afford only one Coca-Cola bottle to celebrate occasions, it wasn't easy to arrange the tuition fees. A full scholarship soon followed. It was only natural for Bhargava to do what he did next: he got into Princeton, his father's top choice.

As more and more of wealthy Princetonians started turning to him for advice on the deepest of emotional issues, an epiphany struck Bhargava: "I thought they're way richer than I am but it turns out I'm already ahead of them. This whole idea of getting rich by going to college seemed pointless."

He dropped out of Princeton. "My father almost killed me," Bhargava laughs.

The abrupt exit in his late teens also paved the way for another kind of learning. Around the same time, Bhargava read about Vivekananda's spiritual journey, which inspired him enough to pack his bags and go to India.

Bhargava spent the next 12 years doing meditation, attending satsangs, and volunteering at the various monasteries of Hanslok, an ashram headquartered in Delhi and with a branch in Haridwar. He would shuttle between India and the US, often driving a cab in New York to make ends meet.

He returned to the US for good in the 1990s to look after the plastics manufacturing business run by his family that had since moved to Indiana. His first venture, Chaser, an anti-hangover pill, was short-lived.

In 2003, after Bhargava stumbled upon a formula for energy shots at a natural products fair, his massively successful came into being and brought him to a point that, in 2012, he signed up to the Giving Pledge, an effort kicked off by Melinda and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010 to get the mega-rich to commit much of their wealth to good causes.

Bhargava has had his share of controversies. A report this year by the Centre for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism nonprofit, said that the US Food and Drug Administration had been looking into the safety of after more than 20 deaths were potentially linked to the energy drink.

"In the US, suing is a lottery system. No matter what product you have, they'll sue you," says Bhargava. He adds that have been drinking tea for thousands of years, but no one would complain of the amount of caffeine in the beverage. "But if it's in a little drink, they go: Oh my God." He says the FDA never really questioned him. "They said: we know it is nonsense."

During the 12 years he was in India, Bhargava struck up a friendship with one of the four sons of Hanslok's founder. It wasn't only spirituality that brought Mahipal Rawat - who renamed himself Bhole Ji Maharaj and now divides his time between New York, New Jersey and India - close to Bhargava: over the past 40 years, the two have bonded over jazz and business.

In fact, the nonprofit Hans Foundation was born out of their association. Maharaj's daughter, Sweta Rawat, serves as the foundation's chairperson, while Shaan is director of special projects.

When he's in Delhi - which is often - Bhargava stays in a white building with red gables on a corner of the Rawats' sprawling walled estate in Mehrauli, spread across acres of flower-lined lawns shaded by palm trees.

At her house in the same complex, Sweta, 35, who keeps shuttling between California and New Delhi, describes Bhargava as "funny." He enjoys going to kavi sammelans and is known to pull pranks on colleagues. At a recent costume party on her brother's birthday, Bhargava showed up wearing a T-shirt, chunky gold jewellery and black jacket in an attempt to look like Canadian rapper Drake.

But it's not uncommon to spot him wearing a kurta-pyjama in India. "He has a UP (Uttar Pradesh) twist to him," says Rawat.

About five kilometres from the Rawats' villa stands the Hanslok ashram, owned and run by Maharaj. Sprawling empty gardens house a farm, a dispensary, a printing press and satsang halls big enough to park choppers. Inside, an eerie silence fills the air, disrupted only by vehicles whizzing on the road outside.

It's only thrice a year - in April, July and November - that the halls bustle with activity during the ashram's big-scale celebrations, according to Dinesh Bhandari, a pudgy man who serves as the ashram's manager. Bhargava makes sure he is part of all three occasions. "He also speaks at the satsang," says Bhandari.

A gentle-looking Bhargava, who almost always settles for a cardigan and unabashedly ridicules billionaires who often appear in power suits, is also a tough boss.

Soon after he founded in 2011, along with former Chrysler CEO Thomas La Sorda, Bhargava fired most of his engineers.

"I would look at this bunch of typing. And I kept thinking: what are they typing? They are supposed to be making stuff," he says.

He then started looking for people who would like to get their hands dirty - or tinkerers, as he calls them, "crazy people with no degrees who like to make stuff."

The lab in Michigan is an extension of this philosophy. There are no cubicles or computer desks. Instead, engineers - 25 of them - lean over wooden benches, strewn with nuts, bolts, and objects that look like Lego blocks. When Bill Tally, director of special projects, gives me a Facetime tour of the work space, walls with scribbles, pink and blue chemical equations and circular diagrams, leap out at me.

Apart from pedalling a wheel to keep the lights on, the billionaire wants to pull out energy from the earth's core using graphene cables, and clean a thousand gallons of polluted water in an hour by using a machine the size of a small car.

Bhargava believes in keeping things simple - and practical. The practical value of the billionaire's latest innovation has even caught the attention of the "Preppers", the worldwide cult busy chalking out survival plans for the end of the world.

None of that, however, impresses Sadhna, his wife of 26 years. "She has to tolerate us," quips Shaan, looking at Bhargava. "Changing the world? Finish your tea first, she'd say."

Virendra Singh Rawat in Lucknow and Shishir Prashant in Dehradun contributed to this report

First Published: Sat, December 05 2015. 00:20 IST