Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Bringing the Rainbow; The Hindware Story by RK Somany

Once, while driving along a rutted mud road to Bahadurgarh in a bouncing old Morris Minor, RK Somany saw a rainbow suddenly appear. The heat, the dust and the fretful uncertainty of getting land for his plant was forgotten, and ‘a chore became exciting. Ever since, the rainbow became my guiding mantra. In whatever I do, as a businessperson, a father, a husband, a friend and a family man, I ask myself: ‘Am I bringing the rainbow to this? The passion, the excitement, the colour?’

No wonder then that RK Somany titled his autobiography ‘Bringing the Rainbow; The Hindware Story’. And no doubt he tried to bring the rainbow into this book too. The story is about how Hindware went from a newbie to a market leader, surpassing the country’s economic handicaps, everyday business challenges and even personal impediments from within the Somany family. 

Autobiographies create a glorious canvas of context – historical, political and cultural. The story of a person comes riddled with important events from which he, and thus the reader, draws valuable lessons. They provide us with a deeper understanding of the subject they are written around. And they make for interesting literary reading in that the reader looks for omissions in the narration and hesitant gaps in the narratorial voice; those moments which make you wonder – is this his recollection as an adult or an uncoloured version from his childhood? 

The telling of the tale. The home and the world.

RK Somany tells the story as if it is being meticulously recalled for a live audience. So while sometimes the narration is linear at others he shifts between the past and the present. While he does that, a panoramic picture of not just his life’s events but those happenings which beset the times also gets painted. What comes through is a visual of both how the businesses were run and how families were too. 

RK Somany was the ninth among eleven children, brought up by his eldest brother, Hiralall, after his father’s death when he was seven. Those were times of ‘centrality of morals’ and when older brothers were near-bosses, who set standards and conditions! But who also patrolled the house with a rifle during crises like the Great Calcutta Killings. Good words carried worth, good families even more. School admissions and membership of Exchanges and Clubs happened based on reputation. And yet, under the same strong family umbrella came a scheming sibling, two mysterious deaths and some more “bad blood”. 

Business was never usual in times of historical flux and ‘life wasn’t all glamour and fun.’ Red tape, black markets, ‘blinkered government policies’ and socialism made private industry seem suspicious. There was very little market intelligence and data to base decisions on. Add to that infrastructural woes like power cuts and ‘inspector raj’ in a place like UP, and later the Emergency with the ‘draconian MISA used to intimidate businessmen’ and the financial crisis of 1991. Hindware had many tides to overcome, and ‘Bringing the Rainbow’ shows how RK Somany did just that.  

As one reads what comes across as a ‘business saga’, one notices significant events, professional and personal, which made Hindware a household name. And which made RK Somany the man who is speaking to us through this book. 

Important events for him. Lessons for all.

In retrospect, I am really grateful to my family for its decision to move me out of Calcutta more than half a century ago. I wouldn’t have become who I am had I remained there.’

In ‘Bringing the Rainbow’, as with all autobiographies, we sense a bildungsroman. From boyhood to his businessmen years, the book clearly chronicles RK Somany’s growth. But if you pay attention to the teller, the tale makes you privy to pivotal points of time in his life which stand out as peaks. His early days reveal how the psychology of this second youngest sibling evolved, as a ‘fierce determination’ was born over fighting for a mere chance to play. Private tutors would teach his siblings and he would sit around, listening.  Learning. A ‘template for my behavioral responses to adversity’ was created as violent and economically stressed historical eras unfolded. In him also developed a streak of individuality away from his brothers’ footsteps - to become a graduate even as he helped his family in business! 

It was the physically taxing days spent in England which helped him learn the ropes of the ceramic industry. The discomfort and ‘enforced thrift’ of those times led to a success which comes when one is ‘in the thick of action’.  The aim always remained to provide world class products at Indian consumer prices, and not compromise on customer goodwill because of the more profitable black-marketing. Trysts with Jaycees and the Rotary Club brought out the public leader in him. Exposure to the differences between workers in England and India made him understand and deal with labour strikes too. 

An eye-opening event was that of buying back his own brand at a high price from a Chinese company, which was using it. Hindware’s wings had spread and problems were fast increasing. ‘The big boys of the global sanitaryware industry soon entered the Indian market.’ Often, the obstacles were political, like he found out when the sales tax department of Govt of Haryana raided his plant. Countless such important events in his life left him learning and unlearning, and leave us doing the same too.

I am humble enough to know that I do not have all the answers. The HSIL board comprises men of rare distinctions. It would be foolish not to leverage and take advantage of their combined wisdom. This is simple common sense…’    

The voice.  The person.  

I wasn’t certain that the familial ties and the strict Marwari culture that had kept us brothers closely bonded would endure into the third generation…maybe the time had come to divide…

The straightforwardness with which the story is told makes RK Somany seem a friend by the time we finish reading. And we his confidants! No, there are no sensational revelations eager to please the reader. But there are many moments where the already-thin guard of autobiographies is down, and where the narrator truly shows himself in flesh and blood. 

You sense relief when he says his family was ‘without any choking orthodoxy’, and gratitude and admiration for his brother when he says ‘it takes a rare human being to put his own education and possible future on the line to bring up his siblings.’ There is honest admittance of being well-off from the time he was conscious to the time he first signed a cheque for one crore of rupees. No mincing that, because ‘in the tradition of all the great Marwari businessmen I admire, I believe cash is king.’ No mincing either the candid revelations of ‘strains (that) had begun to surface in this united and happy family image we portrayed to the outside world.’ Forgiveness shows when he speaks about his estranged brother Chandra Kumar. ‘I’m sure he has his reasons’ is what Somany leaves it at. 

To find smuggled products in a government-owned facility in the Pakistan capital was both a cause for shock and delight’, he admits. Regret is visible when he notices that ‘the quality of trade and the people involved in it has deteriorated’ and anger when he says ‘what really gets my goat is the unrestricted import of cheap Chinese sanitaryware.’ 

There are gaps in the narration too. Hesitance. A mechanical telling not suiting the events. Spaces where there’s less revealed and much concealed and absence of it is conspicuous. For instance, while we know meticulous details of how the business progressed, we barely know anything about the wives, how they felt about his ‘huge personal sacrifices’ of mostly working through the days, or their mysterious deaths. Did he try finding out what happened? Why aren’t we told? Is it because it has no direct bearing on the Hindware story? Is that the reason why his children also occupy a marginal place in this account? What I also missed reading about were the trusted hands like managers  and workers and clerks and guards who probably were an important part of this journey but who have not found space in the book.     

Interesting business talk.

Being the youngest of the four surviving brothers, my claims were often overridden by the others in favour of their own plans for the companies they ran. It may surprise many readers but this is the way Indian business families operate.

There’s much that readers will learn about businesses in general and sanitaryware manufacturing, designing and trade in particular from ‘Bringing the Rainbow’. How, first, the idea of sanitaryware needed to be introduced to Indian consumers. How vitreous china which ‘didn’t absorb water even if the product was chipped’ could be marketed. How when competition heated up superior technologies and designs had to be introduced. Why HSIL wasn’t comfortable in giving dealers sole selling agencies, while also visiting dealers of rivals to understand ‘market trends’.  Why a close watch had to be kept on allied sectors. And ‘the one clause that has remained unchanged for 52 years is the one on not allowing dealers to charge more than the MRP – a clause we introduced decades before it became mandatory.’

The book also contains nuggets of information on hunter and sportsmen rifles, the structure of ammunition strong rooms, motors of submersible pumps and goes into angry details of some ‘bizarre laws’! 

The book ends in the present, where RK Somany sits talking to us, confessing that ‘I try to teach myself something new every few days.’

His rise, in many ways, signifies India’s post-Independence industrialization drive. ‘Goodwill takes decades to build’ and this book is a glimpse into how it can be. HSIL’s rise, made possible with ‘close supervision, constant innovation, investment in the best technology and strong systems’ is also the journey of a man whose goal ‘was, and remains, to stay ahead of the curve’. This man intends to retire when ‘God retires me.’ But for now ‘I intend to lead HSIL into some new areas.’ 

A good book for those interested in the Indian business history as well as those who love a good story well told! 

'Bringing the Rainbow' by RK Somany is a Maven Rupa Publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the PR Agency. Views are my own.]

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Mind; The Final Frontier by Ravi Singh

What does it all mean? What is going on in the world? Is a human being merely an advanced and complex robot, which processes information and doesn’t have free will, and choice is merely an illusion? It doesn’t make any sense. But why does it have to make any sense?’ 

Once upon a time, we said ‘to my mind’ before we expressed our opinions. Acronyms like IMHO (In my humble opinion) or TBH (To be honest) were yet to be invented. Probably, we owned our minds much more back then, what with borrowed opinions flying amok now. We invoked the thinking-space before we expressed it. My mind, where my thoughts came from. Which in a way defined us. 

So, when I asked myself what came to my mind immediately when I said the word ‘mind’, the social media addict in me took no time to say ‘Hey! Facebook’s persistent question What’s on your mind? In the status window.’ Which was usually answered with a picture of my dinner or my pet! Thankfully, I got to read Ravi Singh’s ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’ to make me think beyond the visible. To make me disassociate from the given and delve deeper into the unseen… less facile bits of what I call my mind.

In the Acknowledgement section of the book the author confesses that he is prone to ‘weird’ ideas in his mind, about the mind. In it he isn’t alone, for thousands have before him and many more will in the future too try to ‘decode the human mind’. The mother of all answers is curiosity and the human mind is not just the confirmed seat but also the most popular subject of it. Ravi believes ‘answers don’t lie outside but within us. For that, we must understand how the mind works.’ With a beautiful request for open-mindedness, Ravi asks us to ‘… dispel any preconceived notions about the mind, and agree that we do not know what the ‘mind’ is. That should be a good starting point.’ And then ‘see what follows.

The book is divided into three main parts – Part I: Decoding the Anatomy of the Human Mind, Part II: The Universe, God, Love and Morality, Part III: Authentic Life. Each part is further comprised of short and succinct chapters dealing with specific ideas. One look at the chapter names and you know a wide-angle lens has been used for this deconstruction, something that is confirmed once you’ve read the book. Various mental states have been evaluated, as have been over-arching concepts like logic, faith, guilt and even god.  

The basic premise used to unravel the mind was unique for me. Ravi tries to make us see the mind as a computer which processes information. He uses this approach to simplify ideas like self and consciousness while also discussing problems like fear, anxiety and even boredom! 

The Information Processing Approach (IPA) assumes that individuals are, well, information processors. So, an individual receives input information either from his external environment or from internal memory through an interface (say, ears). This input information is processed by a specific processor to produce a change in the individual. This change (physical, chemical, etc), then acts as input information for another processor and so on. For instance, if you like a song the change produced by the processor would cause a sensation of pleasure. As for what a processor is in terms of the human body? While in computers it is a set of instructions, Ravi calls it a ‘mental construct’ and an ‘abstract entity’ here. He divides them into low-level (primitive habit) and high-level (thought-level) processors. Low-level processors include language and pain-pleasure, among others, whereas high-level ones help us analyze, chart-out and choose. 

While I understood the definition of his IPA till this point, a huge part of me doubted if this seemingly simplistic approach could make me see my mind in a new light. And IMHO, it did rather interestingly! 

For instance, how can ‘self’ or ‘I’ be explained using the IPA? Ravi will derive that the notion of self is non-permanent! The mind, with its competing processors and multiple outputs makes the ‘state of mind’ give a cumulative sensation of ‘I’ in a particular context and time. Thus ‘self’ represents reality, rather than being reality itself. So you’re right when you ask ‘Who am I?’ And you’re right if you wonder, if there is no one ‘I’ then whose free will am I talking about?  

This then connects with his idea of consciousness. He infers that it is ‘based on the level of consciousness (that) we have the conception of ‘I’. And further, if the 'window of consciousness’ expands, external time stands still, as we feel 'completely absorbed in the present.’ This state of being devoid of any expectations is a sustainable happiness. Because, ‘fulfilment of high expectations actually makes it difficult to sustain happiness.’ See how one idea connects to the other? 

Ravi Singh’s explanation of ignorance through IPA is about understanding how ‘there is a difference between knowing something at the thought level, and knowing something at the level of lower processors, or the experiential level’. How falsehoods may become truth statements ‘if over a period of time one processor keeps winning over another’. 

Something about decoding psychological fear stuck to me. As a product of a self which by default tries to avoid pain and experience pleasure, here’s what he says about fear: ‘Next time when you experience a fearful thought, try to observe that thought closely. You will see that that very thought is the thinker itself (of that thought). There is no separate self that experiences that thought, rather, it is the thought that experiences itself…and fear will dissolve.’ 

Ravi also argues how logic and emotion are not contrary to each other and with the help of a simple semi-mathematical equation infers that ‘for the doer every action is logical. For the perceiver it may seem logical or emotional based on their own calculation.’ The same equation is used in the analysis and understanding of guilt and faith, till he involves you to a point where you too question in one voice – then is logic itself based on faith? 

To my mind, the chapter called ‘Nature of the Universe; Press Start to Begin’ stands out in the book. It begins thus - ‘Everything in the universe including inanimate things can be governed by information processing.’ You have to suspend all disbelief before you move on; on to more questions. If the universe is a closed system then how did information first enter it? The Big Bang? In a closed system, based on the four dimensions, there cannot be a truly random event. And so ‘if there is even one truly random event in the universe, it indicates that some information from outside the system has leaked into it.’ Between saying it and implying it, Ravi Singh draws us into his idea of evolution, a Matrix World, free will, love and even god. 

I do wish the book ended with this big bang, though. The last three chapters on relationships, job satisfaction and meditation techniques just seem to fade in comparison to what preceded them. Perhaps, they lack the novelty which most of the other chapters shine bright with. The list for references for meditative techniques at the end of the last chapter has one sole reference, and oddly seems incomplete, as if a page went missing. What may also seem missing for some readers who enjoy flourishes and flair even in the most logical and scientific narrations is a certain style – one which uses examples and creative props to drive home the point. Or even humour for that matter! Because, while Ravi Singh’s book hooks you with what it is saying, it may not with how it says it. There are no fancy detours. Examples are repeated in order to explain different concepts. There’s stream-lined focus and purposeful, no-nonsense writing. Almost, as if it is an abridged guide to a larger, more voluminous research.  

Be that as it may, by the time you finish reading ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’, you feel glad to have done that. Ravi Singh gives no grand theories. He makes you see, co-derive and be amazed at how IPA can be used to re-examine ideas which you long thought self-evident. How human minds and machines may not be as far apart as one imagines. This book, the size of an “impulse-buy” in a book shop, belies its conciseness as it begins a large thought-storm, where questions are answered only to give rise to more and more questions. After all, ‘it is preferable to stay in uncertainty than to settle for a truth which one is not convinced of,’ believes Ravi Singh.

A good read for those who like their thought-level processors provoked. Read and then 'see what follows.'

'Mind; The Final Frontier' by Ravi Singh is a Partridge publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.] 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

In Air with Air India

How noticeable it is that only to humans 6 years and below, the thought of flying Air India is not depressing. To the older population the idea brings such moroseness that it makes them forget to tag their airport presence and holiday destinations on FB. Oh the international scale of omission! Why the long face one wonders. After all, it’s our national airline! It has a cute little Maharaja as an original mascot - smiling, supplicating, hand-on-the-heart; exactly what we love and vote for in the elections. The air hostesses wear Indian dresses with unique motifs of peacock feathers and peahen frowns browns. They usually serve us our very Indian idli-sambhar. Why then does our Patriotism take flight the moment we learn we’re flying AI? 

Recently, for a flight at 5:00 am we woke up (from a sleep we never slept) at 1:30 am. We reached the airport at a similarly ungodly hour. ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ taught us back in 2005 that 3:00 am in the night is the devil’s hour. It is when we stood at the serpentine baggage check-in queue that we realized Hollywood can be right sometimes and also serpents in any form are satanic! With about 40 people, and their 40X3 bags, before us, this was going to be long. But why? There was only one check-in counter functioning for multiple flights. One! Not that the missing AI staffers didn’t know how many flights take off then. Probably just … striking? We stood, obviously, like others did before us, regularly looking at the length of the queue behind us for morning motivation and not in front. The kid by then made the trolley his bed. 

After 500 years or so of waiting, some AI flights were about to take off without passengers. Non VIP passengers, I mean. So someone obviously lost her patience and screamed ‘why is there only one counter running?’ A man who had by now tied his muffler around his waist in a Kalaripayat style joined in with his thunder. Fortunately for the high dome of IGI airport, the manager on duty standing safely, and invisibly, a kilometre away from the queue heard the echo. Poof! Another counter came alive, almost as if the guy was sleeping behind it all this while, waiting for the question to be asked. As if it was routine. He rubbed his eyes, settled his hair and began staring unblinkingly at his screen. (Solitaire does that to me too.) 

If the queue was moving at a snail’s pace before, it began moving at two snails’ pace now. 

When our turn finally came and we crossed the thick yellow line, we felt like we were Indian Idols selected for the Big Boss house. We sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the Maharaja and this prayer was still on its way when... ‘Check-in baggage toh nahi hai?’ spat the counter no. 1 man. Once the fire from his mouth abated we with guilty voice said yes and with shivering hands put our sole suitcase on his belt. Hand-baggage tags reached us like bullets and we felt ever-so-sorry for having taken His Highness’s precious time and humongous favour. How remiss of us! 

We almost walked away without turning our back to him, humbly bending again and again, retreating from the august presence and fortunate encounter till we finally bumped into the security check sign-board. And another queue, of course. 

So going back to paragraph 1, many of us have our reasons, accumulated like adipose tissue over the years, for forgetting to tag our airport presence and holiday destinations on FB. 

For instance when you reach the door of the AI air craft you find an air hostess or two standing there to welcome you. Except, it may sometimes feel like wiping bare feet on a coir mat which reads ‘Oh well! Come!Namastey is said as if there’s snot all over your face and if you’re lucky it’s said to the air on your right. 

You settle in and look at those mini-TVs with hope in your eyes, as does your kid. You realize they aren’t coming on and it’s no surprise. Kids take longer to deal with harsh truths of life. They press all the buttons. Press press press punch. Then they press all their parents’ buttons which miraculously may have been left un-pressed still, before deciding to watch the dark night outside instead of the Dark Knights next to them. Blankets and pillows are rare and need Raffle Tickets to get lucky enough to land some! 

But surely food is the salvation? Woe befalls you if you’re sitting in the middle of the plane, no matter that it’s the Emergency Door seat and the lives of 300 passengers depend on your pulling the handle in time. That proud-y feeling sinks away as the food carts start rolling your way. You look back. You look in the front. Coming. Coming. Still coming. Almost here. Here! ‘Sorry ma’am. We’ve run out of veg. We can give you bun and jam.’ You’re a Punjabi steam engine in a seat belt but the cork of English-speaking decency keeps the chimney blocked. A meek okay later you decide to mew ‘Excuse me. May I have two buns, please?’ And you know, in your deepest gut you know that was a wrong question to ask and bam! She says as she moves away, louder than before, ‘Sorry! We don’t give extras.’ 8 people hear it, 10 decide to look at you. No one dare look at the air hostess. Suddenly, a vision of your subzi bhaiya comes up. With a halo behind his head. A saint who gives 5-ka-dhaniya free. A saint!

Not that getting food is any guarantee of gastric satisfaction. You see, we were recently served rice with baingan ka bharta. I eat both happily! But together? They are scientifically unmixable and especially with a fork which weighs two times the weight of the whole food tray! I did find 1/4th of a parantha tucked between two rice grains. It was a perfect triangle the length of my middle finger. It was cute. But it didn’t unfurl into a circle. Coffee was served alongside our dinner with a kaam khatam karo zeal and we were left with the supernatural task of mixing-mixing to eat our dinner before the coffee went cold. Or before the trays are collected and the lights turned off. Because they were!

You see, as soon as the last tray was picked, or maybe even before that, the plane went dark. Helped with using the toothpicks but still! Did I hear an air steward announce ‘Lights out! Off to bed!’ No no. It must be my memories of the nunnery interfering with my sense of reality. Anyhow, nearly all the reading lights came on immediately. People had things to do. Important things to read. Funny things to say. Fun holidays to plan. Strange dinner things to wipe off their mouths. In that silver haze what followed is sleep. It better follow, actually! To sleep is human but to snore in an AI flight is divine, because it’s that deep sleep only which can take you away from the goriest and grumpiest of … 

Anyway. Just like all nails scratching a wall must reach the floor some time and stop, so comes to an end your Air India flight. You land. Once before you heard the Captain’s voice asking the crew to just sit down now for takeoff. You again hear a thank you for being in air with Air India from the said Captain, who is impeccably dressed and bordering on handsome but who sounds exactly like a doctor’s handwriting.

The seat-belt sign is off and everyone is up as if they spotted an ATM machine with no queues. The plane is full of hustle and bustle and truant burps and sighs of relief. And amidst all the din and ado, there suddenly shines a ray of hope. Unexpectedly. You realize you hadn’t seen that shine for the longest time. 

The air hostess at the door has a big wide smile for you. A smile! And so do you! For her! 

I guess some goodbyes are sweeter than hellos. Especially when in the national carrier, the nation has finally reached where it wanted to go. Chalo. Kaam khatam hua. Asha kartey hain aap ek baar phir humein …  

Pic from Memegen

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