Thursday, November 05, 2009

Go, kiss the world, she told her son even as she lay dying: Subrota Bagchi on how life has to be lived

I’ve often wondered whether I, as a person, am out of sync with the times. New developments – I refer to those in technology mainly – hardly enthuse me. I still prefer tried and tested methods and am a firm believer of the adage, Old is Gold. I’m sure if I had a good, portable typewriter I would be happy using it rather than an MS Windows XP driven computer. I love history, reading old books, and still swear by Enid Blyton, whose books kept me engrossed as a child. Not for me Harry Potter, although my daughter tells me that J.K. Rowling is magical.

I still wear my first watch – an HMT Jawahar that my brother-in-law purchased for me in Calcutta when I was in Class 11 or 12. It cost Rs 178 then. I still wind it every other day and wear it with more than a touch of sentiment. The other watch I treasure is the one my father received the day he retired from office, an HMT gold-plated day-date classic. The year was 1978 and you won’t find many of them anymore. The Rolexes, Omegas and Rados do not really interest me. Yes, a Tissot will, because my dad had a Tissot, which he sadly lost one evening in the tram. If he hadn’t, I would have had that, too, and treasured it as well.

I hardly buy new things for myself. I am more excited in giving or buying for others, to see the smile and excitement on their faces. My wife and daughter reprimand me for wearing the same shirt on two consecutive days, but I tell them I don’t wear the same shirt to office on two consecutive days – may be at home, which is excusable. They don’t comment on my inner wear though, but I know I like to use the banyans and underwear as long as there are no holes or tears. Recently, when buying a new pair of spectacles, my wife and relatives pointed to one frame and insisted that I buy it. Finally, I did, but was aghast when I learnt it cost Rs 4,000. I wear it but I know I’d have been happier wearing a frame that cost Rs 350.

Subroto Bagchi, the CEO of MindTree, reminded me of some of my ‘idiosyncrasies’ when I was reading his article on ‘defining success’. I not only felt immensely moved at what he had written (it was his speech to the Class of 2006 at IIM Bangalore), but also empathized deeply with his experiences.

Bagchi was the last child in a family of five brothers. His earliest memory of his father was as a district employment officer in Koraput, Orissa. There was no electricity, no primary school, and water did not flow from a tap, he says. Bagchi learnt at home, he did not go to school till he was eight. The family belongings fitted into the back of a jeep. His mother, raised by a widow who had come to India as a refugee from East Bengal, was a matriculate. His parents set the foundation of Bagchi’s life, his values.

Bagchi’s father was given a jeep by his office, but he used it only to travel to the interiors. He walked to office, saying it was an expensive resource. It was Bagchi’s first childhood lesson in governance.

Bagchi’s father treated the driver with respect. Even the children called him ‘dada’ (elder brother). It was a lesson Bagchi passed on to his children. When he had a car and driver, his children would call the driver ‘Raju uncle’. The lesson Bagchi learnt: you treat small people with more respect; it is more important to respect your subordinates.

The children would read aloud the newspaper every day. It was a routine and Bagchi and his brothers learnt of the outside world by reading it. But they were told to fold the newspaper neatly once it was read. His father would say that the newspaper and the toilet had to be left the way it was found. The lesson here for Bagchi: show consideration to others.

The family did not own a radio, forget owning a home. Everytime, Bagchi’s father would pass it off lightly, saying that they did not need one – there were already five of them (referring to his sons). For Bagchi, it meant it was important not to measure personal success and sense of well being through material possessions.

Although Bagchi’s father had a transferable job, his mother would plant seedlings, nurture them and get the flowers to bloom. Neighbours wondered why she took all that trouble, she would say that she wished to make a place she inherited more beautiful than how she found it. It is not about what you create for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success, Bagchi says.

During the Indo-Pak war of 1965, Bagchi’s mother developed cataract and her eyesight was none too good. So, he would read the newspaper aloud to her and they would discuss happenings. All of it provided fertile ground for Bagchi’s imagination and he realised that if we could imagine a future we could create it, and if we created it others would live in it.

In 1969, Bagchi’s mother went blind. She lived till 2002.During those 32 years, she never complained, but went about her work as if nothing had happened. It showed Bagchi that success was about achieving a sense of independence, about not seeing the world but seeing the light.

In 1992, Bagchi’s father who had by then retired, suffered third-degree burn injuries and lay in a Safdarjang Hospital bed bandaged from head to toe. The place was “cockroach-infested, dirty and inhuman”, a “theatre of death”. The nurses were so overworked, one even refused to change an empty blood bottle, urging Bagchi to do it himself. Yet, his father, seeing the nurse, asked her why she had not gone home after working so long. “There I learnt that there is no limit to how concerned you can be for another human being and what the limit of inclusion is you can create”, he says. Bagchi’s father died the following day. “He was a man whose success was defined by his principles, his frugality, his universalism and his sense of inclusion. Success is your ability to rise above discomfort. Success is not about building material comforts – the transistor he could never buy but or the house he never owned. His success is about the legacy he left, the continuity of his ideals that grew beyond the smallness of an ill-paid, unrecognised government servant’s world ,” Bagchi explains.

At age 82, when Bagchi’s mother had a paralytic stroke and lay in a hospital bed in Bhubaneshwar, he, now in the IT industry and travelling wide, flew down to se her. He spent two weeks with her, but she hardly showed any sign of improvement or change for the worse. Finally, when he had to leave, he bent down and kissed her cheek. “In that paralytic state and a garbled voice, she said, ‘Why are you kissing me? Go kiss the world.’ Her river was nearing its journey, at the confluence of life and death, this woman who to India as a refugee, raised by a widowed mother, no more educated than high school, married to an anonymous government servant whose last salary was Rs 300, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crowned by adversity was telling me to go and kiss the world!”

And Bagchi ends: “Success to me is about vision. It is the ability to rise above the immediacy of pain. It is about imagination. It is about sensitivity to small people. It is about building inclusion. It is about connectedness to a larger world existence. It is about personal tenacity. It is about giving back more to life than what you take out of it. It is about creating extraordinary success with ordinary lives.”

I haven’t read such brilliant, moving stuff in a long, long time. I thank my senior colleague, Mr S. R. Madhu, for forwarding it to me. Some day, I hope I will be able to meet Mr Bagchi himself and reminisce about the values of old.

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