Zen Garden by Subroto Bagchi: Book Review

Some good profiles by Subroto Bagchi but many puff pieces

This book is a compilation of Subroto Bagchi’s long-running column about “sixty men and women I came in contact (who) left behind a sense of wisdom.” Bagchi shares these with us through this tome. He classifies his subjects under various categories; the category is mentioned in italics above the name. Some of the choices, and their categorisation, would seem strange. Determination—Ramesh Ramanathan ex-Citibanker and co-founder of Bengaluru-based NGO Janaagrha that works to change the quality of life in urban India, and Janalakshmi, an urban microfinance entity.

He also includes Nandan Nilekani in this category, because he “gave 1.2b Indians an identity.” Under Vision is Harish Hande, the winner of the Social Entrepreneurship Award of 2007 who believes that “subsidies are for the rich, sustainability is for the poor,” and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia whose passion for information arose out of an operation that saved his daughter’s life. Under Courage is GR Gopinath of Air Deccan who went bankrupt twice, and NS Narendra, owner of a fire-fighting company. There are others who are low-profile but well-known in their own domain like VG Siddhartha, son-in-law of former Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna, promoter of successful ventures such as Café Coffee Day.

Bagchi features Kiran-Mazumdar Shaw under Innovation; Dr Devi Shetty (Narayana Hrudayala), Dr Sharan Patil (Sparsh Hospital) and Dr Gulapalli N Rao (LV Prasad Eye Hospital) are placed under Corporate Leadership. He writes about Dalai Lama and Jaggi Vasudev, the BMW motorcycle-riding and golf playing guru, under Altruism.

A few stories are about sheer courage and fortitude. Like Anu Aga’s who anchored the family business (Thermax) after the sudden passing way of her husband Rohinton. A year later, her mother-in-law, a family pet and son Kurush (who died in a fatal road accident) all passed away within a fortnight of each other, giving her a lesson in life: “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

The story of Shashikant Shetty, the indomitable owner of a dive bar at a Mumbai suburb, is gripping. He survived a brutal attack in 2004 at the hands of two off-duty policemen who drank at his bar, necessitating 180 stitches and blood transfusions. While knocking on various doors for justice with bandages still on, he realised how the off-duty rampage by a criminalised force in uniform held the city to ransom.

In the introduction to the chapter on Vision, Bagchi quotes from an video-recorded talk of Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, with Peter Senge, where he pointed out that “the for-profit sector has much to learn from the not-for-profit sector than the other way round.” It is easier for a for-profit business to sustain itself because greed is a strong motivator.

Altruism is good but not always as potent as greed, to build a shared vision of the future of society in transition—a society that equates success with consumption and celebrates moving along at all costs. To create and sustain great businesses also requires the powers of vision, altruism and volunteerism; the ability to use technology as an ally, and the capacity to see problems as opportunities. Many of the cases Bagchi describes illustrate this.

These stories are interesting but, since Bagchi mostly says nice things about everybody, ignoring the warts, his book runs the risk of being seen as a collection of puff pieces. After all, the ‘unique identity’ project of Nandan Nilekani runs the risk of going down in history as the costliest and most irresponsible of public projects, especially now that Nilekani has decided to quit as head of the project and contest as a Congress candidate. Did his determination to press ahead with the project ignoring criticisms and challenges, only amount to pouring billions of dollars down the drain. Captain Gopinath is a model of courage but only with other people’s money—mainly of public sector banks, capitalised periodically with taxpayers’ money. The microfinance company of Ramesh Ramanathan is successful because of the government’s failure to create a fair and competitive lending system. Zen Garden is a good read. Bagchi describes a wide cross-section of achievers with great interest and passion. But it is rose-tinted.

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