Sunday, August 14, 2005

Words of wisdom

"Go Kiss the World" by Subroto Bagchi, Chief Operating Officer, MindTree Consulting, India contribution copied from Syed Azhar Hussain on a mailing list.

Welcome Address by Subroto Bagchi, Chief Operating Officer, MindTree
Consulting to the Class of 2006 on July 2, 2004 at the Indian Institute
of Management, Bangalore, India on defining success.

I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family of
five brothers. My earliest memory of my father is as that of a District
Employment Officer in Koraput, Orissa. It was and remains as back of
beyond as you can imagine. There was no electricity; no primary school
nearby and water did not flow out of a tap. As a result, I did not go to
school until the age of eight; I was home-schooled. My father used to
get transferred every year. The family belongings fit into the back of
a jeep
- so the family moved from place to place and, without any trouble, my
Mother would set up an establishment and get us going. Raised by a
widow who had come as a refugee from the then East Bengal, she was a
matriculate when she married my Father. My parents set the foundation
of my life and the value system which makes me what I am today and
largely defines what success means to me today.

As District Employment Officer, my father was given a jeep by the
government. There was no garage in the Office, so the jeep was parked
in our house. My father refused to use it to commute to the office. He
told us that the jeep is an expensive resource given by the government
- he reiterated to us that it was not 'his jeep' but the government's
jeep. Insisting that he would use it only to tour the interiors, he
would walk to his office on normal days. He also made sure that we
never sat in the government jeep - we could sit in it only when it was
stationary. That was our early childhood lesson in governance - a
lesson that corporate managers learn the hard way, some never do.

The driver of the jeep was treated with respect due to any other member
of my Father's office. As small children, we were taught not to call
him by his name. We had to use the suffix 'dada' whenever we were to
refer to him in public or private. When I grew up to own a car and a
driver by the name of Raju was appointed - I repeated the lesson to my
two small daughters. They have, as a result, grown up to call Raju,
'Raju Uncle' - very different from many of their friends who refer to
their family drivers as 'my driver'. When I hear that term from a
school- or college-going person, I cringe. To me, the lesson was
significant - you treat small people with more respect than how you
treat big people. It is more important to respect your subordinates
than your superiors.

Our day used to start with the family huddling around my Mother's
chulha - an earthen fire place she would build at each place of posting
where she would cook for the family. There was no gas, nor electrical
stoves. The morning routine started with tea. As the brew was served,
Father would ask us to read aloud the editorial page of The Statesman's
'muffosil' edition
- delivered one day late. We did not understand much of what we were
reading. But the ritual was meant for us to know that the world was
larger than Koraput district and the English I speak today, despite
having studied in an Oriya medium school, has to do with that routine.
After reading the newspaper aloud, we were told to fold it neatly.
Father taught us a simple lesson. He used to say, "You should leave
your newspaper and your toilet, the way you expect to find it".

That lesson was about showing consideration to others. Business begins
and ends with that simple precept.

Being small children, we were always enamored with advertisements in
the newspaper for transistor radios - we did not have one. We saw other
people having radios in their homes and each time there was an
advertisement of Philips, Murphy or Bush radios, we would ask Father
when we could get one. Each time, my Father would reply that we did not
need one because he already had five radios - alluding to his five
sons. We also did not have a house of our own and would occasionally ask
Father as to when, like others, we would live in our own house. He
would give a similar reply, "We do not need a house of our own. I
already own five houses". His replies did not gladden our hearts in
that instant. Nonetheless, we learnt that it is important not to
measure personal success and sense of well being through material

Government houses seldom came with fences. Mother and I collected twigs
and built a small fence. After lunch, my Mother would never sleep. She
would take her kitchen utensils and with those she and I would dig the
rocky, white ant infested surrounding. We planted flowering bushes. The
white ants destroyed them. My mother brought ash from her chulha and
mixed it in the earth and we planted the seedlings all over again. This
time, they bloomed. At that time, my father's transfer order came. A
few neighbors told my mother why she was taking so much pain to
beautify a government house, why she was planting seeds that would only
benefit the next occupant. My mother replied that it did not matter to
her that she would not see the flowers in full bloom. She said, "I have
to create a bloom in a desert and whenever I am given a new place, I
must leave it more beautiful than what I had inherited". That was my
first lesson in success. It is not about what you create for yourself,
it is what you leave behind that defines success.

My mother began developing a cataract in her eyes when I was very
small. At that time, the eldest among my brothers got a teaching job at
the University in Bhubaneswar and had to prepare for the civil services
examination. So, it was decided that my Mother would move to cook for
him and, as her appendage, I had to move too. For the first time in my
life, I saw electricity in homes and water coming out of a tap. It was
around 1965 and the country was going to war with Pakistan. My mother
was having problems reading and in any case, being Bengali, she did not
know the Oriya script. So, in addition to my daily chores, my job was
to read her the local newspaper - end to end. That created in me a
sense of connectedness with a larger world. I began taking interest in
many different things. While reading out news about the war, I felt
that I was fighting the war myself. She and I discussed the daily news
and built a bond with the larger universe. In it, we became part of a
larger reality. Till date, I measure my success in terms of that sense
of larger connectedness.

Meanwhile, the war raged and India was fighting on both fronts. Lal
Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minster, coined the term "Jai Jawan,
Jai Kishan" and galvanized the nation in to patriotic fervor. Other than
reading out the newspaper to my mother, I had no clue about how I could
be part of the action. So, after reading her the newspaper, every day I
would land up near the University's water tank, which served the
community. I would spend hours under it, imagining that there could be
spies who would come to poison the water and I had to watch for them. I
would daydream about catching one and how the next day, I would be
featured in the newspaper. Unfortunately for me, the spies at war
ignored the sleepy town of Bhubaneswar and I never got a chance to
catch one in action. Yet, that act unlocked my imagination. Imagination
is everything. If we can imagine a future, we can create it, if we can
create that future, others will live in it. That is the essence of

Over the next few years, my mother's eyesight dimmed but in me she
created a larger vision, a vision with which I continue to see the
world and, I sense, through my eyes, she was seeing too. As the next
few years unfolded, her vision deteriorated and she was operated for
cataract. I remember, when she returned after her operation and she saw
my face clearly for the first time, she was astonished. She said, "Oh
my God, I did not know you were so fair". I remain mighty pleased with
that adulation even till date. Within weeks of getting her sight back,
she developed a corneal ulcer and, overnight, became blind in both

That was 1969. She died in 2002. In all those 32 years of living with
blindness, she never complained about her fate even once. Curious to
know what she saw with blind eyes, I asked her once if she sees
darkness. She replied, "No, I do not see darkness. I only see light
even with my eyes closed". Until she was eighty years of age, she did
her morning yoga everyday, swept her own room and washed her own
clothes. To me, success is about the sense of independence; it is about
not seeing the world but seeing the light.

Over the many intervening years, I grew up, studied, joined the
industry and began to carve my life's own journey. I began my life as a
clerk in a government office, went on to become a Management Trainee
with the DCM group and eventually found my life's calling with the IT
industry when fourth generation computers came to India in 1981. Life
took me places - I worked with outstanding people, challenging
assignments and traveled all over the world. In 1992, while I was
posted in the US, I learnt that my father, living a retired life with
my eldest brother, had suffered a third degree burn injury and was
admitted in the Safderjung Hospital in Delhi. I flew back to attend to
him - he remained for a few days in critical stage, bandaged from neck
to toe. The Safderjung Hospital is a cockroach infested, dirty, inhuman
place. The overworked, under-resourced sisters in the burn ward are
both victims and perpetrators of dehumanized life at its worst. One
morning, while attending to my Father, I realized that the blood bottle
was empty and fearing that air would go into his vein, I asked the
attending nurse to change it. She bluntly told me to do it myself. In
that horrible theater of death, I was in pain and frustration and
anger. Finally when she relented and came, my Father opened his eyes
and murmured to her, "Why have you not gone home yet?" Here was a man on
his deathbed but more concerned about the overworked nurse than his own
state. I was stunned at his stoic self. There I learnt that there is no
limit to how concerned you can be for another human being and what is
the limit of inclusion you can create. My father died the next day.

He was a man whose success was defined by his principles, his
frugality, his universalism and his sense of inclusion. Above all, he
taught me that success is your ability to rise above your discomfort,
whatever may be your current state. You can, if you want, raise your
consciousness above your immediate surroundings. Success is not about
building material comforts - the transistor that he never could buy or
the house that he never owned. His success was about the legacy he left,
the mimetic continuity of his ideals that grew beyond the smallness of
a ill-paid, unrecognized government servant's world.

My father was a fervent believer in the British Raj. He sincerely
doubted the capability of the post-independence Indian political
parties to govern the country. To him, the lowering of the Union Jack
was a sad event. My Mother was the exact opposite. When Subhash Bose
quit the Indian National Congress and came to Dacca, my mother, then a
schoolgirl, garlanded him. She learnt to spin khadi and joined an
underground movement that trained her in using daggers and swords.
Consequently, our household saw diversity in the political outlook of
the two. On major issues concerning the world, the Old Man and the Old
Lady had differing opinions. In them, we learnt the power of
disagreements, of dialogue and the essence of living with diversity in
thinking. Success is not about the ability to create a definitive
dogmatic end state; it is about the unfolding of thought processes, of
dialogue and continuum.

Two years back, at the age of eighty-two, Mother had a paralytic stroke
and was lying in a government hospital in Bhubaneswar. I flew down from
the US where I was serving my second stint, to see her. I spent two
weeks with her in the hospital as she remained in a paralytic state.
She was neither getting better nor moving on. Eventually I had to return
to work. While leaving her behind, I kissed her face. 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 came 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 Rupees Three
Hundred, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crowned by adversity - was
telling me to go and kiss the world!

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 you take out of it. It is about creating
extra-ordinary success with ordinary lives.

Thank you very much; I wish you good luck and Godspeed. Go, kiss the