Thursday, July 07, 2005

Success - Subroto Bagchi

Success is defined by what you leave behind - Subroto Bagchi

The author is the vice-chairman and COO of Mind tree Consulting.

I was the 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 the 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 fitted into the back of a jeep - so the family moved form place to place
and my mother will setup an establishment without any trouble and get us going. 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 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'. He also made sure that we never sat
in the government jeep - we could sit only if it is stationary. That was our early childhood lesson in governance - a lesson that
corporate managers learn the hard way, some never does.

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 Raju was appointed I repeated the lesson to my two small daughters.
They have as a result, grown up to call Raju as 'Raju Uncle'. 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 fireplace she would built at each
place of posting where she would cook for the family. There was no gas, no electric 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 Muffosil' edition - delivered one day by late.
We did not understand much of what we were reading. But the ritual was meant for us to know what the world was larger that
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 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 our 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 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 possessions.

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 with earth and
we planted 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 is taking so much pain to beautify a government house, why she was planting seed
that would only benefit the next occupant. She said, "I have to create 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 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 of Bhubaneswar and had to prepare for 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 with 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 local newspaper - end to end. That created me a sense of connectedness with a larger world. I began taking interest
in many different things. While reading out the news about the war, I felt that I was fighting the war by myself. She and I discussed the
daily news 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 Bahadhur Shastri, the then Prime minister, coined the term
'Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan' and galvanized the nation into patriotic fervor. Other than reading out the newspaper to my mother,
I had no clue about how I could be the part of the action. So, after reading the news-paper, 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 have to watch for them. I would daydream about catching out 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 it, others will live in it. That's the essence of success.

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 a cataract. I remember when she turned 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 eyesight back, she developed a corneal ulcer and, overnight,
became blind in both the eyes. 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 her 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 not about 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 Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi. I flew back to attend him - he remained for a few days in a critical stage, bandaged form neck to toe.

The Safdarjung hospital is a cockroach infested, dirty, inhuman place. The overworked, under resourced sisters in the burns 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 theatre 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 by his stoic self. 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.
My Father died the next day.

He was a man whose success defined by his principles, his frugality, his universalism and his sense of inclusion.
Above all he taught me that success is our 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 an 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 exact opposite. Consequently our house hold 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 form 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 is to me 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 extraordinary success with ordinary lives.


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