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Chronicling change through six generations....
I have been an admirer of R Gopalakrishnan (Gopal). He has been widely known for his rich contribution as a business leader. In his career with Hindustan Lever spanning 31 years, where he started as a management trainee, directly recruited while pursuing his engineering at IIT-Kharagpur, he Rose to the position of Vice Chairman. For two decades now, he has been working as Director, Tata Sons and has been closely involved in the massive expansion of the Tata Group, particularly making a rich contribution to brand building and marketing.

Gopal has been a communicator par excellence. Apart from his incisive columns in the pink papers, Gopal has also been coming out with lucidly written books on management. ‘The case of the Bonsai Manager’, ‘When the penny drops’ and ‘What the CEO really wants from you’, have been well received.  His latest,  ‘A comma in a sentence’ is different, describing the evolution of the Indian society seen through the eyes of six generations of Gopal’s family beginning with his great, great, grandfather.

 

Changes through 200 years…

 

The evolution spans 200 years and traces the rise of the family from the status of small landowners and temple priests who acquired proficiency in the scriptures by word of mouth  to outstanding technocrats and business leaders educated in prestigious business schools.

Gopal was born and brought up in Kolkata to which his father migrated. He never worked in Tamil Nadu. Thus his description of the transformation through the last two centuries of the Vilakkudi village through lucid anecdotes makes the book an invaluable contribution of social and economic change.  Gopal describes the rise of the Tamil Brahmin on the strength of his passion for acquisition of knowledge and the ability to grasp opportunities through education and hard work.

The six momentous changes...

Gopal’s book describes the tumultuous changes brought about by communication and technology. He describes the effect of the Great Madras Famine of 1877 as the first. The fertile Thanjavur delta, which could sustain food production, became an indirect beneficiary: “paddy prices shot up… Our family was transformed from being poor to being quite well off.”

The second major change was the political fall out of the famine: “the idea of the Indian National Congress was born in 1885 in Madras by the members of the Theosophical Society. Political awareness suddenly seemed to increase.”

The third change related to transportation. Gopal describes the beginnings of the puffing steam engine train that moved a large number of people faster and effortless.

The fourth big change that struck the countryside was the advent of the newspaper. Gopal refers to the Tamil newspaper Swadesamitran started by G Subramanya Iyer “to create awareness about economic backwardness of the Indians and the alleged discrimination by the British... The firebrand poet Subramania Bharathi became its editor between 1904 and 1906 stirring up revolutionary ideas.”

The fifth change was concerned written communications: “in 1879, a rectangular post card of thick paper was introduced by the authorities; very affordable at quarter of an anna, (1/16th of a rupee), the post card could be delivered to any address in the country. It represented the first ‘bottom of the pyramid’ innovation.”

 

EVR and migration of Brahmins…

Gopal refers to the call against the Brahmin dominance coming from E V Ramaswami Naicker. He describes in detail the evolution of EVR’s self-respect movement: “being cast in the mould of an iconoclast, he (EVR) stood for anything that was anti-Brahmin. Religion and rituals were scoffed at. Gods were taboo and common sensibilities were numbed with public acts of burning icons or defiling temples.”

“His (EVR’s) attempt was to isolate the three per cent of Brahmins by classifying them as Aryans, i.e. northerners in origin, whereas the 97 per cent of non-Brahmins were depicted as Dravidians in origin. As later events would show, there was lack of logic in depicting a general category of non-Brahmins as a homogenous group. In the process, Periyar perpetuated an acute caste distinction between and among the majority of non-Brahmins.

 

In search of opportunities…

Gopal explains the intensity of the anti-Brahmin movement leading to migration in hordes of Brahmins from villages to cities initially within the province and later to other metros: “the anti-Brahmin wave has gathered firm root in Tamil Nadu. A small Brahmin community felt threatened in primordial fashion and it responded in an aggregate manner, with a combination of fear and flight.”  

Gopal’s father and two uncles migrated to Kolkata, at that time still a vibrant commercial centre. The frugal and austere living of the Brahmins, their ability to live as a joint family pooling incomes and sharing expenditure and sending money to other relatives, have been described in detail.  

Gopal interweaves beautifully the historical and social developments even while describing the experiences of his forebears and various anecdotes about Kolkata. The social and economic life of this large metro and the ability of his father Rajam to grasp opportunities to rise and rise are portrayed in lucid terms.

 

From Lever House to Bombay House…

Gopal describes his five decades of professional experience from the time his entry into Lever House to Bombay House.

He refers to his next generation: “my parents had no college degree. All their grandchildren have college degrees, prized ones too, from universities such as London, Melbourne, Stanford, Wharton and Harvard. They are all modern, urban and liberal.” Gopal describes the change: from the orthodoxy of the Brahmin family just a generation ago, selecting brides by elders based on horoscopes: “of the 12 in-laws we welcomed into our family, we have four religious denominations and only a few have a Tamil Brahmin spouse.”

This management guru sums up the values learnt through the experience of the evolution of his family. The first as an art of family conversation, second a constant and gentle adaptation from a mono culture to a multi- cultural capability; the third, the hunger for education as a driver of huge change; fourth, about leading and leadership; the fifth liberal attitudes; the sixth and the last, on issues of public morality and corruption.

Gopal concludes: “treasure the unique gift of sanskar inherited from your ancestors. Pass the sanskar to your children and your grandchildren.”

An absorbing and lucid narration.

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