This is an edited speech delivered by the best-selling business author,
Mr Subroto Bagchi to the class of 2006 at the IIM, Bangalore
I delivered this speech to the Class of 2006 at the IIM, Bangalore on defining success. This was the first time I shared the guiding principles of my life with young professionals.
I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family of five brothers. 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. My father used to get transferred every year. 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. 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 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. We were taught not to call him by his name. We had to use the suffix ‘dada’ whenever we were to refer to him. 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’. 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 – where she would cook for the family. 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. 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 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 possessions.
We planted flowering bushes. A few neighbors told my mother 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. In any case, being Bengali, she did not know the Oriya script. So my job was to read her the local newspaper. That created in me a sense of connectedness with a larger world. Till date, I measure my success in terms of that sense of larger connectedness. Meanwhile, the 1965 war raged.
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 success.
Over the next few years, my mother’s eyesight dimmed, and she was operated for cataract. Within weeks of getting her sight back, she developed a corneal ulcer and, overnight, became blind in both 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 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 every day, 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 had suffered a third degree burn injury and was admitted in the Safderjung Hospital in Delhi. I flew back to attend to him. One morning, while attending to my father, I realized that the blood bottle was empty and I asked the attending nurse to change it. She bluntly told me to do it myself. 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 the limit of inclusion is you can create. My father died the next day.
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 memetic 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. 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. I flew down from the US and spent two weeks with her in the hospital. 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 God’s speed. Go! Kiss the world.