The Maruti Story

by R.C. Bhargava

Maruti is one of the few (perhaps only) shining example of a public sector companies in India to have achieved global competitiveness and made it big, giving the leading private companies a run for their money, and its story has to make for very interesting reading. What was the vision behind starting a car company in India? Why did they chose Suzuki as a partner? How did they navigate the red tape that ails most of Indian industry? How did they build a leader in quality, changed the rules of the game to make auto manufacturing customer centric?

Who better to tell this story than R.C. Bhargava, the man who built Maruti during its formative years and is still associated with it as its Chairman. In a very intruiguing account spread over two-and-a-half decades, Bhargava describes how Maruti was conceived, nursed, nurtured, grown and built into a giant of our industry.

What makes the story very interesting is the light it sheds on the changing face of Indian industry, since Maruti as a company owed its origin to the Emergency, nationalization, the license raj and saw through the changing economic climate of the country. The anecdotes of the author show how the company and the economy as a whole transformed, and gives us a view into times completely alien to our young existence.

I have read a number of books by the giants of the Auto industry – My Years with General Motors by Alfred Sloan, Lee Iacocca’s auto-biography, and I can actually identify with many of the things Bhargava describes as a result – the focus on quality, worker relations, dealer relations, focus on marketing and model development, emphasis on servicing – all of which were unknown to Indian industry at the time, and the way Bhargava describes how each of them were envisioned, and implemented, shows their foresight, strength of will and commitment.

Apart from that, Bhargava also describes some unique problems of being an Indian company – that too a PSU – where accountability and responsibility is a big issue. While we blame PSUs and the Government of demonstrating red tape and acting slow, the book also gives the lay reader an idea of why its so – most managers and civil servants will rather follow protocol and ensure that their decisions are always above board and measure up to the right standards of probity since the downside of being caught in a political storm is very high. Bhargava himself describes a number of CBI enquiries and charges of corruption being levied by him by political opponents who wanted to settle an old score. It’s only justified that in all of these cases, the individual manager would want decisions to be taken in such a manner that responsibility is shared and nobody can be “blamed” for any particular decision later. The fact that the Maruti management was able to cut through this red tape and still build a company of its stature is remarkable (of coursing, having Suzuki as a JV partner and blaming tough decisions on them is an important aspect of it).

Some key take aways for me were:

  1. Having a lofty vision and very high ideals to begin with are very important to build a sense of purpose amongst the team
  2. Having a shoulder from which to shoot from – and people who are above the circle of responsibility which enables justification of key decisions and pushing them through
  3. Communicating the right ideals of all stakeholders, and leading by example (uniforms in Maruti are still followed; I had even heard one of my classmates from IIT complain about it!)
  4. Managing bureaucracy, relationships, governments, partners can be extremely tricky and once again one has to be strong up front
  5. No compromises on quality

One grudge I have against the authors is that there are so many anecdotes that some of them are not as well covered – perhaps the editor could have given some direction on pacing the book well. Similarly, the book seems to sag in places and its easy to lose interest.

For anybody who really wants to understand the evolution of Indian industry, this is a great resource.

Empires of the Indus

by Alice Albinia

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The book is an absolutely mesmerising journey of the author along the Indus, in geography and in time. It’s an enthralling read – both in substance and in style, and if you are a travel, history of even politics buff, you should not miss this book.

Albinia was a journalist in Delhi when she got the idea of the book – she went back to pursue an M.A. in South Asian studies to get the book in place, and what an effort it has been. Alice starts at the mouth of the Indus, where the river empties itself in the sea, and moves up – over its now dry delta, over the stories of the migrants from Africa, over the temples and masjids of Sufi Saints and Zindapir, over Guru Nanak’s legacy, surviving the Khyber Pass, recounting the spread of Buddhism, experiencing Alexander’s war path, juxtaposing the richness of the Harappan civilization with the poverty of today, the solitude and StriRajya of Laddakh on the Indian side, right into the source of the river – Senge Khabab (the Lion’s Mouth) in Tibet.

All through Albinia comments not only in the rich history of the river, the giver of lives, the source of power, the epicentre of business, and the thoroughfare through which innumerable invaders entered India – however, the way she juxtaposes the richness of the past with the destitution of the present, both monetary and cultural is what makes the book unique and brilliant.  The source of the mighty Indus is tamed by numerous dams, its humongous delta now finds itself constricted, parched and impoverished, its verdant cultural and religious heritage is now restricted by the penury of current civilization. She laments the loss of culture, the wondering history of over 50,000 years that is being used as bricks in construction sites, the multi-religious tolerance of thousands of years which suddenly in the span of half a century is now under threat.

The book is a travellers treasure – all through Albinia has stayed with the locals, conversed with them, eaten with them, sat in their hujras (male guesthouse outside the house), worshipped in their dargahs, drank their majoon (herbal intoxicating confection), celebrated their festivals, lived their life. Her understanding and appreciation of the local culture and language is surprisingly accurate, her enthusiasm for going beyond the boundaries of safety in order to explore the river’s heritage, the hidden stories and poetry is laudatory – I salute her courage and her erudition.

Let me end this with a quote from Guru Nanak given in the book:

‘Lord, Thou art the mighty river,
Thou knowest and seest all things.
How can I, a poor fish, know
Thy depth and thy expanse?’

Check out the website at: empiresoftheindus.co.uk

PS: For those who might wonder, this review and blog post comes after a really long time – life’s been crazy lately, but a good kind of crazy.

Abir, Sancho and Lizzie

Book cover for My Friend Sancho

Book cover of My Friend Sancho

“I should introduce myself now. My name is Abir Ganguly. I work for a tabloid in Bombay called The Afternoon Mail. I am 23. I masturbate 11 times a day. I exaggerate frequently, as in the last sentence”

Thus begins Amit Varma’s (of India Uncut fame) newest yellowback My Friend Sancho (follow this link for the Author’s homepage on the book, or the Facebook fan page). Abir, or Abeeeer as he is called by friends in a state of bacchanalia, relishes a full meal of online games everyday, and then passes obnoxious PJs, enjoys being at Bookends a bookshop in Bombay’s Eterniti mall (good nomenclature!) and covers the crime beat in Bombay when he feels like doing any work. Abir is imaginative, wildly, his hormones getting the better of him at the drop of every pen anywhere in the world, his testosterone-tinted glasses seeing through every fabric. He is a witness to a murder and then finds himself in love with the daughter of the victim, Muneeza aka Sancho, when he is pushed into an assignment to sketch her father’s life. The story is about how Abir’s life gets entangled with Sancho’s, doesn’t have the balls to tell her the truth, and when he does, as is usually the case he is spurned, and finds himself in the state of abject despair (of course, since its despair in love!). The fact that his room-mate lizard is in no mood to empathize doesn’t help either. What happens in the end … umm .. read the book!

The best thing about the book is that its a very light read, very quick — I finished it off in two sittings. To the credit of the book, it managed to hold my interest even as I kept watching the results of the nations greatest jamboree, the Lok Sabha elections 2009. As you navigate from one wisecrack to another, you wonder if Varma was under the influence of err .. something more influential that lends to more fluent thoughts (a la Coleridge in Kubla Khan?) — you wonder if the wry sense of humour can be achieved in sobriety. The plot is tight, quick — though the book is more in the prose than the plot.

I remember the last book I had read with an equal gleeful page-turning urgency was The Inscrutable Americans, and I hope this book reaches the same heights of success!

Of course, the best fleshed out character in the book is the Lizard. I don’t think you can find another book where a Lizard emotes quite as much.

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Review

[Cross posted on my WordPress blog]

I have often wondered what makes accomplished people participate in something that would hammer their conscience for the rest of their lives, and I have found myself unable to come up with an acceptable answer. How does a lawyer defend somebody who murdered somebody in cold blood? How does a soldier kill a helpless victim? How does a scientist invent a weapon of mass destruction?

All the answers to the third question are in this book. The byline reads ‘A personal history of the atomic scientists’. I was recommended the book by a colleague and even though its not a thriller, I could hardly keep the book down until I had finished it!

The story of the atomic scientists is so intriguing that I would doubt if any other real story would come even close to it in terms of their truth and sincerity, their single-minded devotion to the science, and their shock at the results of their discovery. The book paints these scientists as real human beings, with greed and compassion and dedication and ruthlessness, rather than a human-computer many others would.

The story itself is fascinating — it begins in idyllic surroundings in Europe, where students all over the world learn from the Gurus about the new emerging field, the great friendship and competition amongst the scientists, the carefree concentration in their research (they would routinely switch their shoes!). It shows how science can bring the world together, cut across state boundaries and get people with extremely diverse backgrounds to work together amicably and solve problems for a larger cause.

Great progress was made in the labs in Europe at the time. However, as the clouds of the second world war gathered, and Hitler started rounding up the scientists, this utopia soon started crumbling. Many had to move to other countries because of their Jewish backgrounds — and became extremely paranoid about Hitler’s plans. At the same time, many threw open the doors to their friends and collaborators — welcomed them with open arms sometimes even putting themselves in the line of fire. The paranoia, however, grew and it was some of those scientists who approached their governments with suggestions of developing new materials to halt Hitler’s stride. They wanted a deterred strong enough such that Hitler would not even think about trying to expand his power base. They were also worried that the dictatorship in Germany might be forcing its scientists to develop an atomic armoury and the race began.

Thus was the Manhattan Project started and the Los Alamos National Laboratory set up. Oppenheimer assumed leadership, and the scientists worked day and night, living in an uninhabitable place, disconnected from the rest of humanity. However, very soon, they were going to be shocked. They had never anticipated that once a weapon is in the hands of the government, it would be obliged to use it. Despite their protests, and their initial baby-steps towards a third-party controlled nuclear certification policy, the worst annihilation of the century was perpetrated by their government.

What we see now of the IAEA and other such bodies was germinated by the scientists. However, some of the scientists in their greed, promoted the idea of the Hydrogen bomb — the world has never recovered as yet! It was also quite topical because all the Indo-US nuclear negotiations were still going on while I was reading it.

The book is almost like the fall of Adam and Eve — an idyllic world interrupted by evil forces and disintegrated into the morass that now remains.

[Unfortunately, I found it extremely difficult to find the book. Had to read from an almost tattered second-hand book which I bought at Blossoms]

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