What is the matter with men like NR Narayana Murthy?

He was destined for greatness. But tragically, many like him stay wedded to their ideas. Somehow, they did not learn when it is time to let go

Charles Assisi

[By Natalia Medd under Creative Commons]

It was a few years ago. October 23, 2002. A day after the Booker Prize was awarded to Yann Martel for his seminal book Life of Pi, he was interviewed by London-based newspaper The Guardian. The headline read ‘Third time lucky’. There was a reason to it. His first two books had sunk without a trace. This time around though, his book had gone on to become a runaway hit—and not just that, he was now a celebrity, an award-winning writer, and some talk was doing the rounds that the book will be made into a movie.

It did happen 10 years later to much acclaim, including the Best Director award at the Oscars for Ang Lee. So much so, that Life of Pi is now attributed more to Lee’s finesse as a film maker than to Martel’s imagination as a writer. This is not to take away any credit from Lee. Because in the hands of a lesser film maker, a narrative as complex as Life of Pi may perhaps not have been so well adapted to screen.

I wonder what could possibly have gone through Martel’s mind though. After all, he was the man who thought up the story of a boy called Piscine Patel (Pi) and a tiger (Richard Parker) stranded for 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean. Some clues to how Martel thinks may lie in the interview I alluded to earlier. Something he said there got my attention. “Fanatics do not have faith—they have belief. With faith you let go. You trust. Whereas with belief you cling.”

“How very interesting!” I said to myself. And when I think about it, how true as well. It is indeed a thin line that separates a fanatic and those who have faith. I suspect that is why fanatics think it important that they tell everyone that they believe in an idea. They are wedded to the idea and want everyone around them to be wedded to it as well.

The second kind of people have faith in the power of their idea to evolve and outlast them. Not just that, they are comfortable with it. Perhaps, that is why they don’t think it pertinent to convince everyone around why theirs is the best way of life. They move on to other things.

Is it possible that Lee winning accolades for a movie created on the back of a book Martel wrote, did not leave the author fazed? Because by all accounts, after writing Life of Pi and receiving the accolades, Martel moved on. He continues to live the kind of life he likes and explore themes close to his heart.

He has since gone on to write two other books, Beatrice and Virgil and more recently The High Mountains of Portugal—both of which I think are greater accomplishments than Life of Pi. Critics may not agree with my assessment. In fact, some have gone on to rubbish Beatrice and Virgil as the “worst book of the decade”. But books, like art, are subjective assessments.

Be that as it may, Martel moving on to live the life of his choosing raises a few questions.

  • How do some people cultivate a mind of their own?
  • Why is it some people live miserably in the present and a delusionary future on the back of a glorious past?
  • Is it because they haven’t learnt the art of letting go gracefully?
  • Or is it because they refuse to acknowledge there are others more competent than they are to take over from them?

Some months ago, these were questions that had Niranjan Rajadhyakasha, one of my earlier mentors, Rajrishi Singhal, a former colleague who has donned many hats including that of a policy wonk, journalist, and banker, and my friend and co-founder Indrajit Gupta (IG as we call him) engaged in an animated discussion.

The current narratives in business and politics kept us occupied that evening. It included the most pertinent one in the news then and which continues to be in the news—that of Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy admitting that he regrets quitting as chairman of the company in 2014.

On my part, in past engagements with Infosys co-founders Nandan Nilekani and Kris Gopalakrishnan, when asked about their thoughts on the theme, they have declined to comment. Their stated position is they have moved on.

I continue to stay engaged with them. In fact, Nilekani’s pivotal role in Project Aadhaar and IndiaStack has the all of us at Founding Fuel riveted and is a story we continue to document as it evolves.

Be that as it may, soon after we parted ways that evening, IG went on to write a sharp piece on why a lot many people who are part of India Inc., Narayana Murthy included, have got it wrong. Embedded in IG’s narrative was a pointer that there exist lenses through which founders must look at the entities they create.

His larger point was that there comes a time when some entities outgrow the founders and control must be conceded to the right set of people. To do that, the founders must place faith in them. Else, what will emerge are fault lines that can prove disastrous to everybody in the ecosystem.

I can think of multiple examples. For instance, sometime ago, I got talking to a young man. At least on paper, he is the inheritor to a now iconic Indian business house. But he is almost past his prime, is married, has children, and for all practical purposes, lost. And it was not of his doing. For a long time, he was given to believe he is being prepped to take over the baton from his father who is now in his late seventies.

But after we had gotten to know each other rather well, he confided that his old man refuses to let go. The young man would have been okay with his father’s call if he was told that in as many words when he was starting out in the workforce and that he would have to compete with professionals for the top job. But not after being prepped to take on the mantle. And it was not just him who believed that. Everybody in the family was given the same narrative.

But it turned out to be far from the truth. “How much more duplicitous can it get when your father promises you something, does something else, and still has the world eating out of his hands?” the son asked, throwing up his hands up in exasperation. To the world outside, theirs remains a tightly knit, happy family.

As things are, there is now a subservient CEO appointed by his father who plays the tune the latter wants. To the world outside, it sounds like the music of a professional who has a CEO in place, vetted by a professional board that has all the right credentials.

When extrapolated, this is like the Infosys and Narayana Murthy saga. The current CEO Vishal Sikka was appointed by a professional board. Then fissures started to emerge, all of which are now well documented. One of the first salvos in the public domain was fired in the form of a letter by OppenHeimerFunds when it expressed dismay at how things are being run.

The Fund is an advisor to other funds that collectively owns a 2.7% stake in Infosys. The note read: “We would strongly encourage the Board of Directors to restrain divisions in the firm and contain inappropriate interventions by non-executive founders. Let Vishal do what he was hired to do, without distractions. And appraise him on his efforts.”

This issue around boards and the role they play was one that came up when Niranjan, Rajrishi, IG and I chatted away that evening. Between us, we could think of many entities that claim to have independent boards. They are there to protect the interests of the shareholders and the larger interests of the company. But when scrutinized hard, these comprise people who have found ways to band together for over two decades. How?

When you stay together for so long, is it possible your board may have morphed into something like an all-boys club? How can those outside be assured they really are “independent”? That they haven’t crossed the line and gotten to be buddies instead? And why do they get all riled up when questions are asked?

Between Niranjan, Rajrishi and IG who often engage in conversations with senior leaders and statesmen in the public domain, they could think up many names they reckon are standing on precipices like these.

Their point was, there comes a time in every professional’s life when it is time to cede ground gracefully. And move on. And stay as motivated as they were when they started out with their first enterprise. But in practice, the best find it incredibly difficult. Why? Where does the conflict emerge?

We couldn’t complete our conversation because we were running out of time and had to head to the venue where the Mumbai Press Club was handing out the much anticipated Red Ink Awards for excellence in journalism. All of us promised to pick up the threads of the conversation later.

The questions stayed in my mind. Some pointers to where the answers may lie started to emerge in parts as the awards evening started to unfold.

Before I get to that, let me dwell on some questions that have been playing in my mind for the past few months since I’ve started meditating. Have you tried meditating? It is inevitably done in silence. While silence can be peaceful, it can also be merciless and disconcerting because it asks brutal questions.

  • What is the most important thing to you right now?
  • How do you feel right now?
  • What is your dream goal?
  • What is your True North (or moral compass, if you will)?
  • How will you measure your worth (self-worth as opposed to net-worth)?
  • Is your happiness independent of your goal?

Pointers to some answer emerged when the Red Ink Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism was given to Vinod Dua—a name most Indians of my generation are familiar with. His short and succinct, self-deprecatory acceptance speech to the fraternity present there in large numbers was met with a standing ovation.

While all of what he said continues to stay embedded in the head, one thought stayed long after the evening was over. Everybody needs to meet their basic needs. Some may want to get rich. Nothing wrong with that. The real issue is, how rich do you want to get? By way of example, Dua suggested, if Rs 1,000 is what may meet your basic needs, Rs 10,000 makes you a very rich man. But if you crave more than what you need to be a very rich man, it is time to pause and ask: Why?

Indeed. Why would anybody want exponentially more than what can be consumed? My views on the question of money and why we do what we do is something I have articulated earlier.

My interpretation of Dua’s short and succinct acceptance speech was that while a statement of intent is one thing, staying tuned to your True North, maintain the ability to measure your self-worth, and a constant attempt to stay happy independent of the outcome is what makes life worth living.

In trying to figure where I stand on that scale, in the silence, I asked myself a few questions. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with some very fine minds from across the country and the world all thanks to a career spent in journalism. Whom would I like to be like? Because when looked at from a very practical perspective, the most important things to me right now are getting cash flows in order, ensuring invectives aren’t directed against me, and staying undistracted by trends on social media.

But these activities leave me feeling uncomfortable and does nothing to contribute to my longer-term dream goal. Which, much like Dua’s is, to be happy, independent of the outcomes and find purpose.

So, whom do I to emulate? For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been told I ought to emulate somebody. But do I need to? Why should I? What is wrong with me? Why not choose the road less travelled? Much thought later, my answer is this:

  • I do not want to emulate anyone. I want to be in my own image.
  • I do not want to be weighed down by opinions because it is the lowest form of knowledge.
  • That means, I need to think clearly. This is where rubber meets the road. When the roads diverge, do I choose the one that leads to valuations? Or do I take the one to a life well lived?

But I’ve got only one life to live and I had better make it count. Times like these, it makes sense to turn to wisdom. It arrived in the form of a text message from Arun Maira, somebody whom I hold in the highest of personal esteem for his wisdom. “Have you read Chapter 2 in the Bhagavad Gita and IF by Rudyard Kipling?” the message asked.

Those were the only reinforcements I needed to seek what road I ought to take, reinforce what I thought I heard Dua said, and what was trying to emerge from the sound of silence around me.

I make no claim to be an expert on the scriptures. But this translation of two verses from Chapter 2 in the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna addresses an anguished Arjuna, particularly appeals to me.

“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.”

“Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.”

If I were to extrapolate it into a contemporary setting, think about it this way. Assume for a moment you have set your eyes on training for a marathon. You go all out and train for one. You are obsessed to the exclusion of everything else but running the marathon. You’re up at 4:00 am; you train; your tolerance for any ambiguity that may come in the way of your training will be low; all your waking hours are dictated by the outcome of this event; your routine and your life depend on it; the day arrives; you run; you complete it; you’re happy.

Now what? Or for some unfortunate reason, you don’t make it past the finish line. What happens?

Unhappiness is inevitable. Your happiness or unhappiness was wedded to the outcome of the event. But what happens after the event is done and dusted with? It is inevitable then that emptiness will follow. This is not to suggest that goals are not important—but only to drive home that we cannot be wedded to the goal.

But, instead, what if you were not training for the marathon? What if you thought of yourself as an athlete? What if you were training for the joy of running? Not with the intent of making it past a certain finish line, but to run because you love running. Crossing the finish line may then just be another episode in the journey—much like an injury would be. Now, you are no longer wedded to the outcome. Maira explains this view beautifully in his essay How do we know that our life’s work is really done?

I can’t think of too many people—me included—who have it in them to complete a task on hand when there are no visible outcomes. How much more ironical can it get than this in a country that gave the world one of the finest philosophical treatise that is the Bhagavad Gita?

If any more perspective be needed, there is Kipling’s IF to turn to. The last passage from the poem particularly appeals to me.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, 

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, 

    If all men count with you, but none too much; 

If you can fill the unforgiving minute 

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

And almost suddenly, things started to fall into perspective.

  • Martel could move on to other things, unperturbed by the success of Life of Pi, because he had let go. He continues to live in the moment, and write, that he may do his duty. He knows the clock is ticking and he must make the 60 seconds in every minute count.
  • Dua is happy because he has let go of the past, understands he cannot control the future, but only prepare for it by living in the moment.

Going by these yardsticks, the founder of Infosys is wedded to the past. It is inevitable then that he is unhappy and the future seems hazy. There ought to be no surprises there.

(This is an adapted version of Yours is the earth and everything in it that was published in Livemint in January 2017) 

Was this article useful? Sign up for our daily newsletter below


Login to comment

Hema Narayanan on Aug 19, 2017 4:51 p.m. said

Hello Charles. Excellent piece and very thoughtful. You have connected the dots so beautifully. Look forward to seeing more such fine pieces of writing.
Hema Narayanan

Venugopal Palakkal on Aug 19, 2017 3:06 p.m. said

Dear Charles this is one of the best piece of analytical piece of writing read by me in recent times. Congrats and all the best

Gopal Pradhan on Jul 30, 2017 9:18 p.m. said

विश्वास को तर्क और सबूत जैसे बैसाखियों का जरुरत होता है , क्योंकि यह तो हमारे मन की उपज है |

और आस्था , आत्मा का वह सर्वव्यापक रूप है , जहाँ से समर्पण का भाव उदित होता है |

कोई विरला ही होता है जो इन दोनों में फर्क समझ पाता है |

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

Also by me

You might also like