Daily Archives: May 11, 2010

Book launch: Capt. Gopinath’s ‘Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey’

It was part rousing motivational speech, part long-winded discourse on the Indian aviation scene, part anecdotes of soul-baring honesty, and part exhaustive dissections of Air Deccan’s past and Deccan 360’s future.

The launch of Captain Gopinath’s heartfelt autobiography, Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey, at Landmark recently had its share of ups and downs — much like the author’s own chequered career — but it did serve to underline the amazing connect Gopinath and his story of entrepreneurial glory has with the public at large. Absolutely packed with a cross-section of people, from young students and budding entrepreneurs to old-timers from the aviation industry and the book launch regulars, the launch went on for well over an hour, with the questions coming in an endless stream and a large section staying behind for autographs after.

Gopinath, dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, engaged the audience right from the start, ditching the stodgy desk set up for him to come as far forward as he could (his feet were half off the stage) and talk directly to them. No reading from the book for this maverick.

“I have deliberately written this book as a story — my story and the story of Air Deccan, but also the story of New India, of the India of possibilities,” he said. “This is not a how-to book or a book on Indian aviation — it’s about following you dreams, having a zest for life, about not giving up in the face of overwhelming odds.”

A straightforwardly written, engaging read, the book chronicles Gopinath’s childhood in the little village of Gorur, his experiences as an officer in the Indian army, his days of dabbling in farming, and, of course, his launch of India’s first low-cost airline, Air Deccan.

“Whenever I went to give talks at schools and colleges, people always wanted to know — how did you build an airline after leaving the army with just Rs. 6,500?” he said during a chat afterward. “So, I decided to tell my story. I especially wanted to reach young people who can get disillusioned easily in today’s world.”

That was a recurring theme during the talk — having ‘inextinguishable optimism’ about our country, and ‘perennial enthusiasm’ for trying to make a difference. “We’re all concerned about the state of affairs in this country today, but we need to stay engaged. Cynicism is suicide,” he said earnestly. “My naïve optimism sometimes got me into trouble, but it also got me out of it.”

He may have been given to platitudes (“never give up”, “find happiness in the small things”) and the overuse of inspirational quotes (Gandhi, Napoleon, Einstein…), but it all still carried conviction because of his very enthusiasm, and his anecdotes — how, for instance, he refused to pay bribes for his licenses to start Deccan, but still got them through dogged determination. Or, how he stood for the Lok Sabha elections as an independent in 2009 because of the corruption in our existing political parties.

Things, however, got a little hairy during the long Q and A session that followed, as audience members tended towards long, rambling anecdotes of their own experiences with aviation (“Is there a question?” Gopinath had to ask a couple of times) or highly specific questions on his new undertaking, Deccan 360, or on issues in aviation including, at one point, fuel tax (“Maybe we should get back to the book,” he said, a shade desperately.)

Inspiring moments did come as youngsters asked about taking the entrepreneurial leap, or being afraid of making mistakes (“only when you make mistakes do you create something — wanting to be perfect is a disease”). The detailed dissection of Gopinath’s decision to sell Air Deccan to Vijay Mallya had its moments too, as his honest, tinged-with-regret appraisal gave the audience insight into the high-stakes world of decision-making.

In spite of its duller moments, the launch was, like the book itself, a touchingly idealistic call to action. As Gopinath put it: “An indifferent citizen is worse than the most corrupt politician.”

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Interview with… Ramesh Krishnan

Pic: R. Raghu

Ramesh Krishnan doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t play tennis. Literally.

“I’ve been around tennis courts with a racquet in hand for as long as I can remember,” he laughs. “There was a clay court in our garden, where my father learnt to play, and I’m sure I came out there as a toddler and hit some balls!”

It came from being part of a large tennis-loving family, he says, where there was almost always a tennis game on, and never a dearth of players.

“My grandfather T.K. Ramanathan was very keen on tennis and he made sure we all played,” Ramesh recalls. “Even back in the Sixties, the ladies in our family — my aunt and my mother — used to play, and there was always someone to play with. Our whole lives revolved around a tennis court.”

Of course, it went without saying that the toddler who played in the backyard would eventually follow in the footsteps of his father, tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan.

“It was my grandfather’s dream, and I never really gave any other career a thought,” he says simply. “By the time I was in high school, I was representing India in the Davis Cup, so my education was geared towards that. I don’t know what I would have ventured into if not tennis!”

And follow he did, chalking up a stellar career in juniors just like his father — he was ranked No. 1 in the world and won both the junior Wimbledon and French Open titles — and then building a solid career on the main tour (he was ranked as high as No. 23 in the world), featuring in some memorable matches at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and, of course, in the Davis Cup.

“The Davis Cup matches always stand out — we reached the final in 1987 and the semi-final in 1993. And, reaching the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open [1981 and 1987] and Wimbledon [1986] is something I look back fondly on,” he says. “Both the Davis Cup and Wimbledon always meant a little extra to me.”

In a career spanning three decades (1977 to 1993), he won a reputation not only for having a beautiful game, all amazing angles and volleys, but also for being a gentleman on and off the court.

“The bulk of players from India were well behaved — I think our society demands that,” he says, deflecting the compliment in his unassuming way. “You were expected to carry yourself a certain way in public.”

When it came time to retire in 1993, Ramesh was quite content to hang up his racquet , professionally speaking. It gave him more time to focus on that other core passion of his life — family.

“My children had started school and they couldn’t travel with me as much,” he says. “Suddenly I wasn’t that excited anymore about boarding a plane and travelling leaving my family behind.”

Fittingly, his family remains tennis-crazy, with both his daughters, Gayatri and Nandita, playing tennis, first in juniors’ tournaments, and now for their respective universities in the U.S.

Travelling with his daughters to juniors’ tournaments as his parents did with him decades ago, Ramesh had come full circle — and discovered it wasn’t easy. “There were times when Gayatri was playing and I knew her opponent was not being fair to her, but I had to detach myself — it’s a whole new experience as a parent,” he says ruefully. “It’s like being on the rollercoaster all over again… but, this time, I had no control over what was happening!”

Today, sitting in the garden that once housed the clay court he played on, Ramesh exudes calm contentment. His days are spent caring for the Krishnan Tennis Centre (“a place to come play tennis and get some exercise”), the Indane Gas supply service his father started in 1963 (“he played in the amateur era and needed a livelihood”) and his daughters (“helping them achieve what they want to.”)

He still plays tennis socially almost every day of the week, but says his role in the future of Indian tennis is just that of ‘cheerleader’ — “I’m happy to root for people who’re doing well,” he smiles.

Tennis has been his life and his education, and that, for Ramesh, is enough: “It gave me a chance to grow as a person. I’ve had all these amazing experiences, and I have tennis to thank for it,” he says.

Box:

Pitted against the best: I consider Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras the most outstanding players I ever faced – Borg in the early part of my career in the 70s, and Sampras towards the end of my career in the 90s, just as he was starting out.

Toughest opponent: I always found Ivan Lendl very tough to play. His style of play just didn’t suit me – I couldn’t serve big enough to unsettle him and he was a bit too overpowering. He was a nightmare for many players to face, and I was one of them!

On gentlemanly conduct: I think it depends on your upbringing. John McEnroe was from New York and he had a little bit of New York in him. I think we in India certainly wouldn’t have looked kindly upon that kind of behaviour!

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