Monthly Archives: February 2011

Interview with… R. Seshasayee

Pic: R. Ravindran

This interview almost didn’t happen. You see, R. Seshasayee has never — in all his years as one of Chennai’s most respected corporate leaders — given a purely personal interview, one not about his vast experience and knowledge of the automobile industry, but about his other interests and dimensions, his charitable work, his artistic talents and his philosophy towards life. And this interview request too, like others, was on the verge of being politely turned down.

“Then my wife gave me a talking to for 15 minutes,” says the long-time managing director of Ashok Leyland with a smile when we finally do meet. “I said I didn’t feel comfortable talking about myself, and she said, ‘Most people know you from just one angle, and it’s time you changed that!’”

That angle is, of course, his role as a visionary leader at Leyland for the last three decades (he’s been MD since 1998), and his high-profile participation in organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) (he’s served as president of both).

But here’s something you probably didn’t know. He’s also an artist who has done portraits and magazine illustrations, a Tamil writer and poet, and a lover of Carnatic music who trained under Maharajapuram Santhanam. And that’s just the beginning.

“I’ve always believed that every person has many desires and talents, and that it’s necessary to develop them all to be holistic,” he says. “There must be one anchoring interest, of course, a central calling in your life, but it’s perfectly feasible to be many things.”

He gained this perspective from his multi-faceted parents — his father, M.S. Ramaswamy, who’s a lawyer, a musicologist, a tennis player, and an entrepreneur, and his mother, Vasumathi Ramaswamy, a well-known Tamil writer and novelist, a social activist and an orator. “Growing up watching them, it was natural to pursue different interests,” he says.

So during his college years, he painted cinema posters (“we worked on huge banners — it was a very laborious process”) and was the staff artist for the short-lived magazine, Mala. “In fact, in my early years, I didn’t think of being a chartered accountant or an engineer, just an artist,” he says. (He eventually did go on to become a chartered accountant.)

He also, fascinatingly, was a ghost-writer for his mother towards the tail-end of her career, he reveals: “This is not to take away anything from her — she wrote several hundred short stories, novels and essays — but at that time, she was unwell and struggling to meet deadlines, so I’d finish stories or rewrite them for her.”

Once, for instance, he wrote the next instalment of a radio serial she was working on while he was travelling from Madras to Tuticorin by train for an audit of a food corporation. “I finished when I reached and posted it straight to AIR… She never even had a chance to read it before it went on air!” he laughs.

Today, he still paints and writes Tamil poetry in his spare time, though, he says with a smile, they’re not for the public eye. His active involvement with Carnatic music too came to a halt with the untimely passing of Santhanam, but he retains his interest and thirst for knowledge on the subject. “I definitely want to do an M.A. in Music, when I find the time,” he says.

Time is something Seshasayee seems to have a special relationship with. Apart from his demanding career, he finds time to be involved with 17 — yes, 17 — different organisations, including charitable organisations such as SCARF and the Indian Cancer Institute, and educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT).

“Thinking about what you can do to touch as many people and institutions as you possibly can is part of living holistically,” he says. “We don’t function as individuals in isolation; it’s important to get connected with our society, our world.”

Ask him how he manages to do it all, and he laughs, “I get asked that often. But, you can be very productive if you think through all your actions in a focused way; that way you don’t waste any time.”

His reaction to his upcoming move at Leyland from managing director to executive vice-chairman (from April) is similarly clear-headed. “It’s necessary for the sake of the organisation to have a succession,” he says. “The next generation is coming up and we must make space for them.”

It’s all part of the larger evolution of his life, as he puts it: “You have to constantly ask yourself — where do I find joy next?”

For a man as multi-faceted as him, the answer could lie in one of many, many things.

BOX:

While at Vivekanada College, he was an active leader in student politics.

One of his greatest ambitions when he was younger was to make a movie someday.

He is a gifted orator, with a talent for extempore speaking.

He enjoys reading Bharathiar’s poetry.

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Book launch: Rahul Bhattacharya’s ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’

Much like the book itself, the launch event of ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’ by Rahul Bhattacharya was all about the Caribbean nation of Guyana – its people, its language and dialect, its colonial history and racial politics, and its decaying wooden splendour.

“It’s such a raw-ly beautiful country, with its red rivers and rainforests,” said Bhattacharya, in conversation with journalist and author Samanth Subramanian at Landmark. “I felt an instant affinity to its colours and dialects – it was so different from anything I’d experienced before.”

Delhi-based Bhattacharya is best known for his work on cricinfo.com and for his popular cricket book ‘Pundits from Pakistan’. ‘The Sly Company…’ is his debut novel and was also, in a sense, was born out of cricket.

“I was on my first international cricket tour to the West Indies, and my first port of call was Guyana,” he recalled. “It was a very boring week of test cricket – it always rains there during matches – but my affinity for the place stayed with me, and I decided to follow that feeling nearly four years later.”

He ended up spending a year there – unusual, to say the least. “No one goes to Guyana,” he said laughing. “Everyone flees Guyana – it’s such a desperate, struggling place.”

But it’s also a fascinating place, with its volatile racial mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese, its grid of canals and trenches, and its sagging wooden houses with zinc roofs built by the Dutch. “I knew I’d write a book on it, but I didn’t what that book would be,” said Bhattacharya.

The book eventually took the shape of a novel (“I’d start with facts and then tell a whole lot of lies”), but the author still struggled with the non-fiction elements he needed to include.

“So few in India know the historical context of Guyana – how it was created entirely by colonial powers who brought in slaves and indentured labourers, and how its reality is shaped by what happened once the colonial powers left,” he said. “I had to reconcile these non-fictional elements with the storytelling – that was challenging.”

‘The Sly Company…’ tells the story of a young man from India who goes to Guyana in search of escape from ‘the deadness of life’, and embarks on an adventure with Baby, a diamond hunter. Slow paced and filled with dialogue in Guyanese dialect, the book isn’t always easy to read. But it did come alive during a long, dramatised reading by the author, who did a remarkable job in re-creating the distinctive rhythms of Guyanese speech (“I became quite good at it; people could mistake me for Guyanese by the end!”).

“When I came back, the dialect was bouncing in my head so hard – the vivid phrases and the very visual way of speaking were addictive,” he said. “A lot of the narrative in the book was in that style initially; I had to be reined in by my editor who felt it would be incomprehensible to readers.”

Naturally, much of the q-and-a session that followed focused on race and politics in Guyana. The turnout at the launch might have been small, but those present walked away with a deeper understanding of the Caribbean nation.

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Author interview: Rudra Krishna (‘The Onus of Karma’)

His novel ‘The Onus of Karma’ may have just been released recently, but Rudra Krishna started writing the story a long, long time ago. At the age of 12, to be precise.

“It was the first story I ever wanted to tell,” says the 28-year-old author about the fantasy adventure novel. “But every time I started, I felt I was writing pure drivel. I really struggled to find my style.”

Fast forward 10-odd years to 2006, and Rudra was ready to tackle the story once more. And this time, he meant business. “I finally had the style down, the plot mapped out and the research done, and when I sat down to write, I finished it in seven weeks,” he says. “I guess it had been fermenting in my mind a while!”

So what was so special about this story? Well, it’s based on the legend of a swashbuckling ancestor of Rudra’s – his great-great-great-great-grandfather (“I’ve lost track of the number of ‘greats’,” he jokes), Tharuppukal Ramaswami Aiyar, a fearless bounty hunter who turned his back on tradition and ended up making the family fortune.

“He was the last of seven children in a family of purohits, who decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and trained in sword-fighting, archery and martial arts instead,” says Rudra. “He ran away at the age of 17, and famously captured the feared dacoit Arunachalam. He was a total free spirit –he just disappeared one day at the age of 38 or 39 and was never seen again.”

Around this fascinating ancestor, Rudra has spun a tale of mysticism and intrigue, involving the Sri Chakra, the divine wheel of awesome power given to man by Lord Shiva, and historical figures such as Haider Ali and Lord Hastings.

“The bits about the chakra are all fantasy, of course, but the historical facts are entirely accurate,” says Rudra, a Masters in law from Cardiff who now edits legal books. “My mother, Dr. Nandita Krishna helped with all the research – she read a few hundred books for a year.”

‘The Onus…’ – which touches upon issues of caste, class, religion and race – has managed to ruffle quite a few feathers since its release. “I never meant to hurt anybody but I’ve managed to offend everyone from old Mylaporeans (including my extended family) to my English and Muslim friends,” says Rudra ruefully. “But as long as I’ve offended everyone equally, I guess I’ll doing all right!”

In fact, he’s quite happy to have gotten people talking about some of these sensitive issues. “These are real problems and too many people pussyfoot around them,” says Rudra, a non-conformist who has, at various points, been a heavy metal musician, a poet, a supervisor in a construction site, a factory worker and an English teacher.

His next few books (he’s working on seven novels at the moment) are likely to ruffle more feathers still – coming next year, for instance, is “There’s a Jihadi in My Curry”, a contemporary comedy based on his friendship with a Pakistani in the U.K.

“That one is extremely politically incorrect too,” says Rudra. “My goal isn’t to tell people what to think but to give them something to think about. Sometimes a slap in the face isn’t a bad thing.”

His renegade ancestor would certainly have approved.

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