Sindhutai Sapkal passed away yesterday.
For those who haven’t heard of her, she was born in an extremely poor family in the state of Maharashtra, India in 1948.Married at the age of 12 to someone who was 32, her husband abandoned her when she was 9 months pregnant. Forced to give birth in a cow shelter, she then went to her parent’s place, but was not welcome there either.
She started begging at railway stations, where she realized there were many abandoned children begging too. So she adopted them as well, and begged to feed them.
Then, in an act perhaps only a higher being is capable of, to avoid partiality between her own child and her growing number of adopted children, she gave up her biological child to a trust.
She later fought against the government for the rehabilitation of 84 villages in forest areas, and for compensation for villagers killed by wild animals! And won!
Over her life, she nurtured well over 1000 orphans (1400 by some estimates!). And she used money from the 700+ awards she won during her life to buy land and build more homes for her children.
She was fondly addressed as ‘Mai’, meaning mother.
If I remember correctly, later on in life, her husband came back and asked for her forgiveness. She said she couldn’t take him back as a husband, but allowed him to live there as one of her children.
When we think about human potential, I hope Sindhutai Sapkal’s higher sense of purpose and selflessness will continue to be remembered.
One of my mentors, Mr. Ramesh C. Sarin passed away on the 10th of April this year.
He was already long retired when I first met him. And he had this rare, dignified personality that reflected a wonderful blend of an unimaginably impressive corporate journey that he had had; and plenty of humility and grace. He climbed the ranks at the ITC Group to be the youngest person inducted to the Board, probably at the age of 39, if not a bit younger.
Meetings with him were enjoyable. I wasn’t exactly moving the earth, quite the opposite in fact – struggling to create a niche and presence in the field of innovation and design strategy. My updates to him would be over in a few quick minutes. Then came the wonderful part – a few minutes of conversation with him. While it was no easy task for him to even just entertain me at his age (he was nearing 80 at the time), he would take the effort of not just listening to all I have been up to, but also telling me little stories from his absolutely fascinating corporate life. Like when he was flown abroad on practically no notice for a meeting to discuss a job opportunity; and how the meeting got extended, and how worried his wife had been. Or how satisfying it was, completing the challenging Bhadrachalam Paperboards (it was before he turned 40!). He also kept inspiring, and on several occasions he told me he was glad I held on through challenging times.
There is a very interesting article about him from a few decades ago. It talks about his bold and radical efforts to set Voltas on a more solid growth path. In the article, there’s reference to Mr. Sarin being asked if he had ruffled a few feathers with his shake-up at Voltas. He replied, “Oh by god, yes!” Every time I’ve read that line in the article, I could almost hear Mr. Sarin actually say it. Because I’ve heard him say something along those lines in conversation.
The Voltas article is fascinating in two ways. Despite strong disagreements between him and Mr. A.H. Tobaccowala (his predecessor and then Chairman of the Voltas Board), their interactions and views of each other were extremely dignified. It shows the class of a different time. And more importantly, it offered a glimpse into the clarity of vision, the conviction, and the unstoppable force that Mr. Sarin was, in trying to make whichever company he worked for, the best version of itself. After all, which leader in recent times, has the candour to say something like, “”I have made some terrible mistakes, but I now see growth a head for Voltas: all it needs now for the strategy to work is time.”
[Read the Voltas article here]
He was of the view that good and challenging goals take time, and that it is important to stick with it and not give up. It is from him that I first learnt of the phrase, ‘staying power’; a phrase that continues to be a guiding force for me.
He once suggested I create a brochure for my consulting practice. On my next visit, he sat patiently and reviewed a few drafts I had taken. He also offered valuable inputs with great attention to detail. ‘Excellence’ seemed to be a word close to his heart. I remember him suggesting it as an addition to a draft. One needs to understand, this was not the word ‘excellence’ being dropped by a starry-eyed youngster, but by someone who had built businesses that excelled, before building other businesses that excelled too. So it was not just someone suggesting a word. It was probably him inspiring with words he had proven the meaning of by example.
It has been my observation that Mr. Sarin possessed a supremely important mindset and trait that was in short supply during his time, and that is exceedingly rare today. A mindset and a trait I completely believe in. It is that companies are built for a purpose, and that it is the duty of those working for the company to channel their efforts towards the best interest of the company. Even if that means locking horns with bosses or top management if they might be shortsighted or somehow not aligned with the company’s best interest. He will remain one of the most ideal role models one could aspire to be like – a visionary and a compassionate leader – one who inspired his troops to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Over the years, as I trudged along, I would send Mr. Sarin the occasional update, not wanting to trouble him too much with frequent visits. And twice in the past year, he had replied to my emails, telling me to drop by to catch up over coffee. Obviously I would not dream of risking visiting him in the middle of a pandemic, so I told him I will meet him as soon as things are safe again.
Nothing can describe the loss as adequately as Mr. Kanwal Jeet Jawa did in his obituary, where he wrote, “For those who have not had the good fate of knowing Mr. Sarin, and more so for those who have not had the better destiny of having been influenced by him and groomed by him, you have missed something all along but saved from the pain of losing him today.”
I will always remain grateful to him for inspiring me to keep working on getting better than I was.
Dr. Faqir Chand Kohli passed away today at the age of 96.
Founder & 1st CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (India’s largest software consulting co.), he is considered the ‘Father of the Indian Software Industry’ due to his significant contribution to the field.
Oftentimes legends like him are simply names and a string of achievements, for us humbler mortals to look up to and read or talk about. And many of them remain just that, achieving success and fame via their work, retiring, and receding into oblivion. But Dr. Kohli was very different. Which is why at least I will remember him for a long time, and aspire to be like him.
Two instances come to mind that showed the wonder that was Dr. Kohli.
Apart from consulting companies in the areas of innovation and growth strategy, every once in a while, I do think up either some way in which I can help a particular company, or a service that I can offer to a particular sector. Of course, most times the companies I write to are too big so I don’t expect a response, even though I almost feel like I’m the only one who could help save the company (in the past, I’ve written to & offered my services to Yahoo, HP, a bunch of VC’s, etc.; all in my blissful ignorance and confidence).
Anyway, one such exercise, to a broader audience, was when I sent out letters (the paper in envelope kind) to probably over a 100 b-schools and engineering colleges across the country, offering to help them create or shape their entrepreneurship ecosystem. I think three or four at best responded to the letter, all being top institutes who were already actively building their entrepreneurship cell. One was NITIE, Mumbai, and I had the privilege of visiting and checking out some of the work they do there.
Another response was an email asking me to get in touch with the Director of the institute I had written to, with the Director’s phone number on it.
A little flashback – After having selected those 100 institutes to initially write to, in the mundane task of finding the top person and address, what I didn’t realize, is that one of the people I had addressed a letter to, was Dr. Kolhi (Chairman of the Board of Governors of College of Engineering, Pune). And that email I had received with the Director’s phone number on it, was from none other than Dr. Kohli!
Can you imagine a 90ish year old god of industry emailing you to acknowledge a letter you had written, and guiding you on the steps forward?!
To give you some context to it. From the time my book was published, I have couriered over 60 paperback copies of it to various industry leaders with a letter addressed to them. These are people I felt whose businesses might benefit from the book. About 4-5 of their secretaries responded, acknowledging and thanking me for it. So, a 90+ year old gentleman responding to a letter from just another charged up chap who hopes to change the world could have at best landed in the trash. But that was not who Dr. Kohli was. And it also tells us that we have a choice on the kind of leader we want to be.
The second instance was a year or two after that. I was at an industry awards function with my folks, and I spotted Dr. Kohli. My mother was bored and feeling out of place all evening, so I tagged her along as I went to speak to Dr. Kohli. As I introduced myself and my mother, he complimented my mother on her purse, and my mother was beaming all evening. Just like that, in an event where everybody’s busy talking work and accomplishments and potential business, he made a homemaker feel comfortable and at home. I mentioned to Dr. Kohli about him being kind enough to email me, and he brushed off like it was no big deal, inquiring what happened with the meeting.
There are plenty of industry creators, company builders, the rich and the famous. And there are those that simply thrive under the legacy of those before them. And then there are those rare individuals who are so grounded, that they singlehandedly reinforce the idea of humanity and take it forward.
My friend’s father, Dr. Jagadish Rai, a 70-year old obstetrician and general practitioner passed away recently.
Despite an underlying leukemia, and obviously not officially assigned to Covid duty due to his age and medical condition, he saw patients through the lockdown, many of whom were Covid positive.
Given his keenness to help his patients, he followed several safety measures – restricted social contact, even isolated himself at home, apart from taking the necessary regular precautions.
Unfortunately, he contracted Covid from a 28-year old patient (who came to him coughing blood, and who passed away within a day of testing positive). And despite contracting Covid and being hospitalized, in the days leading up to Dr. Rai’s death, he continued attending to patients on call until he got too breathless to be able to.
For an unknown virus that has kept even far younger and healthier doctors away from the risk if they had that choice, Dr. Rai is from a rare breed of bravehearts whose sense of purpose and duty was far bigger than the virus, bigger than our collective fears, and bigger than our collective carelessness.
So the next time any of you are stupid enough to think it’s okay to step outside without a mask, or remove the mask while in public, whether for a picture or to talk; think of Dr. Rai.
Selfless people like him sacrificed their lives to save us from health issues and the virus; not so that we could be stupid enough to knowingly run toward the virus despite such a great sacrifice.
I just heard a few hours back, that one of dad’s closest friends, Eshwaran, passed away this morning. That was extremely bad news.
I had probably met Eshwar uncle and his wife several times as a toddler. And then I met them nearly a decade or more later, probably when I was in the eighth or ninth standard at school. And yet the meeting still feels recent.
Anyone who ever knew him, knew him as an extremely light-hearted and jovial person. But something else apart from his great sense of humour came across strongly too. And that was his keen interest in photography. That, and of course the way he expressed that interest. He was probably around 40-45 or so at the time. But he’d sit and chat with me as if I was just another buddy of his. And yet, the conversation was always extremely interesting, relevant, and still, simple enough so as not to bore an easily distracted kid.
He would tell us about some hilarious incidents from bachelorhood when he, dad, and some friends hung out together. He would then literally zoom in on an important part of his life, his hobby, photography. And he’d give us a vivid description of some amazing scenery that he’d seen. A scenery he had taken several photographs of, several years before. And yet, he’d remember it with more clarity than any of us would remember our last holiday anywhere. And he’d almost get into the technicalities of how he’d place his real fancy camera on the tripod on a slope perhaps, and adjust it to get that right shot.
Or of another incident at another holiday spot that would be amazingly breathtaking, and how he’d proceed to click innumerable pictures of. And it didn’t end there. Back in the day, photograph films had to be developed, and he’d do that too himself. So he’d talk about that too. The dark room, the negatives, and then, how exactly the pictures would have captured to a satisfactory level, a beautiful sunrise, or sunset, or a vast stretch of lush green.
And all that talk would just express his true love for his hobby. That was probably one of the few times when someone’s passion for something they absolutely loved doing, came through very strongly. I even bought my first camera on his recommendation; and just like he said, snaps did come out ‘superb’.
Not only did I learn quite a bit about the basics of ‘clicking a snap’ from him, but also little lessons on perfection. While most of us nowadays just pull out a digital camera and fire away, the little extra effort that I take when clicking snaps to make sure they come out good, are to a great extent, thanks to his photography tips that I got on the few occasions that I got to spend time chatting with him.
And in our world of fads and herds, a few people like Eshwar uncle, stand out for pursuing even a hobby with more interest and dedication than many of us show towards even our work.
Uncle, you’ll live forever in our minds, and it truly has been a pleasure knowing you, as an uncle, a friend, and most importantly, a great human being.
And while I’ll always regret not having spent enough time with you; a line from the movie, Mr. Deeds, comes to mind; that I’ve reworded a little, and that goes like:
We never hung out (enough), and that makes me sad…