This is a refreshing book by an important business leader. When an Indian colleague first lent it to me, I wasn’t thrilled to read it but felt obligedThis is a refreshing book by an important business leader. When an Indian colleague first lent it to me, I wasn’t thrilled to read it but felt obliged. I was very much positively surprised. N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder and chairman of Infosys presents a rather coherent and positive vision to the world according to himself. If only many more business leaders thought like him, one might even feel tempted by this thing called ‘compassionate capitalism.’ Narayana Murthy has thought much about India, his homeland, and its contradictions. In the introduction to his book, he outlines these:
“The enigma of India is that our progress in higher education and in science and technology has not been sufficient to take 350 million Indians out of illiteracy. It is difficult to imagine that 318 million people in the country do not have access to safe drinking water and 250 million people do not have access to basic medical care. Why should 630 million people not have access to acceptable sanitation facilities even in 2009? When you see world-class supermarkets and food chains in our towns, and when our urban youngsters gloat over the choice of toppings on their pizzas, why should 51 per cent of the children in the country be undernourished? When India is among the largest producers of engineers and scientists in the world, why should 52 per cent of the primary schools have only one teacher for every two classes? When our politicians and bureaucrats live in huge houses in Lutyens’ Delhi and the state capitals, our corporate leaders splurge money on mansions, yachts and planes, and our urban youth revel in their latest sport shoes, why should 300 million Indians live on hardly Rs 545 per month (US$10 at current exchange rate), barely sufficient to manage two meals a day, with little or no money left for schooling, clothes, shelter and medicine?” (pp. xiii-xiv).
His starting point is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘four freedoms’—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear (p. xiii). He later elaborates on what a ‘civilized society’ entails: “a society where everybody has equal opportunity to better his or her life; where every child has food, shelter, health care and education; a society where duties come before rights; where each generation makes sacrifices to make life better for the next generation” (p. 11). Obviously, many of these tenets are increasingly not present in today’s USA and, worse, many Americans on the right would dispute these principles as smacking of socialism.
Narayana Murthy is a well-read and well-travelled, learned man who clearly thinks a lot about societal issues. In the introduction his acknowledged three books that have influenced him deeply: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber; My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi; and Peau Noire, Masques Blancs by Franz Fanon (p. xiv). This rather eclectic selection shows the breadth of his reading and attests to an open mind. He builds his own philosophy on these disparate strains of thought, emphasizing the importance of values and leadership. He sets out early in the book that, “I do not know of any community—a company, an institution or a nation—that has achieved success without a long journey of aspiration, hard work, commitment, focus, hope, confidence, humility and sacrifice” (p. xxiii).
His student years in France in the 1970s were very important in forming his thinking. In the first chapter, a lecture to students, he compares France to India for its civil-mindedness: “In France, everybody acted as if it was their job to discuss, debate and quickly act on improving public facilities. In India, we discuss, debate and behave as if the improvement of any public facility is not our task, and consequently, do not act at all” (p. 11). His conclusion: being a developing country is a mindset. Here he breaks clear of the Left, placing the onus on the individual, as well as the society as a whole, to take responsibility for its own destiny. He tells a story of how he lost any sympathy for the Left after having been incarcerated by Bulgarian authorities when traveling back from Paris to India in 1974 (pp. 4-5).
This is a collection of 37 essays and speeches given at a variety of fora during the 2000s and selected for the book by the author himself. They are divided into sections: Address to students; Values; Important national issues; Education; Leadership challenges; Corporate and public governance; Corporate social responsibility and philanthropy; Entrepreneurship; Globalization; and, finally, three short chapters on Infosys. In such a collection it is inevitable that there are overlaps between the chapters and many recurrent themes. I’ll pick a few themes that I found interesting here below.
He addresses students in a variety of schools, ranging from prestigious institutions like INSEAD, Indian Institute of Technology, IESE Business School in Barcelona and NYU, to various other universities in India. He exhorts his values: “You must believe in and act according to the principle that putting public interest ahead of private interest in the short term will be better for your private concerns in the long run.” … “Ego, vanity and contempt for other people have clouded our minds for thousands of years and impeded our progress. Humility is scarce in this country.” … “No county that has shunned merit has succeeded in solving its problems.” … “The reason for the lack of progress in many developing nations is not the paucity of resources but the lack of management talent and professionalism” (pp. 14-15).
Narayana Murthy is a fan of globalization and refers to the ‘global bazaar’ and Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world’ in several places. In this context, he calls for “an environment of tolerance and respect for multi-culturalism” (p. 19). He sees global warming and environmental degradation as major threats and sees that the answers must lie in global cooperation: “The solution is not to force developing nations to forgo what the developed world has enjoyed for over a century. It is to come together as one planet and use innovation in technology to produce alternate energy solutions and reduction of carbon emissions.” His thinking reflects the intergenerational equity perspective embedded in the original definition of sustainable development: “After all, this is the only planet we have. Conduct yourself as if you have borrowed it from the next generation. Remember that you will have to give it back to them in good shape” (pp. 20-21).
He is also very critical of laissez-faire capitalism, a theme that resonates throughout the book: “Unfortunately, the greed of several corporate leaders, the meltdown of Wall Street, the increasing differences between the salaries of CEOs and ordinary workers, and the unbelievable severance compensation paid to failed CEOs have called into question whether capitalism is indeed a solution for the benefit of all, or if it is an instrument for a few cunning people to hoodwink a large mass of gullible middle-class and poor people. Never before in the history of capitalism have so few people brought so much misery to so many.” His views of how to manage a company are in line with his broader beliefs: “The only way you can save capitalism and bring it back to its shining glory is by conducting yourselves as decent, honest, fair, diligent and socially conscious business leaders. In every action of yours, you have to ask how it will make the lowest level worker in your corporation and the poorest person in your society better. You have to learn to put the interest of the community—your corporation, your society, your nation and this planet—before your own interest.” Again emphasizing the need for sacrifice, he states that, “(T)o succeed in these days of globalization, global warming and laissez-faire capitalism, every worker in your corporation will have to accept tremendous sacrifices in the short term and hope that goodness will, indeed, succeed in the long term and make life better for every one of them” (pp. 21-22). Certainly not the thinking en vogue on this continent!
Naryana Murthy is also rather harsh on India. In a chapter entitled ‘What Can We Learn from the West?’ he chastises his own nation for faulty values: “Indian society has, for over a thousand years, put loyalty to family ahead of loyalty to society.” … “Unfortunately, our attitude towards family life is not reflected in our attitude towards the community. From littering the streets to corruption to violating contractual obligations, we are apathetic to the community good.” … “Apathy in addressing community matters has held us back from making progress which is otherwise within our reach. We see serious problems around us but do not try to solve them. We behave as if the problems do not exist or as if they belong to someone else” (pp. 47-49). He continues, “our intellectual arrogance has also not helped our society. I have travelled extensively and, in my experience, have not come across another society where people are as contemptuous of better societies as we are, with as little progress as we have achieved.” He identifies things that India should learn from the West, including accountability, dignity of labour (“everybody in India wants to be a thinker and not a doer”), and professionalism (punctuality, respect for other people’s time, respecting contractual obligations), concluding that “the most important attribute of a progressive society is respect for others who have accomplished more than they themselves have, and the willingness to learn from them” (pp. 50-51)
Elaborating on individual responsibilities, he adds one more: discipline. “There are several ingredients for national development—natural resources, human resources, leadership, and finally, discipline.” … “The utter lack of discipline exhibited by our people is rendering these other three powerful factors ineffective for fast-paced economic growth. We see umpteen examples of undisciplined behaviour around us every day. What is even sadder is that this behaviour has become the norm even among the powerful and the elite.” … “Discipline is about complying with the agreed protocols, norms, desirable practices, regulations and the laws of the land designed to improve the performance of individuals and societies. Discipline is the bedrock of individual development, community development, and national development” (p. 57). In this category, Narayana Murthy includes aspects, such as lack of discipline in thought, or intellectual dishonesty (objectivity to focus on outcomes and results, rather than politics or focus on caste and religion; corruption). To achieve discipline, India needs role models (honest, accountable, disciplined leaders committed to change), swift and harsh punishment of offenders, transparency, political reform, and an improved bureaucracy (p. 65).
The part focusing on important national issues considers a wide range, including the role of population in economic development in India. Talking about population growth as a strain to development risks getting attacked from both the Left and the Right these days, but Narayana Murthy barges right into the issues. He highlights the need for ‘good human capital’ (p. 94) but also warns that “a failure to stabilize India’s population will have significant implications for the future of India’s economy” and that “high population densities have also led to overloaded systems and infrastructure in urban areas” (p. 95). He links the population debate to environment and resources, in particular energy demand, noting how the combined demands from India and China will put pressure on world resources: “The rapid growth in emerging economies cannot be sustained in the face of mounting environmental deterioration and resource depletion” (pp. 96-97). He sees a clear role for the government, which must “focus on conservation-friendly policies. For example, subsidies on conventional fuel make it difficult for renewable energy sources to compete and should be removed at least for rich and middle-class people.” … “The government can play a key role as a regulator in making Indian industry environmentally responsible” (pp. 99-100). Would someone please tell that to the politicians in Washington, DC?
So, how to deal with the issue of excessive population growth? Well, there’s the need to meet unmet need of contraception and the issue of how Indian states have failed to implement family planning programs. Narayana Murthy recognizes that there’s been a significant decrease in population growth in certain southern states, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where “state governments here focussed on human development, opened up local economies, and improved social services … Rising female literacy in these states contributed to the success of family planning … A focus on women’s and children’s health also contribute to population control.” He concludes, in line with what is also known from empirical literature: “human development goes hand in hand with lower population growth” (pp. 98-99). What he doesn’t mention is that states like Kerala have for decades been run by parties from the Left.
His ‘Framework for Urban Planning in Modern India’ also recognizes the importance of planning but calls for “radical, immediate reform in the planning and management of our cities” that “must adequately address the shortage of low-cost housing” (pp. 104-105).
Moving to corporate governance, he extols the virtues of good corporate governance to enhance corporate performance while ensuring that corporations conform with the interests of investors and society by “creating fairness, transparency and accountability in business activities among employees, management and the board” (p. 174). “The abuse of corporate power results from incentives within firms that encourage a culture of corruption. … Clearly, good governance requires a mindset within the corporation which integrates the corporate code of ethics into the day-to-day activities of its managers and workers” (p. 181). “Corporate leaders have to create a climate of opinion that values respectability in addition to wealth” (p. 184).
So what is this ‘compassionate capitalism’ that Narayana Murthy longs for? According to him it is about “bringing the power of capitalism to the benefit of large masses. It is about combining the power of mind and heart, the good of capitalism and socialism … The benefits of growth have to be distributed widely” (p. 215). While this does not exist anywhere, Narayana Murthy does pay some respect to what he calls the ‘Swedish model.’
He returns to the theme of the lack of credibility of capitalism today: “Greedy behaviour from corporate leaders has strengthened public conviction that free markets are tools for the rich to get richer at the expense of the welfare of the general public” (p. 216). Lest capitalism is rejected as the most accepted model for growth in developing countries and by the alienated poor, the business leaders have to regain the trust of society and abide the value system of the community where they operate. Touching on a debate that rages both in America and Europe, Narayana Murthy weighs in on executive compensation: “Business leaders should shun excessive managerial compensation. Managerial remuneration should be based on three principles—fairness with respect to the compensation of other employees; transparency with respect to shareholders and employees; and accountability with respect to linking compensation with corporate performance … We have to create a climate of opinion which says respect is more important than wealth” (pp. 216-217). Indeed.
At the end, this rather visionary and socially aware business leader sees globalization in an almost exclusively favourable light, concluding that “we need a flat world because is spreads the American beliefs in free trade to the rest of the world; it benefits consumers from all over the globe; it helps create a world with better opportunities for everyone; and, finally, it brings global trade into focus, shunning terrorism and creating a more peaceful world” (p. 256). The self-confessed admirer of the United States would be bitterly disappointed with the level of political discourse here today. ...more
This is a travel book focusing on modes of transportation that most travellers would prefer to avoid. Carl Hoffman’s stated desire was to circumnavigaThis is a travel book focusing on modes of transportation that most travellers would prefer to avoid. Carl Hoffman’s stated desire was to circumnavigate the globe on the cheapest and most dangerous forms of mass transit. For most of humankind, travel was no pleasurable touring, but a necessary movement from point A to point B often involving terribly long and uncomfortable, not to mention perilous, trips on decrepit buses that would plunge into gorges from the winding mountainside roads that they travelled, on overcrowded, capsizing ferries, unmaintained ancient aircraft, and trains that were so stuffed with people that they just fell off on the tracks. Hoffman’s travels over several months involved all of the above, as he left his home in Washington, DC, and toured around the Andes and Amazon basin in South America, the roads and railroads of East and West Africa, the notorious deathtraps that ferries in Indonesia and Bangladesh were. He had weeks of relative leisure in India before flying to Afghanistan on the national airline Ariana (a.k.a. Scariana). Then returning home by train and gas truck through China, Mongolia and Siberia. Through all these segments of travel he reports on the exotic places he encounters, the hairy situations arising and, most importantly, the various people he meets.
Carl Hoffman is plagued by wanderlust. He is middle-aged, married with three kids, a journalist, but for a long time he has felt compelled to leave the comforts of home behind and travel. This is the other theme of the book: man’s struggle between loneliness and belonging. The book gets quite personal, as Hoffman misses his family while at the same time feels alive only travelling in risky places amongst strange people. At times his descriptions of his own addiction to danger seem slightly too heroic, but at least I personally can very well relate to his contradictory feelings. He observes with some envy people in the poor countries that he visits and interacts with, how they all have strong bonds in their communities and families; at the same time, he knows that he could never live that way, with no privacy or time alone. When he finally is returning home, he notes that he was settling in and getting a little bored on the trip. He concludes that it was time to go home: “Travel was only worthwhile when your eyes were fresh, when it surprised you and amazed you and made you think about yourself in a new way. You couldn’t travel forever. When you stopped seeing, when you lost your curiosity and openness to the world, it was time to return to your starting point and see where you stood” (p. 263).
I found the book to be well worth reading, well written, even quite wise. Although the narrative was generally entertaining, I found there was a certain unevenness to the chapters (probably reflecting the interestingness of the segment and the people Hoffman happened to meet). The cover of my edition touted it as a “Wall Street Journal Book of the Year.” I wouldn’t go that far and the accolade baffled me initially, before I realized that for an average WJS reader the book would cover territory that was strange and likely unsightly. The Lunatic Express certainly serves its purpose as an antidote to seeing travel only through the lens of comfortable business travel or relaxing tourism. Carl Hoffman made a superb effort to experience travel the way the majority of the world’s people experience it. In the process he met numerous interesting and hospitable people whom he recalls frequently with warmth, always with understanding....more
In this short and reasoned treatise, Ian Buruma addresses a central issue of democracy, namely the separation of church and state, from a historical,In this short and reasoned treatise, Ian Buruma addresses a central issue of democracy, namely the separation of church and state, from a historical, social and political perspective.
The book is divided into three main parts. In the first, Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals, Buruma juxtaposes the experiences in Europe and in America, providing an insightful analysis of what separates—and unites—the old and the new continent, including the role of born-again evangelical Christians in American politics. His conclusion, perhaps surprisingly, is that the gulf between ‘secular’ Europe and more traditionally religious America is not as large as it often is made to be. Buruma writes: “Our histories are not the same and we have different notions of who we are. But everywhere people are trying to cope with the confusions of a fast-changing world by reaching for fixed—and quite often newly made up—identities based on race, religion, or national culture” (p. 46). This summarizes one of the main theses in the book: that religious fervor must be understood not in theological, but in social and political terms.
The second part of the book, Oriental Wisdom, turns attention to China and Japan. He draws parallels and explains differences in history that led to different outcomes. Buruma is particularly well versed in Japan’s history since the Meiji Restoration through the pre-war years until today, and this knowledge translates into a clear analysis in this book, as well as several others by him. He provides an interesting analysis of Maoism in China and Emperor worship in Japan as examples where state and spiritual authority coincided. While religion today plays a smaller role in these East Asian countries, Buruma traces the rise of a variety of cults and other religious groups, such as the Falun Gong, to the spiritual vacuum left by the collapse of Maoism in China and the prohibition of political participation by the Chinese people. Similarly in Japan the focus on chasing economic prosperity has left such a vacuum.
The final part, Enlightenment Values, focuses on how Western liberal societies should deal with the rising multiculturalism in our societies. This is a particularly balanced and coherent section of the book. Buruma draws from well-known cases that have led to the Kulturkampf in Europe, over issues such as the cultural rights (to discriminate against women or for women to wear a veil) of immigrant groups in Europe against the demands for them to integrate into the host societies and their norms. It all boils down to a confrontation between those who defend anyone’s right to stick to his or her culture of origin (with no consideration of its respect for host country values) vs. those (probably in the majority in Europe now) who want immigrants to integrate into the society. It is very interesting to follow Buruma’s argumentation around the very difficult question between people’s right to their own culture vs. respecting ‘universal’ – or at least those of the majority of people in the country – values of Enlightenment. This is a dilemma many liberals in the West face, torn between the values of freedom that we so cherish and the knee-jerk desire to respect others’ cultural values, how much at cross-purposes they might be with ours. Buruma points out how it is often the same people (many of them left leaning intellectuals) who in the 1960s and 1970s defended Third World rights against Western (cultural) imperialism that now are most worried about the spread of illiberal values into Europe through immigration from poor countries. The comparisons between the different approaches towards immigrant groups taken by the UK, Holland and France is quite illuminating.
He discusses at some length problems related, especially, to the integration of Muslims (both immigrant and those born there) into the European society. One interesting example is the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who by now is a talk show star in the US, who having overcome her challenges in the home country of Somalia and the morally relativist Holland now fights for the rights of Muslim women to break away from the oppression of their original culture. Another case that Buruma discusses at some length is that of Salman Rushdie who earned himself a fatwa for his book 'The Satanic Verses' and had to go into hiding as a result.
Buruma draws a clear line against terrorists and religious fundamentalists who resort to violence. “The use of violence in a democracy, for whatever reason, can only be met with force,” he states (p. 115). He recognizes that while religious orthodoxy and political extremism can be linked, they are not the same thing nor does one necessarily lead to the other. However, discussing the cases of Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch born son of Moroccan immigrants who killed the film maker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, and Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 terrorists who bombed the London underground, Buruma traces their violent terrorism and ‘religious awakening’ to the isolation and cultural rootlessness they experienced in the European countries they were born into.
Buruma concludes convincingly that the separation of state and religion is quite essential in a democracy. A well functioning democratic society does not have to share the same social or religious values as long as everybody abides by the society’s rules and laws. He also makes a valuable distinction between respecting other people, while not necessarily respecting their beliefs. “Liberal democracies are now well served by laws that limit free speech, such as laws against blasphemy or denying the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide,” he writes, and continues “(T)here are ways, however, to respect the dignity of fellow citizens without recourse to the law” (p. 123).
Ian Buruma’s book is fabulously erudite. The writing is stellar and lucid, anchored firmly in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers, such as Spinoza and Hume, as well as Tocqueville, Confucius and others. He gets to the heart of the matter without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Born in Holland from Dutch and British parents, Buruma spent a significant portion of his career in Japan and China. He now teaches at Bard College in New York. He is thus extraordinarily well placed to understand the historical and social situations in these countries located on three continents. He ends with paraphrasing Confucius: Let us leave the spirits aside, until we know how best to serve men. ...more
Khushwant Singh is one of India’s best known authors but I had never read him before. This book was written in 2009-2010, when Singh had already turneKhushwant Singh is one of India’s best known authors but I had never read him before. This book was written in 2009-2010, when Singh had already turned 95. This is quite amazing to me. In the foreword, entitled ‘Apologia’, the author states that, in his age, he had no intention of writing the novel, as he was not sure he would be able to finish it. The book tells the story of three old friends, all in their late-80s, who form the Sunset Club, gathering most every evening on a park bench in New Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens. The story unfolds over one year—from January 2009 to January 2010. The seasons change, the old gentlemen—one Brahmin, one Sikh, the third Muslim—discuss history and philosophy, comment on daily politics, and their own ailments. Most of all, though, they talk about sex and reminisce about their lovers. The book is ribald and melancholy at the same time. There are lots of bodily functions and humanity. It’s not a great book by any means, but I am glad I read it, especially as I did it during this trip to Delhi and was able to walk about Lodhi Gardens for atmosphere....more
Quite extraordinary. Rushdie mixes fiction, a love story, some mysticism (but not too much), history and politics as he tells the story of the protagoQuite extraordinary. Rushdie mixes fiction, a love story, some mysticism (but not too much), history and politics as he tells the story of the protagonist from four different perspectives. Although he moves back and forth in time and place, the story remains compelling and the literary devices never feel contrived. The suspense is constantly there, even if you have already been told what the outcome will be. In the process, Rushdie manages to give the reader an account of the history of Kashmir and its descent from an earthly paradise to chaos and sectarian violence. He shows the horrible atrocities committed by both the insurgents and the Indian army, and reveals how the religious awakening of the Muslim terrorists has more to do with social injustices and personal (often sexual) frustrations than with finding god. The writing is at times flowery, at others brutally straight, and inevitably some segments are more engaging than others (I personally found the descriptions of life in Kashmir and how the generations old communal relations slowly unravel most compelling), but all in all this is a fabulous story fabulously told.
This was only the second Salman Rushdie book I've ever read. The first one, Midnight's Children, I found harder, but I also read it a long time ago, when the book was new and I myself probably too young and not familiar enough with the birthing pains of India and Pakistan. Given the wide variety of books Rushdie has written, I don't think I'll read all of them, but I should probably take another stab at Midnight's Children. Shalimar the Clown was a true treat....more
This is a very well written and clearly argued book. Zakaria states at the outset: "This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about tThis is a very well written and clearly argued book. Zakaria states at the outset: "This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else." He lives up to the statement and shows how America's relative weight in the world will be reduced as other countries, especially in Asia and Europe, grow. Zakaria dedicates sections in the book to China and India, the country of his birth. However, his perspective is American and he firmly believes in the strength of American creativeness, innovation and entrepreneurship. Fareed is an American intellectual, who is worried about the trends in the society, the political polarization, the wars, the health care debacle, etc., but eventually believes in the fundamentals of the capitalist system. Like many conventional economists, he believes that population growth, immigration and a youthful population work to the advantage of USA (and India) vis-a-vis Japan, Europe and China. He also pays basically no attention to environmental issues and how they may change growth and development patterns in the world. It's interesting to compare this book with Parag Khanna's 'The Second World' which discusses many of the same themes. Their conclusions are partly overlapping, but not entirely. I wish all Americans, especially on the right fringe would read Zakaria's book. They would find lots of thoughtful critique and advice, without having their basic beliefs shaken....more
The book tells two parallel stories, one taking place in 1980-1990 when the author spends time in Egypt as a graduate student of anthropology; the othThe book tells two parallel stories, one taking place in 1980-1990 when the author spends time in Egypt as a graduate student of anthropology; the other in the 12th century depicting the booming trade between the Middle East and India through the eyes of a North African trader based in Aden, Mangalore and Egypt. The latter, fascinating story has been reconstructed through painstaking archival research and study of surviving correspondence and documents from the time. Amitav Ghosh, a renowned Indian novelist, proves his skills as an Oxford-educated academic, as well as a keen observer of everyday life. He demonstrates how the peoples around the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean have long interacted in many ways. Ghosh brings out the big picture by focusing on the lives of individual people. This is an erudite book that brings past and present together in an intriguing manner. ...more
The Calcutta Chromosome is impossible to categorise. It is partly a thriller, partly science fiction, partly (imaginary) medical history. It moves bacThe Calcutta Chromosome is impossible to categorise. It is partly a thriller, partly science fiction, partly (imaginary) medical history. It moves back and forth in time and in place, from colonial India to near-future USA. After a slow start, the book absorbs the reader in a confusing and multi-layered story. Ghosh writes in an engaging manner, with lots of humour. The protagonist, Murugan, grows on you and you start to sympathise with the poor man's quest. For sure, this book is not for everyone, but I personally regretted when it was finished. [I originally wrote this for Amazon.com.]...more