Encounter with a CEO

Thursday, October 06, 2005

In India, it is said only Movie Stars, Cricketers and Politicians to a lesser extent make celebrities (A certain Tennis star called Sania Mirza got added to the list recently). They can’t afford to step out of their homes alone without fear of being mobbed by autograph junkies or crazy fans. It’s a price they have to pay for their status. Other accomplished people who have achieved great(er) success in their respective fields - businessmen, scientists, and social workers are rarely recognized when they step out for a walk or a trip in the local mall. The reason is simple - the media feeds on the accomplishments (or the lack there of - as was seen in the case of a certain Indian captain recently) of these people, quite simply because that’s what the 'aam junta' (common people) want to read.

One would be more interested in reading about the latest movie of an actor or the item song of an actress or the exploits of a cricketer rather than the latest acquisition strategy of an industrialist or discovery of a scientist. This is a sort of symbiotic relationship between the media and the masses. While the media lives on the capacity of the masses to consume 'digestible' infotainment, the masses rely on the media to bring them such 'food for entertainment'. The result - politicians get to the front pages of the paper (and opening stories of a news capsule); movie stars and cricketers find themselves on the back pages while the rest are sandwiched somewhere in between, which are the less visited middle pages.

This is why I always wondered - how would people react if they saw a successful businessman or a scientist on the street. Would they recognize him/her in the first place? A chance to see the reaction first hand occurred recently. Couple of weeks back, I was catching up with a couple of my school friends at The Forum, a swanky new mall in Bangalore. We exchanged stories of our batch mates, pulled one another’s legs and my friends departed after a couple of hours. Having said goodbye to them, I went for my weekend time pass jaunt at Landmark, a huge Bookstore in the same mall. I enjoy losing myself in the world of books for a couple of hours, without a care in the world.

I finished browsing through a book on cricket and kept it back in the shelf and turned around to go to the next section when I saw a middle aged gentleman looking intently at the titles of some latest releases. I realised it was none other than Nandan Nilekani, the CEO and co-founder of Infosys, one of the biggest IT companies in the world. He was slightly stout (more than he seems in TV or in the papers), taller than I thought and had a pleasant look on his face. And he seemed to be alone and was not bothered by anyone around. Worse (or better, for him?) no one seemed to notice him or recognize him. I stalled for a second, not sure if I should disturb him. But my excitement soon took care of that dilemma. I walked up to him, extended my hand and said "Mr. Nilekani, its a pleasure to meet you" A smile lit up his face and he took my hand immediately, covered it in a firm grip and said "Its the same here".

I think I spoke a little loud, because when I said "Mr. Nilekani" people around me looked up from their books and saw who it was. I was saying "I would have loved to take your autograph, but I do not have a pen" when he was mobbed by about half a dozen guys my age. I realised they were all IT professionals like me. They were all taking autographs from him on address books and pieces of paper. A thought hit me. I fished out my visiting card, borrowed a pen from someone and said "Mr. Nilekani, I work in Wipro. I hope you don’t mind signing at the back of my Wipro visiting card". (Wipro and Infosys are business rivals and competitors in the IT field)

He immediately took it with a laugh, said "Of course no. Not at all" and proceeded to sign it with a flourish. I shook hands with him once again and thanked him profusely and went away to watch from a distance. The commotion was over in a matter of seconds and he was alone again wandering in the bookstore.

Would the reaction have been the same had it been a lesser-known cricketer or a movie star? Of course not. But does not the CEO of one of India's most successful and respected companies, a man partly responsible for making India the Offshoring destination of the world, deserve much more recognition? I would say Yes, but I think I know what Mr. Nilekani himself would say. I think he would much rather prefer wandering blissfully in a bookstore without being bothered by autograph junkies. I am sure he would. That expression on his face told me.

Dream come True?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

It was our family pilgrimage to Tirupati - abode of Lord Venkateswara (or Balaji) the Lord of Seven Hills. For the uninitiated, Lord Balaji is an 'Avatar' (Incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s Trinity. Lord Balaji is the most visited God in India and apparently Tirupati is the second most visited holy place on the Earth after The Vatican with Annual Visitors close to 20 million (works out to an average of 60000 per day). He is also said to be the Richest God in the world with annual offerings from pilgrims touching a whopping Rs 300 Crore ($ 66 mn) per year. The actual temple is in the top of a hill (rather a string of seven hills, thereby earning Lord Balaji the name Lord of Seven Hills) called Tirumala, which can be reached by long and winding Ghat Roads from the town of Tirupati.

On the morning we arrived, my Dad said he had a strange dream overnight in the train. He saw Lord Balaji in his dream (this on its own is nothing great - Indians regularly see their favourite Gods and Goddesses in dreams!), with the same dark Idol, huge 'Namam' (Large Mark in the shape of U) on the face and the body adorn with glittering jewels and fresh flowers. But he said the similarity with the 'vigraham' (Idol) in the Sanctum Santorum of the temple in Tirumala ended there.

For one, the figure he saw in his dream was much bigger than the one in Tirulmala and one had to walk up a small ramp to get to the sanctum sanctorum. The sanctum sanctorum was also filled with bright light from large floodlights, unlike the normal practice of Oil-lamp lit sanctum sanctorums. He being a deeply religious person attributed some great meaning to it though he could not quite figure out what it meant. My Mom, no less religious was also awed by the whole thing. I being slightly less devout and more rational, saw it as just another dream. I thought, just as I dream of my favourite heroines, my Dad dreamt of his favourite God.

We had our 'Darshan' (translated literally means 'seeing', attributed to seeing the Deity in a temple) after standing for 2 hours in the queue, which is less compared to the normal standards. I should hasten to add here that the actual 'Darshan' itself lasted not more than 5 seconds. Given the huge rush, you are literally pushed along the queue by guards manning the queues. It is normally advised that while seeing the Lord in Tirumala one should not close one's eyes (as the practice generally is with Hindus, who bow and close their eyes in prayer in front of God) lest you miss seeing him in those crucial few seconds.

Anyway, we spent the rest of the day touring other smaller temples in the temple town of Tirupati and retired for the day. The plan was to visit a nearby pilgrim centre known as ‘Kanipakam’, which houses Lord Vinayaka (or Ganesha, the elephant headed God and son of Lord Shiva, second of the Holy Trinity). This place has special religious significance, as its widely believed that the Idol at this place is a 'Swayambhu' idol (Self manifested). Let me explain. Normally, idols are consecrated in temples, which means someone makes the idols and they are placed in the temple amidst great pomp and fanfare. However there are a clutch of temples have that have legends, which claim self-manifested idols. This means that the idol was not placed there by someone, rather it manifested itself there on its own. The idol of Lord Vinayaka is one such self-manifested idol, believed to have emerged from a well.

We completed our darshan at Kanipakam, andwere returning to Tirupati in a taxi. We got into chatting with the taxi driver who like a true blue taxi driver, was offering his quips on local politics, the administration in Tirupati and life in general. He also got to mention some lesser-known temples in the region, which he said were no less magnificent than the other famous ones. He mentioned one such temple, called Srinivasa Mangapuram, where again the presiding deity is Lord Balaji (Srinivasa is another of his many names). We had never heard of the place before, but having nothing else to do, we asked him to take us there.

It was mid-afternoon, around 2:30 PM, and it was a sweltering hot day (as usual). We had to literally run into the shade to avoid getting our bare feet burnt on the cobblestones of the temple courtyard. My father was the first in the line and as soon as he turned the corner and came face to face with the idol he suddenly stopped and let out a loud gasp. He stood transfixed there for a moment. We hadn't turned the corner yet, we couldn’t quite get what led him to be so mesmerised. He looked at us and slowly walked in.

As I turned the corner, I slowly realised why my Dad was so amazed. The scene in front of me was exactly like the one my Dad saw in his dream. The idol was tall (taller than the one in Tirupati) and dark, the sanctum sanctorum was filled with bright light from floodlights and leading up to it was a ramp. If I, who heard the dream from my father could be so amazed, I could only imagine what my father felt having actually had that dream.

As my father remarked later, the best part of the visit wasn’t the visit to Tirupati (which was itself great), but it was the visit to the little known Srinivasa Mangapuram, which made the day for us.