The Khattars moved from Dera Ismail Khan in the North-West Frontier Province to Delhi after Partition. Like many other dispossessed families, they got on with life. Young Jagdish acted in a film called Gandhi Path. This fetched him offers to act in Jagriti and Boot Polish — films that became landmarks. But his father was keen that he should focus on his studies. Jagdish Khattar didn’t let his father down. He joined the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1965, only to leave it in the early 1990s and join Maruti Udyog, India’s largest car-maker, then majority-owned by the government. He became managing director in 1999, retired in 2007 and now runs the Carnation chain of service stations. Later this year or early next year the interesting stories of Khattar’s life will be out in the open when his autobiography releases. “It is,” says Khattar, “about my experiences in the changing scenarios of the country. I have been a part of the system at every change.”
Sandeep Goyal, who sold his 26 per cent in Dentsu for an unconfirmed Rs 200 crore last year, is writing a book that will be titled Kenjo — Japanese for “indefatigable, unconquerable spirit” — on his seven years with the Japanese advertising agency. “It is a tongue-in-cheek account of the idiosyncrasies of clients, funny things we did with campaigns, the people one met,” he says. Goyal had earlier written The Dum Dum Bullet on the business of advertising; he now plans to update and re-release it.
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Their names are often seen on the front pages of the financial dailies. Now they have begun to appear on the front covers of books. Where Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, Andy Grove and Warren Buffett have been since the 1980s, now Indian business leaders like K P Singh, Kishore Biyani, R C Bhargava, Nandan Nilekani, Capt Gopinath, Vinay Bharat Ram and N R Narayana Murthy have also, since the mid-2000s, begun to appear. And there are more to come. Siddharth Shriram has commissioned Murad Ali Baig to write a history of Usha, the iconic brand of sewing machines. A biography of Lala Shri Ram, the founder of DCM, is in the works. The families of Desh Bandhu Gupta of Lupin and Qimat Rai Gupta of Havells are on the lookout for writers who can do their biographies. Adi Godrej’s book is expected to be out by the end of the year. Capt C P Krishnan Nair of the Leela Group, irrepressible at 90, published a memoir titled Krishna Leela in Malayalam last year which has sold close to 10,000 copies; it may be translated into English.
Publishers are ready to back such projects. “I don’t have the exact figures,” says Udayan Mitra, who heads Penguin India's business imprints, “but I would estimate business books constitute about 25-30 per cent of the non-fiction market in India (English publishing, and in terms of value not volume) right now, and business biographies constitute about 25 per cent of the business books segment — so that’s a pretty sizeable market.” Businesspeople often buy back their books in large numbers to distribute to friends and employees. Such orders can run into a few thousand, not bad in a market where 4,000 copies make a bestseller.
Why this double boom now, of writers and readers? “For three reasons,” says Gita Piramal, author of popular titles like Business Maharajas and Business Legends, and a member of an old business family. “One, to celebrate survival and success. It was almost 200 years ago that the Industrial Revolution touched India. A number of companies are celebrating their century and more. Two, earlier, businessmen shunned writing their autobiographies or encouraging hagiographies. G D Birla, a prolific writer, never wrote his. No such stigma exists today. Three, more people want to read about success. As more Indians become businesspeople, they want to know more about what works and what does not in business.”
Another reason, says Krishan Chopra, who heads publisher HarperCollins’s business list, is the loosening of state control of the economy. “Business has changed, the Licence Raj ended. Success used to be connected with that. Now India has a highly competitive market open to foreign companies. Business leaders are driven by their own ambitions and intelligence and are making their own success.”
The Licence Raj was a murky period, where cronyism alone mattered. Those stories couldn’t be told. So, there is only one truthful account that came out during that time: Escorts’ Har Prasad Nanda’s The Days of My Years. Nanda spoke candidly of Swraj Paul’s raid on Escorts and DCM in the mid-1980s, and how it was thwarted. In contrast, the DCM side of the story came out only last year when Vinay Bharat Ram wrote From the Brink of Bankruptcy: The DCM Story.
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R C Bhargava’s The Maruti Story: How a Public Sector Company Put India on Wheels (2010) tells the story behind the company’s rise in the 1980s. “I thought of writing this book after I had retired,” says Bhargava. “There were many aspects of how we built this company that were not known or remembered,” even by his colleagues. He thought it his responsibility to record Maruti’s achievements. “I don't believe in writing a memoir, one’s own life story, that’s of no interest,” says Bhargava. He wrote “for anybody in the business of manufacturing, because many of the areas of what we did in terms of developing a supply chain and our vendor development programme applies to a whole lot of products.” Among other things, he says he wanted to show how Maruti ended the “chalta hai attitude” of suppliers. “Ultimately, many people have picked up what we did, with benefit to the entire auto industry.”
This desire to show challenge-and-solution also motivates Surinder Kapur, chairman of the Sona Group, a major automobile components manufacturer based in Gurgaon and Germany. He too is working on a book. “I’ve always felt that in India we don't document as much as we should with regard to situations that one has faced and how one has overcome them,” he says. In 2008, as the global financial crisis unfolded, Kapur acquired a troubled German manufacturer and accomplished a turnaround. He is very proud of this. “I’m writing [the book] for Indian young people in particular,” says Kapur, “but I imagine there’ll be parts of it [for a wider readership], about how an Indian looks at business in Europe and the USA, and how a European company looks at business in India and China.” The book has been brewing for some time. “I’ve done part of it two-three years ago with a journalist,” he says. “Now I’m writing on the main issue, and looking for somebody to help me put it in a proper format to be easy to read.”
The co-author’s task is not always smooth. “I thought it would be a cakewalk — it’s just one company,” says Seetha, who co-wrote The Maruti Story. “But it took three years.” One problem was that Maruti had not kept some records. One missing document was a crucial market survey, suggested by Bhargava, which led to the nixing of Renault, with its sedan model, as Maruti’s partner. “That market survey showed that what people wanted was a small car,” Seetha says. The partner ultimately chosen was Suzuki, and the small car was the 800 — so this was clearly a history-making survey. Siddharth Shriram too realised while researching Usha that old records are hard to come by. “I have told Murad [the author] not to be in a hurry.”
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Some businessmen want to control what is being written. Piramal has on occasion turned down projects where the subject did not give her a free hand, she says. “I don’t want to be tied down by golden threads.” But she cautions that “there is no such thing as objectivity in the writing of biographies. Before I begin the interviews for a book, I make a list of turning points. The choice of turning points itself destroys objectivity. I lean more towards entrepreneurship and leadership. Other writers first begin by checking out financials and financial success.” Even so, it helps that she sympathises with her subjects: “I suppose being a ‘Piramal’ helps. I understand their world, the pressures of this world.”
Often the aim is not so much to record as it is to inspire. “I want young people to be as excited about entrepreneurship as I am,” Piramal says. “Entrepreneurship is very hard to do, and made easier if there are successful business icons that young people can emulate.” Publisher Kapish Mehra of Rupa agrees: “When you read the story of someone who is already successful it is far easier to be inspired. Many business leaders have reached a level where they are happy to laugh at their mistakes.” Rupa’s leading book in this category is Kishore Biyani’s It Happened in India (2007), about the growth of the retail giant Future Group. It has sold “almost 400,000 copies”, according to Mehra. Cannily released as a paperback priced at Rs 99, it was guaranteed to appeal to a younger readership.
Most explicit about his youth focus is Capt Gopinath, founder of Air Deccan, whose memoir Simply Fly (2011), he says, “was not written in the typical style as a book which is preaching how to make money. It is a story of life, about optimism when the chips are down. It is about asking you to discover your dreams rather than follow my dreams.” He was inspired to write by students at lectures. Inevitably perhaps, he tells about the young man who approached him in a restaurant recently to say, “Captain, I was going through a tough time when a childhood friend said, read this book. Thank you.”
Some tycoons are still “shy”, says Kapur, and others are sure they don’t want to be in a book — like Sunil Mittal, who is believed to have said, “I’m too young to be written about right now.” There have been two books on the Ambani family — Ambani vs Ambani: Storms in the Sea Wind by Alam Srinivas (2008) and Ambani & Sons by Hamish McDonald (2010) — which do not steer clear of the controversies and family squabbles.
Increasingly, however, businesspeople are realising that their experiences are worth sharing. Piramal says she hears of “many — about one a fortnight”. The best compliment she has ever received, she says, “was when a waiter at a five-star hotel, while serving me tea during a conference, asked if I was Gita Piramal, then looked me in the eye and said, ‘One day you will write about me.’” On the other hand, “perhaps the worst one was when a young man in his 30s described to me the many crooked ways he used to get to the top — and said that Business Maharajas was his inspiration.” Either way, this is a growth story.