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About half way into the conversation, T V Mohandas Pai, the former chief financial officer of Infosys who stepped down from the board of the information technology major in April, reaches out and grabs half a dozen black pencils lying on the table in the front.
Grasping them in his right hand, he brings his left palm down on the sharp lead nibs in a slow, deliberate manner. His usually robust voice suffers slightly, the typically uninterrupted flow of words now interspersed with short pauses.
“I consider Narayana Murthy as my mentor. He was my boss. My first boss. I never had a boss. I never reported to anybody earlier. He’s been like a foster-father to me,” Pai says. “I lost my father in ’94, when I joined Infosys. I feel very guilty not spending time with him when he was ill. And Murthy has been like a foster-father.”
“He is probably the only person in my career who ever asked me about myself. Nobody asked me, ‘Are you comfortable?’, ‘Are you okay?’, ‘Do you need anything?’ Nobody asked me. They always demanded work. Murthy asked me about myself, and he has been very kind to me. And I think very highly of him,” Pai adds.
For Pai, who after spending 17 years with India’s second-largest software services provider left under faintly contentious circumstances, N R Narayana Murthy, the firm’s founder-chairman, remains a man much admired and respected.
But just days before Murthy retired from the company, he stepped down on Friday, a day ahead of turning 65, Pai delivered a personal tribute, even if somewhat troubled.
“To an extent, I think my views have been shaped by my parents and then by Murthy. He has been a big influence on my life, because I met him at a critical juncture and was exceeding brutal to me, in terms of demanding performance. And I performed very well,” Pai recalls.
“But he was a great person to work with because he was very open and you could argue with him, fight with him, on merit, and he was open to new ideas and doing new things and setting standards and standing up for the truth.”
Not unexpectedly then, Pai puts Murthy right up there with J R D Tata and Dhirubhai Ambani as the three great Indian corporate leaders in the last 60 sixty years. If the first 20 years belong to Tata and the next to Ambani, he feels, the most recent two decades have been defined by Murthy.
“So he is the poster boy of liberalisation, and I was fortunate to work with him directly. Reporting to Murthy and working with him has been an unbelievable experience. After Murthy stepped down, reporting to other founders was okay,” he abruptly stops.
Prod him gently on the incomplete sentence, and Pai only says his decision to leave was premeditated. “I have no sense of bitterness because I wanted to leave a year earlier. I had made-up my mind.”
Pai joined Infosys in 1994 and was its chief financial officer till 2006, when he voluntarily gave up the position to focus on human resources, education and research at the company. On April 15, 2011, he put in his papers.
That description of his leaving, however, may not be entirely accurate. Pai may have made up his mind to leave but, as he himself concedes a little later, it wasn’t exactly a painless affair.
He gives in when asked how often he meets Murthy these days. “We meet very infrequently,” he admits, and after a pause, very thoughtfully, he adds, “The area which hurts is, I wanted to see a different outcome. Not for me, because I strongly believed in all the things he says and lives for. And I was slightly disappointed.”
As Pai continues, he becomes less cryptic. “It hurt me immensely that after working for 17 years, giving the best part of my life for that company, doing everything anybody could ask for, being so devoted and having put the interest of the company before me, like he (Murthy) did, he led the way, I was not part of the charmed group.”
“I was still an outsider. He treated me very well, but I was still an outsider. Even till the last day I was an outsider. He never let me inside. That hurt me,” he adds.
Despite the mantra of “performance is the only reality, merit is the only criteria,” Murthy’s loyalty to his fellow founders was “much greater than anything else”, says Pai, and that in the end, left him feeling like Ekalavya in the Mahabharat, who watched Drona teach the Pandavas from a distance and learnt and bettered the Pandavas.
“I offered him my thumb when he asked for it and I left... But my affection and respect for him remains the same,” he adds.