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Interview with Gurcharan Das

Post by: Manasi Kakatkar Kulkarni

It is quite unlikely that you would have not heard of Gurcharan Das. Gurcharan Das is a world renowned author, columnist, speaker and a 'corporate' man. He graduated with honors from Harvard University in Philosophy, Politics and Sanskrit, and later attended Harvard Business School (AMP). He was CEO of Procter & Gamble India and later Managing Director, Procter & Gamble Worldwide (Strategic Planning).

In 1995, after a 30-year career in six countries, he took early retirement to become a full time writer, speaker and columnist. In 2009-10, he published a book that went on to become a best-seller, The Difficulty of Being Good. The book interrogates the epic, Mahabharata, in order to answer the question, 'Why be good?'

David Shulman called his book, 'a kind of miracle'. In the Financial Times, William Dalrymple wrote, 'Das's deeply informed and learned musings…are invariably penetrating and full of insight'. Martha Nussbaum added, 'A wise, passionate, and illuminating book…one of the best on the contribution of great literature to ethical thought.'

His other international bestseller, India Unbound, is a narrative account of the rise of India from Independence to the global information age. It is published in 17 languages and was the subject of a popular BBC documentary.

He writes a regular column on Sundays for the Times of India, Dainik Bhaskar, Eenadu, Sakal and other papers and periodic guest columns for the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, and Newsweek. He has also appeared on Charlie Rose, CNN, BBC, and PBS. He is currently on the boards of a number of companies and is a regular speaker to the top managements of the world's largest corporations.

His other literary works include a novel, - A Fine Family; a book of essays- The Elephant Paradigm; and an anthology- Three English Plays.The latter consists of 'Larins Sahib', presented to acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival; Mira, produced off-Broadway to the delight of New York critics; and 9 Jakhoo Hill which is regularly performed in major Indian cities.

He currently lives in New Delhi.

After the Jaipur Literature Festival, we got the opportunity to interview him. Here's the exclusive unabridged version.

  

Gurcharan Das

 
You were a 'corporate' man, working on Vicks Vaporub. How did you start writing?

I always knew that I wanted to write, even when I graduated with a degree in Philosophy.

(I never went on for a PhD in Philosophy though, because I did not want to spend life in a high stratosphere of thought. I wanted to stay on the ground, be rooted.) Corporate happened by chance, and in a way aided the beginning of my writing. Vicks required a lot of travelling, and I travelled across India to small towns and villages where there was little to do in the evenings. So during those years when I had my evening to myself, I started writing. I wrote three plays in my 20s, a novel in my 30s…was running a company in my 40s and retired in my 50s to become a full-time writer. I have been writing since, and the last 16 years have been wonderful. 

 

From a philosophy graduate to a corporate man to being one of the most respected and sought after Indian authors, how do you see Gurcharan Das, the author's journey? 

Practice makes man perfect, and it is just as true about me. After a lifetime of writing, I am today a much better writer than probably 20 years ago. I started off writing fiction. But now I don't have the confidence to write fiction anymore. Today I'd rather write non-fiction. There is so much to explore even in non-fiction! And then non-fiction gave me my voice. I first found that voice in India Unbound and it has grown with The Difficulty of Being Good and beyond. I enjoy writing a first person narrative, standing both at the edge of history and center-stage and observing and commenting on the world. Each The Elephant Paradigm I write is a process of self-cultivation, of learning and interpreting the world for the readers. India Unbound gave me a chance to learn economics, while The Difficulty of Being Good was a chance to learn and understand the moral philosophy of not just the Mahabharata, but the present times.        

 

In India Unbound you talk in depth about the License Raj system that did not allow the private sector to grow. In fact it even mentions the whopping 97% tax that JRD Tata has to pay. In a way you have grown with the country and looking back at things, the Indian economy, how have things changed?

India had grown a lot since my youth and that growth has been very satisfying. In fact, if I were that kind of a person I would have said, “I told you do!” With India Unbound I had predicted the Indian growth story. It was one of the first ebooks to do that.

Our growth is a story of private success and pubic failure. The private sector has lived up to the expectations and returned the compliment to the country. The public sector on the other hand has not lived up to its end of the bargain. Today, when I see the governance failure around us, I feel a sense of being let down by our own.  I believe we deserved better! The government's job was to govern, not to set up companies and do business. When I look back to the days of License Raj, slow economic growth, my own youth, I think then we were proud of our institutions and worried about our growth. Today, we are proud of our exemplary growth, but worry about our institutions.

India Unbound

 

An entire generation has grown up in the post 1991 liberalization era. Do you think with this generation all set to take charge, we as a nation have reached a point of no return on this path of liberalization and growth?

Definitely. The young people's minds today have got liberated and the old hang-ups about the economy have disappeared. However, the very young people are not yet in power. It is the old people who hold all power. That needs to change. The young people, who shy away from politics, are not involved in it even through voting, need to step up and start taking active part. Only then will we be able to change our institutions. Sometimes I think there should be a retirement age for politicians as well, maybe then power will pass on to the younger generation.





Your book, The Difficulty of Being Good, examines the Indian society through the lens of the Mahabharata. While writing this book what unique points did you come across? What similarities did you come across between the 2000 year old epic and the modern day economic and moral crisis that the country is engulfed in?

My decision to go to the Mahabharata was largely driven by the government failure that I saw around me. I was interested in exploring the moral dimensions of this failure of governance, and the Mahabharata seemed the perfect place to begin. The Mahabharata is unique in that it is obsessed with Dharma or doing the right thing. It is a rich repository of thinking about right and wrong, and I went to it to understand the biggest failure for our country today – the moral crisis. The Mahabharata is a place that can help us understand the ethical dimensions of our life. Today, our governance needs significant reforms – reform for the police, the judiciary, the political system. We cannot have criminals contesting elections and making the decisions of governance.

 

Towards the beginning of the same book you say that when you told some people that you were writing about the Mahabharata, they said, “Are you going all Hindu on us?” On that backdrop and considering the Indian version of secularism, do you think the urban middle class or the urban people in general have grown ashamed of their cultural heritage in some ways?

Good question. The problem here is that the Hindutva people have in some ways monopolized and politicized the discourse on Hindus. So you are either here or there. And so people who want to read, say the Mahabharata, are afraid of being branded as Hindutvavadis. With the popular culture being appropriated, people are forced to think in a unilateral way. So far a liberal Hindu, even his private reading of books such as the Mahabharata, can get him branded as a Hindutvavadi. Therein lays his dilemma. See, the thing is, that a lot of secularists in India were Marxists, and Marxists are non-believers. So the people who are believers and secularists become defensive. This is true not only of Hindus, but liberals of all religions. They tend to get very defensive.

I think the Mahabharata is a wonderful text for these fundamentalist times. It does not lay a monopoly on truth, a tendency of some other texts that makes people even kill for it. Like most other religions it does not give you commandments. It is a unique text that has the courage to say “I don't know”. The Mahabharata makes you decide, and does not decide what is right and wrong for you. It says Dharma is ambiguous; there is no black and white, but a lot of greys. And that is what makes it even more attractive – the freedom to decide, to interpret the Mahabharata.

 

 

 

 
Moving on to your other book, The Elephant Paradigm which is a collection of essays on the Indian rural system and also on society at large, observes how the country will slowly and surely proceed on the path of progress- both social and economic. Why do you think has the progress in India been slow in comparison to other Asian powerhouses such as China and Japan?

I think a very important reason here is that we got democracy before capitalism, while those other countries got capitalism before democracy. Democracy tends to slow you down, and so reforms are slow to come. Democracy is not always necessarily a good thing. In fact, it is almost a miracle that India is a democracy. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine India as anything else but a democracy. We have a plural spirit in us (just like our thousands of Gods) and democracy is very suited to us. We did not have to fight for it as say the Middle Eastern countries are fighting today.

 

So if you were to time-travel you would rather get capitalism first over democracy?  

Yes. I would prefer it that way. What we did when we got democracy first, is that we divided and distributed the pie before we even had it. If we had capitalism come first, as with the other countries, we could have created the pie before we started distributing it.

As one of the most prolific and sought after authors, what would you say about the new generation of Indian writers today?

I am rather reluctant to talk about other authors, as I unfortunately do not read so much. Once you start writing, you become so obsessed with your own writing that you have very little time for other writers. I would love to read more, but it is getting increasingly difficult.

You mentioned earlier that you are more comfortable and confident writing non-fiction now. What advice would you give the young non-fiction writers out there?

One of the crucial things for young non-fiction writers to remember is that you cannot afford to lose your credibility. And that credibility comes from always getting your facts straight, checking and counterchecking so that there are no mistakes. Even one factual error can make you lose the faith of your readers and with it your credibility. Ensuring the credibility of not just your writing, but you as an author, is very important when you are a non-fiction writer. Other than that you should write as you speak, that will make you sound natural.

 

 

 You can read the reviews of Indian Unbound here and add your own too.

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