A pompous friend and the modest billionaire Azim Premji help reinforce a key guiding principle in Vaani and me – that the essence of responsible citizenship lies in trusteeship.
This past week, a friend reached out wanting to visit us to invite us to his daughter’s wedding. We requested him to avoid the formality and support our initiative to save paper. So we asked him to send the Invite over WhatsApp. But the gentleman and his wife insisted on coming home. When they handed over the Invite, printed on hot pink paper with gold letters in a ‘custom-designed’ font, our friend said: “Each invitation card has cost us Rs.1000 and surely WhatsApp would not have done justice to our effort. So, we decided to come personally…that way you can see how elaborately we have planned this wedding…it will be the grandest in our family for a long, long time…!”
Even as he made that statement – both verbally and through physically handing over that expensive invitation card – Vaani and I wondered, if each card cost a whopping Rs.1000, then how big, how fat and how wasteful will the actual wedding itself be?
Although Vaani and I don’t see it that way anymore, I concede that weddings are regarded as a socially relevant and important occasion by most families. But do they really need to be pompous events where everything is about outdoing someone else, showing off how much you have and investing in a vulgar, reckless, display of ego, wealth and status?
Thankfully, some of the younger folks we know are leading a change among their families and peers. A few weddings we have been invited to in the last couple of years have been zero-waste affairs; they were bootstrapped and done tastefully with no pomp, with only very close family and friends in attendance.
We believe weddings, if they must be done at all, must focus on making the experience memorable for everyone present while keeping the event a responsible celebration that emphasizes companionship and Happiness. And when everyone wills it so, weddings can certainly be carefully, meaningfully, curated on lower budgets; the money saved can be put to better use – for the couple to travel and see the world or set up a new home or to support a social cause that is seriously starved of resources.
I know it will be a long way before this view is embraced by the majority. But clearly a Rs.1000-a-piece wedding invitation card is avoidable. Surely, you can create beautiful Invites that can be e-mailed or sent over WhatsApp.
Interestingly, again this past week, we were invited to an event where Azim Premji of Wipro was given the Madras Management Association – Amalgamations Group Business Leadership Award for 2019.
Why does the incredibly simple, modest, Premji even need to be feted with an award? This was the thought uppermost on our mind when we arrived at the event.
But former ICICI Bank Chairman N.Vaghul nailed the reasoning. He said that in a society where values like integrity and trusteeship are almost extinct, where there is a steady decline in responsible conduct of citizenship, the spotlight on Premji’s principled Life can really help showcase the continued relevance of these values. Through telling the story of his Life, of the world-class institutions he has built (in manufacturing, IT and education) and of how much he is giving away (estimated at close to $ 21 billion) to his charity – the Azim Premji Foundation – we are inviting future generations to pause, reflect and, hopefully, embrace his philosophy of trusteeship (which he says is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi).
Vaani and I took away a key learning from Premji’s acceptance speech. He said that there is only so much that a family can consume. The inference clearly is that whatever is available to a family beyond what they require to meet their basic needs may ideally be given away to support someone else’s need to live a dignified Life.
I didn’t miss the irony from the past week as I sat down early this morning to write this Blogpost. The reality of the world – and the times – we live in struck me hard. Surely there are more people around us who believe that making money and showing it all off is the Purpose of Life. They are like our friend who vainly insists that even the invitation card to his daughter’s wedding must announce his wealth and social status. And, sadly, there are fewer people like Premji, who despite all their wealth, remain grounded and are invested in social good. Which is why I agree with Vaghul. Every time a Premji is celebrated, the message of intelligent living, of compassion, of giving, is celebrated. And given the circus of greed and one-upmanship that we see incessantly playing around us, this celebration of responsible citizenship is critical to inspire people; to invite them to consider living fuller, more meaningful, lives.
The idea of responsible citizenship is not about doing charity when you are asked to do it. I am sure most people out there have enough goodness in them to stand up and be counted when they are asked to contribute. So, that’s not the kind of reactive behavior that I am talking about. Responsible citizenship is about trusteeship.
Think of trusteeship like this. You are a trustee of the Life that’s been given to you. And you are a trustee of the planet that you inhabit. So be responsible with how you live and how you use the planet’s resources. Recognize that you need only so much to live and to support your immediate family. Beyond food, clothing, shelter, education, a reasonable healthcare and retirement plan and hi-speed internet connectivity through a smart device, whatever you have, whatever comes your way, give it away. Give, not because you have to give, not because you are asked to give, but give because you want to give. Recognize that just as this human form, this Life, is a gift, every thing, every resource that you acquire in this lifetime, is also given to you. So, be responsible by employing all that you receive for human good, to make the world a better place.
I too will lean on Gandhi to suggest employing a simple principle to make informed, intelligent, decisions when it comes to practising trusteeship (I have tweaked Gandhi’s original thought to make it relatable to our times): “Recall the face of the poorest – economically, emotionally, spiritually – person you have come across and ask yourself if the step you are about to take will benefit this person? Will this person gain from your making this choice? Will it help restore them to a Life of dignity, love and Happiness? If it will, go do what you are planning to do. If it won’t, well, rethink your choice!”
Apply this principle to my friend’s choice to splurge Rs.1000 on that wedding invitation card. Apply it to Premji’s choice to give away $ 21 billion. And apply it to each of your Life choices – from the past, from the present and to those that may come up in the future. And see how beautifully this principle leads you – every single time – to distinguish between want and need; and to do what is right than what appears to be right!
As Vaani and I climb up two steep flights of stairs to get to the Café Coffee Day store, where we are to meet Charukesi Viswanathan, we wonder if we made the right choice with the meeting venue. Charukesi is 78. Will he find the stairway difficult to climb? But in a few minutes the man himself arrived and scampered up the stairs easily, with the energy of a 10-year-old. When we pointed this out to him, he smiled and said that he had spent the previous night on a train’s upper berth returning from Thrissur. “Some of my co-passengers were over 80, and the one who was allotted the upper berth had an arthritic condition. So, I swapped my lower berth with him. It was no problem at all. It is all in the mind,” says Charukesi, gleaming!
That nugget of conversation sums up who Charukesi is. For one, he’s the humble, quiet, unassuming giant – having completed 60 remarkable years as a writer recently! More important though, he is the rare sort of person who is very happy and content with anything, anyone, anywhere. And what he doesn’t like – and that includes people – he avoids completely. “You are happy as long as you choose not to do anything that makes you unhappy,” he says.
Charukesi credits his father, a homeopath, with teaching him two principles that have guided him all his Life: “One is to always do your duty without expecting anything in return and the second is to work – and live – in a fashion in which it doesn’t bind you.” Expectations always bring agony, to live without them is an art and this is the key to happiness. Just as it is to work in a detached manner – doing what you can and leaving the outcome to Life. I guess Charukesi’s Life epitomizes these two principles.
He hated academics, so he never acquired a formal college degree. Yet he has been a writer for 60 years and has worked with Pfizer, the pharma major, for close to 40 years – rising from being a sales assistant to branch manager – and has taught himself to appreciate Carnatic music. His articles on musicians, artistes and their performances, are greatly valued both by readers and publications. We ask him what is the secret of his longevity and relevance in a very crowded, ‘me-too’ space – writing. “I enjoy learning. I don’t see myself as someone who knows everything. In my Pfizer days I have attended workshops on practically everything from housekeeping to production management to quality. I have attended several programs for writers. And when I took to music, I taught myself to appreciate it attending every concert around me. So, I just keep learning,” informs Charukesi.
Interestingly, while Charukesi is his nickname, and it is also a very popular Carnatic raga, the story goes that he did not choose the name for himself. One of his friends suggested the name to him and he adopted it. But even as he did that he didn’t know that it was also a famous raga or that he would one day be known for his music reviews. “Honestly, I still don’t know who recommended my name to The Hindu. One day, many years ago, I got a call from the desk at the paper asking me if I could review a kutcheri for them. I accepted…and that’s how the journey began. I don’t think I have done anything great…it just happened,” avers Charukesi. He is not being modest for effect, I know that he means every word of what he says. At the felicitation ceremony, some weeks ago, where the who’s who of Chennai’s literary circles flocked to celebrate him for completing 60 years as a writer, Charukesi sat very, very uncomfortably on the dais. When I asked him why he was so uneasy, he said that he hated the spotlight. “Only politicians like to hear praise about themselves; only they love ponnadais and felicitations. I am not a politician. I am just an ordinary writer.”
Yet, he is no ordinary writer. He has been writing for 60 years. He has written both in English and Tamizh. And he has more than 65 titles to his credit. He is the go-to translator for every major publication and author – from Sudha Murthy to Devdutt Patnaik – who want to see their work in Tamizh.
In such an extra-ordinary Life, there are bound to have been lows. How did he handle them, I ask him. “Oh! There have been lows,” he confesses. One was when he lost his older brother to tubercolosis in 1961. And the other time was in 1997 when his younger brother passed away in a road accident. “I found it very difficult to deal with pain the first time. I suffered a lot. The second time too, I thought I could not handle it. I even considered quitting my job at Pfizer. But the then chairman of the company, S.V.Pillai, who was visiting my branch, sat down with me and asked me to immerse myself in my work to take my mind off the tragedy. That advice really helped me cope. It was through that catharsis that I learnt that Life must be faced; we must take Life as it comes.” At work too, over a career spanning four decades with one company, Charukesi has had to face tough circumstances. In one instance, one of his close colleagues protested when Charukesi was awarded a double increment in salary and promotion, for the third consecutive time. When the politicking got unbearable, Charukesi wrote to the management of Pfizer asking for his reward and promotion to be revoked. “I simply did not want someone’s actions and words to make me unhappy. I thought if this person would be happier if I did not get the raise, let me make him happy,” explains Charukesi. The management of Pfizer and his detractor were surprised with Charukesi’s rather unique response. But through some candid conversations the matter was settled, with the colleague realizing his mistake and the management insisting that Charukesi accept his just reward. “It was through this experience that I learnt the value of never allowing anyone or anything to ruin your happiness,” says Charukesi.
Spending time with Charukesi is like taking a crash course in humility. Here’s a man, a colossus, who towers over the bi-lingual writing scene in Tamil Nadu. Yet he is so unassuming. He wanted to know how Twitter works. And as we explained that to him, he listened intently, with a twinkle in his eyes, like the way a child would try to understand a new gizmo or hear a new story. He started writing as a hobby in 1956, for Kannan magazine from the Kalaimagal stable, and got paid a princely sum, then, of Rs.5/-. He still writes today but gives away his income from royalties to support causes from education to healthcare. “I don’t want to talk about my philosophy of giving. I do it because it makes Life better for someone, somewhere. It makes them happy,” says Charukesi brushing aside all suggestions that he’s benevolent.
We ask him for his advice to today’s generation – who seem to be leading very complicated and stressed out lives despite technology having made Life so simple: “Expectations for what-must-be are high and satisfaction for what-is is low. It must be the other way round. Then people will lead fuller, happier lives.”
As we say goodbye to Charukesi and head back home, I admire the simplicity of the man and the beauty of his being. Yet I can’t but help celebrate his father who taught his son the value of being happy and content early on in Life. A lesson, because it was well taken, has helped Charukesi be who he is today!
De-clutter, de-materialize and de-hoard your Life. You will love the way you feel and the energy that flows!
One of the biggest blessings of our bankruptcy is that Vaani and I have learnt to understand what we truly need, dump all our wants, recognize and celebrate what we have and give away anything that we don’t need. At every stage, over the past decade, we have been forced to rethink and appreciate the critical difference between what we want and what we need. Even when we are willing to live with what we need, we have often had to make do with what we have. Plus, important, we have both, driven by necessity and through reflection, learnt the art of giving!
An enduring theme in our Life – apart from our physical sense of cashlessness – over the last several years has been a constant recalibration of our living and working space. We had to first close down our office and move it into our apartment. Obviously, everything that was fitting into our office could not make it into our home. So, we gave away more than 800 kilos of material as waste and e-waste. Additionally, we gave away some computers, two printers, a scanner, white boards and filing cabinets. All of these were useable though they were not re-saleable. So we found a charity that we could donate them to. Then when we were forced to vacate our apartment in Bishop Garden – because of our inability to pay rent – and move to a much smaller living space, we had to give away a lot of furniture. Again we chose charities and people who we thought can benefit from what we were giving away. Around this time, an epochal decision was made. I had personally collected over 600 books – on management and leadership – over my 25+ years as a working professional. I gave them all away to a friend who runs a training company in Bangalore. My collection of books was not just personally curated by me; I was fiercely protective – and possessive – about it. But there was no way I could move the collection into our new home – there was simply no space! And we hated the idea of selling the books to a kabadiwala. So I gave my prized collection away to my friend’s company! I strangely did not feel any sense of loss when my friend drove up and took away my books. I actually felt very good that my labor of over a quarter of a century will be useful to someone, somewhere.
But this decision to give away my books, did not include another, equally prized, collection – editions of Harvard Business Review (HBR) from 1997 – over 130 issues, carefully and tastefully preserved! I held on to my HBR collection for some more years. Until this morning, that is. Again for reasons of space and having found a worthy beneficiary in a reputed business school, I am giving away my almost 20-year collection of HBR.
As Vaani and I evolve through Life, we find that all we need is a roof over our head, some clothes, a laptop each, a smartphone each, internet connectivity and food on the table. We have been car-less for a long time now. So we know we can survive handsomely without a vehicle of our own. If we are seeking work, I mean work that involves a commercial proposition, it is only because we feel responsible towards retiring our debt and repaying all our creditors who have reposed their trust in us. Once we fulfil this responsibility – we don’t know exactly by when this will happen, but do believe it will happen sooner than later – all we want to do is to continue to serve humanity by being useful in our own small way.
So, we follow a simple principle: every six months, we give away anything – barring of course our passports and important legal or financial documentation – we have not used in those six months. It is a simple rule of thumb. And it has worked for us big time. It makes our home lighter. It makes us feel better because, be it an old printer or an old suitcase, we find great joy in reaching it to someone who may use it more frequently than us. And that’s how I decided on giving away the HBR collection this morning.
Vaani and I will remain eternally grateful to our bankruptcy for teaching us the value of de-cluttering, de-materializing and de-hoarding our Life. Some call it minimalistic living – which is the art of living with the bare essentials. Whatever it is, we can vouch from our own experience, that it teaches you to be happy with what is, with what you have, despite the circumstances!