The afternoon had turned to evening, and the visitor was still there. I had opened the door gently and poked my head only to see a Sardarji sitting at the round table in the middle of the room deep in discussion with the professor who was my boss. He had a proudly perfectly tied pagri, sat with his back erect, his voice low and intense. This was clearly a discussion that mattered deeply to him. I could not see his face, his back was to the door of the room. Across him sat my professor, Sumantra, listening equally intently, his eyes grey and bright as they were when he was challenged. The evening light was shining through the windows behind him, placing his face in the shadow, I thought, or was it genuine worry that cast a pall. I knew him well and there was little that he could not resolve in a quick slash of word and pen. The light through the windows was grey and the lights had come on, as I popped around again, waiting to discuss some research work that I wanted to finalise. A quick wave, a quick chat and a hasty retreat from the room where it was obvious that there were troubles, and not enough time.
I got to know the Sardarji and his troubles soon. He had been diagnosed with a life threatening disease and his family and business were not ready for his departure. The Ranbaxy Singh visited that office often, and often the afternoon sunshine through those two windows turned to evening and then night. They plotted and planned together, and I, a young researcher for the India Centre at the London Business School heard some of it when called on, as the gurus tried to unravel this incredibily complicated situation. Ranbaxy was growing, and Ranbaxy might sink. The Sardarji in that darkening room had called it just right, I think now, as I see his twin sons post videos of a physical brawl, just another immature drama in a tragic and disastrous saga that unfolded after the passing of their father.
That is what he worried about, it was said in hushed whispers in the strategy corridors – that the sons were not ready. They would not be ready before he passed on, they would not know how to understand the depth of the waters they must tread, nor the breadth of the vision that he had already started implementing. He dreamt of the first Indian transnational company, a research giant fueled by global revenues and strong leaders who drove growth above all else. The dream was being put in place, when the news of his cancer meant that the threads had begun to unravel. It needed his strength – and his humility and focus that I observed – to build the foundations of good governance. He said, his sons were young. He must have thought it would be unkind to call them weak.
In those days, I ran the India Centre, the hub that created the research base for what would eventually become the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad. My professor, Sumantra Ghoshal had agreed to be the founding dean, a post that was his till his early passing. We were ranting about the lack of data for business in India, and worse, the lack of quality research on business in India. Data was in short supply in the late nineties, and apart from the printed CMIE booklets, there was little that was available. We started the work of encouraging complex business research across the best universities in the world, not just the simple research done by scholars in the hope of getting a travel grant home for field research. We were building a hub – it felt pioneering. A long time ago now, but in the early days of the internet it felt like a huge deal to build directories of all professors who were willing to work on India business along with the other projects of the centre. Little did I realise that I was also building recruitment lists for India, so focused were we on building traction and a hub for impactful transformation of Indian business as it began to spread its wings internationally. The year was 1998, India was growing, it had hope everywhere.
A hub we did become, and there were few ‘industrialists’ as they used to be called in those days who did not associate with us in some way or the other. I watched and learnt, the flamboyant confidence of Rahul Bajaj, the intellectual bent of Gita Piramal, the angst of the father Singh amidst great business potential and so many more. Each meeting, each event, each session was a spark for research for the future – there was so much to be done. The Ranbaxy succession was the immediate reason for work on family firms, and I found that the average lifespan of smooth succession was barely over three generations. This family was at the classic cusp, and the father did not have the time to build the progression. For other families we were able to trigger the conversations, institutions and annual events were built then, you see them today as mature centres in institutes and chambers of commerce among others. Succession planning evolved for the businesses of the future, but it was too late to save it for Shivinder and Malvinder. They too came to the office once, incredibly well dressed and too well behaved to be true. It has taken me all these years, a journey from a business researcher, to a policy researcher via being a builder of institutions and a family to realise the connect. It is as a mother now that I can feel the pain of the father then, the grand and rich gentleman who sat in that room, his back erect, his voice low and intent, focused on the hope and fear for the future of his sons. He was right, but for the sake of the greatness that he brought, I hope his sons still prove his fears wrong. They are still young, and weak, and now fatherless in a family that has seen much grab and take, but they have been told all that they needed to hear – they have been guided. It is theirs now to grow up, having lost it all, to turn it around.
(This is a little personal note, for the twin brothers plight had touched me personally. I was just about start my journey of motherhood, and here were these two – children really – about to lose their father, and their anchor, and they did not know it. They knew nothing. That was when I learnt personally what it would mean to be a parent, and how each of us must prepare for the moment of our own passing from the moment our children are born)