BOOKMARK: R. Gopalakrishnan’s latest book “A Comma in a Sentence” presents the journey of his family through six generations in a changing historical and social context
The book “A Comma in a Sentence” by R. Gopalakrishnan, his first outside the business genre, took almost three decades to complete. In 1984, when the author was visiting his ailing father, he was inspired to write about the world as seen by his forefathers (six generations to be precise), who hailed from Vilakkudi village in Tamil Nadu’s Tanjore district. Thereafter, he spent time writing down the experiences of his family members, reading a number of books on places like Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore), Kolkata and Chennai to be able to recreate scenes from bygone eras. The style and narration of “Malgudi Days” by R. K. Narayan, “Punjabi Century” by Prakash Tandon (the first Indian Chairman of Hindustan Lever Limited) and Alex Haley’s “Roots”, too influenced the author. Finally in 2013 when he was hospitalised for five weeks, he fleshed out the book while recuperating.
The author’s first three books — “The Case of the Bonsai Manager” (2007); “When the Penny Drops” (2010) and “What the CEO Really Wants from You” (2012) — are “all on management but interlaced with the philosophical angle of life”. Gopalakrishnan considers management “a social institution of human beings, which is warm and unpredictable like human relations.” The present book is different as it is about the author’s “family members who were instruments or players in a social and historical context of their times”.
It is an eclectic mix of sociology, history and family background. The title of the novel is inspired by the distinctive status of the comma in grammar — apparently lowly but still very meaningful — thereby describing his family’s narrative amidst the social, economic and political evolution of society.
Having conceptualised his book in advance, Gopalakrishnan spent all his spare time to decide the style, narrative and format that would enable him to present the world through eyes of his relatives, whom he describes as “sutradhars”. By telling us that Varanasi is the only point where the Ganga flows from south to north, an anomaly in an otherwise straight course, or that all the Vadagalai Iyengars (the caste to which the author belongs) have a genetic similarity to the people of Faisalabad in Pakistan, the author has also included interesting nuggets of information throughout the story.
The emphasis of the novel is on “sanskar”, which, according to the author, is an “individual’s view of what is wrong and right — accumulated over the years”, and acts as a “conduit for the values to be passed on to the next generation”. It is “crucial but unrecognised”, he adds. He predicts that in the next 30 years, those possessing “ethical assets” will fare better in life than those who possess material or information assets.
The time span of the narrative is about 200 years, which are characterised by constant change. The characters do respond to this — the author’s father, for instance, drops the traditional tuft of hair, thereby shocking his grandfather and others in the family. Also in the entire story the much abused word “progress” is pragmatically defined as “holding onto the core values and letting go of the frills, accoutrements and symbolism” and this is felt by the readers of the novel.
Gopalakrishnan, an Executive Director in Tata Sons, is fond of non-fiction, and counts Rajmohan Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha and C. K. Prahalad among his favourite authors. Though every generation worries about the next one, he believes in the mantra “que sera, sera” – whatever will be, will be.