Kanimozhi and C. K. Ranganathan on poetry, politics, family and fitness

For the anniversary issue, I re-open a popular column two years after its four-year run in MetroPlus. So this Take Two is special. That’s why the celebrities for the you-chat-I-record session are poet-politician Kanimozhi and businessman-bird lover C. K. Ranganathan.

Having participated in Take Two earlier, both are bang on. They switch to chat mode the minute they settle down in a quiet corner at the Club Lounge, Taj Coromandel. From being part of the media (she was my colleague in The Hindu) to being tracked by it after she became an MP, Kanimozhi is spreading her wings nationally. Ranganathan’s dossier reads like a wish-list. Known for his out-of-the-box (should we say sachet?) thinking, he’s diversified CavinKare’s businesses to include salons and restaurants.

Frank and fuss-free, the one-and-a-half-hour chat session veers from work and time management to children and leisure.

Ranganathan: It’s three years since you’ve become an MP. How has life changed?

Kanimozhi: Mmm… Hasn’t changed much. Except there’s little time for yourself. But being a politician is nice in that so many issues you’ve been talking about can now be taken to people who can find solutions. That makes it satisfying.

Ranganathan: You play multiple roles. How do you do the balancing act?

Kanimozhi: Public life does eat into your private time. I was a regular at kutcheris during the December season. Not any more. In a way, my personal interests have taken a backseat. But I make it a point to be there for my son — spend quality time with him. I’m sure it’s tough for you too…

Ranganathan: Yes, this year has particularly been hectic. On the one side, it’s business expansion, on the other, it’s CII-related work.

Kanimozhi: Over the years, you’ve diversified in unexpected directions. CavinKare is no longer just a beauty products company.

Ranganathan: I like to experiment and understand varied markets. Salons and restaurants are part of our plans to stay close to customers. I see them as service-based. I’ve often wondered how Western fast food chains operate successfully across continents. I wish to establish a chain at least nationally! People ask me how I manage so many verticals. But success is about trust, delegation and putting systems in place.

Kanimozhi: Haven’t you thought of health/diet food?

Ranganathan: Yes, we’ve got to do something. I know there’s a growing market for that. How do you manage to stay fit despite having to eat at functions often? Do you work out?

Kanimozhi: I have the best of intentions, but I don’t exercise ( laughs). What about you?

Ranganathan: This morning, I made a resolution to shed two kg in a week. That’s why I asked for a diet drink now! ( laughs)

Kanimozhi: I agree with you that trust and delegation are fundamental to success. But tell me, how do you identify the right people for the job?

Ranganathan: Values are important to me. Besides, I do a reference check and also look up a candidate’s career growth in his previous organisation. Another important factor is fire in the belly. Contentment breeds complacency. So one must have that urge to push boundaries and energise people.

Kanimozhi: I grew up in politics, but for you it was different. Work or networking, you had to start from scratch when you entered business.

Ranganathan: True, when I started out I didn’t have the competence or the calibre to be where I am today. But a strong desire to become a successful businessman saw me through a rigorous learning process. Right from vocabulary to business and marketing skills, I made a conscious attempt to learn. Okay, I’ve always wanted to ask you — you remain so approachable and untouched by fame.

Kanimozhi: I don’t understand why people change. More so, those in politics. One day it’s there, the next day it isn’t. Ultimately, you determine who you are. Basically, I love people. I don’t see the need to cut away from them.

Ranganathan: With your frenetic schedule do you still find time for poetry?

Kanimozhi: Poetry is integral to my life. The last one I wrote was a fortnight ago. I’ve been planning to write a novel for years. Hope I’m able to put pen to paper soon.

Ranganathan: Are you comfortable reading ancient literary work?

Kanimozhi: No, I read and re-read. But I guess that applies to modern poetry as well. We tend to interpret poetry differently every time we read it. What do you like to read?

Ranganathan: I love biographies. I read a lot of management books as well. ( He quotes liberally from them) Audio books appeal to me. The best way to unwind during a long drive is to play the CD, listen and learn. Which is the book that’s inspired you the most?

Kanimozhi: ( after a pause) Sa. Kandasamy’s ‘Saayavanam’. It’s amazing, powerful writing. A recent read is Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’. What about you?

Ranganathan: I’ve read all of Sujatha’s and Kalki’s works. I was greatly into novels at one time. You will actively participate in the upcoming World Tamil Conference, I guess.

Kanimozhi: I will help out, but I’m not confident about handling the sessions. The scholarship you come across at the maanadu will be vast and deep. There are people who read from an olaichuvadu or kalvettu like they’re reading from a newspaper!

Ranganathan: With such a busy dad, do you ever regret not getting to spend enough time together?

Kanimozhi: Dad’s personal and public lives overlap. Party workers are like family. I’ve got to accept that. But as his daughter, I’ve learnt so much. The exposure has enriched my life. I’ve learnt to value and cherish that rather than complain.

Ranganathan: I’m amazed by his phenomenal memory. Sometimes, we forget what happened last year!

Kanimozhi: You’re telling me! I don’t have a quarter of his memory.

Ranganathan: There’s a book on brain mapping. It explains why people forget and what we can do to retain memory.

Kanimozhi: You must lend me that book. I’ve never been good at remembering things. ( laughs out loud). Coming back to your schedule, how do you find time for family?

Ranganathan: As a policy, we have a five-day-week. There are exceptions, but I try not to stretch myself. My mornings and evenings are spent with my family and my extended family of birds and dogs. If we manage time well, we can pack in so much ( He relates anecdotes from management guru Steven Covey’s work). In a meeting, the time allotted for me to speak was 17 minutes. I was wondering why 17 instead of a round figure. But it works psychologically. When they say 17, you do get precise. We have ‘standing meetings’ these days in office. When you sit, you tend to get chatty! Do you get to help out with your son’s studies?

Kanimozhi: Yes, I do sit with him sometimes, but I can’t handle his doubts. Recently, he asked me some logical questions relating to King Ashoka.

Ranganathan: How important is history to children?

Kanimozhi: Oh, very important. The sad part is every child is expected to become a doctor or an engineer. And the other thing expected of kids is that they speak English. As long as the tongue rolls, it’s fine; we don’t care about vocabulary or knowledge of literature. We don’t even bother to teach children about our roots. Not many know the names of the trees, or the river that flows in their locality or a landmark in the neighbourhood. What about knowledge of our traditions, the arts and textiles?

Ranganathan: Probably the way it is taught also needs to be changed.

Kanimozhi: Yes, but children are only expected to mug up and reproduce what they have learnt to get marks. Are you strict with your kids?

Ranganathan: No, my wife gets the bad name; I indulge the kids. ( laughs)

Kanimozhi: That’s unfair. There must be a role reversal. Probably you’ll become strict when the girls grow up, isn’t it?

Ranganathan: No, there’s nothing to worry about if we teach children good values. Okay, tell me, what do you think you have to accomplish ten years from now?

Kanimozhi: I don’t set such targets. But yes, I would like to make a difference with programmes such as the Chennai Sangamam. We are trying to package it aesthetically and give it a professional edge. This includes fine-tuning the performances and looking at the art forms holistically. We all know how the Flamenco, a Spanish folk art form, is today recognised the world over. Our aim is to get more social respect for our languishing art forms. And I see that happening. Artistes are already getting a chance to perform at different venues. The Tamil University is coming up with a folk arts centre. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to be a catalyst of change. It seems like hours...What time is it?