Author, columnist and former corporate czar, Gurcharan Das on his latest book and his attempt to understand society's moral failures through the Mahabharata.
If Gurcharan Das was a Mahabharata character, perhaps he would be Bhisma; his early retirement as the celebrated CEO Proctor and Gamble India to turn full-time author, almost a willing renunciation of the capitalist kingdom and crown. Naturally sagacious, he is a mild man, who speaks sometimes with Vajpayeesque pauses, and fits the mould of the benevolent teacher, the thinker of many things, the interpreter of memories.
His Jor Bagh home in pleasantly leafy south Delhi is that of the gentleman at leisure, adequately oak-and-book lined, with deep dark sofas and customary lovable, if desultory, dog.
Last time I met him amid the Jaipur literature festival, with the shadow of Amitabh Bachchan seeping out as it were from the crumbling haveli in the background, Das spoke about Ramalinga Raju's Dhritarashtra-like failing.
He was, Das had said about the beleaguered Satyam boss, just unable to recognise his mistakes and the errors of those closest to him. In fact his book begins with the role of Raju in Satyam.
"I had met Raju 10 years earlier. I had looked him in the eye and I had seen sincerity, competence and great purpose why should a person of palpable achievement, who lacked nothing in life, turn to crime?"
The search of the answer brought him to the Mahabharata and The Difficulty of Being Good. The idea which took best-selling author Das (his India Unbound had been widely sold and translated and even filmed by the BBC) to the University of Chicago to study Sanskrit texts to the Regenstein Library where he "interrogated" the epic, cheered on by Sanskrit scholars like Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger, the latter telling him, "Reading Sanskrit is good for the soul."
The right thing
If his last book was trying to understand the core values, the metaphysics as it happens, of artha or wealth, this time retelling the Mahabharata was his solitary search for the idea of dharma - of how doing and then failing to do, the right thing, changes the world.
Last time I met him in winter-consoled Jaipur, in the aftermath of a shocked India Inc post-Satyam, Das was tossing his big idea; it is not the larger evil flaws society but the minor theft, the small sins that is eating away the fabric of India. It is no so much the Satyams that kill India, he had told me. It is the petty bribes, the illicit donations, the baksheesh culture. The Difficulty of Being Good then is Das' way of trying to understand the world and its sins and of dharma, as the great epic of retribution and retelling understood it.
Through the Mahabharata, Das is attempting to understand the moral failure of society, how "the country (is) turning middle class alongside the most appalling governance".
The tale of warring brothers, destined to fight the greatest battle of all times, was also telling him about the intricacies of world - from a collapsing Wall Street to the one topic we were also, naturally, destined to amble onto India's very own warring brothers, the Ambanis.
"It is envy, you see, that is at the root. Anil's Duryodhana-like envy for his brother and there always has been such conflict of jealousy, pride, envy between brothers," said Das, nodding his head sadly.
We spoke of whether Anil Ambani also has what Das calls Karna's status anxiety and how the battle between brothers is always a case of intertwined, conflicting egos, personalities and histories. "There is pride and envy and factions in this (the Ambani) battle," said Das. "It is all in the Mahabharata."
In the interim period between the Dhitrarashtra-Raju and Duryodhana-Anil, Das finished The Difficulty of Being Good, called a "tour de force" by Nandan Nilekani, an attempt to understand the mystery of our missing morals.
As he read the Mahabharata, "intrigued by its boast: What is here is found elsewhere. What is not here is nowhere", Das says he also realised that the epic is the perfect textbook for these troubled times. Take Wall Street, for instance. If only, says Das, the Wall Street bankers would have acted like Yudhishthira, saying his immortal words, "I act because I must."
"It was," writes Das, "the uncompromising, compelling voice of dharma. This is an answer that the investment bankers, who tipped the world into this crisis of capitalism, might ponder over."
The big lesson, smiled Das beatifically, is that "the ferocious competition of interests and passions that Duryodhana exemplifies is a feature of the free market and it can be corrosive".
Choosing the right way
"Since it is in man's nature to want more, one learns to live with human imperfection, and one seeks regulation that not only tames the Duryodhanas but also rewards dharma-like behaviour in the market."
His book is about the idea of good and bad, as he calls it "the subtle art of dharma", of how choosing to do the right thing is tricky and often traumatic, yet, in doing the right thing, in following the destiny of dharma lies the future and fate of our race. That's why, says Das, we all must do what we are destined to do - act according to our dharma.
His, of course, as he would say, was to stop worrying about oscillating market shares of soaps and shampoos and discover the tantalising pulse of his country.
Hindol Sengupta is Associate Editor, UTVi