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My grandfather was a buccaneering entrepreneur. People often cautioned him to temper the scale of his risks and the expansiveness of his ambition. His pithy response to those concerns were that he came to Bombay from Kumbakonam in a dhoti and if required he would return to Kumbakonam in a dhoti. Inspiring fearlessness faces adversity far more elegantly than a failed risk assessment.
The fear that binds us to wealth is the uncertainty of its true role in our lives. Money buys food & security. It need not buy love, confidence and inspiration. Although we often allow it to. Hence the uncertainty.
Work was the hunt that fulfilled my grandfather’s spirit. Money was a collateral result that had to be distributed. Our home had a regular stream of villagers from the south, seeking financial assistance to repair their homes or for the marriage of their children. Nobody left empty handed.
In the 80s, political sanctions on Libya and the Iran-Iraq war initiated a cascade of events that resulted in the Company he founded going bankrupt. The stream of villagers thinned out, but continued. When cash ran out he would give them my grandmother’s jewelry. He never opened a fixed deposit in his name. He was not a man of half measures.
As our debt pangs grew we prioritized our spending. Our telephone landline was cut for almost a year. When it rang back to life I would spend a few ecstatic minutes jumping with joy. Our living room ceiling had begun to peel. Sometimes chips would slip off and land with a muted thud and a puff of white dust on the carpet. When it happened in the middle of a conversation with guests, we would discuss our ceiling. It had turned into a mosaic of white plaster and grey cement. A proposal to re-plaster and paint it was rejected. My father said we had to wait until he could begin settling his debts. As a compromise we agreed to scrape all the plaster off and lived with a grey cement ceiling much before the Good Earth Store made it fashionable. His earnestness inspired us and gave a noble purpose to the state of our ceiling.
When I was in engineering college, my roommate’s father visited Bangalore once every 2-3 months on work. He would stay at the Taj on MG road and would invite us for a meal there. They were my precious excursions back into the ambience of wealth. My father visited once and stayed at the Woodlands Hotel. I met him alone in a small and spartan room and left early, disappointed that he could no longer afford a room at the Taj. He stood quietly outside his door as I left, sending me only love as a response to my dejection.
We sold our sprawling south Bombay apartment and moved into a small rented flat in Baroda. It was on the fourth floor in a non-descript building without elevators. He was in his mid-50s. He spent the first 20 years of his working life building his father’s firm into one of the rare Indian contenders in the global Oil & Gas industry. He spent the next 10 years working to contain its spectacular implosion and the last 5 years of his life rebuilding it from scratch. But I never heard a word of angst from him.
The climb up four stories enabled him to exercise and remain fit, he would tell me. We sat on the floor to eat dinner and he appreciated the fresh food my mother served us. Music played in the background of our evening conversations. He worked with the quiet resolve required to travel through the landscapes of failure.
Resurrecting a company from the brink without cash magnifies every minor problem into a crisis. But calmness was my father’s currency. Everytime we were hit by a wave of bad news, the normality in his responses would make my fears evaporate. If he is so relaxed, it can’t be that bad.
The simplicity, contentment and courage with which my parents & grandparents navigated through the throes of uncertainty allayed my confusion and rebuilt my faith. Money can’t buy love, confidence and inspiration – they come from within. Money can buy an elegantly plastered and painted ceiling, but I can wait as long as I need to for that if I have to.
(This post was published in ‘The Hindu’)