It is a trifle intimidating to review the memoirs of the former head of one’s corporate alma mater. But I was a rookie manager at Hindustan Lever (or HLL as it was then called) when Dr Ashok Ganguly was the Chairman. So, for the better part, I have observed from a distance Dr Ganguly’s rich and fulfilling post-Unilever days–or Afterness as the book is aptly titled.
“You can take a man out of Levers but not Levers out of the man,” runs a cliche among Leverites. It is true for Ganguly as well. Though only a part of the book is about HLL and Unilever–one can find shades of the memoirs of his two illustrious predecessors Prakash Tandon (PLT) and T Thomas (TT). PLT’s ‘Punjabi Century’ was about the post-partition Punjabi generation that liked pioneering and were drawn into nation building.
It is remarkable that Ganguly draws a similar line from the East. He recounts in some detail his family’s roots in Barishal (now in Bangladesh) from where they shifted to Benares. Financial conditions of the family brought his father to Mumbai, where he found a job as junior officer in Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways (BEST), thanks to one of his relatives. Ganguly spent his formative years in Mumbai. He recalls how in the Sixties and Seventies, the middle class worked hard “with nose to the grindstone” through difficult times but in the hope of a brighter future.
The two sequels of Tandon’s autobiography cover his second innings after HLL—his own ‘afterness’ as it were—when he held several coveted quasi-governmental positions. Similarly, some of the more fascinating parts of Ganguly’s memoirs are his trysts with the powers-that-be.
Ganguly took over the baton as Chairman of HLL from T Thomas in 1980.
The country was recovering from the overhang of the brief Janata Party rule, which was openly hostile towards multinationals. HLL was fighting an uphill battle to retain Unilever’s 51 per cent holding in HLL under the FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act) regime. He turned out to be the ideal successor to Thomas carrying forward his legacy of ‘To Challenge, To Change’ (the title of TT’s autobiography), navigating through the minefields of the Licence-Permit Raj.
During his tenure as Chairman, there was a major shift in HLL’s manufacturing strategy opening new units in designated “backward regions” reducing dependence on the Mumbai factory, which was under siege by the militant trade-unionism of Datta Samant.
There are many apocryphal stories about people who had befriended Rajiv Gandhi during his days as an Avro aircraft pilot of Indian Airlines. The most amusing one I have heard is about the airport cafeteria contractor from Indore, who went to meet Gandhi after he became Prime Minister and got a cooking gas agency for himself that turned his fortunes. Ganguly writes about an almost identical episode when he met Gandhi sipping coffee at Chandigarh airport, while returning on a hopping flight from Jammu which Captain Gandhi was commandeering. This serendipitous encounter was to later open his doors to the inner sanctum of power in Delhi.
Ganguly talks frankly about the friendships he had developed with principal protagonists of that era—such as Pranab Mukherjee, Nitish Sengupta and the PM’s Principal Secretary, Gopi Arora, to name a few. He repeatedly underscores HLL’s uncompromising value system in not yielding to any overtures for political contributions. But these contacts certainly helped him in furthering the company’s interests.
It also corroborates the general impression about how it was critical to be wired into the Lutyens’ circuit to move things around in those times. Ganguly laments the negative role of Indian bureaucracy. “It continues to be the principal hurdle to reforms, even to this day, and in spite of a regime change,” he writes.
On the personal front, apart from the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, Ganguly’s proximity to the previous political ecosystem brought several hard to resist offers ranging from Ambassadorship to a Lok Sabha ticket of the Congress from a “safe” constituency. However, he eschewed them all due to his aversion to politics. He accepted the nomination to the Rajya Sabha as an Independent Member in 2009, where he came to be known as “Two-minute Ganguly '' for his brief interjections. But he nurtures mixed feelings about his term in Parliament.
A memoir is incomplete without some mandatory anecdotes. Ganguly has his own share of them.
One of the amusing ones is about running into Datta-Samant coming out of a Cartier showroom in London. Another one is concerning S Varadarajan – the first Research Director of HLL, who later became Secretary, Department of Science and Technology. Apparently Rajiv Gandhi walked out of a presentation seeing Dr SV carrying seven carousels of slides. He may have inadvertently let slip a glimpse of Rajiv Gandhi’s famed impetuosity.
At heart Ganguly is a family man. His fondness for his parents, his elder sister, abiding love for his late wife Rooma (Connie), partner and pillar of five decades and his two daughters, Nivedita and Amrita, drips from the pages. In the same vein, he remembers junior colleagues from his early days in the shop floor, including a bearer, Kurup, on the Director’s floor of Lever House. It is this human touch and perspicuous honesty that makes Afterness an endearing read.
Sandip Ghose is a pioneering corporate “Quiet Quitter” turned commentator on current affairs
Check out the book on Amazon
Title: Afterness – Home and Away
Author: Ashok Ganguly
Price: ₹599 (285 pages)