I am a reluctant reader of business books. There is way too much on my reading shelves that take precedence over this genre. But it was different with Indomitable: A Working Woman’s Notes on Work, Life and Leadership, by Arundhati Bhattacharya. Admiration is a force. I confess I have felt a strong connect with her because she and I are the only two women I know who studied English Literature and ended up as bankers. I chuckled while reading the book because it turned out that both of us also grew up in small towns in Jharkhand, married professors and dealt with union leaders and treasury chest keys as young officers.
Frankly, I started reading the book with mild trepidation. Dr Raghuram Rajan, the much-admired former Governor of RBI killed my enthusiasm with his blurb - “A book about how women can, and will, succeed in India.” It seemed like a backhanded compliment, too restrained for a man known for his eloquence.
But as I finished reading, I became uncomfortable with some of my deeply held beliefs on workplace, leadership and diversity. One can use a sledgehammer to break barriers and glass ceilings, but one can also just choose to flow like water, with quiet power, persistence and grace, overcoming barriers and being the change. Vividly told, Bhattacharya’s journey flows like a happy river, skipping over pebbles and stones and meandering around stubborn terrain, to find its way to its purpose.
And, that purpose just keeps growing bigger and bigger for little girl Arundhati. From trying to find a sport she could do well in, a college to attend that would not strain the family financially, to balancing her transfers and family, getting her daughter to navigate the broken education system, creating special programmes for women, servicemen or physically challenged, to signing up joint ventures and to finally running the largest bank in the country at a time of much turmoil and crazy action, including demonetisation.
It is extraordinary how Bhattacharya makes it seem so ordinary. The woman at the pinnacle of India’s financial services tells it precisely how she sees it-as a ‘working woman’; living, working and leading as only she can. It is her indomitable spirit as it pushes through from one hard task to another that helps the reader turn page after page and comfortably look over her shoulders; humming a random tune, rehearsing Shakespeare, riding rickshaws, looking up Picasso at Christie’s in New York, choosing a red saree amidst the blue suits, speaking up to get bankruptcy law enacted or reflectively looking at the desk of the ‘chairman’ of SBI.
And you wonder if what makes it all happen is indeed just that - the indomitable spirit. The unfaltering commitment and desire to keep going. She never makes it seem like the pro move, the brag about the big deal, the power play. Even when she makes the big decisions or snubs that errant billionaire with an absurd restructuring proposal, it is still about the detailing of the emotion of the situation and at the core of it all is her thoughtfulness for the people affected by her decisions. The branch must be kept open, the child must get her medicines, the exam must be written, the role must get filled, policies must get written, the job must get done!
And yet, none of the things she describes are easy in any way. Raising Sukrita across five locations with the joy and frustrations of the broken education system could be written as a separate book. Coming up with ideas and execution plans for spiralling NPAs and their resolution, the role of SBI in expanding financial access through Banking Correspondents and digital technology would each be a book in itself. There are many books in this book indeed. But in her zoomed-out style, she will deliver it all at once, suddenly zooming in to the colour of the sofa or a side glance at a colleague’s expression, leaving the reader asking for more. There are great insights to be gained here on our journey as a nation through the interesting years of her leadership. As the narrative gets linear, much of this is crunched in the last hundred pages. When she lives through these years, there is just too much and it begins to feel like what she calls the book all along-‘notes on life, work and leadership’.
Growing up years
But if this book were to be the separate books that it could be, my favourite would still be the book about her growing up. That backward gaze that she applies to young Arundhati, her pithy description coming of age within circumstances that are unique and yet relatable have their own poetry like a dash of Pather Panchali. The trials and tribulations of her parents’ families add that human angle to this book, but most importantly, they do help trace the distinctive leadership style that the girl Arundhati became known for.
How she manages to keep the spotlight away from her and yet come across so vividly is the charm of her writing. There is everyone in here, every staff member who was there to celebrate, mourn, keep the vigil, return favours, create and resolve crises, everyone at home who was part of this journey - the aunt, parents, Sukrita, Pritimoy, the maids, cooks, doctors, teachers, tutors, helpers, MDs, colleagues’ wives, everyone who makes life happen gets their due description and gratitude.
The drama in her early life is real. And one wonders if her ability to take anything in her stride comes from that almost roller coaster ride through childhood, where good things follow and are followed by not so good things. She comes to believe that her guardian angels are watching her and it frees her from worries of needlessly looking after herself. She just needs to make her wishes, get up and show up. Her doubts and deliberations are less strong than her implicit conviction and faith.
But the strongest thing that jumps at you is her common sense and immense reserve of good humour. Her charismatic leadership is all about her interest in people. Characters in a play - as a student of English Litt learns to interpret them. She can get that motive and thus, get the deal. It made me reflect on how we underestimate the psychological aspects of leadership in organisational behaviour and something I have always felt strongly about, the need to bring true diversity to sectors like banking, which are more about people than about money. In the end, you see that it is possible to approach each task with candour and with zero baggage. And get it done. And that just might be how women can, and will, succeed in India.
(Shinjini Kumar, is co-founder, SALT, a finserv app for women, and former head of consumer banking at Citigroup India)