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Dear daughters

Lalitha Subramanian , May 5, 2013, DHNS : 19:16 IST
Legacy Sudha Menon Random House 2013, pp 258 399

As the pioneering Indian entrepreneur and Biocon chief, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw says so aptly in her Foreword to Sudha Menon’s Legacy, ‘It is from our parents that we internalise the values that shape our lives’. Ironically, this collection of letters to daughters starts off with a missive from a daughter (Kiran) to her parents. And, as an appetiser to the main course, this letter makes an interesting revelation — about how Kiran’s supportive father encouraged her to venture into a predominantly male field. So she studied to be a brew master, found herself unemployable in India, then veered off tangentially, starting her biotech company in the process.

The succeeding chapters then take up the book’s main theme — friendly, gentle parental advice, thoughts, anecdote-filled letters, a long note, even a couple of poems, all addressed to bitiyas, kannamas, darling daughters. However, there is also a simultaneous encompassing of the complete Indian family, acknowledging the roles played by grandfathers, aunts, parents, children, friends, all who matter — the success stories of eminent Indians, who have opened their hearts and secrets to the book’s compiler.

Menon has met and interacted with 18 worthies — businessmen, CEOs, a sports legend, a painter, a dancer, an activist, a chef, the whole range of prominent and respected Indians who live in public perception, space, media — and humanised and personalised these admired public figures. She has persuaded each to write a public letter addressed to a daughter or daughters, a letter that would benefit all besides the intended offspring. And as this reviewer can assert, almost every reader — parent, child, blas layperson — cannot help but experience these heartfelt revelations and be inspired to live a positive, meaningful life.

It is astonishing, for instance, to realise that one could start life as an impoverished Indian with 13 siblings — and still have gumption enough to start a flourishing enterprise in a far away city, help settle all; and this is the story of one brave Indian, Natarajan of Vadiveeswaram, Tamil Nadu, co-founder of Waxpol Industries, Kolkata, dateline, India’s independence movement period. Natarajan’s inspirational tale is brought alive through a letter from his son Ganesh Natrajan, CEO of a flourishing IT company (Zensar Technologies), somebody who learnt his lessons well from his humble father who preferred to call himself a chief chemist of Waxpol, not its director (Technical).

Every chapter starts off with a short introductory memo about the eminent parent in question. Luckily for Sudha Menon, most parents agreed to share some private thoughts with the general public. The lone resistance came from painter Jatin Das, who actually upbraided Menon as he considered the letter idea to be a typical instance of intrusive media. However, Menon’s gentle persuasion won the day, and Das agreed to write, not a ‘private’ letter, but a public note to his actor-activist daughter Nandita Das. Whatever his quibble, the venerable gentleman comes trumps with his piece. It is a delight to read about the Morris Minor owned by the Das family, a ‘baby car’ that needed to be pushed to start, a car that became recipient of the neighbourhood children’s teasing moniker — ‘mendhak’ (frog)!

Such earthy, humble stories fill up the letter box of memories shared by our eminences. Banker K V Kamath reveals that his mother made him give up his smoking habit through this simple cautionary question: ‘Do you know the principal sum a person would have to have in a bank to generate the interest that you are blowing away in smoke?’ Kamath also reveals the influences on his upbringing, the strong women in his life — his mother and grandmother; no wonder Kamath turned ICICI into a gender-neutral workplace, and was in fact instrumental in giving women bankers the position they deserved — his protg Chanda Kochhar became ICICI’s first female CEO. She too features in the rostrum of letter-writers that Legacy parades.

Through these letters, one comes to understand many fundamental truths. Ajit Piramal tells his daughter Nandini that ‘what we look upon as really hopeless bad times are merely temporary phases.’ Captain Gopinath opines: ‘Inculcate an entrepreneurial spirit and learn to stand on your own feet.’ Many of the epistles are from flourishing business heads who manage to weave in short lessons in successful succession planning. While lawyer Zia Mody advises her three daughters, ‘Leave a lasting impression on your family’, celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor urges his two daughters to ‘dream big’. Rootedness, faith, self-belief, perseverance, humanity, values — all the qualities that propel leaders and doers, helping them survive insurmountable odds — these motivational missives need to be read by all.

Legacy addresses daughters, but embraces sons too — through the fast-fading art of letter
writing. Some interesting photographs add value and glitter to the book. Not great literature perhaps, yet totally worth it.

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