The meaning of VG Siddhartha's ‘failure’

Cafe Coffee Day founder V G Siddhartha. (AFP File Photo)

I had barely heard of VG Siddhartha before the news of his suicide hit headlines two days ago. I had, however, more than a passing acquaintance with Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) – the brand he built over the last three decades to national acclaim and international investment interest. I was never called to a CCD for an interview by a prospective employer, nor did much happen over its coffee in matters of love and romance. But it was the place where my daughter, as a six-or-seven-year-old, loved to go whenever we went out shopping and wanted a quick bite.

CCD's overpriced and middling fare did not impress me much, but what struck me as nice about it was that here was a place to sit and chat. A place to hang out without feeling like someone was keeping a tab of the minutes you spent at the table, soon be occupied by someone else. It was an undemanding space if you had few hundred rupees to spare.

Many of the obituaries of Siddhartha have mentioned his lasting contribution to the creation of this kind of space in a country where privacy is at a premium for India’s burgeoning youth. It’s obviously something he himself strived for because he wanted to see a CCD at every street corner in our cities, we are told.

Here was someone with a simple idea and an eager market. It became an overnight hit in a globalising India and CCD outlets looked set to grow without number. In Bengaluru, where I now live, it is difficult to walk past an arterial road without spotting a couple of CCDs at the very least. This is true of a number of other cities across India. It’s stunning then that such a man, at the end of his life, thought of himself as a failed entrepreneur. Neither those who thronged to see him before his funeral at his family estate in Chikmagalur, nor the many expressing respect for him from various quarters, seemed think about the man in the same way that he regarded himself.

It’s my hunch that VG Siddhartha that did not kill himself because his business had failed. In the letter, believed to be written by him, to the Board of the company and CCD employees days before his death, he speaks of having created more than 50,000 jobs directly and indirectly. And he ends by saying that his company’s assets outweigh its liabilities and can help repay all lenders. His decision to take his life was probably result of a complete loss of hope. He had no way to come out of the series of financial dealings that he had undertaken to keep expanding his business. He may have been fearing the law, as the letter shows.

This is not to venture into what is wrong with India’s business and tax laws. That undoubtedly played a part in the unravelling of his life. But how does someone decide that there is no means of going beyond failure? Why did a person like Siddhartha feel there was nobody to discuss his personal and professional problems with? Why was he not able to reach out for help? That is the moot question here.

Siddhartha to me seems to have paid for his success with his life. Being successful is never an event. It requires one to constantly work at maintaining that success. In Siddhartha’s case, it may have taken the desire for expanding his business by taking on more debt than he could manage. Any deviation from the script of success is unacceptable in our current culture that sets a lot by store when it comes to ‘achievers’.

For those who are seen as achievers or are brought up to believe in success as the ultimate guarantor of personal worth, being unsuccessful and being shamed for it publicly is simply unacceptable. These are the same kind of pressures that force our students to take their lives before and after crucial board exams.

As a society and as a culture, we are doing something very wrong. VG Siddhartha’s death will not go waste if we stopped to ask why even the most successful among us is not immune from the pressures of having to constantly stay on top.

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