Excerpted from Legacy: Letters from Eminent Parents to their Daughters by Sudha Menon:
Ganesh Natarajan’s earliest lessons were learnt from his father, a simple village boy who worked relentlessly to make a career for himself so that he could look after his parents and thirteen siblings.
That journey took the young man from his village in the state of Tamil Nadu to the city of Kolkata where he set up a small enterprise and from there to, Tatisilwai, a small village in what is now the state of Jharkhand.
His father’s commitment to his family and to the people around him left a lasting impression on Ganesh. As a young man, he recalls evenings spent serving up milk to the children of the village and joining them in singing patriotic songs which, his father told him, would make them better human beings. From his father, who worked hard at the factory and then at the Ramakrishna Mission’s Seva Kendra till late night, Ganesh learnt the qualities of sincerity, hard work, love for the community, and the ability to maximize his time. From his mother and grandmother, he learnt generosity of heart and the ability to make the whole world his own and to reach out to everyone who touched his life.
Today, Ganesh Natarajan is the Vice-Chairman and CEO of Zensar Technologies, one of the most successful IT companies in the country, Co-Chairman of the National Knowledge Council, and a member of the Chairman’s Council, NASSCOM.
The little boy who grew up to be a God-fearing young man now finds himself an atheist, increasingly questioning his earlier beliefs, thanks to daughter Karuna, a keen science scholar who is currently engaged in cutting edge research in Hematology and Oncology at the prestigious Harvard University.
Ganesh writes a nostalgic letter to Karuna, a letter in which he wonders if he could have, perhaps, spent a little more time with her during the few years that she was with them, before setting out in her early teens, on a trans global journey that took her to some of the biggest educational institutes in the world, including the Cambridge University. And yet, he says in his letter, he is glad they had the courage to let her find her own wings and take off in pursuit of her dreams.
My dear Karuna,
As always, it is a pleasure to write to you, this time especially so since you have now embarked on the next phase on your voyage of scientific discovery. In your fellowship at Harvard where you are working on Hematology and Oncology, I am sure you will put both your medical training and research orientation, acquired at the Cambridge Medical & PhD programme, to good use. Your mother and I have watched you with pride over the last decade and more, from the time you were just another schoolgirl at Maneckji Cooper School in Mumbai to the education odyssey that has taken you through the International Baccalaureate programme at the United World College, USA, the Medical and PhD programs at Cambridge University, and now to the super specialization and post-doctoral training at Harvard.
Your travels around the world and your life experiences have made you a mature, wise woman, leaving me with little scope for sermons. Still, I would love to leave you with a few of my thoughts, which I am hoping you will assimilate into your own worldview. Over the years, you have developed a healthy respect for our own academic and business accomplishments, a better understanding of our roots, and of our journey to the current state of relative success, and I am sure this will inspire some of your future thoughts and actions.
My own family came from a little village called Vadiveeswaram in the Nagercoil district of Tamil Nadu. My paternal grandfather, Ganapathy Iyer, was the headmaster at the local village school. But even though he was a working man, he never had enough money to feed and clothe his fourteen children. It was left to his eldest son Natarajan, my father, to take up the responsibility of pulling out the family from their abject rural poverty to a life of dignity in the city.
You knew your grandfather very briefly and I probably never told you about the tribulations and aspirations of the young man who did so much, not just for his family but also for industry and society. Having managed to get himself a BSc (Physics) degree from St Joseph’s College in Trichy, he moved his large family to Kolkata when India was in the midst of getting her independence from an oppressive regime. Always a curious scientist—I suspect you get your interest in science and research from him—he co-founded Waxpol Industries in collaboration with the Garg family and went on to get many industrial chemical discoveries to his credit. Even today, people remember the famous Waxpol Car Polish and the industrial greases and lubricants that he created. Such was his simplicity and passion for work that he called himself Chief Chemist instead of Director (Technical) of the company.
His humility was something he passed on to all of us. His friends were ordinary people that he worked with and so it was with us. Having discharged the eldest son’s responsibilities by taking care of his parents till their demise, ensuring good marriages for his seven sisters, and jobs for the three brothers, Appa moved his little family of four to Ranchi to set up the Waxpol factory there and thus found the time to indulge in his many talents.
In Ranchi, our school-going days were spent in the company of the simple folks of Tatisilwai where we lived in the only brick house that the village could boast of. But our relative prosperity did not stop us from mingling happily with the village kids, indulging in hearty games of gilli danda. Appa was a passionate follower of the Ramakrishna Mission and he made sure that his entire family participated wholeheartedly in the Seva Kendra that he set up outside our family compound. Each evening, it became our duty to gather the village kids and feed them milk after which we would all join them in singing patriotic songs so that we would all become better human beings!
He had an incredible amount of energy and slept very little. He held the belief that life was so full of things that he had just time for four hours of sleep. He was my inspiration and he always told me: ‘Life is a gift and I don’t want to idle away time. It is a waste of my intellect and education.’
He was also the life and soul of the Tamil Sangam, (an informal cultural body of the local Tamil population) and brought some of the best artistes, philanthropists, and seers of those times, including MS Subbalakshmi, Kamala Lakshman, Ghanshyam Das Birla, and Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, to the little Bihar town and to our humble home.
When I think about it, I am convinced that his enthusiasm for life, his interest in people, and his commitment to hard work rubbed off on me too.
Karuna, I used every moment of my spare time for something useful, such as reading and educating myself. You are in Harvard today with some of the most intelligent minds from around the world, for company. I’m sure you are using that opportunity to increase the breadth of your knowledge.
Even as our little family moved towards relative prosperity and could afford a few luxuries like a monthly visit to the town’s Kwality restaurant, the occasional Enid Blyton book, or the latest movie, we still stayed true to the values of leading a simple life that father advocated. I remember the time when the six of us from Seva Kendra were invited to sing the welcome song for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to Ranchi. The next morning, her cavalcade of over forty cars was to pass by our Seva Kendra and my father was convinced that she would stop and visit us. So we stood on the dusty road and watched the cars flash by when suddenly the PM’s car reversed to halt beside us and Mrs Gandhi came out beaming and greeted all of us, much to our utter surprise! Your grandfather had complete faith in himself and in the greater power of doing good and this was one instance among many where he showed that such a power could indeed move mountains!
There is an old cliché that behind every successful man is a woman and nothing could epitomize this more than your grandmother Subbalakshmi, fondly called Rajam, who came from Bombay as a bride into our large family in the year 1951. She was a graduate who was encouraged by your great grandfather Ganapathy Iyer to complete her Bachelor’s Degree in Education in Kolkata and became one of the most successful teachers of Mathematics and Sanskrit at the Bishop Westcott School in Namkum near Ranchi where both my sister and I completed our school education. She was the family’s pillar of strength, a willing ally to my father in all his activities, and, later on, his source of strength when his health slowly failed him. She was also the guiding parent for both my sister and I, helping us through school work, teaching me cricket and music, and encouraging all forms of curricular and extracurricular pursuits. You did have some experience of her wisdom and love during the years she stayed with us in Mumbai after your grandfather’s demise, so you know how much she pushed for strong values and excellence. She was an inspiration to all whose lives were touched by hers!
I learnt many lessons from the way my parents conducted their life and I think these lessons and values are applicable to future generations too.
My parents believed that you can never choose the hand that fate deals you but insisted that how you play the game determines whether you win or lose in the larger game of life. Shouldering responsibility cheerfully without regret or remorse is one of the abilities that separate true winners from the also-rans, they said. As a young man who had to look after the needs of ten siblings and his parents, he never complained about his fate or blamed destiny for it. He just worked hard and dispensed his duties with good cheer.
Appa always said: ‘Don’t let transient troubles come in the way of long-term goals. If there is something worth achieving in life, whether at work or beyond it, it is worth burning the midnight oil and pursuing relentlessly.’ I second that completely, Karuna, and know that you are already living that life.
Never inflict your passions or priorities on others, my father said. If there is something that you like to do, something you feel adds great value to the world, others will gravitate to the cause voluntarily without any need for cajoling or coercion. This creates, long term converts rather than reluctant followers.
During your own growing up years in Mumbai, you would have seen many other examples of selfless endeavours that were worthy of emulating and you would no doubt have your own role models at various stages of your childhood and youth. Your mother’s centenarian grandmother, who at that time was over seventy when you spend your first year with the family at Pondicherry, has always been a role model for all of us. The young widow courageously raised two generations of family, her own four children including your grandfather SV Iyer, and finally, her great grandchildren starting with you! That is an indication of the abundance of love and giving that reigns supreme in a large heart.
I wonder what it was when you were in your early teens in school that gave you the sense of purpose to start on your interesting academic journey. Was it your love of reading, through which you experienced many worlds vicariously, or your realization that it was scientific accomplishment and contribution to humanity that was more important to chase than monetary goals? Whatever be the trigger, the transformation of our child into a focused young woman intent on succeeding in her Bharatnatyam dancing, her literary accomplishments, and becoming the Head Girl of the school in addition to finishing among the top graduates in the all-India ICSE exams has been nothing short of extraordinary. I must confess, that it was with a feeling of trepidation that we let you choose your path and fly off alone when you were still shy of sixteen years to High School in the US. But we had then, as we have now, the confidence that your own intelligence, common sense, and strong sense of values and purpose would keep you secure and focused on the vision you had set for yourself.
Dear Karuna, values are themselves a transient phenomenon in a world where social mores, acceptable forms of behaviour, and the expectations of one’s peers keep changing. Our family itself has moved from extreme orthodoxy and somewhat dogmatic beliefs to a fairly liberal view of the world and we have let you choose your own road and follow your heart and mind without fear of reprobation or disapproval. The width and depth of knowledge you have acquired, not just in your chosen scientific discipline but in a variety of areas, have enabled you to build strong convictions that have, in many cases, rubbed off on our own beliefs. I grew up as a spiritual, God-fearing man but your company and our various debates during cherished family vacations around the world, have finally made me an agnostic!
Karuna, both your mother and I have worked hard over the last few decades, setting up new companies and pursuing with a passion many new projects. This has also made me feel that maybe some of that time we spent was borrowed from time that we could actually have been with you. But then again, your mother and I think too that we showed you by example, what it is to follow your heart and take your dream to fruition. If our relentless involvement in our work—one that is very essential to our well-being—has played a role in forming the intelligent and independent young woman that you are today, I am happy. Seeing your own devotion to your calling and your work ethic makes us extremely proud today.
Medicine is a calling that can change so many lives, Karuna, and we are proud you have made that call to change people’s lives for the better on your own.
Karuna, if the measure of success is the ability to bring about a betterment in the lives of people, then you are already on the way to becoming a very successful person. Your mother and I have always tried to help people in our own individual ways because we are aware that life is a transient journey and the productive time at one’s disposal to contribute to other people’s lives is really short. We all have the opportunity to make a difference and yet, so few of us actually go on to do something for others without expecting something in return.
Achieving success in life is certainly not easy, Karuna, but then, nobody promised you a shortcut to success either. Part of being a successful person is also the ability to relate to people, build enduring relationships, and help other people achieve their goals. Your mother and I personally know and take an interest in the people who work for the organizations that we built in the last decades.
You yourself have spent more years away from your country and your family and have been the recipient of the kindness of countless people that you have come in touch with along the way, so you know how important it is for each of us to reach out to those around us and lend a helping hand. Be good to people, my dear. If the only way to success is by trampling on other people, there is no point in it. Competition will always be part of our lives but our success should not and need not be at the cost of other people’s happiness. I am convinced that money, success, recognition are by-products of your life goals and life missions.
Karuna, your mother and I have worked hard to ingrain in you a sense of how important a family is in the larger picture of our lives and we are hoping that when you start your own family someday, you will remember to keep them at the centre of your priorities too.
So what are my hopes and dreams for you, dear Karuna, as you embark on the next stage in your career which will see you emerge as a mature member of an elite physician-scientist cadre? You should and will be successful in your own pursuits and I hope you will retain the love for humanity and the bonding with your colleagues that are always as important as individual career success. I am sure that in your own life partnerships and family matters, you will choose well and build a nest that will nurture and keep you happy in the midst of all the pressures that your global career will surely entail. But most importantly, I am sure that three generations of family who have been successful in their own right but still remained good human beings will give you the power to be a wonderful inhabitant of this planet in your own right.
I wish you all the best and the power to be the best you can be and realize all your dreams.
With all my love,
Excerpted with permission from the author from Legacy: Letters from Eminent Parents to their Daughters by Sudha Menon
Published by Random House India
Price: Rs 399, Paperback (Buy the Book)