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B360 January 30, 2024, 1:26 pm
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Gurcharan Das
Author, Public Intellectual, Management Guru & Thought Leader

Gurcharan Das, an Indian author and Former CEO, Procter and Gamble India and Former VP and Managing Director, Procter and Gamble Worldwide for Strategic Planning, was in Kathmandu recently to launch his latest book titled ‘Another Sort of Freedom’. He has previously authored a much-acclaimed trilogy: ‘India Unbound: From Independence to the Global Information Age’; ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’; and ‘Kama: The Riddle of Desire’ — based on the classical Indian ideal of life’s goals.

Das quit the corporate world when he was 50 years old and has since devoted his time to writing. 

“I have been a writer for the last 25 years,” he shares. Recognised and celebrated as a refined mind contributing to understanding the values of freedom, humanity and economics, Gurcharan Das is a public intellectual and thought leader.

While he was in Kathmandu, Business 360 caught up with Das to delve into his world of words, thought and action. Excerpts:

In your journey as an author, your four books evolve around the themes of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Was this by design from the beginning or attributed to a later thinking?

I think it was the second reason. One of the fundamental reasons why I write is when I come across a problem or when I am troubled. There was something troubling me. Hence, I wrote the first book ‘India Unbound: From Independence to the Global Information Age’. Like any Indian or any person living in our part of the world, we are bothered about poverty. Countries have progressed but people are still facing poverty issues. So, I tried to find answers to that problem and wrote my first book. I believe I was the first person to predict the economic rise of India. Thankfully, India obliged by rising. But I found that as prosperity was spreading, corruption too was spreading. So, I decided to find out why. I went to the Mahabharata as I knew that the Mahabharata is obsessed with dharma, and one of the problems of corruption is dharma. It’s also governance, of course, but also dharma. And so, I wrote the book ‘Difficulty of Being Good’, which is an examination of our lives through the lens of the Mahabharata. The story that the Mahabharata is telling. The other problem I had, and I think everybody has, is desire. What to do with desire? And so, I wrote a book called ‘Kama: The Riddle of Desire’. 

Each one was a project in self-cultivation and self-education. I then realised I had already written about the three goals of life. So, the fourth one was Moksha but I am not a believer. I am an agnostic. I then decided to write a memoir. My publisher, Penguin, for years, had been asking me to write a memoir because they said readers want to know why I quit the corporate world at the top to become a writer. And so that’s part of the story I tell, and I tell it through the story of connecting the dots in my life. Connecting with moksha, which means freedom. The original meaning of moksha has nothing to do with the spiritual meaning of moksha. That is the meaning that I have taken. And I have, in the process, discovered that these four goals of life are actually potentialities, and human capabilities. You fulfil the capabilities and you live a flourishing life.

I used to believe that the secret of happiness was to love the work you do and love the person you live with. That’s happiness. But now I feel that there’s another definition of happiness, which is to fulfil your human capabilities.  

What is the message at the heart of what you write?

Well, at the heart of the four books that I have written is what I have just described. That it is a common human search for happiness. And so, I have moved from one adequate definition of happiness to another. The latest book I have written is ‘Another Sort of Freedom’. So, in this book, I have tried to find what is that other sort of freedom, which is that moksha. In my life, it is really a freedom from expectations, expectations of your family, expectations of your friends, of society, but most importantly, expectations of yourself. We all have the expectation, the ego, that we want to be somebody. We don’t want to be nobody. And that desire to be somebody is part of the problem. All of us need to be somebody. If you get free from that need, you are a better person. Similarly, we all always want premium treatment. You walk in somewhere in the office or anywhere and want to be treated in a certain way. So, this constant need for the premium treatment is another problem. Usually, other things that come with vanity, envy, status, anxiety i.e., consequences of ego – if you can be free of those, you have attained that other sort of freedom. 

As a liberal, how would you define freedom? Does the definition of freedom change with people and context?

I think that is a good question you have raised. There is the personal freedom and there is the public freedom in the public space. I am a classical liberal and a classical liberal is a person who is open, big hearted, who is tolerant of others in their personal capacity, but in public capacity, it is a person who desires the maximum equal freedom for everyone in society and therefore you need freedom of all kinds. You embrace religious freedom. You don’t want the government to tell you that you are a Muslim or a Christian and therefore bind your freedom. Of course, there is political freedom. Democracy gives you political freedom. But most importantly, there is economic freedom. Economic freedom is a freedom to do work from excessive control by the state.

The worst control by the state is in a communist state, a Marxist-Leninist state, or Maoist state, where the government decides. Now, the intention of Marx was good. He wanted equality for everybody but the problem is that the human ego will not shrink that fast and so the desire to give equality to everybody meant that only the state would be the employer.

So, everybody became a civil servant. Whether you are a taxi driver, a guard in a shop, or a shopkeeper, everybody is an employee of the state. In theory, that is good but in practice, it is a disaster. That is why the Soviet Union collapsed. And all the Left, all the countries of Eastern Europe collapsed. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the end of that story. I realise we have Maoists ruling in Nepal, but I think they are not doctrinaire Marxists who want to bring communism to Nepal. But the desire for equality is important, but so is the desire for liberty. Ultimately, you know the cry of the French Revolution was liberty, equality and fraternity.

The issue now is that the Western liberals have forgotten about fraternity, that we operate in a community and in the community, people are linked together. There’s too much individualism amongst liberals, and they forget that there is an interdependence of people also. 


When you decided to leave the corporate world when you were just 50 were there any doubts or fears regarding that decision?

No. My life has been the reason why I called the book ‘Another Sort of Freedom’. Right from the beginning, I have been an oddball and taking decisions which went against the norm. Now, leaving the corporate world at the peak of your career, when you have been CEO and so on in a multinational company, seems stupid. When the retirement age was 65, I left at 50. But this process began very early in life. My mother’s diary, which I quote in chapter one, is that her first entry about me is that ‘this is a restless baby’. So, at six months, I am a restless baby. One year later, she called me difficult. And then at the age of four, she calls me a troublemaker. You can see the trend that is going on. I was lucky to get a scholarship to Harvard University to be an undergraduate and my mother said I should study something useful, that I had to return to India. She said I would need a job and make a living. She advised me to be an engineer like my father so that I would get a job. I arrived at Harvard and promptly forgot her advice. And what do I study? In my first two years, I studied Greek tragedy, Russian novel and history of capitalism. I studied Roman Empire, Bauhaus architecture, Renaissance painting, and Sanskrit love poetry. When my mother heard I was studying Sanskrit at Harvard, she was aghast. She said it is a dead language and only the dead will now give me a job. So, this has been my life. And finally, even Harvard got worried and I had to declare a major.

In my third year, I declared my field of concentration and I studied philosophy. I finished my degree in philosophy and got another scholarship to go to Oxford to do a PhD. But then that summer, while waiting to do a PhD back home in Chandigarh, I asked myself, did I want to really spend the rest of my life at that stratosphere of abstract thought?

No. I wanted a life of action. I didn’t know what a life of action was, but I wrote to Oxford that I was not coming. And my mother’s worst nightmare came true. She had a grown-up, unemployed son at home and we had a nosey neighbour who asked my mother every day what her son was doing. My mother would get embarrassed. So, to save her from that embarrassment, I answered the first advertisement in the paper I found. It was a company that made Vicks VapoRub. They wanted trainees but I had no idea what a trainee was. I had studied philosophy and so I went for an interview and the man asked me what my objective in life was. I said, ‘Happiness’. He said he didn’t mean that but what did I want to be involved in – marketing, finance, production? He asked which part of business did I want to be in. Clearly the interview was not up to the mark but he must have been impressed with my Harvard degree, so they gave me a job.

So, I got a job for Rs 750 a month, which was a lot of money in the 1960s. My mother was satisfied. I went from the beautiful, ivy-covered halls at Harvard to the dusty bazaars of India, walking with my bag, asking wholesalers how many Vicks VapoRub they needed. It was a different life but I liked the rough and tumble of the business life. 

However, after a couple of years, I missed the intellectual life. I started reading. I realised that from Monday to Friday, I could do my business life. However, on Saturday and Sunday, nobody disturbed you as it was a multinational company. So, I said to myself I would become a writer and write a play. One morning, I sat down and said, ‘Shakespeare too must have sat down one morning to write Hamlet’. With the confidence of my 21 years, I wrote my first play and it won a big prize. Published by Oxford University Press, it was produced in Bombay and then on BBC and the Edinburgh Theatre Festival. So, I had a second career. I was thus wearing two hats – Monday to Friday hat and Saturday-Sunday hat. And then I wrote the second play on Mirabai, the Bhakti saint. By then, I had been transferred to New York and looked for a producer there. And the person who produced my play converted the Meera bhajans into hard rock music. So, I had a second career as a weekend writer. While my friends played golf, I was writing. It was my routine until I was in my late forties. I was working at Procter and Gamble at the world headquarters and involved in selling good products. But I asked myself, is this what life is all about? That is when I decided to quit because I realised there must be a bigger world outside. 

Do you ever go back and read your books and think you could have done them a bit differently?

I would probably have not. I was in a rising academic career. I quit to become a business person. I had a shining business career. I resigned to become a writer. Frankly, that’s what life is all about. You take it as it happens. You find meaning in them as you grow along. I mean, we are not all born like Mozart. At the age of three, he knew he was a musical genius and at the age of five, he produced a symphony. We are not like that. And then he died at 30 after having produced 625 musical masterpieces. Those are unusual human beings. Most of us struggle and then find our purpose. As we stumble through life, we find our purpose. That is how it is. One of the things I felt was once I quit the business world, I would become a better human, being a writer. It has not worked out that way. I have been a writer for 25 years and had quite a lot of success. However, I have not become a better human being.

In fact, I have decided that business people are better human beings than writers, artists and such. And why? Because business people understand interdependence from day one. They have customers; you cannot be successful unless you have a customer and the customer is happy. So, you have to make the customer happy. Then you have suppliers and if you are not fair to your supplier – everybody tries to squeeze the supplier – you will receive bad components for your product. You will fail. Then you have employees because you cannot do everything yourself. You have to treat them well because if you do not treat them well, they will go and join your competitor. Therefore, business people understand that you are interdependent, which they call win-win. I have to win and the other person also has to win. A writer needs nobody. You sit in a room all day and write. When you are writing, you forget yourself. And when you stop writing, you only have yourself and you only think about yourself. So, you do not realise that there are other people. Goodness and being a better human being lie in being good to others. 

What are the three core principles that a person should think about when they decide to choose to make a life rather than make a living?

You are quoting from my book where I talk about the difference between making a life and a living. This idea came from the two influences in my life – my mother, who always reminded me I had to make a living and my father, who reminded me that I had to make a life. In fact, at Harvard, I went against my mother’s advice and did not study engineering. According to her, I studied nothing useful. But my father explained to her I was making a life through books. My father was the one who told me that when I was unhappy at business, I should use my weekends well to make a life. That is the difference between making a life and making a living.

In fact, even at your job, you can make a life. You don’t have to do it on the weekends as long as it is something you are doing that gives you pleasure-that gives you purpose. I mean, you have a photographer and a videographer as your colleagues and these people very often choose their job because it gives them pleasure, a purpose. It is not selling Vicks VapoRub or selling clothes in a store. It is something that gives them pleasure. So, you people are on your way to making a life at work. That is the best thing. That is what making a life is all about-giving yourself a purpose. As I said earlier, you stumble onto it. We are not all Mozart.


What allows a person the ability to dream and realise those dreams?

One unique aspect of what makes us human is we are lucky, because all species do not have those dreams. We have imagination and imagination is what gives us those dreams – to dream something that we do not have and then aspire to have it. That is the source to numerous civilisations. Many great people who have made contributions including Einstein, Marx, Freud, Darwin, they aspired. 

Can the courage to make a life be learned or is it inborn? 

That is another very good question - can we learn it or is it innate in us? For me, I think we learn it. If we are Mozart, it is innate but for an ordinary person like us, we continue learning. You also get discontented. I got discontented selling Vicks for so long. So far, I am not discontent with my writing but writers also experience discontentment. 

In your eighties, what understanding about life gives you hope for humanity?

Especially now, after 75 years of a liberal age, the liberal age is coming to an end. Everywhere, freedom is reducing. After two world wars, we had a good run as a human race. Democracies have spread. Markets have spread. People are better off. Poverty has been wiped out in many parts of the world. Not wiped out entirely but at least brought down to a manageable level. And now, my life seems to be closing on a curtain where the liberal age is coming to an end. So, you have got a good question-what is it? And I think it is what you mentioned yourself. It is that ability to dream, the imagination of human beings. There are a lot of problems. There are a lot of opportunities with artificial intelligence and what technology presents. Of course, it is also scary what AI can do. Climate change, of course, is another on the horizon. But I am still optimistic. I think human beings have the ability to evolve and we have learned to evolve. We have evolved because we cared for ourselves. Of course, caring for yourself also makes you egoistic and the big fat ego takes over. Nevertheless, I think human beings have an enormous capacity. There have been periods when we practically wiped ourselves out also on earth. The nuclear nightmare is still there.

How do you view the growing geopolitical tensions and the economic uncertainties? And do you feel that perhaps democracy needs to be redefined?

In my view, the best thing that happened in this liberal age was globalisation. Globalisation allowed countries like China to progress. It allowed the impoverished in China to become middle-class and maybe not as many people. China has become the factory of the world. India did it by becoming the back office of the world. The huge setback in the world economy has been a rolling back of globalisation. For me, globalisation was one of the greatest achievements of this liberal order. In fact, it is not the first time that globalisation has occurred. It has transpired many times before. The last time was in the period from 1870 to 1900 before the First World War. That period was also a period of globalisation which happened under the British Empire. It occurred under the American success after the Second World War. So, American Empire was responsible for this. Globalisation has meant millions of Chinese coming out of poverty because they became the factory of the world along with the millions of Indians. It was partly because of India becoming the back office of the world IT revolution, etc., that we have experienced.

Now, all countries are raising tariffs and they are closing down. An economics student knows that trade is a win-win situation, not a win-lose situation. Of course, inequality has occurred. Now, that is inherent in capitalism. The person with the largest market share has the highest reserves of money. So, there is inequality but the welfare state in many countries has helped against inequality. What we are doing is we are throwing the baby with the bathwater and that is the problem. Anyway, it is not over. But the symptoms are there. The geopolitical issue, of course, is the rise of China. The rise of China was all right until Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese state. Leaders like Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping saved China. But Xi is determined to assert Chinese dominance in the world. It is a multipolar world, though we do not know where it will go eventually. America has begun to decline. The American empire is under stress. Nepal is in an unusual position because it is in between India and China. Nepal should have used this opportunity of the last 25 years of the rise of China and India to link itself economically with both sides and gain economically as a result. But Nepal is a landlocked country. However, look at Switzerland who did rise. Nepalis produce unique products. Inclusion on sites like Amazon and others in the global market will get distribution immediately. I feel Nepal would have gained. But anyway, we were on the question of the rise of China and geopolitical situation that we have, and I think that as long as Xi is there, we have to worry. The world has to worry.

What are the values that have worked well for you in life?

I guess there are these old-fashioned values. It begins with discontent. My mother called me restless. I learnt to run at the age of three and I am still running. So, it is a bit of discontent but also confidence to do what you feel you can do. And also, once you decide to do something, you want to do it well, anything, whatever you do. So that’s been another feature. Now, these are old-fashioned values. But ultimately, if you are doing something you like, you can be passionate about, it will give you purpose - that is the best quality I have learned and found. I did like the rough and tumble of business life but then I like writing. Do you know when you know that you like something? Time gets distorted if you are doing something that you like. It is like you are working and you look at your watch and say it is already 6 o’clock and you thought it was just 4 o’clock. So, it is two hours that you have lost. It was those two hours when you were totally absorbed. Time gets distorted when you know you are absorbed in something that you really like. If you follow cricket, there is an incident whereby a reporter once asked Sachin Tendulkar what it felt like when he was approaching his famous double century. Tendulkar replied that he didn’t know because he was not even there. He said that the ball and the bat had become so big that the bat just had to hit the ball. He was not even there. You lose yourself. It’s called self-forgetting and the Buddhists practice it. That comes from not taking yourself too seriously. The dedication of my new book, ‘Another Sort of Freedom’, is the same. The freedom that comes from not taking yourself too seriously. Dedication of my book is to the happy few who do not take themselves too seriously.

How would you like to be remembered?

Well, I have not even thought about that. I guess nobody thinks you are going to die one day. You see people dying all around you, but you do not think you are going to die. In the Mahabharata, the Yaksha asks Yudhistir what is the most miraculous thing in the world and Yudhistir says you see people dying around you and you do not think you are going to die. I guess we all want somehow, even after we die, to live on. The ‘Difficulty of Being Good’, the bestseller of all my books, has ideas that still inspire people and make them think. So that is another way that one’s life continues. 

Anything you would like to add?

We talked about how one would like to be remembered. I guess to me, more than the achievement is to be a better human being, a good human being. What is a good human being? Is it somebody who cares about another human being? That is all it is. And I have not achieved it, so I will not be remembered. But I would aspire to be remembered for that. And when you get that sense of freedom, the Buddhist philosophy teaches that your self is a hoax. It is not. So, if you realise there is no such thing as self, then you might not be thinking about yourself all the time. Not thinking about it means thinking about others. 


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MARCH 2024

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