Book Review

The Pilgrim’s Progress: An Ordinary Life, Portrait of an Indian Generation

A book by Ashok Lavasa Vice President ADB, (IAS retd) 1980 batch Haryana cadre Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
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Former Election Commission member Ashoka Lavasa has written a disarming morality tale of our times, spanning generations, starting a little before Independence and reaching into the first quarter of the 21st century. For a morality tale, it is neither dull nor preachy. There is the euphonic prose without getting too lyrical, and it almost reminds one of the great 17th century fictional tale of faith and morality, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. The story here is told in a novelistic fashion, through evocative anecdote and in reflective language. The story is told though his father’s journey, and that of others are like tributaries to the flow of a little stream that his father’s life is. He writes: “I was introduced to my father after he passed away in 2003…He started writing a diary about four years before he passed away. That diary, which I have inherited, is my introduction to my father.” It is also an act of filial piety done in an artistic manner.  Many of the reviewers have missed the moral leitmotif because morality is generally out of sync with our times.

Interspersed with earthy and witty couplets of the 15th century poet and mystic Kabir, Lavasa brings back to life what living in India was like from the 1940s through the 1980s, when his father, Bauji, the hero of the book, retires from work. The father’s story, especially his working years, reveal how the private sector was functioning in the country because he had moved from one private enterprise to another. The working culture, the petty politics and through it all the ordinary people who worked there. His father’s rocklike uprightness provides the dramatic turns and twists, where he had to move from one company to another, from Baroda to Faridabad in the 1960s and 1970s shows the parallel story of India’s economy. The semi-ignorant view of many is that in the so-called socialist decades all companies were in the public sector!

HarperCollins Publishers India Pages: 301; Price: Rs 499

Bauji’s life moves on a double trajectory. He educates himself after his inability to decipher the letter his wife wrote him in which she uses the phrase: “Atra kushalam tarastu” (everything is fine here and hope it is the same too”) and it pushed him into pursuing his studies through to M.A. in English. The other was that of his jobs, starting with the National Bearing Company Limited founded by B.M. Birla in 1946, which was rechristened in 1958 as National Engineering Industries Limited (NEI). In 1961, he moved to Surat to join Hansa Tools, and in 1963 he moved to Baroda to join Hindustan Tractors at a salary of Rs 450.And quite soon he earned an increment which raised his salary from Rs450 to Rs600. After six years, Bauji moved to Faridabad in 1969 and joined Eicher Tractors.  His salary was Rs 1650 which was then raised to Rs 1800. Then he moved to Frick India at a lower salary of Rs 1500. He then set up his own ‘Fairdeal Engineering Works’ which did not work out, and he too up his last job at Kelvinator. What is interesting about Bauji’s change of jobs is that how politics, work ethics forced him to move from one company to another. There might be less red tape in private sector companies, but personal rivalries, the whims of the bosses and unethical practices were key factors. And Bauji refused to break rules at any point. The organizational culture in the private sector in India should indeed be a matter of study but very few companies would allow for that. Lavasa does not dwell on this in his book, deputed  but he has opened the door as it were by showcasing his father’s experience. The most intriguing aspect is that when Bauji was at Hindustan Tractors in Baroda, a Crime Investigation Department (CID) was asked to trail him to see whether Bauji had any trade union links. And this in a private organization.

And he writes the mood at the time when the family had to leave Baroda: “The manner of his departure from Baroda after he was virtually thrown out of Hindustan Tractors had made his sad but not bitter. The pain of being asked to leave a company where he had spent some of the most satisfying years of his life was something that he had borne manfully. It was the disgrace that he could not digest. He was given 24 hours to vacate the company house  in 1969 when he had differences with the management. “

Lavasa evokes an intimate picture of the places where his father worked – Jaipur, Surat, Baroda, Faridabad – which gives us a glimpse of the times. He draws a vivid picture of Faridabad when he writes about the power plant there and the atmosphere there: “Soon, Faridabad became a hub of industries. Escorts, Kelvinator, Usha, BECO, Eicher, Cuttler Hammer, Hindustan Brown Boveri, Frick India and many other known names set up their manufacturing units along the national highway. The thermal plant was a necessity for them, and a symbol of success for the government. It did not take too long for it to become symbolic as demand started outstripping supply rapidly. ..While trade unionism became an instrument of power, power shortage became a source of corruption.”

This is a story well told, through the eyes of a competent honest man, who believed literally the premonitions that his dreams provided, believed in Providence, and managed to raise a successful family with children making their mark professionally. This is in many ways the story of India.


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