Saturday, July 16, 2011

Of Leaders and Writing - in memory of Ranjan, the Acharya

I dreamed of being a writer once. A passionate journalist, at that. My former boss, the departed Ranjan Acharya compared my motivations to write to that of Fabian socialists. Ranjan himself acknowledged the influence of two great people in his life as far as his own writing was concerned. And he used their tips as cannon for the writing fodder. One of them was the Principal Fr. Mascarenhas of the St. Joseph's Boys' High School in Khadki, Pune, where Ranjan schooled. "Break your essay down into simple points" was Ranjan's  fondest recall of Fr. Mascarenhas.  The other was Mulk_Raj_Anand, a socialist himself. Ranjan would take the local train to Lonavla to soak lessons from him in the art of short story writing.  Ranjan would attempt writing in house journals of the Rotract Club, Pune and get reviews on such writing. Mulk Raj Anand was a tough critic. He still got my boss's respect.

Ranjan's other influences in writing were not so live in the flesh for him; literary giants they surely were. One was PG Wodehouse. And, as it struck me last evening, on a walk with my son, that JK Rowling's travails were not lost on Ranjan's soul. His identification with that writer's struggle and the portrayal of the dark side of life, a premonition of sorts of his moods. When I met Ranjan I was less of a writer than a seeker of understanding of human behavior at work. For what I knew then, an entertainer as Ranjan, could easily camouflage his sorrows. Harry Potter the magician released that spirit of thrill with life, and Ranjan admired Rowling for that ability. He had a magic with words himself, whether spoken or written.

Ranjan got the essence of brevity and humor from Wodehouse and the rivets of a plot from Agatha Christie's characterization of Hercules Poirot. From Rowling, Somerset Maugham, Viktor Frankl and Joseph Heller, Ranjan got the engulfment of mood. If you've wondered, numbers, sounds and even odors could trigger a visual sensation of color for some of us. Hear a drum beat in a march, and you may visualize the color blue. Think of time, and it may be ordered as a deck of domino cards placed infinitely in multi-dimensional space. Such are imaginations that are described as synesthesia. Most creative people experience such sensations. People who experience such cross-sensory perceptions are called synesthetes.

As synesthetes do, Ranjan evoked emotionality from music too. From the Hindustani raga, the eccentric RD Burman to the melodrama of ghazals there was a range he related to that I could not comprehend. Yet these sensations gave Ranjan metaphoric symbolism to lead and guide People Capability Measurement assessments. His access to those nuances, the clarity of those sub-modalities, were clearly his strength. I write today, two years after his untimely demise.
Ranjan Acharya

My inspirations came from those who read news on BBC World Service Radio in the 1980s. I had a copy of BBC London Calling as a prelude to what I could tune into. Their diction and flawless flow clearly for me was the virtue of command over language. When in school, Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember Tarzan) had as much effect on me as Gerald Durrel (remember squirrels and mongoose?)  I would see classmates quarrel fiercely over their favorite inspirations of nature, that I vowed never to be victim of such ruthless identification.

I took to reading of the real world. In newspapers of heyday, there was not much to choose from. So I chose writers who had more solemn influence. These included S Nihal Singh and Kiran Thakur. Some writers like Khushwant Singh and Sumant Moolgaonkar would mature like wine. I also fondly remember Abel David of the Poona Herald to have had similar effect. Behram Contractor, the busy-bee and the God of moderation Russi Karanjia in Mumbai were worth observing from their own points of view. Wish someone archives these pre-internet works of journalism for us on the net.

Then came along Chidannand Rajghatta whose place Abhay Vaidya took for a while, as the Times of India correspondent in Washington. Abhay was goaded by Prakash Nair, my cousin's tenant and employee of The Indian Post to mentor me. Abhay still remembers me as a student of Sociology who was advised to take admission to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences than give up that well earned seat for the 'cause' of journalism. Or was it Fabian Socialism that I turned away from? John Scherer the once Lutheran priest reminds me these days that it is never too late to become what I may have been. Choices have their way of churning my insides, I should say.

Today, many tweets have passed me by on the shortest of definitions. Leaders lead. Writers write. And do writers lead? Or do leaders write?  Are these not requisite questions?

As Akio Morita once wrote "I see what I know, when I read what I write". Simple, and yet so profound, the typical Japanese sophistry and understatement shine through. Leaders are humble doers too. Journalists as Abhay were taught that early maxim. His blogs and writing are a testimony to such literary modesty. And curiously a mix of the East and the West?
Leaders are seen and willing to be seen, like fish in the fish bowl. 

Leaders, like writers cannot however live to pretend that they can be safe in glass houses. They embrace reality as vulnerably as fish in a fish-bowl.  Leaders live to be themselves, stoked by their inner sense of freedom to be their autonomous selves. They live to be seen, and being seen they endear others to them. Writers too are opinion makers.Their expressions have an inverse projection from their readership. They first connect in fantasy, and in that image, avail their style and identity with their readership through their writing.

As a tribute to Ranjan, and the spirit of writing, here's a link I invite you to read What do you think? Are writers more powerful than we think they are? Are leaders more influential than writers? What could leaders do with writing? What could writers do through leading?


  1. Joseph,

    In reading your work above (I think this is blogging), I get the impression of someone on a journey to somewhere, really not known in some concrete terms. I get the picture of a wonderer who has seen much, felt much with others, read the major works, walked with the masters, and is not sure where that has led him, or will lead him. You have always appeared to me to be person of high intellectual stature, willing to share that. However, I am not sure who you really want to be, at least to me. I find your writing somehow stylistic in a non-US manner, feeling "eastern", or touching me in unfamiliar ways. The question of leadership that I think I see from you is whether we can lead by writing, or do we need to get out there and perform in more concrete ways. I have never been in awe of "leadership" as a concept. I tend to look at the issue of "influence" as a more useful term for me. In that context, how can a person not influence through purposeful, elegant writing? My model for this writes for the New York Times--David Brooks. His insight seems to broaden with each new piece that he publishes, and I am "influenced" by him though I favor a more "liberal", political stance.

  2. Thanks Jack. The way we see influence, we may also not see 'power' at the core as relationship between unequals. Thank You for your recommendation on David Brooks.
    Goal Orientation in concrete terms seems such a precursor to making sense of human identity, especially if Purpose is the fuel to which one adds one's energies. Th eEastern tinge is a great alert in that we're generally unconscious in our parts of how we accomodate flow, mindless at times of what we could do to determine outcomes around us. In a global world though it is useful to learn of the consequences of one's world view, especially as readers like you begin to dialogue without passing judgment. Thank You for your time on this

  3. Being someone who loves writing (or should I think again, now that twitter has taken over and I very rarely write more than 140 characters. Not to forget, people in the corporate world have always complained about long emails and blog posts :-)), this post has my attention.

    I still can't believe Ranjan is no more. I was not aware he was a Wodehouse fan. If I had, I'd have "What Ho"ed to him when I was in Wip--. :-)
    I think it is really impossible to be a fan of Wodehouse and not be influenced by his style of writing.

    As for the questions you've posed - Are writers more powerful than we think they are? Are leaders more influential than writers? What could leaders do with writing? What could writers do through leading?

    I've, personally, believed that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. :-)

    If a writer has influenced me, then she is naturally a leader as well. It is sad that not all leaders write, however. A leader who writes will not just influence the people who are his contemporaries but also generations to come!

  4. Nice to see your comment in here Nimmy. Readers like you are a biased lot. They will favor the writer anyway!

  5. Kindly read this tribute to Ranjan too - written by a soulful person - Vishy