Entrepreneurship will be the salvation of India — that is Hindol Sengupta&’s theory. And with his journalistic and business experience at Fortune India firmly under his belt, he embarks on a series of case-studies that prove his point. Recasting India was originally named “The Mango People”, since all Sengupta&’s studies dealt with the aam aadmi and the aam aadmi premise holds because all the entrepreneurships that he discusses are at the grassroots level.
In his introduction he talks about how the division between the rich and poor has widened at a faster rate evidenced in its most dramatic form by the construction of Antilla, ironically built by the heir of a petrol pump attendant. Sengupta goes on to say that independent enterprise has done better than state controlled businesses.
He begins with historic entrepreneurs like Dwarkanath Tagore who with Raja Rammohan Roy was able to influence a British Viceroy to outlaw sati simply through the unspoken force of his mercantile power. In 17th century Surat striking traders were able to bring a corrupt British governor to concede their point of view. Against this background of the historical power of individual trade, Sengupta sets the entrepreneurial examples of modern India.
Banks, for example, like the J&K Bank, a private institution which operates in one of the most troubled states in the world, but which nonetheless has managed to keep faith with those who invest in it, today nearly 90 per cent of J&K&’s adult population has accounts in the bank. Share trading firms run by socialists, a Maids’ Company run by ex-architect Gauri Singh, created to provide a steady supply of efficient domestics who can command high wages in townships like Gurgaon, or the example of manual sewage scavengers rehabilitated into a soap manufacturing concern.
Sengupta&’s approach is lucid and readable. He peppers his business talk with interesting examples like that of the girl who delves into an ancient rug manufacturing process but who has to keep her identity a secret from her parents as what she is working at was traditionally the purview of the lower castes. Or the notorious Arunachalam Muruganantham who gritted his teeth and set out to create an affordable sanitary napkin to benefit his wife but along the way was abandoned by his wife and mother who both felt the whole subject was taboo. After five years and his success, they returned. Dalit business discussion throws up Lord Macaulay&’s speech on the advantages of the use of English, something that urban Dalits are using to erase caste differences. And Ambedkar’s words take up quite a lot of space as well.
Socialism is a concept that Sengupta seems to be averse to. It recurs as a kind of leitmotif from the introduction onwards, majorly in the chapter on the Sriram Group which is a socialist company despite itself and in the last chapter, “Was the Mahatma a Socialist” in which Sengupta wonders why the Mahatma, a Gujarati, was not an entrepreneur. In hindsight thought, most people would characterise the people in his book as socialists of a sort, since they all strive to improve the lot of the have-nots.
On the whole, a more detailed assessment of the pros and cons of the cases might have added to the weight of the book. A foreign reviewer referred to the entrepreneurs as examples of slumdog millionaires which, clichéd as it might sound does sum up their stories of success against all odds. Phrases like ‘per capita hope’ and ‘peace dividends’ might seem a trifle gimmicky to the serious business reader, but Sengupta maintains interest in his premise in a book that will draw in a wide variety of people and his research cannot be faulted… though the proofing on occasion can.
The reviewer is a freelance contributor