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REVIEW - BUSINESS SUTRA by Devdutt Pattanaik

A few months ago, I ran into a slight problem.  I had a bit of a misunderstanding with Mrs. Asha Singh (not her real name), a neighbourhood friend of mine, someone I've known since I arrived in India about two decades ago.  We'd gone for a bit of shopping. Mrs.  Asha Singh, I'd come to understand, had been collecting discount coupons for a very large chain store.  Her husband would go there, buy the monthly provisions and pay for them and he would hand Mrs. Asha Singh these discount coupons every time he returned with the shopping.  She would save up these coupons with the hope of buying something nice for herself.  However, the discount coupons scheme was about to come to an end in favour of a card/point system.  So Mrs. Asha Singh was anxious to encash these coupons in order to get their full value.  That, however, proved to be easier said than done.

For starters, she wouldn't go to the local branch of that chain but insisted on going to the city centre branch of it, which was, to say the least, very inconvenient.  The Indian traffic on a hot day is nothing less than a nightmare.  I wondered why she was doing this.  I soon found out.  The city centre branch had a jeweller's shop on it's premises.  Mrs. Asha Singh entered the shop, produced her coupons on the counter and insisted on redeeming their value in gold jewellery items.  Not surprisingly, she was immediately dismissed.  This shop was not a part of the chain store, it simply rented a premises there and was therefore not a part of its schemes.  Mrs. Asha Singh had thousands of rupees worth of these coupons.  Moreover, as I tried to explain to her,  the coupons were not money.  They were simply pieces of paper which, under certain circumstances, could be exchanged in order to benefit the user with discounts on certain items.  None of these items would be anything like gold jewellery, they would be consumer goods like clothing or electrical items.  I tried to explain to her that no item could be purchased completely by coupons, actual money had to pay a role in each and every purchase.  As we shopped around a bit, Asha soon got the hang of using the coupons and even purchased some bowls and dishes.  But obviously, it was nothing like the shopping she'd originally  envisaged.  I purchased some items too,  an electric kettle and some clothing items and was pleasantly surprised when Asha insisted that I use the coupons to avail of discounts.  I made a saving of six hundred rupees that day, which was great.  Of course, I made sure to thank Asha for her kindness and also made a point of paying her fare home in the rickshaw and the buses we travelled in.  I also paid for what she ate and drank when we stopped somewhere for tea and snacks.

So it  came as a bit of a surprise to me when my daughter handed me a handwritten bill from Mrs. Asha Singh a few months later.  As neither  my Hindi nor Mrs. Asha Singh's English is very good, the lady had resorted to communicating her message through my daughter.  It turned out that, knowing I'd made a saving of Rs.600/- with her coupons, Mrs. Asha Singh was insisting on my paying half my discount back to her in the form of cash.  And very indignant she was too, about my being slow to repay 'her' money.Naturally, I was shocked.  I had paid her back, I thought.  Hadn't I picked up the responsibility for our fares and refreshments that day?  Moreover, coupons are pieces of paper which, under certain conditions, can be redeemed for discounts. They're not actual cash. Besides, the coupons had been about to expire.  I've shared coupons of my own with friends many times and was only too glad to help them out.  I certainly didn't see myself as having given away cash.

None of this reasoning cut any ice with Mrs. Asha Singh.  Nope!  She wanted her money back. All Rs.300 of it, exactly half of the discount  I'd received.  When I pointed out to her that I'd incurred about Rs.100 expense on her fares and refreshments, she cut the 'bill' by Rs.100, but dug her heels in, threatening to 'complain' to my mother-in-law and husband if I didn't repay 'her' money.  That did it.  I dug Rs.200/- out of my purse, sent it via my daughter's hand and my friendship with Mrs. Asha Singh is now reduced to nothing more than a cold nod by the garden gate.  BTW, my husband and mother-in-law, both Indians, had a hearty laugh about this later on.  I told them about it.  Don't mind that foolish woman, the mother-in-law told me, she and her people are just greedy for money.   My husband pointed out that Mrs. Asha Singh, although the same age as myself (fiftyish!), had been married at a mere sixteen years and while she was now a mother, a mother-in-law and a grandmother, she had very little actual experience of the world of commerce.  Well that made sense.  My doctor sahib (my husband) is quite a rock of wisdom.  Yet I couldn't understand, for the life of me, how Asha could make the mistake of turning the gesture of helping a friend into a business transaction.

I only wish I'd read BUSINESS SUTRA by Devdutt Pattanaik sooner.  It might have made things so much clearer for me.  I was fortunate enough to get a copy of this most enlightening book recently and it has done a lot to explain to me why the 'Western' (i.e. USA and western European) approach towards business transactions  is so very different from the subcontinental (or Indian) approach.

Wasn't it Kipling, the wise old man,  gave us that awful adage that east is east and west is west and 'ne'er the twain shall meet'?  He was a bit of a pessimist, if you ask me.  If only he'd dug a little deeper, he might have understood that the very different approach Indians have to business, among other things, is because of their very mindset, which is part of the cultural baggage they have inherited.  For people of Western origin, it's the same.  We're all only human and the twain have been meeting forever (doing business together, getting married, producing children and doing any number of things) but in order for the encounter to go smoothly, understanding, awareness and  insight are required - these things are so essential.

Devdutt Pattanaik, is a terrific teacher and storyteller.  Using clear language, simple illustrations and apt examples, he shows us how the Indian approach to business can be interpreted from an attitude which is rooted deeply in the psyche and can be interpreted using clues from the rich treasure house of Indian mythology.  He rightly points out that western approach is rooted in Biblical (to some extent) thinking or rather a form of it, on one hand and by classical Greek thinking on the other.  The Biblical approach glorifying,  but eclipsed by Greek thought which glorifying man.  He shows us how the Western approach is always concerned with 'what'.  The Indian approach, rooted as it is in it's mythology, is more concened with 'why', while the Chinese approach, rooted in its own peculiar mosaic of philosophies, is supremely concerned wth 'how'?  Basically, Devdutt had decoded mysteries that it could have taken many a scholar a lifetime to unravel.

I'd been offended at the thought that Mrs. Asha Singh was treating me as a mobile cash dispenser.  But I now realize that that wan't the case.  If I was to look at it another way,  she was actually putting me at the level of a goddess.  Devdutt Pattanaik explains clearly in the book how subcontinental people  approach an investment or business transaction as they would a religious ceremony.  The investor (yajaman!) gives an offering (svaha) which they hope the 'devata' (god) will accept and return in the form of a gift (taathastu).  In this case, Mrs. Asha Singh was the devotee, I was the goddess, her 'svaha' was the discount coupons and no wonder she was displeased when her taathastu was not only delayed, but reduced as well!

I'd originally thought we were two friends supporting each other but that the whole exchange had turned sour because of Mrs. Asha Singh's greed.  I had no idea that the whole situation was imbued with spiritual significance.  Oh, I'll smile more warmly at Mrs. Asha Singh next time I see her.  But no way am I taking it for granted that her approach to variou interactions should be to mine in future.  The differences, of course, being rooted in our cultural backgrounds.

BUSINESS SUTRA is an ideal read for any Indian person who has studied management science, of which  a western model is prevalently taught  They will discoer how belief influences behaviour and therefore, business.  This will help to give them the Indian approach to management and business and give them a more balanced east/west  view.  It would also be a terrific addition to the library of any business person of western origin who has regular business with Indians or businesses based in India.  Even for readers who just enjoy studying the significance of mythology and who are particularly interested in studying the effect mythology has on the lives of people - this book has something for them too.

If it comes out in Hindi (I'm not sure if it has yet) I might consider purchasing a copy of this book and giving it as a gift to Mrs. Asha Singh?  But will she 'get' what I'm trying to convey?  Well, to answer it in a typical Indian style, 'that depends".

I can live with that.

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  1. DP is a great writer and is very popular with the young MBAs. I personally recommend him to many youngsters. This is a masterpiece as are his articles in various newspapers.

  2. It's a fabulous post, Maria, an interesting story. I've passed a Leibster award to you, the details are on my blog.

  3. Public administration was one of my subjects forty years ago. I do see a lot of differences between those times and now. The book is probably relates to today's idea of business.

  4. Devdutt Patnaik started the book in a very good way, but the book lost its charm when I was about 100 pages into the book. Still slugged on and on for another 200 pages, but gave it up after I realized that I couldn't make out the unifying theme of this book.

    For me, gods and businesses don't mix well.


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