Saturday, February 6, 2010

The man who made us fly

We know that the IT industry, to take one example, flowered in India without government help. In fact, people like N.R.Narayana Murthy were forced to spend much time and energy knocking at inhospitable doors in Delhi for permission to buy a badly needed equipment from abroad. Once IT became a national showpiece, ministers and bureaucrats were of course eager to claim credit. “Seven cities contend for Homer Dead/Through which the Living Homer begged his bread”.

Many living Homers must have knocked at the same doors and failed. Most of our netas and babus are unmindful of what’s good for the country. They equate their personal interest with the national interest. How frustrating officialdom can get – and how great ideas can almost get destroyed in the process – is brought out poignantly in Simply Fly, Captain G.R.Gopinath’s account of how the miracle of Air Deccan happened. He got those doors opened with his guts and his perseverance. Business schools will do well to study the Air Deccan saga as a clash of civilisations -- between those who hold that rules are made for people and those who believe that people are made for rules.

Simply Fly is many other things too – a portrait of rural India, a celebration of farming, a tribute to the author’s forty-rupees-a-month school teacher father, a personal account of the horrors of the Bangladesh war. (The inspirational figure of the Captain’s father looms so large in the book that it’s a pity there is no photograph of him in the 12-page picture portfolio that adds value to the volume).

Gopinath is the kind of guy who joined the Sainik School when all he knew about the military was that it was something non-vegetarian associated with “military hotel”. But he had an outstanding character trait: The ability to immerse himself completely in the task on hand. The way he cared for coconuts in his farm, we would think that he was specifically created by Brahma to care for coconuts. A few years later he looked like he was specifically created to sell Bullet motorbikes. In the end we saw why Brahma really and truly created Gopinath: To enable simple people simply fly.

His gripping cliff-hanger story – licences not arriving when only minutes are left for an inaugural flight, documents never moving, files getting stuck, bribes being suggested – is interspersed with memorable character portraits. They range from Manje Gowda, a neighbour he knew only slightly but who stood guarantee for a bank loan, to John Gray, author of Men are from Mars.. who swore that he got a boost from Oprah Winfrey because Swami Kaleshwar willed it so.

The best portrait is that of Vijay Mallya, the man who finally swallowed Air Deccan. Just a few staccato sentences and Mallya emerges, jewels and all, as the colourful workaholic that he is. They struck a 1000-crore deal, Mallya talking from his yacht in Monte Carlo to Gopinath in Bangalore. The way they haggled over prices is hilarious. (“200 crore deposit”. “100”. “Won’t do”. “Let’s agree on 150”. “Fine”. Gopinath wanted 160 per share. Mallya beat it down to 155). Gopinath presents Mallya as “extremely shrewd, razor sharp and a brilliant marketeer”. But he also cautioned the Kingfisher king that he had sycophants around him. The contrast between Mallya’s viswaroopa and Gopinath’s earthiness is delightful.

Ultimately, alas, Air Deccan vanished from the skies. But Simply Fly leaves us with a distinct feel-good factor. How can it be otherwise when the author says: “ I began life with nothing, I established my farm with nothing, I launched a helicopter company with nothing, I set up an airline without resources. Now that I have resources, I cannot sit back”.

All aboard for Deccan 360, the logistics cargo carrier, another new idea.