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The Colony-wala Managers

These Colony-ial Managers are an eclectic breed – who lived in quarters, bungalows, kothis, and hostels.

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Most first generation ‘Made-in-India Managers’ ubiquitous the world over, either grew up in industrial townships and colonies of India, or started their careers there, after passing out of premier institutions in the 80’s onwards. These Colony-ial Managers are an eclectic breed – who lived in quarters, bungalows, kothis, and hostels.  Colonies were oases of good urban planning and self-contained communes with their own schools, hospitals, markets, sports facilities et al. Visiting them felt like being ‘abroad’, presenting miniatures of a developed India.

In 1902, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, envisioned “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens, reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for temples, mosques and churches.” before Jamshedpur was built in 1908. The iconic township, a home to many generations, still occupies a place of pride as a stellar model of a township. Not simply schools, clubs, hospitals, and swimming pools, it has a Zoo and museum too for itself.  BHEL, Sail, Bokaro, Bhillai, as public sectors, and Tatas,  Birlas, Bajaj, Shrirams, and the rest, followed a similar template. So were the govt colonies of civil servants, railways, banks, and public institutions..

Working and living in such colonies was a privilege enjoyed by a few educated Indians, with a lifestyle mostly unknown to  rest of India. Life was predictable – simple and basic, regimented, and stratified by levels and grades. The first generation of educated corporate managers, landed these precious jobs, that defined, not only the lifestyle but a lifetime of a ‘mindset’ for their families.  

‘Engineering – was the governing mindset of a whole bunch of bright girls, including my role model in the colony. Lot of us were inspired to take up Engineering, and it set off a trend” said Shailaja Kamarshi, an Electronics Engineer who grew up in BHEL, Bhopal and later worked for French and British multinationals, in Singapore heading IT. Her cohort of committed lady engineers made it to Europe and US and held top positions in major global Engg Cos. Education was the key – not at some snobbish, elite private schools, but at local colony schools or a nearby Kendriya Vidyalay (Central School). Huge premium was placed on sheer merit, regardless of the parents’ social status. Right role models made a huge difference to the young minds.

These colonies drew talent from all over India. Kids experienced unity in diversity, early in their lives, sharing festivities, customs and languages. Added to it, regular transfers made it even richer.  Puneet Pushkarna, a global venture capitalist and son of a pilot reminisced “I moved from Kendriya Vidyalay IIT Madras in the 6th grade and to KV Andrews Ganj, New Delhi, in the 8th grade…. My class had kids speaking 16 languages, and we celebrated 8 regional New Years!... And, when tiffin boxes opened, it was a virtual food festival of India, a riot of a feast” That’s some diversity.

Though the hierarchies of the corporate seeped through the social norms of a colony, even to the wives, there was yet an overarching egalitarianism and respect for all. A ‘shared purpose’ held the community together. Narinder J Singh, Co-Founder of Utopia Inc a data sciences Co recollects “I grew up in Pilani, CEERI colony, where my father was the Director. We were grounded and learnt to respect all.  Our gardener Jai Singh was just a few years older to me – he became a life time friend”. Narinder says “There was a steady flow of foreign scientists, engineers, and researchers who were often hosted at our home. As a curious child, I had the rare opportunity of asking them questions. Foreigners were not alien to me.” The scientific temperament was seeded early.

I started as an eager young Management Trainee, in 1980, and was posted to Daurala, an industrial complex, in rural Uttar Pradesh and I felt like an alien, locked into a commune of a little over hundred officers and families.  My life revolved around the factory, hostel and the Officers Club. The weekly ‘tambola’ nights brought cheer to families that were otherwise secluded from the rest of humanity. Life was orderly and predictable. Too organised indeed - work, play, rest and celebration all in their own place. This disciplined life, was an uncommon trait, that held many in good stead later, when they moved overseas to developed countries – where managing chaos is not an asset, but following the rules certainly is, which came naturally.

Relationships grew beyond the factory walls and many life time bonds were made.  Neeraj Seth, MD Black Rock Asia, who journeyed from Ranipur to Singapore, via Germany, US, Korea and Malaysia through his chequered career says “I spent my first 18 years in Ranipur, BHEL Haridwar colony and my first move to an Engg College in Delhi was a rude culture shock, in a big city’. The bonds of colony-walas are strong as steel “I have friends from KG, who I meet in different parts of the world. A friend from the age of 3 just visited us from Atlanta”. Puneet, echoed “Transfers and movements meant, building ‘open-lattice networks’, that allowed people to form new bonds while maintaining the old. Building relationships and strong personal bonds has certainly taken them places.

In stratified societies, positions and promotions deeply influence the social structure. It makes people very competitive with a high quotient of achievement motivation.   Colony life made them ambitious, hardworking and focussed. Traits that have helped them become successful global managers. From salubrious colonies to chaotic big cities of the world and global corporations, these men and women proved, they are made for all seasons. Navigating the ambiguous and sailing through disruptions, is par for the course for them.

Many plunged into entrepreneurship too successfully. Narinder and Puneet from tech-managers transcended into technopreneurs. Puneet added, entrepreneurship ‘is like an arranged marriage, you learn to manage the given ‘unknown’ and try landing on your feet”. And indeed, this tribe has solidly landed on their feet all over, and they do rule the roost – be it New York, Tokyo, London, Frankfurt or Singapore.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

K V Rao

The author is Resident Director - ASEAN, Tata Sons

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