Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 13, October 16-31, 2012
A merchant remembers...
By T.K. Srinivasa Chari

Personal and professional details, anecdotes aplenty, and interfaces with societal institutions over a life of more than 75 well-lived years, K.R.N. Menon (Ravi Menon to most people who know him) has them all in a slim memoir titled A Madras Merchant's Life and Times. To friendly critics who pointed out that the autobiography was 150 pages short, Menon's guarded answer is, "I am wary of boring people." To the credit of the judgement of the author, one of the responses he got in favour of the style he has written in is: "I listened to the book."

Relying totally on memory to write the account, Menon was aware of the dangers of name-dropping in this genre of writing. However, I, as a reader, can say that all the names mentioned in the book are those who touched his life personally, whether they were his professional seniors, everyday people like airline staff, or VIPs like former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu C.N. Annadurai. By virtue of being management guru Edward de Bono's college mate at Christ Church, Oxford, in the mid-1950s, Menon not only touches on Bono's lateral thinking experiments as a student, but also recollects that Bono gracefully accepted his invitation to speak at a management consultants' convention in Chennai 40-odd years after their Oxford days, and also insisted on spending quality time with Menon. Another interesting mention is of Madras Christian College (Tambaram) Principal Dr. A.J. Boyd dropping by at Menon's room in Christ Church, to which he moved after his MCC days.

On his education at Oxford, the author says the Dons taught him to reason with scepticism, and not just be bookish. For the record, Menon studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics during the three-year course, and French, Constitutional History and Logic for the Oxford Matriculation exam. The college conversations with his peers (some of whom were English writer and journalist Evelyn Waugh and Indian writers Dom Moraes and Ved Mehta) were intellectually stimulating and educational, enriching his mind.

Menon was at MCC between 1952 and 1954. A resident of St Thomas' Hall, he recalls the clean and good fun he had there and the longstanding friendships he made. The sylvan campus was a sportsman's paradise which gave his sporting talent full reign. Much later, given five minutes to speak at the condolence meeting of Dr Boyd at Hotel Dasaprakash in 1972, Menon remembered three incidents concerning Boyd and himself which summarised Boyd's 'three Hs', his sense of honour, sense of humility and sense of humour.

Menon's education began as a seven-year-old when he joined as a boarder at the Besant Theosophical School in Adyar and studied there between 1942 and 1947. The five years of Spartan life there helped instil in him an ability to adjust to lesser comforts, respect animals and all religious denominations. Menon and his old school friend K.V.S. Krisna recently edited a book of reminiscences of the Besant School, titled South of the Adyar River. Menon later did further schooling in Ceylon and there is much about his Ceylon days in the book.

In a manner of speaking, both the highlight and anticlimax of Menon's initial phase of his professional career was achieved during his 19 years with the amalgamated company Best & Crompton Engineering Ltd, where he was made the youngest whole-time Director in a century in 1970 and from which he opted to resign in 1976. But the eternal optimist that he is, he learnt a valuable lesson which he repeats often in the book: Every constraint becomes an opportunity!

The first and only company he worked for, Best & Crompton, was his 'Temple of Learning', with his European and Indian superiors attracting his admiration for their superior knowledge and whom he tried to emulate without being in awe of them. Erosion of values in the company, Menon says, forced him to take the decision despite the fact that, at his level in the corporate structure, he could no longer work for anybody. That's when he founded Arjay Management a few months later.

Arjay, a management consultancy, specialises in strategic management, advising companies on diversification, developing appropriate technologies and overseas partnerships. Its first client was the R.Y. Gaitonde Group for whom it did a restructuring exercise. A couple of others the consultancy worked with were the Amritraj family, for whom Arjay did a project report for the manufacture of Vijay TV sets, and Sundaram Industries for whom it worked out a diversification plan. One of the most important principles that helped him to guide his clients was to actively listen to the problems they posed, ask the right questions and diagnose the situation. This process helped him take his time in offering solutions.

Where does Kerala fit in the mindspace of Menon who himself was born in the then Ceylon? Menon feels that the State has become a consumption economy with a majority of its people living on Gulf money. While IT and tourism are doing well, a coconut-rich State is forced to import coconuts to meet its shortfall in demand! A Keralite like him would think twice before investing there in a situation where the priests of the Padmanabha Swamy temple in the capital have formed multiple unions! As for Ceylon, he's happy to have been born there and would have preferred to stay on if the social and cultural ethos had not changed with the change from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.

Among the many tidbits of information in the biography are the origin of the word 'tiffin' believed to be from saying 'tea' and 'bun' rapidly in a Tamil accent. To his friend the late P. Obul Reddy's request to coin a word for his new TV sets, Menon, with the skill of a copywriter, came up with 'Dyanora', fusing the words 'dynamic' and 'ora' for Obul Reddy & Associates. Dyanora was a famous brand in the late 1970s and the 80s. In 1960, a meeting with the 'Edison of India', Coimbatore's G.D. Naidu, resulted in a curious incident. One of G.D. Naidu's units owed Best & Co Rs. 15,000, and when it was finally paid, Menon received it all in crumpled one-rupee notes, apparently the collection from the UMS Bus Company. Menon and two staff members took a few hours to count the money! Another anecdote, curiouser by the author's admission, was Sanjay Gandhi's letter during the Emergency in 1975 inviting him to join the Youth Congress as one of its vice presidents, the other nominee being the late Enfield S. Viswanathan.

Another incident relating to Emergency was M.O. Mathai, Nehru's former PA, taking shelter in the upstairs portion of Menon's house behind the IT office in Nungambakkam. Responsible for proof-reading Mathai's book, Menon felt that the chapter "She" on Mrs Gandhi should be omitted. Later, Menon was the executor of Mathai's Will.

With anecdotes sometimes taking precedence over chronology, the reader is able to identify with the narrative and the writer who, I have to say, has written with his heart and soul rather than just his intellect. Only the final chapter of the book, 'Character Building – Some Lessons Learnt', even that one peppered with incidents from his life, and an earlier chapter 'Management Lessons Learnt', share gyan with the readers.

The secret of his physical fitness has been his abiding participation in different sports through his academic tenure, playing golf and tennis while at Best's and, now, walking for 45 minutes every day. Having been a sport enthusiast all his life, Menon has devoted a chapter to 'Sport in the (British) Companies' wherein he says that perhaps it is true that nowhere else in the world you get access to such facilities for horse riding and golf as in Madras, at such prices. On another uncommon sport, Sailing, it is to Menon's credit that the Royal Madras Yacht Club (RMYC) got a new lease of life in 1984 when he became its life member and got more life-time donations of Rs. 10,000 each. As Secretary and Commodore of the Club, Menon got his old Coimbatore friend who rose to become the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral R.H. Tahiliani, to inaugurate the new clubhouse. For the record, Menon could not sail.

These days, much of Menon's day goes on meetings of charities, Masonic Lodges or Boards of Directors. For many years, he was the chairman of Indo-French Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Southern Region. He is currently on the Board of a few companies and is Trustee of a number of NGOs, mainly working with the physically and socially handicapped. He was, until recently, the District Grand Master of the English Freemasons for South India.

These days, much of Menon's day goes on meetings of charities, Masonic Lodges or Boards of Directors. For many years, he was the chairman of Indo-French Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Southern Region. He is currently on the Board of a few companies and is Trustee of a number of NGOs, mainly working with the physically and socially handicapped. He was, until recently, the District Grand Master of the English Freemasons for South India.

"I would include many more management and behavioural experiences to aid the learning of the next generation if I had the energy to attempt a sequel," says Menon who feels that the class of 'Merchant' that he and others represented and their milieu has vanished altogether. The take-away that he offers in his book is: "Let us take it a day at a time, adjust to the changes, and continue to enjoy and savour life."

Please click here to support the Heritage Act

In this Issue

Why so much secrecy?
Need supervised renovation, NOT demolition
"Let's bury 'road in-the-sky' and save the Cooum River"
The creation of a Chennai landmark
Following the trail of Vere Levinge
A merchant remembers...
Opportunity beckons in Rock Fort City
Madras chunam and other finds
That first Ranji triumph
Steps to bring back the House Sparrows

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your diary


Download PDF

Back to Archives

Back to current issue...