Brick by Red Brick - Story of IIM Ahmedabad
Brick by Red Brick – Story of IIM Ahmedabad

This is the second book that I am reading in quick succession where the biography of a key person and an organization are attempted in a single story, the other one being TCS Story. That makes two protagonists for a single story. Writing a biography itself is not easy, on top of it, you try and write two of them in a single book, a tough task for even the best of authors. Biographies always have a point of view that of the person whose biography it is, and when there is more than one there are quite a few confusions around. I would have loved to read two books, one about IIM-A, an aspirational institute for most in this country and an institute whose behind the scenes story needs to be told to inspire much more like it. The other one about Ravi Mathai, who seem to have led an interesting life in the interesting times when there was as much freedom as the resource constraints.

I liked the IIM-A part of the book. I learned the role that Govt of India and Harvard Business School played in laying down the foundations of the legendary institute. The book tells you about the role of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Lalbhai, and Kamla Chowdhary in defining the first outline of an institute. In the true sense, they were the founding team of the institute on which the later leaders build the building. The whole story of choosing Ahmedabad over Bombay as the business community here was more forthcoming with their support, the backing of Ford foundation and the tie-up with Harvard. The way faculty was sent to HBS to study and also learn the method of case studies and how they came back and wrote Indian case studies and how the whole system from HBS was emulated here. The choice of Kamla Chowdhary as the first director and how the gender played against her, wonder if it still continues and has any IIM got a woman director ever. The choice of Mathai out of no-where as the director when he had no established credentials to be one is tricky. In the hindsight, the choice may seem a good judgment, but it would have been interesting to know what criteria was he selected then. The design the of the building by Kahn and HBS association meant that the institute was global in its very foundation, an evaluation of how that legacy has been built upon, especially in the not to global era of the country.

IIMs and IIM-A, in particular, would have many heroes and may be a few heroines. An institute of this repute has the to be the labor of love and passion of many people and not just one. It would have been good to know what each of its directors or other faculty members contributed in making IIM-What it is today. There are very few references to students, who the author calls products of the institute. I am sure their success in the outside world would have contributed as much to the building of the institute as the faculty. It is good to read the amount of independence and freedom the faculty enjoys. Again my curiosity asks what have they done with this freedom and how have they nurtured their own creativity, having put in so much effort in keeping the autonomy of the institute.

The author is obviously completely inspired by Ravi Mathai, without which it would not be possible to churn out a complete book on someone you have never met and not much is available by way of existing literature. As a complete outsider to IIM world, and as someone who had heard this name just in passing by somewhere, all that I know today about this man is from this book. Being the first full-time director of the institute, he obviously had a bigger task than the people who succeeded him. He comes across as a man who put the organization before himself, did not use his position as the director for personal benefit and created an organization that was autonomous, was governed by the its core members i.e. the faculty who took turns to do various administrative tasks as part of various committees or forums or even as director of the institute. He also defined the spaces that the institute should focus on – teaching, research and consulting. His work in rural areas is worth reading about, it was probably one of the first attempts at integrating the urban and rural India. I am now tempted to read the book he wrote on his experiments in educating rural India.

While the hero’s sketch was being made throughout the book, there was once incident mentioned in the beginning of the book that kept banging in my head. Mathai had hit and killed a man while driving in a drunken state and was sent to Oxford by his father to escape any punishment.There is no mention of any case or any punishment after that. He comes back and works in various capacities, a lot of opportunities, of course, came to him as a son of a prestigious father. I am not sure. if Dr. Sarabhai would have hired him had he not been Dr. Mathai’s son. Now after this incidence, however much you tell me about his principles, how much ever you tell me he was selfless and how much ever you tell me he was a God for IIM-A, there is an incoherence that remains. Also, in the days of Ravi Mathai, men of character were not such a rarity as they are today. You ask your fathers and grandfathers to tell you stories of men who worked for the Govt for Rs 1/- salary and how they never even used office stationery for their personal work. To the author’s credit though while he hero worships Mathai, he does point of his legacy both in terms of assets and liabilities for the institute at later points in time.

In some chapters, there is too much focus on what the faculty does, what they want and what they think, which would be good for people who are in midst of it all, but as a reader, I did not gain anything out of it. Again there is a chapter on all the open issues at IIM-A today, which I think comes from author’s immediate environment, but do they fit into the biography, I am not sure, as his biography kind of stops with Mathai stepping down as director. The language of the book is simple and the author has kept the book light by citing anecdotes here and there. I like that because that lets readers judge a lot of things based on their own experience and not just read author’s perceptions. I am sure all the IIM junta would love reading this book, as they would have an immediate connect with everything that is said in the book.

The style of the book is narrative storytelling, but it is essentially a case study where IIM-A is the success story and Ravi Mathai the key success factor.

I think I am turning Greedy, with every review there is so much more that I want from the author. GoyalBiographyBook ReviewsNon-Fiction  This is the second book that I am reading in quick succession where the biography of a key person and an organization are attempted in a single story, the other one being TCS Story. That makes two protagonists for a single story. Writing a biography itself is not easy,...Book Reviews by Anuradha Goyal