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Latter-day morality tale

Kingfizzer: The rise and fall of Vijay Mallya, Kingshuk Nag, Harper Business; Rs.399, Pages 224

Former Times of India and Business India journalist and author Kingshuk Nag’s biography, Kingfizzer, on the dramatic rise and fall of Vijay Mallya, flamboyant former chairman, CEO and the be all and end all of United Breweries, the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines, and sundry other companies, is well-researched and has timely relevance. All dates and data relating to when and how Bangalore-based Mallya inherited United Breweries and McDowell & Co in the early 1980s from his parsimonious father, grew these mid-sized companies into the second largest liquor manufacturing conglomerate worldwide, and a few decades later had to flee from India for fear of indictment and jail for cheating and fraud, are detailed in this riveting account of the meteoric career of this reckless, high-spending tycoon now holed up in London fighting extradition to India. 

The narrative begins dramatically with a report on Mallya’s tabloid-worthy 60th birthday bash (2015) in his swanky Kingfisher Villa, on Candolim beach, for India’s 200-plus rich celebrities, at which the fireworks display was so extravagant that it could be heard and seen in Panaji, the capital of Goa 18 miles away. To all intents and purposes, Mallya’s numerous businesses were thriving despite media reports that the ‘King of Good Times’ was neck deep in financial trouble, mainly on account of the collapse of his most ambitious venture Kingfisher Airlines, which had made a spectacular debut in the Indian skies in 2005. 

But this was to prove Mallya’s last hurrah. Within three months, reportedly tipped off by a high flying socialite that his arrest for bank fraud was imminent and his passport was to be impounded, on March 2, 2016, waving his diplomatic passport (by virtue of being a Member of Parliament) Mallya boarded a plane with a first class ticket, seven pieces of luggage and girlfriend in tow for London. According to Nag, on February 28, senior Supreme Court counsel Dushyan Dave had advised the State Bank of India, Kingfisher Airlines’ largest creditor, to get a court order to prevent Mallya from leaving the country. Typically, the country’s largest government-owned bank was slow to react. 

Now Mallya who owes several public sector banks — Rs.9,000 crore — is fairly safe in his sprawling Hertfordshire estate on the outskirts of London. The bumbling efforts of the CBI and other Indian authorities to extradite him are unlikely to succeed, because the sloth of the Indian judicial and filth of prison systems which inflict “cruel and unusual punishment” are notorious. 

The point to note is that until Mallya foolishly promoted Kingfisher Airlines in 2005, every diversification he made after the death in 1983 of his father — the reclusive and penny-pinching Vittal Mallya — was successful. Driven by a flashy, excessive lifestyle, Vijay set about making Kingfisher the country’s #1 beer brand, exporting it to the UK and made a spirited bid to acquire Shaw Wallace’s Royal Challenge, then the country’s #1 whisky brand. For this takeover, he teamed up with the Dubai-based businessman Manu Chhabria to buy out the Singapore-based R.G. Shaw & Co which owned 38.7 percent of Shaw Wallace. As an NRI, Chhabria could legitimately pay in the hard currency required by R.G. Shaw while Mallya who part-financed the deal clandestinely, couldn’t own up to it. Subsequently, Mallya was double-crossed by Chhabria who acquired full control of Shaw Wallace. The details of this deal which made huge headlines in the newly emergent business magazines back home in India, are vividly recounted by Nag. 

After the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, as long as he stuck to the knitting (i.e, the liquor business), Mallya attained his finest hour. He consolidated his beer business by takeover of beer companies in Punjab, Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra. In 2007 through United Spirits, Mallya made his first liquor acquisition abroad by purchasing 100 percent equity of the Glasgow-based Scotch distilling company Whyte & Mackay, a wine manufacturing company, Bouvet Ladubay SAS after having finally acquired (2005) Shaw Wallace three years after the death of his bitter rival Manu Chhabria. 

In those years, Mallya emerged as the undisputed beer and spirits monarch of India and a force to reckon with in the global beer, wine and spirits business. All this clearly went to his head. He felt he could do no wrong and even in the midst of this frenetic activity — disregarding the advice of his best executives — he ventured into the civil aviation business of which he had no experience, by promoting Kingfisher Airlines. 

But entry into the new, capital-intensive airlines business which at the time — and even currently — requires low fares rather than glamour and glitz, proved to be his undoing. The global economic recession of 2008 and rising aviation fuel prices affected the high-cost Kingfisher Airlines badly, and soon the company owed a consortium of banks Rs.7,000 crore, despite which Mallya kept spending and partying. 

But somewhere he saw the writing on the wall and started selling his prized companies. The liquor business is now owned by Diageo — the world’s largest liquor company — and Heineken (Germany) owns the beer business. Undoubtedly some of the consideration was paid abroad and a $40 million severance package paid by Diageo plus a last-minute Rs.900 crore loan from the IDBI Bank helped him plan his exile from India. 

Businessmen should read Kingfizzer as a latter- day morality tale. The first lesson to be learned is the importance of sticking to the knitting, i.e businesses you know. Secondly, there’s something inherently disgusting about in-your-face, conspicuous consumption in a society in which the vast majority of the population struggles to put two meals on the table. 

Presently in Britain, Mallya is desperately contesting extradition proceedings filed against him. But there’s a good chance his bluff and bluster will be punctured, and he will be forced to face the rusty wheels of the Indian justice system and do time in India’s prisons where living conditions are a world removed from the opulent comforts of his luxury yacht and villas around the world.

Dilip Thakore

Rare insights into RKN

R.K. Narayan: The novelist and his art, Ranga Rao, Oxford University Press; Rs.895, Pages 319

At first glance, the title may sound old fashioned, vintage lit-crit in the genre of Life & Times or Men of Letters series. But the book opens with the freshness of a new found love that encourages rediscovery of the self. Ranga Rao’s doctoral dissertation was on Narayan, in the 1960s. Half a century later appears this fascinating book weaving the story of RKN with that of RR himself, through wisdom garnered over time, and perspectives honed by teaching. And by waving that wand of literary magic, Rao has successfully recreated RK Narayan’s world with insight and joy, and with an alluring modernity that makes us see Narayan’s life-wisdom all around us.

Rao’s interpretation of RKN is based on the Indian theory of the three Gunas — sattvas, rajas and tamas. As Rao explains, these are personality types, the satvic is “gentle, mild, kindly amiable”, the rajasic is “haughty and arrogant”, and the tamasic is “angry, wicked”. Using this formulation, which in popular belief spills into Indian food and health practices, Rao sees the characters in RK Narayan’s fictional world dominated by these traits and indulging in comic excesses at times. In fact, Rao would like to emphasise the “humane comedy” of RKN, saying “the three gunas are not aberrations of human nature, but states and stages or phases — totally this-wordly — in the inevitable progress of the human spirit”. 

This interpretation is hugely attractive because Indian literature in English needs to be understood in terms of its ambient culture and not pegged to post-colonialist vocabulary from elsewhere. The seeming contrast between English and regional literatures is based on a false premise that one belongs to an imperial heritage and the other is home grown. English in India is just as home grown, and proudly so. Rao’s book is a timely reminder that RKN was exploring his cultural milieu with a perceptive eye to authenticity while creating novels with a wide universal appeal. 

This is a book that will interest students and researchers as well as the general reader with a fancy for RK Narayan. Delving into a few key chapters would be useful as a preview. Inevitably, one turns to the chapter ‘Grateful to Love and Death’ from The Guide where Raju’s rajasic personality is explored — a desire for rich food, earthy sensuality, effulgent rain. Says Rao, “Out of the assertion of life and its revels arises an affirmation of faith in God, not in spite of it.” 

Seeing rural India as one with conflicting moral assumptions, Rao tracks the interlinked emotions of the guide and his muse through a series of belief systems that misread cross-cultural love. Narayan never allots praise or blame in this tale of ambiguous transformations. Raju, whose fast seems to evoke the rain, doesn’t know whether he is a ‘saint’ or not, but the choric voices of his audience drown out his thoughts altogether.

Rao has an interest in the gender issue too, citing RK Narayan’s lines in the autobiographical My Days (1974) more than once, “I was somehow obsessed with a philosophy of Woman as opposed to Man, her constant oppressor. This must have been an early statement of the Women’s Lib movement [...] A wife in an orthodox milieu of Indian society was an ideal victim of such a society”. The novel The Dark Room offers sufficient ground for examining how much RKN actually related to the so-called Women’s Lib movement. 

Rao is after all a novelist, literary critic and university teacher — hence he keenly interlaces RK Narayan’s work with those of several others: Chinua Achebe, Anton Chekov, John Updike to name a few. But Rao reaches his inter-textual best in the chapter ‘Enchantment in Life: Mr. Sampath and the Naipaul Enigma’. Taking umbrage at VS Naipaul’s careless conflation of Narayan, the writer, with Srinivas, the fictional character, Rao points out the errors in reading by the diaspora writer who misses several localised nuances of Malgudi. Illustration follows illustration to debunk “Naipaul’s thesis of Hindu withdrawal and idle speculation”. Much of this is based on Rao’s essay ‘Naipaul’s Nobel Poise?’ (Indian Literature, 2003) critiquing Naipaul’s acceptance speech. 

However, this is one note where I would urge Rao to reconsider his position. Naipaul wrote eloquently in praise of RK Narayan in Time magazine, ‘The Master of Small Things’, and I do not find the phrase or the sentiments condescending, rather they are explanatory. “Narayan’s mystical idea of an eternal India is anti-historical. But without that idea, and its associated religious sentiments, he would not have arrived at his remarkable way of looking and his peerless humour. A more clear-sighted man would not have been able to filter out or make harmless the distress of India, as Narayan does in Malgudi. But then we wouldn’t have had the great early books,” wrote Naipaul. 

In summary, Rao’s bold and brilliant exposition presents rare insights into the work of RK Narayan. Rao calls it ‘a ‘bitext’, directing attention to the copious notes that add meaning to the main text and several such passages are based on personal letters and interviews. In a letter, dated October 21 1992, reproduced in the frontispiece RKN writes to Rao, “Your survey of my writing shows a deep study and an abiding interest.”

We, as readers, are the beneficiaries of this legacy of trust. 

MALASHRI LAL (Book Review, September 2017)

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