write to win

Writer’s block: Why do Indian businesspeople refuse to talk openly?

The author of a book on Kiran Mazumdar Shah and the biotech industry says guardedness is the corporate culture in the country.

“So what kind of a biotech book are you writing?” he asked. A busy chief executive of a large Indian pharmaceutical company, he had given me an hour, with the possibility of a few grace minutes, for a “conversation” on the subject. Yes, a “conversation” was what I was seeking with everyone so that they would let their guards down, settle for an informal chat, and not bother about involving their public relations machinery or fret over well-formed quotes.

I said, “I am using Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw’s entrepreneurial journey to tell the story of Indian biotech, how the industry came about and how pharma…”

“What is so great about what she has done, after all it’s all generic. All Indian biotech companies make generics; we also make generics. See, you media [professionals] get carried away by an entrepreneur who cultivates media attention,” he said with some chagrin and looked hard at his wrist watch. So hard was his gaze that I muttered, “I thought I had an hour, (pause), how much time do I have?”

“As little as possible”, he quipped. Mortifying though it was, I pretended not to be affected. But making conversation thereafter was futile. I then got down to a plain Q&A. It was a disaster as well, and the meeting ended rather abruptly. That was the first meeting of the day after I had landed in the city taking an early morning flight from Bangalore.

Why doesn’t anyone talk?

When I embarked on the book in mid 2014, I had assumed that since I was not chasing any particular storyline or investigating any subject, it’d be easy to get people to talk, particularly those whom I had not met earlier. As it turned out, they proved to be the toughest.

A senior industry member took out his phone and began recording just as I switched on my dictaphone. “Hope you don’t mind if I also record,” he said. “No, umm, not at all,” I said hiding my surprise. Worse was when one entrepreneur got his wife to sit in on the conversation during our second meeting, even though it was clear by then that all I was trying to do was to understand how things happened, how he built the business and that I was looking for anecdotes. The lady was very graceful, even welcome, except that her presence broke the flow of the (business) conversation we were having until then. I could not resume it.

If chatting up Biocon Ireland executives of yore was like smelling freshly brewed beer, talking to Indian executives reminded me of doubly distilled spirits – filtered. (Just as a reminder, Biocon, both in Ireland and in India, supplies a number of products to the brewing industry.) Perhaps it’s a cultural thing – gossip comes easier to us than a matter-of-fact conversation!

Even in three meetings I couldn’t get one particular executive to discuss some of the milestones of his career. However, a few months later, when he saw that I was going ahead with the project and had spoken to a few industry stalwarts outside India, he called, furnishing some itsy-bitsy personal details I needed, and suggested I include his wife’s name – for she had been a pillar in his life. I couldn’t process his suggestion fast enough to tell him on the phone that when he did not help me flesh out his own character in the book, how would his wife figure in there?

A few key sources, vital to the broader narrative of the book, refused to meet me in person; they said they’d answer questions on email. I was dogmatic about not taking sound bites in email, at least the first time – we do that in any case for newspaper and magazine stories when deadlines push us against the wall. So I refused. But I am still wondering whether the reluctance was to the particular storyline or to the general idea of chronicling.

“How did you get to to do this book?”

I suspect many thought Mazumdar-Shaw had commissioned this book – and that it would be a hagiography. One of them asked, “I’ve heard Steve Jobs had asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography. How did you land this project?”

Well, there is nothing Jobsian about it. This is not a biography, and nobody asked me to write it. It doesn’t quite fit in the genres we usually bucket books into. The book covers Mazumdar-Shaw’s professional journey, set in the context of the industry and its turning points. It’s also not Jobsian in terms of the richness of personal details about people.

Ashlee Vance’s book on Elon Musk, How the Billionaire CEO of Spacex and Tesla is Shaping our Future, opens with a description of the “long” sea-food dinner he had with Musk. As a reporter you salivate at such details because not only is it difficult to have casual meetings with Indian business leaders, but it is also nearly impossible to get them to talk about food or some such perceived trivial affairs.

In earlier days Mazumdar-Shaw used to host parties at her residence, often organising post-meeting dinners which senior staff would also attend. To my amazement, not one manager could describe what those days (or dinners) were like.

When it came to food, the subject of my book was not very different either. Once, while describing her first meeting with late Dr Parvinder Singh, then managing director of Ranbaxy, she said, a few times, that they “yapped throughout the lunch at Oberoi Hotel”. I remember asking, “So what was the lunch like?”

She rolled her eyes and looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question on earth. As a non-fiction writer, that too of a sciency-businessy book, I was desperate for details that would liven things up. I did not have the “atmospheric licence of fiction”.

I wish a good number of a couple hundred people I spoke to were less buttoned-up and more alive in their conversation; less focused on how they would appear in the story and more willing to be a truthful collaborator in a piece of journalism.

Perhaps it’s also a reflection of the times we live in – a time when journalists are either adversarial or ridiculously pliant; a time when businesses think corporate communication is a one-way street of giving hand-outs and sound bites.

Seema Singh is the author of Mythbreaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech which was published by HarperCollins in April 2016.

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