In Other Words

Slumdog Billionaires

Slumdog Billionaires

On the face of it, G.R. Gopinath might not seem a natural candidate to become a best-selling Indian author. He isn’t a glamorous political heiress from across the border, like current hit writer Fatima Bhutto, or a well-known authority on urban Indian aspirations, like Pavan K. Varma. And not even his staunchest admirer would mistake the founder of India’s first low-budget airline, known to many of his compatriots simply as Captain Gopi, for a prose stylist.

Nonetheless, Gopinath’s rambling, shambolic autobiography Simply Fly has winged its way to virtually every best-seller list in the country since its publication in January, selling 30,000 copies in hardback in a land where a tenth of that number is regarded as respectable. The critics have been breathless: According to the Indian Express, "From Captain Gopi’s story, the young and dreamy-eyed could discover a thing or two about persevering in the face of repeated failure." The magazine Businessworld summed up the book as "inspiring and encouraging."

In the United States, such accolades might come across as generic, the sort of anodyne praise that could fit almost any business biography published over the last century. In India, they border on the revolutionary. Simply Fly‘s success is not merely a comment on India’s booming publishing industry, or an economy that grew 7.4 percent in a year of near-global recession. It also marks a remarkable turn in the Indian conception of the tycoon, long a deeply mistrusted figure in this formerly socialist country. Inspired by the opportunities now available in a liberalized economy and dazzled by their newfound global economic power, Indians — for the first time ever — are viewing businessmen as heroes instead of villains.

This development is evident in other ways as well: In Bollywood movies like Guru, which tells the story of a young boy working his way up to become a textile magnate, or Jab We Met, in which a depressed industrialist discovers commercial success along with true love, it’s no longer uncommon to find the energetic entrepreneur portrayed with the sympathy once reserved for the angry young man of the masses.

The new attitude challenges centuries of religious and cultural practice. In the Hindu caste pecking order, Brahmin priests and Kshatriya rulers have always ranked above the Vaishya caste of merchants and traders. Thanks in part to the legacy of colonial rule — in the 18th century, after all, India was conquered by a corporation, the British East India Company — the first generation of post-independence leaders in the 20th century turned strongly against private enterprise, which they associated with the ills of imperialism.

The country’s first prime minister after independence in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a Fabian socialist educated at Harrow and Cambridge. Throughout his life he displayed a patrician disdain for business. "Profit," he once remarked, is a word "I consider dirty." Enamored of the Soviet Union, Nehru placed the state at what he called the "commanding heights" of the economy. Nehru didn’t abolish the private sector, but he shackled it severely. In 1955, his Congress Party declared that "planning should take place with a view to the establishment of a socialistic pattern of society, where the principal means of production are under social ownership or control."

Over the next 30-odd years — and especially under Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who ruled for all but three years between 1966 and 1984 — the Indian economy languished, expanding in per capita terms by an anemic 1 to 2 percent annually that economists disparagingly called the "Hindu rate of growth." It was only in 1991, faced with a budget crisis and increasingly aware of having been overtaken by the fast-growing economies of East Asia, that India began to open up, loosening state control over business and easing restrictions on trade. Entrepreneurs such as Gopinath belong to the first generation to straddle both sides of the country’s economic history: They came of age in a socialist India, but made their fortunes in a capitalist one.

As a boy, Gopinath rode a bullock cart to his village school in the southern state of Karnataka. In his adult years, he tried working as, among other things, a commissioned officer in the Indian Army, a silk farmer, a motorcycle dealer, a stockbroker, and a (failed) politician before hitting upon the idea of founding a cheap airline on the model of Ryanair in Europe or AirAsia in Malaysia. His creation, Air Deccan, began operations between Bangalore and Hubli in 2003. Its stated goal was to give every Indian the opportunity to fly — at a time when air travel was still the preserve of the wealthy. That, and media-savvy gimmicks such as the 1 rupee fare (about 2 cents), soon made Air Deccan a household name.

Nonetheless, four years later, with Deccan still in the red, Gopinath was forced to sell out to the flamboyant liquor and airline baron Vijay Mallya. Since then Gopinath has gone on to found Deccan 360, India’s first air-freight company. Although only a year old, Deccan 360 has already sold an undisclosed stake to Reliance Industries, India’s largest private company.

Gopinath’s isn’t the only such story. Indeed, the first blurb on his book jacket comes from another modern-day hero of the Indian middle class, Nandan Nilekani, the self-made billionaire and former CEO of the iconic Bangalore outsourcing company Infosys Technologies, who describes Gopinath’s book as "a discovery of the difficulties and the exhilaration that innovative entrepreneurs face in India."

Nilekani knows a thing or two about both. Like Gopinath, he’s a first-generation entrepreneur, an educated man who made it through smarts and hard work rather than family connections. (Gopinath’s father was a village schoolteacher; Nilekani’s managed a small mill.) It’s no coincidence that both authors live in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley and perhaps the city that best symbolizes the country’s new eagerness to knit itself into the global economy. Their achievements reflect India’s craving for modernity — the celebration of software and airlines in a land once synonymous with illiteracy and the stark poverty of its villages.

Two years ago, Nilekani published his own bestseller, Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century, which has sold more than 55,000 copies in hardback. In the United States, Nilekani is most famous as the man whose talk of a level playing field for Indian business inspired the title of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. But in India, Nilekani is best known as one of seven young geeks, many educated at the brutally meritocratic Indian Institutes of Technology, who co-founded Infosys in 1981. The firm, the flagship of India’s famous software industry, now employs more than 110,000 people in 22 countries and had revenues last year of $4.8 billion. Nilekani, estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $1.4 billion, quit Infosys last year to take a government job as the top official in charge of equipping each of India’s 1.1 billion citizens with an electronic ID card to reduce fraud and improve the delivery of government services.

Imagining India barely touches upon its famous author’s life, instead dwelling on his ideas. The book ranges over everything from literacy rates to electricity generation to the role of English in an aspirational society. Nilekani — "an intellectual trapped in an entrepreneur’s body," as the Economist once put it — also goes on to cover faltering universities, environmental degradation, broken hospitals, and job creation. Intellectually, both authors share with other businessmen — and with much of the educated middle class — the growing sense that India’s long embrace of socialism hurt the country much more than it helped. In Imagining India, Nilekani writes of his father’s passionate belief in the Nehruvian dream and the evils of big business: "Many Indians believed in these ideas then; few of us believe them now." It’s a modest description of an ongoing social and cultural transformation that has taken India to where it is today, from the back of the bullock cart to the front of the plane.