Book title: Stay Hungry Stay Foolish

Author: Rashmi Bansal

Publisher: CIIE

Price: Rs 125

Writing books in India is a mug’s game. The economics of publishing is stacked up so heavily against the writers that hardly one in ten makes any money. The advance and royalty receipts often barely cover travel and logistics expenses if it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, people with intellectual pretensions and journalists in particular, with literary ambitions are drawn to book writing like moth to fire.

Broadly, four categories of books seem to stand the best chance of monetary success in India today. An exceptional, and widely acclaimed work of fiction such as Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things; Shobha De’s soft porn (she marches on despite Literotica.com, Asstr.org and a million other virtual avenues of orgasm, but we digress); “inclusive” fiction of the Chetan Bhagat variety (Five Point Some One and A Night at A Call Center) that is nothing but a puerile and pedestrian potboilers.

Its sells because the plots revolve around, and reach out to the new Indian army of jocks who are trained to write complex computer codes better than a simple, grammatically correct sentence; and the fourth of course is corporate hagiographies.

The Mumbai-based media entrepreneur and journalist Rashmi Bansal, it appears, has cracked the formula. Her recent book Stay Hungry Stay Foolish is the story of 25 graduates of India’s Harvard, IIM Ahmedabad (IIM-A), who chose to become entrepreneurs, shunning the more conventional and comfortable option of high-paying corporate jobs.

Now, IIM-A is Bansal’s alma mater as well, and that explains several things—not just her business acumen. In writing this book, she is clearly inspired by Chetan Bhagat who incidentally went to IIM-A as well. Bansal wants to be the Bhagat of business writing. Imitation is the best form of flattery, but she could surely have included Bhagat in her personal pantheon of 25.

What we get in this book are 25 egregious hagiographic personality profiles. They are so poorly researched and written that some of the book’s protagonists who happen to be voracious readers, more than competent writers and have a feel for the written word, might feel a bit funny reading the book.

Bansal’s maiden effort is published by the Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, that is part of IIM-A and funded by the Government of Gujarat, Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology and a clutch of other private donors. That means even taxpayers’ money could have gone into this showcasing of mediocrity.

Within five exasperating minutes of reading the book, you wonder what Bansal was trying to achieve. Is this an alumni diary, or an end-of-college scrapbook where you write nostalgic non-sense about all your classmates? The book is replete with acronyms and jargons that you can’t figure out if you haven’t attended IIM-A. Sanjiv Bhikchandani, the founder of Naukri.com describing his IIM-A days says, “I took a few courses like LEM and PPID.” Crack the CAT, go to an IIM and figure it out for yourself, dear sorry reader.    

All profiles in the book read the same. Nearly 20 of the 25 IIM-grads written about have similar stories to tell. “Parents were bureaucrats. I drifted in to IIM-A. Hated the prospect of a cosy life as an MNC exec; stumbled on great idea (it was some form of market research for almost everybody), and here I am as an owner of multi million dollar business.”

You read one, you’ve read all. All her 25 characters are so poorly fleshed making you wonder if this book is a result of a pre-formatted market research questionnaire. She has made very little effort to speak to family members, friends or even venture capitalists who funded these entrepreneurs for an insight into their success.

The chapter eulogizing Deep Kalra, the founder of the online travel portal Makemytrip starts thus: “Deep Kalra is your average Delhi Dude. Deep grew up in a typical private sector home; very comfortable. But it was very clear from the beginning – agar kuch banana hai to khud he banana hai.” Since the book is primarily a regurgitation of quotes, and plain transcript of interview tapes, it makes these IIM-A grads, and highly successful businessmen sound extremely inarticulate, nave and inelegant.

And Bansal it appears was a little confused about the choice of language for her book. After every second sentence written in English she feels compelled to break into Hindi. Sample this entrepreneurship mantra: Find something you want to do, that you are passionate about and paisa to koi na koi dega. Unless it’s a stupid idea!

Clearly, no one at IIM-A taught Bansal how to “expand the franchise”.  She doesn’t want you if you live south of the Vindhyas. The best thing about the book however is its very affordable price. Bansal has also resisted the temptation of packing the book with tech entrepreneurs, as over the last decade or so, they have been the most lionized.

The selection is a nice mix of the old and the sunrise businesses. There’s a hotelier, a water tank maker, a drug maker, a sugar baron, and even social sector entrepreneurs alongside the better-know IT and internet guys. If you are a B-school students, willing to mine deep, and of a tolerant disposition towards poor turns of phrase, you could possibly find some case study worthy material in the book.

The idea of writing a book on successful products of an iconic higher educational institution is not an original one. Bansal would have done well to read Teresa Esser’s book Venture Café that was published sometime in 2000. Esser, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate herself, tells the story high-tech entrepreneurs whose journey started at the Muddy Charles pub located inside the MIT campus. Its easy narrative, rigourous reporting and research not only made Venture Café an engrossing read, it was a primer for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Closer home, there was Sandipan Deb’s excellent book The IITians a few years back that tried to explain what made IITians such outstanding achievers across the globe. (Disclosure: Deb is the editor of the publication I work for.)

The English department at San Jose State University sponsors the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. If it chose to include non-fiction, and consider an entire book instead of just the opening sentence for the silverware, Stay Hungry Stay Foolish would be an entry incredibly hard to beat.

TR Vivek is the business editor of Talk, a news weekly soon to be launched by the RPG Group. You can write to him at trvivek@gmail.com.

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