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Monday, 19 October 2015

The final journey...

I clearly remember the last time we saw Dad. It was on the evening of the 16th October, 1988. It was a Sunday and he was scheduled to leave for a work trip. We were all gathered in the front lawn of our campus home, no. 316. One of IIM-A's olive-green ambassador cars had come to pick him up. He gave me a kiss and all of us waved him goodbye as the car sped away. I immediately started clinging to Mum, demanding attention.

LRB was flying to Bombay, and then onwards to Pune to meet with S.L. 'Dada' Kirloskar, the 85 year old chairman of the engineering company, Kirloskar Brothers. The company had just turned around after facing a major set of crises in the past few years, and its leadership was looking to put together a strategy that would put the company on a growth path. They had requested LRB to advise them as a consultant. LRB, however, was very busy at the time and was not in a position to take on additional work. He tried to politely decline, but Mr. Kirloskar called personally and insisted that he visit, even offering to send his personal helicopter to pick LRB up. An embarrassed LRB decided that he couldn't decline an invitation from someone of Mr. Kirloskar's seniority and eminence. He would make the trip and decline in person, rather than over the phone. LRB arrived in Pune on Monday the 17th and met the Kirsloskar management at their offices. While in town, he also seems to have stopped by at the Bajaj Auto headquarters. Bajaj was another consulting client he was advising on their marketing and corporate strategy.

On the 18th of October, he was back in Bombay and from all accounts had another busy day. He was meeting with marketing executives at Cadbury India, one of his newer consulting clients. Cadbury had recently engaged LRB as a consultant to help them develop a marketing strategy that would help accelerate the profitability of their brands. Vinita Bali, who was then a young marketing manager at Cadbury remembers the day: "We worked late that evening, combing through all kinds of consumer and market data. It was at an early stage of the consultation and I remember being fascinated by his approach and his unique ability to probe and generate insights that the rest of us would have struggled to find. He was curious about how these brands were marketed in other countries. I had returned from my stint in the UK and I remember we spent long hours talking about the relevance of the category in India versus the UK, and what were the drivers and differentiators for consumers in these markets."

Shyam Sunder Suri, LRB's friend and partner in his consulting activities, had also asked to meet LRB that day. They had together planned LRB's annual product-policy training programme for marketing executives which was scheduled to be held in Goa in November, and Mr. Suri wanted to discuss the logistics and scheduling for the programme. LRB had initially planned on returning to Ahmedabad by the evening flight, but wasn't sure if his meetings would be done in time for that. He was also beginning to feel a little tired. They kept in touch over the phone during the day and, finally, in the afternoon, LRB called to tell him that he had decided to stay the night. He would be staying at the Centaur Hotel at Santa Cruz and they could meet for dinner. LRB also made a call to his old friend,  Shunu Sen of HLL. They talked in detail about the upcoming programme at Goa where LRB had invited Sen to speak. 

At some point during the day, Dad had found time to pick up an action figure for us - Skeletor, the skull-faced chief villain from the He-Man series, which I was crazy about. In the evening, he called us in Ahmedabad. He told Mum that he'd be staying back for the night and asked her to call Shekhar Vyas and cancel their meeting for that evening. He also said that he wasn't feeling well, and that he would get a proper check-up once he was back. I spoke to him as well. He told me, with relish, mimicking a dramatic, menacing voice, that he was bringing Skeletor with him. I heard this and ran off, all excited, now waiting desperately to see him the next day. 

Back in Bombay,  Shyam Sunder Suri met LRB for dinner. He remembers the evening: "We met in his room and then went for dinner. Labdhi's favourite cuisine was Chinese - especially his all-time favourite - golden fried prawns. He had those, fried rice, some noodles and brandy with hot water - which he preferred because of his chronic throat/sinus/cold problems. We discussed the logistics of the upcoming product policy training programme - how many people were expected, the scheduling, etc. He wasn't sure whether he would be coming alone or with his wife, or if the whole family would accompany him. Later, he mentioned that he had been spoken to at IIM-A about taking up the Director's position and he was ruminating over whether he should. I told him that he should give it a go and IIM-A needed leaders like him. That evening, Labdhi described to me what he would be interested in doing if he took it up - he said he would want to take IIM-A international and get foreign faculty, etc. We were together till midnight"

***

Next morning LRB would have been up early. His flight, Indian Airlines IC-113, was scheduled to depart at 5.45 am, and as was usual for him, he left the hotel very late, probably arriving at the airport just in the nick of time before the check-in counter closed. At the airport, he ran into people he knew. K. Raghuram, a former student, was headed to Pune: "I chatted briefly with Prof. Bhandari in the Mumbai airport security area, just before the boarding announcements. He was catching the Ahmedabad flight at the same time that I was boarding the Pune one. My old “dry-mouth disease” from his classes promptly returned and we wouldn’t have progressed much beyond the “Hellos” were it not for my colleague, who, being unaware of his reputation, had tried to impress him by waxing eloquent about some marketing initiative we had started. All I remember is that grin lighting up Prof. Bhandari’s face as he asked a couple of gentle, but pointed questions. My colleague was saved by the boarding calls." LRB also ran into Anita Ramachandran, then working with AF Fergusson & Co. in Pune, who was taking an early morning flight to Delhi. She had been interacting with LRB to get him to do some consulting work for one of her clients, the Pune-based Kinetic Engineering Company: "I too was scheduled to go to Ahmedabad on the same flight as Labdhi and had it changed the previous night to Delhi. I met Labdhi that morning minutes before he boarded -- and I will never forget that. We spoke of setting up a meeting in Pune and the pain of the early morning flights." 

It turned out that the flight had been delayed by 20 minutes after a booked passenger did not show. It departed, eventually, at 6.05 am. The aircraft, an aging Boeing 737, was piloted that day by Captain O.M. Dalaya, a 37-year old pilot who had only been given command of a Boeing jet 13 months ago, having spent his early career flying Fokker Friendship turboprops, and the previous 5 years co-piloting 737s. He had less than 1800 hours of flight experience with a Boeing jet. To add to that, Capt. Dalaya had slept fitfully the previous night, waking up at one point feeling cold and with night sweats. He reported to work at 5.00 am that day, and was probably sleep deprived. He was joined in the cockpit by the 26-year old co-pilot, Deepak Nagpal, who had even less experience, having been endorsed as a Boeing co-pilot only 5 months ago. He had co-piloted Boeing jets for less than 180 hours previously. The crew's inexperience would be an important factor in what happened to this flight.

The flight proceeded smoothly till they started to descend near Ahmedabad. At 6.25 am, the Ahmedabad Air Traffic Control's approach controller called and gave them updated weather information. Visibility had dropped from 6 km an hour ago to 3 km. At 6.32 am, the crew were given permission to descend to 15,000 feet. As the pilots engaged in small talk in the midst of their descent, the cockpit voice recorder captured their conversations. Capt. Dalaya revealed that he hadn't been feeling well and had slept fitfully: "Waise, I am not well aur zyada lagta hai. Raat ko I was sweating and suddenly got cold. Neend aa rahee thee, jaa rahee thee. Hota hai na? Theek hai, badh gaya to kuch kar loonga."

At 6.42 am, Ahmedabad ATC called in again with a special weather report. Visibility had dropped by another km and was now 2 km. But, this number was misleading. It was a quick-and-dirty estimation made by BJ Alika, the senior meteorological observer on duty at Ahmedabad airport that day. He had stepped out of his office and spotted the Maya Cinema, which was about 2.2 km away from the terminal building, through the haze.** In reality, the visibility near the end of the runway in the approach sector was worse, and deteriorating. A witness, Pratapji Ramsinhji Thakore, who was working in the fields near the end of the runway would report that the fog was very dense and that he "could not see beyond 5 feet." Later, in court under cross examination, BJ Alika would admit that visibility had been consistently deteriorating. Under these circumstances, the appropriate way to determine visibility would have been to make a measurement called the Runway visual range (RVR). This involved someone driving down to the end of the runway, standing on the vehicle and counting the number of runway lights that were actually visible through the haze. The RVR provides an approach-specific visibility measurement, telling the pilots how early during their approach would they be likely to see the runway. The RVR would have revealed the poorer visibility in the approach sector. At Ahmedabad Airport, BJ Alika would only do an RVR if the Air Traffic Controllers requested one, and if they could provide him with a transport vehicle to the end of the runway. The ATC never requested one, and BJ Alika did not insist. In the end, despite the meteorologist and the controllers being aware of the worsening conditions, they neglected to give this information to the pilots. Instead, the report would include a crucial, misleading phrase: no sig, which meant that no significant change was expected in the next 2 hours.

Capt. Dalaya went by the 2 km visibility determination and decided that he could manage a landing easily. He called the cabin crew and asked them to prepare for landing. An air-hostess made the announcement and the seat-belt sign switched on. A minute later, at 6.43 am, the pilots and the passengers would find themselves in the thick of the fog, with visibility much less than they expected. Seated at the rear of the aircraft, passenger Vinod Tripathi remembered later that he couldn't see anything through the fog outside. The cockpit voice recorder captured the pilot's irritation.


Dalaya to Nagpal: Neeche nazar aa jaye to bata dena. (Tell me if you see the ground.)

Dalaya to Nagpal: Kya hai? (What do you see?) 

Nagpal: Solid bad, sir.

Dalaya: Bada hi bekaar weather hai. (It's really bad weather.) 


Despite the weather, as long as the pilots followed procedure, there was nothing to worry about. Capt. Dalaya could use available guidance instruments to appropriately align the aircraft and then approach at a safe height till the runway came into view. Using the guidance instruments available at Ahmedabad airport, Capt. Dalaya first reported overhead, then executed a standard procedure-turn, going outbound and then turning back inbound, aligning his aircraft with the runway centre line. He still could not see the runway so, as he closed in, he asked co-pilot Nagpal to look for it. Desperate to spot the runway, however, they lost track of their altitude, which was fast dropping. They reached 600 ft above ground level, and initially Capt. Dalaya maintained it for 10 seconds. But, then, he seemed to have lost awareness of his altitude. Indeed the pilots had neglected to make standard altitude call-outs. They crossed the 500 ft minimum decision altitude, which you are meant to hold until you can spot the runway and have clearance to land. 15 seconds before the crash, the co-pilot says "approach aa rahee hai" and recommended letting down the landing flaps. The pilot did so. It was their final action. Suddenly, Vinod Tripathi, seated at the rear got worried when he felt the aircraft sink rapidly. Seconds later, the Cockpit Voice Recorder captured a loud thud, followed by a piercing scream. 

The Boeing had brushed against the top of two babul trees in a paddy field near Pratapji Ramsinhji Thakore's home. The field was just 2500 meters short of the runway - a distance they would have covered in less than 30 seconds if they were at a slightly higher altitude. It then slammed into a field, crushing the landing gear and its belly in the process, and continued dragging for about 500 yards as a fire started. A wing scythed against another tree and the tail section and the cockpit separated from the middle portion of the fuselage which continued dragging and jumped over a mud-wall, slammed into a high-tension electrical wire and exploded into flames. Vinod Tripathi heard the explosion and found himself upside down. There was fire all around and he felt his seat belt was burning. He ripped it off and ran away from the wreckage, as fast he could. The main fuselage and the people inside were completely consumed by the fire. Pratapji Thakore and other fellow-villagers lifted survivors out from the rear section and away from the flames. LRB must have been in that rear section that separated, because unlike many of the other passengers, he did not suffer burns. He did suffer many internal injuries though - a lacerated lung, ruptured organs and broken bones. He is believed to have survived the crash and died on the way to the hospital. 

At the Ahmedabad ATC, the flight had disappeared from radar and the controllers had reported it missing. At 7.13, however, they received a call from the City Police control room. Pratapji Thakore and other villagers had rushed over to the Noble Nagar police station and reported the crash. The station had, in turn, relayed the information onto the control room and the fire brigade. As the news spread, the airport descended into chaos. One of LRB's colleagues, Prof. V. Raghunathan, remembers the scene "I was returning from Chennai and when I landed at the Ahmedabad Airport, the scene was completely chaotic as the crash had happened barely 60 minutes ago. Everybody was rushing out of the airport towards the accident site. I came across an old student (Subramaniam Sharma) who was the first one to tell me that Prof. Bhandari was on board. He had seen the driver who had come to pick him up with his name placard."

***

One of IIM-A's cars had gone to pick Dad up at the airport. It was a Wednesday, and school started early for us that day - at 8.00 am. Anupam was part of the school choir and they used to sing a hymn on Wednesdays before the morning prayers. So, we were meant to leave early, before Dad got home. Anticipating a new toy, I wouldn't have been very happy about this state of affairs and successfully pestered Mum into letting me skip school. Anupam, and our elder cousin Leena who was also staying with us, both left for school.

Also at home that day was Kuldeep Uncle, Dad's youngest brother, who was visiting from Jodhpur. As the flight's arrival time neared, Kuldeep Uncle and I remember Mum calling Indian Airlines to ask if the flight was on time. I remember her slamming the light blue receiver of the phone down, walking out to the living room and collapsing on the sofa. I remember her starting to cry. I remember both of us trying to console Mum. Kuldeep Uncle called Indian Airlines again - this time they said that the flight had a snag and had turned back to Bombay. He asked Mum to let him take the trip to the airpot and find out first hand.

He remembers: "I walked to the campus gate and took an auto rickshaw to the airport. It felt like my longest journey ever. On reaching the airport, I gave the driver a 100 rupee note and went in to inquire. I found that the plane had indeed crashed before landing, and that I should go to civil hospital to find out more details. The same auto rickshaw took me to civil hospital from the airport. He dropped me right at the spot where the ambulances were coming in. I had no money to pay the auto driver and he said he did not need any."

"I saw the ambulances coming in and the hospital staff pulling out stretchers with bodies and taking them inside the building. I went inside and saw the dead being laid out on the floor in rows. There were charred bodies as well and place was getting slowly crowded. I was trying to deal with the shock, grief and numbness and think about what needed to be done. I could not see the body of my brother and was feeling a ray of hope. I inquired and learnt that those who have survived were being treated in a different building. I went out, trying to find this place and if someone had a list of names of those who had survived*** and were being treated. I spent some time moving around other parts of the hospital, but in vain – I could not find any details of the survivor."

Meanwhile, Anupam was at school: "I clearly remember the hymn we sang that day: 'Lord we pray for golden peace...peace all over the land..may all men dwell in liberty..walking hand in hand.' After the prayers and in the first or second period in school, I was asked to go to the principal's office with my bag. When I packed my stuff and reached the office, Father Charlie told me that 2 gentlemen from IIM-A had come to take me home. One of them took a motorcycle back and the other rode with me in a rickshaw. During the journey home, I asked him what had happened - multiple times - and he kept saying 'Your mother will tell you'. By the time we were passing by PRL, I had guessed it - that there was either a plane crash or a road accident. I asked him if the plane has crashed and got the same reply "Your mother will tell you". 

"When we reached home, I saw a lot of people standing outside on the road and some in the lawn. I found Shekhar Vyas in the lawn and asked what has happened - he said 'Kuch nahi beta, papa ke plane ka accident ho gaya hai'. My worst fear had came true, I rushed in the house, dumped my school bag near the phone desk and ran upstairs to find Mummy. She was sobbing and there were other people consoling her - Veena Purohit, Uma Asopa and others. Apoorva and I were asked to stay in the bedroom upstairs with Mummy and rest on the bed." 

I remember sitting on the bed in the room upstairs. My mum, in a white saree, sitting on the floor in the bedroom upstairs, surrounded by friends, neighbours and relatives, her face limp and drained, probably experiencing the confusing mix of emotion - guilt, anger, despair, numbness - that death always brings in its wake. Her mind was probably asking her that impossible question which follows every unexpected tragedy - why us? I remember my cousin watching the hectic activity, sniffling with a mix of tears and a cold. One of the ladies came in and said - he has left from Centaur hotel late, he might have missed the flight - encouraging us to keep hopes alive. I remember as Shekhar Vyas got on the phone with someone in Bombay, probably Shyam Sunder Suri, asking him to check if Dad had somehow managed to miss his flight and was still at the Centaur hotel or the airport. For, death, in its wake also brings about the clutching at straws.

***

At the Civil Hospital, Kuldeep Uncle was faced with a harrowing task..."I returned back to same building where the ambulances were bringing the dead. The place was now much more crowded. Relatives were there in large number and were crying and grief stricken. I was all alone in that big crowd. I entered the building and started looking at the bodies laid out on the floor, now many more than before, hoping not to find him here. I finally saw what I did not want to. I saw a body lying in top row which looked like that of my brother. I looked for an identifier to be sure - his hair style on face side which had a typical grey line. There were no external injury marks and except some dirt, the body, and particularly the face was relatively clean and recognizable compared to the others around. His shirt was torn and legs were a little twisted, suggesting deep injuries in the portion below his knees. Somehow, I wasn't able to accept this fact and came out of the building again went in search of the surviving people in other parts of the hospital."

"With time, I lost hope and found the courage to face reality. Again, I went back into the building and went straight to the spot where I had seen him earlier. He was there and I now started to talk to the hospital staff. I noticed that since I had first seen the body, the wallet in his pocket had gone missing. I then noticed Prof. Abhinandan Jain, a colleague of my brother, walking in the crowd. He had probably just arrived. I went to him and called him to the spot. He looked at the body and just remained silent and pressed my shoulder in consolation. That put an end to all my hopes, however false they were."

Back at home, our house filled up with neighbors and friends as the news of the crash filtered back to the institute. After a while Kuldeep Uncle called to confirm that he had been to Civil Hospital and identified the body. He was bringing the body home. Anupam remembers Mummy taking off her mangalsutra once she heard and our cousin Leena calling up relatives and informing them of LRB's death.

There was a deep sense of shock all around. A student remembers Prof. MN Vora walk into a class with moist eyes and saying that they would soon hear some shocking news. After the class was over, he couldn't contain his emotions. Nor could many of the staff and students who gathered at our place. A student journalist for the campus magazine spoke to Prof. GR Kulkarni: "What can I say? I simply loved him. He was one of my dearest friends. As a student and as a colleague, I looked upon him as one of the finest jewels. He was a younger brother. After I've heard the news this morning, I have not been able to overcome my grief."

People told me all sorts of things. Someone told me that Dad had gone to Calcutta for work instead of coming back home. Anupam's remembers telling me the truth: "My mind had gone blank and I was wondering whether to break the news to Apu. Someone said not to - but I could not resist and told him the bare truth. I remember that both of us were so blanked out that we were not even able to cry." I probably did not know what to believe. I was sent away to a friend's place. I remember the two of us playing with a red ball on his terrace when he, cruel as children are, dismissed the story I had been told and instead said, point-blank, that my Dad was dead because his plane had crashed. Unable though I was to emotionally comprehend the significance of what had happened, I was nevertheless able to ask the one question that was within my grasp: what about my Skeletor toy? I remember Anupam, eyes puffed, saying that it would have broken in the crash and then adding, with an indomitable spirit, "don't worry I'll get you a Castle Grayskull." 

Anupam remembers when they brought the coffin home: "Elders asked me to bow down - 'dhok lagao'. I remember looking at Daddy's body and bowing down to him on the bare floor. I could recognize his face - rest of the body was shrouded in white." At some point, I was called in from the back yard where I was playing with a cousin and asked to pick up a bunch of rose petals and drop them into the dark pink coffin. I couldn't see Dad at all. He was completely covered in flowers.

The next day, Mudra, then an upcoming advertising agency based in Ahmedabad employing several IIM-A alumni, brought out a full-page tribute in the Times of India. It depicted a lamp or a candle, a symbol of light, that had suddenly been extinguished. It captured the emotion felt by many of his colleagues, friends and students, of a shining star having been violently extinguished in his prime.


Notes:

*This note was written by Apoorva Bhandari based on his own memories and the testimony Anupam Bhandari, Kuldeep Bhandari, Shyam Sunder Suri, HR Bhandari, Vinita Bali, K. Raghuram, and Anita Ramachandran. The note also relies on journalist reportage of the crash, the investigation by the AK Mathur Court of Inquiry, the judgement of the Gujarat High Court in the AAI vs U.S. Shah and others appeal case, and a November 1988 issue of Synergy, the student-run campus magazine at IIM-A. 

**More than 25 years after the crash of flight IC-113, visibility measurements at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport at Ahmedabad are still done in much the same way as they were on 19th October, 1988. To make an assessment, someone climbs up the Air Traffic Control tower and looks for familiar landmarks including the Maya Cinema or the nearby fire station. Alternatively, when possible, they drive down to the runway to count the runway lights. Unlike other major airports, the Ahmedabad International Airport's office of the Indian Meterological Department has not yet purchased or installed a scopograph - a machine that makes an automated, and standardized measurement of visibility.

***Initially, 5 people survived the crash of flight IC-113, including a 7-year old boy. In a few days, however, all but two adult men succumbed to their injuries. In all, 133 people perished, including all 6 crew members. Among the victims was flight attendant Archana Solanki, a young Dalit girl who had just finished training as a commercial pilot and was looking forward to being the first woman from her community to fly for Indian Airlines. One of the two survivors was Vinod Tripathi, then 57, who managed to run out of the wreckage amidst two explosions, suffering some burns in the process but escaping other injuries. He lived a full life and resumed his position at Gujarat Vidyapith, eventually rising to become its vice chancellor. The other survivor, Ashok Aggarwal, spent 40 days in coma before waking up to the news that his wife and one year old daughter Ruhi had perished. He has never quite recovered from the physical and psychological trauma. The issues of compensation and responsibility took 21 years to sort out in the courts, with the high court eventually apportioning 90% of the liability with the airline, and 10% with the Airports Authority of India.  

Friday, 2 October 2015

Jahar Saha remembers...

I came to know Labdhi more than 20 years back. At the time he was a second year student and I was a Research Assistant at the Institute. Our contact was mainly through the second year quantitative courses. Then there was a gap when he went to Hindustan Lever. The contact got renewed again when both of us were in the US for our doctoral programme. Finally we were together at the Institute, both of us teaching.

Over the years, we became good friends. We worked together on a few projects. I was also in the MDP Committee when he was the Chairman. I always found him to be sharp and having a clear point of view. On many occasions we had fierce arguments because our views were different. I must say that this did not affect our relationship and I give credit for this to Labdhi for not mixing up work and personal relationships. His commitment to a job was complete. As a MDP Chairman, he made a significant contribution - no detail was too small for him. His impact on industry was tremendous. He might have appeared to be unapproachable but I think it was more because he was busy. We talked for hours on all kinds of subjects ranging from the manufacture of educational toys, starting of a diet beer company in Mt. Abu, to management of health clubs. Even the students who worked with him closely found him to be deeply interested in their development.

*Prof. Jahar Saha was LRB's colleague at IIM Ahmedabad. He went on to lead IIM Ahmedabad as its Director. 



Saturday, 25 July 2015

Prof. VN Asopa remembers...

Labdhi and I were neighbors for many years. Our children grew up together and now I do not recall when I stopped calling him Bhandari Sahab and started addressing him Labdhi. We shared a common hedge but part of it was removed for easy accessibility between two families. I remember there were times when we would both be in our respective gardens and chat without feeling the need to cross the hedge. There is a Gulmohar tree which was also our favourite spot for exchanging not only pleasantries but also holding serious professional discussions. 

What I most appreciated in Labdhi was his considerateness. He was always there to help but at the same time he never encroached on the other person's privacy. Once when my daughter's illness took a serious turn, I remember Labdhi rushing out to get the prescribed medicine before my wife could even complete the sentence. He very rarely expressed his feelings but his actions spoke volumes. He was a perfect gentleman and the most extreme criticism that he ever expressed about anyone was "I don't know why he behaves like this." 

Labdhi always held his teachers in high esteem. My brother and his wife taught him at the Jodhpur University. Once when my sister-in-law visited us, Labdhi specially came over to pay his respect to his former teacher. I also recall when Professor RL Sharma was at the Institute. He too was Labdhi's teacher at the Jodhpur University. The respect and courtesies Labdhi showed to him was remarkable. Labdhi was very attached to his family. Whatever time he could find from his busy schedule he would spend with his sons. He loved to play with them, talk to them, and take them out for special treats. 

Our professional interaction was not much - actually it was just about to begin. But from my contacts with industry I know the high esteem he was held there. He was the only man in the Institute who had a broad based contact with the industry, which recognized his intellectual capabilities and appreciated his contribution. To give an example of his standing in the industry, I remember several occasions when board meetings were held in Ahmedabad by various companies to ensure that Labdhi attended them. He strongly believed that the Institute should work towards strengthening its ties with industry. 

*Prof. VN Asopa was a colleague and neighbour of LRB at the IIM Ahmedabad. In 1988, they were on the verge of beginning a collaborating on a project for the Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority (APEDA) at the invitation of LRB's friend Kr. Fateh Singh Jasol. This tribute was written some time in 1988. 

S. Ramachander remembers...

Marketing Loses a Star

by S. Ramachander

When Prof. Labdhi Bhandari died in the air crash at Ahmedabad on 19 October 1988, the marketing profession in India lost one of its outstanding advocates. He was only 40 years old, but had already compressed into two decades, an exceptional career as a student, researcher, manager, professor and consultant. But then he was always precocious in the best meaning of the term. He was the youngest student on record at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in its second batch and went on to become easily the youngest senior manager at Hindustan Lever. 

A list of his attainments will show an unusual commitment to excellence: he won a top rank at IIM-A overcoming the handicap of an entirely Hindi medium undergraduate background. After a short but brilliant managerial stint, went on to an award winning doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. On his return he rose to be one of the most respected senior members of the faculty not only at the IIM but in the entire country. His consultancy assignments kept following in from the public and the private sectors. He was associated with prestigious, national policy level projects concerning the Tea Board, the Planning Commission, the Public Distribution System for Essential Commodities, and Family Planning, to mention just a few that I personally knew of. Only last year he added two more distinctions to this impressive list: a $10,000 research grant from the US and the STC Chair in Marketing. 

He remained consistently unflustered by the attention and the glamour of the multinational marketing world. Directorships of companies like EID Parry and Enfield India were to him the same as helping a friend out unobtrusively with a small scale marketing experiment which intellectually challenged him. He was very conscious of the fact that he was - and wished to be - a simple person, all of a piece. He never bothered to conceal his roots and cultural origins in semi-urban Rajasthan, to which he came back to do all his field work for his PhD thesis at Columbia University.  

His doctoral research concentrated on the adoption process of family planning by the rural population of Rajasthan and the resulting thesis emerged as the best among all those received that year in the US Universities towards a PhD in Marketing. It was later published as a book. which could serve as a model for any aspiring scholar. 

As a writer, Labdhi's style was like the man himself - spare, lean, precise and without the slightest air of pomp. Not for him the flamboyance of his friends in the ad. world nor the turgid prose of the more typical Americanised researcher. In speech, he came across with a directness and a light touch of humour which was often self deprecating and poking fun at the most irritatingly superficial ways of his own countrymen. He made no bones of the fact that the over glamorizing of the face of Marketing was a serious disservice to it both as a discipline as well as a profession.  

To his students of marketing it was nothing short of a privilege to attend his heavily over-subscribed elective courses which were a runaway success. While he was highly successful as a teacher, he was a stern disciplinarian, demanding very long hours on project work from his students. But he rewarded them with personal attention and detailed feedback often lasting 12 hours in a single day. 

I have had the privilege of knowing him for 23 years and our careers have run a strangely parallel course from Ahmedabad to Lever to the US and back to the Institute. Working closely with him, although as a visiting faculty over the last five years, I have had many a long discussion often late into the night on almost everything under the sun. He was seldom dogmatic or highly demonstrative but always had a thoughtful point to make. His somewhat shy and self effacing manner, particularly noticeable in the early stage of his career, often misled some people to thinking that he could be easily won over. But nothing was further from the truth. He was intellectually strong and had enormous courage. I should like to think that he went equally courageously - with few regrets. But when I next go to the campus, I shall miss the routine walk down the road through a smoky winter evening to his lawns where a welcome cup of tea and snacks invariably awaited me - or a message that he was out of town. 

But let me not be selfish. It has been a privilege knowing Labdhi for half his life. And for that one should be grateful. 

* This tribute to LRB was written by the Late S. Ramachander in 1988, soon after LRB's death. It was published in the IIM-A Alumnus magazine in January 1989. Mr. Ramachander, himself a pioneer of marketing, passed away in 2008. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Mr. S. Santhanam remembers...

It was a great pleasure for me to work with Prof. Bhandari, particularly during his two year term as Chairman of Management Development Programmes (MDP). We used to meet him almost daily in that period.

Even before he took over as Chairman MDP, I would meet him occasionally for programmes that he was teaching, for case materials, etc. I remember that he had designed a novel, one-week programme on Product Policy and New Product Development/Management. The first programme was held in Goa. It was a major success. Later, it was shifted to the Management Development Centre (MDC) and IIM-A continued to offer the programme on a regular basis every year. Prof. Bhandari was regarded as a marketing guru, and many organizations would just send their executives for the programme so that they would have a chance to meet and interact with him. He would send special mailers to top-level executives in marketing and they would respond immediately and positively. Such was his charisma in the Marketing community. 

When he was made Coordinator for the Top Tier of the 3-Tier Programmes, he made significant changes in its structure. He made it as a theme-based conference and admitted only the very top-level executives and rejected many nominations who would have otherwise found admission in earlier years in the same Top Tier. Many big companies were taken aback, but he stood his ground saying that once the companies understand our message, they will think twice before sending nominations for the Top Tier. At least for the two years that he coordinated the Top Tier of the 3-TP, he followed this policy. Also IIM-A continued to offer the Top Tier as a theme-based conference in later years.

In 1983, Prof. Bhandari started his two-year tenure as Chairman MDP. He told us that we should run the Management Development Centre as a cost-profit centre. Earlier MDP committees from the very beginning used to fix room/board tariff on an ad-hoc basis, raising them marginally every 2-3 years. The rates were abysmally low, and had no relationship to the cost of operations. Prof. Bhandari collected details from accounts and other relevant departments about the cost of constructing the building, installation of AC plants, furnitures/fixtures, annual electricity bills, provision bills for a year, laundry services, purchase of crockeries/cutleries, linen items etc. etc. and arrived at cost per participant on the basis of different occupancy ratios. Thereafter, the room and boarding tariff was fixed at realistic levels.

It was during Prof. Bhandari's tenure that the Advanced Management Programme (AMP) was developed and offered in collaboration with the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE). The first AMP had been offered by IIM Calcuttta a couple of years before.1. At the specific request of BPE, this programme was taken up by IIMA after discussion with BPE by then Director, Dr. I.G. Patel and Chairman MDP, Prof. Bhandari. Initially one programme was to be conducted by us.

The facilities at the Management Development Centre were at a primitive stage at that time. As the AMP was an important programme for IIMA, Prof. Bhandari wanted to enhance the facilities at MDC (airconditioning the dining hall, auditorium, basement class rooms etc., adding a library counter, reading room etc). Director was in full and complete support of his initiative and requested the then Chief Engineer, Mr Nirbubhai Desai to execute whatever modifications were requested by Prof. Bhandari, to start the work immediately and complete it in record time before AMP’s commencement. Director told Mr. Desai not to bother about financial sanction etc. as he would take care of it himself. He was given carte blanche to accomplish the task, which he did remarkably. Even today, MDC's old block is as per the modifications/improvements requested by LRB – except that the computer lab. was shifted to one end of the reception lobby. During his tenure as MDP Chairman, Prof. Bhandari preferred to hold meetings with visitors etc. at the MDC (even on Saturdays/Sundays/Holidays). Many outside visitors used to wait at MDC to meet him and he would telephone me from his residence about expected visitors for meetings. 

Looking to the huge cost involved in improving the infrastructure, we asked BPE to allot at least two AMPs for IIMA to partly offset the cost, which they readily agreed. We had about 30+ participants – It was designed in three modules – the first module was four weeks at IIM-A (Academic), 2nd module involved a foreign visit for about 2 weeks (to understand the practices/policies followed by PSUs in that country) and third module at New Delhi – with Government Interface – where participants used to visit various ministries, PSUs etc., followed finally by presentation by the groups before BPE officials and secretaries to GOI and other invitees of BPE. Two groups were formed for the overseas trips. One group went to Japan. Prof. Bhandari took care of this group and he visited in advance for preparation before the programme’s commencement.2. The second one was to Hungary, probably led by Prof. GR Kulkarni.

LRB addressing the inaugural session of the Advanced Management Programme on the 2nd of July, 1984. On the dais are Mr. SM Krishna, then Minister of State for Finance and Industry (3rd from left), and RP Billimoria, Chairman of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (2nd fro left).
The programme was a big success and for the next batch, some modifications were made - the first module remained same, the second module became the Government interface (as participants in the first batch felt that before going abroad, they should get first-hand knowledge/briefing from Govt. functionaries), followed by foreign visit and on return they worked for 2-3 days to make final presentations. Subsequently, many more batches were offered by IIM-A during Prof.NR Sheth's tenure as Director) 

After the AMP, Prof. Bhandari talked to me and my boss Mr. K. Rajagopal (Programmes officer, MDP) and said that to recoup the huge expenditure that was incurred for the MDC upgrades, whether we could also host the 3-Tier Programmes. The 3-Tier Programme, one of IIM-A's prestigious programmes was a 2 month programme for three tiers of management – middle, senior, top level executives. This programme usually ran into over 100 participants, with about 25-30 in the Top Tier, and IIM-A had historically held it in other locations such as Agra, Jaipur, Goa etc. My boss and I readily agreed to his suggestion of hosting this big programme at the MDC. LRB wrote an appreciative communication to the Director, saying that he had discussed the possibility of hosting 3-TPs at IIM-A with his colleagues (myself and my boss – he equated us as colleagues) and that they were confident of handling the programme without difficulty. In that communication he worked out the cost savings for the Institute for holding 3-TPs on the campus over a period of time. This probably enabled Director to convince the Building committee members about the cost effectiveness on the investment.

I also have vivid recollections of seeing Prof. Bhandari outside of work. I had a habit of coming in to work very early in the morning and working late. As a result, I often saw him in the morning or evenings during his walk in the campus with a small kid on his shoulder and a slightly older kid walking along with him, holding one of his hands.

His sudden death came as a shock to me personally and also my other MDC staff. I still cherish my association with him.


*Mr. S. Santhanam was a colleague of LRB at IIM-Ahmedabad. He administered the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Management Development Centre and worked closely with LRB during the latter's stint as the Chairman of Management Development Programmes.

Editor's Notes: 

1. Prof. Dharni Sinha, in his memoirs, claims that the AMP was, in-fact, first developed and offered by the Administrative Staff College of India in collaboration with the Bureau of Public Enterprises and that IIM-A copied its overall structure, including the foreign visit module. See: Sinha, D. Learning from Life, p203, Excel Books, 2007. 

2. N. Ravi, who was then the First Secretary (Economic and Commercial) at the Indian Embassy at Japan, has given us his account of this trip by LRB with the AMP participants. While in Japan, LRB also found some time to have meetings with Toy manufacturers in connection with diversification opportunities that he was exploring for Enfield India, where he was a member of the Board. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Prof. Dwijendra Tripathy remembers...

Although I was on the IIM-A faculty when Labdhi joined the Institute's Post Graduate Programme (PGP) in July 1965, I had very little interaction with him as he had not taken my course. However, some of my colleagues, whose courses he had taken and who had known him better, often talked very favourably about his academic capabilities and sophisticated behaviour. I had a chance to get to know him better when he returned to the Institute as a member of the faculty after a stint as an executive with Hindustan Lever. He took very little time to adjust to his new environment and impressed his faculty colleagues as well as his students with his teaching ability.

I had a personal taste of Labdhi's human qualities when I was his guest for a few days at New York in December 1973. He was doing his Ph.D. at Colmbia University with the Institute's sponsorship. I was on a brief visit to the United States as the Institute's Dean --- the position was newly created to assist the Director in discharge of his duties --- to study the process of academic planning in the American universities. Despite the heavy load of studies, Labdhi was very generous with his time and attention during my stay with him. I still have a vivid memory of his gracious hospitality. 

After he returned home with a Columbia Ph.D., he soon established himself as one of the most admired teachers at the Institute. Though somewhat withdrawn from the humdrum of campus life, he won the love and respect of his colleagues and students alike. There was a widespread belief in the Institute community that he would be the next Director. Alas, cruel death denied the Institute this good luck. His smiling face and gracious manners will always be missed by those who came in his contact. 

A day or two after the tragic air crash, I recall that Mudra, Ahmedabad (where a number of IIM-A graduates were working) had put up an advertisement in the Times of India as a tribute to Labdhi. If my memory serves right, it consisted of a lamp or candle, a symbol of light, that had been suddenly extinguished. It was a very touching tribute that summed up what everyone was feeling. 

*Prof. Dwijendra Tripathi was Prof. of Business History at IIM, Ahmedabad and a colleague of LRB.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Shekhar Vyas remembers....

Back in the 1980s, I was a young entrepreneur and Labdhi Saab was my mentor. He was India's most sought after marketing consultant. He felt that even the best-designed research project can fail because of poor field execution. He also felt there was a strong need for a sales promotion company because none existed in the industry. So he advised me to position my company as specialist market research and sales promotion firm with excellent field strength. He was the one who named the company MRSP - Market Research and Sales Promotions.

We worked on many projects with him. Most of these projects were his consulting projects at IIM-A, but as and when required, he would use the services of outside agencies for his research or consulting work. We were one such agency. Shyam Sunder's company - Marketing and Business Associates (MBA) was another one. He also worked closely with many advertising agencies - especially Lintas, O&M, Trikya, etc.

One of the projects I worked on with him was for Enfield India, where he was on the Board of Directors. Enfield had tied up with (and later bought) a German company called Zundapp and they wanted to launch two Zundapp motorcycles in the Indian market - Silver Plus and Explorer. We worked on the sales promotion of these products. I remember he had also bought one bike - an Explorer - and he gave it to me to use for some time.

Another project where I worked closely with Labdhi Saab was a promotion with Doctors for Saffola Edible Oil for Marico (then Bombay Oil industries). Mr. Harsh Mariwala the CMD of Marico was closely associated with him. In fact, Labdhi Saab had suggested the idea for a television serial that they produced with Hema Malini, who then also endorsed their other product - Parachute Oil.

In Ahmedabad, we worked under his guidance for a project with Cadilla Pharma for the launch of a drug called Oriprim DS. The project involved doing one of India's first prescription audits. Mr. Pankaj Patel, who is now the CMD of Zydus Cadilla was in charge of the project at the time. Mr. Patel also attended a course on Product Policy and New Product Management that Labdhi Saab taught.

Then, there was the promotion of The Week magazine that was published by Malayalam Manorama, who he was advising. One Mr. Balakrishnan was involved from their side. Another unique project was the launch of Vital Soya flour for Britannia - for which we did a school promotion. Chitra Talwar, an IIM-A alumnus was involved from their side and Labdhi Saab worked closely with her. We also worked with him for Sony Corporation of Japan and Motorola of USA for their entry into Indian Market after imports were liberalized in the late 1980s by the Rajiv Gandhi government.

I had met him on his last day in Ahmedabad. It was a Sunday. He had called me in the afternoon and he told me that he had to leave for a trip to Pune to meet 'Dada' Kirloskar. Labdhi Saab was very stretched with work at the time and he did not want to make the trip, but Mr. Kirloskar had insisted - even offering to send his private plane to drop him back at Ahmedabad if he was tied up. We met at his place, then walked over to the Management Development Centre. I remember he took a peon to task that day because a portrait of Vikram Sarabhai, the founder of IIM-A had not been clean. I had asked him if he had met Dr. Sarabhai - he said he hadn't, but respected him a lot. He described him as a 'future scientist' and an institution builder rather than an atomic scientist. He asked me to ride with him to the airport so that we could continue our work in the car. Before he left for Pune he told me that he was expecting a letter offering him an appointment as Director of IIM Ahmedabad. I think his plan was to retire two years after he completed the term as Director.

The next day, he called me from Pune from the Bajaj Auto office and asked me if could meet a certain Mr. Bhargava some time in the week. Normally I never said no, but that day I requested him that we take a call after he returns to Ahmedabad. I was supposed to meet him on Tuesday evening. But, at 7 pm, his wife called me and told me that he would only return on Wednesday. It was never to be. His plane crashed the next morning.

*Shekhar Vyas was a friend and protege of LRB. 

Sampat Singhvi remembers his childhood friend....

I write this with a heavy heart since Labdhi and I were childhood friends and classmates throughout our school years from elementary through high school (Higher Secondary as it was called during those years). He was one of a few school friends that I kept in touch with on a regular basis after I graduated. While he was an Arts student and I majored in Science, this only separated us from being in the same class from grades 9 to 11. Otherwise, we used to sit in the same class from primary school to 8th grade.

We had a lot in common as we both came from a middle class family, from a small town (Sojat City with a population of 25,000 during our growing years), where education was given some importance but family guidance, support, and encouragement for studying hard and career building was lacking. So we had to build our own educational and professional careers.

During primary and middle school, either he or I would be the top student, but the recognition and rewards for being on top, from family, society, or school were simply missing. Consequently, we did not make much of being the top student in those schooling years. After High School graduation, Labdhi went to Jodhpur to do his BA, while I went to Pilani for my Pharmacy degree. During those years we probably did not see each other very much, although if were both back in Sojat in the summers, we would meet and spend time together.

My social meetings with him re-started and became more frequent after my graduation from Pilani in 1967, while I was living with my family in Mumbai for one year, before leaving for the US for graduate studies. During this year, Labdhi was working at Hindustan Lever after his graduation from IIM-A, and lived with Mr. HR Bhandari (another Sojat native) in Worli. So I would go see him and HR occasionally. Sometimes he would come to my house in Vile Parle and we would spend some time together, or meet for lunch near Churchgate close to his work place. I would consult with him about my career goals and what I should do in future. His clarity of thought and encouragement for higher education was instrumental in me applying for admission in US colleges for my graduate studies.

For a few years while I was studying in the US, we did not have close contact until 1971 when I returned to India for a summer break and to getting married. LRB was able to come to my wedding in Pune in the of summer of 1971; he was the only schoolmate from Sojat that attended my wedding, partly because I had lost touch with others during the five years that I was in Pilani and also because my wedding date was fixed in a hurry. I missed Labdhi’s wedding as I was still studying in the US towards my Ph.D.

The next time we saw each other was when I was working in New Jersey and he came to NY for his Ph.D. program at Columbia University. We met frequently - mostly in NY, but also occasionally in NJ. Later he would be joined by his lovely wife, Santosh. Following his Ph.D. and return to India to take up a faculty position at IIM-A, we were only able to meet whenever I would visit India during my social visits. We remained in touch one way or the other. Then one day I heard about the tragic event that took his life and it was just unbelievably sad; I got all the details about how this happened from my family and our common friends. What a tragic loss to his family, close friends, society in general, and importantly to the whole country. As we all know, he was a great asset to the academic and industrial arena in the marketing field. His intellect, sharpness, and wit were just superb. He was simply an extraordinary man with a great potential to make immeasurable contribution to society and the country. What was amazing about him is that he chose to make his career in academia although he could have done much better in industry from a financial perspective. It was a choice he made to go into academia and he was proud of that decision without any hesitation or after thought.

For me personally, it was just as big a shock as I lost a very close friend that I had grown up with, a person who was so similar to me in many ways, and somebody who I could relate with in many different ways. My family liked to see him all the time and likewise, I also enjoyed seeing ‘Baiji’ and Labdhi’s brothers whenever I saw them. His older brother, Dr. B.S. Bhandari (Lalasa, as we called him, who is a great physicist), also stayed in US for a few years. My wife and I would visit him and his wife whenever we had an opportunity. For a while they were the source of getting information about Labdhi and his family.


LRB came from a small town, and a family with limited means, but made a name for himself by his superb accomplishments in business arena and his legacy will last forever.

*Dr. Sampat Singhvi was LRB's childhood friend. He recently retired after a long career in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and now lives in Princeton, NJ. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

LRB resigns from Hindustan Lever

LRB's resignation letter from HLL
On November 30, 1971, after 4 and a half years at Hindustan Lever Ltd., LRB finally submitted his resignation. He addressed the letter to David Webb, the Vice Chairman of HLL and requested that he be relieved by the end of the year. Tte decision to leave had been a difficult one that he had mulled over for a long time (and one that would write about in the future). LRB was leaving to join the faculty of IIM Ahmedabad as a young (he was 23) Assistant Professor to build a career in academics. In a few months, he would move to New York to join the Doctoral programme at Columbia Business School. 

It appears that LRB put a lot of time into composing this short resignation letter. Despite its brevity, the letter's tone, tenor and language has been carefully crafted. He takes pains to convey his reasons for moving on, emphasizing his firm belief that academics is his true calling. Like he would say in an interview years later, he "didn't leave to leave Levers". HLL had made a big contribution to LRB's personal growth and professional development. He had also tasted great success there. It seems clear that he felt a connection with the company and did not want to snap ties or leave his colleagues with an unpleasant feeling. Indeed, the letter acknowledges his deep gratitude and fond regard for the company and talks about staying in touch. The language is of a protege saying goodbye to his mentor. 

Hindustan Lever was sad to see LRB leave. It is very likely that LRB had been identified as a 'lister' - one of a few individuals identified by the company for potential fast-track advancement to top management. Prof. SK Bhattacharya, one of his mentors at IIM-A, once told a colleague that Levers rated LRB very highly, and that "if Labdhi had not left Hindustan Lever, he would have joined the company's Board of Directors in a few years."

On the cusp of his transition from HLL to IIM Ahmedabad, on the 30th of December, 1971, LRB would hear the sad news of the unexpected passing of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the visionary founding father of IIM-A. LRB would join the institute on the 3rd of January 1972. 3 days later, on the 6th of January, he would be joined by another young turk - CK Prahalad. That very month, on the the 25th of January 1972, Ravi J. Mathai, the celebrated Director of IIM Ahmedabad, and the man who had done the most to attract LRB and CKP to the institute, would drop a bombshell in the first faculty meeting of the year - he would be voluntarily stepping down from his position. The IIM-A torch was gently being passed to a new generation. 

Transcript of letter

November 30, 1971


Mr. D. F. Webb
Vice Chairman
Hindustan Lever Ltd. 

Through: R. A. Tofts

Dear Mr. Webb, 

It is with deep regret that I request you to accept my resignation from the Company in order to work towards a doctoral degree in the field of management studies in U.S.A. 

It is no secret that I have always been drawn towards academic pursuits and indeed the years with Hindustan Lever have been a highly educative and rewarding experience for me. However, it is only at the University, I believe, that I can find my true vocation - at least for the immediate future. A specific opportunity has now come my way as a result of which I now propose to join the faculty of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, preparatory to my doctoral studies. Towards this end, I request that I be released from the services of the Company by 31st December, 1971. 

I would like to take this opportunity to record my gratitude to the company for all that has been done for my professional training and development. May I add that it is my appreciation of what I owe the Company that makes it difficult for me to consider serving the firm with anything less than total commitment.

I contemplate a career in management education and I hope to be in touch regularly. Should I ever be in a position to be of service to Hindustan Lever, I would consider it a privilege to render such help. 

With kind regards, 

Yours sincerely 

Labdhi Bhandari

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Why was Labdhi Bhandari so brash?

Sometime in May, 2013, as the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League rambled on, cricket commentator and journalist Harsha Bhogle (@bhoglesharsha) took to Twitter to complain about a new breed of intelligent, young bloggers who he found ill-mannered. The tweet generated a complex web of several dozen replies and retweets. Hidden among them was a reply from Ramesh Ram (@rameshramsw), who posed an oddly profound sounding counter-question to his fellow IIM-A alumnus: Why was Labdhi Bhandari so brash? This post attempts an answer. 

Over the past several years, we have contacted many of LRB's students, colleagues, contemporaries, friends and family members and asked them to share stories and their impressions of LRB. Two threads emerge out of these diverse memories - a consensus and a paradox. There is widespread consensus in the way everyone speaks about LRB's sharp intellect, his clarity of thought and the precision and economy of his expression. On the other hand, when we consider what people say about LRB's other personal characteristics, a sharp and paradoxical division emerges between his friends, teachers, colleagues and contemporaries on one side and a majority of his students on the other.   Dozens of people from the first group have called him soft-spoken, down-to-earth, humble, unassuming, and above all, very warm and friendly. His students, however, paint a very different portrait of him, calling him wooden, unfriendly, inaccessible, robot-like, aloof, arrogant, and ruthless. In the kinder accounts of his students, he is called formidable, no-nonsense and tough. A satirical piece from the 1980s on the IIM-A student's deification of LRB said it clearly: "We don't love him, we idolize him."

We suggest that this paradox arises from LRB consciously adopting a tough, no-nonsense teaching persona that was at odds with his natural personality. LRB, as a teacher, had a clear objective. He wanted to create a classroom environment in which the students could not fly by the seat of their pants. He wanted them to put in the hard hours and rely on careful thought and preparation, rather than just on their smarts. And, to this end, he cultivated a persona that was made-to-order. Everything he said or did clearly signalled that he meant business. He was very serious in his demeanor and seldom smiled. He deployed an acerbic wit and a biting sarcasm that punished anything that betrayed looseness or a lazy approach. As Pranesh Mishra, PGP 77, recalled: "One would be a fool to attend his class without reading the case in advance. He would pick students at random and ask for interpretation and point of view. God help you, if you were not prepared." Late Prof. MN Vora, LRB's teacher and senior colleague in the marketing department, said in 1988, just after LRB's death: "He was perceived to be tough by the students. Students were careful in his class. This was because he had a very sharp diagnostic sense and would not tolerate any looseness."

LRB found ways to keep the focus of the discussion in the classroom solely on the case or problem at hand. As Rajnish Agarwal, PGP 88 recalls..."He was very good at setting the tone and direction of the conversation. I am reminded of a moment in his very first class. Labdhi walked in and we barely said good-morning. We just sat huddled together, partly in fear of his reputation and partly in awe, overwhelmed I think with his presence and his serious demeanor. After a few pregnant minutes of uneasy silence, Labdhi said, 'So, what should Mr. Shah do?' We all looked at each other for the 'sacrificial one'. He then repeated, 'Has anyone read the case?' ... to which a brave one amongst us, at the very back of the class, sat up and said "Sir, would it not be better if you introduced yourself to us first?....Labdhi, composure personified, looked at him and said 'Would that help solve the case?' That set us up for the rest of his class and the term, I think!"

LRB in an IIM-A classroom
S. Ramanathan, PGP 82, gives us a fuller description of LRB in the classroom, warts and all: "Labdhi occasionally used his sarcastic comments to restrain the thought process of the students going astray. Otherwise, by and large his interactions were "therefore"or "so?" (meaning "you are in the right direction, go ahead; can you stretch your brain a little more?") or "I see" (meaning "you are lost somewhere; do you see") and consistently maintained an unfriendly, wooden face with these monosyllables uttered in a mechanical manner, while his hand was busy scribbling something with chalk on the table. These writings were religiously wiped off the table at the end of the class. Some students used to claim that on a rare occasion when he left it unerased, they deciphered it to say "Bullshit". That was Labdhi with a strong aversion for mediocrity. Like Ashtavakra, who was said to have squirmed in the womb with every wrong Vedic chant, every illogical statement brought forth pain in his face. His acutely economic expressions were sufficient to punch holes in the collective verbiage churned out by the class and Labdhi intervened at the right time to sum up the case, leaving Dr. Watsons wondering why they could not think on those lines. The next class we were better equipped or so we thought and Labdhi took the logical combat to a higher level and the story repeated. Did it look like that he derived sadistic pleasure in proving his unequal opponents inadequate? Some of us thought so. What we did not realize was that in each of these sessions , our minds were being chiseled into better and better logical moulds without our realizing it. That was the biggest reward of having been a Labdhi student. Was this the best pedagogic method? I doubt. I have always felt that with a little more user-friendliness, Labdhi would have encouraged much higher level of participation. On the whole, do we affectionately remember Labdhi? I doubt we had such emotional involvement. Some of us, who have been victims of his ruthless massacre hated to love him."

Evidence that this classroom persona was made to order comes from those who had the opportunity to interact with LRB both inside and outside the classroom. Dr. Amlan Roy, who as a student saw him in the classroom as well as for a project, says: "He was clear, eloquent and nice to me in the 1-on-1 interactions for the 2nd year project I was doing, but he was arrogant and aloof in the marketing course that he taught." Vijaylakshmi Rao, PGP 82, tells us an interesting story: "To all of us whose interests in Marketing and Product Management were kindled by his lectures and case studies, he was a learned, bright, not-so-friendly and at times sarcastic, but much-worshipped Guru. not someone you could crack jokes or discuss South Indian cooking with. But that is exactly what I did many years after leaving the institute at a conference in Delhi that he was co-ordinating. What I found most amusing (and flattering as well!) was that Labdhi often chose to sit next to me in the back bench, whispering comments about speakers he did not agree with or found boring! He insisted that I come along for the valedictory dinner saying he would otherwise get bored talking only to the 'serious types'! He was no more a Professor to me - he had become a good friend like so many of my batch mates at IIMA. I told him that my friends would probably be very surprised to know that he was just like one of us. To which he said "Don't tell them, that will spoil my image." He was not just a Marketing Legend but a warm, friendly, modest, fun loving person with a great sense of humor." 

Outside the classroom, LRB's warmth and modesty often stood out in the minds of those who remember him. Dr. NCB Nath, a senior colleague at Hindustan Lever and later a fellow academic, said this about him: "Labdhi was a very humble person and didn't show off at all. Normally people who are bright, I think, talk too much about themselves. He came across as low-key and unassuming, someone who knew his strengths but did not exhibit them. Labdhi was also a very friendly person and there were very few people who spoke ill of him. He was able to get along with a lot of people of different kinds. For instance, the IIM-A faculty consist of a lot of very different kinds of characters. He was able to make friends with a lot of them and no one ever said anything against him. In Sanskrit there is a term that applies to him very well, he was "Ajatashatru" - one whose enemies are unborn."

Ravi Sreedharan and Vijay Santhanam, PGP 1988 fondly remember a story: "That he was outside the classroom an absolutely warm person is etched in my mind with the Holi hug. On Holi, a few of us met him in the morning. I still remember the white kurta he was wearing. He opened his arms widely and hugged us in a warm embrace. That from "The Tiger in the class" this was beyond surprising."

So, why was Labdhi Bhadari so brash? As a former student, Rajnish Agarwal, PGP 88, says "Labdhi carried a deep sense of responsibility in our development and he was very conscientious of his role and impact to that effect". LRB's goal was not just to impart marketing knowledge but to prepare students for the tough world of business by shaping their thinking, beliefs and values. The origins of his approach lie in his own experience as a student. His two years at IIM-A as a young PGP student had been a life-changing experience. He came in to the programme confident of his abilities and expecting to do well. Instead, he quickly found himself out of depth and suffered a serious crisis of confidence. To emerge successful, he had to learn how to work very hard and improve slowly. This gave him tremendous self-confidence, of a new, truer sort. The trial-by-fire had a deep impact and would shape LRB's attitude. It led him to value hard work, preparation, and careful, rigorous thinking over intelligence and ability and to abhor looseness and laziness. As a teacher, he worked to inculcate the same values and demanded the same kind of dedicated hard work from his students that had helped him excel.

Ravi Sreedharan, PGP 88, remembers LRB's own answer to the question: "In Labdhi's final class in PGP1, we had an open house with him and were giving him feedback. One of the students said to him: "Why are you so nasty with us in case discussions? You sometimes make us feel so foolish."....and his reply was "I would rather you look foolish in this classroom than when you are out there in the actual market place"" 25+ years later, do his students agree? 

*This article was put together by Apoorva Bhandari on the basis of the testimony of the people named in the note. Please leave your comments below and do share your own memories of LRB with us. 
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