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. 

Friday 5 December 2014

LRB remembers his PGP1 struggles ...

In 1966 LRB was 18 years old and a 2nd year PGP student at IIM-Ahmedabad. An assignment for a  course on inter-personal relations required him to write a detailed biographical sketch and carry out a self-analysis. Remarkably, this hand-written, 20+ page document has survived almost 50 years and gives us a remarkable glimpse into how LRB's early years. Below, we present an edited extract from the document that describes his experience as a PGP-1 student at IIM-A. LRB describes his struggles with the IIM-A environment and curriculum, the resulting crisis of confidence, and the transformation that he went through. The extract has been edited for clarity and grammar. 

I arrived at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad with my friend from Jodhpur University on the 6th of July 1965. I still had 23 more days to go before I was 17 years old. I came here with lots of hopes, fears and uncertainties in my mind about the future, but also a lot of confidence. I had done well in my college final examinations, despite not having studied much. I felt confident about facing the IIM-A environment.

As soon as I entered, however, everything began to change. All the people around me were older, more sophisticated, and smartly dressed. I was completely lost. I had had a similar experience at the time of entering college - but this was more severe. At college, at least communication was no problem. I could talk to people in Hindi, but here everybody was talking in English and I could not even speak English correctly and fluently.1 I had only studied 'General English' as a subject during school and two years of college. I had never written my other papers in English and occasions to speak in English had been very rare. My friend, who was 23 years old, came from an English-medium school and he could manage in this environment. But he was to stay in a different flat2 than me, and I was completely lost. 

The orientation programme created more fears in my mind than it cleared. The first week of classes frustrated me even more. I could not even finish the first reading of cases and assigned readings during that time. I did not know what was happening. People were participating in class, but I couldn't open my mouth even once during the first month. Some of the courses were heavy in mathematics. Mathematics has never been my favorite subject, and here it brought me to the brink of collapse.

Many people were thinking of leaving the course and the dropouts had already started. I gave a thought to this idea and immediately rejected it. I had come here on my own, absolutely on my own - in fact against my family's and relation's wishes. I couldn't go back and say that IIM-A is too difficult for me to go through. I wrote back home to say that I wouldn't come back unless I was thrown out. By the end of two months, the rate of dropouts had increased. Our first set of grades had come back,  bringing another wave of shocks. My father came down to Ahmedabad and so did my friend's father. I told my father not to bother about me. I wouldn't leave IIM-A. I would like to fight with all this.

About 20 days later, after another shock wave of grades had hit us, my friend left the institute. He was very frustrated. His arrival at his home in Jodhpur created trouble in my family and my aunty3 advised me by telegram to come home if I was not comfortable. But I had decided to face all this. By this time my flat mates and I had come closer and could share this frustration. But all of them had adjusted themselves better than what I had done. 

I started working very hard by cutting into my sleeping time. Reading and grasping new subjects  written in English (a foreign language to me) was a tough job for me. I couldn't follow some of the professor's accents. But my tutor realized my plight and supported me. He used to call me and help me in everything, encourage me and give me special opportunities in class to talk. This coupled with my hard work (I have never worked so hard in my life) gave me a boost of confidence. I was improving and trying to fall in the 'satisfactory' category. I did my best and I could see that I was improving steeply. The class also had an image of me as someone who was trying to improve his position and they would give me a privileged response in class to encourage me. The first term passed in this struggle for existence. My self image, confidence and identity had been shattered badly, but I had started repairing them. Meanwhile, I could only hope to keep my head above water.

IIM-A students (LRB is 2nd from left) crowding around Louis Kahn, the celebrated architect, and Prof. Ravi Mathai.

I returned from the term holidays to continue the struggle. One classmate of mine (who was at the time one of the topmost students) congratulated me for securing an A grade in Marketing - the only A of the class. I thought they were joking and felt really bad that people were pulling my leg and laughing at my plight. Some more people started talking about it at the tea table and later on I came to know that I had really got an 'A'. My other grades also were quite good. My confidence was again rebuilt overnight. I started on second term subjects with a lot of enthusiasm, working late in the nights in solving cases. I used to participate in class everyday. My image was improved amongst my class mates.

About a month after the second term had started, however, I fell sick4. I had to be out of touch with studies for more than 35 days. I again became skeptical about my existence at IIM-A. The thought of whether or not I would be able to recover the study time I was losing kept eating my mind all the time. But all the instructors were impressed by me and were very sympathetic after I came back. They gave me all the help required and I was soon able to cope with the class. Now I was amongst above average students. My performance in the last term was very encouraging. I secured second rank in the institute missing first by one grade point.5

But another thing happened during the final term of the first year. Summer placement activities had started and everybody was hunting for jobs. It so happened that I was called for interviews for almost every job I applied, but I was not selected. Major influencing factor for the decisions against me was my exceptionally young age. Everybody said: you are too young. I was very frustrated by this and started cursing myself for starting my studies early, coming to IIM-A etc. I was confident about my abilities and I also cursed employers for not recognizing my abilities and colouring their attitude with mere chronological age. Eventually, I accepted a summer project in south India for which selection was made by resume. 

I went to the south in the summer all alone for this project. I was traveling such a long distance alone for the first time. My aunty sent me with a heavy heart. I joined the company and started work on a project about which we had not learned anything during the first year. But, I decided to do a good job for the company anyway. I had taken some books and notes along and started the work. I could get information help from colleagues by my nice behavior with them. I became a good listener and let others talk and feel satisfied. I did a very good job on the project in my opinion and also in the opinion of the company. They indirectly indicated to me that they would be interested in me for long-term employment. This fact gave me a lot of satisfaction and removed all the frustrations of my experience at the selection stage. I entered the second year at IIM-A with terrific confidence and the learnings from this summer project.


Editor's notes: 

1. Mr. Madan Mohanka, who was LRB's batch mate at IIM-A, remembers how Prof. VL Mote helped them get over their problems with spoken English. He lent them a tape recorder and advised them to record their own conversations in English, play them back to themselves. He said that it made a big difference. 

2. The IIM-A campus was still under construction in those days and from July 1964 to March 1966, PGP students lived in flats that the institute had rented from the Gujarat Housing Board. They were located a couple of kilometers from the campus. In the middle of March, 1966 they moved to the campus, but not to the dorms, which were being used as faculty and administrative offices. The students, instead, lived in houses built for faculty. 

3. LRB's biological mother passed away when he was a baby. He was brought up by his widowed aunt - Smt. Tej Kanwar Bhandari, or Baiji as she is known in the family. LRB was very close to her and she would eventually adopt him formally. 

4. We have little information about LRB's extended illness. One story comes from his batch mate, the late Mr. Bipin Bhatt, who remembered that LRB suffered a head injury as a result of a prank. This remains to be verified. In a curious co-incidence, LRB spent some time during this illness convalescing at the campus dispensary, which was, at the time, located in what would become house no. 316, LRB's home from 1976 to 1988. 

5. This remarkable turnaround would have a deep impact on LRB's mindset and his beliefs about the factors that determine success. In another section of the 20-page document, he speaks about how it helped him overcome a common belief he had imbibed from his friends and peers at university (and to some extent, also at IIM-A): the idea that if you are intelligent, you do not need to work hard. Indeed, he speaks of how people who worked hard were seen in a negative light in his peer group at Jodhpur University and at IIM-A because it implied that they were not very intelligent. At university, this peer culture influenced him and he took his studies lightly - relying on his natural intelligence to get him through. His struggle-filled experience at IIM-A, however, drove home the value of hard work and to appreciate the value of improving over time. He began to hold the view that your natural ability might influence your choice of career, but eventually, your success will depend on your sincerity and willingness to work really hard. In modern psychology, this would be referred to as a shift from a 'fixed mindset' to a 'growth mindset' and for LRB, was at the heart of his transformation. Three years later, he would call IIM-A his 'break' in life.