This motivational story of an Entrepreneur is selected as Story of the Month June’2013 and won INR 1000 (US $20)
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
‘Don’t get sentimental on me, you as*holes; you make me feel I’m going to die…’
The words were echoing in Kartik’s ears.
“Speech…speech…speech…” the chorus grew louder.
“You blokes know that I don’t like speechifying…” Rajashekhar affectionately admonished the huge gathering of employees in the auditorium.
“Speech…speech…speech…” the chorus continued relentlessly.
Kartik softly whispered in Rajashekhar’s ears, “Raja, you can’t escape; better satisfy their demand. After all, today is your last day in the organisation.”
“Et tu Kartik?” Rajashekhar smiled.
“Listen, ladies and gentlemen, listen. Rajasaab has agreed to speak to us.”
“Yeah…Rajasaab…go…go…go…” a thundering applause exploded.
Rajashekhar got up, adjusted his suit, thinning hair and rimless spectacles and approached the lectern. He tapped the mike with his index finger.
“Alright, you devils…”
“Yeah…” a thundering applause exploded again.
“…what do you want me to speak about? Micro chips, hard disks, virtual networks…”
“No…” the protest was as loud as it was unanimous.
“Yourself…your life…Come on Rajasaab…be a sport…” the poking was endless.
He gave a mischievous smile. “You can get it all on Wikipedia…”
“OK, blokes, you asked for it. Here it comes.” He paused. “Ahem…”
Pin-drop silence descended on the auditorium as Rajashekhar cleared his throat.
“I was born in 1950…”
THE SWIM AGAINST THE CURRENT
Rajashekhar was born in a small village – Ankireddypalem – near Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. His father, Ramayya, was a farm labourer. His income was as erratic as the monsoon. A major portion of whatever meagre income was there was spent on his toddy requirements. Varam, the mother, had to take up menial jobs in various houses. Realising the importance of literacy and education, she fought with her husband and sent her son to the only government school in the village. Consequently, he lost valuable years. Rajashekhar grew up in penury, poverty and drunken tantrums at home. But, being an intelligent child, he quickly grasped the subjects taught in the school. Penury and disease took a heavy toll on Varam’s health. She was bedridden with no one to take care of her.
“Raja, I’m not going to live long; I know…You have to leave this village before I’m gone.”
“Don’t say that, mother. You are scaring me.”
“You are grown up now. You can understand. You know what your father is. He has ruined our family with his drinking habit. He cannot support this family. I don’t know how long he is going to live. Doctor said his liver is gone. Anyhow, you have to go to the city for higher classes; better go now…”
“But where, mother?”
“Guntur; to Venkat uncle. You know Venkateswarlu, my younger brother? Go to his place. I’ll give a letter. He’s a good man. He’ll take care of you. Study well and come up in life.”
She cajoled him, pacified him for long hours. Finally, he was convinced.
“Here, take this.” She gave him a sheet of paper torn from his exercise book and some money. “Take your clothes and books. Take the next bus and go to Guntur. Venkat’s address is on the letter. Don’t trust strangers. Go to his house and explain everything.”
Rajashekhar wept on his mother’s chest. They hugged each other for a long time. Finally, he packed his clothes and books in a jute bag reluctantly.
“Raja, be careful with the money. That’s all I could hide from your father. God bless you.”
He looked at his mother with tear-filled eyes.
He didn’t know that it would be the last time.
He set out to the city and his uncle’s place with the money given by his mother…
…ninety nine rupees and fifty paise.
Venkateswarlu let out a deep sigh after hearing his nephew and patted his head.
“Raja, everything will be alright. First let’s have food and then plan what we have to do.”
Rajashekhar had lunch with his uncle while his aunt, Lakshmi, served. Venkateswarlu’s daughters – Ramya and Aparna – watched in amusement.
“Phew…That’s a big hurdle crossed, Raja,” Venkateswarlu said wiping his face.
They had just come out of the Head Master’s office in the Zilla Parishad’s School. Rajashekhar had secured admission in the high school.
“You can continue your studies. The school reopens in a month after the vacation. Now we’ll plan the rest of the things.”
Rajashekhar looked curiously at his uncle.
“Look, Raja. You are a grown-up. You can understand. I’m just a watchman in a private company. It is tough enough to maintain my family and I have two girls to take care of.”
“I understand, uncle. What do you want me to do?”
“It is like this…”
The next couple of weeks saw Venkateswarlu contact several of his officers to make arrangements for his nephew. While many rejected his request outright, some good Samaritans helped him and some more referred him to others.
Rajashekhar would live in his uncle’s place. His lunch and dinner would be sponsored by six families, one on each pre-decided day of the week. On Sundays, his aunt Lakshmi would take care of him. Venkateswarlu’s kindly boss promised to meet the expenditure incidental to Rajashekhar’s education – books, stationery and clothing; there was no school fee.
“I’m sorry, Raja, I’m unable to do more.”
“Don’t say that, uncle. You’ve done a lot. I’m indebted to you for life.”
“I need you to help Ramya and Aparna with their studies, whenever you can.”
A few months elapsed…
“Raja, your uncle has come to see you,” the Class Teacher informed Rajashekhar after reading the note brought by the Attendant.
Rajashekhar found his uncle sitting in front of the Head Master.
“Uncle, is everything OK?”
“Come, let’s go home. It’s urgent.”
There was an atmosphere of gloom in the house. Rajashekhar looked at his uncle anxiously.
“Raja, your mother is no more…”
Rajashekhar completed the funeral rites of his mother as his father was too drunk to do anything. He collected a photo and some personal items of his mother and left the village and his father forever.
“What are you doing, Raja?”
Venkateswarlu and Lakshmi found Rajashekhar studying underneath the lone street lamp about hundred metres away from their house.
“Studying, uncle,” Raja said sheepishly.
“Here! It’s past midnight!”
“I know the difficulties, uncle; can’t be a burden – electricity, kerosene. It’s my family, too.”
During those testing years, there were times when some of the sponsoring families went on vacation. Rajashekhar refused to inform his uncle and seek his help.
‘I’ll never burden them. It’s only a matter of a month, that is, only four days.’ He would smile to himself. ‘Corporation water taps zindabad.’
On other occasions, donation of clothes, books, or stationery would not be received in time. Rajashekhar would sew and mend his old, torn clothes and reuse them. He would use the books and stationery carefully and economically.
Rajashekhar ignored the travails, privations, jibes of friends at school, taunts of housewives sponsoring his meals. He carried on with his sole purpose in life – education. He had the full support of his Venkat uncle. Alternative arrangements for meals and education were made when needed. But Venkateswarlu ensured that his nephew’s education did not suffer.
Time passed quickly. Rajashekhar completed his Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) and then Pre-University Course (PUC) scoring a distinction in each.
He stood on the threshold of life…
“I want to study further, uncle.”
“I want to become an engineer.”
Venkateswarlu smiled wryly. “How, do you propose to do that?”
Rajashekhar scratched his head and smiled. “I don’t know but I’m sure I will.”
“Determination is good but pragmatism is better, isn’t it? Wherefrom will the money come? It’s not a government school where education is free. College education costs a lot and engineering…it may cost up to a lakh of rupees.”
Rajashekhar remained silent.
“I am not discouraging you, but be practical. Tell me, where from will the money come?”
Rajashekhar thought for a few moments.
“I’ll take up a job…save from the salary…pay the fee and study…”
Venkateswarlu smiled. “Excellent; but lakh rupees! You’ll have to join adult education programme by the time you save that amount…”
Rajashekhar fell silent. Venkateswarlu drew his nephew near him and spoke affectionately.
“Be realistic. Engineering is beyond us. I spoke to some people in my office. They suggested B.Sc.; maybe Mathematics or something. You are good in that. Get good percentage. You can get into some school as teacher. Earn money and study further. How does it sound?”
The decision was made and that problem was settled…
“The boy is precocious, a genius. We shall provide scholarship to the tune of fifty percent. Rest, you’ll have to manage. We can recommend his case to some external sponsors, if you wish,” said the Principal of a college run by a Christian Missionary.
“Thanks, sir, for the generous offer,” Venkateswarlu and Rajashekhar accepted the offer.
Rajashekhar got admission in B.Sc. with Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry as the main subjects. It was in that college that Rajashekhar met Kartik, who would go on to become his alter ego, his soulmate.
“Good news, Raja. Somi Setty agreed to take you in his grocery shop. You’ll work from evening till the shop closes. Initially, you’ll serve the customers. Later on, after seeing your performance, he may ask you to assist with his account books. Salary is five hundred. You’ll have to take care of your food and personal expenses. OK?”
“That’s great, uncle.” Rajashekhar’s eyes moistened. “How can I ever repay you uncle?”
Venkateswarlu hugged his nephew.
“Here is my first salary, aunty.” Rajashekhar handed the money to Lakshmi.
“Oh, no, Raja, keep it. It’s yours. You’ll need it for college.”
“I don’t have to pay any fee right now, aunty. I need only fifty rupees for my expenses. Uncle, please tell her. Let her buy clothes for all during the festival season and keep the balance for household expenses.”
Venkateswarlu smiled. “Lakshmi, take it. He’s doing it with so much of affection.”
“One more thing, uncle, from next month I’d like to share some financial responsibility of the family. Say, hundred rupees monthly. I’ll keep fifty for my expenses and save the remaining for college. Is it OK with you?”
Venkateswarlu hugged Rajashekhar affectionately. Rajashekhar got his answer.
Life became a challenge for Rajashekhar what with having to juggle between studies and job. He even tutored his cousins Ramya and Aparna. Ramya was a girl afflicted by polio and limped. But she was quite intelligent. Aparna was a little girl, chirpy, bubbling and always up to some mischief. There was a special bonding between Ramya and Rajashekhar.
Time flew fast and the final-year University exams were staring them in their face. Kartik became a member of Venkateswarlu’s family and was fondly addressed as Anna by Ramya and Aparna.
On the eve of the examinations Rajashekhar and Kartik offered prayers at a nearby temple.
“Are we ready, Kartik?”
“Most certainly, Raja.”
The examination results were out. Both Rajashekhar and Kartik passed in first class. They took Venkateswarlu and his family out for lunch in a hotel.
“Well, guys, you’ve achieved your goal against heavy odds. Congratulations.”
“Congratulations…” The family echoed in chorus.
“What next, guys?”
“Uncle, we have to find jobs…”
“OK, let me speak to my boss.”
A year-and-a-half later Rajashekhar and Kartik were absorbed as junior clerks in a bank. They were posted in different branches.
Life seemed to smile, at last…
“I’m not satisfied,” Rajashekhar said with finality.
He and Kartik were having dinner in a restaurant on a Sunday night.
“About what?” Kartik asked in between mouthfuls of food.
“This isn’t what I wanted; this sedentary bank job. There’s no challenge.”
“It gave you security. It gave you a stable platform for your life – marriage, children, education, health, and housing. You are taking care of uncle and his family.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, all that I concede. Still, I have a dream, which doesn’t fit into the status quo of the society. The developments in advanced countries are the key to my dreams.”
“You want to go abroad?”
“No, no, no, no. On the contrary, I will realise my dreams here, in my motherland.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Look, we’ve been at our jobs for about ten years now. What did I achieve? A little bank balance, some security and a sedentary life. What else? Does it offer any challenge, to my intellect and dormant potential? How’s India benefited from all this?”
“My, my…you are a complicated human.”
“Maybe. Let me think for a few more months.”
“About what? I’m worried.”
“Will tell you when the time comes and when I come to a decision. One thing is for sure. I won’t be continuing in this sedentary, desk-bound career for long.”
A year went by, during which Rajashekhar was frequently on leave, travelling to Hyderabad, Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. He met with several bigwigs and magnates of Indian industry, business and commerce. He waited for days on end for interviews with them. He asked endless questions on the status quo and the future trends in Indian industrial scene.
On his return from one such tour, he spoke to his uncle and Kartik.
“…I have come to a decision, uncle; two, actually”
“Go on, Raja.”
“I am quitting my job…”
“What…!” A chorus of uproar erupted.
“Yes. I’m giving the required notice.”
“What do you propose to do after quitting?”
“I am entering the business of computers.”
“Computers? What computers?”
“Uncle, hear me out patiently. I have made a thorough study of the industrial scene and come up with my own detailed study report. The future is in…,” he paused, “…computers. In a short span of a decade or two, every aspect of our lives will be computer-dependent. The trends abroad support my conclusion. Every field will be computer-dependent – business, commerce, industry, why, home-life itself. Micro computers have entered the scene. Trends indicate that they are going to explode on the world market. There is a humongous demand for hardware and software. If I can enter the field and dig in my heels for five to ten years, there’ll be no looking back.”
The silence was broken by Venkateswarlu’s question.
“The same million dollar question once again, Raja. Wherefrom will the money come?”
Kartik added, “Your initial requirement will be of the order of several lakh rupees.”
“I know. I have saved about twenty thousand rupees.”
“What about the remaining?”
“I’ll get a loan from a bank.”
“Have you given the matter a serious thought?” Venkateswarlu was worried.
“Uncle, you have never questioned my judgement. Pray, keep confidence in me.”
“What about your personal life, Raja? How will you establish a family if you get entangled in the nitty-gritty of business?” Lakshmi was worried.
“That brings me to my second decision. If, I repeat, if you and uncle Venkat give me your consent…”
“Consent for what…?”
“I want to marry Ramya.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you for long. I waited for the proper time. It has come.”
“I’ll speak frankly, Raja.”
“You are aware of her condition, physical condition, aren’t you?”
“Still you want to…!”
“Sympathy, pity towards her; what? Because she is…”
“Stop it, aunty. You make it sound so…ugly.”
“Tell me the truth, then? It is my daughter’s life, dammit.”
“The truth is…I like her…very much. I know she likes me, too. You can ask her. It is not sympathy or pity; far from it. I see a life partner in her, with all her understanding, patience and equanimity. I waited till I completed my education and settled in a job.” He paused. “The decision is yours, aunty…uncle. If you say ‘no’ I’ll understand.”
There was silence for a few minutes. Lakshmi looked at her husband who nodded.
“You idiot! How could you think that we will say ‘no’? Can she get a better husband than you?” Lakshmi hugged Rajashekhar. “Our answer is yes’…to both your decisions. Happy?”
“I can’t do much in Guntur, Kartik; not even in Hyderabad or Madras. I shall move to Bangalore. It has a cool climate. It is cosmopolitan; well-connected by road, rail and air; fast-paced industrial development. Most importantly, it is the place the West is eyeing for their investments in the computer field; it’ll be easier to form foreign collaborations and get foreign investment, in future.”
“True.” Kartik paused. “I’ll join you, Raja.”
“No, Kartik; can’t drag you in.”
“Listen. I need you to hold on to your job until my business settles down. Whenever needed, I’ll fall back upon you. Your salary will be my buffer. Certainly, you will join me but later. No need for both of us to risk our careers and lives. Agreed?”
Kartik agreed reluctantly.
The next couple of years saw Rajashekhar shift to a lodge in Bangalore on a monthly-payment basis and establish his office in a shop fifteen feet by twenty feet. The rent and the security deposit drained his resources heavily. But he had expected it. Kartik pooled in fifteen thousand rupees.
Rajashekhar registered his company as VARAM INFOTECH.
Obtaining a bank loan proved much more difficult than Rajashekhar imagined. The endless documents – the collaterals, the guarantors, the capital, and the bank statements – were submitted again and again to the complete satisfaction of the lending bank. The contacts from his previous career came in handy.
He spent sleepless nights. He went without lunch or dinner for several days. He travelled in buses – sometimes even walked – when short of cash. Those were agonising times for Rajashekhar. But weather those difficult times, he did.
Finally, after struggling for a year, Rajashekhar came out of the bank with a cheque for just over one lakh rupees.
“Not a large amount; certainly not sufficient for my requirements; but a beginning, all the same. Let me begin small and make it big. What say you, Kartik?” he told over trunk call.
“Yeah, for that, Raja.”
During the period of struggle, Rajashekhar did not waste time. He burnt midnight oil and acquired deep knowledge and valuable certificates in the field of computers – both hardware and software. He ensured that Kartik did likewise, too.
Rajashekhar kept in constant touch with his uncle’s family and supported them monetarily.
It took almost another couple of years for the company to stand on even keel and show marginal profit. It was at that juncture that Rajashekhar invited Kartik to join him.
“You be the Chairman. I’ll be the next in hierarchy; the CEO. If it is OK, I’ll join you.”
“Anything you say, Kartik; just come over.”
“Welcome, Kartik, to my dream. Be part of it now onwards; forever.”
“I am…Hey, what’s this?”
They stood in front of a cement pedestal with maroon granite tiles on the exterior. There was an inscription in gold on the front of the pedestal: ‘VARAM INFOTECH’ and below it ‘In fond memory of my beloved mother, Varam’. A life-size painting of Rajashekhar’s mother in gilded framework adorned the top of the pedestal inside glass housing.
“What is in that?” Kartik asked pointing to a small shining copper pot whose mouth was covered with a yellow cloth.
“It contains the most precious gift I received from my mother.”
Kartik looked quizzically.
“…ninety-nine rupees and fifty paise…”
Kartik could not arrest the tears in his eyes.
The pin-drop silence was shattered by an explosion of claps. It went on ceaselessly. After several minutes, it died down and gave way to profound silence once again.
Rajashekhar removed his spectacles and wiped them with a hand kerchief. He dried the tears from his eyes and put on the spectacles once again.
“That’s it, guys; that’s the story of my dream, called Varam Infotech. It started as a one-man show. Kartik joined me later. Now, thirty years later, it has over fifty thousand employees on its rolls and over fifty offices in India and abroad. What started with a capital of thirty-five thousand rupees is now a throbbing global technology house of about half-a-billion US dollars.
“In all the so-called success, I didn’t forget my roots. I didn’t forget how I struggled even for the basics of life. I vowed to give back some of my profits to the underprivileged boys and girls who are struggling out there; who are swimming against the current out there. This organisation runs schools, hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, sports training institutes free of cost. I made it a point to establish a high school and a hospital in Ankireddypalem, which provide free education and treatment to everyone in my village.
“You see, it’s like the Salmon Run. The salmon return from the ocean, where they migrated, to the upper reaches of rivers. They go through a gruelling swim against the current. Many die in the process. Others are eaten by bears or poached. Those that reach their destination alive spawn there on gravel beds, and the life-cycle of salmon starts once again.
“What made it all possible? I would say my mother’s blessings and then my dream, dedication and perseverance to make this edifice stand. Stands tall now. Doesn’t it?”
“Yeah…” thunderous applause erupted spontaneously.
“I owe everything to my alter ego, my soulmate, Kartik. It’ll be no hyperbole if I say that I couldn’t have achieved what I did, without his…his…whatever you choose to call it. He was beside me throughout. Thanks, Kartik. I shall be eternally grateful to every single employee for his or her contribution in making my dream a grand success.”
Kartik smiled and hugged his friend.
“Well, morons, it’s time to go home…”
“No, no, no, Rajasaab…” the gathering moaned.
“For me, as***les; you go back to work…”
Rajasaab climbed down the dais to tumultuous applause.
“I’m home, Ramya…”
“Coming, Raja.” Ramya limped out of the pooja room after lighting oil lamps in front of deities and the photographs of Rajashekhar’s parents and her own parents. She held his hand and seated him at the dining table.
“Your daughter has called half-a-dozen times from US. Call her. I’ll get you coffee.”
The landline rang shrilly.
Rajashekhar lifted the receiver and greeted, “Varam darling, how are you? And how are my son-in-law and my sweetie pie Chaitra?”
A few weeks later…
“What do the doctors say, Anna?” Ramya inquired anxiously.
Varam, her husband and Chaitra arrived from USA and Aparna and husband arrived from Hyderabad.
“It is a massive attack. They can’t say anything for the next seventy-two hours. They are doing their best. Let’s hope and pray for the best,” Kartik replied.
Two days later…
“Mrs. Rajashekhar,” the doctor said gently, “I’m afraid it’s time. He’s sinking. You people may want to see him.”
Ramya wept silently covering her mouth with the pallu of her sari and rested her head on Kartik’s shoulder. The family and some staff members went into the ICCU silently.
To their surprise, they found Rajashekhar conscious.
Ramya signalled him to be silent and held his hand.
Rajashekhar saw their sombre expression and tear-filled eyes and smiled through the oxygen mask. He signalled the doctor to remove the mask. The doctor looked at Ramya and Kartik. They nodded. The doctor deftly removed the mask and stood aside.
A smile broke out on Rajashekhar’s face as he whispered his words.
‘Don’t get sentimental on me, you as*holes; you make me feel I’m going to die…’
Those were his last words.
By Shyam Sundar Bulusu
Author’s remarks: All the characters and situations portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. However, the places – Ankireddypalem, Guntur, Hyderabad, Madras, Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore – are real.
Is the storyline a fact? Or, is it fiction? When I look around myself I find the fruits of the struggle of some of the great children of India; pioneers Tata and Birla who laid foundation for a strong industrial India in the early decades of our freedom; in later years, mavericks like Dhirubhai Ambani, Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, et al who carried forward the struggle in their own individual fields. All these children of India put our country firmly on the world map.
This short story is my humble homage and tribute to all those pioneers and mavericks and their personal Salmon Run.