Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Case of the Bonsai Manager: R. Gopalakrishnan

No, don’t get misled by the title – this is not one of those riveting novels featuring the dapper Perry Mason and the charming Della Street. The sub-title, Lessons from Nature on Growing is a more accurate indicator of what the book is about.

Using animal behavior to derive learnings for human beings is as old as the concept of story-telling itself – Aesop’s Fables, the Hitopadesa, and the Jataka Tales are probably early examples of this. Of late, using animal stories as a metaphor for organizational learning has taken off quite significantly – Squirrel Inc. is an example of that. But Bonsai is different, because Gopalakrishnan uses the natural behavior of certain animals (many of them unknown and therefore esoteric for someone who is not an avid watcher of Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel) and complements that with real-life business examples, especially from his personal life and those of the people he has worked with. Great concept, and lends itself to an interesting read. A different kind of business how-to book, surely.

Unfortunately, Bonsai suffers in execution.

With a title like the one it has, you expect a story of a manager whose career gets stunted, and a detailed analysis of how it turned out that way. But the bonsai manager seems to be just one interesting analogy in the book. And he keeps making sudden appearances in the narrative without any conceivable connection.

Some of the examples seem weak or forced or appear unconnected to the point being made. Moreover, the author also insists on displaying his erudition by bringing in examples from literature and history. Except that in quite a few cases, the examples don’t quite seem relevant, and there is not even an attempt to fully express some of the literary references, let alone explain them. Is the reader supposed to learn that a “very lyrical description by Vladimir Nabakov, author of Lolita, appears in his speech at Cornell about the transition of the caterpillar” and then do his / her own research to get access to that speech?

Authorial presence is usually considered a strong point in fiction. But the same probably does not hold good for non-fiction, even (especially?) memoirs. And if it is exercised by the excessive use of the perpendicular pronoun as is the case with Bonsai, all the more the pity. Add to that a truly humongous number of exclamation marks, and you get a marathon navel-gazing exercise. The sudden jumps in thought from one paragraph to another suggests the same thing as well. You almost get the sense that a series of post-dinner conversations (not formal talks) have been compiled and released in the form of this book. Was the editor overawed by the fact that the author is a senior corporate executive?

Speaking of editors, the book could have done with a good long copy-edit as well. Cavalier language, incorrect grammar and bad punctuation, random expansions of some abbreviations and not others, the odd missing definite article, bulleted lists that are not parallel in structure… Enough to turn a curmudgeonly reader, why even a grammatically unfussy reader, off.

As senior corporate executives reach the sunset of their illustrious careers, they justifiably seek to make a contribution to posterity, a legacy that lives beyond them, and perhaps R. Gopalakrishnan is no different. And he almost succeeds.

But, as Gopalakrishnan himself would admit, a good idea is only as good as its execution. That, sadly, is where Bonsai fails. It is a classic case of a missed opportunity, may be missed opportunities. There are possibly three books here – a connection between nature and business, a case study of a bonsai manager and how s/he became that way, and a memoir. May be Gopalakrishnan could have taken up one topic at a time, and considered three books. Or just used these undoubtedly interesting ideas in a post-retirement career as an after-dinner speaker – his style of writing suggests he may be quite good in that format.


A.R.Ramachandran said...

Mr.Gopalakrishnan is an impressive speaker and I had an opportunity to hear him speak at TCS Trivandrum. I am his admirer.

But your review and other reviews suggest that his book is unlike that. I can never forget his speech 'A Bald Man's Comb' which is a inspiring short speech he delivered to a graduating class..but alas, even there you would find him parading his erudition.

A man of undoubted eminence, it would be useful if he could transcribe his speeches into a book form rather than writing a book.


De Scribe said...

I agree, AR. A good speaker does not always make a good writer.