CHIEF GUEST'S SPEECH GIVEN AT 127th PRIZE GIVING ON 27 NOV 10 BY
SHRI VIKRAM SINGH MEHTA
CHAIRMAN, SHELL GROUP OF COMPANIES IN INDIA
Your Highness Maharaja Gaj Singhji of Jodhpur and Chairman of the Board of Governors; members of the Board; Principal Gen. Lalotra; teachers and other members of the faculty; parents; students; ladies and gentlemen:
There can be few greater honours than for an old boy to be invited back to his school as the Chief Guest for the most important function in the school’s academic year. My late mother who attended every prize giving whilst my two brothers and I were in school and my grandfather Dr. Mohan Singhji Mehta who was himself a Chief Guest in the early 1960s would have been delighted. I am personally overwhelmed and I thank you Mr. Chairman and the Board for this considerable honour.
I have sat where you are seated today and I know that for all of you the most important part of today’s function is over. The prize winners have been announced and the prizes distributed. You all now want the function to end so that you can rejoin your family and friends. I will therefore endeavour to keep my speech relatively short.
I want to start by paying tribute to this school and the teacher that embedded in me the values that gave me my start in life.
This is not to say that my 5 years in Mayo were an unremitting period of joy. I suffered like I am sure everyone who has been in boarding - the wrenching loneliness of being separated from home; the tyranny of the occasional bully school prefect or monitor; the physical discomfort and at times agony of our regimented life styles; the knawing mess hunger when the food was inedible and as we grew older and our harmones started to play up, the painful absence of girls. Mr. Mathur the diving coach was a popular teacher for many good reasons but one had nothing to do with him. It was the presence of a champion swimmer at our swimming pool. A champion but more important a girl – the daughter of Mr S.C. Dutt. Many of us signed up to swim not because of our innate enthusiasm for water sports but because this offered us the opportunity to watch her. The day she left was the day Mr. Mathur had difficulty getting full attendance.
My experience at Mayo was not “Roses, Roses all the way”.
That said when Gen. Aditya Singh and Maharaja Gaj Singhji invited me to be the Chief Guest the first thought that passed my mind was not about these incidents of pain and tribulation. It was about all those people that saw me through the most critical and formative years of my life.
My greatest debt is of course to Jack Gibson – our Principal and in my view the greatest headmaster of our generation. Jack was an educationist but not in the narrow sense of wanting to only impart knowledge and information so that his students could excel in class and sports. He was an educationist in a much broader sense. Education for him was the vehicle through which to create humanists – boys of secular bent; with integrity and character and the intrinsic values of good and responsible citizenship; brave and generous; not brash or cowardly; nor mean or extravagant ; boys who understood the dignity of labour and who accepted and respected all irrespective of caste, background or religion. Jack had favourites but there was no favouritism. And he was an absolute stickler for fair play. So much so that he once put me in a uniquely difficult position. My roommate Rami Menon and I were once ticked off by Jack in the school assembly for something that neither of us had done. We protested and Jack realized he had punished the wrong people. He called us to his home and apologized. And then he handed me his cane saying I could give him “three of the best”. I did not and the incident ended in laughter and a glass of nimbu pani but not before Menon had cheekily asked Jack to offer him the cane. Gibson wanted results but not at the compromise of any of these qualities.
Of course Jack had great support. We did not like all of our teachers; and I am sure they did not like us all the time. ; but when I reflect back and think for instance of Nahar Singhji Deogarh, Raghuraj Singhji Badnor; Manvender Singhji Rohet all of whom are here today. And Some of others who are not with us like mr Dalmal, the Vice Principlal and a quiet disciplinarian, my housemasters, Mr. Chatterjee of Jaipur House and Mr. Saxena of Rajasthan, Mr. Gue, my Art teacher whose innate decency made him an expert in the art of the backhanded compliment “Vikram this horse looks like a donkey but I will give you a star for effort. Mr. Joshi, the cricket coach whose ability to turn the ball was legendary and whose outbursts were less subtle than Mr. Gue. He was once so upset with me after I had bowled six almost wides in a row that he screamed “out, out, out”. He of course intended to say I would be kicked out of the cricket eleven but the poor batsman thought it was directed at him and he started walking. He was promptly stumped. Mr. Joshi would be pleased to know that I did recover my length, pace and direction at Oxford and was for a brief while in the cricket team. Brief not because I was kicked out but because by then girls had become a more dominant priority than sports. When I reflect on these teachers - I have one thought – teaching was their profession but it was also their mission. They took pride in the achievements of their students. They loved their students.
Contrast that with what we occasionally read in the papers these days. School where Principals have been so harsh in their punishment that students have ended up in hospital.; housemasters who take bribes from parents; teachers who spend more time on tuitions outside the school than in the classroom and you can all appreciate why I stand here today to pay tribute to these individuals and to the school.
I have had a career that has straddled the Public and Private Sectors. And on the rare occasion I am able to drag my 15 year old daughter away from her internet, ipod and the cell phone for a serious father-daughter conversation, I try and impress upon her three simple messages distilled from now almost 35 years of professional experience. I will share these messages with you.
My first message: “Think with your head but trust your heart”.
I run a large business today. But business did not run in my veins. I come from a family of civil servants. Generations of my family have been in public service. First before independence for the state of Mewar (or Udaipur) and then after independence as diplomats and civil administrators. It was a surprise to no one therefore when I too joined the Indian Administrative Service in July 1978. That was always assumed to be my destiny. It was however a great shock to everyone when 18 months later I handed in my resignation to the Collector, Jaipur. I was then the Assistant Collector under training. They were shocked for many reasons. First I did not have another job. I was in effect giving up a safe, secure and hugely prestigious career for unemployment. Second, I could not provide a satisfactory explanation to anyone for my drastic decision. I had not suffered political interference – I was too junior for that. I had not come across any instances of corruption and dishonesty – in fact my collector was an extraordinary person and represented in my mind the very qualities that attracted me to the service. I had enjoyed the few months that I had spent in the field and was convinced that the IAS offered a unique opportunity for people at a young age to get meaningfully engaged with development. And last but hardly the least I had been assigned my home state – Rajasthan and so could look forward to a working life close to family and friends.
Notwithstanding all of this I did resign and I did refuse to buckle under the considerable pressure put on me by family and friends to retract this decision.
Why did I do it. Even to this day almost 32 years later I cannot give a cogent answer. All I can say is that I knew in my gut that I had made a mistake; I knew in my instinct that while the IAS offered a fantastic career it did not suit my temperament or aspiration. Simply put I resigned because I listened to my heart and not my head.
The important point is that was and is the best and most important decision that I have ever made. It defined my working life. And I have never regretted it not for a moment.
My second message: This is actually an elaboration of the first,
“Be not afraid of a false start’
My first job – the IAS was as I have indicated a false start. Had I not recognized it as such I would have spent my working life in the wrong profession. Seemus Heaney the Irish Nobel Prize winner once said that the ‘thing about stepping stones is that you always need another one up there ahead of you – even if you panic in midstream there is no going back. The next move is always the test’.
‘The next move’
That is the challenge. To find this next step even when the hopes with which one started out have been dashed; to not to panic but to look forward and to retain the conviction that there will always be a second chance – a third chance.
There is no universal prescriptions for meeting this challenge but I do believe two factors are critical. These were the reasons I found that next step(s).
One, education and learning and
the second hard work and perseverence.
My mother had always insisted that I should complete my education before settling into a career. Her logic was simple. The world is changing; it is getting more competitive and whilst there are enormous opportunities to be had these opportunities will only be available to those who have the right skills and capabilities; the knowledge and learning to respond and adapt to the unexpected and the self confidence to take risks. She used to remind us of Gandhiji’s advise ‘live as if you were to die tomorrow but learn as if you were to live forever’.
I did what my mother advised and completed my graduate degrees in Energy and Economics before sitting for the IAS. That degree and the specialized knowledge that I acquired gave me the self confidence that sooner rather than later the furore surrounding my resignation would subside and that I would indeed find the next step.
Of course, education and learning can only provide the directions. They cannot guarantee that you will be successful in finding the next step. For that you need hard word, discipline and perseverance. How many of you know that Thomas Edison tested 6000 different materials to select just one tiny part of the light bulb that he invented; that J. K. Rowlings the author of he Harry Potter books had her manuscript rejected 12 times before someone finally decided to publish it. That Sachin Tendulkar combined 4 – 6 hours of cricket practice with his school work every day.
We all live in the age of instant gratification and a culture of quick fixes we can download a fact; a song, a friend at the click of a button. But what we must not forget is that this does not mean that success will also happen in an instant. No – meaningful success will come if one pushes oneself; if one strives for excellence, if one makes the best of what has been given to us. Luck, talent, knowledge – these are no doubt important. But ultimately there is no substitute for hard work – at least not if you seek enduring and meaningful success.
My final message: “Hitch your wagon onto something that is bigger than yourself. Look for a goal that goes beyond your narrow self interest”.
There is no job description that says “make the world a better place”. But that does not absolve us from thinking beyond ourselves; it does not mean that we have no responsibility other than to ourselves.
We are all very fortunate and privileged. We have our internet, cell phones and Ipods. We are connected to a world of enormous opportunities. We can take pride in the economic success of our country. Only China has a faster growth rate. Many Indian companies are world class. Our human resources and technical capability is the envy of the rest of the world. There is much to be proud. But alas this is not the extent of our world. There is another world – a world of desperate poverty; social injustice and deprivation; a world of declining public and private morality - every morning we wake up to read about another corruption / scandal; a world that is rocked by violence and terror; a world of pollution and environmental degradation. We cannot escape from this world. Nor should we seek to escape from it.
This does not mean that we become social activists. This does not mean that we give up on aspirations to be in business or join a bank or enter the IAS. What it does mean is that we recognize and acknowledge our privileged position that in whatever we do we accept a responsibility to give back to society; that we work for a future that is bigger and broader than our narrow self interest; that we do not compromise on our principles.
I am an optimist. I believe the glass is half full – not half empty. I believe that ultimately ethics and integrity will be rewarded; that pride in one’s identity, education and hard work will help us overcome the challenges that our country faces. I am an optimist because schools like Mayo stress the universal and timeless values of equality, justice, secularism, integrity and fair play. I am an optimist because I know that you the students of Mayo College will make your contribution and that as you do so you will indeed make this world a better place.
I thank all of you again for this great honour.