The Great Indian Family Business – then and now

When I tell people I know here in the Netherlands that my parents’ marriage was ‘arranged’, they cannot hide their curiosity. So I tell them more. I tell them that at the time that the marriage was arranged, my father’s family ran a business and my mother’s father had a job as a highly respected bank manager. Out of the union of these two families, other businesses were transacted besides my brother, my sister and myself.

Then quite often, I see an expression that borders on ‘poor you’ or sometimes ‘ a not knowing how to react to such a story’ look. One that happens to be true and is presented as just another fact of life. Like you are born, you grow up … then old …. and then you die. Hopefully time passes between each stage and you have enjoyed the ride.

I guess my parents enjoyed the ride, bumpy as it was at times, though unfortunately neither of them lived to old age, even by Indian standards. For them and my grandparents before them such liaisons that appear to be so utterly transactional were essential to how families and communities generated wealth and a net of social security for each member in a trusted environment. The ‘transactional’ is the ‘relational’ so to speak.

My parents’ ‘arranged marriage’

I grew up listening to business talk along with my daily daal and rice, as do probably millions of others in India even today. In 2018, India figures as third in family run businesses worldwide. Not only that, these businesses are generating more capital than non- family run businesses, and have been doing so since India’s independence in 1947. In that sense, nothing much has changed. However, a lot has changed in how these businesses are run. What defines family and how each member presently goes about conducting their business has gone through a sea change in the India of today.

So if my father had lived in this day and age, would he have necessarily given up being the army officer that he was, to join the family business as a junior as was then expected of ‘the eldest son?’ If yes, would the head of the family business suggest he had better first get a management, business or law degree in order to prepare him for the challenges ahead, while at the same time offering to support my mother while he did so? Or would my mother have been the one to use her talents and/or qualifications to enrich the family business and support my father through his formal education? How would she, in turn be supported to make sure that my siblings and myself got the nurturing that we needed in order to grow up? Would the family have a constitution or a council to structure and regulate the business? Or would decisions continue to be taken around the dinner table – along with the feeding of daal and rice into the mouths of young ones? These and the answers to questions like them mark the difference between a family’s business then and now.

My mother joined my father in running the company

To this day, my maternal and paternal family members run businesses. Their children are not expected to take over from them. As India faces myriad social and economic influences from outside and within, family businesses are also be evolving in order to thrive. As the well-known industrialist Adi Godrej has predicted, a lot of family run businesses in India today choose to hire professionals to manage them. It won’t be long before these businesses become institutionally run ones. As for those of us in the Netherlands with a desire to broaden our horizons with regard to India, it should be some source of comfort that when it comes to professional culture, there are meeting points. Engineers understand engineers across the board. Sales people understand others in their profession. However, this does not make it necessarily ‘easier’ to do business together. The deeply entrenched cultural norms that we all carry with us can be very determining as to how we conduct ourselves and communicate. Cross-cultural awareness of intercultural communication is crucial for successful international partnerships.

As for my father, he was probably better off pursuing his career where he was. Not that he was made to fight battles. He was ‘offered’ to the Indian army by the family – another practice in the Sikh community of those times. But that is another story. Like a lot of army officers of his time, he was excellent at all things ‘relational’. He could make genuine contact with people of all ages in a matter of minutes, had no head for balance sheets and, in his own words, ‘invested in people’. In the India of today, he probably wouldn’t be chosen as a candidate for the family business at all.

The owners of Zodiac Reprographics – brothers Jaideep and Ajaydeep inherited the business from their father MD Singh (also an ex army officer)

My cousins co – owners of Zodiac Reprographics won awards in 2014 and 2018

Is India safe for women?

‘Stop smiling and showing everyone around you how friendly and approachable you are.’

This is one of the tips I have sometimes given to a European woman who was due to travel to India on work, in the course of a ‘Doing Business in India Training’. It came as no surprise to me when a senior lady manager, a very warm and friendly one, told me of the Indian men she met while on a business trip there who sent her messages and called her in Europe incessantly after she was back here. I had to tell her to be careful. She didn’t see that her exuberant and friendly personality could have been misunderstood by the men who kept ‘connecting’ with her. Over the years, I have refined and improved my ‘do’s and don’ts’ list based on the experiences of women inside and outside India. Last Sunday, I spent an exciting afternoon. I had received an invitation from FCCI (Foundation for Critical Choices for India) for a seminar entitled ‘Female Safety in India: a Reality Check’ and I went. The location, a hotel on the edges of Schipol airport served as a reminder that the movement of people occurs when borders are open and when people feel safe enough to move.

In light of this, is India a safe place for women? If you trust Reuters then no, it is not. The Thomas Reuters Foundation report brands India as the most dangerous place in the world for women. The FCCI seminar was a response to the publication of this report. Seven years ago, a similar Reuters survey had resulted in India joining four other nations as the most dangerous. The others were Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia. This year, India topped the list. Listening to the FCCI presentations and the interactive discussion that followed, one thing was clear – a lot of effort went into the research, presentation and implementation of this seminar over an issue of extreme relevance.

The presenters, panelists and most of the people who responded, including myself expressed our apprehensions about the methodology followed by the Reuters Foundation. However, everyone agreed on one thing about the situation of women in India. As the Dutch would say ‘er is werk aan de winkel’. To which one could add: veel werk. In other words, there’s much ground to be covered. Roll up your sleeves and get on with it. There’s a serious problem here. It’s as old as the hills.

I had a question. Quite apart from the Reuters report, what is it, in the present day atmosphere that feeds into people’s perception that India is a very dangerous place for women? To which I received three answers and I summarize:

  • India is worth noticing. It counts on the world stage
  • 24/7 media coverage in India ensures that these stories get out, which in turn feeds western media
  • When a people has the ability to be self-critical and self-reflective (as Indians do, in this respect), then they are vulnerable to attack from outside

These answers help us to understand what lies behind the perception. If one wants to count oneself in with the movers and shakers on the world stage, then women are going to have to be free to cross borders safely – which include a range of places from home to school, college, workplace, village, town, country street and yes, disco, café, restaurant, park, shopping mall and cinema hall at all times of day and night, if they choose. With or without men. But the biggest border that needs to be crossed lies not outside, but inside the minds of men and women. Because violence against women begins at home, along with mother’s milk as was also rightly pointed out in this seminar.

And true, media, which includes social media and India’s free press give these stories a life that, in more repressed parts of the world would never see the light of day. Not in the least, the demonstrations and public displays of protest as happened in response to the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape in 2012, and more recently, the call to action that the #Me Too movement has encouraged are certainly a mark of a democratic, non-violent struggle to overcome the violence that women face on a day to day basis amongst urban and/or the literate layer. They reflect the voice of this group of women. Our mothers and grandmothers were not spared any of what we face today, and often from the men and women they trusted the most but they couldn’t find anyone to share their traumas with. So this is a big change.

And lastly, about the ability to self-reflect and be critical. The intense response of the last seven years has given visibility to a privileged group of women speaking up about an evil that some activists, social workers, policy makers, lawyers reformers, artists and women who are none of the these, have been relentlessly working on for decades. Tirelessly hammering away against the edifice of patriarchy, often at a great cost to themselves. In India, the hard work of combatting violence against women received impetus when women were burnt. First for the sake of honour. Then for the sake of dowry.

The response through recent protests are not the first in India. That the voices of the urban, middle class women are seen and heard today reflects an India in rapid transition, and puts the problem squarely on the agenda. So much so that during a recent intercultural training for Chinese women managers due to travel to India, they asked my colleague Esther Janssen (Culture Inc.) if she thought India was a safe place for them to go to. Despite China’s allegedly limited access to the more broadly used sources of the internet and social media, they knew exactly what they had to ask.

Is India a more dangerous for women than it was before? No, I don’t think so. That’s the perception, but the problem has been around for a long, long time, and is alive and well even today.

Satyarani protesting the alleged dowry murder of her daughter, Delhi,1982

Thomas Reuters Report on the most dangerous place for women


There aren’t many surprises for me through four hours of screen time as I sit through the documentary ‘Reason’. I imagine this also holds true for all of us who have been watching with great dread how those, following the ideology of the killers of Gandhi have taken upon themselves the task of ‘Hinduising’ India. I’ve been watching, and Anand Patwardhan, the filmmaker, true to his style, was right there in the middle of it, with his camera, inches away from folks for whom threatening, beating, maiming and killing has become a way of life. All in the name of a Hindu nation.

In ‘Reason’ Anand, a seasoned and independent filmmaker, whose films are funded by himself, exposes us to a multitude of voices on the side of reason: those who work non-violently, who mobilize, who demonstrate, who ask questions, who stand up, who speak, who show by example, who do the right thing against this rising tide of terror. Because that is what it is. This version of championing Hinduism looks to fascism as the ideology to adopt to ‘make India Hindu’, as one of its prominent members candidly declares.

One gets to see doctor Dhabolkar, who with his ‘anti blind faith’ movement tries to build awareness about what is behind the miracles that god men perform in the name of god. Dhabolkar, with his twinkling eyes and mischievous smile is an endearing figure, as is the wife who loves him. Widowed, after Dhabolkar was killed while on a walk by someone on a motorcycle. There’s Pansare, who with humour and tact is the moving force behind inter-caste marriages in his region. This version of building a society got him killed. By someone on a motorcycle. And there’s Gauri Lankesh. As Time put it ‘… a veteran Indian journalist known for her outspoken criticism of Hindu nationalist politics has been shot dead in Bangalore’. By someone on a motorcycle. The killers are hard to find under the present regime even as masses of people gather peacefully to demonstrate and declare ‘I am Gauri’. They wiped out the symptom, but the disease persists. For the Hindu nationalists and the killers, the name of this disease is freedom.

‘Freedom’ from this definition of nation is what the voice of reason cries out for, and we hear this voice in force on the screen before us.




Anand Patwardhan in Amsterdam for IDFA 2018





And freedom is what a young and promising man chooses when he becomes his own killer. A Dalit, otherwise called ‘untouchable’, who was one of the very, very few to make it to the status of a PhD candidate in a university – ostracised and shunned passes on, and leaves behind a letter for us to read. In his words: ‘I have no complaints on anyone. It was with myself that I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my body and my soul. I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science. Like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write. I loved science, stars, nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust’.







Rohith Vemula’s voice, now reproduced by Anand in his film, and by others, like me leaves us believing in miracles. That one who grew up in deprivation, one so young  and so vulnerable could convey in so few words, in a foreign language, truths that we hear every day but cannot listen to. In the voice of a poet that surpasses the binaries of reason vs. faith.

Rohith’s letter


Blue Match

‘We’d like less smoke. We’d like our eyes to burn less when we cook’.

These are Vandana Radhakrishnan’s words, repeating what rural women in Hoskote in South India have told her.

And there on the screen before me, the huge irony of other words in Dutch come home to me: ‘absolutely a man’s work – burning a wood fire’ . Because that is what we believe here in the Netherlands. Wood fires and men are made for each other.

Cooking on an open fire by burning wood is equivalent to smoking 60 cigarettes a day, and it’s women’s work in India. And they don’t exactly do it because they’d like some warmth on a cold winter’s day, or because they want to roast their sausages and marsh mellows on it.

It’s about meals every day. 60 cigarettes a day every day because your family and you have to eat. A hundred million a year die from diseases related to cooking daily meals.

Relaxing after a meal in the Garo Hills

When Rolf Boerkoel found himself ‘smoking’ while sharing a little house with his hosts in rural India while on a leadership programme, he came upon the perfect match for his vision: ‘the social value of a company or organization is, for me, an essential and challenging given’. He also had the perfect match in a partner. Rob Nieuwenhuizen says about himself: ‘the circular phenomenon – to create with what there is, inspires me’. Together, they pooled their skills and came up with ‘Blue Match’. Now there are women in south India, producing, distributing and of course also using smokeless stoves, run not on fossil fuels, but on pellets of bio-degradable waste that come from the farms around them.


Rolf Boerkoel with a Blue Match stove

Pointing to a stove next to to him, Niewenhuizen says: ‘truly a product for women, by women and of women’. Listening to him give a presentation in a gathering in Haarlem of ‘Small Medium Businesses’ with a connection to India, I am almost envious about how effortless he makes his and Boerkoel’s dream come true appear.


You have a vision. You share it. There’s someone listening. That someone is a person or the universe itself. Together, you get a little rock rolling from the top of the mountain. It gathers volume and momentum as it moves. This, then is the principle of making dreams come true.

The stove at this moment is the little rock around which other earthly things have stuck. Like – microcredit, in order to make it affordable for these women, employment for the women making it, training and personality development for the ones learning to distribute it, a saving of Co2 emissions that could go up to 3.5 tons a year if the momentum catches, innovation in the form of throwing in some coconut shells when the money runs out and the bio pellets can’t be bought.

And not in the least, the win-win on two sides of the world. Because ‘Blue Match’ professes to be a business for profit.

Do I need to add that the word ‘profit’ has more than one connotation for its managers?


Website of Blue Match

Little India Big India

My fingers, clutch a piece of dosa, with its aaloo filling just dipped into warm sambhar and cool coconut chutney and do manage to make it into my mouth, and mmmmm, mmmmm. MMMMMMMM. The taste of home. “It’s this stupid; this is the main reason that I, and I suspect many thousands of others have found ourselves here in ‘Little India’ “ I tell myself. It’s a wonder I got from the dosa stall to a table, five steps away without the dosa, chutney and sambhar flying off the plate I hold. As I savour the food in my mouth, taking ever so long to feel every flavour I possibly can before it’s all gone, I hear a young man on the opposite side of the small circular table we are standing around say, “I like it here because this feels like the ‘Mumbai locals’ ”. He catches my eye as I smile and he smiles back. I keep my elbow close to my body so not to knock down the morsel making it’s way from hand to mouth of his companion, next to me. Yes, we are home. Back home where, to place your foot down requires some planning, some foresight and sometimes more serious strategies as does the placement of your elbow. The elbow is a very useful tool when you need to get off a ‘Mumbai local’- otherwise just called a train.

Did this young man, smiling happily at me, a stranger, ever in his young life think he would miss a Mumbai local train? I seriously doubt it.

The transition from most major Indian cities to the Netherlands consists of many different factors to adjust to. Some of these, one can fathom easily. The cold. Not being surrounded by idli-dosa and the like. Less obvious ones are: stepping out of the airport or a train station or a car and taking in a breath of air that doesn’t smell of diesel, petrol or chemicals; getting used to words that contain the same alphabet as English but look different and are sometimes rather long. Like the board in Schipol airport that reads: ‘babyverzorgingsruimte’. Familiar and yet not.

And then, there are the less obvious factors like the silence. As the deep sleep of the jet lagged begins to wear off, and one thinks of rising and shining, the stillness is overwhelming. Where is that connection to the world through sound that never seems to cease in ‘Big India’? You rise finally, unable to listen to the only voice in your head, which is your own. You part the curtain gingerly and look out of the window. Where are the human beings? These empty streets, and the deafening stillness envelop you and you know you have arrived in the Netherlands.

But here in ‘Little India’ it is Diwali. The tent with its dazzling lights cannot contain the ever growing arrivals, the music, the chatter and clutter, the song and dance, the appetites and cheer, and so, we have spilled out onto the square, where of course, there is Indian street food to be enjoyed. And you don’t need to elbow anyone because there’s no getting off this train in a hurry. The food will keeping passing from hand to hand and hand to mouth, the songs will be sung, and little dance steps will cover every corner of ‘Big India’ on the stage. Here all the silence of the months gone by will be vanquished in one fell sweep, and sound will fill the air all day long. Here, where you can hardly put your foot down, there is room for little babies and young ones to entertain themselves in their own way. Here there is place for charities to tell of good deeds. And, not in the least here are the flavours from north, south, east and west of ‘Big India.’










Just like ‘Big India’, there is in the heart of ‘Little India’ time and place for everyone and and everything and all of it all together. And one doesn’t have to feel homesick any more.

‘Little India’ by another name is called Amstelveen.






















Link to FB page: Diwali Amstelveen