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One Word Responses

Letter-writing-with-pen

The following column by U. Mahesh Prabhu was first published in Business Goa magazine.

The columnist believes that responding to letters and emails is a fundamental sign of civility which we are fast tending to forget.

Letter-writing was a serious business for many of history’s great men. Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all extraordinary at penning letters. Nehru, in particular, ensured that not a single letter addressed to him went unanswered.

The then Chairman of Manipal Group, founder of Kurlon brand of mattresses and former director on board of Reliance Industries Ltd, the late T Ramesh U Pai was a fine gentleman and a colossal leader. To have started my career with him as my mentor was a great honour. Among the many things I learned from him was letter-writing. Letter-writing – considered a “dying art form” today – was revered by him as a fine tool to further one’s vision by connecting with people. Everyone he mentored learned and adhered to his maxim brilliantly.

One of his mentees is the current President and Chancellor of Manipal University, Dr Ramdas M Pai. Dr Pai also happens to be his cousin. Much to my delight – although I came to know Dr Pai personally much later – they both shared a similar love for communication. Any letter, invite or even a greeting – irrespective of who addressed it to them – would not go without a proper response. This quality, according to Dr Pai, has been pivotal in the making of Manipal University, which is by far the most successful academic enterprise in the country, with its presence in over four continents.

Yet another mentor was the late MV Kamath. After he left his beloved Mumbai because of severe health issues and settled down in Manipal, at the request of Dr Ramdas Pai, I was drawn to his charismatic personality. Although I saw him on multiple occasions, I could not muster the courage to offer him even a handshake. One day, I took the liberty to write him a letter, appreciating a public lecture that I had attended. Perceiving my interest in his wealth of experience and knowledge, he invited me to his office; this marked the beginning of a transformation in my life.

Letter-writing was a serious business for many of history’s great men. Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all extraordinary at penning letters. Nehru, in particular, ensured that not a single letter addressed to him went unanswered. The story goes that JRD Tata, the celebrated industrialist, once complained to Nehru that while he boasted of having a robust system in place to handle letters, there were many instances when the former did not receive a significant response from the Prime Minister. Nehru, unpleasantly surprised, simply responded, “Jeh, henceforth make sure your envelope has ‘TO HIMSELF’ written over it. I will tell my officers to send all such letters to me directly.”

One of my distant relatives was an ardent Gandhian. Every time someone asked him why he participated in the freedom struggle, he would go to his table and present a letter. It was from Mahatma Gandhi himself! I could never understand a word of the letter since the Mahatma did not have very legible handwriting, but the effort made was evident.

Call me old school, but even today if I make it a point to respond to every email, wish all my friends on their birthdays and anniversaries, it’s owing to this habit imbibed into me by my mentors. This has also benefited me greatly in building strong bonds with people. It, therefore, also pains me to see when my detailed emails to people are responded to with a single word or, worse, a single letter. When they justify their half-hearted replies with “very busy”, I fume. “I bet you aren’t as busy as the Mahatma was when the whole country and world looked up to him,” I say to myself.

There is a very marked difference between leaders and bosses (whom I prefer to call “mis-leaders”). Some bosses are not concerned with people’s time or sentiments. They pretend to be busier than everyone else. Pretenders are essentially imposters. They are either not serious or people who’ve lost their ability for compassion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also makes an effort to answer letters addressed to him, either by himself or through his office bearers. When people send long emails, I’m not suggesting responding with an even longer one. But one must ensure that all queries are answered well. If you do not agree with the content, handle it tactfully. Ensuring that people’s emotions are reciprocated is a fundamental sign of civility which we are fast tending to forget.

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