The news came of his demise came as a shock for me. I was not aware that Mr Ashwin Choksi, Chairman of Asian Paints was ailing and hospitalised. That ended my long association with him, and also many in Asian Paints who have had a long stint with the Company.
Till I took over as Head of HR, my association with Ashwinbhai was very occasional. We usually met on the occasion of Satyanarayan Pooja at the Bhandup Factory. Things changed in my new role.
I am not going to mention anything about the business decisions. I saw the humane side of him rather closely, thanks to my HR job.
Asian Paints declared a VRS [Voluntary Retirement Scheme] at Bhandup factory in 1976. One of the workers who opted for early retirement was Manohar Todankar. Todankar worked in the Stores Department and Ashwinbhai knew him well. Todankar stood out among all workers – he was a poet. He was the first editor of Tutari. He had no choice but to quit the job as he had run up sizeable debt.
Todankar later published about two hundred poems in various Marathi newspapers and magazines. He also published a few collections of his poems, among them a collection of ‘Haiku’. But he never saw good days again. He stayed at Thane and occasionally called me up. Then there was a long silence. Todankar had shifted to his village in Konkan. He wrote to me mentioning that he had nothing to eat, no means to survive, it was a distress call. That was in 2007; thirty-one years after he had retired.
I casually mentioned this to Ashwinbhai and told him that I was sending a person to meet him and handover five thousand rupees. Ashwinbhai remembered Todankar, and suggested that I should send a person with enough cash. He should pay off the outstanding bills of the grocer, make sure that Todankar’s six months’ requirement for groceries is stocked at his home and then handover the five thousand rupees.
Todankar did not survive long, but before he died he expressed his gratitude in his beautiful poetic way.
Where did this streak of compassion come from? I guess it was from his father, ‘Chimanseth’ as workers at Bhandup factory referred to him. I have published, in the Company Magazine, another very touching story, so well captured by Tangirala Subrahmaniam, the then HR Executive at Patancheru Plant [now Dr Tangirala Subrahmaniam, Professor at University of Maryland, USA]. That story should support my view.
Kathilappa was employed at Matunga Factory, this factory was the forerunner of Bhandup Factory. He was injured in a freak accident and left the job much against the advice of Chimanseth [CNC]. Later, when he realised his mistake, he met CNC outside his residence. CNC asked him to be taken as contract worker and we put him to work in the canteen. Kathilappa was aged, well past sixty, but strong enough to do cleaning work in canteen. This job also provided his food. He slept on the culvert at the entrance of the factory. And Kathilappa kept four hundred rupees with the watchmen with the instructions that it should be used for his funeral. Eventually Kathilappa who used to meet Ashwinbhai on the occasion of Satyanarayan Pooja, died in a road accident near the Factory. The security staff informed Ashwinbhai who paid for his funeral expenses.
The words perhaps do not capture the kind of relationship between these two persons and Ashwinbhai. Once you came in contact with Ashwinbhai, he built lifelong relationship. [Ask any ex-employee!]. Todankar and Kathilappa had nothing to offer to Ashwinbhai except their respect and gratitude. And Ashwinbhai was under no obligation to favour two ex-employees who had left the company and gone three decades ago. Nor did Ashwinbhai ever mention these incidents to anybody. Ashwinbhai did what he did because it was his nature.
Ashwinbhai read Bhagawadgita every day, that provided him the guidance in his work. We will remember him for the relationships he built quietly, it came to him naturally. In the Corporate world building relationships is talked about and yet a neglected aspect. Ashwinbhai’s assiduously maintaining low profile might result in outsiders ignoring his contribution to the Company’s culture. But those who worked with him know better!
Dalai Lama said ‘If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.’ If you worked with Ashwinbhai, you saw it in practice.
Vivek S Patwardhan