Under my byline

Oilman and writer

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 5 October 2008

Shell India chairman Vikram S Mehta calls himself a “gifted amateur”

Archana Jahagirdar and Rrishi Raote

Travelling for work can be one of the most dreary parts of working life, especially if one has to be on a plane as often as Vikram Singh Mehta, chairman of the Shell group of companies in India. This tedium of boring airports, cramped aircraft (even if you travel first class) and the annoyance of fellow passengers can only be endured with the help of a good book. And Mehta has ensured that his love for books and reading has survived his hectic work life, largely due to the time he gets to read while travelling.

Says Mehta, “I get a lot of time to read, as I travel so much. I am on a flight definitely once a week. I don’t like talking to people on flights.” Airport bookshops don’t interest Mehta. He buys his reading material from bookshops in whichever city he happens to be. In Mumbai, the city where he is based and where his wife and daughters live, his favourite bookstores are Oxford and Strand Book Stall. He doesn’t even order books on the Internet: “I would rather pick up a book, look at it and then buy it. I haven’t got down to buying books online yet.”

We are sitting in the library in Mehta’s home, a high-ceilinged room with sound-deadening carpets, curtains and upholstery, and shelves of dark wood lined with books as well as family photographs and small objects. Atop one set of shelves is a large model of a modern battleship in a glass box — certainly an oil-burner, but not exactly an apt symbol for a man whose ancestors are from landlocked Mewar.

Mehta’s interest in books was, in a way, meant to be. He says, “My family is pretty literate. My mother wrote 10 books before she died, and my father continues to write books.”

Mehta’s mother Rama Mehta’s book Inside the Haveli won a Sahitya Kala Akademi award. The book, Mehta says, mapped the cross-currents between the women in a haveli in a way that gave new insight into the closeted world of Mewari women, a way of living that Mehta’s mother (who wasn’t from Rajasthan) had to adapt to after her marriage. She cleared the civil services exam and then joined the foreign service, but gave it up after her marriage. But she continued her career as a sociologist, and even taught at Harvard at one point. Says Mehta, “My father was busy with work, but with my mother we would discuss books all the time.”

Mehta added to this already literate mix by marrying politician and writer Rafiq Zakaria’s daughter. Now his brother-in-law Fareed’s books are high on Mehta’s reading list. Also on that reading list is a diverse selection of books, from biographies to fiction to political books. Mehta has a special respect for some Indian authors writing in English. “Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, Sea of Poppies, is an extremely good book. He is supremely talented.” Salman Rushdie, however, doesn’t win the same level of admiration from Mehta and he says, “In Rushdie’s books, there is an element of overkill. A paragraph will be well-crafted if seen in isolation, but in totality there is an overkill.”

Though books in general find favour with Mehta, book reviews aren’t his favourite read. Says Mehta, “I am a bit sceptical of reviews. Most reviews don’t give me enough sense of the book.” But with such an erudite family, Mehta is often happy to buy books on the recommendation of various family members. Says he, “My brother is a professor at Amherst and if he tells me ‘Dada, read this book,’ I will buy it. He is truly an academic.”

Reading is pleasure, but it also serves a business purpose. “Whatever you’re trying to sell — a widget or oil — it’s all about people, relationships between people,” Mehta says. “You understand people and the complex of influences that play on people better if you’re reading. You listen better, for a start, and respond with a greater sensitivity. That’s the linkage between reading and anything.”

It’s an unusual perspective, coming from the head of a company that deals in a commodity as unpoetic as oil. But Shell is an old company, and as Burmah Shell in decades past it attracted the best talent among young Indians looking for employment. “The best and brightest did ICS or Burmah Shell,” says Mehta, who himself joined Shell at a senior position and has been there for nearly two decades since. “Today it’s no doubt a company of engineers, of technocrats, but in the ’50s and ’60s it was a company of generalists and gifted amateurs,” among whom Mehta includes himself.

That’s an attractive statement from a contemporary business leader — and very likely it could have originated nowhere else in the corporate hierarchy but at the top. As if to demonstrate the truth of this, Mehta is also a columnist of long standing, turning his hand to making words once a month for the Indian Express on various issues from the environment to energy policy. “Writing is almost a consequence of reading and reflection and travel. It’s just a culmination of so much else,” he says. For the gifted amateur, there are many peaks to be climbed.


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