It did not work out that way. Not once did Udayan seek his father’s advice on any problem. Nor did he consult his father on any key issue. His father’s role as a board member became insignificant, for Udayan soon ejected the old-timers and packed the board with his handpicked people. Udayan had always been attentive to his parents and close to his mother, Mandira. He visited them regularly, asked them about health issues and brought them gifts. But the visits started getting intermittent when he sensed a frostiness in his father and their duration became shorter.
I had known the family for a long time, for my mother had been in college with Mandira and I met Narayan in a management association. They knew Udayan had been briefly my student in Manila and they felt comfortable talking about him.
“In fact, Udayan has rebuffed any attempt to broach a discussion about the company for which I practically gave my life. I don’t know what kind of hubris it is. Why does he resist me, his own father, who only wishes his success?”
Udayan was not just polite but extremely gracious when I mentioned that I had met his father and found him rather unhappy.
“Father accomplished a lot with the little that he got from grandfather. I admire that. But he does not seem to realize that things have changed. Nor did his friends on the board. We needed a new direction, a new kind of leadership. I had to change the board. We are doing better, though we are not out of the woods.
“I can’t talk with father because he won’t help me to weigh options. He wants to make recommendations, and then he gets hurt if I can’t use or accept them. I don’t need that kind of backseat driving.”
I was sad to hear the two sides and was impressed when Mandira spoke in her husband’s absence.
“They both want to break the ice,” she said, “but they don’t know how. Every time they talk about the company, they get impatient or unhappy. Yet that is what they really want to talk about but can’t. Udayan naturally wants to avoid unpleasantness, and resists going in that direction.”
I agreed with her that they are likely to disagree, and even become disagreeable, if they talk about the company.
“But that is what they would really like to talk about,” she said.
“Right, but they are not ready for it.”
“What then is the solution?”
“The solution, if they are prepared to consider it, is to start by talking about a different thing: how they are going to talk about the company. They must both realize that, even with the best of intentions, they have reached a road-block. So, they need to talk about the road-block. Udayan can say: What kind of discussion will be helpful for him and what kind will not be. Narayan can say: I will not recommend actions, I will only suggest some perspectives and say why those may be useful to consider. They can agree at the start on a specific slice of time, say a half-hour, and see how it goes.”
Mandira thought about my idea and said, “Perhaps that could be a beginning. Perhaps I could mediate it.”
I was amazed, weeks later, when Udayan talked about his father with heart-warming candor, “It has taken me time to realize that my father can be many things at the same time. He can be tough and warm, stubborn and flexible, adversarial and loving. We couldn’t talk about the company without friction. Now, somehow, we have learned to discuss quietly. I think he understands the new problems I have. I also think he has some insights I can use. I was wrong to imagine he was a spent force.”
I was happy to hear him say so. I had to restrain myself, however, from telling him that nobody, absolutely no human being, is ever really a spent force.