Published in Corporate Dossier ET, July 15, 2011

In the Ramayana, the story goes that in his youth, during a hunt, mistaking the sound of a pot being immersed in water to the sound of a deer quenching its thirst, Dashrath accidentally shot dead a young man called Shravan Kumar. Shravan Kumar’s aged parents cursed Dashrath that he too would suffer and die due to loss of his son, which explains the exile of Ram.

For most people, Shravan Kumar epitomizes the dutiful son. He was taking his old parents on a pilgrimage, carrying them in two baskets hanging from two ends of a staff slung over his shoulder. The image evokes feelings of love and duty towards parents. But it also evokes feelings of burden – a young man trapped by the sling of duty. Is Shravan Kumar carrying out his duty out of volition or obligation? Is it free will or the burden of fate? Most storytellers insist that Shravan served his parents out of love, in freedom, in complete volition. The audience will reject an alternate narrative. It would be considered blasphemy in India.

Yet obligation plays a key role in family businesses, which accounts for most businesses in India. One is obliged to serve in the family firm. One is obliged to provide opportunities to less fortunate and less talented family members. Obligation is seen as bondage, entrapment, enforced nobility.

Pratap’s shoulders are bruised and bleeding because of the sling he has been carrying for the past 12 years. It is the sling with the many baskets where sit his father and his uncles, who first set up the family business. Ideally he would like to sell the old business for a huge profit and enjoy a life of leisure, maybe managing a small business that gives him a lot of free time. But he cannot. He has to work hard to keep the old ship running, employing relatives and old loyal staff, few of whom match his levels of competence. He cannot fire them, he cannot hire professionals at high salaries, he cannot disrupt the workings of the organization dramatically. It will be a few years before he can shed the burden of the elders. So he works with cousins and sisters and brothers-in-law, giving them tasks and dealing with their failures and insecurities and overestimations, forgiving their blunders, and in some cases their lack of ethics. He wants to fight back, but he cannot – he wants to be the good son. He wants to be Shravan Kumar.

To shed the burden of baskets is not easy. The social price will be too high. The world will look at him as a traitor and a selfish lout who abandoned family. He cannot deal with that rejection, not yet at least. So he carries on, making sure everyone knows how much he has sacrificed for them, demanding their respect and deference in return.

Modern management speaks of systems and processes and family constitutions to manage family issues. It looks at life and relationships in contractual terms. But there is no contract between Pratap and his family. It is an unspoken commitment that has cemented family businesses over generations, ensured that the weak are protected by the strong. The weak are the burdens that the strong have to bear. This slows down the pack, but it ensures that when the strong become weak, there is always a security blanket.

Pratap knows that when he is down and out, this very same family that he considers a burden today will take care of him and so he hesitates to shed the sling. Shravan Kumar is taking care of his parents as his parents took care of their parents and thus providing a model for his children, in the hope they will comply and accept their burden of obligations.