I still feel dreamy and nostalgic about those train rides of more than fifty years ago when I crisscrossed India and played traveling salesman for Wilco – my uncle’s book publishing company. Train stations were some of the biggest outlets for the periodicals and the paperbacks. If there were an impulse buying, the train stations with their continuous transient stream of passengers were it. People would have just enough time to glance at the display out of their windows. It wasn’t good enough just to have a good product tucked away some place under the counter. You had to make sure that your product jumped at them before anyone else’s. As one of the stall managers, Vidya Kapur at Kiul Junction put it, Look Sahib, books are like whores, if the whores and the books are not dolled up and displayed, neither of them sell. What incentive do we have to give your books prime display space and sell more copies?

Pure and simple. True. What incentive did they have to display our titles up front at the standard discount of 25% as compared to other publishers doling out 33% and even up to 40%? The young Sureshchandra Jain in Nagpur throws at me, “We are banyas – business people, we do anything to make money, even sell your books.” And his brother Jagpal Jain in Calcutta even recites a poem of sorts for me: “It doesn’t help sitting on the shore if you are looking for the pearls, all you find on the shore are the shells. For the pearls, you have to explore the depth of the ocean.” Simplistic maybe, but their message was clear. Something no business school or the bestsellers can teach you.

Thus my first lessons in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying came from the folk wisdom of those down home but cunning operators of the book stalls across India. I am still young and naïve, but this month long crisscrossing the sub-continent teaches me more than up until then, fifteen years of schooling.

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My father’s way of dealing with crisis was to not react hastily, but sleep on it. Depending on the time of the day, he would either take a long restful nap or literally sleep it off over the night. And when he woke up, most of the time, the crisis had passed. Or he had woken up with a solution to deal with it. I have inherited this trait from him and must confess, it has served me well. But there are times when you don’t have such an option. Especially in the business world. I run into what could have been a major crisis the very first week of having taken up my job in Germany. It’s almost middle of the night and the crisis has arisen over my denial to sign off on the centerfold of that month’s Playmate Marilyn Cole. The only way to make it better would be to reprint the entire lot. We are talking tens of thousands of Deautsche Marks.

‘Where do we stand with this fucking folder?’ I am standing face-to-face with the publishing director Heinz van Nouhuys, who has taken a special trip from Munich to the printing plant in Essen, with his girlfriend Marianne Schmidt over that election night in Germany on November 19,1972.

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