Anu Aga, former chairperson Thermax and Teach for India, on how to come to terms with the inevitable.
Note to readers: They hold the economy together but what holds them together? The Aligned Mind delves into the mental health and spiritual wellbeing of India's finest business minds. How they confront their challenges. What disciplines and practices keep them intellectually and emotionally agile. How they attain the mind-body-spirit integrity that keeps their organisations finely balanced on that cutting edge.
There’s a point in a webinar when someone mentions to Arnavaz Aga, more commonly called ‘Anu’, who turns 78 in a week, that life has been unfair to her. Online at home in Pune, she pauses, surprised by the label. “I’ve never felt that my life has been unfair to me, where one door shuts, five more opened,” she said, enumerating the years of her good marriage, fulfilling phases of motherhood and the privilege of family, friends and choice.
What does it take to cease to define oneself by the tragedies of one’s life and move to overcome them? To arrive at a language which has neither space for self-pity nor self-aggrandisement? It’s been a process of striving for mind+body+spirit balance.
In 1997, Anu returned from England to the news of husband, entrepreneur Rohinton Aga’s fatal heart attack. Her trauma was compounded in the next 14 months. She lost her mother-in-law and her 25-year-old son, Kurush, to a fatal road accident. Even as loss overwhelmed her, Anu, who had worked as the human resources head until then, was appointed the Executive Chair of Thermax.
The story of the company’s turnaround is the stuff of corporate history. She reconstituted the board, closed down non-core divisions and asked her family to choose between being involved in the business or holding board positions in order to maintain objectivity for non-performance evaluations. She retired as chairperson at 61 and stepped away from the board at 75. She turned to social work, sat on the boards of NGOs and is vocal about what a waste her years in Parliament have been.
She attributes much of her fortitude to her Vipassana practice. Her husband used to tease her that he’d like to see her silent for ten days and she turned to the practice after his passing.
Vipassana is a rigorous Theravada Buddhist technique of meditation taught in India through a central institute founded by SN Goenka. It involves ten days of silent sitting in a group, from 4 am to 9.30 pm in a sparse, no-frills environment where practitioners forgo dinner, wash their utensils and clean their rooms.
By now, Anu has completed four ten-day courses and meditates for an hour daily. It’s a time when she turns inwards for her answers but she is wary of exoticising it, preferring to see it quite pragmatically as an instrument to her growth. “Don’t put meditation on a pedestal. Just because one meditates doesn’t mean one is on a spiritual journey,” she says.
The practice, which begins by observing the breath and proceeds to mindful body scanning, brought Anu basic shifts in perspective. She found herself becoming less reactive and less judgemental. It is not that she doesn’t feel sadness, anger, or despair, but that these don’t sway her as much. She gets through them as she witnesses the emotions come and go. “I don’t struggle with these emotions anymore. I am more on an even keel,” she says.
It also keeps her grounded. Anu, who was awarded the Padma Shri by in 2010 for her social work, insists on being called by her first name and doesn’t like to be defined by her titles, her parliamentary positions or awards.
In a professional sphere, she easily stepped away from designations many tend to cling on to. She is candid about her daughter being far better qualified than she was to take on the leadership role. She has been mindful of functioning through collaboration, conscious to include “minds far smarter and better than my own” in her decision-making processes. She is happy to remind people who attempt to put her on a pedestal that she is “full of shit, the only thing being that meditation has made it less smelly”, and she is now able to live with it.
The loss and the practice have tempered her view of life. There was a time when if someone uttered the word “death” when they were on the Mumbai-Pune highway, she’d make her husband stop and find a tree to touch wood. “I know now if I carried an entire forest with me, I cannot change my destiny,” she says. And yet, she notes, we refer to death as a tragedy because we fail to see it as inevitable as a sunset. She has stopped asking “why”, and got on with the business of living. She has learned that the greater tragedies in life are not spending the time getting along with the people one loves and not investing in and challenging oneself.
She sees herself as a custodian of mind, body, assets, and wealth. “I am aware that money is important, and I have had the privilege of a very comfortable life, but to overindulge in it will give you diminishing returns of pleasure.”
To contemplate our plight in the lockdown with self-pity is self-indulgence. She is currently preoccupied with the horror of how migrant and unorganised labour is mistreated. “More people have died of hunger than of Covid-19” she notes. She is partnering with Dasra, an NGO working on short-term and long-term solutions for migrant workers, in collaboration with other business houses, business associations and NGOs.
Anu suggests we stop making excuses of the limits of our age and gender, noting that all stereotypical roles come with their own constraints. She enjoys studying and is engaged with an online history course offered by Ashoka University. She has previously spent time learning counselling and therapy in the US and says she has benefitted from Transactional Analysis, a psychoanalytic technique that helps practitioners examine the ego state within social relationships, working to re-negotiate them and analyse the script of one’s life.
Leadership comes from building social relationships of authenticity and transparency, that elicit trust from all the stakeholders in our lives, she notes. It also helps to know what one has control over and what one doesn’t and do what one can do. She suggests that instead of comparing oneself to others, as we sometimes do, women comparing ourselves to men, apples to oranges, to ask oneself what our unique offering can be. She doesn’t see herself as too much of a risk-taker though she is called one. She says rather she invests in herself and in the well-being of her relationships and is happier and at peace as a result of it.
Discipline has been an important instrument of structure to her. She goes for walks, meditates for an hour, and exercises as part of her daily routine. During the pandemic, she has also incorporated some pranayama for a few minutes every day.
She ultimately finds inspiration in the Lord’s prayer; “Lord, grant me the serenity to change what I can, the strength to accept what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
(Gayatri Jayaraman is an author and counsellor)Follow the entire series here.