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October 27, 1999
Bulls in China Garden
I was just reading about a new book called The Power of Simplicity. Its author Jack Trout, famous business strategist and management guru, believes that the route to success is to follow the straight and narrow. He argues that the best CEOs are those like Jack Welch and Andy Grove who have successfully taken some of the most complex businesses to new heights of glory by following the beacon of simplicity. While lesser men have wallowed in complexity to confound their peers and mask their own ignorance.
I would love to go along with Trout but I fear that his argument is too simplistic. Certainly too simplistic for an environment like India, where the State (and those who run it) are always anxious to make everything as complex as possible so that they can interpret, manipulate, dominate.
This is not just a problem with India. It is a problem with all feudal societies where the ruling elite wants to vest all effective power in itself. While it pretends to put democratic systems into place and argues the virtues of an open system, it never actually downsizes government and always, under various pretexts, keep the keys of the kingdom in its own hands. This makes it impossible for anyone to follow the straight and narrow. It may sound great in the textbooks but the simplest route would crash you smack against a concrete wall.
The route to success in India actually lies through a complex maze of bureaucracy, politics, media and jurisprudence. Every success story, however simple it may look, always has this sordid back office of intrigue and manipulation that eventually gets revealed. Simply because you are always competing against envy. The envy of those ahead of you, around you, and even behind you. You are also competing against an unknown, obstinate and crusty bureaucracy. You are competing against venal politicians. You are fighting a mulish, wicked stem that has been built exclusively to harass, intimidate, loot you. I can give you a thousand examples to prove what I am saying. But let me just stick to one today. The case of Nelson Wang. A man unfashionable to defend.
I know little about Wang except that he comes from where I do. Calcutta. Calcutta has this huge Chinatown where most of its denizens speak far better Bengali than I do. They celebrate every local puja with great fanfare, as indeed their own New Year and have been around for over three generations now. Running laundries, making shoes, practising old-fashioned dentistry and running small Chinese eateries that have made Chinese cuisine the staple of every Bengali family that eats out. There are only two restaurants that serve traditional Bengali food in Calcutta whereas there are over 2000 Chinese restaurants!
Wang came to Mumbai 25 years ago to work as a cook in a small Colaba eatery. He slogged it out on the streets of Mumbai and, in 1984, in less than a decade, created what is often described as the city's finest Chinese restaurant: China Garden. China Garden was the toast of Mumbai. It was never my favourite restaurant (in fact, I wrote a couple of rude pieces about the pretentiousness of its cuisine) but almost everyone else I knew, from social columnists to food critics to my best friends, were crazy about it. Wang was not just a fine chef. He was a great host, a flamboyant socialite, and like all successful, self-made people, loved la dolce vita. As China Garden did better and better, his exploits on the race course made for more and more gossip.
The soldier of fortune from Calcutta became one of Mumbai's most famous celebrities and columnists fell over each other to write about his amazing achievements in transforming the eating habits of Mumbai's elite. The rich and the famous came in droves to China Garden and partied furiously at his Piano Bar. Every year, he religiously picked up India's best restaurant trophy. Once in a while of course the odd rumour would surface that China Garden had violated a few civic regulations but these were swiftly trampled upon. Wang was too big, too famous, and seen as too powerful to be brought to heel by anyone. The rich and the mighty were his customers and best friends. The Blue Label bottles were marked in their names.
But the law and the bureaucracy have a strange way of getting even. It took them, in this case, 14 years. Wang fought back all the way but last week, on a Supreme Court order, he was forced to finally shut down China Garden and ask his employees to go. It was a sad thing to happen. But it showed up four simple things.
One: The system may take time but when it targets you, it gets you. You can hire the best lawyers, pay the biggest bribes to delay the day of reckoning but you cannot avoid it. For it always weighs in favour of those who run the system, not those who confront it.
Two: Envy is a great destroyer. Wang could have been asked to pay a huge, exemplary fine and continue what was, after all, one of the city's most famous landmarks, as much a tribute to Wang's perseverance as to Mumbai's reputation as a city that opens its arms to welcome every talent. Any other city in the world would have done that. But the authorities went out of their way not only to shut down China Garden but to force it to be broken down. All because it had violated an usage law. The CRZ argument makes no sense because there are at least 10 buildings and five roads between the sea and China Garden. If the huge Natraj Hotel which is bang on Marine Drive can be reconstructed from scratch, how can you use CRZ to stop China Garden from doing business 620 metres from the sea?
Three: When enforcers strike, friends vanish. All those wonderful people who wrote yards and yards in the press about China Garden and its amazing cuisine vanished into thin air when the crunch came. All one saw during the past few months were media stories about how Wang had violated the law and manipulated the system. It was an entirely one-sided campaign. No one even protested when the police demanded to see Wang's passport. Wang may be of Chinese origin but his three generations have lived in India and he is as Indian as you and I. But no one was ready to even say that it was an unfair thing to do. What happened to Wang's celebrity friends, the freeloaders from the media who had sung paeans to him in the past? They all crawled into the woodwork and refused to even acknowledge the fact that they knew him.
Four: Could China Garden have been saved? No one even bothered to examine the possibility. A team built on talent and excellence was rudely dismantled. A successful entrepreneur was brought to his knees. But the ruling elite lived by its code of Omerta. No one shed a tear.
I have no reason to support Nelson Wang. I recognise him simply for what he is. A fine restaurateur, a sharp businessman, a soldier of fortune. But I am sad the institution he built, whatever may be its technical flaws, was openly murdered in full daylight and no one came to its rescue. Its unsung heroes are today jobless. My hunch says Wang will be back bigger and stronger but that does not diminish my feeling of sadness when I see a fine institution destroyed. Surely there were easier ways to punish Wang.
Would you raze down the Lok Sabha because Narasimha Rao bribed three MPs?
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