The samaritan and the scion: Vandana Gopikumar and Arathi Krishna18 min read . Updated: 11 Aug 2017, 04:42 AM IST
The story of an unlikely friendship between Arathi Krishna, the scion of the TVS Group, and Vandana Gopikumar, co-founder of NGO The Banyan
Arathi Krishna met Vandana Gopikumar at a dinner party in Chennai, but the path to their meeting winds back many years, to the birth of Arathi’s daughter, in fact.
Arathi, 48, is the joint managing director of Sundram Fasteners, the automotive parts maker founded by her father, Suresh Krishna in 1966. Like many of her ilk, Arathi went abroad to study and stayed in the US for 15 years. Arathi met her husband, Dr Mani Chacko, a management consultant, while she was doing her MBA and he his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. She worked for years in the US-arm of Sundram Fasteners, but it was only after she returned to Chennai in 2006 that she took on a leadership role in the company.
When she moved back, Arathi’s son, Anjan, was four-and-a-half years old and her daughter, Samira, was just one. As the years passed, Arathi discovered that Samira was having “reading difficulties." It was a stressful time for the family. Arathi called on her elder sister, Preethi, in New York, to help find the best reading education tutors. She worked her contacts in the special education field without much success. “Here I was: educated, with access to the best experts in this area, and still I was having trouble. ‘How do others cope?’ I thought," says Arathi.
Then she met Vandana, 46, co-founder of The Banyan, a mental health NGO that operates in four Tamil Nadu districts and Kerala. The main centre is in Kovalam, outside Chennai. Vandana, who was selected by the World Health Organization as the “public health champion" of 2017, is also a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). The organisation she co-founded cares for the mentally ill. The specific focus of The Banyan is on those who are homeless and living in abject poverty. People to whom fate has dealt a triple whammy: mental issues, homelessness and dire poverty.
Founded in 1993, The Banyan’s centre in Kovalam is bathed in sunlight. The organization’s logo, prominently visible, “I exist therefore I am," is a clever challenge to influential French philosopher René Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am", which places normal cognitive functioning at the centre of selfhood. At the Banyan’s centre you find smiling, courteous men and women, each of whom seems to be fighting personal battles with the failings of their mind. One man, a paranoid schizophrenic, paints beautiful images of birds and animals for a living. A group of elderly women sit in a room, chopping vegetables that will eventually be packaged for a firm that retails to supermarkets chains and grocery stores. One woman finds solace and livelihood in block printing. Others are part of a self-help group that maintains a roadside cart selling tasty rice dishes at Rs10 a pop. Some look obviously “strange" and some less so, singing and reciting poetry. Each of them is trying to unite a mind that sometimes plays tricks on them with the reality of their everyday lives.
Mind following heart
“The beginning of The Banyan was more of mind following heart," says Vaishnavi Jayakumar, co-founder of the organization, who was Vandana’s junior in Women’s Christian College, Chennai. Vaishnavi spoke at length about their relationship and its trajectory, about disagreements and how their mutual “fondness" and “implicit trust" in each other sustained their friendship. “Vandana makes the impossible possible," she said.
The word that most people use to describe Vandana is “selfless". The word that most people use to describe Arathi is “balanced". Vandana doesn’t think she is altruistic or selfless. Mental health is very personal to her. “I have bipolar disorder," she says. “I am on meds. I used to cut myself as a teenager. Work gives me sanity."
In video interviews, many available on YouTube, Vandana, who is magnetic—if edgy—in person, speaks passionately about the people who end up at The Banyan. There was a disturbed woman from Ahmedabad who was reunited with her family after decades. Some of the people rescued include raped, pregnant women who delivered babies on the street, some with broken limbs, so mentally incapacitated that they didn’t realize their limbs were shattered. Physical abuse is common. This is the world that Vandana inhabits.
“As a person with bipolar II," says Vandana, “the hypomanic highs enhance my ability to drive myself harder and be more creative. The lows help me understand the depths of suffering, which hugely help my clinical work."
There are two Vandanas, it seems. There is the Vandana who comes alive while talking about mental health issues, about marginalized people, about basic human rights, and about equal opportunities for all. Then there is the Vandana who goes to Chennai parties, “and tunes out after a while", as Arathi says.
A meeting of unlikely minds
The two met at one such party. Vandana’s husband Senthil Kumar, is the brother of a close friend of Arathi’s. Senthil also happens to be the grandson of legendary Tamil film producer, A.V. Meiyappan, whose AVM Productions was a banner with which many Tamilians, including this writer, grew up. Senthil is also on the board of The Banyan. “He was a board member for 10 years before becoming my husband," says Vandana with a laugh.
Senthil began as a volunteer for The Banyan, setting up their email system, then became a donor, then board member and finally husband of the co-founder. “Vandana is extremely motivated, in a way that no one else I know is," says Senthil. “She is always pushing boundaries. Once she has achieved what she set out to, she expands the realms of what she wants to do and goes after it. There is no satisfying her desire for change."
This is the story of an unlikely friendship, which morphed into an uncommon partnership.
They couldn’t be more different.
Arathi is the scion of one of Tamil Nadu’s most respected business families, the TVS Group. “I don’t hold a single share in Sundram Fasteners," she says disarmingly, as if that lessens the aura of her heritage and family name. “Neither does my father. TVS holds all the shares." Under her leadership, the sales at the firm her father founded have doubled from Rs1577.15 crore in fiscal year 2007 to Rs3305.7 crore in fiscal year 2017 while Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) has grown from 11.48% to 18.67%.
Arathi has the measured, moderate air of someone who must manage multiple stakeholders, ranging from 10,000 factory workers to older colleagues who have literally seen her grow up. But she is also oddly candid. She is open about her vulnerabilities and has an uneasy relationship with the spotlight.
“It was not easy for Arathi even though she was a member of the TVS family," says R. Srinivasan, a board member who has been affiliated with Sundram Fasteners since inception. Her father was an “established and dominant figure," he says, “an industry stalwart," who was president of Confederation of Indian Industry, on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, and awarded many honours. “Being a next-gen leader is not easy," says Srinivasan. “On the one hand, it requires a certain humility as you step into very large shoes. On the other hand, you have to project authority and earn the respect of senior people who are doyens in the field and have been with the company for decades."
The family name
To make things worse, Arathi was not well-versed in either engineering or manufacturing. “Well, my father loves literature and poetry," she says in her own defence. Her mother, Usha Krishna, founded and ran Upasana Engineering for years before passing it on Arathi’s younger sister, Arundhati, and taking over as head of the World Craft Council (talk about the engineering left brain and craft-oriented right brain). Arathi’s paternal grandmother, Ambujam Krishna, was a respected Carnatic music composer. To say that Arathi carries the burden of an illustrious family name is an understatement. On Sundays, Arathi gets together with a few friends to learn her grandmother’s compositions. She and her husband have a fine collection of wines and are avid birders—a visit to Eagle’s Nest Wildlife Sanctuary sans kids was a recent highlight, says Arathi. While she hangs out with Chennai’s swish set, weekends are often by the marshland in Perumbakkam, spotting avocets and spotted redshanks with her husband.
“She manages her time better than most people," says Mani, her husband. “We leverage family and plan work trips around each other’s calendars. That is pretty easy to do. But how do you engage with your family at home when there are fires burning in the office? That is harder. If you ask our children, they will have absolutely no idea about the crises in her work."
Arathi’s roots in Chennai go back many generations, but Vandana grew up in the Air Force, travelling and living all over India, as far as Jodhpur and Srinagar, before finishing her Master’s in Social Work in Chennai. She was just 22 years old when she founded The Banyan along with her friend, Vaishnavi Jayakumar.
Planting The Banyan
The sight of a naked, homeless woman with mental health issues, foraging through garbage bins in search of food proved the starting point. The duo tried to rehabilitate the woman, before discovering that care for people with mental health issues in India had many broken links. Powered by the zeal and idealism of youth, the two decided to start The Banyan. Within a few years, J. Jayalalithaa, then chief minister, gave them land in Kovalam where they built a facility that would eventually service an 800,000 population with mental health issues).
“I’ve known these girls [Vaishnavi and Vandana] for more than 15 years," says film director Mani Ratnam. “What they did with such consistency and focus is simply amazing. At such a young age, too. Vandana has both vision and passion, she is my hero."
Running a mental health NGO is arguably harder than one dealing with toilets or sanitation or education or employment. Particularly in India, it doesn’t always grant the sheen of the good Samaritan, because of the stigma and shame attached to mental incapacity.
Murthy Megavan, an early employee of The Banyan, now a surfer in Kovalam, says, “In India, mental health is viewed as a priest’s job. You take the patient to the church or temple and have the priest (or shaman) wave neem leaves or chant mantras over them so that they will get better. It is not viewed as a medical problem." Part of the reason Vandana’s task is Herculean is because it involves changing mindsets—not just about homeless people, but also the cousin or child whose “differences" you would like to brush under the carpet.
The Banyan’s initiatives are creative and community-specific. For example, two years ago, with a Grand Challenges grant awarded by the government of Canada, The Banyan started a trial in which people with mental health issues were rehabilitated within a community. In this approach, erstwhile “patients" live together in a home amid a community. They learn to go to shops, invite people over to their home, and participate in festivals, all under the supervision of workers with The Banyan. “It increases their quality of life, brings social inclusion within a community and helps them participate economically as well," says Vandana.
Given that there are 70 million people with mental health issues in India with only 4,000 doctors to treat them, according to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), this kind of community integration has far-reaching benefits, not just clinically, but socially and economically as well.
Today, the list of supporters for The Banyan reads like the who’s who of Chennai, and even further afield: composer A.R. Rahman, publisher N. Ram, corporate sponsors such as the Tata Trusts (their longest and most significant supporter), Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, the Bajaj Group, and most recently Sundram Fasteners, which donated Rs1.2 crore as part of their corporate social responsibility initiative, in part because of the push from Arathi, who is now on the board of trustees of The Banyan. When I compliment Arathi on helping The Banyan scale up, she quickly corrects me: “Actually it is Vandana who is helping me through her trailblazing efforts."
Vandana’s take is more macro. “Strategically, Arathi has done something important," she says, “because mental health is linked to gender bias, poverty reduction and is plagued by high levels of stigma." In other words, mental health is like a keystone species. Helping it will indirectly help alleviate a number of society’s ills.
We are at Vandana’s spacious bungalow in the heart of Chennai. Two dogs run in and out of the antique-filled house, its large surrounding yard filled with trees, a rarity in the city today. A black raven calls. Outside, men on carts call out the names of the products and services they offer: knife repair, newspaper collection, bananas. Clad in an orange skirt and black blouse, Vandana plies us with brownies and coconut water, before leaning back to discuss their partnership. Arathi leans back and lets her friend take the spotlight, intervening occasionally with a quip or light aside to leaven the seriousness of Vandana’s impassioned delivery.
What they are doing together is seemingly simple: Arathi wants Vandana to build an entity that will take to scale some of the ideas and innovations that The Banyan has conceptualized. It is an equal collaboration, they both emphasize. The technical expertize and capabilities come from Vandana. The management and financial push comes from Arathi. The strategy is jointly developed.
Mental illness knows no borders or social classes. It affects the rich and poor equally. Getting involved in mental health and running camps with the help of The Banyan had an unexpected benefit for Arathi. Previously, employees at her factory whose children were affected by mental health challenges did not know where to turn, often refusing to talk about it because of the stigma attached to mental health illness.
Vandana has set up academic partnerships with Rutgers, Cornell, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, New York University and, most importantly, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which collaborates with the Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health (BALM) to offer three Master’s programmes and a diploma program for community health workers. It was this full bouquet of offerings—academic, clinical and community-centred—that attracted Arathi to Vandana’s work.
Clad in a blue salwar suit, with a tiny bindi, and a statement En Inde necklace, Arathi has the manner of someone who is born to ease, and has made her peace with living in a town where she is, by virtue of her family pedigree, at least well-known, if not a celebrity. This means that she has to watch what she says, pretty much everywhere. She recalls a time when she and her sister were “ranting and raving" about some political issue on Facebook. “We got a call from my uncle," she says, telling them to cut it out.
Arathi lives in Poes Garden, down the road from the late Jayalalithaa’s house, and says traffic closures are a “nightmare" part of her life. In most of the automotive conferences she attends, she is pretty much the only woman among 500 men. “I was overwhelmed at first," she says, alluding to the imposter syndrome that all professional women leaders feel. “People would be kind to me and I would wonder if it was because I was my father’s daughter. I was constantly second-guessing myself till I discovered that men are also constantly second-guessing themselves. It is a dog-eat-dog world out there."
This minority status—as the only female—had an unexpected benefit: the spotlight stayed on her. “I was always special," Arathi says. “I always stood out. People would remember me, unlike my male cousins. They would immediately invite me to join the round table on the dais because they wanted to appear inclusive. At first I worried about the tokenism. Then I figured I might as well use it to the best of my ability. Being a woman opened all kinds of doors."
Today there are UN initiatives such as “HeForShe" and informal pledges such as the one taken by New York City’s chief digital officer, Sreenath Sreenivasan, that they will not participate in panels which don’t include at least one woman. These address and redress this tokenism to some extent. But that doesn’t make it easier for that one woman on the panel. In Arathi’s case, she was often the single woman in most situations, particularly at her firm’s factories.
“She is Suresh Krishna’s daughter and you can’t wish that away," says her cousin, Dinesh Ramachandran, managing director of TVS Logistics. “But she sets very exacting standards for herself and wants to excel. Like all of us, when you come into a business, you are impatient and want to get things done fast. I’ve seen her temperament evolve." He laughs. “Life has taught her to be patient."
There are many work challenges that Arathi faces every day. She has to ensure that quality and costs are balanced; that there is enough automation in place to ensure reliability and continuity; the attrition with contract labour is “huge", and though the company is proud that there is no unrest in any of their factories, rising costs make wage negotiation tricky and usually result in making costs 10% higher.
“We have always been there for our employees, from cradle to grave," says Arathi. “I can count the number of people we have fired in my hand." Given her serious commitment to the “values" of the TVS Group, it is no surprise that involving herself in mental health was a logical next step. This year, the firm is applying for the Deming Prize for Total Quality Management. The verdict comes next year.
Upholding a legacy
This is Sundram Fasteners’ 50th year. Arathi has commissioned the Chennai-based director Bharat Bala to make a film about the firm. “The growth and reputation of TVS is a huge legacy that I have to uphold," says Arathi. “Just think about it. There are so many ways to go wrong. TVS has always chosen the right path."
What keeps her up at night? Well, I guess the changing dynamics of the marketplace, she answers. A number of foreign distributors have entered the market. There are all kinds of clients and suppliers, each with increasing demands. “Our approach has always been to eat the frog early in the morning," says this vegetarian—or so I believed, after together partaking of rice-and-sambar from the company canteen, till I learn that she is not. “Relationships which used to matter have given way to other things. Cost is king."
Harish Lakshman, vice-chairman of the Rane Group, also feels the effects of the globalization of the auto industry. “Arathi has taken things to the next level," he says. “To be frank, their (Sundram’s) performance in the last couple of years in terms of profitability and growth has been spectacular. Their focus on exports and international sales is upwards of one-third, which is not common."
In spite of all this, Arathi has a butterfly-type lightness about her that hides the steely resolve and determination necessary to face up to constant challenges. She and her family go skiing in Austria. She buys art from Delhi’s Nature Morte, among other places; her seventh floor office has works by J.M.S. Mani, Yusuf Arakkal and Reddeppa Naidu. She likes to eat out but is currently on a strict diet, her food arriving in a stainless steel lunch box from home.
Vandana has little time for hobbies. She watches movies with Senthil, she says, reads mostly non-fiction and likes visiting temples. She is happiest with her dog, Smokey. She still retains the intensity, impulsiveness and idealism that propelled her to build a successful organisation out of nothing. “Vandana is extremely determined and not afraid of the size of the task ahead," says Nachiket Mor, an admirer of her work. Mor is the national director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “She is able to draw in people from all walks of life and finds ways of keeping them involved. She actively works to maintain a coalition."
Coalition building is part of Arathi’s everyday life. Human resources takes up a huge portion of her day. Three times a year—on New Year’s, Founder’s Day, and Ayudha Puja—she gives a speech to 10,000 factory workers. The first time she did it she was paralysed with fear. Now she does so without notes.
“They are both very different," says Swetha Reddy, a motivational coach and mutual friend. “Vandana is the most selfless, empathetic person I know. But she will also shut shop and not see anybody when she is writing a book or whatever. She is available to you when there is a need. As for Arathi, I don’t know anyone who can multi-task and prioritize as well as she can. She makes time for her kids, husband, friends and for herself, and she does everything without feeling guilty. It is very difficult to find working women who don’t feel guilty."
And that, in the final reckoning, may be the secret of this duo. They are each strong women with their own peculiar vulnerabilities. They push boundaries, both for themselves and for others. They are drawn to duty, and are traversing their life’s path. Best of all, they are walking the tightrope of work-life balance without guilt, fear or distraction.
Profiles of Unusual Partnerships: Where two worlds, and two people come together, to create a bit of magic. This series will celebrate men and women who reach beyond their silos and engage with other professionals in a passionate way.