"Do you know something?"
That is typically how a conversation started with my boss, or 'super boss', as I should call him. And I usually hadn't the faintest of ideas on what the discussion was going to be about. Then he would flick out the little spiral-bound black notebook from his pocket and share a piece of trivia that could be anything from a new marketing stunt in California to customer feedback about the Baleno sedan in Ludhiana! And you were supposed to have some idea of what was being discussed; otherwise you were not doing your job.
The same man bought us a new television set for the conference room to watch the FIFA World Cup 2002, as long as we were doing our job! And joined us for a couple of matches, grumbling how the administration guys would not change the archaic TV in the boardroom next to his office.
I first met him on May 1, 1993 at Kamal Mahal at the Maurya Sheraton hotel in New Delhi. It was the day the Maruti Zen was launched, and he was invited to the event by Mr Bhargava, a few months before he left his career in the IAS to join as Officer-on-Special-Duty.
The ‘ice breaker’ was one late evening on the 11th floor of Jeevan Prakash building. In the large hall where everyone sat, overlooking the seats of the Director and OSD of Marketing & Sales, I looked up from my work desk and found him playing with his red-and-green Pilot ‘Hitecpoint’ pens, balancing one atop the other. Suddenly he looked up and my eyes froze.
Summoned, he asked me, “Don’t you have family at home? What’s keeping you away from them?” I mumbled that I had parents at home. “Parents not family, is it?” Did an about turn, packed my bag, punched my attendance card and I was gone.
When I re-joined Maruti in 2001 (he used to later joke that was one mistake he made!), I remember him politely telling a Japanese interpreter at a late evening meeting, “They don’t have their families here, but we do. Can you please remind them it is getting too late and we can continue this on another day?”
I remember him doing dry runs of his speeches to dealers in the library room, again and again, to get the intonations, pauses and impacts right. I have seen him reach product launches an hour in advance to ensure he comes out of the car at the right time, stands at the right spot and gives the correct hand gesture. I have seen him nervous before a presentation to the IPO team, obsessing over the quality of cutlery and ‘sarkari’ biscuits. I have seen him literally slump into a chair, finally relieved that the event went off well, taking out his cigar and trying to create some rings!
I have seen one of the country’s and possibly even the world’s finest leaders in the automobile industry that close. And I shall not shed a tear for him, for that would be disrespectful of the spirit he embodied.
You shall live long, Jagdish Khattar… very long!