Guru. A Long Walk To Success

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Authors: Narendra Raval with Kailash Mota

Publ: Bloomsbury India. Pps.314

ISBN: HB:978-9-3871-4689-1

Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu

Guru is the ghost-written, rags to riches autobiography of Narendra Raval. Born in 1961, Raval rose, or rather has risen, because he is very much alive at the time of reviewing his book (October, 2018) from humble beginnings in a village in Gujarat, India, to be named 41st on the list of the richest people in the whole of Africa, having become a Kenyan citizen and a steel magnate, heading a group with over 4,000 employees.

Raval decided early that money was the key to fulfilment, inspired by the traumatic change in his life when his grandfather cast out his father and mother with their three young children after a family dispute. Raval remembers the humiliating descent from being part of a respected and respectable larger grouping to being so down and out that he and his father were chased away by a shopkeeper who would not allow them to eat their hand-held lunch outside his premises. An incident that he was never to forget. He wore second hand clothes and walked barefoot. However, he reminds us on several occasions in his narrative that he is a Brahmin, a member of Hinduism’s highest social caste and, therefore, a representative of the highest form of human evolution. And he has always dreamed big and believed that he could achieve whatever he wanted. One of his childhood wishes, having seen prime minister Indira Gandhi land in one, was to be able to pilot a helicopter some-day, which he eventually achieved at the age of fifty one.

Raval tells us that he did not take to school and schoolwork. He was a well-known stirrer and bully and dropped out at some point in high school, with no qualifications of which to speak. What education he did have gave him a knowledge of astrology and Sanskrit, a ‘dead’ language but nonetheless the language of the scriptures, which steeped him sufficiently in Hindu doctrine for him to have been offered a side job as a temple priest, while still only a teenager.

By turns, he was posted to Kenya as a temple priest. He served for three years in Nairobi, lost the job when it was discovered that his father had fabricated a reason for him to return to India to see his mother. He stayed for a while in India and then returned to Kenya, as the land of opportunity. He was led to the hardware trade, first observing its workings as an apprentice, then working for others, then setting up on his own, never to look back as he turned himself from trader to manufacturer, building factory upon factory and proceeding from handling hundreds of Kenyan shillings to handling millions and billions. And as he did so, he more than lived up to the nickname which he had acquired quite early along the way: Guru or, in a similar, one word English translation: ‘Sage.’

As a reader, Guru invites comment or criticism directed, quite separately, to the author and to his ghost writer.

Narendra Raval reiterates the old chestnut that with hard work and application anything is possible. However, in much the same way that a theologian might be challenged about why an ever merciful and all powerful God would allow bad things to happen to good people, one would query whether the truth is that if millions, nay billions of people don’t ‘make it,’ so to speak, it is because they are lazy and incompetent? And perhaps Raval, as a card carrying Brahmin or ‘social aristocrat’ and as a self-confessed believer in karma, positing that we are all the sum of our thoughts and actions, would argue that he has succeeded because he deserves to succeed, whilst other, more lowly mortals don’t? Would he ever contemplate a lowest caste dalit being equally successful through hard work? Most likely not.

Having expressed that initial apprehension, it must be said that Raval’s achievement seems to be owed much more to luck rather than design.

For example, Raval has had immeasurable luck in having married a loyal companion and not a nagging competitor. A wife who was prepared to make do with only a glass of water for a whole meal when times were hard, before the days of rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty.What he does pass on is that once an opportunity presents itself one must grasp it wholeheartedly and be unafraid to take (always calculated) risks. He also gives us lessons in enviable self-discipline, self-denial and, above all, ‘giving back,’ through any number of social responsibility initiatives. Bravo!

However, Raval does revive the argument that Right Conduct is a relative construct, from culture to culture. As a self-confessed man of unquestionable integrity at all times, he sees nothing wrong in travelling to England with a bag full of Kenyan 50 shilling coins after the discovery that they allow his hospitalised wife to make free telephone calls to him, back in Kenya. Nor does he sees an ethical boundary in switching to a first class train cabin in India and travelling in it without paying, as long as he doesn’t get caught, of course.

Raval could have been more forthcoming in revealing his own assessment of the many movers and shakers whom he has encountered. In Guru, the goodies are all saintly and not an ill-word is said against the baddies, although some business rivalries are hinted at. There may be wisdom in that approach but it does not make for fascinating reading. What were people like Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta and Joseph Kabila and Cherie Blair and Nick Clegg like, up close and personal? Unsatisfied with the casual namedropping, the reader wants to know. The same applies to wanting to know more about the nature of discussions that lead to multi-million dollar transactions. The enlightened sage encourages the young to follow in his footsteps but in this autobiography, at least, he offers very few exemplary scenarios from his lived experience. Things just can’t be or couldn’t have been as smooth sailing as he suggests, overall, in the world of business.

And, finally, for a man who declares humility to be a defining quality of his persona, there are too many lines and too many pictures that leave the impression that he is, in fact, quite smug and self-satisfied and wishes to proclaim: ‘Would you believe? I’ve managed to do all this, to meet all these influential people, to be given all these honours, all without a university degree.’ We must put that down to an editorial decision because what is not in doubt is that Narendra Raval has, indeed, achieved a great deal in a relatively short time. However, it must be said that, nowadays, the average citizen would find it well-nigh impossible to emulate him.

All told, Raval is ill-served by his ghost writer, Kailash Mota, whose rigour and research can be objectively faulted. Mota signals what is to come by letting his subject reveal that he was called Batuk from birth. So, what about the switch to Narendra? It is never explained. Further on, he explains what a samosa is to the reader but sees no need to explain the seemingly more esoteric Kiswahili word mzee (for ‘old man.’) In the same vain, Raval talks about a bus station, for the Kenyan reader bafflingly named Machachacos, or some such, when Kenyans know it to be named after the nearby town of Machakos. And a Kikuyu name is spelt as Kariugi, not the more familiar Kariuki.

As an advisor on style and syntax, it should have fallen to the ghost writer to impress upon his storyteller that: ‘once taken in, it’s understood.’ Consequently, the reader need not be subjected to endless repetition: If we, as readers, are told once that Raval is a Brahmin, we register it. If we are told that Raval wanted to fly a helicopter from poorest childhood, we do not need to be reminded of it at least four times. If Raval believes that honesty is all, that is understood and, as readers, we should only await manifestations of that credo, in order to reinforce it, not repeated proselytising.

Lastly, the ghost writer could have done more to avoid writing sentence after sentence in predictable clichés. Thus fewer lights at the end of the tunnel, fewer tears flowing freely down cheeks, fewer responses from the bottom of the author’s heart. In this regard, it may well have been that  interviews were conducted in English and, therefore, the ghost writer was only evoking Raval’s own manner of speaking that language, complete with the edifying and supposedly impressive quotations from the likes of Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Norman Vincent Peale which he had encountered in his reading as an autodidact. However, it would have made for a richer read if Raval had engaged his ghost writer in Hindi, the language in which he had the greatest capacity for subtlety and nuance. It would then have fallen to his collaborator to render the texture of his pronouncements in another language, in this case English, as would be expected of a more proficient, paid collaborator.

All in all, Guru, the unique story of a man of undeniable faith and compassion, fortuitously blessed with a super wife, will remain in the reviewer’s mind as a lost literary opportunity, for having been told in a pedestrian and predictable manner.  

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

Word Count: 1648 words

Last modified on Friday, 07 June 2019 23:15
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