The first time I met Russi Lala, he gave me a copy of his book Celebration of the Cells: Letters from a Cancer Survivor, saying "that should keep you out of mischief for a few hours."
I hadn’t heard that phrase since my schooldays and I’d never expected to encounter it again in middle age. But here was this old world Parsi gentleman using it on me with a delightful twinkle in his eyes. I had dropped in at Lala’s flat in the Parsi enclave of Cusrow Baug in Colaba to request him to do an article on Ratan Tata, who has just been ranked No 1 in Corporate Dossier’s ‘India Inc’s Most Powerful CEOs’ survey.
He demurred at first, saying he was biographer to the previous generation of Tatas – JRD, Jamsetji, Dorabji – and didn’t know Ratan all that well. But as it turned out, he had several anecdotes from the few times he had met the man, more than enough for the article we needed. Lala has now published a new book, titled The Art of Effective Giving, with a Foreword by Ratan Tata.
It has an ambitious, explicitly stated objective: to persuade wealthy Indians to give more. "I have for long been distressed by the fact that people with so much money give so little. But when I started writing the book, I put that thought aside. I didn’t want to be critical of people. You can’t write creatively with such negativity, you need to have a generous heart. So I decided to focus on inspiring and helping people to give," he says.
The slim tome won’t keep the reader out of mischief for very long. It can be finished on a Mumbai-Delhi flight with time to spare, even by those who like to absorb every word. More than half the book is given over to bio-sketches of philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates (and Warren Buffet, who is routing all his philanthropy through them), Andrew Carnegie (who gave away 90% of his fortune before his death), Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (of JJ School of Art and Mahim Causeway fame) and Azim Premji (who has donated more than $2 billion to improving elementary education).
For those who have never read the biographies of these individuals, the book provides a teaser trailer. The second, and more engaging, part of the book is about Lala’s personal experiences in philanthropy. After The Creation of wealth: The Tata Story, his second book was The Heartbeat of a Trust: The Story of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. This eventually led to a place on the Board of the trust, where he spent 18 years.
Lala recalls seeking out his friend Father MM Balaguer, then the principal of St Xavier’s College, for advice on changing careers: "He told me, ‘Russi, if you accept this offer, you will have the power to do a lot of good". That resolved my dilemma."
The Dorabji Tata Trust financed the setting up of big time institutions like NCPA and TIFR, but the most poignant stories in the book are about the endowments it gave to smaller causes (to the Belur Math of the Ramkrishna Mission, for the care of aging swamis) and to individuals (like RA Mashelkar, who went on to become the head of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research).
"These are stories I remember best from my career," says Lala. "You know what they say, what’s not worth remembering is not worth writing about." The indefatigable 83 year old is already at work on a new book, tentatively titled Going into Goodnight, where he’ll be writing about life after 80.
He gives me a glimpse of the first chapter, neatly typed out by his secretary, saying, "At 80-plus, you’re lonely, you’re vulnerable, of course, nobody will employ you. But me, I can still write books! It’s the best job in the world." You can also win Oscars for best supporting actor, like Christopher Plummer, I remind him, which elicits a guffaw.
Who doesn’t remember the leading man in The Sound of Music? A widower, Lala has a five member support team to look after him at his third-floor apartment, including a driver, cook, day nurse and night nurse. "India is the best country to grow old in," he says cheerily. "Where else could I afford to employ so many good people? I believe God looks after you by sending you the right people."