Book Review: Godman to Tycoon by Priyanka Pathak Narain

Sometimes, Twitter does good. It was through Twitter that I realized that I wanted to read this book. Someone was posting passages and snippets from the book. Soon enough, I realized that the book is not easily available online (digital or print editions). Because there is an injunction to the distribution and sales of this book. More intrigue. More itch to get the book. I can be blamed for many things, but being resourceful on matters such as these wouldn’t be one of them. [Anyway, click on the book, and you will get to the Infibeam page where it’s being sold]

So, with the book in my hand, and a long weekend around the corner, I dug my heels in, and began my quest to understand this extremely enigmatic person and brand. For, Baba Ramdev, the person, is the same thing as Patanjali, the brand. At least in my humble world view.

Someone already did a brilliant TL;DR version of the book, so I would let you go read that. I would not talk about specific gossipy elements. Or maybe, I would.

The book is a pretty darn good read. The level of research, given the general air of mystery around the Baba, is good. The narrative style – fluid. The level of detail – not so much that it becomes boring. Not so little – that you say “is that it?” I was expecting far more sensationalism and far less detail from the book. Sometimes, three passages that are used for advertising are all there is to the book. Quite similar to the trailer of Dharma movies.

Well, coming back to the man – Baba Ramdev’s life can be organized in 3-4 brackets.

First, the  early life in Saidpur, Haryana. Next, from the Khanpur Gurukul to Saffronisation of Baba at Kripalu Bagh Ashram. This phase introduces two of the most important actors of the story – Acharya Balkrishna and Acharya Karamveer. The third stage is the media brand that Ramdev built. And lastly, the Patanjali phase.

While the third and fourth phases make for an engrossing read and are a lot well researched, the first two leave a lot to be desired. The third and fourth phase also have the benefit of far higher media coverage, availability of footprints online, and more people tracking who this Baba is!

When it comes to the first two phases, the book somewhat disappoints. Ramdev’s strained relationship with his father, the agonies of a poor farming family’s life in rural India, and his family relationships – leading all the way to his running away to join Khanpur Gurukul – are largely unexplored. One of the biggest mysteries has to be how the failed family relationships suddenly became an important pillar of his empire (his brother handles all the finances of Patanjali, and has a hot-n-cold relationship with Acharya Balkrishna). It is here that a reader wants to understand Balkrishna and Ramdev’s relationship. One of the unresolved conflicts of the narration is how easily Ramdev became the CEO in the trio of Ramdev-Balkrishna-Karamveer, given that Acharya Karamveer was the senior of the three and had helped them get their foothold in Haridwar.

Second, the Gurukul to Kanakhal foothold. From Karamveer’s introduction into the story, to the eventual “saffronisation” of Baba Ramdev as he spots the opportunity of taking over the Kripalu Bagh Ashram of Shankar Dev. This section builds up a reasonable amount of understanding of how Baba Ramdev started becoming a Godman. You see early signs of his visionary forward thinking, business acumen, and leadership skills. But here again, a lot of things are presented on face value – like a chain of events. The under-currents of relationships are not that well explored. What’s great to know is how the same set of opportunities led three different men to three different places. Balkrishna started his Divya Pharmacy stage at this point.

However, the book picks up heat in the last two phases. There are lot more balancing viewpoints, people speaking in favour and against Ramdev and his Patanjali empire. A reasonably wide gamut of issues are touched upon – from something as serious as the suspicious death of Swami Yogananda/ Rajeev Dixit, to the less talked about marginalization of Shankar Dev.

Scrupulous as his methods come across as, there’s a lot to admire about the Baba Ramdev, the businessman. How early he spots the religious TV opportunity and the far sighted calls taken on Patanjali products are commendable. Yet, as expected, the book leaves you with a lot of unease about a man who’s revered by a large section of people, and yet has enough skeletons in the closet that the authorities are paying lip service to.

I felt that as a journalist, Priyanka Pathak Narain has done a fabulous job of not taking an either-or stand about Ramdev.  A lot of the evidence is anecdotal and conversational. The places where there is hard-evidence (such as the litigations or product failures), she does present an unambiguous picture. But for what its worth, success has as many enemies as it has friends. While writing the book, it must have been tough to not color every passage with a bit of black against his name, yet the book seems to respect the difference between information and opinions.

 

I really enjoyed the book, and would heartily recommend it to all you Dant-Kanti lovers and haters alike! Have I used Patanjali products? Unfortunately, yes. ☹

 

p.s. One of the funniest things about the book is everyone’s failure to find Baba Ramdev’s date of birth! I mean, in the age of Aadhaar…

 

 

 

 

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