Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tools, mining, materials – and fika

In August 2008, Sandvik Asia commissioned me to write a corporate biography, a wonderful assignment that kept me warm and well-fed right through the nasty recession that waited considerately till the project was well on its way.
 Theirs is a fascinating story. In 1950, the newly-formed Indian government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru was faced with the task of building a nascent nation. Reeling from the after-effects of the Second World War, the withdrawal of the British, and the terrible tragedies of Partition, a large majority of our country continued to live in abject poverty. But the new government of India had great ambitions. While making plans to develop the villages and helping the farmers to prosper, they laid the base to build an industrial nation.
India had no technology and needed partners. Whom could we turn to? The British had left after a long struggle; German technology had been used for inhuman purposes during the war; The USA was too far away. Finally, it was decided to approach another quiet, inconspicuous country which just happened to have its industrial base intact. Nehru began sending trade delegations to Sweden.
Swedish companies, conservative, long-term planners, hesitated to invest in a country on the other side of the globe where tigers and snakes apparently roamed free on the streets, and the average person might hope to live just thirty-two years. So Nehru went along himself, and charmed their reservations away. In 1960, the swashbuckling Lars de Jounge arrived in Poona (as it was called then), Sandvik Asia’s first Managing Director.
Lars, now eighty-two, lives in the USA and came to Pune and spent some days talking to me about his experiences setting up the factory and starting business in India. He also gave me his wonderful collection of photographs, and many were used in the book. Other former Managing Directors of the company were also extremely helpful, providing any number of interesting stories, and continuous support as the manuscript progressed. E Gunnar Svensson took the trouble to scan and send me every internal news bulletin from his four-year tenure. He even did a thorough proofread of the manuscript, spotting any number of howlers before we went into production.
My most important oral source for this book was Dr Sanjay Basu, a former IIT professor who led Sandvik Asia’s research and development efforts for decades and, now retired, continues as consultant to the company. He showed me around the factories any number of times, explaining processes and answering questions patiently.
Sadly, the company had preserved almost no documents from which we could piece together its history. Luckily there was a solution – and one which turned out to be a fulfilling adventure. We visited the parent company’s archives, preserved in the municipality at Sandviken.
I had been told, “If they want to reward you, they send you to Sweden in July. If it’s a punishment, you get to go in winter.” So when I was told to block dates in November, I knew what that meant and humbly got out my winter coat, gloves and woollen cap, and a whole lot of regular stuff that could be worn in layers for that extra warmth.
We flew to Stockholm via Munich. I was busy soaking in atmosphere from my Stieg Larsson book but couldn’t help notice the cabin crew trying to speak to my neighbour in their plastic-cheerful German. He, being Danish, would stare back, slit-eyed, and sneer disdainfully, “Sorry?” An investment bank had sent him to India and he had been mighty impressed with the progress in the nation but I think he changed his mind when I said I was on my way to Sweden and gave me a ‘You can’t be serious, go get a Life!’ look.
“Boring,” is how Swedish people describe their countryside (“nothing but trees!”) Two hours out of the airport, we had arrived at the small industrial town where we would read original documents from the 1950s about how the Indian government wooed the Swedish companies to come and share their technical knowledge and contribute to the economic and social growth of our newly independent nation.
Our hotel faced the town square, with the Town Hall on its right and the Municipality building, where the archives were located, on the left. The air was crisp, the trees stark, the sky grey, and the winter coat handy. At the cemetery, the graves were low but lit with little lamps. Walking around, we saw a few relics of the region’s past: a Bessemer converter that was one of the first to be used for the industrial production of steel from iron, and an enormous forging hammer which would have been powered by steam.
It had been a long time since people treated me like a rare exotic creature and I quite enjoyed it. At the archives a number of city workers stopped by to say hello. One who had just come back from a trip confided that they all knew they lived in the best country in the world – but when they went abroad no one had ever heard of them, so what was the use!
Swedish people are modest to the point of being invisible. It’s such a marked part of their personality that when they write, they hardly ever use the word “I”. When they say, “nothing but trees”, they omit mentioning that those trees, and the lakes between them, are stunningly beautiful. Nobody raves about the delicious food, so my facebook posts showing plates heaped with colourful Swedish meals surprised and intrigued my friends.
Walking down the street, little flakes of snow settled on my shoulder, enabling me to marvel, next morning, at a universe in which a perfectly ordinary person could find herself residing temporarily inside a Christmas card. Bosse, the archivist, took us to see an axe factory – Swedish axes are apparently in great demand in the USA. We were fascinated to see that manual skill could be so important in a country of advanced machine technology.
In May the following year, I found myself back in Sandviken, feeling (and behaving) like an expectant father as the design and production team put the book together. The part of the day I enjoyed most was ‘fika’, a Swedish tradition which is hard to describe – I offer the Hindi word ‘timepass’ as my best approximation. Work stops and people hang out and relax over coffee and delicious Swedish cakes.
All the intense hard work was rewarded with a long weekend in beautiful Stockholm with my brother Ravi and his family, and my friend Amita, who flew in from London. I was reading Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, a fictionalised biography of a Frenchwoman who became Queen of Sweden. This, along with the sunny weather we were lucky to have, added depth and perspective as we explored this picturesque city. Walking through Gamlastan, the historic quarter, we discovered Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren’s interesting heroine on whom, say some, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is modelled.

The Sandvik Asia corporate biography was launched on 8 July 2010, fifty years after the company was registered in India. It was a low-profile event, in keeping with the essentially unobtrusive nature characteristic of the Swedish. I did feel sorry, though, that the people of my city would probably never know much about this wonderful company which established base here in 1960, making it one of the first companies to bring foreign direct investment into independent India. Other Swedish companies soon followed suit, and ‘Sveanagar’ came up on the old Bombay-Pune Road, with Sandvik’s manicured lawns charming passersby.
Fifty years of growth and contribution later, the Swedish companies are a shining example of one of the oldest and most significant corporate symbiotic relationships with India, organizations that helped India to become an industrialized nation.