Sanjiv Lall’s entertaining biography, Rubies in my Ear, is an attempt to write a modernised, secular conversion story. Just as evangelicals told their life story to inspire others, so does Sanjiv Lall but with an important difference. While evangelicals sought to persuade others to commit their life to God,
Sanjiv’s aim is the apparently more modest one of showing that there is a way out of not knowing what to do with one’s life. Whether readers will be inspired by Sanjiv’s story is of course up to them. Their response will presumably depend on what they think of Sanjiv own answers to these questions; whether they want to do similar kinds of things and whether they think they too can do anything he has done.
Before commenting on Sanjiv’s response to these questions, it’s useful to look more closely at some parts of his story.
Sanjiv was born into an upper middle class Indian military family. His consciousness of himself begins in early adolescence, with a series of rapid changes in his life. His father – whom he describes admiringly as a tall, elegant man who could speak fluent English and French – dies distressingly as the result of a botched shoulder operation for an injury incurred in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. His mother becomes the breadwinner, she remarries and Sanjiv and his sisters are sent to board in a prestigious English-style private school. Of these changes, the one that Sanjiv expands on most is the school. His account is graphic and revealing. In his first year, he is subject to regular beatings by prefects and teachers, so much so he called the school a living hell. But by the second year he tells us he had learnt to cope and in the last two years of his schooling he tells us things were ‘…steady and cool”; and he credits the school with giving him a strong sense of discipline and survival. Child beating it seems can lead to positive results.
This buoyant mood is sustained through Sanjiv’s subsequent time at Calcutta University where he discovers girls, sex and booze. He studies political science, although he shows little interest in politics except some brief comments on the Shah of Iran. What comes to the fore instead are some of the characteristic ways Sanjiv engages with the central theme flagged in the preface: what to do with his life.
As already mentioned, “booze’ is an early interest, whisky especially. This is sometimes hazardous. In an early chapter a booze session with friends leads to a friend walking through window in a hotel. Throughout the autobiography drinking – and drinking all types of spirits – remains a constant interest.
But when he finishes University, what becomes urgent is finding a job – which he approaches in a highly characteristic manner.
Sanjiv’s brother in law offers him a job in a major Indian computer business. He turns it down. Instead, he elects to take up a suggestion by another relative to go to Iran. In Iran, the job opportunities he has been told about aren’t forthcoming. In the end he finds his own job – working for a container company – by chatting up another Indian contact in Tehran. This pattern repeats: selecting and rejecting suggestions, making his own contacts, renewing old family contacts, and seeking out opportunities as they randomly present themselves in the places he finds himself. In one case he persuades a Saudi billionaire to employ him to sell concrete to Bangladesh, using floating concrete ships. This doesn’t work out: ports in Bangladesh are not deep enough. This also seems a recurring feature of Sanjiv’s life: what seems like a good idea to start with or for a time runs up against complications or for some reason has a shorter life than anticipated.
Other jobs follow, including selling dictaphones, arranging for the sale of pomfret fish to Kuwait, working in varying capacities for his brother in law, setting up a SAP business with branches in NZ, India and America, importing clothes from India to New Zealand, arranging to import de-haired Mongolian cashmere fibre to India, renovating dilapidated Portuguese villas in Goa. Of these ventures the SAP project is the most successful and lasts the longest, although renovating old villas in Goa remains an ongoing interest.
But finding a job is just one of Sanjiv’s preoccupations. Three others also contribute and sometimes take centre stage in his answer of what to do with his life: travel, relationships, and possessions.
As a traveller outside India, Sanjiv gets himself into some tight spots. In Tehran he is unable to get a work permit and has to leave suddenly; in Russia he has problems changing Iranian money into Russian roubles and narrowly avoids overstaying his visa allocation; when travelling across France he is unable to get off a train in France because he doesn’t have a French visa. Arriving in Finland after Russia comes as a huge relief. He spends time going between Demark and Sweden and became a fan of both countries, a sentiment encapsulated in a chapter headed “Glorious Scandinavia”. The other feature that characterises Sanjiv’s travels is his well honed capacity to chat up others, and this often proves extremely useful. It helps him find places to stay and to acquire new friends and girlfriends.
Sanjiv’s observations of the countries he travels through are interesting but rarely developed. Helsinki is pristine and nicely laid out; Stockholm is great fun, with cobbled streets; in Copenhagen he visits the Tivoli gardens but fails to get a visa to travel to America; London is easy and cheaper than Scandinavia and he feels totally at home there. A recurring interest is visiting red light districts as a spectator, which he does in Amsterdam and again in Kalgoorlie, the outback town in Western Australia. The most reflective comment he makes on his travels is on New Zealand of which he says “people there had no religion… and no caste”. This no doubt reflects the people he meets there but also the India he comes from, a point he emphasizes in his comment that it ‘took me a long time to figure out how a person cannot have a religion’. To his surprise, he discovers things are done differently in NZ.
To fill out Sanjiv’s own response to what to do with one’s life it is necessary to briefly comment on his relationships with women and his love of certain possessions. He comments on three relationships and a number of friendships and passing meetings. In the Hague he meets Merle, a German girl six years younger than him, at that time a schoolgirl – who he could talk to more easily than Indian women of the same age. He meets up with Merle twenty years later, they still get on. In 1982, he meets Sakshi. He tells us he has never met a woman like Sakshi before: she is a fabulous cook, a woman extraordinaire, a party girl, she’d like to marry him; but he doesn’t marry her. Sometime later, he meets Zoee, a New Zealander. He describes this meeting as a turning point, and Zoee as his first and only ever true blonde girl friend and that his infatuation matured into love, so much so that he describes being with Zoee as the best part of his life. This doesn’t prevent him returning to India, without Zoee, after 18 years based in NZ. The last extended relationship he refers is with Ania who he describes as casual and understated and who he credits with breaking through the reserve he tells us he usually brings to relationships.
His concluding comments on the women who ‘played such a huge part in shaping his life” suggest some unresolved aspirations. He acknowledges he doesn’t go the distance with any of the women he has serious relationships with – meaning presumably none leads to marriage and children – but he offers no explanation or extended reflections on this other than to say “perhaps it was not meant to be”.
His attitude towards accumulating desired possessions however is much less equivocal, especially when it comes to jeeps. In a one page chapter, he tells that he always had a passion for jeeps and that this passion was triggered by seeing his father as a boy in an army jeep looking very smart and regal. The strength of this passion is demonstrated by his ownership of 4 ex army jeeps, with an additional one under restoration. One is tempted to think that for Sanjiv owning jeeps is way of keeping his father’s memory alive.
So what can be concluded? What advice – or inspiration to use Sanjiv’s favoured phrase– can a reader ‘who does not know what they want to do in life’ deduce from Sanjiv’s autobiography?
This is probably a trickier question than Sanjiv allows. Sanjiv’s own answer to this question is underpinned by two debatable claims: first that he is an ordinary bloke (a C student who studied as little as possible and took the easiest of courses but nonetheless managed to get a University degree); and second, that he has been able to work his way through repeated setbacks. Despite the early death of his father and his modest academic success, he manages to set up a series of businesses – one a successful IT business; he has at least three sustained and for a time happy relations with women – one lasting 17 years; he lives in three countries. He repeatedly recovers from the end of relationships and businesses and begins new ones. So Sanjiv presents himself as an encouraging example. He has done it and therefore so can the forlorn reader who doesn’t know what to do with his life. But as alluded to in the opening paragraph of this review the attraction of this line of argument will depend on how appealing readers find Sanjiv’s life story. Will they want for themselves what Sanjiv achieves? They may also question whether they have the luck (or are likely to make the same luck) Sanjiv has, or have his skills or contacts, or whether their own skills and luck might lead them in a different direction altogether than the one Sanjiv takes.
Nonetheless irrespective of whether readers are inspired or not by Sanjiv’s life example – including buying a fleet of jeeps – they are likely to be amused and impressed by his bravado and his obvious ability to befriend women, outwit German IT companies and persuade an Indian billionaire to invest in sending ‘concrete ships’ to Bangladesh when no port existed in the country where they could offload.
It might also be worth saying – to think about Sanjiv’s book in broader terms – that offering guidance to people who do not know what they want to do with their life is a very ancient business. Most religions provide rules, fables and commandments which we are told will if we follow them (often a demanding requirement) lead to a satisfying and ennobling life, including in the case of some religions an even more fulfilling afterlife. The business of providing answers to the question of what to with one’s life has now also been turned into a very lucrative and literal business. Often called the ‘wellness business’ it offers – no doubt at various prices to suit different parts of the market – a myriad of ways of answering or at least responding to the most nagging and tricky question all humans face, what to do with our lives Of course none of these offers comes with success guaranteed clauses or money back provisos should the answers not meet one’s expectations.
The biggest merit of Sanjiv’s book is that it describes in impressive and often amusing detail his ongoing and distinctive efforts over 40 years to tackle the question of what to do with his life. Even people who would not wish to imitate him must be impressed by his self belief and verve. In this at least he sets a useful example. There’s no doubt we can all gain from recognising and making use of our own talents and capacities, as he does.