Shyam Talawadekar is a distinguished author, influencer and entrepreneur in the world of Kaizen, a Japanese business methodology centred on continuous improvement of working practices and personal effectiveness and efficiency. A father of two dynamic grown-up sons, he takes us back to his childhood, his quest for education in a poverty-stricken family, and how he taught his boys to be resourceful.
I was born in a tenement measuring 10 feet by 10 feet in Bhendi Bazar, Mumbai, in 1955. My father was a wireman, a henchman to the local electrician who served the neighbourhood. He played second fiddle, cutting wires, holding up stools, providing tools to the chief. Our home had no toilet. The nearest washroom was one that served as a common bathing stall for the families on our floor. I remember the water supply used to start at six in the morning, and everyday, much before the clock struck six, a lengthy queue would snake its way down the beaten corridor, families clamouring to stock up on precious water. I would be slapped out of my slumber every morning, my father delivering heavy blows to my body, in a bid to thrust me out of the door and into the queue. Somehow, I don’t remember starting my day in any other way. The area that I lived in lit up almost every fortnight on the occasion of a wedding or a new baby. The days in between were filled with the hullabaloo of uproarious street fights that would unfold just below our window.
My father was a hot-tempered man, and everyday, when he returned home from a long, hard day’s work, his frustration would course through his body, find its way through his hands and manifest as fierce beatings on our tender bodies. My brothers, sister and I would watch precariously from the window every evening, holding our breaths as we saw him approach and bracing ourselves for what was to come. It was a nightly routine, from which there was seldom respite. I vowed to myself that I would never subject my children to physical violence.
Bhendi Bazar was a breeding ground for goons when I was growing up, and there was little inspiration for academic pursuits. One day, I befriended a boy in my class who had set a consistent record as a topper; his name was Ramakant Patankar. And to my surprise, he lived in my locality. A boy from Bhendi Bazar was the class topper! I was encouraged.
If he can do it, so can I, I told myself.
That day, Ramakant became my role model, and I followed his lead. Together, we would retreat to a small garden in Mazgaon to review our lessons and discuss topics. We were joined by many others in that garden, our day beginning at four o’clock in the morning and ending at ten o’clock at night. We had limited means, and in those hours, we would quieten our stomachs with wildflower honey that we would collect nearby and roadside vada pavs that we would ration amongst ourselves. My efforts fructified when I made the merit list of my school as one of the top ten rank holders during my board exam year.
Following my result, my father ordered me to apply for a workman apprenticeship in a company, the way my brother had, a few years earlier. In those days, several companies offered blue-collar apprenticeships to newbies, and my father thought it would be a good source of additional income for the household. I, however, wanted to pursue my education, so I quietly told my mother about my plan. She assured me that she would manage my father’s temper. Over the next few days, she arduously pieced her savings together. When she thought she had enough, she slipped Rs.160 into my palm and encouraged me to follow my heart.
As determined as I was to seek an education, nobody told me that the next step would be so hard. I was utterly confused about which route to take, where to go and whom to speak to. I had nobody to guide me. Through a misshapen sequence of events, after considering a future in commerce, I reached the gates of Ruparel College in Matunga, where I was accepted into the science stream, based on my marks. I hadn’t really contemplated my interests, and my entry into the sciences was incidental, destined perhaps.
Until then, I had always studied in a vernacular medium, and English was virtually foreign to me. At Ruparel, I struggled to grasp topics that were discussed in class, follow themes in textbooks and engage with other students. My first year was difficult, with my academic record taking a beating. Luckily, I had a cousin who had joined Ruparel along with me, and was experiencing a similar struggle. Between us, we formed a pact: we would only speak English, however broken, with each other. We would build each other up. And we did. Slowly, we picked up the language, and in time, I began excelling in class.
It was what happened next that changed my life. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I was granted admission to VJTI, a renowned engineering college in Mumbai that was considered second best to the IITs. I decided to pursue production engineering there, something that would lay the professional path for me, for the next forty years. During my time at VJTI and Ruparel, I couldn’t afford to buy books. Instead, I would spend hours in the library, poring over material. I also volunteered in the Scouts and Guides Social Service Book Club, where I would borrow books for a nominal fee.
On graduating from VJTI, I was hired by Godrej & Boyce, and completed my MBA in Operations and Marketing from Jamnalal Bajaj, not long after. Over the next few decades I wove my way through the operational landscape of production engineering, gaining exceptional expertise in a Japanese business technique focusing on continuous improvement of working practices and personal effectiveness and efficiency, known as Kaizen. I was intensely passionate about my work. On many occasions, as I oversaw workshops, I would remember snippets of my childhood, of helping my dad cut a wire, or assisting him with an instrument. In a way, unbeknownst to him, he was preparing me. A few years after I graduated, I bought my first little house, comprising one room and a kitchen. Some years later, I bought another house, and in December 1985, I got married to a lovely, kind woman who wanted the same things in life as I did.
When I had my own children, I wanted them to know the value of money. I was clear about how I wanted to raise them. Although we were well-settled and had a car of our own, I never let my boys lead a life of privilege. I would ensure that they cycled or walked down to their school. Sometimes, I would take them to the train station to buy books, because they were cheaper than those in the stores outside. During the Diwali holidays, I would have them cut out blank pages from old notebooks, to save as scraps for art and craft. I would also encourage them to save on books by borrowing books from the library. But one thing I always, always refrained from was raising a hand on either of my boys. Somewhere, I’d like to think that my boys are tougher today because of their upbringing. Both know the value of money.
Today, my fraternity considers me an eminent figure in the world of Kaizen, although I still consider myself an apprentice in the field. I have given seminars, been invited to distinguished events organised by the likes of the National Productivity Council and the Asian Productivity Organisation, Japan, and transformed companies across the world. My first book, published in December 1994, was the second book on Kaizen to be published in English outside Japan, the first one had been written by Kaizen maestro Masaaki Imai himself. Today, I have thirteen books to my credit. In 2014, I was presented the prestigious Masaaki Imai Award, in honour of my contribution to Kaizen outside Japan.
I’ve come a long way from being the little boy in the 10 x 10 chawl of my childhood. That chawl doesn’t exist anymore; it has been redeveloped into a plush apartment complex in the heart of South Mumbai. Perhaps, it’s symbolic of the journey many of its residents followed; of finding a way out and making the best out of any opportunity. Perhaps, it was a blessing in disguise.