By Suma Varughese
Face-to-face with Titoo Ahluwalia, ex-ceo of a leading market research company, marg, and presently engaged in ‘wholesome’ activities such as activism and spirituality
I first met Titoo Ahluwalia when I was editor of Society magazine, and Titoo was very much the man about town, a known face in party circles and business magazines. Then I quit and joined Life Positive, and behold, I got a call from Titoo, telling me about his own pursuit of spirituality, the farmhouse he had constructed in Nandgaon, his detachment from the high life, his newly begun NGO, Anshu Foundation, and of his decision to quit corporate life. When next we made contact, he had made good on the plan, and had also taken on stewardship of various voluntary organisations, as well as Conscious Food, a well-known organic food brand.
As before he displayed a keen interest in Life Positive and expressed his interest in doing ‘wholesome’ work, so before long, we managed to get him onboard as advisor. Since then my acquaintanceship with Titoo has grown, and I have found that under the suave, urbane demeanour is a man of genuine kindness and empathy, and with a rollicking sense of humour! There are a host of people whose welfare he takes responsibility for, and for whom he arranges opportunities that would have been financially difficult otherwise. He throws himself into his voluntary work, which keeps him as busy as any executive.
Yet he seldom misses his weekend appointment with his farmhouse in Nandgaon. It is situated by the sea on a thickly forested hill-side and blends organically with its slopes so that you have to go up the stairs if you want to dine, and down the stairs to the bedroom. His house is a stunning example of architecture that flows with nature instead of supplanting it. Despite being close to a vegan, he eats splendidly, with exquisite salads and desserts bursting with organic flavour. Titoo lives well – his townhouse in South Mumbai is in one of the most prestigious buildings, and it too is a statement of quietly opulent good taste. And he takes off every now and then to exotic places for retreats. But although he uses money with great taste, he clearly has an alternative definition of the good life. He is amicably separated from his wife, Jamini, with whom he has two children, Maithili, a design consultant, and Ashim, a documentary film-maker. Excerpts from an interview:
What is your favourite answer to the question: Who is Titoo Ahluwalia?
I am tempted to give you a whacky answer, like: he is a swirling collection of atoms, or a tiny speck in the mammoth cosmic drama but with a specific purpose…
What are the lessons life has taught you?
There are so many. But let me tell you of two that help me pretty much on a daily basis. The first is that for far too long I paid too little attention to my “inner life”. The rewards of looking inwards in silence are substantial, just as rushing around frantically is often a sign of having lost one’s way. The other lesson, and it’s very much related to the first, is that if I want to change something in my life, often the best way to do so is by changing the way I view it.
What is it that you value most?
Peace and compassion. The more I am able to bring them into my life, the more joy and inner grace I experience.
What would you say was the most crucial turning point in your life?
Perhaps the most important turning point for me came when, at the age of 19, after a very sheltered middle class life in Delhi, I went off on a hitch-hiking trip through the Middle East and Europe to England, and hustled my way into studying and working in London for a few years. I think that I emerged a different person at the end of this period.
In what way were you different?
I became less judgmental, more confident and more independent.
Who have been your sources of inspiration?
You know, I’m a pretty ordinary person who has been fortunate enough to get to know and work closely with some truly extraordinary people. More than even some of the great spiritual masters that I’ve had some contact with, it’s these people who’ve been certainly my most direct, and probably my most important, sources of inspiration. The people that I am talking about are the late Subhas Ghosal, my boss in the ’70s and early ’80s, Dorab Sopariwala, my survey research partner for 25 years, and Pervin Varma, who is currently a colleague at Citizens for Peace. Very different people, the three of them, but with one rare thing in common: each one of them has challenged the conventional wisdom that if you have to be effective in this world, you have to go along with the ways of the world and some of its dismal standards of conduct.
After so many years as CEO of a large company, what caused you to leave corporate life?
Working in a business environment does teach one quite a lot – such as efficiency and accountability – but you have to pay a price for it. A fiercely competitive environment doesn’t exactly nurture the spirit.
For a long time I lived a corporate life with many non-corporate interests and concerns. But inside me was a little voice telling me to move on, and the voice was getting stronger. In the end it prevailed, and I’m truly grateful for that.
How have you designed your post-corporate life?
I’m doing things I’ve wanted to do for many years. In 2002, while I was still running ORG-MARG ACNielsen, I set up Anshu Foundation which has two main activities – one is to provide financial assistance to people in distress, and the other is to promote rural community programmes such as organic farming and rain water harvesting.
I’m also involved with three other voluntary organisations – Citizens for Peace, The Subhas Ghosal Foundation and Pukar – of which the first two operate out of a small office I’ve set up near the Gateway of India.
What would you say is the most important difference between your previous corporate working life and your current non-corporate working life?
It’s wonderful to be liberated from measuring the worth of every activity largely in terms of money. That’s the difference, and what a huge difference that makes!
The other thing is that in the last three years of working with civil society, I’ve met more people who have enthused and uplifted me than I did in the previous 30 years of working in the business world. Now that’s a very big plus, isn’t it?
You’ve been a part of the ‘pin-striped business suit brigade’ and now you are among the ‘jholawalas’. It would therefore be interesting to know what your attitude to money is.
For me money is not much of a motivator. So it’s really ironical that, although by today’s standards it may be peanuts, I’ve made more money than I had ever planned, ever expected or ever deserved. People say money doesn’t matter much to me because I’ve made enough of it. They don’t know that it didn’t matter much even when I had a lot less.
The truth is that I don’t really understand money matters because they bore me. That, unfortunately for my company, was the case when I was running it. And it’s true today as well.
As I see it, making much more money than you need and can use well, is almost a burden. That’s why I really wonder how, for example, Mukesh Ambani dealt with becoming richer yesterday by Rs 10,200 crore in just one day’s stock market surge. And that’s also why Warren Buffet became, in my view, one of the greatest heroes of our time when he recently gave away two-thirds of his wealth of $44 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for tackling poverty, improving education and fighting health problems.
Tell us about your involvement with Conscious Food. How did that happen?
I’ve been a buyer of Conscious Food products ever since Kavita Mukhi, the well-known eco-nutritionist, started her organic food business in 1990. Actually, I got involved only because this pioneering company was facing serious problems. When Kavita heard that I had set up Anshu Foundation which was promoting organic farming, she asked if I would take over Conscious Food and arrange the financial and marketing support it needed. That’s how I got involved with the strategy, structure and systems of the company but the implementation is entirely in the hands of people who’ve been brought in for that purpose. Kavita continues to advise on all product-related and technical issues.
We hear you are very particular about what you eat. So what kind of food is it?
Well, you know, while I’ve enjoyed good health most of my life, I’ve always had to keep away from spicy and oily food which my system just can’t handle.
I eat natural, unprocessed food, including unprocessed salt and sugar, consume a lot of fruits, vegetables, nuts and sprouts, and avoid acid-forming foods. And I am a vegetarian by preference, something that baffles most fellow-Sikhs.
Tell us about your brush with prostate cancer and how it impacted you.
It was a bolt from the blue. One day I was perfectly healthy, no symptoms at all, and the next day, as a result of a medical examination following a chance question about the cause of my father’s death, I was confronted with the possibility of a malignancy, which was later confirmed. As somebody who had never had surgery after a tonsillitis operation at the age of nine, and who had never been admitted to a hospital, this came as quite a jolt. And this jolt was accompanied by deep disappointment at my reaction to the diagnosis because, despite years of exposure to spirituality, I was in turmoil inside and just retreated into my shell.
Now, three-and-a-half years later, I can say that I have experienced the truth in the old cliché about adversity. I really do feel stronger. But I also now know that we shouldn’t be too disappointed if we don’t quite measure up when we are really put to test.
Could you tell us about your spiritual journey and the practices that you follow?
To call it a spiritual journey might be pretentious, because frankly it’s been more of an intermittent pursuit that started at the age of 13 when I accompanied my uncle to J Krishnamurti’s talks in Delhi. I’ve also attended lectures and programmes by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London, by Osho in Pune, by Swami Muktananda in Ganeshpuri, by Swami Satyananda and Swami Niranjanananda of the Bihar School, by the Dalai Lama, by Ramesh Balsekar and other masters.
I do yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation pretty much every day, for about an hour in all. Sometimes I do a few minutes of Buddhist chanting of nam myoho renge kyo and occasionally I do some Chi Kung energy practices. I find them all very helpful, particularly in making the mind quieter.
Have you got a guru?
As I just told you, I’ve seen and heard many spiritual masters. But I’ve neither gone looking for, nor suddenly discovered, a guru to surrender myself to. Perhaps it’ll happen when I am ready for it. Who knows, it may not yet be too late.
Have you had any deeply profound or intense spiritual experience which you can clearly recall?
No, I haven’t had any flashes of blinding light or out-of-body experience or anything like that, although I keep hearing about such experiences.
Are you cynical when you hear about such experiences?
I’m always curious to know, often amazed, and sometimes sceptical, about what I hear. I try and consciously set aside my analytical conditioning when I’m told about such experiences but I do find it a bit difficult to accept the extravagant claims and miracle cures that are quoted fairly often.
Your favourite books on spirituality?
The Monk and the Philosopher, a conversation between Mathieu Ricard and his father and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle come to mind.
And your favourite spiritual quotations?
Two of my favourite quotations are perhaps as much philosophical as they are spiritual. The first one is from Gandhi:
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
And the second one is from the Surangama Sutra: “Things are not what they appear to be; nor are they otherwise.”
Who would you like to be re-born as?
Oh, I think a Buddhist monk living in a Bhutanese monastery near a mountain stream would be quite nice, if you could please arrange that!
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