reviews and essays

The Age Of Seth

How vice pays tribute to virtue in contemporary India

By MIHIR S SHARMA | 1 December 2011

THERE WAS A PARTY LAST NIGHT in Lutyens’ Delhi, or possibly in South Mumbai, crowded with those who glitter most blindingly in Shining India. Suhel Seth will have been among them. There will be a party tonight, a few kilometres or a thousand from the last one. Seth will be there too, his familiar voice carrying over the crumpled carpets or sodden grass. This is the time in our history that belongs to men like Suhel Seth; a time when, just as intemperance is intellect and fervidity is profundity, such ubiquity is unquestionably success.

Success, or at least ubiquity, is precisely what Seth intends to teach his readers in Get to the Top. But it should be read even by those who have no desire to get to the top—for it unwittingly provides a glimpse of precisely how things work at the top, and what people do to arrive there.

Some people are famous for being famous. Suhel Seth is famous for knowing the famous. They say that fame exacts a heavy price from its bearers, and it appears that part of that price is to be “dear friends” with Suhel Seth. And as the number of his famous friends has grown so large that it would clearly take a book to record them all, Seth has achieved a kind of fame in his own right—mostly as a face on our TV screens, where he is reliably intemperate, fervid and, most of all, ubiquitous, familiar to television viewers from innumerable discussions whose topics are as varied as their dissection is disorganised.

Get to the Top, however, suffers from something like an excess of organisation: each of the “ten rules for social success” bears two or three sub-rules of its own, along with mnemonic mantras for each section, and appendices and exercises for the reader. And yet the book, Seth’s first since he became a household name in those households without enough sense to avoid news television, does not have an introduction. But unlike Seth’s friends, whose names are carelessly strewn through its pages, it very much needs one—because it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it.

Get to the Top is to normal self-help books what Page 3 is to your Facebook feed. Few of us are actually called upon to befriend the famous, which is Seth’s real conception of social success. No doubt the famous and powerful are themselves in the happy position of befriending one another—at farmhouse soirees in Delhi, five-star hotels in Mumbai or first-class cabins somewhere in between—but I doubt they are this book’s intended audience. After all, they could just ask Suhel for advice at tonight’s party.

What’s more, the lessons from such rarefied altitudes are not easily applied in our more terrestrial lives. You might suppose that Seth’s Rule 6, “Don’t try to make important friends”, would be quite easy for most of us to follow, though doing so might not help us achieve the pinnacle of social success. But Seth’s meaning is more nuanced (to put it charitably): he intends to say that “networking” should not be “simply transactional”. He explains, “My famous friends are first my friends,” and provides the reader with a concise list of tips for talking to VIPs (“never be a courtier”; “always feel equal to them”).

If there is something that strikes you as disingenuous in a chapter that urges you to pretend not to be seeking out celebrities in order to achieve success at seeking out celebrities, you are not alone. This off-key clash between tone and motive is the discordant leitmotif that runs through the book. For those of us less able or willing to carry off this cognitive dissonance with Seth’s panache, Rule 6 is thus less helpful than it may have first seemed.

So this is not exactly a self-help book, given that the problems it purports to help solve are those its readers can only dream of facing. What is it meant to be, then? The answer depends on what degree of cynicism you wish to bring to the question.

The most obvious—and most cynical—explanation is that this is a work of career positioning, a hardbound advertisement for its author. In our Suhelian era, where appearance is all and visibility substitutes for substance, every man is his own brand, and cultivating one’s brand equity is the highest of virtues. “Remember,” Seth writes, “whether it’s you, me, Gandhi or Obama, ultimately we are all brands.” Therefore, he continues, “you make an impression when you’ve created a brand for yourself, and the best way to create this brand is with words.” Among Seth’s many self-declared virtues is that he puts his money where his famous mouth is: he is branding himself as the man who can make you over. His day job is running a firm called Counselage India, a boutique consultancy that advises CEOs how to brand and market themselves. And by night, he has worked to produce this portfolio to showcase his services, stuffed with flattering word-pictures of what a good friend he has been to so many powerful people.

Too harsh? Very well, let us be more charitable.

Consider this possibly useful analogy. In the appliance-starved India of the 1980s, I dreamed of owning a Walkman. The device was unaffordable; but the tattered user manual for it that I bought at a second-hand bookstore on College Street was not. I read it, cover to cover, over and again. I did not expect to own a Walkman, but it is essential to aspiration to prepare yourself for unimaginable good fortune. And in the India of 2011, where aspiration has turned from being a sinful private fantasy to a shared national creed, some of us will linger over Patek Philippe advertisements in glossy magazines; others will devour schedules for Aegean island vacations in equally glossy supplements; and perhaps some of us will read up on the care and feeding of celebrities we would like to someday own, in this almost-glossy hardback.

But perhaps the truth is the most charitable interpretation: that Seth believes this book is useful. Like everyone who, born to the Nehruvian elite, nevertheless managed to survive the disorientation of the Manmohan decades, he is convinced that he has made it on his own (“Rajdeep and Arnab are self-made, like most of my friends”). Social success apparently has nothing to do with being from the best schools and meeting the best people at the best clubs (“I love the good things in life, and I have earned it the hard way”); no, he believes he is invited by famous people to their parties because he has “a strong stand on issues”. The worst kind of circular reasoning is charmed circular reasoning. But if Seth could triumphantly crash the elite into which he was born, can not the rest of us learn from how he did it?

Suhel Seth believes this is a helpful instruction manual, therefore, on how to be Suhel Seth. For those of us with more modest ambitions, however, it is an indispensable document to the time in which we now live: an age in which India’s apparent entrepreneurial dynamism is being replaced with an economy structured around rent-seeking and the sifarishi sycophancy that it engenders, around the discreet sale and purchase of private information at a scale which would make Rajat Gupta shudder. An age—let us call it the Age of Seth—when a closed, Brahminical notion of public discourse appears to have died, but has actually only disguised itself as a culture that prizes mediocrity, insulated from challenge by the same walls of privilege that have protected it all along.

IT TAKES A CERTAIN SORT OF PERSON to think an autobiography would be a good self-help book. So who is Suhel Seth? And what might have led him to believe that the experiences of his career in advertising and socialising possess this universal value?

If real gurus come from Rishikesh or Haridwar, their secular counterparts hail from Calcutta, like cut-price Greek philosophers who have come west to civilise and uplift the brash Romans of Delhi and Mumbai at seminar halls and dinner parties. Until the late 1990s, Seth was a Calcutta advertising executive of middling importance who had managed to impress a few locally powerful clients, foremost among them Russi Mody of Tata Steel. Seth explains that he first ran into Mody at a friend’s 18th birthday party, and startled the steel man by talking to him of opera. (Seth claims that at the time he had no idea who Mody was, which would have been quite an achievement, given that every half-awake schoolboy in Calcutta knew the legendary Tata Steel MD on sight.) RK Krishna Kumar, of Tata Tea—who calls Get to the Top a “straight from the gut book on values” on the back cover—was another. Seth’s first job was for Ram Ray at the advertising agency Response; he worked on the famous campaign for Aramusk soaps that made the revolutionary suggestion to a doubtful Bengal that smelling nice might have positive consequences for your sex life. It was noticed outside that parochial state, but only just.

A few years later, Seth left Response, and worked for Ogilvy & Mather; then he left Ogilvy and went into business with his brother, forming an agency called Equus. When the Seths founded Equus, they needed a bigger name than their own, which meant looking outside Calcutta. Suhel went to Delhi and rang the New Friends Colony doorbell of Hindustan Lever’s famed head of marketing, Shunu Sen, presenting him with three names as references, the first of which was Russi Mody.

Throughout, he seems to have sensed his destiny was greater than his hometown could arrange for him. Even when he wrote a book on Calcutta, he seemed to be trying to lever himself out of the city: he asked a legendary figure whose name is synonymous with Delhi, Khushwant Singh, to be his nominal coauthor—again, by ringing the doorbell of Singh’s apartment in Sujan Singh Park and charming him into agreement.

In each case, Seth multiplied the possibilities each connection provided. In 1996, Shunu Sen needed references before joining Seth’s company as a non-executive chairman. By December 2002, when Sen died, he was not only non-executive chairman at Equus; he was also Seth’s partner at the two-man management consultancy Quadra. WPP, the international advertising conglomerate with which Sen was associated, had been convinced to invest in Equus—and, barely weeks after Seth first set up Counselage in June 2002, he suggested WPP might be interested in investing in that, too.

In 1999, shortly after he persuaded the Korean carmaker Daewoo to support those who had been widowed by the Kargil War (tagline: “They gave up their lives … so that we may be safe”), Seth worked on advertising for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his successful campaign to be re-elected prime minister. Seth has subsequently cited that effort as his first attempt at people-branding, the skill which he has decided will define his life—and might well define this period in our history. In the Age of Seth, one must judge not only cars, but also people, by their brand. There is no institutional memory of excellence to guide us that is not contaminated by the state or the Nehruvian stasis we wish to leave behind; there is no inherent or indigenous marker of merit that remains unwarped by the churning that eight percent growth exerts on any society. As this book demonstrates all too clearly, Seth learnt before most of us how to turn this tolerance of mediocrity, this importance of impression, to his advantage. The book also shows that he is willing, with genuine generosity, to share his insight with others. But whether or not the rest of us can successfully be taught the new rules of the game, this much is already true: our age bears his imprint—forgive me, his brand.

That Vajpayee campaign marks the point at which Seth seems to have understood the terms of his own era, none more important than its brand-fetishism. The skills that in the 1980s had merely sold soap were now critical components of a social and professional strategy. You might once have been the best adman in the state; you could now be a public intellectual and power-broker. If you learnt, that is, a strange inversion of Immanuel Kant, and treated people as brands. The BJP campaign certainly increased his own brand value by an order of magnitude. A year later, Equus suddenly closed up shop in Calcutta, and Seth moved to Delhi.

Seth did not arrive in Delhi as a complete outsider. His Rule 1, “Be interested and interesting”, contains a sub-sub-rule, “Say thank you”, in which he singles out those people who “introduced” him to Delhi and “embraced him as family”.

The figures he thanks are naturally to be found at the centre of Delhi’s social and intellectual life: the producers Uma Gajapathi Raju and Ramesh Sharma; Mala Singh of Seminar magazine and her husband Tejbir Singh, the nephew of Seth’s old co-writer, Khushwant; and my own (very warm-hearted) former boss, Shekhar Gupta, the editor of The Indian Express—whose Diwali parties Seth later cites as an example of crucial friendship rituals in Sub-rule 2, “Stay loyal”, of Rule 8, “Always help when you can.” Frankly, with friends like those, it is a harder task to not get invited to parties.

Eventually, on your way to “the top”, you must throw some parties of your own; the finer rules for so doing come in the book’s appendix, under the heading “How to be a good host.” Item number six on this list—“Always, always serve food on time”—is perhaps the only part of this book I can unreservedly recommend. But “the secret to throwing a good party” is presented in Rule 3, “Don’t judge people”, where Seth explains who gets invited: “I like them all. And because I like them, they like me. This, my friends, is the real secret of popularity. I like them, not for who they are, but for what they are like.”

This particular bit of myth-making is quite poignant. When the public first heard, in 2010, what we were told were recordings of phone calls made by the previously unnoticed publicist-lobbyist Niira Radia, two pieces of information were picked up by the small cadre of dedicated Suhel-watchers.

The first was that his dog is named Google, because of an ability to find things.

The second came in a conversation between Radia and Ranjan Bhattacharya, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Vajpayee. Bhattacharya was trying to get Radia to work “loosely” for Sunil Mittal, the owner of the mobile phone company Airtel. (Radia was already working for Mittal’s competitors, Reliance and Tata; she appeared to worry that adding Airtel’s account would lead her other employers to suspect a conflict of interest.) Bhattacharya told Radia where it was he sold the idea to Mittal: “I met Sunil in that idiot—kya hai naam uskaa [whatshisname]—Suhel Seth’s house. He said he couldn’t handle it on his own, and he needed somebody and I mentioned you.”

It is possible, first, that Seth needs to prune his guest list a little if he wants to stick to people that like him for what he’s like rather than who he is. (“My guest lists don’t change with political or economic winds. I have had almost the same set of people at my parties since I can remember.”)

And it is certainly possible that Seth needs to rethink his claim that “no-one I know uses dinner parties for deal-making”. Such parties, the centrepiece, object and celebration of this book, thus might not be attended because they are “eclectic”, but because they are both location and symbol. Sure, deals are done there, and connections can multiply and complicate with gratifying speed, till you get what you came there for. Hence his claim that “when I throw a party, I am always thinking of who would be the most interesting people for my friends to meet.”

But they are also almost emblematic of the denial of complicity that is the essence of the Suhelian era. We meet each other, we insist, because we are friends, and have similar taste in catering. It has nothing whatsoever to do with careers, with contracts, with individual advancement, with demonstrating a wealth of connectedness. Seth’s drawing room is filled with politicians, TV anchors and industrialists, yes—but only because nobody else appreciates his mutton curry like they do.

THE TWO HALVES OF SETH’S TITLE are therefore continually at war. His hard-learned “rules for social success” are presented merely as virtuous commandments; the idea that they could be put to a use as tawdry as to “get to the top” would tarnish the book’s high moral tone. We are reminded on every page, though, and without much subtlety, that they helped Seth get to the top. The two metarules of success in our new era of influence are thus laid rather bare: first, find, keep and advertise famous and powerful friends; and second, completely and categorically deny their role in your inevitable success.

It is in keeping with these dictates that the book does not mention one of the most fascinating and curious episodes in Seth’s ascent, his run-in with the BJP-led government over the ownership of Star News. And yet surely that story provides the most valuable lessons for the rest of us about the benefits that now flow from enjoying the company of the great and the good.

In March 2003, the government announced that news channels whose broadcasts originated from India couldn’t be more than 26 percent foreign-owned. The only channel that was affected by this new rule was Star News, owned by Rupert Murdoch. The company had three months to transfer ownership to Indians; days before the July deadline, it announced a new corporation, called Media Content and Communications Services (MCCS), in which Star India—still Murdoch-owned—held 26 percent. A quarter of MCCS went to the industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla; another quarter to the head of Merrill Lynch India. The remaining quarter was shared between various people with well-known names, such as the actor Jeetendra and the Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi—and along with them, a Delhi-based corporate lawyer, Raian Karanjawala, and his still relatively unknown friend, Suhel Seth, who got five percent each. (Seth on Karanjawala, in Sub-rule 1, “Don’t get territorial”, of Rule 8, “Always help if you can”: “My friend, lawyer Raian Karanjawala, often says that I have introduced him to three times as many people as he has introduced me to, in spite of the fact that he’s supposed to be the connected guy!”)

Sanghvi apart, none of the smaller shareholders were in the news or finance businesses; and the company’s paid-up capital was reportedly tiny, `100,000. However poor your news coverage, however young and inexperienced your journalists, that seems like a suspiciously low number. Nor were the terms on which the smaller shareholders got these shares generally known, unless it was “Always help if you can”. Star’s competitors, unsurprisingly, accused it of setting up a front company, with investors who were dummies for Murdoch. (If so, in contravention of Rule 6, Sub-rule 3: “No favours.”)

At which point Birla, the only MCCS shareholder with a real business empire, developed cold feet. The deadline was looming; it looked like Star News would be shut down, until Seth dramatically announced that he would acquire Birla’s shares himself, increasing his holding to 30 percent. An advertising executive three years out of Calcutta, but with a few dear friends, had become the largest shareholder in India’s biggest news channel.

Seth, bulldog-like, refused to be cowed by the furore. “I am always investing in companies,” he said in one interview. In another: “It was completely funded from my bank account. And if you are referring to me being a front man for somebody, then my answer is no, unfortunately no. I wish I was! It is all my money.” And again: “If MCCS is a shell company, why would government of India give it permission [to exist] in the first place?” (Was he following Sub-rule 1, “No agenda”, of Rule 1, “Have an opinion”? Or perhaps Sub-rule 1, “Defend your friends”, of Rule 4, “Never pass on the bitching”?)

The Government of India denied MCCS permission to exist pretty swiftly, saying a single Indian entity needed to be the majority owner. Seth, looking to all the world like an Internet poker-player bidding with mad-eyed excitement at his first real tournament, declared loudly that he was willing to take his stake up to 51 percent.

Within a few weeks things were sorted out: all the various Indian names on MCCS’s ownership registry, including Seth, were replaced by one, as Calcutta-based publishers ABP bought the entire non-Murdoch stake—for `740 million. ABP, of course, is owned by long-time Seth friend Aveek Sarkar, who gets a special mention in the book’s acknowledgements “for being the connoisseur he is and for keeping me interested in watches, dials, and the like”.

Perhaps it is indeed the case that Suhel Seth seeks out well-connected people because they are interesting, their deep pockets and power being but incidental. As he says in Rule 1, “Be interested and interesting”: “After all, when was the last time you wanted to sit down to dinner with the freshly minted paan masala owner…. It’s not the absence of wealth that makes them unappealing but the fact that they don’t make much of an impression in most circles.” Or perhaps paan masala owners are insufficiently interested in dials and the like.

IN THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SUHEL, you are your brand, but the Suhel Seth who has written this book sounds very little like the choleric man with ruddy face, tangled grey hair and pocket square we see on TV. Like many a school and college debater from Calcutta (“Let me tell you, I didn’t just love debating, I was bloody good at it”), the real-life Seth unerringly chooses the good one-liner at the expense of good sense. He insists that this quality has been crucial to his success—“I am able to deliver one-liners in a manner that they will be remembered”—but there aren’t many of them in this gracefully-edited book.

Still, his uncontrollable tactlessness shows through here and there. Consider an example he presents to illustrate how to deftly compliment famous people: “There is no point telling Vijay Mallya that he is an astute businessman. He knows that. What will make him happier is if you tell him he has great taste in art and women (though perhaps not necessarily in that order) because this is something few tell him.” That sounds perilously close to a brilliantly subtle insult—definitely too subtle for Mallya, whose claim that this book is “the Bible for social success” adorns its front cover.

But even this can’t touch the high bar for sensitivity Seth has set elsewhere, particularly in his “advice” column for Graphiti, the Sunday magazine of the Aveek Sarkar-owned Telegraph.

Calcutta is far from a humourless city, but it didn’t respond well to his advice to the financially straitened mother of a seven-year-old autistic child enquiring about possibilities for cheap care: “Frankly I do not have a clue. Try sending him to Delhi and I will try and see if he can become a Member of Parliament. Most of those clowns are autistic even though they pretend to be normal!” We may contemplate the existence of an unwritten Rule 11: “Kindness is wasted on the unconnected.”

Or consider another piece of advice—rich with the grating insistence on fine class distinctions that the book pretends to forswear (as in Rule 6, Sub-rule 1, “Lowest common denominator”, which advises the reader to “look for the simplest qualities that you share with the person, and not focus attention upon the type of house they live in or the brand of car they drive”)—which Seth dispensed to a lovelorn Calcutta teenager: “I don’t think your kind of guy can hope to get someone from Loreto House (like we did) so I would suggest you settle for Ashok Hall or Rani Birla or some other fine place and see if you get lucky.”

It’s only funny if you know that Ashok Hall and Rani Birla, both Birla-run girls’ schools, are believed by snobs to enrol students from a less elevated class than the Catholic-run Loreto House. OK, it isn’t funny even if you know that. And when the headmistress of Ashok Hall—nobody, after all, can be quite as humourless as the headmistress of a girls’ school—wrote in to complain, Seth breezily apologised. He added: “I have, at the invitation of your predecessors and your managing trustee (Manjushree Khaitan), been to Ashok Hall as a guest speaker many times.” It is good to have dear friends.

The Seth of the book floats loftily above such boorishness, even if it is now inseparable from Seth the brand. One aspect of his television persona is addressed, though: his ability to form an opinion instantly and defend it doggedly. This, as we have seen, is something he attributes to the soul-warping requirements of college-level debates. I’m not going to speculate as to whether this is actually why he’s at the best parties; I will merely point out, with no bitterness at all, that many similar debaters haven’t got a single decent invitation recently.

But it certainly is why his friends on news TV love him. He is available at a moment’s notice to condemn or defend, red-faced and acerbic—does public discussion in the Suhelian era require anything more?

After all, understanding today’s India means knowing that fortunes and contracts and careers—each of them foundational for the India we are creating—are now made at quiet five-star lunches or over whispered deals in Lutyens’ bungalows. Thus the ambition to be a Suhel. Our poverty of impersonal norms—our dislocation from any markers of merit beyond personal recommendations or circumstances of birth—not only deprives us of the ability to judge whether the best person has won a job or a contract, it also forces us to settle for indignation instead of insight in our public debates. Thus the ability to become a Suhel.

Who has the time to fact-check all the pontificators on TV? And who on TV has the resources—or, sadder still, the inclination—to find people who exhibit good sense rather than what Seth demands we possess instead: a loudly stated opinion? Even when one of these shouted arguments makes sense—such as, say, criticising the protests against the proposed Tata Nano plant in West Bengal—who will know, or care, if that opinion comes from authentic conviction or from someone who has a long-term contract to manage Tata’s image? You can’t help worrying that Sub-rule 1 of Rule 2, “No agenda”, is really more of a gentle suggestion.

These two poisons—mediocrity and compromise in public discourse, and mismanagement and cronyism in public policy—go hand in hand. As Seth himself says in Get to the Top, while attempting to explain his strange about-turn on the merits of Narendra Modi (whose state may or may not be home to a Tata Motors plant—I don’t have time to check): “Your opinions about things should be deep rooted … you must not simply see them as a useful tool for social advancement.” The careful eye of Seth’s editor must have wandered there for a moment, because that “simply” gives the whole game away.

In any case, using your opinions as tools for social advancement is an option granted only to those whose pronouncements are treated with respect regardless of how they’ve been concocted. This might be why Seth insists you must always have an opinion: it helps to create a fog of utterances so dense it can conceal whatever you’re using your opinions for. Hence the imperative to say something, anything, no matter how ill-informed or embarrassing.

And that underinformed babbling will be celebrated as the rarest drops of unalloyed wisdom by those archpriests of our public debate, the anchors on 24-hour news TV. Of all the Suhel Seth moments I had to endure in my previous career as someone paid to watch them, his contrived explanations for the London riots on Times Now with Arnab Goswami were among the most painful. Were the causes of the riots economic, or social? Both: “They are economically linked but it does have undertones of racism which always existed.” So far, so good. But then this blather: “Now the ones who are really racist have a reason to say that, look we are only protecting our people first, who are losing jobs, unemployed and being overtaken by other hardworking communities.”

Before viewers could wrap their heads around Seth’s implausible suggestion that only angry white racists were rioting, he followed up with a rapid-fire sequence of non sequiturs that could have come straight from the mouth of Enoch Powell: “London is now inhabited more by Arabs than the English—there was nothing Londonish, or English, about London any more.” Yes, the immigrants are “not restricted to the community areas any more. They have spread wide and far.” And, sensing the awed disbelief of a national audience, this last, desperate, completely invented fact: “The only branded showroom attacked was Sony, during which racial slurs were hurled.” As an old Walkman devotee, I refuse to believe that anyone hurled any slurs at a Sony. And as someone who read more than the headlines during the days that England’s cities burned, I know that pretty much every branded store was attacked.

But such objections merely glance off Seth’s thick armour of indifference. It doesn’t matter, he argues, if you are a blithering idiot when asked for your opinion: “It is not important what your opinion is. What is important is that you do not come across as someone who has nothing to say.” Seth, the master people-brander, does not address the peril of having an opinion and expressing it vociferously, and yet still coming across as someone who has nothing to say. The possibility appears to never have occurred to him.

THE AGE OF SETH is not without its discontents, and Seth has not managed to Get to the Top without Making a Few Enemies. Sadly, not all of them are sensible. Among Seth’s favourite whipping-boys is the Calcutta-based tobacco and hospitality conglomerate, ITC, and especially its current chairman, YC Deveshwar.

In Get to the Top he uses Deveshwar as his chosen example for Rule 4, “Never pass on the bitching”, specifically Sub-rule 2, “Bitch with conviction”, where he writes:

Allegedly using the services of two gentlemen who were close to the then Enforcement Director, MK Bezbaruah, Deveshwar ensured that while his colleagues were in jail, he remained outside prison. There are also many tales circulating of his pettiness and how he has turned ITC into his fiefdom. I have spoken and written against him continuously and am willing to be sued by him.

He hasn’t held back on Twitter, either, where he allegedly told his 75,000 followers that Deveshwar will “teach an insider training course at Tihar School of Business”. One needs to say “allegedly” because that tweet has recently disappeared, and Seth has since tweeted that “my account is being constantly hacked into … some of the tweets ascribed to me, sadly are not mine.” Shortly thereafter, ITC—not Deveshwar—sued Seth for defamation, seeking damages of `2 billion with the rather ridiculous claim that “senior managers” have expressed “deep resentment” at Seth’s opinions.

This sordid bit of litigiousness reveals a subtle but insidious peril attached to practical Suhelism: no matter how authentic or open your statements of friendship or hostility appear, it is all too easy to presume they reflect ulterior motives or instrumental aims. ITC has accused Seth of turning against the company after he lost their account in 2007; he could credibly and truthfully observe that he wasn’t a fan of their chairman well before that date, but amid the blinding fog of opinion and exaggeration that blankets the era, too few people will be able to recognise the truth of that statement.

The ultimate irony is that this very book is, in its own way, also a casualty of the era its author defines. After all, Seth the writer comes across as good-natured, thoughtful, loyal, even kind. Nor are his rules for friendships anything but sensible. Yet, as we have seen, it is impossible to read the book without considering the world whose values it reflects—a context that fatally undermines all its pretensions to virtue. What good are loyalty and friendship if their true purpose is advancement?

There is nothing inherently contemptible in the much-sanctified claim that goodness will be good for you. But there is a fine line between self-help and self-serving, and this book can’t seem to stay on the right side of it. It wants to teach you how to make friends, but it keeps on telling you how to find clients.

Seth says his most important rule is: “Don’t make clients out of friends. But make friends out of clients.” Yet Suhel is friends with “almost everyone there is to know in the country”, or so the book’s jacket informs us. This may finally provide the explanation for why Get to the Top exists: he’s made friends at such a phenomenal rate that he must be running out of clients.

THERE WAS A PARTY LAST NIGHT in Lutyens’ Delhi, or possibly in South Mumbai, crowded with those who glitter most blindingly in Shining India. Suhel Seth will have been among them. There will be a party tonight, a few kilometres or a thousand from the last one. Seth will be there too, his familiar voice carrying over the crumpled carpets or sodden grass. This is the time in our history that belongs to men like Suhel Seth; a time when, just as intemperance is intellect and fervidity is profundity, such ubiquity is unquestionably success.

Success, or at least ubiquity, is precisely what Seth intends to teach his readers in Get to the Top. But it should be read even by those who have no desire to get to the top—for it unwittingly provides a glimpse of precisely how things work at the top, and what people do to arrive there.

Some people are famous for being famous. Suhel Seth is famous for knowing the famous. They say that fame exacts a heavy price from its bearers, and it appears that part of that price is to be “dear friends” with Suhel Seth. And as the number of his famous friends has grown so large that it would clearly take a book to record them all, Seth has achieved a kind of fame in his own right—mostly as a face on our TV screens, where he is reliably intemperate, fervid and, most of all, ubiquitous, familiar to television viewers from innumerable discussions whose topics are as varied as their dissection is disorganised.

Get to the Top, however, suffers from something like an excess of organisation: each of the “ten rules for social success” bears two or three sub-rules of its own, along with mnemonic mantras for each section, and appendices and exercises for the reader. And yet the book, Seth’s first since he became a household name in those households without enough sense to avoid news television, does not have an introduction. But unlike Seth’s friends, whose names are carelessly strewn through its pages, it very much needs one—because it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it.

Get to the Top is to normal self-help books what Page 3 is to your Facebook feed. Few of us are actually called upon to befriend the famous, which is Seth’s real conception of social success. No doubt the famous and powerful are themselves in the happy position of befriending one another—at farmhouse soirees in Delhi, five-star hotels in Mumbai or first-class cabins somewhere in between—but I doubt they are this book’s intended audience. After all, they could just ask Suhel for advice at tonight’s party.

What’s more, the lessons from such rarefied altitudes are not easily applied in our more terrestrial lives. You might suppose that Seth’s Rule 6, “Don’t try to make important friends”, would be quite easy for most of us to follow, though doing so might not help us achieve the pinnacle of social success. But Seth’s meaning is more nuanced (to put it charitably): he intends to say that “networking” should not be “simply transactional”. He explains, “My famous friends are first my friends,” and provides the reader with a concise list of tips for talking to VIPs (“never be a courtier”; “always feel equal to them”).

If there is something that strikes you as disingenuous in a chapter that urges you to pretend not to be seeking out celebrities in order to achieve success at seeking out celebrities, you are not alone. This off-key clash between tone and motive is the discordant leitmotif that runs through the book. For those of us less able or willing to carry off this cognitive dissonance with Seth’s panache, Rule 6 is thus less helpful than it may have first seemed.

So this is not exactly a self-help book, given that the problems it purports to help solve are those its readers can only dream of facing. What is it meant to be, then? The answer depends on what degree of cynicism you wish to bring to the question.

The most obvious—and most cynical—explanation is that this is a work of career positioning, a hardbound advertisement for its author. In our Suhelian era, where appearance is all and visibility substitutes for substance, every man is his own brand, and cultivating one’s brand equity is the highest of virtues. “Remember,” Seth writes, “whether it’s you, me, Gandhi or Obama, ultimately we are all brands.” Therefore, he continues, “you make an impression when you’ve created a brand for yourself, and the best way to create this brand is with words.” Among Seth’s many self-declared virtues is that he puts his money where his famous mouth is: he is branding himself as the man who can make you over. His day job is running a firm called Counselage India, a boutique consultancy that advises CEOs how to brand and market themselves. And by night, he has worked to produce this portfolio to showcase his services, stuffed with flattering word-pictures of what a good friend he has been to so many powerful people.

Too harsh? Very well, let us be more charitable.

Consider this possibly useful analogy. In the appliance-starved India of the 1980s, I dreamed of owning a Walkman. The device was unaffordable; but the tattered user manual for it that I bought at a second-hand bookstore on College Street was not. I read it, cover to cover, over and again. I did not expect to own a Walkman, but it is essential to aspiration to prepare yourself for unimaginable good fortune. And in the India of 2011, where aspiration has turned from being a sinful private fantasy to a shared national creed, some of us will linger over Patek Philippe advertisements in glossy magazines; others will devour schedules for Aegean island vacations in equally glossy supplements; and perhaps some of us will read up on the care and feeding of celebrities we would like to someday own, in this almost-glossy hardback.

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READER'S COMMENTS

128 thoughts on “The Age Of Seth”

mr singh, your interpretation of mihir sharma’s brilliant review (perhaps the only one worth reading to have come out of india in the past 100 years) suggests that you are both semantically and cognitively compromised. poor you.

Brilliant analysis. I’ve always wondered who this Paris Hilton of Indian politics was and why he refused to leave our TV screens. It’s becoming clearer that he is just a symbol of the rarely discussed nexus between corporations, government and the news media in India.

Dear Reviewer, I agree with some of your content here but u seem to have misunderstood one line in the book. “Don’t make clients out of friends. Make friends out of clients” is not the same as “Never make clients out of friends”. What’s being put across here is simply that you need to get to know your clients well. And this is absolutely true. You have highlighted this one point over and over again in this review – one that you have misunderstood.

Like Afridi I’ve also wondered who this person is who regularly appears on India TV news programmes, and why his opinion is worth listening to (usually, it must be said, an apparently very poorly considered one). This well-written article has made things clearer. Deeply saddening.

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