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  • THE LIFE AND TIMES OF INDRA NOOYI

    Posted On October 3, 2021

    By Karan Thapar

    The most surprising thing about Indra Nooyi’s autobiography are the delightful stories she relates. They cover her life and career but also vividly describe her personality and emotions. And she clearly has a knack for storytelling. That’s what makes ‘My Life in Full’ such fun to read.

     

    The best is one she’s told several times before. It’s about her mother’s reaction when she came home “bursting with excitement” because she had just been promoted to President of Pepsico. “I have the most incredible news!” she began. “The news can wait” was her mother’s response. “I need you to go out and get milk.”

     

    Raj, her husband, had got home earlier but he wasn’t asked to buy milk because “he looked tired”. So Nooyi drove a mile and bought a gallon of the stuff. She was “hopping mad” when she returned and slammed the milk on the counter. Then, speaking loudly, she told her mother she’d become President of Pepsico.

     

    “Listen to me” her mother replied. “You may be the President or whatever of Pepsico, but when you come home, you are a wife and a mother and a daughter. Nobody can take your place. So you leave that crown in the garage.”

     

    This is one of the most dramatic stories and it’s recounted with a sense of theatre. There are others that are told more sotto voce. Yet they’re just as revealing. My favourite is about how she and Raj Nooyi decided to get married.

     

    At the time Indra was a student at Yale but on an internship in Chicago where she met Raj. This is how she describes him: “He was incredibly smart, well-read, and worldly. He was also good-looking.”

     

    On a particular friday night they went to see a Gene Wilder movie called Silver Streak. “We loved it” she writes and adds “then we walked to a restaurant and, by end of dinner, decided to get married. Who proposed to whom? Who broached the subject? … I don’t know. Forty two years later, we are still debating this issue!”

     

    When I interviewed her I asked if she would tell me. She didn’t. But I sense she was the one who popped the question. It would be in keeping with her personality.

     

    A third story is from the thirteen years she was CEO of Pepsico. It is, perhaps, the most surprising. Whenever rage or frustration would swell inside her she’d lock herself in the bathroom and have a thoroughly good cry. “I’d go into the little bathroom attached to my office, look at myself in the mirror, and just let it all out. And when the moment had passed, I’d wipe my tears, re-apply a little makeup, square my shoulders, and walk back into the fray, ready, again to be ‘it’.” Incidentally, that’s how she thought of her Chief Executive status.

     

    To be honest, there are also a few discordant notes. For someone who’s so careful about what she’s writing and how she’s conveying it, I can’t fathom how they crept into the book.

     

    The first is about her mother, who spent years living with Indra and Raj and brought up their daughters. No Indian would find that surprising. What did take me aback was the following sentence: “Raj and I paid for everything in my mother’s life when she lived with us but didn’t give her a salary for the childcare, cooking, cleaning, and thousands of other small tasks she did to keep our household going over the years.”

     

    The other is, actually, an admission of the truth. It features at the end in “Acknowledgements’. “This book was shaped and written by Lisa Kassenaar … she took all my stories, facts, anecdotes, and pages of edits and weaved them into beautiful chapters, each with core lessons … every author needs a Lisa to bring their ideas to life.” But, then, in what sense is Indra Nooyi the author? And shouldn’t Lisa’s name be on the cover as well?


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