Satya Nadella

Wrote this right after Nadella became CEO. It was published yesterday

Suddenly, all Indians seem to know Microsoft’s new CEO
Shoba Narayan

March 11, 2014 Updated: March 11, 2014 19:33:00

Now that India-born Satya Nadella is the new CEO of Microsoft, the number of Indians who know him, are related to him, have studied with him in school, college or kindergarten or claim kinship in some loose form has skyrocketed.

“He must belong to the Nathella Sampath Chetty jeweller group in Chennai,” said my father, who began his teaching career in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, the state where Nadella is from. “Nadella must be the Anglicised version of Nathella.”

“No jeweller connection, Dad,” I replied. “His father was an IAS officer.”

Reports are rampant on Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Mr Nadella’s character and humility. A former colleague has stated that although Mr Nadella didn’t attend his book launch, he went to great pains and emailed his regrets. Other versions include the family wedding, baby shower and sweet 16 parties. The Indian diaspora is giddy with memories of encounters with this man, who until last year was a virtual unknown. How a CEO post can change a life!

If all else fails, Indians resort to the old faithful: they claim kinship with his family. My parents knew his parents because they were in the Indian Administrative Service together, said someone I know. I studied in the same school where Mr Nadella did, chimed in another. I speak Telugu, his mother tongue, said a third. Well, I am losing hair, just like Mr Nadella, said I. Does that count?

I am not surprised by this need to connect to the man who has risen to the top of one of the world’s iconic companies. Claiming kinship with “one of our own” is a natural human trait, and India, perhaps more than any other country, operates this way. The first thing that my father does when he is introduced to a stranger is figure out a way – either through language, location, family name, career or at the very least gesture and mannerisms – to connect with the other person. This is not in the simple and straightforward “nice to meet you” way that typifies my western-educated friends and generation. Indians of my father’s generation are much more specific yet circuitous, oxymoronic as that sounds.

Take a typical introduction to a perfect stranger. “Oh, you are from Lucknow,” my Dad will say. Mulling thoughtfully, you can hear the wheels turning in his head. “My father’s first cousin’s brother-in-law used to teach at the university there between 1967-70. Perhaps you know him? His name is Venkat Ramalingam.”

This is a connection forged through a link to the past, something that is very real to the people of a nation that is hurtling towards the future. The word that is often used in this context is “antecedents”. When relatives are asked to check up on whether a boy is suitable to be married to a daughter or niece, they are asked to check on his antecedents: where he lived, who he was, with whom he had a relationship and how he lived his life. Ditto for his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, going back seven generations if possible.

Indians approach relationships in this same circular way too. Before we do business; before we break bread or exchange marriage garlands, we establish kinship. If Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had used the Indian approach to their search, they would have visited Bukkapuram village in Anantpur District, Andhra Pradesh, where Nadella’s family “hails” from, and talked to the relatives and neighbours. I tease of course. Indian companies are built on meritocracy and resumes, just like everywhere in the world. Our search firms find and place the best in the world.

Scratch the surface, however, and you will find that deep longing for a shared past that can somehow be translated into a connected future. This is why we are thrilled about Microsoft’s new CEO – not because of his new title but because of his old country, because he is somehow related to us.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir