When the idea for a book on Baba Ramdev and his company came up, it seemed promising. I had followed Ramdev’s rise ten years ago when I was at Mint, meeting him on multiple occasions, covering his Ganga campaign in Kanpur, hanging around his kutir while he asked questions about swadeshi economics to Rajeev Dixit, his late mentor. I enjoyed listening to their easy banter and all the idealism in their conversation at the time.
Each time we met, I had found him earthy, self-deprecating and disarming, generous with his time and deft in steering conversations to what he wanted to say. But I never felt that I had really got to know him. Beyond his carefully cultivated public persona lay a masterfully guarded person of tremendous will.
The only way to tell his story, I believed, was to tell it through the voices of all the people he worked with along the way to building his empire, those who’d had a chance to meet him in unguarded moments. I imagined that their memories, anecdotes, tales of how Ramdev inspired and transformed their lives would be a far more interesting story than Ramdev’s own version of it.
So I began at the beginning. I spoke to members of Ramdev’s family: from his mother, Gulabo Devi, and brother Devdutt Yadav to his uncle Jagdeesh Yadav. They gave me a rare glimpse into Ramdev’s childhood and adolescent years. I spoke to his friends: from his junior at the gurukul he attended in his early twenties, Acharya Abhaydev, who shared anecdotes about Ramdev’s tenacity, to his lifelong deputy, Acharya Balkrishna. I interviewed long-time Haridwar residents Sushant Mahendru and Tarun Kumar, who have known Ramdev and company since their early days selling chawanprash on bicycles there. I spoke to Radhika Nagrath, who helped design Ramdev’s first logo, and to Professor Veena Shastri, another Haridwar old-timer, who has witnessed at close quarters Ramdev’s phenomenal rise and remembers, for instance, the old days when Ramdev’s brother used to go on a cycle to deliver fresh milk to his sister in the hostel where she stayed in Haridwar. I spoke at length to his first mentor, Karamveer Maharaj, with whom Ramdev later fell out, and, when he was still alive, to his second mentor, Rajeev Dixit, the architect of Ramdev’s swadeshi campaign. I met people who had worked for Ramdev at different points of time – from Vipin Pradhan, an aide of Ramdev’s between 2002 and 2005, before Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd was even established, to S.K. Patra, the CEO who helped lay the foundations for Patanjali’s phenomenal growth. I hunted down Kirit Mehta, a bitter former ally of Ramdev’s, and one of the founders of Aastha TV; and the Pitties, still devoted Ramdev supporters. I interviewed Ramdev’s adversaries and officers investigating him and his firms for various alleged lapses – from Brinda Karat, who levelled the sensational charge that Ramdev’s Ayurvedic medicines contained unlabelled human and animal bones, to Jitendar Rana, who investigated Ramdev for sales tax evasion. All in all, I spoke to fifty-two people to unravel the mystery. My sources corroborated – and dismissed – information that I had gathered from other primary sources, helping me fill in the gaps until a clear narrative began to emerge.
Some of my interlocuters – Karamveer, Kirit Mehta and S.K. Patra, for instance – are important new voices in the Ramdev story, who agreed to taped interviews and spoke for the first time on the record about their time with Ramdev. For a complete list of inverviewees and sources for each chapter, please refer to ‘Sources’ at the end of the book.
I had set off expecting to discover a rags-to-riches tale, of how a boy with no formal education became a national hero and tycoon through sheer grit, determination, hard work and conviction. I did find a portion of that story. But I also found much more.
Priyanka Pathak-Narain graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2007 and wrote about the business of religion at MINT between 2007 and 2013. She won the CNN Young Journalist Award in 2007. A contributing writer for Dharavi: The City Within, she occasionally writes for NYT and the CondéNast Group.