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This CEO learnt more in a Jharkhand jail than at Kellogg

This is a scene right out of a Bollywood potboiler. Super smart corporate guy. MBA from Kellogg School of Management. US returnee. Big salary, huge house, gorgeous wife, two cute kids, two dogs, two cars. Stuff dreams are made of. Until he is accused of fraud and arrested under Sections 34, 406 and 420 of the Indian Penal Code. In a nutshell, that is the story of Chetan Mahajan – the part before the interval.

Chetan is currently CEO of HCL Learning.


For the jail story, rewind to 2012, when he got a tempting offer to be the divisional head of Everonn, an education company owned by the Gems group, a large conglomerate from the Middle East. Everonn had an IIT entrance coaching chain called ‘Toppers’, which had a strong presence in Bokaro, Jharkhand. Three months after Chetan joined the company, some of the faculty at the Bokaro centre defected to competition and sparked off a panic. The parents of students at the centre demanded a fee refund. Chetan was the seniormost official on the spot, but he had no authority to sanction the refund without clearance from the top. The situation got out of hand, and the police arrived on the scene. They added more fuel to the fire by saying that that the institute would be shut down. All hell broke loose. Chetan was arrested. “…Suspecting that divisional manager Chetan Mahajan, a resident of Gurgaon, will flee, the parents and students caught him and handed over him to police. Based on the complaints of 200 students, police lodged an FIR under various sections of IPC against Mahajan…” This was the news next day in The Times of India.

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chetan mahajanWorse news was that it was December 24. He walked into the Bokaro Chas Mandal Karawas, the Bokaro jail, in his Ralph Lauren jacket and Aldo shoes, hoping to be out the next day. But it was the holiday season and he had to wait for weeks before his case came up for hearing. To keep his sanity, he wrote a daily journal, which became The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, published by Penguin India recently.

A long, tough month in jail, a completely different world for him, manoeuvring the prison system along with unlikely mates — men accused of felony, fraud, murder, rape or killing wife for dowry — taught him life lessons. Priorities are a lot clearer now. Since his imprisonment, some people find it hard to meet his eyes — almost like somewhere deep down they are thinking, if he spent a full month in jail he must have done something.

Here, in this interview with YourStory, Chetan shares some of those tough lessons learnt.

How are you different as a manager because of your experience in jail?

It is strange because it works on two different dimensions, which sound quite opposite.

At one level, I don’t want to judge people on just one factoid. I always want to look at a person’s overall profile and then take a call. Letting just one data point be the definition of a person can be pretty unfair.

But at another level, something inside me has also hardened. Sometimes I have to take decisions which are tough at the human level – maybe I am unable to promote a deserving candidate. Or worse, I have to ask someone to go. I used to have a hard time with that. But now I have a thicker skin. It’s tough. I know. But life isn’t fair – it just depends upon who you are that particular day. As Dire Straits puts it very simply:
“Sometimes you’re the windshield
Sometimes you’re the bug.”

Losing your job isn’t the worst thing on earth. It can get much worse.

Tell us about three lessons in jail that you couldn’t have learnt in Kellogg School of Management.

– That if someone takes away your laptop and cellphone and puts you in jail, the outcome can actually be a good thing : getting a book published!

– Effective ways of dealing with the corruption which seeps into every inch of the Indian legal system

– How to convince a Jharkhand Police official that a person not on the board of a company has no legal liability. And that media pressure is not a good enough reason to arrest an innocent man.

How does your jail experience impact your day-to-day work?

– When we look at developing products for rural / price-sensitive markets, I know exactly how men in that segment think and make decisions.

– I write better.

Describe the most difficult thing you had to face in your career to overcome the stigma of having been a jailbird.

– Actually, HCL has been amazing as an employer. They were open to me coming on board. The only condition they had – which is the most reasonable one – was that the legal proceeding against me should be over. Obviously, nobody wants to hire an undertrial. Once the case against me was quashed in March 2013, I immediately quit Everonn and joined HCL.

However, since my imprisonment, I can see some people look at me a little different. Many of them have a hard time looking me straight in the eye. It is almost like they feel a certain discomfort knowing that I have been in jail. Even though I have been matter-of-fact enough about it to write a book! It’s almost like somewhere they are thinking, if he spent a full month in jail he must have done something!

How did your jail experiences change your world view and attitude towards problems?

– I think I appreciate little things in life a lot more now. It was really big immediately after my release – even just being able to order a meal of my choice in a restaurant felt like luxury. A hug from my kids was just priceless. But even now I really value a lot of things more than I did before. And the top of that list is spending time with my family.

– I take fewer things for granted now. If such an unexpected experience can befall me, then a lot better or lot worse can happen at anytime. To me, that means living more in the present. It is no point planning for everything 10 years out. That time may never come. I want to live my life more really for what I can right now because the present is the most important thing for me now. Much more so than ever before.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

As you have read it, you know that this book is more like a diary. It wasn’t conceptualized and thought of like a book — there was no plot, no climax. It was just each day as it happened. So I did not have a specific message that I had in mind for the readers. It isn’t the Alchemist.

Having said that, different people seem to have found value in different things. Most people say that the fact that the book got published itself is like me having the last laugh. “Making lemonade out of lemons” or “making a good thing out of a bad thing”. Some think the fact that I kept running in jail is a big deal.

For me, the learning really has been a reaffirmation in humanity or “insaniyat”. And also a realization that men in jail are not all evil monsters; they are humans with feelings, emotions and potential.

Another realization for me is that even now, we all live in a jail at some level. That is the jail of the limitations we put around ourselves. And we all have the potential to gain release from that prison if we can start thinking a little differently about life.

What are your prison walls that you would like to break out of? Tell us in the comments below.

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