For Indra Nooyi, the First Lesson in Executive Ability Happened at Home

The women’s living room in my childhood home had a single piece of furniture—a huge rosewood swing with four long chains that were anchored into the ceiling when my grandfather built the house, on a leafy road in Madras, India, in 1939.

That swing, with its gentle glide back and forth in the South Indian heat, set the stage for a million stories. My mother, her sisters and her cousins, wearing simple saris in fuchsia, blue or yellow, rocked on it in the late afternoon with cups of sweet, milky coffee, their bare feet stretched to the floor to keep it moving. They planned meals, compared their children’s grades, and pored over Indian horoscopes to find suitable matches for their daughters or the other young people in their extensive family networks. They discussed politics, food, local gossip, clothes, religion, music, books. They were loud, talked over each other, and moved the conversation along.

From my earliest days, I played on the swing with my older sister, Chandrika, and my younger brother, Nandu. We swayed and sang our school songs. We snoozed; we tussled. We read British children’s novels by Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, and Frank Richards. We fell onto the shiny red-tiled floor and scrambled back on.

Ours was the big, airy house where a dozen cousins would gather for festivals and holidays. The swing was a set piece for elaborate plays we wrote and performed, based on anything that caught our fancy. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles gathered to watch, holding bits of torn newspaper scrawled with the words “one ticket.” They felt free to critique our shows, or to start chatting, or simply walk away. My childhood was not a world of “Great job!” It was more like: “That was so-so.” or “Is this the best you can do?” We were accustomed to honesty over false encouragement.

The reviews didn’t matter on those busy, happy days. We felt important. We were in motion, laughing and carrying on to our next game. We played hide-and-go-seek, we climbed trees and picked the mangoes and guavas that grew in the garden surrounding the house. We ate on the floor sitting cross-legged in a circle, with our mothers in the center ladling sambar sadam and thayir sadam — lentil stew and curds mixed with rice — from clay tureens and dishing out Indian pickles onto banana leaves that served as plates.

In the evenings when the cousins were visiting, the swing was dismantled—the great, shiny-wood plank unhitched from the silver-colored chains and carried to the back porch to be stored overnight. Then we’d line up in the same space to sleep, boys and girls in a row on a large, colorful mat, each with our own pillow and cotton sheet. Sometimes, we’d be under a mosquito net. If the power was on, a fan turned lazily overhead, pretending to break the heat when the overnight temperature was 85°F (29.5°C). We’d sprinkle water on the floor around us hoping its evaporation would cool the place.

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