For much of the time I knew him, he was a man without a country. JJ Calero, writing in 2011, described him and his heritage concisely: “He is a third-generation Myanmarese but of mixed Indian-Myanmarese blood, and Indian in appearance.”
In that short family digest lay quite a tale. He’d graduated from the Institute of Economics at Yangon (Rangoon) University, but he was the product of a nation that turned its back on his kind. In 1962 after a military coup, strongman Ne Win embarked Myanmar (Burma) on a socialist path. In 1969, his government nationalized the fabled ruby mines of that country, in a process of exclusion that would culminate in 1982, with all those of Indian extraction being categorized as Persons of Indian Origin, with documentation requirements so severe that even if they belonged to families that had been in Myanmar for generations, they were rendered stateless persons.
I often marveled at how Ashok Nath managed to become a highly respected and successful man despite the junta turning him into a person who had to travel the world with a mere travel document. Yet if his nation excluded him, in the Philippines he literally found the country of his heart and hearth. In 1970, he made his way here. He married a Filipino woman — a dynamic lady of great empathy, determination and wit, as only the meritocracy of the hotel industry can produce, the daughter of a soldier of the old school who’d become military attaché in, and then ambassador to, Myanmar. They had a daughter, through whom I got the privilege to know both of them. Theirs was a loving family of cosmopolitan sophistication, and the comforts of being Southeast Asian.
For us Filipinos, used to our own diaspora, it came as no surprise that in his home, Ashok Nath delighted in cooking the dishes of his homeland and his heritage. At his wake, everyone, it seems, spoke with great longing of “mohinga,” the Myanmarese national dish, a thick noodle and fish soup, to which one added a tremendous variety of condiments: fish sauce, lime, fried onions, coriander, scallions, chili and split chickpea fritters, producing flavors at once exotic yet, to the Filipino palate, familiar. There would be other homeland dishes he would make, such as the truly exotic (to a Filipino) tea leaf salad known as “lahpet thoke,” and the “dahls” of his ethnic Indian heritage. He presided over these feasts with lively interest and great charm.
When they weren’t longing for his mohinga, those who gathered at his wake nearly always mentioned one aspect that they found remarkable in a life full of remarkable achievements (to catalog just a few, his cofounding and being at the helm of World Executive Digest for over a decade; becoming managing director and board member of Basic Advertising; his long and fond association with Makati Medical; his being chairman and CEO of Exedra Events, and setting up Hospital Management Asia; he gave back to his community, including his homeland when it began to reverse its policy of exclusion, by serving as a senior fellow at the Centre for Economic and Social Development in Myanmar, and sitting on the advisory board of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore). That aspect was his being a mentor to many. Among the beneficiaries of his mentorship, I count myself.
Mr. Nath took friendly notice of me when I didn’t know what to do with myself, and offered me my first job. At the time, he was publishing what is today known as a boutique (because specialized, for a highly limited audience) newsletter called Afta Monitor, tracking the manner in which Asean countries were coping with the free trade area they’d created. It was a job that required sifting through piles of clippings, sorting them out and producing capsule digests of the various policy developments in our part of the world, for the newsletter’s readers. A crash course in research, comprehending policy, foreseeing its implications, and thus identifying emerging trends in a manner suitable for busy people thirsty for intelligence. It was a job requiring patience, concentration and conciseness. He would review the results, gently and never patronizingly, guiding you toward improving it. It wasn’t an experience that lasted long, but training that has benefited me ever since.
He would, decades later, give me and my colleagues words of perceptive counsel and evidence-based encouragement, as we transitioned from government back to the private sector. He did it as all mentors do, out of the belief that everyone deserves success. He’s left behind a slim volume that summarizes the lessons of a lifetime. Visit www.behindthesecretofsuccess.com so he can mentor you, too, even if he is now, so sadly, gone.
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