A joke doing the rounds recently at the Bangalore headquarters of Infosys is that the Indian software giant has had to hire a masseuse. The reason? To give some much-needed relief to co-chairman Nandan Nilekani, whose hand and wrist are sore from signing copies of his book, Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century. The book, Nilekani's first, examines his country's place in a globalised world and explores the ideas that shape its fate, bringing together his hands-on knowledge and insights from leading figures in fields from economics to literature. Released in India last December, it is already something of a local blockbuster: more than 50,000 copies of the hardback have been sold since Penguin Allen Lane brought it out. The first-time author is full of glee. 'My publishers tell me that no other non-fiction hardback has ever sold so many copies in India in less than three months. I'm a contented man,' says Nilekani. 'I'm a laid-back guy; I still wonder how I managed to write it. It's a reasonable achievement in that sense,' he says. 'But I'm thrilled by reports that it's flying off the bookshelves faster than store computers can register their sales, although I knew I had made it when the first print run - 40,000 copies - was sold out.' Nilekani was reportedly paid an 'obscene' advance for the book. However, the 54-year-old entrepreneur declines to reveal the figure, although he says with a laugh that the payment was among the highest ever paid to a non-fiction writer in India. 'Takings [from the book] are a very small part of my overall income and fully pledged to charities,' he says. The book seeks to unravel the puzzle that is present-day India by deciphering its complex politics and society, he says, highlighting the country's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. 'Looking at the country through the prism of caste, labour reform, infrastructure, higher education and the role of the English language, I have tried answering a fundamental question: what is the best role for the Indian state in a globalised world where the wealth of some big corporations exceeds that of some nations?' Drawing on his personal experience, exhaustive research and interviews with 126 key personalities, including government ministers and Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Nilekani says he has formed a fair idea of what's good for India. Nilekani has been showered with plaudits for his efforts. Historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha says Imagining India advances the debate on an array of topics affecting the country. 'Thought-provoking, analytical and insightful, it identifies the big challenges India faces,' says Guha. The book, which has garnered international praise, is being released in Hong Kong this month (also see Review page 16 tomorrow). Many CEOs seek outside challenges. Some climb mountains, others take up skydiving. With so much on his plate, what possessed Nilekani to embark on such an ambitious project? He had no option, he says. The Indians and foreigners he met were constantly asking him to explain the glaring contradictions of India. After two hours battling the chaos of Bangalore's highways to get to Nilekani's office, for instance, a visitor from New York wanted to know why public roads in India were in such a dire state when Infosys had such a superior network on its grounds. 'The fact that roads inside our campus were so good and so bad outside it was certainly not due to lack of resources, technology or expertise.' So Nilekani pushed ahead, devoting an hour each day over 20 months to writing the book. 'I was lucky to have a very good researcher, Devi Yesodharan, to help me. But I do envy professional writers who do their own research instead of hiring others.' Most of the writing was done in the evenings after work and over weekends, says his wife Rohini, a former journalist. 'But I didn't grudge him the time because the book is seminal.' In the end, Nilekani had no problem meeting his publisher's deadline. 'Don't forget I'm a project management guy,' he says. 'My job is to deliver on time.' Time is of the essence for India too. 'A nation that's a burgeoning knowledge power also has the largest number of school dropouts in the world. Our biggest businesses are building international brands, yet red tape throttles the new entrepreneur and frustrates small business owners. All our successes are invariably bitter-sweet,' he says. 'But the good thing is that India has made rapid progress in the past 25 years,' he says. 'India's annual growth of over 6 per cent since the early 1990s is surpassed only by one country, China. Today, a great opportunity beckons India but it is very time-bound. So somebody had to explain the size of the opportunity - and the cost of not acting.' He felt he had to hurry to put his ideas in the public domain. 'I hope that even if the political leadership does not respond to the book, enough thinking people will buy into my ideas.' Nilekani says the Satyam scandal in January has dealt Indian business a 'black eye' but says it was an isolated problem. Ramalingam Raju, then chief of the country's fourth-largest software exporter, confessed to inflating company assets by US$1 billion. The admission, which prompted Satyam stock to plummet 75 per cent and triggered a major fraud investigation, has raised questions about corporate governance in India. 'Satyam is a very unfortunate episode. But it's just that - an episode - and Indian authorities are dealing with it very well,' says Nilekani. 'Nobody should conclude because of Satyam that there is no accountability or transparency in Indian business.' India doesn't have a monopoly on securities fraud, he says. 'Just look around: Bernard Madoff on Wall Street, Parmalat in Italy and Ahold in the Netherlands. And how can we forget Conrad Black?' Nilekani, who trained as an electrical engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, wants young people and policymakers, bureaucrats and academics to read his book. 'There are so many graduates determined to rise to the next level in their chosen field but don't have access to the best teachers. My book is for them,' he says. 'India stands evenly balanced between our reluctance to change in the face of immense challenges and the possibilities if we do tackle these issues head on. The consequences of our choice are in extremes - in the long term we will either become a country that greatly disappoints compared to its potential or one that beats all expectations.' As Nilekani see it, the six best things about today's India are: the largest pool of young people even as the rest of the world is ageing (he calls it the demographic dividend); the biggest concentration of entrepreneurs outside the US; the importance attached to learning the English language; non-governmental organisations taking charge without waiting for the state to do its job; the technological revolution manifested in cellphones, electronic voting machines and fully computerised stock markets; and the wide acceptance of information technology, globalisation and an open economy. But India, he warns, must quickly set its house in order. 'Never have the external circumstances for India been so fortunate. And never has the need for resolving the internal conflicts been so urgent,' he says, listing the fast-spreading Maoist insurgency, religion-based political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, caste-based political parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party of prime ministerial hopeful Mayawati, and the poor-rich divide pitting Indians against Indians.