THE trouble with good men is that they don’t see anything evil around them, especially in the men and women they have to deal with every day-and that will include people from all walks of life. Krishna Kumar Birla falls into that category -but wait a minute-he has nevertheless revealed a great deal more about the celebrities he has met over along and fruitful life and given us a glimpse into the world of politicians and all those in power behind the scenes than one would have expected.
Krishna Kumarji is eminently suited to write on them because, over a period of eight decades he must have met leaders in practically all fields of activity. Son of the legendary Ghanshyamdas Birla, Krishna Kumarji, now a healthy non-agenarian (he was born on November 11, 1918, a historic day considering that the agreement on armistice for the First World War was signed on that date) retains an excellent memory and his searching mind travels back and forth from the time he was born in a remote village in Rajasthan, Pilani (now a throbbing educational centre) to this day. One suspects that Krishna Kumarji is the very embodiment of all the virtues with which his father was associated: honesty, courage, equanimity, justice, nobility and wisdom. And above all he sounds like a karma yogi-of the kind Ghanshyamdasji was-who believed the means to be as important as ends.
The early chapters on the Birla family make interesting reading: apparently one of the Birla ancestors was a man called Behad Singh. Behad’s successors became Beheda, then Bhela and then again Bedla and finally Bidla. Even now, it seems, in Hindi the Birlas are known as Bidlas. But does that matter? A rose smells just as sweet by any other name. And the Birlas have made themselves the true nobility of the land, thanks to their enterprising spirit, their wealth, their interest in the welfare of their fellow-countrymen, and in their spontaneous generosity. In a way this is a lively autobiography because not only are we enlightened about generations of the Birla family but of social and commercial conditions prevalent in their times. What comes as a shock to learn is that Krishna Kumarji inherited very little from his father on the grounds that he had no male offspring. In that sense Krishna Kumarji is in every way a self-made man. And what a man he turned out to be! Of him it can truly be said that he is one more of generation who contributed to the making of modern India. That he is the owner of Hindustan Times and turned it not only into a truly national but equally a profitable enterprise only adds to the quality of his service to the country. There is so much one learns from these informative pages-and there are some 650 of them-that reading them becomes a source of true education and entertainment.
Name the big ones of the country and he practically knew them all, often at close quarters. In his interaction with them he is, of course, mostly discreet. Who, in his position, wouldn’t be? But it is still shocking to learn that he had good relations with, of all people, Sanjay Gandhi whose death Krishna Kumarji says was “a personal loss”. K K Babu ( as Krishnaji was known to his friends) provides some interesting insights into Sanjay Gandhi’s mindset. Once K K Babu got a “good scolding” from Sanjay Gandhi, painful though it may sound.
As for anecdotes, this book is a veritable gold mine, making it impossible to set it aside. He once had a stormy meeting with Indira Gandhi who, like her bad-mannered son, asked him in a “scolding tone” why he stood against the Congress in parliamentary elections in such anger that he was finally led to ask how could she ever doubt his personal loyalty to her. And he stood by his word not allowing himself to be cowed down.
Once Gandhiji wrote to KK Babu’s father, Ghanshyamdasji to employ Jayaprakash Narayan “with a monthly salary sufficient enough to meet his needs”. Ghanshyamdasji obliged. There is another revealing story about Jawaharlal Nehru himself. The time: January 1942. World War II was on and there was a tremendous shortage of petrol. Nehru was finding it difficult to move around in Allahabad. So he wrote to Ghanshyamdasji, saying: “I therefore propose to revert to my old habit of using a bicycle. I do not want, as far as possible, to buy a foreign cycle. I had hoped to be able to get a new Hind cycle but it does not appear to be available in the market. Could you kindly let me know where I can get it?”
The Birlas had their own cycle factory and, on receiving Jawaharlal’s letter, Ghanshyamdasji promptly sent him not one, but two cycles! There is no picture available of Jawaharlal pedalling his way down Allahabad’s roads and lanes. The one great thing about this book is that it glows with anecdotes of this kind. K K Babu knew all the leaders of the day, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, K M Munshi, Govind Vallabh Pant, Amrit Kaur, SK Patil, Swaran Singh et al-and one whole section is devoted to his correspondence with them. He even has a kind word to say about Don Bradman who agreed, after some reluctance, to write a Forewords to a book on sports written by his second daughter Jyoti. But importantly, what this book provides is a flavour of the times in which KK Babu lived and the politics of the period, of the men and women who shaped India. That indeed, is KK Babu’s greatest contribution to history.
Gandhiji once wrote touchingly to Ghanshyamdasji: “The affairs of the country depend neither on Malaviyaji, nor Lalaji (Lala Lajpat Rai), nor me. All are mere instruments…..” May be. But what instruments they all turned out to be! And what a delightful Brushes With History this work has turned out to be as well! Long after an older generation passes away this book should continue to serve as an inspiration not just to the coming generations of Birlas but generations of Indians anxious to make their contributions to India’s progress. In that sense one can amend Shakespeare and say that not just evil but good too that men do, lives after them. Thanks, K K Babu. Your book has brought this octagenarian to recall memories to things past, with some accompanying nostalgia.
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