Birlas: A synonym for grace and poise
By AJ Philip
Basant Kumar & Sarala Birla: Life Has No Full Stops, Rashme Sehgal, Foreword by Amitabh Bachchan, Amaryllis, Manjul Publishing House, Pp 252, Rs 495.00
When Ghanshyamdas Birla, the grand patriarch of the Birla family, died in London in 1983, the task of bringing out a special issue of The Searchlight, a newspaper from Patna, fell on me. Thereafter, the Birlas have been a subject of great fascination. Innumerable are the stories, some real and some fanciful, about the preeminent business family in India.
As the stories go, two Birlas never travel in one vehicle, a Birla temple is always under construction somewhere in the country and in the age of the Internet, the Birlas still depend on the unique Marwari style of accounting.
Rashme Sehgal’s combined biography of Basant Kumar Birla and his wife Sarala throws light on the traditions, love and respect that bind them. It also brings to the fore the liberating influences of modernity that seek to undermine the very values that have kept the family united down the decades since Basant’s great-grandfather Shivnarain Birla “sowed the seeds of the Birla empire”.
In the Birla family, marriages were always settled by the elders so much so that when Basant married Sarala after a short, furtive courtship, it was his grandmother who decided when she should start sleeping with him. Again, his grandson Kumar Mangalam made only one request to his grandparents — choose a good girl, as he did not want to see any other.
With one of their daughters separating from her husband, traditions can no longer be considered as sacrosanct as they were when GD Birla transformed the family of traders from Rajasthan into India’s Rockefellers. As I was reading the book, the report came that his elder brother KK Birla’s daughters have removed the Birla tag from the names of their companies.
The Birlas are as much respected as they are reviled. GD Birla’s friendship with Gandhiji is well known and so is the fact that he was shot at Birla House. Yet, it was with some reluctance that they handed over the property to perpetuate the memory of Gandhiji’s martyrdom, because it was there that their only son Aditya Birla was born.
For all their business acumen and — some say — ruthlessness, a certain civility characterises their functioning. One of the fondest memories I have is of meeting KK Birla, who gently asked me whether I would have one more sugar cube in the tea he served me. Politeness is a common trait of the Birlas.
It’s said that it is business, not blood that runs in the veins of every Birla. Business skills are inculcated in them from the very beginning. Teenaged Basant cut his teeth in business when he multiplied “20, crisp, ten-rupee notes” he got into Rs 4,000 in less than a year. He might have had his setbacks as when his Bharat Airways was nationalised but success never deserted him.
In the end, businessmen are remembered not for the money they make, but for the contributions they make to society. When it was time to send GD Birla to school, his father found that the only school at their hometown Pilani was on the verge of closure. The Birlas have come a long way and it is difficult to provide a list of all their companies and establishments, spread all over the world. Thirty years ago, a senior Hindustan Motors official told me that he did not know that The Searchlight was a Birla company as, otherwise, it too would have received a full-page advertisement when the company’s new model Contessa was launched. Now it is a far more complex entity.
The author has succeeded in throwing light on this enigmatic but illustrious family. Amitabh Bachchan’s Foreword, based on his own and his father and poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s close relationship with Basant and Sarala, who are well-known connoisseurs of art and literature, lends the book greater charm.
(Amaryllis, Manjul Publishing House Pvt Ltd, J-39, Ground Floor, Jor Bagh, New Delhi – 110 003)