There is an iconic building in one of India’s most expensive locations: Malabar Hill. It’s a building called “Il Palazzo” built by the legendary real estate firm BREDCO. It’s been the residence to billionaires like Harsh Goenka of RPG Group, stock-market investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and tycoon Kumar Mangalam Birla. When it was built in 1972, an apartment of over 2,000 square feet was priced at Rs 1 lakh. Today, it commands a price of Rs 1.25 – 1.75 lakh per square foot. The views from the building are spectacular.
Before BREDCO constructed the elegant building, the land housed a spacious bungalow of the wealthiest family of India: Sassoon family. Residents of Mumbai would be familiar with the surname on the back of the famous Sassoon Dock that is a large fish market in Colaba today. The story of its patriarch David Sassoon is extraordinary.
An Iraqi Jew with enormous influence and wealth in Baghdad, Sassoon had a fall-out with its ruler. He was kidnapped and a ransom was sought. The ransom was paid and Sassoon was let go. But he realized that his time in Baghdad was up. He moved to Bombay in 1832 and commenced what would be the story of the greatest wealth creator of the 19th century. The twin pillars of his success: Cotton and Opium.
For opium – the family began by acting as lenders to poppy producers. When they opted to get deeper in the opium export business, the networks in China helped. Even greater help came through the tacit support of the British. That triggered a rush of opium into China boosting addiction among the population. The establishment in China got worried. Eventually the country decided to act tough by seizing a consignment of opium at a Chinese port. That triggered the First Opium War between Britain and China in 1839. Britain won and got several concessions. Result: David Sassoon’s firm in particular got a smooth gateway to export opium to China. The relationship between Britain and Sassoon reached the logical conclusion in 1853 when he was granted British citizenship. When the First War of Independence in India would break out in 1857, Sassoon would steadfastly support the British. This loyalty would pay off handsomely. He passed away in 1864, but his family would continue the growth relentlessly.
Jonathan Kaufman points out in his book The Last Kings of Shanghai, the Sassoons would control a stunning 70% of opium exports from India – and had exclusive rights to grow the substance on many farms by 1870. So great was its impact that 10% of all Chinese were addicted to the drug.
The Sassoons knew about the severity of opium, and no one in the family consumed it. No addiction among its employees would be tolerated. In public, however, the posture was different. When the British Government set up a Royal Opium Commission in India in 1893, Sassoons testified with finesse that moderate consumption of opium was beneficial and was only recreational activity for the upper classes. It only delayed the inevitable as in 1907 the British government signed a treaty to eliminate opium export to China. Its legacy is fascinating in the city of Shanghai where the Sassoons played a critical role in its transformation prior to the Communists capturing China in the 1940s.
In Bombay, however, it was the textile business that endured longer in the public imagination. In 1925, the Sassoon family were the single biggest mill owners in the city with 14 textile mills, making Bombay a prominent manufacturing hub. Today the Sassoons story in Mumbai is striking but limited. The Sassoon Docks are part of the Bombay Port Trust. The mills have changed hands and a few of them have been replaced with skyscrapers amidst a property boom. There is the heritage structure called the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room at Kala Ghoda for which Sassoon donated Rs 60,000. It was completely built in 1870. A former residence of Sassoon at Byculla is now a modest hospital. Educational institutions continue with the Sassoon name – but managed by a Jewish Trust.
The only structure that continues to retain the grandeur and wealth of Sassoon – is the building that replaced his bungalow. A low-profile Parsi builder managed to fill the big boots of an Iraqi Jew.