In her new book, The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas, journalist Coomi Kapoor narrates a hilarious story about Shapoorji, founder of the Shapoorji Pallonji construction group and grandfather to Cyrus Mistry. Some well-heeled Parsi women from a charitable organization once went to seek a donation from Pallonji. True to his somewhat frugal nature, he declined, adding that not only was his wealth hugely exaggerated, he barely had the money to buy himself a cup of tea. This unexpected response so incensed the leader of the women’s group that she immediately got up and left. But before leaving she also offered Pallonji a rupee for his cup of tea.
Based on what Kapoor writes about the man, he wouldn’t have been too perturbed by the lady’s riposte but it is a great tale, one of the many that has lit up Indian business over the years. Books of corporate history give us many such gems revealing the funny bone of many of our business giants.
There’s one tale in the late Bhupesh Bhandari’s book The Ranbaxy Story that is somewhat more muscular though equally rib-tickling. The acrimony that the battle between Bhai Mohan Singh and his son Parvinder Singh for the control of Ranbaxy produced led to a situation where at one of the company’s board meetings one of the board members threatened to lift Bhai Mohan Singh and throw him out of the boardroom. Sadly, Bhupesh is no more, to tell us whether the threat by the redoubtable Captain Amarinder Singh, (now Chief Minister of Punjab, and then on the board of governors of the company) was delivered in chaste Punjabi, which would have given it an entirely different flavour.
Over my three decades in journalism I have also been fortunate to be at the receiving end of some such jibes, none nearly as funny but certainly worth a laugh. One such incident happened in the mid-1990s when my then editor and I went to meet HCL boss Shiv Nadar at his office in Noida. It was late evening and after a while Nadar suggested that we continue our conversation as we drove back to his home in Friends Colony. He was gracious enough to ask his driver to follow us in his car, a Standard 2000, while he rode back with us. In those days, I had a third-hand Maruti 800 which drove perfectly well but had a bit of a problem with the lights. Turning them on entailed switching on the ignition, getting off the car and giving the headlamps a thump. I proceeded with the said manoeuvre, eventually getting back into the car to start the engine. Nadar, who had been watching all along, looked at me and said, “I say, that’s a hell of a way of starting a car.”
I had another occasion to admire the sense of humour of another of our corporate denizens when I met Sanjay Lalbhai at a time when Arvind was fast becoming a global leader in denim. Part of the top team at the group was Dr P.R. Roy, a PhD in textiles from the University of Manchester and then the Group Chief Executive (Textiles) for the company. Introducing him to me, Lalbhai began with the customary, “this is Dr Roy. He’s considered the father of denim in India.” Even as I raised an eyebrow, the stately Lalbhai continued “I have often asked him who’s the mother, but he refuses to tell me.”
If these are ripostes worth recounting, stories about the irrepressible Manu Chhabria are a bit tricky to quote on a family website since unfortunately most of his vocabulary was a little too colourful but I do have one about the managing director of one of Chhabria’s companies, Shaw Wallace. On a lazy day in 1993 I laboured up the beautifully-maintained wooden stairs to the gentleman’s office on Bankshall Street in central Kolkata. As I entered his vast room where he was sitting behind a desktop computer terminal, he waved at me to sit and gestured to give him two minutes while he finished something presumably important. I followed his advice and parked myself some eight feet across from him when suddenly the silence of the room was broken by a familiar sound that anyone of that era who’s played the computer game Pac-Man would have learnt to dread, the dreaded death rattle.
My last story for the piece is apocryphal so I can’t vouch for its veracity. One time a Kolkata-based journalist, among the best in his business, was in pursuit of a story about the RPG group, then in the midst of a series of hostile takeovers. He managed to track group supremo, the redoubtable Rama Prasad Goenka, and found out that he was taking a flight back to Kolkata from Mumbai. Having parked himself at the airport, our intrepid journo accosted his man the moment he emerged from the security area and smartly proffered his name by way of an introduction. Wordlessly, Rama babu as he was popularly called, handed him the black briefcase he was carrying and walked off to his waiting car.
End of story!