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An Uncommon Memory

There was a huge difference in the way business and family life dominated Dhirubhai Ambani, J.R.D. Tata or even G.D. Birla

Seven years after his death, those of us who knew him, remember Dhirubhai Ambani in a rather special way, like an uncle or elder brother, not just a businessman. There are many others whom we remember, J.R.D. Tata or Ghanashyam Das Birla (GD), for instance, but not quite the same way. There was something special about Ambani, though many people, particularly his detractors, may not think so.

For one thing, Ambani was younger than me; Tata and Birla were much older. There was also another thing: only Ambani looked like a son of the soil, literally. They all wore the same business uniform, dark suits with white shirts, but somehow they didn’t look right on Dhirubhai. When I met him for the first time and had lunch with him — that was 20 years ago — I thought he had just come from his farm or orchard with a plough on his shoulder and would sit down for a bite of rotla and green chilli. But of course we had prawn curry and rice from Oberoi and two scoops of chocolate ice cream to top it up.

Tata and Birla, hallowed names in Indian industry and society, were launched on their careers before they were thirty. Birla’s grandfather was a well known financier with roots that probably went back to 1857. Tata’s grandfather was the great Jamshetji who had also taken off around that time.

Only Dhirubhai was different. He had to start from scratch. His father was a primary school teacher who taught little boys — there were no girls — from his village.

There was another big difference between the Tatas and the Birlas, and Ambani. J.R.D. gave the impression that he had all the time in the world. That was, I think, part of the Tata culture, in which business was an occupation for a gentleman, not hustlers on the make. Birla was more other - worldly — he presented me with a copy of Gita — but also more politically minded.

Dhirubhai was business personified. There was not a single book in his vast office and I doubt whether he had a library at home. I always came away with the impression that the man knew much more about politics than he let on, particularly the kind of politics and politicians that affected his business.

Unlike Tata and Birla, Ambani was a self-made man, and his business was his own. I often wondered whether he had time for anything else. Did he, for instance, ever take his wife to pictures? Did he go to Lonavla or Khandala, the hill stations closest to Mumbai, as other husbands or fathers did? And if he didn’t do any of these things, what exactly did he do, except sit in his office and plot his moves or visit Delhi from time to time to acquire licences?

When I came to know him better, I found out that he did all these things that you and I do. GD rarely talked about his family — except his grandson Aditya, who died before him — and JRD did not have much of a family. But Dhirubhai, even after he grew very wealthy, was essentially a middle-class man, and also very much a family man. During one dinner, we were interrupted four times, once by his wife who came in to inspect the kitchen, then one of his sons, Anil, I think, who was leaving for Delhi the next day, and his two grandsons who had either lost their football or wanted a new one.

And that is precisely why we miss him, as you do an old uncle or grandfather, not a big tycoon who overtook Tatas and Birlas and became No. 1 almost overnight. But as one who passed away all too suddenly without saying good-bye!