Wedded to the Birla legacy

PREETI MEHRA | Updated on September 15, 2011

Basant Kumar Birla's marriage with Sarala.

Basant Kumar Birla with Mahatma Gandhi.

The Birla industrial empire is as familiar as it is elusive. We are, no doubt, aware of the landmarks the family created and the role some of its members played during the freedom struggle. But what we know very little about are the actual personalities that grew the large number of businesses, sculpted corporate values and kept the coffers clinking during the family's highs and lows.

Senior journalist Rashme Sehgal took on the project of chronicling the life of Basant Kumar and Sarala Birla and turned it into an extremely absorbing story. Told with rare sensitivity and an eye for detail, Life Has No Full Stops goes beyond the job assigned to her. It not only maps the life of the couple and their efforts at empire building, but places it within the perspective of the dramatic unfolding of the nation's history.

Kumar made his entry into business at the tender age of 13, when his uncle Brijmohan, egged him into trying his hand at the stock exchange. After earning a tidy sum and gaining the confidence of his illustrious family, Kumar moved on from strength to strength.

On the job

The day he finished school, he was packed off to the offices of Birla Jute and Kesoram Cotton Mills, where he cut his teeth in book-keeping, accounting, balancing ledgers and maintaining cash books, while pursuing college. Just as he finished imbibing the nitty-gritty of that, his father Ghanshyamdas plunged him into the pharmaceutical business manufacturing hormones.

This proved to be a challenging task and came to an end as fast as it started, when his uncle forbade a business that went against the religious values of the family.

At a very young age Kumar grappled with his mother Mahadevi's death and, later, with his father's constant absence, as he became more involved with the country's freedom struggle. Kumar too was inspired and at the age of six, he spun his first yarn which he sent to Gandhiji on his sixtieth birthday. The Mahatma sent back a letter of thanks with the message: “You have started spinning yarn – you must consider it as a yagya or sacrifice. Always remember God as representing your poor and oppressed brothers and sisters”.

Though Kumar followed the family's diktats on many decisions, on one milestone he was adamant to have his way. When it came to his marriage, he insisted that unlike the norm in the family, he wanted an educated, English-speaking wife. It was then that Sarala was found for him — the daughter of Brijlal Biyani, a prominent Congress leader who was close to Gandhiji. The marriage was blessed by the Mahatma himself.

Sarala studied at Fergusson College and was a kho-kho and badminton champion. But it was obvious that she had imbibed traditional values as well, for Sarala proved to be an ideal Birla bahu in the coming years. Aditya was her firstborn.

Rashme then turns to the couple's efforts at empire building. While it was Kumar's great-grandfather, Shivnarain Birla, who laid the foundation for the family's business to flourish over the years, the effort was carried forward by his three uncles, Jugal Kishore, Rameshwardas, Brijmohan, and his father, Ghanshyamdas.

Sweet success

Kumar took it even further, tasting so much success that his uncles were keen on handing over their businesses to him as well. The setback that he regrets to date, the book reveals, was the closure of his airline, Bharat Airways — may be an idea too early for its time, especially when the euphoria of an independent India led to the nationalising of key industries.

But there was no stopping the Birla industries from expanding. While Kumar made the first moves towards globalising his companies, his son Aditya Birla took them to another level. After Aditya's tragic death, his son Kumar Mangalam continues the legacy.

The book comes with a foreword by Amitabh Bachchan. He recalls candidly various aspects about the Birla couple, their sincerity and simplicity and their love for his father, Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan. He speaks about Sarala's inclination towards divinity and recalls a visit Sarala had made to his home when Aditya Birla's illness had just been discovered. She had a notepad in hand and kept writing the word ‘Ram' — a penance she had undertaken.

Author Rashme Sehgal has done a good job and has managed to retain an independent journalistic touch, making space for the faults and frailties, trials and tribulations through which the family made its choices and took its decisions. She has told a story that was waiting to be told.

Published on September 15, 2011

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