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A man of our times

Krishna Kumar Birla has seen much of India’s history, people and moments — both glorious and inglorious. In this ‘conversational’ memoir - Brushes with history - , he shares the stories of his life, his family, his country.

books Updated: May 21, 2012 15:04 IST

The family tree of our ancestors may be traced to Jaimal, the great grandfather of Shobharam. Shobharam was the grandfather of my grandfather Raja Baldeodas. Thus, I am in the seventh generation after Jaimal. Not much is known about Jaimal. After his death, his son Bhudarmal, a businessman of repute, settled down in Pilani. His son Udairam was also a successful businessman. The eldest son of Udairam was Shobharam.... He did not do well in business and had to seek employment. He had only one son, Shivnarayan, my great-grandfather.

Shivnarayan, unlike his father, was an enterprising man who was prepared to take risks, for he had confidence in himself. He did well in business. Shivnarayan had only one son — Baldeodas, my grandfather. Baldeodas was born in 1863. He grew up in Pilani. When he was nine years of age, his Yajnopavit (sacred thread) ceremony was performed at Pushkar with great fanfare. He got married at the age of twelve.... A year or two after the wedding, Baldeodas went to Mumbai and started working with his father. They started a firm in 1879 called Shivnarayan Baldeodas. Baldeodas flourished in business. He was as good as his father in trading, if not better.

The principle of futures trading which Baldeodas adopted was to move with the market, never against it. Thus, in case the trend was bearish one should sell; if bullish one should buy. His motto was that in case the market was bearish one should also adopt the same attitude. ‘Never swim against the tide’ was the principle he followed, and this proved to be very beneficial. Baldeodas had four sons and three daughters. His sons developed their own separate identities as businessmen. All the sons were brilliant in their own ways. More about them later...

....Baldeodas was not only a man of character but also endowed with a strong sense of piety. The welfare of others was his passion. In 1899, there was an unprecedented famine in Rajasthan. Shivnarayan and Baldeodas started giving free food to all. There was another famine in 1905. To help the distressed, Shivnarayan arranged for a tank to be constructed at Pilani which has never run dry even during the severest drought. Even now, people say that the tank never dried up owing to the good deeds performed by the ancestors of the Birlas, meaning Shivnarayan and Baldeodas.

When Shobharam had gone to Ajmer in search of a job, he worked in a firm controlled by a family called Ganeriwal where he was a munim (accountant). I heard from my grandfather that Shobharam so impressed the Ganeriwals with his honesty and sincerity that they started treating him like a member of the family and the younger generation of the Ganeriwal family was, in fact, instructed to be guided by his advice. His annual salary was Rs 300 but he was, in effect, a partner and got a share of the profit. Shobharam died in 1859.

His son, my great-grandfather Shivnarayan, was a lad of sixteen at that time. The head of the Ganeriwal family suggested to Shivnarayan that he take the place of his father, who had died quite young. Shivnarayan, however, was of a different mettle. He told the Seths that he would prefer to do his own independent business. To discourage him from this resolve, the Ganeriwals said that Shobharam owed a lot of money to the Ganeriwal family. Shivnarayan had enormous self-confidence. He not only resisted all the persuasions of the Ganeriwal family to join their firm but declared that if his father owed money to the family, he would pay back every pie with interest. He requested the Ganeriwals to provide him with a statement showing the amount his father owed them. The Ganeriwal Seths did this, sure that the money Shobharam owed could never be repaid and Shivnarayan would one day have to return to Ajmer and accept service or partnership with them in order to repay his father’s debts. Shivnarayan took the statement, came back to Pilani, and carefully kept it in the safe. He took some money from his mother in Pilani and, after offering prayers at various temples, left for Mumbai.

Going to Mumbai in those days was full of hazards. One had to travel on camelback for days together. There was danger of getting waylaid by dacoits. The practice was to travel during the daytime on camels and to spend the night at a dharmashala. A well-built camel could trot up to sixty miles a day. To journey such a distance, not only did the camel have to be robust but the rider too had to be made of sturdy stuff.

Shivnarayan went to Mumbai in 1860 and commenced business. The Birla family regards 1860 as the year when the business house was established. That is why the Birla centenary was celebrated in 1960.