The passing of Dr KK Birla at the age of 89 marks the passing of an era. He was the last of a generation of Indian industrialists who knew Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who had vivid memories of the freedom struggle and who still believed that it was the duty of industry to contribute to the old-fashioned task of nation-building.
Though he was born into India’s leading industrial family, he was very much his own man. Of his companies, the most profitable, Chambal Fertilizers was founded by him as was Zuari, another successful fertilizer unit based in Goa. When he took over The Hindustan Times, it had rarely turned a profit and was hardly the successful media company it became under his stewardship.
His social views too were far more progressive than most members of his class or generation. He had great faith in youth (thousands of young people benefited from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science which he ran) and believed in equality for women, a belief he translated into practice by breaking with family tradition and handing his companies over to his three daughters.
Of the late GD Birla’s three sons, Krishna Kumar was the one who identified most with his father’s belief in the importance of public life. Even when it would have served his companies better for him to have devoted more time to business or to have switched loyalties to keep in with the establishment of the day, he remained true to his ideals.
Just as GD Birla had been Gandhiji’s confidant and Jawaharlal Nehru’s friend, KK Birla, became one of Indira Gandhi’s most trusted advisors, sticking by her through thick and thin, even risking arrest during the Janata period when he was under pressure to turn against her. He remained close to her son Rajiv and when his well-received autobiography (Brushes With History) was published last year, Sonia Gandhi not only attended the function where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released the book but wrote the foreword in which she said: “His dignity and his old-world charm have always served as a source of reassurance that no matter how quickly India changes, the old values are still around.”
That sentiment captured the essence of the man. Almost everyone who met him was struck by his courtesy and basic decency. He was polite to a fault, meticulous about social niceties and punctual to the last second. Unlike many of today’s businessmen, he had grown up with money and it had ceased to matter too much to him. Consequently, his style was discreet and classy. He never flaunted his wealth, never showed off and once his basic lifestyle was in place, shunned flashy extravagance and vulgarity.
He was also a loyal friend and an obliging acquaintance. Nobody who went to see him for a favour ever came away disappointed and often, he would go out of his way to help people, even before they could ask.
Despite his Congress loyalties, he had friends across the political spectrum and each time he went to Parliament’s Central Hall, he was surrounded by MPs of all political persuasions. Many had fond memories of some occasion when he had done them a favour, even though he himself had completely forgotten the incident. For instance, he was startled to be told by the family of AB Vajpayee that he had helped them get their first car, an Ambassador made by the Birla-run Hindustan Motors. He had no recollection of having done this. What he did remember though was a friendship with Vajpayee going back several decades.
Despite the essential simplicity of his nature, he was also a complex men. He was deeply religious and the magnificent Birla temple in Calcutta is a monument to his faith. But despite his core Hindu beliefs and his strong friendships with individual BJP leaders, he never deviated from the path of secularism, backing the Nehruvian tradition of separation of religion and politics. Similarly, he had a deep-seated belief in free enterprise and a hatred of unnecessary bureaucracy. But he recognized that India’s economy could only be liberalized slowly and supported Indira Gandhi even when many of his contemporaries looked elsewhere.
That complexity extended to his attitude to The Hindustan Times. He had strong political views, clear loyalties and treated his ownership of the paper as part of his contribution to public life. Normally that translates into editorial interference. But in the four years that I was editor of the Hindustan Times, not once did he tell me to kill a story, to slant our coverage or to support one of his causes. Even when he disagreed with me ---- which he did periodically – he upheld the independence of the editor. In that sense ---- and in many others --- he was truly a dream proprietor.
So it was with his personal life. At one level, he was formal and organized. He would write letters to members of his family stating his views, he would meet close relatives by appointment and he believed in formal courtesies. But at another level, he was a deeply emotional man with a strong sense of family. Each year, the extended family (daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren etc) would go on long holidays together. Rarely have I come across children who were more attached to their parents than his daughters were.
As he was to them --- and to his beloved wife of 67 years. Even when she was unwell, he would take her abroad regularly, travelling the world like some besotted young couple. If she had difficulty walking, he would insist she used a wheelchair, but their days were unaffected: wandering on the shores of Lake Geneve, shopping at the best shops in New York or personalizing a wing of London’s Grosvenor House.
On July 29, 2008, she passed away. All of us who knew him, wondered how he would cope. He had become used to a life where he called her three times a day ---- even when they were in the same city. How would he manage on his own?
It was somehow typical of the man that, outwardly at least, he acted as though life would go on as before. Two days after her passing, he went to office in Calcutta for a while. And those of us who visited him at Birla Park were surprised to find that he wanted to discuss current affairs and the state of the government. Two weeks go, he even came to Delhi to host a lunch for his friend Swraj Paul.
But what we did not realize was how much he was internalizing his grief. Deep down inside, he was bereft, lost without her and unsure how to continue. When he was diagnosed as suffering from pneumonia ten days ago, few of us thought that the condition was life-threatening or that we were in any danger of losing him.
What we failed to see was that he had lost the will to go on without her. He refused all attempts to shift him to hospital, remained at the house he had shared with her, where his children had grown up.
And then, early on Saturday morning, he went off suddenly to join her again, re-united with the woman he loved, certain that this time nothing would ever separate them.