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From riches to rags to riches

Neelesh Misra terms the story of 'Sareshwala' as a reflection of the rock-hard resilience of the Gujarati people.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2006 03:00 IST

For decades, Zafar Sareshwala’s affluent Gujarati Muslim family had distributed lakhs of rupees to the poor in Islam-mandated zaqat donations. In the first week of March 2002, he became eligible to receive alms himself.

Four years on, his financial services and travel company is valued at Rs 70 crore.

The story of Sareshwala, 43, is a reflection of the rock-hard resilience of the Gujarati people, thousands of whom have rebuilt their lives after being economically wiped out over decades in one of India’s most disaster-prone states. The state of 50 million people has faced devastating earthquake, floods, cyclones, droughts — and at least eight phases of deadly religious riots.

In 2002, Sareshwala's home and office had been destroyed and looted in the rioting in Gujarat after the Godhra train arson. Further, Sareshwala — whose company Parsoli has pioneered Islamic banking in India — lost Rs 3.3 crore when employees fled the ambushed building that was catching fire. They left computer terminals on, without being able to square off their positions on the stock market.

It was the deadliest blow to the family that had lived for some 250 years in Ahmedabad, and had suffered severe damage in the riots of 1969, 1985 and 1992.

“We were finished. Our apartment complex was looted for three days,” Sareshwala told the Hindustan Times. “But we didn’t want anyone to know the truth. If word spread, it would be disastrous for the company.”

For nine months, Sareshwala could not go into his fourth floor office in the blackened building where even the elevators were not working. Savings evaporated. The bank asked for fresh guarantees for its loans. The National Stock Exchange, where his company was listed, suspended its membership.

Suddenly, Sareshwala was eligible to receive zaqat — religious alms that are to be given to all Muslims who do not have a means of livelihood and at least 550 grams of silver, then valued at Rs 10,000. Each capable Muslim is expected to pay 2.5 per cent of his income as zaqat.

“We had two options — either declare ourselves bankrupt or the far-fetched idea of reviving ourselves,” he said.

Family and friends clamored that the family should migrate. Sareshwala had to choose between his British resident visa, and the stock exchange membership.

“It was easy to leave. But I decided to stay and revive my business. Others just laughed at us,” he said.

“I told all other Muslims that India was our home and wherever we went, eventually we would be treated as badly as Pakistan treated the Mohajir Muslims and Hindus who went from here during the Partition.”

Sareshwala was influential among his community, and the positive message soon went through. There were 90 Muslim-owned shops on the ground floor of the building where his office was located. Gradually, all revived work.

To revive his own fate, Sareshwala sold off his century-old factory that manufactured industrial valves. The stock exchange membership was revived. Business resumed. Sareshwala’s 3,000 shareholders did not lose money. Profits soared. The share price, which had once plummeted to Re 1, swiftly rose and stood on Wednesday at Rs 30.

“It is our own fault. We blame the government for everything. But I wanted to show that we could do it, in spite of the government,” Sareshwala said.

Email: neelesh.misra@hindustantimes.com