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Position of Power

Nita and Mukesh Ambani on their family, attempts to live a near normal existence and still being middle class in their heads, writes Shirin Mehta, in the latest issue of Verve
Hindustan Times | By Shirin Mehta, Mumbai
UPDATED ON MAY 30, 2010 02:58 PM IST

On a quiet Sunday afternoon we invade the Mumbai home of Nita (47) and Mukesh Ambani (52) of Reliance Industries and comes away refreshed by intimate sound bytes and one of a kind images. For the first time ever, India’s super-power couple, pose together for a cover portrait and speak, among other things, about the power that rests in future generations.

The shoot:
In a red, silk kimono, she sits curled up in the brocade-upholstered chair for all the world like a Hollywood star. The image is made more forceful by the backdrop of an enormous dressing-room mirror surrounded by bulbs lit in a row. Chintz curtains softly drape the large windows. This is her own personal changing room and at this moment, she is surrounded, star-like, by a troupe of attendants, flying around to her every beck and call.

Some of her staff have been with her for several years and call her Didi. Her hands are delicate, her nails flash red, on her toes as well, curlers in her hair seem to add to her majesty. And yet, she looks suddenly small and fragile in a chair that has physically grown too large for her. I am blown away by her svelte new silhouette, yes she is verging onto the fashionable size zero and she carries it to maximum effect.

Later, she is the centre of attention around the large leather chair that is in fact “Papa’s chair”. It has been decided that this historic armchair, a favourite of Dhirubhai Ambani, father, father-in-law, mentor, visionary, be focal to our cover image. The coffee table books neatly arranged around this, a sitting room alcove, range from Dhirubhai Ambani, The Man I knew by Kokilaben D Ambani to The Nature of Biodiversity in India and Rajasthan, The Living Traditions. She is a team player and will squat on the floor if required, deep in suggestions and choices.

And we the team of the moment, are all vying for her attention. Nita this… Nita that, we all want to be heard. And then there is silence. There is another palpable presence that cannot be denied.

Chalo let’s do it. Let’s go for it guys!” Mukesh Ambani declares, entering energetically. And suddenly the equation changes and it is Mr Ambani this and Mrs Ambani that. His physical presence is an awesome thing – electrifying almost. Because he is an Ambani. Because he heads a corporation to reckon with. Because he is the man who has created so much wealth for ordinary shareholders.

Excerpts from the interview
“I am a certified scuba diver, from Hayman Islands, Australia…”
We go to the Maldives and do a lot of fun-in-the-water things. We are all very fond of the wild so sometimes we take three days off and go to South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Ranthambore, Ghana… Mukesh is not too fond of city holidays so I often tease him that

I have not seen the rest of the world because we end up going either skiing or (I am still learning to ski, my children ski very well), or going to the wild…. Those are the fun holidays that we have had and created memories for us and our children. Sitting in the snow with the sun beating down, having meals from boxes or making little snowmen for the kids when they were very small.

I don’t have dinner without Mukesh, ever. I wait up for him and the kids generally start trouping in to say their goodnights and then sit around and talk to him however late it is. He wants them around when he comes home.

And of course, when the kids were little, he used to insist on doing math, chemistry and physics with them. Every Sunday was a studying day. He would be like a tuition teacher. It is only now that Isha is at Yale and Akash, at Brown, that the house seems a little empty.

“Children imbibe what they see…”
I had my wisdom tooth extracted some days ago and yesterday the doctor came to see me. I had sent her a thank you note for doing this painlessly. She brought along something to show me. Four years ago, Isha had written an identical note to her saying ‘thank you’. Neither of us had spoken about it to the other. I was so touched that my daughter would do this probably having watched me. I have surrounded the children with love and warmth and I have also been very non conditional — both of us, Mukesh and I.

We insist on simple things to keep them grounded like we never send the planes to fetch them, they have to travel by Air India and they love it. Isha is staying in a dorm, sleeping on the top bunk; she shares the bathrooms with 18 to 20 other girls. Akash also stays in a dorm; I think that these are important things that all children have to go through. They want to do it. In fact, they tell me now that I should travel by Air India too!

“Power is a way to empower people…”
Power to me is a responsibility — a means of creating new value and building institutions that serve a larger purpose for society. It is also about empowering people through education, sports, healthcare and other meaningful initiatives.

“I am not constrained by being Mrs Nita Ambani…”
I strongly believe in my own rights and wrongs and impose them on myself and my family. I am still very down to earth and ‘middle class’ in my thinking and values. For me and Mukesh it is very important to be normal. That is the reason we love being in the jungles of South Africa, small towns of Europe and in some US cities where we can have a near normal existence. Till today, in Mumbai, I walk to my parents’ house, opposite our house, and in the evenings go for walks with my dogs.

“There are always higher places to climb.”
In the city of Mumbai, I am now building a new vision of healthcare delivery in H N Hospital. The target timeline for its opening is December 2011. I also aim to build a world-class university that will put India on the global map in education.

Excerpts from Mukesh Ambani’s interview:
Do you insist on excellence from your children?
Yes, I believe that children have to grow up as all-round personalities, but it cannot be at the cost of academics. Fortunately, all our three kids understand that there is a certain rigour that is required. They need not be in the top one percentile, but the fundamentals have to be strong. Akash, my eldest, said ‘Dad, there is a calculator, why should I know my tables?’ I explained that you must be able to do everything in your head. So, before going to sleep, he would say all his tables by heart – addition tables, multiplication tables and all of that. I study with my children. I learn a lot from them.

Since Akash and Isha challenge me with calculus and other subjects, I have to read up half an hour every day to keep up with them! It’s fun and gives us a basis to bond. You have been a hands-on father… Yes, I learnt from my father that when he was the busiest, he had all the time for all four of us. I think that you have to get your priorities right in life.

Do you think it is more difficult to be an entrepreneur or to maintain a legacy?
What I have learnt is that it is important to pursue your passion more than your legacy, if you have a passion with a purpose, then everything else fits in. My father’s own view was more than entrepreneurship, it was really a passion to build an institution in India.
Everyone talks about the American dream. I started off very young. Reliance was founded with Rs 10,000 to 15,000 and by the time I joined, this had become Rs 50 or 60 or 70 crore, so that still is the largest jump.

My father had a very firm belief in the country’s youth and in investing in talent. That’s the story of Reliance and for our children also it is exactly the same. The aspiration that they should have is really not to be the best in the community or best in the country, but to be the best in the world!

What does power mean to you?
I have never really thought of power in the general sense. What you have is an opportunity and when you have an opportunity where you have resources at your disposal, it becomes more of a responsibility. So in that sense, it’s not power, it is the responsibility to do what is right. And it must extend beyond the self, it must create more value all around and generally I am, with due respect, not a big believer in labels and lists, so I try my best to get out of it.

‘I study with my children’
Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries (RIL) has been a star performer in 2009 - 2010 with a turnover of Rs 2.06 lakh crore, deftly beating the inflation and economic downturn. The man who hates lists and wants to be off them was however recently ranked the world’s fifth-best CEO in a Harvard Business Review survey. In a revealing interview, he speaks about family and trust. And the small things in life that count…

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