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May 24, 2000
The Rediff Business Special/B K Karanjia
Giant who gave Godrej its global presence
An important concern of Sohrab who has travelled to about 160 countries, including Antarctica, was that (the) Godrej (group) should acquire a global presence. The market of the future was a global one. The burning problems of the present like population control and environmental degradation were global. Often, in his writings and speeches, Sohrab referred to population, environment and development as the Holy Trinity. (Click on the image alongside.)
Appointed chairman of both the companies Godrej & Boyce and Godrej Soaps in January 1973, Sohrab took special care in acquainting himself with as many business activities and disciplines as possible.
'The stork brought me to the wrong family'
'I sometimes thought,' he chuckles, 'the stork brought me to the wrong family.' His interests as a young man lay elsewhere -- in journalism, choreography, mountaineering, and tourism with its many beneficial effects. 'My father was single-minded,' he says. 'The karkhana (workshop) was his whole world. He tended to be autocratic with us. He insisted, for example, on my sitting for the B Sc degree. My interest was in the arts, but he refused. I felt terrible, then, though eventually I got reconciled to it. The trouble was, he had little time for us. Though all his energies were spent on being successful as an industrialist, he never properly initiated us into industry. Left everything to us, as it were.'
But the discipline enforced by Pirojsha made him realise, at a callow age and against his natural inclinations, that he would have to adapt himself to his destiny, ordained by birth. The discipline could sometimes be exasperating and took a lot to get used to.
Fortunately for Sohrab, he came across the Uplift of India by Sir Visvesvaraya in which he argued that only through industry could the country become prosperous. 'Prosperity through industry' -- the slogan was like a revelation to him. His outlook changed totally.
Against the rigidity of his father, Sohrab found comfort as a child in the warmth and gentle understanding of his mother Soonabai -- 'A mother is a mother still, the holiest thing alive.' Like any other fairly well-to-do boy of his age and time, he was sent first to Queen Mary's and later to St Xavier's High School, then to St Xavier's College from which he graduated in Science. The family in the meantime shifted from Grant Road to Cumballa Hill (with weekends spent in Versova), and finally to their property at Ridge Road where they reside to this day.
Sohrab has happy memories of these places, particularly Versova. Their neighbours then were the very old Dadabhai Naoroji and young Rustom Masani who was to become Dadabhai's biographer. To Sohrab, they all seemed very nice and friendly; the ladies in particular would catch hold of the six or seven year old Sohrab to ask him all sorts of questions. They were always curious to know what was going on in each household, what they had to eat for lunch or dinner, who visited them and so on. The little fellow would answer all their questions with the utmost seriousness, getting named as a 'reporter' in the process.
'Ai reporter aiyo!' the Parsi ladies would make fun of him. Maybe they were right, for Sohrab was always interested in the press, and had a special regard for war correspondents. Among his friends as a young man were some representatives of the famous French news agency, AFP (Agence France Presse.)
Demise of the soul of the family
Soonabai was really the soul of the family, a radiant personality, looking after Pirojsha, his family and his and the neighbours' children. She had always been active and when in 1920 --Sohrab was eight years old then -- she passed away, life came to a halt for him. He just couldn't reconcile himself to the loss. His ayah (caretaker) would try to console him that she wasn't really dead, but had only gone to reside in the clouds, but he saw through her: 'They shouldn't have done all that because I never stabilised.'
Neighbours and friends too were puzzled and concerned. What is happening to the boy, they wondered. Other people's mothers die, but they don't behave like this. Why is he taking it so much to heart? His was a suffering of the spirit which they could not comprehend and he couldn't convey to them. 'For a long time afterwards,' Sohrab recalls, 'I wore mother's locket. But greater than my own sense of loss was my sadness for my two younger brothers and sister who would never know a mother's love. Naval was only three-and-a-half then. Such a lovely child! Burjor, too. Later in life, once, when Burjor was in a great difficulty and felt lost, my conscience pricked me that I hadn't done enough for them as the eldest.'
With the passage of time after Soonabai's demise, Sohrab became reconciled to the finality and inevitability of death. But for this early encounter with tragedy, the loss of Pirojsha and, later, under tragic circumstances, of his younger brother Naval to whom he was particularly close, might have been unbearable.
Excerpted with permission from: Godrej : A Hundred Years 1897-1997 Volume-1; by B K Karanjia; published by Penguin Books India; Viking; pp 264, Rs 295, 1997.
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