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Mafatlal feud: A brand new family drama unfolds

Last updated on: September 19, 2011 10:40 IST

Mafatlal feud: A brand new family drama unfolds

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Shyamal Majumdar in Mumbai

The old banyan trees caress the high boundary walls - as if in fond memory of the affection that one of the residents of the bungalow on Mumbai's tony Altamont Road had showered on them till his death six years ago.

Yogindra Mafatlal used to spend substantial time and money on their upkeep. By almost hiding the bungalow with the help of their long branches, the trees also appear to be paying back their master in their own limited way.

For, the low-profile promoter of what was once known as the Sungrace-Mafatlal group would never have wanted the world to know what's going on inside his 10,000 square feet second-floor apartment. It's where his wife Madhuri, son Atulya and Atulya's second wife, Sheetal, now live.

Another family member, Yogindra's daughter Aparna Mafatlal, joined them in 2005 after her divorce, and soon became Ajay, the "eldest son" of the family after a sex-change operation at Mumbai's Breach Candy hospital.

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It made him a claimant to the property and family fortune - at least whatever was left of it. The newest entrants into the apartment are Atulya's two children from his first wife, Payal, Mahrushka and Varun, whom he divorced in 1997.

The sordid family drama is being played out inside the bungalow, in police stations and courtrooms.

The bungalow we are talking about was bought in 1935 by Yogindra's father, Navinchandra, and uncle, Bhagubhai. According to Navinchandra's will, Yogindra's share was one-eighth of the bungalow - that is the 10,000 square feet apartment.

But if the apartment has not been seized by Sungrace Mafatlal's several lenders it is because the bungalow now belongs to a trust of the extended Mafatlal family, and the legal status of its occupants is that of tenants.

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Almost everything else - four companies: Navinon, Mafatlal Dyes and Chemicals, Mihir Textiles and Pransukhlal & Co - are either closed or under liquidation, and huge tracts of family land in Kalyan (42 acres), Vadodara (118 acres) and Tarapur (48 acres) have been sold to real estate firms by the official liquidator appointed by the courts.

Officials in Punjab & Maharashtra Co-op Bank, which got the rights from IDBI's Stressed Asset Stabilisation Fund in 2008, say the distribution of proceeds is still underway as the claimants are many - lenders (over Rs 300 crore), workers who have not got salaries or provident fund dues for years, and others.

In fact, Navinon was in 2008 charged by creditors with siphoning off Rs 140 crore (Rs 1.4 billion).

Lenders say the decline of the Sungrace-Mafatlal empire, which Yogindra got after the three Mafatlal brothers (Arvind and Rashesh being the other two) split in the late 1970s, started during Yogindra's lifetime.

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A series of wrong judgements, tactical mistakes and the inability to ride out a textile recession led to the downfall of a once-prosperous clutch of companies. Thus, the share price of Mafatlal Dyes fell from Rs 55 in 1995 to just Rs 12 in 2000 when trading was suspended by the Bombay Stock Exchange for violating listing norms.

The fate of the other company, Navinon (which was earlier named Indian Dyestuff), was worse. Its share price fell from Rs 90 in 1995 to Rs 6 in September 1999 when it was last traded on BSE.

Both the companies were neck-deep in red when they announced their results for the last time - Mafatlal Dyes in 2007-08 and Navinon in 1998-99.

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The decline hastened when Atulya inherited the empire after Yogindra died in January 2005. The outcome of all this was frustrated lenders, depressed investors, sacked workers and a few "owners" who have little else to cling on to but memories.

So the family can now fight only over the crumbs - a few apartments, family jewellery and paintings. But the crumbs still seem to be meaty enough, the fight for which is dramatic enough to be chronicled in a soap opera.

This drama has a matriarch (Madhuri, 83) who is now fighting with her daughter-in-law over property rights; son Atulya (50) who is now battling colon cancer in a London hospital and his second wife in a Mumbai courtroom; a daughter-turned-son (Ajay, 53) who claims the sex-change has nothing to do with his father's injustice against daughters as far as property inheritance is concerned; and a diamond-dripping socialite (Sheetal, 42) who is eager to wash the family's dirty linen in public to protect what she says is her streedhan.

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Image: Atulya Mafatlal

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Then there are bit players such as Mahrushka, 19, a fashion design student in London. The showdown has been so murky that none of the protagonists of the drama, former family friends or even ex-employees are willing to go on record on the issue.

But what they say off-the-record and the contents of the countless court petitions doing the rounds are mindboggling.

The story starts in February 2000 when Atulya got married to Sheetal, the Page 3-specialist daughter of Rajni and Manohar Bhagat, the promoter of conveyor-belt maker Nirlon.

But she was almost disowned by her parents for one simple reason: after his divorce three years earlier, Atulya was about to get married to Sheetal's sister, Poonam.

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Image: Sheetal and Atulya Mafatlal

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But that didn't deter Atulya and Sheetal, a law and finance graduate with a stint in Harvard University, to tie the knot.

Most of those who attended one of the city's most celebrated weddings remember the "diamonds and denims"-themed parties and the 20-carat diamond ring and another multiple-carat emerald ring that Sheetal was wearing.

The marriage was celebrated in Hotel President's Casa Mexicana, among other places. The well-wishers of the newly-weds believed the match was indeed made in heaven, as both clung on to each other for most part of the family dispute that broke out after Yogindra's death.

It's obvious that the heaven has subsequently turned into hell as the couple is now trading serious charges against one another in the courtroom.

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Image: Sheetal Mafatlal

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Till the time the made-in-heaven relationship lasted, Atulya gave everything his young wife asked for - that included the presidentship of a company called Mafatlal Luxury which tied up with global fashion house Valentino.

It was enough for Time to refer to her as a one of "India's luxury dealmakers." Though the alliance with Valentino didn't last beyond a couple of summers, it in a way summed up the hype the lady could create with the help of her many friends in Mumbai's high society who loved to attend the talk-of-the-town parties whenever she was in town (Sheetal, an NRI, mostly stayed in Atulya's Rutland Garden apartment in London).

The parties ostensibly kept the marital bliss going for some time, but gave way to palace intrigues soon after. The first salvo was fired a few months after Yogindra's death when Aparna decided to change her sex.

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Image: Filephoto: Michele Norsa of Valentino, Sheetal Mafatlal with Atulya Mafatlal

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Though Ajay then said it had nothing to do with his aspirations for family wealth as he always felt like a "man in a woman's body", the knives were out. The Atulya camp felt it was nothing but an attempt to threaten his status as the only male heir to the family fortune.

What followed was a series of lawsuits. One charged Ajay with trying to throw acid at Sheetal, while another talked about Madhuri trying to deprive Atulya of family jewellery and other properties.

The counter-attacks followed with Madhuri and Ajay accusing Atulya of harassment and attempts to evict them from the family apartment. The matter was somewhat settled with a court-ordered partition of the flat.

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But things came to a head in 2009 when Sheetal was arrested at the Mumbai airport for attempting to walk through the green channel while carrying Rs 50 lakh worth of undeclared ornaments and other accessories.

The whisper campaign was that the Customs officers had been tipped off by Mafatlal insiders, meaning Madhuri and Ajay.

Though her husband stood by her like a rock during her seven-day stay in a dingy cell at the Byculla jail, Sheetal obviously didn't forget the humiliation of having to use jail bedrolls instead of the Versace bed sheets she was used to.

What followed was a series of complaints filed by Atulya's lawyers against his mother on "missing" jewellery from the family locker in the Altamont Road flat.

Atulya also placed armed security guards to keep a watch on the house in view of the alleged theft of family valuables.

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Image: Sheetal Mafatlal, arrested by the Air Intelligence Unit of customs at Mumbai airport for false declaration and smuggling of gold ornaments

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Since then, Atulya has shifted sides and has now joined his estranged family against Sheetal. Blood, once again, proved thicker than anything else.

While no one is sure about the reasons for the couple's sudden no-love-lost stance, the result is quite messy: while Atulya is recuperating in London, Sheetal is busy in Mumbai fighting him and others such as Mahrushka who has filed a case against her stepmom for "stealing" family artefacts, including 38 paintings worth Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) and valuable silverware.

Sheetal's lawyers say she moved some paintings to a warehouse for safe-keeping.

But the ambitious socialite, who is reported to have patched up with her parents and younger sister, has hit back with vengeance by filing complaints against Atulya, Madhuri, Ajay and Mahrushka, alleging harassment, mental cruelty and baseless slander.

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She has also said that Madhuri and Ajay beat her regularly, and her husband is an alcoholic who used to beat her and demand dowry - charges that were grave enough for the opposing camp to rush and seek anticipatory bail.

On her part, Madhuri moved court last month seeking to restrain Sheetal from entering the house as she "feared for her safety".

The petition in a magistrate's court also mentioned that Madhuri cannot possibly beat anybody as she can no longer walk over a dozen steps at a time and requires six hours of oxygen support due to lung fibrosis.

While the accusations and mud-slinging campaigns go on, making it difficult to separate truth from fiction, one thing is sure: for all the loose talk and legal issues that swirl around her life, Sheetal is in no mood to give in.

A favourite story about her is how she would hate being called a page-3 regular and how she would often tell friends that she belongs to "page-1". Her ambition has been fulfilled - even if only in the tabloids.



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