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Kalpana Saroj's incredible journey from despair to success

June 04, 2015 09:35 IST

Hers is a rags-to-riches story for the ages, peppered with risks, determination and strokes of luck, says Ranjita Ganesan.

Despair is a tough teacher. It can take you to the brink of suicide or infuse you with courage of conviction. So while everyone cautioned her, Kalpana Saroj went ahead and took over Kamani Tubes.

Once a thriving enterprise, the Mumbai-based company stuttered after a feud in the Kamani family strained production and led to labour strife. The Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction handed it over to the workers to manage in 1989, but the downslide continued. Several potential buyers were invited to save the company, but none dared to touch it. Saroj not only bought it but also turned it around within a few years.

The multi-millionaire from Akola was not familiar with the company until 2002, when some workers approached her for help. Saroj, who ran a flourishing real estate business in the Kalyan-Ambarnath belt and two sugar factories, knew nothing about copper tubes, used mainly in geysers and pipelines.

Though she was doing well for herself, Saroj, 53, says it was the plight of the workers, many of whom had to drive rickshaws or sell incense sticks to make ends meet, that led her to take the plunge.

To save the troubled company, which she bought in 2006, Saroj hired consultants, negotiated with banks, settled with trade unions, and shifted the factory from Kurla to Wada. While she has no education to boast of, the Kamani experience made Saroj "part-lawyer and part-chartered accountant".

Nine years later, the Padma Shri awardee, whose net worth is estimated at over $100 million, recounts how she, a Dalit from a village in Akola with a disturbing past, made it in Maximum City.

It is four hours after the appointed time and Saroj is profusely apologetic about the delay. She had been away on work in Bengaluru and her return is marked by breathless meetings at her office in Ballard Estate's Kamani Chambers. The building is under piecemeal repairs but her workspace is carefully done up. Parked outside is a black Toyota Fortuner. Inside, gilt-edged frames bearing certificates and pictures of her at various award functions cover the walls. The trophies crowd the desk and shelves.

In a large swivelling leather seat, she cuts a petite figure. On an adjacent chair is the managing director of the company and her right-hand man, Mannan Gore, who often supplements her answers.

Later this month, Saroj will be honoured by the government of Gujarat, he discloses. "The Maharashtra government wanted to felicitate her on the same day but since the lady chief minister of Gujarat (Anandiben Patel) had wanted to award (Saroj) for some time now, we accepted her invite."

The interview is also interrupted by a flurry of phone calls and texts as she urgently makes travel arrangements to Thiruvananthapuram for her son, Amar. The young Air India pilot is based in the southern city and wants his Hayabusa there.

Saroj's youth was far removed from this world. Growing up, she had no shoes for her feet nor enough money to pay for bus tickets. "She has nine cars today," Gore points out. Hers is a rags-to-riches story for the ages, peppered with risks, determination and strokes of luck.

The eldest of five children, she had a seemingly regular childhood in the police quarters in Akola assigned to her constable father, Mahadeo. She would walk to school, and after classes, she kept busy at home.

At 12, things changed. She was pulled out of school and readied for marriage. Her father, reluctant at first, was talked into agreeing by relatives. "He was a helper in a factory, and twice my age. It was enough that the groom was from Mumbai. Such alliances were common then," she remembers.

Her new house turned out to be in a squalid slum in Ulhasnagar. Six months later, her father brought her back home after the frequent harassment she faced from her in-laws.

But things did not improve in the village. Girls who left their husband's home were considered immoral. The taunts and gloom in the family drove Saroj to consume three bottles of bedbug spray in the house of a relative, while pretending to be resting in the spare room. She was discovered and rushed to hospital where doctors treated her for a week.

This second chance at life shaped her never-say-die approach. It was imperative to leave Akola. She decided and planned a second trip to Mumbai some years later. Around 17 at the time, she attempted to join the police and military forces but failed for lack of education.

Instead, she found work at a tailoring workshop in Lower Parel with help from a relative who sold fried snacks. She lived with a Gujarati acquaintance of his in Chembur, which seemed safer than the Dadar slum he lived in. The backbreaking work earned her Rs 250-350 a month.

When her father lost his job, the whole family joined her in the city. The rent for a room in Kalyan left her with not enough for a railway pass. She would often travel ticketless, standing guiltily at the door because that seemed somehow less illegal.

Memories make her eyes well up, but Saroj doesn't like them to weigh her down. Seema, the younger of Saroj's two children (both from her second marriage, though she does not disclose her husband's name) says her mother never let the children know of the struggles she endured to revamp Kamani. "She sent me to London and my brother was studying in Germany. We found out after it all happened."

When her sister took ill and died for lack of treatment, Saroj was filled with a sense of urgency to earn more. She applied for a bank loan of Rs 50,000 to set up a tailoring unit under a government scheme for backward castes. The approval took two years to come, by when she had picked the more profitable furniture business over stitching.

Life has done a full circle. Her daughter, Seema, will launch her restaurant in the same space in Ulhasnagar where Saroj assembled steel furniture to be sent to parts of Maharashtra.

During her struggle to get a loan, she formed connections with various people. With their help, she founded an organisation to connect employable youth with experts for awareness about loan schemes and jobs.

As word of her networking and problem-solving skills spread, a Kalyan man offered to sell her a plot of land embroiled in legal issues for Rs 250,000, a fraction of the market price. "He needed the cash urgently so I paid him in two installments."

By the time she got the litigation cleared in three years, the land, bang on the main road, pushed her worth up by Rs 50 lakh. It was not the end of trouble, though. Local thugs tried to usurp the land and even went to the extent of planning to murder her, Saroj claims. She dealt with this by marching to the cops and getting a gun licence within a day.

During this time, she became acquainted with builder Anil Hotchandani, who partnered with her to develop the land. They shared the profit 65-35 and continue to build projects together.

Her two journeys in Mumbai, one longer and more successful than the other, have changed Saroj's life. The city broke, rebuilt and rewarded her.

Over the years of Hotchandani's acquaintance with her, he says her contacts have grown stronger and despite this, she hasn't lost her humility.

In many ways, Saroj is still connected to the simple life. She stays in Ulhasnagar, in one of her own housing projects. The neighbourhood, although vibrant, is seen by city-dwellers as something of a village. Her 5,000 square feet apartment includes a garden and decor that she picked herself: a mix of flowers, potted plants, glittering curtains and paintings. More trophies and several statues of the Buddha line the TV unit.

Photographs show that Saroj has shared the stage with the likes of Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata and multiple presidents. But while she has friends in high places, she doesn't engage actively with the social elite. For recreation, she watches movies or goes out for day-long picnics.

Saroj answers in Hindi, at times poetically; for instance, she describes luck as kudrati madad (divine help), and crisis situations as aag ka dariya (river of fire). "I might have made a good writer," she reckons, "if only I had finished school." Her tone is even and speech speedy as if accounting for time. A thick gold bracelet and delicate rings glisten on her hands. Descriptors like "Slumdog Millionaire" bother her.

Those who work with her describe her as honest and brave. Govind Kharatmal, leader of the Kamani workers' union that had sought Saroj's help, says: "Even before her scheme (to rehabilitate the company) was approved she would pay small amounts from her own pocket to some employees for urgent expenses."

Also palpable is her power of polite persuasion. While appealing to Kamani's lenders to cut the interest and penalties on the debt, she highlighted the legacy of Ramji Kamani, his friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, and the former glory of his company, and got the desired concessions.

In another instance, while in London late last year, she came across a for-sale sign outside the house where Babasaheb Ambedkar had lived. She immediately pushed the government to bid for the house, even meeting National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

At Rs 40 crore, it was seen as a hefty expense, but she made a successful case saying this was where Ambedkar had remarkably completed a six-year course in two years.

She is among only three members from a non-banking background to have been selected to the board of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank. Her story kindled interest among producers at Lionsgate Films who wished to make a biopic.

"But I was pressed for time and also there was a language barrier." That production house is now approaching her in partnership with Indian counterparts, she adds, but without visible excitement.

But she is aware of her successes. "The workers at Kamani call me Maa Bhavani now," she smiles. "They say everything I touch turns to gold." A Buddhist monk from Thailand even wrote a song for her in his language naming her "the daughter of the Buddha".

Saroj carefully lists her various social initiatives: the beauty parlour she launched to train underprivileged girls, the housing complex where poor people pay rent of just Rs 1,000, cheap commercial spaces for fledgling businessmen, and a workshop for Ganpati idol makers. She even attempted to start a law college but it wasn't approved by the Bar Council.

The one bastion she seems to have left largely untouched is politics. Despite her many supporters, however, she does not wish to venture there. "It leads to dishonestly, fraud and needless enmity." There are some sick enterprises that even Kalpana Saroj is wary of reviving.

Photographs, courtesy: Kalpana Saroj/Facebook

Ranjita Ganesan
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