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'Vaccine shortage can't be blamed on Adar Poonawalla'

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
Last updated on: August 16, 2021 07:01 IST
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'It was unfair to expect him to continue to keep on supplying vaccines without being given a firm commitment or a financial grant of any sort.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is greeted by Serum Institute of India CEO Adar Poonawalla, his wife Natasha Poonawalla and their elder son Cyrus Poonawalla when he arrived to review COVID-19 vaccine development in Pune, November 28, 2020. Photograph: ANI Photo

It's the quirky, very human anecdotes in The Tatas, Freddie Mercury and Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis, by senior Delhi journalist Coomi Kapoor, that make the book captivating reading.

Anecdotes that one reads with curiosity and a little awe, about the extravagant, slightly outrageous yet accomplished and adventurous Parsi society.

Anecdotes that give insight into India's Parsi legacy.

Anecdotes that are nostalgic for their peek into days long gone past, because history, with its seductive look into what would seem better times, better people, is always poignant.

Anecdotes that reveal the pungent, crusty flavour of our Parsis.

Like a tale about Kapoor's eccentric great uncle who travelled all over the world, including to South America and the 'deepest' Africa on steamers:
'Once onboard Fali would take on the role of the ship's doctor, on the strength of the license he obtained for owning Wright and Company, a chemist shop in Bombay.

'Before Fali's departure on one of his trips, Dinshahji (Kapoor's paternal grandfather) introduced him to a friend, the physicist C V Raman, who would be travelling on the same boat. Fali Mama later complained to Dinshahji that his friend, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize, was a bit dim. Raman had a similar observation to make about my great uncle'.

Or this gorgeous little historical nugget about Bombay:
'The Parsis are actually far older residents of Mumbai than the Maratha settlers -- something the Shiv Sena forgot as they went about claiming that Marathas had a special claim to jobs in India's commercial capital compared to interlopers from other parts of the country. The first Parsi temple was built in Bombay as early as 1673.

'Parsis were the dominant Indian community in Bombay until perhaps 1832 when a mob of 200 Parsis (dog lovers) attacked policemen who were rounding up stray dogs. The British authorities subsequently decided to diversify the population and actively encouraged other communities to migrate to Bombay'.

Like the delightful flavour of a story from early last century Mumbai:
'Soli Sorabjee, former attorney general, whose mother was a Dubash, recalls the balls his (maternal) grandfather would throw in the family mansion Mount Nepean -- a distinctive structure shaped like a wedding cake, located on the hillock above the Nepean Sea Road (Malabar Hill).

'British captains and other seamen on whom the family's trade depended were invited to these parties. When he was tired and wanted his tipsy guests to depart, the old man would order the band to play the tune Goodnight Ladies and would escort his reluctant guests the elevator'.

Or this one about the rare Wadias:
'Nusli had no intention of letting his family heritage slip away (after his father Neville intended to sell off all the businesses and leave India for Europe). He rallied other family members to the side including his mother, and won the support of executives and workers on the Bombay Dyeing rolls.

'In a fight to save his inheritance, Nusli was backed all the way by JRD. When Nusli flew to London to meet Neville, he found a red rose, with a note, tucked into the side pocket of his first class seat. It was a letter from JRD (Tata), then chairperson of Air-India wishing him good luck and reminding him that he had his full support'.

In Part III of a fascinating interview with Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel, Kapoor talks about the Wadias and the hottest Parsi royalty, much in the news today -- the Vaccine Nabobs, the Poonawallas.

 

IMAGE: Nusli Wadia, chairman of the Wadia Group.

Nusli Wadia seemed to be the most fascinating character in your book. Would you agree? In spite of his mixed roots -- his father was Christian, his maternal grandfather (Mohammad Ali Jinnah) Muslim -- would you say he is still one of the most important figures in the Parsi community as a whole?

He is certainly one of the most fascinating characters, no question about that.

Considering his genealogy, his background, his history, his corporate fights with all the world -- a lot of people attribute Rajiv Gandhi's downfall indirectly to him. The Indian Express going so strongly into the entire case of Bofors etc because of his corporate dispute with the late Mr Dhirubhai Ambani.

Roots are different, religion is different. As a member of the community, Nusli was a Parsi because what are Parsis. Parsis are those who are descended from Zoroastrians who fled Persia and came to India, probably in the eighth century or later.

He certainly is a Parsi. But his grandfather converted to Christianity. His father was brought up as a Christian. But Parsis did not think he was part of the community.

And then suddenly, late, late, late in life his father Neville had his navjote -- very unusual because navjotes are usually done when you're young, seven or nine years old. But this old man felt he really belonged to the community which his father had forsaken. So, he converted, and then Nusli followed suit a few years later.

I asked him: 'Why did you do it?'

He says: 'I couldn't do it till my father decided this was the religion for him. I always felt that I was a Parsi'.

Parsi by his roots. His grandfather was Jinnah -- he is not of full Parsi blood. But he says, 'I always felt Parsi -- the food, the customs in our household all were Parsi'. His mother, though she was Muslim, because she was Jinnah's daughter, was brought up basically Parsi by her Parsi grandmother, because Jinnah was too busy in his political work.

So he is that charming person?

I found him charming. Other people have very strong things to say about him. People who dislike him are many, who feel they've abandoned by him or something. I told him that.

He says: 'Rubbish. I am very loyal to people who stay with me'.

Let me ask you about the Poonawallas because they're sort of at forefront of the news at the moment. How does their legacy compare to the sort of the more storied traditions of other Parsi business families? Adar Poonawalla comes across in the media quite differently from what he comes across in your book where you laud his business acumen.

Excuse me, I didn't really interview Adar. I interviewed the founder and the chairman Cyrus Poonawalla.

IMAGE: The Poonawallas, Adar and Natasha partying with their Bollywood friends. Photograph: Karishma Kapoor/Instagram

But you are kind to Adar in the book. You said that he's done his work. That he has not sat back on his family's money and laurels. He's worked.

He has this playboy image, he and his wife (Natasha) -- you see them in the glossy magazines and the flying/jet setting all over the place, which is one part of it.

But he took the company Serum Institute of India to greater heights. This is before the COVID-19 pandemic.

My book focused on Cyrus because it was Cyrus who set up the company and who shrewdly increased. It was Cyrus who originally gave the company its breaks by getting it clearance from the WHO, getting UNICEF involved, getting the Gates Foundation involved.

In fact, at the time of the pandemic, 80 per cent of the business came from outside India.

So, you didn't want to interview Adar as well because at that time ie pre-pandemic, you didn't really need to?

Well, actually, I only wanted to interview Adar when the pandemic started. I had the earlier background and everything from Pune. I had gone to Pune to meet Cyrus Poonawalla. Adar wasn't around.

By the time I wanted to interview him, he was basically floating between London and India and busy with the corona thing. So, I kept in touch basically with Cyrus.

But is their legacy comparable? It's not a grand Tata or Wadia legacy. But they are the sort of modern Parsis?

What do you mean in terms of legacy? I asked Cyrus Poonawalla about his philanthropy. He has done some philanthropy, but as I pointed out, he does like to have his name on the board.

But he said 'the best charity that I have done' -- and I agree with him -- is two in every three children (born since 2015 in 170 countries in) the world have had one shot of a Serum Institute of India vaccine (not for COVID-19) against some life-threatening disease, which had saved them, whether it is measles, mumps, rubella.

So much of India's future right now is wrapped up with the Poonawallas. They seem to be delivering whatever they have promised to do.
Do you think that they are no different from the other scions of the Parsi community, both father and son?

Everyone is different. You can't say that they are alike. I would say they're less understated than most Parsi wealthy.

They like to show their wealth. And the old man was very candid about it, which I liked. He said what is wealth for. Actually, he said he had chided his children for spending too much.

They said what is wealth for if not to spend it also.

The fact is that their vaccines are much, much cheaper than vaccines you would get in the West. And, of course, it's a good business policy also. It has benefited so many.

As far as you can see, they are steering their course quite well, in spite of all the controversy?

I disagree about one thing which happened after the book came out. That was when Adar Poonawalla left for London, and said he was being threatened.

I'm sure he was being threatened. And I'm sure there was a shortage of the vaccine. I would suspect that he started with every good intention and brought out, in advance, a whole lot of 200 million vaccines, some of which was promised to certain countries because it had been funded by the Gates Foundation, UNICEF etc, and the Indian government never let him complete the commitment.

But at the same time, something I've not written in the book, but which I've done an article on in my newspaper The Indian Express, it was unfair to expect him to continue to keep on supplying vaccines without being given a firm commitment or a financial grant of any sort. Finally, the loan came as late as end of March, I think, of this year.

The vaccine shortage can't be blamed on him. He expanded his facilities. He tried. He had a stock of the vaccine before the government gave clearance. The government dragged its feet. Of course, he will never say that because he's a shrewd businessman.

But I didn't think that Adar flying to London and announcing to The Times of London, which was after the book was written, that he was being threatened was good PR.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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